the year in review: film

By Chris Robinson on 1/18/2013

Hollywood had a pretty impressive 2012. The beginning of the year featured such uncommonly entertaining January fare as Haywire and The Grey, as well as some early awards contenders in Moonrise Kingdom and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Audiences were then treated to an improbably entertaining blockbuster season (beginning with The Hunger Games and The Avengers, only to be followed by Prometheus, a surprisingly charming Spider-Man reboot, and the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy), to say nothing of Magic Mike, 21 Jump Street, Cosmopolis, Holy Motors, or Skyfall. When this period of plenty finally abated it was only to make way for the awards season heavyweights: primo Oscar-bait like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Ben Affleck’s Argo, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, and David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook — not to mention Michael Haneke’s Amour, Robert Zemekis’s Flight, and Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina.

Unfortunately, as often happens during awards season, much of the most ambitious, truly inventive work around has been pushed to the sidelines as less surprising films of mild invention but ostensibly important content dominate the spotlight of critical appreciation. This list seeks to ignore that trend, selecting not merely the most topically robust, but the overall best 10 films of the past year.

Here they are, in order:

  1. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson): Anderson’s best film since The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) takes on the ultimate themes of love and death with careful tenderness and rollicking humor. A deeply beautiful, poignant, and funny film, it uses a masterful sense of form to blend grandeur and intimacy in a manner at once unerring and deeply personal.
  2. Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell): Fresh on the heels of The Fighter (2011), Mr. Russell again gives us a gritty, down-to-earth tale of trodden down misfits that proves as insightful as it is heartwarming. He seems to always get the best out of his cast, and Playbook is no exception, practically brimming over with nuanced yet powerful performances.
  3. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg): A great, but flawed filmmaker gives us a great, flawed film about a great, flawed man. Certainly Lincoln is not perfect; you can focus on the flaws, or you can give in and allow yourself to be swept up in its grand, noble sentiments. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance alone is well worth the price of admission.
  4. Argo (Ben Affleck): Affleck’s true calling might lie behind the camera – this white knuckle thriller is as tense and exciting as it is tightly constructed; finely wrought characters and a sharp, darkly comic script ensure this journey into the heart of a crisis is not only informative, but thoroughly enjoyable.
  5. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin): Trembling with energy, this pulsating adventure through childhood, disaster, and the wilderness of the Louisiana bayou is as much a life-affirming primal scream as it is a subtly woven coming of age story. This is a film that cannot simply be watched; it must be experienced.
  6. Zero Dark Thirty (Katheryn Bigelow): As well crafted as The Hurt Locker (2009) and nearly as suspenseful, Bigelow again attacks formidable subject matter head-on, giving us a bold, unwavering vision of the realities of war in the 21st century. A gripping, detail-rich production that, together with Lincoln and Argo, should be mandatory viewing in high school history classes around the country.
  7. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino): Blaxploitation spaghetti western becomes cartoonish slave revenge fantasy, as Mr. Tarantino continues (in a follow-up to 2009’s Inglorious Basterds) to explore pop-culture’s power to engage history’s most glaring atrocities. A visually daring, topically ambitious romp as irreverent, violent, and unrestrained as it is thoroughly (cathartically?) entertaining.
  8. Amour (Michael Haneke): Tender and touching, if somewhat slow moving, this modern, foreign version of Love Story (1970) manages to be both heartwarming and heartwrenching at the same time. Powerful performances from the two leads wring every drop of emotion from an unflinching script.
  9. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson): Consummate storyteller Anderson has made a challenging, psychologically fraught drama that is masterfully written, beautifully filmed, powerfully acted, and completely engrossing. The Master is a thinking man’s movie, but that doesn’t mean it is devoid of emotion, verve, or passion; the trailer alone proves that.
  10. 21 Jump Street (Phil Lord & Chris Miller): Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill take turns outdoing each other in the funniest film since Bridesmaids (2011). Jump Street was not only the year’s best comedy (by far); it was a worthy successor to the prestigious tradition of bro-hilarity established by such epic laugh-fests as Old School (2003), Wedding Crashers (2005) and The Hangover (2009).  Δ

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