Top 10 movies of 2012 critics' picks: Janet Smith

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This was a year when politics stood in the way of a good movie: Argo and Zero Dark Thirty were brilliantly executed films, but you won’t see them on the list below—one for its rah-rah-America embellishments, the other for its creepy ambivalence toward torture. What you will see are the kind of triumphs it takes a director with a near-obsessive, one-of-a-kind vision to make—and images that will stay with you long into 2013.

Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino is back, and in fine, gunslinging form. This is the perfect, maniacal coalescence of all the warped influences that the demon dog of Tinseltown has played with over the years, from blaxploitation B movies to samurai flicks to spaghetti westerns. The fastest 165 minutes of 2012.

Rust and Bone
A deeply unusual and unromantic love story that’s as raw and abrasive as the title suggests—and still it works its way under your skin. Sometimes it’s nice when a filmmaker doesn’t offer easy reasons why two people are drawn together.

The Queen of Versailles
Often the best documentaries are a result of luck and timing. In this case, director Lauren Greenfield happened to be filming a billionaire, monster house–building American couple on the eve of the global financial meltdown. Versailles ends up being not just a fascinating (in a car-wreck kind of way) look at the demise of a family but at the kind of hubris that caused the U.S. economic crash in the first place.

The Master
Confounding, cryptic, and probably the most awesome-looking film of the year. Paul Thomas Anderson draws a dreamlike texture of a postwar time and place, with two enigmatic men who are inexplicably drawn together: one lost and socially unhinged, the other a megalomaniac. What it all means is up to you.

Lincoln
Yes, it’s talky. But when someone hands in a performance like Daniel Day-Lewis does, you just have to sit back in awe. The guy isn’t playing Lincoln; he simply is Lincoln, in all his musty wit and quiet determination.

Pina
Dance rarely translates perfectly onto film, but Wim Wenders manages to turn Pina Bausch’s masterpieces into high motion-picture art. Exhilarating and sometimes vividly surreal, this moving spectacle is a massive achievement that would mesmerize even non–dance fans—and one the choreographer, sadly, never lived to see.

Prometheus
Ridley Scott can still conjure dark, haunting alien worlds like none other, and the film’s heady philosophical questions had Twitter atwitter over its meaning. Sinister and spectacular, it features a performance by Michael Fassbender that’s out of this world.

Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry
Alison Klayman captures the Chinese authorities’ badass target in all his stubborn glory and creative brilliance. Incriminating footage of oppression meets shots of massive international art installations that are as dazzling as they are politically provocative.

The Raid: Redemption
Don’t spend too much time marvelling at the fact a Welshman in Indonesia made this stylized, adrenaline-mainlined chop-socky flick for a measly $1 million; you might miss one of the nonstop, intricately choreographed fight scenes. The main conceit, that a gang-run slum tower becomes a labyrinthine, pressure-cooker battleground, is beyond clever. A breathless, turbocharged ballet of bullets and blades.

360
True to the title, Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles’s ambitious, multiyarned film metaphorically measures the circumference of an ever-shrinking globe. So few movies ever attempt to take on a scope like this: watch the way its vignettes capture the aching injustices and follies of a hyperconnected world.

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