A few weeks before New Year’s, my impression was that 2012 hadn’t been a great year for movies. But, then, I had seen and reviewed fewer films than in previous years, due to my beginning diaconal studies.
Following a late sprint of catching up with some movies I’d missed, I went from wondering how to fill the slots in my “top films” lists to debating what to exclude (and that’s not including the daunting list of notable films I still haven’t seen).
I’ve known since seeing it last April that my favorite film of the year would almost certainly be the latest film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian brothers recently honored with the Robert Bresson Prize, given each year by the Pontifical Councils for Culture and Social Communications to filmmakers whose work attests to the human search for spiritual meaning in life.
After that, though, there’ve been a lot of tough calls. Many titles consigned to the runners-up and honorable mention lists below could easily be swapped higher up, depending on taste. Was Argo or Zero Dark Thirty the best fact-based thriller about a CIA operation in the Middle East? Was the best animated family film with a remarkable father-daughter relationship Pixar’s Brave or Ghibli’s The Secret World of Arrietty?
Was Les Misérables or Anna Karenina the best theatrically inflected adaptation of a sweeping 19th-century European novel? Did Batman or the Avengers have the better superhero blockbuster? Which oddball American filmmaker’s quirky blend of nostalgia and satire was most compelling, Wes Anderson’s or Whit Stillman’s? (This was perhaps the toughest, most personal call.)
Here are my takes. Your mileage may vary.
10 Films That Stood Out
- The Kid With a Bike. The Dardenne brothers’ latest masterpiece is one of their most elegant, universal and morally incisive: an examination of the towering importance of fatherhood in a boy’s life; of the gaping wound left by a father who is less than what his son needs him to be; of the social forces that rush to fill the vacuum; of the difference a person can make simply by saying Yes. Troubled family situation; brief violence; drug references; an obscene word. Subtitles. Teens and up.
- Barbara. Set in 1980s East Germany, Christian Petzold’s tense Cold War drama centers on a brilliant dissident doctor consigned for political reasons to a small rural hospital, where she faces surveillance by a friendly colleague, harassment by much less friendly Stasi officers and unexpected moral complications that jeopardize her plans. Brief sexuality and offscreen sexual encounters (nothing explicit); some crude language. Subtitles. Mature viewing.
- Argo. Ben Affleck directs and stars in a terrific yarn about a daring operation to rescue six Americans during the Iran hostage crisis — with the help of Canada and Hollywood. The film’s secret weapon: It’s both a geopolitical thriller and a fond satire of Hollywood — overtly Hollywood circa 1979, but implicitly Hollywood of today. Frequent, often comically intended obscene language; some profanity; a few violent images. Might be fine for older teens.
- The Avengers. From writer-director Joss Whedon, the year’s biggest superhero blockbuster is also, by my lights, the year’s most sheerly entertaining popcorn film — a winning blend of well-crafted spectacle, sharply sketched characterizations, sparkling banter and even some moral resonance. Much intense action violence and mayhem; limited cursing and crass language; a couple of suggestive references. Teens and up.
- The Secret World of Arrietty. Studio Ghibli’s ultra-gentle adaptation of Mary Norton’s Borrowers stories has the year’s most winsome animated heroine, with gorgeous artwork (and sound design) making the trappings of an ordinary house even more magical than medieval Scotland. A true gift to family audiences, from the youngest viewers to their grandparents. A couple of mildly frightening moments. Fine family viewing.
- Lincoln. Daniel Day-Lewis’ seemingly effortless embodiment of the most mythologized of American presidents anchors Steven Spielberg’s best film in at least a decade, a sharp depiction of the sometimes messy realities of the democratic process. Brief graphic depictions of battlefield violence and aftermath; an obscenity; some profane and crude language and racial epithets; a depiction of cohabitation. Older teens and up.
- Damsels in Distress. Whit Stillman’s first film in 13 years is a daffily absurdist Ivy League campus comedy roasting postmodern Western decadence in overtly Romanesque terms, obliquely lobbing bombs at targets ranging from the therapeutic culture to sterile sex (here linked to the Cathari heresy!). Sexually themed dialogue and implied sexual encounters (nothing explicit); references to mental illness and suicide; some cursing and crass language; a comic scene of self-inflicted violence. Mature viewing.
- Planet of Snail. Possibly the year’s gentlest, most inspiring love story, documentarian Yi Seung-jun’s quiet film follows an extraordinary Korean couple helping each other with very different handicaps — one blind and deaf, the other with dwarfism related to a spinal condition — amid activities ranging from everyday tasks and recreation to religious studies and church events. Marriage is seldom so beautiful onscreen. Subtitles. Nothing problematic, but not for kids.
- I Wish. A bittersweet tale of childhood hopefulness and hard realities, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s contemplative ensemble story focuses on a pair of brothers separated by divorce. Amid longings for a better world, the brothers and their friends embark on a road trip to witness the passing of two high-speed bullet trains, a portent like a falling star that they hope will make their wishes come true. Potentially stressful themes, including divorce, family separation, parental irresponsibility and drinking; a dead pet; mild language. Subtitles. Older kids and up.
- Anna Karenina. Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s inspired choice to couch Tolstoy’s great Russian novel as a semi-stagebound British stage production serves the material well on many levels, thematic, narrative and visual. Like the source material, it’s morally serious without moralizing, feeling Anna’s pain without excusing her faults or scapegoating her flawed but noble husband. Some sexuality and fleeting rear nudity; a grisly train accident and a later similar incident; limited profanity and cursing. Mature viewing.
10 Runners-Up (in alphabetical order)
- Beasts of the Southern Wild. First-time filmmaker Benh Zeitlin’s visually dazzling depiction of the harshness and beauty of Louisiana life beyond the levees, starring astonishing 6-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis. Older teens and up.
- Brave. Pixar’s first fairy tale, a magical parable about the dangers of pride and anger, the need to accept responsibility and admit mistakes, and even filial piety. Older kids and up.
- The Dark Knight Rises. Christopher Nolan’s ambitious, grandiose finale to his Batman trilogy. Older teens and up.
- Elena. Andrei Zvyagintsev’s darkly mesmerizing tale of mix-and-match family loyalties, money and class in post-Soviet, postmodern Moscow. Older teens and up.
- Jiro Dreams of Sushi. An eye-opening look at the dedication and craft of one of the world’s foremost sushi masters. Nothing problematic, but not for kids.
- Les Misérables. Tom Hooper’s lavish adaptation of the popular musical, rife with Catholic motifs, with strong support from Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks. Mature audiences.
- Moonrise Kingdom. Wes Anderson’s most accessible film to date, and one of his best, a quirky, sometimes painful story of a special bond between two troubled 12-year-olds. Mature viewing.
- The Queen of Versailles. Lauren Greenfield’s astonishing documentary portrait of a super-rich family and the ups and downs of too much money. Teens and up.
- Skyfall. Daniel Craig’s third outing as James Bond, thematically and emotionally a cut above most franchise installments, highlighted by Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography. Mature viewing.
- Zero Dark Thirty. Kathryn Bigelow’s commanding dramatization of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, starring Jessica Chastain as a driven CIA analyst. Mature viewing.
- Arbitrage. A smart, morally thoughtful white-collar crime thriller starring Richard Gere, from first-time writer-director Nicholas Jarecki. Mature viewing.
- A Cat in Paris. An animated French thriller featuring a dashing catburglar, a traumatized young girl and the cat who belongs to them both. Older kids and up.
- First Position. Bess Kargman’s uplifting documentary about young ballet dancers competing for awards and scholarships. Fine family viewing.
- For Greater Glory. The long-untold story of Mexico’s Cristero War, starring Andy Garcia and directed by Dean Wright. Older teens and up.
- Frankenweenie. Tim Burton’s loving stop-motion homage to classic monster movies. Teens and up.
- The Impossible. A grueling, fact-based survival story set during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona and starring Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. Mature viewing.
- Monsieur Lazhar. A moving exploration of a new teacher’s efforts to help middle-school students cope with a teacher’s suicide. Teens and up.
- The Pirates! Band of Misfits. Aardman Animations’ bonkers stop-motion swashbuckling comedy. Fine family viewing.
- Ruby Sparks. A provocative rom-com deconstruction of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” stereotype, written by and starring Zoe Kazan. Mature viewing.
- The Turin Horse. Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr’s self-declared final film, a bleak, rural apocalypse with inverted Genesis 1 themes. Mature viewing, I guess.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register's film critic.