Top 10 Films of 2012 | Pete Timmermann

best2012 sqWell, 2012 was a good year for movies, but in an unusual way—more so than any other of the past 15 or so years, I feel like nearly everything I’ve seen this year has been at least pretty good.

 

2012 notfade

Sometimes in these intros to my top ten films lists, I’ll say that it’s been a good year for movies. Usually when I say that, I mean that it was a year where there were multiple movies released that I wouldn’t hesitate to call masterpieces, and that seem like likely candidates to stand the test of time and/or to revolutionize the film industry. (The years 1994, 1999, and 2007 come immediately to mind on this front.) Well, 2012 was a good year for movies, but in an unusual way—more so than any other of the past 15 or so years, I feel like nearly everything I’ve seen this year has been at least pretty good. Very few stinkers in the bunch, a handful of great movies, and a whole, whole lot of good movies. In other words, a very fun year in the theaters, indeed.

It helps that we had a number of good film events here in St. Louis this year. I’ve said in multiple places already that the 2012 iteration of the St. Louis International Film Festival was the most reliably strong SLIFF I’ve ever personally attended, and immediately after, I had a great time at the Studio Ghibli series that ran at Plaza Frontenac in late November and early December. You might note here that numbers 3 and 6 on my list had their St. Louis premieres at this year’s SLIFF, and number 9 is a Studio Ghibli film (though not one that played in Frontenac’s series).

Historically I’ve been a stickler on these year-end lists for keeping to 10 titles, and for mixing fiction films and documentaries willy-nilly. This year for the first time I was very tempted to divvy the list up into two or three parts, as 2012 was a particularly good year for both animated features and documentaries. Going that route could have found a home for great movies that just missed the list, such as Wreck-It Ralph, Pirates! Band of Misfits, and Brave on the animation side, and Room 237, The Central Park Five, Searching for Sugar Man, and How to Survive a Plague on the documentary side. (You’ll note that numbers 3 and 9 on the final list here are animated, and numbers 2 and 6 are documentaries.)

Don’t take this list’s lack of titles common to other people’s lists (like Lincoln and Amour) to mean that I haven’t seen them; I have, and I like them too, but just not as much as I like these 10 below. The only year-end release I haven’t been able to catch up with yet, sadly, is also maybe the most talked about one: Zero Dark Thirty. Ask me in about two weeks if it would have made my list or not. And one final year-end release (and SLIFF premiere) that I enjoyed and just barely missed the list is Jacques Audiard’s Rust & Bone. That said, my initial paring down of films I’ve seen this year into a long list of likely candidates totaled 25 films, so when it comes down to it kind of a lot of films just missed being on my list.

The best films of 2012, in order of preference:

Beasts of the Southern Wild

This is one of those movies that reminds me both how much I like movies and how much I like being in the world. There’s a sense of wonder to Beasts that I always seem to be searching for in movies, but rarely find. One of my friends put it best, after the second time I saw the movie: Beasts of the Southern Wild feels like a live-action Hayao Miyazaki movie. Look into it; you’ll be surprised how well that comparison holds up. I just wish I’d been the one to think of it.

The Invisible War

The Invisible War annoyingly never got even one theatrical screening in St. Louis (it did in bigger cities), but it’s on DVD now and absolutely worth tracking down. Director Kirby Dick is one of our very best modern documentarians, and this is close to his best work. It’s an absolutely infuriating and emotionally devastating look at rape in the U.S. military, and the consequential, systemized lack of support (to say the least) for its victims. It’s damning and awful. This was the rare movie that not only made me cry, but made me cry so hard I was afraid I might vomit.

It’s Such a Beautiful Day

I went back and forth on if this film should even be eligible for this list—it’s basically a short film from 2006, another from 2008, and a last one from 2011, all featuring the same main character, and written, directed, animated, and narrated by Don Hertzfeldt (of “Rejected” fame), stacked end to end and released as a feature film this year for the first time. One good argument for inclusion is that I and pretty much every other film critic in the world is bad about not including short films on these year-end lists—in my (unpublished) Top Ten Films of the ’00s list, the first short here, 2006’s “Everything Will Be Ok,” came in at number two. For the decade. That is to say, in pieces these three short films are about the best thing you can hope to see in a movie theater under any circumstances. And if it takes sticking them together and releasing them as a feature film to get me and other film critics to remember that, well, I’m all for it.

The Master

Like a lot of the rest of the people who saw it, I didn’t entirely know what to make of the new Paul Thomas Anderson movie The Master on my first viewing. Anderson’s movies don’t tend to entirely reveal themselves on their first screenings, though, and the more I watch The Master, the more I like it. Even if I had only seen it once, at this point I’m sure it would make this list anyway, on the strength of the first processing scene and for Joaquin Phoenix’s fit of rage in the jailhouse alone.

Not Fade Away

Some movies I like because of the way they make me feel, and David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos (a show that I have yet to get into), made a strong entry in that category with Not Fade Away, a coming-of-age movie set in the ’60s and starring an up-and-coming musical group styled after the British invasion that have the talent, but not the motivation or cooperation, to make it big. This is one of those films I see myself being in the mood to watch at two in the morning as soon as I have it on home video and can watch it on a whim.

Beauty is Embarrassing

One of the real finds at SLIFF this year is this documentary about Wayne White, the multimedia artist who is probably best known for his work as one of the production designers on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. White is funny as hell and his art is fantastic, and as a result, Beauty is Embarrassing is one of the most outwardly enjoyable movies on this list.

Django Unchained

This is Quentin Tarantino’s homage to the spaghetti western genre, but in reality, I like Django Unchained more than I like just about any spaghetti western I can think of; the surface-level goofy (and maybe even inappropriate and/or offensive) choice to set it in the American South immediately prior to the Civil War, and making a freed slave its protagonist, actually gives Django depth lacking in most of the films that inspired it. And did I mention it’s the most thrilling movie of the year by a mile? It made me so anxious at some points that my arms started to feel fizzy. (I think I was clutching the armrest too hard.)

Moonrise Kingdom

While not my favorite Wes Anderson movie by a long shot (it’s not even in the top three on that list), in a lot of ways, Moonrise Kingdom feels both like the movie Anderson was born to make and a culmination of all that’s come before it. Its insular, artificial world, its sense of whimsy (here nicely in check, as opposed to some of Anderson’s lesser films), its obsessiveness with love (especially young love)—these are all things we’ve come to expect from Anderson, and he doesn’t hold back here, making one of his more affecting movies in quite some time.

The Secret World of Arrietty

A lot of the movies on this year’s list made it because of their creation of a world: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Moonrise Kingdom, etc. The Secret World of Arrietty is the same way. New Studio Ghibli helmer Hiromasa Yonebayashi takes the old story The Borrowers, originally written by Mary Norton and adapted into films or television series some half-dozen times, and finds a way to make it fresh. This mostly is achieved in the film’s ambience, and the pleasantness of its animation. It’s a surprising how much this film will submerse you, especially considering you probably already know the story and also probably never really cared much for it before.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Part of me is really worried that I’ll come to regret including Perks of Being a Wallflower on this list over, say, Rust & Bone or Wreck-It Ralph, as there are some pretty obvious flaws on display here, mostly in the film’s very beginning and very end. All the same, this is a film that I seem likely to rewatch often, as it gets a lot of things very right—not least of which is the capturing of an elusive feeling (not entirely unlike what was described in Not Fade Away above, though that’s a much better film), but also because Ezra Miller turns in one of the most memorable performances of the year here, so much so that I can’t believe he’s not getting mentioned very often in the year-end awards consideration talk. | Pete Timmermann

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