Peter Debruge: This is not a top-10 list

There’s a key scene in “The Master” in which Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic cult leader played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, reassures his newest and most improbable convert: “Don’t apologize. You’re a scoundrel.” Looking back on an exceptionally strong year for movies big and small, American and otherwise, I find myself in full agreement: Let’s hear it for the cinematic scoundrels of 2012, those envelope-pushing, convention-defying pictures that didn’t mind their manners, ventured boldly into dangerous territory, and tossed caution and audience expectations to the wind.

What a sharp turnaround from last year, when films like “The Artist,” “Hugo,” “Midnight in Paris” and “War Horse” sought to wrap the audience in a warm blanket of Old Hollywood reverence and cozy nostalgia. So many of this year’s standouts seemed bent on offering precisely the opposite: an invigorating slap of cold, hard reality, bracingly delivered in the present tense.

This was true of pictures as different as David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” a joyous, edge-of-your-seat comedy in which the laughs register as forcefully as body blows, and “Compliance,” a brave, considered and terrifying look at real-life exploitation that some viewers angrily mistook for an exploitation movie. Easily the best film I saw at Sundance (where the fine but overpraised “Beasts of the Southern Wild” sucked up all the critical oxygen), Craig Zobel’s divisive second feature reminded me that sometimes the movies you love are the ones you find yourself defending again and again, a bit more testily each time.

‘Master’ of the house

By that yardstick, I didn’t love a movie more passionately this year than “The Master.” One of a handful of 2012 releases that dared to put their faith in the audience’s intelligence (a risk that was poorly repaid with a $15.9 million B.O. take), Paul Thomas Anderson’s extraordinary sixth feature was duly scorned for not lapsing into predictable narrative rhythms, for not spewing its ideas onto the screen like so many predigested bullet points, and perhaps for not being the fish-in-a-barrel Scientology expose everyone had expected and hoped for.

It is, in fact, something far richer and stranger: an intense dual-character study that anatomizes the weird, wayward soul of 1950s America, diagnosed here as a maelstrom of postwar trauma, substance abuse, sexual trepidation, violent impulse and vain spiritual inquiry. It’s a portrait of manhood tilting into madness — and, thanks to powerhouse performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Hoffman, one of the year’s great love stories to boot.

“But it doesn’t resolve,” some complained, as if one should expect tidy conclusions from a work of art whose very purpose is to evoke lingering feelings of confusion, impotence and isolation. Does life resolve? Do the most painful, perplexing questions we ask ourselves ever yield satisfactory answers? These mysteries lie at the very heart of “The Master,” and they’re as relevant now as they were in the Eisenhower era.

Violent reckonings

More scoundrel cinema par excellence: Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” two uncommonly thoughtful and provocative entertainments that raised tough, ethically complex questions about violence, revenge and American history, albeit in radically different ways. Although not released until December, together they accounted for some of the year’s most heated press coverage, inspiring much misguided handwringing among commentators in and out of the entertainment-media sphere.

Admittedly, it may require a particular perversity — which is to say, an appreciation for Tarantino — to see how the flagrant use of the “N” word functions within “Django’s” cathartic indictment of American slavery and, by extension, the continued marginalization of black talent on the bigscreen.

It takes far fewer brain cells to understand that “Zero Dark Thirty,” in depicting the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” is hardly advancing an argument in favor of torture, as various scribes and senators have charged. The film they’re attacking is more nuanced than their politics: Rather than formulating a simplistic causal link between government brutality and the capture of Osama bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty” scrupulously acknowledges the persistent moral gray zones that have bedeviled our leaders, troops and intelligence gatherers since 9/11 — an area of expertise in which Bigelow and scribe-producer Mark Boal presently have no filmmaking equals.

Along less politically heated lines, I was fairly mystified by the lukewarm reviews for Pixar’s “Brave,” which left me and a colleague bawling in the back row of a packed but otherwise subdued screening room. Beautifully animated and deeply felt, this is the rare Disney release that deserves to be called a feminist fairy tale, not for its plucky heroine so much as the thorny, complicated mother-daughter love story it has to tell; seldom has that particular parent-child dynamic been explored so fully and tenderly onscreen. (“Brave” joins “Wreck-It Ralph,” “ParaNorman,” “The Secret World of Arrietty” and a series-best “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” in what turned out to be an unexpectedly excellent year for toon kidpics.)

This is not a hit

Such is the commercial logic of Hollywood that a middling critical response didn’t stop “Brave” from achieving worldwide success. On the flipside, even unqualified raves couldn’t keep some of the year’s finest foreign and independent releases from languishing in arthouse obscurity. Jafar Panahi’s “This Is Not a Film,” Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” Bela Tarr’s “The Turin Horse,” Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “Elena,” Julia Loktev’s “The Loneliest Planet,” Ann Hui’s “A Simple Life” and Joachim Trier’s “Oslo, August 31st” (the best addiction drama in a field already distinguished by “Flight” and “Smashed”) each failed to gross so much as $300,000 in limited release, and many of them yielded far less.

On a brighter note, the Dardenne brothers enjoyed their biggest hit to date with “The Kid With a Bike,” their latest humanist triumph and the first one to cross the $1 million mark Stateside. Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote” drew nearly twice as much, proving there is indeed an audience out there for a sharp, engaging movie set in the arcane world of Talmudic scholarship.

And I anticipate a long, rewarding homevid career for one of the year’s major critical sensations: Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors,” a blissfully deranged coup of surrealist cinema centered around an astonishing multiple-role performance from Denis Lavant. Its lament for the state of modern movies may be entirely sincere, but Carax’s freewheeling structure and striking digital palette offer a compelling counter-argument for the present and future vitality of the medium.

Format and content

Indeed, amid the vigorously renewed film-vs.-digital debate (explored by Christopher Kenneally’s fine docu “Side by Side”), it was heartening to be reminded that no single technology has a monopoly on visual splendor. Among Hollywood auteurs, Anderson and Christopher Nolan succeeded in restoring a measure of old-fashioned grandeur to the moviegoing experience, not only in their increasingly iconoclastic insistence on shooting on film, but in their decision to experiment with larger, more enveloping camera formats.

In “The Master,” Anderson used the distinctive scope and texture of 65mm stock to evoke the romantic luster of ’50s melodramas, while Nolan deployed Imax lenses to towering effect in “The Dark Knight Rises,” the rare superhero epic with a keen eye for the landscape of the human face. At the opposite end of the commercial spectrum was Tarr’s “The Turin Horse,” a monumental black-and-white bleakfest in which you feel the weight of the camera in every drawn-out dolly shot; reportedly the Magyar ma
ster’s final film, this apocalyptic tour de force almost seems to herald the end of cinema itself (another hot topic this year).

From celluloid death to digital rebirth? The first half of that equation may be premature, but the second half has already come to pass. One need look no further than the steady stream of high-definition miracles that is Ceylan’s “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” a masterpiece of lighting and composition that unfolds almost entirely under cover of darkness. Less artfully framed but no less astonishing in its digital resourcefulness was Panahi’s “This Is Not a Film,” which turns the lonely spectacle of a man under house arrest into a chastening reminder of how necessary and politically powerful the act of wielding a camera can be.

A similarly confining, apartment-bound experience, Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning “Amour” wrenchingly observes an aging Parisian woman’s gradually declining health and her husband’s unceasing devotion to her in their final months together. Quietly up-to-the-minute in its technique (the immaculate HD images were lensed by Darius Khondji), the film nonetheless consists of the simplest dramatic building blocks imaginable: flawless performances, piercingly observed details, and an intimate, universally resonant story, purged of disease-of-the-week cliches, that breathes nothing but emotional truth.

In a year of great films that refused to look away from human suffering, none proved more unflinching and finally unshakable for this critic than “Amour.” Its mastery requires no defense, but that makes it no less a movie to love.