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.
7. Not since “Training Day” has Denzel Washington been as powerful a presence as he is in “Flight,” playing Whip Whitaker, an ace airline pilot whose life is spinning out of control on booze and other drugs, especially after a real runaway nose-dive and crash landing (one of the most realistic and stomach-churning sequences in air-disaster movie history) kills four of his passengers and two crew members, possibly resulting not only in the permanent grounding of his career but a lengthy prison term as well. Most of the powers that be know the crash was caused by a faulty aircraft and that few pilots could have made that emergency landing with so few fatalities, but there are airline officials who want to blame the tragedy on Whit. From an original script by John Gatins, Robert Zemeckis directs a taut, involving drama featuring a priceless John Goodman as Whip's wisecracking dealer, Kelly Reilly as the emotionally scarred recovering addict with whom Whit becomes involved, and Washington, profoundly convincing as an angry, deeply flawed man who may ultimately be a true hero, depending on a decision that could save or ruin his life. He's already earned a Golden Globe nod for this one.
8. Between his “Good Will Hunting” screenwriting Oscar in 1998 and his well-received directorial debut with “Gone Baby Gone” in 2007, Ben Affleck as an actor has been associated with a lot of movies, good (“Hollywoodland”), bad (“Surviving Christmas”) and awful (“Gigli”), none bringing him great respect. Then he helmed and this time starred in another well-reviewed effort, “The Town,” in 2010, which upped his stock even more. Now with “Argo,” Affleck has arrived as a “good looking kid” turned “world class director.” Co-producer George Clooney and Entertainment Weekly have said so, so it must be true. It is. Based on actual events occurring during the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis, Affleck plays CIA agent Tony Mendez, who concocts a scam to enter Tehran as a Hollywood producer, carrying false I.D. for six Americans who escaped the American Embassy and are hiding in the Canadian ambassador's residence. Now under the guise of location scouts for a phony sci-fi movie, the six, led by Mendez, attempt to slip out of the country before they are caught and possibly executed. Loaded with suspense and solidly constructed, with hilarious support from Alan Arkin and John Goodman as jaded Hollywood vets willingly helping the cause, this was easily the best thriller of the year.
9. As bipolar teacher Pat Solitano in writer-director David O. Russell's marvelously manic romantic comedy “Silver Linings Playbook,” Bradley Cooper whips out razor-sharp comedic (and dramatic!) acting chops only hinted at in the “Hangover” movies. Already admired for her “serious” roles in “Winter's Bone” and “The Hunger Games,” Jennifer Lawrence knows how to play for laughs, as well, as recently-widowed neighbor Tiffany. Just out of the loony bin, Pat's obsessed with winning back an ex-wife who has a permanent restraining order against him; Tiffany is dealing with her grief by “having sex with everyone in my office.” She's smart, demanding, needy, foul-mouthed and abrupt, yet they hit it off — in a combative sort of way — but he remains stubbornly faithful to the ex who cheated on him. Can love eventually bring two damaged people together? Russell's nutty take on emotional pain and healing makes for one of the most original and ultimately poignant rom-coms in years, and Robert De Niro steals many a scene as Pat's superstitious sports-fanatic father, who offers no sane anchor whatsoever — until he grows up.
10. When the proud producers of a 50-year-old franchise hired Oscar-winning Sam Mendes, director of a contemporary tragedy like “American Beauty” to helm the 23rd installment of their series, what they got was the darkest, grittiest and downright gloomiest chapter in the long, charmed life of Bond, James Bond. And that's a good thing, because “Skyfall” is the best of this spy-thriller line since 1964's “Goldfinger,” and Daniel Craig is once again the darker, tougher, more ruthless version of 007 that creator Ian Fleming originally intended. A platinum-haired Javier Bardem fashions the darkest, scariest villain our super agent has ever faced; we learn something of Bond's dark origins in Scotland; there's a lot of heart-stopping action, very few Bondian gadgets and a lot less of the usual cynical playfulness; and, yes, there is tragedy at the end. Did we mention it's dark? It's also dynamite.