Making a list like this one, in a year like the one just passed, comes with its own unique conflicts and pain, because there are at least 10 more films that I could have wedged into this list — perfectly deserving entries that should be represented if only I were allowed to have numbers like 3.5 or 9¾ in there.
If there are omissions you find glaring, it's probably because the film in question is bubbling under these 10 works of distinction on the 11-20 list that exists in my mind. What I love most about this list, though, is the variety — sure, there are two movies about time travel, but despite that common theme, they could not be more different in tone and execution.
1. “Moonrise Kingdom”: If a total neophyte needed to see one film that could fully capture the stylistic and storytelling gifts of director Wes Anderson, “Moonrise Kingdom” would say it all. The story of two 12-year-old outcasts in love captures both the angst of young romance and, through the stories of the unfulfilled adults in their lives, the sadness of growing up. Anderson populates his cast with all-stars, including Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis and Jason Schwartzman, but newcomers Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman stand out amid all that talent as eccentric sweethearts Suzy and Sam. “Moonrise Kingdom” resonates in the memory like a perfect children's book, but with all the heartbreak and longing of real childhood.
2. “Silver Linings Playbook”: The seismic and welcome shift in director David O. Russell's filmmaking viewpoint that began with “The Fighter” continues with “Silver Linings Playbook,” a story about love, mental illness and the strength of family set in working-class Philadelphia. Great performances abound, with Bradley Cooper proving his mettle as Pat, a bipolar former mental patient trying to reorder his life and get beyond his failed marriage. Robert De Niro fully invests in his performance, and Jacki Weaver and Chris Tucker steal scenes and give generously to the ensemble, but “Silver Linings Playbook” will likely be remembered for a full-cast scene in which the astounding Jennifer Lawrence, as disgraced and prematurely widowed Tiffany, schools them all. Sure, Lawrence has been outstanding before, but watching her here is like seeing the rise of one of the greats.
3. “Looper”: The best science-fiction film in years, writer-director Rian Johnson's mesmerizing story about time travel, organized crime, hired killers and preventing the ascent of evil is worthy of comparison to “Blade Runner” or “12 Monkeys,” and while Joseph Gordon-Levitt had an extraordinary year in 2012, this performance as an assassin facing the possibility of killing his older self (Bruce Willis) was his finest.
4. “Django Unchained”: Drawing inspiration from grindhouse exploitation and spaghetti Westerns, Quentin Tarantino rides herd over an exhilarating splatterfest pitting a former slave (Jamie Foxx) against evil plantation owners in a quest to find his lost wife (Kerry Washington). Leonardo DiCaprio ravenously chews scenery in his first villainous role, Christoph Waltz dominates as a dentist-turned-bounty hunter, and Samuel L. Jackson, Don Johnson and Walton Goggins all get a chance to unleash their acting fury.
5. “Argo”: Ben Affleck's third and best film as a director captures the gritty, grainy tension of 1970s political thrillers in this true story about intelligence agents partnering with Hollywood to successfully rescue diplomats during the Iranian hostage crisis. Affleck gives a quiet and controlled performance as Tony Mendez, the agent who devised the ingenious plan of using a location-scouting mission as a cover story, and John Goodman and Alan Arkin are superb as his film industry compatriots.
6. “Lincoln”: Stripping away years of cinematic revision about one of history's greatest men, writer Tony Kushner, director Steven Spielberg and actor Daniel Day-Lewis recreate the most important weeks in the career and life of President Abraham Lincoln. Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and an enviable supporting cast featuring representatives from nearly every great drama on cable television help make this detailed story about political gamesmanship come to life, but it is Day-Lewis' landmark transformation into the 16th U.S. president that makes “Lincoln” so compelling.
7. “Beasts of the Southern Wild”: Writer-director Benh Zeitlin's feature film debut finds beauty and truth in squalor as a young swamp dweller named Hushpuppy (played by talented newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis) must contend with her father's deteriorating health and the arrival of an environmental disaster with supernatural overtones. “Beasts” is rendered with such naturalistic grace, it could pass for a documentary — at least until the giant aurochs start trampling through the bayou.
8. “The Dark Knight Rises”: In one of those exceedingly rare feats, director Christopher Nolan completes his Batman trilogy with a film that achieves a worthy denouement. The series elevated an entire genre, and Nolan's repertory players (Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt) all help to achieve a fitting end, and ever so possibly, a new beginning.
9. “Headhunters”: This wildly inventive Norwegian import takes a cocky corporate recruiter (Aksel Hennie) and humbles him, over and over, at the hands of one of his recruits (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). “Headhunters” is top-shelf, mean-spirited fun with more sudden twists than a crazy straw.
10. “Safety Not Guaranteed”: A journalism intern (Aubrey Plaza of “Parks and Recreation”) is assigned to check out the man who keeps placing personal ads for time travel partners. Thanks to a subtle performance by Mark Duplass as Kenneth, the oddball in question, “Safety Not Guaranteed” maintains its mystery to the end, and the chemistry and honed wit between Plaza and Duplass are the reasons to care whether Kenneth is insane or is really onto something.