10. Life of Pi
Ang Lee transformed Yann Martel's "unfilmable" 2001 bestseller into a fantasy filled with magical moments and visual wonder. A middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan) recounts his parable of survival and spirituality: Shipwrecked as a 16-year-old (Suraj Sharma), he drifts across the Pacific in a lifeboat, accompanied by a snarling Bengal tiger. The adventure film is as much about the tales we tell ourselves to stay afloat as about navigating the waters of life. Along the journey, 3-D artistry grows up too.
9. The Flat
The spellbinding documentary about family secrets and deep denial starts with filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger cleaning out the Tel Aviv flat of his deceased grandmother. He discovers a newspaper article and photos documenting the friendship of his Jewish grandparents with a high-ranking Nazi before and after World War II. How could that be? Doggedly pursuing leads, Goldfinger diplomatically tiptoes around sensitive topics with Edda Milz von Mildenstein, the daughter of the German official who worked with Goebbels, before confronting her with pit-bull tenacity. Provocative issues abound, including the question of whether looking back is more important than looking ahead.
8. Silver Linings Playbook
Director David O. Russell seems to be flirting with disaster once again in this offbeat indie characterized by wild mood swings. Wonderfully eccentric, the romantic comedy focuses on a pair of misfits, a former teacher with bipolar disorder (Bradley Cooper) and a bruised young widow (Jennifer Lawrence) with a penchant for ballroom dancing. Robert De Niro flexes his comic muscles as a caring father obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles, blurring the line between the crazy and the sane, which is exactly the point. A feel-good film about second chances is worth betting on.
7. How to Survive a Plague
On the documentary shortlist for the 2013 Oscars, David France's searing look at the AIDS epidemic showcases the ACT UP activists whose agenda was to arouse, anger and take action against the deadly disease. A testament to steely determination, the film seamlessly stitches together archival footage and interviews that chart the challenges against the NIH and FDA, drug companies, health professionals and politicians. Both history lesson and passionate call to arms, the documentary gives a human face to the statistics and reminds us that hope and more research go hand in hand.
6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Sex, drugs and rock n' roll? No, wrong decade. Stephen Chbosky adapts and directs his 1999 coming-of-age novel about teen growing pains -- and sex, drugs and mixtapes of The Smiths. Shy and psychologically fragile, Charlie (Logan Lerman) just wants to survive the 1,095 days of freshman year. Enter a pair of half-sibling seniors (Emma Watson and Ezra Miller) who bring fun, spontaneity and friendship to the drab halls of high school. Although more sanitized than the book, the movie sensitively deals with adolescent angst and relationships in pre-Internet America.
5. Beasts of the Southern Wild
A debut feature of such original voice and vision is a rare beast indeed. Writer-director Benh Zeitlin's dreamlike fable of a subculture living on the wrong side of a southern Louisiana levee -- as conjured by 6-year-old Hushpuppy -- offers an imaginative post-Katrina take on preserving a people and their culture. Newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis delivers a fierce performance as the feisty little girl who swims against the tide of storms large and small, stubbornly surviving in the face of Mother Nature and Uncle Sam.
4. A Separation
The Iranian cinema seldom depicts middle-class families and dramas rooted in their social reality. This couple (Leila Hatami and Peyman Moadi) has a predicament: She wants to leave the country so their 11-year-old daughter doesn't grow up "in these circumstances," and he is unwilling to leave his father suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Just when you assume writer-director Asghar Farhadi's story will grapple with scenes from a marriage, the narrative surprisingly shifts into a legal drama teeming with emotional and moral complexity. All sides deserve empathy in this 2012 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film.
Sharply observed humor about the movie business cuts through the tension of director-star Ben Affleck's white-knuckle political thriller. Based on the true events of CIA agent Tony Mendez's rescue of six American embassy workers trapped in Tehran, the drama uses gritty newsreel footage to plunge us into the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. A last-ditch plan requires the hunted diplomats to pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a fake science-fiction movie titled "Argo," while a well-known film producer (Alan Arkin) and a make-up artist (John Goodman) hilariously keep up pretenses in Hollywood. Fact may be stranger than fiction, but the two are perfectly integrated in Affleck's top-notch production.
Michael Haneke makes films that no one really wants to see. The subject of an elderly Parisian couple (French treasures Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) in declining health leads to heartbreaking drama. But this is a love story. Although hard to watch, with the camera lingering over details of daily caretaking like a vulture waiting for death, the film becomes a profound meditation about living. Challenging but cool-toned in typical Haneke style, the Palme d'Or winner of this year's Cannes Film Festival encourages contemplation about aging and the act of watching cinema.
1. Zero Dark Thirty
In the assured hands of director Kathryn Bigelow and journalist-screenwriter Mark Boal, the manhunt for the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks becomes an ambitious, complex and rewarding cinematic achievement. Never a boring procedural, the needle-in-a-haystack search for Osama bin Laden takes the workaday lives of agents -- sometimes dull, sometimes dangerous -- and shapes the sprawling narrative into a nail-biter. Displaying an incredible range of emotion, Jessica Chastain plays the CIA analyst who breaks the case. She can appear shaken and vulnerable during "enhanced" interrogation scenes of detained Al Qaeda suspects, and then exhibit reinforced-steel-and-concrete resolve as she relentlessly continues her investigative work. Despite knowing the outcome of the Navy SEALs' dark-hour raid of the Pakistan hideout that harbored bin Laden, I found the climax unbearably tense. Reteaming after taking home Oscars for "The Hurt Locker," Bigelow and Boal foster reflection about America's role in the war on terror -- and most likely consideration for a Best Picture nod.