Compiling a year-end best list can result in too much sameness. Left to my own idiosyncrasies, I'd probably tally up 10 art-house darlings despairing of the human condition. (Watching movies continuously does that to you.) If you veer hard in the direction of deliberate diversity, you wind up comparing apples and orangutans.
This time, in service of both consistency and variety, I chose to rank movies against others in the same category. These are the films that most touched me, taught me and delighted me in 2012.
Best blockbuster: The ambitions of "The Dark Knight Rises" initially blinded me to its flaws. The crown goes to "The Avengers," a joyous, beautifully written and whip-smart comic-book extravaganza. Joss Whedon's script gave each crusader an individual slant and wove them into a fugue of conflict, friendship, suspicion and cooperation.
Best documentary: A strong category this year, but the nonfiction film that says the most about 21st-century life is "The Queen of Versailles." Lauren Greenfield's portrait of a nouveau riche billionaire and his melon-bosomed trophy wife is an unsparing but empathetic examination of elitist aspirations run amok. When Jackie economizes by having her driver take her to a McDonald's drive-thru in the stretch limo, it's a moment truly stranger than fiction. The film has dozens of them.
Best spy movie: "Skyfall" is the best Bond movie ever, while Ben Affleck's "Argo" is a real-life Iranian hostage thriller that juiced up its story with lots of improbable (but thrilling) crises. But for sticking to the facts and dramatizing them with electrifying skill, Kathryn Bigelow's kill-Bin-Laden thriller "Zero Dark Thirty" (opening locally next month) is the classiest horse in the race.
Best romance: Since I make the rules, I declare a three-way tie among the pre-adolescent runaway lovebirds of Wes Anderson's captivating "Moonrise Kingdom," the adorable, nutty Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in "Silver Linings Playbook" and Keira Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Anna and Vronsky in the dazzling "Anna Karenina."
Best drama: How could any serious-minded film this year challenge Steven Spielberg's towering "Lincoln"? Daniel Day-Lewis simply steps into the man's skin, creating a multifaceted man of humility and conscience, willing to use political expediency to hold the country together and move it forward. A masterful work of intelligence and patriotism.
Best horror movie: "Sinister" introduces an appalling new boogeyman into a rigorously realistic suburban thriller setting. Ethan Hawke is a fine mix of ego and anxiety as a one-hit true-crime writer poking into the grisly murder he's sure will put his career back on track. Disturbing and deeply spooky, this marks director Scott Derrickson as a talent to watch.
Best comedy: Since I ardently loathe Seth MacFarlane's "Family Guy," I was flabbergasted by his wonderfully rude talking teddy bear comedy "Ted." Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis find their guy/gal issues pushed to the point of meltdown by his childhood stuffed animal, a walking, thinking, speaking toy that watches too much TV, smokes weed and is a terrible influence on his owner.
Best animated film: Sorry, "Frankenweenie," you can't hold a candle to the gloriously funny, endlessly inventive "Madagascar 3." Its ambidextrous sense of humor tickles kids and adults alike. Honorable mention: Disney's Pixar-quality video-game comedy "Wreck-It Ralph."
Best movie-movie: In "Django Unchained," Quentin Tarantino shows that for all his encyclopedic appreciation of B-movie history, his films can have tangible connections to a world outside of pop-culture references. His slave revenge adventure is too smart to be a guilty pleasure and too hedonistic to take over-seriously. In terms of exuberant characters, dialogue, scenery and action (is there an Oscar for blood eruptions?), it stands alone.
Best of the best: No movie in 2012 seized my imagination like "Beasts of the Southern Wild," a micro-budget indie that was firmly grounded in Louisiana Delta life while reaching stratospheric heights of imagination. The story of a feisty 6-year-old girl and her proud, ailing father is a landmark film, intensely moving, elegiac and sometimes quirkishly funny. Not the least of writer/director Benh Zeitlin's achievements is his triumphant avoidance of happy-ending uplift. The beautiful final shot of a children's parade marching forward into the unknown gives us hope without the empty calories of sentimentality.