It’s been over three months since I’ve posted here, but I’m required by law to post my top 10 movies of the year, so here I am. As always, there are a few likely contenders I haven’t had the chance to see yet, most notably Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained, and Not Fade Away. With that disclaimer out of the way, here’s what I liked this year:
1. Killing Them Softly — Andrew Dominik’s extremely faithful adaptation of the great Boston crime writer George V. Higgins’ novel Cogan’s Trade pressed all my buttons: crackling, hard-boiled dialogue; rough-and-tumble character actors; eyeball-peeling bursts of violence; and overall air of end-times-of-America rot.
2. Beasts of the Southern Wild — A sort of post-apocalyptic hick flick, Behn Zeitlin’s Katrina allegory is one of the most original indies in years, and features a real find in 8-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy, the young girl who must help her ailing father escape both floodwaters and mythical creatures.
3. Holy Motors — I can’t say I loved every moment of Leos Carax’s delirious ode to cinema, but the best parts stuck with me more than any other movie this year. Denis Levant gives a remarkable, chameleonic performance (even if we see a bit more of him than I would have preferred), and the accordion sequence is my most-played YouTube clip of the year.
4. Killer Joe — William Friedkin does a Coen-style Texas neo-noir – except much kinkier than the Coens. Matthew McConaughey oozes good ol’ boy menace, one crazy squirmeriffic scene near the end pushes it into Blue Velvet territory, and the ending is probably 5000% too over the top, but what the hell.
5. Argo — It’s not that Ben Affleck is some kind of visionary director, but I watch his movies and wonder why Hollywood isn’t turning out 30 movies a year as good as his. How hard is it to make a smart, well-written, well-made thriller packed with great actors? The last act is a little too overloaded with narrow escapes, but I’ll allow it.
6. The Master — The narrative is a bit too oblique at times, but it’s a visual feast (particularly in 70mm, which is a type of ancient technology known as “film’), Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction sustains the momentum from scene to scene, and Joaquin Phoenix is just phenomenal—one of those rare performances that’s imagined down to the last molecule.
7. Paul Williams Still Alive — The ubiquitous ‘70s presence is indeed still alive, and Paul Kessler’s compassionate, uncondescending, and ultimately exhilarating film reclaims Williams from the scrap heap of pop culture punchlines.
8. The Dark Knight Rises — The story may not make a lot of sense, but as far as propulsive, doom-laden, large-scale action movies go, this is about as good as it gets. Anne Hathaway makes a surprisingly great Catwoman.
9. Looper — Some future revised edition of my book If You Like The Terminator will have to include Rian Johnson’s outstanding time-travel movie. Although it draws on Terminator and Back to the Future, Looper creates an intricate, richly imagined universe of its own. Plenty of twists of the good kind—not arbitrary, but inevitable-in-retrospect—but a strong emotional component as well.
10. Bernie — Richard Linklater and Jack Black re-teamed for this offbeat true crime story, both an amusing caricature of East Texas life and a darkly comic exploration of the true meaning of justice.
10 Honorable Mentions
Sun Don’t Shine
Searching for Sugar Man
Oslo, August 31
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Beyond the Black Rainbow
The Loneliest Planet
The American Scream