It was a so-so year at the Cineplex with spectacle and bombast prevailing yet again over mind and matter. But there were still a handful of gems that popped up along the way, including a couple that were -shockingly - made by major studios. In fact, some of the big guys' films, like "Skyfall" and "Zero Dark Thirty," I felt awful about omitting from my Top 10 for 2012. But the 10 listed below were just a pinch better, beginning with:
1. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson's funny, wrenching paean to young love may not win any major awards, but it remains my favorite film of the year. I've seen it three times and it gets better with each viewing. That's probably because the cast, featuring Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton and the terrific preteen leads, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, was so charmingly quirky that it made me feel young again.
2. Monsieur Lazhar
Technically, this three-hankie weeper about young school children grieving the death of their beloved teacher, is a 2011 entry. But since it didn't open here until this past spring, Philippe Falardeau's Oscar-nominated drama is worthy of inclusion on this list - or any list in any year. It speaks so poetically about loss, guilt and finding the courage to go on, it should be required viewing by every resident of Newtown, Conn.
It takes an icon to know an icon, as Steven Spielberg so entertainingly proved with his funny, absorbing take on our 16th president, brought vividly back to life by none other than that great "American" Daniel Day Lewis. The Brit displayed grit and wit in reminding us what it's like to have a president capable of getting things done by any means necessary. A great supporting cast featuring Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and James Spader only added to the film's emancipating pleasures.
Like Spielberg, Ben Affleck proved historical re-enactments need not be dull by thrillingly recounting the mostly true story about how an inventive CIA operative called upon Hollywood to help stage an elaborate ruse that led to the "exfiltration" of six Americans trapped in Iran following the overthrow of the shah in 1979. Not only did Affleck shine as a sure-to-be Oscar-nominated director, he also availed himself with an above-average portrayal of the mission's leader, Tony Mendez. But the film belonged to John Goodman and Alan Arkin, as a pair of hilarious Hollywood players instrumental in pulling off the subterfuge.
Director Morten Tyldum's darkly comic crime thriller held nothing back in ladling on copious amounts of sex, nudity and violence in telling a story that negotiated so many clever twists and turns that you never knew where it was going next.
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6. The Sessions
John Hawkes summoned one of the year's best performances in portraying Boston-born author Mark O'Brien, a lonely quadriplegic with an intense desire to experience sex for the first time at age 39. It was an itch Helen Hunt's emotionally distant sex surrogate was happy to scratch. Credit writer-director Ben Lewin, who is also disabled, with delivering a film that was funny, sexy and profoundly moving.
7. Silver Linings
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence delivered Oscar-caliber performances as manically depressed would-be lovers struggling to get over the loss of their spouses. Like he did with his Oscar-winning "The Fighter," writer-director David O. Russell mined humor and truth through blue-collar families dealing with adversity through sports. In this case, a fanatical allegiance to the Philadelphia Eagles by Cooper and his equally unbalanced father, played by Robert De Niro in his best performance in years.
8. West of Memphis
Although the three "Paradise Lost" movies superbly chronicled the horrible injustice done to the West Memphis Three, Amy Berg's sharper-focused documentary not only made the facts of the case more concise, it cast even deeper (and convincing) aspersions on the man many suspect to be the real killer, Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the three 8-year-old murder victims. Funded by Peter Jackson and researched by a former FBI profiler, Berg's film was never anything less than riveting.
Tim Burton's clever ode to horror fans and pet lovers was as funny as it was moving in telling the highly relatable story of a boy determined to bring his dead dog back to life. Sampling every horror film from "Frankenstein" to "Godzilla," Burton's black-hearted valentine delivered nostalgia, thrills and heart in equal measure.
10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Although set in the early 1990s, writer-director Stephen Chbosky's tale (based on his autobiographical novel) was as timeless as the trio of "wallflowers" witnessed sprouting from the muck of isolation and rejection. True, the triumvirate of Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller and Emma Watson were a tad too beautiful and glamorous to portray social lepers, but the ease in which they involved you in their broken, battered characters made it easy to look past bright faces into darkened souls.
The runners-up: Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained, Skyfall, Compliance, Safety Not Guaranteed, Queen of Versailles, The Secret Life of Arietta, Damsels in Distress, Seven Psychopaths and The Innkeepers