For me, 2012 was the year of the BUT. (That’s one t, people. One t.)
I loved Zero Dark Thirty BUT was uncomfortable with its seemingly pro-torture politics.
I found Django Unchained to be audacious and bold entertainment BUT could’ve lived without the final bloodbath (and the profligate use of the “N-word.”)
Silver Linings Playbook was utterly charming BUT wished it had been a bit more rigorous in its depiction of mental illness.
The Impossible took hold of me and never let go, BUT I wished it hadn’t reduced the devastating tsunami of 2004 to one white family’s struggle for survival.
Argo was quite possibly the smartest film of the year, BUT the director (Ben Affleck) might've used a better lead (Ben Affleck).
Caveats aside, it was a great year at the movies. Here are my faves.
1. MOONRISE KINGDOM: Precocious 12 year olds in love and on the run from clueless, self-absorbed adults. On a simple level, Moonrise Kingdom is a classic love story about two perfectly matched young people waiting for the world to catch up. But it’s also, as all of Wes Anderson’s films are to some extent, about memory and childhood itself. Funny, deliciously weird, obsessively detailed, and magical without being preciously so, I was officially transported.
2. ARGO: The story—CIA "exfiltration" expert poses as a Hollywood bigshot to get trapped Americans out of Iran—sounded divinely cinematic. But only a director of Ben Affleck's confidence and swagger (yes, I just wrote that) could pull it off with such panache, making it both a heartstopping suspense film/political drama and a hilarious sendup of Hollywood egos.
3. DJANGO UNCHAINED: The second, after Inglourious Basterds, in Quentin Tarantino's "What if history was AWESOME?" series, about a freed black slave (Jamie Foxx) exacting revenge on white slave owners, is a cinematic tour de force the likes of which only Tarantino could achieve: Hilarious, righteous, verbally dazzling, profane, hyperviolent—and unforgettable.
4. AMOUR: Michael Haneke is known for films that seem to hold humanity at arm's length—and sometimes even in contempt. That was why this film, about an 80ish man caring for his dying wife, was such a revelation. While still exhibiting Haneke's disclipline and lack of sentimentality, it also had moments of almost unbearable tenderness. The two leads (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) create an indelible portrait of a couple clinging to any semblance of dignity and normalcy as one drifts farther and farther away.
5. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD: It was the year of female heroines for sure—I dug both the matter-of-factly fearless leads in The Hunger Games and Brave and couldn't get enough of the future fashion mogul (just a guess) Suzy in Moonrise Kingdom—but the most memorable heroine of all was the pint-sized Hushpuppy (astonishing Quvenzhané Wallis) in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Talking to birds, smashing crabs, flexing her muscles, and doing whatever it took to survive in the rugged Louisiana "Bathtub," Hushpuppy is a heroine for the ages. (Don't be surprised if a lot of little girls born in 2012 are nicknamed "Hushpuppy.")
6. HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE: The title is apt, because it's almost a manual for how to take on the authorities (an indifferent Senate, a greedy pharmaceutical industry) and emerge victorious. This documentary, about the amazing mission of AIDS activist group ACT UP and its righteously pissed off and galvanized army of mostly gay young men, is seriously inspirational. And the film's final moments—the now 40 and 50ish ACT UP leaders, who saved themselves and so many others along the way, staring at the camera in tears—is the single most moving image I saw on a screen all year. (On a personal note: RIP Spencer Cox. I miss the hell out of you already, pal.)
7. SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK: David O Russell singlehandedly proved that the rom-com genre has legs, as long as you make it smart, make it about real ideas, make it funny, and give us non-cardboard-cutout characters we truly care about.
8. BERNIE: If you didn't see this indie gem, from the brilliant Richard Linklater, you're missing one of the best performances of the year—by Jack Black, no less. He plays a funeral director/bon vivant/man about town in a small Texas town who is so beloved, the townsfolk don't even mind when he commits a little cold-blooded murder. And yes, it's based on a true story.
9. LINCOLN: This film couldn't have come at a better time: The Congress in Spielberg's political drama is hardly idealized. In order to pass the 13th amendment (the abolishment of slavery), deals had to be cut, ad hominem attacks were routine, and even threats made—but they got things done. At the center of all this is Daniel Day Lewis's Lincoln—sometimes stooped and weary, as though the weight of history was almost too much for him to bear; sometimes mischievous and avuncular; but never less than brilliant, stalwart, incorruptible—who felt both the great burden and privilege of his place in history.
10. ZERO DARK THIRTY: Yes, I think it comes uncomfortably close to endorsing torture. And I'm even morally dubious about the way the whole thing is set up as a giant revenge pic. (The film starts with haunting real 911 calls from the burning World Trade Center.) But putting aside its politics, Kathryn Bigelow's film is a riveting look at the inner workings of the CIA, as a dedicated young agent (Jessica Chastain) becomes obsessed with tracking down Osama bin Laden. The torture scenes are, indeed, hard to watch (as they should be) and the ultimate takedown of Bin Laden plays like a master class in action filmmaking.
Runners Up: The Avengers, Chronicle, The Impossible, Looper, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Premium Rush, The Queen of Versailles, Ruby Sparks, The Sessions, Take This Waltz.