Two thousand and twelve was, if nothing else, a banner year for uncommonly productive provocation. Audiences were galled by Rick Alverson's divisive deconstruction of hipsterdom, The Comedy, beguiled by the taciturn charms of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, and, um, probed by the penetrating cultural criticism of David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis. Masters of cinema both old and new even found time, between saucy bouts of male stripping and fellating chicken parts, to butt heads with every conceivable status quo, grappling admirably with hot-button issues as wide-ranging as colonialism (Tabu), U.S.-endorsed torture (Zero Dark Thirty, maybe or maybe not endorsing it itself), and the very nature of cinema (Jafar Panahi, who didn't make a “film” at all). Even the infernal Batman reared his stiff-helmeted head toward something vaguely topical, despite the fact that The Dark Knight Rises had its ideological basis scrawled across its script in magic marker. The point is that at least everybody tried: It's significant that the most “controversial” entry on this list, sure to incite cynical eye-rolls, attempted in earnest to articulate the hopes and fears of a post-Katrina New Orleans, and it did so with a spirit of awe and wonder. And when you consider that even self-identified trifles were to some degree about something (Amy Heckerling's unsung comedy Vamps dealt with trends and aging, ab-fest Magic Mike faced the recession head-on, and the feature-length music video Girl Walk // All Day dropped in on the Occupy protests), it starts to look like everybody, from the vocally political to the willfully naïve, were ready to dig deep and really engage with the world as they saw it. Calum Marsh
Editor's Note: Click here for individual ballots and list of the films that came in 26—50.
In this canny bit of cinematic legerdemain, Steven Soderbergh baits viewers with the spectacle of bronzed and buffed beefcake, while simultaneously serving up a subversive disquisition on the money-minded woes of America Today. One of Soderbergh's most formally impressive films in years, Magic Mike boasts whip-smart editing that links antithetical scenes through disorienting sound bridges. It also displays the director's penchant for full-on filtration: Jaundiced yellows, icy blues, and fiery reds fill the frame with a candy-coated expressionism that's closer to Soderbergh's early neo-noir The Underneath than the color-as-narrative-compass approach of Traffic. Not since Eyes Wide Shut has a film so ruthlessly equated finance and fucking. (Okay, maybe Showgirls.) The story may boil down to “All About Eve with male strippers,” but it's merely the pretext. Per usual, devilish social satire resides in the details: dance routines mimicking traditional blue-collar vocations, a July 4th performance that appropriates patriotic iconography in order to, as Matthew McConaughey's Dallas puts it, “pry the fucking money from these ladies' purses.” Indeed, performance is essence in their line of work. Assuming otherwise can prove disastrous. And the performers at Tampa's Xquisite Club never fail to put the bottom in bottom line. Talk about your commodity fetishism. Budd Wilkins
Communism isn't just an ideological juggernaut in Christian Petzold's Barbara; it's a passionless system that produces collective numbness. As a result, any kind of emotional expression is a dangerous and courageous act. Nina Hoss's titular doctor initially seems incapable of such feeling, as her movements are methodical and concise, her words strict and reserved. But this cold façade quickly begins to crack, and another identity is revealed beneath her chameleon-like surface, one completely at odds with the rigorously defined surroundings. Set in East Germany during the early 1980s, Petzold's brilliant character study is first and foremost a morality tale about the conflict between individualism and selflessness. Barbara's surprising capacity for compassion during doctor/patient interactions suggests a pragmatic woman trying to simultaneously transcend and circumvent an impossible living situation. Yet this amazing bedside manner consistently compromises her desire to escape with a lover to West Germany. When considering this duality, each tense dialogue sequence bristles with palpable anxiety, as if repression and suspicion have become organically linked to the surroundings. Therefore, the compromises Barbara makes to retain her patient's human dignity can be seen as political acts devoid of rhetoric or posturing. Glenn Heath Jr.
With his intelligent usage of the “poker face,” Yorgos Lanthimos is one of the greatest things to happen to cinema in recent years. Athina Rachel Tsangari appropriates and expands Lanthimos's deadpan-with-depth ethos in Attenberg, in which a young woman may not know how to make out with another woman, but can have an honest conversation with her dying father about incest (“Do you ever imagine me naked?”). Greek deadpan as seen here is revealing and allegorical. It speaks of ideas, not of individuals. It opens up instead of foreclosing. It evokes instead of shouting. It's bewildering and teeming with nuance. It isn't just a pose, or a silly T-shirt. If the irony of American deadpan is a product of first-world privilege, as Christy Wampole has so brilliantly argued, Attenberg's deadpan is a strategy for speaking the unspeakable, not a hipster twitch for shielding oneself from social relations. Tsangari re-signifies irony by transforming what in America has been crafted as a technique of the self to avoid sincerity, into a method for exploring intimacy. Intimacy here is messy, maladroit, cryptic, sometimes disgusting, queer really, and always short-lived. And that's, of course, the whole point. Diego Costa
Bathed in an aura of gorgeous lassitude, Chantal Akerman's fever dream matches its achingly etched jungle nightmarescapes to the zombie-like stupor in which its characters live out their existences. Loosely adapted from the Joseph Conrad novel of the same name, Almayer's Folly begins with the set piece of the year, a night-lit assassination of a folk singer, whose inamorata is too stunned, too beat down, to do anything more than continue her trancelike motions. Rewinding to an unspecified earlier time, the film follows this woman, now identified as Nina, the daughter of a white colonialist and a Malay women living out their mutual hatred in a South Seas would-be utopia, as she learns racial difference during her years at a European-style boarding school and returns to her familial home, an emotionally dead woman. Riffing on such racially and sexually charged trouble-in-paradise films as I Walked with a Zombie, Akerman posits her heroine as a woman caught between two worlds. But everyone here is placed in a precarious position by the dictates of a colonialist system beyond their control, not least the girl's father, too emotionally paralyzed to achieve his longed-for emotional release during the cruelly epic single-take close-up that brings Akerman's remarkable film to a close. Andrew Schenker
The title is as dishonest as that of Scorsese's pitch-black comic masterpiece The King of Comedy. And like Robert De Niro's deranged stand-up comic, Tim Heidecker's bloated, well-heeled, aging Brooklyn ironist seems to stand outside of reality. Throughout Rick Alverson's daring film, Heidecker slumps around Brooklyn and the surrounding suburbs, surveying a world that bores him with a vacant, middle-distance stare. Hedeicker's Swanson and his buddies (including Eric Warheim, James Murphy, and Gregg Turkngton) relate to each other through their acute irony, their conversations tainted by a mean-spirited disingenuousness. Here, humor isn't so much a crutch as an iron lung—a way to keep the world at arm's length, while flattering an inflated, egotistical sense of self-worth. In its way, The Comedy is exceptionally funny, making its own case for the double-edged appeal of the kind of caustic insincerity its characters indulge, at once gratifying and slowly soul-crushing. An instructive lesson in the waning of affect, and the use of humor not only as a defensive mechanism, but a lens for viewing the world, maybe The Comedy's title isn't so much dishonest as deeply ironic. John Semley
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Benh Zeitlin makes an assured feature debut with Beasts of the Southern Wild, a dreamy parable set in a remote bayou in the South, called the Bathtub, whose existence is threatened by rising swamp waters. The movie evokes the nightmares of Hurricane Katrina, depicting a marginalized community that clings to its pride, and dwellings, before a forced evacuation. The feverish imagination and spunk of the main protagonist, a six-year-old girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who narrates the movie, give it much of its hallucinatory energy, as she attempts to listen to chickens speaking in code, and burns down her shack trying to cook. Brought up by a father who's often absent, and later ill, Hushpuppy must learn not only to survive, but to endure. Her rebellious streak, and the wondrous furry behemoths she imagines—drawing on Zeitlin's background as an animator—recall Pan's Labyrinth. But where Guillermo de Toro fled into fantasy, alluding to the afterlife, Zeitlin remains more bracingly earthbound: Hushpuppy's taming of the “beasts” manifests her will to overcome her pained childhood. And even though some of the problems, particularly alcoholism, are rather thickly drawn, the movie sustains its tension with rapturous, intimate cinematography and a lyrical, offbeat tone. Ela Bittencourt
Gil Walk // All Day
Like any true descendant of Buster Keaton, the Girl (Anne Marsen) wears discomfort badly. She enters a stiff ballet class in the early moments of Jacob Krupnick's rapturous Girl Walk // All Day and her young dancer's face instantly expresses a recognizable awkwardness when asked to perform “graceful” movements. Then, something magical happens: her insecurity breeds inspiration, the black-and-white visuals immediately colorize, the banal ambient soundtrack is overwhelmed by a tidal wave of mash-ups, and the Girl starts dancing to her own primitive beat. As she and two other grooving archetypes dance their way through the busy New York City streets, they use landscape and location to propel themselves forward, backward, upward, and downward toward some unknowable goal. It's as if their mere presence turns everyday life into a playful block party. On the surface, Kurpnick's nearly dialogue-less film could be labeled as a feature-length music video for Girl Talk's All Day. But it's so much more. By engaging the world at large with different art forms in such a seamless, joyous, and publicly improvisational way, Girl Walk // All Day becomes a musical of the people, by the people, for the people, a new kind of city symphony. Heath
It opens (more or less) on a close-up of Gina Gershon's pubic hair—or some stunt bush, maybe—and only gets odder from there. William Friedkin's second team-up with playwright Tracy Letts, following 2006's remarkable potboiler Bug, proves just as fruitful a collaboration. Starring Emile Hirsch as a pudgy fuck-up plotting to off his own ma for the insurance money, then leveraging his teenage sister (Juno Temple) as payment to the contracted hitman (Matthew McConaughey), Killer Joe is a richly realized piece of deep-fried Americana, as scary and shocking as it is darkly funny. Its more notable provocations, including a climactic home invasion that sees McConaughey's Joe Cooper making resourceful use of a fried chicken drumstick, may eclipse its milder menace. But Friedkin has crafted a warts-and-all trailer-park gothic vision of America's backslide into toe-headed avarice. In a year that saw the actor wresting free from his middling rom-com shackles, Killer Joe's the gem in the crown of the 2012 McConaughey renaissance, for sure. It's impossible to imagine anyone but the courtly, menacing McConaughey playing the part. And you'll never hear Clarence Carter's “Strokin'” the same way again. Semley
How to Survive a Plague
David France chronicled the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic writing for gay magazines in the 1980s, when mainstream press ignored the “plague.” Years later, the former Newsweek senior editor, reporter, and nonfiction author amassed 700 hours of amateur camcorder footage from the period that, after being pared down to two hours, resulted in an intimate, often heartbreaking, look at New York's gay community at the time of crisis—increasingly embittered about how little was being done, divisive and decimated by mounting deaths. While feature films like And the Band Played On portrayed gay activists as backdrop for bureaucratic squabbles and moral quandaries of straight politicians and epidemiologists, How to Survive a Plague sets the record straight: no one on Capitol Hill handed down salvation; it was fought for, fiercely, as ACT UP and other activists faced down bigoted politicians, government agencies, and pharmaceutical giants, with demonstrations, sit-ins, and boycotts. By offering us a glimpse into the activists' public actions, taking us behind the scenes at their meetings, and mixing in intimate footage, of home and hospital visits, and frank “then” and “now” interviews, detailing stories of coming out and illness, France delivers a haunting time capsule that captures survival and hope as much as it does despair. Bittencourt
In hindsight, it seems inevitable that one of cinema's most commercially successful directors would mount a portrait of one American history's most exalted figures, each both revered and hated and beholden to satisfying the masses within a narrow and unforgiving range of expectations. Lincoln is Steven Spielberg's most restrained film in decades, favoring process over action and completely sans score for long stretches, reliant instead on the rhythms of language fraught with moral inquiry and political struggle. Janusz Kamiński's classically styled yet very much present-tense lighting schemes suggest a series of daguerreotypes, and, as propelled by Daniel Day-Lewis's mountainous turn as the United States' 16th president, Lincoln details a remarkable man's struggle against intense conflict and ambiguous motivations amid his own personal grief. Tony Kushner's inquisitive screenplay doesn't need to emphasize paralleling trends in history to make its points known, among them the suggestion that it may be the intrinsically problematic yet necessary duty of a man clothed in immense power at the crossroads of history to manipulate the system for the good of the people, even when it's against the wishes of said people and at their own personal risk. Rob Humanick