It’s the end of the year, which means it’s time for movie critics to compile their favorites for 2012. Here are the Top 5 choices of three critics for The Associated Press.
1“Argo” — Directing just his third feature, Ben Affleck has come up with a seamless blend of detailed international drama and breathtaking suspense, with just the right amount of dry humor to provide context and levity. He shows a deft handling of tone. The story of a rescue during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis sounds like eat-your-vegetables cinema, and mixing it with an inside-Hollywood comedy sounds impossible, but Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio pull it all off.
2“Beasts of the Southern Wild” — This is sheer poetry on screen: An explosion of joy in the midst of startling squalor and one of the most visceral, original films to come along in a while. The story of a little girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) living with her daddy on a remote, primal strip of eroding land in the southernmost reaches of the Louisiana bayou is at once dreamlike and brutal, ethereal yet powerfully emotional.
3“Skyfall” — One of the best James Bond films ever starring the best Bond yet in Daniel Craig. It’s also the most gorgeous installment in the 23-film franchise, with Sam Mendes directing and Roger Deakins as cinematographer. It’s full of the requisite thrills but also complicated and meaty.
4“Holy Motors” — This movie is just straight-up nuts, in all the best ways. Writer-director Leos Carax’s journey provides a joyous, surprising and darkly funny exploration of all the best cinema has to offer. Yes, this is a capital-A art film, one that challenges the viewer and leaves a lot of room for interpretation, but that’s part of the adventure.
5“Zero Dark Thirty” — A huge achievement from both technical and storytelling perspectives. Following the Oscar success of “The Hurt Locker,” director Kathryn Bigelow reteams with writer Mark Boal to tell an even larger and more complicated story: the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. The attention to detail, to getting it right each step of the way, is evident in every element.
1“Moonrise Kingdom” — First love is never this crazy and fanciful, but it sure felt like it way back when. Wes Anderson presents a wondrous romance about two 12-year-old runaways seeking refuge from life’s cruelties and disappointments. Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward beguile us with performances precociously passionate yet disarmingly innocent.
2“Life of Pi” — A film about a youth alone on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger has no business working. But Ang Lee adapts Yann Martel’s introspective novel with inspired narrative wiles and glorious visuals. The film richly explores our cathartic need to tell tales, its dual ending asking a lady-or-the-tiger question: Which story do you prefer, the one of genuine horror or the one of hopeful, improbable possibility?
3“Zero Dark Thirty” — Kathryn Bigelow follows her Academy Award triumph on “The Hurt Locker” with a docudrama of even greater ambition and scope. Jessica Chastain is ferocious as a CIA analyst tracking bin Laden with almost blind obsession. The film’s third act — the Navy SEALs assault that killed bin Laden — is as tense and absorbing as big-screen action gets.
4“Argo” — Ben Affleck surges forward as both actor and director with this true-life story of a CIA operative who concocted an incredible ruse to free six Americans from Iran disguised as a movie crew after the 1979 embassy takeover. The film has it all — smarts, suspense, dark laughs, exacting attention to period style.
5“Searching for Sugar Man” — Imagine the bitterness of the true artist who fades back to obscurity after being on the verge of stardom. Now imagine a soul so noble that bitterness never enters the picture. Singer-songwriter Rodriquez gets just that as Malik Bendjelloul’s inspiring documentary recounts apocryphal rumors about his fate — then reveals what really happened after his brush with success in the 1970s.
1“Amour” — It’s a rare thing to be in the hands of a master working at the top of his game. Michael Haneke’s film about an aging Parisian couple and the intersection of tenderness and cruelty is devastating in both its story and execution.
2“The Master” — In a year where digital overtook film as the dominant stuff of moviemaking, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 70-mm post-WWII drama made a hypnotic case for celluloid. Anderson’s film may have dawdled to its end, failing to figure out what drew together a drifter (Joaquin Phoenix) and a cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman). But the postwar atmosphere is vivid: a searching landscape of broken and delusional men.
3“Margaret” — After a lengthy legal battle, a truncated version of playwright Kenneth Lonergan’s follow-up to the brilliant “You Can Count on Me” was released quietly in late 2011. But it was this year when the real version saw the light of day on DVD. It’s a fascinating if flawed New York masterwork, made with a humanistic touch unrivaled in movies.
4“Moonrise Kingdom” — Wes Anderson dreams up a melancholy island of young love and Norman Rockwell. Sold.
5“Not Fade Away” — I never knew the ’60s but I suspect David Chase’s first film has finally — after countless more extreme stories — nailed something authentic about the decade and about rock’n’roll’s atom-bomb-sized impact in suburban homes.