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With the allegorical creation Beasts of the Southern Wild, U.S. filmmaker Benh Zeitlin made an astonishing debut.

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RICK GROEN'S PICKS:

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Definitely not to be taken literally, Beasts is an ominous children's fable, a beautiful tone poem, an allusive allegory and, in the hands of director Benh Zeitlin, an astonishing debut – like crossing the menace of Maurice Sendak with the meaning of Terrence Malick.

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Holy Motors

Ferociously paced, blisteringly smart, Leos Carax's film is a potent display of imagination that cuts with a double edge. Here, imagination incarcerates and it liberates, trapping our brain even while freeing our senses – life's unholy predicament and art's holy delight.

Life of Pi

Ang Lee and Yann Martel's fable are a match made in cinematic heaven. The director has mastered the shiny technology (dazzling 3-D, ferociously credible CGI) the story needs, and the story offers the director the deeper themes he craves. The result: magic realism, indeed.

Lincoln

With Daniel Day-Lewis a marvel of quiet containment in the title role, Lincoln is a dramatized political essay largely confined to what politicians do. Really, it's a movie about people talking in rooms – and the talk fascinates.

Moonrise Kingdom

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Tracking a boy and girl through a Labour Day weekend on the Atlantic shore, director Wes Anderson cranks up the artifice to weave a beguiling Late-Summer Night's Dream. And this New England owes a magical debt to that old one, where sprites roamed free and young love triumphed.

LIAM LACEY'S PICKS:

Alps

Anyone who saw Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos's startling, Oscar-nominated 2009 film Dogtooth will find his latest familiar, in the sense that it's profoundly strange. In this unsettling tragicomedy, a quartet of guerrilla grief therapists, for a fee, impersonate the recently dead in a game of role-playing and agonizing denial.

Amour

Dignity and compassion might not be the first words associated with confrontational Austrian director Michael Haneke, who created this austere but tender chamber play. The drama unfolds in a Paris apartment where an elderly couple (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) struggle in the aftermath of the wife's two severe strokes.

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China Heavyweight/Stories We Tell

The great Canadian documentary tradition lives on in these two very different films. Yung Chang's real-life melodrama of a Chinese boxing coach and two different students resonates with a national malaise and personal loneliness. Sarah Polley's social experiment with her own family is a playful and intimate homage to her late mother.

The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson's postwar drama about the birth of a Scientology-like cult is an enigmatic wonder, an exhilarating demonstration of sense-heightening, big-screen filmmaking. The two lead actors, Joaquin Phoenix as the primitive acolyte and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the corrupt master, play their roles with such idiosyncratic energy they suggest duelling Brandos.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's gorgeously shot crime story unfolds between dusk and dawn as a convoy of police vehicles wanders through the Anatolian steppes of eastern Turkey in search of a corpse. Along the way, the riders share shop talk and personal revelations in a tale that sizzles like a long fuse toward its conclusion.

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