Critics pick year’s best films

Editor’s note: Roger Ebert has had to severely curtail his reviewing schedule for the next two weeks as he recovers from a hairline fracture that developed in his left hip.

By CHRISTY LEMIRE and DAVID GERMAIN

AP Movie Writers

Christy Lemire’s picks:

“Argo”: Directing just his third feature, Ben Affleck has come up with a seamless blend of detailed international drama and breathtaking suspense, with just the right amount of dry humor to provide context and levity.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild”: The story of a little girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) living with her daddy on a remote, primal strip of eroding land in the southernmost reaches of the Louisiana bayou is so ambitious and so accomplished, it’s amazing that it’s only director Benh Zeitlin’s first feature.

“Skyfall”: One of the best James Bond films ever starring the best Bond yet in Daniel Craig. It’s full of the requisite thrills but also complicated and meaty, featuring an agent who isn’t always slick and doesn’t always have the answers in hunting an elusive cyberterrorist (a fantastic Javier Bardem).

“Holy Motors”: This movie is just straight-up nuts, in all the best ways. Writer-director Leos Carax’s journey provides a joyous, surprising and darkly funny exploration of all the best cinema has to offer. Denis Lavant gives a tour-de-force performance, assuming nine different roles as a mysterious man who travels around Paris in the back of a limousine all day, carrying out various assignments.

“Zero Dark Thirty”: Following the Oscar success of “The Hurt Locker,” director Kathryn Bigelow reteams with writer Mark Boal to tell an even larger and more complicated story; the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. The attention to detail, to getting it right each step of the way, is evident in every element. And Jessica Chastain is relentless and self-possessed in a rare leading role as a young CIA officer on the case.

“The Master”: Paul Thomas Anderson, long a master himself of technique and tone, has created a startling, stunningly gorgeous film shot in lushly vibrant 70mm, with impeccable production design and powerful performances from stars Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. But this story of a wayward man and the charismatic cult leader who guides him – which may or may not have been inspired by Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard – is also his most ambitious film yet.

“The Imposter”: A gripping documentary about a missing boy filled with the kind of twists, turns and dramatic character revelations of a page-turner mystery. Director Bart Layton takes a story that was already fascinatingly weird to begin with and makes it even more compelling.

“Moonrise Kingdom”: If you love Wes Anderson, you’ll love this: The best of what he can do is vibrantly on display. The screenplay, which he co-wrote with Roman Coppola, has resulted in his sweetest and most sincere live-action movie since the one that remains his best, 1998’s “Rushmore.”

“Oslo, August 31st”: A film of quietly intense precision and vividly honest humanity. Anders Danielsen Lie gives one of the great, underappreciated performances of the year as a heroin addict who’s allowed to leave rehab for the day to head into the Norwegian capital for a job interview. Instead, he wanders around visiting old haunts, reconnecting awkwardly with friends and facing his demons.

“This Is Not a Film”: Veteran Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s homemade documentary is simultaneously depressing as hell and brimming with hope and defiance. And it’s an inspiring must-see for anyone who feels the urgent need to create something beautiful and meaningful, regardless of the cost. Panahi shot it over the course of a day in his Tehran apartment while under house arrest and had it smuggled out in a cake.

David Germain’s picks:

“Life of Pi”: A film about a youth alone on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger has no business working. But Ang Lee adapts Yann Martel’s introspective novel with inspired narrative wiles and glorious visuals presented in 3-D that lovingly enfolds and enlarges the action.

“Searching for Sugar Man”: Imagine the bitterness of the true artist who fades back to obscurity after being on the verge of stardom. Now imagine a soul so noble that bitterness never enters the picture. That’s a guy who truly deserves another chance. Singer-songwriter Rodriquez gets just that as Malik Bendjelloul’s inspiring documentary recounts apocryphal rumors about his fate – then reveals what really happened after his brush with success in the 1970s.

“Rust and Bone”: Jacques Audiard delivers one of the oddest of screen couples in this deeply involving and completely unpredictable romantic drama about a whale trainer (Marion Cotillard) who loses her legs in an orca accident and a negligent single dad (Matthias Schoenaerts) training as a mixed martial-arts fighter.

“Lincoln”: Few performances qualify as monumental. That’s the best word to characterize Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, though. He vanishes into the president’s awkward, folksy, melancholy spirit, creating an unforgettable portrait of greatness that pretty much puts to rest any thought of another actor trying his hand at a serious portrayal of Lincoln for a good long while.

“West of Memphis”: This is a vote not only for a film, but for artists who joined in protest to save three men from prison – one from Death Row – after they were convicted in the 1993 slayings of three Cub Scouts. Inspired by “Paradise Lost,” an earlier documentary about the case, Peter Jackson and wife Fran Walsh bankrolled their own investigation and produced this new film by Amy Berg that calls into question the case built by prosecutors.

10. “Looper” – For someone who thinks Bruce Willis’ “Twelve Monkeys” is the defining time-travel flick, it’s irresistible to see him in another clever, careening tale of time-hopping. Joseph Gordon-Levitt wonderfully channels the younger Willis as a hit man whose latest assignment is to snuff his older self.

The top 10 films of 2012, according to AP Entertainment Writer Jake Coyle:

1. “Amour” – It’s a rare thing to be in the hands of a master working at the top of his game. Michael Haneke’s film about an aging Parisian couple and the intersection of tenderness and cruelty is devastating in both its story and execution.

2. “The Master” – In a year where digital overtook film as the dominant stuff of moviemaking, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 70-mm post-WWII drama made a hypnotic case for celluloid.

3. “Margaret” – After a lengthy legal battle, a truncated version of playwright Kenneth Lonergan’s follow-up to the brilliant “You Can Count on Me” was released quietly in late 2011. But it was this year when the real version saw the light of day on DVD. (It’s three hours, but I promise it’s not slow.) Seek it out.

4. “Moonrise Kingdom” – Anderson dreams up a melancholy island of young love and Norman Rockwell. Sold.

5. “Not Fade Away” – I never knew the ‘60s but I suspect David Chase’s first film has finally – after countless more extreme stories – nailed something authentic about the decade and about rock ‘n’ roll’s atom-bomb-sized impact in suburban homes.

6. “Lincoln” – Steven Spielberg’s historical drama is an exhumation of the past, even if it ultimately fails to make flesh its title character. But it does succeed – unlike any movie before – in summoning a political world, peopled by colorful characters (James Spader, Tommy Lee Jones) in and around Congress.

7. “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” – The Duplass brothers’ man-child comedy is a rumpled sweatshirt of a movie. When Jason Segel, as a completely charming pothead, finally rises to the occasion, it’s strangely moving.

8. “The Dust Bowl” – One of the most pleasing things of the year was to see a Ken Burns with some fire. In “The Dust Bowl,” he made clear its contemporary and potentially polarizing lessons: That the federal government can do good and that we are capable of marring the environment horrendously.

9. “Holy Motors” – French, fantastical and nuthouse crazy, Carax’s film might seem the stuff of pretentious art house. But it’s a simple day-in-the-life, only one in which limos talk and fingers get bitten off for the sake of Eva Mendes. It’s a mad movie dream.

10. “Premium Rush” – How about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s year? Aside from roles in “Lincoln” and muddled but still thought-provoking “The Dark Knight Rises,” he also starred in the excellent time-travel puzzle “Looper” and this seemingly forgettable but really quite fun genre pic about an elusive bike messenger.