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The best films of 2012

Monitor film critic Peter Rainer remembers some of the gems he saw over the past year and those films that weren't worth his time.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / December 21, 2012

Amy Adams (l.) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (r.) starred in 'The Master.'

The Weinstein Company/AP

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Every year at this time, despite all the dross and dregs, the franchise-flick folderol, and the misfires, I still feel upbeat about the movies. There was a lot to like in 2012, even though most of what I admired issued from precincts far removed from Hollywood.

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Before getting down to the 10 Best honor roll, a few preliminary cogitations, kudos, and cavils.

The raging digital versus film controversy continues unabated. Does digital technology, which is inexorably superseding film, signal the death knell of cinematographic artistry? I love the texture and grain of film much more than I do the comparatively flat look of digital. Still, I recognize a losing battle when I see one, so I’m trying to think positively about this.

Digital technology, because it is so much less expensive and more versatile than film technology, is empowering people who might never before have had the means to make a movie. This democratization of the medium will no doubt result in bales of bad movies, but some great talents will likely emerge, too, and from pockets previously unheard from around the world.

I was heartened by the growing spate of fine socially and politically conscious documentaries this year, films like “The Invisible War,” about rape in the military; “The Central Park Five”; “Chasing Ice”; “Under African Skies”; “Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry”; and “The Gatekeepers,” about Shin Bet, Israel’s secret security service. (It opens in February for a regular run.) These films do far more than recap events: They reframe them, and in some cases – as with “The Invisible War” – have led to much-needed legislation.

I also appreciated the personal memoir documentaries such as “This Is Not a Film” and “Photographic Memory,” welcome respites from all those docs centered on competitions (although the chess-tournament film “Brooklyn Castle” was exceptional).

The year’s most controversial movie is Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty.” I find myself among the lonely dissenters on this one. Certainly this film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden is smashingly directed, but its torture scenes, and their consequences, are calculatedly deficient in any political context. It’s a timorous movie posing as a courageous one. At least “Argo,” flimsy but enjoyable, didn’t pretend to be some kind of new-style political docudrama.

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