It’s that time of year again, and as fans will know, I am not a fan of lists. They’ve become a necessity, and they at least serve the purpose of providing readers with a kind of barometer of a critic, but they give less and more information than they seem to, and at some point the organization of them strikes me as rather crazy.
You’ve got The Artist, Source Code, and Hugo, now figure out what order those go in, and which is the “better” film. Then throw in Drive, Shame, and Martha Marcy May Marlene.
The ultimate comparison inherent in any best list makes less sense as you become more serious about it.
Thus, most years I ramble on about lists in general. This year, I’m more interested in the year itself. It was a year that kicked off with me thinking it was going to be an incredibly easy list, because I would be lucky if I ended up with ten to put in the top, and ended being a year that left me with a top 15. I expected to like hardly anything, and ended up liking more films than I usually do.
Plus, it was a year with a very particular flavor to it, which is not something I generally find to be the case.
Before we jump right into the list, I want to mention a couple of movies that are nowhere to be found on this list, which a lot of people might expect to see. That’s especially true, because with the long list of “runners up,” you’d expect to see just about anything.
These are War Horse, Tree of Life, and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.
War Horse isn’t a bad film, and it might well have made it to one of the below sets of “not quite on the list” films, but I leave it off mainly because it is so overrated. A fine enough evening’s entertainment, but it’s so slipshod and heavy-handed with its elements, that it’s hard to even pretend it’s a serious film at all. It is, quite frankly, extremely near to being mockery of other sappy war and/or animal films.
A similar point leaves The Tree of Life off the list, mainly because the film is the equivalent of modern art, in a really bad way. I remember once going to a modern art show and running across a “painting” that consisted entirely of 1″ alternating dark blue/light blue, horizontal lines on an approximately five foot square canvas. I’m open to suggestions on the varying “uses”, “methods”, and “modes” of artwork, and if nothing else it might be interesting to hear what the artist had in mind when creating the work. Then I saw the dark green/light green one, and the dark red/light red one, and I all I could think was, “Pffffff…”
The Tree of Life is the dark green/light green one. Filled with a variety of tangential nonsense that serves (if it serves any function at all, which is a very live question) only to allow the filmmaker to say, “I am saying something very important,” the statement behind the film is one we’re all very familiar with, only in its most grandiose form. It is moreover the film equivalent of that annoying guy you work with who thrusts things everyone already knows into the conversation as though he invented the idea.
It goes over well, by and large, with critics, in an Emperor’s Clothes sort of way, because it’s so artsy that no one wants to be the one to call it out.
On the other hand, Brad Pitt is really good in it.
Finally, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close isn’t on the list because sappy tripe that is only made to get on lists isn’t allowed on my lists. For the right person, it’s pretty good though, and Hanks performs better than the film deserves.
Now, I’m going to start with a lot of movies that weren’t really good enough to be really close to being on the list, but are worthy of mention for one reason or another.
Also, keep in mind that, opposed to lists as I am, in a couple months any ordering might be completely different, and on another day many of the “lowest” mentions might be in the top 15. On the other hand, nothing outside the top 15 is really in any order, and even those are only in order in a very loose sense.
I actually really liked this one, and will likely watch it several times, which is rare for me (who has time to watch stuff again?). In the final analysis, there’s something a little too bubble gum about it, and much as I like it, I’m not sure that I like it all that much in any objective sense.
This is another one that is perhaps in much the same boat. It deserves mention just for being a romantic comedy that I genuinely enjoyed, and for its somewhat unusual approach to humor while remaining in the genre. It was fun, and holds up beyond just the “date night-forced choice” appeal of most of its kin.
I’m aware that this one was almost universally hated, and is on many people’s list of the worst movies of the year, but I loved it and I can’t help it. It is absolutely nonsensical craziness, but in the end it is also a very cool creation making an action spectacular out of a person’s psyche, and if you can get through it while leaving it completely alone and letting it be what it is, it’s really cool.
A lot of people liked this movie better than I, and I can see why. It had a lot of depth for such a film, and a pretty slick use of X-Men abilities. You have to keep in mind that these first films are not presented in any particular order. On another day, especially considering the general X-Men fan that I am, this might be a lot higher.
This one didn’t get as much attention as it deserved. It was not only a fun, action flick about a non-action hero, but there was something about it that was a nice honorific to the old radio show. A goofy, wacky spin of an honorific, but it’s in there somehow. Moreover, it managed its fun without going completely stupid.
To be honest, it’s hard for a Harry Potter film to even get this high on a list of mine (except Azkaban), but the end of an era is worth noting, and it was at least a massive improvement over Part 1.
The rest of this part of this list is made up of movies that are all seriously close to the top, but are too numerous to do a lot of talking about. They are all strong films, and as you go through you may be thinking that I’m crazy for not having them in the top 15, and I probably agree with you.
Please, seek out all of these films, and don’t let the works of such a fine year pass you by.
We Bought a Zoo
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Attack the Block
Ides of March
A Dangerous Method
My Week with Marilyn
The Rum Diary
We Need to talk about Kevin
Kung Fu Panda 2
The Big Year
The Adventures of Tintin
The Adjustment Bureau
And, finally, the list.
15. Another Earth
One of the year’s indie bits of awesomeness, this gem of a slow-moving character play is unfortunately overshadowed by the vague idea of sci-fi that I suspect confused would-be viewers into passing it over. Ultimately, the story of a young woman with everything going for her, who finds her life shattered when she shatters someone else’s, and the drama that unfolds as she tries to figure out who she is in the wake of what she’s done. Conveniently, sort of, there is another Earth, with another her, who might not have done it.
Not only a brilliant breakout effort by writer/director Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd), but a film that is so textured and nuanced that it would be hard to guess that it came from someone without a long list of feature films behind them.
One of the lesser rated films to make a top list for me (I gave it four stars), it earns its way there based on points for difficulty. It’s a film with some problems, but considering the subject matter, and the fact that it isn’t even especially appealing to baseball fans (by way of not especially being a baseball film), to deliver this well is pretty amazing.
12. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
An oddly overlooked film for my money… not that it should have been up for a dozen Oscars, or anything. Wildly fun, and surprisingly worthwhile for a sequel. Fun, crazy, and perhaps a little too… but still.
11. The Artist
As difficult for some viewers as The Tree of Life, The Artist has already picked up an amazing number of awards, and deservedly so. It’s not only utterly brilliant, it’s ability to relate not only its story, but something of a meta-story about itself is mind-boggling. It’s the kind of film that instantly finds its way onto the list of must see films for serious fans of the medium.
10. Win Win
Another sleeper, but one that is at least getting nominations for screenplay, and won an award from the National Board of Review as a Top Ten Independent Film. A wrestling coach and struggling attorney suddenly finds himself with a champion wrestler on his hands, but if he didn’t have some serious issues, he probably wouldn’t have turned up on a doorstep looking to get away from his mother. What’s a poor shlub to do?
Giamatti is his usual, wonderful self, and Alex Shaffer is impressive.
It’s hard to say this movie isn’t getting enough attention, because Christopher Plummer can’t seem to lose a Best Supporting Actor race (and it’s unlikely the Oscars will break his streak), but it still feels a bit like most people are only aware of this as “that movie Christopher Plummer keeps winning awards for.”
Inspiring simply in its ability to detail human emotion and self-frustration, the film details the lives of a man and his father (who came out of the closet with only a few years left to live, after his wife died). The film moves back and forth quite a bit, to the days when his dad was still alive, and to a present after he has already passed himself. Ewan McGregor is just as strong in his role, as he tries to find love himself, and meets his match in a woman who is equally good at the beginning bits, but has a rough time once we’re supposed to move past that.
For everything else it does, it’s a clever showcase of the foolish notion that there is any such thing as such stages involved in relationships, or life.
8. Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen finally returns for real, and picks up writing awards by the truck load along the way. Possibly the film’s most immediate quality is simply the surprise factor, whether that comes from the abilities of Wilson and McAdams, the power of the music in today’s world, or just from the fact that Allen can still manage the balancing act inherent in something that plays with such subtleties (of course, we knew he could at one time, but many wondered where it went).
7. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Yes, Olsen. Some find that so odd that they refuse even to acknowledge it. At any rate, here is the portrait of a young woman who ran away and spent the last few years as the member of a strange cult. Strange cult is possibly an odd turn of phrase actually, but this particular cult is odd in its seemingly unapologetic, open nature. We enter the story as she leaves the cult and moves in with her sister, who has no idea what has gone on for the last few years, and isn’t going to find out. Martha is just rather odd now, and our sisters have to figure out what to do with each other, while Martha tries to decide how to return to normal society.
It’s a great screenplay, and though it shows its budget to a degree, it doesn’t matter with these actors stepping up the way they do.
6. Certified Copy
A unique and decidedly strange spin on relationships, Certified Copy develops slowly, and never completely commits to the story it may or may not be telling. James Miller is presenting a book on art, in which he makes the rather audacious claim that copies of paintings are just as valuable as the originals. The “thing,” to be simplistic, is what’s there for you to see, not what an X-Ray and chemical analysis tell you.
While presenting, James meets Elle, and the two banter around, getting to know each other, and at a certain point even pretend to be married. As things progress, the dialog, relationship, and characters become confused, and we don’t know if this is a couple who just met pretending to be married, or a couple that has been married 15 years pretending they just met.
Twisting and odd, it speaks volumes about relationships and people in general, and is an amazing turn at piecing together, and picking apart, characters through film.
As a side note, for an awesomely ridiculous viewpoint on the film, see Peter Bradshaw’s take in The Guardian.
Oddly, one of the main things I find myself compelled to say about Hugois that it’s a bit overrated. It is actually a marvelous film, especially with the length and breadth of love it expresses for its own genre. Moreover, it’s fun and filled with adventure, and manages a very tricky turn at the general battle of age and growth. The young actors are impressive, and Chloë Grace Moretz is clearly poised to take over the world. If she is not one of the biggest names in Hollywood in 10-20 years, I will be shocked and dismayed.
Still, it’s not quite the best thing that ever happened, as many seem to believe.
It’s rare that a film pulls off a seriously quiet, lead character, in a film in which, somehow, it seems that not all that much happens. He doesn’t even manage a name, billed only as Driver, Ryan Gosling plays a man who is just trying to stick to himself these days. He works as a stuntman, and he’s one hell of a driver. He’s so good, that his boss wants to back him on the racing circuit. Sure, he also runs the odd job driving under circumstances that are not quite above board, but he’s really trying to move past that.
He suddenly finds himself caught up in a hairy situation, and he’s going to have to do some fancy maneuvering to get out of it in one piece.
The real brilliance here is letting this character off the hook. You think of character studies as revealing complex characters, but the idea that simple is itself as complex as you could want, especially when having to wander through a complex world, is usually thrown out the window.
Largely ignored by those putting serious effort into relaying its virtues (though performing well enough among wicked action enthusiasts), Immortals delivered on every front, and finally brought Tarsem Singh into the spotlight.
A thoughtful, complex kind of visual fugue, the film delivers action, characters, wild and fun adventure, and breathtaking sights. It is, like Singh’s other wonderful effort, The Fall, if nothing else, a true work in the medium.
Suffering a good deal, I suspect, from having-come-out-at-the-beginning-of-the-year-itis, Hanna seemed long forgotten by the time people started taking about best films of the year. One of the most impressive performances by someone who is relatively so young that you are ever going to see, and built around a kind of “low-concept” story of spies and betrayal, Hanna beats nearly all-comers hands down. It even manages to end exactly the way it should (which probably pissed a lot of people off), and you almost expected that it wouldn’t have the guts.
1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Everything about this is a tough sell to today’s market, including the mere fact that this is because it is doing everything it is trying to do exactly right. The now legendary story by John le Carré comes to life better than fans of the work could probably imagine, and Gary Oldman (easily one of the finest actors of his generation, by the way) gives what is probably the best performance of his career.
This is not Bond or Bourne spy action here, this is the kind of stuff where seven aging men sit around in a room doing nothing, and the tension is so thick your heart wants to burst.
A stunning feature by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), who is obviously the perfect choice when it comes to creating mood by things not happening, an art of the medium all but lost entirely at this point.
And, that’s pretty much it, except that I want to throw out a special note to honor Ryan Gosling and Michael Fassbender on their incredible years.
Gosling, hot off a very high pick from last year’s list (Blue Valentine), is in three movies on this list.
Fassbender is in four.