Honorable Mentions:Warrior, Pina, Kid with a Bike, The Adventures of Tintin, The Trip, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Descendants, Beginners, 50/50, Rango, Tree of Life, Drive
Definitely spoilers, at least in the Favorite Scene sections!
10. Tie: Girl With The Dragon Tattoo & War Horse (dir. David Fincher & Steven Spielberg)
Whaaat?! I know, outrageous! But for realsies. While Tattoo is not Fincher’s best and War Horse is not Spielberg’s best, both films demonstrate why the two men are masters at what they do and I loved each. War Horse is Spielberg’s old fashioned epic, paying tribute to one of his own favorite directors, John Ford, and he achieves the schmaltzy tear jerking results of this horse’s story in a completely genuine way. I was swept away and an experience that strong shouldn’t be discounted. Fincher elevates a fairly pedestrian murder mystery with a dark sensuality and the moody, raw precision he always brings to the table and creates an energy between Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth and Daniel Craig’s Mikael that make their scenes together crackle. Mara is a revelation and her Lisbeth is the heroine I’ve been waiting for.
Favorite Scene: Lisbeth takes her clothes off and tells Mikael what’s about to happen. She continues on the path towards claiming her power by claiming her sexuality and Mikael is drawn to her intensity as much as we are.
As a Jew who went on birthright this year, I have no qualms about calling this movie, Israel’s official foreign language selection for the Oscars, one of the most delightfully Jewish pieces of fiction I’ve seen in years. It’s witty, intelligent, moving, and riddled with guilt and inferiority complexes. This story about a father and son, Professor Shkolnik and Professor Shkolnik, who both work at Hebrew University in Jerusalem studying the Talmud, asks the question, when does a role model become a rival and the student become the competition? It presents the theory that in a battle of egos, he who realizes humility first is always the winner. Expect your loyalties to fly all over the place in this smart, whimsical, and ultimately tragic intellectual comedy from acclaimed director Joseph Cedar. Inventive storytelling, a jaunty score, and top-notch performances help elevate an already brilliant script (it won the Screenplay award at Cannes) to even greater heights. To delve too much into the specifics of why this tale is so riveting would be to give too much away, but it’s an absolute must-see.
Favorite Scene: It involves Uriel (the younger Shkolnik) and a tiny room full of scholars and a lawyer, and is one of the only sequences in the entire film where the score drops out completely.
8. Young Adult (dir. Jason Reitman)
A film I wasn’t expecting to make it onto my top anything, due to the fact that I tend to dislike both Jason Reitman and Charlize Theron. But leave it to Diablo “Jennifer’s Body is highly underrated and I love it” Cody to bring them together in a fashion as exciting as Young Adult. I’ve encountered more people who hate this film than perhaps any of the smaller divisive movies this year, and that’s the way it should be. The protagonist, if one can even call Theron’s Mavis Garry that, is an awful human being, and represents all that we keep repressed (and for good reason). Whether or not people this awful actually exist is beside the point. The whole movie is one ballsy choice after after, one tip of the hat and then slap in the face to every cliche that could exist in a film like this, and climaxes with one of the most upsetting scenes on the big screen this year when Mavis has a conversation with someone stuck in the same arrested development that she is (played fantastically by Collette Wolfe) and we see her grip on the doorknob to reality slowly start to loosen. We see the hero’s journey on the screen all the time, but how often do we see the hero take the journey and get talked out of learning anything from it? Controversial, and to many a poor choice, to me, was exciting and fresh, and has stuck with me weeks and weeks after seeing the film.
Favorite Scene: At the child’s naming ceremony, we find out why Buddy and his wife have been so nice to Mavis.
7. The Loneliest Planet (dir. Julia Loktev)
From AFI Wrap Up:
The winner of the Grand Jury prize at AFI, and for good reason, this story about the notion of what is masculine and feminine and the roles their fluctuation plays in our lives and relationships connected with me on a deep and immediate level. Nica (the charming Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) are on a backpacking trip together in the Republic of Georgia, happily engaged to be wed. She is goofy yet tough, he is strong yet caring, and they are the picture of perfection. While in the mountains with their tour guide, Dato, a moment occurs that is so small, so brief, so fleeting that if you look down at the wrong time you *will* miss it, but a moment so powerful that it dramatically alters the dynamic of this perfect couple, perhaps forever. Guilt, shame, resentment, and passive aggression swallow the second half of the movie, a sharp contrast from the light, adventurous beauty of the first half. A landscape which at once seemed so freeing and filled with potential becomes claustrophobic and uncomfortable. A film like this, with little dialogue and almost no action, could have easily crashed and burned in lesser hands, but Loktev’s confident direction has you completely enraptured, aching for a satisfying resolution but unsure if one could ever be possible. In a year filled with films about the huge ramifications of something tiny (A Separation, Margaret), The Loneliest Planet got to me the most.
Favorite Scene: Directly after the “incident,” Nica and Alex walk on opposite sides of the screen, a range of emotions hanging in the air, the only sound to speak of coming from the repetitive plodding of their shoes in the muddy terrain.
6. The Skin I Live In (dir. Pedro Almodovar)
My favorite of Almodovars oeuvre, this mad scientist tale about power and identity with a B horror movie spin immediately entered my top ten the moment it ended. Beautifully stylized and disturbing in all the right ways, this is not only one of the best by Almodovar, but it also manages to comment on our expectations of him while combining many of the themes and motifs he holds so dear. The first half of the film, he takes great care to convince us he might be headed one way, a way we would expect, and then turns our expectations so on their head, it’s a type of shocking I didn’t know existed. One of many films this year that deals with the relationship between father and daughter and mother and son, but the only one featuring synthetic skin, most beautiful woman in the world, Elena Anaya, Antonio Bandares scaring the bejesus out of me, wardrobe by Gaultier, and perhaps my favorite score of the year by Alberto Iglesias, stop whatever you’re doing and go find it now before it leaves theaters.
Favorite Scene: We are simultaneously relieved and horrified to discover Vera is not Dr.Ledgard’s daughter as Almodovar had been leading us to believe, but the boy who unwittingly sexually assaulted her. Best. Revenge. Story. Ever.
5. Take Shelter (dir. Jeff Nichols)
This real world telling of the week leading up to the apocalypse and the man who sees it coming (or such is my interpretation) hit me very strongly. Michael Shannon as Curtis won we over right away. No matter how drastic or crazy his actions may have seemed to everyone else in his small town, I was with him from start to finish. The differences between dream, hallucination and reality are all in the details in a film like this and the clues are there if you can catch them. A wonderful little film with a powerful lead performance by Shannon, supported by the warm, effective Jessica Chastain, nailed exactly what it set out to do. I love it when stories are “secretly genre”. About time travel, about aliens, about a man becoming a prophet, whatever it is, but set in such a real world setting that we as an audience question which direction it will head in until the very end. Unlike movies which call themselves “superheros in a real world” but clearly exist on another plane of reality, movies like Take Shelter ring home and ring true because it’s so far from typical genre fare. The fact that it is all a strong metaphor for how the economic crisis is affecting families across the country makes the film not only powerful on its own, but a true signifier of the times, tapping into our current collective fears on the basest of levels. A wonderful outing by Nichols. I look forward to his work in the future.
Favorite Scene: We start to shift from thinking he is crazy to thinking he might be right when a lightening storm reflects on his face. If he is hallucinating, how is this visible when the camera turns around? He asks “Is anyone seeing this?” And the remainder of the film hurtles toward a conclusion that supports this glimmer.
4. Midnight in Paris (dir. Woody Allen)
We all have a tendency to think we belong in another time period. That people used to have it so good. That we don’t belong here. When the fact of the matter is we are the masters of our own universe and are always capable of reaching the magic of our fantasies in the present. Owen Wilson’s Gil goes through a lot to get there. I see Midnight in Paris as almost a personification of a man going on an educational journey of sorts, reading all the greats in fiction and theory, in finding a journal of someone majestic and inserting himself into her life. But seeing his learning process played out in reality with these famous figures, and with this woman, makes the process of a life lesson all the more enjoyable. Gil learns a lot on his magical journey, but most of all that he can apply everything he has gained into the present as well and make the most of what he has and can have. Paris is the film this year that brought me the most pure joy. A brilliant company of actors having the time of their lives, locations to die for, dialogue an actor must ache to say, this charming Woody Allen flick is easily one of the best of the year.
Favorite Scene: In a clever storytelling move, Gil goes back with Adriana to her favorite era, the 1890s, and makes the decision to return to the present.
3. Melancholia (dir. Lars Von Trier)
I saw this film the earliest of every movie on this list, and it’s one that has stuck with me most through thick and thin over the past several months. From the stunning opening, to the longest wedding scene since The Deer Hunter to the inevitable inching closer of the Melancholia we all try to battle away and cope with in our own ways, the film is at once depressing and uplifting. Even if Melancholia impacting our lives and existence is inevitable, it is up to us how we respond to it and Lars Von Trier presents us with an array of attitudes to adopt and ways to go: the fatalist, the coward, the optimist, the innocent, etc. Ultimately, dealing with tragedy with a curiosity, an honesty, and an understanding are the methods that stand out most. And perhaps the best part of Melancholia? Everyone has a different interpretation and each one I read affects me just as much as the last. With stellar performances all around, deserving of a Best Ensemble award as much as any other film this year, and using the medium of cinema to its fullest degree, Melancholiawould be my choice for the “artsy fartsy” slot at the Oscars,though I know it will most likely go toTree of Life, with an outside chance of it beingDrive, if any "artsy fartsy" film is rewarded at all.
Favorite Scene: Justine’s forelorn new husband says goodbye to her as she is overwhelmed with her depression and he realizes it just won’t work. Her disinterest and his heartbreak are palpable.
2. Hugo (dir. Martin Scorsese)
Scorsese’s latest was an unexpected joy this year. A love letter to cinema much more than the other ode to silent film out this year, for the first time, a director utilizes the medium of 3D as an integral part of storytelling, perhaps only rivaled this year in necessity, though for different reasons, by Wim Wender’s Pina. Telling a story about a man who dreamed big and put those dreams on celluloid, inspiring the rest of the world is one thing. To use the newest form of technology we have in cinema today to actually make us *feel* how Georges Méliès’ audiences felt when watching his innovative films that pushes the boundaries of what movies could be? That takes a master. We learn about one of the true early auteurs who shied away from the art he loved so for reasons based in upsetting reality, and get to see a beautiful take on this alternative universe tale of the boy who helps him rediscover his passion and the impact he made on the world. This is the film for anyone who has lost sight of their dreams, and in today’s world, that’s just as important as a movie that makes us think about war, about humanity, about the economic crisis, about family, and more, because ultimately, dreams are what keeps us going and Hugo explores this beautifully.
Favorite Scene: Hugo, Isabelle and Rene show up at Méliès’ house and play the film for his wife. Everyone in the room and the audience is moved and reinvigorated.
1. We Need to Talk About Kevin (dir. Lynne Ramsey)
No amount of nurture seems to be able to bring the titular boy in Lynne Ramsay’s bold return to the silver screen out of the darkness. This is a film so relentlessly upsetting that to even think about it is to rip a tiny tear in your soul. Tilda Swinton plays Eva, a mother dealing with her son’s unquenchable thirst for destruction. Screaming nonstop as a baby and staying in diapers till well into elementary school are signs pointing to a defect in the boy, but all the doctors deem him normal. Still, Eva sees a side to him hidden from the rest of the world. The rot inside of him seems aimed solely at his mother and taking her down one notch at a time. But no matter how disturbed she gets by his actions, and how designed he is to ruin her, he is her son, she loves him, and nothing means more to her than his acceptance, no matter the cost.
Ultimately, Kevin feels the same way about his mother, seeking a deeper connection to the person he felt never truly loved him, as he was initially unwanted and the reason why his mother’s passion for travel had to come to an end. I’ve heard the the film described, specifically by David Ehrlich at Movies.com as a “lovestory” between Kevin and Eva,and I couldn’t agree more. Because we see the film from Eva’s perspective, we relate to her exasperation with him and it isn’t until the movie is long over that we begin to think back on her mothering skills and wonder how much they may have affected Kevin’s outcome and his idea of how to connect with her.
Tilda Swinton bears her soul with the performance of her career, John C. Riley does a fine job as her optimistically oblivious husband, and Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller shine as Kevin. Both (along with toddler Kevin Rock Duer) are stunningly beautiful and portray their up and down moments with a twisted believability.
Favorite Scene: Kevin gets sick to his stomach and for a brief evening, shows his mother the love she craves. Although he resorts to his cruel tendencies the next morning, their bond on that night has repercussions for years to come. Whether his behavior was genuine or part of a plan to upset his mother further is left to the viewer, as all dissections of the emotions running so high in this film are, but no scene better captures the heartbreak of a parent’s worst nightmare coming true, than this all too momentary look into what Eva’s life could have been.
List of films I’ve seen this year can be found here.
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