4. "Anna Karenina" (dir. Joe Wright)
When the budget for his Leo Tolstoy adaptation started spiralling beyond reach, director Joe Wright turned lemons into the most dazzling lemonade of the year. The single location, interchangeable setting conceit of "Anna Karenina" wound up breathing new life in the literary adaptation genre as a whole, heightening the already roiling emotions of the story. Featuring setpieces and sequences (the opening introduction, the dance, the horse race) as breathtaking in dimension as anything in a summer blockbuster, and executed with tremendous skill, the film marries its visuals to the powder keg story it tells. And hidden within are two of the most underssung performances of the year: Jude Law as the cuckolded husband, who struggles to save face while protecting the honor of his wife and Matthew Macfadyen as Oblonsky, who faces any situation with a tender zest for life. Does the film overcook its own concept? Perhaps, but it's a cinematic dish I'd happily have again.
2. "Rust & Bone" (dir. Jacques Audiard)
Physical and emotional survival are two persistent themes in Jacques Audiard's nearly operatic "Rust & Bone," another movie that like Polley's "Take This Waltz" may not be perfectly formed, but delivers such powerful emotional tides, that it's easy to roll with it. Central to the film are the performances of Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard, the former as Alain, a single dad drifter and the latter as Stephanie, a disfigured whale trainer. Both are rootless, and uneasy to trust and yet in the most unlikely ways, they find a support system in each other. Stephanie finds in Alain a tough, but very real love, someone who'll challenge her in all the right ways and bring her out into a life that, following a horrific accident, seemed unliveable. And in Stephanie, Alain experiences the kind of steadfast loyalty -- her unflinching look as he's battered, bare knuckle boxing is one of the most powerful shots of the year -- he's never had anywhere else. Their journey is fraught, but Audiard goes from tragedy to triumph with the skill of a master storyteller, in one of the most satisfying moviegoing experiences this year.
Special Mention: "The Clock" (dir. Christian Marclay)
Okay, this art installation is technically not a movie, but this cinematic feat is nonetheless something that anyone even remotely interested in the medium needs to see. The project is an assemblage of film clips, that plays in a continuous, 24-hour real time loop, that presents a cut of a clock or timepiece from a movie each minute (see it different times of the day and you'll get a new experience each time). But Marclay's brilliant work goes far beyond a simple stunt of editing (which alone is massively impressive). "The Clock" is a tribute to movie history that entertainingly forces viewers to consider the hours we spend in darkened rooms, while also revealing the thousands and thousands of lives we've witnessed play out on the big screen. The piece is probably the most accomplished mashup ever compiled, taking a format that's generally associated with YouTube, putting it into a high art context, yet remaining completely accessible all at the same time. Both celebration and study, "The Clock" is witty and whipsmart, a meta-movie that will suck you in until you lose your own sense of time.
Other movies of note from 2012 (in no particular order): "The Forgiveness Of Blood," "Sound Of My Voice," "Ruby Sparks," "Safety Not Guaranteed," "Moonrise Kingdom," "Perks Of Being A Wallflower," "Amour," "Barbara," "Sister," "Looper," "The Dark Knight Rises," "Jeff Who Lives At Home," "The Invisible War," "Bernie" and probably a few others I'm forgetting.