The Best Movies of 2012

The Avengers

After years of development and no less than five single-character installments to lay the groundwork, 2012 finally saw Marvel yank the sheet off their superhero dream team. Thanks in large part to geek god/writer-director Joss Whedon's pitch-perfect script and spot-on characterization, The Avengers was worth the wait. Christopher Nolan brought his moody, operatic Dark Knight trilogy to a satisfying close this year, but Whedon and co. smashed box-office records by reminding us that, hey, they're superheroes—it's okay to have fun with this stuff. (April Snellings)

Beasts of the Southern Wild

If Benh Zeitlin's boldly original feature debut were a mere allegory, a faux folk parable, its fantastical romanticization of bayou poverty and its childlike viewpoint might prove cloying. But there's a real weight to the relationship between Quvenzhane Wallis' wastrel little girl and Dwight Henry's hard-scrabble dad. Everyone grows up, everyone dies—it doesn't get much more really-real than that. (Lee Gardner)

The Cabin in the Woods

It's been a fantastic year for horror movies, but Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's long-awaited monster mash-up still managed to hoist its severed head above the crowd. The Cabin in the Woods is both a canny dissection of the genre and a glorious resurrection of once-tired tropes. Whedon and Goddard dug up a century of horror-movie clichés, stitched them into something utterly berserk, and jolted their beast to life with a gonzo finale that left no nerdy stone unturned. Who knew the end of the world would be so much fun? (A.S.)

Chronicle

Though the inspired horror anthology V/H/S proved it's still possible for "found footage" movies to surprise and impress, Josh Trank's Chronicle argues best for the gimmick's continued usefulness. It does so by stepping sideways into the superhero genre, blurring the lines between first-person handheld style and slick-ish action filmmaking, and, most importantly, by working from a script full of characters and motivations that lend the film a reality that goes far deeper than its aesthetic. That's no small feat for a film about teenage boys coping with the growing scope (and burning secret) of newfound telekinetic powers, and it says a lot about Trank and screenwriter Max Landis that their unusual intention to tell an honest-to-god story lets their little film stand beside, and in many respects above, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. (Nick Huinker)

Holy Motors

Perhaps the most astonishing film of the year, Holy Motors resists easy encapsulation. It's a live-action one-man anthology film, a treatise on acting (not to mention on an actor's life) from star Denis Lavant, a catalog of outrages and heartbreaks, a weary story of more-with-less work, the seed of an accordion revival, a pageant of meta-ness and giddy surrealism, a two-hour prelude to a conversation between limousines, and so much more, all of it unlike anything else you'll see this year. (L.G.)

Killer Joe

Age has certainly not softened William Friedkin. The 77-year-old director of The Exorcist, The French Connection, and Bug delivered one of the year's meanest films with Killer Joe, a lurid tale of sex and murder set in a decaying Texas town. Friedkin and writer Tracy Letts pile on the sleaze, channeling James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and John Waters in equal measure to tell the pulpy story of a hitman (played to creepy perfection by Matthew McConaughey) who gets a little too involved in the mean-spirited machinations of a dumber-than-dirt family. This sordid, Southern Gothic take on Double Indemnity is joyfully offensive, unflinchingly ugly, and riotously funny; it earns its NC-17 rating in the first two minutes and wears it like a badge of honor for the duration of its running time. (A.S.)

Margaret

Completed in 2006 but held up by dissatisfied producers before opening on only two screens nationwide late last year, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's second feature finally saw a DVD release this year. It's perhaps not as of a piece as his near-perfect debut, You Can Count on Me, but Margaret's ambitions and scope are much more expansive. Ostensibly a story revolving around questions of morality and responsibility in the wake of a tragic accident, this chamber epic explores the ways people can damage loved ones and total strangers, usually without meaning to and often without even realizing it. The entire cast is terrific, but Anna Paquin delivers an especially fully realized, almost disturbing portrayal of an American teenager and the mass of contradictions they can embody. (Eric Dawson)

The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master is everything you've heard. On the one hand it's an elliptical, intentionally challenging film that brushes past the biography of an L. Ron Hubbard stand-in, leaving out the details of his cult, how he came to enthrall followers, and where his story goes from there. But it's also a first-rate American art film, beguiling and thought-provoking from first frame to last, and featuring some of the year's finest—well, everything. In the end, its portrait of the relationship between the two leads (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, the names to beat this awards season) made the biggest impression: Hoffman as a cult leader rather than a cultist, Phoenix as a wandering soul as opposed to just a wanderer, each struggling to be compatible with the other at his own peril. The Master is an unusually mature film about religion, daring to suggest that middlemen may not be the answer. (N.H.)

Moonrise Kingdom

It was undeniably disappointing when The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited suggested Wes Anderson's sentimental side was best kept behind his curtain of trademarked whimsy. But just like that, his latest diorama-for-the-screen, Moonrise Kingdom, (following 2009's delightful palate-cleanser Fantastic Mr. Fox) finds him back in more or less top form. The hallmarks are there: the oh-so-precious shot composition, the curated soundtrack cuts, the twee take on almost-modern life. But in his mostly minor tale of two presumptive lovebirds flying the coop, Anderson has made a film that's at once his most affected and most affecting, free from Rushmore's fragile cynicism, The Royal Tenenbaums' sadness, and the ill-advised emotional push of the films that followed. (N.H.)

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

What seems at first to be a simple police story turns out to be a much more complicated matter in Turkish director Nuri Ceylan's hypnotic Cannes Grand Prix winner. There's not much outward action throughout the film's two and a half hours, but a complex, layered story is told as much by what the characters choose to withhold as much as what they offer; the same can be said for Ceylan's camera. If nothing else, see it for its wonderfully subtle performances and its beautiful, enigmatic final shot. (E.D.)

Oslo, August 31

Joachim Trier's drama is one of the most realistic, sobering depictions of recovery yet rendered on film. Without ever resorting to melodrama, the film empathetically communicates just how difficult the ongoing process of recovering from drug addiction can be, even for privileged middle-class adults with full support of friends and family. Not so much concerned with relapses or the lingering psychological and physiological desire for drugs, Oslo, August 31 instead focuses on the guilt, shame, and self-doubt from which its addict protagonist is unable to recover. (E.D.)

The Raid: Redemption

Just when it seemed there was nothing left to the action genre but musclebound sequels and hack posturing, here comes Welsh-born director Gareth Evans to kick everyone's ass a dozen different ways. Firefights and epic martial-arts battles spill up and down the halls and stairwells—and through the doors and floors—of a grotty apartment block caught between cops and thugs, and almost every single second is kinetically awesome. Bonus points for a story that draws nary an eye roll. (L.G.)