It was an amazing year at the movies in 2012.
So winnowing a list down to a mere 10 best films seems downright wrong. The task produced a lot of angst and overthinking, but after much shuffling, reshuffling, deleting and adding, I've settled on these picks.
1. "Zero Dark Thirty": Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal set out to make a focused and unbiased film showing, not telling, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. And they did just that with this intense, bold and riveting film. It's a fairly true-to-life account of how the intelligence community collected breadcrumbs and then killed the world's most hunted terrorist. Jessica Chastain is dynamite as an obsessed agent, but it's the Oscar-winning Bigelow who's the true star. The opening sequence is cinematic genius; evoking the chaotic nightmare of 9/11 through sound and no visuals, just a black screen. An incredible feat from first scene to last.
2. "Argo": Truth is indeed stranger than anything Robert Ludlum could have envisioned, no matter if Hollywood intercedes and tinkers with it for dramatic effect. Ben Affleck's nerve-jangler chronicles a mostly unread chapter in the Iranian-American hostage crisis --- a preposterous CIA mission to sneak out hostages from Iran by cooking up a fake Hollywood sci-fi flick. The script is a dandy, dense with witty repartee delivered impeccably from an ace cast. One of the most entertaining films of the year.
3. "The Master": You won't get any resolution in Paul Thomas Anderson's conundrum about a troubled post-WWII America. Joaquin Phoenix is a lightning bolt as a soul-shocked veteran who develops an intense relationship with a charismatic religious leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Not an easy watch, but it sticks in the craw, as you puzzle and piece it all together. If you're looking for meat-and-potatoes storytelling, go see "Zero Dark Thirty" or "Lincoln" instead.
4. "Amour": You've got to hand it to Michael Haneke: He's developed a unique knack for bumming the hell out of us. "Amour" is no exception: a wrenching, humbling and beautifully rendered descent into the final act of an elderly couple's life. True to his own sobering form, "The White Ribbon" artist paints a devastating portrait, one that depicts the worsening decay of a beloved wife's (Emmanuelle Riva) body, mind and soul as a shattered husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant) stands testament to the ugly truth of it all. Painful to behold, this is filmmaking at its finest; an unforgettable experience about what faces all of us near the end.
5. "Beasts of the Southern Wild": Oh, how I wish this little indie were generating more Oscar buzz. That's because "Beasts" is such a skillful and lovely creation. It's a rich, lyrical fable about a resourceful girl living in poverty named Hushpuppy (an amazing Quvenzhané Wallis) and her scrappy life on a Louisiana bayou with her ill pappa (Dwight Henry). A hit at Sundance, director Benh Zeitlin immerses us into Hushpuppy's day-to-day reality and then weaves in fantastical elements. And yes, Katrina figures in the background.
6. "Moonrise Kingdom": If there is one movie that filled my heart with pure joy in 2012, it's this sprightly tale from Wes Anderson. Two young misfits in puppy love make a grand escape from eccentric family and friends, triggering all sorts of hilarious mayhem. A perfect ensemble cast -- Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Edward Norton and Bruce Willis -- help illuminate the sunny side of all the endearing characters.
7. "Silver Linings Playbook": I heart David O. Russell's recent leap into inspirational but edgy stories of flawed people overcoming adversity. While this soulful romantic comedy is a bit of a hot mess that's really OK. After all, it is about two troubled souls battling their personal demons. A sweet-and-sour affair, with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence literally dancing away with our hearts.
8. "Looper": Sci-fi never garners much attention -- awards or otherwise -- but this risk-taker from innovative writer/director Rian Johnson ("Brick") did. In the near future, a narcissistic hit man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gets into a metaphysical tussle with an older version (Bruce Willis) of himself. It's one of the best in the genre, ambitiously tackling thorny themes about sacrifice, love and the dangers and possibilities of altering our destinies.
9. "The Grey": Released in the dead of January, Joe Carnahan's high-minded man vs. beast adventure tale respectfully recalls the work of Jack London and Hemingway. Liam Neeson delivers his best performance yet as a survivor of a plane crash in the wilderness of Alaska. He and other co-workers aboard that fateful flight brave the elements -- poorly, and a pack of lurking wolves-- even worse. There's much more afoot than a simple action story here, with Carnahan handling the heart of darkness material with fierce determination, surprising emotion and piercing insight into the human condition. Even nearly a year later, I can't stop thinking about it.
10. "In the Family": With this assured, languidly paced debut, Patrick Wang emerges as a major filmmaking talent. Wang is the star, writer and director of "Family," one of the year's most moving and impressive cinematic achievements. Wang plays Joey Williams, a gay man trying to gain custody of his son after his partner's tragic death, in an epic (it clocks in at nearly three hours) intimate character drama that respects and caress about its complex characters. There's a very good reason why a grass-roots movement came about to get this indie drama into more theaters: It's as good as gold.