It’s that time of year again when we intrepid critics whittle down the hundreds of titles we’ve seen over the last 365 days to the top 10 that made us gasp, chuckle, cringe, hope, feel and think the most. As seems to be the trend, Hollywood left us slim pickings, so the bulk of this list is made up of independent and foreign films, not out of snobbery, but, sadly, by necessity. Here are my picks, in alphabetical order, for the year’s 10 best:
An incisive and penetrating portrait of the immovable tenets of reality. Asghar Farhadi unwraps the layers of family life in Tehran with the deftness and care of a master. No other film released this year connects with as much truth or treats its subject with as much keenness or soberness as “A Separation.”
I love movies about movies. I also happen to love silent films. Michel Hazanavicius’s “The Artist” is both, and it’s the most fun I’ve had at the movies this year. Style over substance? Maybe. Melodramatic? Definitely. But that’s why I love it. Jean Dujardin’s charismatic performance as a silent screen hero struggling to find his place in the emerging world of the talkie may just be the best of the year.
Attack the Block
“Attack the Block” is a movie made by film nerds fed up with the depressing banality of modern monster flicks. Set in the slums of South London, a gang of street hoodlums are the first to encounter the beginnings of an alien invasion, which they meet with a brilliant combination of youthful bravado and street-informed witticisms. And underlying it all are razor sharp barbs aimed squarely at the entrenched conservative sensibilities of England’s elite.
Is a fake, a phony, a rip-off as inherently valuable as the original? Director Abbas Kiarostami leaves that up to us with a wonderfully realized imitation of life in “Certified Copy.” He leaves questions unanswered, ideas not fleshed out and relationships without resolve in this plodding, dialogue-heavy picture, which was more thrilling than Hollywood’s best high-budget action flicks this year.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn, known for other savagely macho films like “Bronson” (2008) and “Valhalla Rising” (2009) continues his reflection on male brutality with “Drive.” This time, his subject is a stone-cold, badass movie stunt driver played by Ryan Gosling. “Drive” is a quiet European arthouse-style movie, punctuated by the occasional outburst of extreme, bombastic violence. One of the most stylish, exhilarating and cinematic films of the year.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
John Hawkes was born to play a coldly menacing hillbilly capable of dehumanizing atrocity. His chilling presence combined with Elizabeth Olsen’s harrowing performance and Sean Durkin’s surprisingly controlled direction make this trying-to-find-your-place-in-society-after-escaping-from-a-cult movie the best directorial debut since Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” in 2008.
Based on real events, “Meek’s Cutoff” takes us on a slow and tedious slog on the Oregon Trail in 1845. There is no horrific violence, no melodramatic Western cliches and no satisfying resolution. Instead, director Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy”) gives us an understated, yet powerful vision of life on a wagon train. It may seem like nothing much happens, but every scene is encumbered by an unshakable sense of devastating uncertainty and creeping doom.
Director Lars von Trier isn’t known for his subtlety. He did direct the genital mutilation-fest “Antichrist” in 2009, after all. But “Melancholia,” a meditation on aloofness and depression in the face of catastrophe, is perhaps von Trier at is most restrained. Kirsten Dunst turns in one of the best performances of the year as a depressed and disinterested bride nonchalantly facing the literal apocalypse. It works, strangely, as a companion piece to Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” (2008) and Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander” (1982).
“Hunger,” Steve McQueen’s 2008 directorial debut about IRA leader Bobby Sands’s hunger strike in a Northern Ireland prison, left me speechless. It was raw, unflinching, smart and devastating. His followup, “Shame,” though not quite as transcendent as his first effort, is nevertheless worthy of the same shower of adjectival praise. The same actor who played Bobby Sands in “Hunger,” Michael Fassbender, here plays a sex addict whose habit has crippling effects. It’s the “Requiem for a Dream” of sex addiction.
The Tree of Life
Perhaps the most divisive film of the year, Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” tackles the biggest questions on the biggest scale. It combines some of cinema’s most ambitious and breathtaking cinematography with the intimacy of a small, struggling family in a small Texas town. Whether you think it’s pretentious drudgery or profound ecstasy, the one thing it’s not is ordinary.
Also check out:
The 10 best films of 2010
The 10 best films of 2009
TMA’s 25 best film of the decade (2000-2009)
TMA’s 100 greatest movies of all time
TMA’s 25 greatest horror movies of all time
TMA’s 25 greatest sports movies of all time