Each film on the following list had at least one public theatrical screening in the Milwaukee area for the first time in 2012. Due to the vagaries of international film distribution, some of these films were released in other areas of the world in 2011, while some won’t be released in other places until 2013, but for the purposes of this list these are all 2012 releases since they were the ones that I had a reasonable opportunity to see for the first time this year. Before getting to the main list, here are some quick lists explaining why certain notable films didn’t make the cut.
Movies that I really wanted to see that I missed:
El Sicario (Room 164) (Gianfranco Rosi, France, 80 min.)
Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, USA, 97 min.)
Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 110 min.)
Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh, UK, 110 min.)
Movies that didn’t make it to the Milwaukee area this year:
Amour (Michael Haneke, Austria/France, 127 min.)
The Comedy (Rick Alverson, USA, 90 min.)
Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, Canada, 109 min.)
Hara-Kiri (Takashi Miike, Japan, 126 min.)
Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France, 115 min.)
Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, Japan, 109 min.)
The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev, USA, 113 min.)
Not Fade Away (David Chase, USA, 112 min.)
Red Hook Summer (Spike Lee, USA, 121 min.)
This Must Be the Place (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy, 118 min.)
To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, USA, 112 min.)
Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, USA, 157 min.)
1) The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr, Hungary, 146 min.)
Master director Bela Tarr has already announced that The Turin Horse will be his last film, but the apocalyptic weight of its sounds and images makes it feel like an appropriate end to the era of traditional cinema altogether. It’s certainly hard to imagine that anyone will produce such gorgeous black-and-white images on celluloid in the future. The story, which follows a farmer (Janos Derzsi) and his daughter (Erika Bok) as they struggle to survive during a brutal windstorm, could hardly be more simple, but Tarr and his collaborators get maximum physical impact out of each elaborate tracking shot and vivid post-synched sound effect, giving the film an all-consuming sense of palpable dread that’s hard to shake off. The Turin Horse works equally well as a simple neorealist narrative, a complicated stylistic exercise, and a powerful farewell to classical cinema.
2) A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran, 123 min.)
Though ostensibly the story of a couple (Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi) undergoing marital strife, writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s intense drama is actually about the ways that their ongoing dispute directly or indirectly complicates the lives of everyone surrounding them. Farhadi’s script is ingeniously plotted (indeed, it is the most well-structured screenplay in recent memory), but the characters’ actions always feel like logical outgrowths of their established personalities rather than mere plot mechanics. Everyone in the film has understandable reasons for behaving as they do, which makes it all the more tragic when their needs or beliefs cause them to hurt each other. Flawless writing, terrific ensemble performances, and a wealth of fascinating background details about modern-day Tehran combine to make A Separation one of the finest films of recent years.
3) Bernie (Richard Linklater, USA, 104 min.)
This true crime story follows the buildup to and aftermath of the murder of a wealthy widow (Shirely MacLaine) by a small town’s beloved mortician (Jack Black), but director Richard Linklater is less interested in producing tawdry thrills than in understanding the strange details surrounding the case. The film’s genial tone and casually sophisticated blend of documentary and narrative film techniques allows Linklater to investigate the circumstances that caused the townspeople to refuse to believe that the funeral director could’ve been responsible for a murder that he openly confessed to. As funny as many of the folksy talking heads segments are, it never appears as if Linklater (who is from an area of Texas not far from where the murder took place) is inviting viewers to mock the speakers or their rural culture so much as he is allowing them to help tell the story. Without ever losing its moral grounding, the film suggests that the murder may have been justified, and that the incident is neither the defining event nor the most interesting thing about its titular character’s odd life.
4) Looper (Rian Johnson, USA, 118 min.)
Equally successful as a meditation on the human race’s inability to learn from our past mistakes and as an exciting blockbuster action film, Looper is one of the most ambitious and interesting science fiction films of recent memory. It’s clear that writer-director Rian Johnson spent a lot of time working out the details of the film’s vividly realized desolate future, where the mafia uses outlawed time travelling technology to send their assassination targets directly to the “loopers” who will assassinate them. One such looper (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) runs into all sorts of mind-bending problems when the future version of himself (Bruce Willis) evades his time travel murder, putting the young hitman in a situation where he must simultaneously hunt down his future self and evade the henchmen of his angry mob boss (Jeff Daniels). What follows is both a heady mind-fuck and an unpredictable action flick that is dense with ideas that are as thought-provoking as they are viscerally awesome.
5) Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, USA, 165 min.)
Quentin Tarantino’s follow-up to Inglourious Basterds (2009) is another historical revenge fantasy, this time set in the Antebellum south and chronicling the adventures of a recently-freed former slave (Jamie Foxx) and his eccentric German benefactor (Christoph Waltz). The film has already caught some flack for using slavery as material for an ultra-gory exploitation story, but while Tarantino’s idiosyncratic approach to sensitive subject matter is far from politically correct, his depictions of racist brutality have a powerful sting beyond what is needed as grist to justify the revenge plot. This is one of the few recent films to deal head-on with our culture’s racial issues, but that doesn’t prevent it from also being one of the most wildly entertaining movies of the year, full of incredibly vivid action sequences, witty dialogue, and tremendous supporting performances from Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, and Leonard DiCaprio. Some pacing and structural problems crop up in the film’s overextended climax, but overall Django is exciting and audacious even by Tarantino’s high standards.
6) The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium, 87 min.)
The Dardenne Brothers always manage to get thoroughly lived-in performances out of their ensemble casts, which is essential to their films’ verisimilitude-dependent aesthetic. After six feature films dealing with the struggles of Belgium’s underclass, it’s clear that the Dardenne’s know their films’ milieu like the back of their hands, and the intense results they consistently achieve seem almost effortless. But the fact that the protagonist of their latest film is a young boy (played by 12-year-old newcomer Thomas Doret) who is as authentically realized as any of the Dardenne’s other characters underscores just how hard the duo must work to make their films seem so natural. Doret’s remarkable lead performance anchors this grippingly heartbreaking story about an abandoned child’s efforts to reconnect with his father and hold on to his few remaining belongings. This is one of the saddest movies of the year, but also one of the most hopeful, and the story’s brighter moments feel as earned and realistic as its crushing lows.
7) This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran, 75 min.)
Celebrated director Jafar Panahi has been placed under house arrest and banned from filmmaking by Iranian authorities, requiring him to find some atypical outlets for his creative energy. Shot largely on amateur handheld cameras and cellphones, the documentary This is Not a Film presents itself as a ramshackle home movie, but is in fact a fairly elaborate personal essay about the possibility of creating art under fascism. Panahi acts out scenes from unproduced screenplays, provides impromptu audio commentary while watching scenes from his own films, takes phone calls regarding various legal troubles, and listens to the sounds of a rowdy street festival that is taking place in spite of the government’s efforts to stop it. There are also stretches of the film where nothing much happens, as Panahi plays with his pet iguana or digs through his extensive DVD rack. This is Not a Film is no substitute for genuine Panahi classics like Crimson Gold (2003) or Offside (2006), but that’s sort of the point; Panahi, like many of his Iranian filmmaking contemporaries, is being tragically denied the right to do his job. This documentary is ultimately more important as a social statement than as cinema, but it’s a genuinely stirring call to arms.
8) Le Tableau (Jean-Francois Languionie, France, 78 min.)
This wonderfully inventive animated film is designed for children, but has more wit and allegorical power than most films intended for adults. The story starts out in an unfinished painting, where a group of upper-class Allduns (completely drawn characters) lord over the Halvsies (characters missing color on part of their bodies) and the impoverished Sketchies (black and white scribbles). A star-crossed romance between members of different classes leads several characters to escape from their painting in search of The Painter, who will presumably bring harmony to their lives. Their search leads them to inhabit the worlds of several other paintings, each of which brings a new and enchanting visual style to the film. Gorgeously animated and endlessly imaginative, Le Tableau is not just the year’s most charming family film, but one of its best all-around works of art.
9) Sacrifice (Chen Kaige, China, 132 min.)
Early reviews made me fear that Chen Kaige’s opulent period drama might be a dull prestige film, but this non-musical adaptation of an ancient Chinese opera is actually a spectacularly over-the-top melodrama filled with wild plot twists, exciting battles, and countless eccentric touches. The enjoyably convoluted plot is too complicated to adequately describe in one paragraph, but suffice to say that it involves secret identities, assassination by mosquito, and an ultimatum that involves the potential slaughter of 100 babies. The story may ultimately be too broad to have much emotional or psychological depth, but Sacrifice is still one of the most exciting and exquisitely filmed action films of the year.
B Very Good
10) Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, USA, 150 min.)
Steven Spielberg’s considerable skillset generally lends itself better to action blockbusters than serious dramas, which is why it’s such a welcome surprise that his Lincoln is less an award-groveling prestige film than an intellectually demanding consideration of the democratic process. The film is ostensibly an epic presidential biopic, but is really more of a complex chamber drama about the machinations required to make the 13th Amendment a reality. Some of Spielberg’s trademark sappiness slips through the cracks (especially in John Williams’ annoyingly emotion-stoking score), but for the most part Lincoln eschews easy melodrama in favor of a John Ford-ian consideration of the moral compromises and mortal sacrifices required to make progress possible. Lincoln also recalls the work of Ford in its immaculate shot compositions and its phenomenal ensemble cast. Daniel Day-Lewis is excellent as expected in the title role, and even the smallest supporting roles are filled with ringers like Jared Harris, John Hawkes, Walton Goggins, and Michael Stuhlbarg.
11) The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 137 min.)
Paul Thomas Anderson never fails to aim high. His latest picture is a period epic that deals with nothing less than the post-WWII psychology of the United States, as filtered through the development of new age religions and the shifting tide of sexual mores. Utilizing unbelievably rich cinematography (in the virtually extinct 65 mm format) and an avant-garde Johnny Greenwood score, Anderson has made one of the most purely cinematic films of the year. The Master certainly looks, sounds, and feels thoughtful, but the film ultimately has more stylistic depth than genuine insight. Granted, the writer-director’s borderline-masterpiece There Will Be Blood (2007) had similarly little to say about its big themes, but the battle of wills between that film’s main characters had a visceral impact that The Master’s conflict between a hack spiritual guru (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and a mentally disturbed WWII vet (Joaquin Phoenix) lacks. The characters remain ciphers despite the incredible efforts of Hoffman and Phoenix, both of whom are working at the highest imaginable level here. Despite the film’s intellectual shortcomings, it is one of the most stylistically ravishing films of the year, and it remains gripping even when it isn’t clear what Anderson is trying to get at.
12) A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, UK, 99 min.)
A Dangerous Method follows the true story of the turbulent relationships Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) had with his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson) and his prize patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). Appropriately enough, the film plays out like an extended psychotherapy session, but director David Cronenberg and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (adapting his play The Talking Cure) are more interested in picking apart the outwardly respectable and bourgeois Jung than the more obviously eccentric Freud or the hysterical Spielrein. The choice of focus proves wise, as it allows the film to essentially psychoanalyze WWI-era Europe, touching on all sorts of fascinating subjects in less than 100 minutes. The only thing holding the film back from being one of Cronenberg’s best is the over-the-top performance from Knightley, who mugs aggressively while adopting a theatrical Russian accent that puts her in sharp contrast with the more naturalistic performances of the rest of the cast. In fairness, Knightley’s is the film’s trickiest role, and the actress undeniably made some bold and interesting choices in her portrayal, but her performance ultimately stands out as the one big flaw in an otherwise immaculately crafted psychological study.
13) V/H/S (Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence, USA, 115 min.)
Horror anthologies rarely have more than one or two worthwhile segments, and the faux-documentary subgenre of horror films became tiresome the instant that The Blair Witch Project became a sensation back in 1999. Thankfully, this collection of five faux-documentary style horror shorts (plus one frame story that links the different segments) is a consistently fun and inventive anomaly. Sure, some segments are stronger than others, but for the most part these shorts are clever and stylish, displaying some of the best-ever use of the rarely effective first-person camera perspective. David Bruckner’s tale is particularly effective in that regard, using hidden-camera glasses to capture a one-night stand that turns into a bloody rampage. But the most exciting piece may be the one from internet collective Radio Silence, who show off an impressive command of realistic-looking special effects as they strand some enthusiastic haunted house enthusiasts in a house that is actually haunted. V/H/S is one of the most purely fun horror movies in years.
14) Beyond the Black Rainbow (Panos Cosmatos, Canada, 110 min.)
Though Panos Cosmatos’ debut feature was made available on DVD shortly before it made its way to Milwaukee theatres, it really demands to be seen on the big screen. A pure sensory experience, Beyond the Black Rainbow relies entirely on its powerful audio-visual assault rather than its sketchy narrative. Undoubtedly the consistent mood of icy, creeping dread will feel tedious to some, but anyone who connects with the film’s stunningly surreal shot compositions and the ominous synth score by Black Mountain’s Jeremy Schmidt will be spellbound (at least until a last-minute turn into slasher movie territory breaks the mood). Though Cosmatos was clearly inspired by the entire lexicon of trippy filmmakers (with Kubrick, Cronenberg, and Lynch seeming like the most obvious reference points), his slow-motion nightmare has a genuinely unnerving hallucinatory power that is all its own. I’ll certainly never be able to un-see the amazing flashback that sequence that (apparently) features a man dipping into a pool of oil, disintegrating and re-composing in an inexplicable field of light and smoke, and then devouring a frightened woman.
15) Wreck-It Ralph (Rich Moore, USA, 101 min.)
This charming tribute to video games could’ve been little more than a string of clever in-joke references, but there is genuine heart in the story of a villainous arcade character’s attempts to reform. The surprisingly sophisticated plot finds Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) escaping from his own Rampage-style game in an effort to become the hero of an ultra-violent sci-fi military epic, but accidentally getting trapped inside a candy-coated kiddie racing game. Each game contains its own complicated mythology and its own visual style, and a lot of the fun of the movie comes from the increasingly chaotic intermingling of the different universes. In some ways Wreck-It Ralph suffers from comparison to the similarly conceived Le Tableau, but what it lacks in the French film’s subversive political allegory it largely makes up for with a density of smart jokes and ingenious plot twists.
16) Argo (Ben Affleck, USA, 120 min.)
Ben Affleck’s surprising development into a very solid craftsman of tough suspense films continues with Argo, his third and best directorial effort to date. The wild true story involves a CIA operative (Affleck in an effectively understated performance) helping U.S. diplomats escape from Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis by pretending that they are part of a film crew scouting locations for a science fiction movie. Considering that the diplomats’ escape is a foregone conclusion for anyone remotely familiar with the true story, the film is remarkably gripping, maintaining a tense you-are-there feel even during the scenes that seem to stray farthest from reality (such as the climax, in which a series of events conspire to make the public airplane that the diplomats escape on take off just seconds before their true identities are revealed to the people trying to stop them on the ground).
17) Skyfall (Sam Mendes, UK, 143 min.)
Saying that Skyfall is the best James Bond film since 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me may not be saying much – the series has somehow managed to hit its nadir multiple times over the past several decades. Honestly, though, this installment can hold its own against any of the previous twenty-two 007 films, largely because it is the one that seems least slavishly indebted to the Sean Connery-starring originals. Like all Bond films, Skyfall is more a string of setpieces than a coherent story – and the attempts to add pathos to the special agent’s backstory don’t entirely come off – but those big action sequences are truly magnificent, and they appear frequently enough that the film never has a moment to become dull. This is also the most stylish and aesthetically pleasing entry in the series to date, with the gorgeous, surprisingly artsy cinematography of frequent Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins giving the film an unexpected but welcome sheen of genuine classiness.
18) Premium Rush (David Koepp, USA, 91 min.)
This fast-paced story about a bike courier (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who unwittingly gets involved in some intrigue has no emotional or psychological depth whatsoever, but is as skillfully crafted as the Road Runner cartoons that it pays homage to. A handful of better action movies were released this year, but none can boast the pure fun of this stylish exercise in impressively choreographed bike stunts.
19) Haywire (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 93 min.)
In its broad outlines, this martial arts/spy film hybrid sounds like a direct-to-DVD piece of trash cinema, with mixed martial-arts fighter Gina Carano acting as a modern-day Cynthia Rothrock. In execution, Haywire is one of the most stylish and exciting action films of the year. Director Steven Soderbergh wisely cuts out all of the background music during the movie’s many epic one-on-one battles, giving every hit a truly nasty visceral impact and allowing the viewer to focus on Carano’s vicious kick and chokehold-based fighting style, which stands apart from the more familiar kung fu styles that we’re used to seeing in martial arts films. Haywire also distinguishes itself from other films of its genre by remaining compelling during its non-fight scenes, taking advantage of an eclectic cast of adversaries for Carano (including Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Michael Fassbender, and Antonio Banderas) and throwing in some other types of action scenes, including a fantastically edited car chase through snowy woods and a tense scene where Carano resourcefully evades an entire SWAT team.
20) Narcocorrido (Ryan Prows, USA, 24 min.)
As a member of the Milwaukee Film Festival shorts screening committee, I saw a number of short films this year that I’ve excluded from the list (somewhat arbitrarily) largely because few of them have really stuck with me. But this tense extended action scene, involving a horrifically botched attempted heist of a cartel’s drug shipment, was one of the most suspenseful things to screen in theatres this year, and marks director Ryan Prows as a true talent to keep an eye out for in the future. Prows’ command of editing and narrative shorthand puts the intensity of this action scene in the league of the wild hotel shootout from No Country for Old Men (2007).
21) Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, USA, 94 min.)
Wes Anderson’s detractors aren’t wrong when they say that he does the same thing with every film (though 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox at least gave Anderson’s familiar aesthetic a satisfying spin by employing rugged Rankin-Bass style stop-motion animation). But it’s hard to complain about Anderson continuously returning to the same well when the results continue to be as wistful and beautiful as Moonrise Kingdom, a charmingly absurd trifle about a young love that develops at a summer camp.
22) The Secret World of Arrietty (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Japan, 94 min.)
Mary Norton’s classic children’s novel The Borrowers (1952), which follows a family of mouse-sized people who live in the walls of a normal-sized human family’s house and borrow what they need to survive, has a premise that is ideally scaled for the animated medium. Studio Ghibli, the world’s greatest animation studio, doesn’t drop the ball with their graceful and gorgeously animated take on the story (co-scripted by Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki and helmed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a veteran Ghibli animator making an impressive directorial debut).
23) Tales of the Night (Michel Ocelot, France, 84 min.)
In 2000, ace French animator Michel Ocelot made an anthology film called Princes and Princesses that depicted several short fairy tales by having black silhouetted characters play against vibrantly colorful backgrounds. Ocelot returns to that well with Tales of the Night, even going so far as to include an identical framing device in which two film students and an elderly technician insert themselves into each story. While it’s somewhat disappointing to see a creatively fertile mind like Ocelot relying so heavily on an aesthetic that worked in the past – particularly on the heels of his mind-blowing Azur and Asmar (2006) – there is still a lot of charm in the style, and the six tales told here are uniformly enchanting.
24) Brave (Mark Andrews & Benjamin Chapman, USA, 100 min.)
Brave is a reminder of the seemingly effortless charm and wit that Pixar are capable of when they aren’t busy making unnecessary sequels to their most beloved properties. In some ways the film almost seems too effortless; though the simple mother and daughter bonding story takes some amusingly unpredictable turns, the film’s medieval Scottish setting feels less fully developed than the background worlds of Wall-E (2008) or Up (2009). While Brave may not be up to the level of Pixar’s very best works, its state-of-the-art computer animation and genuine sweetness still make it stand out among a sea of interchangeable family films.
25) Pina (Wim Wenders, Germany, 103 min.)
The abstract modern dance pieces of choreographer Pina Bausch are too creative to be restricted to a stage, and this documentary finds many of her most elaborate productions being staged on the streets, beaches or monorails of Germany. Director Wim Wenders didn’t intend for these performances to be restricted to the theatre screen, either, which is why he filmed the dancers flying into the audience’s laps in 3D. I unfortunately missed seeing the film in its intended 3D format, which is why this film is probably a number of spaces lower on this list than it deserves to be. But even viewed in less than ideal conditions, Pina is an ecstatic explosion of pure creativity.
26) The Ambassador (Mads Brugger, Denmark, 93 min.)
Stunt documentarian Mads Brugger was last seen infiltrating a North Korean cultural festival in the underappreciated gem The Red Chapel (2009). In his latest provocation, Brugger adopts the guise of an ambassador to the Central African Republic, and gives viewers an unprecedented first-hand glimpse into the corrupt and violent world of international diplomacy. Brugger’s hidden cameras render backstage deals involving bribery, diamond smuggling, and even murder sickeningly transparent, and it’s frankly amazing that the director was able to escape the production of this film without getting killed himself. While The Ambassador lacks The Red Chapel’s sense that Brugger is sticking up for the victims of Imperialism – here he seems more interested in exposing the corruption of powerful political figures than in digging into the psychology of the beleaguered Pygmies – this is still one of the most vital and unique documentaries of the year.
27) The Imposter (Bart Layton, UK, 95 min.)
First-time feature director Bart Layton gives the full Errol Morris treatment to an amazing true story about a Texas family duped into believing that an international conman is their long-missing son. Layton’s theft of Morris’ trademark style is unmistakable – there’s no shortage of artful reenactments here – but the story is so bizarre and compelling that it’s hard to complain too much. The filmmakers discover some ominous and fascinating hints about why the family might have been willing to accept a French-accented, black-haired man as their Texas-born, blond-haired son, and also detail a grimly funny side story involving a folksy local detective’s attempts to uncover what he believes will be the dead body of the missing boy. The Imposter arguably ends just as things are getting really interesting, but perhaps the frustration of its non-resolution is appropriate given its creepily open-ended subject matter.
28) Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Alison Klayman, USA, 91 min.)
This thorough yet breezily entertaining portrait of China’s most prominent subversive artist manages to deal broadly with Ai Weiwei’s struggles with political authorities, his innovations as an artist, and his unconventional personal life without shortchanging any of these elements. First-time feature director Alison Klayman could be accused of making an overly conventional documentary about an extraordinary man – and certainly her film is less of a statement of purpose than the similarly themed This is Not a Film – but Ai Weiwei is such a fascinating and complicated figure that this film’s aesthetics seem beside the point.
29) Life of Pi (Ang Lee, USA, 127 min.)
Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s hugely popular novel is a genuine technical marvel, boasting the most sophisticated use of 3D technology in any film to date and a seamless integration of gorgeous live-action footage and convincing CGI. The narrative is full of silly New Age claptrap, and is annoyingly structured around an unnecessary frame story, but the ravishing beauty of the film largely makes up for the weaknesses of its script.
B- Good but flawed or insubstantial
30) The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, USA, 95 min.)
Director Drew Goddard’s tribute to/dissection of horror movie tropes is perhaps a bit too clever to ever be truly scary. Goddard’s script (co-written with Joss Whedon) also has some limitations as satire; it has a thorough understanding of the genre’s conventions but doesn’t go so far as to actually address what in human nature causes these clichés to have continued appeal. That said, the film’s premise – and the less you know about it ahead of time, the better – is genuinely novel, and the finale, which features every movie monster imaginable, is fan service at its finest and most fun.
31) The Avengers (Joss Whedon, USA, 143 min.)
This massive superhero blockbuster is occasionally weighed down by its need to simultaneously service several different franchises. But considering the sheer number of things that this film needed to accomplish in under 2 ½ hours, it is a remarkably smooth and enjoyable ride overall, with writer-director Joss Whedon’s trademark wit and the ensemble cast’s engaging presences lending real personality to what could’ve seemed like a glorified exercise in corporate synergy. Whedon wisely puts the focus on the frustrated team dynamic of Marvel’s ragtag group of superheroes, saving most of the big fireworks for a genuinely impressive epic battle at the film’s climax. Each of the heroes (aside from Jeremy Renner’s underserviced archery expert Hawkeye) gets at least one big moment, with the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) receiving two of the most awesome crowd-pleasing bits in recent memory. Like most of the recent Marvel films, The Avengers doesn’t have a particularly distinctive cinematic style, but it is the rare action epic that delivers the fun that its premise seems to promise.
32) Shame (Steve McQueen, UK, 101 min.)
Steve McQueen’s stylish study of sex addiction boasts a magnetic lead performance by the reliable Michael Fassbinder, but the narrative features a number of melodramatic clichés that don’t jibe with the director’s detached aesthetic. While the film’s attempts at raw emotional catharsis fall flat (and become almost laughable when Fassbinder is required to break down and cry in several climactic scenes in a row), the quieter moments, such as the ones chronicling the protagonist’s frustrated attempts to connect with a romantically interested coworker, are handled with real delicacy. Though the film is dramatically inconsistent, it is always interesting to look at and listen to, and its hazy vision of New York is unforgettable.
33) Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia, 109 min.)
This artsy take on the old “woman kills her spouse to gain his inheritance” story is affectingly life-sized when dealing with the relationship between its characters, but lacking in the intensity that it would need to bring its more suspenseful moments to life. The central relationship between the titular nurse (Nadezhda Martina) and her wealthy husband (Andrey Smirnov) is perfectly realized; the entire history of their relationship is clear without ever being completely spelled out, and their frustrated yet loving attitudes toward each other are practically written on their faces. But director Andrey Zvyagintsev never departs enough from his cold style (a methodically paced series of carefully composed shots) to kick the film into the next gear when Elena has to make what should be a harrowing decision to help support her deadbeat son.
34) Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 157 min.)
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest feature is a thorough chronicle of a murder investigation that plays out in a series of gorgeously lensed long-take sequences. The scope of the film is impressive, especially considering that Ceylan was previously best known for minimal character studies like Distant (2002). But while the writer-director’s newfound ambition is laudable, the story of his new film branches off in so many different directions that none of them ultimately gain much traction, making Once Upon a Time in Anatolia feel like an intriguing setup lacking a payoff.
35) The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, UK, 98 min.)
36) Mourning (Morteza Farshbaf, Iran, 85 min.)
The press materials for this film aren’t kidding when they call first-time feature director Morteza Farshbaf a disciple of Abbas Kiarostami. Every element of Kiarostami’s distinctive aesthetic is on display here, from the use of a child protagonist to the many long conversations that unfold in cars filmed by a stationary camera to the frequent distant tracking shots of those same cars travelling down twisty rural roads. The style is still effective, and a fine way to tell this simple story of an abandoned child searching for his parents, but hopefully Farshbaf will have the courage to step out of his mentor’s considerable shadow with his next film.
37) Carnage (Roman Polanski, France, 80 min.)
38) The Expendables 2 (Simon West, USA, 102 min.)
39) This is 40 (Judd Apatow, USA, 134 min.)
Like the three previous Judd Apatow-directed films, This is 40 is a sometimes awkward mishmash of character-based emotional truth and sitcom-ish broad comedy, based more around a loose series of semi-improvised scenes than a conventional narrative. In past films Apatow’s willingness to delve into the backstories of even his most minor supporting characters has paid huge dividends – the underrated Funny People (2009) was more interesting when drifting around in its stand-up comedy milieu than when wrapping up its “one that got away” plot, for example – but the many diversions from the central couple (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann) in This is 40 mostly just feel like unnecessary distractions. The film makes many trenchant and effortlessly funny observations about Rudd and Mann’s struggles to maintain their aging marriage, but an avalanche of supporting character subplots and distracting cameos suggest that Apatow could’ve used a strong-willed editor to help whip this film into shape.
40) The Campaign (Jay Roach, USA, 85 min.)
41) Tchoupitoulas (Bill Ross & Turner Ross, USA, 82 min.)
This New Orleans-set quasi-documentary was one of the more stylistically innovative films of the year. Tchoupitoulas is ostensibly the story of three young boys who become stranded in the French Quarter after missing the last ferry home, but that loose narrative strand is really just an excuse to present an impressionistic inner-city symphony that accurately captures the feeling of wandering around at night, catching stray glimpses of street performers, burlesque dancers, junkies and drag queens. The somnambulant pace occasionally becomes tedious, especially when the experiments of Bill and Turner Ross aren’t quite jelling, but the best moments of this grungy film are practically miraculous. It’s impossible to describe in words what the way that the duo film the performance of a juggler/fire breather, but suffice to say that it is about as trippy as the more surreal moments in much more carefully composed films like The Master and Beyond the Black Rainbow.
42) Jiro Dreams of Sushi (David Gelb, USA, 80 min.)
43) The Jeffrey Dahmer Files (Chris James Thompson, USA, 75 min.)
The most laser-focused documentary of the year features a total of three people interviewed for the talking heads segments, and they are the exact people you’d want to hear talk about notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer: the lead detective who interrogated Dahmer, a forensic analyst who worked on the case, and, most fascinatingly, the killer’s former next door neighbor. The talking head segments are unusually engrossing, and the standard archival footage is well incorporated, but the staged reenactments of moments from Dahmer’s everyday life, while reasonably well executed, feel like unnecessary padding designed to bring the film to (just barely) feature length.
44) The Invisible War (Kirby Dick, USA, 93 min.)
Documentarian Kirby Dick has argued passionately for transparency from the MPAA ratings board (in 2006’s This Film is Not Yet Rated) and closeted gay politicians who vote against gay rights (in 2009’s Outrage), but he’s never had a subject as vital and disturbing as the one he deals with in The Invisible War. Dick’s new film is about the widespread phenomenon of rape in the military, and viewers might be surprised by just how big an epidemic this is. One of the film’s staggering statistics reveals that US female soldiers stationed in Iraq are more likely to be raped by male colleagues than killed by enemy fire – a tragedy compounded by the fact that many of the rapists are the commanding officers who such crimes are supposed to be reported to. Considering how damning the statistics are, and how harrowing most of the personal stories told in the film are, Dick’s constant use of emotionally manipulative music feels insultingly unnecessary in addition to being aesthetically displeasing. But despite this film’s shortcomings as cinema, it is a thorough and engrossing dissection of a widespread problem that is too rarely discussed.
45) Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, USA, 93 min.)
Beasts of the Southern Wild may be the most purely unique film of the year, which is why I wish I liked it more than I do. This modern fairy tale about a flooded, New Orleans-style community is overstuffed with striking visual details that effectively disguise the film’s low budget without making the film look or sound remotely like anything else that came out this year. But the innovation is crowded out by the film’s nagging flaws. Its characters often come off as repellent lower-class stereotypes, even though the film is presumably celebrating the resilience of its spirited and colorful community. Too often Beasts feels rushed when it should be lyrical and didactic when it should be mysterious.
46) Compliance (Craig Zobel, USA, 90 min.)
This “real-life horror story” about an incredible act of duplicity at a fast-food restaurant caused quite a stir when it screened at Sundance, prompting a number of walk-outs, with some angry viewers loudly accusing in-attendance director Craig Zobel of misogyny. Frankly, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about. Zobel clearly went out of his way to avoid making an exploitation film, and he handles the film’s most uncomfortable moments in an understated, matter-of-fact way that gives the situation dramatic weight without becoming offensive. That uncomfortable situation involves a prank caller posing as a policeman (Pat Healy) in order to convince the restaurant’s manager (Ann Dowd) that one of her cashiers (Dreama Walker) stole money from a customer, and that she needs to strip search the employee to recover the cash. Zobel’s stated aim was to make sense of this absurd yet true story, but his efforts to connect the dots seem progressively less convincing as the situation becomes direr. The film loses some dramatic credibility around the time that the manager’s fiancée shows up to deliver a spanking to the wrongly accused cashier; even if this actually happened, it’s tough to buy in to the depicted buildup to the event. The decision to actually show the prank caller on the other end of the phone fairly early on also seems like a questionable dramatic choice. That said, Compliance is never less than compelling, with Zobel displaying a fine sense of grim pacing, and Dowd delivering a heartbreaking performance as the simultaneously victimized and bullying manager.
47) Les Miserables (Tom Hooper, UK, 157 min.)
Director Tom Hooper mostly stayed respectfully out of the way of his material in modest films like The King’s Speech (2010), but makes a quantum leap in stylistic ambition with this adaptation of the ultra-popular stage musical Les Miserables. Unfortunately, Hooper seems to have bitten off more than he can chew, as he chops most of the big musical numbers into frantic (and sometimes garish) montages that rarely serve the music or the story. The general lack of focus is all the more baffling considering that the film’s unquestionable highlight, Anne Hathaway’s emotionally raw performance of “I Dreamed a Dream,” succeeds largely because it’s captured mostly in one stationary shot that trusts the material to keep the audience engaged.
48) 11 Flowers (Wang Xiaoshuai, China, 110 min.)
49) John Carter (Andrew Stanton, USA, 132 min.)
Pixar vet Andrew Stanton’s live-action debut became unfairly maligned for reasons that have everything to do with commerce and nothing to do with art. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fantastical vision comes to life with some of the most impressive and advanced CGI work seen in any film to date, while the script is refreshingly free of the ironic distancing so common to many modern action blockbusters. Still, the film’s technical achievements and admirably classical storytelling can’t disguise flaws like an overlong running time and a charisma-free lead performance by Taylor Kitsch.
50) The Raid: Redemption (Gareth Evans, Indonesia, 101 min.)
51) The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, USA, 142 min.)
52) The Dictator (Larry Charles, USA, 83 min.)
53) Starbuck (Ken Scott, Canada, 109 min.)
54) Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (Alex Gibney, USA, 106 min.)
55) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, UK, 127 min.)
A lot of the reviews for this subdued spy drama placed the blame for its incomprehensible plot on John le Carre’s famously dense source novel. But surely director Tomas Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan deserve blame for their failure to make the book’s complicated plot work on screen. The film is a marvel of claustrophobic cinematography and creepily sterile production design, and the ensemble cast, led by a never-better Gary Oldman, is uniformly excellent. But the story as presented on screen is utterly baffling, making it all but impossible for anyone unfamiliar with the novel (or the BBC’s beloved miniseries adaptation) to become invested in the fates of any of the doomed characters.
56) The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, USA, 164 min.)
Christopher Nolan’s movies sometimes feel like nothing but narrative, but at least his plots are typically immaculately constructed and interesting, which makes the sloppiness of The Dark Knight Rises’ construction all the more baffling. A mess of muddled political allegory and haphazard mythology building, the film’s script labors to tie the various narrative strands of Nolan’s previous Batman movies together while providing climaxes to the story arcs of all of the series’ major characters and making way for a number of new characters, but there is simply too much going on for any of the individual plot points to get the development they deserve. As a result, the film fails to cohere into any sort of recognizable vision, which is all the more frustrating considering the near-flawless execution of Nolan’s previous (and also wildly ambitious) Batman outing, 2008’s The Dark Knight. There are isolated strong moments in the new film – the opening action sequence is an impressive showcase for Nolan’s truly epic use of IMAX cameras, and Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman gets some fun comic moments before she is ultimately lost in the shuffle – but the overall lack of focus makes this the most disappointing film of the year.
57) Prometheus (Ridley Scott, USA, 124 min.)
Is there any recent trend in cinema more tiresome than the mythology-building prequel to an established franchise? Ridley Scott’s original Alien (1979) succeeds largely because it is so narratively simple; the villain is scarier for seeming simultaneously primal and beyond explanation, and there is a real visceral impact to the film’s man vs. monster showdown. Prometheus attempts to add layers of new age mysticism to the story, and winds up being both incredibly confusing and boring in the process. Some impressive visuals and one gruesome surgical setpiece help to counteract the tedium, but in many ways this ultra self-serious film is just as silly as the campy Alien Resurrection (1997).
58) Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, USA, 122 min.)
David O. Russell made his name with a series of increasingly nervy films that made their characters’ neurosis uncomfortably palpable. The director found a satisfying middle ground between his signature style and mainstream crowd-pleasing with 2010’s The Fighter, but has unfortunately gone full Hollywood with his new film. Silver Linings Playbook purports to be about characters suffering from mental illness, but insultingly treats these genuine problems as cute quirky obstacles for its main characters (Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence) to overcome so that they can fall in love. (Though last year’s much-mocked The Beaver had a ridiculous premise, it at least had the conviction to treat its lead character’s mental condition as a serious problem). The terrific supporting cast saves the film from becoming a total loss – Robert De Niro, as Cooper’s gambling-addicted father, gives his first real performance in nearly two decades – but Silver Linings Playbook is basically a slightly artier Garden State (2004).
59) The Innkeepers (Ti West, USA, 101 min.)
With 2009’s The House of the Devil, Ti West announced himself as a master of slow-building suspense, cultivating a thick atmosphere of haunted house dread that only became less scary when the supernatural scares burst out in that film’s climax. West’s ghost story The Innkeepers follows the same structural model as The House of the Devil, but oddly displays far less style (and therefor far fewer scares) than its predecessor. It’s a competent enough basic horror film, but it feels more like a promising debut than the new film of an established pro.
60) Let the Bullets Fly (Jiang Wen, China, 132 min.)
The fact that this is currently China’s highest grossing domestically-produced film of all time suggests that Chinese audiences have a high tolerance for frantic mugging and confusing plot twists. Or maybe they just expected a movie calling itself Let the Bullets Fly, starring legendary action star Chow Yun Fat, to be a full-blown action movie rather than a childishly goofy comedy with light action elements. There are a handful of amusingly eccentric moments scattered throughout the film – as when a man cuts open his belly to prove that he didn’t steal from a local merchant – but for the most part this film is as dull as it is noisy and convoluted.
C- Below Average
61) Alps (Giorgos Lanthimos, Greece, 93 min.)
Dogtooth was one of the most strikingly bizarre satires of recent memory, which makes Giorgos Lanthimos’ follow-up all the more disappointing. The previous film’s outré premise – two parents have isolated their grown children in a house, warping their minds with strange misinformation about the dangers of the outside world – was just plausible enough to make dramatic sense, while being open-ended enough to work on a number of different satirical levels at once. Alps follows a group of people who start a business where they impersonate the recently departed in order to help families through the grieving process, which is a sci-fi premise ripe with both satirical and dramatic possibilities. Unfortunately, Lanthimos doesn’t seem to have thought through the implications of his plot, or even the basic logistics of how such a business might work, which makes the film feel like a string of random weird incidents. The weaknesses of the script make the Greek director’s aesthetic limitations much more evident than they were in Dogtooth, since here his indifferent visual style isn’t counter-balanced by the earlier film’s sharp wit.
62) Old Dog (Pema Tseden, Tibet, 93 min.)
Crappy digital photography and stiff performances prevent this film from achieving the neorealist naturalism it aspires to. A poor family of Tibetan farmers struggle to prevent their sheep-herding mastiff from being sold to (or stolen by) Chinese traders (who will presumably sell the dog to wealthy families as a pet, though this is never spelled out in the narrative). While much of this film was a chore to sit through, I’m still glad that I caught it simply for the audience reaction to the ending, which features an offscreen act of animal cruelty that prompted more walk-outs than the extended sexual humiliation in Compliance, the graphic gore of V/H/S, and the pretentiousness of Beyond the Black Rainbow combined.
63) The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part Two (Bill Condon, USA, 115 min.)
There is a major plot point in this film (and I swear I’m not making this up or exaggerating) about an adult character (Taylor Lautner) falling in romantic love with a baby. Leave it to the Twilight series, which has consistently avoided the dramatic stakes set up by its narrative, to brush off its most bug-fuck insane storyline as something that’s no big deal. There is something sort of amusing about the series’ weird dramatic priorities, which make the prospect of getting married seem somehow more complicated than becoming a vampire (as series heroine Kristen Stewart does in this film), but it’s tough to get invested in a narrative that never made dramatic sense at any point during its five-film run.
64) Total Recall (Len Wiseman, USA, 118 min.)
D- Nearly Worthless
65) Citadel (Ciaran Foy, Ireland, 84 min.)
Noel Murray’s AV Club Review makes this sound like an awesome horror movie. Unfortunately what I saw was an amateurish, run-of-the-mill zombie movie that should’ve gone direct to DVD.