It turned out 2012 was a great year for pretty good movies. There were ample opportunities to be skillfully entertained, but precious few chances to be truly moved and wowed. That was true of the biggest blockbusters and the art-house favorites.
Franchise entries such as "The Dark Knight Rises" and "Skyfall" were exceptionally competent, but not quite exceptional; auteur-driven experiments including "The Master" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" were impressive, beautiful and fascinating, but never fully bridged the distance of their mysteries.
But while few of this year's films came within sight of perfection, there still were plenty of pop pleasures to be found. The year's best, most memorable and most enjoyable movies didn't get everything right -- but each of them got something right. And in a year packed with pretty good movies, that was enough.
1. "Zero Dark Thirty"
This is the year's one true cinematic masterpiece: Taut, tragic and terrifying, it's incredibly gripping and amazingly understated. Director Kathryn Bigelow puts the story front and center, focusing on the procedural details and bureaucratic machinations that led American forces to Osama bin Laden's hideout. But the details don't bog the movie down; they ground it in real-world urgency. Like "All the President's Men," it's a masterful procedural. Unlike that movie, it's also a first-rate action picture, with a final act inside bin Laden's compound that is almost unbearably tense.
2. "The Avengers"
The year's best blockbuster, and the best summer movie in ages, it's hard to imagine a more purely enjoyable big-screen diversion. Much of the credit is due to writer-director Joss Whedon, a genre-TV vet whose perfectly honed pop instinct is apparent in every scene and line of this giant-sized superhero extravaganza. Part of what's impressive about the film is that it succeeded not merely in spite of its absurd scale, but because of it. A big-screen team-up with four superheroes, each big enough to carry his own megabudget feature films, should have resulted in a bloated, committee-created mess. Instead, Mr. Whedon crafted a fun, funny and frequently spectacular showcase for each of the movie's costumed heroes. Yes, Mr. Whedon offered up a slew of amazing action set pieces, but even the biggest sequences were driven by the needs of his characters and the urges of his own quirky sensibility. The result is surprisingly personal filmmaking on a truly mammoth scale.
3. "Django Unchained"
Director Quentin Tarantino's moral instincts may not be as sharp as his sense of pop provocation -- indeed, his moral instincts may not exist at all -- but he understands the deep cinematic satisfaction of well-deserved revenge better than any director working today. Like so many of his films, "Django" is an ironic pop collage about extreme vengeance, and it boasts some of the year's best dialogue, as well as its most over-the-top violence. It's outrageous, clever, amoral, shocking and fantastically entertaining, sometimes all at once.
4. "The Master"
"The Master" is a dense, difficult, not-quite-masterpiece by one of Hollywood's most gifted artists. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's picture is based on Scientology, but is not really about it. Instead, it's about the interplay of power, will, subjugation and dependence. The movie's mysteries are too dense to ever be fully unpacked, but there's a mesmerizing power in the purity and intensity of its presentation.
5. "The Cabin in the Woods"
A nearly perfect deconstruction of horror movies coupled with a not-so-subtle moral critique of the way the horror genre feeds audience bloodlust, "The Cabin in the Woods" also boasts the most delightfully insane third act of the year.
6. "The Grey"
What could have been a low-concept action B-movie about Liam Neeson and a bunch of grizzled guys fighting off a pack of wolves in the Alaskan wilderness turned out to be a gritty, haunting parable about survival and the urge to live.
7. "Magic Mike"
A step on the star-ladder for Channing Tatum, this sly, engaging drama about a male stripper is more proof that director Steven Soderbergh can make just about anything entertaining.
8. "Killing Them Softly"
This grimly funny gangster film's cynicism runs bone-deep. But it's darkly funny, and boasts a sucker punch line that will stick with you.
9. "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
Beautiful, unique and emotionally exuberant, this tale of dreams and despair in a flooded world is a folk hymn to the mysteries of being alive.
An elegant, moody and distinctly modern take on Bond; it's one of the most beautiful action movies I've ever seen.
"Looper," "The Dark Knight Rises," "Chronicle," "Argo."