See the Readers’ Poll in its entirety here.

The Master (#1)

The Master

This is challenging work from a filmmaker who continues to push himself artistically; in 50 years The Master might be as revered as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was unprepared for the enormity of The Master, not in size but in depth. The attention to detail in this film is incredible, not just in the visual aesthetic but in the nuances of the characters. P.T. Anderson nails the tone of postwar America without ever falling into clichés and instead creates a whole new sensibility for the term “lost soul.”

—Ryan Bates, West Hollywood, CA

The Master plays like a shared and compellingly painful, disordering fever between Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd. Anderson follows his instincts like never before to denounce the quest for removing oneself from oneself. His latest is as much about an elusive time and place as it is about a contradictory and recurrent pull between two men, craving and repelling what the other one has, who serve as one another’s provision and poison.

—Joaquin Villalobos, Denver, CO

I fell asleep, but Joaquin is always a treat.

—Alexandra Siladi, Brooklyn, NY

Moonrise Kingdom (#2)

Moonrise Kingdom Wes Anderson

A top-level film from an auteur at the height of his powers. More than anything I value film style, film form, and film authorship and Moonrise Kingdom is soaked in all three of these things.

—Drake Dominici, Grand Rapids, MI

A pop color world of contagious young love and cinematic dreaminess. Call it Wes Anderson’s tween version of Pierrot le Fou. Yes, writer-director Anderson is infatuated with awkward and unrequited teenager love, but he maintains the pulse on the dour aspects of love as well, none more so touching than the short conversation Murray and McDormand share in bed one night, looking up through their ceiling’s skylight. Perfect production design and camera placement aside, Moonrise Kingdom is attuned to all the shaggy, imperfect vagaries of love.

—Joseph Baker, McKinney, TX

Who says a one-trick pony can’t keep things fresh by finding new reasons and ways to deliver those same tricks?

—Mohd Aidil Bin Rusli, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Holy Motors (#3)

Holy Motors

Out of all the movies I’ve seen in the 21st century, none has struck me as more deeply personal (nor more embarrassingly private) than this. Although Leos Carax may not care about aggressively courting critics or even audiences, he still believes, like a child, that movies are magic. And when I watch Holy Motors, I believe it too.

—Michael Smith, Chicago, IL

Carax seems to celebrate cinema as a gateway to unexplored stretches beyond the confines of what’s immediately available to viewers.

—Ann Smiley, Toronto, Canada

Absolutely brilliant in every regard. Denis Lavant is a chameleonic tour de force with Carax’s flawless direction.

—Blaz Mahkovec, Ljubljuana, Slovenia

Zero Dark Thirty (#4)

Zero Dark Thirty Katherine Bigelow

A procedural that carries its morally ambiguous heart tucked uneasily within its coldly rational ethos. Kathryn Bigelow drops us context-free into a world dictated by grisly violence, political subterfuge whose pot of gold at the end of the drone attack may not be worth all the hell and high water, driven home in a genuinely gripping piece of anti-catharsis. Punching out on Jessica Chastain’s cryptic tears, Bigelow teases us with a disconcerting corollary we may never fully realize, let alone be content with. Everyone breaks, bro.

—Wes Greene, Haddon Township, NJ

Argo for grown-ups.

—George Mosley, Vancouver, Canada

Beasts of the Southern Wild (#5)

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Truly creative in mixing Seventies-style grittiness and Garcia Marquez–like magic realism. The performances were impressive and the basic story of resilience was engaging without being manipulative or maudlin. It’s a universal and uniquely American story at the same time. Big props.

—Marcela von Vacano, Lafayette, CA

Quvenzhané Wallis is a pint-sized force of nature, and her performance elevated the film into the realm of poignancy. Who knew that such intensity and believability could come out of a 6-year-old. Wallis hits just the right notes as our unforgettable heroine.

—David Hollingsworth, Fayetteville, NC

Noxious and overrated.

—Juan Olmos, Houston, TX

Django Unchained (#6)

Django Unchained Samuel L. Jackson

Brilliant writing and performances make this a Tarantino stand-out. An epic in every way!

—Dan Pal, Wheaton, IL

So much to nerdily gush over. I don’t need to be the one. Instead, I’ll just thank Peckinpah, Leone, De Palma, and the other filmmakers who inspired QT. In a year packed with standout cinema across the board, this was the last burst of fireworks.

—Tony Larder, Bathurst, Canada

Lincoln (#7)

Lincoln Spielberg

I can’t wrap my head around how Spielberg can go from something as soulless as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, or The Adventures of Tintin, to this. And it’s more than just getting out of the way of a good performance. When he has his head in the game, there are few better at understanding the rhythm of a scene, or how to temper the big emotions inherent in the material. Even if that material teeters into mythologizing hogwash, he can make it all seem so vital and immediate. Lincoln was as important a movie as Zero Dark Thirty, and just as thrilling.

—Jeff Jewell, Howell, MI

A rare picture about the art of politics. A glorious script is anchored by Daniel Day Lewis’s Honest Abe. Its strengths easily outweigh its weaknesses.

—W. Roberts, Philadelphia, PA

Amour (#8)

Amour Michael Haneke

The most carefully and meticulously directed film of the year. Michael Haneke nears perfection with his mise en scène. From the sound of a faucet off screen to the appearance of a pigeon, every nuance of performance, every shot and every sound effect work together toward a greater whole.

—Tom Helberg, Spring, TX

The direct simplicity of this film’s title perfectly represents Michael Haneke’s directorial style. Never has the ending of a lengthy relationship due to natural causes been examined with such purposeful focus and with such unsentimental compassion. These people are very real, their plight at once frightening and yet fully understandable. It plays out for us in a wonderfully disciplined and measured way and leaves our humanity, I think, just a little richer. An immaculate film.

—George Mosley, Vancouver, Canada

The Kid with a Bike (#9)

Kid with the Bike

The Dardennes’ films are always fine but they are especially great when their realism (and shot list) lines up exactly with their symbolism which lines up exactly with their moral concerns. And that happens magnificently here.

—Larry Frascella, Irvington, NY

Silver Linings Playbook (#10)

Silver Linings Playbook David O. Russell

On its surface, it’s just a Hollywood rom-com but David O. Russell infuses it with depth and understanding. He plays by the rules and still creates a complex family filled with idiosyncrasies. Who would have thought the director of Spanking the Monkey could become one of Hollywood’s best directors?

—Gregory Bright, Lincoln, NE

Argo (#11)

Argo Ben Affleck

Plain and simple, this was the best pure film of the year. No other movie provided as tight a plot or good a pace as Argo. Ben Affleck has cemented his status as one of the better major directors working today.

—Kameron McBride, Muncie, IN

Argo is a good movie, maybe a very good movie. It is certainly not a great movie deserving all of the recent award activity. In fact, the argument could be made that it would be more at home as an HBO original movie.

—Kevin Kateluzos, Mechanicsburg, PA

Cosmopolis (#12)


Like Luis Buñuel in his late career renaissance, David Cronenberg continues to amaze with each successive film. This day-long limo journey is as uniquely original as Dorothy’s progression through Oz, and a frighteningly funny parable for our troubled, violent times.

—Steve Striegel, Seattle, WA

I was so disappointed to see Cosmopolis in so many critics’ lists. The movie is like a parody of an art-house film, needlessly pretentious, overwrought and unrealistic. More importantly, the characters were not believable and the story was not insightful. American Psycho did a better job of criticizing rampant capitalism 20 years ago. What a waste of good actors, not including Pattinson.

—Marcela von Vacano, Lafayette, CA

Bernie (#13)

Bernie Richard Linklater

It’s a mystery why this hugely entertaining and formally playful gem by Richard Linklater slipped through most people’s radars. If Miguel Gomes signed this one instead of Linklater, I’m pretty sure tongues would be wagging by now.

—Mohd Aidil Bin Rusli, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey are all great in this delicious true crime/black comedy but the real heart of Bernie lies in the performances of the residents of Carthage, Texas, who essentially play themselves and function as a kind of homespun Greek chorus. The result is so damn entertaining that I didn’t even realize the complex and even troubling questions being posed about morality, justice, and the American legal system by Richard Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandworth until the second time through. Linklater is a national treasure and it is a shame that more critics and audiences didn’t rally behind this great, deceptively small film.

—Michael Smith, Chicago, IL

Looper (#14)

Looper Rian Johnson

Looper has a lot on its mind, eventually turning into a dynamic examination of violence, revenge and that sticky scenario known as time travel. Joseph Gordon Levitt and Emily Blunt are fantastic, and the film itself turns on a dime midway through to reveal a deeper current—one that posits its true genre assertions into murky emotional waters and makes us care for everyone across several dimensions of time and space.

—Joseph Baker, McKinney, TX

The Turin Horse (#15)

Turin Horse

Each long take is a window into an apocalyptically beautiful world from Béla Tarr. It’s also the best movie about potatoes I’ve ever seen.

—Tom Helberg, Spring, TX

The Deep Blue Sea (#16)

Deep Blue Sea Terence Davies

Davies’s melodrama set in postwar London constantly drifts in and out of a distressed woman’s memories and has one of the year’s best performances by Rachel Weisz.

—Ann Smiley, Toronto, Canada

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (#17)

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

I read a thousand pages of criticism about this picture from FILM COMMENT and other sources before actually seeing it, yet none of those wonderful insights and words quite prepared me for the hellish midnight of the soul I was willingly (lovingly?) about to partake in. Nuri Bilge Ceylan weaves a tale that speaks to human morality and mortality in a way that American cinema, mainstream or independent, doesn’t like to think about anymore.

—Brett Scieszka, Brooklyn, NY

As a Turkish-American, I want to issue a public apology to Nuri Bilge Ceylan. It was my hope to see Once Upon in Anatolia. In fact, I have ordered it from Netflix, and it is sitting on my desk. I just haven’t been able to find two hours and 40 minutes to watch it. With all due respect to the late Yilmaz Guney, Ceylan is our Akira Kurosawa and our Ingmar Bergman. He captures the Turkish experience in a very profound way, and he has helped erase the poor image of Turkish cinema around the world, which were due in large part to over-the-top 1970s melodramas. Although I must profess some of those films are an even better guilty pleasure than the likes of Smokey and the Bandit or The Bachelor Party.

—Attila F. “Tilly” Gokbudak, Salem, VA

This Is Not a Film (#18)

This is Not a Film Jafar Panahi

Although it may not even be considered to be a real film, Jafar Panahi’s “home movie” is the most thought-provoking work by any filmmaker in recent memory. Not since Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up has anything better explored the idea of what film, or art for that matter, really is. Panahi’s vision is a testament that imagination and determination are the cornerstones of cinema, not studios and technology.

—Juan Olmos, Houston, TX

Skyfall (#19)

Skyfall Sam Mendes

Easily a top-five all-time Bond made with polish right from the very beginning with the gorgeous title sequence and Adele song. Mendes is the best director to make a Bond movie.

—Drake Dominici, Grand Rapids, MI

Tabu (#20)

Tabu Miguel Gomes

I saw it twice and want to see it as many more times as possible before I die. A perfect film.

—Alexandra Siladi, Brooklyn, NY

Life of Pi

Life of Pi

One of my favorite books of the last five years, done perfectly right. Fun, smart, emotional, hits many high notes.

—Bill Melidoneas, Brooklyn, NY

Movie of 2012 I just didn’t care for at all or understand the love: Life of Pi.

—Michael Martelli Jr., West Hempstead, NY

Magic Mike

Magic Mike

As Mike’s booty-call says to him, “Just shut up and look pretty,” she may be giving us the most self-reflexive line of dialogue in 2012. Who cares about sociopolitical concerns when Channing Tatum’s shaking his ass in your face?

—Wes Greene, Haddon Township, NJ

The Loneliest Planet

Loneliest Planet Julia Loktev

Julia Loktev’s second feature is a gem of wordless landscape poetry punctuated by one brief, yet stunning scene which ruptures the tale of a couple on a hiking trip through the Caucus mountains. This slow burn of a movie really stuck with me for quite a while after it was over.

—Kevin Ringgenberg, Denver, CO


Compliance Craig Zobel

Great performances all around, and while it’s the kind of subject that would have been relegated to movie-of-the-week status twenty years ago, it makes for compelling and darkly funny stuff on the big screen. I don’t understand how people were upset; I was just entertained.

—Tony Larder, Bathurst, Canada



If you were to tell me that the actress who played the blue opera singer in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element would direct a top-notch police drama using intense realism akin to HBO’s The Wire, I would’ve thought you were crazy.

—Ryan Bates, West Hollywood, CA

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas Twyker Wachowski

No other movie this year was more ambitious, and no other movie was more incredible. I don’t think this movie gets nearly enough credit for the epic feat that it is—making six stories into a coherent three-hour movie, with each story intercut.

—Jacob Shamsian, Great Neck, NY

Oslo, August 31st

The final cinematic word on coping or not coping with sobriety. Director Joachim Trier’s go-to guy Anderson Danielsen Lie perfectly plays a recovering heroin addict back from the depths of hell only to discover that the worst is yet to come.

Alan Hoffman, Cicero, IL

God Bless America 

God Bless America Bobcat Goldthwait

My clown-obsessed art-world sister made me watch Bobcat Goldthwait’s first foray into directing Shakes the Clown mere months before his latest effort was released. This new picture isn’t something to be taken lightly, and no matter how much Goldthwait pushes the envelope on common decency, I found his satire of modern America to be serious as a heart attack.

—Brett Scieszka, Brooklyn, NY



Subjective viewpoints seem to have come under scrutiny and even as a weakness, but there is something to be said about a film which is so explicit in agenda and leans so far to the left that even Michael Moore may be inclined to say “more balance.” However what these two documentarians do is extremely poignant.

—Eric Rothstein, Yonkers, NY


Margaret Kenneth Lonergan

In his cacophonous, sprawling, elegiac ode to a troubled adolescent and a city still overcoming collective trauma, Kenneth Lonergan strives to transfer the city’s landscape in its entirety to the screen, and his ambition is realized successfully.

—Ann Smiley, Toronto, Canada

Middle of Nowhere

Middle of Nowhere Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay, the first black woman to win Best Director at Sundance, finds some of this year’s most subtle, surprising, and lived-in performances pinpointing the up-and-down rhythm of two lives kept on pause and spent apart. DuVernay continues to recognize the rhythms of personal growth as her films stay assuredly focused on the transitional space between accepting an unknown future and the lapse of what used to be. The whole of Middle of Nowhere lies in this kind of space and affectingly captures the gradual reassessment of priorities and emotions at one woman’s languid and natural pace.

—Joaquin Villalobos, Denver, CO

General Comments

Despite its usual and expected slate of critical flops (yet, box office successes) as well as miscalculated projects that couldn’t surpass the initial excitement they generated (see: Prometheus, and even Les Miserables), Hollywood came back soaring in with an attractive, polished fare—ranging from political thrillers and procedurals to action flicks—managing to consistently make it in to most major critics’ top tens and to score awards/nominations from various critics groups and Guilds. Needless to say, 2012 has also been a fruitful year for indies. The curse of the Sundance-stapled quirky little flicks left their way to new, original voices such as Benh Zeitlin (just to name one).

—Tomris Laffly, New York, NY

I want to commend the film distributors for getting movies out to the general public in the rural areas. With the exception of Beasts of the Southern Wild, I have been able to see almost all of the award-nominated movies either in the theater or on DVD.

—Gordon James, Canton, IL

Audience members seem more self-absorbed than ever—like the well-dressed young woman who rattled cellophane as she ate from a candy bag during the final scene of Deep Blue Sea. When will people learn they are not in their living rooms but in a public place? I suspect they won’t, and I am not as unhappy as I should be about watching more films on DVD. I still prefer the theater experience, but it is getting harder to have a good and safe one.

—Regina Domeraski, Lyndhurst, NJ

Even with those worn out calls that film is dead, 2012 was a bumper crop year for the cinema. There were thankfully less films that asked if the end was nigh and more films that searched for a higher power or a higher high. Politics and the past crashed the gates of Hollywood as much as cell-phone cameras continued to create havoc for those in power, and those seeking it. Thanks again to FILM COMMENT for consistently being the best American movie magazine out there in print. Keep on fighting the good fight for the sake of film.

—W. Roberts, Philadelphia, PA

I’m a senior in High School, planning on going to college in the fall. As an aspiring filmmaker, this year’s continued shift towards digital photography has me feeling conflicted. The excellent documentary Side by Side made excellent points for both sides of the film-vs.-digital debate. I’m comforted by the notion that digital photography makes it easier to make a movie, but I feel like I may be among the last group of young filmmakers that will learn how to use a film-loading camera, and I don’t want to have missed out on it.

—Mitch Anderson, Rumley, MI

What I never would have guessed one year ago: 2012 belonged to Matthew McConaughey.

—Mixon Robinson, Decatur, GA