I’ve tried to rate movies in a Top 10 structure before, and since it always balloons out to 11 anyway, a few years ago I decided to go ahead and just make it a Top 11 to start with. Cheating? Yes. Do I care? Absolutely not. Besides, it’s been a while since Ang Lee got nominated for this many Oscars and I couldn’t very well slice Life of Pi off the list. Below the selection are a handful of Honorary Mentions. Again, this is completely cheating, but I couldn’t care less.

Last year some unforeseen circumstances caused me to be unable to finish by Top 11 of 2011 list. That list would’ve included 1) Drive, 2) Source Code and 3) Girl With A Dragon Tattoo, but I hadn’t gotten much further than that. By the time I had seen all the films I’d wanted to see, the Oscars had already given their best picture to The Artist, which, while clever, probably wouldn’t have even made my list. It’s also to note that I have a habit of ranking the eventual Oscar winning film in the middle to bottom of my top 11, and due to a number of extremely over-hyped films this year (featured in my inaugural Notable Snubs category at the bottom) I may have left the best picture winner off entirely (probably looking at you Lincoln).

These films are not necessarily my highest rated films of the year by letter grade. I like to think the grades I give are specific to each individual film and have to do with the potential each film had on its own terms, not how they stack up to other films I’ve seen. That’s what an arbitrary list is for, and subsequently, why we’re here. The selections have a brief blurb from their respective reviews or something I would have written, had I been asked to review them. I’m sure everyone thinks about what they’ve seen differently, but out of what I’ve been able to check out over the last 12 months, this is what I’ve come up with:

11) Life of Pi

On the surface, this is a story about a boy and a tiger, adrift in a boat. The national bestselling book has a lot to say about life and the nature of humanity, and there was some confusion over how the prose would adapt to a feature film. Ang Lee went the green screen route, crafting a movie that is as beautiful as it is emotional, a poem that is more about feelings and experiences than a traditional narrative. Within that, Lee and his screenwriters go out of their way to pull together a strong central thread, enough for the layman to hold onto even with its fantasy elements. The tiger becomes something of a star in this show, a CG creation that is utterly breathtaking to watch. Its been a while since we’ve had a glimpse at some character artistry that could knock Gollum off the top of the heap, but the boys at Digital Domain may have just managed it. The tiger is a living, breathing character, and you’re surprised by how quickly you’re wrapped up in the saga of two souls, lost at sea. If any film on this list could trump Lincoln this year, perhaps this will be it, simply on the power of the human spirit that it represents. By that same logic I suppose Argo has equal weight, so I guess we’ll see when the votes are counted.

10) The Avengers

There are few films this year with greater hype than Marvel’s superhero team up to end all team up movie The Avengers. Thankfully, unlike The Dark Knight Rises, this is a project that delivers in just about every way. Marvel head Kevin Feige‘s masterstroke was hiring Joss Whedon, a man with kind of geek clout needed to take on a movie with this level of fanboy importance. Not only is he a master of witty dialogue, but he’s written several superhero comics including a run of X-Men, giving him the perfect background to tackle the mess of different tones and talent provided by his predecessors. Giving each character their due, while carving a satisfying arc that is suitably grand and epic is no mean feat, and even managing to meet expectations was a monumental achievement. He even managed to dig Robert Downey Jr.‘s Iron Man out of the hole left by Iron Man 2, ending Phase One of Marvel’s genre takeover with aplomb. One can only imagine what they have in store for the years to come, and if you only see one blockbuster this year, you’d be hard pressed to find anything more consistently entertaining.

9) Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson had taken a bit of a hiatus from live action filmmaking since 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited, so expectations were high for his return to the world of the living. Moonrise Kingdom does not disappoint. Anderson has pretty much made “quirky” his middle name, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this story of two children on the run from their parents and the Boy Scouts on an island is the kind of beautifully sweet lark that we would expect from someone of his caliber. The all star cast aces every line, and first time Anderson actors like Bruce Willis and Edward Norton fit right in with their established kin. Everybody seems to be having so much fun, that you’re hard pressed not to enjoy it too, and as topsy-turvy as everything gets, there’s an honest center to the relationships and the characters that keeps the film grounded. If you’re not smiling by the end, you’re likely dead inside.

8 ) Cloud Atlas

Honestly the hardest part about discussing Cloud Atlas is where to begin. At 2 hours and 45 minutes in length, and 6 competing storylines of various genres and structures, there’s very little that isn’t in it. Easily the most ambitious and far-reaching of the releases this calendar year, it’s a shame that pundits will label the film a failure based on its box office receipts, denying the much more complex and engaging success story of the $100 million independent film that wowed audiences around the world and left many scratching their heads for days afterward. For me, the film is a beautiful exercise in understanding our own mortality, and the perpetuation of our ideas across space and time. It is a film that poses hard questions and allows the viewer to search for the answers in themselves, transcending the medium’s idea of a one way street and engaging the audience in a whimsical give and take. Don’t be scared if you don’t know what to make of it just yet. Given a little time, and maybe an additional viewing or two, I’d be surprised if the film didn’t manage to resonate on some fundamental level with everyone who saw it. Just try to avoid thinking about Hugo Weaving‘s Mad Hatter too hard as sometimes the whimsy exists entirely for its own good.

7) Skyfall

To say this film is anything other than a resounding success would be a lie. Javier Bardem alone brings this film head and shoulders above the previous two, and is one of the strongest Bond villain performances to date. Craig slips back into the role like a comfortable pair of shoes, and Judi Dench is wonderful as always. The Bond/M dynamic remains a strong part of what makes the latest iteration a successful dramatic story, and Bardem serves to complicate that relationship. The emotional core of the story is in the intersection of those three characters, and again, this acts as a departure for the Bond franchise. There’s a family dynamic here that isn’t simply a colorful backdrop for the central conflict, but is, in fact, the point of the film, allowing Mendes to dive into the dramatic and artistic territory that he’s known for, while keeping the pace swift and the action omnipresent. The editing keeps things moving when the story calls for it, but things also slow down quite a bit from time to time, deep breaths to avoid the fatigue and help the movie to earn its over 2 hour runtime.

6) Beasts of the Southern Wild

“In a million years, when kids go to school, they’ll know: there once was a hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.” So begins one of the most endearing and convention shaking films of this awards season. A Sundance Film Festival darling, Beasts of the Southern Wild was produced in New Orleans for less than $2 million, a far cry from any of the other budgets on this list. The little-movie-that-could has garned Best Picture and Best Director Oscar nominations, and with good reason. The fascinatingly hopeful and naive tale of a girl coming to terms with her perceived place in the universe pulls back the curtain on an entire human experience that is wholly alien to us, and a worldview that will make you question your own beliefs in a deeply personal way. The fantasy element of the film, though widely discussed by critics, is only a fragment of the bigger picture, a thread in a tapestry that’s at times ingenious and vexing to the viewer. In many ways, the film is as good as we allow it to be, and as a vessel for our projected thoughts and experiences, Beasts is in a class by itself.

5) Seven Psychopaths

A film with a title like Seven Psychopaths would appear to imply an extensive ensemble, and it’s definitely a big part of what makes the movie work. Besides the leads, there are great supporting turns from Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko, and Tom Waits as a particularly disturbing and hilarious psychopath who answers a newspaper advertisement that Billy posts to give Martin some inspiration for his script. He spends almost his entire screen-time walking around holding a bunny… and it’s an example of how absurd the film can be while still managing to remain grounded. Characters can be quirky, but the setting is relentlessly harsh and stripped down, leaving the stage wide open for some of the funniest (and bloodiest) sequences in recent memory. McDonagh is one of the few screenwriters who can make you laugh even while a character is getting shot in the head, and as an audience you have to appreciate the literary dexterity it takes to pull that off. On more than one occasion you’ll be questioning your emotional response to the event that just occurred, and may even learn a little something about yourself in the process.

4) Looper

There is such a confidence throughout the Looper, from the narration, to the acting, to the directing, that as an audience member, you’re never confused by what’s going on. It’s an almost beautiful level of simplicity working underneath it all, and the conceits that are used to justify certain paradoxes result in wonderfully inventive and occasionally downright disturbing moments. Originality abounds, and that’s part of what makes the film feel so balanced. Having never seen a story told in quite this way before, we’re not pre-conditioned to expect one structure or set of arcs, allowing the narrative to move of its own volition, and set up some genuinely powerful moments of surprise and awe throughout. The grounded dialogue and intriguing characters, not to mention wonderful performances pretty much across the board, keep this one on solid ground, even when you feel it starting to pull away into a land of disbelief.

3) Argo

Brace yourselves. If Argo is any indication… this is going to be an awards season to remember. Based on events surrounding the Iran hostage crisis and the whereabouts of several Americans trapped in a hostile foreign country with no way home, the film walks a fine line between a history lesson and a tightly constructed thriller, serving to both educate and entertain its audience on one of the riskiest civilian rescue operations in the history of the CIA. True story movies can demonstrate the best and worst that the medium has to offer, and luckily for us, Argo is a shining example of cinema at its most powerful, a well-told story delivered in the best possible format. If there was any doubt of Ben Affleck’s prowess as a director, this project will silence the naysayers and place the former Good Will Hunting writer squarely in the big-leagues. I’m excited to see where he goes next.

2) Django Unchained

This film is a hard R, just the way you’d expect from this director. Geysers of blood greet every brutal gunshot, and the red stuff coats the walls and ceilings in his hyper-stylized fashion. It’s a western by way of Tarantino after all, and there are very few things left to the imagination. Do not bring your children to see this movie… unless you’re interested in scarring them for life. The over-the-top violence makes the action feel more like a theater piece than grim reality, and you’ll find yourself laughing out loud at many of the more impactful kills, sometimes in spite of personal reservations to the contrary. It’s a spectator sport, and much like The Avengers this summer, this is a crowd-pleasing theater going experience in the truest sense. I’m sure you’ll get enjoyment out of checking this one out at home, but there’s something about the energy of the room, particularly with people who are seeing the film for the first time, that’s hard to replicate. Unlike some of his recent movies, I have a feeling this one will hold up under multiple viewings as it doesn’t place all the tension in the unknown that’s about to occur, so where the wind goes out of Inglourious Basterds’s sails in the basement sequence, Django Unchained will likely continue to soar.

1) Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty hits hard and it hits early, with the precision of a master filmmaker behind the wheel. Kathryn Bigelow‘s follow up to The Hurt Locker proves to be the greater film in almost every way, and her sure hand, particularly in the grueling climax, will keep viewers glued to the edge of their seats. In my mind, there is no contest for best picture this season, and if you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check this one out in a theater. Controversy over the film’s depiction of torture techniques (when honestly I’d be surprised if the CIA didn’t use far worse methods in real life) has clouded the conversation of what it is, quite simply, an incredibly powerful piece of cinema, anchored by the commanding performance of Jessica Chastain. From the kinetic cameras, to the frantic editing, the emotional ride of the film can’t be overstated. You will be moved, and you may even begin to understand what it cost to kill the most wanted man on the planet. People will be watching this one for many years to come.

Honorable Mention:


Notable Snubs:

Les Miserables
The Silver Linings Playbook
The Dark Knight Rises
Killing Them Softly