Who was Abraham Lincoln? He was a myth, a man, a folksy yarn-spinner, a sad-eyed idealist, a ruthless player of political hardball, a flawed husband and father — and the real father of our country. Steven Spielberg’s grand, immersive drama, with its here he is and you’re there in the room with him performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, doesn’t just unearth every dimension of who Lincoln was. It shows us how they fused within: how the shambling friend of the common people was the sly-dog tactician, and how the pragmatist was the idealist — an idealist in action, seizing the massive machinery of Congress to end slavery and begin a new world. Tony Kushner’s staggering script perches you on the edge of your brain as Lincoln merges with his moment, and Spielberg stages it all with a mystical stateliness that teleports us to 1865. An authentic American dream, Lincoln haunts us with the question: Who, if anyone, will merge with this moment?
At once a love story, a horror film, and the greatest drama of old age ever seen on the big screen, Michael Haneke’s movie takes a tenderly devastating look at what happens to Georges and Anne (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), a Parisian couple in their early 80s, when one of them, both mentally and physically, begins to slip away. Haneke (The White Ribbon) films his actors in meticulously framed, almost totally still master shots, wiring the movie for a kind of medical-horror suspense. Yet he also infuses everyday dread with a touch of the uncanny. The film consists mostly of just Georges and Anne, but something else is there in the room with them, and after a while we begin to realize that that something is the call of death. It would be hard to imagine either of these performances without the other, because what the legendary French actors Trintignant and Riva do is to show us what love is, what it really looks like, and what it may, at its most secret moments, demand.
3. Silver Linings Playbook
In David O. Russell’s wildly exhilarating high-wire act of a romantic comedy, Bradley Cooper plays a man with bipolar disorder who can’t see past the shards of his broken marriage, even with Jennifer Lawrence standing right there in front of him, ready to dance. (Talk about a disordered view of the world!) Cooper’s performance has the beautifully unhinged quality of a man attempting to outrun his own pain. And Russell, who starting with The Fighter has become a born-again naturalistic filmmaker, weaves an entrancingly original love story out of mental illness, ballroom dancing, the knottiest of family bonds, the crazy power of sports gambling, and an era so regulated that if you declare your anger or even your passion too boldly, you may have to go on meds or get put away.
4. Room 237
Rodney Ascher’s amazing documentary consists entirely of superfans of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining talking about the movie’s secret themes and hidden clues — a veritable Kubrickian da Vinci code of underlying networks of meaning. We hear the fan theorists on the soundtrack, but we never see them, and this only adds to their aura of Internet-drooler-holed-up-with-an-old-VHS-player-in-the-basement geek fervor. Some of what these film buffs have to say is a little nutty, and some of it might be described as advanced paranoia, like the tendency to assign deep meaning to continuity errors. But most of Room 237 sucks you right in, with an astonishing aura of darkly shared secrets. The result is a mesmerizing pop-art document whose true subject is the power that conspiracy theory has come to hold over our thinking.
5. Zero Dark Thirty
A new vision of history written with lightning, Kathryn Bigelow’s taut, electrifying docudrama about the hunt for Osama bin Laden is daring enough to suggest that “enhanced interrogation techniques” really work, even as it pays gripping tribute to an eagle-eyed CIA analyst (Jessica Chastain) who spent years going in for the kill. In the sequence where undercover agents close in on a mysterious courier (who can potentially lead them to bin Laden), Bigelow just about controls your heartbeat, but the rest of the film is somberly procedural and intense: a tale of heroism driven by obsession.