What's a film critic to do when all her favorite directors, as well as a startling slew of talented newcomers, release films in the same year?
Besides do a happy dance, that is.
The inner battle to build my top 10 films of 2012 list was as riveting as a Bigelow film, as bloody as a Tarantino production, as tense as an Affleck thriller and as twisty as one of Rian Johnson's movies.
1. “Zero Dark Thirty”: Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal may just be the best filmmaking team working in cinema today. Their exhaustively researched story about the 10-year search for Osama bin Laden manages to be even more immersive than their 2009 Iraq War tale “The Hurt Locker,” which won six Oscars, including best picture, director and original screenplay. The controversial torture scenes are just as unflinching and hard to watch as advertised, the third act chronicling the raid on the 9/11 terrorist's fortress racks the nerves even knowing the outcome, and the jittery pacing simulates the fits and starts of the protracted investigation. From “The Help” to “Take Shelter,” all the stellar turns we've seen from Jessica Chastain have been building to her powerhouse performance as a CIA operative who literally makes it her mission in life to hunt down the terror mastermind.
2. “Django Unchained”: Who would've thought that Quentin Tarantino could top his historical revenge fantasy “Inglourious Basterds”? His bloody new masterwork does for slavery what his 2009 project did for Nazism: gives it the shooting, blasting and beating it so richly deserves. With his first spaghetti Western, Tarantino shows off his usual devotion to classic genre films, his penchant for outlandish violence and his uproariously dark sense of humor.
3. “Argo”: With “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town” already on his resume, Ben Affleck has quietly become a first-rate helmer specializing in smart, nail-biting thrillers. He produced, directed and starred in his new period piece, about a recently declassified 1980 operation to sneak six stranded Americans out of revolutionary Iran. Even knowing the outcome, my fingers were digging into the arms of my theater seat the entire final 45 minutes.
4. “Looper”: Just three features into his career, Rian Johnson (“The Brothers Bloom,” “Brick”) has become one of those innovative writer-directors whose films go on my must-see list from the time they're announced. His exhilarating time-travel tale starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt distinguished itself as one of the best science-fiction films in recent memory.
5. “Beasts of the Southern Wild”: Breakthroughs don't get much more impressive than director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin's engrossing saga of a dilapidated Louisiana enclave of fiercely defiant holdouts who opt to ride out a massive hurricane. Newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis, just 6 years old during filming, is luminescent as the strong-willed survivalist Hushpuppy, and Dwight Henry, a local bakery owner who was asked to audition, sure doesn't seem like an amateur in his authentic turn as her drunken, terminally ill father.