Doing this for the first time, I’m discovering that it’s much easier to get outraged about some other film critic’s list of Ten Best movies than to create one’s own for public view. The biggest problem is the triage factor, of course: having to cut loose worthy efforts that tug at your heartstrings in some way but aren’t quite your favorites. It’s a painful process.
And working for a small publishing group means that you don’t necessarily get to screen movies during the year of their official release. That’s why I have to qualify this list as representing “2012-so-far”: I haven’t yet seen such avidly awaited titles as Les Miserables, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark 30, Django Unchained or Hyde Park on Hudson. Conversely, some movies that I reviewed enthusiastically in early 2012 were technically 2011 releases – notably Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Iron Lady and the truly outstanding Iranian film A Separation.
As I have noted in these pages several times this past year, 2012 was an excellent year for animation, with a number of titles good enough, or very nearly so, to hit my Top Ten. But I’m arbitrarily bumping them back to the runners-up to ease my triage problem. With those qualifiers, herewith are my nominees for the best live-action films of the year – admittedly reflecting my personal aesthetic and genre biases, but also recognizing some of the genuinely fine work put out by the movie industry in the past year.
Lincoln – Top marks must go to this sumptuous and timely epic on the art of politics, which epitomizes the level of filmcraft that will permanently cement Steven Spielberg’s reputation as one of the top directors of our time. With a strong, subtle, literate screenplay by Tony Kushner that demands close attention (and a bit of intelligence) from the audience, Lincoln is the kind of “serious” movie that we all complain that Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. The attention to period detail is superb and all the cast strong, but Daniel Day-Lewis by himself is ample reason to go out of your way to see this movie. It’s the performance of a lifetime, illuminating the flaws, charms and heroism alike of America’s greatest president.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – This is my nominee for feel-good movie of the year. Anyone with even the slightest appreciation for great ensemble acting is guaranteed an entertaining time on a visit to the run-down palace in Udaipur that is being (all too slowly) renovated into a retirement home by moonstruck young Sonny, played by Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel. Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson head the lineup of veteran British thespians who rend our hearts in various ways as they learn to cope (or not) with both the grime and the splendor of the Subcontinent in John Madden’s love letter to India.
Moonrise Kingdom – Possibly the funniest movie of the year was the one in which not a single character ever smiles. Wes Anderson’s quirky comedy about a pair of earnest 12-year-old misfits (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) who run away together on an island off the coast of New England is as cinematically perfect as anything that I’ve seen onscreen in recent memory. Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton and Bob Balaban play the mostly clueless grownups with admirable restraint, never upstaging the extraordinary kids.
Beasts of the Southern Wild – It’s always a pleasure when a low-budget independent film rises to a level of broad public awareness simply by virtue of being really good, while also being unlike anything else that you’ll find out there in moviedom. Benh Zeitlin’s folkloric fantasy of life amongst the poorest of the poor in below-sea-level Louisiana before, during and after Hurricane Katrina was that indie treat for 2012. Hitherto-unknown Quvenzhané Wallis knocks our socks off as the gritty, philosophical 6-year-old narrator Hushpuppy. She may not get a Best Actress Oscar on the theory that she has plenty of time left for future shots at it, but she damned well deserves it.