It always puzzles me that people turn to the Food page curious to find out about off-the-beaten-track joints that serve up a savory cassoulet or artisan shōchū or whatever, yet so many come to the film page expecting a review of this week’s McBurger. Guess what? Tasted pretty much like the last one. There’s a reason why both fast-food chains and superhero films worship the “franchise,” and it has to do with formulizing success and bankability, while banishing innovation, individuality and a sense of “taste.” So I suppose you could call this a “gourmet” selection.
1. “Argo”: Ben Affleck, directing and acting, takes us back to the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in 1979 by Iranian radicals and the covert CIA plot to sneak a few escapee staffers out of the country. Alfred Hitchcock himself could not have wrung more suspense out of the material, but Affleck also finds a rich vein of humor, courtesy of John Goodman and Alan Arkin. Proof positive, like last year’s “Black Swan,” that Hollywood can make smart box-office hits … If only they took more chances.
2. “Un Prophete (A Prophet)”: Like “Argo,” this one is rooted in the cinema of the ’70s, with director Jacques Audiard looking to gritty crime flicks such as “Serpico” or “Mean Streets” for inspiration, both in look and tone. This tale of a young Algerian convict who fights to survive and rises through the ranks of a Corsican mafia-controlled prison gang easily stands the comparison with those classics. Don’t let the Cannes fest pedigree put you off — this is simply a good, no-bull story, well told.
3. “Carlos”: This 5½-hour epic tracks the rise of ’70s-’80s international terrorist/revolutionary Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal. Director Olivier Assayas sticks to the facts, but pushes the story along in a tense, fast-paced style, helped by a bristling postpunk soundtrack. It’s a killer portrait of ideals gone astray, with Edgar Ramirez playing Carlos like a politicized John Dillinger — irresistible, ballsy, but not right in the head.
4. “Carnage”: Roman Polanski’s razor-sharp comedy finds two sets of Manhattanite parents getting together to smooth over the playground violence of their sons — one broke the other’s nose — only to lose their cool and start ripping into each other. Jodie Foster’s shrill liberal and Christoph Waltz’s smirking lawyer are pitch-perfect caricatures, and no other film I saw in 2012 had people laughing as long and hard. A taste for black humor is mandatory though.
5. “A Dangerous Method”: A period costume drama seems like a rather strange stomping ground for David Cronenberg (“The Fly”), but with the subject being Sigmund Freud, his disciple Carl Jung and the hysteric patient with whom Jung became romantically involved, this is as psycho-sexually twisted as any of the director’s works. Michael Fassbender was everywhere this year, but this was his best by far, and Keira Knightley steps up to match him with an explosive portrayal of madness.
6. “House of Tolerance”: I didn’t get to review Bertrand Bonello’s opium-dream look at a turn-of-the-century Parisian brothel, because it was (barely) released with zero promotion back in June, but it’s out on DVD now (released in Japan as “Maison”) and is a must-see. The DVD is advertised as an erotic drama, but it’s really something closer in spirit to Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides” crossed with David Lynch. Languid and fetishistic, gorgeous and grotesque, this one will haunt you for days.
7. “Frankenweenie”: This utterly daft animated film by Tim Burton is the cute and cuddly story of a boy and his dog — a dead dog. Riffing wildly on “Frankenstein” and a fistful of other classic Universal horror movies, Burton employs his trademark Goth-cute puppet animation and creates his own little hermetically sealed world of hunchbacked dweebs, mad science teachers and undead pets.
8. “Hugo”: Martin Scorsese making a children’s film? In 3-D? No, I wasn’t tripping, it turned out, and Marty turned in a Dickensian fable about a young orphan living in a train station’s clock tower and the gruff old shop-owner with whom he becomes entangled — and who turns out to be the lost master of magical silent filmmaking, Georges Melies. This topped “The Artist” for me as an ode to early cinema: funnier, warmer and less self-aware.
9. “The Devil’s Double”: Dominic Cooper turned in an electrifying dual performance as Saddam Hussein’s psychotic and sadistic son Uday, and also as Latif Yahia, the army officer who is drafted to be his look-alike double. It’s his performance as Uday, though — all cocaine twitches and mood swings — which earns him my Villain of the Year award; Javier Bardem’s character in “Skyfall” would roll over and play dead if he saw this guy coming.
10. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”: A guilty pleasure. David Fincher’s remake of the Swedish cult hit isn’t as interesting a mystery as I’d hoped for, but it features gorgeous cinematography (by Jeff Cronenweth, son of Jordan, who shot “Blade Runner”), and a wired, buzzing soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. More than anything, the surprisingly great chemistry between Daniel Craig and a totally committed Rooney Mara made this one I returned to.