After a slow start, mainstream Hollywood did pretty well for itself in 2012. Box-office receipts are on track to easily surpass last year's $10.2 billion total. But, perhaps surprisingly, Hollywood did well in another way: quality. From the big-budget thrill rides of The Avengers and Life of Pi to the riveting re-creation of the capture of Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, there was a lot worth leaving home for this year. It wasn't all just empty bombast.
The indies, foreign-language imports, and documentaries didn't slack either, whether it was the American magical realism of Beasts of the Southern Wild, the thrilling cat-and-mouse game of the Norwegian thriller Headhunters, the palace shenanigans of Denmark's A Royal Affair, or the anti-drug-war politics of The House I Live In. The result is that it was hard to narrow things down to a Top 10 this year. But, considering the alternative, that's not a bad problem to have.
1. Zero Dark Thirty
Love it or hate it, Kathryn Bigelow's harsh and harrowing journey into recent history is what moviemaking is all about. As she proved with The Hurt Locker, Bigelow knows her way around a war zone, submerging the viewer in the sweat, fear and panic that things could go wrong at any second. But ZDT is more sophisticated than The Hurt Locker -- more of a procedural, showing the delicate dance between agencies over their multiyear hunt for bin Laden. That it also throws the issue of torture back into the spotlight (even though some have questioned its accuracy here) gives it heft beyond the confines of the movie theater. The performances are all powerful -- especially Jessica Chastain as the headstrong agent on the case and the previously overlooked Jason Clarke as the torturer in chief -- and the movie generates suspense, even though we know how it ends. Opening in North Texas on Jan. 4. (For more on the controversy surrounding the film, see Page 14.)
Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner's decision to winnow down the biography of our 16th president to the struggle over the passage of the 13th Amendment was a wise one. It takes a story that could have been sprawling and disorganized and gives it a focus that has parallels to current political debates about political compromise. Daniel Day-Lewis embodies Lincoln with a studied precision, while Sally Field brings a simmering anger as wife Mary Todd Lincoln. Historians have argued about the movie's accuracy, but it packs an emotional punch.
While Sweden's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has been the breakthrough for Scandinavian thrillers in the U.S., Morten Tyldum's Headhunters -- based on a novel by Jo Nesbo -- deserves some of that spotlight, as it's actually more engaging. When an art-heist mastermind (Aksel Hennie) targets the new rich guy in town (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from Game of Thrones), the hunter becomes the hunted in this enthralling, suspenseful nail-biter.
True horror involves not zombies and vampires but the cruelties humans can inflict on each other. Based on a true story, the low-budget indie Compliance -- in which a young, low-level employee at a fast-food outlet is humiliated and harassed by co-workers because an authority figure tells them to -- brings to mind such well-known psychological exercises as the Stanford Prison Experiment (in which those who played guards turned viciously on those who played prisoners) and the Milgram experiment (in which people went against their better judgment to give an unseen victim an electric shock). Ann Dowd, who has gotten some award-season talk for her supporting-actress role, gives an impressive performance as the harried, confused and easily led manager.
5. Life of Pi
Ang Lee's sweeping version of Yann Martel's bestselling novel about a boy lost at sea with wild animals is not only a technical showstopper -- it's one of the few movies worth seeing in 3-D -- but a beautiful meditation on belief and existence. And there's a twist at the end that offers more food for thought.
6. Silver Linings Playbook
David O. Russell, after the dramatics of The Fighter, returns to his more comedic roots with this lightweight but enjoyable dramedy about two emotionally damaged people who find each other. In addition to showcasing Robert De Niro's best performance in years, it's the first we've seen of Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) in a role as a woman who's well beyond girlhood.
With The Town and now Argo, Ben Affleck as a director is going from strength to strength. His take on a little-known incident in which a group of Americans were rescued from hiding in Iran by an agent posing as a movie producer doesn't have a lot to do with reality -- the actual incident didn't have nearly as many touch-and-go moments -- but as a taut, thoughtful thriller, Argo delivers.
8. The Master
While Paul Thomas Anderson's drama about a man who falls under the sway of a spiritualist leader in post-WWII America has an icy reserve that keeps viewers at arm's length, the performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix turn it into commanding theater.
9. End of Watch
Cop-buddy movies are hardly a rarity, but David Ayer's kinetic, electric and humane exploration of the friendship between a white cop (Jake Gyllenhaal) and a Latino cop (Michael Peña) on the streets of L.A. is several notches above the competition.
10. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Set in an isolated stretch of Louisiana bayou country, Benh Zeitlin's fantastical fable about the loss of a way of life is homespun and haunting. At the center of it is a stirring performance from 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis.