In the eight years I’ve taken on the regular duty of reviewing movies, 2012 just might have been the best. It wasn’t easy compiling a top 30 list for a 12-month period of so many diverse, outstanding films. I found myself having to make some absolutely painful snubs, including “Flight,” “The Sessions,” “The Hobbit: An Expected Journey,” and a little cinematic masterpiece by the name of “21 Jump Street.” In the end though, I managed to narrow the list down to the 20 titles that best encompass 2012 in all its glory. If you’re still behind on the movies of yesteryear, consider this your ultimate movie guide to 2012.
30. “Cloud Atlas.” While it may not be the easiest movie to follow, “Cloud Atlas” is still a bewitching, passionate, visually breathtaking experience from Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski brothers.
29. “Amour.” Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are tear-jerking in this lovely French film about life, death, pain, and what it truly means to love somebody.
28. “End of Watch.” An authentic, funny and at times brutal glimpse into the lives of two police officers on patrol duty, flawlessly played by Jake Gyllenhall and Michael Peña.
27. “Frankenweenie.” Tim Burton’s horrifyingly heartfelt stop-motion fable about a child and man’s best friend, shot in glorious black and white.
26. “ParaNorman.” Realized via twisted, stop-motion artistry, “ParaNorman” stood out as an incessantly innovative and wonderfully weird production that can resonate with the monstrous child that delves within us all.
25. “The Cabin in the Woods.” A clever horror/comedy from Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon with the camp value of “Planet Terror,” the wit of the “Scream” movies, and even the sense of mystery of the game “Portal.”
24. “Ruby Sparks.” One of the most overlooked movies of the year, “Ruby Sparks” proved to be an imaginative little comedy thanks to a star making performance and stellar screenplay from Zoe Kazan.
23. “The Amazing Spider-Man.” In this worthy revamp, Marc Webb presents a darker, more personal take on Spider-Man’s origin. “The Amazing Spider-Man” ultimately worked due to the appealing performances from Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, some energized action, and not a single dance sequence.
22. “The Secret World of Arrietty.” Studio Ghibli delivers another charming, elegantly drawn animation that manages to turn an everyday household into an intimidating, large world.
21. “The Odd Life of Timothy Green.” Sure, it may be shamelessly sentimental and illogical. But “The Odd Life Timothy Green” is also a timeless, gripping, intelligent, and beautiful picture that reminds us that a family movie doesn’t have to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Truly the most misunderstood movie of the year.
20. “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” At only 6, Quvenzhane Wallis gives an Oscar-caliber performance in this magical independent movie about the smallest human being triumphing over the greatest obstacles.
19: “Ted.” After reining as one of television’s most successful animators for years, Seth MacFarlane made the leap to the big screen with his teddy bear buddy comedy, “Ted.” Like all of MacFarlane’s work, “Ted” is occasionally stupid, shocking, random, offensive and completely irrelevant. On the whole though, the film is simply one big laugh after another.
18. “Hitchcock.” Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren shine in this somewhat under appreciated depiction of Alfred Hitchcock’s ambitious endeavor to direct “Psycho.”
17. “Bully.” An important documentary about the bullying epidemic that every student, educator, and parent needs to see.
16. "The Hunger Games.” Jennifer Lawrence has certainly had a great year between her Oscar worthy work in “Silver Linings Playbook” and her perfect representation of Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games,” a loyal adaptation of the best selling novel.
15. “Skyfall.” It’s hard to think of a better way to celebrate Mr. Bond’s 50th anniversary than with Sam Mendes’ “Skyfall,” the riskiest, coolest, and most character-driven entry the franchise has seen in years.
14. “The Avengers.” Joss Whedon’s mega blockbuster that not only exceeded the overwhelming hype, but also emerged as one of the absolute best superhero pictures ever produced due to the unparalleled chemistry between the cast and awesome action.
13. “Les Misérables.” After a long, arduous journey through development limbo, the musical phenomenon of “Les Misérables” finally met the big screen via the artistic eye of Tom Hooper. Along with Hooper’s all-encompassing direction, the spirited performances from Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and especially Anne Hathaway are key to what makes this adaptation sensational.
12. “Looper.” One of the slickest and smartest movies about time travel in a long time composed of some heart pounding action set pieces and a fascinating original screenplay from writer/director Rian Johnson.
11. “Silver Linings Playbook.” Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence give their finest performances as the two most complicated, imperfect and uncomfortable individuals imaginable in this manic romantic dramedy full of laughs and integrity.
10. “Wreck-It Ralph.” This was a commendable year for animated features and the best by far was Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph.” The movie is like the love child of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “TRON,” assembling a roster of beloved video game characters. Aside from the novelty of getting to see Sonic the Hedgehog and Bowser on the big screen, “Wreck-It Ralph” is also an imaginatively thought-out story with great original players. John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, and Alan Tudyk all do a fantastic job at giving their characters depth and heart in one of the most endearing animated ensembles of recent years. Director Rich Moore has made a definitive movie for diehard gamers with ingenious references you’ll often have to look closely to catch. Even if you’ve never picked up a controller in your life, you can still appreciate the infinitely creative world “Wreck-It Ralph” creates.
9. “Lincoln.” There are few modern performers that could convincingly convey an icon as significant as Abraham Lincoln. In Steven Spielberg’s gripping biopic though, the great Daniel Day Lewis perfectly manifests all the attributes one would expect from our 16th president. He is Abraham Lincoln in a role that had better bring him another Oscar. Along with Lewis, “Lincoln” also features A-list work from Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens and a heartbreaking Sally Field as Marry Todd Lincoln. Tony Kushner’s in-depth screenplay richly illustrates the creation of the 13th Amendment, resulting in a detailed, emotional, and insightful American epic that will be talked about for ages.
8. “The Master.” In his latest cinematic triumph, Paul Thomas Anderson renders another extraordinarily strange, yet beautiful, tale that you’ll never be able to take your eyes off of. Joaquin Phoenix is appropriately cast as Freddie Quell, a lonely and disturbed man searching for a place in the world. Freddie believes he has found that place upon meeting Lancaster Dodd, an eccentric cult leader exceptionally played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Although “The Master” never makes a direct reference to the Church of Scientology, one can’t help but relate Dodd to L. Ron Hubbard. This isn’t a movie that sets out to make a mockery of Scientology or religion though. It’s a gorgeously shot, superbly acted piece of work about a drifting soul looking for something, or someone, to believe in.
7. “Seven Psychopaths.” After writing and directing the severely underrated “In Bruges,” Martin McDonagh dishes out another hilarious and violent dark comedy with “Seven Psychopaths.” Colin Farrell gives one of his best performances as Marty, a popular Hollywood screenwriter working on a script entitled, “Seven Psychopaths.” Marty soon finds himself mixed-up in the affairs of several actual psychopaths, including Christopher Walken as a ludicrously deadpan dog kidnapper and Woody Harrelson as an unstable mobster hell-bent on reclaiming his beloved Shih Tzu. McDonagh is truly writing some of the sharpest and funniest dialog since Quentin Tarantino. Speaking of which…
6. “Django Unchained.” Quentin Tarantino continues to prove that he hasn’t lost his magic touch with “Django Unchained,” a pop entertainment that mixes together elements of the spaghetti Western, blacksploitation, and even some of Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles.” Jamie Foxx is a certified badass as Django, a slave that teams up with a dentist turned bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz in an engaging performance. The two come across a variety of unique characters on their journey to save Django’s enslaved wife, such as Don Johnson as a Southern KKK leader and Leonardo DiCaprio as a despicably charming plantation owner named Calvin Candie. Tarantino hits it out of the park again with his trademark intensity, wit, silliness, pulpiness, inspired references, and undeniable admiration for cinema. “Django Unchained” also manages to incorporate a meaningful friendship about two guys that love getting paid to kill people.
5. “Zero Dark Thirty.” Who better than director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal of “The Hurt Locker” to depict the 10-year-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden? In “Zero Dark Thirty,” the unparallel filmmaking team turns out another gritty, powerful, and challenging instant classic that every American should witness. Jessica Chastain continues her winning streak as Maya, a woman based on a real life CIA officer in pursuit of bin Laden. We follow Maya from the aftermath of 9/11 to that faithful day in May 2011 as she endures deaths of her colleagues, attempts on her own life, false leads and pressure from superior officers. Chastain flawlessly embodies a person that seems understated on the surface, but is really being eaten away inside by pain and frustration after years of failure. The film has one of the most intense and positively authentic final acts you’ll ever see in a movie. Along with Paul Greengrass’ “United 93,” this is truly one of the most significant and passionate pictures of the 21st century.
4. “Moonrise Kingdom.” In a year of unconventional love stories, no film stood out quite like Wes Anderson’s wonderful “Moonrise Kingdom.” The film has the essence of a fantasy, yet still feels so true to the magic of a person’s first romance. The overall sensation the movie emits is sheer warmth, making spectators want to wholeheartedly cuddle up to it. In a New England island town populated by childish adults and sophisticated kids, two little misfits named Suzy and Sam find kindred spirits in one another. Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman are transcendent as the young couple who takes off on a road trip though the woods. Wondrous, unusual, and haunting all at once, Ander has made one of the most oddly charming passions this side of “Harold and Maude.”
3. “The Dark Knight Rises.” Christopher Nolan brought his magnificent Batman trilogy to a grand conclusion in “The Dark Knight Rises,” a film well worthy of its two predecessors. The first-rate special effects aside, what makes “The Dark Knight Rises” stand out from other well-made action pictures is the sense of chaos and realism. The audience feels genuine dread throughout this meaningful film, notably during a remarkable climax. This is furthermore a character study of Batman, fueled by mesmerizing dialog, epic storytelling, and inspired twists. To call this the pinnacle collection of superhero pictures goes without saying. But “The Dark Knight Rises” additionally engraves Nolan’s take on the Batman legend into the history books as one of the best movie trilogies of all time. Although I still have a hard time believing a little girl could escape that prison but not a single full-grown man could ever make that jump.
2. “Argo.” Ben Affleck directs his tour de force in “Argo,” one of the most engrossing and remotely unknown true stories ever to meet the big screen. In addition to directing, Affleck also plays a C.I.A. agent named Tony Mendez, who is put in charge of providing cover stories for six Americans diplomats stranded in Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis. While watching a “Planet of the Apes” movie one night, Mendez gets the idea to disguise the diplomats as Canadian filmmakers. A plan this far-fetched would lead some people to believe “Argo” is a pure work of fiction. The notion that a caper such as this really took place only makes Chris Terrio’s screenplay more beguiling and exciting as we observe Mendez’s unbelievable plot unfold. Along with being one of the most powerful political thrillers of recent years, “Argo” is also an extremely passionate picture about the unlikely impact film can have on the world. This is a textbook example of triumphant filmmaking that will make you fall in love with the medium all over again.
1. “Life of Pi.” Ang Lee not only granted us the year’s most visually arresting picture, but also the best picture overall in “Life of Pi.” Newcomer Suraj Sharma leads this extraordinary tale as Pi Patel, a young man that loses his family in a shipwreck and becomes lost at sea. Even worse, Pi is forced to share his boat with a man-eating tiger he names Richard Parker. The film wisely chooses to never turn Richard Parker into a cartoonish animal with humanoid characteristics, making the relationship it develops with Pi equally threatening and momentous. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda exquisitely photographs Pi and Richard Parker’s journey, which includes encounters with flying fish, meerkats, and a whale. At times “Life of Pi” is frightening and tragic, other times it’s uplifting and life affirming. All of the time though, it’s nothing short of enchanting. The film even leaves us with a poignant ending that challenges the audience to choose between their sense of reality and faith. Personally, I’m choosing to side with faith.
Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.