"Moonrise Kingdom"
Focus Features "Moonrise Kingdom"

5. Killing Them Softly
Directed by Andrew Dominik
Criticwire Average: B

A stellar ensemble in a year with plenty to choose from, all anchored by the suddenly-ubiquitous Scoot McNairy as our audience surrogate and another fine entry in Mr. Pitt's recent hot streak. If Lt. Aldo Raine and Jackie Cogan both cornered me in a public place, not only would I be more fearful of the latter, I'd probably be more persuaded to do his dirty work for him. That my answer wouldn't change knowing how Dominik's version of the story ends resonates far more with me than any inescapable campaign poster will. Much was made of the film's overbearing political message, but when taken on the level of a sharp, engaging crime drama, there's little to disappoint. 

4. Moonrise Kingdom
Directed by Wes Anderson
Criticwire Average: A-

In the fairy tale of Sam and Suzy, Wes Anderson finally found the perfect story to match his whimsical, detail-obsessed style of filmmaking. In one of the most impressive directing efforts of the year, he manages to give what could have been a simple puppy-love fairytale some real heft. Handling Anderson's dialogue would be a challenge for established actors with decades of experience under their belts, but Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward give the audience a reason to stay invested in their escape, even knowing what havoc their disappearance leaves behind. A trio of other Anderson troupe newcomers (Bruce Willis, Edward Norton and Tilda Swinton) handle their charges with the perfect blend of snappiness and sincerity, keeping a natural flavor to a film that could easily have been bogged down by theatricality.

3. Searching for Sugar Man
Directed by Malik Bendjelloul
Criticwire Average: A-

As the "What qualifies as a spoiler?" debate featured prominently in 2012, Malik Bendjelloul managed to draw suspense and intrigue out of a story that could easily have diminished with a quick Wikipedia search. Even for those who were familiar with the eventual fate of '70s folk rock enigma Rodriguez, there's something endlessly fascinating about the way that his music became the soundtrack to the South African anti-apartheid movement half a planet away. Nested within the search for the true Rodriguez is a record-sales-paper-trail subplot that epitomizes just how fickle fame in the music industry can be (and has been for at least four decades). Even if you're not a fan of how his story is told, there's a timelessness to Rodriguez's music that makes those songs a reward unto themselves.

2. Lincoln
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Criticwire Average: B+

Not just a generic tale of political machinations transposed onto the iconic president's administration, "Lincoln" recalls the past without overemphasizing its era. Rather than treat 1865 as a time of uniform emotions and sensibilities, we see visions of Abe Lincoln in moments of levity, marital struggle, and quiet observance. While Tony Kushner didn't have the audaciousness to set all of the amendment-related drama on a stage in an abandoned theater, his ability to distill a 900-page tome to its essence is no less impressive. And how's this for a curveball: it might just be the funniest "prestige" film of the year.

1. The Imposter
Directed by Bart Layton
Criticwire Average: A-

Numbers 2 through 10 on the list could be reshuffled in any order, but this has held my top spot ever since I saw it in the beginning of March. After the drive home from the screening, my fists were still sore from being clenched for most of the 99 minute runtime. Like countless other gripping mysteries, the true tension in the curious case of Nicholas Barclay comes not from the final piece of the puzzle, but from what the search does to those who refuse to acknowledge that there isn't one. This film could end at a handful of different points before its eventual conclusion and it would be clear where Bart Layton places the blame for the events that transpire. But he and his cast of characters (both real-life and re-enacted) leave us with a literal hole in the ground, the ultimate representation of the idea that there are no "real answers." If I could pinpoint what exactly it was that prompted my visceral reaction, I would quit all my other pursuits, become a documentary filmmaker and try to recapture that same elusive energy. In the meantime, singing the praises of great films like "The Imposter" will have to suffice.