This year, Christmas came right on time for Hollywood.
Studios not only took in a record-breaking $10.8 billion in movie earnings, but, for the first time in three years, sales have actually increased at the box office.
Ticket sales had been declining for over the past decade; in 2011 they were at their lowest level since 1995. But, thanks to gangbusters superhero and spy flicks, sales are projected to rise 5.6 percent by the end of the year. The improved figure is still below the hay-day of 2002, but with the continued emphasis on VOD and alternate viewing options, studio executives consider it a win.
"It is a victory, ultimately," Don Harris, head of distribution at Paramount Pictures, told the AP. "If we deliver the product as an industry that people want, they will want to get out there. Even though you can sit at home and watch something on your large screen in high-def, people want to get out."
Execs are hoping that 2013, with an incredible lineup that includes "Star Trek," "Catching Fire" and "Man of Steel," they will set an even higher record.
"I've been saying we're going to hit that $11 billion level for about three years now," added Paul Dergarabedian, a box-office analyst for Hollywood.com. "Next year I think is the year we actually do it."
You can read more about the increase here.
Earlier on Moviefone:
50. 'Breaking Dawn: Part 2'
<strong>What’s It About:</strong> Just in case you haven’t heard, Bella finally becomes a vampire, and this epic series comes to a close with a battle scene to end all battle scenes. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> It’s nice to see a beloved franchise end with a bang rather than a whimper. Twi-hards loved this movie, and even the most cynical critic can appreciate the flick’s earnestness.
<strong>What's It About?</strong> Three teenage boys develop superpowers after stumbling on a huge glowing mass. However, each of the teens react differently to the powers, as things start to spiral out of control. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> This movie could have been predictable and gone the traditional routes: human gains superpowers, does nice things for everyone. Instead, viewers get a more realistic tale of what would happen if three teenagers had the ability to do anything.
48. 'The Expendables 2'
<strong>What’s It About:</strong> A group of tough guys (and one woman, who’s also tough) gather to face a formidable foe – all while kicking ass and taking names. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> Where “The Expendables” took itself a bit too seriously, this time it was more of a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” approach. Also, to see so many action heroes share the screen, doing things like ripping car doors off hinges or taking down a helicopter, is a real treat.
47. 'Anna Karenina'
<strong>What’s It About:</strong> Based on the famous Leo Tolstoy novel, the film follows aristocrat Anna Karenina, who soon finds herself in the middle of an affair with the affluent Count Vronsky. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> This story has been told countless times, however, director Joe Wright (reuniting with his period-piece muse, Keira Knightley) manages to breathe new life into the tale, with jaw-dropping visuals as well as a plot that takes place almost exclusively on one stage. The movie is as beautiful as it is mesmerizing.
46. 'Celeste and Jesse Forever'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> A divorcing couple endeavors to maintain their friendship while exploring the dating world. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> Beyond the fact that it's written by "Parks and Recreation" funnygirl (Jones) and Will McCarthy, "Celeste and Jesse Forever" unites all your favorite celebs in a progressive love story -- with a great soundtrack. What more could you want?
45. 'Exotic Marigold Hotel'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> England's finest -- Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Tom Wilkinson -- play a gaggle of retirees who want to spend their twilight years in India. The group was lured in with the promise of a cheaper and more lavish retirement at the "newly restored" Marigold Hotel, but they end up with less than they bargained for. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> Ever wanted to see your favorite British actors with a tan? Well, now you can! With a stellar cast and a veteran director (John Madden, "Shakespeare in Love"), "Marigold Hotel" has been charming viewers since it hit theaters, with its light tale of spending your twilight years abroad.
44. 'End of Watch'
<strong>What’s It About:</strong> A found-footage tale of two LAPD officers who are greenlit by the Mexican cartel, after the duo confiscates money, drugs and weapons from a house in Los Angeles. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> While the found footage tactic never really played out, that doesn’t matter in the long run, as this film’s greatness lies in the strong performances of Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena. Both actors spent months riding around with LAPD officers to prepare for the roles, and it definitely shows.
43. 'Killer Joe'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> A trailer park father-son combo (Thomas Haden Church, Emile Hirsch) need to come up with thousands to pay off drug dealers; their only option is to kill off their wicked step-mother (Gina Gershon) and collect the insurance. To pull off the dirty deed, they hire "Killer" Joe (Matthew McConaughey) a corrupt cop who moonlights as a hitman. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> McConaughey had an amazing 2012, but "Joe" is a showcase of skills you didn't know he had in him. The movie walks a fine line between brutally grim and darkly funny. "Joe's" redneck noirish flavor is a late career high mark for director William Friedkin ("The Exorcist," "The French Connection"), who has always been able to deliver genuine heart-stopping drama.
42. 'The Grey'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> After their plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness, a group of oil drillers is forced to contend with a pack of wolves. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> Despite the misleading marketing campaign (unfortunately, this film is not about Liam Neeson fighting wolves with his bare hands), "The Grey" ended up being one of the more harrowing film experiences of the year -- a mix of "Jaws" and "Alive." Sure, you could categorize it as tale of survival, but it's more than that: "The Grey" shows what happens when a group of humans are pushed to the edge, forced to contend, not just with the elements, but with each other and with themselves.
41. 'Salmon Fishing in the Yemen'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> A stuffy fisheries expert (Ewan McGregor) is sent on the bizarre mission to bring the sport of fly-fishing to Yemen, all paid for by a sheik. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> This is about as far from your typical rom-com as you can get. A pleasant surprise from beginning to end, the movie is funny, charming and not derivative at all. We also reveled in the comedic performances of Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt and Kristin Scott Thomas.
40. 'The Queen of Versailles'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> This documentary concerns the Siegals, billionaires who made their fortune on the timeshare market. The couple takes their wealth and builds the largest house in America, a 90,000-square foot replica of the Palace of Versailles. Then the real-estate crisis hits; guess what happens next? <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield presents the Siegals without irony, and this tale of privilege and the pursuit of the American Dream is probably the most timely conflict for viewers living in this country in the year 2012.
39. 'This Is 40'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> The "sort of sequel" to "Knocked Up" revisits the hilariously difficult relationship of Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd). <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> Rudd and Mann stole the scenes in 2007's "Knocked Up," and their comedic chemistry takes front stage in "This is 40." However, the funniest moments in this movie may belong to a small supporting role from Melissa McCarthy.
38. 'The Amazing Spider-Man'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> Your friendly neighborhood superhero gets rebooted from the Tobey Maguire trilogy that just wrapped up five years ago. This new interpretation focuses on a younger Peter Parker investigating the death of his parents. His pursuit brings him face-to-face with his father's former partner, Dr. Curt Connors, whose own experiments lead him toward the dangerous birth of the Lizard. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> Rebooting a beloved blockbuster series, so soon after the original, was a dicey gamble. And while it doesn't totally escape the shadow of Sam Raimi's movies, it manages to stand out thanks to Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, who have much better romantic chemistry than Maguire and Kirsten Dunst ever did. Director Marc Webb wisely focuses on their youth, energy, innocence and charisma, and creates a teenage adventure that feels real and fresh.
37. 'The Raid: Redemption'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> When his squad is caught in a high-rise apartment filled with all sorts of criminal scum, a rookie officer on an elite special-forces team has to step up and lead. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> As a story, it's fairly simplistic, but as an action spectacle, it's mind-blowingly insane. The showcase of Indonesian martial arts is so frantic, brutal and impossible-looking, that "Raid" has set the bar high for all future fight scenes.
<strong>What’s It About:</strong> Richard Gere plays billionaire hedge-fund manager Robert Miller, who soon finds himself embroiled in scandal when he’s caught cooking his company’s books. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> Considering our current economic crisis, “Arbitrage” couldn’t be more timely. The best part of this film is Gere, who is nothing short of brilliant as the conflicted Miller. Here, he attempts to cover-up his crimes and then hide them from his wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon).
<strong>What's It About?</strong> "Last King of Scotland" director Kevin Macdonald delivers a comprehensive documentary look at the life of global music icon, Bob Marley. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> By tackling everything in between his birth and death -- including his Jamaican upbringing, his early recordings and his enigmatic personality -- Maconald, along with Marley's family and bandmates, offers perhaps the best, most thorough account of Bob's life that we'll ever receive.
<strong>What's It About?</strong> Jack Black re-teams with "School of Rock" director Richard Linklater for a twisted dark comedy about the true story of Bernie Tiede, an eccentric Texas community leader who murdered the town's rich widow Marjorie Nugent (played by Shirley MacLaine). <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> Linklater has always been a great actor's director. In addition to a hilariously icy MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey (who plays a big-headed DA), the director populates the film with eccentric personalities, including real neighbors of the actual Tiede. But this is Black's movie: his disappearance into the unique and flamboyant Bernie reminds you that beneath his trademark schtick is a gifted comedic actor.
33. 'Rust and Bone'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> Jacques Audiard's follow-up to his Oscar-nominated "A Prophet" features Marion Cotillard as a whale trainer who loses her legs, following an accident at a marine park. With her life in shambles, she falls into the arms of a nightclub bouncer she met one drunken night (breakout star Matthias Schoenaerts of last year's "Bullhead"), who is dealing with his own violent issues. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> "Rust and Bone" is an intimate romance of two people who are broken, emotionally and physically. The film is beautifully shot and captures both the grittiness of their physical trauma and the naked truth of their relationship, with a flair that's both raw and stylish.
32. 'The Sessions'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> Oscar-nominated character actor John Hawkes stars as a man confined to an iron lung and determined to lose his virginity at the age of 38. With the guidance of his priest (William H. Macy), he begins an awkward and funny relationship with a professional "sex surrogate" therapist (played by Helen Hunt). <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> Based on the true story of polio-stricken journalist/poet Mark O'Brien, "Sessions" seems like it could be corny, sugary-sweet Oscar bait, but the movie offers a genuinely funny and honest look at sexual intimacy. Hunt and Macy deliver as usual, but the film's obvious acting anchor is Hawkes, who creates a character that is vulnerable and determined, using no body parts below his neck.
31. 'Pitch Perfect'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> A new girl at school revamps the all-girls choir group into something much hipper and leads the charge against the domineering boys squad of champions. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> If your tween already loves "Glee," their hearts will sing over this poppy battle of the sexes. (Really good) musical numbers aside, the comedy stylings of Rebel Wilson also hit all the right notes.
<strong>What's It About?</strong> A seasoned pilot (Denzel Washington) safely lands a plane after a mid-air catastrophe, but troubling details emerge in a further investigation of the event. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> "Flight" makes you never want to fly again -- in the best way possible. Directed by Robert Zemeckis -- his first live-action film in over a decade -- this movie soars with Denzel playing against type, as an alcoholic, drugged-out pilot.
29. 'Killing Them Softly'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> A hitman is brought in to clean up a mess after a duo of amateurs tries to rob a gangsters’ poker game. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> All political commentary aside (which is plentiful, and blatant), there is some amazing camerawork here, and dialogue that could have come from Tarantino himself. Also, Brad Pitt with a sawed-off shotgun is pretty terrific.
<strong>What's It About?</strong> A group of criminals get hired to break into a dead man's house and steal a mysterious VHS tape; when the house is filled with a strange collection of films, the robbers are forced to watch the horrifying events recorded on each one. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> "V/H/S" is the real "scariest movie of the year." It's a creative trend-setter and now any competently-made horror film has to figure out how to top it or live in its shadow. It's best to not spoil any of the scares but we'll just say it tackles everything from the slasher to the supernatural and innovates on every setting from drunken teens in the woods to a Skype video chat.
27. 'Perks of Being a Wallflower'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> A troubled young teenager in his first year of high school tries to navigate the halls while fighting his inner demons. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> This movie was so intense and heartfelt, it brought back searing memories of high school life -- both the unrestricted highs of your first friendships, or the devastating lows of not quite fitting in. Logan Lerman shines as the film's protagonist Charlie.
26. 'Cloud Atlas'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> It’s hard to encapsulate in a sentence, but the movie is an interesting look at how lives intersect across dimensions and time, and how our relationships define us. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> Besides the jaw-dropping effects, “Cloud Atlas” does a surprisingly good job at bringing the infamously dense book to life. It may overreach at times, but the movie is a beautiful opus of interweaving stories. Also, bravo to the cast, many of whom took on multiple roles for this film.
<strong>What's It About?</strong> Pixar's latest feature tells the story of Princess Merida, a headstrong archery-loving teenager, living in feudal Scotland, whose desire to carve out her own fate and go against her parent's wishes for betrothal sets her on a magic adventure. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> "Brave" is rich in both visual splendor and charming characters. And despite it being a completely new story, it sits perfectly alongside other timeless childhood fairy tales. Merida is an adorable and plucky heroine for young audiences, and the movie's simple message of responsibility makes this a great viewing experience for the entire family (but especially mothers and daughters).
24. 'Magic Mike'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> Featuring a bevy of hotties, and based on Channing Tatum's real-life experience as an exotic dancer, the movie delves into the colorful world of male strippers. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> Ignoring the fact that Hollywood's hunkiest dress down for two hours, "Magic Mike" boasts entertaining spectacles and one of the best performances of Matthew McConaughey's career.
23. 'The Hobbit'
<strong>What’s It About:</strong> The prequel to the “Lord of the Rings” -- and the first in a trilogy -- follows Frodo’s family member Bilbo Baggins as he teams up with a group of dwarves to reclaim the stolen treasure of Lonely Mountain. Along the way, Bilbo stumbles upon a mysterious ring (the one to rule them all!). <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> Despite our lukewarm feelings about turning this story into a trilogy like “Lord of the Rings” (it was originally planned for only two films), it was fun to once again see the magic of Tolkien’s universe back up on the big screen. Plus, Gandalf (!) returns. So what’s not to love?
22. '21 Jump Street'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> Two undercover police officers go back to high school to bust a drug ring. Hilarity ensues. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> The initial reaction to this film being made was somewhere between "Really?" and "Who cares?" My, how wrong we were. Instead of a bloated '80s adaptation, audiences got a completely self-aware buddy cop comedy -- one that didn't take itself too seriously. While Jonah Hill was his usual funny self, the true gem of "Jump Street" was Channing Tatum and his impeccable comedic timing (hey, who would have thought?). Also, let's not forget (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT) the brilliant Johnny Depp cameo during the film's climax.
<strong>What’s It About:</strong> As a child, John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) made a wish that his Teddy bear would come to life. Now, John is a grown man and “Ted” has turned into a boozy foul-mouthed stuffed animal, who soon tests the limits of their relationship with his ridiculous antics. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> The first feature film from “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane was everything we expected it to be: hilarious, raunchy and even a bit heartfelt. But the best thing about “Ted” was MacFarlane managing to bring life to a new character without making him too much like his famous “Family Guy” Griffins.
<strong>What's It About?</strong> Ridley Scott returns to the world of "Alien," with an epic prequel about mankind's first contact with a mysterious alien race who may or may not be our makers, and may or may not have sinister purposes. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> "Prometheus" pulled off a rare feat, adding a new layer of intrigue to the rich mythology of the "Alien" series. Not since "Inception" has a summer blockbuster come along with such audacious head-scratching concepts. And despite being filled with plot holes, it was still fun to argue about the film's big questions. Also, the always brilliant Michael Fassbender was terrific as David, an android servant with T.E. Lawrence-sized dreams of exploration.
<strong>What's It About?</strong> Norman is a slightly strange outcast who is shunned by the other kids at school, but when a centuries-old curse takes over the town, he's the only one equipped to save the day. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> This is the movie for anyone who's ever had a rabid love of horror movies or felt like an outcast at school simply for loving the macabre. "ParaNorman" is equally creepy, hilarious and genuinely touching, and filled with visual treats aimed at lovers of 80s cheesiness and old-school scary stories.
18. 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> A lyrical fairy-tale-like story of Hushpuppy, a six-year-old girl who lives in an impoverished part of Louisiana known as "the Bathtub." When a great storm floods her community and her father falls ill, Hushpuppy must go on a journey to find her place in the world. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> You can't help but see the movie as a parable to Hurricane Katrina, the threat of climate change or a handful of other socio-economic issues affecting our country. But ultimately, "Beasts" is a modern folktale that celebrates the Delta culture through remarkable imagery. Most impressive is the young actress who plays Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), anchoring a complex film about a little girl facing her own personal apocalypse.
17. 'Wreck-it Ralph'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> Ralph, the bad-guy from a "Donkey Kong"-esque arcade game, grows tired of his villainous routine and escapes through the world of video games to prove that he can be a hero. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> With cameos ranging from "Pac-Man" to "Street Fighter," this inventive comedy may do for video games what "Toy Story" did for toys. It was also nice to see one of our most gifted character actors, John C. Reilly, anchoring a film on his own.
16. 'The Hunger Games'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> In a harsh post-apocalyptic world, the governmental powers-that-be select two kids (one male, one female) from each District of the city to compete in a fight to the death. When Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) from District 12 is chosen, she becomes the figurehead for the impoverished Districts. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> Despite ridiculously high expectations, "The Hunger Games" managed to live up to the hype, by balancing ass-kicking action (see: Lawrence with a bow-and-arrow) with real emotion. Also, the supporting cast was also terrific, with Woody Harrelson as the washed-up Haymitch Abernathy and Elizabeth Banks as the eccentric Effie Trinket.
<strong>What's It About?</strong> The golden years of a musically-inclined couple, Georges and Anne (Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva), is interrupted when his femme suffers a stroke, leaving her partially paralyzed. Secrets about their marriage are revealed when their daughter comes to aid her ailing mother. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> From Michael Haneke ("The White Ribbon), the French flick plumbs the depths of marriage, parenting and aging. The result is a film that is at once devastating and compassionate.
14. 'Life of Pi'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> The best-selling novel about Pi, a 16-year-old boy who survives a shipwreck and is stranded in the ocean with a hyena, orangutan, wounded zebra and Bengal tiger, is finally brought to the screen by Ang Lee. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> While an ambitious undertaking, Lee's masterful storytelling and spellbinding cinematography made believers out of even the most devout "Pi" fans.
13. 'Cabin in the Woods'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> Five friends vacation at a remote cabin in the woods (duh). Terrible things go down. Lots of people die. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> At first glance, the Joss Whedon-written, Drew Goddard-directed movie feels like your typical slasher flick, complete with dumb horror movie tropes -- let's split up! -- and stereotypical characters -- the sorority girl, the geek, the jock, etc. But that's the point: "Cabin" is supposed to ease you into familiar territory, then, when you least expect it, rip it out from underneath you. So what's left after that? Well, if you haven't seen the film, we won't spoil it for you, but the last thirty minutes of "Cabin in the Woods" is one of the most surprising, exhilarating and adrenaline-filled sequences in recent memory. Seriously, go see it. You won't be disappointed.
12. 'The Dark Knight Rises'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> Eight years after the events of "The Dark Knight," Bruce Wayne has gone into hiding and his Caped Crusader alter ego is no more; this leaves his city wide open for an attack from the hulking, Machiavellian Bane who orchestrates a massive plot to turn Gotham into a city of crime. All this, plus Catwoman and surprise characters to boot! <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> "DKR" successfully escapes the shadow of Heath Ledger's Joker and delivers a sweeping conclusion to the story that started in "Batman Begins." Unlike other superhero movies, Nolan's Batman always strived to offer a more philosophical take on "good vs evil" and the expansive storyline in the third part broadens that idea to a huge societal level. With each character moving around like a chess piece, "Dark Knight Rises" is less of a comic book movie and more of an American crime saga.
11. 'Moonrise Kingdom'
<strong>What's It About?</strong> Two star-crossed tweens (Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman) run away together, while their New England town bands together to try and find them. <strong>Why We Love It:</strong> Wes Anderson's ode to young love plays to his sense of impossible whimsy. Featuring some old friends -- Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman -- and new faces, "Moonrise Kingdom" is everything you could ever want out of an Anderson flick, while also managing to do the impossible: tell a realistic story of what it's like to be a kid in love.
After the wince-worthy "Quantum of Solace," Sam Mendes did the seemingly impossible and completely revamped the Bond series with "Skyfall." Here, Daniel Craig returns as the perma-suave agent who is charged with protecting MI6 and M (Judi Dench) from a ridiculously coiffed villain (Javier Bardem) hell-bent on revenge. The movie has been heralded as the best Bond ever. And indeed, "Skyfall" gives fans everything they ever wanted from a 077 flick: a fresh take on the franchise, with a nod to bygone tropes. -- <em>Jessie Heyman</em>
Not quite sci-fi, not quite action, not quite drama, but somehow all of the above, “Looper” is a modern masterpiece. In this era of rehashes and reboots, “Looper” is refreshing in that it takes an unoriginal idea (in this case, future time travel) and makes it original – there isn’t one boring moment in the entire film. With some fantastic acting (especially by 5-year-old newcomer Pierce Gagnon) and a twist ending, “Looper” will be memorable for years to come. -- <em>Chris Jancelewicz</em>
8. The Master
All of the pre-release coverage for "The Master" focused on the film's thinly veiled profile of L. Ron Hubbard and the establishment of Scientology, but that's not really what the movie's about. Mainly, it's the story of a broken man (Joaquin Phoenix) who has been abandoned by society and is susceptible to manipulation. Philip Seymour Hoffman is terrific as the mysterious Lancaster Dodd; Amy Adams surprises as his loyal, determined wife.; and Phoenix's portrayal of the drunken, violent, disturbed Freddie Quell is one of the most hypnotic performances of all time. -- <em>Eric Larnick</em>
7. 'The Avengers'
If it failed, it might have been one of film history's biggest blunders ever. To take one of the densest, longest-running superhero adventures ever, and translate the comic-book wackiness to the big-screen was a huge gamble. Somehow, they pulled it off. "The Avengers" isn't just the culmination of a lofty Hollywood gameplan, but every kid's playground fantasy. Buoyed by fantastic performances -- particularly Tom Hiddleston as Loki -- "The Avengers" is big, loud, awesome-looking theatrical fun. Director Joss Whedon (there he is again) deserves all the credit in the world for orchestrating a movie experience that seemed impossible a mere five years ago. -- <em>E.L.</em>
6. 'Silver Linings Playbook'
The title and the lead twosome (Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence) belie the movie’s content. Instead of being a sappy romance, “SLP” is actually a dark comedy with bits of romance thrown in. Two mentally ill people find one another, and work to deal with their shortcomings as well as their obvious budding romance – believe it or not, through dance. With the return of Chris Tucker and Robert De Niro in an honest-to-goodness GOOD role, we couldn’t get enough of this movie. You will leave the theater smiling. -- <em>C.J.</em>
5. 'Django Unchained'
On one hand, this is classic Tarantino -- the spurting blood, the humorous dialogue, the frenetic fight sequences and ample gunplay. On the other, "Django" breaks new ground for the archetypal director. His first "western"-themed movie, about a German bounty hunter freeing a southern slave (and all that comes with it), is at once a commentary on how barbaric the idea of slavery is/was and also a dark comedy about the horrors of the slave trade. Some moments you'll be laughing out loud and at others you'll be morose and silent. In the end, you'll be cheering aloud for protagonist Jamie Foxx (Django), who's gunslinging badassery is one of the most memorable performances of the year. Fellow cast members Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson all deliver spectacular supporting work, enough that we might see their names on the Oscar nominee ballot. -- <em>C.J.</em>
A match made in biopic heaven: Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis take on the story of The Great Emancipator in "Lincoln." The film centers on honest Abe's final months in office, trying to unite a divided country and abolish slavery. With the incomparably method Day-Lewis at the forefront -- looking like the spitting image of the 16th President -- he successfully altered the public's perception of Lincoln. He wasn't a booming titan but a great leader with immense but understated power. -- <em>J.H.</em>
3. 'Les Miserables'
There’s a sequence in “Les Miserables,” Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the Victor Hugo classic, that will likely go down as one of the year’s -- and perhaps decade’s -- most powerful on-screen moments. Here, a broken and beaten-down Anne Hathaway (as Fontine) belts out a hauntingly beautiful rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” That this scene comes in the beginning of a movie filled with goosebump-worthy moments is a true testament to Hooper’s “Les Mis.” This film truly is an embarrassment of riches: brilliant performances by a talented cast (Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Eddie Redmayne, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried and company); gorgeous, intricate set design; and a stunning soundtrack. In a long line of “Les Miserables” adaptations, this could end up being the definitive version. -- <em>Alex Suskind</em>
From ass-slapping jerk in “Dazed and Confused” to award-worthy director, it's pretty amazing how far Ben Affleck has come. Case in point: this year's “Argo.” Here, Affleck brings us the true story of a group of Americans who attempt to escape Iran during the Hostage Crisis. This movie is both nail-biting and feel-good, as 1970s political issues still bear a strong resonance in today’s volatile landscape. Through some brilliantly suspenseful filmmaking, Affleck’s message in “Argo” is clear: when you work together, there isn’t anything you can’t overcome. (Also, Canada comes out looking awesome instead of lame, so there’s that.) -- <em>C.J.</em>
1. 'Zero Dark Thirty'
Expectations couldn’t have been higher for “Zero Dark Thirty.” However, Kathryn Bigelow’s movie somehow managed to surpass them. It's a story most Americans are now very familiar with: the decade long manhunt for Osama bin Laden. Starting in the days after 9/11 and stretching to the night of OBL’s death, “Zero Dark Thirty” is an emotionally draining adventure, a world-class suspense flick, and a tense political drama, all wrapped into one. Anchored by a terrific cast -- including Jessica Chastain, as the dedicated CIA operative Maya -- “ZDT” hits all the familiar post-September 11 plot-lines, while adding also enough twists and turns to keep you on the edge of your seat for the film’s entire 157-minute runtime. Sony billed “Zero Dark Thirty” as the “Greatest Manhunt in History.” Bravo, for managing living up to that title. -- <em>A.S.</em>