AP critics pick the year’s best movies

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The top 10 films of 2012, according to AP Movie Writer David Germain:

1. “Moonrise Kingdom” — First love is never this crazy and fanciful, but it sure felt like it way back when. Wes Anderson presents a wondrous romance about two 12-year-old runaways seeking refuge from life’s cruelties and disappointments. Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward beguile us with performances precociously passionate yet disarmingly innocent, complemented by a group of sweet adult sad-sacks — among them Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis and Edward Norton — who find respite from disillusionment themselves with a glimpse through the kids’ pure eyes.

2. “Life of Pi” — A film about a youth alone on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger has no business working. But Ang Lee adapts Yann Martel’s introspective novel with inspired narrative wiles and glorious visuals presented in 3-D that lovingly enfolds and enlarges the action. Newcomer Suraj Sharma is a marvel as the teen cast adrift. And the film richly explores our cathartic need to tell tales, its dual ending asking a lady-or-the-tiger question: Which story do you prefer, the one of genuine horror or the one of hopeful, improbable possibility?

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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