Expectations are everything when it comes to movies. Spend too much time looking forward to a film and you only set yourself up for disappointment. Keep the relentless marketing hype at bay and you're far more likely to appreciate even the partial successes most movies manage to achieve. Though expectations were pretty high this year, the films of 2012 generally exceeded them. Sure, there were some spectacular high-profile failures (Prometheus and John Carter come to mind). But for every by-the-numbers insult to the American moviegoer, there was another big-budget film that overcame its corporate origins by sheer forces of will and imagination. In 2012, Hollywood's biggest studios consistently handed the reins to visionary filmmakers with often-remarkable results (see Sam Mendes's Skyfall or Joss Whedon's The Avengers). It was a very good year for movies.
Those successes are all the more striking given the long, slow decline of the large and historic Hollywood studios in recent years. In 2012, studios further embraced their substantial new roles as marketers and distributors of films made by people outside the studio system. There was a time when each studio created its own identity through the films it chose to produce. Today, even those who work in Hollywood will tell you privately that they have trouble telling the studios apart. At the same time, what truly constitutes an independent film has gotten harder to discern as long-held divisions continue to blur. Maybe the best thing about the year in movies is that labels and categories seemed meaningless as never before. When quality and originality start to look like shared values, things are going well.
The most lovable movies of 2012 were those that transported us completely to places we didn't know existed. In some cases, that's because these places didn't really exist until they were brought to life on film. Three movies fit that bill better than any others released this year: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Dark Knight Rises. Each seems to thrive in a world entirely of its own devising and succeed only on its own self-defined terms. What follows is a purely-subjective-no-apologies Top 10 movies of the year, presented in alphabetical order. Several highly anticipated 2012 films, including Zero Dark Thirty and Amour, have not yet screened for local print reviewers and are not under consideration here:
Argo — Director Ben Affleck proves it's still possible to make an old-fashioned Hollywood thriller with neither cynicism nor flag-waving at its core.
Beasts of the Southern Wild — New Orleans filmmaker Benh Zeitlin and his ragtag crew made history with a magical and utterly original work of Louisiana art.
Beauty Is Embarrassing — This unassuming documentary about artist Wayne White has charm to burn and provides welcome sustenance for creative types.
The Dark Knight Rises — Is it possible to bring the depth and vision of a great art film to the world of cinematic superheroes? It is now.
Django Unchained — Quentin Tarantino goes way over the top with his spaghetti Southern, but his exuberance and obvious love for movies are hard to resist.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home — Metairie's Duplass brothers transcend their mumblecore roots with a sweet and heartfelt tale of personal redemption.
Lincoln — Seldom has the majesty of great ideas been depicted so convincingly on film.
Marley — This gorgeous documentary strips away the false veneer that's always applied to cultural icons, revealing a great man with a remarkable life story.
Moonrise Kingdom — Director Wes Anderson finally channels his huge talent into a great and memorable film by recreating the childhood none of us actually had.
Skyfall — This movie hits a tiny bullseye, bringing James Bond into the 21st century while retaining everything there is to love about 007's world.