Top 10 Movies of 2012

Welcome to a post collecting the names and details of films that wowed me through the 12 months of last year, typically arriving late as I caught up with everything I wanted to see. My criteria for inclusion are as follows:

List-worthiness for me is a strange equation of cerebral and emotional, as much as anyone who enjoys going to the movies and likes to think or talk about the experience. But a key particular for me, maybe more than other film writers, is rewatchability. I needed to see something, feel something, that left me wanting more, left me questioning. Does this mean that brilliant but grim, miserabilist odes may get a short shrift? Yeah, maybe. I’m just trying to be upfront about my biases. And I still loved Amour.

In order to be included the film had to have a North American theatrical release in the calendar year. That is, all you Americans and Canadians will have had a fair shot at seeing the picture in cinemas, on DVD or online. A festival circuit doesn’t count, which is why the amazing Danish films The Hunt and Love Is All You Need will have to wait for 2013 consideration from me.

I would also like to say this: 2012 was pretty great year for romantic comedies and dramas. When was the last time anyone could say that?

OK, here we go.

10. Prometheus
Among the crowd who were counting the days until Ridley Scott revisited the science fiction universe he invented with AlienPrometheus was polarizing. It was a messier, more ambiguous proposition than any of the Alien franchise, yet undeniably connected to it. It managed to provide the unbearable body horror, the visceral grue, and still tickled your cranium with highbrow ambitions, tapping into creation myth. Screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof left a lot for the audience to piece together, which some feeling their script was just sloppy storytelling. I could see that argument, and where in the final act the film didn’t quite hold together, but didn’t agree at all with the haters. I loved how Prometheus challenged me to connect it to Alien, while still satisfying as a stand-alone, stellar science fiction/monster movie. 

9. Cloud Atlas
Like Ridley Scott in PrometheusCloud Atlas filmmakers the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer swung for the fences, providing the genre thrills—though multiple genres—while also trying to communicate some real world messages about tolerance and spiritual continuity through time. And while it was haphazard, and not all of it clicked, I had big love for the many bits that did. 

8. Your Sister’s Sister
I caught this small movie late in the year—it came and went in local cinemas—but was just wowed by its simplicity and tonal confidence. A great comedy/drama that could have been a play, but the script opens up as a delicate feature with gorgeous cinematography, three great performances and a surfeit of heart. Even the end, where we get a dose of character forgiveness that might seem a stretch, it didn’t even make me blink. Major props to writer-director Lynn Shelton and especially Rosemarie DeWitt, who has the chops and the magnetism to be a star.

7. Haywire
If you ever wondered what a Bourne movie would be like with a female lead, check out Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, which was the rare, quality January release not considered awards bait. A stone cold action picture, utilizing former MMA star Gina Carano opposite an A-list cast (Channing Tatum, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas and Michael Fassbender) with great locations (including Dublin and Barcelona) and a lot of very impressive sequences of Carano pulverizing her costars.

6. Take This Waltz
Sarah Polley’s second feature is a love letter to Toronto and to confused, love-lorn Gen Xers and Gen Yers everywhere. You may relate to Michelle Williams’ uncertainty or you may resent her for it, but there is something undeniably true about the story, so close to my experience and that of friends, it left me stunned. That and its familiar setting, the Queen and Dufferin neighborhood in Toronto, my old stomping grounds.

5. The Avengers
The year’s biggest movie was also one of its best. I love it when that happens. Joss Whedon took his years of experience with fantasy television (Buffy, Firefly) and superhero comics (Astonishing X-Men) and poured it into this huge and fun superhero tale. There’s so many places where this could have gone wrong, and expectations, after no less than five other movies (The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America) served as prequels. And it’s telling that my favourite scenes weren’t the ones where our heroes were beating the crap out of invading aliens or rogue gods. It was when they were beating the crap out of each other and bickering on the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier. Just like the comics, in fact.

4. Silver Linings Playbook
A romantic comedy for the ages. A messy and problematic story about messy and problematic people. Some have suggested the film seems to suggest love can cure mental illness, though I actually don’t think that’s what director David O. Russell has going on here. Yes, Bradley Cooper’s character seems a lot less dangerous once Jennifer Lawrence comes into his life, you don’t think these people live happily ever after, do you? Their problems continue, but their lives are improved by being together, that’s for damn sure.

3. Zero Dark Thirty
I saved publishing this list until I saw this movie, and I’m glad I did. It forces you to ask yourself about American foreign policy, covert or otherwise, and what kind of world we’re living in where this stuff goes on. Is it justified? I get the controversy, but I think that there’s no way Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal would have enflamed so many people if the movie hadn’t been so damn effective. And it really is.

2. Amour
Director Michael Haneke, known for challenging his audiences to the point of abuse (his 2005 film, Cache [Hidden], was my favourite of that year), here provides an insular, perfect frame for his tale of marriage’s commitment, love and death that completely floored meJean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are simply amazing as a couple dealing with the onset of illness, clinging to their pride and dignity in a series of rooms high above the streets of Paris. 

1. Stories We Tell

As I intimated above, there’s something about Polley’s directorial work, in everything since her first feature, Away From Her, that speaks to me in a very personal way. I’ve considered what they have in common, including women who make choices beyond the bounds of fidelity within marriage. But what actually interests me is the love and forgiveness all the characters in her films find for each other, even after they’ve been hurt.

Polley feels like a peer, telling stories that matter, that could be about my life. And I thought this was a very brave film, sharing such personal detail from her own family. This from someone who bailed out of the role of Penny Lane in Almost Famous because she didn’t want the kind of attention and exposure the success of that film would have undoubtably given her.

In assembling this list, I couldn’t deny that Stories We Tell was my favourite film of the year, but in the eight years I’ve been doing this film writing thing, I’ve never given the top slot to a documentary. I’ve always given them a separate category—and may do so again in the future.

Polley does play with the documentary format a little here, with truth, fiction and subjectivity, so that what’s personal becomes universal. She does it in a such a clever way, it never feels like a trick. (There’s a late-moment confession, of sorts, that it feels like a magician pulling back a curtain; I got a little thrill at the reveal.)

What does she do? It’s right there in the title. 

Special Kudos

To Nova Scotian filmmakers who made interesting and challenging films in 2012, and for getting them into the multiplex, especially screenwriter Mark Palermo and his oddball teen fantasy Detention, and Thom Fitzgerald and his frequently hilarious road picture and love story, Cloudburst. Nice work, guys.

A Separation

This is a 2011 film, but as with many international pictures, it didn’t reach cinemas or DVD locally in time to qualify for last year’s list. I saw it in May. Winning Best Foreign Language film at the 2012 Oscars, it was was heralded but, wow, did it impress me. It would easily made my 2011 top three. Director Asghar Farhadi starts out with kitchen sink realism, but as it quietly develops into a gripping courtroom drama, it forces you to reassess everything that you saw in the first act. It also provides what feels like an authentic look at the social, religious and bureaucratic structure of modern Iran. I’ve read that the movie was even a hit in Israel. 

Honourable Mentions

Cosmopolis and Holy Motors
Thank god for David effing Cronenberg, simply because he’s Canadian and no one makes movies like he does. In Cosmopolis he’s taken Don DiLillo’s novel and made a highly allegorical and intellectual story of a data gajillionaire (Robert Pattinson, with his eyes that look like they sprung from a drawing by Yoshitaka Amano), riding around New York (a barely disguised Toronto) in his pale limo all day, taking meetings, having sex, getting daily medical examinations and struggling to reconnect with life. I don’t know that I understood it, but I liked how it was both teasing and remote, broad and insular. I have a feeling that it’s hard science fiction, as much as Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. Leos Carax’s Holy Motors similarly festishizes white limos, but instead of the carriage of an overextended one-percenter, he offers up something even more bizarre, the transportation of a man who acts out various characters in various dramas through his days across Paris. It’s a genuinely surreal black comedy, and just as with the Cronenberg film I walked out scratching my head, but also slightly giddy for having seen something new, challenging and mighty peculiar.

Magic Mike
Another director firing on all cylinders lately is Steven Soderbergh (see #7 above)—reports of his imminent retirement from film notwithstanding. Here he takes a tale of male strippers down in Tampa, based on the pre-stardom experience of lead Channing Tatum, and turns it into a lean, cool and very entertaining update on Flashdance for the 21st Century. Sure, the six-pack abs helped make it a sleeper hit with fans of such things, but Soderbergh’s confidence with the material made it one of the year’s most unexpected quality films. And major credit to Tatum—who earned serious cred this year as a comedic actor in 21 Jump Street (and here, reminding us he can dance)—and to the great Matthew McConaughey, reinventing his career with every role lately.

The Hunger Games
I liked The Hunger Games kinda like I enjoy Taylor Swift. I know I’m not the core audience for this, but I can still admire the talent and enthusiasm on display.

This Israeli film actually came out internationally in 2011, but we only got it in 2012. It’s a peculiar and sophisticated amalgam of family drama and comedy. Hard to shake off.

The Cabin In The Woods
Next to Detention, the most satisfying meta-genre experiment of the year. Really, a movie about movies… horror movies, in particular.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

A delightful, very British romcom. 


Moonrise Kingdom

I was one of the few that was left cold by Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr Fox, so I am especially pleased to see this, a truly Andersonian cinema experience if ever there was one. 

The Sessions

A collection of great performances in a light, lovely and quite adult movie about courage and, yes, sex. If it wasn’t for Daniel Day-Lewis, the Oscar for Best Actor would belong to John Hawkes. 

Higher Ground
The first feature from Vera Farmiga shows she’s as talented a director as she is an actor. Inside a small, spiritual community, she plays a woman who struggles with her faith in god as she feels it conflicts with her identity as a woman.

Django Unchained
Tarantino creates a typically fiery and funny revenge fantasy set in the pre-Civil War American South.


A surprisingly funny lowbrow hockey comedy. A bullet from the blue line toward Slapshot greatness, it gets closer than anyone has to date.

Pixar got only fair-to-middling reviews for their summer release, but I really enjoyed the adventure of Merida and her astonishingly active red hair.

The Dark Knight Rises
Just a bit too big and unwieldy to entirely satisfy as a stand-alone movie, it does get the job done as the third chapter of an epic superhero trilogy.

The Master
A frustrating puzzle to me when I first saw PT Anderson’s newest film, its imagery and performances stayed in my head long after. I need to see this film a second, maybe third, time.

Far from perfect, but the 23rd Bond movie is a wildly entertaining action movie.

The Woman in Black
Daniel Radcliffe says goodbye to Harry Potter with this very creepy, gothic horror.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.