NOTE: At time of posting, I have not seen Zero Dark Thirty, Amour, or Flight.
10. The Dark Knight Rises (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2012)
Starting my list, I will make my stance on the Big Movie Debate of 2012: The Dark Knight Rises or The Avengers. (And if you choose The Amazing Spider-Man, you’re wrong.) While I greatly enjoyed both of them for different reasons, I have to give the edge to the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Legacy. There were a lot of concepts flying around in TDKR, and while it’s difficult to say that most of them hit 100%, the movie showed a level of ambitiousness that’s more than admirable. Nolan made a genuine trilogy out of his three films. It became something greater than three individual movies with the same characters. It turned Batman Begins and The Dark Knight into chapters of a complete story, and all three movies actually form an entire journey for Bruce Wayne.
Admittedly, I probably select this movie more for what it represents than for what it was. Nolan showed that superhero franchises need not simply be action movies where the hero saves the day and goes off to fight another random villain in the next installment. Each film can represent something different and take the man behind the mask in a new direction where everything is not reset to zero at the end. But, what really gave TDKR the edge over The Avengers was that I was disappointed to leave Gotham City- to know that this was (ostensibly) the end of that universe, that we’d never see Nolan’s Penguin or Riddler or Poison Ivy. And as successful and wonderful as Avengers Phase I has been, and as much as I’m anticipating Phase II, I can’t say I feel quite as connected to the Marvelverse.
9. Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (dir. Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, 2012)
During end of the year lists, I like to give some attention to the pure comedy that made me laugh the most and/or hardest. There were two contenders this year- Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie and 21 Jump Street, but I give the edge to B$M. The humor of former Lighting Fast VCR Repair employee Tim Heidecker (who also starred in this year’s excellent The Comedy) and his cohort Eric Wareheim is, understandably, an acquired taste. Their cult series Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! might be [adult swim]’s greatest series, but it’s certainly not for all audiences.
However, unlike other television shows into movies, B$M doesn’t take away from the uniqueness that made Tim and Eric cult figures. It maintains their absurdity and strangeness even at the expense of obtaining new fans, which is sadly rare for comedy shows that make this transition. Although the movie lacks many cutaways, it does not treat itself as a movie version of the show. As I said in an earlier piece, it stars Tim and Eric as the Tim and Eric who make the Tim and Eric television show, drink the puberty juice, and kill one another over a tell-all book. That’s why the villain is Schlaaaang, not Cinco, because Cinco is the show universe’s Schlaaaang. So while it’s disappointing not to see Jan and Wayne Skylar, Grumm, or Dr. Steve Brule (though John C. Reilly does appear as mall resident Taquito), it makes sense.
What also makes B$M an above average comedy is that it does not forget it’s a comedy. In so many recent comedy films, by the third act, it feels as if the filmmakers forget about including jokes, and the movie becomes an entirely plot driven affair. They frontload the movie with gags, but forget to shove them in backend. And that’s true for even ridiculously successful fare like this year’s insanely overrated Ted. B$M turns conventions on their head and thankfully keeps it weird and funny throughout.
8. Looper (dir. Rian Johnson, 2012)
I am a fan of dystopian sci-fi films, and a good sign for that type of movie is how well I’m interested in the world it presents. Do I believe that the filmmakers thought about how the universe operates outside of the main characters, or do they just care about a concept and a few props, neither of which would hold up under even the lightest scrutiny? (That’s right In Time, I haven’t forgotten about you.) And the time travel adventure Looper successfully pulls this off. Although the movie is not as much of a mind bender as people want to make it out to be, it’s still an excellent work that puts the effects and the time travel secondary to its characters.
It also allows writer-director Rian Johnson to continue his terrific streak of films. With his excellent premiere film Brick, the disappointingly underrated/underseen con-man flick The Brothers Bloom, and now Looper, Johnson has proven himself to be in the upper tier of new filmmakers. Moreover, with his penchant for sci-fi noir, ability to create a universe on a respectable budget, and working relationship with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I’d be truly surprised if he isn’t being looked at to helm the new Batman movies, regardless of whether JGL dons the cowl.
7. Argo (dir. Ben Affleck, 2012)
Although Ben Affleck had already proven himself as a filmmaker with Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Argo became one of this year’s biggest surprises. Exciting, well-made, and audience-friendly, this movie was a consistently compelling and regularly funny 1970s/1980s period piece about the CIA trying to rescue Americans trapped in Iran through the guise of a film production. How much Affleck and crew got accurate and how much they dramatized is irrelevant, because the movie succeeded where it needed to and even where it didn’t. Even Ben Affleck was a good in it.
6. Django Unchained (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2012)
One of the best things about Django Unchained is what it indicates for Quentin Tarantino’s career. Despite liking his 2000’s fare, I felt Kill Bill and Death Proof made Tarantino seem more like a director who was interested in making a fun movie or playing in a genre that he likes rather than one who wanted to make a great film. Inglourious Basterds was Tarantino’s first great film since his most adult movie Jackie Brown and showed him as a mature director looking to become an epic filmmaker while maintaining the sensibilities that has made him one of cinema’s most iconic figures for nearly 20 years.
While Django Unchained fails to reach the heights of Basterds and suffers from some flaws in the third act, it shows Tarantino as continuing down the path he started with his World War II epic. He has become a filmmaker who thinks big and will apply his larger-than-life style to grandiose films that concern themselves as much with cinematography as they do with dialogue and characters. But most importantly, the film is a lot of fun with great performances, memorable sequences, and a lot of non-CGI blood splatter. Despite hitting 166 minutes, Django Unchained does not feel its length.
5. Holy Motors (dir. Leo Carax, 2012)
French writer-director Leo Carax returns to film after essentially a 13-year absence with this notable love letter to 100+ years of cinema, from behind the scenes to in front of the camera. Reminding me somewhat of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s works, Holy Motors stars Denis Lavant as M. Oscar, among others. An actor of sorts, M. Oscar works for a mysterious organization that sends him on assignments that require him to adopt different personas, although there is rarely a camera or audience to greet him. From demented troll to motion capture artist to criminal to family man, M. Oscar and Carax take us on a loving and exhausting journey through all types of genres with an offbeat sense of humor but deep understanding of style. Lavant is an especially remarkable performer who manages to imbue all 11 of his characters with such different personalities that you forget it’s the same person playing each character. Along with Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, Lavant deserves an Academy Award nomination for his feat.
4. Killer Joe (dir. William Friedkin, 2012)
An undeserved NC-17 rating unfortunately kept William Friedkin’s Killer Joe from reaching a wider audience. A career resurgent Matthew McConaughey pulls off his best-ever performance as the lecherous Killer Joe Cooper, a Texas detective and hitman. The Smiths (Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, Juno Temple, and Gina Gershon), a trailer trash family, hire him to kill their former matriarch for her life insurance money. Written by Tracy Letts, who also wrote the play it was based on, Killer Joe expertly manages to present the Smiths as in over their heads without making it seem like Cooper is out of control, or that this is any more remarkable than any of his other assignments. The movie culminates in a hilariously violent dinner sequence that remains one of this year’s best cinematic moments.
3. Dark Horse (dir. Todd Solondz, 2012)
Almost definitely the least-seen movie on my list, Dark Horse is also one of the best of 2012. Happiness auteur Todd Solondz returns to the silver screen with one of his most accessible works. Well, accessible compared to the rest of his catalogue. Starring Jordan Gelber as Abe, Dark Horse takes on the man-child genre with cutting precision. Abe, an incompetent adult male who lives in his childhood bedroom, works for his father, and obsesses over toys, brings to painful light the utter patheticness and massive level of denials of these individuals. Selma Blair as Miranda (formerly ‘Vi’) plays Abe’s “love interest,” a grown woman still caught in teenage melodrama and mopiness. It’s a brutally honest and surprisingly emotionally powerful film that understands the multi-layered potential of severely dark humor and wields that sword like a master.
It also gets bonus points for letting Christopher Walken act and not just be Christopher Walken.
2. Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson, 2012)
One of cinema’s gloried Andersons, Wes Anderson created a remarkable work this year with Moonrise Kingdom. This tale of two young outcasts in love during the 1960s shows the Rushmore writer-director in high form as he engages his earnest sentimentality with childlike innocence and a keen sense of humor. Wisely ignoring the turbulence of the outside world, this wonderful-looking film feels insular, which only adds to its genuine heart. Moreover, even though Moonrise Kingdom boasts a cast of top adult actors (e.g. Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, and Bill Murray), it never forgets that its stars are youths Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as Sam and Suzy. It’s also one of those rare movies that feel as though it’s for all ages in the best of ways.
1. The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
I understand the controversy and the divisiveness. I completely understand the complaints about the lack of character and plot development. I will not try to counter any of those issues. When I initially saw it, they kind of bothered me too. But after sitting on it, I grew to accept The Master for what it is, and it is the most remarkable movie I’ve seen this year. Writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson magnificently captures the movie from the confused point of view of the animalistic Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an unstable World War II veteran who becomes the muse to writer, philosopher, religious leader, human being, et al. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). What Dodds sees in him perplexes even his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), and this entire experience is but another meaningless adventure in the aimless wanderlust of Quell.
Beautiful cinematography, wonderful directing, and three of the best performances of the past year merge in this hypnotic tale about life itself. The struggle to find meaning and the feeling of being adrift all play a part in this tale of addiction and the cult of personality. What makes The Master so special is that it manages to be psychologically engaging in a way few movies even attempt, let alone accomplish. It’s the experience of actually falling into this world that makes The Master such a fascinating, unique, and terrific journey.
The Avengers– See The Dark Knight Rises segment above. Also, while The Dark Knight Rises/Legacy showed that the superhero movie can escape from the bounds of the superhero genre, The Avengers showed the superhero genre at its best. The origin films concept was a gamble, but it paid off better than I’d think even most fans were expecting. Meanwhile, The Amazing Spider-Man showed what happens when a superhero movie is nothing but a studio cash grab.
Bernie– Two Matthew McConaughey movies on one best pictures of the year list? Richard Linklater’s small true crime film stars Jack Black as Bernie, a somewhat odd yet genial mortician who kills and covers up the murder of his elderly lady friend Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine). It’s an interesting, darkly comic character piece about the best of intentions and the effect such a scandal has on a small town. And Jack Black can do good work, he just happens to obscure it with horrible things like Gulliver’s Travels.
The Cabin in the Woods– Playing with conventions as only people with true respect of the genre can, The Cabin in the Woods is horror comedy at its finest. Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s tribute to the horror movie is ridiculously enjoyable and rewatchable for fans and non-fans of “cabin stories” alike.
Dredd– A surprise contender, Dredd ended up as one of the best movies of the year. Despite audiences having so many action franchises to choose from, of both superhero and non-superhero varieties, Dredd manages to offer something different- a cynical nature and pitch black humor along with its violence. With a surprising intelligence and a fascinating universe, Dredd is the alternative for those of us who seek sadistic pleasure in gritty hopelessness. I mean that as a good thing.
The Raid: Redemption– I am closing out this alphabetical portion of the list with The Raid: Redemption. I’m not going to get into the similarities between Dredd and this film except to say there’s enough to enjoy in both Police Take over a High Rise by Killing A Lot of People movies.
Late in the year, it became clear that narrowing down a Top 10 of 2012 would not be easy. Simply put, this was a good year for movies, and there was little need to go searching far and wide for the unusual and esoteric. Unfortunately, this means that there are probably plenty of small-time, independent, unimported or just plain overlooked treasures left off this roll. However, I can say sincerely that the following list (in no strict order) represents my favorites of this year’s bumper crop.
10) The Turin Horse (dir. Béla Tarr)
If one or more of the preceding films has left you in high spirits, please allow Béla Tarr to put you to bed with a crushed soul. The Hungarian director’s self-proclaimed swan song is scarcely to be matched for pessimism or gravity. It moves at a langourous pace, but do not mistake this for inactivity. The movie is in constant motion, but of the most mundane and achingly tedious kind. So far, this film probably sounds awful, but taken in the right spirit, it is positively captivating. The stark cinematography, haunting melodic score, and pure iconoclastic audacity of this movie are its three most appealing elements.
We begin with a prologue relating the mental decline of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, following his despondent attempt to rescue a horse from being beaten in the streets of Turin. We proceed to over two hours of pure tribulation. A stricken old man lives in a barren valley with his taciturn daughter and a horse in its declining years. At all hours of day and night, the wind howls at a furious pace outside their humble cabin. They rise, they dress, they draw water from the well, they boil potatoes, they eat potatoes, they try to coax the horse from its stall. The horse often refuses both food and exercise. The camera never cuts away until one of these chores has been finished and another is ready to begin. Though already at a low point, the world seems to be getting worse every day, but the man and his daughter will go through the same routine day after day, serving nothing but their own threadbare subsistence, presumably until the world ends. Which it just might very soon. Gracing us with occasional echoes of Nietzschean cynicism, the film presents a world beset by divine and earthly forces alike. Physical and spiritual poverty have brought humanity to a choice between enduring in silence and railing in indignation at the heavens. This is way of things in The Turin Horse. The movie is not an easy sell, but it holds a place on this list for very good reasons.
9) Skyfall (dir. Sam Mendes)
A great villain and a great theme song account for half of an excellent James Bond movie (but only half, as proven by notable clangers like A View To A Kill and The Man With The Golden Gun). Happily, Skyfall has both elements locked down from the start. Javier Bardem, as a tech-savvy renegade bent on destroying British Intelligence along with most of the world, struts and sneers all over this picture. His eerie flamboyance recalls classic Bond villains like Ernst Blofeld, while masking a tortured soul appropriate for a thoroughly modern Bond adventure. Adele’s rendition of the theme “Skyfall” is appropriately bleak and sexy, ranking among the likes of Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” and Tom Jones’s Thunderball.
Sam Mendes, the dour fellow behind American Beauty and Road To Perdition, conjures up enough flash and levity to make this a fitting tribute to a half-century of James Bond. Nonetheless, he drops poor Daniel Craig into a plight nearly as dire and painful as that of Nolan’s Batman. Although Bond is virtually guaranteed to rise, the sacrifices he faces in doing so are sure to be deeply felt. A salute to the Golden Age of 007, this movie also seems to bridge the gap to a new era of espionage for Ian Fleming’s hard-bitten hero. It may no longer be the jaunty ride made iconic by the sexy 60s, but Skyfall stays true to its roots.
8) Argo (dir. Ben Affleck)
Almost everyone is saying it, and for now it holds true. Ben Affleck, whether you love his acting or not, is proving a skilled director. A taut, neatly packaged drama based on a recently declassified CIA operation, Argo details the covert extraction of six American embassy workers from Iran in the midst of the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1981. In the film, CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck), saddled with this unenviable rescue mission, crafts an elaborate and most unusual plan. He arranges to smuggle his charges out of Iran disguised as a Canadian film crew on a location scouting mission. Given the volatile atmosphere of the larger hostage situation and the constant vigilance of hostile Iranian forces, the cover story requires much fabricated buzz and and background to convince everyone involved that this movie is legitimate. As Affleck puts it to the skeptical Washington suits (led by the superb Bryan Cranston), “this is the best bad idea we’ve got.”
As with Lincoln, the main test of a good historical drama is whether or not audiences can be held in suspense when they know how the story turned out. The fates of these characters have not been a matter of record as long as that of Abraham Lincoln, of course, but the anticipatory press for Argo made no secret of the affair’s conclusion. No doubt it takes liberties with the finer details, but overall the film features oustanding period atmosphere and a lot of very good acting.
7) The Dark Knight Rises (dir. Christopher Nolan)
Christopher Nolan’s conclusion to his vivid Dark Knight trilogy had enormous shoes to fill. After the premature death of Heath Ledger, the role of Batman’s Foe became a sort of holy ground where all who trod must fail to live up to the memory of the Joker. Not only did Nolan and his writers manage to produce a villain who did not disappoint, they managed a finale with greater scale and arguably more staying power than The Dark Knight.
The Dark Knight Rises brought cohesion to its two admittedly distinct and popular predecessors. Batman’s harrowing combat with Tom Hardy’s Bane – a choice villain, but one who never before had a fair shake on screen – provides an action-packed finale that still retains some of the intellectual and philosophical density that distinguishes Nolan’s body of work to date. Although best viewed in its native IMAX, The Dark Knight Rises promises to age well on hi-def home video.
6) Killer Joe (dir. William Friedkin)
There are many, and there will be many more, who dismiss William Friedkin’s Killer Joe as distasteful, mean-spirited, and generally unfit for polite company. What these people must choose to ignore is that it boils over with keen wit, creeping suspense, and bold performances. This film is a fable, as dark and potent as truckstop coffee, about the dangers of living without loyalty or honor. Friedkin and writer Tracy Letts (adapting from his own stage play) previously collaborated on the mind-bending tragedy Bug, in which Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon found refuge from a hard, sordid world in a shared spiral of paranoid delusion. The outlook of Killer Joe is no more optimistic, but mercifully peppered with jaundiced humor. Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, and Gina Gershon co-star as a clan of trailer folk (son, father, and stepmother) in a squalid corner of Dallas, Texas. As retribution for her theft of his drug money, Hirsch plans to collect prematurely on his mother’s life insurance policy. This involves hiring a local police detective moonlighting as a contract killer – the eponymous “Killer Joe,” brought to ultra-cool, swaggering life by Matthew McConaughey. Lacking the money that one must proverbially spend to make money, they offer the family’s angelic young daughter – Juno Temple – to Joe in lieu of payment up front. If you think only disaster can come of this arrangement, you would be correct.
Killer Joe is a seductive, amoral, totally ruthless character, but ultimately the only square dealer in the pack. Letts and Friedkin may not deal in sympathetic characters, but they dole out poetic justice like buckshot. This movie is raw, extreme, and well deserving of its NC-17 rating, but for all that it is anchored by plenty of substance. It is a career highlight for both McConaughey and Gershon (who deserves special mention for her fearless performance). It is a tale of reprehensible people who weave their own destruction before our eyes with greed, jealousy and cowardice. It is as neat and bitter a tale as any Greek master might compose, served up country style.
5) The Cabin In The Woods (dir. Drew Goddard)
Between its theatrical debut and its home video release, I raved and praised and cosseted The Cabin In The Woods nearly to dust between my stubby fanboy fingers. I have seen it no fewer than nine times this year, and I still love every minute of it. In light of the other excellent choices on this list, I have come to the realistic view that this is not the best film of the year. It does, however, remain a strong Top 10 entry for me. I will probably never grow tired of it, but having made others tired of it I have toned my rapture down to acceptable levels.
The bizarre and controversial brainchild of co-writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, Cabin turns the whole concept of the horror story on its head, casting the most familiar and hackneyed devices of teen slasher movies as the sinister machinations of an all-powerful organization buried deep underground. Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Jesse Williams and Fran Kranz play the hapless victims. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford (the year’s most criminally unsung double act, and on that position I do not back down) play semi-disgruntled engineers running the show for their own dark, but very important, purposes. See this film. If you hate it, go in peace; you cannot be reasoned with. If you love it, high five; you win.
4) Amour (dir. Michael Haneke)
The critics’ front-runner for many of the year’s awards, Amour is the latest from Austrian auteur Michael Haneke. He has made a number of excellent but difficult to watch films about damaged, amoral, manipulative and despondent people – The Seventh Continent, The Piano Teacher, The White Ribbon, and Funny Games, to name a few. By comparison, his latest is an extremely tender story, though still heavily swathed in tragedy and suffering.
Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are an elderly French couple, formerly teachers of music, who are still very much in love and content with one another’s company. One afternoon, Anne suffers a stroke in mid-conversation, beginning the gradual decline of her health through paralysis and loss of speech to a substantial loss of faculties. At the beginning of her illness, Anne asks Georges to promise he will not send her to waste away and die in a hospital or care home. Despite her sharp decline in a short time, Georges honors this promise. At the cost of his own comfort and peace of mind, he devotes himself entirely to her. Fending off the unwelcome advice of their daughter (Isabelle Huppert), managing a schedule of day nurses, and struggling to keep his beloved and himself from despair, Georges himself begins a slow deterioration that places his ability to keep his vow at risk. This film is a heartbreaking, unflinching, daring portrait of what it can mean to provide love and care to the very last moment of life.
3) Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson)
At last, it seems, Wes Anderson has made the film his career to date has been anticipating. The whimsical, downbeat romance Moonrise Kingdom distills his idiosyncratic view of the world into a film where every element fits in place as in a well-used jigsaw puzzle. At the same time, it does not feel like a rehash of his previous works, as strongly as the superficial resemblances may run.
In Wes Anderson’s previous work, grown people often languish in nostalgia for the lost innocence of childhood. This film dares to admit that childhood is often just as grim and oppressive as anything that comes along with age. The children in Moonrise Kingdom are desperate to avoid growing into the kind of unhappy adult that populates most of the world, but the simply reality is that fate can only be dodged for so long. Nonetheless, these kids are determined to be as happy as they can, as long as they can. They stand the best chance of achieving this together, no matter what rules they have to break. This movie operates on the notion, as Mark Twain often had it, that just because life is cruel, it need not be devoid of fine adventures and beautiful memories.
2) The Raid: Redemption (dir. Gareth Evans)
A screaming rocket of a movie from the heart of Indonesia, The Raid has been praised and criticized as a single non-stop brawl, and that reputation is very nearly true. What may influence your decision to love or not love the movie is that though it seldom pauses for breath, it is truly one of the most gorgeously choreographed movies ever made. This is no mere action movie. This is a ballet.
As in ballet, the story is exceedingly simple and requires practically no dialogue at all. Somewhere in the slums of Jakarta , an elite police force has been charged with clearing out a run-down tenement building which a vicious crime lord has transformed into the city’s largest safe house for lowlifes and cutthroats. The mission is to capture the boss on the top floor, using as much stealth as possible to neutralize his stronghold floor by floor. Predictably, the bad guys manage to sound the alarm ahead of schedule, whereupon the bad man upstairs puts the whole building on lockdown until his minions kill every single cop on the premises. For the rest of the film, both sides besiege one another in battle of guns, fists, knives, machetes, explosives, and any debris that comes readily to hand. There are a few twists to the plot, each of which serves to complicate the seemingly simple task of all-out war.
Oh, what an amazing spectacle this is. By a curious coincidence (surely), it more or less eclipsed the stronger points of the Pete Travis film Dredd simply by having done a near perfect job with the exact same plot several months prior. For fans of action and well-staged combat, there has been nothing else in the class of The Raid for a long time.
1) Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg)
Steven Spielberg is renowned for sensitive, thrilling, technically excellent filmmaking. On occasion, he can also be maudlin, heavy-handed and preachy in a well-intentioned sort of way. Fortunately, his latest film manages to be all of the former without straying into the latter. Given Lincoln’s central premise of abolishing slavery and bringing the American Civil War to a close, this comes as something of a surprise. Together with an outstanding cast and Tony Kushner’s well-rounded script, Spielberg beautifully encapsulates the legacy of the 16th President Of The United States, mostly as told in the book Team Of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Daniel Day-Lewis deftly vanishes into the role of Abraham Lincoln, a soft-spoken, folksy, but stout-hearted soul faced with seemingly insurmountable tasks in his second presidential term. Rather than try to tackle Lincoln’s entire childhood and early career, Kushner’s script puts the necessary elements into the man’s frequent reminiscences. The action of the film itself focuses entirely on the fierce debate over the end of war, the amendment abolishing slavery, and the chore of balancing the two so that both can be enacted without delay. Behind closed doors Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) conspire to court enough Democratic votes to support the Republican anti-slavery initiative, as Lincoln also juggles the deteriorating emotional state of his first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field). This involves locking horns with a stalwart cast of gruff men, including Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader, Jackie Earle Haley, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris and (saints alive!) the great Hal Holbrook. In public he demonstrates his compassion and dedication to the American people by touring battlefields and hospitals. In January 1865 alone, he seems to age many years under the strain. Sweeping without neglecting details and vast without losing momentum, Lincoln is a well-balanced and triumphant movie.