Freaky Frenchmen, troubled teens, and rowdy racists all find a place on our 2012 Top Ten List

It’s that time of year, and we will indeed have plenty of lists for you here on HitFix.  Greg Ellwood ran his ten favorite films of 2012 yesterday, we’re working on a collective “worst of” list, and I’ve got at least three end of the year articles coming in the days ahead.  For now, though, it’s time for the big one, the main list, the top ten.

I love that our amazing video team (Michiel Thomas and James Jhun don’t get nearly enough credit for all the outstanding work they do for us each and every day, and at this time of the year in particular, they are working around the clock to get everything ready) puts these together as video pieces for us.  It’s a great way to take one last fond look at the ten films that defined 2012 for me, the movies that most directly spoke to my experience, my tastes.

There are films on this list that I have had heated arguments about this year, movies that have polarized viewers in some cases.  As always, the rules for an appearance on this list are simple:  it has to be a new movie that I saw in 2012.  Some of these were festival films, some of them had massive wide releases, and all of them made an impression on me.  If they haven’t played your area yet, please don’t get upset about it and yell at me.  Just consider it a heads up, something to keep an eye out for in the near future.

If I wrote a full review, I’ve linked to it, and if I didn’t, then I probably should, right?

Let’s count this down backwards.  You can read the full text here that appears in the video, or you can just press play and bask in my golden tones.

10. “This Is 40”

Pete and Debbie are far closer to my real-life experience than the swoony Celeste and Jesse, Richard Linklater’s romantic repeaters in his “Before” series.

That’s exactly why I want Judd Apatow to periodically check in on this couple, first introduced in “Knocked Up,” now front and center in a film that deals with aging, family, fidelity, the changing economic dynamics of the 21st century, nostalgia, and the almost-crippling anxiety that can be generated by the simple daily act of trying to be a husband, a father, a wife, a mother.  

Sure, the lifestyle they lead is one that many audiences would see as aspirational, affluent, but in the middle of the night, when you’ve shaken the foundations of the most important relationship in your life, none of that matters.

Pain is pain, and Apatow has a knack for looking directly at what hurts, then shaking loose a laugh.  That can sting, but I find it bracing and ultimately cathartic, and I think Apatow’s most personal film is also his best.

9. “Moonrise Kingdom”

Wes Anderson’s latest takes a sweet, gentle look at the way we make the families we want, especially when our own families fail us.  There are two great lead performances by Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as the two runaway kids whose romance kicks off a flurry of adult panic as a storm rolls into a small island community.  The film certainly shows many of Anderson’s typical signatures, but the script, which Anderson co-wrote with Roman Coppola, is lyrical and lovely, rich and shot through with a serious sadness, and it may be the most heartfelt thing Anderson has done since “Rushmore.”

Particularly compelling is the performance by Bruce Willis, especially when set next to his work in “Looper.”  That movie took advantage of his action hero persona to establish him as a damaged tough guy haunted by the choices he’s made, but my own personal favorite Willis roles are the ones where he plays emotionally stunted, and this one’s a doozy.  What surprised me is the way this one gradually turns up the emotion, so slowly that by the time the cast ends up perched on a church steeple in the middle of a hurricane, it is shocking how much it all feels like it matters.

People may criticize Wes Anderson for such a recognizable visual style, but I would argue that voice is one of the most important things in filmmaking, and in this particular instance, Anderson’s perfectly on pitch, and the result is one of his most rewatchable efforts so far.

8. “Looper”

Rian Johnson’s time travel story of a young hitman played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt coming face to face with his older self, played by a bruised Bruce Willis, looks like a simple genre exercise on the surface.  Ultimately, it asks one big question: are monsters born or made?  And in grappling with the answer, Johnson reveals just how loaded the question truly is.

Gordon-Levitt, one of the most exciting young actors working, proves that he can carry a film this tricky with his work here, and Willis is very strong in what is a fairly brief amount of onscreen time.  What pushed the film from very good to great, though, is the work by Emily Blunt as Sara, a young mother desperate to protect her young son Cid, played by a powerful young performer named Pierce Gagnon.  This is one of the best little kid performances in recent memory, scary and sweet and sincere, and the film’s various narrative twists and turns all serve to illustrate just how scary it can be to have a kid who is out of control, and just what a toll it takes on a parent when they cannot help their child on their own.

Filled with great performances, richly imagined, “Looper” takes an incredibly high concept and uses it to touch on something very human and true… our need to protect our children, and just how fragile and important the trust between a parent and a child can be.

7. “Silver Linings Playbook”

Matthew Quick’s novel has been adapted into a conventionally structured film that soars based on the uncommon chemistry between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, both of them playing damaged characters looking for the release of basic human connection.

Like last year’s “Warrior,” this is a movie that adheres closely to a Hollywood formula, giving it life by virtue of great performances and smart, specific filmmaking.  David O. Russell seems to be finally be fulfilling all of his early promise each time he makes a new film, and there is such an unruly, untamed sense of real life spilling over in every frame of this one that by the time it turns the loss of a contest into an emotional triumph, he and his cast have earned whatever emotional release the film evokes.  Cooper has been building to this performance for a while, and he is especially good opposite Robert De Niro, fully awake for the first time in over a decade.  It is Lawrence who emerges from this one a fully-realized movie star, though.  She makes us believe that these broken souls might somehow drag one another into something like a normal life.

6. “The Perks Of Being A Wallflower”

Logan Lerman stars in what looked to me at first like a fairly typical coming of age story, and at first glance, Stephen Chbosky’s film is no different than any other high school drama.  But the young cast digs into Chbosky’s semi-autobiographical script, based on his own novel, with such rich and specific choices that it becomes almost overwhelmingly emotional.

Ezra Miller, who made such an impression in last year’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” is incredible here as a teenager who is grappling with not only his own sexual identity but the expectations that come along with that, and it is heartbreaking, mature work.  Chbosky proves himself more than able behind the camera, and he elicits great performances from his whole cast, including Emma Watson, proving that she will be able to leave “Harry Potter” behind.

It has been a long time since I’ve been a teenager, but all of the turbulent emotions of that time came rushing back in a very visceral way, and few films left me quite as wrung out as this one.  Backed by a solid mix-tape of a soundtrack and shot to squeeze every bit of shimmering beauty out of the Pittsburgh area as possible, “Perks” may seem like a gentle little thing, but it packs a powerful punch.

5. “Zero Dark Thirty”

Kathryn Bigelow’s precise, methodical film about the precise, methodical manhunt that led to the death of Osama Bin Laden is the most fascinating procedural since “Zodiac,” and easily bests her earlier collaboration with journalist turned screenwriter Mark Boal, the Academy Award-winning “The Hurt Locker.”  It helps that Jessica Chastain, last year’s most exciting new film talent, gives a riveting performance as Maya, a CIA analyst whose ten-year attempt to chase down a ghost leads to one of the year’s most assured and menacing action set pieces.

What Bigelow and Boal do in their films together is a form of journalism, an attempt to weave an emotional truth out of stark, unblemished fact, and in a year where politics have driven wedges into our landscape so deep that they seem insurmountable, “Zero Dark Thirty” manages to somehow turn an unblinking eye on subjects that make us deeply uncomfortable without turning into a political screed.  Their interest lies in the way one small thread, worried at with unyielding determination, managed to eventually pierce Bin Laden’s carefully maintained cover story, closing out one small part of one of the darkest stories in modern American history.

4. “Cloud Atlas”

Adapting David Mitchell’s ambitious novel was never going to be easy for any filmmaker, but the collaboration between “Run Lola Run” director Tom Tykwer and “Matrix” creators Andy and Lana Wachowski turned out to be a wild, thrilling, emotional whirlwind of identity, gender politics, illustrating the ways in which our choices resonate through time, affecting those we may never meet in ways we can only imagine.

Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw, and Jim Sturgess all do wonderful work as they slip in and out of the skins of various characters, recurring souls bouncing through the decades, but two performances in the film stand as particularly affecting.  Doona Bae plays an unlikely hero, a clone awoken to the true purpose of her life in a futuristic Korea, and Jim Broadbent uses that giant lovely rubber face of his to give a rumpled sort of dignity to the role of a book publisher facing a comic crisis.

It is tempting to salute this picture by saying, “They don’t make them like this anymore,” but the truth is that they never did.  “Cloud Atlas” is intoxicating precisely because of the ways it ignores all the rules of what a film “should” do, instead aiming to strike new ground, and in the process illuminates just how much films can do when filmmakers ignore the rules and aim high.

3. “The Act Of Killing”

Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary was an accident, a case of being in an awful place at the right time. He found himself given access to some of the people responsible for the anti-Communist killings of over half a million people in Indonesia, and he found them to be without remorse or shame.

Instead of just talking to them about what they did, he offered them help in recreating the genocide for the cameras, but in the language of Hollywood movies.  As we watch the murders recreated as horror, or film noir, or even musical number, we also watch the way the people reliving these things had all compartmentalized whatever happened back in the mid-’60s, tuning out whatever might make them feel the magnitude of the pain and suffering they caused.

Anyone who makes art or who loves art mostly likely believes on some level that art can change the world, but until “The Act Of Killing,” I’d never witnessed such a direct proof of that idea.  By the time the film ends, Oppenheimer’s subjects have been torn open, forced to feel the weight of what they’ve done, culminating in a dark and disturbing epiphany that shook me more than any horror film.

2. “Django Unchained”

Quentin Tarantino’s latest is the second film in a row where he’s remixed history with the language of the movies he’s been soaking in since he was a kid, coming up with something genuinely new. In “Inglourious Basterds” and now this film, he is using exploitation movie archetypes to empower people who have traditionally exploited, and it’s exhilarating.  

In addition to the visual vocabulary that Tarantino wields with his typical wit, there is no other filmmaker working today who is as in love with the sound of his actors talking, the rich and loony dialogue like honey on the tongues of Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, and a gleefully repellent Leonardo DiCaprio, a slaver with a twisted heart.  

The film is profane, wallowing in the angry race language of today, but seen through the filter of a world where that’s okay, allowed, unchecked.  We have not solved the issue of race in America, or in the world at large.  We are not in a utopian post-racial society.  

Considering how afraid we are to even start the conversation about some of the true and painful things that define us, a movie like “Django Unchained” matters.  It lays bare a very real wound, and in doing so, turns pastiche and homage into something more, a potent new form of social satire.

1. “Holy Motors”

The most beautiful film of the year is also the most unusual, a dizzying ride through unfettered imagination.

As we debate the future of filmmaking and the tools that we’ll be using to tell stories, “Holy Motors” looks all the way back to firelight flickering on a cave wall and all the way forward to a world after humans, with Dennis Levant giving a once-in-seven-lifetimes performance as the mysterious Mr. Oscar, traveling by limousine through an increasingly surreal Paris playing one role after another.  

Is he an angel? An actor? Is this performance art as prison sentence? Or is this a fever dream by a filmmaker who hasn’t made a feature in almost a decade, his attempt to remind himself why he started making films in the first place?

By the time writer/director Leos Carax wraps up this gorgeous, heartbroken meditation about our need to try on one another’s lives through art, I am worn out and recharged, in love not only with movies… but with the world.  There is nothing more I could ask of any movie.

We’re not done yet, though.  We’ve still got the runners-up to do, and I’ve got my annual “best of the rest” list coming as well.

For now, though, here’s where the conversation begins about the year we’re bringing to a close, and as always, I look forward to the back and forth that is part of putting together any list.  What movies made 2012 great for you?