The 10 Best Goddamn Movies of 2012
There were 655 films released in 2012. The lowest-grossing one was The Ghastly Love of Johnny X, starring Creed from “The Office,” and the highest-grossing one was The Avengers, starring a lot of really cool people. Neither one of those films made our top ten list, nor did 643 others, but when you whittle that number of films down to only the ten best, there’s bound to be disagreement. It’s unavoidable, and while we did compile a list of the Most Rewatchable Films of 2012 to better reflect favorites over the best, some movies still missed the cut. A lot, in fact. Movies like Bernie and Sound of My Voice, popular choices like The Master, personal choices like Your Sister’s Sister, and huge grossing choices like The Dark Knight Rises.
If what you consider to be the best is not among our top ten, it’s likely on one of the Individual Critics’ Lists, where you can seek out that Pajiba staffer with whom you may most identify. If it’s in neither list, maybe rethink your tastes in film (I KID).
But this is our top 10 list. There are many lists like it, but this one is ours.
10. Ruby Sparks — Writer/actress Zoe Kazan and co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have created something quite remarkable with Ruby Sparks. They’ve developed a fully realized examination of the desperation and pathos and neuroses that come with relationships, yet also a sweet, charming tale of love and loss and growing up. While the film’s characters are frequently the familiar wacky, irony-laden archetypes commonly found in independent romcoms, it’s done with purpose here and the actors all inject a sense of urgent realism into their roles that separates them from their contemporaries. Ruby Sparks is so much smarter than it looks from the surface. It’s not the conventional tale one suspects, and it’s as much a critical shot at the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and inherent authorial laziness of the creation as it is a clever and charming love story — that has some deep, treacherous pitfalls along the way. As adorable as it is scathing, the film creates an immersive, enjoyable experience that successfully blends reality and fantasy while laying bare the risks of confusing the two. — TK
9. Silver Linings Playbook — Our delusions run deep, often right down the core of our being, and love causes us to fall into lunacies we can’t even imagine. We find ourselves doing deranged things out of a misplaced sense of love or devotion, and drifting into a fugue state of rationalizing poor decisions made for seemingly great reasons. Silver Linings Playbook carefully walks the line between reminding us of our own relentless obsessions and distancing us enough from the action to see the crazy that is ever so evident before us. A character drama for people who can handle being spoken to as adults, with a hefty dose of honesty. There’s warmth, laughter, community and joy to be found here amidst the ruins. When we have nothing left to lose we find ourselves at our most authentic, and emerge from these moments of alchemy wiser, changed. — Amanda Mae Meyncke
8. Safety Not Guaranteed — Safety Not Guaranteed isn’t what you’d expect it to be. It’s a bittersweet comedy that flirts with time travel, but it’s not straight science-fiction or rom-com. It resolutely refuses to tie up a couple of its plot lines, yet the story is still satisfying and full. Most rewardingly, it’s a dramatic comedy built on relationships that feel earned, nuanced, occasionally uncomfortable, and completely relatable. Director Colin Trevorrow, in his first feature, mines a series of relationships for small-scale humor and poignancy, and the script from Derek Connolly (also his first feature) has some wonderful moments that reflect the awkwardness of young adulthood and the way we all eventually have to reckon with the choices that we make. The film is light and often breezy, but it’s anything but insubstantial. — Daniel Carlson
7. Looper — It can be tempting to write off Rian Johnson as a writer-director who just likes mashing things up. His feature films — Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and now Looper — have shown remarkable skill at marrying two seemingly incongruous worlds and making them feel totally at home nested within each other. Brick wasn’t just a high school drama masquerading as mystery, or vice versa; it was both at once. Yet he’s able to pull this off because, as much as he loves mingling disparate genres, the mingling is never the point. He’s more than just a gimmick. Johnson is profoundly interested in character and consequence, like good storytellers in every genre, and he’s specifically drawn again and again to tales of people who buy and sell bullshit and whose biggest liability is believing their own hype. Joseph Gordon-Levitt anchored Brick as Brendan, a high schooler on the trail of a missing ex who twisted the truth as much as the people he was chasing, so it feels right for Gordon-Levitt to return for Looper, playing a man whose hunt for truth puts his own existence in jeopardy. Looper is many things — a gripping action movie, an smart sci-fi story, a heartbreaking time-travel lullaby — but most of all it’s about a man watching himself go through a process most of us take for granted: he has to decide what he wants to believe, about the world and about himself, and then live with the consequences. — Daniel Carlson
6. Lincoln — Lincoln is powerful yet intimate, the kind of brutal, yearning look at mankind’s dueling desire to love and conquer our neighbors that’s Spielberg’s specialty. It’s frank about the ugly ways of human nature, political and otherwise, but it’s equally tender about the people that make up that world, and about the relationships that keep them in it. As with Spielberg’s other films about our uncomfortable history, he’s able to show how what once passed as victories can feel like something less when we look back. — Daniel Carlson
5. Django Unchained — Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained works on two levels. The surface level is that of a simple revenge flick, of the wronged taking up arms in a mission of retribution. From that point of view, it’s a movie that has been made a hundred times, usually with Clint Eastwood squinting into the sun as he quick draws. The movie works well in that genre. Played straight, it stands with the best of Western vengeance tales, spiced with Tarantino trademarks of ultraviolence, perfect music, and darkly humorous asides. But the fact that this particular version of the Man with No Name is a former slave cannot be overlooked. The implications of that, and the focus of the story on slavery itself, construct the film’s second level and elevate it from effective genre film into something more. — Steven Lloyd Wilson
4. Moonrise Kingdom — There’s almost nothing in Wes Anderson’s latest film, Moonrise Kingdom, that isn’t in his earlier ones, and that’s not a bad thing. The movie is packed with whimsical details of a world not quite like ours; it’s immaculately framed and shot by Robert D. Yeoman, who’s worked on every one of Anderson’s films; it’s laced with dry wit, oddly hilarious turns of phrase, and awkward boys and girls trying to figure out how to escape becoming their parents. Maps are drawn. Records are played. You get the idea. Anderson is a writer and director who knows what he wants to do, and how he wants to do it, and he’s spent most of the past two decades working toward a state of creative focus and grace that make themselves known in every frame of his most recent film. He’s moved through the cockiness of youth and into a calmer, more measured approach without sacrificing any of the stylistic flair that defines him. In other words, for all his love of dysfunctional children, he’s grown up. — Daniel Carlson
3. Beasts of the Southern Wild — Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild is that rare thing — a first film so immediately great and original that you are thrilled to have made its acquaintance. You feel like firm friends by the end of it, and wish there were something more you could do than clap. Bow? Perhaps I should have bowed in front of the film. I loved it. There is so much more to say about the film — what a perfectly realised, wonderfully imagined entity it is, how it feels fresh and exciting in every shot, how its plot and its metaphorical, allusive style of storytelling are perfectly matched. But I think I’ll stop gushing and end with a plea for everyone who loves films to go and see this delightful, vibrant movie. — Caspar Salmon
2. Argo — Argo is a movie that will happily please a wide swath of the population, captivating and realistic, moving and intricate, broad and simple enough, and tinged with the thrill of reality. Whenever you base something on a true story you run the risk of failing to include some important detail, some small matter, but Argo feels wonderfully full, complete with the details and tension that elevate a great script and premise into something more — a fantastic film. So rarely do we see movies that remind us of how much we really enjoy movies. Movies so holistic and carefully rendered from beginning to end, with a story that intrigues, performances that are mesmerizing and details that have been considered and chosen with care, and in that respect, Argo is a particular sort of gift. — Amanda Mae Meyncke
1. Zero Dark Thirty — What Zero Dark Thirty does so brilliantly — and this is a brilliant film in so many ways, big and small — is to show how empty such promises can be. No story ever ends, not really, and real life certainly doesn’t offer the kind of closure we crave. Osama bin Laden in a body bag isn’t the end, not for the men who killed him or the country that hunted him down. It’s not even a big moment when it finally happens. It’s codewords on the radio and a long trip home; it’s research and hard drives and looking for whatever’s next; it’s sitting alone and crying because you spent 12 years doing something that defined you, and now it’s over, and all you can think about are the awful things you did to get here and how you can’t imagine what you’ve become. It’s circles so big you can’t see the other side. Catharsis isn’t winning, it’s just knowing you survived. — Daniel Carlson