1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
AARON MESH, January-April
2012’s best films—from Looper to Silver Linings Playbook—all touch on the saving supremacy of women. This police procedural on the Turkish steppe makes that case by leaving its men without company or consolation. They search through dust and rot, finding evidence of their own savagery. So the movie’s sole moment of feminine kindness literally shines, like an annunciation.
2. Goodbye First Love
While Moonrise Kingdom attempted to preserve the flush of adolescent ardor from the entropy of adulthood, French director Mia Hansen-Løve explored a more painful truth: Growing up means letting the fiercest feelings float gently away. Her movie plays like a female counterpoint to Truffaut’s Adventures of Antoine Doinel, with nearly as many understated agonies and joys.
3. Damsels in Distress
Director Whit Stillman returns from a 13-year hiatus with a college comedy that is, blessedly, the least relevant picture of 2012: an ode to soap, repression and inventing ballroom-dance crazes. It feels less like a paean to lost values than a rallying cry for values that never caught on. It stands against our society of maniacal selfishness as a manifesto that protecting shared civilization means being a little crazy.
1. The Cabin in the Woods
MATTHEW SINGER, April-September
In which Joss Whedon attempts to kill off the horror genre by suffocating it with its own clichés. It didn’t work (see: The Apparition, House at the End of the Street, The Devil Inside, etc.), but he made audiences confront their own expectations. Then, he raised them to wild new heights.
2. Beasts of the Southern Wild
A live-action Miyazaki fable, Benh Zeitlin’s post-Katrina allegory makes magic out of mud hills, paying homage to those who will fight to the death to protect what they have, even if they don’t appear to have much, and introducing the world to young Quvenzhané Wallis, a pintsize hurricane in rain boots and orange underwear.
3. Killer Joe
William Friedkin never had much use for polite society, but now that he’s nearly an octogenarian, the director has become filmdom’s crazy grandpa. Killer Joe is sick and twisted and totally irredeemable, but it is passionate about its depravity, and that makes it hit like a can of pie filling to the head.
REBECCA JACOBSON, October-December
1. Silver Linings Playbook
Silver Linings Playbook is many things: ropey-dopey romance, offbeat portrait of mental illness, sharp family drama, scrappy ode to eccentricity. But director David O. Russell, aided by magnificently honest (and honestly magnificent) performances from Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, makes it all work. From its stars’ discussion of psychotropic drugs to its go-for-broke bizarro dance scene, it’s one of the funniest and most deeply affecting films in years.
2. The Sessions
As a 38-year-old polio survivor who seeks to lose his virginity, John Hawkes turns in one of 2012’s most arresting performances. The Sessions has received flak for pulling punches, but in neither gawking at nor glorifying sex, director Ben Lewin gives the power of physical intimacy its due.
In my short tenure, no film has frustrated me more than Lincoln. But it wriggled its stately, chiaroscuro way into my mind and has remained firmly lodged there since. Though waxy, it captures the most mesmerizing political wheeling and dealing I’ve seen on screen, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance is something of genius.