The best films of 2012

The best films of 2012



From the gut-wrenching, step-by-step chronology of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad to seafaring cultists practicing Scientology-like rituals in the wake of World War II to the 16th president twisting arms over the passing of the 13th Amendment, the best films of 2012 brought history to life with an extraordinary scrupulousness that still left room for vivid artistic expression. But searching for patterns in a best-of list like the one below does little justice to the films’ diversity and unruliness, and the many wondrous places movies took viewers this year, including the haunted landscapes of Turkey (Once Upon A Time In Anatolia) and Georgia (The Loneliest Planet), revitalized twists on the slasher (The Cabin In The Woods) and noir (Killer Joe) genres, and two vastly different takes on what love really means (Amour, The Deep Blue Sea). Unlike in past years, nearly all films were available to see before press time, with one conspicuous exception: Most of The A.V. Club’s film reviewers weren’t able to see Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which might have found a place on the list. (Nathan Rabin did include it on his Top 15.) The Billy Crystal/Bette Midler movie Parental Guidance also wasn’t screened in time, so consider that our invisible #21. For your consideration…

20. I Wish

Hirozaku Kore-eda’s I Wish concerns two grade-school-aged brothers separated by their parents’ divorce, but also weaves in the story of the boys’ family and friends, pondering what people really want out of life, and at what age they make that decision. The title refers to the older brother’s fervent hope that a nearby volcano will erupt, forcing his family to reunite. To expedite this, he plans an excursion to a spot where two bullet trains pass each other at top speed, which the school rumor mill insists will generate such force that it’ll make wishes come true. He and his brother and their friends prep their trip and their wishes, and Kore-eda follows them leisurely, until I Wish’s dozen little subplots and side trips culminate in a touching climactic montage.

19. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

Taking place at the ends of the earth, or at least a remote stretch of Turkey, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film follows a long night that seems to brush on all kinds of deep truths about human nature that remain just out of grasp. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is a procedural, but it’s also a haunting mood piece in which the crime that’s already been committed is known and now being dealt with. A man and his brother try to lead the police to where they buried a body, with great difficulty, since they were drunk at the time. The criminal, the prosecutor, the doctor who’ll perform the autopsy: These men seem to be journeying through purgatory, but it’s an exceptionally beautiful one, full of rolling hills and waving grasses illuminated by the headlights of their cars and the kindness of hosts at a village. When dawn finally comes, it brings with it the understanding that this is a peculiar, profound type of tragedy.

18. Miss Bala


Based partly on the tabloid-grabbing story of a Mexican beauty queen arrested in an SUV filled with guns and cash—and subsequently dubbed “Miss Narco”—Gerardo Naranjo’s gripping thriller imagines such a young woman forced into the role. Though not an “issue movie” per se, Miss Bala suggests the sheer brazenness of cartels that can operate freely and openly, and the ordinary citizens who wriggle under their thumbs. Stephanie Sigman plays an aspiring Miss Baja California who becomes an unwitting Miss “Bala” (meaning “bullet”) in the wake of a nightclub shooting that leaves several dead and missing, including her friend. When she reports the incident to a cartel-friendly police officer, he leads her right to the instigator, who enlists her as driver, gunrunner, and human shield. Miss Bala turns on a nasty irony about Sigman achieving her beauty-queen dreams, but it’s more compelling for Naranjo’s kinetic style, which has viewers riding shotgun through a harrowing odyssey. 

17. Killer Joe

2012 was the year of Matthew McConaughey, a career-revitalizing annum in which the hunk escaped, Houdini-like, from the straitjacket of self-parody and reclaimed the boundless promise of his early career. No role shattered his pretty-boy mold more forcefully or perversely than the deranged dark comedy Killer Joe. The divisive, gleefully offensive shocker reunites director William Friedkin with his Bug collaborator, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts, for a scuzzy neo-noir about a debauched, impoverished trailer-park family that hires dirty cop McConaughey to kill someone for an insurance payday, and ends up getting in way over their heads. Killer Joe casts McConaughey as a preening wolf let loose in the henhouse, a corrupt authority figure whose pristine appearance—in a realm where nobody seems to mind looking like death personified—and strange moral code mask a core of pure sadism that comes out in a gruesome, bleakly funny climax that will forever change the way audiences view fried chicken. 

16. The Queen Of Versailles

Photographer-turned-filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has made the perfect documentary for a recession that never seems to end. The Queen Of Versailles casts an amused but ultimately compassionate eye on the jaw-dropping hubris of David Siegel, a time-share magnate whose spectacular commercial success allows him and his wife Jackie to begin construction on what was to be the largest, most expensive single-family home in America. David and Jackie initially appear to be the stuff of voyeuristic reality shows: a smug, arrogant multi-millionaire and his vacuous trophy wife. But Jackie’s beauty-queen exterior and surgically enhanced charms mask underlying smarts and determination that emerge when the recession hits Siegel’s business so hard, he’s forced to halt construction on the half-finished super-mansion, which then becomes a potent visual metaphor for the couple’s abandoned dreams. The Queen Of Versailles gleans some big, guilty laughs out of its subjects’ rampant egotism and surreal disconnect from everyday reality, but it’s ultimately less interested in laughing at the Siegels’ misfortune than in attempting to understand them. Jackie emerges as the documentary’s unlikely heroine, a consummate survivor who must keep her family together once the money stops rolling in and her husband descends into a depressive funk that shuts out everything but his own misery. The Siegels are fantastic fodder for a documentary precisely because they’re so outsized and outrageous, but their struggles should be relatable to anyone who’s unexpectedly had to make do with far less than they imagined possible.  

15. Only The Young

Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims’ lovely documentary chronicles the directionless lives of Kevin Conway and Garrison Saenz, two magnetic, enormously likeable teenagers who don’t seem to see any inherent conflict between their evangelical Christian faith and their love for anti-authoritarian skater punk, in part because they don’t seem to have thought too thoroughly about the larger ramifications of either of those passions. The boys mostly just breeze through their teen years, laughing and goofing their way through the magic hour of late adolescence. Then a spirited young woman named Skye Elmore enters their lives and doggedly pursues Saenz with a sense of purpose unimaginable to the aggressively aimless boys. Only The Young begins as a movie about the friendship between two boys, but Elmore quickly comes to dominate a film that approaches the uncertainty and heightened emotions of youth with unexpected delicacy and compassion. Only The Young is a film of painterly beauty and profound emotional generosity that transforms casualness into a virtue. It miraculously captures the ephemeral magic and wonder of youth, transcending the sentimentality and contrived melodrama that seem to be innate shortcomings of the coming-of-age genre film. 

14. Lincoln

The prospect of Steven Spielberg doing an Abraham Lincoln biopic threatens a return to the earnest “give us free” slave narrative of Amistad, but the brilliance of Lincoln comes from how much weight it gives to the horse-trading and arm-twisting it takes to achieve political goals. Though it captures Lincoln’s eloquence and courage—to say nothing of the terrible burden of leading a country through a civil war—Tony Kushner’s script smartly narrows its focus to the passing of the 13th Amendment and shows an understanding of American congressional process that’s just as relevant today as it was 150 years ago. (Listen closely, and the film sounds like a message to President Obama on how to move gay rights forward in his second term.) As Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis seems to wear the president’s burden on his hunched frame, and he helps make the case that Lincoln’s greatness comes from the skill with which he turned ideals into policy—by any means necessary. 

13. Life Of Pi

The middle hour of Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s bestseller is one of the grandest old-fashioned adventure stories the screen has seen in years, following an Indian teenager as he tries to survive for weeks in the middle of the ocean, on a lifeboat occupied by a man-eating tiger. The combination of clever how-to details and wild fantasy is a throwback to the days of Disney’s live-action man-against-nature films (only slightly grimmer), but it’s flanked by a more down-to-earth depiction of the hero’s youth in a zoo-owning Indian family, as well as a closing sequence that changes the meaning of everything that’s come before. This is a movie that’s both magical and practical, challenging viewers to think about what kind of stories they prefer, and why.

12. Looper

At a time when almost every big-budget Hollywood release is a pre-packaged adaptation, remake, or franchise sequel, Rian Johnson’s mind-bending, thought-provoking Looper offers something truly original. While its tale of near-future mob assassins uses time travel to generate exciting twists and turns, those popcorn elements are in service of a fundamentally character-driven piece about the self-defeating futility of violence. Casting the physically dissimilar Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the same person 30 years apart was a huge gamble that pays off beautifully, thanks less to the prosthetics applied to Gordon-Levitt’s face than to his uncanny youthful replication of Willis’ middle-age mannerisms. And only a filmmaker wholly committed to his personal vision would dare to establish a standard science-fiction dystopia and then shift most of the action to a single mom’s lonely farmhouse. Smart, inventive, pensive, and heartfelt, Looper proves that creating an event movie from scratch isn’t an entirely lost art.

11. The Cabin In The Woods

The most fun that could be had at the movies this year, Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s clever, funny, scary feature lovingly deconstructs the creaky subgenre of the slasher flick and puts it back together into something that winks at the familiar tropes while never skimping on being rollickingly entertaining in its own right. Why do people in horror movies always make such terrible choices regarding their own safety? Why do they always seem to fit prescribed types? The Cabin In The Woods deals with all these issues and more while fitting in some sly commentary about why we enjoy the spectacle of characters—particularly young, nubile ones—getting slaughtered onscreen. When so many meta efforts boil down to a few back-patting jokes, this film manages to be a sincere, fond, deeply geeky act of fandom that’s far more than just an extended act of congratulations for picking up on all its references.

10. Wuthering Heights

Andrea Arnold’s unconventional adaptation of the Emily Brontë classic brings race front and center, keeps the camera handheld and low to the ground, and lends the language a profane edge not usually associated with 19th-century English literature. Yet it’s true to the tortured heart of the novel, using raw performances and beautifully forbidding images of the English moors to re-create Brontë’s unrelenting sense of dread.

9. Beasts Of The Southern Wild

In 2012’s most impressive debut feature, Benh Zeitlin explores The Bathtub, a corner of the Louisiana bayou that’s grateful to have been forgotten by the rest of the world as the rest of the world has gone about the slow process of falling apart. Its idyll comes to an end shortly after the film opens, however, uprooting a young girl (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father (Dwight Henry) and kicking off a lyrical journey through a mythologized 21st-century South. Self-consciously artful but made of humble material, it’s full of striking images in service of a one-of-a-kind coming-of-age story.

8. It’s Such A Beautiful Day

Watching the three short films—Everything Will Be Ok, I Am So Proud Of You, and It’s Such A Beautiful Day—in Don Hertzfeldt’s “Billogy” back to back is a daunting proposition. On its own, each is devastating; cumulatively, they’re almost too much to bear. Their collective impact is more startling considering that Hertzfeldt’s protagonist is a stick figure, a device that quickly moves beyond being a gimmick to suggest a kind of minimalist everyperson. Drawing every frame himself and relying on a wide range of handmade effects, Hertzfeldt explores mental illness with more perspicacity than Silver Linings Playbook and physical decay with as much intelligence as Amour. Hertzfeldt is one of few filmmakers exploring territory that is wholly his own, and based on It’s Such A Beautiful Day, no one is anywhere near catching up to him.

7. Amour

The rap on Michael Haneke’s Amour is that the famously intimidating filmmaker has gone soft, but Haneke’s idea of sentimental is anyone else’s stringent. True, the story of an elderly couple (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) dealing with decay and death is more character-focused than explicit parables like The White Ribbon or Funny Games, but that hardly makes this his Something’s Gotta Give. Merciless but not cruel, Haneke steers the couple toward the inevitable with unforgiving clarity, eventually forcing viewers to confront what love means in the final stretch. The film’s beauty comes less from the stark, soft light that filters through the windows of the couple’s apartment than the almost-elemental devotion with which the husband tends to his dying wife’s needs, a duty that goes beyond feeling and is closer to instinct.

6. The Loneliest Planet

Julia Loktev’s drama revolves around one small moment, an unexpected encounter on the road that gives a seismic shake not only to the relationship of the central couple (Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg), but also to their ideas about themselves and what they want from each other. What makes the film so stunning is that they don’t talk about it, and that viewers understand these complex things as they unfold in subtle details over the hiking trip the pair is taking in the company of a guide in the Caucasus Mountains. The Loneliest Planet is set against a giant, gorgeous natural backdrop that sometimes dwarfs the characters, but other times seems like it can scarcely contain the quiet, claustrophobic drama. Power struggles and apologies play out over offerings of snacks or who goes first when crossing a river, and a man and woman deal with expectations about masculinity and protectiveness that they never knew they had, and thought they were above.

5. The Deep Blue Sea

Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play about an unhappy love triangle gets the Terence Davies treatment—which is to say, it positively swoons in impassioned misery, right from the expressionistic opening montage of its heroine’s suicide attempt. As a woman who’s left her kind-but-dull husband for a dashing cad who doesn’t love her, Rachel Weisz digs deep into a clear-eyed, unapologetic romantic fatalism; her acceptance of her fate may be the purest devotion imaginable, but that doesn’t make it any less painful. And yet the film’s style is rapturous and its story is heartbreaking, exemplified by the strangely muted tinge that makes everything come across like somebody’s burnished memory. Terence D. pays respect to Terence R. by reimagining The Deep Blue Sea in gloriously cinematic terms while remaining true to its claustrophobic sensibility. The experience can be punishing as well as exhilarating… but then, so can being in love.

4. Holy Motors

An elderly bag lady. A motion-capture acrobat. A deformed troll who kidnaps Eva Mendes and eats her hair. The leader of an accordion army. Denis Lavant plays all these roles and several more in Holy Motors, the first feature by French cult figure Leos Carax since 1999’s Pola X. As a meditation on the nature of acting and the various ways in which analog is being supplanted by digital—one look at the title tells you which side Carax favors—this giddy/sad smorgasbord offers plenty of grist for interpretation. But what astounds is its sheer capacity for crazed invention, as if Carax were trying to make all the projects he’d been unable to get off the ground for the past 13 years at once. (He’s admitted in interviews that some of the vignettes derive from abandoned feature ideas.) With any other actor in the lead role, it might have felt incoherent; Lavant commits so fervently to his 1,000 faces that viewers have to just go along for the ride, cruising Paris in a white stretch limo with no idea where they’re headed next.

3. Moonrise Kingdom

It all comes down to fishhook earrings. At a pivotal moment in Wes Anderson’s screwball fable, two children rendezvous on an island beach, and the boy gives the girl a pair of earrings fashioned from fishing lures. Pushing the barbed hooks through her unpierced lobes works as a canny metaphor for deflowering, but it also sums up the formula behind Anderson’s best movies: aesthetics plus pain. In The Life Aquatic, Anderson argued that artificiality—faked documentaries, plasticine fish—can be a conduit to real emotions, and in Moonrise Kingdom, he proves the point.

2. Zero Dark Thirty

In the months and days leading up to the release of Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the film was pilloried by the right as propaganda for President Obama in an election year, and by the left as a love letter to torture. But director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, the team responsible for The Hurt Locker, are primarily interested in pursuing the truth wherever it leads them, and evoking history without appeal to ideologues of any stripe. Aligning itself with a CIA official (Jessica Chastain) whose decade-long pursuit of bin Laden calls on vast reserves of courage and resolve, Zero Dark Thirty goes deep into the shadow world of “enhanced interrogation” and black sites, details the many leads and red herrings that finally brought investigators to a compound in Abbottabad, and executes the raid itself with stomach-turning verisimilitude. Though Bigelow and Boal pay tribute to the dogged skill of the investigators who found Bin Laden and the SEAL members who stormed the compound, they aren’t interested in rah-rah triumphalism. It’s a sobering journey into the darkness. 

1. The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest historical drama is another of his studies of a lost boy and his charismatic parental substitutes, as alcoholic World War II veteran Joaquin Phoenix stumbles into the circle of cult leader Philip Seymour Hoffman and his wife Amy Adams. They’re fascinated by his barbarism; he’s drawn by their unconventionality. There’s nothing programmatic about The Master, which can’t be reduced to a story about a black-hearted businessman, or the insidiousness of organized faith, or anything that simple. It’s more about its times, and how these characters try to make their own place within them. After the opening shots of Phoenix in the Navy, Anderson openly references John Huston’s 1946 documentary Let There Be Light, about mentally ill soldiers. Phoenix’s performance calls to mind James Dean and the other Method actors who transformed the tone of movies in the ’50s. The era The Master covers, from roughly 1945 to 1952, was a tumultuous one in American culture. It was the age of film noir and psychological realism, but also a time when the suburban placidity for which the ’50s is remembered took root. All of that looms in Anderson’s movie, which deals with human impulses that run counter to the clean, composed America the corporate PR machine was selling.


[pagebreak]

Outliers: Notable films on one critic’s list, but no others

Django Unchained

A glorious companion piece to Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained finds Quentin Tarantino once again using the vocabulary of exploitation movies, especially spaghetti Westerns, to tell a tale of revenge and vengeance rooted in a great historical injustice perpetrated against an oppressed minority. Django Unchained even brings back Christoph Waltz, who picked up an Academy Award for Basterds, as a man whose virtuosity with verbiage reflects Tarantino’s passionate, long-standing love affair with the English language. Here, Waltz plays a deadly bounty hunter who is a whiz with guns, but whose greatest weapon is his ability to talk himself out of any predicament, no matter how dire. Waltz frees slave Jamie Foxx, and together, they go on a mission of vengeance that leaves massive trails of blood in their wake. Django Unchained elevates schlock to the level of art, most spectacularly in a shootout for the ages that cross-pollinates Scarface and The Wild Bunch, but with an exhilaratingly anachronistic hip-hop flourish. It’s a brawling, two-fisted epic awash in blood and viscera, yet deeply enamored with the power of words. [NR]

The Imposter

Even some critics who raved about this astonishing true-crime doc didn’t seem to understand what it was attempting. Had it simply told the story of Frédéric Bourdin—a French criminal who somehow managed to pass himself off as a missing American teenager, fooling the boy’s own family even though he looked nothing like him and spoke with a thick French accent—it would still have been compulsively watchable. But director Bart Layton cannily manipulates viewers’ experience of the events, via point of view (Bourdin himself, speaking directly to camera, is our guide), heightened re-enactments, and selective editing of the family’s recollections, until the audience winds up making the same mistake the family did. It’s a dizzyingly effective look at the internal mechanisms of confirmation bias, inviting observers to goggle at other people’s inexplicable behavior while failing to notice a similar choice to believe patent nonsense. Anyone who thinks the film’s ending is ambiguous, implying an unsolved mystery, has failed the test. [MD’A]

The Kid With A Bike

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s consistency may make it easy to take them for granted, or maybe it’s their low-key filmmaking style. Or maybe it was just that the brothers’ latest, The Kid With A Bike, received a U.S. release early in the year, far from awards season. Either way, it’s another quietly devastating portrait of the lives and moral dilemmas of those struggling just to hang on. Here, that comes via the story of a boy faced with choices that will shape the rest of his life, choices whose weight he doesn’t always recognize, and for which he hasn’t received nearly enough guidance from those around him. [KP]

Middle Of Nowhere

A straightforward character drama realized with uncommon skill and insight, Ava DuVernay’s film centers on a former medical student (the luminous Emayatzy Corinealdi) who has given up her studies to be near the prison where her husband is serving out his sentence. What’s impressive about Middle Of Nowhere isn’t just the care with which it’s put together, but the way DuVernay cannily bridges the gap between the ghetto tales and Tyler Perry fantasies that comprise so much of contemporary African-American film. It  isn’t aspirational, but neither does it ratify stereotypes about the black underclass. Without a studio behind it, the film got only modest attention in theaters, but people will be catching up with it for years to come. [SA]

Photographic Memory

Veteran documentarian Ross McElwee was inspired to make Photographic Memory by his strained relationship with his now-grown son Adrian, whom McElwee worries is too distracted by technology. To understand his son better, McElwee revisits his own early 20s, when he was a hippie free spirit, kicking around France and worrying his father. McElwee approaches the generation gap with sensitivity, admitting to his preferences for the slower pace and tactility of his youth, while also conceding that in some ways, his son’s generation is more connected to each other. Meanwhile, McElwee revisits the films and videotapes he has of his son, of his own father, and of a life that keeps slipping by and changing before he can get a handle on it. As he realizes that the memories and associations he has with his old photos are very different from how their subjects experienced those moments, McElwee grapples poignantly with the idea that nothing is fixed: not images, not people. [NM]

This Is Not A Film

Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s semi-documentary was given its title because on a certain level, it isn’t a film in the way of Panahi’s past work—it has no script or actors, it was shot in the Tehran apartment in which he’s been serving out his house arrest, and it’s centered around his talking through the feature he would have made had he not been banned from filmmaking for 20 years. The title is also a nod to that ban: This work, which was reportedly smuggled out of the country in a cake, isn’t a film because Panahi isn’t allowed to make them. But it is also a heartbreaking portrait of an artist who’s been silenced, and Panahi manages to put a human face—his own—on this injustice, and turn what can seem like an abstract violation of rights into something more immediate and terrible, the stifling of a life. [AW]

The Turin Horse

The great Hungarian director Béla Tarr (Sátántángo) has claimed that The Turin Horse is his last movie, and like a lot of swan songs, it’s about death, following two people whose lives teeter on the precipice, ever a stiff wind away from falling off. Tarr was inspired by an incident that reportedly drove Friedrich Nietzsche to madness: Outside his home in Turin, Italy, Nietzsche witnessed a cart driver who, in frustration over a stubborn horse, started beating the animal mercilessly with a whip. Nietzsche threw his arms around the horse, sobbing, to stop the beating. But with The Turin Horse, Tarr has imagined what the driver’s life might have been like, and the desperation that underpins such an act of unconscionable cruelty. Unfolding in his signature long takes—the opener is a candidate for shot of the year—the film ventures to the driver’s single-room home in a windswept prairie, where he and his daughter subsist on potatoes and wait out a storm of apocalyptic proportions. The Turin Horse feels like a vision out of time, with no reference to other movies or even a world that’s recognizable as our own. It’s 3-D in 2-D, a tactile experience of a biographical side character whose life only Tarr saw fit to comprehend. [ST]

Where Do We Go Now?

Lebanese writer-director Nadine Labaki keeps the details general in her sharp black musical comedy about women trying to keep the peace in an isolated village populated by equal numbers of Muslims and Christians. Without exploring Lebanon’s own sectarian violence, choosing sides, or justifying behavior—in fact, without naming the country where the film takes place—she presents a fairy-tale metaphor for the conflict, in which the men of the village are quick to arms and to finger-pointing when anything goes wrong, and the women are willing to make any compromise and to try any far-fetched, crack-brained idea to defuse or distract. The film is sometimes heartbreakingly sad; Labaki fully acknowledges the pain of war, and how it tears people apart. But Where Do We Go Now? is also immensely funny, as its good-hearted cast seizes on plans ranging from imported strippers to hashish hidden in the men’s food. The tone is sometimes over-the-top, but the message is that conflict can’t take hold among people who deal with each other in trust, good faith, and common cause, and that no sacrifice is too great for people firmly dedicated to peace. [TR]


Individual Ballots

Sam Adams
Top 15
1. Moonrise Kingdom
2. It’s Such A Beautiful Day
3. Middle Of Nowhere
4. Magic Mike
5. Killer Joe
6. Amour
7. The Deep Blue Sea
8. Wuthering Heights
9. Barbara
10. The Master
11. Zero Dark Thirty
12. Holy Motors
13. Starlet
14. The Perks Of Being A Wallflower
15. Killing Them Softly

Performance
Matthew McConaughey, Killer Joe/Magic Mike
It’s taken Matthew McConaughey a long time to come back around to playing creeps, but in the last year, he’s fortunately rediscovered where his true talent lies. In Killer Joe and Magic Mike, he tears into the roles of a murderous cop and a satanic stripping impresario like a starving man, sucking every last drop from the juiciest of roles. There was a similar sense of oily glee in The Lincoln Lawyer, but in truth, McConaughey hasn’t acted with this level of engagement since Dazed And Confused

Underrated
Friends With Kids
While it’s true that most romantic comedies merely make minor tweaks to a rusted-out formula, it’s also true that many critics approach rom-coms with a sense of eye-rolling obligation, while solidly unspectacular movies like Lockout get praised to the skies. There’s formula in Jennifer Westfeldt’s directorial debut, but feeling as well. And anyone who thinks it’s far-fetched to see two friends of opposite gender agreeing to raise a child while they continue to date other people hasn’t touched base with single urbanites in their late 30s recently. (It’s absurd, but only by about 10 percent.) If nothing else, the film deserves endless praise for its bombshell kicker, a final line that blasts through the coy innuendo at the heart of most screen romances.

Overrated
Damsels In Distress
Not nearly as clever as the film, or its adherents, seem to think, Whit Stillman’s Damsels In Distress is a tone-deaf attempt to change gears from the observational comedy of his early films to a more stylized, absurdist mode. Every performance, every last line, is suffused with an arch self-consciousness that is far too pervasive, like the gauzy light that floods the movie’s make-believe campus. There are flashes of wit—mostly tied to Greta Gerwig’s airy turn as an amateur self-help guru—but running gags about suicide and anal sex fall painfully flat, and once the movie’s minor charms are exhausted, it simply grinds.

Most pleasant surprise
Starlet
It would be hard to be farther below the radar than Sean Baker’s Starlet, whose closest thing to a name actor is the guy who played Ziggy on The Wire. But people found their way to this touching, acutely well-observed character study all the same. Because so many haven’t yet sees the film, its plot must go undescribed, but suffice it to say it’s about an encounter between a young woman (Dree Hemingway) and an old woman (Besedka Johnson) that spawns an uneasy relationship, during the course of which their pasts and presents come to light. Baker perfectly captures the smoggy glow of Southern California, the mixture of languor and submerged aggression that’s always in the air. He also draws fine, understated performances from his raw leads. (Hemingway is a model with little acting experience; Johnson was discovered at a YMCA.) The film is a fragile thing, easy to overlook if it isn’t approached with an open mind and heart, but it’s very much worth doing so.

Future Film That Time Forgot
Detachment
Say this for Tony Kaye: Dude keeps everybody guessing. After the neo-Nazi drama American History X and a black-and-white documentary on anti-abortion activists, who could have expected a phantasmagorical tale of substitute teaching? Assembled as a string of sensational episodes—James Caan uses a photo of an infected vagina to dissuade a student from going braless; a blank-eyed boy mutilates a kitten while his peers look on impassively—the film approaches a kind of hallucinatory hysteria, a prolonged shriek of smash cuts and shifting film stock. Frequently insane but never less than watchable, it has to be seen to be believed.


[pagebreak]

Mike D’Angelo
Top 15
1. Holy Motors
2. The Imposter
3. The Loneliest Planet
4. Miss Bala
5. Moonrise Kingdom
6. Amour
7. The Deep Blue Sea
8. Only The Young
9. Looper
10. This Must Be The Place
11. Haywire
12. You Are Here
13. It’s Such A Beautiful Day
14. Argo
15. Sister

Performance
Ann Dowd, Compliance
The real-life story that inspired Compliance is so certifiably insane, such an apparent affront to common sense, that dramatizing it presented a Herculean challenge. In particular, the part of the store manager demanded an actor who could convincingly take viewers step by step through the evasions of responsibility and the well-meaning rationalizations that allowed the perpetrator to pull it off. Dowd, who’s mostly played stock wives and mothers for the past 25 years (Kim Kelly’s mom on Freaks And Geeks; Bettie Page’s mom in The Notorious Bettie Page, etc.), takes full advantage of this nearly impossible role, depicting the manager not as a terminally gullible hick, but as a perfectly ordinary woman whose first instinct, in common with most of us, is to assume that others are trustworthy until they demonstrate otherwise. It’s a perfectly calibrated performance, un-showy and fully grounded in the mundane, workaday world we all inhabit.

Overrated
Silver Linings Playbook
After years of making terrific but little-seen comedies, David O. Russell made a bid for mainstream acceptance with 2010’s biopic The Fighter. It scored him an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, so now he’s adapted a popular novel… and stooped to outright pandering. Russell’s penchant for barely controlled chaos just isn’t funny in the context of diagnosed mental illness, and while Playbook’s late shift into a conventional, crowd-pleasing rom-com works exceedingly well, it does so at the expense of all the previous manic episodes, making it seem as if men who suffer from bipolar disorder just need to find a screwball dame to nurse them to health via wacky dance routines. Jennifer Lawrence amuses with hectic aggression, but Bradley Cooper, valiantly attempting to expand his range beyond glib jerkitude, is just out of his depth. Even more than The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook is Russell diluted for mass consumption; he may be on the A-list now, but he was at his best when he worked exclusively from inside his own head.

Underrated
Lockout
Bruce Willis’ stoic, self-contained performance was precisely what Looper needed, but that doesn’t mean the world no longer has any use for heroes who wisecrack their way through preposterous action flicks. Lockout, known almost universally in critic circles by the more baldly descriptive title Space Jail, feeds that nostalgia like no movie in years, albeit with Guy Pearce in the Willis role. From the opening-credits sequence, in which each title appears in the empty space vacated by Pearce’s head after a hulk named Rupert punches it off the screen, this cheaply made, disposable product of the Luc Besson factory glories in its hero’s cheerfully antisocial persona—Pearce is the whole show here, and he’s having a blast. He’s working opposite Maggie Grace, who’s just as irritating as she was on the first season of Lost, which only heightens the satisfaction when he subjects her to all manner of brusque, who-gives-a-shit verbal abuse.

Most pleasant surprise
The Three Stooges
Once upon a time, the Farrelly brothers’ modern-day take on the classic vaudeville trio was going to star the likes of Benicio Del Toro, Sean Penn, and Jim Carrey. All three dropped out, and the roles wound up going to less distractingly famous actors, allowing the film to seem less like a bloated Saturday Night Live sketch and more like a tribute to the nearly lost art of expertly timed slapstick. It’s admittedly too long—there’s a reason why the original Stooges were confined almost entirely to short subjects—but there’s something bracing about seeing actual routines that clearly required tons of rehearsal to get just right, as opposed to a room full of former stand-up comics and Groundlings alumni semi-improvising their way into laughs. It’s closer to Hong Kong action than to Judd Apatow.

Future Film That Time Forgot
Intruders
Spanish filmmaker Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (Intacto, 28 Weeks Later) is talented, but he’ll be burying this overwrought clunker at the bottom of his résumé for many years to come. It’s sure to eventually be rediscovered by aficionados of bad horror, however, both because of its goofy monster—a Dementor-like being called Hollowface, who stalks little children (but only if they write or read stories in which he appears, so they’re kind of asking for it)—and because it stars Clive Owen as… well, it’s best not to get into who he’s playing. Suffice it to say there’s a climactic twist that will set eyes rolling, assuming viewers didn’t tumble to it early on and spend the rest of the movie twiddling their thumbs awaiting the reveal. Intruders actually has something cogent (and rather dark) to say about where fear comes from, which only makes its risible missteps all the more frustrating/cherishable.


Noel Murray
Top 15 
1. The Master
2. Zero Dark Thirty
3. Life Of Pi
4. Damsels In Distress
5. Holy Motors
6. It’s Such A Beautiful Day
7. Photographic Memory
8. Looper
9. The Queen Of Versailles
10. The Deep Blue Sea
11. Premium Rush
12. Lincoln
13. This Is 40
14. I Wish
15. The Cabin In The Woods

Performance
Greta Gerwig, Damsels In Distress
Whit Stillman’s characters have always been a little eccentric, but in his ’80s-style campus comedy Damsels In Distress, the heroines are downright zany, and possibly mentally ill. Greta Gerwig plays a staunch idealist who helms a suicide-prevention organization and tries to elevate her classmates by setting a good example, and by teaching them to keep their spirits up through proper hygiene. Gerwig has a way with Stillman’s fast-paced chatter, but she also gets that this is a movie about the way young people try to define themselves, always hiding their petty hypocrisies behind convoluted modifications to their public identities.

Underrated
John Carter
Forget how much Walt Disney’s adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel series cost, and forget the (relatively) disappointing box-office. Director Andrew Stanton and his team of screenwriters and special-effects technicians made a highly entertaining retro-adventure, true to Burroughs’ epic vision of a Civil War soldier who fights monsters on Mars. Sure, star Taylor Kitsch comes up short whenever he has to bring a little gravitas to the story of war and romance, but he’s charismatic in the many light-hearted moments, and from Stanton’s years at Pixar (where he helmed Finding Nemo and Wall-E), he’s learned how to build stories and characters carefully, and to fill the screen with images that delight the eye. 

Overrated
Safety Not Guaranteed
This offbeat indie dramedy has a strong premise, following deadpan magazine intern Aubrey Plaza as she researches hangdog romantic Mark Duplass, who’s placed a personal ad looking for a partner in time-travel. Safety Not Guaranteed has a poignant idea at its center, about how people travel back in time daily in their memories. But the movie is low-key to a fault, adopting a casually whimsical tone that saps the story of much of its energy. The movie settles early into its no-big-deal indie-ness, when the subject matter would’ve been better served by boldness.

Most pleasant surprise
Goon
Easily the raunchiest (and funniest) hockey comedy since Slap Shot, the gleefully vulgar Goon stars Seann William Scott as a sweet, dumb guy with a mean right hook that gets him drafted to be the enforcer for a minor-league Halifax team. Scripted by Judd Apatow protégés Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg, Goon is mostly about creative profanity and violence, but it’s also full of funny, true details about hockey and Canada, and features a career-best performance from Scott, who plays the hero as hilariously dim without ever losing his humanity.

Future Film That Time Forgot
Red Lights
Kick-ass university professors Cillian Murphy and Sigourney Weaver spend their days explaining to people why they aren’t hearing ghosts. And in their spare time, they work to bring down blind, unusually gifted psychic Robert De Niro. At the start, Rodrigo Cortés’ horror movie Red Lights is fairly entertaining, proceeding through some genuinely scary scenes of things going bump in the night, followed by scenes of Murphy and Weaver telling people what they really saw. But the movie runs out of steam early, and only regains its kick via a laughable left-field, last-act plot twist that subverts nearly everything Cortés (who wrote and directed) had been suggesting about the importance of self-determination over faith. Red Lights will be best enjoyed by fans of scenery-chewing, and people who want to see a smarmy Toby Jones run an evangelical De Niro through a series of psychic tests, in the name of science.


Nathan Rabin
Top 15
1. The Master
2. Django Unchained
3. Bernie
4. Searching For Sugar Man
5. Moonrise Kingdom
6. The Queen Of Versailles
7. Only The Young
8. Silver Linings Playbook
9. Killer Joe
10. Boy 
11. The Cabin In The Woods
12. Compliance
13. The Dictator
14. Dark Horse
15. Save The Date

Performance
Jack Black, Bernie
In Richard Linklater’s hilarious fact-based docudrama, Jack Black plays an accomplished mortician so beloved by the citizens of a Texas small town that nobody seems to want to admit he’s almost certainly guilty of murdering a hateful, extraordinarily rich old woman (Shirley MacLaine) who monopolizes his time and energy—or, for that matter, concede that he’s gay. Black has a tendency to go big and over-the-top, but he’s gloriously restrained here playing a man who has learned to survive as a closeted gay man in a conservative Texas town by molding himself into whatever shape the community finds most appealing, whether that’s choir leader, empathetic pal, musical-theater leading man, or pillar of the community. As the film opens, Black is almost preternaturally cheerful and accommodating, but as MacLaine puts more and more pressure on her only friend in the world, the pressure of their stifling relationship begins to show on Black’s face. Bernie is an even more perfect vehicle for Black than School Of Rock, because it forces him to disappear inside a real person instead of allowing him to fall back on his arsenal of crowd-pleasing tics. 

Underrated
Dark Horse
Todd Solondz has played the game of button-pushing provocation for so long that when he made a humane, empathetic, relatively straightforward character study about loneliness and entitlement, few seemed to notice. Dark Horse is unflinching but sympathetic in its depiction of a deluded loser (Jordan Gelber) who still lives at home and works for his father (Christopher Walken) deep into middle age. A chance for redemption and growth seems to arrive when Gelber meets a pill-addled woman (Selma Blair) who appears to be locked in the same state of stasis as himself, but the deeply self-defeating Gelber can’t take a step forward without shimmying a few steps back. Dark Horse is the anti-40-Year-Old Virgin, a pitch-dark comedy about an emotionally stunted middle-aged man whose immaturity and stubborn unwillingness to evolve aren’t the least bit charming, but who remains strangely sympathetic all the same. 

Overrated
21 Jump Street
Critics and audiences have learned not to expect much from feature-film adaptations of half-forgotten television shows from the ’80s, so at least some of the excitement that greeted 21 Jump Street seems attributable to shock that the film wasn’t anywhere near as bad as it looked. It’s certainly lively and amusing in its smartass spoof/deconstruction of its source material and the ’80s buddy-cop subgenre, but its cleverness often feels obvious and glib. It’s an overachieving showcase for the hitherto-unknown comic chops of Channing Tatum (whose big year challenged that of Magic Mike co-star Matthew McConaughey) but it’s no Hot Fuzz, nor the instant comedy classic its passionate acolytes held it up to be. 

Most pleasant surprise
Ted
Thanks to the enduring popularity of Family Guy, Seth MacFarlane has become synonymous with cheap, lazy, pandering pop-culture-reference-based comedy, and he isn’t exactly revered for the quality control of his far-flung enterprises. So the world had ample reason to be wary when it was announced MacFarlane would be extending his empire to the big screen as the co-writer, director, and lead voice actor in a partially animated comedy about a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking, yet really adorable sentient teddy bear. Thankfully, Ted soared above low expectations, due to a profanely inspired script and the strong chemistry between MacFarlane’s beautifully designed animated title character and Mark Wahlberg’s charmingly stunted slacker. Ted is hobbled by a labored third act and a subplot involving a demented loner played by Giovanni Ribisi that is so ragingly gratuitous, it almost feels like an homage to the famously unnecessary diamond-smuggling subplots of the ’80s, but Ted is so consistently, even explosively funny and oddly good-natured throughout that it really doesn’t need a plot at all, let alone an even-less-welcome chase scene. Hopefully the inevitable sequel will learn the lessons of the original and not attempt to shoehorn in a plot or thriller elements where none are necessary. 

Future Film That Time Forgot
The Paperboy
In an incredible act of reverse alchemy, The Paperboy, Lee Daniels’ directorial follow-up to his breakout hit Precious, transforms a combustible series of elements into pure tedium. Separately, just about every aspect of The Paperboy screams “instant camp classic,” from the surreal miscasting of genial Midwesterner John Cusack as a feral, sex-crazed prisoner with a shaky Southern accent to Nicole Kidman’s bizarrely stylized portrayal of a prisoner groupie who talks, behaves, and saunters about like a giggling, cooing, malfunctioning Marilyn Monroe sex robot to the fucking pirate eyepatch Matthew McConaughey wears for much of the third act for reasons far too sleazy and dumb to address. So why is the film so perversely boring? Perhaps because it centers on a murder no one in the film seems to care about, and features a framing device involving maid Macy Gray recounting the film’s actions, which further distances this sleepy train wreck from the white-hot emotions at its core. 


Keith Phipps
Top 15
1. Zero Dark Thirty
2. Moonrise Kingdom
3. The Master
4. Wuthering Heights
5. Amour
6. The Kid With A Bike
7. The Deep Blue Sea
8. Beasts Of The Southern Wild
9. The Loneliest Planet
10. Holy Motors
11. Argo
12. Flight
13. Oslo, August 31st 
14. Declaration Of War
15. Bernie

Performance
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Jessica Chastain has delivered one impressive performance after another since becoming inescapable after her appearance in The Tree Of Life. This is the one that confirms her as a major talent, letting her command the screen with a few well-chosen words and a lot of intense concentration. She offers only a few clues about her inner life, but they’re enough to make the film’s final moments hit like a hammer.

Underrated
Declaration Of War
Drawing on the “Well, let’s try it” spirit of the French New Wave, Declaration Of War recounts the true story of a young couple’s struggle to cure their cancer-stricken son. It would be a remarkable film even without its backstory: Director Valérie Donzelli and her co-writer Jérémie Elkaïm also star, playing fictionalized versions of themselves from the moment they fall in love to the exhaustion of their years caring for their child. (They broke up before making the movie together, which makes it feel like even more of an achievement.) Revealing the outcome of the child’s health issues in the first scene, Declaration Of War then takes an unconventional approach in recounting the path to that outcome. Several approaches, actually: The film tries on different styles as it progresses. They don’t all work, but the film is daring and deeply affecting, making the shrugs it inspired from some critics puzzling.

Most pleasant surprise
21 Jump Street
21 Jump Street looked like yet another goof on a half-remembered property of old (i.e. the late ’80s), but it has enough inspired touches to set it apart, from gags about how its undercover cops (Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill) have fallen out of touch with the ways of high school just a few years after their own graduations, to some shamelessly goofy drug humor. The chemistry between Tatum and Hill puts it over, however, and makes the inevitable sequel teased in the final scene feel like a good idea.

Future Film That Time Forgot
The Apparition
A misleading trailer with one cool shot of disembodied hands tricked a few viewers into showing up for this not-so-scary ghost story featuring supernatural mold and several trips to Costco. It’s sure to be recalled, hazily at best, because it stars the actress from Twilight. No, not her. The other one. Ashley something.


Tasha Robinson
Top 15
1. The Avengers
2. Wreck-It Ralph
3. Zero Dark Thirty
4. Chasing Ice
5. I Wish
6. Where Do We Go Now?
7. The Master
8. Beasts Of The Southern Wild
9. The Secret World Of Arrietty
10. The Cabin In The Woods
11. Life Of Pi
12. The Rabbi’s Cat
13. Cloud Atlas
14. Haywire
15. Looper

Performance
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook has significant flaws: Under the trappings of mental illness, family conflict, and redemption story, it’s essentially a typical quirky rom-com, one that somehow fixes many of its protagonist’s most thorny issues via a dancing montage. Its deficits are considerable, but its primary assets—stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence—take great strides toward selling the more dubious material. In particular, Lawrence takes conscious steps away from the pared-down intensity she brought to her excellent troubled-teen performances in The Hunger Games and Winter’s Bone, and transitions toward playing a grown woman in conflict, even though her emotional problems sometimes make her act like a teenager. Lawrence is a nuanced actor, and this is a nuanced role—a young widow going through a self-destructive phase, and aggressively pursuing Cooper while often feeling angry and resentful toward him. It was written as a Rageful Pixie Dream Girl, and easily could have played as a caricature. Instead, Lawrence turns her into a person.

Underrated
Cloud Atlas
Adapting David Mitchell’s conceptually complicated nested novel Cloud Atlas for the screen was a daunting task, and the results were always guaranteed to disappoint some of the book’s fans, and confuse some of the people who hadn’t read it beforehand. But Andy and Lana Wachowski and co-writer/co-director Tom Tykwer have always made films characterized first and foremost by ambition. And film projects hardly get more ambitious than this independently funded, $100 million project, which tells six discrete stories in six timelines, using a cast of stars who shuttle between genders, races, and ages. The film doesn’t always connect on the emotional level it’s reaching for; in some ways, it’s too calculated. But it’s a daring, evocative achievement, and a visually stunning film full of startling, exciting, and funny moments that are brought together gradually over time, like individual strains of music forming a symphony. It deserves better than its reputation as a box-office flop.

Overrated
Lincoln
Acclaim for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln has been near-universal, to judge from its Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic ratings. And its merits deserve recognition, particularly the way Daniel Day-Lewis inhabits the character of Abraham Lincoln; the sharp, funny staging of the congressional debate over the question of banning slavery; and the terrific political-facilitator characters played by James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson. But the film awkwardly trades off between strong characters and a coherent narrative, and rarely provides both at once. The history of the 13th Amendment necessarily comes with a large cast, and Spielberg turns many of his antagonists into grimacing faces and occasional bon mots without ever touching on their motivations or making them into people. Characters come and go seemingly at random, the scenes are shuffled together like a disordered deck of playing cards, and even Day-Lewis doesn’t get enough screen time to reveal much past a surface of anecdote-spouting folky wisdom and a slightly deeper surface of crafty political power-player. This is history as a folksy Lincoln story: a tale designed to convey a message and impart a chuckle here, a frown there. But it simplifies the story while packing it with distracting detail.

Most pleasant surprise
Ruby Sparks
The ads for Ruby Sparks consciously attempted to draw in fans of quirky rom-coms about sad-writer types and Manic Pixie Dream Girl saviors. And the film starts as if it intends to be one, with Paul Dano playing the blocked writer and Zoe Kazan as the quirky girl he invents as a character, then finds somehow occupying his apartment. But the film is intended on every level as a commentary and analysis of these tropes, with Dano revealed as a frustrated, selfish manchild who wants a type, not a person, and Kazan (who wrote the script) repeatedly trying to stretch beyond that type and assert herself, with disastrous results. The film is surprisingly funny about all this, but it’s also sad, observant, and at its best, frightening. Only the tacked-on ending betrays what’s otherwise a smart, merciless takedown of a common current subgenre.

Future Film That Time Forgot
The Wicker Tree
Robin Hardy directed a solid, memorable cult classic in 1973’s The Wicker Man, but for some reason, he couldn’t leave well enough alone. Disappointed at Neil LaBute’s laughable 2006 remake starring Nicolas Cage, Hardy set out to tell the story again in a new setting and a new form, adapting his own 2006 book, Cowboys For Christ. This time, the arrogant-but-sincere Christians lured into pagan territory are a Texas bad-girl-turned-God-pop singer and her cowboy-hat-wearing stereotype boyfriend, who visit Scotland to spread the gospel, but run afoul of some unsavory May Day practices. The film is an odd curiosity: a sort-of-modernized sort-of-remake of a classic, made by the original director but with a no-name cast (apart from Christopher Lee in a callback cameo), and with a lolling, lazy indifference that suggests a student project. The dialogue and acting are terrible, the humor falls flat, the tension is nil, and the familiar ending is staged without any energy. It’s actually a worse remake than the 2006 one, but in a forgettable way rather than a hilarious one.


Scott Tobias
Top 15
1. The Master
2. The Turin Horse
3. The Deep Blue Sea
4. Holy Motors
5. The Loneliest Planet
6. Moonrise Kingdom
7. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia
8. Zero Dark Thirty
9. The Comedy
10. Amour
11. Goodbye First Love
12. Miss Bala
13. Haywire
14. Looper
15. Lincoln

Performance
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Before Lincoln was released, appetites were whetted with photographs of Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role, looking eerily like a framed portrait of the 16th president. But the brilliance of Day-Lewis’ performance comes from his ability to embody the dignity and stature of the Lincoln legend while showing how he leveraged it for political gain. As Day-Lewis’ loping gait suggests the physical toll of hard years in office, his manner is quiet and remarkably shrewd—one moment, he’s the rural Illinoisan telling folksy stories; the next, he’s a lethal politician working backrooms and surrogates. Lincoln makes an argument for the president’s greatness, but Day-Lewis is intent on humanizing him, not as someone who ended slavery with a wave of his mighty hand, but as a politician who fought for the 13th Amendment tooth and nail, without regard to how the means might ugly up the end. He isn’t a painting come to life; his Lincoln is a man. 

Underrated
Wanderlust
After missing its original release date in 2011, David Wain’s Wanderlust was pushed into the dumping ground of late February, where it was left to rot alongside other misbegotten studio projects. But Wain’s updating of Lost In America had more laughs than any comedy this year, even though the plotting is a bit of a shambles. Stranding a Manhattan couple (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) in a hippie commune in rural Georgia provides some clear opportunities for fish-out-of-water comedy, but Wain and his cast never go for the obvious joke, and they’re willing to push the material in eccentric directions. (“So what do you do if it rains?” “I drink the nourishment that Gaia is feeding me through her cloud-teats.”) The breakdown of the couple’s conventional values and their hosts’ hippie ideals adds to the comic anarchy, and Wain regulars like Ken Marino (as Rudd’s unctuous brother) and a constantly naked Joe Lo Truglio give it a lift. If nothing else, it offers “the mirror scene,” Rudd’s filthy, improvised pep talk before a free-love session he professes to want, even though the reality of it clearly terrifies him. 

Overrated
Argo
Argo is a good movie. There isn’t much disagreement on that point. Few will deny that it’s well-crafted and well-performed, a stranger-than-fiction true story played for comedy and suspense in equal measure. But the year-end hosannas directed at Argo have been out of proportion to its achievement, mainly because it’s the type of sophisticated, adult-oriented entertainment that Hollywood should be putting out routinely, if it weren’t so wrapped up in sequels and superhero movies. Argo’s pleasures are almost entirely on the surface: Director Ben Affleck spins one hell of a yarn, but he’s made a political thriller devoid of politics, and his characters have little depth beyond their considerable bravery and resourcefulness. Add to that a climactic sequence that feels conspicuously movie-ish—with a race down the tarmac that turns the Iranian authorities into Rosco from The Dukes Of Hazzard—and Argo looks more like an efficient time-waster than one of the best of the year. 

Most pleasant surprise
Premium Rush
Arriving with little fanfare in the dregs of August, after all the lumbering summer blockbusters had come and gone, Premium Rush turned out to be the fleetest entertainment of the season, a live-action Roadrunner cartoon that’s fast, funny, and done in a breathless 90 minutes. But the biggest surprise may be Michael Shannon’s performance as a corrupt detective who tries to intercept a package that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s bike messenger is delivering to Chinatown. Shannon has played many frightening, volatile villains in the past—and frightening, volatile protagonists, for that matter—but here, he opts to be a buffoon, mumbling and ranting in hilarious exasperation every time Gordon-Levitt gives him the slip. His work sets the tone for a comedy-thriller that’s clever and blissfully unburdened. 

Future Film That Time Forgot
$upercapitalist
Films with signs or punctuation in the title rarely stand the test of time—$, anyone? Or FFTTF also-ran L!fe Happens?—but $upercapitalist seems more doomed than most, as an on-the-cheap attempt to update the moral drama of Wall Street for the current economic climate. Writer-producer-star Derek Ting faces nearly the exact dilemma as Charlie Sheen in the earlier film: Ambitious, but naïve and morally pliable, he uses his considerable brilliance (perfect SAT scores, an intelligence so keen, he dropped out of MIT) to raid a family company and quickly go from hungry young trader to limo-riding, club-hopping slickster. $upercapitalist isn’t sophisticated about how the market actually works, and it doesn’t have the budget to make Ting’s conspicuous consumption register. It’s Wall Street as community theater. 


Alison Willmore
Top 15
1. This Is Not A Film
2. The Loneliest Planet
3. The Master
4. Lincoln
5. Rust And Bone
6. Holy Motors
7. Zero Dark Thirty
8. Beasts Of The Southern Wild
9. The Cabin In The Woods
10. Dark Horse
11. Cosmopolis
12. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia
13. Step Up To The Plate
14. Skyfall
15. Moonrise Kingdom

Performance
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Joaquin Phoenix is half-animal in The Master; his Freddie Quell is led by his impulses in a way that’s terrifyingly freeing, yet it’s also a trap he deeply wants to escape. That leads him into the grasp of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s budding cult leader. Freddie is an elemental being, which Phoenix establishes in a near-wordless opening in which he’s on the beach with other soldiers. Curled in on himself, speaking out of one side of his mouth, Freddie is almost a man possessed, as if his soul doesn’t quite fit in his body. It’s an unbelievable bit of acting from Phoenix, an astonishing physical transformation that’s magnetic and unsettling.

Underrated
Jeff, Who Lives At Home
Sure, the Duplass brothers’ latest follows what’s become a too-familiar type—the half-formed man-child stoner (in this case played by Jason Segel) living in his mother’s basement. But the film heads from this starting point not into another exploration of arrested development, but instead into a wistful family drama about two grown brothers who’ve never fully recovered from the loss of their father, and their surviving parent, a woman whose life has been stripped of wonder. The main character’s obsession with M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs is a goofy tic, but the way it inspires him to search for significance in small details (an act his pot-smoking fuels quite nicely) becomes poignant as it brings him together with his remaining family in a sequence that finds magic in the deliberately mundane suburbs of Baton Rouge.

Overrated
Bernie
The interviews with the townsfolk are charming and funny and Matthew McConaughey looks hilariously unbeefcake-like, but otherwise, Richard Linklater’s latest seems like a lot of easy regional humor used to ease along an overly slack story based on a true murder, with Jack Black turning in what’s basically just a more mannered variation on the performance he usually gives. The cheeriness of this dark comedy and its distinctive small-town Texas flavor give it some distinctiveness, but ultimately, there’s just not much there.

Most pleasant surprise
Chronicle
The combination of found footage and a superhero story doesn’t sound terribly promising, given how both genres tend to get abused in the multiplex, but this film from first-time director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis brings genuine adolescent angst and a fresh angle to both elements. It’s refreshing that its main characters don’t really feel inspired to do more than goof off with their mysterious powers; it’s a quietly brilliant touch that one of them is a social outcast with a dying mother and an abusive father. Neither of his newly supercharged friends understands how badly he’s hurting the way viewers do, with access to what he’s been filming. And the telekinesis allows for a smart workaround for the problem of always needing someone to be holding the camera: Why waste time lurking offscreen when you can be onscreen while psychically serving as your own DP?

Future Film That Time Forgot
3, 2, 1… Frankie Go Boom
Ron Perlman in a dress. Rising stars Charlie Hunnam, Chris O’Dowd, and Lizzy Caplan enacting a not-very-funny dysfunctional family drama and romance. Whitney Cummings in a throwaway role. Chris Noth playing a nutty recovering-addict movie star who works out in just a jockstrap. And it all comes together with a storyline involving unwanted fame by way of viral video. 3, 2, 1… Frankie Go Boom is such an incoherent jumble of a movie that it’s hard not to accidentally make it sound awesome—and while all of these potentially great elements don’t come together into anything that works, where else will you get to see the lantern-jawed Perlman attempting to look and act feminine as a post-op transwoman?

Coming tomorrow: The year’s worst films. And Friday: 2012’s best film scenes.

More Best of