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The 25 Best Movies of 2012

1. Zero Dark Thirty

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Edgar Ramirez, Jennifer Ehle, Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini Mark Duplass, Stephen Dillane, Harold Perrineau, Scott Adkins, Taylor Kinney

There's a strong chance that the majority of people who'll pay to see Zero Dark Thirty will do so with the sole intention of watching Osama bin Laden get killed. And why not? What could be more cathartic and celebratory than seeing the monstrous terrorist who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks receive his long-overdue comeuppance? Even if it's through secondhand acting and Hollywood production values.

While that's not a bad way to enter Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow's (coming off The Hurt Locker) in-depth look at the 10-year C.I.A. manhunt for bin Laden, there's so much more going on throughout Zero Dark Thirty. By the film's end, it's actually tough to stand up and cheer. Most likely, you'll be too mesmerized and emotionally drained to do anything other than catch your breath.

Led by a formidable performance from Jessica Chastain (playing the stone-faced yet sympathetic C.I.A. hotshot who ignited the decade-long search), Zero Dark Thirty is, first and foremost, a tremendous piece of investigative journalism decorated as a white-knuckle film. Screenwriter Mark Boal (also of The Hurt Locker) parlayed tireless research and interviews with those who lived the film's events into what should, in a just world, take home the upcoming Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. With admirable objectivity, he and Bigelow touch upon all of the positives and negatives that come from tracking down a man like bin Laden, from heinous torture methods to dangerous on-the-ground undercover work.

Zero Dark Thirty's biggest strength is that it never even flirts with "America, fuck yeah!" sentiments. Its primary concern is to outline all of the hard work, stress, and mortality that was spent in order to locate a mass murderer. And once bin Laden's compound is raided (in a long, masterfully staged sequence for which Bigelow deserves excessive props), crying children and petrified, innocent women remind us that, in the end, bin Laden was just a defenseless, weak man. One taken out by our nation's finest soldiers, all of whom, much like every other C.I.A. figure who's fictionalized in Zero Dark Thirty, are honored by filmmakers confident enough to let their actions speak for themselves.

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