Putting together a year-end list has become a standard annual ritual for critics, bloggers, and even your everyday movie fan. While understanding that any rankings of movies are extremely limited, it's still fun to look back at the past 12 months. I didn't see as many new releases in 2012 as past years, but there were still plenty of strong choices. Reviewing my list, I was surprised by just how few foreign films I'd seen. While seeing classics from legends like Herzog and Bergman, I didn't catch up with enough new directors from across the globe. I'm hoping to rectify the situation in 2013, but it may be difficult. There are incredible events happening at home this spring. Regardless, I still had plenty of excellent options this year. The top choices were pretty easy, but the differences between the last few and the honorable mentions are very slim. My top ten usually doesn't include many big-budget films, but I admit those were some of my favorite experiences. After checking out my list, I'd love to hear what your favorites were from 2012. This is the best part of reading all the posts; they point me towards interesting selections that hadn't reached my radar.
Special Mention: Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow)
This low-key story about a possibly crazy guy (Mark Duplass) who claims to travel through time is a cool surprise. We expect that his claims will be played for laughs, but the screenplay refreshingly paints him as a fairly normal guy. Aubrey Plaza shines in the lead role, which allows her to expand on her typical persona. She brings great heart to an intern who's slowly drawn in by the unconventional guy. Although it concerns time travel, that's just a small part of this human tale of people trying to overcome a past loss. It's a charming gem that hopefully will build a much larger audience outside of the theaters.
10. Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)
Let the Joss Whedon love-fest begin! Although he did not direct this clever take on the horror genre, most of this release's attention focused on Whedon. This isn't fair since it pushed aside Director Drew Goddard, who wrote Cloverfield and many episodes of Buffy and Angel. Working together, these guys craft a fun and original look at the tropes of the slasher film. I'm not a big fan of horror movies, but I've seen enough to recognize the in-jokes. Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins bring heft to the scientists with the job of sending teens to their deaths. What lifts up Cabin in the Woods is its completely insane final act, which wreaks serious carnage from all types of creatures. It's a fun romp that reminds us of the genre's silliness without reverting to total camp.
9. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
It's been several months since I checked out this ambitious tale from Paul Thomas Anderson, and I'm still not sure what I think of it. It may deserve to be higher or could be off the list completely. Which is it? The fact that Anderson's created such an equally intriguing and frustrating work makes it worth checking out. The acting is excellent, though Joaquin Phoenix's mannerisms are a bit much after several hours. Even so, he's so engrossed in creating this vile guy that I have to give him credit. I didn't have the opportunity to see The Master in 70 mm, but it still is a striking movie. Anderson makes both the grand outdoor sequences and intimate conversations beautiful, which isn't easy. It won't rank with my favorite experiences, but the weighty issues and great acting earn it this spot.
8. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)
One of the most intriguing films of this year was Benh Zeitlin's debut feature, which depicted characters living in serious poverty in Louisiana. Although they're struggling to stay afloat, this is hardly a dour story even when a massive storm arrives. The revelation is the lead performance of Quvenzhané Wallis, who plays the six-year-old lead character Hushpuppy. Zeitlin is trying to do a lot more than showcase these characters and is commenting on the destruction of nature. He doesn't completely succeed, but it's such an engaging attempt that it deserves this spot on the list. The images are stunning as we journey with Hushpuppy and discover more about this unique environment.
7. The Avengers (Joss Whedon)
After all the build-up and expectations during the past few years, there were many ways that The Avengers could have failed. Amazingly, Joss Whedon finds a way to deliver a movie that serves both comic-book fans and mass audiences without alienating either group. I love Whedon's style, and he finds a way to throw some of his trademark humor into the mix. I'll join the massive chorus and praise Mark Ruffalo's work as The Hulk, which lives up to the hype. The other actors all bring their best work, even Scarlett Johansson in a possibly throwaway role. When the effects take hold in the last act, we're still into the story because the characters are so engaging. It's a team effort, and everyone gets a big moment to save the day. It's easy to dismiss this movie because it's such a breezy experience, but that wouldn't do justice to Whedon's achievements.
6. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
What makes this new look at one of the most famous U.S. presidents feel different is its strict focus. Instead of trying to give a broad look at Lincoln's life, Steven Spielberg and Writer Tony Kushner look specifically at a few months from 1865. This gives us plenty of time to get to know all the key players in the battle to pass the 13th amendment. Daniel Day-Lewis underplays the lead role but clearly shows us the brilliant mind that's working behind the casual demeanor. Lincoln wants this amendment passed by any means necessary. David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, a scenery-chewing James Spader, and many others bring depth to this compelling historical drama. Spielberg takes his time and indulges a few too many speeches, but they rarely diminish the impact of this excellent film.
5. Skyfall (Sam Mendes)
When thinking about what I expect from a franchise movie, the key factor is taking the formula and pushing it to greater heights. It's okay to use the best elements that made that series a success if you do something interesting with them. Sam Mendes takes over the reins for the third appearance of Daniel Craig, and they deliver one of the best action films in recent years. They continue the excellent run beginning with Casino Royale and pay homage to many of the past Bond movies. The highlight is Roger Deakins' gorgeous cinematography, which stands out during the quieter moments. Mendes is clearly influenced by Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy and brings a greater emotional component to what's often been a silly franchise. Craig is up to the task, and Javier Bardem's over-the-top villain ranks among the best in the series. Judi Dench gets a larger role as M and brings depth to the connection between the agent and the boss who may not have his best interests at heart.
4. Argo (Ben Affleck)
There's something to be said for making a movie that doesn't proclaim itself as "important" from an artistic standpoint. Ben Affleck is clearly influenced by the '70s political thrillers in Argo, but it rarely feels like a throwback. He finds a way to combine a modern sensibility and satire on Hollywood with the real-life story. The chaotic situation in Iran is believable without drawing too much attention to itself. The ensemble piece stands out because it differs from much of the other mainstream fare in 2012. It's a dramatic film that takes its time and rarely goes for the cheap thrill. By the time the hostages have reached the airport and are excruciatingly close, we clearly understand the dire stakes. It's great entertainment that provides two hours of fun without leaving our brains at the door.
3. Looper (Rian Johnson)
Time-travel movies are tricky because they risk collapsing under the weight of complex plots. Rian Johnson recognizes this fact in Looper and deftly side-steps every obstacle. While still creating a cool premise, he focuses on the emotional challenges faced by Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) when confronting his future self. The amazing part is the way that it takes a serious left turn in its final act that wasn't spoiled by the previews. The stakes grow exponentially for the selfish guy, who realizes that the world's future hangs in the balance. Paying homage to the best films of the genre like The Terminator, this smart thriller rolls towards a surprising end and keeps you guessing the entire time.
2. Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman)
Whit Stillman triumphantly returns with his first movie in 1998, and his biting wit remains firmly intact. This story is basically a fantasy about college life that works because of the engaging characters. Greta Gerwig is perfect for the lead part of the well-meaning, yet slightly delusional Violet. Along with her friends Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore), she employs unconventional methods to help troubled college students while igniting a new dance craze. The whimsical style isn't for everyone, but there's plenty of charm if you're willing to take the ride. There a lot of silliness from the self-involved characters, who lack awareness but are still likable. I'm really hoping that this is the start of another grand run from Stillman that rivals his best work in the 1990s.
1. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
I'm a Wes Anderson fan and love Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, but my expectations weren't high for his latest movie. The preview made it seem not that different from his past work. Right from the start, it was clear that my expectations were totally wrong. Moonrise Kingdom is a wonderful film that shows Anderson's best qualities, but with a lot more heart. Even the usually serious Edward Norton does a great job as the well-meaning Scout Master Ward. Bruce Willis is also surprisingly good playing against type as the meek Captain Sharp. While the adults are strong, the true strength is the relationship between 12-year-old Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Heyward). Their young love never drifts into uncomfortable territory and drives the story. Anderson inserts plenty of his quirky touches, but they fit perfectly within this world and deliver my favorite movie of the year.
These five honorable mentions were extremely close to cracking this list. They're organized alphabetically and are essentially tied for the 12th spot in my mind.
The Dark Knight Rises
The Hunger Games
Jeff, Who Lives at Home
Shut Up and Play the Hits
I'd love to hear about your favorite movies from the past year. Which movies should I add to my watch list? You should also check out past Top 5 Lists if you've missed them.