Before we get to my top ten, here (listed in alphabetical order) are eight honorable mentions.
The prettiest movie of the year was France's animated Oscar nominee
with a lush palette and vivid color combinations that took me back to the illustrated storybooks of my childhood and the joy and wonder they inspired.
I also loved the witty and sophisticated surprises in its simple yet engaging story. Denzel Washington turned in an atypically restrained and vulnerable performance in
a rare example of a strong film depiction of alcoholism, with a brilliantly executed flight sequence that was impossible to turn away from, and hilarious comic relief by John Goodman.
The Israeli Oscar nominee
managed to make Talmudic philology cinematically compelling. It's the clever story of father-and-son academics whose rivalry reflects diametrically antithetical worldviews, lifestyles and pedagogical approaches. When the wrong one is mistakenly told he's won a cherished scholarly prize, delicious dilemmas, deal-making and sacrifices ensue. It's a movie of visual and storytelling wit and real humor.
At the beginning of the Dardenne brothers'
11-year-old Cyril's cash-strapped father abandons him and (though Cyril refuses to believe it) sells his bike, triggering a high-and-low search that culminates in Cyril's finding Dad, who forestalls further contact in a scene of unimaginable, near-existential rejection. As Cyril, Thomas Doret gives perhaps the best performance by a child actor this year, with Cecile de France equally memorable as the hairdresser who becomes Cyril's weekend guardian and eventual foster mother. Despite his animalistic acting-out, she can't bring herself to give up on him, and when her boyfriend finally tells her, "It's him or me," it takes her about a picosecond to respond, "Him."
director Oliver Stone's lurid, too-much-is-never-enough style perfectly suited its brutally violent, sex-saturated story of marijuana moguls in over their heads with a Mexican cartel, making it his best movie in a score, with a riveting performance by Salma Hayek as a merciless kingpin and excellent support from Benicio del Toro as her wily and insinuating chief enforcer. In a cinema of filmmakers sleepwalking through the motions, Stone's film pulsates with energy and excitement.
Brit Marling, whose "Another Earth" made my honorable mention list last year, returns, starring in the compelling cult-infiltration oddity
as an enigmatic, almost ethereal figure who claims to come from the year 2054. In perhaps no other film this year did I have as strong a sense of disorientation - of not knowing where I was or what would happen next - and I found the feeling thrilling.
For his infinitely superior remake of
director Len Wiseman put every penny of his $125 million budget on the screen, creating a dystopian and malevolent yet gorgeous and fully realized vision of the future. My eyes popped not only at the grandeur of Wiseman's vision but the intricacy of the detail, how thoroughly he and his crew imagined the structure of their world - especially its verticality (rarely has a movie had so much going on in different parts of the screen). His unfairly overlooked work made for some of the best mind-fucks of the year.
In the hard-charging, globetrotting
director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal bring clear-eyed, understated intelligence and reportorial rigor to the Osama Bin Laden manhunt, with a star-making lead performance by the suddenly indispensable Jessica Chastain.
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