2012 was one of those years where studios didn’t put out too many greatly impressive films. The Dark Knight Rises didn’t live up to expectations, and so many of the awards season films that year were certainly adequate but not nearly as substantial as they thought they were. Do Argo, Lincoln, and Silver Linings Playbook really have everlasting rewatch power? Even P.T. Anderson’s The Master and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained remain inferior works, even though both of those films are impressively flawed and undeniably unforgettable. Both of those films certainly have their hardcore defenders where some oddly believe they are their best films which I will never fully understand. It was a year where Cloud Atlas, Cabin in the Woods, Dredd, Looper, and Avengers wowed the horror and sci-fi aficionados, while Amour and Holy Motors wowed the art house crowd.
Like any other year, 2012 offered a strong array of good film, bad films, and many overpraised films. It was a year of many adaptations that were based on true stories, comic book stories, or novels. It was a year where one certainly had to track down some esoteric titles that were just leftovers from 2011 that finally received a 2012 theatrical release. Ultimately, many of those smaller titles or filmmakers that were very limited at the time blossomed into great things where either the films below received a Criterion, or their later films after went onto to gain greater notoriety. These are my absolute favorite films of 2012, and yes Skyfall is on the list. As always, I follow the North America theatrical release date just like I do now to determine my year-end list. This list is very identical to the one I wrote on Letterboxed in 2012 before I launched Defacto in 2016. The list is followed by six runners-up (In Alphabetical order) and another list of honorable mentions and other notable titles.
1. Amour (d. Michael Haneke)
Michael Haneke’s Amour is a challenging piece of cinema—a film that examines and explores the inevitable cruelties of old age and the diseases that can suddenly arise from it. Haneke, who is very much a cold and cerebral director, often directs films that are rather oblique. He is almost like a mad scientist that likes to dissect and examine human nature and the writing and camera are his lab, and in many ways, this is what he is doing here. However, what makes Amour resonate as his greatest achievement to date is that for once you feel emotionally connected to his characters, and you find great character depth and a sense of compassion that was lacking in his much more austere and less humane film.
2. Zero Dark Thirty (d. Kathryn Bigelow)
Bigelow won the Best Directing and Best Picture Oscars for her wrenching but far inferior film, The Hurt Locker, but it was Zero Dark Thirty that truly felt like the work of a master and here we saw her shake off any remaining action movie trappings to become a serious filmmaking auteur. The first Oscar winning female director set a new career benchmark with this harrowing film that was part docudrama, part political thriller. From Jessica Chastain’s commanding performance to the eavesdropping authenticity, the film never hit one false note as it raised brilliant observations in what led to the capture, and ultimate demise of radical terrorist Osama Bin Laden.
3. Tabu (d. Miguel Gomes)
Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes’ narrative film debut titled Tabu, heralded a generation’s post-colonial retreat into confronting and accepting the uncomfortable truths about the past of and the aftermath of colonialism and the hidden secrets. Conjuring a pastoral idyll from technically dazzling silent movie aesthetics to reach the emotive longing of each of its characters, this is everything the humble but contrived Oscar winning The Artist should have been. It is a film of pure visual poetry, and a heartbreaking exploration of nostalgia, as the film uses two different film stocks (35mm and 16mm) to establish its rich dynamics and compelling themes.
4. The Loneliest Planet (d. Julia Loktev)
One of the more decisive films of the decade, indie writer-director Julia Loktev’s (Day Night, Day Night) still hasn’t directed a film since. Her sophomore feature titled The Loneliest Planet, is a visually rich, mostly wordless observational look at love. She alternates between the intimate moments and the desolated and distancing ones as the couple (Gael Garcia Bernal and Hanni Furstensberg) on display endures many trials and tribulations that ultimately tests the endurance of their relationship. The film is shot in all exteriors–very much in the vein of Michelangelo Antonioni and Werner Herzog—and offers many awe-inspiring landscapes that make the experiences feel sweeping and earthly. The Loneliest Planet is one of the strongest films of the decade–mostly a poetic film that explores the earth and how we can’t escape our own loneliness that exists within.
5. Holy Motors (d. Leos Carax)
Holy Motors, from acclaimed French filmmaker Leos Carax (Boy Meets Girl, Pola X, The Lovers on the Bridge) was his first feature film in 13 years has created one of the most audacious, unique, and unforgettable film experiences of the 2010s. The film is a surreal, abstract, and hallucinatory dreamlike love letter to cinema. It was quite an exhilarating gift for like-minded cinephiles. This film is nothing short of extraordinary and it’s unlike anything you will ever see, even 8 years after its initial release. A truly bizarre and idiosyncratic film that’s part Fellini, part Godard, and mostly a magical experience that beautifully explores the treasures of cinema.
6. The Kid with a Bike (d. Dardenne Bros.)
The Kid with a Bike is the sixth film by Belgian brother filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, and it ranks up there with their best, which includes a great resume of such titles as Rosetta, Lorna’s Silence, and L’Enfant. Their style has always been in the vein of Italian neo-realism and Robert Bresson by exploring the livelihoods of ordinary working-class people and using stripped-down aesthetics. The Kid with a Bike is where the Dardennes were at their most polished. easily one of their most emotionally gripping and affecting films to date. The film centers on a lost adolescent and his transformation in the presence of adults in his life, in which he must learn self-reliance, making choices, and overcoming his own hardships and obstacles. This film is a poignant human portrait of a young adolescent enduring personal struggle and fighting for his survival.
7. Elena (d. Andrey Zvyagintsev) (2012)
Acclaimed Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s 2012 Russian thriller Elena was the film he did right before he received huge attention for Leviathan in 2014. It’s a Russian suspense thriller that echoes American film noir. The film is about a middle-aged woman named Elena, who’s a meek wife to her emotionally distant second husband, Vladimir. When he decides to leave his riches to his estranged daughter, Elena chooses to take drastic action to provide for her own adult son. The film observes class division and warfare in post-Soviet Russia in a very intricate and compelling matter. Of course, Zvyagintsev observes it in an empathetic matter, and at the same time, it takes you in a direction that you least expect. The haunting score by renowned composer Phillip Glass heightens the tension with its long stretches of pauses as Zvyingstev’s elegant camera observes. All around, this really is an arresting dramatic thriller that is a highlight of last decade.
8. Oslo, August 31st (d. Joachim Trier)
OSLO, August 31st was Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s (The Worst Person in the World, Thelma) second feature film, following the well–received 2006 Reprise. A deeply empathetic character study about a 34-year-old Norwegian drug addict released from rehab as we follow one day of his life in Oslo. During the course of his day, he tries to repair his shattered life. It’s not your typical hipster drug movie of the week–it’s far more nuanced, compassionate, and powerful than it sounds on paper. The film also brilliantly examines despair and loneliness, and the details are vividly and powerfully conveyed.
9. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (d. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is another genre film that takes routine genre elements to refreshing new heights. The fourth feature from the gifted Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Winter Sleep, The Wild Pear Tree), takes place in the course of a day and follows a group of men that include a detective, a prosecutor, a doctor, and a murder suspect as they drive through the country sides of Anatolia in the search of a dead missing body. What begins as a familiar whodunit–a police procedural driven by a crime and an investigation–soon becomes a lyrical, contemplative, and evocative study on many things—including corruption, truth, hypocrisy, the passage of time, and the dichotomy of the old way squaring off against the new. This was the film that proved that Ceylan is a serious artist and one of the most essential voices working today.
10. Miss Bala (d. Gerardo Naranjo)
Mexican filmmaker Gerardo Naranjo laid the groundwork and inspiration for Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 drug-war thriller Sicario as well as an ungainly Hollywood remake of the same name by Twilight filmmaker Catherine Hardwicke. Yet Miss Bala still stands on its own with its highly engrossing and superbly nail-biting chronicle of the endless drug war. Stephanie Sigman delivered a fearless and towering performance, attempting to maneuver herself as a pawn in the cat-and-house yarn between the Mexican drug cartel and law enforcement issues. Fluid in visual style and rich in ides, Miss Bala sadly remains an overlooked film where I hope more audiences eventually discover it.
Runners-Up in Alphabetical Order
The Deep Blue Sea (d. Terence Davies)
A visually elegant and heartbreaking portrait of a woman in emotional turmoil, British filmmaker The Deep Blue Sea (2011) is certainly a highlight of 2010s cinema. Rachel Weisz delivered a powerhouse of a performance in which she should have won Best Actress that year. Through a fragmented weaving of past and present, Davies examines several conflicting tones of a woman discovering true passion as she’s trapped in a passionless marriage. The film brings great empathy to all characters in this masterful study of passion, regret, and ultimately, atonement. The performances by both Tom Hiddleston and Simon Russell Brake are also filled with rich vulnerabilities.
Django Unchained (d. Quentin Tarantino)
Despite being Tarantino’s most commercially successful film to date that won him another Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, Django Unchained almost misfired in a big way. With a borderline painful final 30 minutes that featured Tarantino acting in a very bad Aussie accent, that also consisted of some of the laziest set-pieces in its climatic showdown of Tarantino’s career that should have been his best, along with awful visual gags, with obvious spaghetti Western movie tropes was still largely anchored thanks mainly to a brilliant and multi-layered performances by Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, and a brilliantly sinister Leonardo DiCaprio. The film is also very blunt on the horrors of slavery that most movies in America cinema are afraid to tap into. Not a perfect Tarantino film by any means, but still a very memorable one that has a massive fan base.
Killing Them Softly (d. Andrew Dominick)
Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominick has always been a divisive filmmaker. While The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is considered one of the best films of 2006 as of today, it certainly had its fair share of detractors then due to its contemplative and elegiac style. Blonde ruffled so many feathers, but it was every bit as artful. While not quite the masterpiece that was his sophomore feature, his third feature, Killing Them Softly, is just as impressive. Dominick begins with a Godardian series of abrupt cuts between a striking image of one of his main characters, Frankie (Scoot McNairy), walking in a windy field of rubbish as the imagery is juxtaposed with a speech by presidential candidate Barack Obama, and then it becomes clear that the entire film will be a sophisticated portrait of how desperation, organized crime, and capitalism are all intertwined as it takes place on the eve of the 2008 Election. On top of it all is Brad Pitt, who surpasses his movie star status and delivers an outright gritty performance as a hitman who is just as ruthless and a capitalist as any Wall Street spectator that catalyzed the Great Recession of 2008. The late James Gandolfini also delivered a scene-stealing performance as a lethargic hitman who is just too depressed to carry out a job.
The Master (d. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth feature is perhaps his most idiosyncratic one. Frustrating but addictive, perplexing but memorable, The Master is the type of film that reveals new meanings with each viewing because of how psychologically rich and layered the material is. A complex meditation on the impact of emotional trauma on a troubled World War II veteran named Freddie Quell (Juaquin Phoenix), who seeks refuge in a cult-like community that echoes the Church of Scientology and is led by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), this period piece that takes place in the early 1950s is made up of mainly sensory visuals and hypnotic moods that feel transporting. Meticulously shot with woozy storytelling techniques that involve hypnosis, flashbacks, dream states, and montages as Lancaster Dodd attempts to heal Freddie’s trauma and anxiety that stem from his troublesome habits that consist of boozing, holding a hot temper, and sex addiction, The Master is more problematic with its enigmatic approach that feels more distant and detached, but still, there is no denying just how unforgettable The Master has become all these years later.
Moonrise Kingdom (d. Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson’s seventh feature, Moonrise Kingdom, is another delicate film from the iconic auteur. Eager to register as a coming-of-age story or even a young romance film in the mold of many other films on the same topic, Anderson’s charming adolescence romance echoes the work of Francois Truffaut’s Small Change and The 400 Blows, but with his signature style. The casting of the two pre-teen leads, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) as twelve-year-old’s who fall in love with each other brings a lot of emotional truths about what it’s like to have your very first love or first kiss at a young age. While some like to dismiss this one as too cutesy and simplistic, the film is actually more layered and complex as it examines class differences (young girl has siblings and family as she falls in love with a foster child), and its stylized world still holds a lot of emotional truths about acceptance and loneliness involving Bruce Willis as the town’s police captain, who happens to be an aging bachelor who holds a lot of sympathy for Sam with his status, while hitting on some deeply sorrowful themes about orphanages, the loss of innocence and being misunderstood. Anderson is able to make the film feel unsentimental and, of course, earned with many moments that hold a lot of grace and dignity.
Skyfall (d. Sam Mendes)
There have been so many Bond sequels, relaunches, and continuations of the beloved franchise Last year, the Daniel Craig series ended with No Time to Die, and it was a solid swan song, but Sam Mendes’s Skyfall still remains, in terms of style and execution, the best Bond film of the era, and is up there with Goldfinger, From Russia with Love, and Dr. No as being one of the most accomplished in the franchise. There’s no doubt Craig played a great Bond, but only after his appearance with Sam Mendes did, Mendes’ filmmaking is also skillful, and Skyfall holds some of the greatest set-pieces out of any Bond film. Javier Bardem is also the most effective Bond villain in the franchise as Raoul Silva, the flamboyant villain who also holds a dark penance. Skyfall along with Casino Royale remains true gems of the Bond franchise that will be treasured by a generation in years to come.
2012 Honorable Mention (In Alphabetical Order)
Bernie (d.. Richard Linklater)
Compliance (d. Craig Zobel)
The Day He Arrives (d. Hong Sang-Soo)
How to Survive a Plague (d. David France)
In Another Country (d. Hong Sang-Soo)
Life of Pi (d. Ang Lee)
Neighboring Sounds (d. Kleber Mendonça Filho)
Searching for Sugarman (d. Malik Bendjelloul)
Starlet (d. Sean Baker)
Take This Waltz (d. Sarah Polley)
This Is Not a Film (d. Jafar Panahi)
The Turin Horse (d. Bela Tarr)
Other notable titles: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Alps, Arbitrage, Argo, Attenberg, The Avengers, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Beyond the Black Rainbow, Cabin in the Woods, The Central Park Five, Chronicle, Cloud Atlas, The Color Wheel, Damsels in Distress, The Dark Knight Rises, Dredd, End of Watch, Farewell my Queen, Fill the Void, Flight, Footnote, Haywire, Goodbye First Love, The Grey, The Invisible War, The Innkeepers, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Keep the Lights On, Kill List, Killer Joe, Las Acacias Lincoln, Magic Mike, Middle of Nowhere, Paranorman, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Pitch Perfect, Prometheus, The Queen of Meirelles, The Raid: Redemption, Ruby Sparks, The Sessions, Seven Psychopaths, A Simple Life, Silver Linings Playbook, Smashed, Wreck it-Ralph
Actually 2013 films:
The Act of Killing, Beyond the Hills, Frances Ha, The Hunt, Like Someone in Love Mud, The Place Beyond the Pines, Spring Breakers, Stories We Tell, To the Wonder, are eligible for 2013 List due to North America Theatrical Releases