Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd and Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in "The Master." Photo Courtesy of: The Weinstein Company.

Now that I’ve given my two cents on what I found to be the most appalling movies of the past year, here’s another pair of pennies regarding the other end of the cinematic spectrum. Though Oscar voters may have already made their voices heard for the best of the bunch, I thought I might weigh in as well. You may notice a few choice films that made other critics’ Top 10 lists conspicuously absent from mine, but besides the fact that I still haven’t seen Amour, and with all apologies to Silver Linings Playbook, Django Unchained, The Impossible, Hitchcock, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Flight, Arbitrage and other worthy selections that almost cracked my list, only so many can make the cut. In fact, I’ve already broken the rules by naming 11 movies.

Honorable mention: The Master — You never know quite what to expect from any movie with Paul Thomas Anderson’s name attached, and his newest may have been the most confusing and maddening of any film of 2012. Keep in mind, I mean such a statement purely in a good way. The story of a lost soul who finds refuge within the inner circle of a charismatic but demanding quasi-religious figure is a real mindbender, to be sure. Anderson’s supposed intent of lambasting the Church of Scientology is unclear, but just as with Hard Eight, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood, his approach to creating characters who can’t be pigeonholed from the onset is entirely one-of-a-kind.

10. Zero Dark Thirty — After Osama bin Laden was unearthed from his hidey-hole, you knew it wouldn’t take long for Hollywood to dramatize the preceding search. Luckily, the duo of director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal proved to be up to the daunting task of retelling the CIA’s process in finding the most hated of all the bigwigs in the terrorism world. Jessica Chastain is expectedly phenomenal as the agent who makes the hunt the single defining element of her life, so much so that we don’t even catch her surname. Just like The Hurt Locker, it’s not likely to impress the people it’s meant to portray, and it’s not so much a great film as a well-made film released at just the right time, with an ending that will hit you hard.

9. Prometheus — In any given year, you don’t have to wait too long for the next big sci-fi movie, but finding one as smart, stylish and altogether entertaining as this one is a rarity. Whether or not you believe Ridley Scott claims that this isn’t a prequel to Alien matters not, because the tale of another doomed Earth spaceship coming into contact with otherworldly beings stands all on its own. The origins of life are a tough subject to tackle, but the methodology behind Scott’s approach is as solid as ever, leading us to believe the potential sequel will be even better. And hopefully, Michael Fassbender’s android head will find a new body…

8. Argo — After all the crap Ben Affleck has taken throughout his career, his success as an actor and director is all the more deserved in the story so unbelievable it has to be true. Every minute of this retelling of the Canadian Caper, the CIA’s under-wraps rescue of six Americans trapped in Iran following political uprising, feels authentic, from the fake film production company initiated as a cover to the infiltration itself. Affleck gives us some of the most suspenseful moments of the year and fills the entire movie with a sense of panache, not to mention boasting one of the best ’70s beards we’ve ever seen.

7. Life of Pi — They said it couldn’t be done, but filming Yann Martel’s novel about an Indian teen and a Bengal tiger adrift at sea was a challenge Ang Lee not only met but dominated. A tale of faith in a higher power and an unlikely friendship becomes exceedingly more powerful the longer you watch, and the narrative is helped along even more by stunning visuals. Few movies absolutely must be seen in 3-D, but the motion of the ocean simply jumps off the screen when you’re wearing those special glasses. Is there anything called 3.14-D?

6. The Sessions —Movies about sex are plentiful, as are feel-good flicks about people overcoming disabilities. What you don’t usually see are those two subsets combined. You’d think such a blend would be uncomfortable watching. Nevertheless, the saga of paralyzed, middle-aged journalist Mark O’Brien seeking out intercourse for the first time in his life is a must-see with which anyone can identify. Few of us need an iron lung to live or require something called a “sex surrogate” in order to experience the mattress mambo, but all of us know what it’s like to need love physically and emotionally and the conflict that arises when you can’t have both. The poignancy of such a small but rewarding picture is even greater knowing the personal attachment filmmaker Ben Lewin — who lives with polio himself — shares with his optimistic hero.

5. Moonrise Kingdom — For years, Wes Anderson has wavered between quirky upstart with a camera and bona fide auteur, but his newest movie firmly established him as an artist. His tale of a kinship between two misunderstood adolescents, a foster kid at scout camp and a dour girl with violent mood swings, during one crazy 1960s summer is easily his sweetest, most personal and altogether funniest, not to mention beautifully shot and scored.

4. Les Misérables — For three decades, Broadway enthusiasts dreamed a dream that their favorite Victor Hugo adaptation would make it to the screen, and when the project was finally announced, most fans probably believed their high hopes would be dashed, your truly being one of those skeptics. Fortunately, director Tom Hooper made all the right moves in visualizing one of the most beloved musicals of all time. Sure, it had its downfalls — Russell Crowe’s wooden performance being one of the biggest liabilities — but the familiar account of ex-convict Jean Valjean seeking redemption quickly found its way into our hearts and never left as a phenomenal hit that struck all the high notes.

3. The Dark Knight Rises — OK, most people might not agree with me on this one, saying the Glasgow smile of Heath Ledger’s Joker beats the Darth Vader voice modulator of Tom Hardy’s Bane hands down, but I maintain the third and final segment of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy is the best Batman movie ever and will never be topped in any future renditions of the Caped Crusader’s adventures. You don’t have to love comic book superheroes to appreciate the magnitude of Bruce Wayne’s last gleaming, and a climax like that was unlike anything else we’ve ever seen in the last year. And this is coming from someone who never thought Christian Bale would ever be up to snuff. On a sadder note, some may be unable to disassociate this movie, from the tragic events involved in its release, and that’s understandable. Even so, let’s not let one madman forever taint the memory of an American icon.

2. Lincoln — Speaking of American icons, let’s not forget the masterful story of the man whose image we see emblazoned in copper every day. Before ol’ Honest Abe graced the one-cent piece, he had to earn his eminence with little chores like ending the Civil War and abolishing slavery. Steven Spielberg’s long-term project may have gone through multiple changes over the years, and while Liam Neeson may have made for an excellent 16th US president, Daniel Day-Lewis makes the role entirely his own in an unforgettable tour de force. Tony Kushner’s screenplay gleans over a few details of Lincoln’s exploits in early 1865 — as many have pointed out, Frederick Douglass is conspicuously absent — but the relevance of 19th century politics is just as powerful as ever, mirroring modern-day sentiments about bipartisanship, duty to one’s country and racial equality.

1. Beasts of the Southern Wild — Few first-time directors can turn their debut into such a sensation, but the future bodes well for filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, who co-adapted the stage show Juicy and Delicious with playwright Lucy Alibar. This flawless narrative about a little girl, her isolated gulf community and the mysterious prehistoric creatures that haunt her, proves you can still create a quality piece of film without a nine-figure budget. Equally weird and wondrous, this heartrending cinematic journey is in a league all its own, thanks to refreshingly natural showing from a wholly novice cast, most notably young Quvenzhané Wallis as the kid whose view of the world is sad and joyful all at once, summing up the multitude of emotions you’ll feel while watching what is likely the first of many amazing performances from the promising actress.

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