In a year of random bloodshed and partisan politics, of storms both literal and electoral, when innocents were mown down in theaters and schools and the very planet seemed to reel from the onslaught, that minor diversion we call the movies seemed to mirror both the chaos and our attempts to grapple with it.
Intended or not, the twin themes of this year’s most relevant films were the individual and the processes by which individuals do (or don’t) come together to effect change. Process itself was the subject of the most ambitious movies of 2012, whether it was the nuts and bolts and elbow-grease needed to abolish slavery by constitutional amendment (“Lincoln”) or the long, fraught collaboration it took to find Osama bin Laden (“Zero Dark Thirty”) or the “best bad idea” of an imaginary film production that would free six Americans hiding in revolutionary Iran (“Argo”). These are movies that asked What does it take? and found answers in the infinite moving parts of a community. They have heroes but not superheroes: Ben Affleck and Jessica Chastain are flawed and dogged and human in “Argo” and “Zero,” and “Lincoln” does its level best to bring our 16th president down off the mountain. Most important, all three characters know they need other people, or the job doesn’t get done.
Even the year’s Big Entertainments seemed to understand this. The 2012 box office champ (and third biggest moneymaker of all time) was “The Avengers”; caped crusaders now come by the committee. “The Dark Knight Rises” was as much about Gotham’s malaise and the many characters trying to cure it as about some guy named Batman. “The Hunger Games” wondered what happens when you pit people against one another in an effort to divide and conquer (some of them will band together anyway). Even the new James Bond movie was less about Bond than about questioning the need for a lone superstud to make everything right. And even Tom Cruise came up short as the solitary hero of “Jack Reacher.”
By contrast, the movies that mattered were about the necessity of consensus and the perils of going it alone. My favorite film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” was a miraculous dream about a little girl outgrowing her community only to become its gathering figurehead, its soul survivor. Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” was likewise about storms in the heavens and storms in the heart, with the commonalities that draw us together more clearly seen in the calm after the rain. “Oslo, August 31st” was a quiet, sunlit tragedy about a man who can no longer connect, and “Holy Motors” was a surreal, semi-comic yawp of dismay at all the masks we wear and how they keep us from truly seeing one another.
Then there was Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” about a husband, a wife, and approaching death, and a film whose message is, simply, that other people are all that make human existence endurable. Given everything conspiring to drive us apart these days, the movie serves as an eloquent Urgent Reminder, perhaps even an Emergency Warning. It also bears witness that — despite all claims of imminent demise — the art of film remains vibrantly alive.
1. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
For me, one of the most memorable film moments of 2012 — of my movie-going life, really — came early, when I staggered out of a Sundance screening room into the bright January air and saw the world with new eyes. “Beasts” is nominally the debut feature of a young filmmaker named Benh Zeitlin, but it plays like an entire community had a hand in willing it to life. The story of a 6-year-old girl (the lion-hearted Quvenzhané Wallis) who rides out a hurricane in a tiny coastal hamlet, the film straddles docudrama and fable with visionary ease; it plays by no rules that Hollywood knows but instead feels like the first movie ever made. A coming-of-age saga for post-Katrina/post-Obama America, this is the film industry equivalent of outsider art — an exuberant foundation myth upon which a new school of genuinely independent moviemaking may yet rise.
How many truly great movies about old age are there? Since most audiences are addicted to glamour and youth, the proper question should probably be “How few?” There’s “Make Way for Tomorrow,” “Tokyo Story,” maybe “The Straight Story”; to that short list add Michael Haneke’s austere yet unfathomably poignant film about an elderly couple coping with the wife’s long decline. The two are played by legendary French actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, so the movie also bids farewell to an entire generation of movies and the audiences who cherished them. Yet “Amour” is anything but sentimental. Instead, it records the last months of human life with a level gaze that feels like the only honest and respectful response. And it marvels at how love holds the pieces of us together until the last. In a culture that knows only how to sell short-term pleasures, Haneke dares us to take the long view.
3. ZERO DARK THIRTY
The most thrilling aspect of Kathryn Bigelow’s black-ops procedural is how unmelodramatic it is — how smartly it avoids hollow flag-waving and the sort of Hollywood suspense clichés that even get “Argo” in the end. The film doesn’t just follow the decade-long narrative of how Osama bin Laden was located and killed, it tracks an evolution of intelligence-gathering, from punishing force to reason and instinct to the surgical application of military might. The torture scenes early on are meant to be controversial: We’re in that room with the new CIA recruit played by Jessica Chastain, as horrified as she is and thrown back on our own response. “Zero Dark Thirty” is a drama of one woman’s stubbornness, but, more than that, it calmly shows us bureaucracy, breakthroughs, cruelty, commitment, the reality of collateral damage, and a national desire for revenge slaked at last. And then it asks, well, how do you feel about that?
4. MOONRISE KINGDOM
Apparently, those of us who were waiting for Wes Anderson to grow up were wasting our time. By relocating his patented adolescent angst into the bodies of actual adolescents — Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as runaway sweethearts on a 1960s New England island — Anderson made his most confident and completely satisfying work since 1998’s “Rushmore.” The director’s hallmark eccentricities — the swatch-ready colors and dollhouse interiors, the deadpan dialogue harboring a weary nostalgia for an Eden that may have never existed — at last become a worldview instead of a collection of heartfelt tics. “Moonrise Kingdom” is as much about windswept community as “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” but in place of primal drama it offers self-consciousness as a kind of beautiful curse. What kind of bird are you?
5. HOLY MOTORS
A splendid head trip, the sort of midnight-movie mind-melter they just don’t make anymore. If I were handing out the Oscars, best actor(s) would go to Denis Lavant as the existential Tasmanian Devil of Leos Carax’s oddity/odyssey, traveling through Paris in a white stretch limousine and periodically emerging as different characters: a beggar woman, a callous father, a dying uncle, an assassin, a creature from the sewers. When the latter licks the armpit of a dispassionate supermodel played by Eva Mendes, you know you’ve entered a very special place indeed. “Holy Motors” avoids pretentiousness on the puckishness of its humor, the sheer voltage of its imagination, and by a diffuse, macrocosmic sadness at all the roles we assume in life. Also: You’ll never look at Kylie Minogue in quite the same way.
What I love most about this movie is its busyness: The congressmen and Cabinet members and telegraph operators and mountebanks (James Spader especially) all milling through 1865 Washington barely grasping the stakes of the amendment on which they’re voting, arguing points petty and profound, sharpening their invective (Tommy Lee Jones especially), and at their center, the maypole around which they weave, the only man tall enough to see what’s necessary to the country’s soul. Tony Kushner’s brilliant script is full of characters talking because that is what you do in a government by, of, and for the people; this is discourse, reasoned and pompous, coercive and persuasive, for the purpose of building something larger together. Steven Spielberg wants to sanctify Lincoln, but there are enough others here more interested in what this monumental myth might possibly have been like as a human being. Daniel Day-Lewis especially.
Ben Affleck, filmmaker, comes of age. What’s most impressive about this nerve-wracking history-based thriller isn’t the art of the thing but its craft: the sense that the director is collaborating with a host of skilled specialists behind the camera just as he’s sharing the screen with so many fine and fascinating actors. “Argo” is smart enough to effortlessly summarize decades of US-Iran relations in its opening minutes, savvy enough to move through the Hollywood backlot scenes with the jaded wit of people who’ve been there, and astute enough to avoid gung-ho posturing and concentrate on the only thing that matters: story. Affleck gets it and he brings it, and he’s building a career that’s starting to look like that of a latter-day Sidney Lumet.
8. DJANGO UNCHAINED
One of Quentin Tarantino’s very best movies couldn’t have come along at a worse time: It’s bullet-riddled and shamelessly violent. But there are two kinds of mayhem in this unexpectedly nuanced entertainment. The kind visited by the freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) and his bounty-hunter partner (a hilarious Christoph Waltz) upon the slave traders and Big Daddys of the pre-Civil War South is cartoonish and gleeful: classic bad-boy Quentin. The violence we see doled out to the slaves brings us up short and jams the laughter in our throats. One wrong move and Tarantino could have made an unforgivable Mel Brooks movie, but he doesn’t make a wrong move, and neither do Foxx, Waltz, or Leonardo DiCaprio as the film’s grinning villain. Don’t tell anyone, but it’s the first Tarantino movie with a conscience.
9. THIS IS NOT A FILM
In “Argo,” we see the Iranian theocracy holding 60 Americans hostage. In Jafar Panahi’s withering documentary self-portrait, we see that same theocracy, three decades on, holding one of its citizens in the limbo of house arrest. Panahi is a filmmaker whose features are about the hopes and frustrations of ordinary Iranians; consequently, the government considers him a threat. “This Is Not a Film,” a movie about the mundanity of living in a police state, shows him talking to his cameraman, trying to act out the movie the authorities won’t let him make, and venturing down his high-rise elevator to watch the fires in the streets. Panahi has been banned from filmmaking for 20 years; thus the title. In effect, he speaks to protest his silence. Nothing much happens, but it’s the most dangerous home movie of the year.
10. OSLO AUGUST 31ST
In a year of films that testified to the strengths of the group, Joachim Trier’s boundlessly compassionate drama is about the disaster of being alone. Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) is a 30-something ex-heroin addict getting out of rehab for a day and visiting old friends and haunts in the title city. What could be a one-note bummer instead becomes a heartbreaking essay on estrangement, with Anders’s apartness coming to seem almost a form of protest against a world that has moved on without him. The scene in which he sits in a cafe, listening to snatches of conversation around him, with Trier’s camera shifting focus in sympathetic increments, is a miniature masterpiece on its own.
Honorable Mention: BACHELORETTE
Hardly anyone saw it, and plenty who did recoiled in distaste, but Leslye Headland’s debut feature, based on her stage play, is more than just “Bridesmaids” taken over by the Mean Girls. Well, it’s that too, and often scaldingly funny. Still, as the troika of self-obsessed, self-loathing bridesmaids led by queen bee Kirsten Dunst embarks on a long night of the diseased soul (and wedding gown repairs), Headland gets under the skin of modern female discontent — the exhaustion of trying to be perfect, the inevitability of falling short, the rage at having to try — in a way that makes every Hollywood “chick flick” look like a toothless lie. Oh, and God bless Isla Fisher, too.
Runners-up: “The Sessions,” “The Master,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Safety Not Guaranteed,” “The Central Park Five,” “Killing Them Softly,” “The House I Live In,” “Frankenweenie,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” and “Searching for Sugar Man.”