2012 was a fantastic year for film. So much so that I wrote a Top 40 list instead of last year’s 20, and pretty much everything from 25 and up could easily be in a top 10 had they come out any other, less crowded year. That good. So let’s not beat around the bush and get straight to it. These are the top 40 movies I saw all year plus the best performances, worst and most overrated films, and more:
The Bronze Soap Bar Award for Best Films of the Year
#40: Casa de mi Padre (Dir. Matt Piedmont)
#39: 21 Jump Street (Dir. Phil Lord)
#38: Chronicle (Dir. Josh Trank)
#37: The Do-Deca Pentathlon (Dir. Jay and Mark Duplass)
#36: Killer Joe (Dir. William Friedkin)
#35: Wreck-It Ralph (Dir. Rich Moore)
#34: Les Miserables (Dir. Tom Hooper)
#33: Lincoln (Dir. Steven Spielberg)
#32: Moonrise Kingdom (Dir. Wes Anderson)
#31: Headhunters (Dir. Morten Tyldum)
#30: Flight (Dir. Robert Zemeckis)
#29: The Kid with a Bike (Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
#28: The Raid: Redemption (Dir. Gareth Evans)
#27: Alps (Dir. Giorgos Lanthimos)
#26: The Avengers (Dir. Joss Whedon)
The Silver Soap Bar Awards for Best Films of the Year
#25: The Imposter (Dir. Bart Layton)
How did a family nab the wrong missing son, even though the kid they found in question was clearly 26 years old? Not even the creators of the documentary know, and that’s what makes The Imposter so damn compelling. With an unbelievable story at its center, this doc manages to play out more like a psychological thriller thanks to its superb use of reenactments and a sympathetic approach to each of its subjects that never resorts to mocking or demonizing. See it and experience something that feels unlike any other documentary you’ve ever seen.
#24: Beyond the Black Rainbow (Dir. Panos Cosmatos)
A love-letter to Kubrickian ‘70s sci-fi about a supernaturally gifted young girl who escapes from her disturbing captors, Beyond the Black Rainbow is all style with little substance. And yet, that style is so remarkably executed, one can’t help but be enthralled by its outlandish visuals and unsettling atmosphere. Pretentious? Perhaps. Absorbing? Incredibly so.
#23: Compliance (Dir. Craig Zobel)
How far can the words “Inspired By True Events” take a film? This true-crime tale about a prank call that goes into twisted directions anchors its unbelievable story with the help of a terrific and some surprisingly sensitive direction that manages to be provocative and disturbing without feeling exploitative. Ann Dowd is a revelation as a restaurant manager who has to make some risky decisions. It may not be 100% authentic, but it’s always compelling and incredibly effective as a psychological thriller.
#22: Bernie (Dir. Richard Linklater)
Jack Black gives the best performance of his entire career in Bernie. Sometimes disturbing, often times fascinating, and consistently entertaining, Bernie is a true-crime yarn about a lovable mortician who gets into a strange relationship with the town’s most unpleasant woman. Director Richard Linklater melds documentary-style talking-head interviews with Hollywood-caliber “reenactments” to create both a fascinating character study and one of the most enjoyable films of the whole year.
#21: End of Watch (Dir. David Ayer)
End of Watch manages to rise above its finicky camerawork and cop-movie clichés thanks to rich performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, as a pair of policemen with a powerful bromance. Thanks to them, the situations they get into in the film feel gripping and real, capturing the danger and tension of everyday police life in ways few movies can accomplish. Anna Kendrick, America Ferrara, and other great supporting cast members help elevate it as well. The film eventually builds to an emotionally satisfying climax that, thanks to the aforementioned chemistry of its leads, earns its tears.
#20: Sinister (Dir. Scott Derrickson)
There’s nothing in Scott Derrickson’s Sinister that hasn’t been done before in countless other horror films, but damn is it better executed. With a nice performance by Ethan Hawke to maintain interest, Sinister delivers old-school scares in a smart, disturbing fashion. The haunting opening and final images alone are enough to give you less hours of sleep for weeks.
#19: Sound of my Voice (Dir. Zal Batmanglij)
Zal Batmanglij’s Sound of My Voice deserves props just for accomplishing so much with such limited resources. Delivering on its killer premise about undercover reporters who infiltrate a cult to discover the secret of its leader who claims to be from the future, the film ends on an ambiguous note that is as maddening as it is wickedly clever, containing enough fuel to spawn heated debates while containing some sly subtext about the nature of faith. Also benefits from a mesmerizing performance from Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the screenplay.
#18: Seven Psychopaths (Dir. Martin McDonaugh)
One of the most fun films of the entire year, Seven Psychopaths’s script is as messy as it is wildly inventive, and the outstanding cast makes it even better. But as hilarious as the film is, it also provides some sly commentary on the nature of crime-movie clichés and the screenwriting process. Simply just one of the darkest, funniest, enjoyable films of this year; and a worthy follow-up to Martin McDonaugh’s previous film In Bruges.
#17: Zero Dark Thirty (Dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
A film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden was inevitable, but it’s a near-miracle that the final result was this good. Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is rife with extensive detail, insanely compelling, and builds up to one of the best climaxes of the year. Elevating the picture even further is a towering performance from Jessica Chastain, who dominates the screen as the CIA agent hell-bent on tracking the al Qaeda leader down, Maya. A terrific account of true events and a compelling espionage thriller.
#16: The Loved Ones (Dir. Sean Byrne)
The Loved Ones is the story of a creepy father who kidnaps a hunky teenage boy to give his equally creepy daughter the best prom ever. And if he doesn’t comply, there will be serious injuries. A premise like that is enough to wring out lots of midnight-movie screams, but what makes Sean Byrne’s debut so remarkable is that it contains a layer of empathy for each of its characters, including its antagonist. The result is a horror film that is truly disturbing, but also surprisingly humane and psychologically complex.
#15: Paranorman (Dir. Chris Butler and Sam Fell)
The best animated film of the year, Paranorman is loaded with references to classic horror films and buoyed by a solid voice cast. But what makes it rise above the rest of this year’s animated offerings is that there’s a genuine sense of heart to its story and characters, and some surprisingly thoughtful subtext about alienation and the effects of childhood abuse. Paranorman works as enjoyable family entertainment, but works even better as a moving portrait about the effects of social ostracizing.
#14: Take This Waltz (Dir. Sarah Polley)
Sarah Polley’s follow-up to Away From Her is a warm, gorgeously filmed, incredibly nuanced look at long-term relationships and the temptations that transpire from them. Even better are the performances from Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen as the main couple in turmoil. Luke Kirby and Sarah Silverman also manage to shine in supporting roles. Lovely and perceptive.
#13: Prometheus (Dir. Ridley Scott)
Easily the most divisive film of the year, Prometheus may not satisfy on a traditional narrative level, but its ideas remain highly thought-provoking regardless, and its visuals are among the best you’ll find this entire year. Also, what doesn’t get enough credit is how much it works as a horror film, with a strong sense of mystery and dread, terrific creature effects, and two sequences of body-horror so gut-wrenching, David Cronenberg himself would be proud. I’m still not entirely sure whether it truly is as pretentious as everyone claims it is, but the truth of the matter is that for all its visual grandeur and dread-laden suspense, it made me think a great deal, and not many sci-fi films can accomplish that.
#12: Life of Pi (Dir. Ang Lee)
The middle hour of Life of Pi is so exceptionally crafted, visually breathtaking, and emotionally intense, that it’s all the more sad that its mediocre first act and thematically confused third act hamper it from true greatness. Still, while its flaws aren’t completely unforgivable, its strengths are so powerful it deserves to be considered. Ang Lee brings his audience to vistas never even imagined before, creating a consistent state of wonder and awe throughout this surprisingly harrowing tale of survival and faith. The ending may not totally work, but there’s no denying the mastery behind the camera of this riveting, wondrous journey.
#11: Oslo, August 31st (Dir. Joachim Trier)
Character studies don’t get more nuanced and sympathetic than Oslo, August 31st, a rich portrait of addiction and new beginnings that savors the small, intimate details of a recovering addict’s 24-hour leave from rehab. Bringing the experience to life is a brilliantly subdued performance from Anders Danielsen Lie, who allows us into the shoes of his character without shying away from his grim nature. Subtly and perceptively directed by Joachim Trier, perfectly paced at 90 minutes, and filled with gorgeous, haunting moments, Oslo August 31st should be sought out by more filmgoers.
The Golden Soap Bar Awards for Best Films of the Year
#10: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Dir. Stephen Chbosky)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower completely nails both the euphoria and the awkwardness of high school relationships to a tee. Stephen Chbosky, directing this adaptation of his own novel, punctuates the film with fun, well-drawn characters, each performed wonderfully by a largely flawless young cast. Logan Lerman especially shines in ways you wouldn’t have ever expected of him as the titular Wallflower of the story. Funny, and instantly relatable, the film also benefits with one of the best endings of the entire year.
#9: The Grey (Dir. Joe Carnahan)
Joe Carnahan’s tale of survival actually works even better as a grim exploration of human nature, our relationship to the ever-creeping presence of death, and the possibility of an afterlife. The Grey’s icy atmosphere and existential themes resonate even further thanks to a terrific cast of largely unknowns plus the best performance Liam Neeson has given in years. One of the most criminally overlooked films of the year.
#8: The Cabin in the Woods (Dir. Drew Goddard)
One of the most playfully original and downright fun film experiences of the entire year. Drew Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods is a genre deconstruction with more intelligence, scares, and genuine love for the very films it’s lampooning than any of the Scream films that came before it. If that’s not enough, it contains the most satisfying, jaw-dropping final thirty minutes of the year, or of the last half decade. A demented blast of originality.
#7: Beasts of the Southern Wild (Dir. Benh Zeitlin)
Simply magical. Benh Zeitlin’s astonishing debut feature transports viewers into a fully realized portrait of a young girl’s imagination. Beasts of the Southern Wild is breathtaking, heart-wrenching, lyrical, and announces both Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry as incredible new talents to be reckoned with. Also features one of the best original scores of the entire year.
#6: Looper (Dir. Rian Johnson)
If you recall my initial review of the film, I found a lot of problems with this film. But when I rewatched it, all those flaws literally evaporated and my appreciation for it strengthened. With Looper, Rian Johnson takes what could’ve been merely an exciting, time-travel sci-fi thriller, and turns it into something more: A morally complex drama with incredible stakes, thought-provoking dilemmas, and some surprisingly life-affirming subtext about the nature of free-will in the face of apparent destiny. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis make the dichotomy of past and future truly work with their superb performances, but at the center of the film is Emily Blunt who, along with Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, gets to shine in one of the strongest female roles of the year. Original, intelligent, and emotionally resonant.
#5: Django Unchained (Dir. Quentin Tarantino)
Melding elements of spaghetti western, pitch black comedy, blaxploitation, and social commentary on the racial politics of the late 1800s, Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s searing indictment of slavery, is hugely entertaining and utterly sensational. The dialogue’s as crisp and satisfying as you could possibly want, the shootouts are grand and gruesome, the commentary is sharp and empowering, and it’s filled outstanding performances from one of the year’s best ensembles. An immensely satisfying film in almost every possible way, viscerally and intellectually.
#4: Amour (Dir. Michael Haneke)
It says a lot when a film is so incredibly bleak about the state of human nature, yet it’s still considered “the director’s most tender film, compared to his previous work”. Nevertheless, Michael Haneke’s Amour may be a cold, pitiless dollop of the hard truths of both love and death, but it’s surprisingly warm thanks to two of the most heart-wrenching performances of the year in Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. And yet, Haneke never wallows in either misery or gooey sentimentality, even in spite of material that can easily succumb to melodrama. His direction is as controlled as it’s always been, resulting in something that paradoxically ends up being more powerful than whatever one may have expected from the melodramatic premise. Thoughtful, bleak, heartbreaking, and miserable in the best possible way.
#3: The Master (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
The question “What is The Master about?” keeps coming up whenever film nerds begin their dissection of this rich, detailed, thoughtful character study. However, a better question would probably be “What isn’t The Master about?” Paul Thomas Anderson’s dichotomy about the nature of faith and ideals in the hands of authority is instantly relatable to so many different subjects that there will be enough to dissect and discover in the film a decade later. Even if the film’s multiple layers of subtext fly over your head, you will at least bear witness to three of the best performances of the entire year, some astounding dialogue, and gorgeous, haunting visuals. A master class of filmmaking, with intelligence and emotion to spare.
#2: Cloud Atlas (Dir. Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer)
Cloud Atlas is a miracle of a movie; the fact that it even exists is something to behold. Never would I have expected a talented filmmaker, let alone group of filmmakers in this case, to confront material this ambitious and sprawling, and never would I have expected it to work 100%. And yet, that’s exactly what Cloud Atlas does. In the Wachowski siblings’ and Tom Tykwer’s attempt to capture the collective essence of every genre, emotion, medium of art, and time period imaginable, they end up transcending the stories’ inherently chaotic, intertwining structure to create something singular, daring, and unlike anything else ever made. Cloud Atlas is an explosion of filmmaking and editing that can be summed up as the ultimate film about humankind: Our unwillingness to let go of our prejudices despite the passage of time, the importance of our arts and stories to teach us how to overcome them, and our resolve to remain kind and loving in a world that continually slips back into chaos and cruelty. A brilliant epic that is as thematically engaging as it is spiritually triumphant.
#1: Holy Motors (Dir. Leos Carax)
Life is cinema and cinema is life in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. Here is a film beyond explanation, definition, categorizing, whatever it is one would do to box this film. It lives in its own temporal state of being. Holy Motors is strange, cerebral, hilarious, abstract, and utterly devastating. Like Cloud Atlas it is an explosion of pure cinema that encompasses the full gamut of genres and emotions. Many have described it as a eulogy of the filmmaking of the past and a celebration of the filmmaking of tomorrow, which is certainly true. But as stated before, life is cinema and cinema is life, and the transpiring events of Holy Motors apply new meaning to itself once that is realized. Surprisingly, Holy Motors ends up becoming the most moving character studies of the year, a rich parable about accepting the purposes of our lives all the way to the end, and, much like Amour, a study on our relationship with impending death. But unlike Amour, it’s also wildly entertaining and endlessly inventive the entire running time. The very definition of a sui generis film.
But wait! There’s more!!
The Flaming Cowpat Award for Worst Film of the Year
God Bless America (Dir. Bobcat Goldthwait)
There were technically worse films this year, but none of them angered me more than God Bless America did. Here’s a film that takes one hell of a premise–a man so infuriated with the state of American culture that he and a psychotic young girl go on a shooting spree across this Great Nation offing reality stars, right-wing politicians, etc.–and squanders it in almost every possible way. Bobcat Goldthwait, who previously made the fantastic World’s Greatest Dad, ends up making an unfunny, didactic, repetitive, and surprisingly dull black comedy that stands on its soapbox with the intelligence of a YouTube comment board and far overstaying its welcome. Even if the points it makes are agreeable, it’s only because it panders so hard you could almost hear Goldthwait behind the camera straining with effort to no avail. A rancid, insipid film so terrible its own redeeming qualities turn into weaknesses.
Runners Up: The Devil Inside, The Amazing Spider-Man, Total Recall, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, Silent Hill: Revelation 3D
The Sparkly Block of Cement Award for Most Overrated Film of the Year
Argo (Dir. Ben Affleck)
Argo is well-directed and has plenty of good moments. Too bad none of its characters are memorable or engaging enough to make this true espionage thriller connect beyond a surface level. Affleck casts himself as one of the most boring protagonists of the entire year, and the other actors playing the hostages don’t fare very well either. Even the much-touted climax that everyone was raving about didn’t feel all that suspenseful to me because I couldn’t care less for the people involved. Argo is by no means a bad film, but I keep finding it surprising that so many people praise it to the lengths that they do.
Runners Up: Silver Linings Playbook, Dredd, Haywire, Premium Rush
The Cyanide Ice-Cream Award for Most Disappointing Film of the Year
The Dark Knight Rises (Dir. Christopher Nolan)
Again, this is by no means a bad film, and I still think Christopher Nolan is one of this generation’s great mainstream talents. Hell, it’s at the very least more intellectually engaging than this year’s other superhero offerings, The Avengers included. But that’s not enough to excuse some wonky pacing, a weak villain, odd plot twists, and an even stranger lack of the actual superhero actually doing anything on screen. No, it’s not disappointing because it doesn’t compare to The Dark Knight, but because it’s the weakest Nolan film of his entire career. Oh well. Better luck next time, I guess.
The 16-Legged Guinea Pig Award for Most Interesting Failure
Detention (Dir. Joseph Kahn)
Like Cloud Atlas, Joseph Kahn’s Detention attempts to encompass a variety of different genres and meld them into one film. Like Cabin in the Woods, it lovingly skewers horror movie conventions to do something new and original. So what went wrong? Well, unlike Cloud Atlas and Cabin, Detention makes almost zero sense when you’re in the moment. Following a series of teenagers in a high school, each one living out their own “movie” of an entirely separate genre, everything collides into a gigantic clusterfuck of crazy for its time-traveling, slasher-fueled second half. That crazy is admirable, and I get what Kahn is trying to do, but it simply doesn’t gel together the way Cabin and Cloud Atlas do. But hey, at least it tried!
The “YOU THREW A SHARK AT AN AIRPLANE!” Award for Most Bat-Shit Insane Film of the Year
Holy Motors (Dir. Leos Carax)
Ever wanted to see motion-capture alien sex? How about a scene in which a sewer monster kidnaps Eva Mendes, forces her to wear a burqa, and have her sit next to him lying with his erect penis sticking out? Ever wanted to see a hitman assassinate someone, only to take out a make-up kit and make the target look exactly like him? Or maybe you’d like to see a man return to his family, who turns out to be two chimpanzees. Holy Motors delivers all of this, and more.
And now, we move onto performances!
The “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” Award for Best Performance by an Actor
Joaquin Phoenix – The Master
Every single performance in The Master is nothing short of perfect, but the stand-out is easily Joaquin Phoenix as the unquellable Freddie Quell, one of the most fascinating, and utterly terrifying characters of this entire year. Phoenix completely transforms himself for this role, reveling in disgusting behavior and crooked facial features. And speaking of facial features, man is Phoenix a master at conveying all the emotion in the world with just his face. There are scenes that are literally just uber close-ups of his face that manage to speak volumes about Freddie’s psychological profile in ways that dialogue couldn’t. It’s a performance to behold, and will be remembered for years to come.
Runners-Up: Denis Lavant – Holy Motors, Denzel Washington – Flight, Daniel Day Lewis – Lincoln, Matthew McConaughey – Killer Joe, Jack Black – Bernie, Jean-Louis Trintignant – Amour, Liam Neeson – The Grey, Logan Lerman – The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Hugh Jackman – Les Miserables, Anders Danielsen Lie – Oslo, August 31st, Jake Gyllenhaal & Michael Pena – End of Watch
The “You Were Such a Superlady” Award for Best Performance by an Actress
Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty
Jessica Chastain manages to humanize this otherwise cold, calculated, procedural narrative about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, and gives us one of the best, most empowering female characters of this generation. Her role as CIA agent Maya is ruthlessly determined, genuinely intelligent, resourceful, charismatic, and even kind of badass in her own way. Chastain manages to embody the hurt of 9/11 and all the sacrifices made in the War on Terror in a performance that will define her career. The final shot of just her face alone will haunt you weeks after the film’s finished.
Runners Up: Emmanuelle Riva – Amour, Quvenzhane Wallis – Beasts of the Southern Wild, Ann Dowd – Compliance, Brit Marling – Sound of My Voice, Michelle Williams – Take This Waltz, Marion Cotillard – Rust and Bone,
The Disappearing Pencil Award for Best Performance by a Supporting Actor
Leonardo DiCaprio – Django Unchained
You think you know how far DiCaprio can go? You thought wrong. DiCaprio completely lets loose in one of the most despicable villain roles in a long time. Calvin Candie is a disgusting plantation owner who revels in abusing his own slaves, and what’s all the more angering is how amusing he finds that abuse, coupled with a thick layer of self-satisfaction that’s frankly abhorring. And DiCaprio doesn’t shy away from any of it. This is far from a subtle performance, but it’s one of the most captivating, entertaining, and flat-out nerve-wracking of the year.
Runners Up: Phillip Seymour Hoffman – The Master, Samuel L. Jackson & Christoph Waltz – Django Unchained, Bruce Willis – Looper, Dwight Henry – Beasts of the Southern Wild, Michael Fassbender – Prometheus, Ezra Miller – The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Christopher Walken – Seven Psychopaths, Seth Rogen & Luke Kirby – Take This Waltz, Tommy-Lee Jones – Lincoln
The Kathy Bates with a Sledgehammer Award for Best Performance from a Supporting Actress
Anne Hathaway – Les Miserables
Les Miserables is a hit-or-miss kind of movie, but the reason why it’s on my Top 40 list is because the moments that hit do so powerfully and beautifully enough to elevate the film as a whole. Case in point: Anne Hathaway. She’s only on screen for what feels like less than half an hour and she dominates it whenever her presence is there. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is literally the main reason to see the film. Her emotions are absolutely raw, and her voice is undeniably tragic. Manages to single-handedly elevate an entire film.
Runners Up: Edith Scob & Kylie Minogue – Holy Motors, Amy Adams – The Master, Emily Blunt – Looper, Robin McLeavy – The Loved Ones, Sally Field – Lincoln, Juno Temple – Killer Joe, Anna Kendrick – End of Watch, Sarah Silverman – Take This Waltz, Emma Watson – The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Shirley MacLaine – Bernie, Dreama Walker – Compliance
And finally… Screenwriters and Directors
The Typist Award for Best Screenplay of the Year
Michael Haneke – Amour
Michael Haneke makes bleak films, and while Amour certainly shares that same bleakness, there’s a warm, graceful nerve to it that ironically ends up making the bleak stuff all the bleaker. Haneke manages to take concepts we’ve seen done thousands of times before–age, love, death–and wring out every ounce of emotion out of them so you can truly feel their gravity. A powerful screenplay that, despite taking place almost entirely in one apartment room, shook me to the core.
Runners Up: Quentin Tarantino – Django Unchained, Rian Johnson – Looper, Paul Thomas Anderson – The Master, Mark Boal – Zero Dark Thirty, Joachim Trier & Eskil Vogt – Oslo, August 31st, Brit Marling – Sound of My Voice, Sarah Polley – Take This Waltz, Craig Zobel – Compliance, Martin McDonaugh – Seven Psychopaths, Joss Whedon & Drew Goddard – Cabin in the Woods
The Kubrick-Approved Award for Best Director of the Year
The fact that Holy Motors feels so personal to director Leos Carax yet doesn’t feel indulgent in the slightest speaks to what an absorbing, unforgettable ride he’s crafted. This is a film that is wholly his. No one else could’ve made it, nor with the same amount of control, vision, imagination, and spirit that Carax did. Holy Motors is to Carax what 8 1/2 was to Frederico Fellini, a deeply personal, utterly surreal, abstractly auto-biographical look at his own grief, failures, and the love of film that drives him to go on. A stunning feat that even if I didn’t quite know how personal it was upon first viewing, I still deeply connected with its themes. Hopefully, more people will see that side of the film as time goes on.
Runners Up: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer – Cloud Atlas, Paul Thomas Anderson –The Master, Michael Haneke – Amour, Quentin Tarantino – Django Unchained, Rian Johnson – Looper
Phew. That took a while, right? If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can do so by clicking the following links: CinEffect on WordPress, CinEffect on Tumblr, my own personal tumblr, and my Twitter account @CGRunyon where you can follow me for more reviews, articles, and other random thoughts about what I like. Also be sure to follow Alex Clarke (@TBBucs20), who co-hosts the podcast with me and (sparingly) writes his own articles for the site.
See ya next time! Stay tuned for a very special announcement coming in a few days. Bye!