Richard Gere’s Bernie Madoff-like Wall Street tycoon could finagle and explain away his financial misdeeds to many, but not his daughter (Brit Marling). She refuses to comply with the business-as-usual dealings Gere has undertaken to keep his financial empire afloat. He’s taken aback that her conscience takes precedence over the company’s balance sheet, while she’s well aware that her name and reputation will be forever soiled in the process.
— Stuart Levine

In an already tense and kinetic movie, director Ben Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio take it up to 11 at the end of the film when it looks like the escaped U.S. embassy staff — posing as a Canadian film crew and being smuggled out of the country by Affleck’s CIA operative Tony Mendez — will get to freedom via a Swissair flight. But as soon as they hit the Tehran airport, the filmmakers put the audience on an emotional roller-coaster ride with the group challenged by airport workers, government officials and soldiers — the group gets past one problem only to be blocked by a more snarling one. Their journey through the bustling airport — complete with roving bands of soldiers armed with automatic weapons — is cut with scenes of CIA staff in D.C. working frantically to make the plan work, along with shots on a film backlot in Hollywood, where the fake “Argo” production is housed and headed by John Goodman and Alan Arkin. The Americans’ gateway to freedom comes down to one phone call from a Republican Guard in the Tehran airport trying to verify the film crew story. The phone rings, and rings, and the tension mounts unbearbly until Goodman picks up at the last possible moment. But the filmmakers don’t allow the audience to relax until a Swissair flight attendant announces that drinks will be served.
— Carole Horst

“The Avengers”
“I am a god, you dull creature! And I will not be bullied by …” was all Loki could get out before what’s easily the biggest nerdgasm moment in comicbook-movie history, when the Incredible Hulk grabs the Norse deity by the ankles and thrashes him five times, slamming his ragdoll body so hard that it breaks the concrete floor like a wrecking ball. It’s a startling flash of unimaginable violence, though hysterically funny, and it rightly establishes the Hulk as the alpha power at the climax of Marvel’s movie universe. Hulk’s retort — “Puny god …” — breaks the tension of the vicious flagellation, and the immortal Loki, paralyzed and prone, responds only with a defeated wheeze.
— Josh L. Dickey

“Django Unchained”
The film has several extravagant shootouts, but the scenes that leave the largest lasting impression in “Django” are the ones where there is less shooting and more talking. No scene has more staying power than when Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, turns the table on the bounty-hunting duo of Schulz (Christoph Waltz) and Django (Jamie Foxx) after he threatens to bash Django’s wife’s head in with a hammer if a certain price is not paid for her life. The scene not only showcases writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s great use of dialogue but allows DiCaprio to shine at his most villainous. So often in the pic, DiCaprio comes off as such a charming and hospitable person, and it’s scenes like this one that remind you of how evil and sadistic the character really is.
— Justin Kroll

“End of Watch”
“Childlike” isn’t an adjective normally applied to members of Los Angeles Police Department, but beat cops Brian and Mike (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena) patrol L.A.’s mean streets like a pair of bear cubs — who occasionally kill people, in the line of duty, of course. That duty turns frighteningly fierce when the plucky, pumped-up duo stumble onto a drop house for the Sinaloa drug cartel’s human-trafficking operations. Ominous graffitti hovers over a terrifying crime scene, and when the shaken blue knights step out into the jarringly sunny day outside, they’re confronted by a squad of heavily armed U.S. marshals. “I’m gonna toss you a bone,” says the taciturn Fed, giving them a warning that makes it clear: keep the hell away from this case, as far and as fast as you can.
— Steven Gaydos

Robert Zemeckis’ addiction drama truly soars during its edge-of-your seat plane-crash sequence, thanks to skilled performances, impressive visual effects and inspired direction. The sight of drunk pilot Whip Whitaker flying an inverted commercial airliner while maintaining his composure made for armrest-gripping drama and should help Denzel Washington land a first-class seat at the Oscars. Brian Geraghty is perfect as his inexperienced young co-pilot and Tamara Tunie is up for the gravity-defying challenge as a brave flight attendant who lends them a hand in the cockpit.
— Jeff Sneider

“The Hobbit”
“It was the very first scene we shot,” director Peter Jackson says of the fateful exchange between Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Gollum (Andy Serkis) in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” After tumbling into Gollum’s dark and menacing layer, Bilbo, seeking a way out, agrees to a game of riddles, knowing that the miry Gollum wants to “eats him whole.” The riveting sequence, which teases a “precious” storyline in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth novels, is about more than just life vs. lunch, but rather, the power of the mind.
— Stuart Oldham

“The Impossible”
An incredible blend of practical vfx (real water!) and CGI, the devastating tsunami scene was made all the more horrific by the fact that it actually happened in real life. Directed with Spielbergian verve by J. A. Bayona, this is a film of heartbreaking images, none more so than the outstretched arms of Naomi Watts and Tom Holland as they struggle to embrace amidst the raging waters. Fernando Velazquez’s haunting score only adds to the emotional terror. Suffering has never been this beautiful.
— Jeff Sneider

“Les Miserables”
If movie marketing were honest, the tagline for “Les Miserables” would have been “Tough act to follow.” Every aspect of Tom Hooper’s film stood to be compared to the enormously successful stage musical. In that respect, nothing transcended more than Anne Hathaway’s turn as Fantine, culminating in her single-take rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” an agonizingly beautiful performance that truly carries filmgoers away and that could also carry Hathaway to a supporting actress Oscar. The voice, the tears, the emotion, the searing committment — they’re all there.
— Jon Weisman

“Life of Pi”
The teeming underworld of the vast and featureless Pacific is an important visual metaphor in Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” none more so when the shipwrecked Pi plunges into the water and swims among the countless array of creatures in the aquatic metropolis. A night sequence is even more visually stunning as Pi, floating on his makeshift raft, becomes enchanted by the black ocean undulating with phosphorescent seas creatures. A whale disturbs the quiet as it violently breaches the surface, almost swallowing Pi, rendered all the more magical and fearsome in 3D.
— Carole Horst

Final debate over the 13th Amendment on the boisterous congressional floor intercuts with scenes of Lincoln playing with his youngest son and reading to him. And as calls mount to delay the vote because a peace delegation is in the capital, Bilbo races to White House to get Lincoln to reassure the representatives. The twist: The beloved 16th president wasn’t above fudging writing that “to the best of my knowledge, there is no peace delegation.” Then follows the slow vote call ratcheting up tension in Congress — Army HQ and folks outside waiting for the result — and finally the outcry as the prez pulls off the victory.
— Shalini Dore

Sure, the audience suspects a major reveal is coming, but when 5-year-old Cid (Pierce Gagnon) finally demonstrates his telekinetic abilities and proves he can defend his home better than any looper can (including Joseph Gordon-Levitt), it’s a beautiful thing to behold. Rian Johnson’s time-travel thriller packs quite a punch despite not having nearly as high a budget as other hit sci-fi pics. In a year full of strong child performances, Gagnon stands out thanks to Cid’s jaw-dropping powers that everyone but his mother (Emily Blunt) underestimates.
— Jeff Sneider

“Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted”
“Madagascar 3” delivers all kinds of wacko and hilarious yet somehow beliveable scenarios — including the protag animals buying a circus –but it’s the film’s pivotal scene in London where the DreamWorks Animation artists really let their imaginations fly. To the strains of Katy Perry’s infectious and uplifting “Firework,” the screen explodes in a kaliedoscope of luscious color — from costumed dogs on rocket skates to the high-wire dance of hippo Gloria and giraffe Melman, the high-flying antics of zebra Marty and sea lion Stefano and lion Alex and cheetah Gia’s trapeze aerobatics — not to mention a bear on an Italian motocycle — joyously performing their acts in a sequence beautifully animated and choreographed. It’s Salvador Dali meets the Ringling Bros.
— Carole Horst

“The Master”
“The Master” might not have been the Scientology expose many hoped/feared, but when it dared tackle the controversial religion’s “auditing” practice, the result was an astonishing five-minute sequence in which grandstanding guru Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) runs his unstable novice Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) through the emotional wringer. Equal parts hypnosis, catechism, police interrogation, Gestalt therapy session and romantic seduction, this “informal processing” begins proceeds from boozing and a fart joke through anger, shame, regret, self-flagellation and finally a near orgasmic sense of transcendence as Quell relives a rare moment of peace. The agony and ecstasy of spiritual kenosis has rarely been portrayed so vividly onscreen.
— Andrew Barker

After discovering an alien fetus growing inside her womb, Noomi Rapace’s Dr. Shaw quickly locks herself in a high-tech surgical pod where, with the help of a laser scalpel and two robotic hands, she performs a hasty (and horrific) C-section to remove the slithering creature. Director Ridley Scott insists the grisly, chest-pumping scene was the sole reason Fox’s big-budget pic was slapped with an R rating.
— Stuart Oldham

“Silver Linings Playbook”
The bipolar Pat (Bradley Cooper), newly released from the mental ward, meets his mercurial match, newly widowed Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), at a dinner party. Naturally, Pat and Tiffany compare meds. Pat: “I used to be on Lithium and Seroquel and Abilify but I don’t take them anymore; they make me foggy and they also make me bloated.” Tiffany counters with Xanax and Effexor and pretty soon the laundry list culminates with Trazodone. “Oh it flattens you out!” says Pat. “You are done.” As if on cue, dinner is also done, before the salad plates are even collected.
— Steve Chagollan

“This Is 40”
Birthdays are anything but balloons and cake in a Judd Apatow pic, and the celebration for Paul Rudd’s 40th was rife with angst. After an awkward greeting with his father-in-law (John Lithgow) and then seeing his wife fight with his own father (Albert Brooks) about sucking the family financially dry, Rudd ends up in the hospital when he’s confronted by an angry motorist who unapologetically tells him the streets of Brentwood aren’t big enough for both of them.
— Stuart Levine

“Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2”
The climactic two-parter opened with a lavish wedding for female Twihards and ended with a bloody setpiece for the guys, as the Cullen clan and their werewolves allies face off against the Volturi in an epic battle. The earth splits, heads are ripped off, beloved vampires bite the dust, only to reveal that none of the carnage really happened — it was merely a jaw-dropping vision of what might have been.
— Peter Debruge

“Wreck-It Ralph”
Wreck-It Ralph, the eponymous videogame villain of Disney’s animated hit, wants to be a hero but keeps wrecking things. At the climax, he turns his talent for destruction into a superpower, taking a suicidal dive as a last resort to save his pal Vanellope and her friends. As he falls, he recites the bad-guy’s creed: “I’m bad, and that’s good. I’ll never be good, and that’s not bad …” But he’s wrong. Through this moment of self-sacrifice, he becomes a hero at last.
— David S. Cohen

“Zero Dark Thirty”
After nearly two hours of patiently observed detective work, director Kathryn Bigelow engineers a climactic payoff at once thrilling and troubling with a meticulous reconstruction of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compo
und. Deploying a canny mix of low-lit handheld camerawork and night-vision footage, staged with an eerie calm occasionally disrupted by the sounds of gunfire and, even more disturbingly, the terrified wails of women and children, the sequence is a gut-clutching tour de force, and no less nerve-shredding for the inevitability of its outcome.
— Justin Chang

Eye on the Oscars: Phase I Wrap
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