Squeaking by with an Obama-size victory margin, Paul Thomas Anderson's thrillingly strange The Master tops our Film Critics Poll this year, ahead of Kathryn Bigelow's electrifying hunt-for–bin Laden procedural, Zero Dark Thirty. Although set some 60 years apart, both films offered portraits of a traumatized America trying to reassert itself in the aftermath of a grueling war, the button-pushing “processing” sessions of the former echoed in the “tough interrogations” of the latter. Both filmmakers are also prior poll winners, Anderson in 2007 for There Will Be Blood and Bigelow in 2009 for The Hurt Locker. But the true victor here is Megan Ellison, the billionaire's daughter who financed The Master and ZDT, despite their length, complexity and the spotty box office records of their uncompromising directors. May she live long and prosper.
In an even closer contest, only a single point separated Bigelow's film from third-place finisher Holy Motors, an ecstatic return to form by French critics' darling Leos Carax , which emerged prizeless from this year's Cannes Film Festival but here easily trounced the official Cannes winner, Michael Haneke's Amour (No. 6). Starring the chameleonic Denis Lavant (who placed second to The Master's Joaquin Phoenix in our Best Actors contest) as a shape-shifting man of mystery who cycles through a dozen different identities over the course of a single day, Holy Motors was also one of several strong finishers that directly referenced the filmmaking or film-viewing experiences in a year when critics (in these pages and elsewhere) continued to debate whether cinema was dead, dying or perhaps being reborn.
Whereas Carax's freewheeling sketch film grew out of his inability to find financing for a litany of stalled projects, Jafar Panahi's equally ingenious This Is Not a Film (No. 5, and winner of Best Documentary) was inspired by a different sort of artistic paralysis: the 20-year filmmaking ban imposed by Iranian authorities on the director in 2010. Shot for a few thousand euros on a “prosumer” digital camera and ultimately smuggled out of Iran on a zip drive hidden inside a cake, Panahi's whatsit (digifilm? unfilm?) could be considered the antithesis of The Master, which Anderson chose to shoot in the nearly extinct 70mm film format long ago used for road-show engagements of big-budget musicals and wartime epics. (In order to screen The Master properly, some cinemas had to renovate their projection booths.)
Meanwhile, Hungarian master Béla Tarr issued his self-professed cinematic swan song, The Turin Horse (No. 8), on black-and-white, 35mm film stock, featuring apocalyptic images of windswept desolation that at once recalled D.W. Griffith and anticipated the “Frankenstorm” Sandy. Another celluloid purist, Portugal's Miguel Gomes, whipped up a heady brew of old-school cinephilia and postcolonial reckoning in the half-silent, all-intoxicating Tabu (No. 10). Also placing among the top 10 were Wes Anderson's return to live-action filmmaking (and his biggest hit since The Royal Tenenbaums), Moonrise Kingdom (No. 4), Nuri Bilge Ceylan's nocturnal policier Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (No. 7), and Steven Spielberg's microcosmic biopic Lincoln (No. 9), which complemented ZDT in its study of the slow, serpentine crawl of progress through the corridors of American government.
Presumed Oscar heavyweights Life of Pi and Les Misérables finished a distant No. 32 and No. 56, respectively, while Peter Jackson's 48-frames-per-second The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey earned just one mention — as worst film of 2012.
As usual, the official results tell only a partial tale. If we fire up the venerable Passiondex™, J. Hoberman's patented algorithm for divining the films that elicited the most fervent feelings (pro and con) from the electorate, a new hierarchy begins to emerge. Taking into account only the weighted ballots (76 of the 86 cast), the Passiondex multiplies a film's average score by the percentage of voters who deemed it either the No. 1 or No. 2 best film of the year or picked it as the worst.
Applying this Hobermath™ to the top 20 films in this year's poll, Quentin Tarantino's exuberant slavery burlesque, Django Unchained (No. 17), immediately leapfrogs to the top of the list, followed by Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, The Turin Horse, The Master and Zero Dark Thirty. Also getting a major Passiondex boost, David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis (No. 16) rises to sixth place and Jacques Audiard's maritime melodrama Rust and Bone (No. 20) moves up to seventh.
But if the Passiondex calculation is extended to the entire poll, a most unlikely “winner” emerges: comedian Bobcat Goldthwait's reality TV send-up, God Bless America (No. 53), cited by four of its five voters as either the single best or single worst movie of 2012. Add it to your Netflix queue and decide for yourself.
In other results, Rachel Weisz repeated her New York Film Critics Circle win as Best Actress in Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea (No. 11), while The Master racked up additional victories in the Director and Supporting Actress (Amy Adams) columns, and Tony Kushner notched a win for his Lincoln screenplay. Despite having its share of vocal detractors, Benh Zeitlin's post-Katrina fable Beasts of the Southern Wild (No. 13) easily claimed Best First Feature.
But the man of the hour — and the year — is clearly Matthew McConaughey, who bested Lincoln's Tommy Lee Jones in the Supporting Actor race with his performance as the serenading strip-club impresario in Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike (No. 25) and also earned votes for his work in Richard Linklater's Bernie (No. 18) and William Friedkin's Killer Joe (No. 33), as well as multiple mentions in our Breakthrough of the Year category.
Back in 2008, reviewing McConaughey's “performance” in the limp adventure comedy Fool's Gold, I wrote, “There's something depressing about watching a 40-something refugee from a Jimmy Buffett concert spend two hours of screen time trying to get rich quick.” This year, though, the actor was nothing short of exhilarating each and every time he appeared on-screen, and there is more to come in 2013, with the promise of a juicy supporting role in Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street and the lead in a longtime pet project, The Dallas Buyers Club, about a homophobic Texas electrician diagnosed with AIDS. This alone feels like a reason to believe in the future of movies.