December 31, 2012 12:00 PM

1 Silver Linings Playbook

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro

It’s the best movie of the year, but damned if I can tell you what it is. Rom-com? Treatise on mental illness? Love note to the Philadelphia Eagles? Here’s what David O. Russell’s fiendishly witty, brash film isn’t: boring, safe or willing to let any of us forget a deceptively simple truth: “When life reaches out … it’s a sin if you don’t reach back.”

2 Argo

Starring: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Alan Arkin

There have to be Hollywood insiders gnawing on their knuckles at Affleck’s talent. It’s enough to craft a taut terrorism thriller (see: Zero Dark Thirty), but the third-time director adds a waggish satire, then stitches them together without making a patchwork mess like the poor pooch in Frankenweenie. It’s pure entertainment.

3 Zero Dark Thirty

Starring: Jessica Chastain

Most films try to get inside the lead character’s head. Zero Dark Thirty aims straight for her gut. We never know who Maya (the steely Chastain) is, apart from her relentless drive to find Osama bin Laden. But that lets director Kathryn Bigelow sharpen the story to a knife point, pitting torture against terror and making for a nerve-shredding hunt that’s as morally unsettling as it is riveting.

4 Beasts of the Southern Wild

Starring: Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry

It’s easy to feel lost in Benh Zeitlin’s artsy (yet grounded) fable. The film’s magic is that you want to stay that way. Hushpuppy (Wallis) may be a wee girl, but she fills the screen like the mighty aurochs chasing her. To think, Wallis was just 6 when she shot the film, and those prehistoric beasts were actually baby pigs. It seems Zeitlin has a skill for conjuring majesty from small things.

5 Amour

Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva

Amour is not to be enjoyed. The brutal French tale centers on long-married Anne (Riva) and Georges (Trintignant), struggling to cope after Anne’s stroke. For those who already know the pain of watching a loved one decline, the film is a horror show of memories. For luckier souls, Amour will steal your innocence and never give it back. So why celebrate such a work? Because it is as honest and beautifully acted as cinema gets.

6 Lincoln

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones

Somewhere over the horse and under the hat is Day-Lewis, who disappears into characters like nobody else. The genius of Lincoln is that it gives him an imaginative, enlightening, surprisingly funny forum in which to work his alchemy and then wisely gets out of his way.

7 The Avengers

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo

Let’s review the assignment. Joss Whedon’s job was to pick up the threads of five different comic-book movies (one with the lead actor recast), fold in two new characters, make them all fit together in one smart, funny, cohesive narrative-and make it palatable for newbies while not alienating the nerds. Impossible. Yet somehow, The Avengers emerges as the greatest superhero movie ever made. Oh, I said it. The story and effects are spectacular. But Avengers’ best moments are its quietest, those charming little asides between Iron Man (Downey), Captain America (Evans) and the Hulk (Ruffalo) that let an audience feel not just in on the action but part of the heroes’ lives.

8 Moonrise Kingdom

Starring: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bill Murray

Wes Anderson’s quirky, deadly serious (in other words, hilarious) take on young love never stops being surprising.

9 Skyfall

Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem

Classic, stylish Skyfall breathes new life into 50-year-old Bond, while Bardem almost gets us to root for the bad guy.

10 Les Miserables

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway

The big, overbearing musical is back, and that’s a grand thing. Hathaway and Jackman’s wrenching performances punched me right in the feelings.

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