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The Best Films of 2012

by Matt Singer
December 17, 2012 12:25 PM
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"The Cabin in the Woods."
"The Cabin in the Woods."

5. This is Not a Film
Directed by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb
Read my capsule at Criticwire
Criticwire Grade: A

After the Iranian government banned Jafar Panahi from writing or directing any more films, he responded by "not" making this one -- in which he hangs out in his apartment (under house arrest) and reads excerpts from a script (about a woman trapped in an apartment) that was rejected by Iranian censors (his court ruling didn't explicitly mention a prohibition on performing screenplays). The result is not just a great act of civil disobedience but a brilliant work of art.

4. The Cabin in the Woods
Directed by Drew Goddard
Read my review at ScreenCrush
Criticwire Grade: A

Social strictures about spoilers kept writers from talking about the full cleverness of this meta horror flick. It worked as a classical tale of horny teens getting ripped apart by vicious zombie rednecks (The Buckners!), and as a canny examination of the psychological underpinnings beneath our desire to watch scary movies. Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins aren't just two dudes trapped inside a tedious corporate bureaucracy. They're stand-ins for co-writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, serving bloodthirsty masters while trading Whedonesque quips.

3. Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Read my review at Criticwire
Criticwire Grade: A

Pundits boiling down this film's depiction of the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden to a simple on/off, yes/no, glorification/rejection of torture miss the point of its deliberate ambiguity and complexity. In the short term, I'm sure many journalists will continue to accuse "Zero Dark Thirty" of inaccuracy and immorality. In the long run, I suspect Kathryn Bigelow's portrait of ten world-changing years will come to be seen as an exceedingly faithful representation of the terrible price our nation paid for peace of mind.

2. The Master
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Read my review at ScreenCrush
Criticwire Grade: A

Photographed by Mihai Malaimare Jr. in gorgeous 70mm, the near-extinct celluloid format traditionally reserved for only the most expansive of widescreen epics, "The Master" was the unlikeliest of intimate character dramas. It offered much more than a tawdry tell-all about the origins of Scientology -- although "tawdry tell-all" is actually a pretty accurate description of the "processing" technique practiced by cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as he fires questions at the animalistic Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) in an attempt to unlock his full psychic potential. For viewers, the processing continued long after "The Master" ended; few movies in 2012 left so much tantalizing food for thought.

1. Holy Motors
Directed by Leos Carax
Read my review at ScreenCrush
Criticwire Grade: A

The best film of the year, and the best encapsulation of the year in film. For better and for worse, this is cinema circa 2012, from the sad end of celluloid to the endless possibilities of digital. Denis Lavant gives the best eleven performances of the year as Oscar, a man who travels through Paris adopting the roles of nearly all of its inhabitants. Back in September, I called "Holy Motors" the best dream you'll ever have without falling asleep. Three months later, I still don't want to wake up.

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More: 2012 Critics Polls, Top Ten Lists


  • Ben H | December 19, 2012 3:06 AMReply

    Great list as always Matt. Loved all the choices and I hope you can tackle Holy Motors on SVU soon. I'm not sure what I thought of it, but I do know one thing: that accordion jam session may be the best damn scene of any film this year.

    The only choice I disagree with is Argo. Then again you kind of hate love it. Bizarre.

    Oh and thanks for Cabin in the Woods love. It was such a damn enjoyable film from top to bottom.

  • Krazy Joe | December 18, 2012 12:53 PMReply

    2012 was just an AWFUL year for movies. It feels like nothing good came out this year.

    Avengers was the year's best with Cabin in the Woods at # 2.

    Dark Knight Rises and Looper were ok.

    Mostly it was just a year of disappointment.

  • CL | December 17, 2012 6:13 PMReply

    David Denby is actually of Mayan descent. Not a lot of people know that.

  • John Gilpatrick | December 17, 2012 2:34 PMReply

    Matt! I'm bummed you didn't mention Sleepless Night. You turned me on to the film, and it's still among my favorites this year.

  • grunter | December 17, 2012 12:55 PMReply

    The description (here) and trailer for "Holy Motors" tells me absolutely nothing about the film. I, therefore, have no impetus to watch.

  • Matt Singer | December 17, 2012 3:31 PM

    If you want more details about HOLY MOTORS, I encourage you to read my full review of the film. You'll find a link to it in the header of that blurb.

  • BrianZ | December 17, 2012 1:27 PM

    Agreed, that is an accurate description of the film.

  • Grego | December 17, 2012 1:19 PM

    Also, the description is entirely accurate.

  • Grego | December 17, 2012 1:17 PM

    Oh ye of little faith. A man says its great. That's always been enough to spark my interest as I wouldn't want to miss out on a potentially great film no matter what its about.

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