Of all of the top films that came out this year Spielberg's bio of America's favorite president towers above them like the iconic stovepipe hat the subject is known for wearing. Life of Pi is mostly spectacle, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is too intimate, but Lincoln feels just right to top the list. All of the key elements are there for an instant classic in the making. Daniel Day-Lewis's uncanny performance, the accomplished script by Tony Kushner, the gorgeous cinematography by Janusz Kaminski and the one and only Steven Spielberg at the helm. That is all to say nothing about the indelible supporting work by Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln. I would be surprised if the academy doesn't agree.
2. THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER
The idea of turning one of my favorite novels into a film didn't immediately appeal to me, but I could have rested assured it would be in good hands when I learned that the author himself, Stephen Chbosky, was adapting and directing it for the big screen. It's clear that this singular coming-of-age tale is Chbosky's baby from the care he takes with its telling. The unique tone blends pathos, humor and angst so beautifully it feels like a trip back to high school. The pitch-perfect casting didn't hurt either. Logan Lerman makes an indelible impression as the forlorn protagonist Charlie, Ezra Miller steals every scene as the outspoken Patrick and Emma Watson can leave Hermione Granger behind for good.
3. LIFE OF PI
Another beloved novel adaption that, by director Ang Lee's own admission, seems unfilmable. However, the genre-jumping auteur has again made the impossible possible. The story of a boy on a life raft in the middle of the ocean with only his thoughts and a Bengal tiger may feel more intimate than spectacular on the page, but in film form it manages to be both. With 3D effects and visual flourishes it's easy to lose nuanced character development and, in the wrong hands, it would be difficult to connect to the characters, but such is not the case in Life of Pi. We feel Pi's pain, frustration and even his elation. The effects only serve to punctuate those emotions and enhance the experience. This is 3D done right!
4. 21 JUMP STREET
With the heavy topics like war and natural disasters in so many films this year it was nice to have a break from all of that with a broad, yet well-crafted comedy. Channing Tatum (redeeming himself from the awful Magic Mike) and Jonah Hill pair up for a 21st century buddy cop movie that makes the genre feel fresh again. Other than the basic premise (and some fun cameos) it has little to do with the 80's teen drama is based on and that's probably for the best. I had to include this film because it made me laugh more than anything else I've seen this year and there is a real plot beneath all of the sight gags and comedic riffing that makes repeat viewing just as pleasurable every time.
5. DJANGO UNCHAINED
First of all, it's only fair to note that I don't think that Django Unchained is as controversial as many would assume. Although it's arguable that Tarantino's bold use of the polarizing N-word in other films is problematic, the setting and plot of this particular story justifies it. Once you get past that it's thoroughly enjoyable. For Tarantino, a linear plot is a new thing and he makes it work without feeling like anything is missing. In fact, the real novelty of Django is that, for the most part, it's a straight forward western. The twist is that it's about an ex-slave, bounty hunter taking out white people before slavery is officially over. With strong supporting performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson it's one of the most entertaining and visionary films of the year and a nice bookend to Lincoln.
6. SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
When a film has as much awards buzz as this and stars multiple Oscar nominees, it's easy to forget that at its heart it's a romantic comedy, but that's just what Silver Linings Playbook is. The take on it is so fresh and well executed though, that it feels wrong to group it with the drivel that rom-coms have come to be associated with. In this crazy-meets-crazy love story two damaged souls come together in the most unconventional way and their obstacles are more complicated than a wacky ex, or an embarrassing secret. Jennifer Lawrence, once again proves that she is the young actress to watch, Bradley Cooper stretches beyond his fratboy persona and Robert DeNiro gives his best performance in years. A winner.
7. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
Christopher Nolan, in the final chapter of his Batman trilogy, continues to transcend the comic book movie genre with another sensational, intelligent thriller. As someone who liked The Dark Knight, but is partial to Batman Begins, I was glad to see the caped crusader rebuild himself this time around and rediscover why his pursuit of justice is so important and symbolic for the people of Gotham. Also, with the addition of Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt it was nice to see a reunion of the cast of Inception. Though ending on a high note is probably a good idea, I would trust Nolan to keep the franchise going until Bruce Wayne has little grandbats.
8. PITCH PERFECT
So, yes the plot was a bit nonsensical, and Anna Kendrick might not have been so believable as the outsider emo-girl, but those absurdities are what make comedies like these work. Instead of going the route of a typical musical where the characters express themselves through song, the singing is just a backdrop for the story. It was refreshing to see a girl-power comedy that anyone could love and that didn't get too treacly sweet to stomach. There are romantic subplots, but the real meat and potatoes is this motley group of girl singers learning to work together and rise above obstacles. Rebel Wilson's starmaking turn as Fat Amy is worth the price of admission on its own.
9. THE SESSIONS
When I heard promos for The Sessions I was expecting writer/director Ben Lewin's story of a polio afflicted writer to be somber and challenging in a typical indie festival film kind of way. Fortunately, the story is based on the true life experiences of Mark O'Brien, who made up for his physical limitations with a sharp wit and endearing personality. John Hawkes shines in the lead role having to rely solely on his expressive face since the character spends much of the film in an iron lung. Helen Hunt boldly bears all as the sex surrogate that O'Brien hires to help him lose his virginity and the always dependable William H. Macy warmly plays the priest he looks to for guidance.
10. MOONRISE KINGDOM
Wes Anderson's penchant for deadpan, yet emotional comedy always seems to work best when coming from the mouth of babes and the precocious child actors in Moonrise Kingdom are no exception. Part romance, part coming-of-age story, part adventure, this tale of preteen lovers trying to be together despite opposition from pretty much everyone in their respective lives manages to be funny and adorable without becoming too twee for its own good. The young actors are right on target and supporting work by the adults, Anderson stalwarts like Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman, are also strong.