You know, for all his flaws—that "celebrity spokesperson for a cult" thing, his creepy marriage to Katie Holmes, that weird, arrogant-but-eager-to-please look he always has during interviews—I still kinda like Tom Cruise. As a person, the dude's 50 different types of insane, but as movie stars go? He's not half bad.

Likewise, I can't say I'm a huge fan of Claus von Stauffenberg, the Nazi colonel Cruise plays in the based-on-a-true-story Valkyrie. I mean, von Stauffenberg was a Nazi, for chrissakes! But as Nazis go? Not half bad! I mean, he totally tried to kill Hitler! And he had a sweet eyepatch!

Bryan Singer's Valkyrie is probably the pulpiest drama being released this Oscar season, but it's also one of the best: Lacking Doubt's clumsy melodrama, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button's feel-good platitudes, and Wendy and Lucy's dreary insistence on making you want to slash open your wrists, Valkyrie's a lean, sharp, engrossing thriller. Singer—here working with The Usual Suspects screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie for the first time since the two made that 1994 classic—simply wants to tell a good story and tell it well, and he does.

Von Stauffenberg isn't alone in his singular vision (ha!) to take out Hitler—joining a covert group of insurgents, Eyepatchy von Maverick and his pals (who are played by Terence Stamp, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and Kenneth Branagh) decide taking out Hitler is the only way to show the world that not all Germans are monsters. Setting up a shadow government that aims to kill the Führer and then surrender to the Allies, they hatch an incredibly risky plan.

SPOILER ALERT: It doesn't work. But the fact that real life is futile and depressing doesn't negate Singer's confident, tense direction, nor take anything away from the surprisingly strong character work. Brisk, sharp, and smart, Valkyrie doesn't have any grandiose aims—it just knows what it's doing. Which, in a holiday movie season as silly as this one, proves to be quite the ace in the hole.