Best Films of 2012

HOLD THAT TIGER: Ang Lee's 'Life of Pi' was an epic about the riches of the film experience.

Imagine a parallel-world Top 10 movies list: Dreams From My Real Father, 2016: Obama's America, Atlas Shrugged Part 2, October Baby, etc.—a challenge to the morally easy, left-leaning cinema in the era of the "gun-grabbin' Muslin usurper."

Luckily, 2012 gave us two epics about the richness of cinema-making: both digital (Life of Pi) and analog (the uncanny, gorgeous Holy Motors). Thus the movies held their own with the pageantry and shame of a national election staged during the 24-hour news cycle.

And then there was that World Series. It was my duty to attend the Cloud Atlas screening during the Oct. 15 Giants wipeout of the Cardinals. I swear that this circumstance had no influence on the particularly easy choice of Cloud Atlas as the worst film of 2012—despite contention from Les Miserables, a challenge so full-throated as to make Gandalf's challenge to the Balrog look like an invitation to a game of badminton.

There were times in 2012 when cinema was just part of the bandwidth, instead of being something above and beyond all other popular art forms. However, small camerawork competed with bloated-budget features for fascination. Shot with phone cameras and home-movie equipment, This Is Not a Movie isn't a film in the Syd Field sense. Rather, it is an astonishing vision of the Iranian tyranny and the true meaning of the house arrest: a paternal state ordering its child to go to their room. No movie in 2012 offered a braver act of defiance.

Funniest question I had to answer all year, from occasional film viewers: Should they see Skyfall or Lincoln? It's funny not just because the answer is "both," but also because the answer was obvious, and they already knew it.

As a Bond fan of 40 years' standing, I'm grateful Skyfall made Bond relevant, interesting and Zeitgeisty in a way he hadn't been since Goldfinger. Repeated viewings made the film grow in mood and color. With success, however, came a bit of a shift to the right: 007 once again takes orders from a man, and the sharpshooting field agent Eve becomes "the desirable secretary" to use Ian Fleming's phrase.

Rather than the titanic conspiracies of yesterday, Skyfall takes us back to the Forever War on Terror. I'm still more terrified of Blofeldian hyper-capitalism.

As for that item in so many Top 10 lists: I still haven't seen Zero Dark Thirty, opening in the valley in January. Sight unseen, I'm willing to enjoy the dispute on whether or not it endorses waterboarding.

Apparently, the hard-as-nails spook played by Jessica Chastain pukes after watching the torture, demonstrating moral ambivalence—which says nada. Forgive me Godwin, but Nazi war diaries recorded the soldiers' nausea about the terrible things they were forced to do because the Reich needed them done. Film critics may not be the first in war, but they're often first to be embedded.

In 2012, we had Batman fighting the Commie revolution in Gotham, winning in the end, heralding four more years of muddling centerism. Lincoln was a fine film surprisingly free of Spielberg sentiment about the harsh side of forming coalitions. Let's also remember The Avengers as a crazier tale of political consensus, with its mixed crew ironing out their differences. It's not that I'm likening Loki's alien army to the losing party in the last election (and Republicans never actually came out and called Sandra Fluke a "mewling quim").

Long before the election was over, I knew Romney was going to be walking home in the rain like a Hemingway hero on the first Wednesday in November. And I knew it the instant I heard Agent Coulsen summing up Loki: "You'll lose. It's in your nature. You lack conviction." (Director Joss Whedon's own feelings about Romney are summed up in his viral mock-endorsement of the candidate as the one leader who could save us from a zombie invasion.)

The snippet of Jack Black in Bernie singing the Florida Boys' Love Lifted Me ornamented a parable of Christian love through small-town eccentricity—a virtue professed by many, practiced by few.

ParaNorman was an acute animated fable about the cost of small-town intolerance. Keenness about class-crossed romance made Wuthering Heights and Deep Blue Sea two of the year's best in different ways: history working its will on trapped lovers.

The strange world of The Master (with the best male acting of the year, give or take the mighty Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained) makes for a sometimes mystifying film. When pondered over, Paul Thomas Anderson's film made the clearest address yet to the struggle between paternal iron authority and the urge to commit acts of monkey-man misbehavior.

Richard von Busack's Top Ten

The Master



Queen of Versailles

This Is Not a Movie

Wuthering Heights

Life of Pi


Holy Motors

Deep Blue Sea

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