This was actually a really good year for film, with many great documentaries and art movies and a few really terrific movies coming out of the Hollywood machine. But as always, this annual list is never about I’m Right, You’re Wrong, but will be an attempt to lead you to great films you may not have seen or need to give a second look.
1. The Tree of Life
There’s never been anything like it, not even 2001: A Space Odyssey (the movie it’s often compared to and perhaps unfairly). The most polarizing, ongoing film argument of the year, it divides everyone–I showed it to my film history class weeks ago and, as expected, half the class hated it, while the other half was breathless in their praise of it. For those who haven’t seen it or need to give it a second look: don’t expect a typical movie, but more of a cinematic poem.
Yes, there’s a story and it’s a great one: Brad Pitt, in his best performance, is a father struggling to raise his defiant sons in 1950s suburbia. We also witness the creation of the universe (in a way both secular and profoundly religious) and watch how all of life is flush with miracles, whether it’s a dinosaur learning to be compassionate, a child taking their first steps or a father apologizing to his son in the only way he knows how. Not a film about how mankind views God but a cinematic tapestry of how God sees us.
This is filmmaking at its most personal, so even if you don’t “get it” (I’ve seen it four times and am still discovering new things), you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to experience it. Sean Penn publicly admitted he doesn’t fully understand it or what he’s doing in the film; he’s entitled to his frustration and isn’t alone but I will say, without hesitation, that this is one of the greatest films ever made.
2. The Descendants
The opening monologue: “My friends on the mainland think just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise. Like a permanent vacation–we’re all just out there drinking mai tais, shaking our hips and catching waves. Are they nuts? How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up, our heart attacks and cancer less fatal, our grief less devastating? Hell, I haven’t been on a surfboard in 15 years.” So begins the year’s best, most unpredictable comedy, the best film ever made about modern day Hawaii.
One of the greatest baseball films, with another top-notch Brad Pitt performance, though Jonah Hill is stunningly great and so is Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Even non-sports fans will be swept away.
This is writer/director Lars Von Trier’s best film, made with a clarity and focus lacking in his previous films. A visionary, strangely funny and powerful sci-fi drama of a young bride (Kirsten Dunst) suffering from depression during her wedding and learning to cope with the end of the world, both figuratively and literally.
5. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Elizabeth Olsen stars as a cult member escapee whose inability to tell present day from her frightening memories makes her a brave but wounded victim. This one will haunt you for days and OIsen gives one of the year’s best performances.
6. Win Win
One of those “little films” that you might have missed, only to finally catch up with it and realize what a perfect little comedy it is. Paul Giamatti plays a lawyer and high school wrestling coach who finds he’s great at being one but not the other. Manages to provide an ending that is utterly perfect and honest without feeling contrived or false.
Why is this the year’s best CG animated film and one of the year’s funniest comedies? Two words: mariachi owls. They open the film and the laughs don’t stop until the very end.
8. Of Gods and Men
Criminally little seen, quietly powerful true life drama of monks deciding to stand their guard and remain in their monastery while their country is threatened by war.
9. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
The humans may not have been all that interesting but this was the only summer movie that made an emotional connection AND knocked us out with the action and special effects. Caesar is a great character and the climax plays like an angrier Jumaniji.
Ralph Fiennes stars and directs this modern day, ultra-violent and surprising update of William Shakespeare’s play. Even with the iambic pentameter intact, this is the most accessible Shakespeare update in 15 years. Action-packed and more like Black Hawk Down than Hamlet, forget the tights and accents and go in expecting something new.