From the bombast of the summer blockbuster season to the calculated seriousness of Oscar prestige pictures, 2012 has been another banner year at the movies. But with just a few days until the cinematic year draws to a close, it's time to reflect on the 10 films that truly stood out from the pack in the eyes of critics. The list — which includes everything from a bloody horror film to a gentle children's movie, and from the hard-edged realism of the War on Terror to a whimsical romance set in the recent past — may surprise you.
Two caveats before we begin:
1. This list is confined to wide releases, movies that played in 600 or more theaters at some point during their American releases. As such, some extremely well-reviewed but little-seen movies, such as This Is Not a Film (100 percent positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes), How to Survive a Plague (100 percent), and Jiro Dreams of Sushi (99 percent), are not included.
Without further ado, the 10 best-reviewed movies of 2012:
10. Silver Linings Playbook (91 percent)
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in director David O. Russell's romantic dramedy about a bipolar man who exits a mental health facility determined to reunite with his estranged wife. Cooper and Lawrence have both earned enormous acclaim for their performances, with Cooper considered a lock for a Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards, and Robert DeNiro turning in a supporting performance as Cooper's gruff father that critics have deemed his best in years.
"David O. Russell has pulled off a tricky feat here, finding just the right tone in crafting a romantic comedy whose sweethearts suffer from bipolar disorder and depression." — Christy Lemire, Associated Press
9. Lincoln (91 percent)
Director Steven Spielberg escaped the pitfalls of a stodgy, conventional, necessarily sweeping historical biopic by narrowing the scope of his film to the final four months of Abraham Lincoln's life, chronicling the president's heroic efforts to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed. The film is packed with recognizable actors delivering strong performances, but Lincoln wouldn't work without Daniel Day-Lewis, a justifiable frontrunner for the Best Actor Oscar, who convincingly embodies the 16th president.
"Lincoln does something that, at this very particular moment in time, seems almost impossible to comprehend. It makes politics exciting again." — Ty Burr, Boston Globe
8. The Cabin in the Woods (91 percent)
This horror comedy had a so-so run at the box office, but critics and genre fans embraced its gleeful skewering of horror conventions. A group of teenagers travel to a remote cabin for a vacation and find themselves beset by mysterious attackers. The setup is deliberately conventional, but the rest of The Cabin in the Woods is anything but standard, although the movie's clever plot twists are best enjoyed if they're left unspoiled.
"For all of its many intellectual pleasures and smart commentary, The Cabin in the Woods is a visceral roller coaster of a movie at heart. And like the best thrill rides, when it's over, you just want to get back on and go again." — Ian Buckwalter, NPR
7. Skyfall (92 percent)
After 2008's disappointing Quantum of Solace, the 007 franchise got a shot in the arm with Skyfall, deemed the best James Bond film ever by more than one critic. With emotional stakes far higher than the average James Bond film and a skillfully unsettling performance by Javier Bardem as the film's villain, Skyfall proves that, even after 23 films, there's plenty of life left in 007.
"The James Bond franchise turns 50 with a stellar entry that fires on all cylinders as an action picture but also casts a modest glance backward to its illustrious past." — J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader
6. The Avengers (92 percent)
Comic book fans had anticipated the blockbuster superhero team-up of The Avengers — which includes popular crusaders like Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and Thor — for ages. But director Joss Whedon managed to deliver a film that plays to hardcore fans and the uninitiated alike, offering his signature mix of witty dialogue and carefully staged action sequences in the year's highest grossing movie.
"There's great entertainment in The Avengers — big, bold, action-filled silliness with just enough human spirit to sell itself. This is a comic book movie done right." — Tom Long, Detroit News
5. Zero Dark Thirty (93 percent)
This Best Picture frontrunner chronicles the CIA's decade-long attempt to catch and kill Osama bin Laden in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. An ensemble cast led by Jessica Chastain portrays CIA officials and Navy SEALs in a film that culminates with the raid on bin Laden's compound in May 2011. Along with stellar reviews, Zero Dark Thirty has also drawn criticism for its controversial depiction of torture as an effective interrogation technique.
"The knockout punch of the movie season is being delivered by Zero Dark Thirty. Chastain is a marvel, and Bigelow and Boal top their Oscar-winning work in The Hurt Locker." — Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
4. The Secret World of Arrietty (94 percent)
Though The Secret World of Arrietty was released in Japan in 2010 to stellar reviews and the year's highest box-office gross in that country, it wasn't until Feb. 2012 that the Japanimation film made it stateside with a dub commissioned by Disney and executed by voice actors like Amy Poehler and Mark Strong. The Secret World of Arrietty is about a pair of "borrowers" — miniature people who rely on the things they can take from humans' homes to survive — and their daughter Arrietty, who befriends a human boy.
"With its lush colors, imaginative view of ordinary objects, and meticulously crafted miniature civilization, it transports viewers to an enchanting alternate storybook reality." —Claudia Puig, USA Today
3. Moonrise Kingdom (94 percent)
Director Wes Anderson earned the best reviews of his career for Moonrise Kingdom, a sweet-hearted fable about a romance between two young outcasts in New England in the 1960s. Though the film features terrific performances from actors like Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, and Edward Norton, it relies heavily on the beautifully unselfconscious performances by leads Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward — neither of whom had acted on film before.
"A gorgeously shot, ingeniously crafted, uber-Andersonian bonbon that, even in its most irritatingly whimsical moments, remains an effective deliverer of cinematic pleasure." — Dana Stevens, Slate
2. Looper (94 percent)
Rian Johnson's twisty sci-fi thriller stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a hitman tasked with killing people from the future, who are sent back in time for their executions. When he recognizes one of his targets as a future version of himself (Bruce Willis), and fails to kill him before he runs away, he's forced to chase down his elder self and kill him before he escapes permanently.
"A mind-bending ride that is not afraid to slow down now and again, to explore themes of regret and redemption, soul and sacrifice, love and loss. It's a movie worth seeing and, perhaps, going back to see again." — Christopher Orr, The Atlantic
1. Argo (95 percent)
Ben Affleck directs and stars in this suspenseful film based on a real-life CIA mission to extract six U.S. diplomats (a crew of colorful supporting actors) from Tehran during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. Affleck's character mounts an unlikely plan to sneak the diplomats out of the danger zone by pretending they're Hollywood types who've been in Tehran to scout locations for a fake sci-fi movie called Argo.
"It's serious and substantive, an ingeniously written and executed drama fashioned from a fascinating, little-known chapter of American history." — Ann Hornaday, Washington Post