2012 was a good year for movies, according to most critics, and it was a year in which the major studios, accustomed to sitting on the sidelines while the indies reap all the year-end glory, are making a surprisingly strong showing with Oscar contenders and critics' awards.
From Sony's "Zero Dark Thirty" to Warner Bros.' "Argo" to DreamWorks/Disney's "Lincoln" to 20th Century Fox's "Life of Pi" to Universal's "Les Miserables," the big boys are back in the awards picture with a vengeance.
And to a lesser degree, they're back on my own Top 10 list for the year. I've got three major-studio productions on my 2012 list, one more than made those lists the first three times I compiled them for TheWrap.
On those three previous occasions, I took the fact that I write about the Oscars as my Top 10 gimmick, presenting my list in the form of an Oscar ballot. But with the new variable number of nominees in the Best Picture category, AMPAS ballots (or online forms) no longer ask members to list 10 choices – now it's just five, which makes things easier for Oscar voters but harder for, say, film writers who want to hang on to their Top 10 gimmicks.
Still, I've tried. Here's what I'd fill out, if I could submit an Oscar ballot. (Which I can't.) The rest of my choices are below.
In truth, it might be good that this year's Oscar ballot only has five slots for best-picture picks, because I'm only really sure about the first four. Those were easy choices, and absolute locks; the rest were a lot harder to pin down, and I could easily shuffle the order or even replace them with other movies upon further reflection.
My 2012 list:
1. "Zero Dark Thirty"
Despite the controversy fanned by people anxious to hold its filmmakers to an imagined moral standard or use its content to score political points, Kathryn Bigelow's gripping procedural is as taut and transfixing a piece of cinema as hit screens this year. In laying out the bad things done to us and by us, the film lets no one off the hook – not its characters, and not its audience.
2. "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
I walked out of its first Sundance screening saying "what the hell was that?" and was amazed and delighted to find that it found a home (with Fox Searchlight) and an audience. Raw and messy and weird and exhilarating, Benh Zeitlin's ultra-indie turned a simple line – "Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub" – into the stuff of myth, folklore and heartbreak.
3. "Silver Linings Playbook"
David O. Russell's sharp, funny, touching film arrived at the Toronto International Film Festival without the advance hype that had preceded other TIFF films, but it bowled me over (along with a couple thousand others at that first screening). Brilliantly acted, sensitively written and imbued with a marvelous sense of place, it just plain works.
Michael Haneke's drama about old age and death, Austria's entry in the Oscar foreign-language race, is unsentimental but heartbreaking, compassionate but unsparing; it's a devastating love story shot with a clinical but loving eye.
(Just missing my list was the German Oscar entry, "Barbara," a tense and quiet look at Cold War East Germany that should have made the shortlist.)
5. "Anna Karenina"
An 11th-hour change-of-pace found director Joe Wright setting Tolstoy's romantic epic in a decaying theater. It was a ridiculous conceit that could have been catastrophic, but instead turned a seemingly predictable enterprise (Wright + Keira Knightley + classic literature) into something wild, bold and wholly, gloriously unexpected.
(Honorable mention in this slot goes to "Cloud Atlas," an even crazier experiment that worked if you were willing to give it time and cut it slack, which I was.)
6. "Like Someone in Love"
Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami hasn't gotten a lot of stateside attention for this quiet Japanese-language film, a followup of sorts to his "Certified Copy" and the enigmatic story of a relationship between an elderly man and a young female student and escort. Until a jarring moment in its final scene, the film is an exercise in languid ambiguity – a beautiful, melancholic tone poem that casts a spell that lingers.
7. "Seven Psychopaths"
I don't think Martin McDonagh's second feature is as good as his first, "In Bruges." But I don't really care, because this talky, bloody, self-referential, philosophical, comedic action flick assembles the greatest cast you could ever want for a movie called "Seven Psychopaths" — Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Colin Farrell, Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stanton, etc. — and McDonagh gives them great stuff to say.
It's as funny and almost as bloody as (the admittedly terrific) "Django Unchained," and it raises fewer moral qualms in its viewers because it's about screenwriting and dog-napping instead of slavery.
8. "Searching for Sugar Man"
In a strong year for documentaries, "The Invisible War" and "How to Survive a Plague" packed more of a punch, and "Ethel" was more profoundly moving for those of us of a certain age. But "Sugar Man" was so damnably entertaining, and such an astounding story of rediscovery, that it bypassed the more serious competition to become my favorite doc of the year.
9. "Wreck-It Ralph"
Pixar co-founder John Lasseter has also been heading Disney animation for a few years now; maybe that's why Pixar's 2012 entry, "Brave," was that studio's most Disney-esque film ever, while Disney's "Wreck-It Ralph" seemingly borrowed from Pixar's magical toolkit. The film took a great, simple idea (arcade characters who exist in their own universe when we're not looking) and turned it into the freshest, most surprising animated film of the year.
This one stands as a tribute to a year in which major-studios reclaimed Oscar-quality movies from the independents – and if I found it more satisfying than, say, an ambitious and skilled studio production like "Argo," it's because I hardly expected the James Bond franchise at this point to produce one of its richest and most satisfying entries since "Goldfinger."
It didn't have the classic action sequences that "Casino Royale" did, but director Sam Mendes more than made up for it with delicious character work and Javier Bardem's Bond villain for the ages.
I could easily have made a case for big movies like "Argo," "Lincoln" and "The Master" making my list, and the fact that little things kept them all off it might mean that I'm holding them to a higher standard than, say, "Seven Psychopaths." But so be it – I'm sure they'll all get their due from people who are actually qualified to cast Oscar ballots.
I also left off "Moonrise Kingdom," stylish and fun and almost as much of a Wes Anderson cartoon as "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," and "Life of Pi," for its heart and its startling visual imagination, and the strange, terrifying documentary "The Act of Killing," which I saw in Toronto and would have put on the list except that it's getting a proper release in 2013.
And I could no doubt mention a dozen deserving others, but I've already gone way past what you can fit on a ballot.