Sarah Polley’s Stories was stupendous.
What can I say? The big guns didn't do it for me this year - The Master overstayed its welcome, Les Misérables couldn't quite make the jump from stage to screen, and Silver Linings Playbook just plain pissed me off. It turns out what I connected to in 2012 was, for the most part, intimacy: the majority of the titles on my Top 10 are tales of families coming apart and coming together. (Well, except for Zero Dark Thirty, but a case could be made that the intelligence apparatus required to track down Osama bin Laden had a sort of squabbling, in-fighting family dynamic.)
If you need another 10 pictures, there's always ALPS, Argo, The Avengers, Barbara, The Cabin In The Woods, Coriolanus, Lincoln, Magic Mike, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia and Premium Rush. Yes, really, Premium Rush.
1. STORIES WE TELL
The first time I saw Sarah Polley's documentary about her mother, her father and herself, I thought it was the movie she'd been trying to make with Away From Her and Take This Waltz. On second viewing - with a full house - I could fully appreciate the brilliant structure Polley and editor Mike Munn employ to build their series of shattering emotional revelations. The year's best film, Canadian or otherwise.
It took an emotional sadist to make the first drama that doesn't flinch from the reality of old age. Michael Haneke's devastating study of an elderly couple (played, for maximum resonance, by cinematic icons Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) deteriorating in their well-appointed Paris apartment uses long, merciless takes to trap us in space and time with its increasingly infirm protagonists. Harder to shake off than any horror film you can think of - and twice as disturbing.
3. ZERO DARK THIRTY
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who gave us The Hurt Locker, compress the CIA's decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden into a crisp, urgent thriller that manages to feel suspenseful and nervy even when the outcome is a matter of world history. Jessica Chastain's fantastic as the operative who gives the film its centre, avoiding big rah-rah moments. Bigelow has created the anti-Argo - no offence to Ben Affleck's film, which I quite enjoyed. But this is the real thing.
4. IN THE FAMILY
You've probably never heard of Patrick Wang, but he's the writer, director and star of this amazing three-hour first feature about a gay man drawn into a legal battle for the custody of his partner's young son. In a perfect world, this would have been the most talked-about film of the year... but this isn't a perfect world, is it?
5. MOONRISE KINGDOM
Wes Anderson may only know one note - the nostalgia of the privileged white guy - but he plays the hell out of that note. This melancholy, doom-laden story of runaway 60s tweens (Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman) whose romantic escape reverberates through an island community may be his best work since Rushmore - and that's really saying something.
6. THE IMPOSTER
As formally intriguing as Stories We Tell but with a very different mission statement, Bart Layton's sinewy documentary recreates the stranger-than-fiction story of a Texas teen who disappeared in 1993 and the man who laid claim to that identity three years later in Spain. Layton doles out just enough information to keep us fascinated, but not entirely certain of what it is that fascinates us. Which is the whole point.
7. HOLY MOTORS
Is Leos Carax out to destroy cinema with this digital fantasia about an actor (Denis Lavant) riding around Paris in a white stretch limousine, playing a series of characters for the amusement of an unseen audience? Or is he trying to celebrate its dream-state elasticity by creating a new kind of anthology film? I'm not sure, and I don't know if it matters. I do know that every frame of Holy Motors is alive with a weird, antic joy. We're all dancing to Monsieur Oscar's accordion, whether we know it or not.
8. THE DEEP BLUE SEA
His first fiction film in a dozen years finds Terence Davies doing what he does best, making suffocating dramas about England after the Second World War. Anchored by Rachel Weisz's searing performance as a woman who leaves her stuffy older husband (Simon Russell Beale) for a younger, considerably less stable man (The Avengers' Tom Hiddleston), it's a chamber piece with the emotional impact of a grand opera.
Okay, Max Landis's script bears a striking similarity to that X-Files episode about super-fast teenagers. But Josh Trank's direction - starting with its clever subversion of the found-footage format - and three terrific young actors elevate Chronicle far beyond a simple genre exercise. It's a fascinating look at the dark side of every superhero origin story, showing us what an abused misfit would really do with powers and abilities far beyond the ken of mortal man... and how easily he'd lose sight of that whole "great responsibility" thing.
Brave and Frankenweenie were pretty great, but this pitch-dark adventure from Laika Studios - the producers of Coraline - tops them with a combination of gorgeous stop-motion animation, vivid voice acting and a script that refuses to back away from the really awful truths underpinning its fiction. A rollicking zombie adventure with genuine social commentary? That's the scariest idea of all.