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‘Beasts of the Southern Wild,’ ‘Amazing Spider-Man’: Best Movies of 2012 So Far (PHOTOS)

From ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ to ‘The Amazing Spider-Man,’ see the 10 best movies so far this year. By Marlow Stern.

‘Beasts of the Southern Wild,’ ‘Amazing Spider-Man’: Best Movies of 2012 So Far (PHOTOS)

While summer movie season is still in full swing, and Oscar season isn’t yet upon us, there have been plenty of interesting films released through the halfway point of 2012. From one of the best indie films, the post-Katrina fairy tale ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild,’ and a documentary on the world’s greatest sushi chef, ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi,’ to the superhero blockbuster ‘The Amazing Spider-Man,’ here are The Daily Beast’s 10 picks for the best movies so far this year.

—Marlow Stern

Fox Searchlight

‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ (June 27)

Set—and shot on location—in post-Katrina Louisiana, the visually resplendent fairy tale Beasts of the Southern Wild centers on a 6-year-old girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), who sets off on an epic journey in search of her long-lost mother when her tough-love father, Wink (Dwight Henry), falls ill. Meanwhile, the polar ice caps have melted, resulting in a terrible storm, as well as the unleashing of an army of mythical prehistoric creatures called “auruchs” that are headed straight for her. “There’s really a personal freedom and a celebratory-ness and a humor that’s happening in the face of some pretty dire environmental circumstances down there. I found the resilience and the tenacity addictive,” said Benh Zeitlin, the film’s director. “I still do, and I’m probably going to live there the rest of my life.” Beasts of the Southern Wild, which took home the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes, is one of the best films of the year, and boasts an extraordinary performance from its diminutive protagonist, who just may achieve the distinction of becoming the youngest Oscar nominee in Academy history.

‘This Is Not a Film’ (Feb. 29)

An influential filmmaker in the Iranian new-wave movement, Jafar Panahi was arrested in March 2010 and charged with creating propaganda against the Iranian government. Despite a worldwide uproar, he was sentenced in December of that year to six years in prison and a 20-year filmmaking ban. His last picture, This Is Not a Film, is a documentary made by Panahi and his pal Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, as they documented Panahi’s life inside his apartment as he awaited his sentencing. The film provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of an Iranian enemy of the state, and was smuggled from Iran to Cannes in a flash-drive hidden inside a birthday cake so it could receive a special screening at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

‘Bernie’ (May 4)

Directed by Richard Linklater, this dark comedy is based on the real-life 1996 murder of crabby 81-year-old millionairess Marjorie Nugent (played by Shirley MacLaine) in the small town of Carthage, Texas, by her 39-year-old gay companion—and the local mortician—Bernie Tiede (played by Jack Black). When Nugent goes missing, nobody seems to notice until the local district attorney (Matthew McConaughey) investigates. When Bernie admits to the crime, the locals rise up in his defense against the mean-spirited Nugent. It’s hard to describe Linklater’s eccentric little film—is it a satire of the South? A darkly comic mystery? Either way, Black’s performance as Bernie is a career highlight, as he imbues the character with a three-dimensionality that we’ve rarely seen from him. And McConaughey steals every scene he’s in as the local lawman, in a movie that reunites him with the filmmaker who gave him his start in 1993’s Dazed and ConfusedBernie is already one of the most underrated films of the year and a must-see.

Palace Films

‘Elena’ (May 16)

Acclaimed filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev is one of the biggest names in Russian film. His 2003 feature, The Return, won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and 2007’s The Banishment was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. His latest effort, Elena, tells the story of an elderly couple—Vladimir, a wealthy, cold older man, and Elena, a docile housewife (and his former nurse). Both have freeloading children from previous marriages. When Vladimir lands in the hospital from a heart attack, he realizes his time is limited and makes his distant daughter the sole heiress to his fortune. This does not sit well with Elena, who hatches a plan to gain control of Vladimir’s assets for herself and her family. The Hitchcockian noir, set in post-Soviet Russia, offers pitch-perfect performances, beautiful widescreen composition, and masterly direction. With its sparse dialogue and deft control, it recalls Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 Romanian masterpiece 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

IFC Films

‘Your Sister’s Sister’ (June 15)

This little indie shot in just over 10 days emerged as the funniest film of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Your Sister’s Sister comes courtesy of “mumblecore” filmmaker Lynn Shelton, whose last film, Humpday, received critical raves. There is Iris (Emily Blunt), a flighty professional whose best friend, Jack, played by the ubiquitous Mark Duplass), is still grieving over the loss of his brother one year earlier. Iris, who used to date Jack’s brother, invites Jack to her family’s remote cabin in the woods to find himself. Unbeknownst to Iris, her older sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), a lesbian fresh out of a seven-year relationship, is laying low at the cabin, and a rowdy night of tequila drinking between Jack and Hannah kicks off a bizarre stretch of days—made even more hilariously awkward when Emily pops in for an unexpected visit.

Magnolia Pictures

‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ (March 9)

Jiro Ono is the 85-year-old sushi master and owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a tiny sushi den tucked away in the basement of a dull office building in the Ginza district of Chuo, Tokyo. Widely considered to be the greatest sushi chef in the world, Ono is the subject of David Gelb’s mouthwatering documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Gelb’s film chronicles Ono’s quest to create the perfect piece of sushi, as well as his complicated relationship with his sons, including his eldest, Yoshikazu, who works with Ono and struggles to live up to his father’s legacy, and his youngest, Takashi, who runs a restaurant that’s a more casual—and less acclaimed—version of Ono’s. But the real draw here is the awe-inspiring montages of Ono preparing his masterful creations, set to orchestral scores by Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Bach, and Philip Glass. “I was blown away by the quality of the sushi, especially the rice,” said Eric Ripert, who runs the acclaimed French restaurant Le Bernardin in New York City. “It was like this cloud that explodes in your mouth.”

Sony Pictures

‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ (July 3)

Although people questioned whether it was too soon to reboot the Spider-Man franchise just five years after the underwhelming Spider-Man 3, and early preview footage looked a bit too “adorkable” for our taste, director Marc Webb, best known for helming the indie dramedy 500 Days of Summer, has achieved the near-impossible with The Amazing Spider-Man: he’s not only made the best superhero film since The Dark Knight, but also the best Spider-Man movie, period. Webb’s film is an original story that follows Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield), a geeky high-school outcast, who is smitten with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). After discovering a mysterious briefcase belonging to his father, Parker finds himself on the path to becoming the web-slinging superhero, Spider-Man, and facing off against Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who transforms into the Lizard. Webb’s film boasts outstanding use of 3-D—you feel like you’re swinging through the city—and outstanding performances from its stars, in particular Garfield and Stone, whose chemistry is so magnetic it’s no wonder they’re rumored to be dating off screen as well.


‘The Cabin in the Woods’ (April 13)

Director Joss Whedon hit the big time with Marvel’s The Avengers, which is the year’s biggest hit so far—grossing $1.4 billion and counting. But about a month before that, his comparatively modest horror-thriller The Cabin in the Woods garnered critical raves after finally being released following more than two years of sitting on the shelf due to the collapse of distributor MGM. Five teenagers decide to spend the weekend at a secluded cabin in the woods, only to discover that things there are not what they seem. Soon, they find themselves besieged by a family of deadly zombies, and realize that they also may be under observation. Whedon’s film, whose last 20 minutes are completely bat-shit crazy—in the best possible way—stars Chris Hemsworth (a.k.a. Thor), Richard Jenkins, and Kristen Connolly.

Weinstein Company

Undefeated (Feb. 17)

Despite winning the 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s film, Undefeated, wasn’t released until this year. It chronicles the 2009 high-school football season of the Manassas Tigers—a ragtag bunch of inner-city black kids from a destitute section of Memphis that used to be the crime capital of America. Since its founding in 1899, the Manassas football team had never won a playoff game, and in recent years, had sunk as low as participating in “pay games”—where their squad would be bused to richer schools several hours away to get their asses kicked in order to receive a check for a few thousand dollars for their misery, which would then be funneled back into the underfinanced Manassas football program. In stepped Bill Courtney, joining the school as coach in 2004 and immediately changing the culture there. Coach Bill’s efforts seem to have finally paid off in 2009, as his gifted eighth-grade recruits are now seniors with the potential to win the school’s first playoff game in history.

Scott Garfield / Columbia Pictures

‘21 Jump Street’ (March 16)

Expectations were surprisingly low for this film remake of the cult 1980s TV series that launched Johnny Depp’s career. Early trailers for the film, after all, looked terrible. And yet 21 Jump Street turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of 2012 so far. The film stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as a pair of former high-school classmates—dweeb-outcast and popular jock, respectively—who become friends at the police academy. Due to their ineptitude as cops, they’re assigned to 21 Jump Street—a specialty division where police officers go undercover as high-school students—in order to stop the distribution of a new designer drug. Hill and Tatum exhibit outstanding, Superbad-esque chemistry, but it’s Tatum who’s a complete revelation here. His performance as the airheaded jock-turned-dweeb is downright hilarious, and he exhibits deft comedic timing that nobody knew he possessed. It’s his best performance since his breakout turn in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.