Somewhere along the line, the number “10” landed itself a really great publicist, with lists of the best and worst of anything locked into groupings that should make us pity that poor 11th-best anything. Then again, who’s enforcing this arbitrary foolishness? Come get me if you want, Number Police, but 10-and-only-10 titles when recognizing the year’s top films was too limiting. Here, instead, are my eight favorites of 2012, with an addendum not of “honorable mentions,” but titles that might not be “prestige-y” enough for a lot of awards-givers drowning in serious-minded year-end fare.
8. Room 237
Rodney Ascher’s documentary takes a look at the crazy interpretive theories that have surrounded director Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining. Interview subjects explained the story as Holocaust allegory, or as Kubrick’s secret signal that he helped film the faked moon landing, etc. The result is a hilariously insightful, surprisingly entertaining look at the way extra-textuality inevitably sneaks into arts criticism, and how you can almost always find what you’re looking for if you keep staring long enough.
7. Moonrise Kingdom
Some folks look at Wes Anderson’s comedic world and see only fussily constructed dioramas. But his latest charmer — about a pair of outcast 12-year-old lovebirds on the run — once again proves satisfying both as superficial entertainment and as a perceptive character study. The deadpan one-liners provide the sweetener that allow Anderson and his wonderful cast to tell a story about how adolescents express their understanding of the adult world, and attempt to alternately replicate it and reject it.
6. The Kid With a Bike
Belgium’s Dardennes brothers are contemporary cinema’s masters of delving into moral consequences in a manner so unadorned that you forget you’re learning something. Here they follow a feral young boy named Cyril (remarkable young Thomas Doret) as he struggles with the reality that he’s been abandoned to a boys’ home by his single-parent father. It’s a coming-of-age tale never tainted with sentimentality, observing a child who should be a lost cause as he tries to carve out his own sense of right and wrong, separate from the irresponsible choices that shaped him.
5. The Cabin in the Woods
I’m still going to assume that the premise is unfamiliar to some people, and refrain from anything even vaguely resembling a spoiler about Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s brilliantly imaginative horror-comedy mashup that turns our collective, cathartic experience of being scared in the dark into something that’s actually … holy.
4. It’s Such a Beautiful Day
I refuse to haggle over the technicalities of whether this should be “allowable” because two of the three shorts collected into a feature by animator Don Hertzfeldt debuted in earlier years. Combined, Hertzfeldt’s story of protagonist Bill’s average life (complicated by not-so-average problems with a neurological disorder) becomes an all-time great epic. Just because the characters are stick figures doesn’t mean it can’t say something profound about the human confrontation with fragile mortality.
3. Holy Motors
Plenty of viewers threw up their hands in surrender at Leos Carax’s perplexing film in which an unusual man (Denis Levant) rides through Paris taking on a variety of roles. But step away from the unconventional narrative for a moment, and you’ll find a frisky celebration of the pure art of creation, and the ability of art to move us and surprise us in ways we just never saw coming.
2. The Master
The distracting focus on Scientology may have prevented some viewers from seeing something considerably more universal in the story of Joaquin Phoenix’s emotionally scarred World War II veteran and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s author-turned-guru. Those two towering performances anchored what was essentially a dysfunctional relationship drama — the powerful portrait of how a man might desperately need to follow something, and how another man might desperately need to have a follower.
1. The Deep Blue Sea
Terence Davies’ simple, heartbreaking adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s play captures the folly of infatuation with clear-eyed understanding. In post-WWII England, the young wife (Rachel Weisz) of an older judge (the sublimely perfect Simon Russell Beale) gets caught up in an affair with a charismatic war veteran (Tom Hiddleston), but the consequences are more complicated than she anticipates. The pitch-perfect performances are only part of Davies’ heartbreaking tangle of love, lust, respect, friendship — and what combination of the above we have any reason to expect from our romantic partners.
And for your additional consideration
Looper. Rian Johnson’s science-fiction story of time-traveling assassins was smart, witty, and unexpectedly thoughtful about what it really means to learn from your mistakes.
Haywire. All the way back in January, Steven Soderbergh delivered this terrific, stripped-down thriller that kicked the action ass of plenty of high-profile franchises that came later.
The Grey. Hell no, it wasn’t just Punches With Wolves, as the Liam Neeson survival yarn offered both tense set pieces and a stark meditation on how we face death.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Steve Carell and Keira Knightley become improbable pre-apocalypse travelling companions in a wise, funny, atypical romantic comedy.
The Raid: Redemption. The tale of cops storming a criminal-controlled high-rise apartment building is kind of indefensible as anything but martial-arts porn — but it’s soooo good at it.
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