The Year's Best Films
1. This is Not a Film This is the rare film that is more: a rebellious yawp over the rooftops of the world, a vital social document, a moral but illegal political statement. World-class filmmaker Jafar Panahi (Crimson Gold) has frequently tangled with the Iranian government, which sentenced him in 2010 to a six-year jail term and a twenty-year ban on making films. And so, under house arrest and pursuing an appeal, Panahi called over friend and filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, whose camcorder captures a self-reflective Panahi heroically straining against his bonds to achieve that most noble of artistic goals: speaking truth to power.
2. The Turin Horse Art isn't always easy to take, and Béla Tarr's valedictory film is downright devastating: a long, hard look into the void. And yet the 146-minute picture—a plain-unspoken account of the apocalypse unfolding in and around a remote rural farmhouse—is enlivened by Tarr's thoughtful construction, minimalist takes, and breathtaking black-and-white cinematography. This uncompromisingly bleak appraisal of man's inhumanity to everything and sad/fierce endurance to the bitter end is not for Friday-night viewing (perhaps Sunday morning?).
3. The Dark Knight Rises Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, like Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings triple-play, ambitiously lifted genre filmmaking to an epic plane. Like its two predecessors, The Dark Knight Rises gives us what we hope for in popular cinema: it's big, bold, savvy and thrilling, with an astonishingly accomplished acting ensemble etching memorable characters (especially, here, Tom Hardy's hulking villain Bane) and Wally Pfister's IMAX photography reminding us why we go to a movie theater. And in spite of a real-life madman's attempt to hijack the film, its hero—himself a survivor of gun violence—insists, "No guns."
4. Life of Pi Like IMAX, 3D has the studios reliving '50s efforts to get us away from our TVs, and few filmmakers have better employed it than does master craftsman Ang Lee in Life of Pi. This clever adaptation of Yann Martel's bestseller—double-framed by pointed storytelling and spiritual reflection—ticks away a postmodern Robinson Crusoe-style adventure then detonates a mind-blower about perception in the face of trauma, nature, existence (if indeed there's any difference amongst the three). The tiger doesn't look back. Is Ang Lee getting away with this? Yes he is, at your local multiplex, in splashy, colorful 3D.
5. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia With poker-faced good humor and measured melancholy, Nuri Bilge Ceylan resuscitates the police procedural as provincial slice-of-life in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Law & Order meets Samuel Beckett, with a dash of Armando Iannucci. Violence lingers, humanity yearns—the flower that could in hardscrabble terrain.
6. The Kid with a Bike An aching story of childhood need, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's latest breathes as steadily as life itself. With his directors, Thomas Doret forges a vision in red as eleven-year-old Cyril, a reckless, heart-on-his-sleeve little man—shoved too soon into his coming of age—who chases a deadbeat dad and a desired makeshift mom.
7. Ruby Sparks The comedy of the year was also a lovely calling card for screenwriter-star Zoe Kazan. Nimbly directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Ruby Sparks cut right to the heart of a near-universal ailment of the human condition—romantic fantasy—with a clever allegorical conceit that plays like vintage Woody Allen.
8. The Deep Blue Sea Terence Davies does Terence Rattigan in this elegant, lushly emotional psychodrama, brilliantly performed by the triangle of Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddeston and Simon Russell Beale. Torrid and beautiful, The Deep Blue Sea locates a wellspring of hope under layers of pain.
9. The Master Slippery but legitimately haunting, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master is a true motion picture: a painting to step back and ponder, portraiture that achieves an imitation of life. The power dynamic between two quintessentially American men—one an unstoppable force, the other an immovable object—plays out as a struggle for masculine supremacy, defined by power and control, or perhaps as a sublimated erotic dance. Either way, we get a master class in acting: Joaquin Phoenix sublimely spontaneous as a damaged veteran, Philip Seymour Hoffman thundering as a spiritual flim-flam man.
10. The Queen of Versailles More wildly, trashily entertaining than any reality TV show, Lauren Greenfield's The Queen of Versailles somehow winds up being the Citizen Kane of documentaries: a horrifying look into America's blood-in-the-gears capitalist engine and WalMart soul. The nouveau-riche Siegels have, to paraphrase the Bard, bought a mansion but not yet possessed it, their empty Xanadu a symbol of credit-culture consumerism biting the hand that fed it.
More top docs: How to Survive a Plague, The Imposter, The Invisible War, The Island President, The Gatekeepers.
The Year's Worst Films (There But For the Grace of God Go You): General Education, Parental Guidance, The Lucky One, Playing for Keeps, That's My Boy, Darling Companion, Cloud Atlas, Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, Trouble with the Curve, Won't Back Down.
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