Before this blog shuts the door on 2012 in cinema, it’s time to look back at my choices for the year’s absolute best. In my opinion and experience, these are the finest examples of cinematic storytelling and filmmaking craft that the year had to offer. If I was so blessed with an AMPAS ballot, this is how I would fill it out for Best Picture. Let’s bring out the Masterpieces.

10. Sound of My Voice

This was a delightfully disturbing little pseudo-paranormal rabbit hole to plunge into. There are so many layers of ambiguity to this film, and it was enchanting to watch the filmmakers keep me guessing as they danced across so many tightwires. Of course, it also helps that the main characters were so expertly crafted and wonderfully played. In particular, Brit Marling deserves a chance to bring her work into the mainstream ASAP. It’s such a shame that this film was so thoroughly eclipsed by another movie about cults, but we’ll get to that later.

9. Argo

One word: Tension. We already know how the story ends, and it’s absurdly easy to spot where Ben Affleck and company decided to “Hollywood” the picture up, yet this is still a riveting film from start to finish. The script, direction, editing, and the actors’ performances all somehow aligned in such a way that the film works as a first-rate thriller, almost in spite of itself. Of course, it also helps that the film works as a love letter to cinema in general and science-fiction films in particular. The timely commentary on international relations is also a plus.

8. Farewell, My Queen

An intimate story told against an epic backdrop, and both are delivered superbly. Diane Kruger did an incredible job portraying Marie Antoinette as an impossibly flighty yet inexplicably charming woman, and Lea Seydoux’s protagonist was a joy to watch as she guided us through every level of 18th-century Versailles. Of course, Versailles also benefits from the staggering production design on display. It’s incredible how much attention was put into every detail of this setting, from its palaces to its slums and everyplace in between. What a shame that this splendid work of historical fiction is so terribly underrated.

7. Django Unchained

I never would have guessed that Western films and Blaxploitation would be two great tastes that go great together, but then again, I’m not Quentin Tarantino. The man’s uncommon skill at writing and directing are in full effect (even without Sally Menke’s involvement, rest her soul), and his utter refusal to compromise does the film all kinds of favors. The movie works equally well as a cathartic shoot-‘em-up action film and as a brutally honest commentary on antebellum slave practices. The great performances by Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, and Sam Jackson are icing on the cake.

6. Lincoln

This one loses a few ranks for being such transparent Oscar bait, though I maintain that most of its Oscars were well-earned. Every member of this extraordinary cast turned in jaw-dropping work, and Daniel Day-Lewis deserves every ounce of praise he gets for his performance here. Perhaps most importantly (again, like Argo), this film somehow managed to present a well-known historical event with a great amount of tension. Spielberg managed to wring suspense out of a Congressional roll call, for God’s sake. That feat alone is worth a spot on this list.

5. Moonrise Kingdom

I never would have guessed that a romance between two grade-schoolers could be portrayed in such intimate detail without turning squicky, but Wes Anderson and crew absolutely nailed it. Indeed, the relationship between Suzy Bishop and Sam Shakusky is so pure and heartfelt that I’d call it the year’s best romance on film.

The performances in this movie are outstanding across the map. In particular, I loved how the precocious kids contrasted so wonderfully against the inept adults. Couple that with the film’s beautifully bright visuals and you’ve got a delightful modern-day fairy tale.

4. The Master

Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams may well have reached new career bests with their work in this picture, and that’s saying a lot. Of course, it helps that they were all given such conflicted and fascinating characters to play. The script is loaded with fascinating statements about the virtues and limitations of faith, yet the film is so visually potent that the proceedings could be every bit as captivating with the sound turned off.

Whether or not you completely understand or even like this picture (to be honest, I don’t think I entirely grasp it myself), you’ve got to respect Paul Thomas Anderson. He is too talented and powerful a filmmaker to be denied.

3. Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow has bigger balls than 90 percent of her male peers in Hollywood put together. Who else would have the courage to make a film about the War on Terror, the hunt for Osama bin Laden, degrading interrogations at CIA black sites, and terrorist attacks that killed untold scores of actual lives? These were and still are some of the most sensitive topics of the past ten years, yet Bigelow set out to depict them all as honestly and dispassionately as she knew how to do, controversies and congressional hearings be damned.

Even better, she made it into a gripping detective story with a first-rate cast, anchored by yet another sterling performance from Jessica Chastain. Of all the films on this list, this is easily the one that’s most relevant and important to society at large today. This film simply demands to be seen.

2. Beasts of the Southern Wild

No other movie released this year did so much with so little. Somehow, a cast and crew made entirely of newcomers — armed only with a reported $1.8 million budget — succeeded in making the most gripping, immersive, and heartfelt movie I saw all year. Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry both literally came out of nowhere to deliver two of the year’s most breathtaking performances. The father/daughter dynamic of their characters was emotionally and thematically charged to the hilt. Through their interactions, and through the characters’ constant struggle with the ruthless wilderness around them, this movie explored a whole plethora of such conflicting themes as age vs. youth, man vs. nature, change vs. death, novelty vs. obsolescence, the list goes on and on.

This is a truly masterful film from so many people who haven’t even hit their stride yet. I don’t know if their next projects will be anywhere near as good, but I can’t wait to find out.

1. Cloud Atlas

I won’t lie: I really had to debate with myself about giving this film the top spot. Some of the storylines and makeup jobs worked better than others, after all, and there is that one pesky plot hole that keeps bothering me. But every time I thought about bumping this film back a rank, I reminded myself that this movie should never have worked in the first place.

No filmmaker in his right mind would have tried to depict six completely distinct storylines — each with the exact same cast members playing six different roles apiece — that cleanly meshed together into a single cohesive story while making it easy for the audience to keep the various individual stories straight. Oh, and the film had to keep its audience awake and interested for three hours through the whole thing. Such a task should have been impossible, but the Wachowski Siblings and Tom Tykwer somehow did it. And in the process, they explored all manner of emotional and profound themes about the human condition across multiple genres of cinema. This film offers something for everyone to enjoy and think about, no matter what their tastes. Of course, it also helps that the top-notch cast of actors turn in phenomenal work in all of their various roles.

In terms of ambition, creativity, talent, and the strength of the end result in spite of so many obstacles, no film this year comes close. As such, Cloud Atlas is my pick for the year’s top masterpiece.

***

Thanks so much for reading my Year in Review and for all of your feedback. Onwards and upwards as we head into 2013!

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