Ben Affleck

“Gone Girl” takes a lowbrow, clichéd formula — the tale of a missing wife whose sketchy husband most likely has something to do with her disappearance — and manages to analyze, satirize and give it new life in one magnificent, thought-provoking film. Director David Fincher, known for his cold, serious masterpieces, delivers a story that grows darker at every turn and features complex characters whose sinister motivations drive the film.

On his fifth anniversary, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returns home to find his house a wreck and his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), missing. Soon, the media descends upon Nick’s small town to cover the disappearance, which has become national news. Nick’s awkwardness and anti-social qualities start to draw suspicion, leaving people to wonder whether he had something to do with the disappearance. With help from his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), and his lawyer, Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), Nick works to prove his innocence to a society that has already decided he’s guilty.

The success of “Gone Girl” stems from the wonderful combination of Fincher’s directing and Gillian Flynn’s screenplay. Fincher, famous for his chilling, psychoanalytical films, delivers a story that delves into the darkness surrounding dysfunctional relationships. Flynn, who adapted the screenplay from her 2012 novel, creates characters who feel authentic and have mesmerizing interpersonal relationships.

The story, a bleak tale that constantly toys with audience expectations, is expertly crafted. It finds a perfect balance between Nick’s attempts to clear his name and the flashbacks that illustrate how such a happy marriage falls apart. 

The performances from every actor are superb. Affleck is wonderful as Nick, giving his character the edge of coldness and creepiness the film plays off of.

Coon is great as the cynical, sarcastic Margo. Even Neil Patrick Harris, who doesn’t have much screen time, is unnerving and creepy as Amy’s ex-boyfriend. 

But it is Pike who outshines everyone as the elusive Amy. Her performance captures the sweetness, cleverness and ruthlessness of her character. It’s remarkable how Pike can craft someone who can be simultaneously sympathetic and loathed. With a performance as emotional as hers, it will be interesting to see if Pike could walks away with any trophies this award season.

The movie isn’t afraid to tackle big issues — such as infidelity, psychopathy and media scrutiny — in the most brutal way possible. No faults or short-comings are spared as Fincher proves that no one is innocent in a story like this. “Gone Girl” easily turns into a puzzle, giving the audience the ability to wonder who’s really at fault for all the turmoil that occurs. 

“Gone Girl” is another staple in Fincher’s celebrated list of phenomenal films. It stands as one of the harshest, most chilling films about marriage and relationships to date. Using a combination of brilliant acting, meticulous directing and a deep, complex screenplay, “Gone Girl” remains the movie to beat in 2014.

Director/producer Ben Affleck accepts the award for best picture for "Argo" during theOscars at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday Feb. 24, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Photo Credit: AP Exchange | Daily Texan Staff

This live blog was written during the 2013 Academy Awards.  It is a live, slightly snarky feed of everything that happened and did not happen at this year's Academy Awards. 

11:01 In the most annoying way possible, the 2013 Academy Awards end with the ever grating Kristin Chenoweth and Seth MacFarlane. They sing some horrible song which reminds us only of how horrible things were before they started awarding the good statues. 

10:54 The Oscar for BEST MOTION PICTURE is awarded to ARGO presented by Michelle Obama. These producers are all strange men who don't know where to stand. Oh, except best beard George Clooney who's looking great.  Ben also has a beard. He could be nominated. He makes Jennifer Garner cry, and all of us cry, and even himself cry a little. 

10:52 Jack Nicholson announces Michelle Obama on screen from the White House. Rocking her bangs and a beautiful silver dress, Michelle deserves this honor. She should probably win. She plugs how important arts are to our country, and she is right.

10:45 Meryl Streep arrives in a very sparkly dress to present the award for BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE. The Oscar goes to Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln over Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook, Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables, Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, Denzel Washington in Flight.  He is the first actor to win three Oscars in the BEST ACTOR category. There is a standing ovation, and he looks so happy he almost looks miserable. Unlike our girl Lawrence, Day Lewis has his speech together. He thanks Abraham Lincoln.

10:40 The Oscar for BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE goes to Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook over Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty, Emmanuelle Rivera for Amour, Quvenzhane Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Naomi Watts for the Impossible. She almost falls in her hurry up the stairs and receives a standing ovation. "This is nuts," she says, and nuts it is. Every Oscar pool is ruined by this point. Jennifer Larence looks incredible, Bradley Cooper looks so proud. Lawrence is totally scattered and has no speech. She was obviously not expecting that. 

10:32 Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas arrive to present the Oscar for BEST DIRECTOR to Ang Lee for LIFE OF PI for their FOURTH Oscar of the night. Lee thanks the movie god and thanks the 3,000 people who worked with him on Life of Pi. 

10:26 BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY is awarded to Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained. Tarantino is a total bozo. He's rambling about character choosing, and calling himself awesome for his casting choices. He "peace out"s the audience.

10:22 Seth. Please stop. Dustin Hoffman and Charlize Theron arrive with a massive height disparity to present the award for BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY goes to Argo by Chris Terrio.  He apparently sprinted to the stage. What is this bad situation? Can you tell us that story? 

10:08 The cast of Chicago appears on stage to present the Oscar for BEST MOVIE SCORE to Life of Pi. Richard Gere makes a joke. It's funnier than anything MacFarland has said. Which is to say, marginally funny. Life of Pi is sweeping up Oscars. Norah Jones arrives on stage she looks nothing like herself. Is she even famous anymore? The Oscar for BEST ORIGINAL SONG goes to Skyfall by Adele who apparently has a last name. It is her first Academy Award. She cries immediately. Some other bro is there. He did something. He does not cry. 

10:01 Another not Beyonce arrives, this time in the form of Barbara Streisand. She receives a standing ovation. Take that Adele.

9:57 Beard number 1 aka George Clooney arrives for "In Memoriam." He says we could dedicate an entire show to it, you know, a show that NO ONE would watch. 

9:50 Selma Hayek looks like she tried to dress up as Cleopatra for a sorority Halloween party. They recap some Governor's Awards, which goes to people who love movies and have done great things for film. No one explains why they are called "Governor's."

9:48 Daniel Radcliffe and Kristen Stewart arrive on stage. Fittingly, the Harry Potter music plays. Stewart looks like she walked through some brush backstage and got her hair sucked into a whirlpool. They present the Oscar for PRODUCTION DESIGN to Lincoln. Christoph returns to the screen from earlier, and we still love him. 

9:43 Nicole Kidman shows us the next three Best Picture nominees with Silver Lining Playbook, Django Unchained, and Amour. Despite Argo's editing win and thus my prediction for best picture, Silver Lining Playbook was by far my favorite of the nominations. 

9:35 Jennifer Lawrence introduces Adele to sing "Skyfall." Adele looks like the sky fell onto her dress. There is no standing ovation for Adele. She is the first singing number to not receive one. The COLD SHOULDER award goes to Adele.

9:32 Sandra Bullock presents the award for FILM EDITING goes to William Goldenberg for Argo

9:29 The Academy Preseident takes the stage and explains a future Oscar museum. It will be the "first of it's kind." It sounds like a museum. REPRESENT. Jennifer Brofer of UT AUSTIN is on the stage!

9:23 Anne Hathaway thanks everyone and bows to her competitors. She is--as she has been since her transformation into Princess Mia--eloquent, elegent, and beautiful. She thanks her husband, who is teary. Who knew Anne Hathaway had a husband!? 

9:20 MacFarlane tries to convince us the Von Trapps are coming. His jokes are all bad. I am not laughing. Christopher Plummer joins us on stage. People laugh at his jokes. He says he has 30 films coming and we are ready for all of them. He presents the Oscar for BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE. It goes to Anne Hathaway for Les Miserables over Amy Adams for the Master, Sally Field for Lincoln, Helen Hunt for The Sessions, and Jacki Weaver for Silver Linings Playbook. 

9:17 The JAWS wrap it up music is old. 

9:09 Facial hair is really back. Everyone is bearded. Beards, beards, beards, beards, beards. There is some learning going on now which is kind of a bummer, but not as much of a bummer as MacFarlane. Mark Wahlberg comes to the stage with some bear that was in a movie that no one saw. The Oscar for BEST SOUND MIXING goes to Les Miserables. The Oscar for SOUND EDITING  is a tie. WHAT? Is this soccer!? This is art. Can't we just be judgement about these subjective things.  The first goes to Zero Dark Thirty and the second goes to Skyfall.

9:01 The musical tribute moves to Les Mis. Hugh Jackman's voice is still not good enough for this role. Also, facial hair, facial hair everywhere. Anne Hathaway is beautiful. Her lip quivers with "One Day More." Samantha Barkman looks like she could be the American Kate Middleton. The entire cast of Les Mis is on stage, and they look just as upset as they did in the movie. French flags drop from the ceiling. They receive the second standing ovation of the night. 

9:00 Still "not Beyonce" continues to sing. Girl's got pipes, but no Blue Ivy. 

8:53 John Travolta lists 1,000 names for a tribute to great musicals. He mispronounces Catherine Zeta Jones's name, but it doesn't matter because she's on stage, and she looks awesome.  No one knows why someone who is NOT BEYONCE is singing the Dreamgirls tribute. Where is Beyonce? Where is she? 

8:49 Seth MacFarlane compares the Oscars to church, which is maybe possible since he's offending everyone. Jennifer Garner is wearing all the diamonds. BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM goes to AMOUR which is unsurprising because, I don't know, they're nominated for best picture. He thanks his wife and its adorable. 

8:42 Ben Affleck is bringing facial hair back. The Oscar for BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE goes to Searching for Sugarman by two men whose names were not on the screen for long enough for me to figure out how to spell them. The JAWS theme song returns, and they leave. 

8:37 Liam Neeson gives us three more previews for best picture with Argo,  Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty. Liam Neeson could have probably also played Lincoln. 

8:32 Kerry Washington and Jamie Foxx arrive to present BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM to Curfew by Sean Christensen. He notes his short time window, salutes someone, thanks his "devishly handsom father," and leaves. The Oscar for BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT goes to Inocente by Shaun Fine and Andrea Nix Fine. They talk about supporting the arts and the music plays even though Amy Adams eyes are welling and we all love her so much. 

8:21 Hallie Berry appears to celebrate the 50th anniversary of James Bond in motion pictures. There is, of course, a play by play of Bond girls in bikinis, some explosions, some car chases, and more Bond girls. Some lady appears dressed like an Oscar statue to sing about Bond. My guess is that this is about the time for Meryl Streep to arrive late with Starbucks in hand during the standing ovation.

8:16  Seth MacFarlane looks like a longer-haired Ken doll, and has about the same sense of humor. Channing Tatum and Jennifer Aniston arrive on stage, thank god. No one looks good in this lighting. The Oscar for ACHIEVEMENT IN COSTUME DESIGN goes to Jaqueline Duran for Anna Karenina.  Who is all of our hero since she also did Atonement and Pride and Predjudice. The Oscar for ACHIEVEMENT IN MAKEUP AND HAIR STYLING goes to Lisa Westcott and Julie Darnell for their face dirt application in  Les Miserables. One of them appears to be wearing pink jeans. Who doesn't know Oscar dress code!? 

8:09 The award for ACHIEVEMENT IN VISUAL EFFECTS, which is maybe the same award as cinematography with totally different nominees(?), goes to Life of Pi again, because it was beautiful. The first of these award winers tries to make a joke about meta-reality, literally no one laughs.  He keeps talking over increadibly loud "wrap it up music" because despite the Oscar's faking love for visual effects, they really don't care. 

8:06 Samuel L. Jackson is in a red velvet blazer. The Avengers present the award for ACHIEVEMENT IN CINEMATOGRAPHY, aka pretty movie award, to Claudio Miranda for Life of Pi. He is rambling about how much he loves his movie and getting teary. "Oh my god, I can't even speak," he says, which is kind of true.  

8:00 Reese Witherspoon joins us with perfect hair waves. She talks about the Best Picture Nominees. We see previews for Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Beasts of the Southern Wild. MacFarlane calls Jennifer Lawrence old, and makes jokes on the expense of the nine year old.  He is the worst, but he welcomes six of the Avengers, which we like--mostly because he's leaving. 

7:55 Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy join us with the gold envelope for some jokes. The award for BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM goes to "Paperman" by John Kahrs. It is his first Academy Award and nomination. His speech is short and sweet, he's no Christopher Waltz. The BEST ANIMATED FILM award goes to Brave  Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman. Andrews has on a kilt, which no one "just happens to be wearing." 

7:47 We finally get Octavia Spencer with a gold envelope for ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE. And the Oscar goes to Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained. He bows to his competitors and tears up in his speech behind his thick rimmed black glasses. He looks genuinely surprised, and gives an inspiring speech.   Everyone falls in love with Christoph Waltz.

7:45 This intro is still going. It shouldn't be.

7:38 There is an inappropriate "fake" musical number titled "We saw your boobs." This intro is rough. MacFarlane asks how to fix this and the answer is hidden from everyone. He introduces Channing Tatum and Charlize Theron to dance to "The Way You Look Tonight."  Channing Tatum can dance, but MacFarlane still can't sing.  He welcomes Daniel Radcliffe and Joseph Gordon-Levitt to dance and sing with him. I'm ignoring everyone but Gordon-Levitt.

7:30 We are welcomed to the Oscars by our host Seth MacFarlane. For the first time, the Oscars has a theme "music in films." Probably because Adele is here. MacFarlane makes a couple of jokes that do actually seem funny, but he introduces the Oscars with some sort of roll call that allows him to make these jokes. He makes a slavery joke. Is this okay? He moves on to Django Unchained and also makes a Chris Brown Rihanna reference. A screen descends behind him with Star Trek's Captain Kirk to stop him from "destroying the Academy Awards." Kirk asks "why can't Tina and Amy host everything?" which is really all any of us want. 

7:22 Every red carpet host is incredibly awkward. At the five minute mark we are inside some producing truck where everyone looks awkward. Queen Latifah manages to interact with them like they are normal, and it is an incredibly feat of acting on her part. They are now sitting down, and the real show will start soon. Chenoweth brings up Texas football, and it's horrible. 

7:15 Jamie Foxx really embarrasses his 19 year old college daughter who looks very uncomfortable and unhappy. She looks like someone stole her smile while her father hits on the interviewer. The camera cuts away from some of the most brilliant television drama the Oscars has seen thus far to visit Daniel Day Lewis who is a snooze in comparison.

7:12 Anne Hathaway gives us a preview that the cast will be performing. Kristin Chenoweth's voice still feels like a cheese grater. Especially as she tells Hathaway akwardly that "her hair is growing back nicely." There is a "magic" box they are trying to get us behind. Anne Hathaway guesses that Dorothy's slippers are in there, and people say bad things about the Smithsonian and I cry. 

7:05 George Clooney is unamused with everyone's antics because he's been in Berlin. He promises to drink and makes snarky faces at the hosts, but looks very very nice in his tux.  When Sandra Bullock is interviewed, there are a lot of weird things going on with the sound including Kristin Chenoweth's weird mousy voice. 

7:01 Jennifer Anniston calls the Oscars, "ya know, a magical piece of time," but does say that she will only be attending only one party in her red Valentino dress. The only important people thus far are named Jennifer. The Garner Jennifer claims that she's "just a puddle," which is kind of what the back of her purple dress looks like.   

6:55 Best Dressed has gone to Jennifer Lawrence. No one is quite sure who decided this. Amy Adams and Anne Hathaway were given honorable mentions. 

Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play two versions of the same character in Rian Johnson's mind-bending "Looper" (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures).

The first film I saw in 2012 was Joe Carnahan’s riveting “The Grey,” and the last was Gareth Evans’ action masterpiece “The Raid: Redemption.” In between, an extremely rewarding year of cinema unfurled across big screens in dark, crowded rooms. Moviegoers were treated to a barrage of exceptional films, with accomplished work from established filmmakers and promising debuts from fresh new voices. Not to mention the year’s preposterous amount of great performances, remarkable moments in disappointing films (I’m looking at you, “Prometheus”), and a ridiculous number of irresistibly watchable (and rewatchable) movies.

2012 was simply too stacked to keep my list to 10, so I’ve also added 15 Honorable Mentions; films that easily could have made my list in a weaker year, and that remain exceptional nonetheless.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Anna Karenina – A marvelous presentation renders an old story exciting again, and Joe Wright makes his best period piece to date.

The Avengers – Marvel pulled off an unprecedented storytelling gamble with “The Avengers,” and the result was a thrilling, endlessly rewatchable superhero triumph.

Beasts of the Southern Wild – Pure poetry abounds in Benh Zeitlin’s intimate fairytale, brought to life by Quvenzhané Wallis’ vivid performance.

Bernie – Richard Linklater’s dark comedy was exceptional for its creative approach and an unexpected mannered performance from Jack Black.

The Cabin in the Woods –Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s deconstruction of the horror genre is hilarious, creative, and extremely satisfying.

Compliance – Human performances from Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker, plus a sleazy turn from Pat Healy sell the year’s ickiest film.

God Bless America – Bobcat Goldthwait’s self-righteous rant of a film stumbles on occasion, but that doesn’t make its message any less essential.

Goon – The best kind of underdog sports film, “Goon” makes the art of hockey fighting exciting, funny, and even emotionally rewarding.

Haywire – Steven Soderbergh’s spy jaunt shines thanks to its propulsive score and the charming, unrefined presence of real-life MMA fighter Gina Carano.

Holy Motors – The last film cut from my top 10 was this squirmy conceptual oddity, an ode to all levels of cinema and a beautiful showcase for lead actor Denis Lavant.

Lincoln – Daniel Day-Lewis is the obvious standout in Spielberg’s latest, but a tough, unsentimental script from Tony Kushner and a massive ensemble bolster the film.

Paranorman – The year’s best animated film crams memorable, striking imagery and surprising social relevance into its unconventional zombie tale.

The Raid: Redemption – No action film this year came close to the bone-crunching efficiency of Gareth Evan’s masterful beat-‘em-up.

Ruby Sparks – Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ latest was a fascinating deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl from star/screenwriter Zoe Kazan

Rust and Bone – Marion Cotillard and Matthais Schoenaerts sell a strange love story in Jacques Audiard’s tough emotional scrapper.

Skyfall – Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins gave Bond new relevance (and the franchise some of its most indelible images) with this standout addition.

TOP 10 FILMS OF 2012

10. Sound of my Voice – Brit Marling co-wrote and stars in “Sound of my Voice,” an intriguing, low-key sci-fi yarn. Marling stars as Maggie, the leader of a cult who claims to be from the future, and she’s an assured presence, playing Maggie not as a deity, but a hypnotic yet recognizably human figure. Collaborator/director Zal Batmanglij builds tension mercilessly throughout, finding the sinister in the seemingly harmless, and “Sound of my Voice”'s deliciously ambiguous finale is one of the year’s great question marks.

9. Argo –Ben Affleck becomes one of Hollywood’s most reliable, interesting filmmakers with “Argo,” his best work yet. Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, an exfiltration specialist brought in to rescue a handful of diplomats during the Iran hostage crisis by passing them off as a production crew for a science fiction film. Scott McNairy, Bryan Cranston, and John Goodman are all memorable in supporting roles, and Affleck does understated but earnest work. Behind the camera, Affleck walks a delicate tonal tightrope, satirizing Hollywood with deft, wry humor, and then cranking up the tension for a gripping finale.

8. Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson’s greatest skill is how he reveals his characters’ personalities through his film’s aesthetics, and “Moonrise Kingdom” is perhaps his best film to date. Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are deeply charming as two headstrong children who have run away from home together, and its their chemistry and awkwardness that sells the film’s whimsical fairy tale. Anderson’s script is full of youthful exuberance, and the adults in his cast – Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, and especially Bruce Willis – are all exceptional, bringing weariness, regret, and a quiet optimism to their parts.

7. Zero Dark Thirty – “Zero Dark Thirty” is a daunting film and its no-frills approach to the story of CIA analyst Maya’s (Jessica Chastain) hunt for Osama bin Laden is rivetingly told. Chastain is passionate in the lead role, uncontrollably hungry for her target and unrelenting in her hunt, and Bigelow masterfully navigates the labyrinth of her narrative with tension and grace. “Zero Dark Thirty” represents the best kind of fact-based filmmaking, a realistic look at a major American triumph that never forgets the moral grey zone our victory inhabits.

6. The Grey – Joe Carnahan’s macho emotional powerhouse strands Liam Neeson and a small group of survivors in the Alaskan wilderness, and as wolves and the elements begin to pick at them, the film becomes something of a philosophical slasher film. Carnahan stages a breathtaking plane crash in the film’s early goings, and instills the wolves with creeping menace. Even more striking is Liam Neeson’s raw, complex performance, which skillfully blends the badass action hero with the skilled thespian to devastating, powerful effect.

5. Killer Joe – William Friedkin’s adaptation of Tracy Letts’ play is a necessary evil, its sweaty, sleazy aesthetic equally responsible for its NC-17 rating and considerable entertainment value. Matthew McConaughey’s performance as the titular Dallas cop, hired to bump off the matriarch of a dysfunctional family, caps off an incredible year for the actor, reappropriating his silky charm into something much more predatory. “Killer Joe” shines in its merciless finale, especially in its perfectly timed ending, an ellipsis on the page that becomes an exclamation point onscreen thanks to the reckless abandon Friedkin and his cast bring to the material.

4. Take This Waltz – Few films can make a lead character like Margot (Michelle Williams, a happily married woman who falls for her neighbor, and make her relatable. However, “Take This Waltz” is so wonderfully observant and beautifully detailed, and Williams (giving the year’s best performance) reflects every wave of anxiety, desire, and regret so aptly that it’s impossible not to feel for her. The nuance and wisdom in Sarah Polley’s writing and direction set “Take This Waltz” apart, and the level of understanding and empathy she lends to her characters and their lives establish Polley as a masterful storyteller.

3. Cloud Atlas – The year’s most ambitious film by a mile, “Cloud Atlas” unfurls half a dozen narratives at once, each edit timed to heighten suspense or draw a parallel, to breathless, dizzying effect. An unprecedented feat of storytelling, “Cloud Atlas” is an epic work of genuine, touching optimism, and its steadfast belief in humanity’s basic goodness is inspiring and uplifting. The film’s ensemble plays six roles each, and Jim Broadbent’s easy, befuddled charm and Doona Bae’s heartwrenching serenity sell the film’s biggest emotional wallops. The Wachowskis and Tom Twyker gambled big with “Cloud Atlas,” and the result is an unapologetic masterpiece.

2. Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino’s newest is easily one of the most unabashedly entertaining works he’s ever produced, even as Tarantino dips into yet another controversial historical well. The film tramples through very sensitive territory, but it’s the skill with which Tarantino mixes the ugly with the spectacle, the tongue-in-cheek with the horrifying, that makes “Django” such a blast. Jamie Foxx gives an intense, understated performance, while Christoph Waltz does multi-faceted, surprising work. Plus, there’s a trio of great villainous turns from Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, and Walton Goggins playing some of Tarantino’s most vivid, compelling characters.

1. Looper – My favorite film of 2012, has a spectacular ensemble doing distinct, engaging work. First and foremost is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, disappearing into his challenging role of a futuristic hitman tasked with the murder of his older self (Bruce Willis). The sympathetic Emily Blunt and Pierce Gagnon lend the film’s second half vital emotional weight, and Jeff Daniels is smarmy and hilarious as a crime boss. But what makes “Looper” the year’s best film is Rian Johnson, Hollywood’s new smartest guy in the room. His screenplay is rife with intellectual and emotional complexities, and his direction stages pivotal moments with genuine cinematic flair. Johnson mixes originality, intelligence, and plain great storytelling to make “Looper” the year’s best film.

Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez, center, in “Argo,” a rescue thriller about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

At this point in his career, any avid moviegoer is actually looking forward to Ben Affleck’s films. If you’d told me that 10 years ago, I would have laughed in your face. After all, Affleck was in more than his fair share of terrible movies, and it wasn’t until his 2007 directorial debut “Gone Baby Gone” that audiences were ready to take him seriously again. With “Argo,” Affleck proves that he’s got a handle on action, tension and entertaining dialogue, producing arguably his most accomplished work as a director yet.

Set during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, “Argo” tells the story of six American embassy workers who managed to avoid capture by hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s home and the CIA’s attempts to return them to friendly soil. Tony Mendez (Affleck) is brought in to consult on the project and ends up spearheading an initiative to smuggle the diplomats out as part of a film crew for a sci-fi film that doesn’t exist.

The most surprising thing about “Argo” is how funny it is. Most of the middle section of the film focuses on Mendez’s interactions with John Chambers (John Goodman) and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin,) his contacts in Hollywood, and the guys who help him get his fake production, a “Star Wars” rip-off called “Argo,” off the ground. Arkin and Goodman get “Argo’s” best dialogue by far, and Goodman shines with his wry, beautifully timed delivery of each and every line. For a good chunk of time, “Argo” is just as much a Hollywood satire as it is political thriller, and Affleck walks that tonal tightrope with grace.

When he dives into the situation in Iran, “Argo” is just as entertaining. Affleck stages the grand takeover of the American embassy fantastically, cutting between staged recreations and legitimate archival footage to harrowing effect. Once Mendez goes to Iran to rescue the diplomats, the film takes on some remarkable tension, especially in its third act. Affleck wrings some spectacularly squirmy suspense out of things as simple as waiting in an airport security line. The third act is fairly brilliant, bringing all of the film’s disparate elements together for a climax that’s subdued but no less excellent for it.

Affleck has also assembled a sprawling, impressive cast for his film. Actors like Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishe and the wonderfully named Scoot McNairy all impress as the American diplomats. But the film’s ensemble truly shines when Affleck depicts the CIA’s involvement in their rescue. Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina and a passionate, fierce Bryan Cranston all show up here, turning in strong, effective performances. Affleck is arguably the star of the film, but his performance is quiet and understated, letting the actors around him stand out. It’s also worth mentioning just how well Affleck makes his film look like it was made, and set, in the ‘70s. Every detail of the production is measured to perfection, and each member of the cast is given some pretty heinous or majestic (depending on your taste) outfits and hairstyles to work with, all of which makes for an experience that feels retro, but not dated.

This weekend is full of films about movies. “Sinister” is an intelligent rumination on what we take away from horror movies, and “Seven Psychopaths” is a hilarious, self-aware look at violence in cinema. However, “Argo” is the best of the bunch: an intense but vastly entertaining story that proves once and for all that truth is stranger than fiction and that Ben Affleck is one of the best filmmakers working today.

Printed on Friday, October 12, 2012 as: Affleck ridicules Hollywood in historical, political thriller