Most years at the movies there is a clear front-runner for awards and a struggle to fill the other nine slots in a 10 best list. For 2012, however, there are more than two handfuls of first-rate films and no clear number one in the ranks.
Here is a highly subjective look back at what made the year just past a standout for moviegoing:
1. Lincoln: A cerebral history lesson of our 16th president and his effort to emancipate the nation’s slaves, with a towering performance by Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role and crafty support from Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones. From director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Munich), both at the top of their game.
2. Zero Dark Thirty: A more contemporary history lesson, about the search for Taliban head Osama bin Laden and his eventual extermination by Navy SEALS. Much of the film centers on an obsessive CIA analyst, here called Maya (an Oscar-worthy turn from Jessica Chastain). Gritty, muscular direction from Kathryn Bigelow of a suspenseful script by her Hurt Locker collaborator, Mark Boal.
3. Beasts of the Southern Wild: Magic realism in the Louisiana bayous, as seen through the eyes and imagination of a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (played by a remarkable amateur actress, Quvenzhané Wallis). It is an ordinary post-Katrina day, as she waits for the next destructive storm and for pre-historic aurochs, the beasts of the title. From the fertile mind of first-time filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, a talent to be reckoned with.
4. Argo: Yes, Ben Affleck is also really a director to be taken seriously, after Gone Baby Gone, The Town and now this suspenseful, nimble political thriller about the real-life rescue of a handful of U.S. embassy workers in Iran. Affleck stars quite persuasively as a CIA operative who comes us with a scheme to fake a sci-fi movie as the cover story, but Alan Arkin steals the movie as the faux-producer.
5. Silver Linings Playbook: The Hangover movies’ Bradley Cooper stars and does his best work on film yet as a guy with anger issues who gets released from a mental hospital, returns home hoping to reunite with his ex-wife and falls into an offbeat relationship with an emotionally unstable young widow (Jennifer Lawrence of The Hunger Games). Director David O. Russell, who reportedly has anger issues of his own, oversees matters, which could have easily gone awry, and Robert DeNiro is very funny in support as an obsessive bookie.
6. Hope Springs: This was the year that Hollywood discovered adults, from Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to this insightful dramedy about a long-married couple who need to rekindle their relationship. Meryl Streep is terrific as a housewife who insists that her resistant husband (Tommy Lee Jones) go with her to a best-selling marriage counselor (an understated Steve Carrell). The result is a very human struggle, with major audience identification.
7. Life of Pi: Yann Martel’s popular novel about a young Indian boy and a Bengal tiger who need each other to survive aboard a lifeboat was long considered unfilmable. But the resourceful and stubborn Ang Lee harnessed digital effects and 3D to make a visually striking movie that puts the audience in the middle of the action of a lyrical fable with spiritual overtones.
8. Brave: Pixar Animation is a technical innovator, but it understands the value of story above all. In its first feature with a female central character, the studio takes its inspiration from classic Grimm’s fairy tales, spinning a yarn about a fiery red-headed Scottish princess named Merida, an expert archer who sees no need to rely on a Prince Charming to rescue her from danger. Factor in an evil witch, magical transformations and a curse that must be reversed, along with impressive breakthroughs in the depiction of fly-away tresses.
9. Queen of Versailles: Lauren Greenfield’s documentary of the super-rich David and Jacqueline Siegel, the man who started the world’s largest timeshare company and his materialistic wife, was supposed to be about their efforts to build the largest residential mansion in the country, just outside of Orlando. But the economy tanked in the middle of filming and the movie took on new real-life drama as the Siegels’ fortune collapses and they begin to understand how the rest of us live. A story for our times.
10. The Sessions: In what sounds like a tawdry tale, and could have been in lesser hands, writer-director Ben Lewin spotlights former polio victim Mark O’Brien, an iron lung-dependent San Francisco poet, who is eager to have sex for the first time in his life. So he hires a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt, in a performance that is being labeled “brave,” as code for “naked a lot”) to introduce him to the wonders and peculiarities of the sex act. John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) gives a heart-breaking, fragile performance which would be Oscar-worthy in a year without Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln.