20 – THE MASTER. The movie that conflicts me the most from the past year. This movie about identity fails to find an identity of its own, and that kept me distanced from it as a viewer, even though I was invested in the qualities that demand to be savored – Paul Thomas Anderson’s bravura filmmaking, the elusive quality of Hoffman’s performance, and the most unique and uncomfortable performance of the year from Joaquin Phoenix. What Phoenix delivers is really more akin to a piece of performance art; he could be playing the living embodiment of a Francis Bacon painting – all twisty and tortured. For me, ‘There Will Be Blood’ was a far more cohesive work, without the overly self-conscious and unmotivated artsy brush strokes that sometimes plague ‘The Master’. I also feel more of a beating heart in his previous film. That being said, I believe the pleasures and failings of the film may continue to redefine themselves for me upon repeat viewings. ‘The Master’ may feel like a fascinating and cold failure to me at the moment, but it’s one I feel compelled to return to.
19 – HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE. Like ‘The Impossible’, this is a film about the determination to survive, but the aggressor here is the tsunami of indifference. This scathing and emotionally charged documentary takes us back to the time when the AIDS crisis first entered the public consciousness, and the brave activists who worked tirelessly (and many with the last breaths in their dying bodies) to put it there. ‘How to Survive a Plague’ serves as an oftentimes painful, but always inspiring portrayal of the fearless actions that ultimately saved countless lives, and a testimony to a human being’s right to be heard and to exist.
18 – HOPE SPRINGS. An affecting and sharply observed drama disguised as a sitcom. The movie is at its best when it allows Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones the chance to play out the wonderful screenplay by Vanessa Taylor without intrusion. Unfortunately, there are many moments when the direction by David Frankel falls flat, and when the pop music cues work against the drama by spelling out the subtext. Sophomoric missteps aside, Streep and Jones pull off a beautiful dance as a long-time married couple who no longer connect. Watch this as a double feature with ‘Amour’ and pray you never get old or get married (kidding).
17 – THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES. This portrait of super wealthy power couple Jackie and David Siegel is one of the most infuriating, yet entertaining films of the year. While completing construction on the most expensive mansion in the United States, the financial crisis hits this family hard, and their bumbling efforts to stay afloat (and on a budget) accentuate the great divide between the haves and the have nots. Their family dynamic is put on display here warts and all, and the viewer continues to shift between amusement and disgust at their level of vanity and wastefulness. Even so, the movie bravely manages to display a certain level of affection for them, particularly trophy wife Jackie, who seems determined to hold the family together, although she clearly lacks the tools to do so.
16. THE IMPOSTER. A 13-year old Texas boy disappears in 1994. Three years later, a young man enters the lives of the grieving family, claiming to be their long-lost son. Clearly, though, he is not. He’s actually a French con man by the name of Frederick Bourdin. Although they know in their hearts that this cannot be their boy, the family willfully chooses to accept the lie and take him in as their child. Are they motivated by a need to supplant their grief, or by something far more sinister? This fascinating documentary is filled to the brim with unreliable subjects, and the tales they weave speak to the mysteries of human nature and the perplexities of an unspeakable crime which may or may not have even occurred. Shot in an inventive, cinematic style, director Bart Layton’s first feature documentary is as spellbinding as a classic thriller.
15 – KILLER JOE. It’s good to know the fangs of director William Friedkin are still intact even at the age of 77. The often controversial director of boundary pushers like The French Connection, The Exorcist and Cruising, doesn’t soften one iota for this country-fried trailer park noir filled with garish violence, debased kink and sexuality, and a cast of completely immoral degenerates. Leading up that cast is Matthew McConaughey as the title character, a ruthless hit man/law enforcer who reigns as one of the most unique creations of the year. Colorful supporting performances, and the electric on-the-fly sense of danger and refreshingly unapologetic approach of Friedkin’s direction, make this a standout in a movie landscape too often driven by the need to appease the lowest common denominator. It may alienate many viewers who are in search of a more empathetic ride, but at least they won’t be able to forget it.
14 – LOOPER. The mind warp of the year. Does it all add up? Who knows? Who cares? I enjoyed the invention of the film, the specificity and believability of the future it creates, its audacious narrative, the tight razor-sharp editing of the opening act (and the way the rhythm loosens as the emotional core of the story begins to shape), one of the best Bruce Willis performances of recent years, a leading child performance filled with genuine pathos and dread, and that last oblique head scratcher in the final frame.
13 – SKYFALL. Series newcomer Sam Mendes finds the perfect balance of elements for this thrilling 50th anniversary James Bond film. Not as grim as ‘Casino Royale’, or as loopy as ‘Quantum of Solace’’, ‘Skyfall’ feels excitingly new and respectfully retro all at once. First and foremost, the credit should go to the Broccoli’s – who finally relinquished their iron grip long enough to allow the input of a real filmmaker with real ideas. Perhaps the smartest move for Mendes was assembling the fresh blood with which he surrounded himself – chiefly cinematographer Roger Deakins (the Shanghai sequence is one of the great photographic highlights of the year), composer Thomas Newman, and villain Javier Bardem. They provide a color and depth of expression lacking in many previous installments of the franchise. For me, this installment was perfectly and unexpectedly modulated, right down to its muted ‘Straw Dogs’-type finale.
12 – MAGIC MIKE. A terrific craftsman, and one of our most lucid and infectiously entertaining storytellers, writer/director Steven Soderbergh has a knack for crafting character portraits and environments that feel surprisingly intimate and lived-in. When he’s at his best, his actors play their scenes in a relaxed, almost improvisational way, and no flourish feels too precious, forced or overemphasized. There’s both a little bit of rebel and a little bit of old Hollywood in him – he’s like the weird hybrid of Jean-Luc Godard and Sydney Pollack. In ‘Magic Mike’, Soderbergh shoots the film like an eavesdropper, and that’s exactly how we experience the lives of its characters. Building on a foundation of authenticity based on star Channing Tatum’s real-life exploits as a male stripper in Tampa, you hardly notice the clichés it fails to avoid, because you’re so swept up by its sharply observed setting and comfortable, breezy sense of fun.
11 – ZERO DARK THIRTY. I’ve always had an affection for ‘process’ movies. On those terms, Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is a resounding success; meticulously detailed, and patient in its portrayal of each step in the hunt for Bin Laden. What the movie doesn’t do is invest very strongly in its characters, though in fairness it never intends to. Yet that lack of investment, and the occasional lapses in narrative (if torture didn’t result in any actionable intelligence, why do we spend the first 45 minutes on it?) made the film somewhat underwhelming to me. But the finale is the single most exciting piece of cinema I’ve seen all year.