December 21, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST

1 Zero Dark Thiry
Rated R
In Zero Dark Thirty, a decade of post- 9/11 pain is distilled into a rigorously reported drama about the controversial, shadowy work of countless Americans to find the terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. Which is then distilled into the fact-based story of one of them, an obsessed CIA analyst. (It so happens she’s a woman.) Who, played with pale fire by Jessica Chastain, becomes the human fuse that ignites the SEAL Team Six raid that, in the movie’s heart-pounding climax, accomplishes the mission that signified so much to so many. Go ahead, see the picture, and argue about the uses of torture, the mining of secrets, the place of America today. This outstanding second collaboration, following The Hurt Locker, between journalist-screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow is built powerfully enough to absorb all outpourings of emotion. There’s not a moment wasted, and not a scene without a purpose. Chastain’s Maya is determined, driven, anguished, and ardent; so too is Zero Dark Thirty. That’s its power, and that’s why it’s the best and most important movie of the year.

2. Lincoln
Rated PG-13
Just as Zero Dark Thirty holds up a mirror to who we are as a nation today, so Lincoln contains within its rich storytelling vital intelligence about the soul of our nation as it battled to define itself nearly 150 years earlier: This resonant, stirring movie tells a great story of how we came to be. A triumphant three-cornered collaboration linking director Steven Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner, and the profound actor Daniel Day-Lewis (doing one of those uncanny transformations of his, disappearing right into the president’s bones), the movie shines with intelligence. It brims with precise performances (the joy of actors given something tasty to chew on). And it’s lit by a beautiful conviction that the work of democratic engagement is, in its mess and hubbub and urgency, something thrilling to behold.

3. The Master
Rated R
Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest portrait of masculinity in extremis is as elusive as it is great. What are we to make of the symbiotic relationship between a damaged, sozzled animal of an American male just back from World War II (played, as if with nerve endings exposed, by Joaquin Phoenix) and a charismatic/crackpot pied piper of self-actualization (embodied by a booming Philip Seymour Hoffman)? It’s fitting that nothing is resolved about the father-son, master-disciple dynamic; the limbo is exactly what elevates this ambitious, creatively hot-blooded but cool-toned project from the simpler send-up of Scientology some might have wished it to be. The Master is unnerving. It’s also amazing-looking — a unique visual diary by an important filmmaker, following the itinerary of post-war Americans seeking salvation and prosperity because they feel so impoverished within.

4. Amour
Rated PG-13
Michael Haneke, that most precise of Austrian auteurs, chose carefully in naming this exquisite pas de deux between French treasure Emmanuelle Riva, as an old woman who suffers a series of strokes, and the renowned Jean-Louis Trintignant, as the devoted husband who cares for her at home. He called it Amour — love — not love and death. Or love and loss. The devastating drama pays close attention to the expressions of longtime love in a hundred tiny forms, not all of them kind, or easy, or bearable to watch. Indeed, the bond is so strong, it upsets an adult daughter (played with economical bold strokes by Isabelle Huppert), and so intimate, we feel as if we are intruding. And yet we cannot look away.

5. Argo
Rated R
During the dark chapter of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, a handful of American embassy workers, secretly sheltered in the home of the Canadian ambassador, escaped the country by posing as a Canadian movie crew scouting Iranian locations for a crap Hollywood sci-fi movie. A CIA agent played their producer. It’s a hell of a story on its own, one with the added value of being true, mostly. But working from a tight, bright script by Chris Terrio, director Ben Affleck — dig his no-kidding talent as a filmmaker! — heightens and teases and shades the story until it works marvelously as a tense caper. And as an unlikely Hollywood comedy. And as a vivid period drama — a period of plaid jackets and porny mustaches — not so long ago, or far away.

6. The Gatekeepers
Rated PG-13
The most riveting nonfiction film of the year — and the one with the greatest possibility of actually affecting the state of the world — features a succession of talking heads speaking forthrightly, in subtitled Hebrew, about their stints over the years as heads of Israel’s secretive internal security agency, Shin Bet. That filmmaker Dror Moreh was able to persuade the six chiefs to talk publicly is a wonder; during their tenures they were anonymous even to their fellow citizens. That they now speak as candidly as they do is a credit to Moreh’s patience, his meticulous preparation, and above all to the influence of Errol Morris’ exemplary documentary The Fog of War, which Moreh has said shaped his approach to examining shifting ”truth.” Real love of country mixes with real despair as these gatekeepers review what happened under their watches, and assess the quandary of Israeli-Palestinian relations, as well as the toll taken on a tiny Jewish state by Jews divided against Jews.

7. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Rated PG-13
It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before — a post-Katrina fable tinged with myth and magic, beauty and musings on ecological destruction. And all of it is carried on the birdy shoulders of a little Louisiana girl named Hushpuppy, played with otherworldly charisma by novice acting phenom Quvenzhané Wallis. As conjured by first-time feature filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, Hushpuppy and her drinking, ailing daddy (played by another remarkable nonprofessional actor, Dwight Henry) live in a poor Delta community called the ”Bathtub.” The place is perpetually in precarious shape, prone to flooding, dirt-poor, vibrant. Hushpuppy is prone to visions. And Beasts of the Southern Wild is prone to bursts of idiosyncratic dreaminess that follows a logic all the filmmaker’s own.

8. Skyfall
Rated PG-13
The opening chase scene is a sleek romp across Istanbul roofs and the top of a moving train. The chief bad guy is a platinum-haired cybervillain gleefully fashioned by Javier Bardem. Daniel Craig is cool as a cuke. But what really lifts this 23rd Bond movie to a place on my list is the sophisticated way that director Sam Mendes (That guy? Who would have thought it?) says goodbye to the past and pivots toward the future. (Hello, Ralph Fiennes!) The movie doesn’t shy away from the melancholy of mortality, nor from the anxieties of new-tech villainy that makes the spy biz, in Bond’s words, ”a young man’s game.”

9. The Loneliest Planet
Not rated
Indie writer-director Julia Loktev’s emotionally profound drama masquerades as the tiny story of a young couple on a backpacking trip in the Caucasus Mountains the summer before their wedding. The two are deeply attuned to each other (as are the actors, Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) and pride themselves on being citizens of the world. Ever so delicately, Loktev locates exactly where they’re not who they think they are. Often wordless, The Loneliest Planet is a collage of visual and aural sensations. What a pleasure to take this journey with so interesting an artist.

10. How to Survive a Plague
Not rated
David France’s stirring documentary about AIDS activism during the worst of the plague years in the 1980s and ’90s is a triumph of its kind: smart, focused, impassioned, disciplined, and beautifully shaped to suit its mission. It’s also that rarest of nonfiction specimens, one that’s abundant with information, and assertive without succumbing to the anger the activists featured — those still living representing those now dead — have every right to feel. Even better: It’s inspiring.

Scariest Pregnancy Since Rosemary’s Baby: Noomi Rapace in Prometheus
Best Unintentional Homage to Home Alone: The booby-trapping sequence in Skyfall
Best Song by an Artist in Leather Cowboy Chaps: ”Ladies of Tampa,” performed by Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike
The Saw VI Enough Already Award: The Paranormal Activity franchise
Best Spandex-Free Superhero Movie: Chronicle

1 The Dark Knight Rises
2 The Avengers
3 Argo
4 Skyfall
5 Silver Linings Playbook
6 Lincoln
7 The Hunger Games
8 The Perks of Being a Wallflower
9 The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
10 Les Misérables

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