1. Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln. There might not be another actor alive who would devote many months just to find Lincoln’s voice. Fewer still who could take what history told us about him, subtract the multitude of falsely deep Lincoln voices because they sounded “more important” and give us the real Lincoln via his unusual and less familiar voice. He was going to take some shit for this choice, as no one was ready to accept a Lincoln with that voice. Take on its own in isolated clips it might at first have sounded  a little strange, but when you witness Day-Lewis immersed in Lincoln’s totality, the actor vanishes. The voice comes alive with thoughtfulness, and that unmistakable color of sadness that Lincoln carried around with him since he was young, when his mother and then his sister died. Somehow Day-Lewis knew how to capture that sadness. He knew that Lincoln was weary — from the war, from the burden of doing what was a right at a time when there opposing forces seemed insurmountable — and weary from his wife’s mercurial disposition, crying or raging, depending on the day or the haunting.

Day-Lewis has captured so much in one breathtaking turn that this becomes, maybe, a bar to which all others might aspire. His head hung to one side, his tall person’s slouch, his lopsided walk. That any group would award someone else for the prize of best performance only illuminates, in many ways, Day-Lewis’ unequivocal work. They can’t say he wasn’t good enough. They can only say they’d like someone else to have a chance to share the spotlight with him. If Oscars are meant to be given out as career achievements, Day-Lewis would easily and handily win his third Oscar. We all know that the Oscars, despite their intentions, do not always award the best. But history should remember Day-Lewis, whether they give him a gold statue for it or not.

The supporting players: Sally Field – for her astonishing work as Mary Todd Lincoln Field gained some weight and reseacrhed the extensive first-hand historical record, as any great actress would, to find out that Mary Lincoln possessed a fiery intelligence, shared a love for reading with her husband, and didn’t have much else to do back then but stand by her man. Field captures Mary Lincoln’s craziness, unending grief and inner battle with depression so well it makes you long for the days when you had to be this good to get into movies. Tommy Lee Jones brings with him the great memory of Thaddeus Stevens, and perhaps the best moment of his role is the conflicted scene when he has to support the notion of freeing slaves but knows he must withhold his feelings in agreeing that they’re equal in all terms. He does this through his teeth, against everything he believes in — but he does it because he knows that tearing down an old sturdy wall is done brick by brick. Other wonderful turns in Lincoln include James Spader, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the great Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley, self-freed slave who became an author.

2. Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty does not have the showiest of roles. You might not even notice how good she was as an actress if you hadn’t seen her range of subtlety from last year — The Help, Tree of Life, Take Shelter and Coriolanus displayed a kind of versatility I’ve not seen in an actress since Ms. Meryl Streep was introduced in Kramer vs. Kramer. While Chastain has proven she can mostly do it all, and do it well, she carries Zero Dark Thirty in a way actresses just don’t get a chance to do anymore. This is a part only a woman director could have wrung out of an actress because it is a portrait of someone that isn’t viewed through a man’s eye view. She isn’t sexy for the sake of being sexy. She isn’t bait. She isn’t the support net. She isn’t mommy. She is a whole human being out to hunt down and kill Osama Bin Laden. It is her job to do so. Hard to believe, isn’t it. It happens so rarely now. Chastain’s is a slow burn. She is focused on the prize and little else embeds. One of her best moments is when the SEALs say they think it’s probably Bin Laden that they’ve found and they point to her and say they trust “her confidence.” Chastain smiles in a way only a superior would smile. She doesn’t giggle or coyly look at her feet. Do women cry? Yes, most of us do. This character, though, like Holly Hunter in Broadcast News or Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs must cry alone. It is a stark, admiral, success.

Supporting players: Jason Clarke is one of the big standouts of the year — how he’s slipped under the radar this far is kind of interesting and after the heartbreak of seeing Anthony Mackie’s contribution to The Hurt Locker overlooked, we don’t dare hope, but Clarke’s turn is a showstopper, stealing every scene he’s in. Jennifer Ehle, James Gandolfini, and Kyle Chandler also rock the house.

3. Emmanuelle Riva in Amour gives us a richly layered performance, not just any one dimension of the lifelong love of Jean-Louis Trintigant whose turn it is to go out first. Oh, the agony of this beautiful film — the agony of watching two people so much in love on the eve of life’s end. It is so simple and yet so deeply profound. Riva is so good you never doubt the authenticity of her experience. She goes from the alert, attentive wife who is fun just to sit with and talk with to an incapacitated dying woman. All the while she’s being cared for by her husband. It’s called “Amour” and that makes you think of romantic love. And yes, it is so romantic isn’t it? The fire has long since died out but these two are so tightly fused together life simply doesn’t exist for one if the other slips away. What a performance, what a movie.

Supporting player: Jean-Louis Trintignant (co-lead) — it goes without saying that this movie belongs equally to its two stars, and the wisdom and compassion of writer/director Michael Haneke. The end of life can be as cathartic as the beginning when you witness how it could all could go. We hope for that, we dread that.

4. Joaquin Phoenix, The Master.  It is perhaps easy to dismiss Joaquin Phoenix’s work in a film as unique and “difficult” as Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. But Phoenix, here a human stain, physically morphs to symbolize abstract concepts. He is wanting. He is desire. He is pain. He is frustration. Anderson wrote it but Phoenix embodied it. Like Day-Lewis, Phoenix brings his whole physical body to the role so that the actor all but disappears. It isn’t an easy translation to manifest this ugly truth Anderson is ferreting out of the human experience, but there are whole dimensions of life that aren’t colored beautifully. In the end, Phoenix’s Freddie does find salvation, but it isn’t in religion. His master, then, is his hedonist’s trumpet call. We don’t know where he ends up, exactly, but it’s a beginning.

Supporting players: Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a frightening master but as usual, his vulnerability betrays him. Hardhearted Amy Adams has one exceptional scene (“Will you come for me?”) and many more that are perplexing. Who is this woman? Finally, the always underrated Laura Dern stands for all who believe and hope without stopping to wonder why.

5. Denzel Washington, Flight. Maybe it’s that the esteemed two-time Oscar winner is always so good you forget how skilled he really is until you see him take on a role like this. From beginning to end, director Robert Zemeckis pins the camera to Washington’s face as we watch him lie and cheat evading his way out of being held accountable for anything. He saves the plane from crashing but he is all too willing to let everyone suffer as a result of his recklessness. One of the most emotionally moving scenes of the year is when Washington finally stops lying. The circus is brought to an end. Finally. His is a master class in acting, just watching him do nothing so much as walk across the room.

Supporting Players: John Goodman might be better here than he is in Argo, though it’s a toss-up. But in Flight, Goodman is playing someone he himself had to escape when he got clean. He’s exercising those demons by playing that guy. Wounded Kelly Reilly also really wonderful. Melissa Leo, Bruce Greenwood, and especially Don Cheadle as a hotshot lawyer fill out Zemeckis’ diverse cast so well — and with the money the film’s making no one can really say that casts of color do not make money.

6. Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. It’s hard to know where this movie came from. The combination of Lucy Alibar’s unique writing and co-writer Benh Zeitlin’s raw ambition and a confidence that would not compromise made for one of the most strangely uplifting films of the year. Much of that is due to the film’s pint-size lead. Wallis carries the movie because she’s the future. Scrappy, resourceful, aching but fighting back the tears to emerge queen-like, a triumph, bringing back the spirit of the place. Since Zeitlin co-wrote the music, the film is an auteur’s vision. He knew what he was looking for and he got it. He got in Wallis. Sure, she’s just a young thing but who’s to say Wallis isn’t touched by genius much the way Tatum O’Neal was in Paper Moon? While Wallis isn’t a schooled actress, particularly, she gets it about emotion. Even if you want to believe that the director really did all of the work (you could make that argument about almost any performance, really), perhaps the director’s finest achievement was in recognizing Quvenzhané’s innate magic when he found it.  You can’t escape being moved by this girl, this wild creature who follows the teachings of her father, however messed up they are, as she searches for a better way of life, a renaissance.

Supporting player: There would be no Hushpuppy without her father, played the magnificent Dwight Henry. She adores his unconditionally and follows him without question. But he represents a different time. Hushpuppy knows there’s a new world to be conquered and she’ll have to go it alone. Henry embodies a kind of resoluteness that is as heartbreaking as it sometimes is infuriating.

8. Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook shows what a promising actress Lawrence really is and how she is able to always find the truth in her characters. She leaps off the screen in Silver Linings, as she does in Hunger Games and Winter’s Bone and even The Beaver. She is self-possessed in Silver Linings, a woman who does not suffer fools but whom, perhaps, has a knack for falling for the wrong guys. She’s a fixer and she knows she’s a fixer because she rarely gets anything back in return unless she asks for it. It’s easily one of the best performances of the year and if there is an America’s Sweetheart in 2012 it has to be Lawrence. In the end, we just want Tiffany to be happy and maybe that happiness is with a man. Maybe it isn’t. Either way, we enjoy the ride.

Supporting Players: Bradley Cooper (lead) delivers his most impressive dramatic work to date. Having just won the National Board of Review award for Best Actor he has a decent shot at squeezing into the top five, Robert DeNiro is always good and here we get to see his softer side. The real standout is Jacki Weaver, who hovers in the background but really is the one who holds the whole family together.

6. Emayatzy Corinealdi, Middle of Nowhere. Corinealdi carries the whole film on her shoulders, as she tries to figure out what her future might be, with or without the men who keep popping up in her life. Beautiful and smart, ambitious and centered, Corinealdi’s Ruby keeps a lot bottled up inside but she’s such a good actress that we can follow her train of thought as it’s mapped out on her face. She functions both as writer/director Ava DuVernay’s capable muse — exploring the revolutionary notion of a black woman in the inner city contemplating her own existence — and as a modern woman who transcends race. While it might not seem like enough is at stake here, especially not for a single black female of the kind Hollywood is so comfortable with — Ruby’s internal world is complicated. Whom does she please? Her husband who’s in jail? Her mother, who wants more for her daughter than to be someone’s wife? Her sister, who confronts her when she evades the truth? As we watch Ruby break free from the ties that bind her we envision a whole revolution. We see her ascend. It might not happen within the span of time the movie covers, but we the seeds being planted and Corinealdi radiance assures us the buds will bloom. It’s a beautiful thing.

Supporting players: The exceptional Lorraine Toussaint who plays Ruby’s mother can command the screen without saying a single word. Lincoln’s David Oyelowo, Sharon Lawrence, and Omari Hardwick round out the excellent cast.

9. Suraj Sharma  has to carry all of the Life of Pi on his young shoulders, gaining weight then drastically losing it. He must act against a CGI tiger and show us his behavior unravel as though he’s been shipwrecked for a long time. He confronts his faith, his fear and comes out the other end a formidable human being full of compassion and stories he tells to light the darkness for others. Life of Pi is life-alteringly good and much of that is due, no doubt, to the brilliant Ang Lee behind the camera but it is also Sharma’s work. He dug down deep. He isn’t a yet star so that makes him a long shot for the nod, but his newcomer status provides a  tantalizing opportunity for the Academy to launch a major talent.

Supporting players: Richard Parker, and Irfan Kahn, who delivers the film’s most moving monologue.

10. Anne Hathaway – Les Miserables – Hathaway leads the hard-working cast as they sing their hearts out. Hathaway is best at conveying emotion from stage to screen, translating the melodrama of the piece beautifully. Everything stops when Hathaway is on screen. She is equally good in The Dark Night Rises, playing Catwoman as a woman avenging the poor. Hathaway owns both films. In Les Miserables, though it is an intense part, and she gives herself over to it thoroughly. It was the same role played by her mother so in many ways it’s in her DNA. When she says goodbye to her daughter Cosette it is the most heartbreaking moment of the year.

Supporting players: Hugh Jackman (lead) strips it down to display maybe the role of his career. They are ably assisted by Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter.

11. Richard Gere, Abritrage. Richard Gere has never received an Oscar nomination. Can he end that oversight this year? Here he plays a slick businessman who is only out for himself. Everything he does helps to get him ahead. He is like a shark who must keep moving or he dies. The moments of humanity that flicker across his face lull you into thinking he might care but really, he just wants to win. That makes it a tough sell for Oscar because Oscar is mostly about rewarding the likable characters. Somehow, though, Gere IS likable in Arbitrage. You want him to succeed no matter what his plan. It is an expertly executed performance and easily one of the year’s best.

Supporting players: Susan Sarandon as the wife is, as always, one of the best things in the movie but also making a splash are Nate Parker, Tim Roth and Brit Marling.

12. Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone. One of Cotillard’s best in her already impressive career. She also had a great part in The Dark Knight Rises as the villain. In Rust and Bone she plays a woman whose legs have been ripped off by a whale who has to work out how to find herself again – – who is she now, what will she be? Can she ever feel attractive again? My first thought was, come on, there is no way Cotillard could ever not look attractive but she manages to do just that.

13. John Hawkes, The Sessions. In one of the best performances of the year, Hawkes finally gets the chance to show us what he is really capable of. He’s given so much of himself in the various supporting roles he’s been given over the years, most notably in Winter’s Bone but here, a tender and vulnerable Hawkes is off the charts.

Supporting players: Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Rhea Perlman.

14. Jim Broadbent and Doona Bae in Cloud Atlas  aren’t given near enough credit for their moving supporting roles in Cloud Atlas. Broadbent plays a range of characters from a ship captain to a wily publisher and finally, to a man trying to seek out old love, and Doona Bae as the woman who would be God is the film’s beating heart.

15. Matthew McConoughey in Magic Mike.  It’s the Year of the McConoughey and if he’s nominated, because of his body of work, and his great work all year, I suspect he has a chance to win it all.

[box] Spotlight: Ann Dowd in Compliance turned in one of the more interesting supporting roles this year. She played a woman who walks the line between guilt and innocence, power and submission. Somehow, this reads on Dowd’s face so that we too start asking ourselves questions about what we might have done in her situation. Was she jealous? Did she know what she was doing was wrong? Compliance is a strange and somewhat disturbing film but Dowd’s performance is a standout, not just in the film but this year. [/box]

Additional ensembles worth noting:

Argo — a flawless group of actors all serving the script, under the adept direction of Ben Affleck. It shifts easily between tones, humor to suspense and finally ends on an emotionally moving note.

Cloud Atlas — say what you will about this movie, but it’s an actor’s dream to be  given a chance to play multiple parts. Jim Sturgess, James D’Arcy, Keith David, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving.

Moonrise Kingdom — a quirky ensemble of big names who bob in and out of Wes Anderson’s mystical romp:  Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, and Bob Balaban, not to mention the film’s two young stars, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward.

Anna Karenina — led by a great performance by Keira Knightley, the world of Anna Karenina is a slow-release trigger. Standouts include Jude Law, Kelly Macdonald, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.

The Impossible — Ewan McGregor as the father and Naomi Watts as the mother, The Impossible is getting a major push by prominent Hollywood stars in hopes of pushing it into the Oscar race. What sells this movie, really, are the actors. Watts and McGregor do some heavy emotional lifting, while the movie mostly belongs to Tom Holland.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel — Judi Dench leads this wonderful cast of characters, with Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy. There aren’t enough movies aimed at the older among us. This one manages to tell a real story without treating seniors like children.