2012 wasn’t exactly an unforgettable year at the movies – I know that, you know that – but it can hardly be described as a disappointment, because while there weren’t many films that will be remembered 20 years from now, there was still plenty of quality to be found if you looked hard enough. As is usually the case with these year-end features, my Top 10 deviates a little from the typical crop of movies that you’d expect to find on most critics’ lists (some that I didn’t love as much as others, and some that I never had the chance to see), but it’s nothing that will surprise anyone who’s read my past work.
It’s not every day that the author of a critically acclaimed novel gets the chance to adapt their book for the big screen, let alone direct it, but after watching Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing a better job. After all, Chbosky knows the material inside and out, and it definitely shows in this modest but heartwarming tale about finding your place in the world. It’s your typical coming-of-age story, but one that’s handled with a certain level of maturity rarely found in high school films, and though the comparisons to “The Breakfast Club” may not be completely warranted, it’s one of the few movies about high school that actually gets it right. Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller all deliver excellent performances in their respective roles (especially Miller as the openly gay senior that takes Lerman’s freshman under his wing), and Chbosky’s deft script earns every emotional moment. It’s just a shame that “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” will probably get lost in the shuffle come awards time, because it has everything you could possibly want in a film.
Leave it to David O. Russell to create a romantic comedy as quirky, dark, funny and surprisingly touching as “Silver Linings Playbook,” because the movie is almost as crazy as its two leads. One minute a fiercely honest character study about a man coping with bipolar disorder, and the next minute a charming rom-com revolving around an amateur dancing competition, the film performs such an amazing tightrope act that it’s really to Russell’s credit that it doesn’t come crashing down like a house of cards. Of course, the movie wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable if it weren’t for the risks that it takes thematically, but none of that would matter without its outstanding cast. Bradley Cooper finally gets the chance to show what he’s fully capable of in the best role of his career, and Robert De Niro has some great moments as Cooper’s superstitious father, but it’s Jennifer Lawrence (already so good at such a young age) who steals the show with a phenomenal performance that all but guarantees she’ll win the Oscar for Best Actress.
Ben Affleck may have proved that he was more than just a one-hit wonder with “The Town,” but for his next project, the Boston-born multihyphenate moved away from the comforts of his hometown to a much larger stage, delivering arguably his best film in the process. A politically charged thriller that felt eerily timely in the wake of the U.S. embassy attacks in Libya, “Argo” is unique in that it also juggles a lighter Hollywood insider subplot in addition to its main story. By all accounts, it shouldn’t work, but Affleck makes the blending of the contrasting tones appear almost effortless. The comedy provided by Alan Arkin’s veteran producer and John Goodman’s makeup artist never undercuts the seriousness of the action in Tehran, and yet the strategically placed laughs help break up the tension that mounts over the course of the film. It’s been a while since a movie literally had me on the edge of my seat, but “Argo” is extremely taut and suspenseful, topped off by a fantastic nail-biter ending and one of the year’s best ensembles. The fact that it’s also based on a true story is simply the icing on the cake.
4. “ZERO DARK THIRTY“
Regardless of how you feel about torture techniques or the controversial release of classified information to writer Mark Boal about the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, it’s hard not to be totally engrossed by “Zero Dark Thirty,” especially since it represents a major moment in U.S. history. Jessica Chastain is brilliant as the CIA agent whose obsession with tracking down bin Laden helped lead to his eventual death, while Jason Clarke also delivers a standout performance as a fellow agent working the case. Though this ridiculously in-depth account of the CIA’s search for the al-Qaeda leader could have been an extremely dull affair in someone else’s hands, director Kathryn Bigelow injects the film with the same level of intensity and suspense that made “The Hurt Locker” so riveting. It certainly makes for some fascinating viewing material, and the final 20 minutes – comprised of the climactic attack on bin Laden’s Pakistan compound – are some of the most exciting of any movie released this year.
5. “SLEEPWALK WITH ME“
Most stand-up comics probably only dream about being involved in a movie as funny and refreshingly honest as Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk with Me,” let alone one that marks their directorial debut. Based on his one-man show of the same name (which was in turn inspired by actual events from his life), the film is a witty, sharply written human comedy about professional rejection and the fear of commitment. Much like the stand-up act performed by Birbiglia’s aspiring comedian in the movie, “Sleepwalk with Me” is entertaining because it’s so incredibly personal, and Birbiglia makes the story feel even more intimate by narrating the film in segments where he speaks directly to the audience a la “Annie Hall.” Reminiscent of the Woody Allen classic in style and tone (both movies even feature Carol Kane in supporting roles), “Sleepwalk with Me” is a really impressive debut by Mike Birbiglia, and one that promises better things to come.
“Safety Not Guaranteed” is a shining example of everything that’s great about indie film – from its original script to its winsome characters – but the one thing that it does better than anything else is create a cinematic experience that’s rich in comedy and emotion. A lot of movies have tried to juggle the two in the past, but Colin Trevorrow’s directorial debut is one of the rare few that actually pulls it off. Though it can technically be labeled as a time travel film, “Safety Not Guaranteed” is more about its characters’ relationships than the veracity of the sci-fi premise, and that’s thanks to Derek Connolly’s excellent script and the fantastic cast. All four actors click really well as a group, but they also deliver some great individual performances – especially Aubrey Plaza, who proves she can do more than spout acerbic one-liners and mug for the camera like on “Parks and Rec” – resulting in one of the funniest, sincerest and most charming movies of the year.
7. “THE AVENGERS“
Not many people would have been willing to wager before the start of the summer movie season that “The Avengers” would emerge as the best superhero film of the year (especially with “The Dark Knight Rises” still to come), but Marvel’s big gamble proved everyone wrong, making beaucoup bucks at the box office on its way to becoming the third highest grossing movie of all-time. Money doesn’t always equal quality (and in the case of most summer blockbusters, it usually never does), but with “The Avengers,” director Joss Whedon delivered a film bursting at the seams with excellence – from its amazing cast (particularly Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo in standout roles), to its smart script, to the impressive balancing of the movie’s many tones. Marvel has done a really good job over the last few years of creating a rich cinematic tapestry that’s almost interactive in the way that it feeds off the excitement of its fans, and “The Avengers” is the culmination of all that careful planning – a superhero film with style and substance.
8. “THE IMPOSSIBLE“
Based on the true story of the Alvarez-Belon family – who were separated by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami while vacationing in Thailand, only to overcome incredible odds and be miraculously reunited – the aptly titled “The Impossible” is a stunning second feature by Juan Antonio Bayona that blends physical filmmaking with raw emotion. The tsunami sequence is a remarkable technical achievement that perfectly captures the danger and desperation of being caught in the storm, and the scenes that follow are every bit as harrowing and intense as any horror film. That’s because “The Impossible” is essentially a real-life horror movie, although one that features some exceptionally soul-baring performances by its cast. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor both deliver some of the best work of their careers as the two parents stuck in a difficult situation, while newcomer Tom Holland announces himself to the world with a star-making turn as the couple’s eldest son. The end result is not only an extremely well-made survival thriller, but a poignant celebration of the human spirit that deserves to be seen by all.
9. “THE SESSIONS“
Writer/director Ben Lewin’s “The Sessions” may sound like some really bizarre cross between “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “My Left Foot” – after all, it’s basically about a disabled man (real-life polio survivor and journalist Mark O’Brien) trying to get laid for the first time – but this incredibly low-key and feel-good dramedy is about much more, and that’s why it was such a big hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Though it would have been all too easy to produce the kind of heavy-handed Oscar bait that you normally see with these types of inspirational stories, Lewin never martyrizes his main character, instead relying on O’Brien’s charming personality and self-deprecating wit to lighten the mood. The sex scenes are also handled with a frankness and intimacy that you don’t see in films too often, and that, coupled with a pair of superb performances by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, is what makes “The Sessions” such a real joy to watch.
10. “THE RAID: REDEMPTION“
Gareth Evans’ Indonesian action film “The Raid: Redemption” was showered with praise during its time on the festival circuit, and it deserved every word, because movies don’t get much cooler than this. A bone-crunching, testosterone-pumping freight train of destruction that barely lets you catch your breath once it gets going, “The Raid” delivers the closest thing to non-stop, wall-to-wall action that I’ve ever seen, and a big part of what makes it so awesome is the amazing fight choreography, including what is easily some of the best close-quarters combat committed to film. Every fight is more inventive, more complex and more intense than the last, and just when you think you’ve seen it all, Evans launches into yet another bloody battle. Being exposed to this much action would normally get tiresome after a while, but the director shoots each sequence with such visual flair (with the camera itself integrated into the choreography) that it’s like watching a ballet being performed – only, you know, with machine guns and machetes.