For the second year in a row, there weren’t that many movies jostling behind the velvet rope to get onto my 10-best list. Maybe that’s because I felt ambivalent to negative about several films this year that seemed to resonate powerfully with other viewers. Looper, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Django Unchained are three examples of movies I tried to feel passion for and finally couldn’t—much as I may have admired, respectively, Rian Johnson’s imagination, Benh Zeitlin’s community spirit, and Quentin Tarantino’s adamantine cojones. Still, when it came down to distilling a whole year’s worth of viewing into just 10 titles, I found with relief that it was impossible to remain stingy with my accolades: There were enough films that genuinely thrilled me this year to fill up a list, and then some. Forthwith, in alphabetical order, my 10 favorites of the year, plus five runners-up:
Amour. I’ve sometimes felt queasy about the Austrian director Michael Haneke’s relationship to his audience: In movies like The Piano Teacher or Funny Games, his merciless commitment to showing us the worst human beings are capable of can feel manipulative and sadistic.* But in the admittedly hard-to-watch Amour—which bears agonizing witness to the decline of a Parisian octogenarian (the astonishing Emmanuelle Riva) before the eyes of her devoted but ultimately powerless husband (the equally great Jean-Louis Trintignant)—Haneke goes beyond facile nihilism to create a soul-wrenching portrait of love at the extreme edge of life.
How to Survive a Plague. If its essence could be bottled, David France’s fierce, heartbreaking documentary about the very early days of AIDS activism could serve as a tonic for demoralized political organizers, a bracing reminder that change is possible when a group of committed people come together to fight injustice, indifference, and prejudice. Even if you think you’ve seen every documentary you need to about the early days of the AIDS crisis (last year’s We Were Here, which focused on a small group of San Francisco activists, was exceptional as well), don’t miss this cathartic, inspiring film.
Lincoln. Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s warm, literate portrait of the 16th president in the last few months of the Civil War (and of his life) is like a treacle sandwich with the bread in the middle. But that bread is so substantial and so delicious that it’s easy to forgive the movie its sentimental opening and tacked-on, reverential coda. And while the cast as a whole is superb, Daniel Day-Lewis’ quiet, meditative, deeply lived performance as Lincoln catapults him into the acting stratosphere.
The Master. Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth film, a kind of twisted homosocial romance between a nascent cult leader and a damaged Navy vet who comes into his orbit in the first years after WWII, was the only movie this year so nice I reviewed it twice. OK, maybe “nice” isn’t the best descriptor for a film that plumbs the darker recesses of both masculine psychology and mid-20th-century American culture. But The Master is original, startling, and bold, from the glorious 65mm cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. to the unsettling soundtrack by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix give performances that are somehow at once mythically impenetrable and alive with earthy detail. I also love that, even after three viewings, there are parts of The Master whose final “meaning” continues to elude me: that nude sort-of-dream-sequence around the piano, for example, or Hoffman’s mysterious valedictory “Slow Boat to China” serenade.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. With its gradually unfolding murder-investigation storyline, starkly music-free soundtrack, and nightscapes straight out of a Rembrandt painting, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s bleak Turkish procedural makes for a demanding but lavishly rewarding two-and-a-half-hour watch. In terms of sheer visual and narrative sophistication, this may be the most accomplished film I’ve seen all year—there isn’t an aesthetic detail it doesn’t get right. If it doesn’t get a best foreign-language film Oscar nomination, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia could easily disappear from sight for American audiences. Don’t let it.
The Queen of Versailles. Lauren Greenfield’s documentary follows a crazy-rich time-share mogul and his alternately appealing and appalling wife through the early days of the recession, as the house they were building in Florida—which was to have been the largest in the United States—goes from status symbol to albatross in the space of less than a year. The Queen of Versailles starts out as a portrait of two eccentric billionaires and their gaudy dream castle, then opens onto a critique of the predatory real-estate economy and culture of blind consumerism that made both their success and failure possible.
Silver Linings Playbook. I can enumerate its flaws on one hand—there’s the contrived subplot about bookmaking, Bradley Cooper’s textureless performance, and a storyline that is sometimes disturbingly close to a celebration of love as shared mental illness—while my other hand just keeps pressing PLAY again on the DVD player. David O. Russell’s movie is a little rough around the edges, but it bursts with energy, rhythm, and life. Like Cooper’s amateur ballroom-dancing duet with the delectable Jennifer Lawrence in the movie’s climactic dance-contest scene, Silver Linings Playbook is proudly, almost triumphantly imperfect.
Take This Waltz. Child-star-turned-actress-turned-director Sarah Polley’s second film proved that her first one, the prodigious Away From Her, wasn’t a fluke—Polley is the real thing, capable of coaxing alchemical moments out of actors and (especially in a virtuosic 360-degree shot late in the film) wielding the camera like an angel. Not everyone was convinced by this miniaturist portrait of a love triangle among Toronto twentysomethings, but the image of Michelle Williams, dizzy with new-hatched desire, swaying in a carnival ride to the strains of “Video Killed the Radio Star” is one of the indelible memories of my movie year.
The Turin Horse. The self-proclaimed last film of Béla Tarr, the Hungarian director of such bleak masterpieces as Sátántangó and Damnation, The Turin Horse begins with a sly red herring, suggesting the story will follow Friedrich Nietzsche on the day when he embraced an ill-treated horse in the public square, then went mad and fell silent for the rest of his life. Instead, we follow the mistreated horse back to its home—a miserable hovel where a peasant lives in isolation with his grown daughter, repeating the same futile gestures day after day as they slowly but surely starve. The Turin Horse is a movie Samuel Beckett might have imagined, a seamless blend of humor and despair.
Zero Dark Thirty. Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial, pulse-pounding thriller about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, based on original reporting by screenwriter Mark Boal and starring the incandescent Jessica Chastain as a monomaniacal CIA operative, is maybe the only film this year that every American needs to see. Does it leave you certain how to feel about our country’s prosecution of the war on terror or about the role of torture in the bin Laden manhunt? No, it leaves you drained, sweaty-palmed, and morally queasy—sort of like the war on terror itself.
Correction, Dec. 20, 2012: This article originally misstated the nationality of Austrian director Michael Haneke. (Return to the corrected sentence.)