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Andrew O’Hehir’s 10 Best Movies of 2012

Maybe film culture isn't dying just yet: The year in movies brought richness and breadth — and controversy!

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Well, listen – the next time the movie beat gets boring I’ll write another essay proclaiming the death of film culture. Apparently that was all it took to perk things up! Actually, the widely misinterpreted point I was trying to make, which was that film no longer holds the position of cultural centrality it once did, on either the highbrow or mass levels, remains valid. Even amid the undoubted richness of this fall and winter season, you can find examples of this: While films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” and Michael Haneke’s “Amour” pile up rave reviews and critics’ group awards, they don’t resemble what the general public thinks of as a movie, and the number of Americans who pay to see them in a movie theater may not exceed the audience for a single episode of a hit cable show. (My No. 1 pick of the year, which will no doubt be described as an eccentric choice, failed to gross even $100,000 in the United States. That’s more like the audience for a cable-access show. In Polish.)

But there’s no point denying that things got a damn sight more interesting in the last quarter of 2012, with the arrival of big, spectacular and controversial new takes on decisive and/or divisive moments in American history – one of them recent, the other in the semi-mythical past – delivered by two of our most important mainstream filmmakers. The upcoming Spielberg vs. Bigelow Oscar campaign promises to be the most exciting, and most ideologically fraught, in many years. (But don’t you already expect that the Academy will flee from both “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” and give its biggest prize to something like “Les Misérables”?)

It’s just as true that this will be remembered as a year of extraordinary richness and breadth when it comes to what you could see and how you could see it. (Video on demand, or VOD, became an integral if bewildering part of the cinematic distribution system, replacing DVD release for major films – and replacing or augmenting theatrical release for a great many smaller pictures.) Joss Whedon, the one-time creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” set a new standard for superhero action flicks with “The Avengers,” while Haneke, the austere Austrian auteur behind “Caché” and “Funny Games,” made the gentlest and most accessible film of his career. While Paul Thomas Anderson pushed further into obscure American allegory and widescreen abstraction (allow me to confess, here and now, that I don’t get “The Master” and don’t think anyone else does either), Wes Anderson created a whimsical New England summer idyll, circa 1965, with unexpected emotional maturity and depth.

I would’ve bet thousands of dollars in Vegas that the Sundance hit “Beasts of the Southern Wild” would perish from severe indie quirkiness and fail to find a real-world audience, but boy, am I glad I didn’t. (More important, I’m delighted for director Benh Zeitlin, 9-year-old star Quvenzhané Wallis and baker-turned-actor Dwight Henry.) Many of the best films to reach us from the art-house and festival world suggest that a global evolution is underway, if not quite a generational change: Andrea Arnold (“Wuthering Heights”), Leos Carax (“Holy Motors”), Jacques Audiard (“Rust and Bone”), Ira Sachs (“Keep the Lights On”), Joachim Trier (“Oslo, August 31st”), Nuri Bilge Ceylan (“Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”) and Sarah Polley (“Take This Waltz”) are not exactly newcomers, and only Polley and Trier are under 50. But none belongs to the famous old guard of international celebrity directors – and none is likely to harbor the delusion that he or she will  become a celebrity by making small, personal films.