1 Zero Dark Thiry Rated R In Zero Dark Thirty, a decade of post- 9/11 pain is distilled into a rigorously reported drama about the controversial, shadowy work of countless Americans to find the terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. Which is then distilled into the fact-based story of one of them, an obsessed CIA analyst. (It so happens she's a woman.) Who, played with pale fire by Jessica Chastain, becomes the human fuse that ignites the SEAL Team Six raid that, in the movie's heart-pounding climax, accomplishes the mission that signified so much to so many. Go ahead, see the picture, and argue about the uses of torture, the mining of secrets, the place of America today. This outstanding second collaboration, following The Hurt Locker, between journalist-screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow is built powerfully enough to absorb all outpourings of emotion. There's not a moment wasted, and not a scene without a purpose. Chastain's Maya is determined, driven, anguished, and ardent; so too is Zero Dark Thirty. That's its power, and that's why it's the best and most important movie of the year.
2. Lincoln Rated PG-13 Just as Zero Dark Thirty holds up a mirror to who we are as a nation today, so Lincoln contains within its rich storytelling vital intelligence about the soul of our nation as it battled to define itself nearly 150 years earlier: This resonant, stirring movie tells a great story of how we came to be. A triumphant three-cornered collaboration linking director Steven Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner, and the profound actor Daniel Day-Lewis (doing one of those uncanny transformations of his, disappearing right into the president's bones), the movie shines with intelligence. It brims with precise performances (the joy of actors given something tasty to chew on). And it's lit by a beautiful conviction that the work of democratic engagement is, in its mess and hubbub and urgency, something thrilling to behold.
3. The Master Rated R Paul Thomas Anderson's latest portrait of masculinity in extremis is as elusive as it is great. What are we to make of the symbiotic relationship between a damaged, sozzled animal of an American male just back from World War II (played, as if with nerve endings exposed, by Joaquin Phoenix) and a charismatic/crackpot pied piper of self-actualization (embodied by a booming Philip Seymour Hoffman)? It's fitting that nothing is resolved about the father-son, master-disciple dynamic; the limbo is exactly what elevates this ambitious, creatively hot-blooded but cool-toned project from the simpler send-up of Scientology some might have wished it to be. The Master is unnerving. It's also amazing-looking a unique visual diary by an important filmmaker, following the itinerary of post-war Americans seeking salvation and prosperity because they feel so impoverished within.
4. Amour Rated PG-13 Michael Haneke, that most precise of Austrian auteurs, chose carefully in naming this exquisite pas de deux between French treasure Emmanuelle Riva, as an old woman who suffers a series of strokes, and the renowned Jean-Louis Trintignant, as the devoted husband who cares for her at home. He called it Amour love not love and death. Or love and loss. The devastating drama pays close attention to the expressions of longtime love in a hundred tiny forms, not all of them kind, or easy, or bearable to watch. Indeed, the bond is so strong, it upsets an adult daughter (played with economical bold strokes by Isabelle Huppert), and so intimate, we feel as if we are intruding. And yet we cannot look away.
5. Argo Rated R During the dark chapter of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, a handful of American embassy workers, secretly sheltered in the home of the Canadian ambassador, escaped the country by posing as a Canadian movie crew scouting Iranian locations for a crap Hollywood sci-fi movie. A CIA agent played their producer. It's a hell of a story on its own, one with the added value of being true, mostly. But working from a tight, bright script by Chris Terrio, director Ben Affleck dig his no-kidding talent as a filmmaker! heightens and teases and shades the story until it works marvelously as a tense caper. And as an unlikely Hollywood comedy. And as a vivid period drama a period of plaid jackets and porny mustaches not so long ago, or far away.