Moviegoers returned to cinemas in great numbers this year after a disappointing 2011 box office tally. They were treated to an unusually rich trove of movies, ranging from quality blockbusters, unusually literate studio fare, exciting new independent voices and potentially groundbreaking uses of technology.
James Bond was back with a bracing new style and a new coterie of supporting players in “Skyfall.” The first film in the young-adult “Hunger Games” series made its screen debut, putting a young female action hero front and center. Ang Lee showed how 3-D cinematography and computer-generated special effects can be used in the service of high art as well as action in his adaptation of “Life of Pi.”
None of these made the cut, however, as I winnowed my list of 2012 favorites to just 10 titles, an indication of the strength of this year’s release schedule. It was a great year for trim, simply told tales. With one notable exception (“Django Unchained”), my picks for the best movies of the year are uncluttered, with an intense focus on essentials and narrative drive.
By turns stately and earthy, profound and profane, “Lincoln” focuses on a brief historical moment — the lame-duck session of Congress that saw the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, ending slavery. But through this narrow lens, Steven Spielberg’s magisterial period piece reveals the paradoxes at the heart of Abraham Lincoln, and the republic he led. Daniel Day-Lewis plays a version of Lincoln more realistic than the caricature of the garrulous rail-splitter and more humane than the granite of Mount Rushmore. While in many respects “Lincoln” follows the conventions of a contemporary political thriller, the deep shadows and flickering gaslight of the gloomy White House interiors create a believable 19th-century setting.
Ben Affleck’s white-knuckle thriller about the real-life exfiltration of six Americans from Tehran during the hostage crisis is the kind of gritty genre picture they don’t make anymore. The movie hurtles at speed from setup to payoff with just enough time for the audience to get to know the characters. Mr. Affleck all but disappears into the role of a CIA operative tasked with the rescue operation, and the scenes of Tehran during the 1979 revolution bristle with chaos and terror. There’s barely an ounce of fat in the entire two-hour running time.
3: “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”
“Freedom is a pretty strange thing,” Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei says in this first-class documentary. “Once you’ve experienced it, it remains in your heart, and no one can take it away.” This idea of freedom as a raw, personal and optimistic force undergirds much of Mr. Ai’s artwork, an exhibition of which is on display at the Hirshhorn Gallery in the District through Feb. 24. In her documentary about Mr. Ai, filmmaker Alison Klayman wisely stands back and lets the artist do much of the talking. His warmth, cleverness and irascibility shine forth, as well as the charisma that leads thousands of ordinary Chinese to risk prison — and worse — to help carry out his mission.
4. “Django Unchained”
Quentin Tarantino’s sprawling love letter to the Spaghetti Western and to the cinema of blaxploitation is patently offensive — and singularly watchable. It’s the story of an escaped slave who wreaks violent havoc as a bounty hunter in the American South. While this sounds like a bit of bloody wish fulfillment, “Django Unchained” isn’t a romantic, sentimental attempt to rewrite history as a politically correct revenge fantasy. It’s more along the lines of Mr. Tarantino’s World War II picture “Inglourious Basterds” — a historical movie that takes nothing seriously except movies themselves. Christoph Waltz is fantastic as the bounty hunter who recruits Django (Jamie Foxx). The cinematography by Robert Richardson is stunning — “Django” may be the most visually arresting movie of Mr. Tarantino’s career.
5. “The Footnote”
Israeli director Joseph Cedar manages to locate droll comedy and slapstick hilarity in this story of family rivalry set in the competitive and occasionally vitriolic world of Talmudic studies. The story is set in motion when an aging scholar is told he’s been nominated for an award that, in fact, is set to go to his son. The father is a marginalized figure — meticulous but devoted to esoterica. The son, by contrast, is popular, but his work is not taken seriously by the father. The allegory is done with a light touch. Mr. Cedar excels in finding subtle ways to depict the father’s obscurity and brooding discontent, and his sense that his son’s popularity somehow is linked to a broader social decline. Though “The Footnote” is steeped in a very particular scholarly milieu, it can be enjoyed by audiences with near-total ignorance of its ostensible subject.
6. “Anna Karenina”
“Anna Karenina” proves to be one of the best literary adaptations in recent memory. Screenwriter Tom Stoppard and director Joe Wright take a bold editing pencil to Leo Tolstoy’s timeless epic about a woman driven to infidelity. Rather than dwell on the muddle of sociological nuance, or allow the characters to air their interior thoughts, they let the story play out on a stage. The apparatus of the theater — the footlights, catwalks and floorboards — is shown intermittently as scenes take on a life of their own. But the staging isn’t just background. It provides a window into the consciousness of the characters, while giving vent to the raw emotion at the heart of the story.
7. “Chicken With Plums”
This quirky, allegorical tale brings to life the fanciful graphic novel by Iranian-born artist and filmmaker Marjane Satrapi. She’s best known for her graphic novel and animated film “Persepolis,” based on her childhood amid the revolution in Iran and her adolescence in European exile. Set in Tehran in 1958, “Chicken With Plums” tells the story of a renowned musician who despairs of replacing his broken instrument, and instead chooses to lie still and wait for death. The filmmakers contrive a wonderful live-action visual style that conveys the idea of panels in a comic book throughout.
8. “The Secret World of Arrietty”
This sumptuous animated Japanese feature brings to life the quaint English children’s book series “The Borrowers,” about a tiny people who forage for survival in the floorboards of human homes. Arrietty, a young Borrower who has just discovered the wider world outside her tiny shelter, meets up with the young human boy Shawn, whose own world is narrowing because of his terminal illness. It’s a beautiful story told without many complexities or contours — and without glossing over for its audience of young viewers the central themes of death and displacement.
9. “The Cabin in the Woods”
Cleverness isn’t everything, but it goes a long way in this parody of horror-movie conventions. Even to describe the basic outlines of the plot is something of a spoiler. Suffice it to say that horror-movie geeks will delight in the homage paid to the genre with references to legendary filmmakers, but it’s also a satire that ranks as an exemplary specimen of the style it’s sending up.
10. “Sound of My Voice”
“Sound of My Voice” manages to convey the mood of a dystopian sci-fi thriller without any visual effects or narrative tricks. It tells the story of a journalist trying to infiltrate a cult built around a young woman who claims to have traveled from the year 2054 to prepare her followers for the dark times to come. The movie amplifies suspense using ordinary, everyday interior settings placed in its eerie, jangled context. There’s no technology in “Sound of My Voice” that’s more advanced than a remote garage-door opener, but the mix of cultish devotion, prophecy and conspiracy imparts a sense of foreboding and menace that is hard to shake.
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