So with that in mind, I'll proceed after one last caveat. The films that follow are not meant as objectively the best films of 2012. I am not a film critic and I don't have time/money to watch everything out in the theaters. I didn't watch "Zero Dark Thirty," I missed "The Master," and I haven't had time for "Django Unchained" yet. These are simply the movies that I can honestly say impressed me the most or at least paralleled my experiences during the year in some meaningful way.
5) The Dark Knight Rises. The last of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy and perhaps the most uneven. It takes a long time to get started and the long Winter Anarchy section sort of falls apart if you think about it too much. But, this was big epic film making. It took risks, it absolutely has to be seen on an IMAX screen and Ann Hathaway sly, ironic performance here is nearly equal to her deservedly lauded part in Les Miserables. Tom Hardy's Bane didn't quite meet the standard of Heath Ledger's Joker but he did have his own memorable catch phrase:
4) The Avengers. I'm not sure if the monumental nature of Joss Whedon's task in making the Avenger's movie was fully appreciated. Somehow, this movie was supposed to knit together characters from four other franchises (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and The Hulk) into one coherent two hour movie. How do you take characters from wildly disparate genres and have them fit together in the same scene without the whole project seeming arch or silly? The answer is you confront the issue head-on. You make the subtext of the story - the jarring juxtaposition of characters - into the theme of the story. Avengers revolves around the question of whether or not people with radically different backgrounds, philosophies, and personalities can work together at all, on anything. Whedon could have thrown this question into more contrast with Loki's mind-control assimilation or some recognition his film appears in an election year but then it wouldn't have been as much fun.
3) Argo. I've never liked Ben Affleck as an actor, his delivery is obvious and one-dimensional. Even movies he's in that I like - Good Will Hunting, the Town and Argo - tend to work best with Affleck in the background, his on-screen speaking time brief. The basic problem is that he has movie star looks but a character actor's instincts. Which is funny, because I think Ben Affleck the director gets this. The Town was a fine caper flick and Argo is even better. Affleck essentially uses himself as a straight man for a variety of improbably colorful extras. It helps that the story he's harnessed is so good. The hair-brained scheme to extract American diplomats from revolutionary Iran by pretending to be part of a Hollywood film is so impossible it could only be real. But even better, Affleck understands the most tense part of an action movie isn't when the shooting happens its the moment before the bullets fly. Thus, in a action movie about a violent uprising, you can count the number of gun fights on one hand and the tensest moment revolves around a ringing telephone.
2) Moonlight Kingdom. Okay, let's just get this out of the way. I love Wes Anderson films. I loved Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and all the rest of them. Even bad Anderson films are conceived with more passion and intelligence than 98% of everything else in Hollywood. Any Anderson film has a better than even chance of winding up somewhere in my top five. It's at the second spot because it's the first Anderson film in a while that reminded me of why I liked Rushmore so much. The quiet mannered reserve of these films, the OCD sets, the tightly wound screwball characters, work best when they serve as kindling on the campfire of a larger story. The storm itself is a release for all of the potential energy in the first two thirds of the films.
1) Lincoln. I wrote a review for this film recently which I'm not eager to repeat line for line. I think this was the film of the year because it, while firmly part of what going on in our culture right now, also escapes it. It helps that Daniel Day Lewis' performance is so grand, Speilberg's direction so assured, and Kushner's script so human and gritty. But what really seals the deal for me is a unity of vision. Politically, aesthetically, philosophically, this is a film that takes all the disparate, unruly chunks of a moment in time and fuses them into a view of our country and a single man bent on reforming and improving it. What's on display isn't pretty. It's also not a documentary. It's fiction. Fiction is a lie that tells the truth. Lincoln had more truth to tell than anything else in cinema this year.
Honorable Mentions: The Cabin in the Woods, The Secret World of Arietty, Les Miserables, and Chronicle.