1. THE SESSIONS
As Hollywood continues to pursue its obsession with action and cartoons, a small, emotionally charged film like The Sessions - created for adults - brings sweet relief. John Hawkes plays a man in an iron lung who hires a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to help him lose his virginity . Hunt is wonderful as the therapist who gets too close, but this is Hawkes's movie. In a jaw-dropping performance, he's able to convey volumes with only his facial expressions.
2. LAURENCE ANYWAYS
Xavier Dolan shows passion and tons of style in this pic, set in the 80s, about a man who decides to have a sex change. It's basically a relationship movie about a couple who pride themselves on being rebellious, but when Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) makes his decision to transition, his girlfriend, Fred (a superb Suzanne Clément), has a hard time adjusting. A sequence in a café in which Fred loses it is a knockout. Saturating his colour palette and adding magical touches so nature mirrors the story's powerful emotions, Dolan has made a gorgeous, epic romance that never loses its energy despite the film's length.
3. ZERO DARK THIRTY
Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) again demonstrates her unseemly obsession with the American military in a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden that's sure to generate controversy. Most of the pic is a CIA procedural about what went on behind the scenes as the Americans tried to find their man. It's not clear exactly how Bigelow feels about U.S. torture practices - scenes of waterboarding are pretty graphic - but that's because she presents herself more as journalist than feature filmmaker. The real genius of Zero Dark Thirty is its ability to maintain unbearable tension, even though we know how the story ends. Bonus: another great performance by Jessica Chastain.
An elderly woman (Emmanuelle Riva) is tended to by her husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in Michael Haneke's heartbreaking tribute to long-life love. It's great a two-hander thanks to superb performances by its leads, especially Riva, who's definitely Oscar material. It may not have all the disturbing hallmarks of a Haneke film, but it unflinchingly reveals the ultimate conflict between two people who think they know each other but never imagined how each would react to old age.
5. THE WORLD BEFORE HER
Local documentary filmmaker Nisha Pahuja makes the most of her access behind the scenes at the Miss India pageant and a boot camp for fundamentalist Hindu women in this superb documentary about the forces competing for the hearts and minds of Indian women. In the process, she messes with our assumptions, introducing us to pageant candidates who are sophisticated thinkers and the fearless leader of the fundamentalist Hindus, a latent lesbian if I've ever seen one.
6. TAKE THIS WALTZ
Sarah Polley reinvents the relationship movie in this story of a woman (Michelle Williams) with a weak emotional core who can't resist the boy next door even though her husband (Seth Rogen) is a keeper. I love everything about this movie that makes people uncomfortable: the extended sex scene conveyed via a superb tracking shot that's there, seemingly, just because Polley wanted to try it out; the film's adult take on cheating; and the fact that its beautiful female protagonist is a loser. Plainly Polley isn't out to please - and that's a good thing.
This exceptional first feature about a black teenage budding lesbian has a kick-ass soundtrack and a brilliant performance by Adepero Oduye. Writer/director Dee Rees has an unerring eye for family dynamics, and dykes everywhere will relate to the experience of a girl who's coming out being toyed with by someone not nearly as invested in a queer identity.
8. RUBY SPARKS
A novelist with writer's block wills his heroine into existence, then realizes he can control her. Writer/star Zoe Kazan's script is the screenplay of the year, and her performance is right up there with the year's best as well. Watch her turn on a dime as her personal Pygmalion keeps changing his mind about exactly how he wants her to behave.
9. MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN
Deepa Mehta and Salman Rushdie collaborate to turn Rushdie's novel into a spectacular epic. It can't have been easy corralling the story, which tracks India's history from the day the country gained independence from England through the dark years of Indira Gandhi's rule. The team solves the problem by creating an episodic narrative, beautifully shot by Giles Nuttgens. Usually I dislike voice-overs, but the language in this one, read by Rushdie directly from his Booker Prize-winning novel, is irresistible.
10. MONSIEUR LAZHAR
What sounds on paper like an overwrought emotional roller coaster - an Algerian immigrant is hired to replace a grade-school teacher who has committed suicide in her classroom - turns into a tender drama that's handled with uncommon restraint. The political issues are there but consigned to the background, and director Philippe Falardeau, who also wrote the screenplay, allows the relationships to develop slowly and sensitively. What could have been a blatantly exploitive film turns into a gentle, subtle pic that creeps up on you.
John Hawkes, THE SESSIONS
Suzanne Clément, LAURENCE ANYWAYS
LINCOLN, which says in every frame "This is important" while romanticizing America's political culture.