21 Jump Street: The best high-school movie in years and the funniest movie of the year so far. Great chemistry between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, with the both of them as likeable as they've ever been, and some really strong supporting performances. It's not like the post-modern take on vintage TV is a novel one, but Jump Street is never content to rest smugly on its laurels.
The Avengers: The two best superhero movies of the summer (this and, yes, The Dark Knight Rises) both delivered sufficient largeness on screen, something that precious few superhero movies of late have been able to do. Avengers took that a step further with some sharp character work and the most thrilling action scenes of the year.
Bachelorette: The streak of nastiness running right down the center of this acidly funny movie feels designed to shred any lingering sense of sentimentality about the wedding-themed female comedy. Mission accomplished. Kirsten Dunst is so perfect, and no one's ever gone wrong deploying Lizzy Caplan and Adam Scott in any capacity.
Beasts of the Southern Wild: Effective world-building and affecting moments of poetry, even when I kind of wavered as to whether the filmmakers were quite in control of some of the more runaway fantastical moments. Best music of the year, too, or haven't I mentioned?
The Cabin in the Woods: Pure fun from beginning to end, and a smart deconstruction of horror movies while still taking the time to give us a great ride. Not the scariest thing you've ever seen, but so, so satisfying.
Chronicle: My favorite discovery of the early part of the year, a low-gloss take on the superhero movie with a welcome focus on the characters rather than the powers. Forget about the first-person-filming device -- it's a framework but it doesn't define the movie. That's done by some killer performances (Dane DeHaan, I'm gonna make you happen) and a refreshing break from formula.
Damsels in Distress: Whit Stillman really does seem to exist outside of time, which you'd think would make this look at collegiate gender politics into something nightmarish and Tom Wolfe-y, but instead it feels like a fable about one of the more fabled experiences in American culture. He was always going to miss out on realism, so how about some singing and dancing? Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, and Megalyn Echikunwoke are delightful.
The Forgiveness of Blood: Brilliant follow-up for director Joshua Marston, after 2004's Maria Full of Grace. This one shares Maria's unshowy immersion into a non-American culture with concerns that boil the political down to the deeply personal.
Hope Springs: The year's most welcome surprise, with an invigorating generosity of spirit to its characters and their lives and their problems that don't have pat solutions. Love is hard and marriage is harder, and time doesn't always make it easier, and this movie isn't ready to laugh that all off in an avalanche of old-people jokes. Dunderheaded music cues aside, come for some great lead performances by Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep that hit each other at odd angles in a most satisfying way.
Take This Waltz: Ragged and unwieldy and not without some significant problems -- if you were to tell me the characters were too irritating for you to enjoy, it's not like I'd be able to blame you. But Sarah Polley goes to some unexpected places, and beautifully so. The last half-hour is a delightful surprise that kind of runs past where the usual endpoint of a movie like this and finds its way into some great observations about relationships and life and stuff.
Honorable Mentions: Moonrise Kingdom; Magic Mike; Friends with Kids
Dane DeHaan - Chronicle: For walking the line between genuinely sympathetic and opaquely dangerous, as he'd hinted at during his season-long run on HBO's In Treatment. He elevates a decently imaginative first-person superhero deconstruction into something more memorable.
Tristan Halilaj - The Forgiveness of Blood: For playing one of the year's best heroes without hiding the fact that he's walking in some seriously oversized shoes. His nonprofessional status helped play up his awkwardness, but he delivered a sympathetic and watchable character from start to finish.
Tommy Lee Jones - Hope Springs: For steering into the skid of his and Streep's contrasting styles, not backing down from his character angry core in order to soften himself for a rom-com audience, and for some seriously low-key comic timing within those parameters.
Adam Scott - Friends with Kids: For delivering yet another comedic crush object and holding up to Westfeldt's often pitiless turns of plot (that left turn into tearfulness at the end would have felled many an actor of Scott's caliber).
Channing Tatum - Magic Mike / 21 Jump Street: For proving my belief in his perfectly calibrated charisma 100% correct in Mike, and before that, for showing unexpected comedic chops (along with his quite-expected willingness to look a fool) in Jump Street, the year's best pure comedy.
Honorable Mentions: Jason Segel (Jeff Who Lives at Home); Robert Pattinson (Cosmopolis)
Emily Blunt - Your Sister's Sister: For proving in this (and The Five-Year Engagement; and probably Looper later this year) that she has the best co-star chemistry in the business, this time exhibiting a pitch-perfect sister relationship with Rosemarie DeWitt.
Kirsten Dunst - Bachelorette: For winning her way back into my good graces with an acidic outlook on bridesmaid duty and an uncompromising fidelity to a character who's more than just Head Bitch. Also, for every killer reaction shot in that final, breakneck half-hour.
Ari Graynor - For a Good Time, Call...: For forcing her way into a cap and gown and graduating from best friend/comic relief to comedic heroine, all the while keeping everything that made us love her on the sidelines. For flipping between exquisite raunch to relatable sweetness without ever screeching the brakes on the former. For the way she says "vadgebags."
Aggeliki Papoulia - Alps: For once again being the biggest weirdo for Giorgos Lanthimos. For finding a way to make a movie about people who step into the lives of dead people, for the benefit of their loved ones, somehow even more desperate and off-putting by getting to the empty core of her own character.
Meryl Streep - Hope Springs: For using every bit of Mannered Meryl until it was time to get good and real. I know we all agreed that after Oscar #3, we were all going to put Meryl away for a while, but I'll take this performance over a Doubt or an Iron Lady any day.
Honorable Mentions: Michelle Williams (Take This Waltz); Greta Gerwig (Damsels in Distress); Rosemarie DeWitt (Your Sister's Sister)
*Seriously, how great has this half-year been for lead actresses that I have to leave three amazing performances like these off the list?
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Luke Kirby - Take This Waltz: For making me that attracted to a rickshaw driver. For taking the least sympathetic character in a film full of unsympathetic characters and wearing down the audience's defenses. He goes from being Bad Choices Personified to a risk worth taking.
Fran Kranz - The Cabin in the Woods: For diving down the rabbit hole of our culture's love affair with goofy stoners and coming out the other side with a real person. For handling the Joss Whedon quip-heavy style as well as anyone. For continuing my unlikely love affair with Topher from Dollhouse.
Matthew McConaughey - Magic Mike: For all the reasons everybody else has been saying. Truthfully, this whole Make Matthew Happen campaign is kind of outside my sphere of interest, but it's not like I can deny that he's been pretty great in movies this year.
Mark Ruffalo - The Avengers: For being best in a show in an uncommonly strong cast for a superhero movie. For ANY movie, really. All due respect to Eric Bana and Edward Norton, two fine actors, but Ruffalo got to the heart of Bruce Banner and gave the Hulk some stakes.
John Travolta - Savages: For overcoming all my exhaustion with the whole Travolta Thing and delivering a performance that was funny and really smartly calibrated. Something convinced him to hold something back -- in an OLIVER STONE MOVIE -- and those few degrees of control made his character's excesses all the more satisfying.
Honorable Mentions: Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom); Johnny Vekris (Alps); Michael Fassbender (Prometheus)
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Annette Bening - Ruby Sparks: For drawing laughs from her very first breath onscreen and having the time of her life rolling around inside the Earth Mother trope.
Salma Hayek - Savages: For swallowing everything in her path in exactly the ways the movie called for. For juicing the chemistry between her and Blake Lively. For her flair with wardrobe.
Brie Larson - 21 Jump Street: For being an absolute star in the making. For embodying a high school girl who's neither demure trophy nor bitchy queen.
Samantha Morton - Cosmopolis: For being the only actor to render the wonky, circular garblings of DeLillo's monologues into something compelling.
Sarah Silverman - Take This Waltz: For taking the most predetermned character in the movie and making her surprising anyway, through force of her personality. For nailing the hell out of that "life has a gap in it" monologue.
Honorable Mentions: Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises); Megalyn Echikunwoke (Damsels in Distress)