Who was Abraham Lincoln? He was a myth, a man, a folksy yarn-spinner, a sad-eyed idealist, a ruthless player of political hardball, a flawed husband and father — and the real father of our country. Steven Spielberg’s grand, immersive drama, with its here he is and you’re there in the room with him performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, doesn’t just unearth every dimension of who Lincoln was. It shows us how they fused within: how the shambling friend of the common people was the sly-dog tactician, and how the pragmatist was the idealist — an idealist in action, seizing the massive machinery of Congress to end slavery and begin a new world. Tony Kushner’s staggering script perches you on the edge of your brain as Lincoln merges with his moment, and Spielberg stages it all with a mystical stateliness that teleports us to 1865. An authentic American dream, Lincoln haunts us with the question: Who, if anyone, will merge with this moment?
At once a love story, a horror film, and the greatest drama of old age ever seen on the big screen, Michael Haneke’s movie takes a tenderly devastating look at what happens to Georges and Anne (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), a Parisian couple in their early 80s, when one of them, both mentally and physically, begins to slip away. Haneke (The White Ribbon) films his actors in meticulously framed, almost totally still master shots, wiring the movie for a kind of medical-horror suspense. Yet he also infuses everyday dread with a touch of the uncanny. The film consists mostly of just Georges and Anne, but something else is there in the room with them, and after a while we begin to realize that that something is the call of death. It would be hard to imagine either of these performances without the other, because what the legendary French actors Trintignant and Riva do is to show us what love is, what it really looks like, and what it may, at its most secret moments, demand.
3. Silver Linings Playbook
In David O. Russell’s wildly exhilarating high-wire act of a romantic comedy, Bradley Cooper plays a man with bipolar disorder who can’t see past the shards of his broken marriage, even with Jennifer Lawrence standing right there in front of him, ready to dance. (Talk about a disordered view of the world!) Cooper’s performance has the beautifully unhinged quality of a man attempting to outrun his own pain. And Russell, who starting with The Fighter has become a born-again naturalistic filmmaker, weaves an entrancingly original love story out of mental illness, ballroom dancing, the knottiest of family bonds, the crazy power of sports gambling, and an era so regulated that if you declare your anger or even your passion too boldly, you may have to go on meds or get put away.
4. Room 237
Rodney Ascher’s amazing documentary consists entirely of superfans of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining talking about the movie’s secret themes and hidden clues — a veritable Kubrickian da Vinci code of underlying networks of meaning. We hear the fan theorists on the soundtrack, but we never see them, and this only adds to their aura of Internet-drooler-holed-up-with-an-old-VHS-player-in-the-basement geek fervor. Some of what these film buffs have to say is a little nutty, and some of it might be described as advanced paranoia, like the tendency to assign deep meaning to continuity errors. But most of Room 237 sucks you right in, with an astonishing aura of darkly shared secrets. The result is a mesmerizing pop-art document whose true subject is the power that conspiracy theory has come to hold over our thinking.
5. Zero Dark Thirty
A new vision of history written with lightning, Kathryn Bigelow’s taut, electrifying docudrama about the hunt for Osama bin Laden is daring enough to suggest that “enhanced interrogation techniques” really work, even as it pays gripping tribute to an eagle-eyed CIA analyst (Jessica Chastain) who spent years going in for the kill. In the sequence where undercover agents close in on a mysterious courier (who can potentially lead them to bin Laden), Bigelow just about controls your heartbeat, but the rest of the film is somberly procedural and intense: a tale of heroism driven by obsession.
6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
One of the few high school movies that gets everything right, Stephen Chbosky’s rapturous adaptation of his own novel is the story of Charlie (Logan Lerman), a freshman who’s quiet and shy because he’s terrified of how precocious he is. The film includes a remarkable performance by Ezra Miller as Charlie’s troubled gay best bud — think the young Bob Dylan on Ritalin — and Chbosky finds an original and lovely early-’90s nostalgia in wised-up kids going to see Rocky Horror, or standing in the back of a pickup truck as it zooms through a tunnel blaring David Bowie’s “Heroes,” a song that the movie turns into an ecstatic expression of the beautiful solidarity of youth.
7. Killing Them Softly
Andrew Dominik’s playfully dark gem of a hitman thriller has the scuzzball gusto of Tarantino, the thugs-just-doing-their-jobs insider knowingness of good Mamet, and a hypnotic amorality all its own. Yet it fell between the box office cracks, maybe because a movie that featured a star performance by Brad Pitt and was also this talky and brutal didn’t make sense to audiences. Give in to it, though, and there’s a brazen charge to how Dominik plugs you into the film’s white-hot verbal power duels, portraying cutthroat thievery and murder as the bottom rung of capitalist desperation.
The rare thriller that has great fun while striking a raw political nerve, Ben Affleck’s galvanizing movie achieves a heart-in-the-throat suspense. It’s the wilder-than-fiction tale of six American diplomats who escaped Iran in 1979 by pretending to be a film crew at work on a cheesy sci-fi movie. Alan Arkin’s turn as a Hollywood producer provides a high jolt of media-age comedy, but the key to Argo‘s power may be the way that Affleck portrays the Iranian revolutionaries as the ones we’re rooting against without presenting them as anything but fully human. He lets us touch every side of a situation that gave rise to our world.
Denzel Washington as you’ve never seen him: stirringly troubled and neurotic as a veteran commercial-airline pilot whose hot-dog heroics rescue a crashing flight, even as the event results in the gradual revelation of his hidden alcoholism. In form, Robert Zemeckis’ movie is a fantastic bait and switch. It opens with a spectacular fiery plane crash, then leads us to think we’re going to be watching some “important” legal/moral message movie about whether a hero can also be a flawed human being (like, duh, yes!). Yet Flight is really a daringly quiet and even intimate movie, a study of the lifetime of lies told by one man on the edge.
In Richard Linklater’s deviously droll tabloid docudrama, Jack Black offers an infectious change of pace as a sweet-natured small-town Texas undertaker who turns out to be the most cunning of sociopaths. Shirley MacLaine, heartlessly funny, is the wealthy shrew he slavishly serves and luxuriously sponges off of, until he can’t stand the sight of her. A Greek chorus of authentic Texas townsfolk, commenting on his dastardly behavior (which never makes them like him any less), turns Bernie into a Christopher Guest movie for real — and a tasty ironic toast to how even the sin of murder can be relative.
Best film in which tragically young people try to kill each other: The Hunger Games
Worst film in which tragically old people try to kill each other: The Expendables 2
Best movie that no parent can sit through: The Impossible
Best movie that made only $1.6 million: Your Sister’s Sister
The thanks for taking my name off the title of that hod-awful movie award:The planet Mars, removed from the movie formerly known as John Carter of Mars
Best argument for train travel: Flight
Best sliiiiiiiight exaggeration of the truth: the white-knuckle airport sequence in Argo
Best out-of-retirement cameo: (Tie) Sam Jones, a.k.a. Flash Gordon, in Ted; Q*bert in Wreck-It Ralph