It’s that time of the year again. That time of the year when movie critics left, right, high, and low post their year-end favorite lists. Any year-end list is, by definition, subjective, a list that reflects the writer’s biases, prejudices, and real/reel-world experiences, but we can also agree that our choices in film reflect certain agreed-upon elements that, together or in part, signify quality filmmaking. In addition, a year-end list can be seen as a contribution to the ongoing conversation and dialogue between critics, cineastes, and filmgoers. Herewith, forthwith, and heretofore are the films that resonated the strongest with me (in reverse order). As with any list, your mileage may (and probably will) vary. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts, positive, negative, or even neutral, in the comments field below.
10. INTO THE ABYSS: The seemingly tireless Werner Herzog released not one, but two well-received documentaries this year, CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, a literal and metaphorical exploration of the oldest cave drawings known to science, in the spring, and INTO THE ABYSS, a difficult, thought-provoking, and unsurprisingly given the subject matter, heart-wrenching documentary that explores a single death penalty case from every practical angle (e.g., the murder itself, the perpetrators, the victims, and the death house workers) in the state of Texas. A staunch death penalty opponent, Herzog stays offscreen, respectfully giving everyone the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings about the death penalty or, in the case of a death-row inmate, his impending mortality.
9. MEEK’S CUTOFF: Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist, arthouse Western (in the loosest definition of that term), follows an increasingly desperate group of pioneers headed for the Promised Land become literally and metaphorically lost in the Oregon High Desert. Using a full, box-like frame that subtly contributes to a sense of unease and oppression while eschewing close-ups, Reichardt and her collaborators, including writer Jonathan Raymond and a stellar cast led by Michelle Williams (in yet another award-worthy role), crafts a uniquely unforgettable existential, historical drama. It’s also a carefully calibrated examination of gender and gender roles, far more fluid than otherwise assumed, circa 1845.
8. SHAME: Steven McQueen and Michael Fassbender’s second collaboration (after HUNGER three years ago), SHAME, received an “NC-17” rating from the MPAA for its ample male nudity and (joyless) sex scenes, but SHAME is far more than just, as someone semi-cleverly put it, “full frontal Fassbender,” it’s also a deeply affecting character study of a damaged, tortured sex addict and his dysfunctional relationship with his younger, unstable sister played by a career-best Carey Mulligan. It’s their troubled relationship that elevates SHAME above addiction narrative tropes and into an uncompromising, raw, authentic near-masterpiece.
7. THE SKIN I LIVE IN: Showing little or no sign of slowing down, Pedro Almodóvar, the crown prince of subversive, melodramatic excess returned this year with THE SKIN I LIVE IN, his first collaboration in twenty years with one-time muse Antonio Banderas as a supremely deranged, surprisingly sympathetic, Frankenstein-inspired “mad doctor” who decides to play God remakes one, not-so-innocent woman (played by Elena Anaya) in the image of his long-dead, adulterous wife. A seeming ode or homage to Georges Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE, THE SKIN I LIVE IN take a sudden, unexpected turn into polymorphous perversity (among many other perversities) and never looks back. At times blackly comic, at other times blackly horrific, and sometimes both at once, THE SKIN I LIVE IN must be seen and experienced to be disbelieved (and then seen and experienced again).
6. RANGO: Best known for THE PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN trilogy that made Johnny Depp into one of, if not the, biggest international box office draws, Gore Verbinski wisely passed on directing another entry in the franchise, instead focusing his not-inconsiderable visual and storytelling talents to his first animated feature, RANGO, a Spaghetti Western-flavored, CHINATOWN-influenced comedy that starred Depp as the title character, a one-time pet chameleon and aspiring thespian who finds himself embroiled in a dying town’s politics and a nefarious plan to control the town’s ever-diminishing water supply. With creatures no Pixar animator would love, let alone draw, and stunning, eye-catching cinematography thanks, in part, to an assist from ace cinematographer/frequent Coen Brothers’ collaborator Roger Deakins, RANGO isn’t just the best animated film of the year; it’s one of the year’s best films in this or any other category.
5. DRIVE: Call it neo-noir, call it neon-noir, or call it an exercise of style (over substance, presumably) if you prefer, but Danish filmmaker Nicholas Winding Refn’s adaptation of James Sallis’ crime novel, DRIVE, a collaboration with, among others, Ryan Gosling as the loner anti-hero, Carey Mulligan as the obligatory romantic interest/object of desire, and Albert Brooks as a sociopathic gangster, offered semi-adventurous moviegoers a singular experience. Admittedly, Winding Refn’s mix of visual poetry and ultra-violence left some moviegoers and even some critics queasy and disquieted, but moviegoers with strong stomachs willing to look past the violence or accept it on its own uncompromising terms saw a film that respected the genre and elevated at the same time.
4. MELANCHOLIA: Provocateur-extraordinaire Lars von Trier caused an outcry at this year’s Cannes Film Festival that resulted in his banishment over ill-conceived, ill-timed comments but with time comes perspective (and forgetfulness). More importantly, critics and moviegoers could evaluate von Trier’s latest film, MELANCHOLIA, explores, among other things, the deleterious effects clinical depression has on Justine (a career-best Kirsten Dunst), her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and their respective families as a rogue planet, dubbed “Melancholia” (a massive, perhaps over-obvious, metaphor), heads on a collision course for Earth. The world ends, not with a whimper, but with a bang, a huge, explosive bang that destroys all life (no, that’s not a spoiler). More importantly for von Trier, the impending apocalypse gives him (and us) the opportunity to explore two lives under incredible duress. A surreal, lyrical, poetic prologue edited to Richard Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde,” and MELANCHOLIA emerges as one of von Trier’s strongest films (one of his most accessible too).
3. MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE: A remarkable feature-length debut from writer-director Sean Durkin and actress Elizabeth Olsen (the younger, more talented sister to the Olsen Twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley), MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE shifts and slips between genres and categories (e.g., psychological thriller, psychological horror, cult expose, family drama, etc.). Durkin likes to keep his audience guessing and, more importantly, thinking. Employing a time-shifting narrative to disquieting, disturbing effect, a simulation of the lead characters troubled state of mind. Through carefully doled out exposition, Martha’s experiences in a repressive cult led by a charismatic leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), shed light on why she joined and why, ultimately, she left. Not one to limit his critique to cults, Durkin takes aim at conspicuous consumption and materialism as well through Martha’s older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy).
2. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY: Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (LET THE RIGHT ONE IN) and an award-worthy Gary Oldman (the first among equals in an all-star cast that includes John Hurt, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, and Benedict Cumberbatch) bring John le Carré’s dense, convoluted 1974 novel to the big screen with complex, layered thematics and subtext (duplicity, betrayal, etc.) intact. In interviews, Alfredson said he wanted to recreate the smell of “damp tweed” with his period-specific adaptation of le Carré’s Cold War novel. He, along with his production designer, Maria Djurkovic, and cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema, succeeded admirably. Oldman gives a layered, nuanced performance as George Smiley (a role originated by Alec Guinness in the 1979 BBC miniseries), a taciturn, reserved retired/unretired spymaster searching for a Soviet mole inside the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.
1. THE TREE OF LIFE: Terence Malick’s fifth film in four decades and his first in four decades, THE TREE OF LIFE was nothing less (and much, much more) than a treatise on life, the universe, and everything. Malick explores universal themes and ideas about the relationships between fathers and sons, mothers and sons, brothers and brothers, morality, and religion through the prism of Texas-based family in the late 1950s. Bookending THE TREE OF LIFE with present-day search for reconciliation, Malick segues into nothing less than the birth of the cosmos, the origin of organic life on earth, evolution, and the birth of THE TREE OF LIFE’s central character, Jack (Hunter McCracken as a boy, Sean Penn as an adult). A collage of golden-hued impressions and sense-memories, often delivered with minimal dialogue or whispered interior narration, THE TREE OF LIFE offers a visceral, emotional, and intellectual experience unlike anything else moviegoers will see and hear this or any year.
The Next Ten:
11. JANE EYRE, 12. NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT, 13. YOUNG ADULT, 14. TABLOID, 15. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, 16. THE ARTIST, 17. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, 18. CERTIFIED COPY, 19. PROJECT NIM, 20. SENNA.
The Spielberg Award for Mawkish, Maudlin Sentimentality (a.k.a. Schmaltz): Three-way tie between Steven Spielberg for WAR HORSE, Stephen Daldry for EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE, and Martin Scorsese for HUGO.
The ‘Male Weepie’ Award: WARRIOR by a landslide of sweaty, grunting men working out their dysfunctional family issues in an ultra-contrived mixed-martial arts competition.