AP critics pick the year’s best movies

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3. “Zero Dark Thirty” _ Kathryn Bigelow follows her Academy Award triumph on “The Hurt Locker” with a docudrama of even greater ambition and scope. Collaborating again with screenwriter Mark Boal, Bigelow crafts a studiously detailed, relentlessly paced chronicle about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Jessica Chastain is ferocious as a CIA analyst tracking bin Laden with almost blind obsession. The film’s third act _ the Navy SEALs assault that killed bin Laden _ is as tense and absorbing as big-screen action gets.

4. “Argo” _ Ben Affleck surges forward as both actor and director with this true-life story of a CIA operative who concocted an incredible ruse to free six Americans from Iran disguised as a movie crew after the 1979 embassy takeover. The film has it all _ smarts, suspense, dark laughs, exacting attention to period style. This arguably is Affleck’s best on-screen performance, and he’s backed with tremendous heart and humor by John Goodman and Alan Arkin as Hollywood insiders helping to pull off the con.

5. “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. To paraphrase Joey the Lips in “The Commitments,” success for Rodriquez would have been predictable. The way it turned out is poetry.

6. “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. Only in a movie would these two fall in love _ more likely in a bad movie. But Audiard and his devoted stars find so many moments of grace and pathos that the relationship grows from tenuous to genuine with complete conviction.

7. “The Master” _ Good thing Joaquin Phoenix’s retirement turned out to be a hoax. He does his best work ever in his return to the screen as a volatile World War II vet who becomes both disciple and antagonist to an L. Ron Hubbard-style cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a performance rivaling his own career high in “Capote”). Following the battle-of-wills drama of “There Will Be Blood,” Paul Thomas Anderson is proving himself a master of duality, crafting another grand work of egos and outlooks in deadly conflict.

8. “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. Steven Spielberg eschews the battlefield for a talky yet affecting look at Lincoln’s final months. America couldn’t have done without Lincoln, and Spielberg couldn’t have done without Day-Lewis.

9. “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. The story’s enthralling, the climax triumphant.

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, in a perverse retirement system where the mob of the future eventually has its assassins kill off themselves. Writer-director Rian Johnson has concocted a rare thriller whose brains equal its action, telling the story with great style and provocative irony.

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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. Anderson’s film may have dawdled to its end, failing to figure out what drew together a drifter (Joaquin Phoenix) and a cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman). But the postwar atmosphere is vivid: a searching landscape of broken and delusional men. Like the ship that brings the two together, rocking slowly past the Golden Gate, the movie drifts away.

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, thanks particularly to the daughter-mother duo of Anna Paquin and J. Smith-Cameron.) Seek it out. It’s a fascinating if flawed New York masterwork, made with a humanistic touch unrivaled in movies.

4. “Moonrise Kingdom” _ Wes 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.

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