If you had asked me in early June, I would have told you 2012 was shaping up to be a terrible year in movies. Fortunately, that all changed by December. In the second half of the year, suddenly there were too many good movies to catch up on — so many, in fact, that I couldn’t keep my list to 10 titles (sorry, OCDers). Here, in order of preference, are the best movies of 2012:
1. Beasts of the Southern Wild: Director Benh Zeitlin and the New Orleans-based film collective Court 13 used non-professional actors and limited resources to create the year’s most magical fairy tale, set in a slightly heightened reality in a post-Katrina Louisiana, about a six-year old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) living with her ailing father (Dwight Henry) on a muddy island the locals call the Bathtub. Part of the beauty of the film lies in the extraordinary details of their everyday lives — ramshackle houses and boats made out of cardboard and detritus and a community in which everyone seems happy and content despite the miserable conditions. But what makes Beasts truly soar is Zeitlin’s ability to show us the world through Hushpuppy’s optimistic, naïve eyes, which find wonder in the most mundane of details. The film is thrilling, transporting and heartbreaking: I have never seen another like this one.
2. Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson’s comedy about two 12-year-olds who fall in love and run away from home (even though they live on an island) was the director’s first movie since The Royal Tenenbaums that didn’t choke on its own preciousness. Instead, the director’s elaborate art designs and droll sense of humor were a perfect match for this rapturous movie filled with indelible characters, from Edward Norton’s methodical scout master to Tilda Swinton’s social services drone. A treasure.
3. Amour: Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has made some grueling movies before ( Funny Games, The Piano Teacher) but he’s never made one as devastating and beautiful as this one. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are the eightysomething married couple whose love burns as bright as the day they met. Then old age and illness intervenes. Difficult to watch, impossible to forget — and the year’s most haunting love story. (Opens in South Florida Jan. 25).
4. Lincoln: Steven Spielberg sets aside most of his directorial flourishes and cedes the stage to screenwriter Tony Kushner and actor aniel Day-Lewis to recount the 16th President’s battle to pass the 13th amendment through Congress and abolish slavery. Never before has the dry business of politics felt so riveting, and despite the large ensemble cast, Day-Lewis is the magnet that holds this absorbing movie together. Looks like medicine but tastes like candy.
5. The Silver Linings Playbook: This messy, boisterous romantic comedy directed by David O. Russell ( The Fighter, Three Kings) polarized audiences in a love-it-or-hate-it way. As a man suffering from bipolar disorder, Bradley Cooper has never been better, and Jennifer Lawrence, as a widow who deals with her grief through promiscuity, seems so grown-up you wonder how she ever passed for a teenager in The Hunger Games. Jacki Weaver and Robert DeNiro perfectly captured the bond between long-suffering parents, and Russell’s unusual approach to this conventional material (including peculiar use of wide-angle lenses in certain scenes) draws you into the sprawl and tumult of this extended family. Here’s a movie that ends with a high-stakes dance competition (!) and still manages to feel utterly fresh.