Animal of the year
For soul, solemnity and enigmatic art-house charisma, there was only one contender – the “sad and melancholy crocodile” in Miguel Gomes's bewitchingly eccentric diptych Tabu, arguably the great left-field discovery of 2012.
Loved by some, hated by others. Nothing in 2012 divided viewers so much as Léos Carax's Holy Motors, which sent some into trance-like exaltation, left others shrugging – me included. I was also lukewarm about the much-lauded Beasts of the Southern Wild. Conversely, many were immune to the chilly sleekness of David Cronenberg's hypnotic Cosmopolis and to Bela Tarr's magnificent, wind-blasted The Turin Horse (which admittedly made Samuel Beckett look like just another cheeky Irish stand-up).
Rosy glow of 2012
Amid all the top-quality gloom, one film filled me with more pure joy than any other – The Muppets, a witty but not over-ironic franchise relaunch. Miss Piggy proved that pigs can wear Prada too, and Jason Segel and Amy Adams offered game human support. Fab songs, too.
Grisly kicks were provided in plenty by the devious Cabin in the Woods – although, along with The Muppets, it made me wonder whether I'd ever get again to enjoy a Hollywood movie that played it straight rather than metafictional. As it happened, Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly proved just that, a terrific hard-nosed rewiring of the paranoid style of the 1970s American thriller.
Performances of the year
Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman were magnificent in The Master, although they shouldn't eclipse the mesmerising strangeness of Amy Adams's turn. Best female performance overall was Nina Hoss for her wire-taut lead in the German drama Barbara. Plaudits too to an astonishing male ensemble performance for the cast of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. But above all, veterans Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant in Amour truly put body, soul and dignity on the line, to awesome effect.
This year wasn't as resoundingly triumphant for the UK as last, but two very individual films stood out: Peter Strickland's unnerving investigation of sight, sound and horror, Berberian Sound Studio; and Two Years at Sea, Ben Rivers's no-budget portrait of a Scottish hermit and the great outdoors.
Documentary of the year
Patricio Guzman's audacious political and philosophical investigation Nostalgia for the Light, which took on nothing less than Chile's nightmare history – and the history of the cosmos.
Chef-d'oeuvres of the year
I'll go for three, all heavyweight in different ways. Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master was all the more alluring because you didn't quite know what PTA was up to or was after: he seemed as much a searcher as Joaquin Phoenix's racked hero. Michael Haneke's brilliant, painful Amour took on the human condition more directly than any other, confronting the taboo subject of old age with fearless lucidity. But the film released in 2012 that for me most resounded with depth and subtlety was Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, a metaphysical detective story of teasing complexity and simplicity, as close as cinema gets to Dostoyevsky – and without the theological speeches.