It's incomplete, with such 2012 releases as Zero Dark Thirty, Amour, Rust & Bone, Arbitrage, The Intouchables, Not Fade Away, and Here Comes the Boom (ha ha!) still requiring my viewing. And it's certainly eclectic, as even I can't fathom a double feature of titles number one and two below. But in an all-around outstanding year for movies, the following ranking of 10 selections - with a bonus inclusion - is, as of January 6, my list of the absolute best times I had as a film fanatic this past year.
1) Lincoln. It sounded like prototypical Oscar bait in extremis. A two-and-a-half hour examination of our 16th president directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie - beginning with that portentous, last-word-on-the-subject title - all but promised to be an incredibly earnest, unbearably sanctimonious bore, with Spielberg shoving The Great Emancipator's majesty down our throats and John Williams' score unsubtly guilting us into submission. It was less a surprise, then, than an utter shock to discover what the film actually is: a fantastically swift, fiercely smart, and, best of all, grandly entertaining exploration of political maneuvering that felt like a detailed bio-pic, riveting legal thriller, and terrifically intelligent verbal comedy all rolled into one. Not for nothing has Lincoln earned $140 million and counting at the domestic box office; I saw the film twice in three days and still can't get over how much freaking fun this thing is. Spielberg directs Tony Kushner's vivid, joyously loquacious screenplay with more deftness and obvious passion (and, for him, understated passion) than he's lent to any project since Schindler's List, and Daniel Day-Lewis' miraculous title performance - one that, in turns, is sweet, powerful, unassuming, authoritative, and loads of other adjectives - is so fine that one could make a valid argument for adding the actor's own visage to Mount Rushmore. With Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Gloria Reuben, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook, Lee Pace, and many others offering pitch-perfect support, Lincoln is a towering, spectacularly enjoyable achievement - a blast of history delivered with you-are-really-there immediacy and fire. Oh, and that John Williams score? It's pretty damned sensational, too. The last Spielberg movie I'd place atop a year-end best list would probably have been 1982's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The three-decade wait for another one, I have to say, was entirely worth it.
2) 21 Jump Street. On my most recent viewing of this reboot-cum-satire of the hit TV show - the one that propelled Johnny Depp to Tiger Beat-cover fame - it became clear to me that the presentation was a little iffy, considering the film's over-reliance on closeups and standard two-shots, and its numerous lines of dialogue that were obviously and awkwardly added or looped in post-production. That might have been enough to keep the comedy off my top-10 list (or, at the very least, cause it to drop further in the rankings) if by "my most recent viewing" I didn't actually mean "perhaps my 20th viewing." If Lincoln's greatness was a shock, 21 Jump Street's was a veritable heart attack; how on Earth did directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and screenwriter Michael Bacall, take what should've merely been an amusing little throwaway and make it this colossally satisfying? Key to its success, of course, was the riotous, madly inspired pairing of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, whose brainy/brawny doubles act yielded dozens of laugh-out-loud moments, and whose unexpected emotional honesty allowed the movie to stand as the buddy-love story of the year. (They were also backed by a stellar cast of comedians that included Dave Franco, Brie Larson, Chris Parnell, Jake Johnson, Ellie Kemper, Nick Offerman, and a witheringly hilarious Ice Cube.) Yet it's the film's script, with its story credited to Bacall and Hill, that's almost ridiculously impressive, offering intensely sharp, pointed gags and disarming thoughtfulness on everything from current teen cliques to cop-flick clichés to Hollywood's paucity of original ideas. 21 Jump Street ends with our heroic undercover officers, after their successful bust of a high-school drug ring, being newly commissioned to infiltrate a college. Hill shouts, "Yes!" Tatum shouts, "No!" I'm with Hill on this.
3) Silver Linings Playbook. Just when you think you've had it up to here with modern romantic comedies - those breathlessly insipid star vehicles that routinely showcase the underwhelming likes of Katherine Heigl or Gerard Butler (or, God help us, both) - along comes writer/director David O. Russell's marvelously witty, edgy, heartfelt offering to totally renew your faith in the genre. Adapted from a Matthew Quick novel that's just scooted to the top of my must-read list, Russell's tale of a bipolar romantic obsessive and a forthright and determined widow follows many of the traditional rom-com beats, even with never-better leads Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence filling their roles with glorious complexity and soul. But scene to scene, nothing here happens quite the way you expect it to, principally because Russell has the blessed nerve to let his characters and situations teeter on the edge of hysteria without ever toppling; the people on-screen frequently reach the ends of their tethers, and their last-second pulling back, or the act of their being pulled back, proves both unpredictable and fantastically touching. I never thought I'd see a movie in which the impending results of a dance contest were simultaneously funny, touching, and nerve-racking. (Those involved scream at what eventually happens, and without telling you whether it's a scream of elation or anguish, I felt like screaming right along with them.) But I also never thought, after so many years of going-through-the-motions work, that I'd again see Robert De Niro deliver a portrayal as lovely and unsentimental as the one he gives here. Silver Linings Playbook is filled with all sorts of surprises.
4) Argo. Have we finally reached the point where we can collectively stop thinking, "Wow ... Ben Affleck can really direct, can't he?!"? Hopefully so, because (a) with Gone Baby Gone and The Town already on his résumé, Affleck's been really directing for a while now, and (b) with this taut, speedy thriller about the 1979-80 Iranian hostage crisis, he's proved that he's among the most adroit and confident helmers of his generation. (Don't be surprised, next month, if Oscar voters award the man their own, gold-plated vote of confidence.) Working with a beauty of a script by Chris Terrio, and taking his cues from such marvelously gripping '70s works as Three Days of the Condor and All the President's Men, Affleck has fashioned a true-life tale of rescue that's wonderfully audience-friendly without being the least bit condescending. You're held in thrall to the film's edge-of-your-seat excitement one moment and laughing at its sweetly acidic Tinseltown lampoons the next, and through it all, the movie is grounded in naturalistic expressiveness through superior production design and vividly textured performances, especially those of Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, and Alan Arkin. (The latter actor's dismissive, three-word punchline incorporating the film's title, followed by a delightfully Arkin-ian cackle, is already permanently ensconced in the unofficial Pop Culture Hall of Fame.) Argo boasts a great subject; thanks to Affleck's sterling presentation, it's also a great time.
5) Magic Mike. The other day, my editor referenced "actor Channing Tatum" by doing that invisible-quote-marks gesture on the word "actor." I deeply respect my boss, but never before have I wanted to slug him quite as hard as I did at that moment. How many wholly invested, artifice-free, offhandedly wonderful performances does Tatum have to give to be taken seriously? Granted, director Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike, which is partly based on its star's experiences as an exotic dancer and male stripper, didn't sound like the sort of project in which anyone should be taken seriously. But as millions of viewers have discovered - and millions more would discover if they dropped their preconceived notions and/or fears of turning gay at the sight of undulating male torsos - Soderbergh's latest is almost criminally entertaining, and yet another showcase for Tatum's grossly underrated gifts for comedy and emotional directness. (I'd also argue that if the motion-picture academy held dancing in the same high esteem it does singing, the performer would be as legitimate an Oscar contender this year as Les Misérables' Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. His moves are unbelievable.) A clever spin on the traditional veteran-educates-newbie narrative made exhilarating through directorial panache, smart and telling dialogue, and excellent portrayals across-the-board - none better than that of the devilishly charismatic Matthew McConaughey - Magic Mike is enormous fun. Double entendre not intended, but also not rescinded.
6) Life of Pi. Have you ever witnessed a sunset, or a rainbow, or a fireworks display so jaw-droppingly beautiful that you want to bawl your eyes out? At its finest, which is often, that's the sensation of director Ang Lee's resplendent adaptation of the long-thought-unfilmable Yann Martel novel, a work of such stunning gorgeousness - and, in its 3D presentation, such tactile wonder - that it leaves you elated and emotionally drained in equal measure. In truth, I found screenwriter David Magee's framework involving the re-told tale of a young man, a raft, and a Bengal tiger a bit obvious, and his and Lee's spiritual allegories a bit heavy-handed. Yet words tend to fail you when attempting to describe the lusciousness and visual rapture of the movie's sea-set (and meerkat-dominated island) sequences and the digitally-photographed astonishments they inspire, especially when Pi, played by the divinely empathetic Suraj Sharma, heaves a bottle into the ocean and watches as its landing forms around it perfect, ever-widening ripples of hopelessness. Powerfully moving, gently funny, and tremendously exciting, Life of Pi is an absolute feast for the eyes and, at times, for the soul, and the CGI employed for the creation of that tiger - a.k.a. Richard Parker - should deservedly net its effects wizards Academy Awards and lifetime memberships to PETA.
7) Looper. Forgive the vulgarity, but if writer/director Rian Johnson's time-travel thriller is nothing else, it's most certainly the multiplex mindf--- of the year. Happily, though, it's also so much else: a breathtaking action adventure with Bruce Willis' retired contract killer evading the clutches of his younger self (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and vice versa; a terse and evocative film noir in which characters' shadiness masks their even more brutal and terrifying natures; a haunting meditation on aging, and the eternal urges we have to slap some sense into younger versions of ourselves; a fiendishly clever super-villain (or, possibly, superhero) origin story that sheds light on how childhood trauma can lead to nefariousness (or, possibly, Superman-like goodness); a beguiling sci-fi comedy always rooted in a recognizable world. ("You should go to China." "I'm going to France." "I'm from the future. You should go to China.") The film's previews were marvelously circumspect about Looper's narrative - especially regarding the roles played by the fabulous Emily Blunt and the preternaturally sublime young actor Pierce Gagnon - and I hope I've followed suit. Just know that Johnson's offering, an even better surprise than his 2005 teen noir Brick, is a wildly involving, superbly written and directed achievement, and that its storyline should make for juicy conversations with friends hours, days, weeks, or even years after seeing it. "This time-travel crap," sighs Jeff Daniels' crime boss, "just fries your brain like an egg." Yes, it does. What a way to go.
8) ParaNorman. I know people who aren't all that crazy about Lincoln, and Silver Linings Playbook, and Magic Mike. But I have yet to encounter a single adult who has watched this supernatural family comedy at my suggestion and didn't love it - and that's including friends who've never given a passing thought to having kids. Of course, what's not to love here? A wildly inventive scare-flick spoof in which fresh ideas pop up with nearly startling frequency, this outing by directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell is so rife with visual jokes (Norman attempting to excise a book from the hands of a rigor-mortis-ized relative), aural jokes (the cell phone that plays John Carpenter's Halloween theme), and verbal jokes ("Not believing in the afterlife is like not believing in astrology!") that it leaves you almost dizzy. (If I'm ever down, I can instantly cheer myself up by thinking of Norman's chubby pal Neil getting punched in his pectorals and whining, "Ow-w-w! My boobs!") Yet there's also a touching exploration of childhood loneliness tucked inside this madcap zombie slapstick, and with Butler's ingenious script inspiringly (vocally) acted by Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, and John Goodman, ParaNorman is, beyond my doubt, easily the animated entertainment of the year. I vow to gracefully hold back my tears and anger when Frankenweenie or Wreck-It Ralph wins next month's Best Animated Feature Oscar instead.
9) The Dark Knight Rises. Considering how annoyed I was, on my first and second exposures to the film, by the more senseless set pieces, the strangely poor sound mixing, and Tom Hardy's mush-mouthed deliveries as Bane (not that they were entirely his fault), I really didn't expect Christopher Nolan's Batman-trilogy wrap-up to land amongst my 2012 favorites. Additional repeat viewings, however, have convinced me that while there are numerous flaws in The Dark Knight Rises, they're supremely outweighed by the good in the movie - and the good isn't so much "good" as "mind-blowingly awesome." Heaven knows that Nolan pulls out all the stops in terms of visual design, with the football stadium's demolition and the horrifying collapse of Gotham City's bridges so extraordinarily rendered that your excitement is both heightened and instantly leveled by an intense feeling of queasiness. Yet "feeling" is what this shockingly emotional comic-book caper provides in spades, be it through grand examples such as Bruce Wayne's rousing escape from a subterranean prison, or achingly sad ones such as Alfred's teary confession of a questionable kindness. With acutely shaded performances courtesy of Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (he of three films on my top 10!), Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, and even, upon continued reflection, Hardy - and the faultless Anne Hathaway practically stealing the film with one exquisitely timed roll of her eyes - wishing for an even better Dark Knight Rises than the one we have feels like wishing for far too much.
10) The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I had a helluva time trying to determine which of the movies I loved last year would sneak into this final slot, and my heart breaks a little to leave Martin McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths, Woody Allen's To Rome with Love, and Joe Carnahan's The Grey off my top-10 list. But I finally opted for writer/director Stephen Chbosky's adaptation of his own young-adult novel, and for a pretty simple reason: I can't think of a single thing wrong with it. A moderately scaled coming-of-age-in-high-school saga without a smidgeon of self-consciousness or falseness, Chbosky's tender, graceful, unexpectedly tough-minded tale is a love letter to the transformative power of friendship, and one acted to near-perfection by a revelatory Logan Lerman, a luminous Emma Watson, and a blazingly funny and poignant Ezra Miller (who, in a just world, would be preparing his "It's a thrill just to be nominated" sound bite right about now). The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the rare movie about adolescents that seems to get everything magically right, from the hushed, sexually charged intimacy of chaperone-free parties to the giddy thrill of a 3 a.m. drive with the car-top down and your best buddies beside you. And when events here take a turn toward the dramatic - the really dramatic - you may be astonished to realize how deeply connected you've become to the characters; the pain on display feels personal because, in one sense or another, it's a pain we've all shared, and continue to share. I adore this film, and its home-theatre release on February 12 really can't arrive soon enough.
And an Honorable Mention: Margaret - Extended Cut. For purposes of consistency, and maybe a dash of laziness, I generally don't augment my annual movies-of-the-year article with mention of anything I saw that was actually released prior to the year under discussion. But the "extended cut" of writer/director Kenneth Lonergan's sprawling drama Margaret - filmed in 2006 yet not released, rather notoriously, until a severely edited version appeared in a few markets in 2011 - seems a special case, because (a) it technically wasn't released in 2011, and (b) I actually love it more than Lincoln. Detailing the wildly inconsistent yet fiercely believable emotional states of a teenaged New Yorker (the staggeringly magnificent Anna Paquin) who witnesses a fatal bus accident, the movie is a three-hour explosion of pain and panic and confusion, telling of a girl who desperately wants to alleviate, or perhaps merely explain, her guilt, yet who has no earthly idea how. But Lonergan's epically ambitious follow-up to 2000's You Can Count on Me is no traditional coming-of-age tale. Messy, chaotic, experimental, overstuffed, and almost operatically emotional, the movie is also a vividly shaded portrait of moral responsibility, and vexing mother-daughter relations, and classroom dynamics, and the occasionally torturous complexities of litigation - and even the stomach-clenching fear and sadness of New Yorkers in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. (Lonergan's camera, on several occasions, follows the trajectory of faraway jets, with these scenes ending the instant one vanishes behind a skyscraper.) Margaret features patches of weak, or maybe just awkwardly improvised, dialogue, and it's easy to imagine some viewers wanting to scream, "Move it along already!" during Lonergan's trance-like shots of Manhattan traffic and architecture. But if you can get on board with the film's length and occasional meditativeness and abrupt shifts in tone, you might, as I did, find it a positively overwhelming experience, one featuring exceptional work by J. Smith-Cameron, Jeannie Berlin, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Allison Janney, and Matthew Broderick, and one suggesting Kenneth Lonergan may yet be a screen talent equal to Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson. Let's pray it's not another 11 years until we get a new one from him.
For Mike's numerical ranking of 150 additional 2012 titles, visit "Project CLX."
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