Some years, you see a film and you know automatically it is THE ONE, the film everything else for the rest of the year will be weighed against. And some years nothing jumps out all year and you hit December with a list of films that don't make you do much more than shrug your shoulders. And sometimes, very rarely, you get a group of films so good you honestly can't choose between them.
This year was one of the latter. While nothing this year was all-time great as a few of the years we've had, at the top of the ladder were a group of films so good, any one of them could be called the best of the year without being too far off.
10. Killer Joe
Even as an admirer of Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy ("August: Osage County") Letts' first play and of William ("The Exorcist") Freidkin's exceedingly spare adaptation of it, I will be the first to admit "Killer Joe" is not for everyone. And you will know whether it is for you from the very first scene when Gina Gershon opens the door to her trailer almost completely nude. Freidkin, who has been working steadily but under the radar for quite a while, pulls no punches and spares no feelings in his NC-17 grime crime with an understated philosophical heart under all that dirt, along with some excellent, understated dialogue from Letts.
But what really makes it work is McConaughey. In a year that has seen him do the best work of his career, he is easily at his best and most commanding as "Killer Joe" taking over ever scene as soon as he walks on screen and refusing to give up those reins to anyone. While any slip up in the cast would cause the whole thing to collapse in on themselves, it's McConaughey who pulls the whole thing across the finish line even as it moves into its most gruesome elements, which is also when it is at its best.
If "Killer Joe" is not for everyone, then "Cosmopolis" is really, really not for everyone. There's no word that really sums that up, so I'm just going to call it "inaccessible." And I will stake my ground here and now that inaccessible is not always a bad thing.
That's not to say what David Cronenberg has been making the last couple of years is what you would call mainstream, but it has been for him. His adaptation of DeLillo's novel, however, is classic Cronenberg, giving you nothing but the slim words of its isolated, elliptical star (Robert Pattinson) to hold on to and try to find meaning in. "Cosmopolis" is a film that does not take its audience for granted, delving into what money really means and what it does to people, and expects viewers to do some of the work rather than just explaining what it means.
And if that's not enough, it also proves Pattinson can act. That's worth a spot all on its own.
8. Zero Dark Thirty
From the inaccessible to the completely accessible we have Kathryn Bigelow's incomparable techno-thriller, which some critics have well described as "the greatest police procedural of all time." Cast on a giant canvas covering 10 years, thousands of miles, hundreds of bullets and bombs and an untold number of lives, the team behind "The Hurt Locker" lay out how the hunt for UBL (Usama bin Laden to the uninitiated) unfolded, capped off by a bravura recreation of the raid itself. Yes there's a lot of controversy about the film's take on torture during the Bush administration and whether it was necessary to the hunt or not, but to a certain degree that misses the point putting politics before story a problem, which has typically plagued films about the "War on Terror" and which Bigelow has largely ignored.
What can't be ignored is the skill involved in putting this incredible tapestry together and in particular on the raid itself, which is far and away "Zero Dark Thirty's" highlight. The only thing that keeps it from being rated higher on the list is the nearly total absence of character as every scene exists only to move the plot along and most of the film's actors show up for just one scene and then vanish. Considering how little she has to work with, that just makes Jessica Chastain's accomplishment all the greater as she carries both the story and the film from start to finish.
7. The Impossible
In 2004, the day after Christmas, a monstrous tsunami all but wiped out large portions of Southeast Asia, creating a humanitarian crisis of astounding proportions. It's the sort of thing that begs for easy melodrama about it. Thankfully, that is not what "The Impossible" is.
Based on the true story of one family's trials and attempts to survive and overcome the devastation while on vacation in Thailand, "The Impossible" is a heart-rendingly well-performed film as Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor give some of the best performances of their lives. And yet they're also completely blown out of the water by teenager Tom Holland, who has to carry most of the film's heaviest scenes.
Bouncing back and forth between a devastating drama of loss and survival, and gut-wrenching thriller of will-they/won't-they find each other, "The Impossible" can't quite decide if it wants to be Hollywood feel good drama or a more bittersweet European affair, until the last few minutes, which create the one reason the film isn't higher up the list. If only the ending wasn't a complete letdown, giving away all the good will from the rest of the film, this could be considered as the best film of the year.
6. The Sessions
This is actually the second Oscar-worthy film to be made based on the life of deceased poet Mark O'Brien, who was rendered quadriplegic due to complications from polio. Among the other complications this induced in his life, including living in an iron lung (the focus of "Breathing Lessons") it made having a normal sex life out of the question.
Which hardly stopped O'Brien or John Hawkes' uncanny impersonation of him. Filled with humor and life, "The Sessions" travels into realms of real humanity many of the other dramas on this list are afraid to go. The only real downside to it is the squandering of the women in Mark's life, from Helen Hunt to Moon Bloodgood, who are all so well drawn in the moments they have, it's impossible not to wish for more from them.
If only the women could have been given as much consideration, this would be higher up the list. As it is, it boasts the best male lead performance of the year, and that's not bad at all.
How do you know "Lincoln" is a truly good film? At its heart it is about the political process and posturing of 19th century Washington, a topic even the most dedicated student might zone out while studying, and yet it is absolutely riveting from beginning to end. Like a "West Wing" episode made by the best filmmakers on Earth about one of the most important political moments in US history.
The cherry on top is Day-Lewis' spellbinding performance as Lincoln himself, equal parts impersonation and recreation, and one of the best performances of any actor this year, filling the film with its mercurial heart.
It's not without its flaws, unfortunately. Like a lot of modern Spielberg it doesn't know when enough is enough. On the other hand of everything out this year, "Lincoln" seems to be the most likely to age well, growing stronger with each viewing.
Ben Affleck's "Argo" is just his third film and is also his third film to end up on my top ten list. Ever since 2007's "Gone Baby Gone," still my personal favorite of the three, it's been a foregone conclusion that he would make a film which would be the frontrunner for a bunch of directing and best picture awards as soon as he found just the right story to resonate with a wide audience, and he has found just that story in "Argo."
The "inspired by a true story" of six embassy workers who actually managed to escape during the Iranian Hostage crisis of 1979, "Argo" mixes the fun and extremism of Hollywood insiderism and the tension and suspense of a great thriller and it does so effortlessly. It doesn't do anything new; it just does what Hollywood does about as well as it can be done. Even if you've looked up the history and no how the story ends, you'll still find yourself gripping your seat during the final 30 minutes.
Yeah, it's a little trite, a little easy. The strength of "Argo" is in the craft of what it does. No one involved is trying to reinvent the wheel; they're just trying to perfect it.
3. The Master
I'll be honest, I've seen this movie four times now and I'm still not entirely sure what Paul Thomas Anderson is getting at. I'm not entirely sure he knows either, which is the main thing keeping "The Master" from being my favorite of the year despite being incredibly well acted and beautiful to look at.
Like a lot of difficult films, there's a lot going on here. The question that seems to be at the heart of the film is the one which I haven't heard asked too often about it – who really is The Master? Is it Philip Seymour Hoffman, the guru referred to by his students and converts as 'Master', who is all control so no one notices his roiling need for affirmation? Is it Joaquin Phoenix, the lost sailor looking for a home who may be the only person in the entire film who knows his own mind? Is it Amy Adams, the "Master's" wife who keeps him away from his own vices and focused on advancing the cause?
It could be any of them, or all of them--actually I sort of lean towards all of them--and that's only one part of what's buried deep within Anderson's masterfully told tale. It also delves deeply into the lack of understanding about post-traumatic stress and the way cult's work to inculcate. Substance without guideline is still powerful, but if only it could have all come together into a whole, this would easily be number one.
2. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Instead it falls behind the two films that do manage to do that. It's hard to make wide audiences pay attention to fantasy (at least of the magical realism variety) and it's really hard to make them pay attention to really low-budget filmmaking without the star power or resources of your more standard film. It goes without saying then that it's really, really hard to make them pay attention to both at the same time.
But Benh Zeitlin's idiosyncratic paean to rural Louisiana and family and growing up and moving on does exactly that, mainly being a relentlessly, bezerkly creative and original debut.
Of course he also got incredibly lucky finding five-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis to carry almost every minute of this film. But luck plays a bigger part in art than we like to admit sometimes and nowhere is that more true than in "Beasts."
1. Les Misérables
We mock Hollywood and the type of easy filler it likes to push out, but there really are some things it can do better than anyone else and this it. To pull of something like the stage version of "Les Misérables" as a film requires the flair for fantasy and romance (in the classical sense of the word) that only Hollywood can really manage, and Tom Hooper's nearly fantastic rendition has flair in spades. When all of your characters are singing from beginning to end and your story is flying through time and space, realism isn't going to be your friend and Tom Hooper has realized that right from the beginning, offering a spectacularly beautiful film designed to play up its inherent melodrama to the utmost.
And he's got a stellar cast backing him up. It's clichéd to say it (then again, in a film like "Les Misérables" cliché is your friend), but this is the role Hugh Jackman was born to play, finally getting a great performance out of him. And though he is the weakest singer in the cast, Russell Crowe is a truly excellent Javert. But they are all outmatched by Anne Hathaway's Fantine who gives what may be the performance of the year.
"Les Misérables" isn't a shallow film by any means, but it wears its heart on its sleeve; and more importantly it realizes that's not necessarily a bad thing. To paraphrase Julius Epstein, "it may be as corny as hell, but when corn works there's not much better." That's been more or less the watchword of Hollywood for its entire existence, but when it pays off it really pays off. "Les Misérables" is the pay off.