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The Perfect 10+: The Year’s Best Movies

December 31, 2012

Turns out 2012 was a pretty great year for movies. After a relatively slow start, a flurry of fantastic November and December releases knocked a number of seemingly surefire contenders off my best-films list. So honorable mention goes out to writer-director Ava Duvernay’s quietly shattering romantic drama Middle of Nowhere, the R.A. Dickey-u-mentary Knuckleball! The Movie, the breathtaking single-shot horror flick Silent House and Richard Linklater’s note-perfect Texas crime dramedy Bernie. (Click on the highlighted titles for full reviews). And I had to include 11 films in my top 10, because I couldn’t leave off either of the movies vying for the final spot. Here’s my look back, with hopes that 2013 proves an equally lucky number for cinema:

10. Hyde Park on Hudson/The Sessions (tie) Most of the praise given these two underrated films has gone to the performers: Bill Murray, for his ebullient embodiment of FDR in Hyde Park and John Hawkes and Helen Hunt as a disabled writer and his deeply loving sex surrogate in The Sessions. But credit should also be given to Hyde Park‘s screenwriter Richard Nelson and director Roger Michell and Sessions auteur Ben Lewin for taking what could have been movies that were merely good-for-you and making them just plain good—lively, funny and entertaining. That said, in any year that didn’t include Daniel Day-Lewis’ uncanny portrayal of Honest Abe (more on that below), either Murray or Hawkes could’ve gone home with an Oscar.

9. The Impossible Speaking of Oscars, the frequently overlooked Naomi Watts deserves at least a nomination for her grueling portrayal of a woman washed away from most of her family by a tsunami in director J.A. Bayona‘s spectacular survival drama. As her good-hearted eldest son, newcomer Tom Holland is simply stunning.

tumblr_m8k21awhhw1qc0ib2o1_5008. Killer Joe You’ve gotta give it to William Friedkin—even at age 77, the director of The Exorcist, The French Connection and Cruising retains the power to shock and thrill with his NC-17 adaptation of Tracy Letts’ chicken-fried dark comedy. As the heartless titular hit man, Matthew McConaughey crowns a remarkable year that also included award-worthy turns as a canny lawyer in Bernie, a crusading journalist in The Paperboy and a smarter-than-he-looks stripper in Magic Mike without ever seeming overexposed.

7. The Grey Much more than the Liam Neeson-fights-wolves movie its trailer suggests, Joe Carnahan’s emotionally potent drama explores enduring themes of machismo, undying love and the nature of man. The ensemble—including Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, James Badge Dale and star-to-be Frank Grillo—is flawless and fearless. And as he’s proven both before (Love, Actually) and after the death of his real-life wife, Natasha Richardson, Neeson gives good grief.

6. Django Unchained I haven’t written a full review of Quentin Tarantino’s Mandingo-Sergio Leone mashup because I just saw it yesterday and frankly, I’m still processing it.  (I think that’s a good sign.) For now, suffice it to say that while it’s not quite the QT masterpiece that was Inglourious Basterds, it’s still pretty damn glorious. Among its pure cinematic pleasures: Christoph Waltz’s deliciously mustache-twisting work as an heroic German bounty hunter (Tarantino is the only director who’s figured out how to use this marvelous actor  as anything more than a gleeful villain), a screenplay that frequently unleashes the ugliness of the n-word while reveling in the beauty of the rest of the English language (it should’ve been called Lingo Unchained) and national treasure Samuel L. Jackson. As soon as it was over, I wanted to see it again.

beasts of the southern wild5. Beasts of the Southern Wild The only 2012 film that I have seen more than once because I couldn’t believe my eyes the first time—and I wanted my kids to witness it, too. The less you know about it going in, the better.

4. Flight You can add Denzel Washington to the list of actors who would’ve won Academy Awards were it not for Daniel Day-Lewis. Beyond the star’s brutally honest performance as a self-destructive airline pilot, Robert Zemeckis‘  unblinking drama is both a technical and an ethical marvel. That’s also thanks to John Gatins‘ daring script and a stellar support from Don Cheadle, John Goodman and Melissa Leo.

3. Lincoln Once again, let’s try to extend our focus beyond Daniel Day-Lewis and take note of the many other merits of Steven Spielberg’s presidential biopic: Tony Kushner’s unflinchingly intelligent screenplay, John Williams’ stirring score and an estimable ensemble that encompasses guaranteed Oscar nominees Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones as well as such top-tier TV talent as Justified‘s Walton Goggins, Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael Stuhlbarg and Girls‘ Adam Driver. And yes, people will still be talking about Day-Lewis’ turn four score and seven years from now.

zero-dark-thirty-zero-dark-thirty-20132. Argo Ben Affleck’s best film yet is an intoxicating caper flick and a deceptively timely commentary on the Middle East masquerading as a 1970’s period piece. And if you can’t admire the crafty work of Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Scoot McNairy, et. al, Argo f— yourself!

1. Zero Dark Thirty Is it an accurate representation of the CIA’s manhunt for Osama Bin Laden? The hell if I know—and if I care. All I know is it’s a hell of a movie. And I fully expect to see director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal and luminous star Jessica Chastain onstage accepting Oscars. Go see it yourself, and then we’ll talk.

What are your picks for 2012’s best movies? Post a comment!

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