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Local audi­ences can pre­tend they are Academy voters for the next few weeks because almost all the big nom­in­ees are being released at the same time. It’s the NZ way – try and max­im­ise atten­tion for your films while they are still con­tenders but before they become losers. It makes for a crush at loc­al screens – you may not find the film you want at the time you want – but it also means the odds of see­ing some­thing really good are much bet­ter than usual.

Spielberg’s Lincoln is classy old school film­mak­ing, as you might expect from such a vet­er­an. He’s assembled an A‑team of writers, per­formers and tech­nic­al crew to tell one of the most import­ant – and res­on­ant – stor­ies of the last 150 years. Abe Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has been re-elected to his second term as President and the pain­ful and bloody Civil War is almost won. Why would he risk his con­sid­er­able polit­ic­al cap­it­al to try and pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the con­sti­tu­tion – pro­hib­it­ing slavery – when the slave-owning south is almost defeated and many on his own side don’t feel it is necessary?

Because it is the right thing to do, obvi­ously, but Lincoln’s geni­us is to show how doing the right thing requires so many oth­er mor­al com­prom­ises. Like a 19th Century ver­sion of “The West Wing” – John Williams’ score even recalls “Snuffy” Walden’s theme tune at times – Day-Lewis’s pres­id­ent prowls the lonely cor­ridors of the White House with the weight of the world, and a very per­son­al grief – on his shoulders. Day-Lewis is simply aston­ish­ing – like a heavy­weight box­er com­ing out of the dress­ing room to intim­id­ate his less­er oppon­ents there is simply no oth­er con­tender for Best Actor this year. There’s no one else like him.

Quentin Tarantino looks at slavery from anoth­er angle in Django Unchained. Like his pre­vi­ous film, Inglourious Basterds, it is a bril­liant revenge fantasy, glee­fully re-writing his­tory so that the evil-doers get their jus­ti­fied come-uppance. Not as tightly made – or as nar­rat­ively coher­ent – as the pre­vi­ous film, Django show­cases Tarantino’s writ­ing bet­ter than his dir­ec­tion. Christoph Waltz proves once again that he was born to speak those lines but every­one involved gets a moment or two to chew some scenery.

At the 2010 Oscars, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker was a sur­prise win­ner – at least it was a sur­prise to New Zealand dis­trib­ut­ors who weren’t plan­ning to release it at all. The follow-up, Zero Dark Thirty, also has a Middle East focus – the dec­ade long hunt for Osama Bin Laden by a CIA pre­pared to use any means neces­sary to extract inform­a­tion from detain­ees. One won­ders what Lincoln might have thought (although he sus­pen­ded habeas cor­pus dur­ing the Civil War so his prin­ciples were malleable).

Bigelow’s lengthy film is at its best when people aren’t speak­ing. Mark Boal’s exposition-heavy script is clunky but the action set pieces are first rate. I wasn’t sure that The Hurt Locker was all that much of a tri­umph as bomb dis­pos­al lends itself pretty eas­ily to cine­mat­ic ten­sion but ZDT proves that Bigelow is the real deal.

There’s less than meets the eye at Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell’s follow-up to multi-Oscar-winner The Fighter. Two barely com­pat­ible films merged into one, SLP is a romantic com­edy about two psy­cho­lo­gic­ally dam­aged souls dis­cov­er­ing each oth­er through ball­room dan­cing. The first half is a gritty look at Bradley Cooper’s attemp­ted recov­ery from a viol­ent bipolar dis­order – not without some sens­it­iv­ity it must be said and gen­er­ally well played – and then the second half becomes a by-the-book rom-com build­ing to an entirely pre­dict­able cli­max. Not un-entertaining but no classic.

Much braver is Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard’s star-studded adapt­a­tion of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Set inside a Victorian theatre with magic­al trans­form­a­tions occur­ring both on and off the stage, the 800+ pages of the clas­sic nov­el are reduced to a man­age­able two hours. Fans will no doubt have more to com­plain about than I in terms of what’s been left out. Keira Knightly is Anna, trapped in a love­less mar­riage with a bril­liantly stern Jude Law. She falls for hand­some sol­dier Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and their affair scan­dal­ises Moscow and St Petersburg soci­ety. This is an adapt­a­tion that divides people – mostly along for-Keira and anti-Keira lines I think – but I liked it a lot.

The Impossible was prob­ably my least-anticipated film of the sum­mer – the true story of a west­ern fam­ily sep­ar­ated and then reunited dur­ing the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami as it hit the Thai coast. I was expect­ing some over-emotional disaster-porn but it just goes to show that it’s still pos­sible to be sur­prised, even at my age. The tsunami sequence itself is extremely har­row­ing, true, but in an hon­est way and dir­ect­or Juan Antonio Bayona does a fine job of milk­ing an authen­t­ic emo­tion­al response out of the rest of the story. It does a dif­fi­cult job, well.

Sprinkling a few moments of authen­ti­city over itself, like hun­dreds and thou­sands sprinkled over a plastic cake, Celeste & Jesse Forever adds a twist to the rom-com genre by mak­ing the will they/won’t they couple about-to-be-divorced best friends. Andy Samberg and Rashida Jones play C & J, whose dif­fer­ing responses to sep­ar­a­tion provide a little com­edy and a little drama. Best thing about the film is the pres­ence of Jones whose star qual­ity has taken far too long to be recog­nised – she has Quincy Jones genes after all.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 6 February, 2013.