The 25 Best Movie Performances of 2012

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The 25 Best Movie Performances of 2012

Paste’s Best of 2012 series continues through Dec. 31 and is made possible by our friends at Tretorn.

Any year that includes a Daniel Day-Lewis movie is bound to be a great year for acting performances. But with heavyweights like Robert De Niro, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jessica Chastain turning in great showings, the Irish legend had plenty of competition. Will his Lincoln win top Paste honors? Read on and find out.

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25. Channing Tatum in Magic Mike

Tatum famously drew from his own experiences as a male dancer to bring the character of Magic Mike to life. So you know the dancing and the anatomical scenery are going to be top-notch, and they don’t disappoint. But what may sneak up on you is the earnest sweetness that Tatum brings to the more-than-a-meathead role. You come for his abs, but you stay for his very real acting chops. —Michael Dunaway


24. Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained

Ruthless. Feckless. Disgusting. And completely transfixing. —Michael Dunaway


23. Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln

Tommy Lee Jones at times steals the show as the hilarious and outspoken Pennsylvania Republican Representative Thaddeus Stevens, a grumpy old, wig-wearing politician who likes to name-call more than actually debate. —David Roark


22. Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook

Though Lawrence’s work in Winter’s Bone established her dramatic acting chops, and the Hunger Games and X-Men: First Class franchises displayed her action star potential, Silver Linings Playbook adds romantic lead to the résumé. It’s difficult to think of another young actress so ideally positioned to do whatever she damn well pleases in the coming years. —Michael Burgin


21. Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Smashed

Playing drunk must have seemed easy to Winstead compared to the emotional ride that Kate takes to sobriety. She and Paul play brilliantly off each other. You feel that the characters are comfortable with one another—there’s an energy between them. The actors deftly let a sense of unease arise to break up that energy. —Jeremy Matthews


20. William H. Macy in The Sessions

You might think an indie film about a man on an iron lung seeking out a sex surrogate would be a tiresome, dark affair, but director Ben Lewin makes the story seem almost lighthearted at times. One of his major instruments is Macy, who’s simply wonderful as a father confessor with a wry sense of humor and an irreverent mouth. —Michael Dunaway


19. Javier Bardem in Skyfall

This time 007 has to follow the trail of a stolen list of undercover NATO operatives—dangerous information in the wrong hands. Those wrong hands belong to Mr. Silva (Javier Bardem), a nasty cyber-terrorist with a mad-on for MI6 in general and for its director, M, in particular. Bardem’s Silva is a throwback to a more traditional Bond villain, with equal parts creepy sensuality, intelligence and psychopathy, and a touch of physical deformity for good measure. —Dan Kaufman


17. Amy Adams in The Master

It’s no surprise to see Amy Adams disappear into a role—she’s done that consistently for the past seven years—but her performance as the matriarchal string-puller in The Master has an unexpected sinister quality to it. She creates a character who is methodical and calculating, yet whose past and motivations remain mysterious. —Jeremy Matthews

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17. Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea

The Deep Blue Sea is an exquisite showcase for Weisz. Hester is an emotional chameleon, shifting from tough and in control opposite her pining husband to delicate and grasping opposite the distant Freddie. Whether one or the other, it’s a credit to Weisz’s command of her character that audiences keep a rooting interest in Hester, hoping she finds the strength to stand on her own in a bleak, lovelorn world—before the final credits roll. —Jay Antani


16. Ann Dowd in Compliance

Upon first viewing, Dreama Walker’s raw performance is the one that stands out. But as the film implants itself in your mind, it’s Ann Dowd’s wonderfully nuanced portrayal of the “adult in charge” that you can’t get out of your head. —Michael Dunaway

15. Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained

It takes a lot to put in a restrained performance as a revenge-killing former slave, y’know? Especially in a Tarantino film. But to his great credit, Foxx knows the less is more, and the understatement he brings to the role just makes him more bad-assedly heroic in the end. Utterly surprising, and exhilarating.—Michael Dunaway


14. Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained

Can we just start the petition now for a Constitutional amendment requiring Tarantino to cast Christoph Waltz in every one of his films? The man was obviously born to speak QT’s writing. Bonus points for his smirk while saying one of the greatest character names in a film full of them.-Michael Dunaway


13. Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables

Jackman encounters some passages that don’t suit his voice. (Other songs, like “Bring Him Home,” suit it perfectly.) But he’s well aware of his limitations and how to work around them. Most importantly, he understands the emotions behind the music and is able to create a full character from it. —Jeremy Matthews


12. Melanie Lynskey in Hello I Must Be Going

Most recognizable for her recurring role on Two and a Half Men as Charlie’s stalker neighbor Rose, New Zealander Melanie Lynskey burst into film at age 16 with an award-winning turn in Peter Jackson’s exquisite Heavenly Creatures opposite Kate Winslet. Nearly three decades later, her career has taken a markedly different course from her costar’s—recognizable by face if not by name. As a result, she’s woefully underrated as an actress, for her work in Hello I Must Be Going is subtle and tender. —Michael Dunaway


11. Suraj Sharma in Life of Pi

Suraj Sharma’s heartfelt performance as Pi is all the more remarkable considering the rigorous physical demands of the role and all the time he likely had to spend reacting to empty air where the CGI tiger would later be inserted.—Michael Dunaway

Any year that includes a Daniel Day-Lewis movie is bound to be a great year for acting performances. But with heavyweights like Robert De Niro, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jessica Chastain turning in great showings, the Irish legend had plenty of competition. Will his Lincoln win top Paste honors? Read on and find out.


10. Helen Hunt in The Sessions

There’s a disturbing trend of women needing to disrobe to get the Academy’s attention (see Monster’s Ball), but that shouldn’t implicate Hunt’s fine work here—she’s already conquered the Academy’s mountain, anyway. And her performance stands on its own. Her Cheryl is so casually disarming that she helps focus the audience’s attention, as well as Hawkes’ character’s, on the true issues of intimacy at hand. —Michael Dunaway


9. John Hawkes in The Sessions

Hawkes is as wonderful as ever, physically transforming for the role by adopting Mark’s distinct nasal, little-boy voice and lying on a soccer-sized foam ball to achieve the character’s spine curvature. The role wasn’t only physically challenging, however: In the grip of fear, he lashes out at the person he’s hired to have sex with him when she just tries to touch him. He seems wimpy and whiny—unattractive traits that violate voyeurs’ desire that he be stalwart and resilient in his disability. Yet Hawkes also captures Mark’s sensitivity and wit, the aphrodisiacs that ultimately draw women to him. —Michael Dunaway


8. Mohamed Falag in Monsieur Lazhar

It’s about the furthest thing you could imagine from an Oscar-baiting performance. There are no tearful breakdowns, no histrionics, no doorframe speeches. Falag hardly even raises his voice. But the goodness and restraint in Lazhar’s character are present every moment in Falag’s soulful eyes and sad smile. —Michael Dunaway

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7. Robert DeNiro in Silver Linings Playbook

Latter-year DeNiro performances have a reputation for being notoriously hit-and-miss. And although he’s had some underrated gems in recent years (including this year’s Red Lights), the reputation is somewhat deserved. That’s how we find ourselves in the unusual position of being surprised when the greatest actor of his generation turns in such a great performance, as he does here. Whether it’s his co-stars, the source material, or (most likely) the presence of David O. Russell in the director’s chair, the result is subtle, nuanced and surprisingly hilarious—his best work since Jackie Brown. —Michael Dunaway


6. Phillip Seymour Hoffman in The Master

Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of the best actors working today, and this is some of his finest work. His performance has an unmistakable magnetism that makes it easy to understand why people follow Dodd. The most interesting thing about him may be his draw toward Freddie, a man whose unpredictability could ruin the religious empire he’s trying to build. Perhaps establishing control over Freddie would be the ultimate achievement. —Jeremy Matthews

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5. Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

The most amazing part of Phoenix’s portrayal stems from his ability to take full advantage of the humor within his character. He is a sad man, a desperate man, an angry man—but there’s no denying the absurd humor inherent in his person. After Freddie drunkenly stows away upon Dodd’s river cruise party, Dodd takes a liking to him and takes him on board. He soon subjects Freddie to a nearly hypnotic question-and-answer session. The manner in which Phoenix delivers even the simplest one-word answers is remarkable. —Jeremy Matthews


4. Jean-Louis Trintignant in Amour

Possibly the best male performance of the year came from a man who first won the Best Actor award at Cannes 43 years ago, beating out Easy Rider’s Peter Fonda. Trintignant actually starred in three Cannes films that year. His character in Amour isn’t always noble or even always sympathetic, but it’s a supremely human—and heartbreaking—performance. -Michael Dunaway


3. Emmanuelle Riva in Amour

Acting performances featuring a character losing his mind—due to age, disease or other malady—are nearly always overrated; they’re much simpler than they appear. Riva’s beautiful and chilling portrayal of a woman slipping away into that dark night is definitely an exception. It’s elegantly understated and heartbreaking. —Michael Dunaway


2. Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

In the role of the 16th president, Daniel Day-Lewis delivers one of the best performances in a career already full of stellar turns. Given his devotion to the Method and his intense concentration as an artist, Day-Lewis could have easily created a tremendous caricature of Lincoln that would have worked quite well. Instead, he demonstrates masterful restraint, presenting a simple, subtle take on the former president, as if he had spent years shadowing Lincoln instead of years reading books about him. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is sad, quiet, wise, hopeful and surprisingly witty. —David Roark


1. Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Chastain takes on the deceptively difficult job of being the focal point in a film with dozens of speaking roles, and a final act that barely includes her. As Maya, she is classic female-American spunk, undeterred by her gender, her job or the bureaucracy that put her there. Like many strong female characters, Maya can appeal to viewers of both genders. When she does blow her stack at a superior, or curses in front of the CIA director, it’s with a fire that feels both hearty and exhausted, Chastain playing her traditional Hollywood moments for all they’re worth.—Norm Schrager