Along with the usual bushels of dreck, 2012 brought some really remarkable movies. Below, by tradition, are the ten I found most rewarding.
You may notice that a high number—almost half of them—are movies aimed at children; another one has a child as its heroine, and yet another is a love story between two preteens. This phenomenon is due in large part, no doubt, to my availability for screenings often being dependent on my ability to take a ten-year-old along with me.
But even if I had been able to get to Django Unchained or Zero Dark Thirty or Silver Linings Playbook or Les Miserables in time to consider them for this list, I doubt that all of the kidflicks would have been muscled out. It was just an unusually strong year for the genre, and the issues underlying many of them weren’t just kid stuff.
Lincoln—Spielberg’s direction has the iconic power of the great silents, Tony Kushner’s dialogue is majestic, and so is the acting of Daniel Day-Lewis, among others. The movie is uneven in spots, but unforgettable.
Beasts of the Southern Wild—Set in a community outside the levee in Louisiana, Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature is magical realism that feels like a documentary. Quvenzhane Wallis is electrifyingly good as Hushpuppy, the neglected little girl at the center of the story, as is Dwight Henry as her ill father. Also, the musical score was the year’s most soul-stirring.
The Sessions—The story of the poet and essayist Mark O’Brien, who spent most of his life in an iron lung after childhood polio, and his decision to work with a sex surrogate, may sound like a depressing assignment. But Ben Lewin’s movie is bright, warm and funny, and features knockout performances by John Hawkes as O’Brien, Helen Hunt as the surrogate, and William H. Macy as O’Brien’s sympathetic priest, among others.
Argo—Ben Affleck directed and starred in this top-notch spy thriller, juiced-up from the true story of the rescue of six American embassy workers from Tehran in 1979. If Affleck wasn’t the fashionable figure of ridicule that for some reason he is, then on the basis of this film and The Town in 2010, he would already be acclaimed as the best director in this genre since at least Costa-Gavras, if not Hitchcock himself.
The Secret World of Arietty—Tiny people live in bourgeois comfort under the floorboards of a human house, appropriating tiny amounts of what they need from their unwitting hosts. This version of The Borrowers, imported by Disney from Japan’s Studio Ghibli, is a work of delicate enchantment, alternating between quiet comedy and poignancy.
Moonrise Kingdom—Set in Rhode Island in the ‘60s, Wes Anderson’s odd comedy is about a romance between two preteens and how it throws a coastal island community into a tizzy. There’s a misstep here and there, but overall this is Anderson’s best film since Rushmore.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi—This documentary about a master sushi chef in Tokyo would be just a rarefied and elegant specimen of food porn, if it weren’t leavened with humor and fascinating psychology. There’s even a bit of environmental consciousness to it.
Frankenweenie—Tim Burton’s stop-motion feature remake of his own live-action short from the ‘80s was neglected by audiences partly because it was black-and-white. But it’s a really delightful mixture of the Universal Frankenstein pictures with the Boy And His Dog theme. It’s out this month on video; check it out.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits—Give me a break; I love the already-obsolete art of stop-motion animation, and the fact there were two stop-motion features this year does my heart good. This piece of Brit silliness from Aardman Studios gave me as many (intentional) laughs as anything I saw this year.
Wreck-It Ralph—Though it’s another animated feature for kids, this story of an arcade-game villain who goes AWOL in an attempt to become a good guy can take its place with the best movies about trying to find yourself. John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman give wonderful voice to the leads.
A few runners-up and slightly underrated near-misses: Killer Joe, Brave, Safety Not Guaranteed, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Beauty is Embarrassing, ParaNorman, Rise of the Guardians, Big Miracle, Hotel Transylvania, Marley, Dark Shadows, Trouble With the Curve, Chimpanzee, Mirror Mirror, The Hunger Games, The Dark Knight Rises, Ice Age: Continental Drift (and its excellent accompanying Simpsons short The Longest Daycare), Skyfall, The Amazing Spider-Man, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, and an honorable mention for the splendid documentary Paul Williams: Still Alive, which might have cracked the Top Ten if it wasn’t a 2011 release, but which played the Valley Art in July.