I know, you’re either sick to death of lists—we just ran a whole bunch of them on this site—or are still mad about how much I hated Cloud Atlas. But after spending a month watching bad movies in order to write TIME’s Top 10 Worst Movies and another few weeks looking for movies we missed, I had to do one more: My Top 10. I promise this is my last list of the year—unless you count the kind that include roast beef or Legos.
10. Jeff, Who Lives at Home
The Duplass brothers, Mark and Jeff, co-wrote and co-directed this story of a stoner slacker (Jason Segel) whose belief in destiny and fate sends him on a day-long journey into adulthood. Jeff’s search for a guy named Kevin literally takes him through Baton Rouge, but his steady progress through his past—including the crushing loss of a father that left his development arrested—is the essential quest. Warm, tender and bolstered by an ensemble cast that includes Judy Greer, Ed Helms as Jeff’s sour, angry brother, and the great Susan Sarandon as their mother, this movie seems small but beats with a huge heart.
I put director Sean Baker’s dreamy feature about an unlikely friendship between a strangely innocent young porn star (Dree Hemingway) and a grumpy old woman (Besedka Johnson) on my list of best movies TIME missed in 2012. Yet it remains on my mind. (There are hints of Robert Altman in it, particularly his 3 Women, and I’m not the only one who has noticed—Baker and his cast will receive the Robert Altman Award at February’s Spirit Awards.) The sun-baked Southern California setting, the seamy realism of the porn industry and the bizarre nature of the friendship—Hemingway’s Jane feels beholden to Sadie, who accidentally sold her a vintage thermos full of money—together with the way Baker directs ambiguity and uncertainties with such a firm, sure hand make Starlet an indie worthy of a “best of” list.
A young thief (Kacey Mottet Klein) makes the rounds of a Swiss ski resort, scooping up the expensive toys of others while lusting after their lives. This is his means of supporting his sister (Léa Seydoux), who ditches him whenever she gets the chance, donning white go-go boots to go running off with lousy men. French/Swiss director Ursula Meier handles difficult material—there’s a revelation about the siblings tucked deep within the movie, as well as powerful points made about the roots of criminal activity—with a quiet delicacy. Sister has one of the most symbolic endings of the year, two gondolas passing above a mountainside where spring is just taking hold. They and their occupants may be going in opposite directions but will always come back to the same place.
7. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Many of the movies on this list made me tear up at least a little, but nothing on the level of Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of his cult novel; you’d have thought my dog died. The subject is familiar enough, high school angst, a loner (Logan Lerman) finding comfort in the company of other high school outsiders (Ezra Miller, Emma Watson), but Chbosky handles it with such tender skill that it feels fresh and incredibly vivid—like a lost indie film of John Hughes. My editor won’t let me do ties, but if she did, I’d have paired Perks with Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson’s highly mannered evocation of summer camp, where, in the absence of parents and guardians, the tantalizing proximity of future independence spread out like a map. Chbosky’s freaks and Anderson’s geeks would make a great double bill.
There were three great and surprisingly suspenseful movies this year about known historical events, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty and Argo. Ben Affleck’s smartly directed story of the six American diplomats who narrowly missed being taken hostage along with their colleagues at the American embassy in Iran in 1979 was definitely the most fun of all of them. The Hollywood angle—that the CIA actually faked pre-production on a ridiculous Star Wars rip-off in order to get those fugitives out of the Canadian ambassador’s residence and Iran itself—felt too good to be true. But it wasn’t (except for a few bits, such as Affleck’s heightening of the drama at the airport). Argo is a fist-pumping pleasure. All hail Alan Arkin in the Hollywood big shot supporting role, but let’s not forget about the pleasures of John Goodman, Chris Messina, Christopher Denham and Bryan Cranston, all at their best.
5. The Master
Paul Thomas Anderson’s film about the origins of Scientology (or a cult that looked a lot like it) was easier to admire than love—but I loved it anyway. The performances are spooky perfection: Philip Seymour Hoffman, giving off the air of a supremely satisfied and compelling cat; Amy Adams as his more dangerous mate; Joaquin Phoenix as the feral creature they take in. What better way to prove your power than to tame the untamable, the man without a conscience? I understand why people resent that slightly ambiguous ending, but it’s one of the reasons I can’t wait for a quiet holiday night in which to sit back with my cocoa, let Jonny Greenwood’s creepy score suck me in and contemplate the mysteries of The Master; this is the movie that will keep on giving. (I’d have paired this with another cult story, director Zal Batmanglij’s sci-fi-influenced Sound of My Voice, starring Brit Marling, if we didn’t have rules. You don’t though. Make it a double bill.)
4. Life of Pi
I was never a fan of Yann Martel’s book; the ending felt too much like a literary cheat and a disappointment. But I swooned for Ang Lee’s adaptation of Martel’s bestseller, which leaves that ending more open to interpretation and hope. From those first, playful, diorama-like scenes of Pi’s youth in India and his religious awakening, the movie captivates the imagination and never let go. It made the best case for the existence of 3-D of any movie in recent history, even more so than Hugo and yes, Avatar: the flying fish, the crazy island, that whale rising from the sea in all that majesty. Could a movie—and its ideas about the power of the mind and the human capacity for survival—possibly be more beautiful? I don’t believe so.
Watching Daniel Day-Lewis portray our 16th President was as close as I’ve come to a religious experience at the movies. He was so incandescent that the rest of the movie could have been an episode of Sponge Bob and I probably wouldn’t have cared. But Tony Kushner’s expert screenplay kept me rapt even when Day-Lewis wasn’t speaking in that exquisitely nuanced voice, the supporting actors were fantastic (and in some cases, so deep in character as to be unrecognizable; I was home before I realized that was James Spader as the cunning lobbyist Bilbo) and the subject was about a hundred times more engrossing than I expected. Only quibble? Spielberg should have ended it with his John Ford moment, Lincoln framed against the White House doors, leaving the residence for the last time.
(READ: 10 Best Films We Missed in 2012
The year’s best horror film was also its best love story. In a spacious Parisian apartment, a couple in their 80s, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva, in a wrenchingly true performance) and George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) quietly wind down their long lives together with grace and dignity. They’re completely independent, requiring nothing even from their daughter (Isabelle Huppert), who lives abroad. Then Anne suffers a stroke, followed quickly by a surgery that does more harm than good; it is up to George to help her find relief in anyway he can. Having watched similarly ancient parents go not so quietly into the long, hard night, I would have thought Michael Haneke’s movie would have been the last thing I’d want to watch. But though unflinching on what desperate traps last illnesses are, the movie speaks to the beauty of bravery and, ultimately, the reward of peace.
1. Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about a CIA agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain) obsessed with finding Osama bin Laden is dazzlingly skilled. Many of the facts are known, the outcome already determined, yet the film hums along with the narrative energy of a story you’ve never heard before. Maya is a woman unburnished by backstory or gloss (except for Chastain’s unforgettable face); this is a hunt for the bogeyman and she is the stand-in for our desire that he be found and vanquished. Those scenes where bin Laden becomes nothing more than a body in a bag, almost forgotten in the celebration of military success, were for me the most hauntingly powerful images of the year.
(READ: Mary Pols’ Top 10 for 2011)