Looking Back: Ben Chooses His Favorite Film Performances of 2012

December 24, 2012

Joaquin Phoenix

We're already well underway with our year-end retrospectives for 2012 on film, with Ethan having chosen the best official movie posters, six surprisingly great movies, five biggest disappointments, and all of us choosing the worst of the year as well. We've also looked forward and chosen the 30 movies we'd be sad to miss if the world ends, and we'll have plenty more coverage for you over the next week or so. But now, I'm going to throw my hat in the ring and give some shout-outs to a few of my favorite film performances from 2012. There's no distinction between actor and actress here, just my favorite performances. Read on!

Denis Lavant in Holy Motors

Denis Lavant in Holy Motors

Holy Motors is certainly not for everyone, and I wasn't even sure it was for me until about halfway through the movie. That was when a delightful accordion intermission put a huge smile on my face and I totally surrendered myself to the movie, letting Leos Carax's strange vision sweep over me like a runaway train. Denis Lavant's lead performance is staggering and magical at the same time, and I was absolutely mesmerized as I watched him stay steadfast and committed as he slipped in and out of ages and genders, and also playing one of the weirdest characters I saw on film all year as "Merde," a character he's actually portrayed before. The film is a celebration of acting, and Lavant's triumphant performance both hammers home that point and completely opened my eyes to the wonders of what is possible for actors to accomplish.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Smashed

Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Smashed

Winstead, a great actress with a very hit-or-miss filmography, found a fantastic script to showcase another of her excellent performances with James Ponsoldt's Smashed, in which she plays an alcoholic named Kate who tries to get her life back on track. Like the film itself, Winstead is raw and unflinching here, unafraid to imbue her performance with real devastating emotion instead of hinging on cliche and melodrama to get the job done. Kate is damaged goods, and the normally-cheery Winstead disappears into the character, giving her a powerful sense of intensity that shines whenever she's on screen.

Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

Where the hell did this come from? I mean, Joaquin Phoenix has been good in the past, but even when he played Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, he didn't have to transform himself as much as he did to become Freddie Quell in The Master. And make no mistake, Phoenix totally became this man, a hunched, squinting child trapped in a man's body who is aggressive, unsophisticated, and violent. It's a titanic performance like nothing else captured on film this year, and regardless of what you thought about the movie as a whole, there's no denying that Phoenix did the best work of his career in this one.

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

Here's the pick you knew was coming from the second you read the title of this piece. It now seems passé to praise Daniel Day-Lewis' performance since it's so obvious that he's utterly amazing in Lincoln, but just because his greatness is obvious doesn't mean we shouldn't acknowledge it again here. He's a rare, once-in-a-generation performer whose legendary off-camera dedication to his art adds more to the man's mystery with each passing film. Not only has he never given a bad performance, he's never even given a performance that's just OK; as Abraham Lincoln, he brought a humor and humanity to one of America's most iconic figures and gave us a glimpse into the man's life in the most historically accurate way we may ever see.

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Even though we already know how things play out, Zero Dark Thirty is riveting and intense thanks in large part to Chastain's fiery performance. Her character Maya is often quiet and contemplative, but she refuses to back down in her quest for bin Laden and dramatically stands her ground to officers and officials that outrank her. This performance is some of Chastain's finest work in her blazingly fast rise to the A-list, as Maya emanates the steadfast dedication and conviction that she has to do what is necessary in order to get things done. Say what you will about the film's stance on torture, but Chastain does a great job of showing us the exhausting effects a ten year hunt can have on someone's psyche.

Mark Duplass in Safety Not Guaranteed

Mark Duplass in Safety Not Guaranteed

Playing the character of Kenneth Calloway in Safety Not Guaranteed requires an extremely sensitive distinction between crazy, mentally challenged, or eccentric. Err on the wrong side of that distinction, and the entire movie is shot. But Mark Duplass nails it, imbuing Kenneth with a sincerity that makes you root for him despite his quirky and occasionally illegal behavior. He's endearing, not embarrassing, and he makes it look effortless. I've seen the movie twice this year, and both times it gave me chills; he gives this character poignancy and comedy in equal measure, and those who think he's better behind the camera than in front of it should look no further than Safety Not Guaranteed to find a pleasant surprise.

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook

I'm going to cheat on this last one and list both Cooper and Lawrence here. The banter their damaged characters exchange practically sizzles on screen, and though Lawrence has received most of the awards buzz so far, I believe this is the best Cooper has ever been. His Hangover-esque swagger vanishes in favor of a vulnerability that we haven't seen him display before, and even during his over the top outbursts, there's a certain level of charm that keeps us drawn to this character. He also knows when to dial it back, keeping the tone light when it needs to be. Lawrence is radiant, the opposite of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype we've seen so often throughout the years. She's strong, sensual, and direct, but she also gives Tiffany a sensitivity that doesn't weaken her character or make her rely on a man for happiness. You get the feeling that she'd have been just fine if she never came across Cooper's Pat character, but the fact that these two meet in a classic Hollywood love story wrapped in modern trappings makes the film all the more enjoyable.

That wraps it up for this one. Remember, this isn't a complete list of every brilliant performance of the year, just ones that I personally loved. I could have easily listed a few more - Channing Tatum in 21 Jump Street comes to mind - but I haven't seen every 2012 release I wanted to yet (I'll have to catch Les Miserables and The Promised Land sometime after Christmas). Plus, I wanted to leave room for you guys to sound off with your own selections in the comments below. What were some of your favorite performances of 2012? Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises? Fran Kranz in The Cabin in the Woods? Tell us!

Find more posts: Discuss, Editorial



Javier Bardem in Skyfall

piemaster on Dec 24, 2012


true! a master at work!

avi on Dec 24, 2012


Noomi Rapace in Prometheus and Ben Wishaw in Cloud Atlas

Jon Odishaw on Dec 24, 2012


No Quvenzhané Wallis? A shame, imo best performance of the year by far, the girl has a gift like very few others Ps: no matter your religion or tradition, i wish you all a very happy holidays with your family and loved ones, merry christmas everybody on Firstshowing

Ricardo_PT on Dec 24, 2012


Yesss she was fantastic. That film will be close to the top of my own Top 10 of 2012 anyway. Hope she gets an Oscar nomination as well.

Alex Billington on Dec 24, 2012


Denzel in Flight

Hazedmind on Dec 24, 2012


You nailed it Ben! Some of my favorite performances as well. Denis Lavant in Holy Motors - ohhh yea, one of the greatest performances beyond just this year. Winstead was outstanding, Joaquin was incredible, Chastain and Duplass as well. You really hit all the big ones. I would add Javier Bardem from Skyfall and Quvenzhané Wallis from Beasts, but other than that, this is just about perfect.

Alex Billington on Dec 24, 2012


Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained. Especially Waltz though.

Jeff W. on Dec 24, 2012


Great picks! I also loved Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva in Amour.

Lil on Dec 24, 2012


Such a great movie safety not guaranteed and Mark duplass did a killer job in it! Javier Bardem should be in this list and also the digital tiger from life of pi! Amazing cgi and the new standard for everything digital!

avi on Dec 24, 2012


Great list. It was a good year for performances.

Isildur_of_Numenor on Dec 25, 2012


all very predictable picks

gr on Dec 25, 2012


Matthias Schoenaerts in Bullhead. It's an understated performance, not an explosion but an implosion.

Lucifer on Dec 25, 2012


Spot on with Cooper and Lawrence, great performances, great movie. I teared up at the end, #nohomo.

Branden on Dec 25, 2012


No love for Amour?

Davide Coppola on Dec 26, 2012

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