It's the final week of 2012, so we're wrapping the year up the way movie people are supposed to wrap the year up: Lists! Yesterday, we each gave our five worst movies of 2012. Today, we each count down our No. 6-10 best movies of the year, and Friday, we finish off with each of our top five.
We'll confess to being overly nerdy about our top 10 lists. In fact, we're so weird about them that we won't even show each other our lists until January 14, the day before the Oscar nominations come out. This is a tradition that has gone on since we were sophomores in high school and will surely continue until one or both of us are dead. So as you read our top 10s—we each only hit Nos. 10-6 today—know that neither one of us will be reading each other's. We think this makes this the first blog post that requires spoilers for the people who wrote it.
For the sake of perspective, here are our past top 10s that have been published online:
All right. Here's Nos. 10-6.
10. Holy Motors, directed by Leos Carax.
A movie like Holy Motors makes everything around it, no matter how daring, seem positively dull by comparison. Director Leos Carax's adventurous tale focuses on a Parisian man (Denis Lavant) whose "job" it is to be chauffeured around in the back of a limo and play different characters in other people's lives: a motion-capture performer, a monster, a hit man. The film can be seen as a metaphor for the different seasons of our lives, a commentary on the actor's craft, or a statement about the fluidity of identity. Or you can simply enjoy it for the genre-bending, very funny, oddly touching fantasy that it is. (Original review here.)
9. Amour, directed by Michael Haneke.
Director Michael Haneke's films (Cache, The White Ribbon) often explore the evil lurking throughout society, which is why Amour's tenderness and compassion are so unexpected. The film grippingly examines how the slowly deteriorating health of an elderly spouse (Emmanuelle Riva) impacts not just her but also her relationship to her longtime husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Whereas in Haneke's previous works the terror was out there in the big, cruel world, this bare-bones drama suggests that the thing we should most fear is the inevitable collapse of our own bodies. That's a frightening thought, and yet Amour's honesty and superb performances make that realization the basis for a deeply moving film experience. (Original review here.)
8. Detropia, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady.
This documentary from filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp, 12th & Delaware) offers up an impressionistic, poignant snapshot of Detroit as it struggles to reverse decades of economic decline. Neither "ruin porn" nor falsely uplifting, Detropia weaves together an Altman-like tapestry of different individuals—everyone from a blues-bar owner to progressive urban planners to a defiantly upbeat Chevy Volt salesman—to take the temperature of a city grappling with the same problems affecting much of America. Detropia has no overarching message, and the film proposes no solutions. But in their commitment to letting their subjects speak their truth without editorializing, Ewing and Grady have delivered one of the most mournful portraits of life during the Great Recession.
7. Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
Before it became a lightning rod for a ridiculously simplified "Is this movie pro-torture?" controversy, Zero Dark Thirty was simply a riveting dramatization of the U.S. government's 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. Recalling Zodiac in its meticulous attention to the many fruitless hours that often lead nowhere and slowly erode the morale and souls of those on the case, director Kathryn Bigelow's thriller is, if anything, a comment on the limits of "justice." And just like Zodiac, Zero Dark Thirty upends expectations with a finale that refuses to be broadly triumphant, instead producing emotions as complex and unsettled as the War on Terror itself.
6. Room 237, directed by Rodney Ascher.
The year's most fascinating piece of film criticism—and certainly the looniest—came in the form of Room 237, a documentary that collects some of the passionate theories floating around about the "hidden" messages embedded in The Shining. But what makes director Rodney Ascher's film so terrific is how it allows its speakers (whom we never see) their day in court, explaining in dizzying detail why, to use one example, Stanley Kubrick's film is really an indictment of the destruction of the Native American population. Using images from The Shining to compellingly illustrate its theorists' points, Room 237 makes us see that horror classic in several new lights and, at the same time, appreciate the value of the viewer's interpretation of a work of art as part of that work's power. Some of Ascher's subjects' ideas are incredibly farfetched, but not all of them. And even if Kubrick didn't intend any of these radical interpretations, Room 237 is a joyful reminder about why great movies enrapture us so.
10. Argo, directed by Ben Affleck.
There's something almost charmingly old Hollywood about Argo, a tense, expertly made thriller that's nonetheless fun, breezy and reassuringly (if perhaps unrealistically) optimistic about human nature, American wherewithal, and the universality of movies. Ben Affleck still is sort of a drip as an actor—there's nothing wrong with him, but there's an inherent vanity to his performances that keeps him from ever really cutting loose—but as a director of action, as someone who understands basic story structure, he's like an old-time studio professional, the way they used to make 'em. The big payoff doesn't bear much of a resemblance to what really happened, but that's part of the point: The hostages and their keepers all know, deep down, that real life can never quite compare with the movies. (Original review here.)
9. Moonrise Kingdom, directed by Wes Anderson.
At this point, everyone's pretty much decided whether they think Wes Anderson is a genius or they think he's a twee little weirdo who constructs fake worlds around himself so he doesn't have to deal with the real one. Moonrise Kingdom, his best film since The Royal Tenenbaums, makes a solid case for both viewpoints. This one is perhaps the most Hiding In The Dollhouse of all his films, but it also might be his most plainly emotive. Anderson seems to trust what comes out of the mouths of babes far more than the mouths of adults, and it's obvious he believes in his Y.A. protagonists more than anyone else, perhaps more than is healthy. It all wraps up with a setpiece that feels both thunderous and personal, the stakes high and tiny, vivid and quaint, all at once. It might be the purest distillation of the Anderson aesthetic, which means you either went crazy for it, or because of it. I was definitely the former. (Original review here.)
8. The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
The creeping Kubrick-ism of Paul Thomas Anderson's work isn't necessarily a good thing, and I'm still far from 100 percent sure I understand completely what this movie is about, but it's impossible to ignore its power. The Master has less narrative thrust than Anderson's other films, which is occasionally off-putting but also (I think) sort of the point: Like its main character Freddy Quell (played by a nearly vibrating Joaquin Phoenix), it rattles around with the rhythm of life ... that's to say, almost no rhythm at all. Even if the movie didn't look so fantastic—and, boy, does it—it would work fine simply as an acting exercise: It's hypnotic just to watch Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman just go at each other. What one takes from The Master is almost a personal exercise—I find myself thinking more and more about Amy Adams' character each time I've seen it—and while few will consider it Anderson's "best" film, it might be the one that rattles around your brain, maddeningly, the most often. (Original review here.)
7. Killer Joe, directed by William Friedkin.
This is the Matthew McConaughey performance everyone should have been talking about this year. This nasty, hilarious, seriously-though-it's-really-quite-nasty dark "comedy" features as batshit a performance as you'll ever see from a top-shelf movie star, with McConaughey as a Texas lawman who has a side career as a professional killer, something that's about the sixth-most-disturbing thing about him. This is director William Friedkin's version of Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, a late-in-life master pulling out every trick for a ballsy amoral crime thriller. But Lumet never went this far. Everyone's perfect in this, from Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon as a couple that's a little too stupid to be evil to Juno Temple as the unlikely object of Killer Joe's desire, but the movie belongs to McConaughey: He just goes for it, man. J.K. Livin' indeed. (Original review here.)
6. Looper, directed by Rian Johnson.
I'll confess a bit of initial skepticism for the pre-release buzz on Looper. I was a big fan of Johnson's first film Brick, but the excitement for Looper made it seem like a sci-fi kid's dorm wet dream rather than, you know, a movie. Boy was I wrong. Johnson delivers the goods—the movie is full of film nerd fist-pump moments—but not only do the holy-shit moments progress logically from the story, the film has an unexpectedly big heart. Johnson makes sure to invest the story in real people, with real stakes, which strips away any gimmicks and cuts to a universal story that would move anybody. It's almost insanely ambitious, jamming in everything without feeling overstuffed, never obscuring the film's sneaky secret: It's an existential thriller, about a man seeing who was and lamenting his errors, and a man seeing who he will become and wondering what went wrong. The struggle is between the two men trying to change each other, themselves, and everything. (Original review here.)
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.