The best movies of 2012 represent a year in cinema that didn’t exactly get off to a great start, but had a big finish.
All but two of our picks for the year’s best were released after July, and four of them have yet to open in wide release. That means there’s a lot of great movies to see in theaters right now, or very soon.
Here are our choices for the 10 best movies of 2012 (and five honorable mentions):
Honorable mentions: Paul Thomas Anderson’s gorgeous and divisive “The Master” (pictured above); Rich Moore’s moving and inventive Disney animation “Wreck-It Ralph”; Ang Lee’s visually dazzling “Life of Pi”; Lauren Greenfield’s amusing, trenchant documentary “The Queen of Versailles”; Stephen Chbosky’s heartfelt “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”
Even in a generally solid year for animation, “ParaNorman” stands out with its bold visual design and brave narrative choices. Many movies aimed at kids claim to celebrate outsiders, but few do so with the nuance and empathy of this film by directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell. It’s a family film that everyone can enjoy, and maybe learn from.
What could have been a dry history lesson or embarrassing attempt at awards bait is instead a fascinating peek into one of the most important periods in America’s past. Director Steven Spielberg receives an invaluable assist from screenwriter Tony Kushner in bringing Abraham Lincoln’s quest to abolish slavery to the screen. And Daniel Day-Lewis commands an incredible cast by humanizing a legend.
A low-key, observational drama from Belgian filmmaker brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, “Bike” focuses on 12-year-old foster child Cyril (Thomas Doret) who longs to reconnect with his father (J�r�mie Renier) but gradually develops a bond with a kindly hairdresser (C�cile de France). It’s heartbreaking and compassionate in equal measures, featuring tough and touching performances from the stellar cast.
Considering Hollywood’s love of pre-sold ideas, making an original sci-fi film is already an accomplishment. Writer-director Rian Johnson delivered something far more thrilling and surprising than any of the year’s heavily hyped event movies with this story of a young assassin (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who comes face-to-face with his older self (Bruce Willis). It’s a film where the ideas elevate the action, and vice versa.
An unbelievable true story provides the foundation for this harrowing tale of a family torn apart by 2004 tsunami in Thailand. Director J.A. Bayona emerges as a major talent to watch by skillfully sculpting every seemingly impossible twist and turn in the remarkable survival story. Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and newcomer Tom Holland deliver three of the year’s most physically and emotionally vulnerable performances.
Speaking of unbelievable true stories, Kathryn Bigelow’s unflinching account of the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 centers around one of the year’s most intriguing characters: fiercely committed CIA agent Maya (played by Jessica Chastain with razor-sharp intensity). A non-judgmental inside look at the dedication it takes to achieve a goal — albeit one that happens to have worldwide significance.
Romantic comedies never go out of style, they just go stale when the formula’s not done right. Writer-director David O. Russell embraces and enriches a classic story of burgeoning love by focusing on a pair of deeply screwed-up misfits so well-played by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence that you can’t help but root for their happy ending. Love doesn’t conquer all, it just makes the nasty stuff life throws at you a little easier to handle.
Only Quentin Tarantino could tackle one of the touchiest subjects in American history — slavery — and emerge with a delirious, delicious fantasy of ultra-violent vengeance so satisfying it feels like it was 147 years in the making. “Django” has all the rich
dialogue, indelible characters, striking action set pieces and perfectly chosen performers (Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson and Kerry Washington among them) you expect from Tarantino. Most of all, it has soul.
An elderly couple spend their final months together inside their Parisian apartment, and we’re with them every step of the way in Michael Haneke’s tender yet unsparing examination of universal themes: life, death and love. Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trignant don’t just play the couple, they become them in performances so lived-in they’re practically invisible. Not exactly the most entertaining movie of 2012, “Amour” has to settle for being the wisest. And easiest to adorn with that most contentious of terms: “masterpiece.”
While “Amour” discreetly offers the wisdom of old age, “Beasts” bursts off the screen with a youthful energy and enthusiasm that’s impossible to contain. As crafted by twentysomething first-time director Benh Zeitlin and starring six-year-old phenom Quvenzhan� Wallis, this Sundance prize-winning indie is an intimate epic that explores the world through the eyes of a young girl living in an isolated bayou community. What she sees is often unfamiliar, sometimes unbelievable, but always compelling. The film’s heart lies in the relationship between Hushpuppy and her ailing father (Dwight Henry), a bond so real you’ll forget there’s any acting involved.