2012’S BEST OF BOX OFFICE
The films that stood out for critics Jay Stone and Katherine Monk
1 Argo: Ben Affleck, who has become a solid, no-fuss film director in the manner of Clint Eastwood — both of them were also underestimated as actors — manages to evoke high tension out of a familiar story: the escape of six American embassy workers during the 1980 Iran hostage crisis. But the film really soars in its depiction of how Hollywood helped set up a phoney movie company as a disguise for the fugitives. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are wonderful as the wise guy movie executives whose ethos of tough-guy make believe isn’t that far from that of the CIA.
2 The Master: Moviegoers had trouble figuring out what Paul Thomas Anderson’s exquisitely mounted period piece was about, but that seemed to be its point. This history of a Scientology-like cult is immersed in the very confusions of power and charisma that allow such cults to thrive. Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the bluff leader, and Joaquin Phoenix as his dangerously alcoholic acolyte, express the attraction — almost a giddiness — that exists in the brotherhood of the outlaw.
3 Beasts of the Southern Wild: An extraordinary film from first-time director Behn Zeitlin, and starring a dazzling discovery named Quvenzhane Wallis, is about life in the Louisiana bayou during hurricane Katrina. An inside-out examination of an insular but thriving culture, it takes us into a warm and happily ramshackle world of spirit, family and magic. It’s the year’s most delightful surprise.
4 Django Unchained: Quentin Tarantino’s revenge story about black slavery in America is long and bloody, but beyond the cinematic tributes — mostly to the spaghetti Western — there’s real power in its outrage. Christoph Waltz is easily commanding as a bounty hunter who trains a partner, Jamie Foxx, and accompanies him on a trip through the brutal South to free his wife from smoothly evil slave-owner Leonardo DiCaprio. Under the stylistic tics of genre pastiche, Tarantino has uncovered the deep shame of his country’s past.
5 Flight A movie about alcoholism that goes beyond the 12-step clichés of films such as Smashed to find something that’s not often talked about: the heady feeling of invincibility that comes with self-destruction. Denzel Washington is commanding as a stoned airline pilot who saves most of his passengers with daring manoeuvres — brought on by a drunk’s easy confidence — then has to face the reality of his problems. It features the most harrowing air crash since Cast Away.
6 Holy Motors No, it’s not for everyone, but Leos Carax’s mad mashup of movie lore, personal history and unhinged symbolism was an astounding trip. It stars Denis Levant — the pugnaciously non-beautiful ex-acrobat who is Carax’s frequent collaborator — as a mysterious man travelling through Paris by limousine. He gets out occasionally to take on a new persona: beggar, actor, terrible father, abandoned lover, killer and more. A movie like no other.
7 Once Upon a Time in Anatolia As we say in the film criticism game, beware the masterpiece. Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan is known for the relaxed pace of his cinema, and this police procedural takes a long time to get started. It’s about a group of policemen looking for a body buried in the countryside, and it’s a long and dark search. But there’s a reward at the end, a surprise that upends your expectations and makes this a touching examination of men, women and love.
8 Madagascar 3 Europe’s Most Wanted: The madcap animated series flies along with an insane energy, and never more so than in this sequel in which our heroes — voiced by Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith — try to get home from Monte Carlo by joining a travelling circus. Filled with awesome special effects, frantic stunts and a throwaway sense of the ridiculous, it had the inspired chaos of early Marx Brothers.
9 Rebelle Canada’s entry in the foreign film Oscar race is a beautifully made drama from Quebec director Kim Nguyen and starring a brilliant newcomer, young Rachel Mwanza. She plays a teenager kidnapped by rebels in an unnamed African country and turned into a child soldier. Filmed with hand-held intimacy, it is a study of resilience that finds a measure of humanity — as well as some humour — in the tragedy of endless war.
10 The Imposter An extraordinary documentary that plays like a mystery story. A teenager named Nicholas Barclay went missing from his Texas home in 1994, and reappeared three years later, looking older and speaking with a French accent. The new “Nicholas” persuaded his family he was their missing son, and he persuades us of a story that slowly becomes a psychological thriller and a murder mystery. It’s a brilliant illustration of the phenomenon of the unreliable narrator.