Year’s Over: The Best Movies of 2012 (Round 1)

silver linings

Every year, we at HEAVEmedia like to look back on what we’ve learned, what we’ve accomplished and marvel like the elderly at the rapid passage of time. Over the next few weeks, our Year’s Over series will bring you our staff’s essential lists of what you should’ve seen, heard, read and done in 2012. Today, Nico becomes the first of our three movie writers to give you his top 10 films of the year. Tomorrow and Friday, Chris and Dominick will offer their lists, so stay tuned.

(Editor’s addendum to list: Because we’ve not yet been able to breathe the rarefied air of accredited film critics who get advance screenings, this list does not reflect anything released in Chicago after the week of December 14. There will be a special edition of our Pod People podcast in early January, in which our film writing trio will make amendments to these lists as needed.)

1) Silver Linings Playbook

In a year defined by invention and ingenuity and testing the boundaries of cinema, my favorite film was a seemingly conventional romantic comedy starring two of the biggest stars in America and a latter-day DeNiro. Silver Linings Playbook checks off a baffling list of clichés before reaching its Hollywood ending. It features a white man redemption plot, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a Meet Cute, a wacky misunderstanding, an Idiot Plot, a dance contest, one lone officer patrolling all of Philadelphia and that Hollywood ending, which you can see coming a mile away.

But what makes it the best movie of the year is that it somehow does all of these things well, all the things that Hollywood usually screws up. It’s a textbook example of how to make a movie that’s both deeply conventional and deeply satisfying, and the best of its kind since Wonder Boys, another ramshackle redemption tale set in the Keystone State. But underneath the seeming clichés is a wildly anarchic heart, one reminiscent of the best of Cassevetes and Altman, directors who had a similar flair for overlapping dialogue and complicated families. Playbook recalls the screwball drama of director David O. Russell’s The Fighter and Flirting With Disaster, and is just as fast and savagely funny as I Heart Huckabees, his divisive 2004 philosophy comedy. Playbook is also the kind of movie they don’t make anymore, one that could be mistaken for a black-and-white classic, except that it’s in color. Playbook is Preston Sturges on steroids and recalls Sullivan’s Travels, a movie about finding life’s silver linings though cinema.

Despite its many forebears, the movie stands on its own as a classic, with best-yet perfomances from Bradley Cooper as a bipolar man looking for reconciliation and a reason to be and Jennifer Lawrence as the widow who gives him one. Lawrence’s performance is a lot like the movie—funny, sad, outrageous and touching, often all at once. It might not change cinema forever, but it’s the rare film that I feel like a better person for having seen.

2) Beasts of the Southern Wild

I’ve now seen Beasts of the Southern Wild three times, and I still don’t know how they pull it off, a movie so breathtakingly perfect that the very fact it was made makes you feel like the directors got away with something. Beasts is a highly improbable success, a magical realist take on Hurricane Katrina told from the point of view of a five-year-old. It’s a gamble that results in the year’s smallest masterpiece and smallest soon-to-be superstar, the preteen acting phenom Quvenzhane Wallis. Of everything I saw this year, it was the one I couldn’t wait to see again, to bask in its Louisana mytho-poetics and its portrait of community solidarity. It’s an elegy of collective destruction and rebirth, one that reminds us both of the transformative power of the stuggle and of cinema.

3) The Master

2012’s most head-scratching shoulda-been-Oscar-juggernaut, The Master didn’t turn out to be the contender everyone seemed to think it would be. This is because The Master is brutal, challenging and opaque as fuck—more akin to reading a great novel than the Academy’s Best Picture. Like 2008’s Synecdoche, New York, this is a movie that will need to be studied for the next decade before we truly know what to do with it. The Master invites complicated emotions and wildly different interpretations, one you could get a hundred different takes on from the audience.

Anderson’s most challenging work to date also gives Amy Adams and Joaquin Phoenix a chance to show why they are two of the finest actors of their generation—giving performances that subvert any expectations we might have of them. And in Lancaster Dodd, Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman enjoys the role of his career as a cult leader who isn’t just a symbol for Scientology. A snake-oil salesman and an improv prophet, Dodd comes to stand for America itself.

4) Holy Motors

Almost everyone I know who has seen Holy Motors either hated it or gave it up to Jesus, and along with Cloud Atlas, it’s by far the most divisive movie of the year. However, count me among its champions, because I found Leos Carax’s demented love letter to cinema both bonkers and bonkers enjoyable. Holy Motors is like David Lynch on acid, a movie that makes space for talking limousines, a troll kidnapping, human-monkey love, a CGI sex ballet, death and resurrection. I can’t tell you what it all means, but like Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., it’s a movie whose vision you have to submit to and just go with. The film was, moment to moment, the most magnetic and transcendently strange thing I’ve seen in ages. You can’t take your eyes off of it.

5) Life of Pi

Of all of the movies I saw this year, Life of Pi was the one that asked for my patience and attention more than any other—even the labyrinthine Master. While finding the movie indescribably beautiful, I didn’t emotionally connect with it (or “get” it) until the movie’s final scene, one that’s an emotional coda for everything that came before it. Although it’s not for everyone, Life of Pi functions as a thoughtful parable and a spiritual epiphany for those willing to take the journey. Life of Pi is the rare movie that gets better and more interesting the more you think about it, one designed to be discussed and picked apart with friends. And if you aren’t into that whole “God” thing, the movie is still tense and gripping entertainment, like Open Water for kids.

6) The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower wasn’t 2012’s best movie (the jury is out on Emma Watson’s accent), but it was by far the most heartfelt and affecting film of the year. Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of his own beloved novel should act as a model for bringing the page to the big screen. While proving that Ezra Miller will be a star and getting a pitch-perfect perfomance out of Logan Lerman, Chbosky achieves the rarest of all feats: he makes the rare movie that doesn’t surpass the novel, but makes you love it even more. Chbosky didn’t give me the movie the high-school kid inside me wanted. He gave me the one I needed, as well as fifteen minutes of a good cry when the movie was over. Ah, nostalgia.

7) Skyfall

Skyfall wasn’t just the best Bond in recent memory. It was one of the best ever, a film that both reminded us everything we love about Bond while suggesting exciting new directions for the franchise to go. If you can forgive a too-long ending, almost everything about the movie works, and Sam Mendes proves himself a seamless maestro of both action and cheeky comedy. Mendes also gets franchise-best performances out of his cast, particularly Judi Dench’s M (who should have always been a bigger character) and Javier Bardem’s Silva, a nimble take on his Anton Chigurh. Although Bardem steals the show (and should get an Oscar nom for it), none of this would work without Craig at the center, who becomes more complicated and interesting as Bond with each passing film. In three films, he has taken a character considered over-the-hill and made him relevant again, arguably more popular than ever. Craig is a Bond for the ages.

8 ) Damsels in Distress

2012 was a great year for the Indie Quirkplex, and Damsels in Distress shares this mention with Moonrise Kingdom and Safety Not Guaranteed—as a testament to independent comedies at their finest. Like its co-honorees, Damsels in Distress was charming and inventive while being totally out of its mind, featuring blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gags about everything from teen suicide to anal sex. Damsels was a welcome-back party for Whit Stillman, the 90s indie auteur who proved he’s never been more relevant than today. His arch, hyper-literate writing is perfectly tailored to the Pitchfork generation, and Stillman’s mise-en-scene somehow both evokes P.G. Wodehouse and Urban Outfitters. It helps that Stillman gets the best performance yet out of Greta Gerwig, who plays one of the daffier heroines in recent memory. Any character who thinks she can change the world by creating her own dance craze is always fine by me.

9) Magic Mike

Not only was Magic Mike this year’s most entertaining movie, but it also reminded me (in a weird way) of 2010’s Inglorious Basterds.  In Basterds, Tarantino got middle America to go to the type of movie they would never normally see: a foreign prestige film, just wrapped in pulp. In Magic Mike, Soderbergh pulled the ultimate bait-and-switch with America’s soccer moms: a Channing Tatum stripper movie that turned out to be a surprisingly affecting independent film. No matter where you fall in the Great Cody Horn Debate of 2012 (was she naturalistic or terrible?), we can agree that Magic Mike was the 2012 total package, the perfect combination of brawn and brains.

10) Argo

Although I long considered giving my ten slot to The Paperboy or Margaret (2012’s most unforgettable trainwrecks), credit must be given to Ben Affleck for pulling off the most difficult movie of the year. Argo functions as a clever ensemble comedy, an international thriller, a chase movie, a con job and a satire of Hollywood—sometimes all in the same scene. Affleck somehow juggles about 10 tones and 20 major speaking roles from his cast, and the thing goes over like gangbusters. Argo was more criminally entertaining and tense than any movie about shredding documents should be, and even if it wasn’t perfect (see: whitewashing, gender bias), it shows that Affleck is continuing to evolve into one of our generation’s finest blockbuster filmmakers.

  • Patrick Hao

    Wow. Four of your top 5 is in my top 5 and the one that’s in your top 5 that isn’t, life of pi, is in my top 10. I also loved Damsels