Movie-wise, 2012 was about a lot of things, from girl-power in “The Hunger Games,” “Brave” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” to Hollywood discovering actors and audiences older than 35 (see “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” surprise success of).
Mostly, though, 2012 was marked by a consistent devotion to quality, whether in indie precincts occupied by “Bernie,” “The Sessions” and “Silver Linings Playbook” or the more mainstream universe of “Skyfall.” Big or small, happy or sad, swinging for the fences or drilling down deep, the movies carried the same message: It’s all good.
1. “Zero Dark Thirty” Kathryn Bigelow’s taut thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden exemplifies the Oscar-winning director at the top of her game, working with a script by Mark Boal that not only allows viewers to make sense of the complicated intelligence, military and foreign policy issues that have animated the past decade, but also creates a brand-new cinematic genre: the reported film.
2. “Lincoln” Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s historical drama about the 16th president leaves behind fusty, great-man portraiture, instead engaging in a lively game of political cat and mouse that bears uncanny contemporary echoes and leaves viewers feeling as if they’ve just spent two hours with the shrewd, funny, melancholy — and yes, great — man himself.
3. “The Waiting Room” Peter Nicks’s magnificent documentary spends a day in the life of an over-crowded and under-resourced hospital emergency room in Oakland, Calif., where a staff of compassionate professionals provide care to a startlingly diverse population of patients. This subtle, compassionate tableau lifts the veil on a world often described in terms of squalor and despair, finding the inherent dignity and perseverance therein.
4. “Monsieur Lazhar” Philippe Falardeau’s affecting drama about an Algerian immigrant teaching in a Montreal elementary school could have gone wrong in so many sappy, sentimental or maudlin ways. Thanks to Falardeau’s clear-eyed direction and a quietly galvanizing performance by Mohamed Fellag in the title role, it goes straight and simply for the heart, and its aim is unerringly true. Pint-sized co-stars Sophie Nelisse and Emilien Neron joined Pierce Gagnon (“Looper”), Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward (“Moonrise Kingdom”), and “The Impossible’s” Tom Holland, Oaklee Pendergast and Samuel Johnson as young actors delivering performances of astonishing maturity.
5. “Middle of Nowhere” Ava DuVernay’s finely calibrated drama about a woman navigating life while her husband is in prison featured a breakout performance by lead actress Emayatzy Corinealdi; its unforced, restrained tone was enhanced by the expressive cinematography of Howard University alumnus Bradford Young, who also shot two 2012 10-best runners-up, “Restless City” and “Pariah.”
6. “This Is Not a Film” Jafar Panahi’s essay film about living under house arrest in Iran uses Brechtian staging, blurred lines between documentary and drama, and an iPhone to explore the notion of physical and political boundaries, the aesthetic and technological contours of cinema, and the enduring power of self-expression.
7. “Argo” Ben Affleck’s absorbing, thoroughly entertaining thriller about a little-known chapter of the Iran hostage crisis strikes a tricky tonal balance between history lesson, adventure-action and showbiz satire. Along with such runners-up as “The Grey,” “Looper” and “Magic Mike,” it proved that genre pictures don’t have to be disposable but can channel genuine thoughtfulness, ingenuity and old-fashioned chops.
8. “Margaret” Kenneth Lonergan’s epic coming-of-age tale, about a Manhattan teenager sent into an ethical tailspin after being involved in a tragic bus accident, took years to arrive on the screen. What turned out to be a sprawling, passionate, stubbornly digressive masterwork was worth the wait.
9. “Anna Karenina” Director Joe Wright took a big chance when he staged the adaptation of a beloved literary classic as light opera, largely within the confines of a tiny theater. The conceit worked, with the inherent theatricality of Tolstoy’s story and imperial St. Petersburg society coming to the fore, as well as the novel’s alternately rigorous and poetic moral sensibility. “Anna” joined such similarly risky fare as “Cloud Atlas” and “Holy Motors” in suggesting that cinematic ambition, audacity and vision aren’t dead yet.
10. “Amour” Michael Haneke’s technically flawless, emotionally devastating drama about an elderly couple facing illness and death was part of an encouraging trend this year in surprisingly honest depictions of aging, from the frank sexuality of the admittedly uneven “Hope Springs” to Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, “Quartet.” On behalf of grown-ups everywhere, to an industry otherwise obsessed with youth: Thanks for caring. More, please!