What’s a film critic to do when all her favorite directors, as well as a startling slew of talented newcomers, release films in the same year?
Besides do a happy dance, that is.
The inner battle to build my top 10 films of 2012 list was as riveting as a Bigelow film, as bloody as a Tarantino production, as tense as an Affleck thriller and as twisty as one of Rian Johnson’s movies.
1. “Zero Dark Thirty”: Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal may just be the best filmmaking team working in cinema today. Their exhaustively researched story about the 10-year search for Osama bin Laden manages to be even more immersive than their 2009 Iraq War tale “The Hurt Locker,” which won six Oscars, including best picture, director and original screenplay. The controversial torture scenes are just as unflinching and hard to watch as advertised, the third act chronicling the raid on the 9/11 terrorist’s fortress racks the nerves even knowing the outcome, and the jittery pacing simulates the fits and starts of the protracted investigation. From “The Help” to “Take Shelter,” all the stellar turns we’ve seen from Jessica Chastain have been building to her powerhouse performance as a CIA operative who literally makes it her mission in life to hunt down the terror mastermind.
2. “Django Unchained”: Who would’ve thought that Quentin Tarantino could top his historical revenge fantasy “Inglourious Basterds”? His bloody new masterwork does for slavery what his 2009 project did for Nazism: gives it the shooting, blasting and beating it so richly deserves. With his first spaghetti Western, Tarantino shows off his usual devotion to classic genre films, his penchant for outlandish violence and his uproariously dark sense of humor.
3. “Argo”: With “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town” already on his resume, Ben Affleck has quietly become a first-rate helmer specializing in smart, nail-biting thrillers. He produced, directed and starred in his new period piece, about a recently declassified 1980 operation to sneak six stranded Americans out of revolutionary Iran. Even knowing the outcome, my fingers were digging into the arms of my theater seat the entire final 45 minutes.
4. “Looper”: Just three features into his career, Rian Johnson (“The Brothers Bloom,” “Brick”) has become one of those innovative writer-directors whose films go on my must-see list from the time they’re announced. His exhilarating time-travel tale starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt distinguished itself as one of the best science-fiction films in recent memory.
5. “Beasts of the Southern Wild”: Breakthroughs don’t get much more impressive than director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin’s engrossing saga of a dilapidated Louisiana enclave of fiercely defiant holdouts who opt to ride out a massive hurricane. Newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis, just 6 years old during filming, is luminescent as the strong-willed survivalist Hushpuppy, and Dwight Henry, a local bakery owner who was asked to audition, sure doesn’t seem like an amateur in his authentic turn as her drunken, terminally ill father.
6. “Brave”: Imagine a fairy tale with a princess who doesn’t have to hassle with a prince charming, knight in shining armor or lifesaving first kiss. The animation sorcerers at Pixar subtly but firmly revolutionized the magical princess adventures that are parent company Disney’s stock in trade with its visually dazzling Scottish fable.
7. “The Dark Knight Rises”: Even without the late Heath Ledger to play the Joker, Christopher Nolan managed to make his Batman saga even better and more relevant with its third installment. With the stunning and satisfying capper in place, it’s now safe to declare the director/cowriter’s superhero crime-drama series one of the all-around best cinematic trilogies ever.
8. “Robot & Frank”: First-time director Jake Schreier pulls of a big score with his near-future caper about an aging former jewel thief (Frank Langella) who decides to pull one last heist with his caretaker robot (voice of Peter Sarsgaard) as his high-tech partner in crime. Christopher D. Ford’s script delves into germane issues like dementia, family ties and technological innovation, but it thankfully never gets maudlin and boasts a pleasingly oddball sense of humor.
9. “Lincoln”: Politics have rarely been more gripping than director Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner’s period piece about the Abraham Lincoln-spearheaded race against time to get the 13th Amendment passed and slavery abolished before the end of the Civil War. From James Spader’s hilarious scene stealing as an underhanded early day lobbyist to Tommy Lee Jones’ commanding turn as a politician with a gift for articulate insults, the performances are uniformly outstanding, but Daniel Day-Lewis is sure to add a third Oscar to his collection for his embodiment of the 16th U.S. president.
10. “Safety Not Guaranteed”: A real-life (although author-contrived) 1990s classified ad seeking a time-travel companion inspired Derek Connolly to pen his first movie script. Film fans who resist the urge to automatically dismiss director Colin Trevorrow’s feature debut as a quirky-for-the-sake-of-quirkiness hipster comedy will be pleasantly surprised at the indie’s refreshing originality and unexpected resonance.