I don’t have enough slots! That’s always a nice problem to have when making a list of the year’s best movies. Even taking into account a number of heavyweight contenders that didn’t make my list (because I think they’re overrated), there are still so many films relegated to the honorable mention section at the end of this article that I would have liked to write about in the space below. Still, I must restrict myself to the ones I feel are the 10 best, so here we go.
As always, movies that have yet to be released in North Texas are denoted with an asterisk (*). You can log onto Blotch and see my lists of the year’s best in documentaries, performances, and other categories that I think are worth mentioning. And, just for the record, if Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was considered as one big film, it would rank at No. 10 on this list.
1.) Ruby Sparks. Didn’t see that one coming, did you? This movie is being overlooked right now because of its box-office failure — stars Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan weren’t famous enough, and Fox Searchlight brought it into theaters during the Olympics. Don’t let that deter you from this lyrical and funny piece that begins as a female-authored deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype (thank you, Nathan Rabin) but then becomes something more: a reflection on the unrealistic expectations we bring to our relationships and how they hurt us. The film is expertly crafted by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, but it’s the script by first-time screenwriter Kazan that really launches this movie skyward. I would sound too much like a hack if I called this Ruby a gem, so I’ll just say it’s beautiful.
2.) Django Unchained. The more I think about this movie, the more I think it’s Quentin Tarantino’s best one yet. Because the slaves in the 19th century couldn’t blow up their masters’ plantations, Tarantino does it for them in this spaghetti Western revenge thriller. Where other films tried to face the original sin of America’s founding with scrupulousness and intelligence, this one channels its howl of black rage into an adrenaline-pumping piece of genre entertainment, larded with delicious performances and great, chewy bits of delightful comedy. In a year when our nation’s first black president was attacked time and again in nakedly racist terms, this film perhaps serves as a much-needed corrective. Still think Tarantino only makes movies about other movies? Think again.
3.) Moonrise Kingdom. Wes Anderson did his best work this year too. This fable about a couple of 13-year-olds who run off together is crafted to within an inch of its life, the way all Anderson movies are. Yet in no other Anderson film are his characters’ deepest emotions and inchoate desires so exposed and palpable. While the adults flail about trying to deal with their own inconvenient wants, misunderstood and hypercompetent Sam and angry, difficult Suzy create a magical realm for themselves (with dead-beetle earrings and a Françoise Hardy song) in a badly named tidal inlet. This is also a good comedy, but it ends with a feeling that something ephemeral and glittering has been conjured.
4.) Amour*. A Michael Haneke film entitled Love? This must be some sick joke, right? One of the director’s funny games? Well, no, actually. It’s a straightforward story about a French music professor who cares for his wife after she suffers a debilitating stroke, and the Austrian filmmaker turns it into an unflinching and brutally honest look at old age, a subject that too few other movies care to take on. Augmented by devastating performances from octogenarian stars Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, this is Haneke’s most powerful work. Strangely enough for a filmmaker who turned 70 this year, this is his first movie that feels mature.
5-6.) (tie) The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Silver Linings Playbook. There seems to be more love this awards season for the older, more rough-and-tumble Playbook than for the younger, more emotive Wallflower, but I can’t choose between these sharp, funny, heartbreaking tales of mental illness from Pennsylvania. Stephen Chbosky wrote the novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower while still in his 20s. In adapting it for the big screen, he shows he has lost none of his ability to evoke the feelings of adolescence, its awkwardness and its sense of infinite possibilities. Meanwhile, David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook finds a loving family tested by a son’s mental illness and smartly ties their predicament to their rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles, something that has driven many people insane — this may be the greatest movie ever about being a sports fan. Both films showcase American acting at its best, with Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and (OK, one British actor) Emma Watson all rendering their troubled characters with great skill and compassion. Here’s to you, you magnificent misfits from the Keystone State.
7.) Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s epic starts out as a procedural: A killer leads police to the location of his victim’s body in the Turkish countryside in the dead of night. As the cops and criminal stumble around in the dark, the movie morphs into a comedy of late-night misadventures, a finely tuned character study of small-town bureaucrats, an extended exercise in gentle melancholy, and a meditation on the meaning of human existence, all at the same time. It’s laced with some indelible images of ghostly nighttime beauty, lit up by car headlights and lanterns. This remarkable, slow-rolling lyric poem never ran in North Texas theaters, but it showed once at the 2011 Lone Star Film Festival. It needs the big screen.
8.) Holy Motors. I have no idea what this is, but it’s awesome. Denis Lavant plays a guy who rides around Paris in a chauffeured limo and changes identities each time he gets out — he’s a contract killer, a harried dad, a homeless woman, a billionaire, a sewer-dwelling goblin, and the leader of a hellacious accordion band. Oh, and there’s a musical number with Kylie Minogue. At first this operatic fantasy seems like a parable about the itinerant lives of actors and the characters they inhabit, but it ends up being too weird and balky and uncategorizable to be reduced to that. This is the first feature film in 13 years from the eccentric, unabashedly romantic genius Leos Carax. He has returned with a bang.
9.) Looper. A lot of movies this year made me think, “Oooh, that’s clever!” None of them did that better than Rian Johnson’s science fiction thriller. The movie evokes a dystopian world of the near-future pretty well, but the real head-spinning stuff comes in the quieter second half, as the contract killer antihero finds his quest to avert a terrible future recoiling on himself. That rare violent action film that raises provocative questions about violence, this bristlingly intelligent piece of work is surprisingly funny and well-constructed enough to demand repeat viewings. You won’t forget the scene with the boy and the assassin in the farmhouse.
10.) Safety Not Guaranteed. Mark Duplass seemed to be everywhere this year, but nowhere were his talents better utilized than in Colin Trevorrow’s eye-catching debut feature as a possibly mad scientist trying to build a time machine. A movie about a damaged, cynical girl who falls for some guy in the woods whose poor social skills are a signal for integrity? This could have failed badly, and yet it succeeds brilliantly, thanks to its tasty comic business, a revelatory performance by Aubrey Plaza, and Trevorrow’s assured direction, which saves its best for last.
Honorable mention: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s wistful coming-of-age drama I Wish; Ang Lee’s wondrous showpiece Life of Pi; Paul Thomas Anderson’s enigmatic cult drama The Master; Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s delicate animated fable The Secret World of Arrietty; Drew Goddard’s hilarious slasher deconstruction The Cabin in the Woods; Andrei Zvyagintsev’s stinging psychological thriller Elena; Christian Petzold’s closely observed character study Barbara; Sean Baker’s tale of unlikely friendship Starlet*; Jay and Mark Duplass’ kissed-by-grace stoner comedy Jeff, Who Lives at Home; Joss Whedon’s big block of awesomeness The Avengers; Jean-Marc Vallée’s puzzle-like rumination on love Café de Flore; Chris Butler’s uncanny animated horror homage ParaNorman; Joseph Cedar’s zippy academic comedy Footnote; Lynn Shelton’s tangled romance Your Sister’s Sister; Kathryn Bigelow’s flawed but compelling Zero Dark Thirty.