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The 13 Best Films of 2012

A look back at the year's cinematic standouts

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Cleveland moviegoers will probably remember 2012 as the year of Marvel's Avengers, which clobbered its competition at the box office and gave downtown a moment in Hollywood's bright spotlight. But the last year offered plenty of other highlights, from the best Bond in years to another example of why Ben Affleck's talents behind the camera might outshine his talents in front of it. Here now, ready for your abuse and disagreements, our picks for the best flicks of 2012.

13. The Avengers

The summer's first true blockbuster, The Avengers posted a big opening weekend that set the stage for the summer's superhero flicks such as The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises. The film unites Marvel's Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Tony Stark/Ironman (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) under the capable direction of their leader Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson). In hands less capable than those of director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), this star- and action-packed movie would be a mess. But Whedon, who also co-wrote the screenplay, keeps the superegos in check and delivers a storyline that gives each character its due.

12. Bernie

Director Richard Linklater has made documentary-like films in the past. Two of his best-known early works – 1991's Slacker and 1993's Dazed and Confused – could have passed as documentaries. While his latest work, Bernie, isn't a documentary per se, it's based on a true story (the Texas Monthly article, "Midnight in the Garden of East Texas"). And you could argue the source material here is as good as anything Linklater has come across in his 25-year career. The film centers on Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a soft-spoken, good-natured and "confirmed bachelor" mortician who quickly wins over the citizens of Carthage shortly after moving to small Texas town. A black comedy that has received some criticism for making light of what is actually a very serious true story, the film, which has echoes of the Coen Brothers' masterpiece Fargo, provides an adroit mix of fact and fiction and includes interviews with many real-life townspeople who speak to Bernie's kindness and generosity.

11. Searching for Sugarman

After both of his albums failed to gain recognition in the 1970s, singer-songwriter Rodriguez disappeared from the scene. Rumors of a dramatic suicide onstage became his legacy, but in reality he was living in Detroit and doing manual labor to make ends meet. A few decades later his music was rediscovered in South Africa and he became a cult hero. In this documentary, co-workers and family members describe Rodriguez's life before his rebirth, painting a picture of a man who worked toward social justice. It's almost shocking that this quiet, reserved father earned both the ire of officials and the admiration of youth in South Africa for his songs about sex, drugs, and fighting the establishment.

10. A Royal Affair

When Caroline (Alicia Vikander) is sent to marry Christian (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), the heir to the Danish throne, she gets more than bargained for. Turns out the guy is mentally insane (and abusive), so Caroline bears him a few kids and then starts to live her life separately from his. Things become complicated, however, when the court appoints a dashing doctor (Mads Mikkelsen) to watch over Christian. Caroline and Christian discover they have much in common (they're both intellectuals struggling to come to terms with the radical ideas of Enlightenment thinkers like Roussea), and it's not long before their relationship becomes more than platonic. Beautifully filmed and superbly acted, A Royal Affair, the Danish entry for this year's Foreign Language film category at the Academy Awards, overcomes preconceived notions about period pieces.

9. Lawless

This Depression-era period piece centers on the bootlegging Bondurant brothers and their run-ins with an overly zealous lawman played by Guy Pearce. The ultra-violent movie features another standout performance by The Dark Knight Rises' Tom Hardy, who plays the soft-spoken but fierce patriarch of the Bondurant clan. Lawless is so masterfully directed by John Hillcoat (The Road) that even Shia LaBeouf turns in a solid performance as the arrogant brother with the most ambition and the least capacity to fight for himself. Moody post-punk rocker Nick Cave wrote the terrific script and assembled a period-specific soundtrack featuring original tunes by vets like Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and Ralph Stanley.

8. Brave

Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) has a problem with authority, especially her nagging mom, who just wants her to settle down with a nice boy from one of the neighboring clans in their medieval Scottish village. She's also a super-strong heroine who can show the guys a thing or two about charting their own paths, even when another one has been laid out for you. Plus, she totally kicks ass with a bow and arrow. Pixar's 3D extravaganza is filled with the studio's usual knockout CGI and attention to detail, but the animation studio's genre-busting storytelling stalls a bit in its most Disneyesque movie. Brave is pretty much an old-fashioned fairy tale spiked with some modern girl-power themes and few surprises. Even the witch from whom the free-thinking princess obtains a spell has been kicking around Disney movies since the 1940s. But redheaded Merida is a great character, strong enough to carry the film, even if her story isn't exactly a new one.

7. Seven Psychopaths

Irish-born playwright/filmmaker Martin McDonagh's follow-up to his excellent 2008 In Bruges is so funny you want to see it again and quote the best lines to your friends. The brutal, rollicking story involving an alcoholic screenwriter, Marty (Colin Farrell), his unstable friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), a serial killer, a pious dog kidnapper (Christopher Walken), a dog-snatching ring, and a crazy mobster (Woody Harrelson) seeking vengeance for the snatching of his beloved Shih Tzu. The film's real theme is the process of screenwriting, as Marty struggles to finish his script while dealing with the gun-toting lunatics surrounding him. Rockwell, who's known for stealing movies, does so here as the pal who insists that the movie end his way.

6. Flight

Twelve years have elapsed since Robert Zemeckis last directed a live-action movie (Cast Away). His return vehicle is Flight, a conventional but engrossing drama about a commercial airline pilot whose heroism in saving a nose-diving plane is tainted by his alcoholism and drug addiction. Zemeckis' special-effects mastery is evident in the depiction of the airplane churning, rocking, flinging passengers and crew hither and yon, flying upside down to avert the nosedive (requiring suspension not only of the plane but also of viewer disbelief). There's much to savor in this traditionally made film, particularly the arresting performances by Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, and, in two raucous scenes that seem ported over from a zestier movie, John Goodman as Whitaker's wild-man drug dealer. The screenplay, by erstwhile actor John Gatins, traverses the expected Lost Weekend clichés (bottles poured down the sink, then replaced; an estranged wife and resentful son; an AA meeting attended under protest). It also applies graceful, sympathetic shading to the characters.

5. Skyfall

The latest James Bond film might suffer a bit from its protracted ending, but that's a minor point of contention. Released on the 50th anniversary of the franchise, this is a heady, smart movie that takes on a socially relevant theme about fighting terrorism and espionage in the complex postmodern world. The movie starts with a nail-biting scene that ends with Bond's (Daniel Craig) apparent death. Bond, of course, ends up surviving and escapes to a remote island where he briefly descends into debauchery after shacking up with some exotic babe and spending one too many late nights at the local bar. But like Batman, Bond can't keep quiet while the world goes to hell, and he soon heads back to London to help M (Judi Dench) as she tries to take on a ruthless terrorist (Javier Bardem) whose computer skills give Q (Ben Whishaw) a real run for his money. A terrific actor, Craig makes a good Bond and shows no signs of outgrowing the role (the script even makes a few jokes about whether or not he's become too old for the gig's ardors).

4. The Dark Knight Rises

How do you top 2008's The Dark Knight, not only the best superhero movie ever made but also the best movie of the millennium? Short answer: You don't. But that doesn't stop director Christopher Nolan from charging through The Dark Knight Rises with all the energy, menace, and heart that made the middle chapter of his Batman trilogy so phenomenal. The story picks up eight years after the Caped Crusader (Christian Bale) went into retirement and Gotham branded him a criminal. It takes a hulking psychopath sporting a pain-suppressing mask named Bane (Tom Hardy) to bring him back into action. But this is just a small part of this great film's twists and turns through the Batman mythos and reference points from the other two movies. A stellar cast of newcomers (including Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Marion Cotillard) join series veterans Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine in this deep-thinking epic that transcends the superhero genre. The Dark Knight Rises doesn't pack the same visceral punch as its predecessor, but it comes close. It's dark, despairing, rousing, and absolutely brilliant.

3. Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom is the quintessential Wes Anderson movie, falling together with an equal mix of the director's childlike charm and hipster coolness. It's 1965 New England, and 12-year-old orphan Sam (Jared Gilman) falls for 12-year-old Suzy (Kara Hayward), so they decide to run away from it all. All the grownups freak out, especially since a big storm is on the way. That's pretty much the plot. But as any Anderson fan will tell you, it all comes down to the details. Moonrise Kingdom moves quicker and more effortlessly than Anderson's past few movies – it's his liveliest film since The Royal Tenenbaums. And the excellent cast keeps up with the pace, with the young couple at the center of the movie following every step. Most of this will bug the shit out of Anderson's detractors, and you can see their point if you don't settle into Anderson's groove. But there's so much joy here – with words, filmmaking, and that moment in life when adolescent whims give way to young-adult desires.

2. Life of Pi

Ang Lee directed this adaptation of the bestselling fantasy-adventure novel by Yann Martel, using 3D technology and CGI to tell the story of the Indian-born adolescent Pi (newcomer Suraj Sharma), cast adrift on a lifeboat after a freighter carrying his family and their zoo animals capsizes. The sole survivors are Pi and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, who work out an uneasy truce in order to survive. The 3D effects, while not essential to the story, draw the viewer into the stormy sea. Lee and screenwriter David Magee give due attention the story's philosophical component. The castaway tale, retold by an adult Pi to a journalist, is also an account of a spiritually hungry boy's quest to understand God.

1. Argo

Ben Affleck's drama about the rescue of six American diplomats during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis deserves credit for placing the events in accurate historical context. The movie leads with a narrated history of events leading to the crisis, including the 1953 U.S.-engineered coup that deposed Iran's prime minister Mossadegh (who dared to nationalize Iran's oil resources) and the installation of the tyrannical puppet Shah. The film's drably colored, documentary-like texture is perfect for the subject and time period; Affleck and company took pains to make everything look authentic, from the aviator eyeglasses, shaggy hairstyles and '70s wardrobe to casting actors who closely resemble the real-life players. Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA "extraction specialist" tasked with getting the diplomats — hiding riskily at the Canadian Ambassador's home — out of Iran. He cleverly invents a cover story that has the Americans playing members of a Canadian film crew making a sci-fi movie in Iran. Though the outcome is known, Chris Terreo's very linear narrative creates almost unbearable suspense as the Americans navigate a dangerously militant Tehran.

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