The Best Films of 2012

Top 10 of the Year

1. The MasterPaul Thomas Anderson
2. Moonrise KingdomWes Anderson
3. Holy MotorsLeos Carax
4. Django UnchainedQuentin Tarantino
5. Spring BreakersHarmony Korine
6. The Dark Knight RisesChristopher Nolan
7. SkyfallSam Mendes
8. Frances HaNoah Baumbach
9. AmourMichael Haneke
10. LooperRian Johnson

Best Film

The Master. Paul Thomas Anderson’s formal prowess is on full show here, crafting an enigmatic study of soulmates drifting through a post-war America lost in its identity and direction. Robust counterpoints are constantly drawn between the leader and his follower. When Dodd speaks of humanity’s supremacy over the animal kingdom, Freddie amusingly asks a total stranger if she wants to fuck. When Dodd is arrested for practicing medicine without a licence, he maintains an air of civil decorum, and of course Freddie is right there by his side, refusing to let his friend go down without a fight. It may take a couple viewings to fully grasp the extent of this supreme achievement, but this is an incredibly rewarding allegory of freedom and obedience.

Point and counterpoint in a single image – brilliant form drawn all through the characterisations of The Master.

Most Underrated

Spring Breakers. This can’t find its way onto the TSPDT list, and its Metacritic score sits at 63. No doubt this has more to do with its content than its craft. Some have accused it of essentially being a 90-minute music video, but what a brilliant music video it is, shot with neon lighting in the style of Nicolas Winding Refn (another divisive auteur) and energetically cut together in Terrence Malick-style montages. We are essentially watching one bad decision after nothing, driving this spring break vacation into total chaos like a Gaspar Noé film.

Spring Breakers is what you would get if Terrence Malick and Gaspar Noé collaborated on a music video. The results are both hypnotic and frightening.

Most Overrated

Amour. I’ve got this at #9, and TSPDT has it at #2 above The Master, Moonrise Kingdom, and Django Unchained which is wrong. Michael Haneke’s is coming off his glory days in the 2000s, and although Amour is a powerful, touching, and even disturbing film, it doesn’t touch the formal triumph of Cache or The White Ribbon.

Michael Haneke is coming off his run of great films in the 2000s with Amour. There is actually more warmth and sensitivity here than much of his previous work – but the slow downslide of our main characters is equally tough to watch.

Best Directorial Debut

Nothing. Perhaps I just have more work to do here, but the best films of 2012 are simply full of already established directors.

Gem to Spotlight

The Hunt. It would be easy to push this higher purely based off the gut-wrenching tragedy of the narrative and pure sensitivity of Mads Mikkelsen’s performance, but Thomas Vinterberg’s direction is a little more modest in comparison. The false allegation one young girl makes against an older man in her life without recognising its ramifications call to mind Atonement, though this moves in a very different direction with the main perspective remaining with the accused. The ending leaves a bitter aftertaste and will continue to haunt you for days.

It’s almost like Mads Mikkelsen has two careers – as chilling villains in English language films, and as the sympathetic protagonists in more arthouse fare like The Hunt.

Best Male Performance

Freddie Quell is one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s greatest character creations – a creature of impulse with an instinctive need to follow a leader. In other words, he is like a dog to Lancaster Dodd’s master, and Joaquin Phoenix delivers a studied performance in The Master of ticks, outbursts, and volatile mood swings that escape anyone’s control. There always seems to be some crooked angle in his posture, whether hunched over, bent to the side, or completely splayed out, marking this as the best male performance of the decade. That said, it does go hand-in-hand with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s pompous cult leader, Dodd. Hoffman’s voice is booming, and his portly physique asserts a huge screen presence like Orson Welles. These inverse reflections of each other possess enormous chemistry, bringing Dodd down to a level of casual intimacy that is disparaged by his uptight family, and seeing his façade of perfect self-control slip in moments of shameful, impulsive anger. Tragically, this would be Hoffman’s last appearance in the archives before his death in 2014.

With these two huge performances in The Master out of the way, we can recognise Denis Lavant’s shape-shifting work in Holy Motors as an actor who can never quite be pinned down. He becomes a banker, a beggar, an eccentric homeless man, a gangster – the list goes on, and it is remarkable to watch.

These are incredibly complex performances from Phoenix and Hoffman, acting in perfect harmony against each other.

There are four big performances in Django Unchained that deserve recognition, starting with Christoph Waltz. He is an incredibly controlled actor with a penchant for brilliant line deliveries, which is a match made in heaven with Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue. After him, Jamie Foxx is confident in the leading role, while Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson respectively steal scenes as a pair of twisted villains.

Christian Bale caps off his great work in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy with Tom Hardy, who is presented an even greater challenge of acting behind a mask. Even then, there is a lot in the voice, posture, and movement which sets him up as one of the more memorable superhero villains of the decade.

Jamie Foxx leads an ensemble of magnificent performances in Django Unchained, seeking justice for historical transgressions.

Best Female Performance

It is a disappointingly light category for female performances this year, though Greta Gerwig’s turn in Frances Ha can’t go unnoted. This is a character study of a 27-year-old woman drifting through her youth, insecure about her future, and making impulsive decisions to ward off that uncertainty. In comparison to the nuance and empathy Gerwig brings to this role, we have Amy Adams’ restrained performance as Peggy Dodd, the wife of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in The Master. It isn’t a large part, but it is important to the film – she may be the closest thing we get to a villain as she asserts control over her husband.

Before Greta Gerwig was a great director, she was a great actress, doing some incredibly warm work here in Frances Ha.

Best Cinematography: Moonrise Kingdom

1. Moonrise KingdomRobert Yeoman
2. The MasterMihai Malamaire Jr
3. SkyfallRoger Deakins
4. Spring BreakersBenoit Debie
5. The Dark Knight RisesWally Pfister
6. Holy MotorsCaroline Champetier, Yves Cape
7. Django UnchainedRobert Richardson
8. Frances HaSam Levy
Perfect symmetry and curated colour palettes in Moonrise Kingdom, typical of Wes Anderson’s style, though the cinematography here also sheds a warm, nostalgic glow.

Best Editing: The Master

1. The MasterPeter McNulty, Leslie Jones
2. The Dark Knight RisesLee Smith
3. Moonrise KingdomAndrew Weisblum
4. Spring BreakersDouglas Crise
5. Django UnchainedFred Raskin
6. SkyfallStuart Baird
7. Frances HaJennifer Lame
8. Holy MotorsNelly Quettier
Jagged montages and long dissolves drift The Master through its obscure, lyrical narrative, pulling us into the wandering mindset of its characters.

Best Screenplay: The Master

1. The MasterPaul Thomas Anderson
2. Frances HaNoah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig
3. Django UnchainedQuentin Tarantino
4. Moonrise KingdomWes Anderson, Roman Coppola
5. The Dark Knight RisesJonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
The Master is laden with subtext at every turn, creating meaning the characters themselves aren’t even recognising – “I do many, many things. I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but, above all, I am a man. A hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.”

Best Original Music Score: The Master

1. The MasterJonny Greenwood
2. Moonrise KingdomAlexandre Desplat
3. SkyfallThomas Newman
4. The Dark Knight RisesHans Zimmer
5. Spring BreakersCliff Martinez, Skrillex
6. HerArcade Fire, Owen Pallett
Jonny Greenwood continues his collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson with his eccentric, avant-garde score for The Master.

Year Breakdown

2012 marks a pair of huge milestones for two of our great modern auteurs. It is the year that Wes Anderson delivers his third masterpiece (after Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums), and his first in 11 years. Moonrise Kingdom is his tribute to forgotten children failed by the institutions meant to protect them, from foster parents to juvenile justice systems, and his dioramic style is as heavily curated as ever.

For Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master is an even superior achievement – it is both his fifth masterpiece, and his fourth time making the best film of the year (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood). This streak would be broken with his next film in 2014, Inherent Vice, but nonetheless, this achievement is staggering. Rounding out this year of great directors we also have Quentin Tarantino putting his revisionist spin on the Western genre, Christopher Nolan concluding his Dark Knight trilogy, and Leos Carax continuing along his wild, avant-garde path.

Holy Motors is Leos Carax’s shape-shifting meditation on death and reincarnation, as assured in its direction as Denis Lavant is in his wildly swinging performance.

The Avengers tops the box office and effectively cements the reign of Marvel Studios for the rest of the decade. Too often have they fallen back on their ‘shared universe’ in cheap ways to draw in audiences, but it still feels like something fresh and exciting here in 2012. Right behind this big earner though is The Dark Knight Rises – the superior comic book movie of the year, as Nolan rivals Marvel with a far more artistic vision. Another big draw at the box office is Skyfall, the best James Bond film of the modern era, making this an all-round big year for action movies.

Argo isn’t quite an action film, but its thriller conventions and giant set pieces might place it in a similar category, and Ben Affleck’s Best Picture win for the film points to this as a favourable trend among critics and audiences alike. The Palme d’Or on the other hand couldn’t have gone in a more different direction – Michael Haneke’s Amour is all about long takes and static shots, watching the difficult decline of an elderly couple. This is three years after he won for The White Ribbon as well. Amour isn’t up to the same standard as any of his films in the 2000s (Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher, Cache, The White Ribbon) but it is admirable nonetheless.

Adam Driver would soon become one of the best actors of the decade, but it is here in 2012 where he would start making a name for himself in Frances Ha. It especially notable given his ongoing collaborations with Noah Baumbach, reaching a high point in 2019 with Marriage Story.

Sam Mendes’ direction and Roger Deakins’ cinematography are a perfect match for James Bond, putting forward an incredibly strong entry in Skyfall.

Film Archives

21 Jump StreetPhil LordR
AmourMichael HanekeHR
ArgoBen AffleckR
Cloud AtlasThe Wachowski SistersR
Django UnchainedQuentin TarantinoMS
Frances HaNoah BaumachHR
Holy MotorsLeos CaraxMS
Les MiserablesTom HooperR
LooperRian JohnsonR
Magic MikeSteven SoderberghR
Moonrise KingdomWes AndersonMP
Seven PsychopathsMartin McDonaghR
SkyfallSam MendesHR
Spring BreakersHarmony KorineMS
The AvengersJoss WhedonR
The Dark Knight RisesChristopher NolanHR/MS
The Hobbit: An Unexpected JourneyPeter JacksonR
The HuntThomas VinterbergR
The MasterPaul Thomas AndersonMP
The Perks of Being a WallflowerStephen ChboskyR
To the WonderTerrence MalickR
WadjdaHaifaa al-MansourR
Zero Dark ThirtyKathryn BigelowR
Christopher Nolan is a brilliant editor – but his set pieces in The Dark Knight Rises are virtually unrivalled in the superhero genre.


The Act of KillingJoshua Oppenheimer
Joshua Oppenheimer is no fly on the wall in his documentary The Act of Killing, examining Indonesia’s 1960s genocide fifty years later by contacting its executioners and having them reenact the murders they committed.

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