Sam's Top Ten Films of 2012
Best Films of 2012
10. Skyfall

Coming off a disappointing installment of the James Bond series, Skyfall made everything right in the secret-agent world of Daniel Craig's Bond. Director Sam Mendes shattered any illusions that he couldn't handle large action sequences without throwing away his aesthetic gifts. Skyfall was one of the most beautiful looking Bond movies I've ever seen and the story did not make that beauty for naught. Choosing to focus on the relationship between Bond and Judi Dench's M instead of wallowing around in bed with another Bond girl was a stroke of genius since it gave Dench a proper swan song while also wringing every last drop out of the veteran. What sealed the deal with Skyfall was Javier Bardem's turn as an appropriately campy villain, Silva. With a twisted backstory and a flair for appropriately convoluted plans, Bardem's take on Bond villainy will be held has one of the best in the series' history.

9. Silver Linings Playbook

Maybe the most pleasant surprise on my list was that Silver Linings Playbook was not worthy of all the eye-rolling I did while seeing the trailer in theaters. First, I was dubious of Bradley Cooper stepping outside his comfort zone of playing an unlikeable schmuck. Second, the trailer seemed to suppose that simply the power of dance could heal the hearts and minds of the film's two troubled souls. Much of the criticism of Silver Linings Playbook is just that. I'd argue that the film goes out of its way to show that Cooper's Pat and Sarah Lawrence's Tiffany are not in the clear or "cured". The film suggests that things can get better for people struggling and director David O. Russell's suggestion that finding a routine, someone to trust and a regiment of doctor prescribed drugs MIGHT actually make things better. The two leads share surprising chemistry, but the film's surprise performance came from Robert DeNiro as Pat's OCD father. Yes, Silver Linings Playbook falls into most of the trappings of a romantic comedy and sports movie, but that it convinced me to care and not to scoff makes it worthy of recognition.

8. The Avengers

The Avengers is the only superhero movie to make my list in a year that gave us Spider-Man and the conclusion to Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy. What separates Avengers from the pack is its sheer re-watch value. Joss Whedon's writing is always the standout in his work (more than his direction) and his grasp of these characters was clear. He also had the difficult task of giving a star-studded cast time to shine as individuals as well as a team. He proved mostly successful in this, though he certainly favored the strongest players (Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man). While some of The Avengers team felt a bit thin (Captain America, Hawkeye) the film moved at a brisk pace and the action and quips felt proportional. Whedon's greatest victory may have been finding a place for The Hulk, who has proved to be the problem child among the Marvel film properties. Whedon's choice to sprinkle the green masher in select parts of the film paid off in a major way, having Mark Ruffalo come out looking like the only person who could work a scene like Downey Jr. Not averse to some fun, unlike the darker The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers will likely be the film I'll be happier to revisit on a sleepy day that needs to be brightened with some comic book fun.

7. Lincoln

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln had quite the mountain to climb. First, he had to do our most revered President justice in just a couple of hours; second, he had to make arguing over legislation sound interesting to mainstream audiences. Tony Kushner's screenplay kept Lincoln moving, while providing suspense even though we all know how things will turn out. Its easy to underestimate how important creating some suspense was in this film, otherwise it would feel like a totally empty cinematic exercise. Luckily, Spielberg had an absolutely stellar cast that went beyond the reliably remarkable Daniel Day Lewis in the title role. Sally Field gave what is surely her best performance in years, and managed to not spoil scenes by trying to go too far off the deep end as Mary Todd Lincoln. Tommy Lee Jones was inspiring as Thaddeus Stevens and often stole his scenes and was certainly framed as the film's secondary hero. I'm often quick to criticize Spielberg for a thick layer of schmaltz and daddy issues that populate his films, but in Lincoln he gave me no opportunity and I couldn't be happier.

6. Django Unchained

Keeping up his current bender of revenge fantasy flicks with a sprinkle of historical revisionism, Quentin Tarantino took a big chance with Django Unchained. Deciding to take on race and sprinkling the N-word throughout a film is a recipe for making audiences uncomfortable, and Django definitely accomplished that. But it was to great affect, because how else should we feel about scenes showing Mandingo fighting or brutal torture of slaves? It's certainly hard to feel good in this film and that's just what he wants. In addition to the squirming there is some feeling of victory left for audiences to enjoy. Jamie Foxx carried the titular hero with appropriate swagger. Though the film's star turned out to be Christoph Waltz's German bounty hunter named King Schultz. Tarantino's combination of Blaxploitation and Spaghetti Western worked for a propulsive action film, but it's folk-tale elements brought it to another level. This film rightfully has been compared to Inglourious Basterds, yet the key difference is that Django is about the singular hero who overcomes adversity. While Basterds was about the team, Django was about the man and the lengths he'll go to save his beloved Broomhilda. While Waltz won the day, Foxx exceeded my expectations and Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson gave worthy performances as some of Tarantino's most stomach-churning villains. Django Unchained delivers the sly-lines and fountains of blood that a Tarantino film often promises, but it went beyond that with a disturbing portrait of slavery.

5. Holy Motors

Leos Carax's Holy Motors is one of the most difficult to describe films not only because of it's unconventional story, but because experiencing the film is more about visceral feelings than any narrative. Denis Lavant gives easily the year's most impressive performance as a man who is shuttled between different films and characters he has to inhabit (he plays 11 very different people throughout the film). Its difficult to pinpoint what Carax was going for, if he was even "going for" anything at all outside of a magical experience at the movies. In fact, the film may be just that - the magic of movies. Lavant's portrayal of these different characters - which range from the comic to the tragic, realist to the absurd - is a reminder about how we view actors in a movie, how we give ourselves up to the story and forget that we're watching someone playing pretend. Holy Motors also plays simply as enjoyable vignettes, ranging from family drama to family tragedy. Holy Motors is the now rare film that demands discussion, and even if there's no conclusion to what everything is supposed to mean, it serves as a great reminder that film at its best prompts discussion about our lives as people and filmgoers.

4. Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow has seemed to claim the spot as go-to director for great films about the United States' involvement in the Middle East. Following up the fantastic The Hurt Locker with Zero Dark Thirty, she is well on her way to another Oscar nomination. This time she had the challenge of dealing with a real event, one that is so widely known; yet the details are a mystery to most of the public. While, like Lincoln, everyone going in knows the resolution to the film, there was sill a great mystery of how we got to that point. How did we know where Osama Bin Laden was hiding, and how did we execute the mission to kill the world's most wanted terrorist? Bigelow manages to make a film that spans almost a decade actually feel the weight of all the time and work it took to put the pieces together. Jessica Chastain leads the cast as Maya, an intelligence officer who tirelessly follows a lead she believes will get to Bin Laden. She is the embodiment of the film itself - relentless, smart, and hard working. The film's greatest achievement is setting the pieces in motion early on so that there is a sense of building pressure throughout the film. The mounting number of terrorist attacks raises the stakes, as well as the suspense. Chastain is surrounded by a number of excellent supporting cast members like Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle. The final raid scene provided the year's most suspenseful scene, as the Navy SEALS quietly infiltrate Bin Laden's compound. The sequence lasts for maybe a half hour and is almost completely devoid of any dialogue, and when they catch their man (Spoiler!) there's an amazing sense of release, which Chastain encapsulates in the closing moments of the film.

3. Amour

Mark Kermode called Michael Haneke "The master of the cinema of unease" and that title still holds up with his latest work, Amour. While there is often something sinister lying in the weeds of his films, they are usually of an uncommon nature - parents in a suicide pact, an underlying evil in a small village, a pair of young men dressed in all white. What makes the sinister nature of Amour immensely unnerving is that the sinister nature is just that - nature. To be more precise it's the impending specter of death that often leaves people in an ugly, shaming state. However, as the title implies, the film makes a point of showing how love comes into play even in the sad last days of someone's life. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Georges, an elderly man taking care of his ailing wife played by Emmanuelle Riva. Both of their performances are heartbreaking for different reasons. Riva's Anne is breaking down and death always seems just around the corner. Georges is left to take care of the love of his wife, even though she doesn't want to live anymore. Haneke planted a seed in the pit of my stomach with Amour. This film is something that sticks with you and grows long after watching the events unfold. To say the least, there is little dignity to be had in the last days of Anne. What makes this film fall in line with Haneke's other work, is that that there is a sense of inevitability. Of course we all die, and Amour is a reminder that we often don't drift peacefully to sleep like people in the movies. Often, we struggle as our loved ones try to come to terms with seeing someone they've known for so long turn into a shell.

2. The Master

The release of any new film from Paul Thomas Anderson is almost like a holiday at this point, as the director continues to produce excellent work. The Master is no exception as Anderson tackles the complex relationship between a damaged young man named Freddie Quell (played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (played by an equally-brilliant Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a man who claims to be able to tap into people's pasts to help cure them of ailments in the present. Yes, the film is clearly referencing L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, but the film is more about the power dynamic between two men. After all the film is called The Master and not "The Cause" (the name of the teachings of Dodd). This powerful struggle between these two men with such pent up energy makes for some of the year's most captivating moments. Notably, the first time Quell is "processed" is both disturbing and intimate; it's a moment that defines the film's best quality - the bond between Dodd and Quell. In addition to the great performances, Anderson shot the film in 65 MM which people often felt was misused due to the fact that the film often lingers in close-up and the 65 mm would work to greater effect with more expansive shots, it was still a uniquely beautiful movie, even if it was spent staring at Phoenix's snarl. The central struggle between someone looking for answers and someone willing to make the answers up, may have been a simple conceit, but Anderson fleshed it out into a beautiful and challenging film.

1. Beasts of the Southern Wild

This year more than most, the top five films on my list can end up in any order given how I'm feeling on any particular day. For a long time I had The Master topping the list until I decided to be really, brutally honest with myself. When choosing which to top my list, I asked myself if I'd be more upset in a world without The Master or a world without Beasts of the Southern Wild, a modern fairytale co-written, directed, and scored by Benh Zeitlin. When I was being honest, Beasts was the movie that moved me the most, given its beauty, strong performances from unknown actors and flair for the surreal. The beauty in films like The Master and Zero Dark Thirty was absolutely delightful, but Beasts of the Southern Wild had the only images that moved me. Often Zeitlin would capture moments that came right out of a dream.

Beasts is the story of Hushpuppy, a six-year-old girl who lives with just her father in an imaginary village called The Bathtub. It looks like something out of a Louisiana fantasy space. Hushpuppy battles with missing her mother, her father's control and heart problems and a biblical oncoming storm. This film isn't particularly narrative-driven, it's more like a road movie, where the stops are more important than the destination. Yes, that's a bit of cliché, but with this film, it's the truth. Zeitlin invites us into this world and its hard to leave. Whether she's running through the grass celebrating another day in The Bathtub or dancing quietly with a woman she believes to be her long lost mother or battling her father who just wants the best for her or facing off against giant mythical beasts who've been charging throughout the film, headed straight for Hushpuppy.

Quvenzhane Wallis gives the type of performance as Hushpuppy that should earn her an Oscar win, yes a win. A nomination should be coming and I promise she's the most deserving. Dwight Henry, another first-time actor, plays Wink, Hushpuppy's father. Henry and Wallis have such fantastic chemistry and familiarity on screen they feel like father and daughter. Every heart-wrenching scene between the two feels earned and the struggles feel painful enough that the small victories feel huge. That Zeitlin's film feels suspended in fantasy is a great achievement and something that will make it hold up for year's to come. I'd agree with Hushpuppy when she says, "In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know: Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub."

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