So sorry that I was unable to cover these all in one fell swoop, but I wanted to give you a taste before the weekend was over. What can I say? Anyway, here are my top 30 films of the year. Be prepared, there are only four of this year's Best Picture nominees in there, although they are all pretty high on the list. Only one, however, is in the top five. The top nineteen films here I gave five out of five stars to. The top fourteen took no thought to award five stars to. Enjoy...I certainly did.
30. Higher Ground
Vera Farmiga is brilliant both behind and in front of the camera, in this exploration of emerging feminism in the late twentieth century and spirituality in a timeless sense. Might well have been hailed as the directorial debut of the year, if not for...
29. Margin Call
Writer/director J.C. Chandor assembled a cast list that reads like this debut was an Altman flick. He also told perhaps the most compelling and insightful story yet of the recent economic crash.
28. Nostalgia For The Light
This Chilean documentary is unlike any movie I've ever seen. It's various subjects are so disconnected, but come to seem completely connected...to everything. An absolutely excellent film.
27. Crazy, Stupid, Love
This was a great romcom with a fantastic cast (Carrell, Moore, Gosling, and Stone for starters) and a really smart script that didn't necessarily go where you expected it to.
26. Red State
This was Kevin Smith's best movie since Dogma. An absurdist indictment of dogmatism, homophobia, and all the vices of human nature that thrive...in a red state. Michael Parks and John Goodman are amazing.
25. Certified Copy
Kiarostami's excellent French language film (although a good bit is in English as well) starring an exquisite Juliet Binoche is one of the best films I have seen in some time that exists mostly as conversation between two characters. Surprises and twists abound in a film that turns out to be about things you never expected.
I never thought I would fall so in love with a documentary about a famous horse trainer, but I did. If you have ever had to learn to really COMMUNICATE with an animal before, with respect, then you will too. Buck himself is just a really impressive man.
23. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
I kind of wish that there had been more time between the original cinematic version of the Millennium trilogy and the English language version, so it could have seemed more "new" again to those of us who saw the Swedish film. Still, Fincher is as meticulously amazing as always and Rooney Mara gives a career launching performance as Lisbeth.
I absolutely thought Joe Wright made one of the best action films I have seen in some time here, and Ronan is an absolute knockout in the title role. Blanchette is the perfect foil for her.
One of my favorite male lead performances of the year. Rewards repeat viewings. Brutally thoughtful? Thoughtfully brutal?
20. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
I thought this concept was too tired to be relaunched in a worthwhile way, but boy was I wrong. If the lead human characters had been half as compelling as the apes this might have made my top ten,
19. We Were Here
Maybe this documentary of the real AIDS plague in 1980's San Francisco was a little more personal to me because I've lost several friends to the disease, but this film was incredibly emotionally intense.
18. The Housemaid
Yes, this Korean film was a campy melodrama, but it was a superb campy melodrama with a fantastic ensemble cast.
17. The Skin I Live In
Of course, very few can do brilliantly campy as well as Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, and this was his zaniest effort in a while. The director's reunion with Antonio Banderas, the director's own discovery, is everything I hoped it would be, and Banderas's best performance in quite some time.
16. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
A quiet, thinking man's thriller featuring an outstanding ensemble cast led capably by Gary Oldman, with a very well constructed story. Mysteries in mysteries.
Even though his performance was only in voice over, this film did more to remind me of everything I love about Depp than any film in quite some time. The rest of the film was quite clever and funny too, especially the owl narrators.
14. Project Nim
This film and Buck could almost be companion pieces. But while Buck shows everything that can go right when humans learn to communicate with animals, this film shows everything that can go wrong when we try to teach them to communicate with us. I said that Buck would touch anyone who loved animals. This documentary will both touch and horrify anyone with any humanity whatsoever.
13. A Separation
This film both tells an engaging story that helps you connect fully with all the main characters as people and gives you an insightful look into Iranian culture from an insider's prospective. Engages both your heart and mind. The cast is phenomenal.
12. The Descendants
If there was one family trying to pull out of a tailspin that was more compelling than the one in A Separation, it was the one in The Descendants. This movie is so evenly balanced between heartbreak and humor. Clooney shows greater depth than ever before, and the rest of the cast shines as well. The footage of Hawaii is also breathtaking.
It took me completely by surprise. One of the best, simplest examinations of the most primitive instincts of mankind. Near perfect lead performances.
I'm sure this film, in all it's gorgeously creative 3-D splendor, is a real treat for kids. However, when you take the whole tribute to Malle and add it into the mix, it becomes a textually complex delicacy for film geeks who never quite grew up.
This documentary was such a gorgeous work of art on so many levels. The dances, choreographed by Pina, were magnificent. The interviews with the artists that she touched were like little tribute poems, each complete within themselves, and each a part of a greater whole. The film itself, which takes these elements and mixes them into a 3-D stew, is like nothing I've ever seen before.
Weekend is not the film that you show your homophobic friends to try and make them okay with gay people. It is brutally unflinching, but touching, and above all, real. Writer/director/star Tom Cullen has concocted a simple little love story that feels more like the things I have been through in my life than any such movie I have ever seen. Both Cullen and Chris New create characters that I feel like I know. The film never preaches in any way, but so vividly paints the picture of a million little things in life that are just a little different for homosexuals. If you are gay, and you want your open minded, well meaning straight friends who just don't get it sometimes to understand your life a little better, show them Weekend. That is the movie that Weekend is.
7. Take Shelter
There were many films this year that ended abruptly in a way that was cheap and gimmicky and detracted from the film's overall quality. It was what kept films like Martha Marcy Mae Marlene and Meek's Cutoff from making this year's best list. Take Shelter ends perfectly, and the storyline progresses almost perfectly throughout. This is my first exposure to director Jeff Nichols, but I am now quite anxious to see the rest of his films. The most amazing thing about this movie, however, is the lead performance by Michael Shannon. His depiction of a man unsure if he is having prophetic visions or losing his mind is my favorite lead male performance of the year, and he had some very stiff competition in that arena. Jessica Chastain also delivers commendable supporting work.
6. The Artist
Okay, so it won Best Picture at the Oscars this year and if you are the sort of person who reads "Best of" lists you've probably seen it already. And if you did, you don't need me to tell you what was great about it. It's not a subtle movie. Dujardin and Bejo are electric presences on the screen. Uggy the dog is the cutest thing caught on film in a long time. It's easily accessible without being shallow. It makes you laugh and cry and cheer and want to dance. It is perfectly rewatchable and re-rewatchable. It is quite possibly the greatest expression of joy caught on film in some time.
Does everyone know about what happened with Melancholia at Cannes last year? How director Lars von Trier made comments that indicated some sort of admiration for the Nazis. Maybe it was meant to be ironic. Who knows? Lars von Trier is freaking crazy. You only have to watch his films to know that. However, the same thing could be said of Edgar Allen Poe and his writings. Sometimes crazy and brilliant go hand in hand and Melancholia could be the man's masterpiece but his snafu at Cannes blocked its awards hopes for the rest of the year. It also torpedoed the awards hopes of Kirsten Dunst, who gives a career best performance, my favorite female lead of the year. I had to rewatch the first fifteen minutes like a dozen times over before I could move on to the rest of the film. It was so beautiful, and...melancholy. Maybe my favorite cinematic representation of the Apocalypse ever.
4. We Need To Talk About Kevin
If A Separation and The Descendants are brilliant portrayals of families in tailspin, We Need To Talk About Kevin is director Lynne Ramsey's master portrait of a family after the fatal crash. Tilda Swinton is an amazingly talented actress and this may be her best role ever, but she is almost overshadowed by Ezra Miller who gives my favorite male supporting turn of the year. She is the epitome of a woman whose opportunities for happiness have all been shattered. He is perhaps the most twisted young man ever caught on film. The look of the entire production is so vivid and unique, almost like a dream, but far too lush. Every time things look up, just a bit, reality slaps our heroine in the face. Sometimes literally. This film is very hard to watch at times, but is ultimately highly rewarding.
Art house indie artistic sensibilities meet B-movie action flick for some of the most stylized and brutal violence ever put to screen. Director Nicholas Winding Refn definitely has a unique vision for the cinema. Star Ryan Gosling says more with fewer words than in any other performance this year. Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks (cast ingeniously against type), Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston, and Oscar Isaac round out a stellar supporting cast. Almost everything about this film is perfectly executed, right down to the costuming department's choice of scorpion jacket.
Watching this film is one of the most painful cinematic experiences imaginable in this beautifully aching way. Fassbender and Mulligan as Brandon and Sissy are two of the most irredeemably flawed but completely sympathetic characters ever put on the screen. Brandon is a sex addict, and spends all his days either searching for satisfaction or hiding the efforts of his search from the rest of the world. Sissy, a horridly depressed young woman has holes in her own soul that she doesn't seem to be able to fill. They are all each other has in this world, and are totally unable to be there for one another. And it's truly a shame. Beautifully written, photographed, directed (by Steve McQueen, who also wrote it) and acted. Breathtaking, touching, and horrifying.
1. The Tree of Life
It's so difficult to talk about this movie without sounding like some appallingly smug new age self help guru, but I'll do my best. The Tree of Life is not for everybody. It is very long, it unfolds unapologetically at its own pace, and follows very little linear plot line. If you think that you have the patience and attention span for it, though, it is really, truly a masterpiece. I've never seen a story that is told like this in a way that is brazenly archetypal yet completely slice of life. It is the story of a mundane, Everyman kind of 1950's nuclear family and it is a story that encompasses the birth of the universe and the shores of eternity. Terrence Malick is one of the most unique storytellers working in any medium. The cast is spectacular, even though they are given very little dialogue or action. Much of the story is told simply in symbolic images. Whatever else time judges this film to be, it will always be remembered as the film that introduced Jessica Chastain to the world, and she is astounding.
And that, is that. Except, of course, that we still have one more chapter to this book. Join me next weekend for the genre awards. I'll see you then...