If there's a common thread in the year's best movies, it's that they were brimming with genuine emotion whether the people involved were a little Louisiana girl, an obsessed CIA agent, a poet trapped in an unmoving body, an elderly couple facing the end of their lives, or a big green rage machine.
1. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" • A little girl named Hushpuppy, living in the most isolated part of the Louisiana Delta, tries to make sense of the universe and her place in it while her tough-love father tries to steel her for a life in which he's no longer there. Around that simple story, director Benh Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar create a complete world, a do-it-yourself island set apart from "the dry world," but with dangers approaching (in the form of massive, boar-like Aurochs). The nonprofessional actors, young Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy and Dwight Henry as her father, bring with them the bright light of authenticity, of lives lived and not merely roles played.
2. "Moonrise Kingdom" • Another island, another story of children figuring themselves out. This time, it's director Wes Anderson's bright and breezy take on two pre-teens (Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman) who escape their captors her parents, his scout troop to start a life together on a New England seashore. With charming performances by Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray and Edward Norton as befuddled adults, Anderson blends his trademark whimsy with a welcome strain of humanity.
3. "Zero Dark Thirty" • From "black site" torture facilities to CIA's bureaucracy-filled headquarters to a SEAL Team 6 mission in Abbottabad, the pursuit of Osama Bin Laden took more twists and turns than your average thriller. Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, as they did in "The Hurt Locker," turn America's obsession with terrorism into riveting drama as well as an object lesson on how fear and revenge can misalign our country's moral compass. (Opens in Utah theaters Jan. 11.)
4. "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" • "Welcome to the Island of Misfit Toys," the winsome Sam (Emma Watson) tells gawky freshman Charlie (Logan Lerman) in writer-director Stephen Chbosky's touching portrait of teen-age angst and the aching need for each of us to find our tribe.
5. "The Sessions" • John Hawkes gives one of the year's best performances as Mark O'Brien, the polio-stricken quadriplegic journalist-poet whose desire to know physical love leads to an emotional encounter with a no-nonsense sex surrogate (Helen Hunt). Hawkes and writer-director Ben Lewin bring O'Brien's pain, his humor and his boundless optimism to glorious life.
6. "The Avengers" • It's not often a big-budget popcorn movie can hit all the right notes, but director Joss Whedon's superhero jam session uniting Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in a super battle with Thor's vengeful brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) was smart, fun and exciting.
7. "Safety Not Guaranteed" • A disaffected magazine intern (Aubrey Plaza) has her perceptions altered by a lonely guy (Mark Duplass) who claims to have built a time machine. This beautifully melancholy romance pivots on the central question asked by director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly, which is the question at the heart of all time-travel stories: If you could change the past, would you?
8. "The Loneliest Planet" • Director Julia Loktev asks another question for the ages how much do you really know about your significant other? in this spare and gorgeously photographed drama, in which a backpacking couple (Gael Garcia Bernal, Hani Furstenberg) find their relationship forever altered by a snap decision.
9. "The Master" • Three powerhouse performances Joaquin Phoenix as an aimless ex-sailor seeking peace, Philip Seymour Hoffman as a philosopher seeking legitimacy for his quasi-religion, and Amy Adams as the wife seeking to turn her husband's writings into a power base propel Paul Thomas Anderson's rich and dark fable of the chasm between faith and following.
10. "Amour" • An elderly Parisian couple (played with grace and heartbreak by Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) see their marriage strained to the breaking point when she deteriorates physically and he must care for her. Writer-director Michael Haneke's astringent handling keeps this wrenching story from lapsing into overwrought melodrama which makes it even more affecting. (Opens Feb. 15 at the Broadway Centre Cinemas.)
And the worst movies are…
Tribune movie critic Sean P. Means compiled the 10 worst movies of 2012 on his blog, The Cricket. Click here for the full list.