1. “Amour/Love”: Austrian director Michael Haneke’s profoundly humane, meticulously detailed study of the last months of a devoted elderly couple is deeply moving, heartbreaking, and beautifully, calmly presented. The themes of love, mortality, and family infuse this courageous masterpiece with depths of emotion. It opens Feb. 1 in St. Louis.
2. “Argo” and 3. “Zero Dark Thirty”: Directors Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow dramatize landmark historical events in energetic, suspenseful films that confront, but never trivialize, complex issues of national importance.
4. “Beasts of the Southern Wild”: Benh Zeitlin seamlessly infuses magical realism into the desperate straits faced by six-year-old Hush Puppy, resident of the “bathtub,” outside New Orlean’s levee. A world of its own devices springs to vivid life in a dreamlike film.
5. “Life of Pi”: The literal and symbolic details of “Pi” provide a wealth of suggestive ideas embedded in a wonderfully mythic story, and the CGI presents it in captivating images in director Ang Lee's film.
6. “The Master”: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix make conversational exchanges thrilling psychological combat in writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s take on the damaged and those who exploit them.
7. “Searching for Sugar Man” and 8. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”: Documentaries present some of the most engaging stories and best filmmaking. “Searching for Sugar Man” tells one of the most astonishing of those accounts, while “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” describes this courageous artist defying Chinese intimidation, including attacks on him and refusals to let Ai attend museum openings in other countries.
9. “The Kid with a Bike” and 10. “Monsieur Lazhar”: These two French language films restore faith in human nature without understating the struggles and pain of a boy whose father rejects him, in the former, and a class of 11 and 12 year olds whose teacher commits suicide. A compassionate woman in “Kid” and an immigrant man in “Lazhar” model what all of us should aspire to, especially in today’s crises.
Another baker’s dozen of superior films of 2012, listed alphabetically, are: “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Flight,” “Footnote,” “The Intouchables,” “Lincoln,” “Rust and Bone” (opens January 11), “The Sessions,” “Skyfall,” “Take This Waltz,” and “The Impossible” (opens January 4), and documentaries “Detropia,” “The Imposter” and “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.”