10. SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
Much has been said about the acting in this film and it’s all warranted. Bradley Cooper manages a likability that has eluded him in every movie until now; Jennifer Lawrence surpasses her performance in Winter’s Bone; Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver are reliable as ever; and even Chris Tucker reins himself in and demonstrates an unexpected vulnerability. This story of two emotionally and psychologically damaged people learning to cope with their lives and open themselves up to happiness does end predictably, but by the time the movie arrives at its predestined conclusion, it’s earned its crowd-pleasing ending.
9. YOUR SISTER’S SISTER
The premise sounds pretty standard: Iris (Emily Blunt) tells her best friend Jack (Mark Duplass) to visit her cottage for some rest. When Jack gets there, he discovers Iris’s sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), is also unexpectedly there for a respite. Jack and Hannah end up drinking their sorrows away and sleeping together. The next morning, Iris shows up. In the midst of Jack and Hannah debating whether to admit what happened, Iris confesses to her sister that she secretly loves Jack. The whole setup has been done time and again in countless sitcoms, but what makes Your Sister’s Sister so brilliant is the execution. From the improvised dialogue to the intimate performances, it feels like a halfway experience between a play and a movie and gets you truly invested in the predicament of Iris, Jack, and Hannah.
8. ZERO DARK THIRTY
“The Osama bin Ladin movie,” as many have taken to referring to it, is an incredibly powerful modern epic. Zero Dark Thirty’s story lasts a decade and the character of Maya (as complexly played by Jessica Chastain) changes over the course of the film in ways that are hard to imagine from the outset. While the movie does slow in a few areas, it ends up evoking the same feeling of the War on Terror, with spans when no change or progress seemed to be happening. Oftentimes, the quietest moments simply lure you into getting startled by a sudden I.E.D. explosion or a suicide bomber’s attack. By the time the climax that everyone’s been waiting for arrives, it feels like it would have to disappoint, but it ends more tensely than most movies from last year. And if there is one closing shot from a 2012 movie than will burn into your memory, it’s Zero Dark Thirty’s.
7. DJANGO UNCHAINED
It’s really quite amazing how quickly the world has learned to take Quentin Tarantino for granted. A genius writer of plot and dialogue, a revolutionary in terms of modern directors, and one of the foremost experts on cinema currently working in the industry today, Tarantino managed the near-impossible feat of six of his first seven movies being masterpieces. Django Unchained is, sadly, not quite up to the 5-star snuff of those ones, but to quote Kill Bill: Vol. 1, “If you’re going to compare a Hanzo sword, you compare it to every other sword ever made that wasn’t made by Hattori Hanzo.” Django Unchained is a thrilling piece of cinema that is perfect from the very first frame to the climactic shootout. All that holds it back from perfection is an incredibly unfortunate extra 25 minutes added after the climax that drags for so long, it damages all of the film that came before. With brilliant performances by Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio and Tarantino’s delicious-as-ever dialogue, though, Django Unchained remains near-perfect.
After the excellent, if overly serious, Casino Royale (and the much less excellent, much more serious Quantum of Solace), the James Bond series finally found the perfect tone for Daniel Craig’s modern take on 007. After previously stripping the series of all the humour, the cheek, and the fun that been trademarks of the character since 1962’s Dr. No, Skyfall finds a happy medium between Jason Bourne and the Bond of old. The reintroduction of elements like Q helps reassure long-time fans that the franchise hasn’t completely forgotten its roots. The action sequences are spectacular, Craig seems to finally be having fun in the role, and Javier Bardem gives one of the greatest villainous performances of any film in the last few years. It’s really hard to ask for much more in a Bond movie; Skyfall is one of the very best.
The handheld camera subgenre has many detractors. Even those who believe there have been excellent uses of the format in The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, or Paranormal Activity generally know to approach such movies with apprehension. Thankfully, Chronicle proves to be one of the rare few that employs it well. A tale of three teenage boys who somehow gain the power of telekinesis, what starts as a merely interesting high school movie with boys throwing a football around using their minds becomes a darker, epic tale of good and evil. One of the three boys, a victim of bullying, begins using his power to move things to take out his aggression and anger. By the eye-boggling climax, it’s a marvel to remember Chronicle’s gradual escalation and how it undermines expectations every step of the way.
It’s unfortunate Ben Affleck’s Oscar snub has become the talking point of the movie, because it’s overshadowing one of the best American thrillers in years. Argo is the true story of a CIA operative who was in charge of rescuing six American diplomats trapped in Iran in the ‘70s. He joins the diplomats in the house of the Canadian Ambassador, who’s secretly hiding them, and plans to sneak them out by posing as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science-fiction movie (the titular “Argo”). Everything is right about this movie, from the clothes to the props to the soundtrack. It doesn’t feel like it’s set in in ’70s, it films like it was filmed in the ‘70s. Affleck deserves most of the credit, not just for his strong lead performance, but for his immensely talented direction and skill at ratcheting tension. The extended climax of Argo is the tautest scene in a film since the Dubai sequence in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, if not its equal.
3. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
So few movies set in modern times feel like they create a whole different world, completely foreign to audiences. Beasts of the Southern Wild manages the difficult feat with aplomb, taking people into “the Bathtub,” a Louisiana marsh housing a ramshackle community in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The movie’s ace card is telling the story from the point-of-view of a five-year-old named Hushpuppy, played with spirited innocence by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis in a revelatory performance. The catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, filtered through the attempted comprehension of a child, allows for wondrous visuals, gripping terror, and touching naiveté the likes of which few films manage.
The cat-and-mouse thriller is a subgenre that has been around since the inception of film. There’s very little new ground to be broken in the concept, and Headhunters can’t really be called innovative in that respect. Its genius isn’t in doing something new, but doing something amazingly well. This is the most well-plotted and tense back-and-forth thriller since The Departed or The Prestige. When a corporate headhunter (who also moonlights as an art thief, to maintain his high-class lifestyle) steals a painting from a former mercenary, it becomes a battle of life and death, with no extreme too far. Every time you think the movie can’t possibly surprise you anymore, it pulls another trick from its sleeve. A gripping thrill ride that doesn’t let you breathe for an hour and a half, Headhunters will be the thriller to top for the next while.
1. CLOUD ATLAS
Every year or two, a movie comes along that completely polarizes audiences. Films like The Fountain, Black Swan, and The Tree of Life each found themselves with audiences split into lovers and haters. Cloud Atlas, too, (through no substantial similarities to those films) found itself caught between those who thought it was bloated and terrible and those who thought it was genius storytelling and a visual masterpiece. Count this critic among the latter. Deftly weaving six different storylines, taking place in seven different time periods and over the course of 542 years, Cloud Atlas manages a seemingly impossible task. Using a repertory of actors playing characters in different timelines through reincarnations of their souls, the movie not only tells six stories that in and of themselves could nearly be complete movies, but creates a whole much larger than the sum of its parts. The technical aspects (like the make-up and visual effects) are flawless and the titular score is one of the most haunting and evocative pieces of music in recent years of cinema. There are moments of pure beauty, unbridled absurdity, heartbreaking sorrow, gripping tension, and awestruck wonder. Cloud Atlas is a movie that is impossible to forget, easy to underestimate, and the best film of 2012.