When I look back at the best movies of the year, I remember films that I admired for their artfulness or technical prowess, but I also remember films that reminded me why I love movies — the ones that truly had spirit.
Here, then, is my list for the Top 10 movies released in 2012. Let me know how it compares to yours.
1. “Argo” — Ben Affleck has won me over. Before, I thought he was merely tolerable in boring roles, just skating by on his good looks. But after “Gone, Baby, Gone” and “The Town,” he has matured into a fine filmmaker, and “Argo” is his greatest achievement to date. Set during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, the film follows a CIA agent (Affleck himself) who stages a daring mission to rescue six U.S. diplomats by disguising them as members of a Hollywood film crew. The film is ambitious, and its re-creation of actual events (which are illustrated in photos during the end credits) is impressively meticulous. Overall, the film’s tension is riveting — we root for the crew the entire harrowing way, and Affleck puts right there beside them.
2. “Zero Dark Thirty” — Director Kathryn Bigelow’s account of the long, tireless, almost impossible mission to find Osama Bin Laden pounds with an overwhelming sense of urgency. It’s a taut tale that moves swiftly, covering lots of ground — it’s 2 1/2 hours long, but doesn’t feel like it at all. And as the CIA agent obsessed with finding Bin Laden, Jessica Chastain gives an intensely focused performance. We’ll never know how much of the story is true, but the film itself is gripping, enthralling — and one of the most important films of the year. (It’s set to open in Wichita on Jan. 11.)
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3. “The Avengers” — I didn’t have a better time at the movies this year than with these misfit heroes who join forces to save Earth. With so many bigger-than-life characters (and egos) to contend with, this could have been a huge disaster. But cult favorite writer/director Josh Whedon managed to give every hero his personal shining moment and them unite them for a breathtaking grand battle. Hulk, smash! But Whedon knocked it out of the park.
4. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” — A strangely cathartic experience, about a girl named Hushpuppy living deep in the Delta bayou who must fend for herself and her defiant but deathly ill father when a tsunami ravages their Louisiana community. The film is part fable, part survival tale, but it’s entrancingly dreamlike and full of grand emotional swells. I was in tears after the film — not because of sadness, but because I felt like I had just witnessed something beautiful. And as the young heroine, Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy is a revelation.
5. “Silver Linings Playbook” — Director David O. Russell’s wonderfully emotional drama dissects another hopelessly dysfunctional family (after “The Fighter”) with a ragingly brilliant Bradley Cooper at the core as a broken man dealing with bipolar disorder and heartbreak. Jennifer Lawrence as a young widow with her own troubles is equally wonderful as is a strong supporting cast. The film reminds us that we aren’t always in control of our worlds, but that isn’t something to be afraid of.
6. “Life of Pi” — Ang Lee’s magical parable about a boy and a Bengal tiger adrift in a lifeboat (based on the bestseller by Yann Martel) is encompassing, absolutely gorgeous and a marvel to behold. But against such a large fantastical backdrop, Suraj Sharma gives a wondrous performance that makes the story an indelibly human one that touches us in different ways. The film’s bigger-picture symbolism is up for debate, but its mysticism was comforting and touching.
7. “Les Miserables” — Not everything worked, but Tom Hooper’s lush adaptation of the Broadway musical was rich, thrilling and sometimes seeping with heartache. As the tortured mother-turned-prostitute Fantine, Anne Hathaway gives the best performance of her career with her emotionally potent rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream.”
8. “The Dark Knight Rises” — He set a bar so high for himself with “The Dark Knight Rises,” that director Christopher Nolan certainly had his work cut out for him. And while “Rises” may not have the same pop culture impact that “Dark” did, it still was a solid, more than satisfying way to go out. As the young hero who becomes Batman’s ally, Joseph Gordon-Levitt stole the show — and gave it heart.
9. “Lincoln” — Daniel Day-Lewis further cements himself as one of the greatest actors of our generation with his extraordinary performance as the 16th president of the United States, who campaigns to end the Civil War and abolish slavery. The script was overly talkative for me (and I hated the over-talking of lines — it felt a lot like a David Mamet script) but director Steven Spielberg still delivered a moving, engaging, honorable portrait of one of our most beloved presidents.
10 . “The Sessions” — A funny, intimate, life-affirming story about quadriplegic poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, who, at age 38, seeks out a sex surrogate to help him lose his virginity. It’s thoroughly an adult tale told in an unflinching, matter-of-fact, unsensational way, grounded in beautiful, fully realized performances by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. They bravely bare their bodies, but they’re willingness to bare their souls was most impressive.
• “Looper” — One of the most inventive scripts of the year, a smart, slam-bang, mind-bending time-travel tale that had me guessing throughout — and when everything comes together, I marveled at it.
• “The Amazing Spider-Man” — The world didn’t really need a reboot of the “Spider-Man” franchise, but the one we got was a fresh twist that was dark and exciting, driven by a heroic performance from Andrew Garfield.
• “Skyfall” — One of the best James Bond films ever was nicely ominous and had surprising emotional heft.
• “Moonrise Kingdom” — Wes Anderson at his wonderfully quirky best with his most ambitious film to date.
• “Safety Not Guaranteed” — Crudely made on a low budget, but captivatingly funny as a woman investigates a man who advertises for a partner to follow him back in time. The surprising ending left me soaring.