Some critics carp about how onerous it is to compile a 10 best list, and it does come with some attendant complicated feelings. Do you make space for the boring but worthy documentary, at the expense of the crackerjack action film whose craftsmanship thrilled you? Should you frontload the thing with big, serious pictures, even if there are purportedly dumb comedies you loved much more? Before long, you've talked yourself out of doing a 10 best list at all, or you at least hide from the task until the last possible minute.
My MO is to begin by making a list of everything, in any genre, I loved or just thoroughly enjoyed, including movies that lingered with me long after I left the theater — I just throw it all at the wall to see what sticks. Then, in a highly unscientific procedure that involves much copying, pasting and getting up for more coffee, I narrow down the list and attempt to make peace with it. Here's what I've come up with for 2012. Beyond the top three, the order is a bit random, but these are all pictures that thrilled me, moved me or made me think.
The Top 3
German filmmaker Christian Petzold has fashioned a striking, slow-burning narrative from the remnants of the East-West German divide. "Barbara" is a political drama, a mystery and a love story, with a great performance at its core: Nina Hoss says more with her half-haunted, half-hopeful eyes than a hundred lines of dialogue ever could.
Kathryn Bigelow is a clear visual thinker: She films action more concisely than any modern filmmaker. Great craftsmanship aside, though, her fiction-based-on-fact thriller doesn't go for easy morality: It turns on the idea that the truth of the world we live in isn't always pretty. In the midst of this kind of bravado filmmaking, her moral uncertainty is a kind of humility.
Leos Carax's first full-length feature in more than 10 years — exhilarating, mournful and always stunning to look at — is a love letter to movies, and to life. It could almost be a film made in a time before language, a rendering of modern life – or modern lives – as a kind of cinematic cave painting. With songs. And a white stretch limo. And Kylie Minogue.
And, in no particular order...
This devilish slavery-revenge fantasy is fueled as much by raw, brute emotion as it is by Quentin Tarantino's crackpot movie-nerd genius. Shot by Robert Richardson, it's also one of the most gorgeous-looking pictures of the year: An elegiac winter-western sequence, set amid snow-capped mountains, is practically a mini-movie unto itself.
Marion Cotillard loses her legs to a killer whale; Matthias Schoenaerts loses his heart to her. Director Jacques Audiard isn't going for subtlety here. He just wants to send you home with a story and with the memory of his characters' faces. In other words, he wants to give you the world.
The latest Bond adventure, directed by Sam Mendes, takes a brooding Daniel Craig from the gambling halls of Macau to his family homestead on the Scottish moors. It's an extravagant affair that's also surprisingly graceful, and the interplay between Craig and boss/mother figure Judi Dench is marvelous — and, in the end, wrenching.
This simple but potent 75-minute documentary by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb chronicles a day in the life of Panahi, the Iranian filmmaker whose work has so angered his home country's government that he's been sentenced to six years' imprisonment. (He's also banned from making films for 20 years.) "This Is Not a Film" really is a film, made and shown against all odds: It traveled to Cannes in spring 2011 via a USB drive, smuggled in a cake.
From Pierre Drieu La Rochelle's 1963 novel "Le feu follet," Norwegian director Joachim Trier has fashioned an understated, poetic meditation on the things in life that keep us going — or the things that make us want to stop. You wouldn't exactly call it a cheerful picture, but it's one with a strong, throbbing pulse. Its melancholy beauty makes you glad to be alive.
David Koepp's NYC bike-messenger thriller — in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt has to ferry a vitally important parcel from here to there, pronto, pursued by a dirty cop, played by Michael Shannon — is the most visually intelligent action picture of the year. It thinks on its wheels.
Squeezing two movies into one slot is cheating. Do I care? No. Dax Shepard and David Palmer's rambunctious comedy-romance "Hit and Run" shows clear affection for '70s exploitation pictures like "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" and "Eat My Dust," and features more and better stunt driving than even the great (though perhaps not accurately named) "Drive" did. "Haywire" is Steven Soderbergh's version of a '60s spy caper, and it's driven by a kind of bossy energy, embodied largely by mixed martial-arts star Gina Carano. Her mighty haunches ought to get their own screen credit.