Joaquin Phoenix in The Master
Hani Furstenberg and Gael Garc�a Bernal in The Loneliest Planet
Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty
Jafar Panahi in This Is Not a Film
Anders Danielsen Lie in Oslo, August 31st
Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman in Moonrise Kingdom
Emmanuelle Riva in Amour
Stephanie Sigman in Miss Bala
Jack Black in Bernie
Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln
Denis Lavant, right, in Holy Motors
Sebastian Brodziak, left, and Patrick Wang in In the Family
How to Survive a Plague
Alex Ross Perry and Carlen Altman in The Color Wheel
Liam Neeson in The Grey
Ben Kenigsberg, Film editor
1. The Master Few films toss out the rule book as brazenly as Paul Thomas Anderson’s 70mm enigma, which glances toward noir themes (repression, the returning veteran, fear of family life, religious hucksterism) but ultimately seems as recalcitrant as Joaquin Phoenix’s volatile drifter. Turning on two helixed love stories, it rewards repeat viewings in the way only a classic can.
2. Zero Dark Thirty With the single-mindedness of The Hurt Locker’s bomb defuser, Jessica Chastain’s CIA analyst spends eight years hunting Osama bin Laden. The film doesn’t shy from torture or other horrors; the Abbottabad raid reaffirms that no one directs action like Kathryn Bigelow.
3. This Is Not a Film Under house arrest and banned from filmmaking, Iran’s Jafar Panahi tests the waters by having a friend videotape him at home. Soon it becomes clear we’re not watching a diary but a sleight of hand to rival Orson Welles’s F for Fake.
4. Moonrise Kingdom Dense with invention, the apotheosis of all things Wes Anderson has an irreducible, alchemical hilarity.
5. Miss Bala Applying the long-take rigor of recent Romanian cinema to a kinetic thriller-polemic, Gerardo Naranjo tags along as a beauty-queen contestant becomes a pawn in Tijuana’s all-pervading drug trade. Barely released, it was 2012’s most mistreated great movie.
6. Lincoln Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s procedural is at once a demystification of 19th-century politics and an example of American mythmaking at its finest. By now, praising Daniel Day-Lewis seems as obvious as acclaiming Lincoln.
7. In the Family Patrick Wang’s self-distributed debut wins Best Out-of-Nowhere Surprise, tackling would-be Lifetime material—a custody battle after one half of a gay couple dies—with such specificity it never once feels familiar.
8. Amour Asked about dying wife Emmanuelle Riva’s condition, Jean-Louis Trintignant replies: “None of all that deserves to be shown.” Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner argues otherwise. Disciplinarian yet tender, this provocatively confined film confronts the taboo-in-movies subject of caring for a deteriorating loved one.
9. The Color Wheel This second feature by my former video-store clerk Alex Ross Perry atomizes the mumble-whatever genre with a b&w road comedy about bickering siblings. Their natural intimacy keeps them closer to each other than to strangers, in ways both disarming and disturbing.
10. Oslo, August 31st Joachim Trier’s character study is so perceptive on thirtysomething anxiety and dissolving friendships, the protag’s drug addiction is almost irrelevant.
A.A. Dowd, Film writer
1. The Loneliest Planet Blink and you’ll miss the pivotal nanosecond of Julia Loktev’s haunting relationship drama, about two backpacking lovers drawing close and drifting apart in the great unknown. No 2012 film did as much with as little, finding emotional truth in long walks, longer silences and one brief (but irreversible) failure of nerve.
2. Zero Dark Thirty Obsession as life force is the real subject of Bigelow’s nuts-and-bolts detective thriller, with Chastain summoning Ahab-like conviction to play the young CIA agent leading a decade-long hunt for bin Laden. Where does one go, the film asks, when the whale has been caught?
3. Oslo, August 31st Norway’s Trier turns the homecoming of a reformed addict into a tender eulogy for summer, friendship and the faded glories of auspicious youth.
4. Amour One French-screen legend (Trintignant) watches another (Riva) wither away in what may be cinema’s most brutally honest depiction of growing old. You expect harsh truths from Haneke; it’s the compassion that surprises.
5. The Master Deciphering Anderson’s grand muddle was the cinephile sport of the year. Even if the film’s profundity eluded me, there was no denying the mad zing of its dialogue (“Pig fuck!”), the intensity of its performances and—especially in 70mm—the bewitching beauty of its images.
6. Bernie Tackling a real-life crime story through documentary interviews and scripted reenactments—the latter featuring Jack Black in the role of his career—Richard Linklater proves truth really can be stranger than fiction. Funnier, too.
7. Holy Motors Leos Carax’s bugfuck curiosity, with Denis Lavant as a role-playing chameleon who turns all of Paris into his stage, doesn’t quite equal the sum of its parts. But what glorious, bewildering parts!
8. Moonrise Kingdom Blessed with a dream cast, the other Anderson returns with his most effervescent confection since The Royal Tenenbaums—a bittersweet vision of first romance and middle-aged melancholia.
9. How to Survive a Plague Occupy rabble-rousers, take note: David France’s electrifying documentary on the organized response to AIDS doubles as a lesson in informed, effective activism.
10. The Grey Banished to the multiplex wasteland of early winter, this ferocious Liam Neeson vehicle tucks a Hawksian portrait of male camaraderie into a Herzogian survival yarn. January genre offerings don’t come much more poetic.