6. Life of Pi: Director Ang Lee turned Yann Martel’s novel about the nature of faith and storytelling into the most visually stunning movie of the year, using 3D and CGI to make you believe in the tale of a young man (Suraj Sharma) stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. No movie this year contained more moments of jaw-dropping beauty.
7. Zero Dark Thirty: Kathryn Bigelow’s already-controversial drama about the hunt for Osama bin Laden is being attacked for its veracity and false implications that torture led to usable information in the CIA’s search. A carefully detailed and structured procedural, a la All the President’s Men or Zodiac, this film turns often dry work into thrilling drama. Jessica Chastain’s performance as a CIA agent whose life is consumed by her job is the best work by an actor in any film this year. The movie’s final 30 minutes, shot from the viewpoint of a member of the Navy SEALs team that raided bin Laden’s compound, is tense and suspenseful even though you know the outcome. (Opens in South Florida Jan. 4).
8. The Kid with a Bike: The latest slice-of-life drama from Belgian brothers Jean and Luc Dardenne may be their simplest and most heart-rending picture to date. The quest of a little boy, furious at being unloved and disowned by his father, to find his missing bike takes on epic dimensions, even though the simple story could be taking place in your own neighborhood.
9. The Dark Knight Rises: Christopher Nolan’s bravura finale to his trilogy of Batman films was nitpicked to death online for plot holes and lapses in logic, a textbook case of not seeing the forest for the trees. This was an epic, mythical comic-book movie, with a grander scope and more intricate plot than the previous two films, giving the acclaimed series the soaring finale it deserved. Heroes aren’t always born; sometimes they’re made.
10. Brave: This year’s annual Pixar offering, about a princess who doesn’t want to play along with her queen mother’s plans of ritual betrothal, started out as a typical adventure about female empowerment and then took a sudden veer into fantastical territory that centered on a subject rarely, if ever, explored in animated movies: The relationship between mothers and daughters.
11. The Queen of Versailles: Lauren Greenfield’s documentary study of an immensely wealthy couple who begin construction on a new home — the biggest in the country — then scramble when the economic crisis hits and their fortunes dwindle. Even people who take limos to McDonald’s have problems.
12. Holy Motors/Cosmopolis: Two plotless movies, both set largely inside a white stretch limo, rode out in completely different directions. Leos Carax’s tale of a man who rides around inserting himself into various scenarios as an actor for hire was a blast of cinematic daring and imagination, a celebration of movies. David Cronenberg’s cold and cerebral adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel, about a young tycoon (Robert Pattinson) who wants to drive cross-town for a haircut, forced the viewer to look past the near-impenetrable dialogue and focus on the ideas and undercurrents beneath the surface. Both movies bombed. Both will endure.
13. Café de Flore: Beating Cloud Atlas to the punch, director Jean-Marc Vallée ( C.R.A.Z.Y.) jumped back and forth between two seemingly unrelated stories — one set in the present, the other in 1960s Paris — to explore the undying nature of true love and the possibility of that whole “soul mate” thing. A technical triumph, with the emotional punch to back it up.
14. The Perks of Being a Wallflower / Project X / 21 Jump Street: How do you like your high school movies? Wallflower took the John Hughes 2.0 approach, leaning heavily on pop music, house parties and cafeteria showdowns to tell the sweet tale of an outsider who befriends the two coolest kids in school. Project X was loud, vulgar and relentless, a wallow in adolescent misbehavior pushed to extremes that reflected the devil-may-care attitude of today’s teens. And 21 Jump Street, a revival of the junky TV series that turned out to be the funniest comedy of the year, followed two cops (Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill) who go undercover as high school students and discover it’s just as hard the second time around. Some things never get easy, no matter the era.