This uncommonly rich work is a time machine set to January 1865. In the way that director Steven Spielberg—with a rigor and restraint he’s never exhibited before—trusts his script and actors, he trusts history to provide its own drama. Though Lincoln feels especially resonant in the current age of loony secession talk, it will in years to come as well.
Zero Dark Thirty
Edging out Michael Haneke and his unforgiving Amour (the French words for love and death are so similar), Bigelow marshals—in a picture that couldn’t be more different except for how it’s equally pitiless—an epic about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Both brilliant and cold-blooded, the director is as surgical in what she creates as a drone is in what it destroys.
Silver Linings Playbook
In the year’s most competitive category, the sentimentalist in me is torn between French legend Emmanuelle Riva, quietly raging against mortality in Amour, and The Impossible’s long-overdue Naomi Watts, who should have been nominated for 2005’s King Kong and should have won in ’03 for 21 Grams. But Lawrence deserves it for a performance that, perfectly pitched between drama and comedy, concedes nothing to either.
I appreciate why some critics and awards groups thrash so valiantly for an alternative—Joaquin Phoenix is certainly electric in The Master and Denzel Washington is as typically impeccable in Flight—but really it’s an effort desperate to the point of hopeless. Other than Jesus or Hitler, a role more daunting than the 16th president is hard to imagine; in Day-Lewis, the man meets the myth before both meet the martyr, so much a Lincoln for the ages that it will be decades, if ever, before anyone plays him again.
Amy Adams (The Master) and Helen Hunt (The Sessions) are stellar, but this is the year’s biggest slam dunk after Day-Lewis and, notwithstanding qualms I have about a musical straining so hard to be cinematic that it calls more attention to why it isn’t, Hathaway’s inevitability isn’t worth contesting. Coming off The Dark Knight Rises, which she steals, the wretchedness of her Fantine is distilled to the most devastating interpretation ever of “I Dreamed a Dream”—a single take in which she stares down the camera and dares it to blink.
Philip Seymour Hoffman
The sphinx at the film’s center, Hoffman commands the screen and the award over Tommy Lee Jones’s delicious Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln, a newly malevolent Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained, and Bruce Willis at his best in Looper and Moonrise Kingdom.
This category calls for a little anarchy—the unruly likes, say, of Paul Thomas Anderson’s enigmatic The Master, Martin McDonagh’s tonic Seven Psychopaths, and Quentin Tarantino’s brazen Django Unchained. Johnson has thought through Looper’s time-travel paradoxes so well that, though I feel certain something doesn’t add up, trying to figure out what only makes my brain hurt.
Kushner has turned a battle of ideas—over slavery, that great asterisk next to the American Ideal—into a political thriller full of intrigue and duplicity, with a man of mystery at its center.
This isn’t just the year’s best-shot film; it’s the best shot of an often spectacular franchise, with all the visual tones of James Bond over the past half century in a single two-and-a-half-hour package, from the psychedelic Shanghai sequence to the wintry conclusion in the Scottish Highlands. And if they’re not actually Shanghai or Scotland, I’ll take cinematographer Roger Deakins’s versions over the real thing.
When a movie is a triumph of production design more than anything else—Cloud Atlas and Anna Karenina, for instance—it’s not a triumph at all. The flaws of Prometheus aside, Arthur Max’s gorgeous visuals remain in the service of filmmaker Ridley Scott’s larger vision rather than the other way around.
Zero Dark Thirty
William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor stitch docudrama vérité to stretches of lyricism on a canvas big enough to overwhelm the competition. But let’s also not forget that Flight’s greatest airplane crash in movie history got a lot of liftoff from editor Jeremiah O’Driscoll.