It’s a release pattern that’s common practice among film distributors, due to the false impression that Academy voters will only remember the last movies they saw while filling out their Oscar ballots.
But that ritual of saving the best for last became glaringly obvious to me while I rounded out my best-of list for 2012, which included just one studio film that came out before the fall.
10) “End of Watch”: Written and directed by David Ayer (who wrote “Training Day”), this gritty, violent and visceral look at the professional and personal lives of two LAPD officers was intense from start to finish. But what really made it the best cop thriller in years was the authentic chemistry between Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, who played the devoted partners who had each other’s backs at all costs.
9) “Wreck-It Ralph”: A sweet, clever and funny animated gem from Disney that did for classic video games what “Toy Story” did for, well, toys. Without question, it’s the best animated film since “Toy Story 3.”
8) “Life of Pi”: More than just being a groundbreaking technological achievement with the best visual effects to hit the big screen since “Avatar,” director Ang Lee’s fully immersive 3D adaptation of the best-selling novel was a magical, compelling and deeply profound meditation about the nature of survival, faith and existence.
7) “Searching for Sugar Man”: A documentary so incredible and unbelievable, it’s hard to believe that it really happened. But it did, and the true story of a lost 1970’s singer-songwriter from Detroit who got a hero’s welcome from adoring fans in South Africa – where he was more popular than Elvis – was a beauty to behold.
6) “Amour”: Winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, director Michael Haneke’s haunting and wholly absorbing drama about an elderly French couple faced with declining health was touching, intimate, delicate, harrowing, scary, devastating and powerfully acted by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva.
5) “The Dark Knight Rises”: The crowning achievement of Christopher Nolan’s landmark Batman trilogy was intelligent, relevant, grounded, epic, exciting and full of surprises. Upon its release in July, it brought this trailblazing series to the rousing and unforgettable conclusion that it deserved.
4) “Skyfall”: Nobody did it better than James Bond’s excellent 23rd installment, a reboot of sorts that effectively did for Bond what “The Dark Knight” did for superheroes. Daniel Craig’s third outing as Agent 007 collectively paid tribute to Bond’s 50-year-old past, made him relevant for the present and paved the way for his future.
3) “Silver Linings Playbook”: Writer-director David O. Russell’s charming, funny, smart and very moving follow-up to “The Fighter” cast an irresistible spell, thanks to stellar performances from a terrific ensemble cast (Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) and a razor-sharp screenplay that infused family dysfunction, mental illness, romance and hilarity.
2) “Zero Dark Thirty”: This gripping and incredibly intense procedural thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden came from director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, the Oscar-winning team behind 2009’s Best Picture-winner “The Hurt Locker.” If the intelligence-gathering build-up wasn’t engrossing enough, the visceral 35-minute raid scene all but sealed the deal for their return visit to the Academy Awards.
1) “Argo”: After proving his prowess as a director with 2010’s gritty crime thriller “The Town,” director Ben Affleck upped his game in just about every way for his third time behind the camera. More than being a fascinating, informative, riveting, tense, funny and very entertaining crowd-pleaser, “Argo” also represented a seamless shift in tones before culminating with a rousing conclusion.
Honorable mentions that came really, really close to making this list: “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Lincoln,” “The Master,” “Flight,” “The Queen of Versailles,” “Room 237,” “Safety Not Guaranteed” and “Arbitrage.”