Making an ordered list of movies at the end of the year is a lot like playing a poker cash game. One’s perspective on particular movies relative to others ebbs and flows throughout the year depending on a slew of reasons that are both fair and unfair, and the only thing that really matters is where things stand when it’s all over. For example: I saw The Sessions twice. The first time I really liked it, and the second time I liked the performances more than the movie. I don’t know if it would have made this top ten list if I’d only watched it once, but it certainly would have been strongly considered. As it stands, it barely made the honorable mentions.

The following ten movies are the ones that have really stuck with me. They’re the ones that have gotten better with months or weeks of age and have separated themselves from the pack. Some of them will definitely be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and others will not even be considered. Some of them you’ll probably agree with, and some of them will probably make you laugh and doubt my credibility. That’s okay. I’ve worked and reworked these ten movies over and over again, and at least for the moment, I think this is the best possible reflection of my own taste in what 2012 had to offer at the theater.

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10) Life Of Pi
I’m not normally a huge fan of movies that cut back and forth between a character telling a story in the present and footage of the story itself in the past, but director Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi really gets all it can out of the format. Irrfan Khan’s adult Pi Patel has such a fascinating way with words and phrases that he’s actually a nice contrast to the visual marvel of the larger story. And oh what a visual marvel it is. From the animalistic and scary chaos of the sinking ship to the prolonged stand-off between young Pi and the Tiger, every single effect looks brilliant and every single camera angle is chosen with expert care.

Life Of Pi is one of the best-crafted movies of the year. How Lee was able to make a story largely about the tediousness of trying to survive at sea riveting is beyond me, but his well-balanced, engaging film is a testament to his own decision-making and the wonder of Yann Martel’s beloved book.
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9) 21 Jump Street
Channing Tatum proved he could be hilarious during his scene-stealing turn in The Dilemma, but carrying an entire film comedically requires a different level of talent. Turns out Tatum has an abundance of that, along with handsomeness and confidence. 21 Jump Street is the single funniest movie released in 2012. The chemistry between Tatum and Hill is a thing of beauty, and more importantly, the film trusts that its premises, witty lines and performances are enough. It maximizes the material without begging for laughs very often, and that forward progress allows directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller to get in as many fresh jokes as possible.

So many details about 21 Jump Street are just right. From one-strapping the backpack to the rules of coolness being rewritten in just a few short years, 21 Jump Street has a really astute eye, and at times, it’s willing to call itself out for, on paper, being a somewhat formulaic retread. Luckily for audiences, it’s actually so much more.
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8) Beasts Of The Southern Wild
Beasts Of The Southern Wild is a weird movie. Thanks to the collective nonsense of those living in the Bathtub, it’s often infuriating too, but at no point is it ever boring. It firecrackers forward with a crazy, slapdash momentum and somehow makes complete sense amidst all its eccentricities and hang-ups. It’s about growing up and confronting whatever is on your plate with a smile, and miraculously, it features two stunning performances by Louisiana locals who weren’t even actors.

Bakery owner Dwight Henry reportedly went into his audition alongside the already cast Quvenzhane Wallis with a giant box of sweets in order to win her affection. Whatever he did worked because the chemistry between the two is a thing of beauty. Even as tensions strain, the water rises and it all starts draining to hell, they never stop being a believable son and daughter, and the way they fight, make-up and never stop loving in their own ways is about as human as the Bathtub gets.
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7) Looper
There are a lot of people out there who are bothered by how the t’s cross and i’s dot when it comes to time travel in Looper. I really don’t care about any of that. Time travel rarely works logically because once it’s invented, things should constantly change to the point that no single path is every set in stone, and that ever-evolving mess is impossible to ever fully tame. Thus, the more important element in Looper to me is whether or not it’s a badass drama about an assassin trying to kill his own father and an older gentlemen mowing down children, and the answer to that question is a resounding yes.

With great performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels and newcomer Pierce Gagnon, Looper is able to present a fascinating web of conflicting perspectives and intentions without turning any one person into the “bad guy”. It’s a well-written, well-shot and clever movie, and Cid Harrington’s meltdown with Jesse remains the most fucked-up and awesome moment I saw at the movies all year.
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6) Pitch Perfect
Sometimes being one of the best movies of the year isn’t about starting with the loftiest subject matter or taking the biggest swing. Sometimes it’s about making the funniest, best damn movie possible given the material, and Pitch Perfect does exactly that. Like Mean Girls before it, the film delves into the hilarious, goofy and heartfelt world of women in their late teens and early twenties, and it manages to produce dozens of killer lines, plenty of big laughs and even some moments of genuine honesty.

The best comedies don’t rely on a single character to generate laughs, and Pitch Perfect is a true ensemble. Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy and Adam DeVine’s Bumper Allen may lead the charge, but they’re buoyed by some great work from Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins and leads Brittany Snow, Anna Kendrick and Anna Camp. Pitch Perfect gets college. It gets a capella competitions, and it gets exactly where the joke is in any given scene.
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5) Lincoln
The key to Lincoln isn’t in the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, though his work should win him an Oscar, and it’s not in its army of older white character actors, though they’re all well cast and as good as ever. The key to Lincoln is in its clever choice of subject matter that’s able to paint the beloved President as more of a conniving schemer who broke the rules for the greater good than the unquestioned saint most of us learned about as children in elementary school. By focusing on the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, it narrows the gigantic scope of Lincoln’s life and is able to introduce us to the supporting characters who colored and shaped his life.

Admittedly, Lincoln is about fifteen minutes too long and has a few moments that don’t exactly work, but as a whole, it’s a moving, well-constructed masterpiece interested in the details and specifics of an extremely important moment in the history of the United States. Honest Abe might not be the legend we grew up with here, but in a way, he’s even better.
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4) Skyfall
Skyfall is not only one of 2012’s best movies, it’s one of the best James Bond movies of all-time. Filled with action, clever moments of nostalgia, romance and most importantly, a firm analysis of why 007 needs to exist in modern society, it’s both a nod to the past and a product of this very moment. It couldn’t exist without the 50 years of Bond greatness that came before, and ideally, it should begin a new path for future generations of filmmakers and stars to follow for the next five decades of MI6 shenanigans.

Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva is one of the greatest Bond villains we’ve ever gotten, and the casting of Naomi Harris as Eve was a masterstroke by director Sam Mendes who pretty much crushed his duties here en route to a worldwide gross that has almost topped $1,000,000,000. Skyfall is damn near perfect, and James Bond is still the coolest franchise character ever created.
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3) Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty is an obsessively detailed, well-made look at an operation that unfolded slowly through years and years of highs, lows and painfully long periods of unchanged middle grounds. At almost two hours and forty minutes, it’s really long, but thanks to great acting performances by Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke and a few others, it doesn’t feel long at all. It feels just right, and when the payoff comes at the end, it feels deserved as much for some of the characters as it does for members of the audience.

We’ll probably never know exactly how real the depiction of what happened is, but in Kathryn Bigelow’s capable hands, it feels honest and genuine. From a cinematic perspective, it probably doesn’t matter either. What we’re given is compelling, fascinating and even strangely ordered in its own way. I’m not sure many other directors could have done that with this subject matter, and considering how great Zero Dark Thirty is, I’m glad we didn’t watch anyone else try.
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2) Silver Linings Playbook
The men and women who populate David O Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook are among the most flawed and fucked-up this year had to offer, but by looking for the humor and celebrating the silver linings, Bradley Cooper’s Pat and Jennifer Lawrence’s Tiffany actually come across as loveable, hilarious and at times, even relatable. They have good hearts beneath all the baggage, and through dance steps and frank conversations, we get to watch them find the loveability beneath the surface.

Their climactic dance scene is among the best moments the year in film had to offer, and their relationship, in all its eccentricities, might well be the single best connection. Plus, I think I speak for almost everyone when I say it’s nice to see Chris Tucker working more. He hasn’t been in the game a whole lot over the past decade, but his warmth and smooth conversation have been missed.
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1) Argo
Argo is the best movie of the year because it’s a complete cinematic experience. It’s funny, nostalgic, filled with action and cleverly written. Everyone looks and talks like they belong in the movie, and there’s not any excess waste. It’s a zippy two hours, which is really refreshing for a complicated movie with a dense plot that could have conceivably been much longer. Choosing an unknown element of a very well known story was also a masterstroke on director Ben Affleck’s part, and he deserves high marks for working in the phrase “Argo fuck yourself” a few times.

Of every movie on this list, Argo is the only one in which I wouldn’t change a single thing. It’s just right exactly the way it is. Other films may have shuffled up and down and off this list entirely at various points during the year, but after seeing Argo, I placed the film first on my list and it never wavered. It’s the best I saw in 2012, and I’ll be crossing my fingers for it on Oscar night. Well played, Affleck. Matt Damon is arguably now your sidekick rather than the other way around.

The Next 10 Movies On My List: Magic Mike, Flight, Perks Of Being A Wallflower, Five-Year-Engagement, Paranorman, The Avengers, Wreck It Ralph, Jack Reacher, Les Mis, The Sessions.
 

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