1. Moonrise Kingdom: Set in 1965 on an idyllic New England island called New Penzance, Moonrise Kingdom follows 12 year-old runaways Suzie (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) as they establish their own “kingdom.” An ensemble cast of director Wes Anderson’s go-to guys creates a fantastical set of characters that makes perfect sense in the surreal world of Robert Yeoman’s campy Super 16 cinematography. This tenderly-rendered romantic drama offers as much intellectually as it does emotionally, awkwardly contrasting the grown-up world with that of its juvenile heroes, ripping apart the labels that we give ourselves and the people around us and doing what Anderson’s movies do best — taking us out of the real world and placing us in one of his own construction. This movie is far from naive and is one of the purest and most poetic love stories to hit theaters since ironic detachment came en vogue.
2. Skyfall: Daniel Craig’s Bond is a gritty, emotive take on the beloved superspy. After the narrative mess that was Quantum of Solace, however, some thought that the Craig Bond was heading for the boondocks. Luckily, Skyfall vindicates this Bond with a vengeance. This Bond flick captures much of the old allure of the Sean Connery and Roger Moore days, with its eccentric villain, played by the inestimable Javier Bardem, chewing the scenery in the tradition of Dr. No and Ernst Blofeld. And it’s a relief that the silly gadgetry fetish of the Brosnan era (invisible car?) has all but disappeared from the franchise. Regardless, this Bond delivers action and a surprising emotive punch, delving into the depths of Bond’s vulnerable soul.
3. Argo: Who’d have thought that Matt Damon’s bratty best friend in Good Will Hunting would one day go on to direct a trio of wildly successful thrillers? Argo is the latest of Ben Affleck’s efforts, a taut, superbly tense historical thriller about an exfiltration attempt on six Americans trapped in Iran in the wake of the 1979 Revolution that employs some creative methods. While all pretense of historical accuracy is thrown out of the window, the dramatic license that Affleck takes serves to transform a amusing historical anecdote into a heart-thumping, edge-of-your-seat experience in the tradition of the best caper films.
4. The Avengers: There was an idea to bring together a group of remarkable movies, so that when we needed them, they could create the superhero movie we have all been waiting for. The Avengers smashed in 2012 with the largest opening weekend of all time, despite its mediocre plot. But who cares about plot with humorous, mind-blowing battles and amazing characters like these: cocky Tony, bipolar Bruce, do-gooder Steve. It is an ensemble piece through and through — even Stark only dominated the screen about 12 percent of the time. Amazing acting, directing, the works: Take the time, eat some shawarma and watch Earth’s Mightiest Heroes dominate.
5. The Master: Who ever said film has to be democratic? Dictatorial director Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master throws off audiences with its unconventional storyline and daring style that still has critics and moviegoers scratching their heads since its September release. Come Oscar season, expect to see praise for the two leads, Joaquin Phoenix, who plays an impulsive, alcoholic World War II veteran, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, a polymath/evangelist promoting a Scientology-like creed, “The Cause,” who plays ego to Phoenix’s id. See the film and, like the rest of the film world, try to discover Anderson’s message. Who knows what it’s about? Only ‘the master’ himself.
6. Cloud Atlas: Sure, make fun of Cloud Atlas all you want, for its nearly three-hour length or race and gender-bending actors or whatever. But, for the few of us who actually saw it, the film, directed by The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, prevails as an unbelievably ambitious human story that engages from start to finish. Connecting six storylines that span as many centuries, Cloud Atlas juggles SFX heavy action, screwball comedy, tragic romance and countless other genres. It’s a bit rough around the edges, yes, but it’s all in service of a message that champions civil rights and kindness. Cloud Atlas is a sincere, spectacular epic that, by some mad miracle, exists at all.
7. Lincoln: A dinner napkin with the sentence, “Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner and Daniel Day-Lewis are making a movie about Abraham Lincoln,” could sweep the Oscars by itself. Thankfully, Lincoln was actually made, and it will sweep the Oscars for being a passionate, intricate and even thrilling tribute to The Great Emancipator in addition to its nominal prestige. America’s 16th President is not some godlike savior here but a soft-spoken and conflicted man, not above dirtying his own hands as he pushes Congress ratify the 13th Amendment before the Civil War ends. This is a capital-I Important Movie that marries history with art and education with entertainment like only Spielberg can.
8. Seven Psychopaths: A struggling screenwriter, his mentally unstable best friend, an ex-Quaker, a mob boss, a Vietnamese priest and a couple more psychopaths (including one played by Tom Waits) all in one movie might seem like a bit much. However, Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths is a masterful comedy which pieces together a plot involving each of those elements as well as an adorable dog and a few white rabbits. The cast is made up of Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson and more. These actors brilliantly execute this fabulous piece of writing to produce a film that is hilarious, bloody and tremendously entertaining.
9. Beasts of Southern Wild: There is no film like Beasts of the Southern Wild. The Sundance-winner is a coming-of-age fantasy set against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina that serves as both a fairytale and a piece of gripping history. Hushpuppy and her alcoholic father live happily together in the impoverished Bathtub, a piece of land beyond the levees. When a great storm and mythical beasts charge towards the Bathtub, Hushpuppy must grow up quickly to save her sickly father. First-time actors Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry are absolute powerhouses as Hushpuppy and her daddy, and young director Benh Zeitlin films his characters and the natural world that surrounds them with intimacy and love. Painfully real and absolutely magical, Beasts of the Southern Wild restores your faith in original storytelling.
10. Brave: While not as universally hailed as some of Pixar’s previous efforts, Brave is nevertheless a competently written and directed animated feature. The story, like in other Pixar movies, revolves less around the clever gimmicks of its setting and more around a solid emotional core involving the rehabilitation of a mother-daughter relationship. The misty forests and mountains of what is presumably Scotland are beautifully evocative, and protagonist Merida’s fiery tresses alone are worth the price of watching. Brave may have problems wrapping up its story free of narrative cliches, but it certainly takes its place among the pantheon of Pixar’s greats.