Thompson also reveals her top ten on Oscar Talk here. Check out our lists and share yours in the comments. Here's to a great year in film.
1. "Life of Pi"
Taiwan-born Ang Lee, more than any director working today, is a filmmaker for the world. His three great love stories -- martial arts romance "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," gay tragedy "Brokeback Mountain" and Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility"-- were accessible to multiple cultures. With "Life of Pi" Lee has fashioned, with screenwriter David Magee ("Finding Neverland") adapting Yann Martel's global bestseller, another love story that transcends borders. In this case, it's between a 17-year-old young man (non-pro Suraj Sharma) from India and a Bengal tiger. But it is also a stunning technological triumph, as the VFX required were impossible until now. Conceived four years ago before the arrival of the 3-D "Avatar," this movie is a live-action/animation hybrid, as major characters like the threatening tiger and sublime phosphorescent Pacific seascapes could only be created by artists in the digital realm.
2. "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
When he won the grand jury and cinematography prizes at Sundance, director Benh Zeitlin, who shot "Beasts" with his ragtag film collective on a constantly flooding delta island below the New Orleans levees with a cast of non-actors, said: "We had more freedom to make this film than any filmmakers in America ever." Zeitlin was able to control the chaos: the end result is a constantly surprising and deeply moving fantastical portrait of where we are, right now.
3. "Zero Dark Thirty"
Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal's incredibly timely movie about the CIA's ten-year pursuit of Osama bin Laden is as relentless as its heroine (Jessica Chastain), laying out the hard facts and details without flinching from its purpose, which is to make real the daily headlines. Bigelow deploys 120 speaking parts from all over the world and three to four roving cameras to catch the unfolding action in wide-ranging locations from India, Egypt and Jordan to London and Washington, D.C. As Bigelow avoids Hollywood narrative conventions, she also gives us the toughest motherfuckin' woman lead since Ripley.
4. "Silver Linings Playbook"
This delicately edited family relationship comedy is both funny and moving. The film's two romantic leads, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, are two lost, emotionally damaged yet attractive people who draw comfort and kinship from each other. Writer-director David O. Russell has, dare I say it, Billy Wilder's tough unsentimental approach to romance. Even in this cynical age, we root for these two characters in pain to heal each other, make their families happy, win their dance contest and find true love.
The thing that hits you on first viewing "Lincoln" is how unconventional it is. It's organic, grown from the seeds in Doris Kearns Goodwin's 800-page Lincoln tome "Team of Rivals," nurtured over five years by playwright Tony Kushner, and shaped by Steven Spielberg and actor Daniel Day-Lewis into something we've never seen before. This alchemy of a torrent of words, well-researched history, and the powerful personality of the world's most popular American president has yielded a magical biopic that is the current front-runner in the Oscar race.
6. "End of Watch"
David Ayer celebrates the work ethic and bravery of two cops, partners on the beat in East Los Angeles, who face an unforgiving world with humor and verbal acuity. Shot on the run, the movie was choreographed with no room for waste or error: Ayer shot 135 hours of footage in 22 days. Jack Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena were primed and ready and give the best performances of their respective careers.
Ben Affleck directs this taut and commercial thriller, his third behind the camera, with screw-tightening efficiency that would make Michael Mann proud. Think "The Insider" on steroids. Affleck gives a solid, naturalistic performance as Tony Mendez, a smart and experienced CIA operative who specializes in pulling people out of tight situations. Affleck, like other actor-directors Clooney and Clint Eastwood, sees the value of staying hands-on with a modest budget. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Oscar-nominated for "Brokeback Mountain") does outstanding work on location in Turkey, Los Angeles and the Ontario airport, while composer Alexandre Desplat ("The King's Speech") could land a fifth Oscar nomination--unless his "Zero Dark Thirty" score cancels himself out.
8. "The Sessions"
"The Sessions" starts with a script from Australian filmmaker Ben Lewin, who suffered polio as a youth and still limps with a cane. Helen Hunt and John Hawkes saw rich material in this story about the late great intellectual Mark O'Brien who wanted more from life than lying immobile in an iron lung. He found a sex surrogate to help him find love in his life. The surrogate came to care deeply for O'Brien--within the confines of a professional relationship--and was able to teach him how to make another woman happy. Audiences are often uncomfortable with sex in cinema, and this movie embraces moments that are awkward and embarrassing, even humiliating. This intimate sexual souffle is so delicate and sensitive--both actors are literally naked-- that it could easily have gone flat. Instead it is uplifting.
This coming-of-age romance takes place inside an artificial fantasy based on the children's books writer-director Wes Anderson still loves. He builds the movie on the shoulders of two young kids in love. "I love artifice and very emotional movies," he told me in Cannes. The art direction, tone, and acting--one standout is Bruce Willis's sweet buffoonish cop--are all perfectly in tune with Anderson's precise imagination.
10. "Anna Karenina"
The decision not to shoot "Anna Karenina" on location in Russia liberated director Joe Wright. Without changing the Tom Stoppard adaptation of Tolstoy's classic, Wright used an old London theater as a way to completely free himself from the constrictions of period costume drama. "Anna Karenina" is a swirling, mad, exuberant, joyful, passionate celebration of the novel. Anna (Keira Knightley of Wright's "Atonement" and "Pride & Prejudice") is far from your ordinary romantic heroine. She's doomed to meet that train. But there's more to this story than adultery. Tolstoy's counterpart, Levin (Domhall Gleeson), balances out the drama. And Jude Law gives one of his best performances as Anna's cuckolded husband.
BEST FOREIGN FILM
"Barbara," Germany's Oscar entry, is Christian Petzold's fifth collaboration with actress Nina Hoss. She plays an intrepid East Berlin doctor in 1980 who has been sent to the boonies as punishment for wanting to leave the country. Like everyone around her, she lies to survive; she sneaks around in the night to meet her West German lover in the woods. But she cares for her patients; that bonds her with her fellow doctor (up-and-comer Ronald Zehrfeld). Even though she's surrounded by fear and suspicion and paranoia, she comes to trust him.
Eugene Jarecki's incisive and incendiary "The House I Live In," which won the U.S. documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and is shortlisted for next year's doc Oscar, will blow your mind. That's because it tackles a subject that you think you know a little about--America's war on drugs--and in excruciating detail shows you how the whole system is broken and dysfunctional.
BEST ANIMATED FILM
"Frankenweenie," Tim Burton filmed his most personal movie since "Edward Scissorhands" in black and white and stop motion. He returns to the Burbank suburbs he has loved to show us ever since the 1984 Disney short on which the movie is based. Not a box office success, this feature serves an inspiring reminder of what an artist can do when he's not playing to the marketplace.
Top ten lists from Sophia Savage, Beth Hanna and TOH contributors below: