5 The Dark Knight Rises
Another somewhat divisive one, that ultimately saw Christopher Nolan elevating the superhero genre still another notch higher from 2008’s The Dark Knight by delivering this ambitious, sprawling epic to the tune of A Tale Of Two Cities with a sprinkling of a few different well-regarded and important Batman comic story arcs. Seeing the hero (Christian Bale in his best Bat-performance) critically injured and imprisoned a world away from his beloved city for a considerable chunk of the runtime is a bold move, and one that sets the film far apart from others of the genre. When Batman returns to Gotham to thwart the reign of uber-strategist Bane (a menacing, endlessly quotable and often hilarious Tom Hardy) it all wraps up in a well orchestrated and beautiful conclusion to Nolan’s version of the legend, the most satisfying for any movie series of this kind. Also worth noting is Anne Hathaway’s visceral yet buoyant Selina Kyle/Catwoman, running off with not just the loot of Gotham’s wealthy, but also every scene she appears in.
4 The Master
This highly divisive film is undeniably haunting, beautiful and distinctive. Paul Thomas Anderson followed up 2007’s There Will Be Blood with a story echoing the birth of Scientology in post-WWII America with Joaquin Phoenix’s hopelessly volatile alcoholic drifter at its center, and the result is something gravely compelling thanks in no small part to the performances of Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the charismatic cult guru, and Amy Adams as his otherworldly wife. Though some would find the film to be as aimless as Phoenix’s degenerate Freddy, The Master is an experience of rare power whose own seeming lack of true resolution seems in keeping with the nature of its subject’s restless, rambling existence. Whether you end up “getting” this film or not, you can’t argue with the virtuosity shown in every department here, and you will remember and admire its images for days to come. Anderson remains a master in his own right.
3 Zero Dark Thirty
Like Lincoln, this is a polished re-telling of history that is equal parts whitewashing and exposé, albeit a far more recent (yet somehow more spotty) corner of history, the hunting down and killing of Osama Bin Laden. Opening with some very frank scenes of CIA operatives torturing and interrogating a top Al Qaeda man and continues down a path of very terse terseness as Jessica Chastain’s steely and determined agent chases down the 9-11 mastermind while constantly at odds with the aims of her skeptical superiors. Not exactly a straight up, pro-torture propaganda piece as some would fear, but more a ripping, expertly told procedural taking advantage of some prime, provocative real life material, Zero Dark Thirty manages to challenge you with questions of its true intent, right up to its last frame. The appropriately hard-ass dialogue (Chastain telling off one of her CIA bosses near the end of her hunt is a fond memory) and shadowy government figures are brought to life by a well-chosen cast that includes Jason Clarke, James Gandolfini, and Chris Pratt (Andy from Parks and Recreation, leading a Black Ops squad, yes). The stark efficiency with which it is told gives it a slight edge over the year’s other great CIA adventure, Argo.
Another film regarding slavery in America, except maybe a touch more on the side of realism. Just a touch, though. Lincoln is as much fun as a film composed mainly of scenes of people sitting in rooms and talking can possibly be, thanks largely to an unstoppable torrent of sparkling, witty dialogue commanded by a large cast of gifted actors, not the least of which obviously, is Daniel Day-Lewis as our nation’s quite stressed-out 16th President in he last few months of his life and career. He is ably supported by Tommy Lee Jones ironclad turn as a rather caustic abolitionist, Sally Field as batty First Lady Mary Todd, James Spader as a slimy lobbyist and of course Steven Spielberg’s steady direction in a film that gleefully lets us in on some supposed dirty dealing done on Lincoln’s behalf for the cause of eradicating slavery. For making these potentially dry goings-on of 150 years past undeniably vital and relevant, Lincoln wins by a large margin.
1 Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino followed up 2009’s Inglorious Basterds with another blood-drenched alt-history revenge fantasy, re-uniting with Christoph Walz and collaborating with the likes of Jamie Foxx and Leo DiCaprio for the first time, with nothing less than explosive results. Foxx’s ice-cool portrayal of a slave turned bounty hunter under the tutelage of Walz’ seasoned expert is offset against DiCaprio’s whimsical slave-mongering villainy and Samuel L. Jackson’s howling lapdog of a house servant in this bracingly violent and uproariously funny firecracker of a film. A Blazing Saddles for this generation (its script tosses enough N-Bombs to destroy Dresden all over again), its farce and bloodshed belie a script that actually has very many accurate and provocative things to say about the situation of race in 19th century America. This could only have come from one man, and he’d better keep’em coming.