Jack Garner's movies of the year

05:00 AM, Dec 30, 2012

Daniel Day-Lewis, center rear, as Abraham Lincoln, in a scene from the film 'Lincoln.' (DreamWorks, Twentieth Century Fox)/

Written By Jack Garner

A lot of the films of the past few months convey cinematic history lessons — about a great 19th century president, two astonishing CIA raids (one from the 1980s and one from May 2011), a tragic tsunami that claimed a quarter of a million lives and, sort of, a French revolution of 1832.

Lincoln, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, The Impossible and Les Miserables all find the stuff of great drama in the past, resulting in five of the best films of 2012.

They’re joined in my listing of the year’s cream of the crop by two offbeat fantasies, a fabulous retooling of one of the cinema’s most popular franchises, an unusual drama about a disabled man and his sex therapist and an enigmatic tale of a philosophical power struggle between a charismatic cult leader and the one follower he couldn’t quite convert. They are Life of Pi, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Skyfall, The Sessions and The Master.

One caveat: One much-discussed film that I hadn’t yet seen as I compiled this list was Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. I’ll certainly report back if it upsets my top 10.

Here are my choices for the top films of 2012, in order:

1. Lincoln. This is one of Steven Spielberg’s most enlightening and memorable films, a stunning portrait of the fabled 16th President, displayed through the actions of the last months of his life. Daniel Day-Lewis is utterly believable as Lincoln, and he gets expert support from Sally Field, David Strathairn and Tommy Lee Jones.

Everyone talks of Lincoln as being an epic, and, I suppose in some ways (like length), that’s true. However, I think i’s strength and realism emerge from its intimacy, in everything from family relations to political infighting. The film, at appropriate times, is downright claustrophobic and I love the realistic sense of interior darkness in an age before electricity. In all details, from grand to minute, this is a masterpiece.

2. Zero Dark Thirty. A late entry in the Oscar and best-of sweepstakes, this Kathryn Bigelow film is a riveting espionage thriller about the discovery of Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan and the well-engineered effort to kill him Though based, controversially, on first-person participants, and presumably as realistic as a film can be, Zero Dark Thirty out James Bond’s James Bond.

3. Life of Pi. This lovely metaphysical fable, based on a long-popular novel, tells a story about a boy who survives an ocean ship sinking to find himself sharing a small lifeboat with a tiger. But, that brief description doesn’t begin to tell you the joys, puzzles and life-affirming treasures of Ang Lee’s masterful film.

4. Les Miserables. The giant London and Broadway smash-hit musical has finally made it to film, and the Victor Hugo epic is quite a wonder, with strong performances — and live, on-set singing — from Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and especially Anne Hathaway.

5. The Impossible. The year’s great story of survival, focusing on a mother, father and three children who are swept up, quite literally, by the devastating Thai tsunami of 2004. Naomi Watts seemingly goes through hell while delivering the most moving performance by an actress this year.

6. Beasts of the Southern Wild. The year’s other great fable, a funky, touching tale of a brave little girl, living in poverty in the Louisiana bayou country, facing down an awesome storm and her own fears.

7. Skyfall. The latest and perhaps the best installment since From Russia With Love of the adventures of British agent James Bond, superbly played by Daniel Craig, the best Bond since the early heyday of Sean Connery. Judi Dench’s M is a major figure here, and the great actress delivers.

8. Argo. The year’s other great true-life spy saga, about a nutty but brilliant scheme to free six U.S. diplomats being held in Iran in 1980. The film is marvelously directed by its star, Ben Affleck.

9. The Sessions. A fascinating and frank true story about a severely disabled man (John Hawkes) seeking help from a sympathetic sex therapist (Helen Hunt). Both actors are superb, as is Bill Macy, as the man’s priest and confessor.

10. The Master. A complex and enigmatic drama, about the volatile relationship between a 1950s cult philosopher and author (not unlike L. Ron Hubbard of Scientology fame) and a ne’er-do-well wanderer who struggles to believe. Paul Thomas Anderson creates the year’s most puzzling film, and I honestly wasn’t initially sure if I liked it. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized there are rewards for those willing to seek them out. Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams star.

Honorable mentions: Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, Quartet; a Wall Street thriller called Arbitrage, with one of Richard Gere’s most memorable performances; the uplifting French drama The Untouchables; and two superb documentaries, Searching for Sugarman and Bully.