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Film

Best of 2012: Films

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Argo‘s power trio: Goodman, Arkin and Affleck toast their fake movie.

Josh Bell

Apparently 2012 was the year of dysfunctional, possibly doomed cinematic relationships, at least judging by the films that stuck with me the most. In a year when massive special-effects extravaganzas made more money than ever, it was heartening to watch movies built around strong performances and rich characters, made by filmmakers with distinctive voices. As midrange films become rarer and rarer, crowded out by bloated studio tent-pole releases and a flood of microbudget indies, finding movies that balance accomplished filmmaking with a genuine human touch is something to be celebrated.

1. Sound of My Voice A haunting minimalist sci-fi drama about a disturbingly charismatic cult leader (the excellent Brit Marling) who claims to be from the future, it’s part Twelve Monkeys, part Martha Marcy May Marlene and completely captivating from its opening moments to its unsettlingly ambiguous ending. Now available on DVD.

2. Argo Ben Affleck’s thriller about the real-life efforts to rescue six Americans trapped in Iran in 1979 is the best kind of blockbuster entertainment: It’s suspenseful, funny and full of well-drawn characters, offering up equal parts historical context and moviemaking ingenuity. Now in theaters.

3. Silver Linings Playbook A romantic comedy about the deeply disturbed, David O. Russell’s adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel manages to acknowledge and respect the challenges of mental illness while still telling a touching and often hilarious story about two people falling in love. Jennifer Lawrence gives one of the year’s best performances as a woman whose emotional damage is both alluring and tragic. Now in theaters.

4. The Dish & the Spoon The perpetually delightful Greta Gerwig is a whirlwind of undiluted emotion as a woman furious at her husband’s infidelity. Amiable young Brit Olly Alexander, as the teenage drifter with whom Gerwig unexpectedly connects, perfectly complements her intensity. Their tentative romance in a desolate seaside town is uplifting despite (or perhaps because of) its futility. Now available on DVD.

Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina

5. Anna Karenina Joe Wright turns Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel into something resembling performance art, a meticulously designed and choreographed dance through the hierarchy of upper-class Russian society. By heightening the artificiality, Wright externalizes the tragedy of the title character, revealing her entire life (and those of the people around her) as elaborate playacting. Now in theaters.

6. Zero Dark Thirty Pundits on both the left and the right have attacked Kathryn Bigelow’s tense, unsentimental drama about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which shows how effective she and writer Mark Boal are at letting events speak for themselves, regardless of what they say. In the tradition of All the President’s Men and Zodiac, Zero Dark Thirty builds a gripping thriller out of the tiniest details. Opens in Las Vegas January 11.

7. Your Sister’s Sister Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt have wonderfully relaxed chemistry as two sisters whose relationship is tested by a mutual attraction to a vulnerable guy they’ve known for years. Lynn Shelton’s ramshackle film has the feel of a weekend spent hanging out with old friends, bonding in a way you never have before. Now available on DVD.

8. Jeff, Who Lives at Home What starts out as a scruffy stoner comedy starring Jason Segel and Ed Helms transforms into a scruffy stoner meditation on life, about taking things as they come and being open to new experiences. Filmmakers Jay and Mark Duplass understand that important revelations are equally likely to occur while sitting on the toilet as while attempting a daring water rescue. Now available on DVD.

9. Haywire The year’s best action movie wasn’t one of the summer’s ultra-mega-event movies; it was this lean, uncompromising espionage tale from Steven Soderbergh, with MMA fighter Gina Carano as a taciturn operative betrayed by her own people. Carano says more with her fists and feet (and Soderbergh with his camera) than any glib superhero can with a dozen one-liners. Now available on DVD.

10. Ruby Sparks As a counterpoint to nearly every Hollywood romantic comedy, Ruby Sparks imagines how dysfunctional a relationship would really be between an insecure young man and his self-created ideal woman. Deftly balancing fantasy with cold-eyed reality, the movie never loses sight of the toxic obsession that can come along with all-consuming love. Now available on DVD.

Mike D’Angelo

In a year that saw the likely last gasp of true 70mm (The Master), as well as the first feature produced in 48 frames per second (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), analog vs. digital was the most heated topic of discussion among cinephiles. It was also a major concern of filmmakers, from the new methods of intelligence detailed in Zero Dark Thirty to the defiant lament that animates my top choice on the list below. As usual, many of the year’s best films weren’t released in Las Vegas; that you can potentially download some of them as binary files only speaks further to the ways in which what we call cinema is rapidly evolving, for better or worse.

1. Holy Motors The year’s most electrifying whatzit stars Denis Lavant as a mysterious man traveling Paris in a white stretch limo and keeping various bizarre “appointments” that require him to take on a multitude of new identities. An undercurrent of deep sadness can’t extinguish the sheer joy of moviemaking on display. Available on DVD February 26.

2. The Imposter True-crime documentaries are abundant, but few boast a story as certifiably nuts as this tale of a French con artist who succeeded in passing himself off as a long-missing American teen. But the film’s real genius is the way it manipulates that tale to create a discomfiting analysis of how confirmation bias works. Now available on VOD; on DVD January 22.

3. The Loneliest Planet Pivoting on a split-second action that can’t be taken back and can scarcely even be acknowledged, Julia Loktev’s painstaking portrait of a young couple (Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) backpacking through the Caucasus mountains will make you question what you know about those you most love. Available on DVD February 26.

4. Miss Bala Ostensibly a dark look at Mexico’s drug cartels, this fact-inspired melodrama, in which a beauty-pageant contestant gets abducted and pressed into service as a drug mule, actually has much more to say about the various self-defeating traps that society—any society, not just Mexican—sets for attractive young women. Now available on DVD.

Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom

5. Moonrise Kingdom Wes Anderson returns to delightful, heartfelt live-action form with a story of two teen runaways in 1965 New England, acted by a superb ensemble cast (including Bruce Willis, who had his best year in ages). The contrast of youthful naïveté and middle-aged regret makes for one of the director’s most touching works. Now available on DVD.

6. Amour Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke is well known for his punishing assaults on the viewer, but few could have anticipated how grueling and tender this simple tale of an octogenarian married couple would prove. French legends Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant earn your tears honestly. Opens in Las Vegas February 8.

7. The Deep Blue Sea Shot with a burnished, dreamlike palette that suggests something dimly remembered, Terence Davies’ lyrical adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play features a heartbreakingly masochistic performance by Rachel Weisz, playing a woman who ditches her kind husband for a charming cad who doesn’t love her. Now available on DVD.

8. Only the Young Three California teens spend their days simply hanging out in this deceptively unassuming documentary, which captures the tail end of adolescence and the fleeting yet passionate nature of friendship and romance at that age. On top of which, it’s among the year’s loveliest films—a rare achievement for a doc. Las Vegas release date TBD.

Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are far more interested in talking than in their steak and eggs in the very clever Looper.

9. Looper Full disclosure: Writer-director Rian Johnson is a friend of mine. Still, I was hardly the only one enthralled by his mind-bending time-travel saga, which finds Bruce Willis (again, great year) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing the same character 30 years removed, battling for the life to which each has an equal claim. Available on DVD December 31.

10. This Must Be the Place In the tradition of films about America as seen by foreigners, established in the ’70s by Wim Wenders, comes Paolo Sorrentino’s oddball character study of a retired androgynous rock star—improbably played by Sean Penn in full Robert Smith makeup—searching for the Nazi who tormented his late father. DVD release date TBD.

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