1. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson is somewhat of a polarizing figure in cinema, producing a cult following on one side and drawing biting criticism for his “twee” style on the other. With Moonrise Kingdom, however, any backlash becomes impossible in the face of the director’s best work since the Oscar-nominated The Royal Tenenbaums. Following the story of two misunderstood tweens who fall in love and run away together on a 1960s New England island, Moonrise Kingdom vividly encapsulates a sense of nostalgic innocence as the two struggle to come to terms with their budding romance. As Sam and Suzy attempt to flee the hoard of jaded adults and a “Khaki Scout” troop in hot pursuit, their own route to self-discovery becomes easier to discern amid the ensuing chaos. Anderson steers clear of clichés, however, implementing his trademark humor to make every line drop with dry perfection. With Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, and a particularly fantastic Ed Norton also on screen, it’s impossible not to recognize the sheer amount of acting talent present. These adults on the fringe of the romantic story never distract from the central narrative, though, which is all about two children determined to create their own world as an alternative to dull reality. Tempered by a light-hearted air, it’s the best kind of escapism.
Hollywood takes on the Iranian Hostage Crisis in this rare gem of a historical, action-packed thriller. Based on a recently declassified CIA operation that is just crazy enough to be true, Argo tells the story of the six American Iranian Embassy workers who must be rescued from Iran after they manage to escape before the embassy is overtaken. While casting oneself as the lead isn’t always advisable when directing a film, Ben Affleck never falters, giving an astounding performance as the CIA operative ballsy enough to devise and go through with the improbable scheme to disguise the six Americans as a Canadian film crew on location. Argo’s winning story might just restore your faith in America’s leave no man behind mantra.
– Mary Borowiec
3. Beasts of the Southern Wild
It’s rare that a Sundance breakout receives any national attention, much less the outpouring of critical praise that this glorious debut from filmmaker Benh Zeitlin has garnered. With a soaring score and imagery nothing short of breathtaking, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a true testament to the power of cinema. Driven by the narrative of a girl living in the bayous of southern Louisiana, this work of magical realism manages to unleash an entire world in her young imagination. As a storm threatens her tight-knit community, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) becomes an inimitable force against all obstacles. Much like the film she anchors, her size belies her tremendous spirit.
After 2008’s Quantum of Solace left Bond lovers wondering if they would ever again see a movie worthy of the title, Bond is definitely back. Skyfall goes back to 007’s roots, with a classic Aston Martin, the return of Q, and an unhinged villain with a serious axe to grind. Even as it shows Bond’s age, Daniel Craig’s performance only builds upon the grittier Bond introduced in 2006’s Casino Royale. Although the final fight scene seems more an ending to a trilogy than the beginning of another two films with the steely-eyed Craig, if the next two continue with this winning mix of new and old, Craig will be the new Connery.
5. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a story of firsts: kisses, girlfriends, pot brownies, LSD, fist fights, loves, all amidst the struggle of trying to find one’s place in the impossibility that is growing up. Stephen Chobsky’s autobiographical best selling book-turned-movie charms in its film adaptation, as Charlie (Logan Lerman), Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller) effortlessly come together as Charlie becomes a fixture in their clan of misfits. Filled with enough drama for any teen soap, Perks still manages to ring true. Nostalgia and a stellar soundtrack make this a coming of age for the ages.
In many ways, Lincoln is an improbable movie—a major blockbuster about little more than legislative infighting in which second-choice lead Daniel Day Lewis turns in a performance so convincing critics are already poised to hand him an Oscar. But Lincoln is the perfect film for the times. For a divided nation, it is a story of compromise, with a flawed but well-intentioned leader (Obama?) taking a realpolitik approach to governance, battling to pass the 13th Amendment. The political press has been abuzz since, but no matter the film’s ideology, it will be remembered not only as a standout of 2012, but of this era of American governance.
7. The Masters
The luminous opening shots of the blue sea in 70mm are reason enough to marvel at Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest epic The Master. Complementing the novelty in cinematography, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman give striking performances in a story that is as dense as it is unsettling. Set in post-WWII America, the story takes place in a modernist abyss where cults and metaphysical perplexities challenge notions of bestiality and existence. One of the few standout films this year, The Master leaves the audience alienated and confounded with its story of striving and struggle—if not for its enigmatic plot, the mise-en-scéne marks this film’s magnitude.
8. 21 Jump Street
2012 was the year of the predictable movie reboot—Spiderman, again? But Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s film adaptation of the ‘80s TV series 21 Jump Street was surprising in all the right ways. A not-so-fat Jonah Hill and the year’s sexiest man alive Channing Tatum join forces to take down synthetic drug dealers at a local high school in a film that treads the line between Breakfast Club nostalgia and Hangover off-the-wall hilarity. Awkward teen hipster romance, wild party scenes, Korean Jesus, Peter Pan tights, and a Johnny Depp prom cameo combine in easily the funniest, if not the most original, movie of 2012.
Once you get over the whole time-travelling assassin thing, Looper is ultimately a love story. Within the sci-fi dystopia of the U.S. circa 2044, writer and director Rian Johnson draws on the dichotomy between rural innocence and urban decay to create a world where the only thing that can conquer vice is self-sacrifice. Emily Blunt gives the performance of her career as a mother raising a future mob monster while Joseph Gordon-Levitt fits well into the younger Bruce Willis role (though the CGI face helped). Looper ‘s appeal lies in the details of its futuristic landscape, but its brilliance is in its thematic simplicity.
Brave might surprise you. A princess story without a love interest? Shocking, yet satisfying. The Pixar tale weaves together feuding clans, magic run amok, and triplets that have never looked cuter than their ursine forms to make a mostly fun, though incredibly safe, feel-good movie. With an air of Robin Hood gone Scottish, and a dysfunctional family to rival any TV sitcom, the feisty Princess Merida spends the length of the film trying to tame her crazy hair and avoiding an arranged marriage in a plot line that leaves something to be desired. Still, if you have ever thought that “Whip My Hair” would be much better if it took place in medieval Scotland, then Brave is for you.
1. Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d city
The cover of Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city shows “baby Kendrick” surrounded by 40s of malt liquor and family members. It’s the environment Kendrick grew up in—a father with Chicago gang ties, the notorious setting of Compton. Yet, avoiding the rags-to-riches mindset, as with Young Jeezy and an obvious interpretation of the cover, Kendrick is a supremely self-aware rapper in conflict with a young, testosterone-fueled mind. In the track “Poetic Justice,” “Every second, every minute, man I swear that she can get it” is countered by the question that captures the entire album: “If I told you a flower bloomed in a dark room, would you trust it?” Kendrick’s masterful acceptance of his lower-class origins comes over low beats and atmospheric notes reminiscent of early Outkast, yet he replaces southern twang with eerie starkness. Labeled a “short film” by Kendrick, good kid features dense lyrical close-ups and humorous skits over real hip hop production. It even offers a small list of hand-picked extras. The album falls just short of an Oscar.
2. Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE
Many people saw Frank Ocean’s debut LP as a departure from traditional R&B—the Long Beach-native shattering hip hop conventions with a nearly 10-minute long single, lethargic dubstep-inspired sampling, and taboo homoerotic themes. And yet channel ORANGE offers the most traditional approach to the genre of the year, tackling sexual frustration, societal decay, and class boundaries with a purity and honesty rare in contemporary R&B music. But beneath the angst-ridden interludes and scratchy under-produced falsettos of channel ORANGE, Ocean crafts a complete album that is so much more than rhythm and blues: it’s a memoir, and it’s beautiful.
3. Purity Ring, Shrines
Electronic music duo, Purity Ring released “Ungirthed” in early 2011. It was the kind of song you could not ignore—a well-constructed pop song, with elements stolen from all over the world of popular music, from southern rap to glitch-hop, and it was catchy as hell. Their presence in the music scene was largely mysterious until they released their album Shrines earlier this year, and by that time they had an audience practically begging them for more. The album reiterates everything the Canadian pair did right on the single—glitch-ridden vocals, incredibly catchy lines, and a pastiche of pop culture so complete it could be used to teach a music history class about the last decade.
4. Mumford and Sons, Babel
Stunning music executives with sales rivaling those of Adele, British import Mumford and Sons amped up their trademark folksy sound with the release of their sophomore album, Babel. The album boasts punchier tracks that mix up Marcus Mumford’s usually subdued vocals; more dramatic melodies interspersed with band cheers give the album a live feeling. Babel also abounds with religious themes and imagery, both in biblical quotes and more subtle allusions, providing an intriguing devotional quality that complicates classic love themes. Balancing experimentation with their tried and true folksy sound, Mumford and Sons signals another British Invasion.
– Mary Borowiec
5. Passion Pit, Gossamer
Though typically characterized as an indie rock band, Passion Pit has distinguished itself enough not to be constrained within the confines of any particular genre, a fact made clear on its latest release. It’s easy to ignore the somber lyrics under the irresistibly catchy layers of sugary electronica, yet the repressed emotion and anxiety beneath the surface bring out another side to the band. In a current music scene dominated by a deconstructed aesthetic, Passion Pit’s maximalist tendencies to build their music with multiple layers and unleash emotions with no holds barred make for a refreshing change. Though Gossamer is named after a sheer and silken fabric, there’s much more to it than an airy aura.
– Julia Lloyd-George
6. The xx, Coexist
The xx’s eponymous first album was good, but they really stepped up their game on Coexist. Whether you want to call it indie or dream pop, the xx’s sound is better described by metaphor than a single genre. Imagine an infinite black space and the softest, hushed vocals inside. Each strum of the guitar brings stars to sight, but they fade away into space as the chords die away. The beat of the drum is in time to the heart that yearns. Simple but poignant, the album is about fading love. It’s sexy, it’s sad, but mostly, Coexist resonates with that deep, dark place in your soul.
– Madhuri Vairapandi
7. Beach House, Bloom
It’s hard to pin down Beach House’s dreamy fourth album Bloom. Those who try inevitably end up just humming along as the album’s gentle melodic waves lap over their consciousnesses. The entire album translates as one unbroken ride looking through some nebular chasm into a sweet, but melancholic universe. While this feeling overwhelms the album, notable tracks, including “Myth,” “Troublemaker,” and “Other People,” showcase stronger melodies that break free from the dominating ethereal wave that is Bloom. The silent last two minutes provide time to reflect on what the hell just punched you straight to bed and then further on why silence closes the album.
8. Mackelmore, The Heist
“Thrift Shop,” the single that sent Mackelmore’s album to the top of the charts, does little justice to the rapper’s work. The Heist as a whole is a testament to the raw power of social consciousness and a soul laid bare that would have been avoided at all cost by any other rapper. Chronicling experiences on this autobiographical album that range from a recent relapse in “Starting Over,” to the abuse of struggling artists by record labels on “Jimmy Iovine,” to the idealized concept of wealth on “Gold,”—and all over diverse beats and seamless samples—Macklemore crafts the perfect, self-aware LP.
9. Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan
Swing Lo Magellan¸ the Dirty Projectors’ most user-friendly album to date, is a sweet little collection of music. Without sacrificing their idiosyncratic female backers, abnormal time signatures, or abstract lyrics, the Projectors showed an unprecedented level of discipline with their seventh album. This tamed-down approach to music pulls the melodies, not the style, to the forefront of the songs, a critically and commercially auspicious shift. Swing Lo Magellan’s forceful, swelling vocals (“Gun Has No Trigger”) and mellifluous respites (“Dance for You”) present a comprehensive palette of moods—the signal of a band growing into itself.
10. The Lumineers, The Lumineers
On the Lumineers’ eponymous debut album, singer Wesley Schulz proclaims, “classy girls don’t kiss in bars, you fool.” While questionable if coming from a different source, Schulz’s vocals—the focus of this Denver folk rock band’s repertoire—are emotive and effortlessly entrancing. That voice, along with strummy guitars and bouncy pianos, take the listeners on a journey never boring or repetitive. From the chanty, anthemic “Ho Hey” to the decidedly more angsty “Slow It Down,” to album closer “Morning Song,” which manages to be elegiac and triumphant all at the same time, The Lumineers is a fitting intro to a band we won’t be forgetting.