Whenever it's time for another list of films, it seems that it is also time for another disclaimer, and this is no exception. If you'd like to skip directly to the Top 10 movies of the year, I won't hold it against you. That's a serious warning, because this is crazy long. Let's be honest, most of you are inclined to wait for the movie of this list to come out.
It's the time of year when film critics of every calibre come together to finally agree on something - that we'll pretend there is some objective realm of "goodness" to film (much like that first chapter of the poetry book in Dead Poets Society), and that such lists make any sense in any case.
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However you choose to look at the world of film, I find it hard to comprehend the idea of comparing them across genre, and most of the time even within one. Still, there seems to be something "real" at play when the same films show up on so many lists, and I have to agree that something worthy of note is going on, even if it is ultimately a far more confusing and complex beast than it seems.
Thus, before you even begin to lean toward having a go in the comments about this list, you should take the entire affair with a very special grain of salt. I am starting from the premise that a great deal about the idea of such lists is just plain silly (not least the subtleties involved in claiming one film is #5 and the other is #8), so your theories about including any certain title is likely to fall on deaf ears. On the other hand, I might be equally inclined to agree that it should.
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That said, I find that I also love these best movie lists, but only in the sense that they provide a quick reference for getting to know your critic, especially if you know where to look.
Also, documentaries are right out for me, at least as far as creating general lists goes. The whole thing is problematic enough without trying to figure out at what position a certain documentary is supposed to squeeze into the mix. Moreover, I have a tough time thinking of documentaries as anything like the same sort of creature as a feature film. It's like ranking a list of books that mixes fiction with not only non-fiction, but reference as well.
Therefore, I'll give a few documentaries a nod here, and you can do with it what you will.
The big three that everyone seems to be mentioning are The Tillman Story, Waiting for Superman, and Exit Through the Gift Shop. Each are quite good in their own way, but I find it illustrative of my overall point when trying to decide which of them is best. If I have to vote (and I do), I'm inclined to lean toward Exit Through the Gift Shop, but Waiting for Superman seems more likely to win awards, and fair enough.
I feel I have to recuse myself from The Tillman Story, for the decidedly odd (to me anyway) reason that I actually knew him. Not real well, but I went to ASU with him, and managed to run into him a couple of times. It's not that I was close to him in even the remotest sense, but the film is nevertheless weird for me, so I'm not a worthy judge.
Also, I'm a high school teacher, though in the purely academic sense, which is an odd thing to say... now that I say it, and I had never heard of Banksy before giving away a T-Shirt for the film, so I'm probably not much judge of any of these films. I find them all quite good though.
There were a lot of solid documentaries this year (I hear tell), but frankly, I am not much for documentaries. Sue me.
There is one more I want to mention though, and I am probably a poor judge of that one as well. I saw The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights as an absolute lark. It played the first night of SXSW after Kick-Ass, and I had nothing better to do (It was late-ish. It's a great theater. It's free. What the hell?). I had listened to the music of The White Stripes for perhaps a total of 37 seconds before seeing the film, but on the way out I bought one of the limited edition T-Shirts. It was that good.
The intricacies of the relationship between these two, and the unbalanced harmony of genius and utter loon that is Jack White was simply enthralling. I have no idea what makes this guy tick, nor can I yet fathom why someone who can play guitar and piano so amazingly would choose to record albums which largely consist of nonsense that any old hack with a guitar could play easily enough, but I know that I find myself listening to it now. (I mean it all in the best possible way, of course. I'm a bit of a loon myself.)
You can see why people would call The White Stripes "fake," using some rather tricky definition of the word, but I don't think there is anything fake about them, or him. There are many adjectives that certainly might stick, but I think there is a reality to them, and him, that is difficult to understand. Moreover, the visual and thematic composition of the film itself is outstanding, leading many to refer to it as a new level in music documentary.
Also, the film features a rather brilliant moment when Jack cuts off his sister while explaining that he lets her talk and doesn't cut her off all the time.
Ok, before getting down to it, I feel I should make some mention of several movies that are absent from the list for one reason or another, especially beause many of them are on a lot of other people's lists.
Title links are to my reviews that are up here, or to the IMDb.com page for the film. If my review is up here, it means I'm far less likely to babble on overmuch now.
This one is in strong contention to win several Best Picture awards, as well as quite a few others, but I just don't see it. Sure, there is much to appreciate about certain aspects of it, the screenplay especially, but it didn't do anything for me.
Here is where we (critics) should perhaps admit of our preferences, and not pretend that we don't have any. For instance, war movies are less likely to win me over, and will most likely be rated accordingly. Similarly, horror movies are almost infinitely likely to avoid nominations for Best Picture. We're apparently allowed to go along with the horror game, but in other areas we are supposed to pretend that everything goes down according to pure merit.
At any rate, at the beginning of this one we get to hear the about-to-be-ex-girlfriend tell Mark that it isn't that he's a nerd, it's that he's an asshole, and if there is anything else to get out of this film, it eludes me entirely. It's like watching the prequel to A Christmas Carol, where we just watch Scrooge be a bastard and make lots of money, basically by being a bastard. The End.
Well, call me crazy, but Hoo-friggin-Ray for that film.
Another in the "I don't really care" genre, this one lost me at hello, or more specifically, lost me when I learned the theory. Great performance actually, but that doesn't mean much to me on the overall score.
You should really consider this one as being somewhere in the long version of the list you are about to get to, but as it isn't in my Top 10, and is in so many others, I figured it should get mentioned here in the "on everyone else's list" section.
Something about this one just didn't work out for me, and now you're thinking that I'm just going to say I don't like anything that everyone else does. Well, there is Avatar.
I know it made more money than most movies could ever deserve, and I did like it, but it wasn't even my favorite animated film of the year.
I liked this one pretty well, but somewhere around the halfway point I lost touch with what the movie was trying to be, or tell me, and it never seemed to regain its purpose. I wanted to like it more, and I know a lot of people did, but I had the distinct impression that the second half of the film was written under the "just keep babbling until you reach feature length, and then just stop" school.
Yeah, one of my favorite directors, but this one got lost. It was certainly fun, and I appreciate the effort, but at a certain point of trying to be clever, you have to make sense. I'm as much for suspending disbelief as the next guy, but when you start spinning philosophic yarns, the logic has to come together. Something about the film leads me to believe that there will eventually be a "technique" of storytelling which has its roots here, and is known as deus ex wascawy wabbit.
While there is a decent amount of entertainment value here, the film was an absolute dud for me. Parts of it were interesting, and I had hopes throughout the first act, but not long after that it just began piling goofy on top of goofy, and I suspect the gag reel that will never be released includes several moments of the actors bursting out laughing during the most intense scenes.
With those out of the way, I should now mention that this list was almost a list of the Top 20, and there were nearly 30 films that were on some version of this list at one point or another, and might be again if I were to continue mucking around with it for another month. You'll see these on other Best lists, and in other Top 10s, but with less frequency.
A solid effort, and a much needed comeback for Ben Affleck, this was a very entertaining film, and can be found on many lists you'll see. It deserves most of the good things you'll hear about it, but there was something missing for me. Much as I did enjoy it, when all was said and done, my main thought was that I'd like to see another director's take on the effort.
A decidedly solid film, though one in a genre that doesn't particularly appeal to me, this is a film that is rather confusing insofar as the lack of chatter. Unfortunately, rather slow dramas don't get people rushing to the theater, and don't make for animated conversations, but more people should give this a serious look.
Already with much praise under its belt, this is a movie that I feel a great deal of respect for. In the end, it just isn't my kind of movie, and I wasn't quite as taken as many others, but for those who lean toward the idea, this one shouldn't be missed.
This indie number managed a lot of good press, but the noise seemed to die off at a certain point. I've seen it get mentions in a few lists, and it deserves a lot of credit. Part of me loves this film, but the other part simply isn't quite that moved by the whole "crime family" saga.
Now we move on to yet another delineation of this list. While most people just throw out a quick list of honorable mentions, I'm going to take a shot at putting these in some sort of order. I wouldn't pay too much attention to that order, but I'm going to try to put these together is some semblance of generally increasing personal appeal. Thus, you could consider this the list of the 32 best films, but I wouldn't really recommend it, especially considering that there are films listed above that would be in the "real" Top 32. Got that?
Though many disliked this with the sort of fervor I can make no sense of, I rather enjoyed it. The film critic in me found it a bit lacking when it came to certain elements I look for in a great film, but it was nevertheless a good couple of hours. You might have to be open to the theory in order to get a connection, but there was much to like about it.
With a bit of tweaking, and possibly a different director's vision, I might have loved this one. The most bizarre and captivating feature of the overall encounter that is watching this film is simply the lack of effort to escape the predicament. There is a surprising, almost unnoticed, depth to the exploration into the human condition here, but the most fascinating, and least mentioned, focus is on the raising of sheep generally. There are great performances, but a certain lack of grip kept this one from being higher on the list.
One of those films that is not allowed to be taken too seriously, because it is too close to horror in genre. Though still a worthwhile film, in some sense, it is relatively low on my list because it doesn't measure up to the original. Much like Insomnia, the "Americanization" of the effort left us with something entertaining, but with the most brilliant bits removed. There is a mood and overarching thematic effort in both original films that simply can't survive the translation, because if we really analyze things, it is their removal that is at the heart of the utterly needless remaking effort in the first place.
Both originals, by the way, top my lists for their years.
I caught this oddball indie at SXSW, and it was one of the few movies that kept popping into my thoughts during that flood of film. As the days went on, I found myself recommending it to more and more people, almost accidentally. I've never been asked for a movie recommendation so frequently in my life, and this title kept finding its way out of my mouth. I figure that had to mean something.
Nearly a year later, this one still crawls to the front of my awareness with some regularity, and I already find myself thinking of this "nothing happens" dialog-fest as an old friend.
Stories about any of The Beatles are starting out at a disadvantage for me, and that may have kept this film from climbing any higher, but this one pulls its characters out of the legend well, and the result is a well-crafted piece of entertainment. It's fun and odd, and deserving of a lot more attention. It also puts Aaron Johnson on the list twice, and he isn't getting talked about enough either.
If nothing else, Giamatti's ability to become anyone to almost alarming degrees (much as he did in American Splendor) makes this one worthy of note. The screenplay is definitely not for everyone, and I could hardly blame anyone for summing up their opinion of the film with a blank stare, but I was sucked in.
This one made a few Top 10 lists, and I can't argue overmuch with such a decision. To the right person, this is going to go over quite well. Said right person is rather old (which isn't necessarily older than me), leans toward favoring all things British, and can sit through a very slow film. I am actually all of these things, but from my perspective this one could have used a bit of tightening up, and was ultimately a bit indulgent. It was still quite good though, and includes a brilliant, if short, turn by David Bradley, now of Harry Potter fame. He plays Filch in those. Seriously, if you think his role here is easy to pull off... well, you're bloody wrong.
Another film that is clearly in a category considered unworthy of top spots in lists and/or the collective film consciousness (just wait, there are more coming up in even higher spots), I was taken in by the balance of old and new on display here. It hasn't quite got the perfection of sensibilities that would put it on par with the classics (the Say Anything group of classics) it references, but it's closer than anything in a hell of a long time.
It has the kind of synopsis that is bound to make me roll my eyes, but this one comes together expertly. Nigel Cole's direction is wonderful, and the entire cast deserves an award of some sort. Several versions of this list had this one very high indeed, but in the end, I just don't find myself returning to thoughts of it. For whatever that's worth.
Here we enter a world of personal preference taking over the reins. I'm not sure this one is even well-represented in terms of films people have seen, much less rated highly, but I loved this little adventure through anti-adventureland. It's a wonderful turn at demonstrating filmcraft techniques that deliver feeling and create mood, but it's also a whimsical tale showing us how much of how we see, react to, and feel about others is a result of what we put on them.
Another one that I caught at its premiere at SXSW, this was probably the film that left me most shocked by the response it received. Largely disliked, or at least considered underwhelming, which is surprising enough for a Jeunet film (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement, The City of Lost Children), I loved it. While I may agree that it didn't quite live up to his strongest efforts, it is a different kind of film, not least because it is aiming at whimsy, and this is a target now layered in dust and cobwebs. I got to watch the premiere with Jeunet (well, relatively near him anyway), and hear him speak before and after the film, and his feelings about the film made it past his struggle with the language, just by looking at his face. Perhaps the experience clouds my judgment. It doesn't sound like me though.
On another day I might put this film up a half-dozen spots, but today isn't quite that day. An animated film in a sense that is somewhat removed from the norm in that it is simply a film that is animated. Work that out yourself. Seek this one out, and you won't be disappointed.
Frankly, I'm probably supposed to consider this two films, which is probably a surprising thing to hear for some, because it very definitely is two films. Still, I find it difficult to consider them as distinct entities such that one would be further down the list somewhere, and the other perhaps a bit higher. I don't see the sense in that sort of play. Were I more inclined toward this genre, it probably would jump up several spots. The story of a French gangster, played brilliantly by Vincent Cassel, this entity (however many films it is), is a powerhouse, and fiendishly entertaining.
You'll see this one on a lot of Top 10s, and perhaps with good reason. I really enjoyed it, and found many of its pieces to be of the highest calibre. Much as I liked it, I just didn't feel the pull to move it any higher up. You can read my review, and go over my thoughts on why you just can't remake True Grit.
Here's another trip down the number of films road, but splitting this into different spots wouldn't make much sense either. When you're done with the whole thing, you've been on an incredibly wild ride, and whatever else may be said, the acting is fantastic. Also, by the time you're done you'll find that it is a film about almost everything, so really getting at the heart of a synopsis is a tricky affair. Cops, and Killers, and Journalists, oh my. There's a serial killer, corruption, and the long and winding road through a lot of people's lives, and it's a dark, stark, gritty masterpiece. It's only down on the list because that's what day today is. Even thinking about it long enough to write this makes me want to move it back up. Lists are tricky things.
Here is a movie that might almost have been custom-designed for me, though that might strike many as a surprising thought (among those who know me, and the film). It's weird, slow, rather quirky, and almost impossible to describe without using "tragic love story." On the negative end, as far as person-specific creation, it stars Tilda Swinton, and I'm not a fan. She's quite good in it, but I would never choose her, so the film loses out there.
When a film centers around a person who feels that something is strangely lacking, despite perhaps good argument that nothing is, in fact, lacking, and they can't explain their ennui, or where it came from, it gets my vote. Actually, all movies that pretend this is not what they are about lose my vote, but whatever.
I would have expected this one to land a bit higher, because Sofia Coppola has proven herself to me with every film she's made. This was still far above-average work, but it ran on just a bit for me. I'm not convinced that about twenty minutes or so was much more than filler. That sounds worse than it is, because the movie was still hypnotizing. On the other hand, a lot of people will think it's nonsense and hate it, and there's some chance their right. Or something.
I've seen this one on a few Top 10 Lists, and it might easily have made it onto mine, except that I knew what was going to happen for the entire final 20 minutes (and I mean exactly), and I really didn't like the very end. That might not be the kiss of death under most circumstances, but when you know an ending is coming that you don't like, it makes it hard to lose yourself in the thing. Despite that, it's an interesting game, and it's given to you rather brilliantly. It isn't the sort of film which has everything just so, but it is that sort of film because reality isn't just so. It's a play of subtleties and characters, instead of a lot of flash, and it's a lot more engrossing as a result.
It's like hyperbole that hasn't gone wrong. Think of it like this - let's say you have to wait at a traffic light, and it's really long and frustrates you. When you come home and say, "I had to wait at this light for like a minute," that's newspapers, or, if we jazz it up just a bit and make it pretty, documentaries. If you come home and say, "Uggghhh, I had to wait at this light for like half an hour," that's making a good movie. If you come home and say, "Oh my God! I had to wait at this light for 500 billion years!!!" Well... that's how most movies are made.
Almost the poster child for films that are not allowed to be taken seriously, or find their way on lists, Scott Pilgrim is nevertheless worthy of note. A crazy kind of fun, the film is filled with mixed media references, mixed intentions, self-reference, and the trials, tribulations, and sensibilities of youth. The new youth... with the emoticons and whatnot. Part movie, part video game, part text message conversation, Scott Pilgrim is, if nothing else, a film that takes a daring shot at something.
On a different note, the film is also one of the best expressions of what dating feels like there has ever been.
Though I have seen a lot of people either include this film in their Top 10, or list it among the "almosts," I'm still not sure it will ever get the attention it deserves. At the same time, this is a rough film to recommend. Though there is a great deal going on that references the multi-faceted nature of the human condition, society, and the interaction of the two, there is also a pretty significant sense in which this movie is Robert Duvall being old at you for ninety minutes... or for some... for 500 Billion years!!!
Easily the runner-up film, and first choice for the Top 10 if I had to exclude one of the others, Atom Egoyan's next, weirdest film about a doctor and the woman she hires to seduce her husband is absolutely magical, though I admit that it is an unusual sense of the word I'm after. With great turns by Julianne Moore, Liam Neeson, and Amanda Seyfried, the film could not be more steeped in Egoyan-ness if he were there picture-in-picture throughout the film. He is a proven master at putting people on display, and saying much in what is left unsaid, and this is one of his best.
The Top 10!
It seems like most people forgot about this one. It managed some nominations in the obvious categories, but I stand behind it as a whole. I encourage you to read the review if you're looking for some information here, because one way or another, I've written quite a bit about the film already. The DVD release is excellent as well.
9. The American
I doubt you'll see this one on many lists, as it seems to have largely gone by unnoticed altogether. It's not that surprising really, because the film is a throwback in many ways, and if not for Clooney's name on the poster, I doubt anyone would have bothered with it. More's the pity, because it's a fantastic piece of craftsmanship, and Clooney is as good as he's ever been. I have to admit that I don't love the ending, though it's probably inescapable, but unlike The Ghost Writer, it just doesn't matter. Apart from certain... delicate scenes... in fact, that whole side of the storyline, you might think this was made several decades ago, and it will probably be several decades before you see anything like it again.
It isn't exactly forgotten, because there is an animated film category in most awards, and only so many animated films in any year, but it has lost out in hype to Toy Story 3, and it's a shame. When it was released, the positive reviews flowed thick and heavy (and were filled with quote-hopeful hyperbole). Once Toy Story 3 hit, it became a certain form of political suicide to talk up anything else, and all the positive regard swung in that direction. A lot of people will obviously disagree, but this is the superior film in my book.
You'll find this one higher on a lot of lists, if it isn't at the top. As I've said about much of this list, if you found me on another day, I might agree. The hype hasn't slowed since its festival screenings, and Colin Firth may be a lock for Best Actor awards, and he's got my vote. Apart from the standard "slow, old people" complaints, there is little to pick at with this one. The performances are all great, with fine turns by Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter (though for me, she doesn't have enough screen time to really deserve Supporting Actress), and the screenplay and direction are wonderful. Still, there was something just slightly missing in the overall game for me. It's a fine thing, I suppose. I mean, it's number 7.
That's right. Much like Scott Pilgrim, this one took everything in a new direction. Another one that I caught at SXSW, it was simply awesome. I could say lots of things here, but it wouldn't matter if I did.
A very special realm of "not for everyone" is reserved for such films as Dogtooth, but there is a sense in which it is also in a class of film that truly embody what film means to me. The two groups do not have to overlap.
It is without question a bizarre film, with a bizarre premise, but it makes you want to put scare quotes around the word "bizarre." I'm sure a great story could be told about what Director and Co-Writer Giorgos Lanthimos wanted people to get out of the film, and I'm equally sure that most viewers wouldn't quite get whatever that may be from their experience with it.
The story is that of a single family who live cut off from the rest of the world, and the cuckoo (really, you can try other words if you like, but the one you're looking for is "cuckoo") parents who raise their children in the oddest lifestyle you might imagine. Words have new meanings, the outside world is said to be possessed of man-eating cats, and there is simply no real knowledge of the outside world at all.
Layered and well-crafted, the film is an experience like few others, even just in the fact that watching it must be labeled "an experience." While the primary focus is clearly on the result of growing up and living with such bizarre rules, and in such bizarre circumstances (just imagine that your house and family are literally your entire world), there are hints that, in the end, perhaps we all do.
I'm beginning to hate the fact that I can't read anything about this film without reading, "Ozark mountain girl." I'm not sure why that bugs me exactly, but it does.
So, an Ozark mountain girl is trying to hold her family together. The story, in general, will sound familiar. Still in her teens, she is serving as the only real parent to her siblings, and trying to figure out how to find a road that leads anywhere in a poor, rural community. Her father isn't there, and her mother "isn't there," and our girl Ree is getting an IV push of life that would choke most.
If things weren't bad enough, she discovers that her father has put up the house for bail, and if he doesn't turn up soon, life will get even more interesting. Thus begins our journey, and young Ree has to find out what happened to dear old Dad.
Something about the overall effort reminds me of Frozen River, which was in my Best of 2008, and that may mean something to a few of you. It's a stunningly powerful film, and a performance that is sure to reap rewards for Jennifer Lawrence for a long time to come.
Another film that is rather strange frankly, this one is a love story (and I suppose a tragic one in its own way), but it is a love story told in a way that is remarkably fresh. We jump back and forth in the relationship between Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), from the time surrounding their meeting, to the bitter end of things several years later. There's the wooing and flirting, and suddenly there's the aftermath with a husband who doesn't do much, a kid in the picture, and the strange sense that after all these years no one has any idea who the other person is at all, and now... well, what can you do about it now?
There is much that is great about the film, and the performances by Gosling (who will find a way to look like at least three other actors during the course of the film) and Williams are both superb. I'm not sure that Director Derek Cianfrance couldn't have done more to make it even better in several ways, but that's probably here nor there. But, what really makes it great is that the shifting focus in time is actually used for some effect. I'm getting to the point, generally, where I'd about kill for a movie to just run from beginning to end, and not jump around in time at all. In this case, it has meaning, and isn't just the latest fad.
There are too many questions about love and relationships to mention, and more specific to this movie, the ways people try to answer and resolve those questions. In any other movie, we would watch their "falling in love" moments, and know exactly where things are going. We might also then watch it fall apart, and wonder about it all falling apart. After all, falling in love is easy, and not particularly rare. It happens everyday, and when X, Y, and Z happen in a film, Boom, there it is. But, when we see it moving back and forth, from beginning to end and back again, we get to wonder if that's really what's happening at all, and if falling in love isn't actually incredibly rare. Maybe. Maybe not. Whatever. At least we get to wonder about it.
2. The Fighter
I'm rarely moved by movies that have anything to do with sports. It's one of the genres that has trouble getting a grip on me. This one, like all really great films, is only marginally about what it's about. I expect Christian Bale has something of a lock on Best Supporting Actor awards, but stranger things have happened.
1. Black Swan
As I've said throughout this list, the order isn't really important or meaningful to me. The top five or six could get shuffled around according to mood, or who knows what other factors, and what difference would any of it make? On the other hand, here is a film that makes me love film, and that doesn't happen every year (though it did last year as well). This strange, somewhat surreal tale of a ballet dancer and her struggle with perfection is most certainly not for everyone, and if you've actually read through this list, you know that I'm just the guy to be okay with that... usually.
But, as Roger Ebert is famous for saying Gene Siskel used to say about believing certain films are good, at some point you're wrong. In this case, if you don't like a film, at some point, you're just wrong.