Runners-Up: #20: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work; #19: The Crazies; #18: Toy Story 3; #17: How to Train Your Dragon; #16: The Runaways; #15: Somewhere; #14: True Grit; #13: Blue Valentine; #12: The Kids Are All Right; #11: Exit Through the Gift Shop.
THE TOP TEN FILMS OF THE YEAR
#10 -- Restrepo: A lot of times, documentaries get credit simply for being about what they're about. Restrepo certainly does. A lot of time, documentaries get credit simply for the vantage point from which they're allowed to observe certain events. Restrepo certainly does. Other times, documentaries get credit for framing an incredibly familiar "issue" in a way that is jarringly unfamiliar and dangerous and humanizing and emotional and thrilling and despairing; for showing war as war, in all its complexity, but more importantly in all its horrible simplicity.
#9 -- Dogtooth: Michael Haneke with a sense of humor in place of condescending finger-wagging. Lars Von Trier with a taste for feline. However you want to describe it, you won't soon be able to shake Giorgos Lanthimos's deepest-darkest fable about how those weird home-schooled kids you knew growing up could've had it SO much worse. It's been working around my brain since the spring, the way the movie unfolds in front of you, how terribly mundane the look of the universe is, the positively sinister sense of humor that manages to bring levity and make everything that much more horrible. It's audacious in the best ways.
#8 -- Animal Kingdom: Maybe one of the reasons I was so resentful of the great reception that The Town received -- beyond the fact that it's just not that great of a movie -- was the fact that everything that movie did as a crime thriller, Animal Kingdom did better, from the humming suspense to the complicated criminal characters to the sure-handed direction and fantastic performances. This movie builds like it's made of Legos, and due respect to Jeremy Renner, but there's no performance in The Town that holds a candle to Jacki Weaver's Smurf. She's Granny MacBeth and Medea's Family Reunion all rolled into one.
#7 -- Rabbit Hole: It's kind of amazing that I love Rabbit Hole as much as I do considering I find one sizable element of it such a weakness. Aaron Eckhart just seems so overmatched, by both the material and his co-stars. Actually, he keeps up with Sandra Oh just fine as they giggle in their weed haze, but Nicole Kidman repeatedly blows him off the screen. I can't imagine Rabbit Hole wouldn't be in my top 2 or 3 movies of the year with a better-equipped actor in the role, but let's not talk negatives. I want to talk about the palpable bonds and relatable anxieties between Kidman, Dianne Wiest, and Tammy Blanchard. Or what a discovery Miles Teller is as the guarded, haunted neighborhood teen. Or the release found in how deeply Kidman connects to that gorgeous image of the rabbit holes. Few films in my (unusually cold) Top 10 moved me as much.
#6 -- Inception: I can't entirely argue with most of the knocks against Christopher Nolan's film. The oddly limiting plot, the thinly-drawn female characters, the shallow profundities. I just tend to think those objections are more about what the movie isn't than what the movie is. And for me, the movie was the most satisfying, mesmerizing, capital-M "Movie" experience of not just the summer but the whole year. The irony is that it's been sold as the thinking man's blockbuster, when in reality this is pure sensory pleasure. The pseudo-science and structural logic is fun to puzzle through -- much more so than the detractors would have you believe -- but Nolan's triumph here is how he wraps you up in sight and sound.
#5 -- Never Let Me Go: Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy weren't born to fight back. (Were they even born at all?) When they become aware of the purpose for which they've been created, it isn't through some harrowing discovery. It's something they've always known, by degrees, until one day it's told to them in full. They don't run; they don't rebel. That's been a common knock against the film ... except it isn't quite true. The sad beauty of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel and Mark Romanek's film is that they do struggle, only what they struggle for is inches, not miles; it's days and weeks. The phantom-carrot pipe dream that Tommy and Kathy seek out in the film's final third, like Dorothy winding towards the Emerald City? Is one that will stay their fate for a year or two. This is what they're fighting for. This is why Keira Knightley's Ruth is so defiant in taking Tommy from Kathy. It's the only way she's got to refuse what's been set out for her. Clearly, the story is still with me, and Romanek's delicately told, impeccably performed film did it so much justice.
#4 -- Another Year: Mike Leigh's skill with characters has not exactly flown below the radar throughout his career. He's at it again in Another Year, allowing his cast plenty of room to breathe, not that they always take it. At its heart, Another Year is about friends and family, and where the limits of one meet the boundaries of the other. It's also about aging and about the not-at-all-quiet desperation of being alone and about the ways in which we drag on others and are lifted by them. It's a lot going on for a movie about an older couple (the brilliantly content and funny Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) and their sad single friend (the mesmerisingly sloppy Lesley Manville).
#3 -- Winter's Bone: Debra Granik's Ozark meth adventure (no, not that kind) puts Jennifer Lawrence's Ree through her paces in a way that feels purposeful. The structure of that journey -- from this gatekeeper to that -- contrasted with Lawrence's hard, naturalistic performance is nothing short of thrilling. Helped out by a phenomenal cast -- Dale Dickey, John Hawkes, Garrett Dillahunt, any number of authentic-looking friends and foes -- it's utterly gripping in its fatalism. We know nothing good has come of Ree's father, and so does she, yet she's got to see it through.
#2 -- Black Swan: I flip-flopped a lot on my top two picks for the year. The case for Black Swan was apparent to me the second the credits rolled. That sense of completion, of wild-eyed satisfaction that a landing has been stuck, nearly drove me to my feet. Darren Aronofsky completely went there and didn't back off for fear of anything so inconsequential as bad taste. The whole movie is a grotesque, from Barbara Hershey's cake antics to the leering girlie hookups to Vincent Cassel's manipulative handsiness as he repeatedly espouses the simplistic duality of the white/black swan. While the psychological appears to preside above all, what Aronofsky's interested in (and so was I) is the physical. It's such a clear progression in his work, from Pi to Reqiuem to The Fountain to The Wrestler, those stories of bodies harmed and betrayed and evolved and damaged by fanaticism all get their lurid payoff in the form of Portman's fragile, bleeding gooseflesh.
#1 -- The Fighter: If it weren't so mundane in its details, the story of how I came to love The Fighter could be a movie of its own. It certainly follows the Hollywood beats. Dogged film fan will see practically anything but dismisses high-profile awards contender out of hand because of distaste for the genre, revulsion towards the behavior of its principals, and a truly abhorrent trailer. But then! A few raves from some trusted and unexpected sources! A reminder that I Heart Huckabees is one of his very favorite movies! A chance is taken!
Obviously, spoiler, I fell in love, but I think it's to the extreme credit of David O. Russell and his cast that what read on paper as just another inspirational pugilist-from-the-streets tale felt so singular on the screen. From Bale's realer-than-real crackhead to the frequent dips into local color, to the Ward girls in all their glory, this was not a film that had any desire to rest on its laurels. Even the central romance between Wahlberg and Adams feels fresh because the stakes for Charlene are just to the left of what we're used to (she's in this for Micky, sure, but she's also in it to make up for her own missed chances ... and she's also in it -- just a little bit -- to shove it back in the faces of Micky's family). Everything in this movie is operating on its own terms and for better reasons than simple genre convention. It's a fantastic reminder of the power of directorial vision.