The Ten Best Movies of 2012

William Bibbiani presents his picks for the most unforgettable motion picture experiences of the year.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

We need to stop and catch our breath, don’t we? 2012 was an incredible year for cinema, with independents and studios alike outdoing themselves on a seemingly regular basis. There were, quite simply, too many exemplary motion pictures to put on the usual, arbitrary Top Ten list, but such is the task at hand. To weed out the best of the absolute best, and focus our attentions on the most unforgettable motion pictures of the year.

I saw hundreds of motion pictures in 2012, and my short list for “best of the year” was obscenely long and varied. I had to kill some darlings to get to this point, and cutting wonderful films like Chronicle (which reinvented the power fantasy for a new generation) and Wuthering Heights (as emotionally harrowing an experience you’re ever likely to find) hurt me in ways I can’t adequately explain in words. But what follows are the motion pictures that stuck with me, inspired me, and affirmed in their own, distinctively different ways the enduring power of the cinematic medium. They’re fun, they’re meaningful and they represent the efforts of filmmakers working at the heights of their powers, and they amount to – in my eyes – The Ten Best Movies of 2012.

The Kid with a Bike (dirs. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)

If you’re anything like me, you hate children. Hate them. And if you’re anything like me, this heart-wrenching film from Belgium’s Dardenne Bros. will have the power to make you rethink that opinion. The Kid with a Bike captures the daily pain of childhood in an honest, tangible way, through the eyes of a young protagonist (Thomas Doret) whose strength is outmatched by his inherent powerlessness. Cécile de France gives one of the year’s best performances as a hairdresser who takes in the troubled foster child who can’t accept his father’s abandonment, and seeks validation from everyone but the one person who actually cares.

Premium Rush (dir. David Koepp)

Relatively meaningless? Yup, that’s Premium Rush, but it’s also the best example of energetic balls-to-the-wall entertainment we had in 2012. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a daredevil New York City bike messenger on the run from a corrupt police officer, played with spectacular scenery-chewing bravado by Michael Shannon. Writer/director David Koepp keeps the story breezy and the action barreling forward with nearly unthinkable momentum. An absolutely cheer-inducing time at the movies.

The Cabin in the Woods (dir. Drew Goddard)

The Cabin in the Woods works on so many levels that the most impressive parts probably aren’t even apparent on the first viewing. So it’s a pretty good thing that it’s so much fun you’ll want to watch it over and over again. Drew Goddard directs and co-wrote the screenplay (with Joss Whedon) for this genre-bending horror film about a group of college kids who visit a cabin in the woods over the weekend and accidentally unleash a zombie redneck torture family that kills them off one by one. It’s also a film about a pair of blue-collar puppet masters controlling all the events from a safe distance, like a pair of experienced filmmakers going through the motions in an effort to appeal to an audience who thrives, for very specific reasons, on clichés. It’s also about the condescension of age, the horrors of faith, and the disturbing importance of sacrifice. The Cabin in the Woods is one of the most complex and satisfying films in years.

Django Unchained (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Quentin Tarantino’s latest bout of historical revisionism uses exploitation filmmaking to illustrate the most exploitative era in American history. Although the lead character, Django (Jamie Foxx), is a freed slave who exacts vengeance on his white oppressors, the catharsis never quite outweighs the seemingly unconquerable and frighteningly real racism depicted, whether it’s treated as comical or deadly serious, or seriously deadly. Django Unchained is a perfect example of why we make movies: to magnify humanity, for better and worse, and entertain at the same time. Django Unchained works on every level.

Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg)

Steven Spielberg could have taken the easy route with his Abraham Lincoln biopic, but instead of sweeping vistas and overwhelming Civil War battle sequences, he decided to illuminate the most unexpectedly dramatic aspect of the 16th President’s career: getting a diametrically opposed two-party system to agree on something, even when that something that should be a no-brainer: abolishing slavery. Tony Kushner’s screenplay delves into Lincoln’s political machinations, including the uncomfortably murky ethics involved, in a manner that keeps Lincoln thrilling despite the fact that, yes, it’s mostly just people talking in rooms about politics. Spielberg bookends his film, which features incredible performances across the board, with two of the most maudlin scenes of his cinematic career, but they only make his point clearer: in between the historical landmarks we all know, there was something deeper, more complex, and ultimately more important.

Red Hook Summer (dir. Spike Lee)

Spike Lee’s outwardly sentimental journey into the impoverished New York community of Red Hook appears, on the surface, to be a simple, emotional parable about the importance of community, family and religion to inspire the young and old alike. And then, quite suddenly and without warning… it’s about something else altogether. Red Hook Summer plays like an earnest church play gone horribly wrong, and features what may be the best performance of the year from Clarke Peters, who as Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse navigates the faith of his followers, the apathy of his grandson, and an unexpected storyline that forces the audience to reevaluate this character and the very function of religion itself. It’s one of Spike Lee’s very best films.

Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson)

In some ways, Moonrise Kingdom is just like any other Wes Anderson film: great, to be certain, but also a familiar pastiche of obsessive-compulsive characters, detailed art direction and a sense of humor that may now be the dictionary definition of “quirky.” But you have to marvel at the emotional purity of his latest film, about two youngsters who run away from home, upsetting the fragile status quo of their tiny island community and calling into question the self-absorbed lifestyle of every memorable, lovable character Anderson has introduced into this world. Moonrise Kingdom is heartfelt, honest and highly enjoyable filmmaking from an artist working at the height of his ability, and seems destined to go down as one of Anderson’s greatest achievements.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin)

The “you are there” realism of Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature, about a young girl named “Hushpuppy” (Quvenzhané Wallis) being raised in an isolated Louisiana community by her earthy father Wink (Dwight Henry), carries the dramatic weight of an Italian Neo-Realist classic, but that is not, in any way, shape or form, what Beasts of the Souther Wild really is. As the film progresses, and Hushpuppy’s efforts to connect with Wink crush the polar ice caps, flood the community and unleash ancient beasts into the devastation, you realize that you’re watching a story of childhood from the overwhelmingly powerful point of view of a real child. Everything is about her, everything is of enormous consequence, and everything makes sense in only the most fantastical of ways. Only the details that nearly escape Hushpuppy’s attention reveal the real grit and reality behind her story. When you watch Beasts of the Southern Wild, you think like an adult but feel like a child. It’s an amazingly unique experience.

The Avengers (dir. Joss Whedon) & 

The Dark Knight Rises (dir. Christopher Nolan)

2012 was a remarkable year for the superhero genre, as two of the best films came from completely oppositional ideas about what superhero storytelling can achieve. Christopher Nolan concluded his vaunted Dark Knight trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises, a film of profound thematic scope that called into question the very need for power fantasies whilst simultaneously giving Batman his greatest uphill ordeal to date. Only a few months prior, Joss Whedon gave the genre an entirely different shot in the arm with The Avengers, an ensemble dramedy about characters representing vastly different heroic ideals who team up, ostensibly to fight a villain, but more importantly to find common ground amongst themselves. In both films the nature of heroism is tested, but The Avengers focused its efforts on pure popcorn thrills while The Dark Knight Rises was after something significantly loftier. Both films succeeded on the same level – near perfection – despite their wildly different goals, and raised the bar for years to come.

Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)

The greatest film of 2012 did something so simple it almost seems revolutionary: it just told a story. That its story is a rich, complex and wildly important real-life tale of impossible odds makes the decision to film it in a matter-of-fact format feel all the more daring. Kathryn Bigelow’s picture about the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, through the eyes of a dogged but enigmatic CIA operative played with understatement and depth by Jessica Chastain, may just be the perfect procedural, presenting some genuinely troubling subject matter – like the torture of terror suspects by American agents – as just another day at the job, allowing (if not outright forcing) the audience to draw their own moral conclusions. Zero Dark Thirty does not pander, it just unfolds with steady, accelerating momentum until an incredible climax that slows the action down to real time just when any other movie would try to crescendo: an impeccably realistic depiction of the Navy SEAL raid that finally got the man who orchestrated 9/11. There is an emotional core to Zero Dark Thirty, but it invites you to bring your own anyway. The events are too important to do all the work for you. This film is a model of cinematic restraint, and nevertheless emerges as the most exciting and powerful work of an already impressive year at the movies.

Honroable Mentions:

Chronicle (dir. Josh Trank)

Cloud Atlas (dirs. Ton Tykwer & Wachowski Starship)

Cosmopolis (dir. David Cronenberg)

Damsels in Distress (dir. Whit Stillman)

The Grey (dir. Joe Carnahan)

Haywire (dir. Steven Soderbergh)

John Carter (dir. Andrew Stanton)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (dir. Stephen Chbosky)

Safe (dir. Boaz Yakin)

The Secret World of Arrietty (dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi)

Silver Linings Playbook (dir. David O. Russell)

Sinister (dir. Scott Derrickson)

Sound of Noise (dirs. Ola Simonsson & Johannes Stjarne Nilsson)

Step Up Revolution (dir. Scott Speer)

Wuthering Heights (dir. Andrea Arnold)

William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.