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Bringing demons to work

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Has any array of leading performances ever been put through the wringer like this year’s?

Daniel Day-Lewis’ “Lincoln,” wearily shouldering slavery and the Civil War, is almost a piker next to Joaquin Phoenix carrying the postwar world’s psychic burden searching for “The Master,” or Jean-Louis Trintignant carrying Emmanuelle Riva through her decline in “Amour.”

A bevy of thesps got eaten up by the personal demons of alcoholism (Denzel Washington, “Flight”); lust (Keira Knightley, “Anna Karenina”); greed (Richard Gere, “Arbitrage”); and kinky voyeurism (Anthony Hopkins, “Hitchcock”). Romantic comedy “Silver Linings Playbook” toplines Bradley Cooper as an institutionalized, bi-polar ex and Jennifer Lawrence as a bitter, promiscuous widow.

Among victims of fate, catastrophic storms at sea tossed around a bloodied Naomi Watts like driftwood in “The Impossible,” and plopped Suraj Sharma into a lifeboat with a hungry carnivore in “Life of Pi.” Hugh Jackman reenacts literature’s preeminent miscarriage of justice as Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables,” a kindred spirit to Helen Mirren’s unappreciated Alma Reville, wife to “Hitchcock.”

Matt Damon suffers inwardly while tackling fracking in “Promised Land,” and who can guess what Quentin Tarantino will inflict on Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz in “Django Unchained”?

Cheerful exceptions included Maggie Smith ensconced in retirement communities in “Quartet” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” the latter with stiff-upper-lipped Judi Dench. And hope never fails Quvenzhane Wallis confronting “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” or Ben Affleck steering the rescue plot of “Argo.”

The most indomitable characters were among the most physically challenged. After losing both legs in “Rust and Bone,” Marion Cotillard hops right back into the game of life. Real-life polio sufferers Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes in “The Sessions”) and FDR (Bill Murray in “Hyde Park on Hudson”) meet their pain with wry serenity. Happily, even at its most tortured, 2012 remained pretty much self-pity-free.

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