This evening marks the 85th Academy Awards, honoring the best in 2012 film. Love or hate the Oscars or the films that end up awarded each year, I’m still grateful there’s a huge annual event honoring my favorite art form. This weekend, in the spirit of the Oscars, I’ve already posted my favorite supporting and lead performances of last year. Today, I share my list of 2012 films that deserve to be praised as the year’s best. In the strongest cinematic year since 2007, these are the 20-or-so that stand out. Needless to say, you should seek them out.
20. Chronicle, Josh Trank
By the end of this post, I’m sure I’ll have said this a few times: often what makes a movie great is that it first succeeds at fulfilling the basics of its genre, then elevates itself above it. Chronicle is a near-flawless teen superhero origin story that then morphs into something much more ambitious. Come for the fun action set pieces, stay for the incredible characters and their story of friendship and sacrifice.
19. Bernie, Richard Linklater
Thanks to Jack Black’s wonderfully quirky-but-human portrayal of real-life killer Bernie Tiede and Linklater’s wonderful sense of place and community, Bernie is a fun, but effective, exploration of how relationships and reputation influence the American justice system. It plays like a light comedy, but its poignancy can’t be dismissed.
18. Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell
The year’s best example of how complex characters and amazing performances can elevate a somewhat basic narrative. The movie’s climax hinges on a football bet and a dance competition, but Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, et al draw us in so deep, we’re totally invested in the outcome.
17. Magic Mike, Steven Soderburgh
No, this isn’t just an excuse to get Channing Tatum naked. It’s actually an honest exploration of ambition and self-worth, and what happens when one is too strong and the other too weak. It’s a complicated, intimate character study dressed up (or down) as a stripper-comedy; I love to think the bait-and-switch opened up some viewers’ eyes to what good cinema actually looks like.
16. Argo, Ben Affleck
I wouldn’t have predicted it, but Ben Affleck is one of the most reliable filmmakers working today; I’m more excited to see his follow up to Argo than Steven Spielberg’s next. He tells a tight, economical story with enough drama, comedy and heart to please any taste. Say what you want about its historical accuracy, Argo’s final sequence is the most suspenseful of the year, and that takes impeccable craft.
15. Holy Motors, Leos Carax
It’s not a love letter to cinema, its a poem. Your brain may not be able to process everything Carax throws on screen, but a film lover’s heart will be nonetheless moved. It’s everything and nothing at once. It’s a bold statement that film doesn’t have to fit in any box, tell any particular story, or explore any specific themes; it just has to be honest and come from the soul. Plus, that accordion interlude is probably my favorite scene of the entire year.
14. The Amazing Spider-man, Marc Webb
In a huge year for superhero cinema, Webb’s Spider-man is the most emotionally resonant. The web-slinging and crime fighting are always secondary to Parker’s personal evolution; it’s a coming-of-age high school love story, dressed up in spandex. Which is exactly what I hoped it would be. Garfield is perfect and his chemistry with Stone feels effortless. Even if the plot mechanics are familiar, the atmosphere is completely fresh.
13. Killer Joe, William Friedkin
It’s a weird fucking movie. It’s violent and perverted, hilarious and disturbing. The morals are twisted and Friedkin somehow convinces us that we should be rooting for the most despicable character in a film packed exclusively with despicable characters. It probably helps that McConaughey gives the best performance of his career as said despicable human being. You’ll either love me or hate me for the recommendation, but hell, I had so much fun I don’t care.
12. Paranorman, Chris Butler and Sam Fell
Stop motion animation is special in that it brings a sense of weight and physicality to an otherwise intangible medium. So, when Paranorman avoids dumbing itself down or softening its edge, nothing feels out of place. That’s not to say it isn’t for kids; at its heart Paranorman is about not just accepting people in spite of their differences, but embracing and appreciating our differences as what makes society special.
11. The Cabin in the Woods, Drew Goddard
It’s not just a fun, wild skewering of horror tropes; The Cabin in the Woods is an effective entry into horror cannon whose inventive script offers some of the year’s most exciting twists and turns. It’s two or three movies rolled into one, and when all hell breaks loose in the third act, genre junkies will lose their collective minds.