Oscar Watch

‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ & More: 20 Best Movies of 2012 (PHOTOS)

From ‘Les Miserables’ to ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ Marlow Stern ranks the best movies of the year.

By Marlow Stern 


As with most years at the cinema, things got off to a pretty dreadful start with forgettable films like One for the MoneyJohn Carter, and That’s My Boy, and yet, following an awards-season onslaught of impressive fare, 2012 has morphed into one of the best years at the movies in quite some time. From the magical realism of Beasts of the Southern Wild to Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the CIA’s exhaustive hunt for Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, here are The Daily Beast’s best movies of the year.

Jay Maidment / Warner Bros.

20. ‘Cloud Atlas’

Directed by Larry Wachowski and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix Trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), this epic saga is based on the bestselling novel of the same name and, at a budget of $102 million, is one of the most expensive independent films ever. The film stars a bevy of actors—Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whiskhaw, and Doona Bae, among them—playing various characters (in various, silly costumes) across six interrelated storylines set in six different time periods. While not all the threads work, several—like the futuristic Neo Seoul segment—shine in this, the most ambitious, glorious mess of a film this year.

Sony Pictures Releasing

19. 21 ‘Jump Street’

Many were skeptical when it was announced that Jonah Hill was spearheading a film remake of the cult TV series 21 Jump Street. But the movie, about two young patrolmen (Hill and Channing Tatum) who must go undercover at a high school to foil a drug operation, is one of the funniest films of the year, thanks in large part to Tatum’s surprisingly stellar comedic chops, and the overall chemistry between the two leads. The movie also features the most hilarious cameo of the year.

IFC Films

18. ‘Your Sister’s Sister’

This almost entirely improvised film from mumblecore vet Lynn Shelton (Humpday) centers on a depressed scholar (Mark Duplass) who is still mourning the death of his brother. The deceased’s former flame, played by Emily Blunt, invites the grieving brother—also her pal—to spend some time by himself at their family cabin. When he gets there, however, he’s shocked to find her sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) there. Things soon get very awkward very fast in this well-acted screwball comedy featuring droll, naturalistic dialogue.

Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Pictures

17. ‘Argo’

Ben Affleck’s transformation into a full-blown, A-list Hollywood director is complete with this, his most daunting task to date. The true story centers on a CIA exfiltration expert (Affleck) who’s tasked with springing six members of the U.S. Embassy in Iran from the country during the Iran Hostage Crisis. To do so, the embassy workers disguise themselves as a production team scouting locations for a sci-fi film project, Argo. It’s briskly paced, suspenseful, and expertly made—even if it’s an example of Hollywood patting itself on the back a little bit.

John Bramley/Summit Entertainment

16. ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’

Author Stephen Chbosky chose to adapt his epistolary bildungsroman into a feature film and chose the perfect set of actors to do so. Set in a Pittsburgh suburb in the early ’90s, it has Charlie (Logan Lerman) as a high school freshman—and pariah. He has no friends. One day, however, he’s taken in by Sam (Emma Watson) and her stepbrother, Patrick (Ezra Miller), a pair of popular, free-spirited seniors, and Charlie begins to come out of his shell. The performances are excellent across the board—especially Miller as the closeted, capricious Patrick—and the ’90s soundtrack is so good it’s worth purchasing as a stocking-stuffer.

Diyah Pera

15. ‘The Cabin in the Woods’

Written by Avengers director Joss Whedon, this underrated gem offers one of the most inventive takes on the horror genre in years. You’ll never see the twists and turns coming, and the last 20 minutes are downright insane.

Sony Pictures Classic

14. ‘Rust and Bone’

It all sounds a bit crazy on paper. An orca trainer (Marion Cotillard) loses her legs in a freak on-the-job accident and falls for an immature, single father-cum-street fighter (Matthias Schoenaerts). But with French auteur Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) at the helm, the film transforms into an erotic, gritty-impressionistic mélange boosted by an Oscar-worthy performance by Cotillard as the disabled trainer.

Jose Haro/Summit Entertainment

13. ‘The Impossible’

Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage), this film about a family’s harrowing ordeal during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami contains a too-strident score and a few horror-movie clichés, but the acting is top-notch, including Naomi Watts as the injured mother, Ewan McGregor as the father in search of his wife, and incredible newcomer Tom Holland as their courageous young boy, and the 10-minute tsunami recreation itself is one of the most impressively made disaster sequences in film history.

Ron Phillips

12. ‘The Dark Knight Rises’

Nonbelievers picked apart the final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s noirish Batman trilogy, but no other film offered as much bang for your buck this year. Sweeping action sequences shot in IMAX, a ripped Tom Hardy breaking the Caped Crusader’s back, Anne Hathaway’s silky, leather-suited Catwoman, Michael Caine’s pronunciation of “Fernet Branca,” and … Marion Cotillard. Why so serious?

Jafar Panahi Film Productions

11. ‘This Is Not A Film’

This Iranian documentary by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb was so clandestine, it was smuggled from Iran to the Cannes Film Festival in a flash-drive hidden in a birthday cake. Panahi is under house arrest in his apartment, awaiting his appeal of a six-year prison term and 20-year filmmaking ban for “propaganda against the regime.” He documents life confined in his apartment and then has his co-worker, Mirtahmasb, film him. It’s a fascinating, timely, and haunting portrait of exile inside Iran, as well as a masterful act of political and artistic defiance.

The Weinstein Company

10. ‘Django Unchained’

Quentin Tarantino has become a master of historical wish-fulfillment fantasies, and this time, it’s not the Nazis getting their comeuppance, but brutal, racist slave-owners in the antebellum South. A German bounty hunter by the name of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) recruits Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave, to help him find the Brittle Brothers and collect the large bounty on them. In return, Schultz agrees to assist Django in freeing his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from the clutches of a vicious slavemaster, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who gets his jollies hosting Mandingo fights. While it runs about 20 minutes too long, this spaghetti-western/black comedy is a splendidly acted, effortlessly cool barrel of laughs that warrants repeat viewings.

Open Road Films

9. ‘End of Watch’

What first seems like a routine inner-city cop drama soon morphs into a fascinating study of male camaraderie under the most trying of circumstances, as two LAPD cops (Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena)—and best friends—find themselves squaring off against Mexican drug cartels that have spilled into southern California.

Magnolia Pictures

8. ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’

David Gelb’s mouthwatering, operatic documentary centers on Jiro, an 85-year-old man regarded as the world’s greatest sushi chef who operates Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 3-star Michelin restaurant in Tokyo with 18 seats that’s situated off a subway platform. The film chronicles Jiro’s quest to make the perfect piece of sushi, along with his two sons, both sushi chefs struggling to escape from behind their father’s considerable shadow. After seeing this film, you will immediately run out and grab some sushi.

Strand Releasing

7. ‘Oslo, August 31st’

Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier’s last effort, 2008’s Reprise, was one of the best films of that year and his sophomore effort doesn’t disappoint. Anders, 34, is granted day leave from an Oslo drug rehab clinic to attend a job interview, but after he torpedoes it, he spends the rest of the night exploring the streets of Oslo, encountering many people from his past along the way. It’s a fascinating portrait of a lost generation that bears more than a few similarities to Joyce’s Ulysses.

The Weinstein Company

6. ‘The Master’

Shot in eye-catching 65mm by arguably the most technically proficient director around, Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights), The Master follows a charismatic mystic, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and based on the life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who indoctrinates a troubled WWII Navy vet into his budding cult. Anderson’s latest is a hallucinatory treatise on greed, corruption, and manipulation—and the second film, following There Will Be Blood, in his American Dream series.

Les Films du Losange

5. ‘Amour’

Auteur Michael Haneke’s (The White Ribbon) exquisitely shot, intimate French- language drama about an elderly man forced to nurse his wife following her debilitating stroke is one of the most heartbreaking, staggeringly realistic depictions of love—and old age—ever put to film. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and has a great shot at being the first foreign-language film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar since 2006.

Jonathan Olley/Columbia Pictures

4. ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s follow-up to their Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker chronicles the CIA’s decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. It’s an impressive piece of cine-journalism that conveys—in painstaking detail—the paranoia, tragic missteps, and morally questionable practices carried out by the U.S. in the wake of 9/11 in what is arguably the best film yet dealing with the War on Terror.

The Weinstein Company

3. ‘Silver Linings Playbook’

No filmmaker handles familial dysfunction better than David O. Russell (The Fighter) and here, he gets career-best performances out of Bradley Cooper as a bipolar goon acclimating to life outside of a mental hospital and Jennifer Lawrence as the no-nonsense firecracker who gives him the kick in the ass he needs. Robert De Niro also turns in his best effort in years as Cooper’s loving, Philadelphia Eagles-obsessed father. The film as a whole is a fascinating exploration of the relationships between a sports team and a city, a father and son, and two lost souls searching for meaning in this crazy, mixed-up world.

Universal Pictures

2. ‘Les Miserables’

This outstanding movie-musical is the first cinematic work to do justice to Victor Hugo’s masterpiece. Director Tom Hooper’s follow-up to The King’s Speech boasts soaring renditions of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s beloved ballads. While Hugh Jackman (Valjean), Eddie Redmayne (Marius), and Samantha Barks (Eponine) impress, it’s Anne Hathaway as the fallen woman Fantine who steals the show. Her version of “I Dreamed a Dream” will even give Susan Boyle the chills.

Fox Searchlight

1. ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’

Benh Zeitlin’s stunning debut centers on Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a philosophical 6-year-old girl who lives with her tough-love father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in “The Bathtub”—the Katrina-ravaged southernmost community in the Louisiana Bayou. When a terrible storm comes, it melts the polar ice caps, unleashing a group of prehistoric creatures called Aurochs. Amid the chaos, and her father’s dwindling health, lil Hushpuppy goes off on an epic journey in search of her long-lost mother. This drama-fantasy, made for under $2 million via a string of nonprofit organizations and shot on grainy 16mm, offered the most stunningly original, captivating movie-going experience of the year. It’s a beautiful paean to post-Katrina Louisiana, with one of the greatest child performances in film history, courtesy of the plucky Wallis.