Just how good a year was it at the movies?
Last year at this time, I had a hard time thinking of 10 films I could really recommend when pressed by friends. This year, when I started to put together a list of possibilities for the best of 2012, it kept getting longer and longer and, then, even longer.
In the end, a number of very good movies -- ones that would have made in previous years -- did not make this list. The differences between those films and this top 10 are, in some cases, minute but in the end, these are 10 I felt were the finest of the year:
1. "Zero Dark Thirty"
Having won an Oscar for best picture for "Hurt Locker," director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal turned to an even bigger story: the hunt for Osama bin Laden. It turned out the story changed quickly but the result is a gripping, emotionally-charged film that features a superb performance by Jessica Chastain as a CIA officer and manages to delve into the darkest aspects of the war on terror. Even though you know how it ends, you'll be on the edge on your seat.
This really should be 1B to "Zero Dark Thirty's" 1A. Working from a sharp script by Tony Kushner, Steven Spielberg serves up a sprawling, intelligent and even amusing epic about the flawed man who was arguably our greatest president. At the heart of the movie: a monumental performance by Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, one that is so engaging that you feel you are truly in the company of the man on the five-dollar bill. And, like "Zero Dark Thirty," you may know how the film ends but it still manages to be thrilling.
3. "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
It's rare when you get sheer poetry on film; even rarer when it comes from a first-time director. But that's Benh Zeitlin pulled off with the magical "Beasts," the story of a girl named Hushpuppy and her father living in a poor, remote part of the Louisiana bayou threatened by nature's fury. It manages to mix reality and dreamscape into a powerful contemplation of the human condition and Zeitlin gets an amazing set of performances from amateur actors, most notably the mesmerizing one from nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy.
At the times, the film from Austrian director Michael Haneke is hard to watch. But Haneke's story of an elderly Parisian couple struggling with the end of life and the end of a long marriage is compelling, heartfelt and very, very real. Veteran actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva contribute rich, nuanced performances as the couple while Isabelle Huppert has a nicely-conceived turn as their daughter.
Ben Affleck just keeps better and better as a director. In what could be viewed as something of a companion piece to "Zero Dark Thirty," he takes on the true-life (and little-told) story of a group of Americans who avoided becoming hostages at the American embassy in Tehran during the 1979 but find themselves trapped. The result is an absolute thriller as the CIA cooks up what even agency officials consider a ridiculous scheme to get the Americans out of Iran. It's a heady mixture of political intrigue and comedy.
6. "Silver Linings Playbook"
Director David O. Russell pulled off a real high-wire act with this dark-edged romantic comedy about a guy with bipolar disorder whose life is in shambles, his dysfunctional family and the young woman who may provide some hope for the future. The performances by Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver are some of the best ensemble work of the year.
7. "Moonrise Kingdom"
This fanciful tale of young love on a New England island in the 1960s is director Wes Anderson at his best. Sometimes, Anderson can get just too precious for his own good but "Kingdom" is accessible and sweet and emotionally honest. Sure, the settings are artificial as ever with Anderson but here that actually works beautifully.
This droll, quirky comedy about murder and deception in a Texas town never found much of an audience in theaters but it should have. Working from a true story, director Richard Linklater spins a splendid tale of an undertaker who cons a whole town -- including himself. Jack Black crafts a great character in Bernie and Shirley MacLaine makes the widow who becomes involved with him richly believable.
9. "Searching for Sugar Man"
There were a lot of very good documentaries over the past year but Malik Bendjelloul's extraordinary film about a musician who was on the verge of fame and fortune and then slid into obscurity has stuck with me more than the others. What makes the story so rich is that while singer-songwriter Rodriquez slides into oblivion in the U.S., he becomes a musical legend and icon in South Africa (where he is assumed to be dead). In the end, Bendjelloul's search for the artist gave Rodriquez a second chance -- which makes for an inspiring film.
A James Bond movie in the top 10? Absolutely. The 23rd film in the Bond franchise may be the best ever, a heady mixture of all the 007 set pieces plus a more mature, damaged agent who finds himself in a brutal battle with a truly dangerous villain at least as smart as he is. Sam Mendes' direction and Roger Deakins' cinematography are first-rate and the acting by Daniel Craig, Judi Dench as M and Javier Bardem as the Big Bad is fantastic.
Follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.