David Edelstein’s Runners-up for the Best Films of 2012

Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

This year was the most difficult I’ve ever had to pick ten favorite films, let alone to rank them one to ten. 2012 was, on balance, an excellent year, but I wouldn’t call any of its movies “masterpieces.” I confess that it was down to the wire for me in choosing a “best film,” and I’d prefer to have gone with both Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln.

I hesitated to choose Zero Dark because Kathryn Bigelow’s mesmerizing procedural thriller both makes a case for the effectiveness of torture (as opposed to glamorizing it, which it assuredly does not) and minimizes the role of President Obama. We know from Peter Bergen’s book Manhunt that Obama was vital in moving the hunt for Osama off the back burner and that he ordered the go-ahead for the mission against the advice of much of his inner circle. Had it failed, it’s likely he and not the CIA planners would have been blamed—much as President Carter was when the attempt to rescue the embassy hostages in Iran ended in disaster. Plus, Obama is presented in the context of the film as pulling the plug on the kind of “enhanced interrogation” our heroes have made good use of.

My other problem is that the studios do a massive dump of big movies in the last six weeks of the year, many of those films opening late in December. I’ve been flooded with last-minute screenings and DVDs, and before you say, “Cry me river,” my only complaint is that it makes “ranking” even tougher. There’s no time to live with these films and get some perspective on them. They blur a little bit. I’m sick of the awards game—of odds-making and early word on new movies only in terms of their relevance to the race—and will have more to say on this subject before year’s end.

In the meantime, here are the films that, as far as I’m concerned, are every bit as good as at least half the ones on my ten-best list. They were left off for various reasons—among them that I wanted to include such under-sung movies as Pitch Perfect and Friends With Kids for, I guess you’d say, shock value. Everyone knows Holy Motors is a terrific movie, but who will make a case for non-critics’ darlings?

Speaking of which, here come 2012’s other essential films:

Holy Motors
Leos Carax’s first movie in almost a decade is typically confounding but on every level that matters a work of unfettered—and liberating—imagination, as well as a showcase for the stupendous Denis Lavant, a man of 1000 faces performing sundry playlets for an unnamed employer. The film emerges as a cry for intimacy—as seen through the eyes of an artist who can only fleetingly fill the void. Carax is half in love with the crumbling and transitory. In Holy Motors, he’s death-wishing on a star.

No actor is as brilliant, as cunning as Denzel Washington (in one of the year’s best performances) at portraying superhuman coolness and the scary prospect of its loss. As an alcoholic, drug-loving pilot, he breaks his own cool into pieces, the good and the bad, the supremely potent and pathetically impotent. And dig director Robert Zemeckis’s barnstorming plane sequence!

Not Fade Away
David Chase’s vivid, evocatively amorphous portrait of a New Jersey teen and his garage band in the first flush of the British Invasion. Who says you can’t get no satisfaction?

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Benh Zeitlin’s Louisiana-set odyssey is a sort of folkloric myth laced with modern ecological anxieties—all captured in a free-form, image-driven narrative. What a camera subject he has in little Quvenzhane Wallis—under a mop of hair that little moppet face is clear and soft and watchful.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Stephen Chbosky directs (from his book) what comes on like a rather conventional coming-of-age story—but turns out to be unusually raw, painful, and finally elating. The young hero is in a place I’d wager all of us have been: He can’t feel the bliss of togetherness without simultaneously seeing it all slip away.

Monsieur Lazhar
Teacher movies tend to be more alike than unalike, but this Quebec drama makes the familiar strange—and heartrending. The more we learn about the Algerian title character, the more we understand his fierce conviction that in a world of senseless death, the classroom must remain untouched: a sacred space.

Sean Baker’s deceptively naturalistic, unexpectedly penetrating profile of a young porn actress (Dree Hemingway) and the lonely, cranky old woman who takes her out of her life.

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s latest documentary is a haunting, impressionistic portrait of a crumbling, increasingly depopulated major American city, suffused with death but maybe—maybe—on the brink of resurrection.

Killer Joe
William Friedkin’s gangbusters adaptation of an early play by Tracey Letts is a grandly gory family drama in the Chicago Steppenwolf Theater tradition of characters who get in one another’s faces from the get-go and then get more invasive. A snaky Matthew McConaughey in a black cowboy hat leads the killer cast.

Director Sam Mendes’s Skyfall has a cheeky attitude toward James Bonds old and new—toward the conflict between the traditional Bond established by Sean Connery and the rough, hurting, rather self-indulgent persona of Daniel Craig’s Bond. Mendes and co-writer John Logan run out of invention in the last act, but until then this is an unusually funny, literate action picture with a cavalcade of glorious stunts and a mythic nutcase villain in Javier Bardem.

Silver Linings Playbook
The best thing about David O. Russell is that he cultivates his disequilibrium, and this borderline rom-com with a seriously disturbed hero (Bradley Cooper) and almost equally disturbed heroine (Jennifer Lawrence, with an unexpected, deep-toned weirdness) is often exhilarating.

Take This Waltz
Sarah Polley’s sophomore film tested patience with its weepy heroine (Michelle Williams—scary good) who’s torn between a nice, complacent husband and a live-wire would-be lover, but her filmmaking is thrillingly plugged in to the character’s emotions.

Liza Johnson’s very fine drama centers on an unstable returning vet (a remarkable Linda Cardellini). She’s visibly relieved to be home—but not remotely at home. The film is quiet and naturalistic, but its plainness is suffused with anguish.

To come in December: my picks for the year’s best performances—and worst movies.

Edelstein’s Runners-up for the Year’s Best Films