2. Fat Amy: “Pitch Perfect”
In a miserable year for comedy, Rebel Wilson’s performance as the demented a cappella ingenue was the 2012’s funniest by a mile. Possessed with supernatural self-confidence that nothing can tarnish, Wilson’s bizarre character is impossible to look away from and steals her every scene. It’s this year’s worthy successor for the Bridesmaids-inspired female comedy wave crown. —R.R.
3. Stacee Jaxx: “Rock of Ages”
Dead in the middle of what is by far the worst movie of this year, just when you have given up hope that this joyless slog through the ’80s light-rock songbook will ever end, all of a sudden, the screen comes alive and jolts one to attention. Tom Cruise in his cameo as the film’s rock god takes the character into such a deep place of demented narcissism combined with sheer animalistic charisma that he creates the most realistic depiction of a massive celebrity seen on screen in years. And that the performance came from Cruise right in the midst of his divorce debacle was a startling reminder of why he was such a potent star in the first place. Then the scene ends, Cruise’s character disappears, and the reality sinks in that you are, in fact, still sitting in Rock of Ages. —R.R.
4. Alexis Bellino: “The Real Housewives of Orange County”
I am constantly thanking the Real Housewives franchise for teaching me about America. And it’s hard to narrow down which of these dozens of women I enjoyed watching most in 2012. But I will focus on Alexis because she had a hell of a time on the Orange County edition, not realizing until it was too late that most of the season was going to be spent mocking her behind her back. During an “intervention” with her — I’ve put it in quotation marks because I’m fairly sure interventions are supposed to be for the good of the person — they all called the Jesus-and-money-loving Alexis “fake” and “pretentious.” I can guarantee you they don’t know what pretentious means; what they actually objected to was that she is ostentatious (it rhymes, sort of) and braggy. But what made Alexis my absolute favorite is that she allowed the cameras to film her nose job, and the doctor pulled a mucus plug the size of a toddler out of her sinuses. I’ve thought of it at least every 18 minutes since. INCREDIBLE. —K.A.
5. Silva: “Skyfall”
If this amount of crazy gayness had been on screen in 1992, I would have picketed the theater — Silva is pretty much a pure homophobic caricature. But in 2012, when a broad range of LGBT characters appears across popular culture, I have a place in my heart for a leering, swishy villain with an Electra complex. Javier Bardem embraced this madness, and my (nonexistent) hat is off to him. —K.A.
6. Gary: “Veep”
As played by Tony Hale, Gary Walsh, the vice president’s personal aide, is every politician’s dream personified: slavishly obsessed with his boss, a bottle of sanitizer at the ready after every handshake, an encyclopedia of conversational tidbits about every small-town grandee, and most important, a man with no pretensions of having any life of his own apart from serving Vice President Selina Meyer.
In Gary’s eyes, one can see the pain of the universe each and every time he once again is forced to miss his dance lessons to run an errand for the VP. Gary is the fear that lives in the heart of every working person of being swallowed whole by their job and by their bosses. Working in politics, where the particular American blend of pomposity and buffoonery runneth over, Gary’s sad search for vicarious relevance is the story of us all. —R.R.
7. Abi-Maria Gomes: “Survivor”
In its 25th season, CBS’s reality juggernaut has produced perhaps its greatest villain ever. In a month of game play, the diminutive 32-year-old Brazilian has Josef Stalin–like turned against her closest comrade and masterminded her expulsion, citing an imaginary conspiracy against herself, lashed out violently at any and all, openly gloated in the face of starving castaways after winning reward meals, played victim, and perhaps in the most insane-slash-brilliant maneuver in the show’s history, concocted a multiweek charade pretending to be hiding a nonexistent immunity idol.
And best of all, it has worked. Despite constant cries from other contestants that she is breaking them down and reports from the ousted that even her allies have been driven bonkers by her, Abi-Maria has dodged bullet after bullet and made it to the exalted heights of, at this writing, Survivor’s top five. At this rate, victory itself is not impossible, as Abi-Maria seems to have so flummoxed all around her that they can do little more than stumble and fall into her web. —R.R.
8. Maya: “Zero Dark Thirty”
Jessica Chastain has been very good in smaller parts (The Help, Tree of Life, The Debt), but wow. In Zero Dark Thirty, she starts out as a talented but green CIA agent and during the two-and-a-half-hour film evolves into the only person in the world who cares enough to catch Osama bin Laden. She carries every moment of the film. The movie ends on her image for a reason. —K.A.
9. Sam Jones: “Ted”
The star of the 1980 cult gem Flash Gordon returned to the screen for the most hilarious walk-on in recent cinema. —R.R.
10. Kate: “Ben and Kate”
While the entire sitcom genre these days seems to be a tribute to the lovability of self-obsessed materialistic monsters, Fox’s freshman comedy Ben and Kate does something revolutionary: It puts on a show around smart, loving characters trying to look after each other.
At the show’s heart sits the charming Dakota Johnson as Kate, a single mother raising her child while she fights to keep from growing hard and bitter in an often hard and bitter world. Her performance is fresh, witty, and effervescent, and so refreshingly free of the nasty edges that populate comedy today that it feels nothing short of otherworldly. —R.R.
11. Jiro: “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”
Why aren’t there more movies about 85-year-old sushi chefs?
Sushi chef Jiro Ono is a living monument to a time when people strove for something more than surfing the zeitgeist. Jiro has spent almost his entire life perfecting every minute of the sushi-making process with painstaking, supernatural attention to detail. That in this day and age, apprentices would spend years learning something as mundane as how to stir rice seems unthinkable, but the film is a tribute to the fact that as much as the world may speed by, there are no shortcuts on the road to greatness. —R.R.
12. Lydia Rodarte-Quayle: “Breaking Bad”
This weirdo! Played by Laura Fraser, Lydia, the snaky, nervous, corporate lunatic, was a hilarious newcomer to the Breaking Bad meth operation. She asked for Stevia in a crappy, Southwestern diner. I demand a spin-off. —K.A.
13. Brian and Mike: “End of Watch”
I loved this movie in large part because I’ve never seen a male friendship portrayed this way: Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena were wonderful as work partners and best friends. Bro, bro, bro; dude, dude, dude — yes, they said that a lot. Beyond that, End of Watch was a cop thriller; an inventive narrative (much of the movie was filmed by a camera mounted on Gyllenhaal for his character’s film class project); and a love story about friends. Boy, did I cry at the end. —K.A.
14. Lisa: “Margaret”
The original three-hour cut of director’s Kenneth Lonergan’s film about a teenage girl who inadvertently triggers a tragic accident sat on the shelves for half a decade before getting a limited release this year. For the few who have seen it, Anna Paquin’s performance is unforgettable as the self-absorbed 17-year-old who struggles in ways both admirable and less so to make sense of the cataclysm played out before her eyes. The film careens wildly, painting a grand canvas of a teenager’s life, and through it all, Paquin gives a heartbreakingly vulnerable performance. Via her tormented eyes we see the wild mess of a young person’s emotional journey as she tries to find herself in a world she does not quite understand. —R.R.
Note: a previous version referred to the lead character’s name as Margaret, which it is not.
15. Brenda: “The Closer”
I miss her already. —K.A.
16. Robert Quarles: “Justified”
Neal McDonough is a handsome man. But let’s face it: His combination of features (white hair, piercing blue eyes, full red lips) is atypical. Yet in no other role of his that I’ve seen — from Band of Brothers through Boomtown and Desperate Housewives — did anyone remark upon his unusual looks. As the villain of Justified’s third season, however, he was constantly described as albino, creepy-looking, a blue-eyed scary person: It made me laugh every time, partially because it was such a relief to hear such realism. (Another reason to adore Justified.) Quarles was such a frightening character too, and McDonough seemed unvanquishable for a while. Until he wasn’t. —K.A.
17. Shae: “Game of Thrones”
The adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels are quite faithful besides all the squishing Game of Thrones showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have to do to make these very long novels into 10 hours of television per season. But they do diverge sometimes, and one major change has been in the portrayal of Shae, Tyrion’s concubine. In the books, she is extremely stupid, but crafty, and she doesn’t make a lot of sense as a person — and the only real relationship between her and Tyrion is in his mind (which is the point, I think). On the show, though, she is a worthy partner for him: intelligent and caring. It’s such a smart change; and it makes me dread their future story (I will not spoil). —K.A.
18. Tiffany: “Silver Linings Playbook”
At 22 years old, Jennifer Lawrence went toe-to-toe with Robert DeNiro in the year’s single most delightful scene, leaving Travis Bickle gasping and begging for mercy. Lawrence brings so much conviction to Tiffany’s insane plan to cure herself and Bradley Cooper of debilitating emotional problems by entering a ballroom dance competition that you don’t doubt for a minute the soundness of her course. —R.R.
19. Lady Mary: “Downton Abbey”
Season two of Downton had its ups and downs, but Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is consistently the greatest human being of the 20th century. Who among us doesn’t want to travel back in time and through the walls of fact and fiction to be her best friend? What monster would not seek such a thing? —K.A.
20. Hushpuppy and Wink: “Beasts of the Southern Wild”
Lordy, this movie. It’s pretty impossible to accurately to describe what it’s about if you haven’t seen it; I had heard it was about Hurricane Katrina, and that’s just not accurate. But one thing that is a fact is how beautiful the father-daughter relationship between 6-year-old Hushpuppy and her willful, unique father, Wink, is. Neither actor — Quvenzhané Wallis nor Dwight Henry — has ever been in been in a movie before; Henry was a baker from New Orleans (and still is)! They made this year just a little bit better. —K.A.
21. Alfred: “Dark Knight Rises”
The butler did it! Stole the film, that is. It was Michael Caine’s dignified yet decaying take on the caped crusader’s loyal manservant that gave Christopher Nolan’s cerebral series its heart. On the actor’s aging features was writ the toll that a life fighting crime had wrought. The price of Bruce Wayne’s sacrifice, it was made clear, was Alfred’s peace, and so it was fitting that the series’ denouncement, perhaps real, perhaps not, was about giving that peace at last to the long suffering gentleman’s gentleman. — R.R.
22. Cast: “Clybourne Park”
This is a play! One by Bruce Norris. Not typical of this list, I grant you. It’s just that it is the best play I’ve seen in years; it won the Tony and, before that, a Pulitzer, so I’m not saying anything original. It takes place in two different time periods, 1959 and 2009, and all the lead actors — Christina Kirk, Jeremy Shamos, Frank Wood, Damon Gupton, Annie Parisse (Sarah Goldberg took over for her in this part), Crystal A. Dickinson, and Brendan Griffin — played two roles. They’re all leads, really, and the Tony Awards had so much trouble figuring out how to reward their shared amazingness that the voters nominated only Shamos (who lost). My complimenting them as a collective here will surely make up for that slight, right? —K.A.
23. Jack Dahl: “Louie”
David Lynch’s three-episode arc as a veteran TV producer guiding Louie through a network presentation started as a pure cookie-cutter showbiz caricature. But very quickly it became something both weirder and deeper. Under Lynch’s combination of belligerent decrepitude, Dahl became a figure released from the darkest reaches of the entertainment industry’s unconscious; both a harbinger of its most terrifyingly leveling instincts and a voice of great — if cryptic — wisdom on the terrors that await one who court would court the public’s love. —R.R.
24. Violet: “Damsels in Distress”
This Whit Stillman film was a love it/hate it proposition. I was in the former camp; I found it to be a delight. And while I’ve appreciated Greta Gerwig in movies like Greenberg, I hadn’t wanted to stand up and cheer for her until I saw Damsels in Distress. As the leader of a throwback clique of young women, she perfectly embodied the deadpan wacko this role called for. I feel like she out–Chloë Sevigny’d Chloë Sevigny? Which might be the nicest thing I’ve ever written about anyone. —K.A.
25. Bruce Banner: “The Avengers”
For two generations now, one actor after another has tried to bring some life to Marvel’s most inscrutable character: The Incredible Hulk. When Dr. Banner is the Hulk, he’s pretty much a big green monster who stomps around howling and smashing things. When he is Dr. Banner, he’s just trying to stay calm. Neither side is rich in dramatic potential. Bill Bixby and Edward Norton have only succeeded in twisting themselves in knots attempting to ring some interest out of the part. But after all these years on the sidelines, Mark Rufallo seems to finally have hit upon the formula to make The Hulk sing. Portrayed as a New Age, yoga-powered seeker of enlightenment, haunted by the deep sadness of knowing what anger can do, Banner was the most lifelike, resonant character in a largely formulaic, effects-driven tentpole film. —R.R.