The 50 Best Movies of 2012

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20. Searching for Sugar Man
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
“The Story of the Forgotten Genius” is such a well-worn formula for music documentaries that it was already being parodied more than three decades ago in This is Spinal Tap. In Searching for Sugar Man, as Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul begins to tell the story of Rodriguez—the Dylanesque folk rocker who released two apparently brilliant albums in the early 1970s, then disappeared—it appears he’s traveling a familiar road. But that road takes a sharp left turn when we learn that bootleg recordings catapulted Rodriguez to stratospheric heights of fame in apartheid-era South Africa. (When a record-store owner is asked if Rodriguez was as big as the Rolling Stones, he matter-of-factly replies “Oh, much bigger than that.”). In fact, his uncensored depictions of sex and drugs were so thrilling to South African musicians that he became the patron saint of the Afrikaner punk movement, which in turn laid the groundwork for the organized anti-apartheid movement that eventually brought the regime down. It’s just a shame that Rodriguez never lived to see it—he burned himself to death onstage in the middle of a show. Or overdosed in prison. Or shot himself alone in his apartment. Or… could he still be alive? Bendjelloul’s film manages to create an aura of mystery and suspense around a search that actually unfolded 14 years ago—a “detective documentary” set in the very recent past. —Michael Dunaway

19. West of Memphis
Director: Amy Berg
The buzziest documentary of the Sundance Film Festival was also one of the very best. The involvement of Peter Jackson (one of the film’s producers), Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, and others, as well as the very recent dramatic developments in the case, ensured that. The film itself is enormously moving. Any investigative documentary, especially dealing with the wrongly accused, walks in the gargantuan footsteps of Errol Morris and his seminal The Thin Blue Line. Director Amy Berg received an Academy Award nomination for her Deliver Us From Evil, but the fact that she lives up to the legacy of Morris’ film may be an even greater accomplishment. In addition to chronicling justice, West of Memphis actually helps enact it. What higher calling can there be? —Michael Dunaway

18. Django Unchained
Director: Quentin Tarantino
The best thing about Quentin Tarantino is also the worst thing about Quentin Tarantino—he believes, wholeheartedly, in whatever he’s doing. Most of the time, what he’s doing consists of overly referential homage mashups with dialogue that would give most screenwriters carpal tunnel. The old video store clerk is sublime at saying important things through mediums that don’t usually convey them—Kung Fu films, revenge fantasies and spaghetti Westerns, for starters. He is an artist dressed as a Philistine, splattering the screen with cartoonish violence when what he’s really blowing is our minds. Although Tarantino’s latest effort isn’t his best, it is his most ambitious, and for someone capable of so much, that means quite a lot. -Tyler Chase

17. Compliance
Director: Craig Zobel
Filled with superior performances, Compliance does everything within its power to make a far-fetched situation believable. Ann Dowd gives a nuanced portrayal. Dreama Walker takes on a difficult role and delivers. Pat Healy, as the caller, is dead-on creepy, and Bill Camp, as the bumbling fiancé, is perfectly cast. The actors have to be strong since it’s such a confined script, taking place mostly within the supply room of the restaurant. Continually, one asks, “Could this really happen?“ Apparently, it can, and the film makes the point a few times that similar situations have happened more than seventy times over a ten-year period. It’s a conceit that one can accept or not. Whatever the case, it’s a frightening thought to realize that people can be so gullible and susceptible to the whims of authority. Is it our desire to please, our desire for structure or is authority simply tapping into our propensity for wrongdoing? -Will McCord

16. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Director: 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. 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 50, 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

15. Holy Motors
Director: Leos Carax
Holy Motors manages to make a profound statement about human existence and the fine, often blurred line between living and acting without being heavy-handed or pedantic. In fact, Carax’s film actually suffers from the exact opposite. At times, it can be so light-hearted and hilarious that it undercuts the dark, perverse sadness that underlies the story as a whole—specifically the ending of the film, which in a matter of minutes manages to undo a good portion of the profundity and insightfulness that had been built up to that point. That’s not to say that the humor is out of place. Throughout the film, as it starts to reach a fever pitch of weirdness or despondency, a well-timed joke will pull the audience back in and keep them firmly on Monsieur Oscar’s side. This tension between the dramatic and comedic helps make Holy Motors a fascinating and heartbreaking study of humanity, one leavened with a refreshing levity and humor that makes Carax’s philosophy on life not only palatable, but thoroughly enjoyable. -Emily Kirkpatrick

14. Argo
Director: Ben Affleck
For those people with lingering questions about Ben Affleck’s talents as a filmmaker, Argo should remove any doubt. The actor has now directed a trio of hard-working, blood-pumping dramas—his latest joins Gone Baby Gone and The Town—covering serious subjects like kidnapping and foreign affairs with a vitality that’d too often missing from Hollywood today. Argo, a precise blend of classic narrative genres, is the capper of Affleck’s behind-the-camera work to date, a remarkably well-sculpted film built from a fairly basic, step-by-step framework. Argo looks like a smaller undertaking, plays like a big Hollywood movie and succeeds despite the hundreds of ways it could have failed. -Norm Schrager

13. The Avengers
Director: Joss Whedon
While Joss Whedon smartly recognizes how key Robert 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. (This bodes well for the “shared universe” Marvel Studios is building. Just as in its comic books, Marvel needs its villains to emit suitable levels of dastardliness. Let’s just hope there are enough British stage and screen actors to supply its needs.) The rest of the principals—particularly Hemsworth, Evans and Ruffalo—inhabit their characters so seamlessly, the viewer can just move straight to the wonder and fun of it all. -Michael Burgin

12. The Imposter
Director: Bart Layton
It’s obvious The Imposter is going to be a thriller, and a thriller it is, and then some. Three years after the disappearance of their 13-year-old son, a Texas family receive word he’s been found in Spain. When they go to pick him up, they’re so desperate to believe he’s alive that they don’t even notice that the “boy” is actually a French man in his mid-twenties. Is it a monumental case of grief and hope blinding sense, or is there a darker explanation? Director Bart Layton mixes elements of documentary and narrative filmmaking seamlessly in ways I’ve never seen done before. And every character he uncovers in the drama is more of a treasure trove than the last. It’s one of the most compelling films you’ll see all year, in any genre.—Michael Dunaway

11. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
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

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