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Compiling a year-end best list can result in too much sameness. Left to my own idiosyncrasies, I'd probably tally up 10 art-house darlings despairing of the human condition. (Watching movies continuously does that to you.) If you veer hard in the direction of deliberate diversity, you wind up comparing apples and orangutans, giving equivalent marks to movies with neither tone, content nor style in common.
This time, in service of both consistency and variety, I chose to rank movies against others in the same category. These are the films that most touched me, taught me and delighted me in 2012.
In retrospect I was overgenerous to the finale of Christopher Nolan's Batman saga, which clearly peaked in the second inning. The ambitions of "The Dark Knight Rises" blinded me to its flaws. So the blockbuster crown must go to "The Avengers," a joyous, beautifully written and whip-smart comic-book extravaganza. Joss Whedon's script gave each crusader an individual slant and wove them into a fugue of conflict, friendship, suspicion and cooperation. And the after-credits bonus scene was delicious.BEST DOCUMENTARY
A strong category this year, but the nonfiction film that says the most about 21st-century life is "The Queen of Versailles." Lauren Greenfield's portrait of a nouveau riche billionaire and his melon-bosomed trophy wife is an unsparing but empathetic examination of elitist aspirations run amok. As their ghastly mega-mega-mega-mansion sits unfinished due to a financial reversal, David and Jackie Siegel become oddly sympathetic characters. When Jackie economizes by having her driver take her to a McDonald's drive-thru in the stretch limo, it's a moment truly stranger than fiction. The film has dozens of them.BEST SPY MOVIE
"Skyfall" is the best Bond movie ever, and Daniel Craig is in his best form yet. Ben Affleck's "Argo" is a real-life Iranian hostage thriller that juiced up its story with lots of improbable (but thrilling) crises and amiable supporting work from Alan Arkin and John Goodman. But for sticking closely to the facts of its story and dramatizing them with electrifying skill, Kathryn Bigelow's kill-Bin-Laden thriller "Zero Dark Thirty" (opening locally next month) is the classiest horse in the race.BEST ROMANCE
Since I make the rules, I declare a three-way tie among the pre-adolescent runaway lovebirds of Wes Anderson's captivating "Moonrise Kingdom," the adorable, nutty Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in "Silver Linings Playbook" and Keira Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Anna and Vronsky in the dazzling "Anna Karenina."BEST DRAMA
How could any serious-minded film this year challenge Steven Spielberg's towering "Lincoln"? Daniel Day-Lewis simply steps into the man's skin, creating a multifaceted man of humility and conscience, willing to use political expediency to hold the country together and move it forward. There's impressive attention to detail in every casting choice, and Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner wisely keep the focus on backroom negotiating, not mud-and-blood Civil War battles. A masterful work of intelligence and patriotism.BEST HORROR MOVIE
Though at times it feels like a family stubbornly conserving by refusing to turn on the lights, "Sinister" introduces an appalling new boogeyman fiend into a rigorously realistic suburban thriller setting. Ethan Hawke is a fine mix of ego and anxiety as a one-hit true-crime writer poking into the grisly murder he's sure will put his career back on track. There are scenes shot with sublime formal control of shadows, framing and composition, requiring nothing more than a long empty ranch house corridor to set our alarm bells jangling. Disturbing and deeply spooky, this marks director Scott Derrickson as a talent to watch.BEST COMEDY
Since I ardently loathe Seth MacFarlane's "Family Guy," I was flabbergasted by his wonderfully rude talking teddy bear comedy "Ted." Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis find their guy/gal issues pushed to the point of meltdown by his childhood stuffed animal, a walking, thinking, speaking toy that watches too much TV, smokes weed and is a terrible influence on his adolescent-minded owner. The computer imagery is brilliant, and so is MacFarlane's way with dirty jokes. The gag in the supermarket produce area when the little Winnie-the-Pooh lookalike is caught in flagrante with the checkout clerk is sheer comic anarchy. Yes, "Ted" is vulgar and immature. So am I. Sue us.BEST ANIMATED FILM
Sorry, "Frankenweenie," you just can't hold a candle to the gloriously funny, endlessly inventive "Madagascar 3." Its ambidextrous sense of humor tickles kids and adults alike. Honorable mention: Disney's Pixar-quality video-game comedy "Wreck-It Ralph."BEST MOVIE-MOVIE
In "Django Unchained," Quentin Tarantino shows that for all his encyclopedic appreciation of B-movie history, his films can have tangible connections to a world outside of pop-culture references. His slave revenge adventure is too smart to be a guilty pleasure and too hedonistic an experience to take over-seriously. In terms of exuberant characters, dialogue, scenery and action (is there an Oscar for blood eruptions?), it stands alone.BEST SURPRISE
I never would have predicted the excellence of Liam Neeson's work in Joe Carnahan's men-in-the-wilderness thriller "The Grey." He does bravura acting as a man with little to live for, but determined to survive his Alaskan air crash. The story is told with remarkable conviction and the spare elegance of a fable. Grateful shout-outs also to "21 Jump Street" and "Snow White and the Huntsman." Dishonorable-mention disappointments: "Prometheus," "The Hobbit" and "The Amazing Spider-Man," all of which prove that throwing expensive special effects at a bad story won't help it.BEST OF THE BEST
No movie in 2012 seized my imagination like "Beasts of the Southern Wild," a micro-budget indie that was firmly grounded in Louisiana Delta life while reaching stratospheric heights of imagination. The story of a feisty 6-year-old girl and her proud, ailing father is a landmark film, intensely moving, elegiac and sometimes quirkishly funny. Not the least of writer/director Benh Zeitlin's achievements is his triumphant avoidance of happy-ending uplift. The beautiful final shot of a children's parade marching forward into the unknown gives us hope without the empty calories of sentimentality.
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