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CINEMA

2012: Top ten picks

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If you spent a lot of time this year reading and writing about movies - as opposed to watching them, which is more fun - you might have detected recurrent notes of anxiety, trepidation, even dread. Television is better than movies;audience levels are in a state of permanent decline;the Hollywood studios have given up on grown-ups;and digital, a force so powerful that it is both adjective and noun, is destroying cinema as we know it. These are among the tenets of a pessimistic conventional wisdom.

They may well all be true, but the movies themselves answered this hand wringing with a defiant, "So what?" The big studios, after the usual summer of superheroes and sequels, crowded the fourth quarter of the year with solid stories about adult matters, some of which - Argo, Flight, Lincoln - brought in pretty good box office. And some of the best films of the year were actually, in the old-fashioned literal sense, films, brought to us by the chemical transformation of strips of stuff rather than the mathematical manipulation of strings of code.

Digital cinema is a mighty force, still emerging, and it continued to extend its reach in 2012. Not only did computer-hatched effects help us see superheroes, Hobbits and Pixar creatures;they also added the tiger to Life of Pi and subtracted Marion Cotillard's legs from Rust and Bone. But I'm struck, surveying my own favorites, by how many films relied on oldfashioned methods and materials: the grainy 16-millimeter of Beasts of the Southern Wild;the lustrous 65-millimeter of The Master;the burnished chiaroscuro of Lincoln;the meticulous framing and cutting of Amour. Maybe this is coincidence, or fuddy-duddyism on my part. Or maybe technological means are, finally, less important than artistic ends.

The annual ritual of narrowing down hundreds of titles - and thousands of hours of rapture and reverie - to just 10 is a cruel torment, but also, perhaps, a necessary discipline. These lists are never meant to be permanent historical judgments, graven in stone. They are ephemeral and subjective, made up of hunches and desires, and they record, in my case, the impressions that I could not shake and the pictures I'm eager to see again, in some cases for the fourth or fifth time.

AMOUR | Michael Haneke

With ruthless clarity, but also with tact and compassion, Haneke invites us to look at the arrival of death at the end of a Parisian couple's long marriage, and shows, almost as if for the first time, how the saddest and most intractable facts of life can be transformed into art. Months after its debut at Cannes this film already feels permanent.

LINCOLN | Steven Spielberg

A great, flawed movie about a great, flawed president of a great, flawed nation. Argue about the flaws, but allow yourself to be moved by the grand, noble sentiments that swirl through Tony Kushner's eloquent script and Daniel Day-Lewis's sly performance.

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD | Benh Zeitlin

A thousand years from now, scientists will know that there was a Hushpuppy, who lived in the Bathtub with her daddy.

FOOTNOTE | Joseph Cedar

This Israeli film takes what might have been a trivial anecdote - a committee accidentally awards a prize to the wrong scholar - and turns it into a tragicomic opera with a great deal to say about Zionism, academia, family life and the way language functions as a bridge between the sacred and the profane.

THE MASTER | Paul Thomas Anderson

Troubling and enigmatic, this movie - suggested by the early career of L Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology - seems designed to be misunderstood. It tells the story of a damaged soul (Joaquin Phoenix) who seeks healing from a charismatic fraud and finds what he is looking for.

ZERO DARK THIRTY | Kathryn Bigelow

A milestone in post-Sept 11 cinema, and an attempt to grapple honestly with the moral complexities of the war on terror. Jessica Chastain's tough, quiet performance as a CIA officer involved in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden synthesizes much of the collective emotion of the past decade - grief, fear, frustration and fatigue - within a narrative that also works as a tense and brutal geopolitical thriller

DJANGO UNCHAINED | Quentin Tarantino

Tarantino follows Inglourious Basterds, his action-cartoon about the Holocaust, with an even bolder provocation : a blaxploitation spaghetti western about American slavery. More than any other director he tests and extends the power of pop-culture fantasy to engage the painful atrocities of history.

GOODBYE, FIRST LOVE | Mia Hansen-Love

The tired phrase "coming-of-age story" hardly does justice to this sensitive, observant chronicle of a young woman's discovery of passion, disappointment and her own resourcefulness as she moves from adolescence into her early '20s. With her third feature Hansen-Love confirms her status as one of the freshest, bravest voices in French movies.

NEIGHBORING SOUNDS | Kleber Mendon?a Filho

In his first feature Mendon?a, a former film critic, chronicles the daily rhythms of life in an affluent apartment complex in the Brazilian coastal city of Recife. What emerges is a subtle portrait of a society in the throes of rapid social transformation, still haunted by the cruelties of its feudal past.

THE GREY |Joe Carnahan

A pack of dudes. A pack of wolves. Liam Neeson leads the fight for survival, and Carnahan conducts a clinic in muscular action-movie technique that is also a somber, moving meditation on life, death and the line between the human and the wild.


HONORABLE MENTION


ARGO | Ben Affleck

BARBARA | Christian Petzold

BRAVE | Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman

CONSUMING SPIRITS | Chris Sullivan

THE DEEP BLUE SEA | Terence Davies)

MOONRISE KINGDOM | Wes Anderson

PITCH PERFECT | Jason Moore

RUST AND BONE |Jacques Audiard

TAKE THIS WALTZ | Sarah Polley

THE TURIN HORSE | Bela Tarr

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