The Austrian chronicler gives us an addictive, HD nightscape of Europe at work, from security guards to mental-health hotline operators to Webcam porn actors to protesters and their riot police. A portrait emerges of a cordial, ever-fascinating civilization catered to and controlled to within an inch of its life—think Richard Scarry meets Harun Farocki.
Akerman’s return to fiction takes as its source Joseph Conrad’s 1895 maiden voyage in full-length prose. The film’s borderless subject is malaise and its inheritances, and, shot in Cambodia, it’s the farthest afield the filmmaker has gone to portray those displacements of the past which are carried within the heart.
Cronenberg’s adaptation of DeLillo’s slim millennial oddity goes from anti-cinematic all the way through to fervidly cinematic with the same heightened sensual awareness of the body as Crash or A Dangerous Method. Robert Pattinson, in his synthetically perfect and youthful handsomeness, proves a worthy vessel for this existential thought-experiment and blackest of dystopian comedies.
Keep the Lights On
At once direct and reserved, spanning 10 years in a relationship, Sachs's unsparing, autobiographically drawn feature depicts the rise and protracted decline of a romance against a subtly drawn New York milieu and brings the melancholic scrapes of Arthur Russell to bear.
Spielberg and Kushner’s film lets us perceive the mystery of an extraordinary figure and historical agent with at times startling rhetorical beauty and intimate grandeur. Daniel Day-Lewis incarnates a man who is every inch the American hero and ideal of yore yet also a moody sage, a sly political genius, an emotional sponge, and a moral compass balancing contradiction and compromise.
Every Anderson film I've seen deepens with the second viewing, like a memory upon reflection, and just so do Sam and Suzy grow into personalities peeking around the edges of learned roles and affectations in this beautifully orchestrated Super 16-shot New England pastiche.
Shifting among characters and their phases at a film school, Hong’s stacked sketches play out affairs of the heart, and scenes of drunken mortification, that can unexpectedly cut to the quick.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Stretching his widescreen canvas across the rolling hills and mystical evenings of the Turkish provinces, Ceylan’s chronicle of a desultory police investigation in the countryside turns into a gorgeously shot, expertly paced, unexpectedly moving chronicle of a group of men, their heavy hearts and quotidian concerns.
Paul Thomas Anderson
The elliptical path through American individualism casts Freddie Quell’s herky-jerky trajectory as both distinctive and deeply expressive of a broader heartsick yearning for something. Anderson’s sense of a living past in this movie (and the last) is sure and nuanced, a world inhabited rather than staged, shot in constrained but rich 70mm.
Zero Dark Thirty
A procedural that goes long to show the dead ends and the numbing middles, the suspensefully staged film blurs vengeance and justice, true to the welter of the emotions in “the war on terrorism.” But it also makes the viewer work and postpone hope along with the heroine, in Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s extraordinary account of a period, and of an event whose most famous publicity photo was a roomful of people watching.
1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Nuri Bilge Ceylan
As a murder investigation proceeds through the night, the inevitable deviations from, and lulls in, the routine afford a view onto the heavy human condition. Writer-director Ceylan, regarded as Turkish cinema’s MVP, had seemed to be on a career path of diminishing returns, but Anatolia arrived in early January only to cast a long shadow over an entire calendar year’s worth of releases.
2. The Master
Paul Thomas Anderson
The sprawling American classic might seem to be nearing extinction these days—not to mention ones shot on 70mm—but here we have Paul Thomas Anderson’s marvelously unfriendly drama about the draw between two fringe types of self-made men after the war. A smooth-talking fraud and a drifter skilled at pickling his brain wrestle on a lawn that belongs to neither of them.
3. The Turin Horse
The logical endpoint of the incomparable Tarr style that you never would have previously thought possible—the work from Damnation on down already seemed monolithically austere, but The Turin Horse turned out to be his first (and, apparently, last) to take full stock of the weight of the world. A howling wind of unknown origin heralds death’s by-degrees encroachment.
Linklater exposes the wildly imprecise (and sometimes diametrically opposed) processes of character judgment employed by both the legal system and the court of public opinion. Gratifyingly, not a grotesque to be found among its rural-Texas cast of characters, many of whom appear in improbably revealing faux-doc “interviews.”
5. Magic Mike
Stripped to its essentials, this exemplary summer movie is about freelancing, a term one always fears that friends and relatives are processing as a euphemism for unemployed. The Soderbergh-Tatum production looks at the way of working from a surprising number of angles: the constant hustle, the general precariousness, and how a plum under-the-table gig might begin to cloud your other priorities. Special bonus: Matthew McConaughey singing “Ladies of Tampa.”
6. Two Years at Sea
Tuning-fork resonant, Rivers’s first feature (shot in antique black-and-white 16mm) observes a bush-bearded guy named Jake calmly rummaging through a bunch of stuff around his home in the Scottish Highlands. Naturally, the subject exhibits an openness toward time and place that only seems to adhere in the middle of nowhere.
7. The Deep Blue Sea
Unhappily married to a high-court judge, Hester (a Golden Globe-nominated Rachel Weisz!) falls for an RAF pilot, with the men’s glamorous service to Dear Old Blighty heartbreakingly contrasted with the suddenly decisive woman’s gradual exile to the third floor of a forlorn boardinghouse. Wrought, exquisitely, by British master Davies.
Athina Rachel Tsangari
Bizarre and endearing, Tsangari’s portrait of two indissoluble bonds mediated by rapid-fire word games and full-body animal impersonations—father-daughter and best friends—downshifts into coming-of-age uncertainty with the advance of inadvertently possessive Dad’s terminal illness. But everyone still keeps imitating animals; any actual fauna is notably absent from the Greek-island setting, a Mediterranean jewel that’s gone halfway industrial.
9. Keep the Lights On
Writer-director Sachs anatomizes the snap attraction and long tension between two male culture-industry Manhattanites—a crack-addict publishing-house lawyer and a patient documentary filmmaker—through a decade of living together. As veiled autobiography, it feels strikingly direct; as a follow-up to Sachs’s previous film, the underrated Married Life, it shows a director pressing forward with his exploration of unsettled lovers’ delicate, and sometimes distressing, calculus of commitment and betrayal.
Emerging top-10 regular Gomes takes us from an exhausted modern-day Lisbon to a swoony vision of 1950s Africa, engaging questions of history, memory, and the movies through his bold formal and structural moves. It manages to be both more sidelong and more affecting than 2012’s other great film on the colonial legacy, Chantal Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly.
1. This is Not a Film
The Iranian director, under house arrest for working on a movie the authorities didn't like, responded by making this fake documentary about not making a movie in his apartment. It's a sharp, bitter and brilliant critique of state suppression.
2. Beyond the Black Rainbow
Moving at the pace of a mind on powerful hallucinogenics—as though it can't move forward because it's so fascinated by the objects in its field of vision—this sci-fi mescaline mindfuck is a batshit allegory for adolescence. There is bliss in its hypnotism, tranquility to discover through its technological aesthetic.
3. Girl Walk // All Day
Set to a Girl Talk album, this goofy dialogue-free dance movie is set all around the city, capturing the pure joy and exuberance of being alive in New York.
This epically high-concept time-traveling sci-fi was about breaking self-perpetuating cycles of violence; it was both intellectually engaging and emotionally wrenching.
Set over 45 years and two continents, this is a globe-trotting, era-spanning, multi-generational epic: a colorful, stylish and sexy tragedy, no less than the history of the second half of the 20th century. It's also a musical and, if not Honoré's masterpiece, at least the film that's the most him, a sort of mash up of everything he's done before.
6. Kill List
Part kitchen-sink drama, part hit-man buddy picture and part pagan death-cult horror movie about an assassin unraveling during a peculiar assignment, this is both a Jacob's Ladder-y perplexing nightmare fantasy and an emotionally grounded look at the effects of war on the ordinary people forced to fight it.
7. The Color Wheel
Alex Ross Perry
Brooklynite Perry directed, cowrote and costarred in this road-movie/incest comedy about a brother helping his sister move out of an ex-boyfriend's home. The Hawksian dialogue and physical comedy are boffo, and the dramatic core is poignant.
This cartoon really earns its feel-good ending with its unbearably sad second act. Its inherent tragedy of the decent guy who's made to feel like a bad guy works universally, but it's an especially great allegory for the dynamic between parents and children. The script is on a par with the first Toy Story, the voice work (especially Sarah Silverman) is unusually strong, and the casual anti-monarchism is a welcome alternative to the usual princessphilia.
9. Sleepwalk With Me
Like Annie Hall-lite (hey, Carol Kane!), this hilarious comedy about couplehood had a stinging moral: people stay in relationships for the worst fucking reasons!
10. Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry
This documentary about the Chinese artist shows a fearless political dissident clashing with his repressive government. Like early-days-of-AIDS doc How to Survive a Plague, it's not just inspiring—it's galvanizing!
HONORABLE MENTION: Christian Marclay's The Clock
Technically this movie was released last year, but I didn't catch up with it until it played at the Lincoln Center Festival over the summer. Had I seen it last year, it would have been number one on my list! It's the ultimate film, the best movie ever made, cinema stripped of narrative pretension and reduced to its essence: time. Plus, it's full of movie stars!
1. Moonrise Kingdom
Anderson sticks to his guns: he hasn't taken any of that advice about de-aestheticizing his movies and imposing some austerity on his personality. And left to his own devices, he composed one of his funniest, sweetest portraitures to date: a first-love chronicle that's heartbreaking not through onscreen tragedy but lovely, hilarious frailty.
Even when he expands his vision to futuristic science fiction, complete with time-travel paradoxes galore, Johnson maintains a sense of scrappy intimacy. So yes, the back half of the year's best sci-fi movie takes place largely on a farm, his compositions as elemental and striking as his writing—which has its own showcase in one of the year's best single scenes, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt confronting his Bruce Willisized older self at a diner.
3. The Master
Paul Thomas Anderson
Like the protagonists of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love, Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell stumbles through the world in pain, seeking someone or something that can ease that pain. That searching anguish has rarely been more vivid or opaque than in Anderson's mesmerizing riff on religion, the postwar 50s, and lost boys.
4. The Dark Knight Rises
The final installment of Nolan's Batman trilogy accomplished what countless episodes of The X-Files could not: it turned me into a blathering nerd 'shipper (Bruce plus Selina 4-ever!). That's what his Batman movies do all over: take material that could be silly, pretentious, or leaden and invest it with real, still-geeky feeling.
5. and 6. Haywire and Magic Mike
Any double-Soderbergh year is a good year (even 2002! Especially 2002!), and this particular double feature ranks among his best. The lean, beautiful Haywire strips movie-star charisma down to MMA fighter Gina Carano's face (I have no idea if Carano will work in other movies, but, as with Sasha Grey in Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience, she becomes a contextual star). Magic Mike also serves as a companion to Girlfriend Experience: a different but even more entertaining peek at the economics of sex work.
Daniel Day-Lewis: our surprise chronicler of 19th-century America. He's extraordinary as President 16, but the movie works as well as it does because of the winding, passionate conversations imagined by Tony Kushner and the way Steven Spielberg, confined largely to interiors and dialogue scenes, gracefully directs their ebb and flow.
8. Damsels in Distress
Stillman hasn't grown any more naturalistic in the 12 years since his last film; if anything, Damsels finds him weirder and more removed from reality-as-we-know-it than ever. But his screwy campus universe unto itself has its own delights—and, if you look closer, plenty of recognizable humanity.
9. Killing Them Softly
Yeah, it hits the crime-as-capitalism-as-America notes a little insistently (in between perfectly written, performed, and shot sequences of lowlife face-offs), but the final-scene lesson, delivered by Brad Pitt, makes the hammering pay off. It's a little on the nose; it's even more like a jab to the face.
10. The Cabin in the Woods
It was a banner year for Joss Whedon on film: his second feature as a director, The Avengers, broke box office records and also raised the quality bar for Marvel's in-house movies. Even more delightful in equally nerdy measure: the horror movie he cowrote with director Drew Goddard. Cabin in the Woods plays with genre conventions as gleefully as Scream did—and Whedon and Goddard write better dialogue.