Five lists from our film critics, and a few quibbles ...
"What a great fucking year for movies!" one of my film-critic pals gushed on Facebook. Actually, no it wasn't. Really, it was more of an OK effing year for movies. It wasn't bad and it wasn't good—it was more like a'ight.
Because good movies are so few and far between, both critics and audiences flew off the handle overpraising them. People were so glad that Woody Allen made a decent film this year with Midnight in Paris—Allen's highest-grossing movie ever at more than $135 million worldwide—that they glossed over that it still isn't one of his best. Terrence Malick came out of hiding to drop The Tree of Life. Of course, since it's Malick, fans treat it as a stroke of genius from the man, when it's just another one of his beautiful but baffling works.
Alexander Payne also came back to the art house with his highly touted The Descendants, an uneven flick with an awesome performance from George "I Literally Can Do No Wrong" Clooney. Pedro Almodóvar once again freaked out audiences, with The Skin I Live In, a gleefully messed-up film that fizzled out at the end. And many a person has rolled up on me saying that Margin Call is an outstanding look at how Wall Street screwed up the economy, when it's really just a well-acted, Mamet-esque piece that makes the fat cats look as clueless and sympathetic as the American public.
But it's not just art houses that had people in an over-appreciative frenzy; a few mainstream flicks received undeserved hosannas as well. People who saw the pleasant surprise Crazy, Stupid, Love. justly flipped out when they realized it was not another romantic comedy that treated its audience like idiots. And for all its three-dimensional hocus-pocus, Martin Scorsese's Hugo is just a likable film-studies lesson for kids—that's it!
You can hardly blame folks for making well-done movies sound like masterpieces. Box-office receipts have apparently been dwindling. In fact, on the weekend of Dec. 9, the top 20 movies at the North American box office grossed $73.2 million, the worst total of the year. But that weekend did give us New Year's Eve and The Sitter. So, of course, people are gonna stay home and catch up with all the episodes of Boardwalk Empire they DVR'ed.
This is what's keeping audiences away from the movie theaters: great television. Honestly, was there any movie this year that thrilled, riveted and excited audiences more than the last season of Breaking Bad? And why would anyone waste his or her time watching half-assed comedies when Community and Parks and Recreation consistently bring the funny every week?
Unlike with television, people seem to be grading movies on a curve. We've gotten so used to movies being awful, we sort of go nuts when we see one that isn't.
I don't have a top 10, but I do have a top 8:
Hollywood looked to its past as the means to fashion and celebrate its present. Movies were self-referential, from The Artist to Drive and War Horse, as well as such notable outliers as Hugo, Super 8 and even Rango.
The Artist—Yes, the story itself is piffle. But the transition from silent film to talkies speaks to an art form in which technological progress is both constructive and destructive.
Drive—The pleasure of this vehicle is a matter of style, not substance. The Danish filmmaker channels enough Hollywood influences—Sam Peckinpah, Walter Hill, William Friedkin, Steve McQueen, Taxi Driver—to fill a film school syllabus.
Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows: Part 2—What sets this finale—which finds Harry in full messianic bloom—apart is the utter symbiosis it both forms and acknowledges between art and audience, underscoring the porous line between fiction and individualized reality as insightfully as François Ozon's Swimming Pool or anything written by Charlie Kaufman.
Project Nim—James Marsh employs two rather ordinary documentary filmmaking devices—archival footage and talking-head interviews—to assemble an extraordinary exposé whose true, brilliant purpose is to reveal more about the flawed people at this story's center than the titular real-life primate, removed from its mother at birth and raised like a human child.
Shame—Atmospheric and affecting, director Steve McQueen lays bare the secret life of a man paralyzed by sexual addiction. Michael Fassbender gives the performance of the year with a role that's a little bit Last Tango in Paris and a little bit American Psycho. Lingers long after the closing credits.
A Separation—The fact that Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi was able to make this movie at all is noteworthy enough. That such a seemingly simple story about family on the verge of dissolution spawns such complex questions about gender, religion, class and justice speaks to the film's power—and necessity.
War Horse—Steven Spielberg checks a few more things off his bucket list: a World War I movie, a visually stunning John Ford homage and a story about a boy and his horse. Although held together by a glue of schmaltz, it's a strikingly beautiful motion picture in the most classic sense.
Warrior—The film's MMA tableau is incidental—it could just as easily be about boxing, tennis or even chess. Its real themes of betrayal, familial strife and America's widening stratification are universal.
We Need to Talk About Kevin—"Hard to watch but impossible to look away" describes this plaintive parable about a mother (a brilliant Tilda Swinton) living in the aftermath of a killing spree committed by her teenage son. Part deep family drama, part tragedy and part high-stylized horror movie, it's not a film for the faint of heart ... or for expectant mothers.
Win Win—A great ensemble cast, led by Paul Giamatti with his best role in years, guides this winsome tale about a small-town lawyer and his relationship with a client's wayward son. Tom McCarthy fashions a subtly subversive film that celebrates the virtues of middle-class America while laying bare the unpleasant underbelly of human frailties.
BAH! to Craig's pick: The Adventures of Tintin is an over-caffeinated, tortuous tale about a busybody boy, his dog and an alcoholic sea captain. The manic pace and motion-capture animation makes the whole spectacle feel more like a video game version of Young Indiana Jones or National Treasure: The Early Years.
This year there seemed to be a dialogue working between movies all year, and I found the way these movies work alongside each other rewarding in ways that made most of them more complex than they may have been on their own.
Lots of (positive) reviews spin Melancholia as Lars von Trier's overblown take on his own depression, but in fact it's a thoughtful meditation on being and nothingness pulled off with operatic aplomb by one of our great directors. Conversely, a rookie insider also made a movie about the discovery of a heretofore-unknown planet in Another Earth, quietly examining what it means to not be alone, to in fact have a double. Another Earth finds doubleness almost as comforting as Melancholia finds solitude terrifying.
Also from outer space came J.J. Abrams' Super 8, a Spielberg homage in which the student surpassed the (present-day skills of) the master, though I admit I have not seen (and hope not to have to see) War Horse or Tintin. A couple months later, Attack the Block transplanted the kids-vs.-aliens plot to the projects and showed us everything that was wrong with Super 8, blending goofiness with chills in a way that made the Abrams movie seem self-important, even as it brought class and race to the foreground.
The masterful first 10 minutes of Drive, a near-wordless car chase executed by cruising into shadows rather than careening through traffic were enough to keep me on board for the rest of this efficient movie, and only an outsider could have made a movie about driving in LA that didn't include a traffic jam. The LA movie by a lifetime insider, Somewhere, turned out to be the one with the keener sense of place, but employed such a slowed-down rhythm that Los Angeles started to look otherworldly.
The most puzzling thing about Double Hour is the way that it feels like a mashup of many other thrillers, but I could never quite figure out what any of them were. Also puzzling is why Kseniya Rappoport isn't an international, Sandrine Bonnaire-level star. While Double Hour was gripping and lingering, the enjoyable throwaway nature of another thriller, Source Code, was refreshing in its lighthearted treatment of time travel, fate and (gulp!) terrorism.
Woody Allen's look at nostalgia in Midnight in Paris is the work of an elder statesmen telling a youthful protagonist not too spend too much time looking back, while in The Future, Miranda July's sophomore feature effort, the filmmaker tried to figure out how to move forward. Both are affable movies that treat their supernatural subject matter with pitch-perfect offhandedness.
BAH! to Neil's pick: Project Nim imposes emotional order onto reality in a way that makes so many documentaries so manipulative and so bad. It makes a point of short-circuiting analytic intelligence and replacing it with emotion founded on the testimony of the talking heads, their version of the truth too blurry with tears to be dependable.
The Artist—Let the backlash begin. But, a film about silent movies, steeped in the love of silent movies, that takes ancient technology and make it seem fresh is catnip for moi. Plus, I love this team, going back to OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies.
Being Elmo/ The Muppets—Speaking of moi, Kevin Clash's dream come true about muppetry (and let's face it, not many know that the loveable Elmo was African-American voiced) is pure pleasure. Jason Segal's loveable reboot of the dust-gathering franchise asks that kids be kids before they become ironists.
Brighton Rock—As a big fan of the '40s version, I feared this remake, but the strengthened plot and memorable acting made it the best crime film of the year.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2—Yes, it's a franchise. But they have done everything right in every film, allowed the cast to grow up with us, and, as a parent of a Gen HP kid exactly the same age as Daniel Radcliffe, this was a tearful farewell to childhood for all. Plus, Alan Rickman!
Hot Coffee—A hard-hitting Full Frame doc about tort reform that forever changed the way I look at the McDonald's coffee case.
The Hour—This was on television: The best acting, the most thought-provoking plotting, the sexiest banter. The most addictive five hours I've spent this year is with this BBC series about the BBC.
Margin Call—A slo-mo economic train wreck should have been boring but was riveting thanks to the superb acting of the entire cast.
Midnight in Paris—Woody nails the fantasies of us all, hobnobbing with the artistic ferment of 1920s Paris with his usual zingy dialogue and superb ensemble. His best film in ages.
Super 8—Reclaiming the action adventure movie for kids, the film isn't without its predictable elements, but the DIY old-school home movie vibe works for me.
Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara—The best Bollywood film of the year has one genuine A-list actor (Hrithik Roshan) with an edgy ensemble (Farhan Akhtar, Abhay Deol, Kalki Koechlin), great Spanish locations and a legit feel good carpe diem message.
BAH! to David's pick: Bridesmaids is a tragic mashup between the gross-out comedy and the rom-com. In true 21st-century style, the heroine must be humiliated, but here her neediness is so pathetic you begin urging her attractive suitor to run away. And, even worse, co-writer Kristen Wiig does this to herself! Don't even talk to me about the diarrhea in the bridal shop. Melissa McCarthy's fearless performance is the only redeeming factor. As Wiig's prissy SNL movie reviewer character Aunt Kathy would say, "I rate this eerrgh, gaak."
A couple of films ended up on this list of nine films simply because I'm still thinking about them months later. By this logic, I could have included the ineffable The Tree of Life. And if it hadn't been for the maddening voice-overs, I might have. Even without that film, my titles are thick with the incense and mystery of religion, art, the Middle East and other antiquities.
Incendies—In my review of this tale of two Canadian siblings retracing the Middle Eastern origins of their angry, recently deceased mother, I was skeptical of some of the story elements. But no drama, save for Of Gods and Men, held me in its grip the way this devastating film did.
Bridesmaids—The first time I saw it, I was underwhelmed. Against expectation, I watched it on video recently and found a perfectly entertaining comedy about women in their 30s who can take or leave marriage and family, just so long as they have each other. And Melissa McCarthy stole my heart.
The Mill and the Cross—Several people I know went to this film after seeing my enthusiasm for its depiction of Breughel's "The Way to Calvary," and none of them liked it. Oh well, I'm sticking with this leisurely paced evocation of a vanished Europe, one where the creation of art was as excruciating and painstaking as the appalling violence.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams—The better of Werner Herzog's two releases this year, this trip into 30,000-year old cave art evoked wonder over the accomplishments and interior lives of our brilliant Stone Age ancestors.
Of Gods and Men—A wrenching tale of monks in contemporary North Africa forced to choose between their principles and their safety. The act of watching the film becomes an experience of religious contemplation, as with the great work of Carl Theodor Dreyer.
Certified Copy—Sometimes the most mysterious works of movie magic happen right before your eyes, with no special effects whatsoever. Such was the case with this late work by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami.
Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975—I could have done without the voiceover commentary of young, contemporary African-American artists, but the Swedish archival footage was phenomenal: an unforgettable Stokely Carmichael and a scorching apologia for violence by Angela Davis.
Dragonslayer—Like Black Power, I saw this one at Full Frame: Tristan Patterson's portrait of a fading skateboarding star is, as I wrote last April, "a shaggy, Western romantic tale ... Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark have tried, with varying levels of success, to capture these quicksilver moments of youth dropout subculture ... Dragonslayer hits the sweet spot."
The Adjustment Bureau—An inexcusable inclusion but for the charming presence of Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, who actually seem to be courting each other—and the audience—in this film. Blunt is a talent ripe for a breakout role in a 1930s-style knockabout comedy. Alas, those kinds of movies don't get made anymore, so we'll have to settle for this one.
BAH! to Laura and Neil's pick: The Artist is a cute gimmick: a (mostly) silent black-and-white movie about silent actors adjusting to the sound era. A couple of problems: This theme has been covered, and brilliantly so, at least three times: Modern Times, Singin' in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard. Other than a few felicitous moments, The Artist is a thin, sentimental valentine to a certain type of unlamented silent melodrama—as opposed to the movies from that era that were actually good (e.g. Sherlock Jr., Sunrise, Metropolis and dozens of others).