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.