For film lovers, 2012 has not been kind. Hollywood supplied the expected dreck (special shout-out to Three Stooges!), but even the top talent delivered work that was slightly off-target. The biggest disappointment? Perhaps Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which boasted impressive performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman but whose sorta-Scientology-based story ultimately went nowhere.
So many films, though, simply fell into it’s good-but-not-great territory: Beasts of the Southern Wild was highly original and featured a remarkable performance from non-actor Quvenzhané Wallis, yet it failed to fully transport me. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, another high-water mark for for the endlessly surprising Daniel Day-Lewis, may have flown by at a shoulda-been-patience-testing 150 minutes, but it still couldn’t shed its school-film feel. And Les Misérables? Didn’t shed a tear. (A benchmark: Even Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie made me well up.)
Maybe my cinematic heart is just two sizes too small. Here, though, are 10 films that did leave an impression. Some are on Top 10 lists the world over, some are graded on a curve, some are just nothin’ but a good time. Presented in alphabetical order.
1. Argo: Who knew history could be fun? Ben Affleck’s third film, about the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, is his best yet, a challenge to himself to take the camera out of Boston and tell a true story of international interest. The look is pure ’70s, the facts (except a fictionalization or two) are accurate, and the mood expertly shifts from serious to light and back again, with John Goodman and Alan Arkin helping render the portrait of the Hollywood crew who got six Americans who evaded capture out of danger. Affleck co-stars, too.
2. Amour: Michael Haneke can be a sadistic ass of a filmmaker (see Funny Games), but his latest is a tender and achingly realistic look at the pressures and desperation of caretakers of the infirm elderly. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the husband of Emmanuelle Riva’s Anne, who is active into her 80s until she has a stroke and her health and mental acuity go downhill. A third-act turn of events is a pure Haneke taunt to make you hate what you’re seeing, and there are question marks at the end. But the storytelling’s too exquisite not to forgive both.
3. The Imposter: This documentary (pictured above) of a young Frenchman who persuaded an American family that he is their missing son is all enthralling intrigue, even though you know from the beginning that the man is a fraud. Director Bart Layton builds suspense, unsettles you, and even manages to integrate recreations that aren’t cheesy into the telling, which is aided by the narration of Frederic, the wily imposter himself.
4. Looper: This Joseph Gordon-Levitt/Bruce Willis time-travel story from writer-director Rian Johnson stays interesting enough while it looks at “loopers,” modern-day assassins who kill ne’er-do-wells sent back from the future. But then the subplot of a mother (Emily Blunt) and her son (a terrific Pierce Gagnon) ties the pieces together and elevates the film in a spectacular, thoughtful last chapter that will leave you both wowed and musing on its meaning well into tomorrow.
5. Magic Mike: Yes, it’s mostly beefcake. But Steven Soderbergh knows how to shoot it, and Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey—-in a role he was born to play as a slightly slimy, come-hither dancer and strip-club owner—-turn what should have been a throwaway girl’s-night-out entertainment into a six pack of fun. Newcomer Cody Horn anchors the film as its skeptical moral center, but her Brooke doesn’t weigh things down. Even if the thought of a dude’s crotch in your face isn’t your idea of a good time, you’re sure to leave smiling.
6. Pitch Perfect: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, and a terrific ensemble deliver spot-on harmonies and pure pop bliss in this fluffy story about a competitive collegiate a capella group. 30 Rock writer Kay Cannon lends a subversive, Simpsons-esque humor to this book adaptation—-yes, it started as a book—-which helps make it a Grade A surprise.
7. Ruby Sparks: OK, maybe this Zoe Kazan-penned romance isn’t technically one of the best of the year. But compare it to other romantic comedies, and it’s a knockout. Kazan also stars and gives a sometimes droll, sometimes intense performance as Ruby, the woman literally dreamed up by Calvin (Paul Dano), a writer who achieved success young and then got writer’s block. But when he starts writing about Ruby, poof, there she is, and he finds he can write her to be anything he wants. Control and the balance of power in relationships has rarely gotten such lovely, insightful treatment.
8. Silver Linings Playbook: David O. Russell hits another home run after his 2010 Oscar-nominated drama, The Fighter. This time he turns his eye to mental illness, family relationships, and, most intensely, romance, with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence burning up the screen with a chemistry rarely witnessed in film these days. His Pat, just released from a psychiatric facility after his wife cheated on him, may call her widowed, broken-winged yet no-bullshit Tiffany a “friend” throughout, but we know better.
9. Sound of My Voice: The ethereal Brit Marling captivates again, co-writing and starring in her follow-up to Another Earth. Here she plays a mysterious cult leader who claims to be from the future but is likely just another fraud. The fascinating trick to the story, told from the perspective of young filmmakers who join the cult looking to make a documentary on the subject, is that even after the credits roll, you’re still not sure of the truth.
10. Zero Dark Thirty: Kathryn Bigelow is a badass. She and scripter Mark Boal team up again after their Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, now telling the story of the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. Boal reportedly got his facts from People Who Know, and this film certainly plays like a you-are-there documentary, detailing all the torture and endless investigation that went into discovering where the al-Qaeda leader was hiding and capping with a shadowy, real-time invasion of his Pakistan home. Jessica Chastain stars as the head researcher who lets the case take over her life. She’s never been tougher, and also delivers one of the best lines of the year.
The original version of this post misidentified Osama bin Laden as the leader of the Taliban. He was the leader of al-Qaeda. It has been corrected.