The closer to number #1, the more exhilarating the film was to me. These films were not only exhilarating, but ones that carried inside me and obsessed me on an ongoing basis throughout the year, through my everyday living and through my dreams. These are my eternal classics:
BEST FILMS OF
1. The Tree of Life – Clouds. Rain. Mist. Sun. Star clusters. Earth. Wind. Fields. Rain. Streams. And the man-made architecture that despoils this natural beauty. “Tree” contains some of the best cinematography ever and features Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain in performances of 1950’s Texas husband and wife that are, to best description, eternal. Terrence Malick’s lavish avante-garde film abandons conventional story beats and instead dreamily flows as a tone poem. Forty-three years have passed since “2001: A Space Odyssey” until a filmmaker has finally dared to create a life allegory this monumental, with images this boldly imaginative, this headlong into metaphysical realms. I think it summons us the question why do we behave so narrowly in the way that we do when we have a limitless Earth to take pleasure in? True, I have seen more entertaining films in my life. But few that have inspired me to change the way I should live my life. And for the meaning of the not-real ending? Here I say: When it comes down to the final summation of our lives, we are connected to just a few dozen people that really mean something to us. We might wish that we could all collect together harmoniously. Not encumbered by laws, regulations, social demands, duties. If only the human race would think bigger. As for Malick, hardly any filmmaker has ever thought this philosophically big. Or labored harder for images this magnificent.
2. The Descendants – It is hard to make an artistic film that is set in Hawaii, but so it has been done. But even harder is making an artistic film that brims with humor, humanity and the reconciliation of family unity. George Clooney (never better) has impossibly dire situations to deal with when he learns his wife is not going to wake up from her coma, for he is a self-admitted aloof parent with two children to now look after. He gets his angry teen daughter to come home from boarding school, but this isn’t one of those I-hate-you-dad movies. Really, the daughter (Shailene Woodley), is in one of those rebel phases but not completely alienated from communication. She imbues dad with the courage to seek revenge against an adulterer that was perhaps trying to break up the family before mom’s debilitating accident. Director Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) is a master at finding sunshine in the middle of heartache, and grace in the middle of clashing hormonal men.
3. Source Code – Duncan Jones’ tick-tock sci-fi thriller is spellbinding, brain-teasing, fragmentally puzzling and heart-throbbing. Army helicopter pilot Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) zaps into the body of another man who has eight minutes to live along with other collateral damage victims on a Chicago commuter train. Now an avatar, he is in time informed that he must find the planted bomb and identity of a terrorist, but until then Colter has reason to be afraid that he will have to repeat these eight minutes eternally. Vera Farmiga as an Army lab technician monitoring his progress and Michelle Monaghan as an ordinary commuter are the two women that care about Colter. Some viewers have said to be ticked off by the compromised ending. I feel that Jones (whose first film was the impressive “Moon” with Sam Rockwell) was contractually forced to deliver this specific ending, so true, yet in the way he devised it I was enormously touched and felt its characters were motivated with genuine heart. To my mind (and heart), “Source Code” is one of the elite thrillers.
4. Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen’s best film in 25 years. Rarely has a comedy provided such reverie for me. For those cynics who thought that this is not the real Paris should ponder that this is a romanticized Paris of what the city should be like in a perfect world. I reveled in the icons of the 1920’s being brought back to life: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Salvador Dali, T.S. Eliot, Josephine Baker and, my favorite, Ernest Hemingway as played by Corey Stoll in a sparkling blowhard performance. But most surprising of all is how much I adored Owen Wilson as the contemporary Gil, a good guy gent who lucks into a time portal and saturates himself with the past, even falling for a 1920’s dame (Marion Cotillard). “Midnight” is a light-hearted chime imbued with marvelous creativity.
5. A Dangerous Method – The key years of when psychoanalysis was invented by Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and protégé Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) is dramatized by filmmaker David Cronenberg (“A History of Violence”). Cronenberg has never done a film set this far back in history before, but as an erudite he is easily attuned for it. In “Method,” Freud and Jung argue about the shaping of human identity and conclude that sexual drives are what make and define a person. They share a contentious relationship, with Freud always trying to one-up Jung. Freud castigates Jung for carrying on a sexual relationship with former patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), but that just masks the jealousy he has of his protégé. When you think of it, these men began the birth of psychoanalysis, and something else, the birth of openly talking about human sexuality and all its fetishes. “Method” doesn’t have the usual symphonic flow of a typical Cronenberg film, but that’s a minor complaint. This portrayal of the psychology breakthrough which has impacted the study of mankind and the understanding of our compulsory impulses results a film that is nothing less than profoundly illuminating.
6. Shame – Rated NC-17. Sex addiction uncompromisingly depicted and acted by Michael Fassbender who is as cold as a chrome plated phallus. As a New York professional so addicted that he finds enjoyment in nothing else, he has likely arrived at a place where he finds no enjoyment in sex either. The film is just as numbing as the debased drug addiction depicted in “Requiem for a Dream.” But it’s a film that bravely exclaims that sex addiction is a real and socially prevalent problem, and Fassbender’s performance, as a man who comes to realize that he is hurting himself but cannot stop his impulses, is ultimately a great one.
7. Crazy Stupid Love – The great midlife crisis comedy with Steve Carell as a geek dumped by his wife and Ryan Gosling as the purring-lips playboy who mentors his elder on how to be a real swinging man. Carell is an emotionally limp man, but what “CSL” was not is a neutered chick flick. It’s a broad screwball comedy in spaces, but it’s also a mature tapestry which includes a half dozen other terrific performances like Marisa Tomei as a buttoned up schoolteacher who decks out for one naughty night, and Emma Stone as a neurotic young woman not used to romantic touch until she meets the right guy with the know-how for verbal foreplay. Minus the piss, ick, and dick humor it actually goes for relatable pathos. Yes it’s a grown-up crowd pleaser that’s so sublime that it’s euphoric.
8. Tabloid – Sounds by quick description that it’s a lightweight take on celebrity and fame, but this Errol Morris effort is the most entertaining documentary in years. Joyce McKinney was a popular cheerleader with a high I.Q. whose first love was with an ultra-conservative Mormon boy. Her twisted tale (normal to her) involves godfearing; her years as a sex worker; kidnapping her old boyfriend from a brainwashing Mormon cult; counts of rape of a man by a woman including bondage; charged arrest and trial; and other unlikely incidents that made McKinney the hot topic tabloid sensation of 1977. Morris uses archival footage and tabloid print-outs to intersperse with a retrospective interview with the older Joyce of today. She claims Kirk is the only, the only I say, man she’s ever been in love with. Unbelievable! Yet older Joyce truly looks as if she believes her own account despite evidence laid upon her.
9. Love Crime (France) – I have always admired movie characters that are devious enough to come up with outrageously convoluted ways to commit murder safeguarded by a well-crafted alibi, but this corporate thriller from France takes the cake. Ludivine Sagnier is the financial whiz protégé, and Kristen Scott Thomas is the boss who makes her life hell. Director Alain Corneau doesn’t just lay out plot points, he gets us scrutinizing the very complex characters and performances of his players – the office backstabbing feels unstoppable because of the very hard heads that are tangled in conflict. The film comes with great timing because it plays like the dramatic-thriller version of “Horrible Bosses” which was a satisfyingly dirty American farce itself. But this French title has twists and turns that are whoppers.
10. Melancholia – It’s true that it took a few weeks for the greater subjective ideas and implications of Lars von Trier’s apocalyptic opera to sink in. The unorthodox behavior of Kirsten Dunst, unenthusiastic about her own wedding, was exasperating. But once you really digest the whole mad context of it – a strange planet is on a collision course with planet Earth – the more the wedding bash feels like a desperate whimper for its denizens to hold onto something. Kiefer Sutherland is the moneybags and hobbyist astronomer who is welcoming to the new planet, convinced it’s a fly-by… he damns the mass hysterics as killjoys to a great event. Von Trier creates some awesome imagery, and reserves suspended moments as expression for cinematic poetry.
11. Cedar Rapids – The great overlooked comedy of the year. Ed Helms is a naive insurance salesman who has never left his hometown of Brown Valley, Wisconsin, population well under 50,000. Reluctantly, Helms is dispatched to the big city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa for a big convention. He has never met a black person before, he bashfully asks out a hooker for a cup of coffee, he doesn’t get that a blonde colleague is trying to get him into bed, and rarely has he ever partied with alcohol. Then he meets John C. Reilly as client poacher Dean Ziegler, who drinks, dances disco-slam style, and speaks in intangible riddles that are little philosophical crackpots. Also features a hysterical sequence of a loopy scavenger hunt contest. Adult comedy, and a happy one.
12. I Saw the Devil (South Korea) – One of the most crazy, intense thrillers ever made. With unforgiving vengeance, a federal agent (Lee Byung-hun) mourning the death of a loved one goes on a quest of catch-and-release with the serial killer (Choi Min-sik) responsible, a game that is supposed to torment his adversary. Korean cinema is known for breaking barriers of restraint, but this one is certainly the most shocking thriller since 2005’s “Oldboy.” Really, it’s not for the faint of heart. But if you want your senses to go into override, then hold on tight.
13. Project Nim - Rarely have I been as emotional during an animal documentary. In the early 1970’s, chimpanzee newborn Nim was taken from his mother and placed in a human urban environment to be raised by hippies, then to an opulent mansion amongst more seasoned researchers. Nim was to master human manners and sign language. Director James Marsh (“Man on Wire”) wants to show you that, yes, chimpanzees should not be jerked around from one habitat to another because, yes, chimps really do have multi-faceted emotions.
14. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol – The 1996 MI was directed by Brian DePalma, the great underrated stylist of American movies. I figured it would never be topped, but Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”) has made MI4 into a rousing adrenaline pumper. Like “The Dark Knight” it never rests, it’s a true race against the clock thriller. Nothing impressed more than the climb up the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Tom Cruise is a quintessential cavalier spy and Paula Patton is the right mix of sexy/dangerous.
15. The Skin I Live In (Spain) – A mesmerizing sick-joke of a film. Pedro Almodovar’s best film to date is like an adults-only Twilight Zone kicked back to the kinkier filmmaking style of the 1970’s. Disturbing but hugely thought-provoking; I squirmed in my own skin but couldn’t tear my eyes away. Antonio Banderas plays the sad widow who tragically justifies his twisted actions as he becomes a mad doctor. Elena Anaya conquers the difficult task of playing someone with omnisexual facets. Ravishing color palette by Almodovar.
Honorable Mentions: A Separation (Iran); Moneyball; Poetry (South Korea); The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; We Need to Talk About Kevin; Like Crazy; Limitless; The Muppets; Insidious; Margin Call; The Artist; The Guard; 50/50; Oranges and Sunshine; The Housemaid (South Korea); Contagion; In a Better World (Denmark); Young Adult; Terri; Trust; War Horse; Rango; The Kid with the Bike (France); Drive; Restless; Black Death; Water for Elephants.
Best Actor and Supporting Actor: George Clooney in “The Descendants” (Pic upper left) and Kiefer Sutherland in “Melancholia” (Pic upper right).
Runners-Up: Michael Fassbender in “Shame,” and Albert Brooks in “Drive.”
Best Actress and Supporting Actress: Rooney Mara in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (Pic upper left) and Octavia Spencer in “The Help” (Pic upper right).
Runners-Up: Kirsten Dunst in “Melancholia” and Jessica Chastain in “The Tree of Life.”
Best Cumulative Work: John C. Reilly in “Cedar Rapids,” “Terri,” and “Carnage”; Jessica Chastain in “The Tree of Life,” “The Help,” “Take Shelter,” “Texas Killing Fields.”
Best Adapted Screenplay: “The Descendants” by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Best Original Screenplay: “Midnight in Paris” by Woody Allen
Best Cinematography: “The Tree of Life” by director Terrence Malick and cameraman Emmanuel Lubezki (Pic upper left)
Best Art Direction: “Hugo” (Pic upper right)
dd dddddddffffrrrrrrddddddddddBest Film Editing: “Source Code”
Best Music Score: “The Tree of Life” by Alexandre Desplat
Best Impersonating Robert DeNiro performance: Ryan Gosling in “Drive” channeling Robert DeNiro from “Taxi Driver” and “Heat”
Best Female Performance of a Hateful Character: Kristen Scott Thomas as a horrible boss in “Love Crime” (France, pic upper left)
Best Male Performance of a Hateful Character: Choi Min-sik as the serial killer in “I Saw the Devil” (South Korea, pic upper right)
Most Terrifying Movie: “I Saw the Devil” (South Korea)
Most Terrifying American Movie: “Insidious”
Best Children’s Film: “The Muppets” (!)
Best Artistic Use of Black & White: “The Artist” with its 1920’s silent movie era look. Runner-Up: The dispensary B&W in the flashback scenes of “Love Crime” (France)
Best Action Sequence: The scaling of the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai by Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”
Best Musical Interlude: Jason Segal and Walter’s stroll through Smalltown at the beginning of “The Muppets.” Runner-Up: ‘Man or Muppet?’ from “The Muppets.”
Best Nude Scene: Kirsten Dunst impersonating the goddess Orphelia in “Melancholia”
Best Sex Scene: The display of naughty spanking and humping in “A Dangerous Method”
Coolest Playboy: Nobody does more with a wink than Ryan Gosling does in “Crazy Stupid Love”
Hottest Babe: The elegantly foxy but athletically deft Paula Patton in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.” (Pic upper left)
Best Comeback Role: Jennifer Aniston doing a terrific turn as a boss in “Horrible Bosses” coming after a slew of duds. (Pic upper right)
Funniest Gross Sequence: The diarrhea disaster in “Bridesmaids”
Worst Slacked-Jawed Moron: Ashton Kutcher in “No Strings Attached” and “New Year’s Eve”
Worst Actress: Julia Roberts in “Larry Crowne”
Worst Actor: Seth Rogen in “The Green Hornet”
Worst Films of the Year:
1. Trespass – Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman should forever hang their head in shame for this abrasively unpleasant home invasion thriller where they get thrown to the ground and their faces smashed repeatedly. It’s the cinematic equivalent to tear gas to the face. Director Joel Schumacher should have his DGA card revoked.
2. No Strings Attached – The contemporary scene of casual sex has never looked dumber than it does in this Ashton Kutcher / Natalie Portman fiasco. If you don’t think the first scene is crass and unsexy, then I can’t help you.
3. The Family Tree – Indie suburban misery with loads of walk-on characters that come to no effect and then disappear. Dermot Mulroney and Hope Davis are the unhappy married couple in this awful “American Beauty” clone.
4. Real Steel – Hugh Jackman with a gloomy mug, Dakota Goyo as his estranged kid. In the future, people are supposedly bored with humans so they pay big money to see robots slug it out. For 45 seconds per bout. Uh huh.
5. Kill the Irishman – Rise of labor leader Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson, a bruiser with a mustache) to Irish mobster and how he went to war with the Italian mafia in the streets of Cleveland in the mid 1970’s. A laughable pastiche of mobster stereotypes. One of the worst “biographical dramas” ever.
6. Paul – Seth Rogen as a foul-mouthed alien who befriends two geeks in a comedy that wants to recall the cruddy buddy comedies of the 1980’s. If it’s goal was to be like a junky alien comedy with that retro feel, then well, it succeeded.
7. Jack and Jill – At any point, will he feel shame or is he that incautious of how audiences see him as a performer? Adam Sandler plays twins, one a successful brother and the other in drag as his chronically verklempt sister. Idiotic and embarrassing.
8. The Rite – These “Exorcist” knock-offs are really getting boring. Anthony Hopkins, as the priest who gets a satanic body invasion, is a thoroughbred acting legend who shouldn’t try to go mainstream.
9. Higher Ground – Certainly the most boring “mature” film of the year. Yet I met plenty in my industry that were OK, i.e., tolerant of this film about a woman (Vera Farmiga, who also directed) who questions her conservative religious faith. I found that you can be watching any random five minutes and have no idea how many years have passed in the story.
10. Transformers: Dark of the Moon – Another installment in Michael Bay’s metal smash-up series. This one also with no developed characters, no logistical action and no thematic ideas. Shia LeBeouf is an action hero whiner. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley makes us long for the return for the depth of Megan Fox.