5. Prisoners – Superb dramatic acting from its entire ensemble (Hugh Jackman, Terrence Howard, Paul Dano, Viola Davis) and an unpredictable series of twists and turns made “Prisoners” the best thriller in years. Paul Dano makes the creepiest villain, and a revenge plot for the ages is cringe-worthy at best. It’s horrifying. Plus, the ending will keep you guessing and keep us talking about this one for years.
4. The Butler – Speaking of a stellar ensemble, “The Butler” holds a S.A.G. Award nomination for its cast of 15 major characters. A fascinating true story, based on the life of Eugene Allen, follows Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) through three decades, as he served five presidents, chronicling the ongoing Civil Rights Movement and his turbulent life at home (especially through interactions with his wife, played by an Oscar-worthy Oprah Winfrey, and his son, who fights on the front lines with the Freedom Riders). Its excitement is outdone only by its ability to list your heart.
3. American Hustle – Academy Award-nominated writer/director David O. Russell (“The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook”) recycles stars Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence in his 70s-set crime drama about a couple of con artists tapped to help the FBI take down a couple big name frauds. It can be comical, but it’s the tense drama that keeps you interested. That and the costume design. But “American Hustle” wouldn’t have made this list if it wasn’t for the performance of Christian Bale, who is fully deserving of the Oscar for Best Actor…if another Hollywood favorite I’ll mention later in this list doesn’t get his due.
2. Saving Mr. Banks – My absolute favorite movie of the year is also one of the best. Based on the true story of P.L. Travers (a wonderfully versatile Emma Thompson) and her negotiations with Walt Disney (who better than Tom Hanks?) for the movie rights to her Mary Poppins books, “Saving Mr. Banks” is classic Disney – a spoonful of sugar for the end of a long cinematic year. Unlike some of the year’s best films, “Saving Mr. Banks” is a charming and delightful family movie – something that everyone can enjoy. Everyday can be a jolly holiday with “Saving Mr. Banks.”
1. The Wolf of Wall Street – Last year, the movie that earned my top spot starred Leonardo DiCaprio. The year before, my top choice was Scorsese-directed. This year, it just happens to have both. Scorsese carefully crafts a “Goodfellas”-esque crime saga as funny as any movie this year. That takes skill. DiCaprio may have screamed, scoffed, and snorted his way to his first Oscar, and I’m here to say I hope he did. He’s a loose cannon; incredible. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is the best of both worlds, a true dramedy if I’ve ever seen one. It’s a blast.