The Ten Best Performances of 2012

Our picks for the finest acting of the year, regardless of gender, genre or size.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

All the major awards shows give their acting awards based on the size of the role, and the gender of the actors who performed them. They also, although it’s not officially one of the rules, almost always go to “important” movies, eschewing genre films altogether even though it takes just as much talent, if not more, to craft a character in an unrealistic universe than in an utterly plausible one. CraveOnline doesn’t make these distinctions, and even though most of actors who made our Ten Best Performances of 2012 coincidentally turned out to be from independent films, there are a few mainstream surprises that wound up, in our eyes at least, being some of the most remarkable roles of the year, regardless of little details like whether they were “supporting” or not. 

Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe

Matthew McConaughey’s acting career hit an unexpected peak in 2012, with acclaimed performances in Bernie, Magic Mike and Killer Joe, the latter of which giving him one of the best and most memorable characters of the year. Although he’s an amoral scumbag, “Killer” Joe Cooper still emerges from the trashy cast of William Friedkin’s crime thriller as the voice of rationality – if not exactly reason – by entering into a family of monstrous lowlifes when they hire him to kill another relative so they can collect the insurance money. When that goes all pear-shaped, he deconstructs their history of failed decisions in an extended, brutal finale that tears them apart but lays all their secrets bare. McConaughey’s calculated, chilling portrayal of a monster who only seems reasonable because of this specific context is the actor’s most impressive work to date.

Ezra Miller in The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Ezra Miller already blew us away in last year’s We Need to Talk About Kevin as the sociopathic child who forced his mother to question every single aspect of his upbringing. This year, Miller did a complete about-face with a lovable but heartbreaking turn as Sam, a teenager dealing with outsider issues and his own homosexuality within a high school culture unprepared to deal with him. Sam’s strength in the face of adversity makes him seem like a mere heroic ideal until events transpire that reveal the fragility and doubt behind his noble façade. Ezra Miller circumvents the clichés and in the end creates a truly honest character to believe in and care for.

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

The absolute forward momentum of Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t afford its star a lot of big speeches and backstory, making it all the more impressive that Maya – the CIA operative in charge of finding Osama bin Laden – feels like one of the richest creations of the year. Jessica Chastain reveals the complexities, frustrations and imperfections of her character through the way she does everything except explain herself; or to put it another way, she reveals every single thing you need to know about this person from a matter-of-fact “to do” list. It’s an incredible piece of acting.

Dwight Henry in Beasts of the Southern Wild

Dwight Henry is not a professional actor – he actually owns and runs The Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café in New Orleans – but you’d never know it from his debut performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild, in which he plays Wink, the father of a young girl dealing with the fallout of a massive hurricane that floods their entire community. Beasts of the Southern Wild is told entirely from his daughter’s perspective, so Wink’s own journey through hopelessness, denial and physical deterioration is conveyed only through moments that his daughter, and by extension the audience, never fully understands, but Wink nevertheless feels like a complete and tragic character unto himself; equally heroic and selfish, wild and honorable, paternal and thoroughly unreliable. In a word: “human.”

Cécile de France in The Kid with a Bike

American audiences know Cécile de France best as the strong and unpredictable lead in the breakout 2003 horror film High Tension, but the Belgian actress really turned our heads this year in The Kid with a Bike, a decidedly more subtle film with some of the best performances of the year. Cécile de France stands out from the rest as a hairdresser who agrees to care for an abandoned child on the weekends, demonstrating the patience of a saint while still clearly conveying the frustrations involved with loving someone emotionally incapable of appreciating you for it. It’s an unforgettable performance in one of the best films of the year.

Jake Gyllenhaal & Michael Peña in End of Watch

Don't consider this a tie, consider it an appreciation of indelible teamwork: Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña each received the best roles of their career so far in End of Watch, a cop drama about two partners whose lives get increasingly complicated as a major drug ring moves onto their beat. Their casual chemistry together, genuine appreciation for each other’s strengths and failings and their intimate sense of humor makes these characters a rare sight indeed: believable best friends. When the film’s climax tests their mettle as police officers above and beyond the call of duty, it’s the work that Gyllenhaal and Peña have put into making them genuine human beings that gives End of Watch its true dramatic weight. Individually, they each do great work. Together, they make End of Watch an unexpectedly remarkable film.

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

It may seem like a cliché now to laud Daniel Day-Lewis for a standout performance, but we’ll stop doing it when he stops doing such amazing work. Lewis’s performance as Abraham Lincoln delicately balanced the president’s historical legacy, personal failings and seldom-portrayed political genius while still making him seem like the kind of guy you’d want to get a beer with. Playing off of one of the best ensemble casts of the year, Lewis headlines Spielberg’s Lincoln with the same focus and dignity that made his previous performances in My Left Foot, Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood some of the best in history.

Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

Joaquin Phoenix’s triumphant return to acting after the bizarre method acting experiment that was I’m Still Here features what may be the most daring choices any actor made in 2012. As Freddie Quell, the World War II veteran returning home a broken, sexually-obsessed man who tags along with a burgeoning cult leader played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (an honorable mention if ever there was one), Phoenix crafts an arch physical performance more in-keeping with a classic Universal Horror monster than a recognizable human being. It could have seemed gimmicky, but the profound transformation turns Quell into a unique creation whose strange mannerisms and broken voice illustrate the pain and trauma that the human being beneath them can never seem to articulate. This tricky blend of absolute confidence and a sense of being truly lost makes Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master into the truly harrowing experience it is. Welcome back, Mr. Phoenix.

Ann Dowd in Compliance

Long relegated to minor roles in films like Philadelphia and Marley & Me, Ann Dowd got what may turn out to be the role of her career in Compliance, and indie thriller about a young woman (Dreama Walker) accused of theft by an unseen voice of authority over the phone. Dowd plays her manager, Sandra, and has to convincingly portray a character who makes contemptible decisions and somehow also come across as a helpless victim herself. It’s nearly impossible to earn the audience’s sympathy when only they know your character is being manipulated into incredible heights of moral compromise. Dowd somehow makes her performance seem believable, and becomes one of the most tragic and unforgettable characters of 2012 in the process.

Michael Shannon in Premium Rush &

Clarke Peters in Red Hook Summer

Hear us out on this. Normally when we allow a tie into a “Top Ten” list it’s because there’s an obvious thematic connection, but here we have an unusual case where the two obvious choices for “Best Performance of 2012” are equally exceptional and totally disparate. It feels like a cheat to us too, but damn it, we just couldn't choose.

In Premium Rush, Oscar-nominee Michael Shannon crafts one of cinema’s hungriest scene-chewers as Bobby Monday, a corrupt police officer who will do anything to steal an envelope from a New York City bike messenger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who has no idea what he’s carrying. The miracle in Shannon’s performance is that he achieves such great heights of theatricality while somehow making his supervillain feel like a real person, who just happens to think that he’s the center of the universe and is therefore allowed to act like a cartoon character. Bobby Monday plays a little like Heath Ledger’s Joker, if The Joker didn’t have the talent to back up his manic tirades and instill true chaotic terror. He’s a tragic figure in a hilarious package, and Shannon’s a skillful enough actor to make him into a truly exceptional creation. The fact that Shannon pulled such a great performance out of such a simplistic (albeit great) action movie makes the accomplishment seem all the more impressive.

But in Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer, “Treme’s” Clarke Peters crafts an altogether more complicated character in the form of Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse, a kindly but forceful religious figurehead who inspires practically everyone in his community except his own grandson, Flik (Jules Brown), who was raised in a secular household and can’t quite grasp the true meaning behind Enoch’s charismatic sermonizing. Enoch Rouse somehow catches himself before damaging his grandson’s spirituality forever with his bible-thumping, and subtly and realistically comes to a greater realization of his own about the generational divide that falls before him. That would have been a noteworthy performance on its own, but the third act of Lee’s film reveals unexpected truths about Peters’ character that could have sent Red Hook Summer reeling into unbelievable melodrama, but thanks to Clarke Peters, who carefully modulated his performance the whole time, Enoch Rouse emerges as a tortured, even terrifying soul whose dedication to the good word takes on a whole new dimension. Peters probably gets the most difficult scene any actor had to play in 2012, and he makes it into a horrifying yet wholly believable sequence that cements his status as one of the best and most underappreciated actors working today.

Incomparable performances, both to each other and to the rest of the work done in 2012. See these movies and judge for yourselves.

Honorable Mentions:

Javier Bardem in Skyfall

Dane DeHaan in Chronicle

Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook

Michael Fassbender in Prometheus

Sally Field in Lincoln

Greta Gerwig in Damsels in Distress

Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises

Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables

Salma Hayek in Savages

James Howson in Wuthering Heights

Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master

Jude Law in Anna Karenina

James Ransone in Sinister

Liev Schreiber in Goon

Christopher Walken in Seven Psychopaths

William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.