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.

10. The Cabin In The Woods
For a movie chock-full of twists, perhaps the biggest is that despite all appearances to the contrary, The Cabin in the Woods is a heartfelt love story. Mind you, not between any of the young and pretty college students who tempt fate at the cabin in question. No, this romance is between creators Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, and the scary-movie genre as a whole. A ménage à terror, if you will. Like Scream before it, the film is a simultaneous dissection and celebration of all the tropes to which it pays homage, while also managing to be a superb example of the genre in its own right. The script is vintage Whedon—smart, funny and surprising. Thanks to Goddard’s direction and staging, and despite the film’s very focus on the formulaic nature of horror, it still manages to be tense, atmospheric and jump-out-of-your-seat scary. The fun of discovery is just as much in play as all the blood and slime. Shot three years ago, the sight of a slighter, pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth as one of the students in peril already looks a little dated. The rest of the students are basically there as eye candy and cannon fodder, as is only proper, but they all commit to the material extremely well. Make no mistake: This isn’t The Tree of Life. It’s a schlocky little horror movie. But with such loving attention to detail and fun, The Cabin in the Woods may very well be the ultimate schlocky little horror movie. It’s just too bad that no machine yet exists to take you back 100 minutes so that you can experience it again for the first time. —Dan Kaufman

9. Marley
It’s not entirely clear why director Kevin Macdonald decided to make a documentary about the musician Bob Marley, a cultural icon whose life has been recounted countless times through a variety of mediums. Whatever his reasons, he’s clearly up to the task. Marley offers an expansive and at times fascinating perspective on the man through interviews with his fellow former Wailers, family, and childhood friends. The film is fairly detailed concerning Marley’s songwriting and musicianship from his early ska days up through the release of Catch a Fire. After this, however, it skips through his catalogue, choosing to focus more on his personal life, conversion to Rastafarianism, the tumultuous state of Jamaican politics, and his prolific womanizing—all of which are important elements of the artist’s character. This makes for an interesting journey, although music geeks will surely miss the behind-the-scenes insight about classic albums and songs that might have appeared. Marley, which is beautifully shot for a documentary (the Jamaican locations help immensely), begins not in the Caribbean, but in West Africa. This fades into live footage from the 1970s of Marley performing the song “Exodus.” Vintage concert performances are peppered liberally throughout the film, showcasing Marley as a whirling dervish of spinning, sweaty dreadlocks, possessed of an energy that feels boundless. Marley’s personal life was tumultuous, to say the least, and the film’s interviewees are happy to talk about it. Just when it seemed that he was poised to crack the elusive black American audience he so desired, he was stricken with cancer. When its a story of someone as profoundly interesting and influential as Bob Marley, there’s just so much things to say. —Jonah Flicker

8. Sound of My Voice
The first ten minutes of Sound of My Voice are some of the most claustrophobic, dread-filled moments to grace American cinema in years. With no preamble, we follow a young couple as they voluntarily submit to an ominous set of late-night rituals beginning with handing over their valuables and allowing themselves to be handcuffed and blindfolded, and culminating in an elaborate secret handshake and meeting with a mysterious leader in a basement somewhere in the San Fernando Valley. We quickly learn that the stranger, Maggie, claims to be a traveler from the future who has returned to collect a chosen few followers, whom she will lead to a “safe place.” The young couple, Lorna and Peter, are aspiring documentarians and have infiltrated Maggie’s sect to expose her as a fraud and cult leader. Co-written by director Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling (who plays Maggie), Sound of My Voice relentlessly simmers and threatens to boil over at any moment. Peter, who blames his mother’s death on a New Age cult, begins as a fierce opponent to the entire idea of Maggie’s group. Slowly, she breaks through his armor with both intimidation and seduction. Lorna’s relationship to the group and to Peter grows strained as things get weirder and weirder. Why is Maggie collecting blood from her followers? How does she know Peter teaches at a girls’ school and where did she obtain that yearbook? Does she suspect Peter and Lorna plan to sabotage her? The filmmakers refuse to feed us answers just as they refuse us explanations. Marling’s Maggie is a twisted messiah whom, most frightening of all, we can never completely damn. As a result, this intellectual thriller shot on a shoestring budget outshines any mega-budget summer offering and provides striking proof that independent cinema is alive and well. —Clay Steakley

7. This is Not A Film
In December 2010, renowned Iranian director Jafar Panahi (Offside) was sentenced to six years in prison and banned from making films for 20 years. His crime? Supporting the opposition party during Iran’s highly charged 2009 election. Alone in his apartment, Panahi turns on a camera. What follows is a document of the day-to-day life of a man under house arrest: He spreads jam on bread. He brews tea. He feeds his daughter’s pet iguana. He calls his family. He checks in with his lawyer. But it also evolves into a provocative meditation on the nature of filmmaking itself: Although he has been barred from directing films, writing screenplays, leaving the country and conducting interviews, Panahi’s sentence says nothing about reading or acting, so this is what he does, explaining what his most recent film would have been about had he been allowed to make it. His friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, arrives to follow him around the apartment with a camera in lieu of the static shots. Panahi acts out his unmade script, about a young woman whose conservative parents lock her in her bedroom. The parallels between filmmaker and character are uncanny. Meanwhile, outside, a nervous energy gathers in the streets as New Years fireworks boom like bombs and armed officers patrol the neighborhoods. Over and over, Panahi’s friends and family tell him, “Don’t get worried,” which suggests they know that he will, and likely with reason. This Is Not a Film is a snapshot of a filmmaker in exile, yes, but also a poignant portrait of a country under a repressive regime and a compelling manifesto on the perseverance of art. Like René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, in which the artist scrawls the words “This is not a pipe” under a painting of just such a smoking device, this is not a film but a representation of one. —Annlee Ellingson

6. The Avengers
Too often, a superhero film is an exercise in missing the point. Fortunately for both casual movie-goer and comic book aficionado alike, Joss Whedon gets it. As a result, The Avengers not only stands out as one of the best efforts in the modern era of “super” movies, it also represents the most complete manifestation of the superhero team aesthetic yet seen on film. As for the plot—it’s the stuff of which basic, dependable comic book arcs are made. Thor’s mischievous half-brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), gets his hands on the Tesseract and promises some good-ol’-fashioned world conquering by means an alien army. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) gathers the most powerful folks he knows to fight the threat. While Whedon smartly recognizes how key Downey Jr.’s Stark is to the story, he also allows most all of his cast, heroes and villain, ample opportunities to shine, both in dialogue and action. (Hawkeye and Nick Fury, not so much.) It can’t be overstated how crucial such balance is to a team film. As Loki, Hiddleston may be the best-cast arch-villain since Ian McKellen’s Magneto. But The Avengers’s impending blockbusting will not just be the result of stellar casting. Throughout the film, Whedon allows much of the action to proceed at superhero pace—“placing” the camera for best vantage rather than over-indulging in bullet-time and other tricks. Finally, a director who gets the point instead of misses it—and a studio that is smart enough to hand him the reins. —Michael Burgin

5. Once Upon A Time in Anatolia
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, co-written and directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is a Turkish police procedural based on the real-life experiences of one of the writers. The story follows a group of men as they travel around the Anatolian steppe at night in three cars in search of a buried body. The main homicide suspect, Kenan (Firat Tanis), is being escorted from one location to the next as part of a deal he’s made with police Commissar Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan) to identify the grave of the man he murdered. They are accompanied on this overnight search by police officers, grave diggers, gendarmerie, as well as Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel), and Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner). Nusret and Cemal each prove bastions of cynical, yet humane, reason in the face of Naci’s explosive temper and Kenan’s inexplicable brutality. Every character in this film has a story that they repeat over and over. Despite these repeated tellings, no real truth ever fully comes to light, for no story in this film is fixed—each is constantly changing and adapting. Once Upon a Time In Anatolia insists that no matter how large or small they may be, these lies, these changing stories, are a necessity in order to deal with life and carry on. Among this multitude of stories, many parts of the film are left unexplained, or intentionally vague. Instead of making the film feel incomplete, these unanswered questions instead suggest the complexity and endless nuances of humanity and the story that is being told here. By the end of the two and a half hours, the viewer has become thoroughly involved in everything that’s happened and cannot help but begin to construct his or her own story of the events and how they took place. As a result, the viewer becomes just as guilty as the characters of justifying and rationalizing a story that refuses to be clarified and categorized so simply. —Emily Kirkpatrick

4. Monsieur Lazhar
Director Philippe Falardeau’s new film, Monsieur Lazhar, presents various lives with seemingly few similarities forced to deal with tragedy in ways that are remarkably and movingly similar. At a French-Canadian school in Montreal, a teacher has just committed suicide in a classroom, traumatizing her highly impressionable and innocent students. Into her place steps Monsieur Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant who is recovering from an unspeakable personal calamity in his own recent past. Such a meeting of two disparate worlds, especially in a classroom setting, has been played out time and time again in film, often in the most clichéd manner. But Monsieur Lazhar is the exception to the rule. The acting is stellar throughout the film, from the one-named Algerian actor Fellag’s subtle and warm portrayal of the title character, to the cast of precocious children who make up his classroom. “The classroom is not a place where you infect a whole with despair,” Lazhar says at one point in the film, speaking to both the previous teacher’s classroom suicide and another teacher’s urging him to tell his students more about his story prior to coming to Montreal. Monsieur Lazhar is a thoroughly engaging film that goes far beyond the average classroom drama in emotion and storytelling. —Jonah Flicker

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3. The Kid With a Bike
The Kid with a Bike continues the Belgian writing-directing brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s extraordinary run of charting the lives of European down-and-outers navigating difficult moral and spiritual terrain. The Dardennes’ latest follows 11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) as he struggles to reconcile with the fact that his father, Guy (Jérémie Renier), has abandoned him. In shock and denial, Cyril, with the aid of Samantha (Cécile de France), a neighborhood hairdresser, tracks down his bicycle, which Guy had secretly sold for much-needed cash before his departure. The two also locate Guy himself, leading to a wrenching reunion that ends with the father literally shutting the door in his son’s face. Samantha’s show of concern draws Cyril to her, and she welcomes him into her home as her foster son. Full of confusion and self-loathing after his father’s rejection, Cyril is prone to disobedience, defying Samantha’s efforts to create a sense of structure and belonging for the boy. Cyril’s inevitable mix-up with a local hood, Wes (Egon Di Mateo), initiates a downward spiral into crime and retaliation that threatens any prospect for better days ahead for the wounded Cyril and the devoted Samantha. As with all of the Dardennes’ films, the above events proceed naturally as a chain of causes and effects. Theirs is a cinema of keenly observed sociology, always interested in man’s capacity to prevail despite terrible socioeconomic odds and psychological trauma. As portrait of a young boy’s resilience and of compassion shown by one human being towards another, The Kid with a Bike is part of the grand tradition of humanist realism. —Jay Antani

2. Moonrise Kingdom
After seven features, a Wes Anderson production is unmistakable: white, upper-middle-class dysfunctional families deadpanning wry dialogue amid meticulous mise-en-scène to an eclectic soundtrack. Also: exquisite, often centered, shot compositions; uninterrupted lateral tracking camerawork through dollhouse-like sets; and inserts of quasi-obscure cultural objects. The auteur’s calculated quality persists in his latest film as well, but where his past work can come off as chilly and detached, Moonrise Kingdom exudes a warmth and innocence generated by the earnest adolescent romance at its core. The year is 1965, and the sleepy New England island of New Penzance is stirred to action when Khaki Scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and local resident Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) run away together. Sam’s fellow Scouts dislike him, and his foster parents don’t want him back. By the time we catch up with him, he certainly looks the part of an “emotionally disturbed” orphan: slight of frame with heavy black glasses, a coonskin cap and a shadow on his upper lip, his uniform plastered with merit badges, both official and homemade. But Sam is full of surprises: He’s a quite skilled outdoorsman, and when he reunites with the mod girl with whom he’s been exchanging letters for a year, he matter-of-factly hands her a bouquet of wildflowers and begins imparting survival tips. Likewise, Suzy is an unexpected rebel with a volatile streak that upsets the balance among her lawyer parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and three little brothers. Delightfully, Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola avoid clichés at every opportunity. The forces that would typically work to tear Sam and Suzy apart instead rally behind them, perhaps infected by the conviction of their love, which never wavers, even in argument: “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
 Moonrise Kingdom is whimsical and, yes, precious, but only in the very best sense of the word. —Annlee Ellingson

1. Beasts of The Southern Wild
Briefly describing Beasts of the Southern Wild is like trying to explain the inner-workings of an airplane to someone who’s never seen a wheel. In his feature debut, director Benh Zeitlin has stirred up a magic pot of poetry, neo-realism, surrealism, pre-historic creatures, the ice age, childhood and lost cultures. The film is a symphony of curiosity that builds toward a glorious crescendo. It’s set on an island known as “The Bathtub,” located outside the Louisiana levees. It’s a forbidden land — off-limits according to the government — but misfits still inhabit it, living in makeshift shelters and using vehicles that would be at home in a post-apocalyptic world. If Zeitlin’s sheer ambition weren’t enough, the film’s young star and narrator, Quvenzhané Wallis, was born with a magnetic screen presence. Six-year-old Wallis injects Beasts with youthful verve. The story is told through her character’s curious eyes, and she emits so much lovable hope that it’s impossible not to follow her. —Jeremy Matthews

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