The 50 Best Movies of 2012

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From the most independent art films to the biggest studio releases, documentaries and narratives from around the world, we present the 50 best movies of 2012.

As Frank Sinatra never sang, it was a very strange year. Filmmaking in 2012 didn’t produce a true masterpiece like The Tree of Life, our runaway top movie of last year. But this year’s movies had a good bit of bench strength, to borrow a sports analogy, and top to bottom, the list of 2012 films may be just as strong as 2011’s. The debate over our best movie of 2012 really came down to three very deserving films, and we would have been comfortable naming any of them Number 1. Read through to find out where the chips fell, and please let us know what your own favorites were. Here are the 50 Best Movies of 2012:

Note: We use U.S. release dates for our classification, which is why occasionally some Oscar-nominated movies (Monsieur Lazhar) and even Oscar-winning movies (Undefeated) get included in lists seemingly a year late).

50. Damsels in Distress
Director: Whit Stillman
It would be difficult for anyone to live up to Whit Stillman’s first three films, Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco. Even for Stillman himself. To his credit, he doesn’t try. Damsels concerns itself with some of the same themes as that cherished triad, but Stillman’s setting (a college, this time) and tone (more surreal, looser) are completely different. The experiment isn’t completely successful, but it’s exciting to see a filmmaker as talented as Stillman stretch his wings. And the writing is sharp enough (he’s still one of the top two or three dialogue writers alive), and the performances smart enough (especially the wonderful Greta Gerwig), that he keeps us well entertained along the way. -Michael Dunaway

49. 21 Jump Street
Directors: Phil Lord, Chris Miller
I’ll admit it. I groaned inwardly when I first heard they were making a 21 Jump Street movie. There was even some communal, commiserative groaning in a conversation or two with movie-going friends. A movie based on a Fox television series remembered mainly for helping launch the career of Johnny Depp and briefly reminding the world that Dom DeLuise had a son—does it get any less exciting than that? Months later, after actually seeing the new Jonah Hill/Channing Tatum film, I take those groans back. Against all odds, 21 Jump Street is an immensely enjoyable, frequently hilarious film. -Michael Burgin

48. Ruby Sparks
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Given her lineage, it’s no surprise that Zoe Kazan’s debut as a screenwriter results in a charming, heartfelt romantic comedy that is nothing less than sheer pleasure to watch from start to finish. Inspired by the Pygmalion myth, it also doesn’t hurt that Kazan’s script is directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the duo that brought us the unexpectedly extraordinary Little Miss Sunshine six years ago. Although not in the league of the indie masterpiece that was Sunshine, Ruby Sparks delivers an unpredictable, feel-good experience that manages to remain surprisingly sincere. -Caitlin Colford

47. Undefeated
Directors: Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin
Undefeated is such a well-meaning, heart-on-its-sleeve documentary that one feels morally obligated to write words in praise of it. In fact, anyone admitting to a dislike of the film runs the risk of being called a heartless crank. 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. -Jay Antani

46. Little Birds
Director: Elgin James
The Salton Sea is a fascinating enough topographic anomaly all its own, but these days, with its resort-heyday past and its crumbling decaying present, it’s an eerie post-apocalyptic setting for any number of situations. Which makes it an ideal setting for a story of desperate adolescent ennui and longing, and its accompanying dangers, which is what writer/director Elgin James has given us. James is a former gangbanger who, in introducing the film, touchingly referred to filmmaking as saving his life. His life experiences prove valuable in convincingly creating the skater-punk underworld in LA that his two main characters, teenage girl best friends, evetually end up exploring. But it’s the relationship between the two, drawn out by two wonderful performances by good girl Kay Pannabaker and bad girl Juno Temple, that is the real showstopper. Temple, in particular, is headed for stardom. -Michael Dunaway

45. 2 Days in New York
Director: Julie Delpy
A matchless New York romantic comedy with language full of smarts and crudeness, 2 Days in New York brings audiences a hilarious 48-hour portrait of an atypical modern family. Julie Delpy’s intellect and talent as a writer/director/actress are undeniable, leaving one to wonder why she doesn’t participate in this Hollywood juggling act more often. In a season where critics and audiences continue to praise comedic female writing and directing, Julie Delpy should receive nothing less than a standing ovation for 2 Days in New York, a lively example of sharp and entertaining filmmaking. -Caitlin Colford

44. Safety Not Guaranteed
Director: Colin Trevorrow
At the last few Sundance Film Festivals, a running joke has developed about the ubiquity of Mark Duplass. It seems like if he’s not writing and directing an independent film with his brother Jay (Cyrus, Jeff, Who Lives at Home), he’s producing and/or starring in another. But while indie film fans may feel like they’ve gotten a handle on Duplass’s hipster vibe, his performance in Safety Not Guaranteed shows that he can be mysterious as well as funny, brooding as well as charming. -Jeremy Matthews

43. Blue Like Jazz
Director: Steve Taylor
Donald Miller’s faith struggle results in a kind of dual apology—a public one for the negative actions of the church machine, and a private one to the purest part of his faith for turning his back on it. Whether this will make the film accessible or isolate it is difficult to predict. (While it should speak profoundly to those within the faith, those outside “the church” don’t necessarily spend much time worrying about what Christians think of their own Christianity.) That said, Blue Like Jazz is as entertaining and exuberant as one could possibly desire in a coming-of-age story. As a result, it deserves a serious look from audiences outside its target demographic. When all else is stripped away, Donald’s search is one for personal identity and integrity. And that should speak to everyone. -Clay Steakley

42. Bully
Director: Lee Hirsch
Hirsch was able to capture shocking behavior by blending into the fabric of the school while shooting over the course of an academic year. He also wielded a Canon 5D Mark II, which looks like a regular still camera, an equipment choice that also yielded footage that struggles to stay in focus. Still, the camera yields exquisite imagery with the intimate feel of home video, especially in Hirsch’s moving interviews with the parents of Tyler and Ty. More distressing than the actions of the children, however, is the inaction of the adults, who are portrayed as underreacting to the issue and in some cases even blaming the victim. -Annlee Ellingson

41. The Dark Knight Rises
Director: Christopher Nolan
Following up a billion-dollar-grossing, critically acclaimed film is a daunting challenge. As proof, just try counting the times a trilogy capper has exceeded its lauded predecessor. (You won’t need a second hand, nor, perhaps, a second finger.) With The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan brings his A game to bear in an attempt to at least match The Dark Knight in tone, tenor and pace. Returning cast members Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman deliver the solid performances one expects from them in, well, any movie. The Dark Knight Rises also matches its predecessor in the quality and intensity of its action set pieces. As Bat-cycles, Bat-planes and assorted non-Bat vehicles careen about and occasionally crash within the claustrophobic confines of Gotham City, Nolan’s command over every participant—man and machine—reminds the viewer the extent to which the skills of a good director overlap those of a good choreographer. Though it joins the long list of finales that don’t measure up to what’s gone immediately before, that doesn’t mean it’ll be any easier of an act to follow. -Michael Burgin

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