"Les Miserables" is an astounding movie, rivaling the best movie musicals ever.

The Top 10 all-time movie musicals, according to an American Film Institute list from 2006, are: 1. "Singing in the Rain" (1952), 2. "West Side Story" (1961), 3. "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), 4. "The Sound of Music" (1965), 5. "Cabaret" (1972), 6. "Mary Poppins" (1964), 7. "A Star Is Born" (1954), 8. "My Fair Lady" (1964), 9. "An American in Paris" (1951), and 10. "Meet Me in St. Louis" (1944).

While even a list as prestigious as that of AFI is debatable, put "Les Miserables" on your must-see list.

"Les Miserables" is more realistic that those on the AFI list. Even so, "Les Miserables" director Tom Hooper doesn't flinch from direct-to-audience singing by the actors. There is scant spoken dialogue. You can count the instances of spoken dialogue on your hand.

In lieu of dancing, Hooper keeps the camera and actors moving as they sing in what would seem to be incredibly complicated and choreographed performances that are fluid, seamless and flawless. "Les Miserables" has a gritty tone of predominantly browns with some scenes dominated by blues and grays.

The focus is up-close and personal on the actors. Hooper, using a combination of telephoto and fish-eye lens and frequent hand-held camera work, is not afraid to frame what are known as head-and-shoulders shots as the actors sing. Movie-goers will feel as though they have front-row seats at a stage musical.

The musical is based on the 1862 Victor Hugo novel set in 19th-century France that tells the tale of Jean Valjean, a peasant who has served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. He breaks parole, becomes a successful factory owner, but is pursued by Inspector Javert.

Hooper (director Oscar winner, "The King's Speech," 2011) and screenwriter William Nicholson emphasize the tragedy inherent in the story, brought to the cinema numerous times, including "Les Miserables" (1998), starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush and Uma Thurman; "Les Miserables" (1935), starring Frederic March and Charles Laughton; and "Les Miserables" (1934), a French version by director Raymond Bernard and perhaps the best of the non-musical versions.

"Les Miserables," unlike the artifice of the recent stagey "Anna Karenina" movie, makes no pretenses and brooks no compromise with its musical roots. "Les Miserables" has a propulsive, relentless, engaging power because Hooper has wisely edited scenes to the beat and rhythm of the music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, with original French lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, and an English-language libretto by Herbert Kretzmer.

Jackman is clear-eyed, committed and sensitive as the righteous, but not self-righteous, Jean Valjean. His singing is expressive and powerful in "Bring Him Home."

Hathaway is fragile, feisty and resigned as the tragic Fantine, who must abandon her young daughter Cosette (excellent Isabelle Allen). Hathaway is phenomenal on "I Dreamed A Dream."

Crowe is appropriately dislikeable as the gruff, brutish Inspector Javier. His singing is more spoken-sung and is effective.

Seyfried is a revelation with her big wide eyes as gentle, sad Cosette. She was to the role born. Seyfried's soprano is angelic, no more so than in "A Heart Full of Love."

Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are a hoot as the Thenadiers, the tavern owners, with their "Master of the House" an effective show-stopper.Here, and at many moments during the movie, you may want to applaud.

The casting of Eddie Redmayne (Marius) is my only quibble. While his singing is wonderful, especially in "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," I didn't sense compelling chemistry between Redmayne and Seyfried, which is crucial to the storyline.

Samantha Barks (Eponine) is convincing and a wonderful vocalist. There are many fine actors and singers, in supporting roles.

What's perhaps most surprising about "Les Miserables" is that it's one of those rare Hollywood studio movies that doesn't back down in its faith affirmation. Hooper, the cast and "Les Miserables" don't take the easy way out. They forgive. And you won't forget "Les Miserables."

"Les Miserables," MPAA Rated PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13) for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements; Genre; Musical, Romance, Drama; Run time: 2 hrs., 37 mins.; Distributed by Universal Pictures.

Box Office, Jan. 11: "Zero Dark Thirty" opened at a surprising No. 1 after going into wide release and bolstered by Oscar nominations, controversy and good reviews; $24 million, $29.4 million, four weeks, with "A Haunted House" opening at No. 2, $18.8 million, and "Gangster Squad" opening at No. 3, $16.7 million;

4. "Django Unchained" grossed less despite four Oscar nominations, $11 million, $125.3 million, three weeks; 5. "Les Miserables," also grossed less despite eight Oscar nominations, $10.1 million, $119.2 million, three weeks; 6. "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," $9 million, $278.1 million, five weeks; 7. "Lincoln," moved up with its leading 12 Oscar nominations bump, $6.3 million, $152.5 million, 10 weeks; 8. "Parental Guidance," $6.1 million, $60.6 million, three weeks; 9. "Texas Chainsaw 3D," $5.1 million, $30.7 million; two weeks; 10. "Silver Linings Playbook," with its eight Oscar nominations bump moved back to the Top 10, $5 million, $41.3 million, nine weeks

Unreel, Jan. 18:

"The Last Stand," R: Arnold Schwarzenegger steps from his former role as the "Calie-forn-i-ay Governator" back to the big screen in the action film as a sheriff who must thwart a drug cartel along the Mexican border. Also starring: Forest Whitaker.

"Broken City," R: Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe and Catherine Zeta-Jones star in the crime thriller about an ex-policeman who was framed by a politician.

"Mama," PG-13: Jessica Chastain stars in the horror film about two young girls haunted by their isolated upbringing.

"Luv," R: The rap star Common stars as an ex-convict in a drama about an 11-year-old boy (Michael Rainey Jr.) who idolizes him. Also starring: Dennis Haysbert.

Read previous movie reviews by Paul Willistein at the Times-News web site, tnonline.com. Email Paul Willistein pwillistein@tnonline.com and on Facebook.

Four Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes