If you had asked me in early June, I would have told you 2012 was shaping up to be a terrible year in movies. Fortunately, that all changed by December. In the second half of the year, suddenly there were too many good movies to catch up on — so many, in fact, that I couldn’t keep my list to 10 titles (sorry, OCDers). Here, in order of preference, are the best movies of 2012:
1. Beasts of the Southern Wild: Director Benh Zeitlin and the New Orleans-based film collective Court 13 used non-professional actors and limited resources to create the year’s most magical fairy tale, set in a slightly heightened reality in a post-Katrina Louisiana, about a six-year old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) living with her ailing father (Dwight Henry) on a muddy island the locals call the Bathtub. Part of the beauty of the film lies in the extraordinary details of their everyday lives — ramshackle houses and boats made out of cardboard and detritus and a community in which everyone seems happy and content despite the miserable conditions. But what makes Beasts truly soar is Zeitlin’s ability to show us the world through Hushpuppy’s optimistic, naïve eyes, which find wonder in the most mundane of details. The film is thrilling, transporting and heartbreaking: I have never seen another like this one.
2. Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson’s comedy about two 12-year-olds who fall in love and run away from home (even though they live on an island) was the director’s first movie since The Royal Tenenbaums that didn’t choke on its own preciousness. Instead, Anderson's meticulous art designs and droll sense of humor were a perfect match for this rapturous movie filled with indelible characters, from Edward Norton’s methodical scout master to Tilda Swinton’s social services drone. A treasure.
3. Amour: Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has made some grueling movies before (Funny Games, The Piano Teacher) but he’s never made one as devastating and beautiful as this one. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are the eightysomething married couple whose love burns as bright as the day they met. Then old age and illness intervenes. Difficult to watch, impossible to forget — and the year’s most haunting love story. (Opens in South Florida Jan. 25).
4. Lincoln: Steven Spielberg sets aside most of his directorial flourishes and cedes the stage to screenwriter Tony Kushner and actor Daniel Day-Lewis to recount the 16th President’s battle to pass the 13th amendment through Congress and abolish slavery. Never before has the dry business of politics felt so riveting, and despite the large ensemble cast, Day-Lewis is the magnet that holds this absorbing movie together. Looks like medicine but tastes like candy.
5. The Silver Linings Playbook: This messy, boisterous romantic comedy directed by David O. Russell (The Fighter, Three Kings) polarized audiences in a love-it-or-hate-it way. As a man suffering from bipolar disorder, Bradley Cooper has never been better, and Jennifer Lawrence, as a widow who deals with her grief through promiscuity, seems so grown-up you wonder how she ever passed for a teenager in The Hunger Games. Jacki Weaver and Robert DeNiro perfectly captured the bond between long-suffering parents, and Russell’s unusual approach to this conventional material (including peculiar use of wide-angle lenses in certain scenes) draws you into the sprawl and tumult of this extended family. Here’s a movie that ends with a high-stakes dance competition (!) and still manages to feel utterly fresh.
6. Life of Pi: Director Ang Lee turned Yann Martel’s novel about the nature of faith and storytelling into the most visually stunning movie of the year, using 3D and CGI to make you believe in the tale of a young man (Suraj Sharma) stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. No movie this year contained more moments of jaw-dropping beauty - or an ending designed to stimulate serious conversation about the nature of faith and storytelling.
7. Zero Dark Thirty: Kathryn Bigelow’s already-controversial drama about the hunt for Osama bin Laden is being attacked for its veracity and false implications that torture led to usable information in the CIA’s search. A carefully detailed and structured procedural, a la All the President’s Men or Zodiac, this film turns often dry work into thrilling drama. Jessica Chastain’s performance as a CIA agent whose life is consumed by her job is the best work by an actor in any film this year. The movie’s final 30 minutes, shot from the viewpoint of a member of the Navy SEALs team that raided bin Laden’s compound, is tense and suspenseful even though you know the outcome. (Opens in South Florida Jan. 4).
8. The Kid with a Bike: The latest slice-of-life drama from Belgian brothers Jean and Luc Dardenne (La Promesse) may be their simplest and most heart-rending picture to date. The quest of a little boy, furious at being unloved and disowned by his father, to find his missing bike takes on epic dimensions, even though the same story could be taking place in your own neighborhood.
9. The Dark Knight Rises: Christopher Nolan’s bravura finale to his trilogy of Batman films was nitpicked to death online for plot holes and lapses in logic, a textbook case of not seeing the forest for the trees. This was an epic, mythical comic-book movie, with a grander scope and more intricate plot than the previous two films, giving the acclaimed series the soaring finale it deserved. Heroes aren’t always born; sometimes they’re made.
10. Brave: This year’s annual Pixar offering, about a princess who doesn’t want to play along with her queen mother’s plans of ritual betrothal, started out as a typical adventure about female empowerment and then took a sudden veer into fantastical territory that centered on a subject rarely, if ever, explored in animated movies: The relationship between mothers and daughters.
11. The Queen of Versailles: Lauren Greenfield’s documentary study of an immensely wealthy couple who begin construction on a new home — the biggest in the country — then scramble when the economic crisis hits and their fortunes dwindle. People who take limos to McDonald’s have problems too.
12. Holy Motors/Cosmopolis: Two plotless movies, both set largely inside a white stretch limo, rode out in completely different directions. Leos Carax’s tale of a man who rides around inserting himself into various scenarios as an actor for hire was a blast of cinematic daring and imagination, a celebration of movies. David Cronenberg’s cold and cerebral adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel, about a young tycoon (Robert Pattinson) who wants to drive cross-town for a haircut, forced the viewer to look past the near-impenetrable dialogue and focus on the ideas and undercurrents beneath the surface. Both movies bombed. Both will endure.
13. Café de Flore: Beating Cloud Atlas to the punch, director Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y.) jumped back and forth between two seemingly unrelated stories — one set in the present, the other in 1960s Paris — to explore the undying nature of true love and the possibility of that whole “soul mate” thing. A technical triumph, with an emotional wallop to back it up.
14. The Perks of Being a Wallflower / Project X / 21 Jump Street: How do you like your high school movies? Wallflower took the John Hughes 2.0 approach, leaning heavily on pop music, house parties and cafeteria showdowns to tell the sweet tale of an outsider who befriends the two coolest kids in school. Project X was loud, vulgar and unruly, a sensory wallow in adolescent misbehavior pushed to extremes that amped the devil-may-care attitude of teenagers to outrageous heights. And 21 Jump Street, a revival of the junky TV series that turned out to be the funniest comedy of the year, followed two cops (Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill) who go undercover as high school students and discover it’s just as hard the second time around. Some things never get easy, no matter the era.