It's a good sign, in compiling a list of the best movies in a year, when 10 immediately spring to mind.
An even better sign is when those 10 serve as jumping-off points for other wonderful 2012 films with which they share themes, a genre or a budget range.
Above is my list of the 10 finest films of 2012. It's carefully considered. It's airtight.
But it's not the entire conversation. The process of explaining what sets these films above the rest elicits mentions of others that distinguish themselves in similar ways, and are nearly as good.
The following rundown of the year's best films includes my top 10, grouped at times with other films that almost made the list.
Don't think of the inclusion of more movies as fudging. Think of it as a celebration of the year in film, a further accounting of 2012's cinematic bounty.
A few movies mentioned below are in theaters, others are available to view at home, and others will wend their ways to Sacramento this month or February after late 2012 limited releases elsewhere. A sad few are not available in any format in Sacramento.
The new great American directors
The established greats Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen still work so regularly they leave little room for anointing others. Yet with "The Master" (on DVD in February), a push-pull between a quasi-religious leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his tortured acolyte (Joaquin Phoenix), filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson has made the best of his sprawling, fraught character studies.
With it and 2007's "There Will Be Blood," Anderson, 42, moves past his fellow cusp-of contemporaries David O. Russell ("Silver Linings Playbook") and Wes Anderson ("Moonrise Kingdom") into the high ranks; he goes for the grand and achieves it.
Kathryn Bigelow leaves less of a stylistic imprint today than she did with her moody 1980s movies "Near Dark" and "Blue Steel" (the Jamie Lee Curtis cop movie, not the "Zoolander" look). The first woman to win a directing Oscar (in 2010 for "The Hurt Locker"), Bigelow, 61, now makes movies whose settings, subject matter and currency create the mood.
She brings an ability to ratchet up and maintain tension and she orchestrates action scenes so authentic they could be on the news. In "Zero Dark Thirty" (opening Jan. 11 in Sacramento), Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal lay out the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden with precision and with a sense of stakes that escalates even though we all know how it ends. Auteur, and out there
With the French- language "Amour," (February in Sacramento), Austrian director Michael Haneke ("Caché") eschews his usual clinical approach for a more intimate one. Yet the story of an octogenarian music teacher incapacitated by a stroke and her caregiver husband remains clear-eyed about aging, enduring love and patience's limits. This is why it is so moving.
"Holy Motors," another terrific French-language movie, made a brief stop at the Crest in December before leaving town. Director Leos Carax and his amazing, shape-shifting star Denis Lavant play with literary and cinematic history and the barrier between film and audience. Lavant's character assumes different identities during a ride through Paris in a limousine equipped with a makeup mirror, costumes and facial prosthetics (out on DVD in February).
Splendor at sea
Ang Lee, 58, is also one of the new greats in Hollywood, though not officially an American one, since he is from Taiwan. He is also the most versatile filmmaker working on a large scale today.
With "Life of Pi" (in theaters), an enthralling tale of a boy and tiger adrift on a lifeboat, Lee holds our attention by using 3-D to enhance visual richness. "Pi" offers scene after scene of technology-enhanced wonder that never veers into excess. This same guy directed "Brokeback Mountain," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "The Ice Storm" and "Sense and Sensibility."
The kids are (mostly) all right
The sumptuous "Beasts of the Southern Wild" (DVD, streaming and cable on demand), set in a fictional community of flood-defying bayou holdouts, beautifully mixes fantasia with daily survival issues facing 6-year-old heroine Hushpuppy, played by extraordinary film newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis.
"Beasts" was one of three standout 2012 movies that were not made for children but assumed a youthful perspective.
The thoroughly charming "Moonrise Kingdom" (DVD, streaming, on demand) follows an AWOL "Khaki Scout" and the girl of his dreams and treats its preternaturally serious young protagonists as its most reasonable characters.
"Perks of Being a Wallflower" (on DVD in February) offers entertaining yet uncannily accurate teen characters in its quiet high school freshman (Logan Lerman) and the theatrical seniors (Emma Watson and Ezra Miller) who befriend him. Smart and restless, with complicated pasts and adult-size curiosities and vocabularies, these teens have chosen to join with like minds to form what is more of a tribe than a clique.
Brightest of the biggest
Tentpole films can make scads of money just by being serviceable. Yet some still strive for excellence. Three of this year's big-budgeted big earners also were among the year's best movies.
The finest is "Skyfall" (in theaters). The first James Bond film in years to include a truly memorable villain (Javier Bardem's snaky Silva), "Skyfall" furthered Daniel Craig's more soulful portrayal of 007 but also had fun with Bond history by reintroducing beloved characters and making other nods to the movie franchise's 50th anniversary.
"The Hunger Games" (DVD and streaming) did more than right by Suzanne Collins' best-selling sci-fi novel. As a post-apocalyptic teenager in a televised fight to the death, Jennifer Lawrence is resourceful in the field and visibly fearful but determined during rare calm moments. It's her better performance of 2012, though she is being pushed for awards recognition for her role as a troubled young widow in "Silver Linings Playbook."
The same applies to Anne Hathaway and her Selina/ Catwoman in "The Dark Knight Rises" (DVD, streaming, cable on demand). Hathaway is more striking and more nuanced in "Rises" than as Fantine in "Les Misérables," though she is being nominated for awards for the latter performance. And let's not forget the heavy-breathing "Rises" villain Bane, made thoroughly threatening by Tom Hardy. With "Dark Knight Rises," director Christopher Nolan concludes his Batman trilogy with all its spectacle, gloom and stubborn heroism intact.
The best Tarantino film Tarantino did not make
"Killing Them Softly," Australian director Andrew Dominik's ("The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford") most recent outstanding work, offers chatty, funny crooks and crime scenes that are artfully shot and edited but no less tense or startling for it.
The movie's lead criminal duo makes off-the-wall observations, but they also are dippy, uneducated guys instead of the curiously hyper-articulate criminals of Quentin Tarantino's films. Brad Pitt's hit-man character is wise to the world but not overly so.
Unlike Tarantino's gratuitous, distractingly episodic "Django Unchained," "Softly" plays out in dynamic yet logical fashion. But it did little business after opening in late November and has left Sacramento theaters. Expect it on DVD this spring.
Best film-as-you-go history
The excellent, informative documentary "How to Survive a Plague," (DVD, streaming on Netflix) uses 1980s and '90s archival footage in tracking the AIDS epidemic in the United States and the development of the activist group ACT UP.
The movie shows the methodical approach of the group and its offshoots in confronting government officials and pharmaceutical companies about speeding the drug-approval process. ACT UP's highly publicized, disruptive demonstrations were planned to the last detail. When activists put a giant condom over Sen. Jesse Helms' house, for example, they made sure not to damage the paint.
Sex, one-liners and vulnerability
On paper, the story of a man in an iron lung (John Hawkes) who hires a professional sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) sounds about as funny as ... a movie about a man in an iron lung. But "The Sessions" (on DVD in February) taps the self- deprecating, pain-deflecting humor of that man the late Berkeley journalist and poet Mark O'Brien. The quips trigger laughs but also a recognition of how hard it is for anybody to feel truly exposed.
CARLA MEYER'S TOP MOVIES OF 2012
1. "The Master"
2. "Zero Dark Thirty"
4. "Life of Pi"
5. "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
7. "Killing Them Softly"
8. "How to Survive a Plague"
9. "The Sessions"
10. "The Perks of Being a Wallflower"