Best New York Times Ratings Explanation Capsule Review
Slowly but surely, the New York Times movie critics have been slipping in sharp, short, and often withering assessments in the italicized space used to describe a film’s MPAA rating. A.O. Scott shines with a wit that’s often missing from his reviews, as he does in his write-up on Wreck-It Ralph: “Some crude language and violence enacted by (and visited on) digitally created replicas of digitally created replicas of imaginary beings.” Manohla Dargis never veers too far from the format, though for Atlas Shrugged: Part II she offers the enigmatic “Philosophy and ideology” to explain its PG-13 rating; Stephen Holden, for his part, isn’t even trying. Jeannette Catsoulis, on the other hand, regularly peppers her entries with vivid details like “Bloodstained sheets, a foam-covered pubis and, that’s right, breasts,” for Jack & Diane, and, for Gone, the succinct “Rotten teeth and worse logic.” The year’s best capsule, however, goes to Rachel Saltz, whose sentence-fragment pithiness all but obliterates the need for an actual review. On Save the Date she writes, “Awkward foreplay and an erection in boxer shorts, which leads to sex scenes, which lead to problems committing.” — Genevieve Yue

Best Against-All-Odds Performance: Clarke Peters in Red Hook Summer
One mark of a superb actor is his or her ability to shape a character from raw material. Or in the case of Clarke Peters’s performance as Bishop Enoch, to be able to create something human, bold, and distinct from what on the page must have looked nigh impossible. One can only imagine how many major actors might have read Spike Lee’s screenplay and passed, wondering how on earth they could play this part, a kind, tough-love man of God and father figure who is climactically exposed as a pedophile. The film vacillates wildly between treating him as avuncular and demonic, wise and deluded, honorable and corrupt, and while this creates an effectively ambiguous character, one gets the sense that Lee himself didn't reconcile what he was trying to say with him or with this film. That said, Peters matches Lee’s ambivalence with commitment, step by step. It’s downright heroic work, fashioning one of the most rounded (terrifying, loving, pitiable, resilient) people seen onscreen this year from a dubious outline. —Michael Koresky

Best Time Spent Watching Paint Dry: The Extravagant Shadows
“It’s like watching paint dry” has been lobbed pejoratively at more films than any of us will ever know, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before a crafty filmmaker decided to confront the phrase head-on, and show us just what actually watching paint dry might be like. Enter David Gatten’s thrilling The Extravagant Shadows, which is, for nearly three hours, a single master composition of paint, dozens of colors of it, each applied one at a time, drying on glass. It’s this, yes, but also text, music, the most exciting maximalist meta-narrative since last year’s Historias extraordinarias, and a marvelous ode to the written word offered by the medium that’s supplanted it—in short, a true movie spectacular all within the bounds of a single frame. —Jeff Reichert

Clunkiest Denouement: Cosmopolis
For a while, Don DeLillo’s hard-angled, amusingly pretentious dialogue and David Cronenberg’s slick, alienating direction are simpatico. And as the rich blank Eric Packer, Robert Pattinson scored the role he was born to play. The opening scenes in Packer’s limo are relentlessly talky, full of disorienting techno-biz jargon and self-satisfied, satirical rants about changing the dominant world currency from paper money to rats (“U.S. is establishing the rat standard.”) It isn’t profound, but it’s its own weird thing, something like if Cronenberg directed Glengarry Glen Ross. Then some corpses start accruing, the Occupy-nodding riots flare up, Packer finally gets that ugly haircut, and the film has nowhere left to go. So we get . . . Paul Giamatti with a towel on his head. The long, concluding sequence is straight from the novel, but that doesn’t excuse its thudding anticlimax, or the casting of an actor in a role that encourages all of his most obvious tics (darting eyes, sudden volume shifts). Giamatti’s Benno Levin, a former employ of Packer’s turned lone wolf terrorist, is insecure, shouty, sweaty—an angrier version of the actor’s glowering Harvey Pekar in American Splendor. This unpleasant (and armed) caricature is assigned with indicting all of Packer-ian capitalism in an extended diatribe full of “this sick society” declarations (e.g. “Your whole waking life is a self-contradiction!”) that are meant to blow minds like heavy truth bombs. Instead, the scene just drapes a soggy towel on the film’s once-burning embers. —Justin Stewart

The Please-for-the-Love-of-God-Find-This-Film-a-U.S.-Distributor Award: Target
I want to collect everyone who’s ever accused modern cinema of lacking new ideas, crowd them into a single theater, and play them Russian director Alexander Zeldovich’s Target from start to finish. You can practically picture Zeldovich himself chuckling in the back row, every five minutes whispering, “Betcha didn’t think of this!” Target is almost as much of a blast to describe as it is to watch: a two-and-a-half-hour dystopian epic centering around six bored, intrepid aristocrats and their search for an underground fountain of youth; based—spiritually if not literally—on Anna Karenina; featuring copious, often crazed sex, goggles that let their wearers “see” the moral worth of people and objects (blue is evil; red is good), the worst house-party-gone-horribly-wrong this side of Viridiana, and the drinking of blood on live TV. That it also managed to be one of the year’s most sensitive reflections on aging and loss, and one of its most penetrating studies of human nature, is confounding in the best possible way. The breadth of Target’s ambition is matched only by the size of its heart—and, right now, by its almost total lack of availability. Whoever picks up this one will, if nothing else, look pretty red through my good-and-evil goggles. —Max Nelson

Most Unexpectedly Haunting: Bernie
It could have devolved into Christopher Guest-esque regional satire or Fargo-cribbed crime comedy, but Richard Linklater’s beautifully bizarre Bernie instead proved to be the year’s most unexpectedly humane film. Jack Black brilliantly walks a delicate line in his enigmatic portrayal of the real Bernie Tiede, a mortician beloved in his hometown of Carthage, Texas, who murdered a not-sweet little old lady, played in the film in a remarkably unsentimental performance by Shirley MacLaine. Black is neither fool nor fiend as Bernie, his likeability as undeniable as his sexuality is inscrutable; matching Black for disturbing ambivalence, Linklater refuses to judge this man, instead letting a Greek chorus of actual Carthage residents (with some actors mixed in for good measure) give their “unbiased” testimony about this sociopath-or-sweetheart. Despite having the trappings of a familiar black comedy, Bernie doesn't feel quite like any movie I’ve seen; a picture of a community unable to make sense of a hole at its center, Linklater’s film neither condemns nor exonerates any of its principal figures, letting us laugh at the existential absurdity of their situations, not their selves. —MK

Possibly the Best Thing about Movies in 2012: No More Harry Potter
Possibly the Worst Thing about Movies in 2013: More Hunger Games

Best Original Song: Not Fade Away
Forget the anguished tonsil hockey of Les Miz: the Christmas season's most affecting (and infectious) song sequence takes place in David Chase’s Not Fade Away, as the New Jersey garage band The Twylight Zones audition for a New York pop power broker. The song, entitled “The St. Valentine's Day Massacre.” offers a concise lyrical precis of frontman Douglas’s (John Magaro) tempestuous teenage romance with classmate Grace (Bella Heathcote): “Who'll be the last lover standing come St. Valentine's Day?” he sneers with the draggy, faux-Dylan delivery that has already endeared him to scores of suburban house-partiers. The music, written by Chase's old Sopranos compadre Steven Van Zandt, is a perfect approximation of late sixties jingle-jangle (think The Byrds with a little more tiger in the tank), and Chase edits the sequence in accordance with its driving, propulsive rhythms. The repeated shots from over the agent's shoulder seem to be inviting the audience to judge the boys' performance along with him. His reservedly charitable assessment is necessary for the film to play out its parable of rock ‘n' roll dreams held in check by reality, but if it were up to me, I'd draw up the Standard Rich and Famous Contract right away. —Adam Nayman

Best Musical Performance: Entr’acte, Holy Motors
Was there a sequence more thrilling or more alive with possibility? If Holy Motors seemed to constantly challenge, transform, and upend our expectations, this musical interlude, a single take featuring Denis Lavant, an accordion, and an ever-growing parade of revelers, provided the most exuberant example of what it means to step out of the box...or limo... —Chris Wisniewski

Lemming Award: Everyone Who Put John Carter on a Year’s Worst List
Let’s be real, folks: There was nothing wrong with Andrew Stanton’s John Carter that wouldn’t have been corrected by doing away with all the industry pundits who were against it before it even opened. This far-better-than-serviceable rehashing of totally warmed-over material was absolutely slaughtered by “journalists” crowing about test scores before any critics and most audiences had actually seen it in a fashion the likes of which we may not have witnessed since Ishtar. It was more than a little disgusting, though perhaps not as tacky as those who decide to kick poor Andrew Stanton when he was down and reserve spaces for John Carter in their year’s worst lists. Gang, choosing a film like John Carter, lovingly crafted, possessing of more than a few ideas, sincere and, yes, far from perfect, over the numerous crass studio abortions that shuttle in and out of theaters week after week isn’t a sign of sharp critical faculties so much as slavish allegiance to manufactured commercial media narratives. —JR

The Trying-Too-Hard Award: Robert Zemeckis for Flight
The full frontal stewardess. Denzel’s gut prominently hanging over his lap. That bizarre interlude behind the scenes at a porn studio in which addict Nicole tries to score. Her pissed-off landlord-cum-supplier, acting like an extra out of True Romance. The woozily shot overdose in Nicole’s crummy apartment, unsuccessfully set-designed to look authentically bedraggled. And all this happens within the first fifteen minutes. Ok, Bob, we get that this is your gritty adult film after three motion-capture animations in a row, but you are trying a little too hard. To borrow a phrase from Michael York in Cabaret, “You’re about as fatale as an after-dinner mint.” —MK

Can’t Take Our Eyes Off Her Award: Amy Adams, The Master
We’ve loved Amy Adams from her first scene in her breakout film, Phil Morrison's Junebug. We never would have guessed, though, that Adams would have become one of our most versatile and surprising actresses. As exceptional as Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are in The Master, Adams is the one who consistently stole the frame and lingered in the memory. With all that acting going on, how is it that Adams—seemingly a spectator to the movie's testosterone-fueled histrionics—managed to make such a powerful impression? Deftly playing off the image of naive, girlish decency she cultivated in movies like Junebug and Doubt, Adams was all quiet, chilly resolve and calculating determination. Her Peggy Dodd is terrifying; Adams is so good it’s scary. —CW

Discovery of the Year: Allison Torem in The Wise Kids
Stephen Cone’s emotionally generous American independent The Wise Kids, following the tentative first steps into confusing adulthood of three young friends in a Southern Baptist community in Charleston, South Carolina, offers a trio of lovely, internalized lead performances. But none cut as deep, or felt more lived-in, than Torem’s as the least immediately likable of the bunch, Laura. During their last year before leaving for college, Brea (Molly Kunz) and Tim (Tyler Ross) are coming into their own by discovering, respectively, their religious skepticism and their homosexuality; Laura, however, remains immutably pious, unable to reconcile her friends’ evolutions with her ingrained beliefs. Torem has the trickiest role; unlike Brea and Tim, she has no emotional outlet and no discernible changes to speak of, and can only court our sympathy by letting her inner conflict play across her face. In a particularly riveting bit of acting, Torem turns a casual café meeting with a future college roommate into a small symphony of self-loathing, doubt, and tremulous hope. In a film of fragile children making their way into an unfamiliar world, with this scene Laura—so seemingly full of conviction—becomes the one we worry about most. —MK

Best American Indie: Starlet
Once upon a time one could reliably purchase a ticket for a film made in the United States on the cheap and not be treated to a heaping helping of condescension, amateurism, and/or manufactured quirk. Enter Sean Baker’s Starlet, a low-budget American independent film that succeeds on the basis of self-effacing craft and warm humanism. It’s the kind of movie that you don’t notice is truly great until it’s over, when the cumulative effects of its sun-kissed L.A. images, most of them focusing on the unlikely friendship that develops between a twenty-something porn actress and an octogenarian woman living alone, fully kick. There’s nothing shocking or particularly unpredictable about Starlet, it doesn’t seek to rock any aesthetic boats or challenge its viewer, but in its quiet belief in the worthiness of cleanly told, character-centered storytelling, it may have delivered one of the year’s more radical recent cinematic statements of purpose. —JR

Best Opening Sequence: Resident Evil: Retribution
For a few harrowing days back in September, the emergence of Paul W. S. Anderson as an auteurist fetish object was an issue of central importance to film culture (whether this would have happened if he hadn't happened to share a first and last name with a certain other American director whose high-profile film was begging to be brought down a few pegs is certainly worth considering). As candidates for the canon go, Mr. Milla Jovovich offers at best a modest case, but that doesn't mean that we can't give it up for the brilliant overture of the fifth (!)Resident Evil movie, in which an all-out assault by paramilitary forces on an aircraft carrier unspools in ecstatic reverse slow-motion. The impressiveness of the physical choreography is matched by the ingeniousness of the formal conceit, which sets unfathomable carnage in motion only to implacably smooth it over, one languorously un-fired bullet at a time. —AN

How Prometheus Should Have Ended:
Upon finally being born, the alien-we've-all-been-waiting-for turns to the camera, opens its double-decker maw a bit, and winks at the camera. Freeze frame, credits roll, cue the ragtime music.

Most Infantilizing Indie Rom-Com Award: Take This Waltz
In this year’s “women-centered” films, otherwise smart and soulful actors babbled their way through the growing pains of adulthood, i.e. their thirties. In Friends with Kids, Jennifer Westfeldt flirted with her BFF baby-daddy Adam Scott by weighing hypothetical death scenarios, though the pair’s forced whimsy only underscored their detachment from the gravity of actual life (with the notable exception of a disturbing, red-eyed rant by Jon Hamm as narratively jarring as the slaughterhouse scene in Strike). Greta Gerwig’s broad pout, seen in numerous films, was especially prominent in Lola Versus, where just about anything, from a run-in with her ex-fiancé to the mere mention of high fructose corn syrup, could set off that jutting lower lip. Rashida Jones’s baby corn masturbation schtick in Celeste and Jesse Forever was less odious, perhaps, because she was at least trying to move past the infantile intimacy of her relationship with Andy Samberg’s Jesse (who buckles down and grows up faster than anyone expected). The worst of this baby talk, though, came from Michelle Williams in Take This Waltz, a film apparently set-directed by Playskool. Certainly, as the most talented actor of the group, Williams is capable of far more depth than the treacly “I wuv you” she uttered, twice, to her new beau. It’s not that these films were without sensitive examination of women’s lives, or that seriousness should exclude a sense of play (Lena Dunham’s Girls is right on the mark in this sense), but why did these actors, or their directors—in some cases the same woman—strive so hard to deny their maturity? Judging by their improbably large apartments, not to mention the complete absence of financial struggle, it would appear that these women are fully capable of supporting themselves, at least in a fictional, hyperbolized movie sense. So why, when it comes to the men in their lives, do these straight, white, and well-to-do women suddenly become infants, leaving the rest of us to clean up the gooey, cooey mess? —GY

Best Actress (or Not): Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
However much we've admired Jessica Chastain in Take Shelter, The Tree of Life, or The Help, none of those performances, nor the actress's extraordinary talent, can make up for a criminally underwritten central role in Kathryn Bigelow's overpraised bin Laden epic. Mark Boal's screenplay fails Chastain systemically and consistently, to the point that when one of her new superiors bemoans her spunk and gravitas by declaring her a “pain in the ass,” we're left thinking “really?” Talk about telling and not showing. Yet somehow, probably because she is, after all, a twentysomething actress in the midst of her coming out, this has been deemed award-worthy.
Best Actress (for real): Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
This was a year of splendid female performances (we haven't forgotten you, Rachel Weisz), but none left so indelible an impression as Riva. Sometimes, dying with something less than grace seems to require a level of grace we could hardly expect of even the most marvelous and talented of actors. Riva's performance was more than fearless, more than powerful, and in its ferocious understatement, more than simply exceptional. —CW

Elegance in Filmmaking Award: The Innkeepers
Ti West made good on the promise of the fantastically chilling The House of the Devil with this shivery follow-up about two hotel employees and amateur paranormal investigators looking for ghosts on the last weekend before the haunted Yankee Pedlar Inn closes for good. With its arsenal of terrific old-fashioned scares, superb sound design, and effortlessly endearing lead performance by Sara Paxton, The Innkeepers is such a good time that one may miss just how impeccably crafted it is. This is pleasingly clean, even courtly cinema, with an emotional maturity to match its spatial and compositional integrity. If all these terms make the film sound dull, it’s anything but: it’s a reverent bit of horror moviemaking steeped in classicism that also feels very much the work of an auteur. The slow-building tension and release may not be as radically handled as in his prior film, but they both offer the pleasing sensations that only a well-constructed horror film can give. Keep your eyes peeled during that last shot, and rewind it if you have to. —MK

The King's Speech Award for Worst Cinematography: Les Misérables
Shot for shot, moment for moment, no movie was as unbearably hideous. Les Misérables wins this award not simply because it looked worse than any other movie but because, like Hooper's The King's Speech before it, it looks this way (distorted faces in close up and wide angle, ad nauseam, with nary a non-CGI'ed establishing shot anywhere) by choice. —CW

The Alfred Molina Award for Overacting: Michael Shannon in Premium Rush
Shannon bugs his already buggy eyes out of his head like a Tex Avery big bad wolf in his turn as a crooked cop who really wants to stop Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s bike messenger from delivering a letter in David Koepp’s very silly Premium Rush. Shannon seems to be having a lot more fun than anyone else on screen—and presumably anyone in the theater. Sweating, spasming, and screeching, Shannon is so berserk as the wonderfully named Bobby Monday that he forgets to be threatening, perhaps the most piss-taking and least frightening bad-guy performance since Alan Rickman’s fey Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The result is a film that feels like it has little at stake; the upside is that amidst a sea of video-game-aping POV effects, he provides the film’s most bizarrely watchable element. —MK

Toughest Break: Nature Calls
Film critics should always stick to reviewing the completed work at hand, but I’d love to just once be able to bend the rules and review the hysterically strange version of Todd Rohal’s Nature Calls that exists in my mind. Alas, even though his 2011 Catechism Cataclysm was a nothing-like-it-whatsit that felt totally necessary as American Indie continues to trudge lamely down the path of yawning predictability, his attempt at a Boy Scout epic only fitfully rises to its Kentucky Fried potential. It feels trod upon, by major actors out of their comfort zones, by hands other than the director’s concerned with niceties like taste, by the strictures of the genre it’s strenuously trying to lampoon. That Nature Calls ends up more than halfway watchable suggests we shouldn’t give up on Rohal’s brand of weird just yet. Here’s hoping this detour gets him back on his road. —JR

The Academia Award: Footnote
Israeli director Joseph Cedar’s terrific tale of an epic rivalry between father and son Talmudic scholars who find themselves in competition for the same major prize surprisingly generated more natural, scene-for-scene suspense than any film I’d seen this year. Though decked out in a series of too-cute formal gestures that seem cribbed from the Wes and P.T. Anderson playbooks, and pushed along by a driving score that’s far too quick to underline nearly every emotion (between this, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Hope Springs, this was certainly a year for too much music), Footnote is still a thrillingly incisive, almost unaccountably entertaining takedown of the cutthroat microcosmos of academia. It makes a bitter competition that is essentially a tempest in a teapot into a drama of major moral consequence, enacted superbly by Shlomo Bar'aba as the elder Professor Shkolnik and Lior Ashkenazi (Late Marriage and Walk on Water’s sexpot, unrecognizable under a hefty, pretentious beard) as his more populist-leaning son. This is a triumph of storytelling, plain and simple, enlivening potentially rarefied subject matter without dumbing it down. —MK

Best Kinda-Remake That Wasn’t The Deep Blue Sea: Oslo, August 31st
New Rule: You are no longer a “non-actor” when you have more than five IMDB credits. That tag stuck with Anders Danielsen Lie in some of the press and criticism relating to Oslo, August 31st, in which the erstwhile doctor and musician is the suicidal young protagonist fresh out of drug rehab. Fact is, Lie’s an actor, and a fine one, judging by his internalized, silently despairing turn here. Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s 1931 novel Le feu follet has now inspired two differently excellent films—Louis Malle’s 1963 The Fire Within and Joachim Trier’s looser, equally despondent but less unabatingly bleak update. The Malle film included a café scene in which our man overhears civilians judgingly muttering about his obvious alcoholism. Trier bests that, in a knockout scene in which Anders sits calmly, eavesdropping on a variety of conversations. The banalities he hears (a teen girl’s bucket list, food chat) reach us through his filter of hopelessness, but Trier isn’t facile enough to force the presumption that Anders’s pessimism is the final correct truth. Oslo, August 31st, beautifully shot and sound-designed, builds genuine empathy for Anders’s mortal choice while never once endorsing it. —JS

Best Excuse for Solipsism: Keep the Lights On
Worst Example of Solipsism: This Is 40

WTF Was That . . . I Loved It: Alps
Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth seemed like a model of narrative clarity and linearity compared to his follow-up, a jarring, allegorical depiction of grief that exists in some ungodly limbo between whimsy and suffering. For at least the first two-thirds of Alps, I had literally no idea what was going on: the members of some sort of self-help (or athletic or musical?) quartet hire themselves out for abstract purposes, while maintaining disturbingly strict codes of conduct. Lanthimos’s methods of narrative withholding in this film are nearly pathological. There’s simply no context—in the story or in our world—for what we’re seeing. But eventually you feel it—the pieces more or less fall into place, and we realize this bizarre world is more or less our own, with the most minor alterations in time and space. —MK

Where You Least Expect It Award: Hope Springs
Evidence that even prepackaged studio products can offer a variety of significant pleasures, Hope Springs provided a portrait of withering matrimony as lived-in and authentic as one could hope for. Meryl Streep adds Nebraskan to her ever-expanding repertoire of subtly rendered accents as a likable everymom type who dreams of rekindling a romantic spark with her taciturn, furrowed-brow husband, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Both are exquisite. Even when playing opposite Steve Carrell (reining it in) as a sex therapist Streep tasks with fixing their marriage, the two stars never mug, strain, or fall into easy caricature. Even if David Frankel’s prefab-feeling film around them has an air of unthreatening lightness, Streep and Jones inhabit their roles with remarkable conviction and frank seriousness. They momentarily convince us that reinvigorating their sex lives in their sixties is a matter of utmost importance. —MK

Best Supporting Actress (Just Kidding): Cody Horn, Magic Mike
Was there a less charming performance this year? Called upon to alternate between playing the humorless heavy to a charismatic love interest (Channing Tatum) and serving as an oddly dopey audience surrogate at Mike's male revues, Horn (her dad is the chairman of Disney and the former president of Warner Brothers, don't you know?) was a cinematic buzz kill—her every reaction shot felt like dead weight, moralizing grimaces and hollow smiles that did nothing to improve on a thankless role.
Best Use of Mise-en-scène: Matt Bomer, Magic Mike
Despite infuriatingly minor screen time, Bomer was often tucked somewhere in the frame, giving Channing Tatum a run for his money in the effortless sex appeal department. All is forgiven, Cody.

Palme d’orca: Rust and Bone
Not since Free Willy jumped with all his might has a killer whale figured so significantly in a feature film as the main cetacean in Rust and Bone. The disorienting editing of the scene where a Marineland orca leaps onstage and—apparently—causes the entire edifice to collapse on the shapely legs of trainer Marion Cotillard is effective as it very much leaves open the question of whether the tragedy was an accident or if the massive mammal was taking its cues from 1977’s Orca, a sobering tale of whale-on-human revenge. Did Cotillard’s character taunt her six-tonne charge by waving a fish in its face one time too many? Was the orca tired of hearing Katy Perry's “Firework” blared at top volume through its habitat? Is the whale a metaphor for the cruel capriciousness of fate? Okay, chances are Jacques Audiard would be happy to run with that last one, and when the big lug returns for a final close-up—swimming up to the aquarium glass to gaze at his now paraplegic former colleague—he silently steals the movie from his award-trolling human co-stars. —AN

Least Welcome ‘Toon: Argo
For anyone who doubts that Hollywood can at times condescend to its audiences, witness the animated prologue of Ben Affleck’s Argo. In case you didn’t know, the nation of Iran was once the empire of Persia, and is a strange and beautiful place ruled by emperors called “shahs.” This info is a crucial prerequisite for the film’s dramatization of one part of the 1979 hostage crisis, which is also primed for us in this flavorsome sequence done in a style meant to evoke the art of the storyboard. The conceit makes sense, considering this is more a film about the magic of filmmaking than it is about politics—literally in which Hollywood heroically swoops in and rescues a handful of American citizens. Yet there’s something about this historical primer’s combo of pedantic voice-over, faux-Middle Eastern wailing score (by the ubiquitous Alexandre Desplat), and ‘toons, that made me feel as though I was being treated suspiciously like a child. —MK

Supporting Actor MVP: James Ransone
I didn’t recognize Ziggy from The Wire in his role as a pot-addled wannabe porn-industry player in Sean Baker’s excellent Starlet. Mea culpa: I’d also forgotten James Ransone as the sadistic teen who murders his grandparents in Larry Clark’s Ken Park, which hopefully has more to do with the 32-year-old’s ability to utterly disappear into his roles than my own fading memory. (And who could forget Ken Park?) But, trapped at a press screening for Scott Derrickson’s mostly dopey (though in some corners ferociously admired) horror film Sinister, I perked up when I saw Ransone’s name in the opening credits, and I wasn’t disappointed. Cast as a flustered small-town deputy who becomes a sort of factotum for Ethan Hawke’s haunted true-crime novelist, he’s so likeable and winning—within the confines of the part rather than in excess of it—that he not only breaks up the po-faced monotony of the proceedings but raises hopes that the story might jettison its supernatural elements altogether and just follow him around on his beat. —AN

The We’re-Still-Shivering Award: Kill List
Franchises go home: the scariest movie this year had, thankfully, nothing to do with cheap surveillance cams or moralizing torture scenarios. British director Ben Wheatley gave horror a much-needed jolt of allegorical and moral heft with his jarring Kill List, which I saw well over a year ago and still haven't been able to shake off. Initial talk about the film centered on its status as a hybrid object, combining the realism of the talky domestic “kitchen-sink drama” with surreal occultism; but all I can strongly recall now is the queasy emotional effect it had on me. That final twist, which makes more sense on a metaphorical level, but still feels sickeningly, vividly real, provides the kind of punch-in-the-gut missing from other recent films of the genre. —MK

Didn’t/Don’t Care of the Year: Looper
Rian Johnson’s Looper generated so much critical saliva in the weeks preceding its release that it was hard not to feel wet and sticky every time you saw its title online. Sure, the thing had a mildly intriguing time-travel premise (and it seems by-now received wisdom that the guy who brought us Brick all those years ago is worth our full attention), but it never seemed in these parts much like something to breathlessly anticipate so much as endure on arrival. The film itself, though not without a few well-placed twists (located especially in its finale, reminiscent of Take Shelter in its portrait of Americana in danger), was wholly anonymous on the level of shot-making, which did admittedly leave more time to admire Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s spot-on Bruce Willis impersonation and cringe at the rather extreme amounts of violence, most of it, save one striking moment, largely gratuitous. How to account for its movie-of-the-moment status? Perhaps that label is all-too apt: a few months from the moment I screened it, I can barely remember a thing about it. —JR

You Get What You Wished For Award: The Cabin in the Woods
I spent a lot of time over the past decade wishing a film would come along to take our culture to task for its lust for torture and degradation; that a filmmaker would have the cojones to slap its audiences on the wrist for craving the dismemberment of PYTs. But then Cabin in the Woods came along to remind me that moralizing meta-movies aren’t, in fact, very good. —MK

Most Welcome Return to a Form I Never Thought I Missed in the First Place: The Fitzgerald Family Christmas
When I sat down to watch the new Ed Burns film (on DVD, on a laptop, and on a train, no less), the last thing I expected to receive was a cinematic hug. Like some kind of middlebrow Long Island mother’s milk, Burns’s return to the milieu and performers that launched his career almost two decades ago (!) delivers exactly what it needs to: solid performances, hangdog charm, easily telegraphed story arcs, minor-key lukewarm drama, and perhaps the most authentic production design of the year. Anyone who’s visited a middle-class home on Long Island (or Staten Island, or Long Beach Island) around the holidays has been in these homes, seen these stockings, these tree ornaments. Sometimes it’s the little things that matter most, and the sight of Ed Burns tentatively romancing Connie Britton lit by the neon of an ungussied Irish dive suggests the string of low-key charmers that the career of Ed Burns could have produced. Or maybe they’ve been like this all along. . . . anyone here seen one of his films since The Brothers McMullen? —JR

Movie We’re Most Sad We Never Reviewed: Neighboring Sounds
Movie We’re Most Glad We Never Reviewed (tie): Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter / Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope / Project X

Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Vamps
Amy Heckerling’s witty and wonderfully acted supernatural comedy about a pair of female vampires (Alicia Silverstone and Krysten Ritter) un-living in contemporary New York City has its lightly reactionary aspects—Silverstone’s character Goody, who was born in the 19th century, bemoans the proliferation of social media and cell phones—but it also displays a reverence for the history of cinema that’s more productively nostalgic. It’s funny when Goody indignantly mesmerizes a clueless record store clerk into ordering a poster for The Public Enemy, since James Cagney has been her favorite pin-up boy since the 1930s, but it’s also touching to see how her fandom has survived several generations’ worth of (pop) culture shock. Goody is old enough to remember when the movies literally felt like magic. While Heckerling is still a comparative whippersnapper at 58, it’s hard not to detect a kindred affection for the medium despite her own movie’s (literally) impoverished aesthetics. Budgetary restrictions aside, Vamps displays its share of filmmaking smarts (like a time-lapse montage borrowed from George Pal) and is stuffed with Film Studies 101 gags, including what must be (and probably will remain) the only pillow-talk exegesis of Sigfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler ever committed to digital video. —AN

Most Improved: Documentaries
I jest, but this was a year in which works of “cinematic nonfiction” (to use a nice term I ran across recently in an article by filmmaker Robert Greene) seemingly proliferated, or at the very least finally started to steal the spotlight from nonfiction works that adhered more closely to a journalistic tradition. Films like Abendland; Only the Young; Tchoupitoulas; It’s the Earth, Not the Moon; Robinson in Ruins; The Waiting Room; and Two Years at Sea (several of them, thankfully, given real theatrical runs courtesy of the always invaluable Anthology Film Archives) were all lovely viewing experiences, keenly attuned to place and the passing of time, categorically real yet wholly fabricated, and barely a talking head in the bunch. They feel like the next step forward for that brand of in-between film that’s been percolating around the margins of cinephile culture for the last few years now. More like this, please. —JR