The 25 Best Movies of 2012 (So Far)

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We see a lot of movies, most of them bad. So it’s always a joy to remember the good ones, and 2012 has already had plenty—from a documentary about sushi to a new kind of horror film, the latest from a tiny Belgian film to a superhero blockbuster. Here are the 25 Best Movies of 2012, released between January and June.

20. The Raid: Redemption
The Raid: Redemption is the type of hyper-violent action film that makes grown men wince (and then chuckle) and their girlfriends and wives wince, roll their eyes (and then wonder what is wrong with men?!) Yes, guys, it’s that good. Directed by Gareth Evans, The Raid: Redemption is the second film by Evans to star Indonesian martial artist Iko Uwais and feature the traditional Indonesian martial art of Pencak silat. The plot is simple. Rookie policeman Rama (Uwais) is part of a 20-man assault squad attempting to stealthily enter an apartment building and arrest the ruthless crime lord who controls it. Things begin to go wrong as soon as the squad makes it too far in to retreat. From there, all hell breaks loose—and stays really, really loose—the rest of the way as Rama tries to survive the waves of gun-toting, machete-wielding and generally inhospitable building inhabitants trying to kill him. The Raid is a study of all the places on a human body one can shoot, stab and punch- and in this “study” the movie leaves its mark. Though its fight sequences are hardly exercises in gritty realism, they nonetheless possess a rawness—a tendency toward fatality—that’s not often seen on the Big Screen. As for flaws, it’s hard to find many in The Raid: Redemption without resorting to a questioning of the value of the genre in general—and the excessive violence in particular. But considered on its own merits and judged by how well Evans and Uwais do what they set out to do, The Raid: Redemption delivers. Besides, there’s really just not much to be said against a film that blows up so many people using a refrigerator. —Michael Burgin

19. Carol Channing: Larger Than Life
Carol Channing is such an endearing, sharp, funny personality that director Dori Berinstein could easily have just thrown her camera on a tripod, have the 90-year-old musical theater legend spin anecdotes for an hour and a half, and had a great documentary. Thankfully, what she made is even better. From Hello, Dolly composer Jerry Herman to Debbie Reynolds to Chita Rivera to a professional Carol Channing impersonator, the film paints an affectionate portrait of a performer who so loves and embodies musical comedy, that if it hadn’t existed before she did, surely her elemental talent would have summoned and created it for her out of pixie dust, brass, feathers, plywood, and of course, diamonds. Channing effortlessly keeps herself off the pedestal of celebrity and draws anyone into her sphere with the congeniality of an old friend. It’s easy to see how everyone from chorus boys to presidents is enamored by her. And then there’s husband Harry Kullijian.The two are ridiculously adorable and clearly overjoyed to be together again after all this time. Tragically, Kullijian passed away in December. All the more luck, then, that we have this small but moving document of the couple so we can share some of their spark for just a little bit. Carol’s childhood sweetheart, reunited in marriage after 70-odd years apart. Carol Channing: Larger than Life is like a warm cinematic hug from Shubert Alley, not to be missed by anyone with even the remotest passing interest in Channing or Broadway history. —Dan Kaufman

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18. How To Grow A Band
A good film—and a good band, for that matter—can be much like The Wizard of Oz’s smoke-billowing wizard. If everything goes just right, if the curtain doesn’t get pulled back, then the audience can find itself part of a great and powerful experience. That said, in How To Grow A Band, director Mark Meatto proves that, sometimes, a look behind the curtain can yield just as amazing of an experience. Meatto followed the folk-formal-fusion-but-don’t-you dare-call-it-bluegrass band Punch Brothers for two years: on tour, in studio, on the street, in the living room, in comfort and in flux. The portrait of the band that emerges is clear and precise. We come to know the band so well that the music is comfortingly familiar by film’s end; we come to the know the band members so well that we can hear each individual personality filter through each song. Meatto is careful to give the audience more than concert footage. Instead, he treats the band as a character in and of itself—with its own personality and idiosyncrasies, up days and down days, energy and exhaustion. There’s also commentary by such heavyweights as cellist Yo Yo Ma and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin (himself an accomplished mandolin player). How To Grow A Band is evenly paced, seamlessly edited, visually rich and musically exceptional. Meatto reminds us of the gritty truths of touring—we see rehearsals and jam sessions in Thile’s small living room, miles covered by mini-van, tiny dressing rooms stained with graffiti, and the endless details of promotion and marketing. On screen, there is Punch Brothers, the band. The effortless movie-making is simply not apparent—just sit back and enjoy the show. —Joan Radell

17. Boy
Boy isn’t exactly a comedy, even though it will make you laugh, and it isn’t a feel-good movie. It’s a movie about crushing failure, personal identity, and the possibility of hope as experienced in one M?ori family, circa 1984. Boy opens with an 11-year-old kid (James Rolleston) giving a school report titled “Who Am I?”, his voice speaking over a montage of scenes from his life. It begins with a M?ori greeting: “Kia ora. My name is Boy, and welcome to my interesting world. My favorite person is Michael Jackson. He is the best singer and dancer in the world.” Boy’s report moves from comedy to tenderness as he begins to talk about his own dad, Alamein: “My dad’s not here right now. He’s a busy man…When he comes home, he’s taking me to see Michael Jackson, LIVE. The end.” The students are utterly bored and the teacher is smoking a cigarette out an open window. Soon we also discover the lie of his father’s life—as another student whispers, “Yo man, you’re a liar. You’re dad’s not overseas. He’s in jail for robbery … Same cell block as my dad.” There’s an utterly serious core to Boy that could be missed among all the Michael Jackson references. This is especially evident in the character of Alamein—whose true purpose in returning home, we discover, is not to reconnect with his sons, nor even to visit the grave of his wife, but to dig in a field for stolen money he’s buried. What separates Boy from other movies in its category is its child-centeredness. These kids’ fantasy world, which includes not only Boy’s humorous revisions but Rocky’s belief that he has magical powers and can change reality around him simple by raising his hand and concentrating, creates just the right amount of irony to make the much harsher “real” world believable. The movie’s power lies in how the irony collapses. Increasingly, viewers find themselves seeing the world through the children’s eyes. We suspect it might be more emotionally true than the adult way of looking at the world. At least it’s more hopeful, and that’s exactly what we, like Alamein, need. —Aaron Belz

16. Your Sister’s Sister
Improvisation must be alternately liberating and frightening for actors. It certainly can provide fresh results and lead to a realism that is otherwise hard to harness. Alternatively, dialogue can lack polish, and a film’s structure may be too loose and meandering. In the case of Lynn Shelton’s newest, Your Sister’s Sister, the outcome is mixed. The film begins with friends sharing drinks and fondly remembering Tom, a recently deceased buddy. Tom’s brother, Jack (Mark Duplass), ruins the memorial by angrily describing him in an unflattering light. Tom’s ex-girlfriend, Iris (Emily Blunt), pulls Jack aside and proposes he recoup in isolation at her family’s island house. Jack arrives at the secluded destination but discovers an attractive, barely dressed woman. Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) is the lesbian sister of Iris, mourning the breakup of a seven-year relationship. Both grieving losses, Jack and Hannah connect on the first night and drink too much, leading to an awkward sexual encounter. Based on this film and her last, Shelton seems interested in exploring jealousy and rivalry, both topics that are rife with possibility. The cast certainly seems to have fun with the material but while their improvisation gives the dialogue life, it also lacks a certain refinement that could’ve come from more time or a single hand.That said, it’s an intimate drama on a scale that few actors the stature of Emily Blunt venture to participate in. It’s a rarity to see a female-centric film in American cinema today, nonetheless a good one. —Will McCord

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15. Bernie
Let’s talk about Richard Linklater, the man who just doesn’t seem to care what you think. Or, to be more specific, what his critics think. And that’s a good thing. From Slackers, to Dazed and Confused, A Scanner Darkly and Before Sunrise- the pattern in Linklater’s creativity is that there is no pattern. And now he gives us a murder story, in a surprisingly simple but cleverly subtle package. Bernie is as much about the town of Carthage, Texas, as it is about its infamous resident Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), the town’s mortician and prime suspect in the murder of one of the its most despised citizens, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Unlike Nugent, Bernie is conspicuously loved by all. When he’s not helping direct the high school musical, he’s teaching Sunday school. Black seems to possess an innate restraint that prevents him from slipping too far into caricature with Bernie, who we come to learn is not nearly as complicated as we first suspect. The 78-year-old MacLaine approaches the role of Marjorie with a certain reverence, turning in yet another in a career of great performances. Like a well-played mystery, Linklater’s excellent, darkly humorous (and true) story is interspersed with tantalizing interviews of the community’s residents. Linklater uses real East Texas folks to play the parts, a device that serves as the perfect balance against the drama that leads up to Bernie’s fatal encounter with the rich bitch of a widow. The comedy is sharp with some of the film’s best lines coming from those townsfolk. With Bernie, Linklater once again has proven himself a fearless director who is neither complacent nor formulaic. Since I’m a critic, Linklater himself most likely won’t care what I think. And that’s a very, very good thing. —Tim Basham

14. Undefeated
Undefeated is such a well-meaning, heart-on-its-sleeve documentary that one feels morally obligated to write words in praise of it. Having scored a 2012 Academy Award win in the Best Documentary category, it’s safe to say that Oscar voters are not in the camp of doubters and naysayers.There is, after all, so much to appreciate in directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s film about a North Memphis high school football coach and his hardscrabble Manassas Tigers’ 2009 miracle season. The documentary vividly profiles each of its four principal subjects: There is the compassionate and voluble coach Bill Courtney, whose commitment to his players borders on saintly; the troubled Chavis, battling anger issues as he seeks to be a mature team leader; the sweet-tempered O.C., blessed with superior talent but struggling with academics in his quest for a scholarship; and “Money,” an honors student and undersized lineman with a never-say-die attitude.
The team’s chance to make its first play-offs in Manassas’ 110-year history that drives the suspense in the film. In introducing us to Courtney, Undefeated finds its voice.One realizes that it’s on the backs of individuals like Courtney that entire communities find their soul, their humanity. —Jay Antani

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13. Oslo, August 31
Somber, thoughtful, elegiac, Oslo, August 31st asks why life is worth living when it’s been squandered. It’s not as if the main character, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), has had the most difficult life. On the contrary, he’s from a well-to-do family and has frittered away his time clubbing and doing drugs. At the age of 34, he’s given a new chance as he’s on the verge of being released from a drug rehabilitation center. He starts on a 24-hour trip that may or may not lead him to accept his lot in life and keep trying. But will the viewer care? Anders struggle with addiction and depression, but he’s far from cinema’s most sympathetic protagonist. Nonetheless, that’s exactly Joachim Trier’s point. The writer/director believes there are worthwhile stories to be told among the privileged (as exemplified by his first film, Reprise), and Oslo, August 31st is not a story meant to elicit sympathy for the economic straits of its main character as much as for his spiritual straits—his regret, his loneliness, his inability to connect with others. Anders Danielsen Lie gives a raw performance, baring a deep sense of melancholy. Thin, pale with sad eyes, he gives the impression of being an apparition. At one point, he sits alone in a coffee shop and listens to bits of conversation around him, merely a fly on the wall. The camera work is elegant and deceptively simple, often imperceptibly dollying forward on these intimate moments.Though the film provides a gentle wash of dark feelings, one can’t help but feel cleansed by it and more alive when it ends. —Will McCord

12. Elena
With Elena, director Andrey Zvyagintsev was interested in exploring an uncompromising Darwinian world—as he describes it, “tarantulas in a jar.” It’s a bleak landscape to paint, and he’s done so with only a few characters and a relatively simple story. Set in Moscow, Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) is a wealthy, retired man living in a modern, sleek apartment. His former nurse, Elena (Nadezhda Markina), is his wife, but she lives in another room with a separate TV and still treats him like a patient. His daughter, Katerina (Yelena Lyadova), is completely estranged but does show up when Vladimir becomes ill and is hospitalized. The event forces Vladimir to confront his mortality and think about writing his will. Elena must also think about her welfare as she faces the prospect of being widowed even as her son’s family struggles with little money. Simple and spare, Elena succeeds in creating a dark world. Vladimir’s apartment is shot beautifully with a cold precision. Smirnov’s portrayal of Vladimir is tough, uncompromising and very believable, as is Elena Lyadova’s depiction of his daughter. —Will McCord

11. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Directed by David Gelb, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a documentary about one of the greatest masters of the culinary world, one whom casual foodies have never even heard of. This man is 85-year-old sushi shokunin (Japanese artisan), Jiro Ono, who runs a ten-seat, sushi-only restaurant called Sukiyabashi Jiro located in a Tokyo subway station. He is hailed internationally as an innovator in the art of sushi. A seat in his restaurant must be reserved at least a month in advance and customers pay $300 a person for a prix fixe tasting menu that takes about half an hour to complete. The film’s close ups of the sushi and the shokunin’s hands at work have an incredible clarity and crispness. The music score nicely parallels the repetition, not only in Jiro’s daily life, but also in his dedication to the art of sushi. Every day, from when he was a small boy left to fend for himself at the age of seven, Jiro has strived for a more perfect realization of the sushi he, literally, dreams about at night. Although Jiro’s work is ostensibly the focus of the documentary, the film is really propelled by the story of his relationship with his two sons; the youngest of whom has started his own restaurant, and the oldest of whom, at the age of fifty, continues to work with his father, training to one day take over his restaurant. Devoid of the typical familial jealousy you may expect, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is instead a beautifully filmed documentary about a father and his sons who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of the perfect piece of sushi. —Emily Kirkpatrick