Top 10 films of the year

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1. The Master

Out of all the films to debut in 2012, none was quite as daring, ambitious or compelling as “There Will Be Blood” director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest dissertation on the complexities of existence, “The Master.” Sweeping cinematography brings to life a poignant script set to a mesmerizing score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood in this dark 1950s drama. In addition to Anderson’s top form directing, Joaquin Phoenix gives the performance of a lifetime as Freddie Quell, a directionless sailor who has become unfit for duty as well as for life in general. Other powerhouse actors include Philip Seymour Hoffman as the charmingly enigmatic Lancaster Dodd, and Amy Adams as his opinionated yet devoted wife. The emotions, ideals and actions of these characters collide and swirl together to paint a beautifully fractured portrait of the consequences of what can happen if you put too much faith in the wrong person.

— Ryan Koehn

2. Lincoln

Near the end of Steven Spielberg’s two-and-a-half-hour epic “Lincoln,” there is a scene where Secretary of War Edwin Stanton watches the 16th president of the United States with somber resignation. It is 7:22 a.m., on the morning of April 15, 1865. Abraham Lincoln has just passed, and, in hushed tones, Stanton states, “Now, he belongs to the ages.” With a statement so glorifying and idolizing as this, it would be easy to say Spielberg’s film was nothing more than saint worship. But you’d be wrong. Contrary to the plethora of schmaltzy and formulaic biopics that come out each year, “Lincoln” stands alone as a complex, methodical study of not only the man behind the stove-pipe hat but, more cogently, the intensely intricate, and often morally ambiguous, political process of the United States federal government.

— Jessica Pena

3. Life of Pi

“Life of Pi,” the most recent of Ang Lee’s many cinematic masterpieces, is a celebration of the art of storytelling. The veteran that director has explored this over the course of his long career. In the film’s protracted prologue, Lee puts multiple plot points into play — faith, religion and love. But the true mark of this film’s greatness is how Lee deftly develops and handles these points when the action moves to the most basic of settings: a lifeboat cast adrift on the Pacific Ocean, with a boy and tiger inside. This film will, no doubt, receive much attention for its groundbreaking special effects and exotic locations — and to the filmmakers’ credit, the effects are wonderful — but it is Lee’s dedication to the simple act of storytelling that is the real star of this film.

— Thomas Coughlan 

4. Samsara

“Samsara” is like no other film released this year. No other offered breathtaking time-lapses of sand dunes and life-size doll factories, aerial views of Mecca and marching armies and stirring portraits of people from around the world. Stripped completely of plot and dialogue, every second of the 102-minute montage by cinematic visionaries Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson is spellbinding. Filmed with 70 mm cameras and paired with an entrancing original soundtrack, it transcends mere documentation and becomes sublime. Fricke and Magidson  spent five years creating “Samsara,” which premiered at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival and was released in the United States this August. It is the greatest visual masterpiece in years, an assurance to photographic fetishists that the power of the image remains profound.

— Sarah Burke

5. Flight

This year, director Robert Zemeckis returned from a decade of CGI-animation projects to live-action filmmaking with “Flight.” What most viewers might recall about this mainstream drama is the barnstorming sequence at the start that dissects in vivid detail an unusual plane crash. However, the most impressive quality about “Flight” is how much it’s not about flying. Zemeckis instead hones in on Captain Whip’s darker, stingier skeletons — his alcoholism and substance abuse — and how they surface to the public eye as a result of the crash. What lends this film its moral force isn’t the moral ambiguities of the script or the Zemeckian theme of webbed fate but the bruised and brittle soul of Denzel Washington. Not in spite of but because of his flaws, you’re prepared to follow him every step of the way.

— Braulio Ramirez

6. Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson’s fairytale “Moonrise Kingdom” was a refreshingly enchanting yet candidly mature piece among 2012 releases. The artistic choices that manifest an interplay between fantasy and reality in every aspect of the film’s composition and story establish it as a standout film. Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton and Bruce Willis assume roles that simultaneously reign nostalgic for those who hold memories with Boy Scout leaders and dysfunctional families and bluntly truthful for those who have lost a child or dealt with marital problems. The beautifully composed score and astoundingly shot Rhode Island landscape reflect the truth behind human connections made between children, perhaps the film’s central theme.

— Anna Horrocks

7. Looper

“Time travel has not yet been invented but 30 years from now, it will have been,” says Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in the opening sequences of “Looper.” The basic and often-tired concept of time exploration has amassed new credibility in Rian Johnson’s latest project in what is in essence a time travel film that is first and foremost not about time travel. Virtually useless telekinetic powers, futuristic blunderbuss guns and professional assassins named “gat men” are just a few of the particulars that make “Looper” an all-encompassing film that has wit, drama and action in every beat. Well-timed plot twists, an original score and enticing cinematography add to the film’s aura of originality. Having found its origins more than a decade ago in the form of fragmented visions in the wandering mind of Johnson,  “Looper” is clearly a meticulous product of passion and creative forwardness.

— Carlos Monterrey

8. Anna Karenina 

It takes some courage to adapt Leo Tolstoy’s revered epic “Anna Karenina” for the silver screen. That courage alone might be worthy of our No. 8 spot, but fortunately, Joe Wright and frequent muse Keira Knightley have fronted up with a refreshing take on a classic tale, aided, of course, by Tom Stoppard’s impressive script. Wright doesn’t waste time lovingly rendering each and every one of Tolstoy’s 800 pages to the screen (you’ll have to wait for Peter Jackson’s three-part “The Hobbit” adaptation for that kind of film). Instead, he takes Tolstoy’s story and transposes it into a decaying 19th-century theater — a metaphor for the slow-rotting Russian aristocracy. It’s impressive stuff and good fodder for anyone who dares accuse the period drama of slipping into Downton Abbey-induced coma.

— Thomas Coughlan 

9. Wreck-it-Ralph

“Wreck-It Ralph” broke through as another Disney favorite this year. Starring John C. Reilly as Ralph and Sarah Silverman as Vanellope, the cast is among comedy frontrunners.  The movie is creative, fresh and entertaining for all ages. The biggest draw to older audiences is the references to cherished video games of the past while the new generation is addressed through the introduction of new characters like Ralph and Vanellope. Disney has historically been quoted to create for the sake of entertainment, and the movie does just that. The animation is fresh, and the plot sustains interest throughout and ends in a welcome twist. Most impressively, Vanellope makes an outright claim against being the princess we associate with Disney women and maintains her image as well as her charm.

— Shanna Holako

10. Beasts of the Southern Wild

Made on a shoestring by 29-year-old director Benh Zeitlin, “Beasts” came out of nowhere to emerge the Grand Jury Prize winner at the Sundance Film Festival and the Camera d’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival — and deservingly so. It is easily the most original American film of 2012. Precocious 6-year-old Hushpuppy, played by newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis, acts like she’s the center of the universe, scavenging the New Orleans bayou like a feral cat. She tells us, “In a million years, when kids go to school, they’re gonna know: Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.” Who knows if for a million years, but she’ll be on our minds for a long time.

— Braulio Ramirez

Contact the Daily Cal arts staff at [email protected].