Since December 17 we've been counting down our favorite genre movies of 2012 on the Bleader—animation, documentary, comedy, sci-fi, suspense, horror—as well as the year's best revivals and worst new releases. Now it's time for the big tamale, our favorite movies of 2012. Check online for links to blogs and long reviews. —J.R. Jones
Film editor J.R. Jones
1A Separation My happiest moment from this year's Oscar show was seeing Asghar Farhadi's moving Iranian drama win best foreign film. The personal and the political are beautifully fused in this story of a married couple prevented from divorcing by a judge of the Islamic Republic, and of the tragedy that unfolds in their home after the wife moves back in with her parents, leaving the husband with their 12-year-old daughter and his old, ailing father. The movie takes place mostly in enclosed spaces, and that sense of enclosure extends to the characters' lives as well.
2Lincoln We're inundated with Abraham Lincoln in this town, but Steven Spielberg's politically astute biopic manages to make him real again. As the president, Daniel Day-Lewis is funny, loving, principled, and wise, but the story—centered mainly on Lincoln's arm-twisting campaign to pass the 13th Amendment and free the slaves once and for all—stresses his political cunning, an element of his character seldom presented onscreen. Opening three days after the Obama victory, Lincoln immediately became an emblem of today's politics, reminding us how divided our house has been in years past.
3In the Family The so-called "slow cinema" movement exposes a key truth about drama: people can be drawn into a story of any length as long as it travels a perceivable arc. Patrick Wang wrote, directed, and stars in this modest, quietly attentive tale of a gay man in small-town Tennessee who loses his lover in a car accident and custody of their little boy to the dead man's sister. The movie succeeds as a civil rights drama, but Wang also accomplishes something more subtle, his languid tempo conjuring up a persuasive vision of the new (and sometimes not-so-new) south.
4God Bless America Bobcat Goldthwait's comic riff on Taxi Driver might seem more scary than funny after the Newtown massacre, but it isn't any less important. A middle-aged office drone, disgusted with the crassness and cruelty of American mass media, learns that he's terminally ill and goes on a cross-country shooting spree. Though Goldthwait conceived of the movie as a riposte to progun wackos, its comic charge is the fantasy of gun vengeance that we've all come to enjoy on the big screen.
5Le Grand Amour Hats off to Gene Siskel Film Center for its November retrospective on Pierre Etaix, a comic genius who began his career as a circus clown, wrote gags for Jacques Tati in the 50s, then blossomed in the 60s with a series of droll, visually inventive features. The crown jewel of the series was Le Grand Amour (1969), receiving its Chicago premiere; onscreen, Etaix has the physical grace and quiet self-possession of a silent-film great, and his story of an unhappy married man who falls for his 18-year-old secretary is studded with witty sight gags.
6The House I Live In Eugene Jarecki's ambitious, thought-provoking history of the U.S. drug war culminates in the radical idea, articulated onscreen by physician Gabor Mate, that the policy is not a failure but a success, having contributed to a booming prison-industrial complex. This perspective is only one, however, in a movie that examines the issue from all sides, presenting frank talk from cops, doctors, corrections officers, and drug dealers. Jarecki has been rapped for drawing on the reminiscences of his family's black maid, whose son was destroyed by drugs, but they help illustrate his contention that drug policy has often targeted racial minorities.
7Beyond the Hills Cristian Mungiu, whose harrowing 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) followed two women as they negotiated a hotel-room abortion in communist Romania, returns with another tale of old-world patriarchy that's even more mysterious and disturbing than its predecessor. The two women in this one were raised in an orphanage, where they may have been lovers and may have been sexually abused; now one has pledged herself to a Russian Orthodox convent and the other arrives for a visit, introducing an element of chaos into the orderly religious world. Beyond the Hills screened at the Chicago International Film Festival in October; a theatrical release is scheduled for March 2013.
8Rust and Bone In theaters now, this gravely serious French drama from French director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) easily ranks as the year's best and truest romance, a genre too often given over to froth. Marion Cotillard, mainly used as set decoration in her big Hollywood films, digs into the role of a woman who loses her legs below the knee; as she submits to the grueling process of learning to function again, her friendship with a burly street fighter (Matthias Schoenaerts of Bullhead) deepens into real devotion, though whether he'll ever accept her as a whole woman is open to question.
9Compliance One doesn't expect to see sharp psychological drama in a fast-food restaurant—something about the matching shirts—but this cagey indie from Craig Zobel turns a chicken-fillet place into the setting for a sinister behavioral experiment. A prank caller persuades the gullible manager that he's a police detective and orders her to strip-search a young employee suspected of stealing from a customer. No one could be dumb enough to fall for that, you might think, though in fact close to 70 incidents like this transpired between 1992 and 2004.
10The Color Wheel Alex Ross Perry's indie road movie ends dramatically, but mostly it's hilarious, a cruel comedy in which a grown brother and sister bore progressively deeper into each other's character flaws. Perry is the nerdy, sexually deprived, endlessly yammering brother; Carlen Altman is the beautful sister, a pitiably untalented and unqualified media wannabe who drags him along to collect her things from the broadcasting professor she was sleeping with. Though shot in black-and-white 16-millimeter, the movie earns its title.
Runners up: Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild, Richard Linklater's Bernie, Terence Davies's The Deep Blue Sea, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's Detropia, Andrey Zvyagintsev's Elena, Davis Ayer's End of Watch, Kirby Dick's The Invisible War, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz, Seth MacFarlane's Ted, Jafar Panahi's This Is Not a Film, Lynn Shelton's Your Sister's Sister.