The Most Fantastic and Glorious Movies of 2012—and the Worst of the Worst

A trailer-trash opera, a Great Recession movie, bootleggers, Channing Tatum, and an HBO doc top my irrefutable list of “bests.”

<a href=""></a> ; <a href="">kaarsten</a>/Shutterstock

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Okay, time to vent: How many times have you heard someone say that “x” was his “favorite movie” but not what he believed to be “objectively” the best? Someone might very well say that her favorite film from 1996 was Michael Bay’s violent barn-burner The Rock, but when asked what she thinks was best, she would turn to safe Oscar-bait like The English Patient.

This is an infuriating false distinction: “Best” is a relative term, so if something is your favorite film, then it is the best—for you, at least. So if the gore-caked, sleazy, brainless, and shamelessly boob-filled Piranha 3D was far and away your favorite movie of 2010 (as it was mine), then it was by definition the best movie of 2010.

“Best” does not necessarily have anything to do with how intelligent or tasteful a work of art is. It should have nothing whatsoever to do with how many awards it might snag, or whether your friends like it. No special committee is needed to determine the parameters for “best.”

It’s just what felt most precious to you. Have I made myself entirely clear?

Good. With that off my chest, here are my best, greatest, most glorious and fantastic films of 2012. And if you disagree with any part of this list you are objectively wrong. Below, for good measure, I’ve also included my annual “worst of” rankings, plus a few other myriad honors and dishonors.

1. Killer Joe (dir. William Friedkin)

killer joe juno temple

Courtesy of LD Entertainment

It’s nihilistic, morally deviant, unstoppably depraved, and ultimately pointless. But it’s also brimming with smart dialogue, thrilling performances, beautifully crafted tension, and gut-busting black comedy. 

Loser drug dealer Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) hires the pedophilic Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey) to take out his mom. Subsequently, everything goes to hell in a twisted, NC-17-rated handbasket. Killer Joe is a jaw-dropping excercise in trailer-trash opera, and no movie hit harder this year. McConaughey’s performance as the strutting angel-of-death Joe is a master class in combusting psychosis—and by far the 42-year-old actor’s best performance to date.

2. Killing Them Softly (dir. Andrew Dominik)

So what if it bombed at the box office?

killing them softly brad pitt

Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

Along with Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, Killing Them Softly is the best Great Recession movie to emerge out of the film industry to date. (Sorry, Margin Call.) The film uses thieves, mob hitmen, and a decayed corner of post-Katrina New Orleans as a metaphor for the 2008 financial crisis. As the film progresses, archival clips of Bush, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and candidate and President-elect Barack Obama frequently play as background noise in pivotal moments.

The film avoids heavy-handedness by means of style, poetic visuals, and dark wit. Brad Pitt (in a lead role he landed via text message) plays the cynical mafia assassin with a refreshing ice-cold charisma.

(Housekeeping note: I am fully aware that both my No. 1 and No. 2 films of the year have “kill” in their titles.)

3. Lawless (dir. John Hillcoat)

The fact that Shia LaBeouf is actually good in this movie, holding his own alongside heavweights like Jessica Chastain, Gary Oldman, and Tom Hardy, is in itself a minor miracle.

lawless shia labeouf mia wasikowska

The Weinstein Company

Beyond that, Lawless is a savagely attractive crime flick, with unexpected tenderness and shoot-’em-up verve. Just as Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005) transposed the more unforgiving aspects of the American Western to the colonial Australian outback—he also directed The Road, starring Viggo Mortensen (interview here)—Lawless filters the genre’s aesthetic through rural, Prohibition-era Virginia. The screenplay was written by Nick Cave (yep, that Nick Cave), who deftly adapted Matt Bondurant’s novel The Wettest County in the World. The film was co-produced by Sean “Diddy/P. Diddy/Puff Daddy” Combs’ new company, Revolt Films.

Lawless balances family drama and charming romantic subplots with expertly staged stand-offs that would do Anthony Mann proud. Cave’s dialogue bristles with the same rhythm and black comedy of his own post-punk band. The 1920s hill-country backdrop, imbued with a bracingly modern feel, breathes new life into Western archetypes we’ve seen many times over. Also, the soundtrack includes some country-blues covers of The Velvet Undergound, so major bonus points for that.

4. 21 Jump Street (dir. Phil Lord and Chris Miller)

21 jump street jonah hill channing tatum

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

It’s crowd-pleasing vulgarity as pop-art—and the funniest comedy of the year. Channing Tatum and (the Oscarnominated) Jonah Hill are electric as the pair of narcotics officers who go undercover at a local high school. (The movie was adapted from the identically named crime drama that aired on Fox between 1987 and 1991, and launched Johnny Depp’s career.)

Co-written by Hill, the script has sharp satire and politically incorrect digs aplenty. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller kick their knack for irreverence and crisply edited melées into overdrive, with wildly funny set pieces that unfold like The Bourne Supremacy-meets-Pineapple Express.

21 Jump Street was one of the bigger surprises of early 2012: It ditches all trace of late-’80s nostalgia and reinvents the franchise with different characters and an outrageous, gut-busting style.

5. Witness (dir. David Frankham)

The best documentary of the year premiered on HBO in early November. Witness, a four-part endeavor executive produced by Frankham and Michael Mann, follows photojournalists documenting conflict in Libya (this installment directed by Abdallah Omeish), Mexico, South Sudan, and Brazil. The human drama and visceral chills hit like a cannonball, and the rock-solid camerawork and sharp editing flawlessly capture the hellish adrenaline rush.

Check out the trailer:

Enough with the showers of praise. Here now are my nominees for The Worst Movies That Have Ever Movie’d In The Long, Storied History of Movies, 2012 Edition:

That’s My Boy

adam sandler andy samberg that's my boy poster

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

This Adam Sandler movie is actually one of the single most oppressively unfunny things ever made, reaching levels of galling unwatchability that rival 2002’s The Sweetest Thing. If you care about yourself, you will not see this ever. It is tailor-made to be consumed by the kind of grown men who will only eat chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs, and there are times when the film honestly feels like physical torture.

And to add shotgun-to-the-kneecap to injury, Vanilla Ice (Vanilla Ice) plays himself.

Hit & Run

dax shepard hit and run movie

Courtesy of Open Road Films

This monstrously awful Dax Shepard joint features perhaps the lamest prison-rape joke ever committed to celluloid. (The punchline is that the rapist wasn’t black or Mexican, but Filipino.)

Liz & Dick

lindsay lohan liz and dick

Courtesy of Lifetime

When LiLomageddon struck, there were few survivors.

L&D is even more of a trainwreck than that other made-for-TV movie that Lilo was in—the one where Tyra Banks played a human Barbie.

The biggest disappointments of 2012:

Lincoln: It’s being hailed as a motion picture event full of passion and rich history. It’s really just a Hallmark movie with a few bayonets and a lot of Congressional shouting thrown in. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln wastes an astonishingly talented cast in the service of hollow, patronizing audience-and-awards bait.

The Master: Director Paul Thomas Anderson is among his generation’s most gifted auteurs. And that makes it all the more painful that The Master is a film of ravishingly empty beauty, choked off by an untiring indulgence in flat visual metaphor. The nearly three-hour L. Ron Hubbard-inspired affair proceeds with a committed torpor that makes it seem as though nothing is at stake.

The biggest surprises of 2012:

Pitch Perfect: Think of this as the Bring It On of musical comedies, in which Anna Kendrick leads a dysfunctional all-girl college a cappella troupe. Sounds insufferable, right? Well, Pitch Perfect turned out to be one of the year’s most sure-fire crowd pleasers, loaded with infectious remixes and foot-tapping covers of pop songs. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Battleship: At first glance, Battleship seems like it should be the most inexcusable, wretched pile of flabby urethra to crawl out of the film industry in decades. It is, after all, openly advertised as an adaptation of the Milton Bradley board game of the same name. Miraculously, it turned out to be a ragingly dumb good time, and a glowingly patriotic one, to boot. The action sequences involving mean-spirited alien invaders are orchestrated with an unexpectedly balletic flash that cudgels you into smiling like an idiot.

The most noteworthy movie one-liners of 2012:

  • “A bunch of goddamn midgets designed this garage!” — Clint Eastwood in Trouble with the Curve.
  • “WELCOME TO SCOTLAND.” — Albert Finney (after just shooting someone to death) in the Bond movie Skyfall.

And be sure to take note of these three great scenes:

1) Anne Hathaway singing in Les Misérables: For Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the beloved musical, the actors were recorded singing live on set. The real showstopper comes when Anne Hathaway (as Fantine) delivers an outstanding rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” The song is captured almost entirely in one, tight shot. The raw emotion is absolutely devastating.

Here’s a clip from the trailer:

2) The epic mansion shoot-out in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained: In which Tarantino goes the full Peckinpah.

A screenshot of Jamie Foxx doing some large-scale killing:

3) The plane crash in Flight: Robert Zemeckis’ film, starring the reliably awesome Denzel Washington, is a bruisingly gorgeous character study. And the intense plane crash sequence toward the beginning is executed with a bleak visual poetry. The film’s trailer prominently features harrowing bits and pieces of the crash:

Happy New Year in advance, folks!


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