The Best Movies of 2012 (Plus the Absolute Worst Film of the Year)

Consider this your cheat sheet for the Oscar nominations.

It was a big year in movies. With Dark Knight Rises we saw the end of Christopher Nolan’s influential Dark Knight trilogy. Joss Whedon helmed the #3 highest-grossing movie of all time, The Avengers. Extraordinary performances were seen in smaller films (like Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone and John Hawkes in The Sessions) and blockbusters (Anne Hathaway in Dark Knight Rises and Javier Bardem in Skyfall). But ultimately, 2012 will remembered as the year of the director. Some of our best directors — Stephen Spielberg, Kathryn Bigelow, Ang Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, David O. Russell, etc… — released phenomenal films.

Here are my picks for the best (and the worst) of the year. These are the films that surprised me the most. The ones where I kept thinking about them for many days (sometimes weeks) afterwards. But of course, the process of picking the best (or worst) is a subjective task. (I know several people who might think some of my bests should be worsts.) And my list doesn’t even include any of the year’s best documentaries (How to Survive a Plague, The Imposter). So check out my picks, then tell me yours!

The Best Movies of 2012

1. Zero Dark Thirty

It begins with a black screen and the cacophonous sound of overlapping calls made during 9/11. It ends with the killing of Osama Bin Laden. In between is a taut, morally ambiguous film that microcosmically captures our past 11 years: Taliban, al-Qaeda, waterboarding, bombings, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Abbottabad. At the center of the film is Maya, played by the extraordinary Jessica Chastain, an agent with an unwavering obsession in finding “OBL.” Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, it’s a film that jangles your nerves. That makes you constantly afraid during every quiet moment. Like her 2008 Best Picture The Hurt Locker, this seemingly straightforward action thriller, is a deeper examination of modern warfare. And how far people are willing to go. [In theaters January 4th.]

2. Amour

Precious. Million Dollar Baby. Requiem for a Dream. Each of these films left me devastated, yet invigorated. Michael Haneke’s Amour—the French-language drama that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes—is such a film. Centered on how debilitating health affects an older married couple (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), the film never shies away from the everyday humiliations brought on by physical degradation. But with these powerful actors—especially Riva, who at 85 years of age, deserves to become the oldest Best Actress winner for her tour de force—we are lifted up by the uncompromising love and servitude they have for each other. See it. But be prepared. [Release TBA.]

3. Lincoln

As I’ve already said again and again, Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln is a marvel. But helmed by Stephen Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner, this old-fashioned drama is anything but. Never taking it easy or trying to placate, it focuses on political discourse rather than battles or the depiction of the assassination in painful detail. [In theaters now.]

4. Argo

Balancing action sequences, scenes with lots of dialogue, and comedic moments, the film — based on actual events during the Iran hostage crisis — is one of the most universally admired films of the year. And finally brings long overdue attention to Ben Affleck, the director. [In theaters now.]

5. Django Unchained

Not as good as Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 Best Picture nominee Inglourious Basterds, but Django is just as riveting. And inappropriately funny. And horrifically violent. With strong turns from Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz (Oscar-winning Best Supporting Actor for Basterds), and Leonardo DiCaprio (which might bring him his first Oscar), this tale of a slave turned bounty hunter, is everything you would expect from the incomparable Tarantino. [In theaters December 25th.]

6. Silver Linings Playbook

The success of the film is due to its actors: Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro, and Jennifer Lawrence. But it is Cooper’s career-defining performance as a man struggling with mental illness and normalcy that makes everything else work. [In theaters now.]

7. Moonrise Kingdom

Gorgeous art direction and brilliant actors, Moonrise Kingdom is Wes Anderson’s best live-action movie since The Royal Tenenbaums. This quirky tale about teenage love will have you smiling long after the credits. [On DVD/Blu Ray and On Demand.]

8. Skyfall

Skyfall, a near perfect, reverential Bond film, transcends the genre and re-legitimizes the character for the 21st century. And gives us the wonderful Javier Bardem and Judi Dench. [In theaters now.]

9. Life of Pi

It isn’t perfect, but Ang Lee’s adaptation is one of the most beautiful films ever made. [In theaters now.]

10. Les Miserables

There are a many issues with the film adaptation of the mega-blockbuster: the miscast and uncomfortable-looking Russell Crowe, Tom Hooper’s over fondness of lingering close-ups (usually screen right). But what it does well is astonishing. The live singing brings naturalism to the music never before seen (or heard) on screen — allowing those with a theater background to shine (particularly Aaron Tveit as Enjolras). It also allows a brittleness to performances that isn’t dictated by playback. (Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman merit all the praise they’re receiving.) The movie will be big, let’s just see if it can carry momentum through the awards season. [In theaters December 25th.]

Runners Up: The Master, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Avengers

The Worst Movie of 2012

Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part 2

There were a lot of terrible films this year. Eddie Murphy’s 0% reviewed A Thousand Words, the Adam Sandler bomb That’s My Boy. But it is the ham-handed, final Twilight chapter that deserves the dubious honor, mostly due to its creepy, awful, distracting special effects. Ignoring for a moment the vampires whose heads pop off like Barbie dolls or the fact that there was barely enough plot for a Part 1, the CGI baby and child Renesmee are ghastly. The faces are like masks that seem too big and never quite move in tandem with its head. For a movie with an estimated budget of $120M budget, something seriously went wrong.