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Mick LaSalle’s top 10 movies for 2012

Highs: Rachel Weisz in “The Deep Blue Sea,” Jessica Chastain in “Zero Dark Thirty,” the Silent Film Festival’s North American premiere of the new restoration of Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” and the many wonderful DVD and Blu-ray releases from the Criterion Collection and the Warner Archive.

Lows: The lows were the disappointments – Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths,” Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer,” and Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Most Improved: Jennifer Lawrence was always good, but she grew up in “Silver Linings Playbook,” and growing up is a good thing; Mary Elizabeth Winstead probably didn’t improve so much as finally get a chance to prove herself, and she did beautifully in “Smashed,” about an alcoholic whose marriage is tested when she stops drinking and her drunken husband doesn’t.

MVP: Carmen Ejogo, who single-handedly turned a routine showbiz soap opera, “Sparkle,” into an epic story of agony and ecstasy, something akin to “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” with Susan Hayward; Philip Seymour Hoffman for remarkable work in “The Master” and “A Late Quartet”; and Samuel L. Jackson, who was chilling, funny and incongruously cast as a master-worshiping house slave in “Django Unchained.”

Top 10

Lincoln: Steven Spielberg’s emotional, uplifting and highly detailed political drama – focusing on five months in the life of Abraham Lincoln – was a gift, and seeing Daniel Day-Lewis’ staggering performance in the title role was like going back in time to meet the real thing. A wonderful cinematic experience.

Django Unchained: Director Quentin Tarantino has finally hit his stride, first with “Inglourious Basterds,” and now with “Django Unchained,” the story of a freed slave who takes up with a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) and starts taking revenge on slave masters. Funny, tense, imaginative, audacious – it’s everything you hope to find in a Tarantino picture.

Zero Dark Thirty: An action movie that’s also an actress vehicle, with Jessica Chastain in the lead role as a CIA agent who figures out a way to track bin Laden, despite resistance from supervisors. Chastain is brilliant, and the sequence at bin Laden’s compound is one of the finest of director Kathryn Bigelow’s career.

The Deep Blue Sea: Director Terence Davies re-created postwar London for this compelling, atmospheric romantic drama, which gave Rachel Weisz the opportunity to give the performance of her life.

The Waiting Room: Documentarian Peter Nicks had extraordinary access to the people in and around the waiting room of a public hospital in Oakland. But what makes this a classic, and a work of art and not journalism, is his taste, his poetic touches and his talent for understatement.

Argo: Ben Affleck’s drama about Americans trying to flee Iran in the early 1980s occupies a spot that might have been given to “Bernie,” which was more impressive in terms of tone, or “Cloud Atlas,” which was more ambitious. But “Argo” makes the top 10 on the basis of being extremely entertaining and for the superior sequence, early in the film, in which militants storm the American embassy in Tehran.

The Details: Jacob Aaron Estes’ film would have been given

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