THE TOP TEN FILMS OF THE YEAR
Runners-Up: #15: Your Sister's Sister; #14: Bachelorette; #13: The Queen of Versailles; #12: Cloud Atlas; #11: 21 Jump Street
#10 -- The Wise Kids: It's so easy to play teenage rebellion in big fat brushstrokes. Often, that's what is called for, since the shattered boundaries and rapid-fire epiphanies of that stage of life feel so huge. But that's not always how they manifest themselves externally, and The Wise Kids is very smart about that. These huge changes happen internally to three high-school seniors that forever affect the way they'll interact with their families, their friends, and their faith. I'm a sucker for a movie that deals with breaking from faith in a way that grants everybody a voice and good intentions. I know that's not always the case, but it very often is, and I think indie culture can get really bratty about religion, refusing to look at people as people. Beyond that, though, it's just a wonderfully empathetic story of three kids figuring their shit out.
#9 -- Chronicle: A second viewing last week shot this movie back into my Top 10. It's just very special filmmaking at every level. It's probably more straightforward about being a superhero movie than most superhero movies, despite the fact that it's set within an otherwise mundane universe. Actually, "superhero" isn't quite the word. Supervillain. This is as solid a supervillain origin story as you'll see, but rather than ground the story with metatextual knowingness (our protagonists are not Wolverine-quoting comic book guys, not even the nerdy one), it's grounded in utterly relatable angst and fear. Nothing Andrew does throughout the movie doesn't make complete sense, once his abilities and his circumstances start to collide. Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, and Michael B. Jordan are flawless, likeable and fallible at once. Do I wish the filmmakers had ditched the first-person/found-footage crutch? Sure. But I appreciated how unfussily they dealt with the logistics of it. At some point, they're just ... floating a camera. By that point, you're too enthralled to care.
#8 -- Take This Waltz: What a messy movie. What an imperfect creation. What a frustrating lead character. But nothing that stuck with me about Take This Waltz didn't blossom in retrospect. Michelle Williams's performance shed the distracting twitchiness of its early frames and became about the way she cowers from hearing herself speak her desires for the first time. Seth Rogen's ill-fitting comedic sensibility became sad and self-fulfilling. Sarah Silverman's barbed monologues blasted through the petty clichés of the "off-the-wagon drunk" trope. Luke Kirby's rickshaw pretty much vanishes from my memory like Marty McFly's siblings in a Polaroid. I'm left, instead, with a film that sticks around far past the happy ending. Or even the sad ending. I'm not sure there even are endings. I think that's the thing. I think we whirl around on that carnival ride until the music stops, but eventually, we'll be back on that ride again. The best thing I can say for Sarah Polley is that even movies that should be noble failures, like this one, end up utterly indispensable.
#7 -- The Forgiveness of Blood: Joshua Marston is just a really good guy. I know following down the cult-of-personality road with any filmmaker (or, God forbd, actor) is a dangerous game. At any moment, I'm liable to be knocked down by some didn't-tip-his-waiter story or some idiot quote about women in film. But I mean Joshua Marston is a good guy within the boundaries of his filmmaking. What that boils to in regards to The Forgiveness of Blood is that he's an inquisitive guy, a studious guy, a guy who's not going to hang a lantern on how far he's stepping out of his zone of cultural familiarity. He just wants to get it right. In this case, with this particular story of Albania blood feuds and the children left bewildered and orphaned in their wake, he gets it so right.
#6 -- Middle of Nowhere: Indecision is a hard emotion to sell. Ambivalence. Really deep, internal indecision and ambivalence. So much of the terrain in Middle of Nowhere exists within Ruby herself, somewhere in the vast expanses between her stubborn loyalty and joyful selfishness. Ava DuVernay illuminates those internal struggles through smartly drawn supporting characters (Ruby's sister, her mom, a new love) and a whole lot of confidence in Emayatzy Corinealdi's ability to play the part. That faith pays off.
#5 -- Beasts of the Southern Wild: You can leave your "poverty porn" comments at the door, I can tell you that right now. First of all, what does that even mean? Second of all, don't even bother. If there's nobility to be found within Hushpuppy's universe of the Bathtub, her covertly mythological neighbors and overtly mythological monsters that she's dreamed into being, it's the nobility afforded to anyone by virtue of being a human person. In her own words, she's just one piece of the puzzle; an indispensable piece, as they all are. Nobility like that can stay right where it is. Nothing in the universe of this movie is cute (well, fine, Quvenzhane Wallis is, but the girl can't help it), and the magic that produces things like spiky beasts and talking t-shirts and offshore mom-brothels is neither soothing nor indicative of condescension on the part of the filmmakers. Is giving these characters dignity and pride something we shouldn't be doing? I can't agree. For me, this movie goes far beyond message. It's about building worlds within our own worlds, about defining their rules and the places where those rules and the outside world meet, about a girl fighting for her place in the universe.
#4 -- Anna Karenina: You can see Joe Wright's big ideas floating above the screen throughout Anna Karenina. I'm not going to pretend you can't, and I'm not sure he would either. This film calls attention to its own conceits immediately and constantly. I think to be subtler about the "all the world's a stage" aspects of this movie would be imbuing that message with a solemnity that it doesn't need. The flourishes found all over Anna aren't there for you to stroke your chin at, any more than the Grimm imagery in Hanna was supposed to make you say, "Ah. Allusions to classical children's tales. I see." Anna's palace life is a ridiculous, soapy burlesque of costumes and horses and marriage as stock-trading, choreographed and contrived to the last. Within these constructs, watching the string play out (nobody's even pretending we don't know that you-know-who ends up under you-know-what) is thrilling good fun; Wright once again knows exactly where and how to let unreality bleed in to enhance the experience. Packed with elaborate costumes and savory performances -- Keira Knightley in particular. She and Wright are practically finishing each other's sentences, they're so in tune with one another. The chemistry between Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson is disgustingly hot. Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander are improbably sweet. Matthew McFadyen and Ruth Wilson are a riot. There's something for everyone.
#3 -- Amour: I don't think I'm being all that hyperbolic when I say Amour is perfect. I'm not even being THAT effusive about it. It's more a matter of fact. Everything Amour sets out to accomplish, it accomplishes. Every emotion it's meant to evoke, every truth about aging and helplessness and death, they're all conveyed. Nothing misses its mark. The pigeon is goofy enough to undercut the obviousness of the metaphor by the perfect percentage. The nightmare with the hands is exactly as jolting as it needs to be at the exact right time. Emmanuelle Riva projects the precise level of strength vs. bewilderment vs. panic. Jean-Louis Trintignant holds up just long enough, just nobly enough, before the fear creeps in at the exact right moment. Nothing misses. Michael Haneke is content to let you just be devastated without judging you for it. Perfect. Perfection.
#2 -- Zero Dark Thirty: This was a difficult movie for me. I'm not surprised that it ended up being the subject of a contentious response ... I'm just a bit surprised as to what we ended up arguing about. I probably shouldn't have been. The torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty were unsparing, vile things; of course people would react strongly. That people took the movie for supporting torture will never not seem wrongheaded, though. My hard time was more about the general spirit of rah-rah vengeance ("the GREATEST MANHUNT IN HISTORY," which makes me wonder whether we've been keeping tally of great manhunts all this time). But the more I sat with the movie, the more I respected Kathryn Bigelow's willingness to allow the story to play out and let us answer our own questions. The film is strong -- indelible images; an ensemble full of actors capable of taking the narrative baton and running with it at a moment's notice -- enough to stand up to such scrutiny.
#1 -- Life of Pi: I was surprised enough by my reaction to Life of Pi that I didn't arrive at my full assessment of it right away. The fact that I stopped evaluating the movie in my head as I watched it left me at a bit of a loss in the immediate aftermath. It had been a while since I was so thoroughly engaged in a story, almost in a childlike way, to the point where everything else just disappeared and I was on that boat with Pi and Richard Parker. Once I was able to gather my critical faculties again, Ang Lee's achievement only improved in my estimation. Beyond the captivating adventure story (my favorite on film since Where the Wild Things Are), Lee conveyed the religious framing parable into something contemplative rather than mindlessly vague and spiritual. What some readers of the book promised would be a heavy-handed case for the necessity of God became instead an evocative case for the necessity of storytelling itself.