5. Zero Dark Thirty
You know how it's going to end, but Kathryn Bigelow's docudrama about the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden keeps you on the edge of your seat nonetheless. Jessica Chastain creates a powerful presence as an intelligence agent that defines herself by the quest for the architect of 9/11. The film is smart, clear and packed with fine actors. Its sense of reality is strong, due in large part to Bigelow's determination to present the action scenes without action movie bombast. Zero Dark Thirty fills in the blanks of the bin Laden story with integrity.
4. Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino's sprawling western about the adventures of a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) and a former slave (Jamie Foxx) pays homage to everything from spaghetti westerns to Blazing Saddles. It's a Tarantino original, though, presented honestly and with confidence that sometimes slips into cockiness ... in a good way. The film is nearly three hours long, but moves quickly. Prepare yourself for uber-violence, ridiculous amounts of blood and loads of offensive words. Waltz, Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson do fine work in Tarantino's brazenly indulgent epic.
3. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson makes dioramas that sometimes get too precious. Not this time, though. Moonrise Kingdom, the tale of two love-struck 12-year-old runaways on a New England island, splits its time between the kids and the adults trying to catch them. It's funny, dramatic and loaded with heart. The cast includes Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Edward Norton and Frances McDormand. They're all very good, adding interesting colors to Anderson's magic-tinged landscape.
2. The Silver Linings Playbook
Rollicking entertainment that hums with manic energy. Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) struggles to reenter the world after an eight month stint in a psychiatric hospital for bipolar disorder. The Philadelphia man moves back in with his parents (Robert De Niro, in fine form, and Animal Kingdom's Jacki Weaver), who are supportive of their son but considerably nervous. He's on edge, his behavior is erratic, he's scary. Writer-director David O. Russell finds humor while maintaining the erratic energy of Pat's character and not minimizing his mental illness. Pat is lovable but he makes us nearly as uneasy as he does his parents. Enter Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who has her own set of mental issues. Pat and Tiffany meet and slowly the film morphs into a romantic comedy. The conventions of the genre are touched on, but the quirky storyline maintains its sense of the unexpected.
1. 'Safety Not Guaranteed'
Hooray for small films that deliver. Safety Not Guaranteed is a quirky little independent movie that mixes humor and humanity with an interesting premise and manages to get the balance right. It begins with a classified ad reading, "WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before." A smarmy writer (Jake M. Johnson) is assigned to investigate the intriguing ad, with interns Darius (Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation) and Arnau (Karan Sole) selected to assist him. Mark Duplass plays the author of the ad, a jittery grocery store clerk who is dead serious about his mission. The modest comedy/drama has unassuming charm and poignancy to spare. It is a treat that drew me in and held me tight.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (funny, touching and relatable - the best coming-of-age film in years), The Sessions (moving study of dignity and sexuality), Argo (Ben Affleck's top-notch hostage rescue thriller), The Raid: Redemption (dizzying action film), Lincoln (the president races to change the constitution before the Civil War ends and the southern states vote it down), The Avengers (so much hype - and the finished film delivers!), 21 Jump Street (hilarious and surprisingly sweet, with a breakthrough performance by Channing Tatum), Sleepwalk with Me (Mike Birbiglia brings his highly personal story to the screen), Life of Pi (Ang Li at his most ambitious), Skyfall (Daniel Craig's Bond is the best since Sean Connery), Chronicle (super powers make for a super headaches for teen buddies) and The Other Dream Team (must-see documentary about the little basketball team that could).