2012 saw its share of finely crafted prestige films sure to join next month's Oscar race, as well as Hollywood blockbusters that made millions at the global box office.
Among the year's most effectively moving stories about the strength of the human spirit are the movie musical "Les Miserables," the historical drama "Lincoln," the Indian parable "Life of Pi" and the retirement comedy "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel."
Also making most lists of the best films of 2012 were the nail-biters based on true stories "Argo" and "Zero Dark Thirty," the addiction drama "Flight," and the quirky, melancholy comedies "Moonrise Kingdom" and "Silver Linings Playbook."
The latest installment in the James Bond spy franchise "Skyfall" and Peter Jackson's return to Middle Earth "The Hobbit" were among the biggest crowd-pleasers of the year, along with the superhero blockbusters "The Dark Knight Rises," "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "The Avengers," and animated family flicks "Brave," "Wreck-it Ralph," "Paranorman" and "Rise of the Guardians."
"Hope Springs" and "This is 40" were among the most thoughtful and provocative relationship movies of the year, mining for laughs the pitfalls of marriage for two generations -- retirement-age couples and middle-age Generation Xers.
While 282 films qualify for Oscar nominations in January, only a maximum of 10 can run for Hollywood's top honor -- Best Picture.
As 2012 came to a close with reviews in and critics groups passing out prizes, five films emerged as Oscar frontrunners -- "Les Miserables," "Lincoln," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Argo."
"Les Miserables" is a lavish adaptation of Cameron Mackintosh's beloved stage musical, featuring stellar acting and vocal performances by Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Russell Crowe and Samantha Barks.
Set in 19th century France, the story of poverty, forgiveness and redemption follows Jean Valjean after he is freed from 19 years of slavery for having stolen a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew. He breaks his parole by not checking in with authorities, prompting Javert to hunt him down for the rest of his life. Now free and with the help of a merciful priest, Valjean reinvents himself as an honest, small-town mayor who helps others whenever he can even when doing so puts him at risk for being caught and sent back to prison.
Fantine works in his factory until she has an altercation with some of the other women and gets fired for being a troublemaker. Valjean is too distracted by the arrival of Javert to aid her at the time and she is forced to sell her hair and teeth and become a prostitute to pay the unscrupulous Thenadiers to continue caring for her young daughter Cosette, alongside their own daughter Eponine, at their inn. Moved by the dying Fantine's story, Valjean vows to raise Cosette as his own, which he does, all the while dodging Javert. Cosette grows up, adored by Valjean but isolated until she meets by chance and falls in love with revolutionary Marius, who has also stolen Eponine's heart.
Coming in at nearly three hours, the film is an emotional roller coaster. Although most of the main characters don't make it to the end of the movie, it wraps on a hopeful note. Bring tissues.
While Hathaway is all but assured a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her haunting portrayal of the doomed Fantine, Jackman's excellent depiction of Valjean will likely lose the Best Actor trophy to double Oscar-winning chameleon Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays America's 16th president Abraham Lincoln in "Lincoln."
Directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner, the film is an adaptation of the book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It follows the president through the tumultuous months leading up to his 1865 assassination at the age of 56 and co-stars Sally Field as Lincoln's unhappy wife Mary Todd Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones as Radical Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens and David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward.
Spielberg does a masterful job of making the audience feel like it is actually inside the White House quietly observing the commander-in-chief as he deals with the most complicated issues of the day -- namely the abolition of slavery and ending the Civil War.
Day-Lewis so fully embodies the iconic leader, it seems as though he has stepped out of the history books onto the screen. Although he plays the role with great intelligence and gravitas, he also is quite witty at times, making the character appear fully realized and human. His co-stars Jones and Field are shoe-ins for supporting Oscar nominations while James Spader and Joseph Gordon-Levitt also offer powerful performances as, respectively, a relentless political operative and Lincoln's oldest son.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and penned by journalist-screenwriter Mark Boal -- the team behind "The Hurt Locker" -- the drama "Zero Dark Thirty" follows CIA agent Maya's leadership of a decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, which culminated in the 2011 Navy SEALs killing of the terrorist leader. The film has sparked some controversy, mainly about the real identity of Maya, how Bigelow and Boal gathered their information for the movie and whether the film endorses torture as essential for getting information out of suspects.
Those issues aside, it is widely agreed the film is a taut, thrilling portrayal of a recent event, anchored by Jessica Chastain, considered the frontrunner for the Best Actress Oscar.
In the film, Maya plays a woman trained to quash her emotions and who has no life outside her work. Her dedication pays off when she figures out where bin Laden is, then haunts her superiors until they OK an attack on his compound in Pakistan. After her mission is complete, she appears exhausted, relieved and more than a little lost without an immediate direction to follow. The film co-stars Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle and James Gandolfini.
"Silver Linings Playbook" is writer-director David O. Russell's adaptation of Matthew Quick's novel by the same name. Set in contemporary Philadelphia, it follows actor Bradley Cooper's character Pat as he tries to adjust to life outside the mental institution where he was treated for severe anger issues after the breakup of his marriage. Determined to win back his estranged wife, he enlists the help of a young widow, played by Jennifer Lawrence, who has problems of her own.
Robert DeNiro plays Pat's football-obsessed dad and Chris Tucker his best friend from the mental hospital in the movie about a dysfunctional family trying to help each other through the tough times. Alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, the film has been generating Oscar buzz for Cooper, Lawrence and DeNiro since it screened in September at the Toronto International Film Festival.
"Argo" was another Toronto hit, which has since earned great reviews and Oscar steam.
Directed by and co-starring Ben Affleck, "Argo" is based on the amazing true story of how the U.S. and Canadian governments worked together to rescue six American diplomats during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis by training them to pretend they are members of a Canadian film crew staying in the home of the Canadian ambassador in Tehran while they scout locations.
To get the scheme to work, Affleck's CIA agent character consults two Hollywood producers to help him make the project look more credible by securing a real screenplay, creating a poster to advertise the fake flick and setting up a production office.
Affleck expertly captures the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction vibe of the story while making it crystal clear how high the stakes are, how little time they have to get everything done and what will happen to the diplomats if the mission fails. The result is a frequently funny, fast-paced movie deftly delivered by Affleck and co-stars Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Tate Donovan, Richard Kind, Victor Garber and Clea DuVall. It was written by Chris Terrio, based on the non-fiction books "The Master of Disguise" by Antonio J. Mendez and "The Great Escape" by Joshuah Bearman.