10. Django Unchained
Tarantino’s orgy of revenge returns with Django. As Tarantino has shown a distinct love for throwbacks to classic film genres, it seems fitting that he would take on the spaghetti western. It’s somewhere between an homage and a reboot, but never too much of one or the other. The highlight of the film is, as in most Tarantino films, the dialogue. Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and to a lesser degree, Jamie Foxx, are given the kind of witty repartee that is so much fun to listen to. Waltz, as in Inglorious Basterds, shows himself as an actor who really knows how to deliver Tarantino’s lines, and can find the comedy, the tension, the venom – he’s constantly making great choices. Though the ending of the film keeps it from being higher on my list, there are enough great scenes to make it one of the best films of this year.
I’ve always enjoyed the James Bond franchise, and it’s exciting to see such a return to form with Skyfall. Great action, a good story, development into Bond’s past, a phenomenal villain, and enough nods to the history of the franchise, that I could almost see them closing the series on this one. It doesn’t fall into a lot of the traps that make for lesser Bond films – the Bond girl isn’t inserted perfunctorily, the villain doesn’t have an unbelievable scientific plot (sharks with lasers, anyone?), there’s no fortress made of ice. It’s a solid action movie that has everything you want from James Bond. Besides, it’s got Roger Deakins, Sam Mendes, AND Javier Bardem. Those three alone are almost enough to make it a great movie, Bond or no Bond.
Michael Haneke again shows us that he is a filmmaker with a tremendous sense of control. One of his great strengths is in holding a scene to the point of uncomfortable, then past that, which causes his audiences to forget some of the inherent artifice of cinema. This is a filmmaker who doesn’t waste a long shot. The story has very little plot development – a husband cares for his ailing wife. Yet every scene is a small piece of a puzzle that ultimately leads to a heart-rending conclusion. Amour explores not only old age, but how love must adapt to old age. Emmanuelle Riva’s transformation throughout her illness is spectacular, so natural that it’s easy to forget she’s acting. Haunting performances, the claustrophobia of the Laurents’ apartment, and the weight of the circumstances give the film a sad, frightening, beauty.
7. Holy Motors
“Unexplainable” is a good word for Holy Motors, which for some viewers will unquestionably make it a miserable experience. There is little over-arching plot, erratic character development and several scenes of the bizarre and surreal. Perhaps it’s not meant to be explained, and trying to do so may be what is frustrating for some viewers. What’s surprising is that it is a film with a clear tone, though constantly shifting, and one that has a lot to say about art and film. While audiences generally try to engage with a film like this on an intellectual level, Holy Motors confounds us by appealing to us on a purely aesthetic level. It uses this approach to explore different genres of film and the reason we watch. It’s not a movie that gives any answers, but instead presents a carnival of scenes and characters, linked together maybe by nothing more than us, the audience. Even if you walk out scratching your head, the images stick with you, and that’s got to count for something.
Compliance is perhaps the most uncomfortable film of the year, because it delves into an uncomfortable aspect of the human condition. We don’t want to believe that people are willing to go so far in submission to authority – you may have heard people walking out of your screening saying “Well, that would never really happen.” Except that it did, many, many times. Writer/director Craig Zobel builds each character’s reactions expertly, and with subtlety. Dreama Walker’s gradual helplessness, Pat Healy’s nonchalant monstrosity, and especially Ann Dowd’s befuddled compliance all fit together in a story to shocking to be fiction. We may all walk in thinking we could never do what these characters do – but walk out feeling not so sure.
5. Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty seems to me a like a step forwards for Kathryn Bigelow. While Hurt Locker was a stirring and realistic account of Americans at war in the Middle East, Zero Dark Thirty goes a step beyond that, to show more of the dirty reality, and how it hits home. The fact that most Americans will remember these events give the story that much more weight. It brings us in, almost as participants in the hunt. We know what it was like to wonder where he was, we know what it was like to want him brought to justice. And while we’re rooting for the protagonists in that regard, we can’t help but feel conflicted about the means used. Intelligence is a dirty business now as much as it was in the days of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – Bigelow’s film shares Le Carré’s touch in presenting us with the events, and letting us wonder if there should be a better way.
4. Moonrise Kingdom
I’ll admit I’m a Wes Anderson apologist, so it’s going to be hard for him to make a movie I don’t enjoy. While I don’t feel like this is his best film (as some have said), I think it’s still a great movie, packed with the filmmaker’s trademark wit, heart, and precision. Bruce Willis is a surprising addition to the cadre of Anderson’s performers, but he fits in well with a heart-warming performance. It seems to make great sense that eventually the leads of one of Anderson’s films would be children, as he consistently seems interested with childhood. His leads don’t disappoint, and carry the whole film adeptly. And every old standby who stops by is likely to give you a smile. Also, makes a strong case that every movie should be narrated by Bob Balaban.
3. Silver Linings Playbook
Who knew mental illness could be so much fun? In Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell finds a balance between the madcap wackiness of I Heart Huckabees and the dramatic seriousness of The Fighter. He’s able to hit that mark where although every character is deeply flawed, we can’t help liking them. The dialogue is witty, and more importantly, quick – there’s never a lull long enough for the comedic energy to fall. Bradley Cooper shows that he has chops beyond his leading man good looks, Jennifer Lawrence stands her ground against heavyweights like Robert DeNiro, and DeNiro – everyone is saying these are the sorts of roles he should be playing, and they’re right.
2. Beasts of the Southern Wild
The childish wonder and optimism that moves Beasts of the Southern Wild (driven by pint-sized Quvenzhane Wallis) reminds us of a world where anything’s possible. You couldn’t be in a much worse state that Wallis’ Hushpuppy, but she finds the inner strength to accept the world that crumbles around her, and press on. The performances are so natural, and the tone is so entrancing, that you almost don’t want to leave their world. It’s a film that fully recognizes the decay and destruction of our world, but gives us a new perspective, the perspective of folks who will not go gently into that good night. Instead, they’ll live life to the fullest, even if the entire world collapses around them.
1. The Master
The Master is able to achieve so much as a piece of cinema. Its scenes are beautifully and thoughtfully constructed, it builds tension even in the smallest moments, and its characters are vivid enough to jump off the screen. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance digs deep into a man who isn’t so deep, showing a struggle that confounds the character while it draws in the audience. It has a whirling mystery about it, just as Lancaster Dodd might. Some find the ending enigmatic, but it seems to me that the film’s conclusion completely rounds out Phoenix’s character. And the “processing” scene is probably the best scene in any movie this year.
DIDN’T SEE: This is Not a Film, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Tabu, Oslo August 31, Jiro Dreams of Sushi among others