1. Daniel Day-Lewis works his acting alchemy once again, transforming himself into the 16th president of the United States while director Steven Spielberg brings back to vivid life the strife-torn, world-changing history that surrounded the man in the final days of his administration in “Lincoln,” a riveting re-creation of the commander-in-chief's struggle even with members of his own Cabinet to achieve passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery, as the Civil War nears its end. The superb supporting cast includes an award-worthy Sally Field as the emotionally tormented Mary Todd Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones as Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens and David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward. Here's a powerful lesson from our past that still echoes relevance today. 2. The subject of slavery is dealt with again — but from the kind of twisted, paperback-fictional angle that only writer-director Quentin Tarantino can conjure — in “Django Unchained,” the result of the former video-store-clerk-turned-filmmaker's long-held desire to make his homage to spaghetti Westerns. Jamie Foxx (“Ray”) stars as Django, a slave who is recruited by German-born ex-dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz of Tarantino's “Inglourious Basterds”) to track down outlaws in exchange for the black man's freedom. Schultz also trains Django to become as fast with a gun as Clint Eastwood's “Man With No Name” as the ex-slave searches for his long-lost wife (Kerry Washington), who's enslaved by evil plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in pre-Civil War Mississippi. For Tarantino fans, it was the most fun to be had at the movies in 2012.
3. Director Ang Lee spills an ocean of emotional depth and visual splendor across the big screen with “Life of Pi,” at the same time elevating the technological effect of 3-D from a mere in-your-face gimmick to an essential artistic component to the overall storytelling success of a serious cinematic work. A teenage boy survives a sea disaster only to be cast adrift in a lifeboat with a hungry Bengal tiger, and the audience is right there with them in an alternatingly harrowing and beautiful oceanic world as the boy Pi's resourcefulness gradually achieves an uneasy peace with the animal and the possibility of survival for both of them as they drift through one peril after another. But more, the stunningly vivid visuals serve to enhance the emotional impact of Pi's faith-testing journey, and the spiritual message that this heartbreaking and magnificently heartfelt film so effectively imparts.
4. The second courageous kid yarn to make this list is first-time director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin's “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” featuring a treasure of a discovery named Quvenzhane Wallis as 6-year-old Hushpuppy, who must survive in a treacherous, poverty-ridden, post-Katrina world called “The Bathtub,” a Delta community separated from the condemning “civilized” world by a massive levee. With little help from a dying, alcoholic father (Dwight Henry, another amazing acting novice), Hushpuppy literally must stay afloat on her own despite the cruelties of nature, fueled by her dreamy imagination and optimism, and Wallis brings big heart to a little hero worth cheering for.
5. In Spanish director J.A. Bayona's nerve-racking, heart-rending “The Impossible,” one moment it's paradise on Earth for comfortable British couple Maria and Henry (Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor) and their three boys on vacation in Thailand, and the next it's a tumbling, watery hell in which Maria and her 13-year-old son Lucas are separated from Henry and the two younger boys, literally drowning in terror and excruciating pain. The script by Sergio G. Sanchez (who worked with Bayona on the acclaimed “The Orphanage) is based on the incredible ordeal that one family suffered when one of the most destructive tsunamis in history reared its monstrous head out of the Indian Ocean in 2004. Watts' portrayal of maternal might in the face of impossible cataclysm, and especially young Tom Holland as the boy who must find the strength of a man within himself, are the stuff of which Oscar wins are made.
6. One of the year's most moving stories of courage, the will to live life as fully as possible and the curative powers of compassion and kindness comes from an unlikely source: “The Sessions,” based on the autobiographical writings of journalist and poet Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), a polio victim who, having lived most of his life in an iron lung, decides at age 38 to lose his virginity, and hires a sex therapist (Helen Hunt) to make that dream come true. Under the direction of Ben Lewin, the estimable Hawkes (“Winter's Bone”) is funny, touching and vulnerable while lying virtually immobile throughout, and Hunt gives the most courageous performance of her career, baring herself physically and emotionally as the tough-but-tender, hands-on counselor. In short, it's an inspirational movie about sex, with two players deserving of Oscars.