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Torture, vengeance, guilt, despair, mental decline, a rough night out — so why do I feel so exhilarated about the 10 best movies of 2012? These brilliant films bring the viewer to the edge, whe the view is edifying, and a lot of fun, too.

Zero Dark Thirty:: Some have misread this film as an endorsement of torture. Instead, the ambiguity of Kathryn Bigelow's dense and thrilling account of the CIA search for Osama bin Laden doesn't offer any ideological shelter during the scenes of "enhanced interrogation." Jessica Chastain plays the obsessed agent who cracks the case, and her tears at the end aren't tears of triumph. (Scheduled to open in Boston on January 4.)

Django Unchained:: Quentin Tarantino doesn't just write history with lightning; he rewrites it. In 1858 Texas the escaped slave of the title becomes a bounty hunter and sets out to free his wife from a plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). In the process, he pretty much destroys the South before the Civil War even starts. Christoph Waltz as Django's sardonic mentor is the antithesis of his Nazi in Inglourious Basterds. (See Brett Michel's review on page TK.)

Holy Motors:: Leos Carax's first feature-film film since Pola X (1999) follows Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) through the nine appointments on his schedule, each involving a different character, scenario, and genre, each bursting into a mini-movie that takes place for cameras that can't be seen and for an audience that might not be there. Carax and Lavant put on a dazzling tour de force.

Moonrise Kingdom:: Wes Anderson should always make movies featuring 13-year-olds. Like Sam (Jared Gilman), an orphan enduring summer camp in 1965. He's in love with Suzy (Kara Hayward), but no one approves, so they run away to live happily ever after. This plan also liberates Anderson's imagination. Beneath the whimsy and paganism, though, lingers a premonition of loss and corruption.

Marina Ambramovic: The Artist Is Present::Matthew Akers's documentary opens with a rare conventional movie image: a long close-up of a face. It belongs to the performance artist of the title, who for three months sat in a chair in a MOMA gallery as thousands of visitors, one by one, looked into her eyes. Many wept. The film demonstrates how cinema can make the artist seem present, offering a soul that mirrors one's own.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia:: This team of investigators searching for the grave of a murder victim isn't CSI: Miami, especially when they try to stuff a too-big body into a too-small trunk. But as their cars snake through the Anatolian wasteland their search becomes internal, a glimpse into troubled memories. Another masterpiece from Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

The Turin Horse:: Legend has it that in Turin, Friedrich Nietzsche embraced a beaten horse and went insane. Bela Tarr picks up the story of the horse, its owner, and his daughter. They live in a farm in the middle of wind-blown nowhere, and their routines are desperate, banal, and eloquent, elevated to poetry by Tarr's black-and-white imagery.

A Simple Life:: Hong Kong filmmaker Ann Hui shows the decline of a beloved housekeeper, Ah Tao (Deannie Yip), who is cared for by a family member (Andy Lau) after she suffers a stroke. Hui depicts the passage of time with subtle episodes and draws on emotions without succumbing to sentimentality.

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Related: Review: Red Cliff, Review: The Strip, Review: A Single Man, More more >
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