1. The Master
Like every other film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, this will divide everyone, especially those not in the mood for a strange, frequently off putting, character-driven period piece about a deranged, lost soul who winds up a puppet to a cult leader. Joaquin Phoenix transforms himself into a scary, always unpredictable drifter who becomes a psychological captive to a charismatic windbag, played beautifully by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
There’s also Amy Adams, extraordinary as Hoffman’s wife, who may be the craziest of them all. The dream-like, haunting cinematography makes this feel more like a uniquely personal journey for its audience than a safe, straight forward story. We’re never told by the filmmakers how we’re supposed to feel about any of this and the film is as much a test for us as the odd treatments of “The Cause” are on Phoenix.
It may be challenging, but it’s also hypnotic, darkly humorous and lacking a single moment that’s predictable or sentimental. Movies like this are exciting to watch, because you won’t know where its taking you, only that you’ve never been there before.
2. Zero Dark Thirty
Further proof that director Kathryn Bigelow makes tougher, meaner and better action movies than anyone else. Her latest is an amazing achievement, portraying the hunt for Osama Bin Laden as a search for truth with impossible obstacles facing a dedicated CIA operative (played by a never better Jessica Chastain).
Not a testosterone-drenched explosion fest but a character drama and nail biting thriller comparable to JFK or Zodiac. The siege on Bin Laden’s hideout is a stunning set-piece but you won’t find a bad, sentimental, wrongheaded or unnecessary scene here. Whether it’s 100 percent accurate or takes narrative short cuts, this is a great story.
3. The Dark Knight Rises
Christopher Nolan’s finest Batman adventure yet was overshadowed by the horrific Colorado shooting that took place last July. His film doesn’t deserve becoming a footnote to this horrible occurrence.
Bat-fans went nuts over The Dark Knight but this is a better film, with a leaner, more focused screenplay. While there’s no replacing Heath Ledger, this offers a collection of great actors giving wonderful performances. Of the many terrific moments scattered throughout, Michael Caine’s final scene hits the hardest.
Tim Burton’s astonishing black and white, stop motion animated comedy is his best work in years. Who cares if it wasn’t a hit? It’s as brilliantly crafted and ghoulishly funny as expected but with many emotionally stirring moments that sneak up on you. Weird Girl is one of my favorite characters of the movie year.
5. On The Road
Walter Salles’ triumphant adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s legendary novel about a restless generation of writers becomes a jazzy, exhilarating ride. Fans of the book need to accept the film for what it is and not reject it for being a different experience from the written page.
An “unfilmable” work is now an improbably terrific, vivid and moving film about finding yourself and the innocence lost on the way. Garrett Hedlund (as Neal Cassdy) and Viggo Mortensen (amazing as William Burroughs) give two of the year’s finest performances.
Ridley Scott’s outer space epic still gets the fanboys worked up, as the loved it/hated it camps firmly draw lines in the sand. Good. The more audiences give this a second and third look, they’ll realize it doesn’t matter how much this is or isn’t like Alien.
There are no answers to the wild plot points it presents and that’s the point. Like the scientists scrounging to learn the origin of life, we’ll never solve every puzzle but still have one hell of an experience. The film this resembles even more than Alien is Forbidden Planet, which is the highest praise I can give.
The makers of Baraka, the dream-like documentary partially filmed on Maui, return 20 years later with this dialogue-free, hypnotic and indescribably beautiful look at life on Earth. Imagine a Terrence Malick film with no story but imagery that defines jaw dropping.
Richard Gere’s performance is possibly his best, in this timely drama. Beginning as a straight from the headlines character study of an Enron-like corporation, it takes a sharp turn and unfolds as a race-against-time thriller. It weaves a great tale without settling for an easy, formulaic outcome for its morally compromised lead character.
9. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson’s splendid comedy understands that, when you fall in love for the first time as a child, the attraction is based on the idea of perfection, not rational behavior. The tale of a “Khaki Scout” who runs off with his dream girl does many things right; among them: the two kids in question aren’t cookie-cutter Hollywood actors but two interesting young performers playing a very weird pair. There’s also Bruce Willis and Bill Murray, two of the coolest men on the planet, playing a couple of middle aged doofuses and a look that suggests a live action Charles Addams cartoon.
10. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Whether you consider sushi “bait” or can’t get enough of it (count me in on the latter), this unique documentary will pull you in. Set in a Japanese subway, we witness the remarkably disciplined, day-to-day life of a sushi wizard and how every action and decision in the kitchen is a task to be mastered. Movies about food are rarely this unusual, gorgeous to behold and mouth-watering.