Both audiences and critics would have to agree that 2012 was a pretty good year at the movies.
They even agree on a lot of the movies.
Take a look at the top 10 most popular films, according to Box Office Mojo. Eight of the 10 top-grossing movies received positive reviews from at least 60 percent of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes (and it will be nine out of 10 by the end of the year when "The Hobbit" surpasses "The Lorax"). Last year only five of the top 10 earned a majority of positive reviews.
And if critics liked many of the movies that mainstream audiences embraced, the public also turned out for some critical darlings.
"Argo" and "Lincoln," two of the best-reviewed movies of 2012, each earned more than $100 million, and "Flight" just soared past $90 million. "Argo" and "Lincoln" are all-but-guaranteed Best Picture nominations. And the box-office fate still is to be determined for such potential nominees as "Zero Dark Thirty," "Les Miserables" and "Django Unchained."
I certainly haven't seen everything. I missed the press screening for "Life of Pi," and even though it is considered a front runner for a Best Picture nomination, I haven't been able to muster the enthusiasm to see it. I also haven't seen some of the foreign language films that are appearing on other top 10 lists, like "Holy Motors" and "Amour."
However, even with those omissions, whittling down to 10 films was difficult. When I watched "Bernie" on Netflix a few weeks ago, I was certain it would be on my top 10. It just missed. So did "Perks of Being a Wallflower," "Safety Not Guaranteed," "Moonrise Kingdom" and "Your Sister's Sister." "Les Miserables" was on the list I initially turned in and got bumped on Christmas Eve.
Here are my 10 favorite movies of 2012. Feel free to email your favorites to the address below.
1. "Argo" - This is old-school, Hollywood moviemaking at its finest with a story that is tense, gripping and funnier than expected. Ben Affleck, who directed and starred, and screenwriter Chris Terrio avoid the inherent pitfalls in a story where a significant chunk of the movie is white guys with bad facial hair sitting around talking, and they create a movie that is compelling visually and wonderfully entertaining. (On DVD Feb. 19 and a theatrical re-release is possible after the Oscar nominations next month)
2. "Lincoln" - Steven Spielberg, directing a magnificent script by Tony Kushner, narrowly focuses this film on the month before Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration, when he fought to secure passage of the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery. That approach ends up being more illuminating than a survey of the highlights of his life might have been. It makes an iconic figure flesh and blood (and all but guarantees Daniel Day-Lewis another Best Actor Oscar) and simultaneously comments on contemporary politics as it creates a portrait of Lincoln as an eloquent and determined pragmatist. (Currently in theaters)
3. "Zero Dark Thirty" - Director/producer Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter/producer Mark Boal, who collaborated on the Oscar winner "The Hurt Locker," detail the decade-long search for Osama Bin Laden. It's a gripping procedural that claims to take a "just-the-facts" to the hunt, which allows the viewer to decide what is right, what is wrong, what is justifiable and what can't be rationalized. It's a movie that will have its detractors: some hoping for a more rah-rah mentality may find its approach too technical, too clinical; others may argue that any movie that isn't clearly anti-torture becomes pro-torture by default. I loved it.
4. "Room 237" - This documentary focuses on five of the more extreme interpretations of the true meaning behind Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," which range from claims that it's really about the Holocaust to a belief that the movie is Kubrick's confession that he helped fake the footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. But the movie also works as a celebration of Kubrick (whose films inspires such study) and as a look at the subjectivity of critical analysis (how a work can be bent and distorted to conform to the beliefs of the person doing the analysis). (No DVD release date is set)
5. "The Master" - Most of the attention for Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film focused on its Scientology roots and the performance of Joaquin Phoenix, but Philip Seymour-Hoffman's portrayal of a charismatic spiritual leader is what lingers in my mind several months after seeing the film. Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd starts a religion that proclaims man's ability to triumph over his base animal instincts only to find himself trapped by the pressures of marriage and the rules of government. In the words of Bob Dylan, "You gotta serve somebody." With that realization, the lure of a man like Freddie Quell (Phoenix), whose every action seems driven by unbridled desire, become intoxicating to Dodd. (On DVD Feb. 26; may open theatrically locally if it gets a Best Picture Oscar nomination next month)
6. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" - On a budget that was a tiny fraction of some of the movies on this list, first-time director Benh Zeitlin creates a visually poetic feature about a young girl living in the Louisiana bayou with her dying father on an island that is about to flood. "Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub." (Available on DVD)
7. "The Silver Linings Playbook" - It would be easy to make this sound like a generic romantic comedy: a man and a woman, each with a full set of emotional baggage, are pushed together, clash and ultimately turn out to be more in sync than either ever expected. But writer-director David O. Russell takes what could have been conventional and defies expectations at nearly every turn. It's a movie that manages to be both populist (what could be more mass appeal than a movie that weaves both pro football and ballroom dancing into its storyline?) and quirky, one more interested exploring its damaged characters than following the rules of any genre. (Currently playing in Cleveland; should open locally around mid-January)
8. "Compliance" - The plot sounds ridiculous. Who could be stupid enough to be tricked into conducting a strip search of an employee by a phone caller claiming to be the police? But the movie is based on dozens of true incidents. Writer-director Craig Zobel ratchets up the tension and, with the help of excellent performances by Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker, creates a film that is both unsettling and plausible. (On DVD Jan. 8)
9. "The Invisible War" - Maybe the true test of documentary's effectiveness is that it has a tangible impact on its subject. This documentary by Kirby Dick about the problem of sexual assault in the military already has led to policy changes that are decades overdue. (Available on DVD and Netflix)
10. "Cabin in the Woods" - "The Avengers" was the top-grossing film of 2012, but it wasn't the best film directed by Joss Whedon released in 2012. It has a familiar horror movie set up - a group of college friends plan a weekend getaway to a remote cabin where bad things happen - but it doesn't merely rehash the cliches, nor is it a winking commentary on the genre like the "Scream" movies. Instead, it has fun twisting and subverting the archetypal characters and conventions of horror tales and why people are drawn to them. (Available on DVD)