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The Best Movies of 2012

The best films of 2012 – and a full, feisty and first-rate year it was – took a defiant stand against business as usual that is pure rock & roll. Here's the cream of the crop.

By Peter Travers

dark knight rises

Ron Phillips

11

The Pop Spot

In a year of choice box-office escapism (Skyfall, The Avengers, Ted, The Hunger Games), The Dark Knight Rises deserves pride of place. Though not time-capsule material like 2008's The Dark Knight with Heath Ledger, Christopher Nolan's  hypnotic capper to his Batman trilogy lifted spectacle close to the level of art. The Colorado tragedy in which a gunman opened fire in a theater showing the film should not be confused with Nolan's achievement. 

django unchained

Andrew Cooper

10

‘Django Unchained’

What better way to end the year than with a blast of Quentin Tarantino swagger? Lincoln abolished slavery by jamming the 13th amendment through Congress. QT did it by giving a black cowboy (Jamie Foxx) a gun and the chance to blow away every slave trader in sight. It's fantasy revenge, but for movie junkies everywhere it sure tastes sweet.

moonrise kingdom

Courtesy of Focus Features

9

‘Moonrise Kingdom’

In Wes Anderson's exquisitely imagined bubble of a 1965 New England summer, first love blooms between 12-year-olds (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward). Anderson catches the moment in all its cartwheeling romantic confusion.

Laurie Sparham

8

‘Les Misérables’

The best and boldest Hollywood musical in years soars because director Tom Hooper insisted that all the actors (that means Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and even you, Russell Crowe) sing live.

life of pi

Peter Sorel

7

‘Life of Pi’

When a maestro experiments with 3D, it makes a difference. Witness the miracles performed by director Ang Lee in his moving take on Yann Martel's 2001 bestseller about an Indian boy (fearless newcomer Suraj Sharma) trapped for 227 days at sea in a lifeboat with a starving Bengal tiger. The beast is all digital. The film's grit and grace are all genuine.

silver linings playbook

The Weinstein Company

6

‘Silver Linings Playbook’

Leave it to wild-man director David O. Russell to raise the bar on romantic comedy with this jagged love story between two emotional basket cases, played by a never-better Bradley Cooper and a hot-damn-she’s-fine Jennifer Lawrence. It’s crazy good.

argo

Claire Folger

5

‘Argo’

Ben Affleck excels as a director by pumping suspense and leavening humor into this look at the 1979 Iran hostage crisis and the subterfuge it took to aid the escape of six U.S. Embassy staffers. Argo plays with facts, but Affleck's maneuvers are artful, subversive and effective. He's the real deal.

lincoln

David James

4

‘Lincoln’

The risk here for director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, both at the peak of their powers, is that audiences would endure the torrential battle of words that helped Abraham Lincoln (the reliably astounding Daniel Day-Lewis) jam a 13th Amendment through Congress to forever abolish slavery. Tough mission, brilliantly accomplished.

beasts of the southern wild

Jess Pinkham

3

‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’

The year's best film from a first-timer. Director Benh Zeitlin, a New York transplant to New Orleans, says his dare was to merge "the poetics of an art film with something that feels like Die Hard." Done. Living on the post-Katrina Louisiana bayou, six-year-old Hushpuppy (the amazing Quvenzhané Wallis, not too young for an Oscar) has no fear of poverty, hurricanes or rampaging creatures that emerge from melting polar ice caps. Zeitlin creates a world of beauty, terror and mythic wonder. And Quvenzhané? She's the man.

zero dark thirty

Jonathan Olley

2

‘Zero Dark Thirty’

In the hands of director Kathryn Bigelow, screenwriter Mark Boal and actress Jessica Chastain, the CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden becomes a fierce thriller and an even fiercer meditation on who’s winning and losing the War on Terror.

the master

Weinstein Company/courtesy Everett Collection

1

‘The Master’

No movie this year is more divisive. The haters want to crush me for cheering the groundbreaking, untamable spirit of The Master. Which only means that filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson has touched a raw nerve by detailing the damage done by unthinking allegiance to God, country, sex and money. Joaquin Phoenix gives his all and then some as a World War II vet who falls under the spell of a 1950s cult leader, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. No one doubts their acting genius. But the neg-heads say, "I don't get this movie." Talk about it, people. See it again. Pry into it. Discuss your issues with friends. Argue. Debate. That used to be what movies were about till the multiplex turned our brains to mush.

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