It may not have been a great year for movies, but it was certainly a great year for talking about movies. Hardly a week seemed to go by in 2012 without some sort of movie-related controversy.

Among the questions that were debated: Is The Dark Knight Rises a thinly veiled takedown of the Occupy Wall Street movement? Is Christopher Nolan a secret neo-conservative? Does Zero Dark Thirty endorse torture? Is it okay to laugh during Django Unchained? Is there any merit to Spike Lee’s claim that Django Unchained is “insensitive to my ancestors”? Is Killing Them Softly pro or anti-Obama? Why did critics shower Killing Them Softly with praise while audiences awarded it with a CinemaScore rating of “F”? Why was The Hobbit so long, and how can a movie that’s so tedious also be so popular? Is Skyfall the best Bond ever, or the best Home Alone ever? Is Silver Linings Playbook an insensitive portrayal of mental illness? What was The Master about? Did Damon Lindelof actually get paid to write Prometheus? And if so, has he given the money back yet?

Of all the movies that were released in 2012, only two (Zero Dark Thirty and The Master) will likely be regarded decades from now as flawless masterworks. But it was certainly fun talking about all the others.

15. The Avengers

Who would have guessed at the start of the year that Marvel’s follow-up to its trio of disappointments (Iron Man 2, Captain America, and Thor) would both make more money and receive more critical acclaim than The Dark Knight Rises, the biggest movie yet from the seemingly invincible Christopher Nolan? And yet surprising, Nolan and his co-writer Jonathan Nolan weren’t quite able to deliver on Rises (too many subplots, not enough time), while Joss Whedon, working with a similar number of subplots and an even shorter running time, managed to hit the bull’s eye.

14. 21 Jump Street

The year’s most pleasant surprise. The idea sounded awful, but this update of the late 1980s TV show was actually laugh-out-loud funny from beginning to end. It also demonstrated that Channing Tatum—best known at the time for his wooden performances in G.I. Joe and The Vow—is actually an extremely talented comedic performer.

13. Argo

As a director, Ben Affleck just seems to get better and better. His based-on-a-true-story account of how the CIA smuggled a group of diplomats out of Iran during the hostage crisis contains sequences that are suspenseful enough to stand alongside Hitchcock’s best work and not seem lacking in comparison. Now if only Affleck would hire someone else to play the lead role in his movies (like Matt Damon, say)…

12. Seven Psychopaths

Like his previous movie, the vastly underrated In Bruges, nearly every line of dialogue in Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths deserves a spot in Bartlett’s Book of Familiar Quotations. The fact that it only made $15 million at the box office does not reflect well on the public.

Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken both deserve Oscar nominations, although since the Academy tends to only recognize movies that have attained “Oscar buzz,” that’s unlikely to happen.

11. Lincoln

Another towering performance from Daniel Day-Lewis. Radically adjusting his voice, posture, and appearance, Day-Lewis completely immerses himself in the role to the point where you might occasionally lose sight of the fact that Lincoln isn’t playing himself. It’s a performance that needs to be seen to be believed. Oh, and the movie itself is pretty good too.

10. Looper

What Inception was to 2010 and what Source Code was to 2011, Looper was to 2012—a smart, complicated sci-fi masterpiece that needs to be seen multiple times in order to be fully understood.

The scene where Joseph Gordon-Levitt meets his future self (Bruce Willis) at a diner is an instant classic.

9. Cabin in the Woods

As good as The Avengers was, the best thing that Joss Whedon did in 2012 was Cabin in the Woods. Yes, as a horror movie, it’s not particularly scary. But as a deconstruction of the horror genre, it’s just about perfect.

The final shot is perhaps the craziest thing to happen in a movie all year.

8. Magic Mike

What looked like a male version of Showgirls turned out to be so much more. Channing Tatum worked as a stripper in Florida for eight months back in 2000, and it shows—this low-key character study is filled with the sorts of details that can only be attained through first-hand experience. When it’s over, you may feel qualified to move to Tampa and operate your own club.

7. Killing Them Softly

This gritty crime thriller didn’t go over well with audiences, and it’s easy to see why: The movie is essentially just an hour and a half of horrible people doing horrible things. Still, as unpleasant as it is, director Andrew Dominik’s vision of contemporary America as an open sewer is too vivid and powerful to be ignored.

6. Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson’s OCD-style approach to art direction passed the point of self-parody a long time ago, but even so, he managed to deliver one of the year’s finest. A delight from beginning to end.

5. Django Unchained

Although most critics have noted Django‘s debt to spaghetti Westerns and blaxploitation films, the biggest influence on Django is probably Tarantino’s own Inglourious Basterds. The flamboyant Nazi villain may have been replaced with a flamboyant slave-owning villain, but the other two trademarks of Basterds—the 20-minute-long conversation scenes that rely on dramatic irony to generate suspense, the “let’s see how many dead bodies we can stack up” bloodbath ending—have been left intact. If it doesn’t quite reach the same heights as Basterds, it certainly comes close enough.

4. Life of Pi

The only 3D movie of 2012 that was worth shelling out the extra $4 to see, Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s supposedly unfilmable novel is a visual tour de force. It may not prove the existence of God (as a minor character insists that it will), but it sure is pretty to look at.

3. Silver Linings Playbook

The year’s best romantic comedy is also a vivid reminder that romantic comedies don’t have to be terrible. Jennifer Aniston and Katherine Heigl need to watch this and take notes.

2. The Master

The biggest “wtf?” movie of the year. Whether or not it adds up to anything is difficult to say after just one viewing. But what is clear is that the performances, cinematography (in stunning 70mm), costumes, and sets are all first class, and that they all combine in a way that casts a spell that stays with you for days afterward.

The final scene between Joaquin Pheonix and Philip Seymour Hoffman may be the finest example of two actors working off each other since the scene between Marlon Brando and Al Pacino in the orchard at the end of The Godfather.

1. Zero Dark Thirty

Believe the hype. Zero Dark Thirty is the movie of the year.

The first collaboration between Kathyrn Bigelow and Mark Boal yielded the intense but vastly overrated The Hurt Locker. Nothing about that first collaboration indicated that they were capable of producing a masterpiece as astonishing as Zero Dark Thirty.

Accused by those who didn’t pay close enough attention of advocating torture, Zero Dark Thirty only seems to advocate one thing: that being constantly bombarded with information can be an overwhelming, exhilarating experience. Just as Zodiac (Thirty‘s closest cinematic kin) was, in the words of one critic, “three hours in a police filing cabinet”, Thirty is three hours in a CIA filing cabinet. Watching the obsessive, single-minded Maya (Jessica Chastain in the finest performance of her remarkable career) painstakingly sort through it all is strangely hypnotic, as is the stunning final sequence—a “real time” reenactment of the Bin Laden raid in which the Navy SEALs slowly make their way from room to room as if they were underwater. Never before has a group of men tiptoeing through the dark in a straight line been so fraught with tension.

Honorable mentions:

Lawless
The Dark Knight Rises
Safety Not Guaranteed
Sinister
Samsara

Still have to see:

Holy Motors
Amour
Compliance
Cosmopolis
The Turin Horse
On the Road
West of Memphis
The Impossible
Les Misérables
This Is 40