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1. Moonrise Kingdom
Anderson sticks to his guns: he hasn't taken any of that advice about de-aestheticizing his movies and imposing some austerity on his personality. And left to his own devices, he composed one of his funniest, sweetest portraitures to date: a first-love chronicle that's heartbreaking not through onscreen tragedy but lovely, hilarious frailty.
Even when he expands his vision to futuristic science fiction, complete with time-travel paradoxes galore, Johnson maintains a sense of scrappy intimacy. So yes, the back half of the year's best sci-fi movie takes place largely on a farm, his compositions as elemental and striking as his writing—which has its own showcase in one of the year's best single scenes, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt confronting his Bruce Willisized older self at a diner.
3. The Master
Paul Thomas Anderson
Like the protagonists of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love, Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell stumbles through the world in pain, seeking someone or something that can ease that pain. That searching anguish has rarely been more vivid or opaque than in Anderson's mesmerizing riff on religion, the postwar 50s, and lost boys.
4. The Dark Knight Rises
The final installment of Nolan's Batman trilogy accomplished what countless episodes of The X-Files could not: it turned me into a blathering nerd 'shipper (Bruce plus Selina 4-ever!). That's what his Batman movies do all over: take material that could be silly, pretentious, or leaden and invest it with real, still-geeky feeling.
5. and 6. Haywire and Magic Mike
Any double-Soderbergh year is a good year (even 2002! Especially 2002!), and this particular double feature ranks among his best. The lean, beautiful Haywire strips movie-star charisma down to MMA fighter Gina Carano's face (I have no idea if Carano will work in other movies, but, as with Sasha Grey in Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience, she becomes a contextual star). Magic Mike also serves as a companion to Girlfriend Experience: a different but even more entertaining peek at the economics of sex work.
Daniel Day-Lewis: our surprise chronicler of 19th-century America. He's extraordinary as President 16, but the movie works as well as it does because of the winding, passionate conversations imagined by Tony Kushner and the way Steven Spielberg, confined largely to interiors and dialogue scenes, gracefully directs their ebb and flow.
8. Damsels in Distress
Stillman hasn't grown any more naturalistic in the 12 years since his last film; if anything, Damsels finds him weirder and more removed from reality-as-we-know-it than ever. But his screwy campus universe unto itself has its own delights—and, if you look closer, plenty of recognizable humanity.
9. Killing Them Softly
Yeah, it hits the crime-as-capitalism-as-America notes a little insistently (in between perfectly written, performed, and shot sequences of lowlife face-offs), but the final-scene lesson, delivered by Brad Pitt, makes the hammering pay off. It's a little on the nose; it's even more like a jab to the face.
10. The Cabin in the Woods
It was a banner year for Joss Whedon on film: his second feature as a director, The Avengers, broke box office records and also raised the quality bar for Marvel's in-house movies. Even more delightful in equally nerdy measure: the horror movie he cowrote with director Drew Goddard. Cabin in the Woods plays with genre conventions as gleefully as Scream did—and Whedon and Goddard write better dialogue.