Matt Bomer in Magic Mike/>
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Directed by Steven Soderbergh

A number of the year’s best studio releases sounded pretty disposable on paper, and none more so than  Magic Mike.” Even with Steven Soderbergh’s name attached -- this could have been "Full Frontal"-weight, after all -- a male-stripper comedy starring Channing Tatum and Alex Pettyfer promises little more than highly caramelized man-candy. But that’s reckoning without the keen social and sexual politics of Reid Carolin’s loose, witty script, Soderbergh’s briskest, breeziest direction in ages, and one of the year’s most complete ensembles: the resurgent Matthew McConaughey's has received some deserved awards notice, but it's Tatum (in conjunction with his lightning turn in "21 Jump Street") who cements his status as a real-deal movie star. Somehow bleak and bouncy in equal measure, the film may delve under the overbronzed skin of latter-day masculinity, but if the skin’s all you’re here for, you won’t be disappointed either. 


An image from Berberian Sound Studio

Directed by Peter Strickland

Peter Strickland’s ingenious meta-horror film is something of a festival underdog: unaccountably turned down by certain European majors, it premiered quietly at Edinburgh only to amass a devoted cult of followers on the UK critical scene. (The US gets to join in next year.) I question some festival programmers' savvy: giving the oft-sidelined art of sound design its richest, most inventive showcase since De Palma's "Blow Out," Strickland's film immediately joins the canon of essential movies about the movies. Toby Jones, never better, is as a meek British sound engineer hired to work on a Z-grade Italian horror movie, only to find his mind swiftly consumed by the film – or possibly the other way round. It's ostensibly an homage to the likes of Dario Argento, but everyone from Hitchcock to Coppola to Antonioni to Lynch can be glimpsed in this celluloid hall of mirrors. (Full review at Variety.)


Ernst Umhauer in In the House

Directed by François Ozon 

I realize I haven’t discussed this one much on these pages. That's partly because I caught it at the tail-end of a tiring London Film Festival (and there's plenty of time to talk ahead of its 2013 release), and partly because I hadn’t realized until compiling this list just how far this dizzyingly clever comedy of manners had crept under my skin. It is, first and foremost, a story about storytelling, as a bored schoolteacher becomes intrigued by, and eventually complicit in, a precocious pupil’s voyeuristic homework essays; as the boy’s salacious tales, viewed through alternating eyes, gradually move to the center of this spider-web narrative, the psychosexual stakes increase and fictional boundaries blur. Ozon's best films to date have engaged either in arch camp or whispery human study; equal parts Hitchcockian thriller, French bedroom farce and literary brainteaser, "In the House" combines those two modes, and may well be a career peak.


Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson 

The latest opus from Paul Thomas Anderson entered 2012 as my (and many others') most anticipated film of the year, and exits as my (and many others') most debated – whether with friends, colleagues or even myself. At once abrasive and exquisitely elliptical, the film has been interpreted by some as a meditation on man’s animalistic nature, by others as the latest chapter in the filmmaker’s ongoing study of father-son power struggles. It may well be both those things -- and much else besides -- but from where I was sitting, “The Master” played out as the year’s most complex love story, with Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman performing a brilliant pas de deux as two men undone by mutual need and fascination. Which one is The Master? Is it someone else entirely? I look forward to changing my mind across multiple return visits. (Full review here.)


A scene from Tabu

Directed by Miguel Gomes

From a recondite love story to a rapturous one: if my runner-up arrived on a cloud of anticipation, my #1 dropped out of clear blue sky. 10 months after its Berlin premiere, Portuguese auteur Miguel Gomes's unclassifiable blend of contemporary absurdist comedy, swooning colonial-era romance and cinephile's bingo game still feels like something of a mirage, too beautiful to be entirely real. In modern-day Lisbon, a dying elderly woman reflects on her steamy extra-marital affair in an unnamed African country half a century ago; but no description of the plot conveys the reach and resonance of Gomes’s vision, or the poetry of his verbal, visual and aural language, which incorporates everything from silent cinema to Phil Spector tunes; it’s a love letter to the movies, but also to love itself, and my favourite film of 2012. (Longer review here.)

And there we have it. To recap:

1. "Tabu"
2. "The Master"
3. "In the House"
4. "Berberian Sound Studio"
5. "Magic Mike"
6. "Sister"
7. "Our Children"
8. "Take This Waltz"
9. "Lore"
10. "Mirror Mirror"

Finally, for the purists who prefer their 2012 lists unsullied by unreleased festival fare, here are my top 10 U.S. theatrical releases of the year -- featuring a number of returning favourites from last year's list. It may well be a stronger collection of films.

1. "Tabu"
2. "The Master"
3. "Elena"
4. "Damsels in Distress"
5. "Alps"
6. "Post Mortem"
7. "Magic Mike"
8. "Wuthering Heights"
9. "Sister"
10. "The Snowtown Murders"

(Images: Relativity Media, Music Box Films, Magnolia Pictures, Peccadillo Pictures, Adopt Films, Warner Bros. Pictures, Artificial Eye, Cohen Media Group, The Weinstein Company)

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Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.