The Tree of Life, dir. Terrence Malick
Malick’s fifth film is his most ambitious, personal, and, yes, pretentious effort to date. It’s also the best and most original American film since David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Who but Malick could match the personal coming-of-age drama of a boy in small town 1950s Texas with the beginning, and possibly end, of time itself? While sequences involving the birth of the cosmos and dinosaurs discovering grace may seem ponderous, The Tree of Life haunts the imagination and touches a primal emotion rarely experienced in cinema. It’s one of the boldest visions in the history of cinema.
A Separation, dir. Asghar Farhadi
A domestic drama executed with such simple precision, A Separation catches you off guard when the moral weight of the world suddenly comes down upon you. The Iranian film, however, defies explanation as the dramatic and moral complexities that unfold have no easy solutions. A powerful film with performances that never once feel ‘performed’, especially Sarina Farhadi as the daughter forced to make the film’s most difficult choices.
Moneyball, dir. Bennett Miller
A terrific year for Brad Pitt, as his performances in The Tree of Life and Bennett Miller’s Moneyball are possibly the best of his career. Pitt’s endless charisma, boyish yet masculine good looks, and unpredictable energy are perfectly utilized in the character of Billy Beane, elevating a film essentially about baseball sabermetrics into a rousing and emotionally satisfying Rocky-like film. With Moneyball and 2005’s Capote, Miller may be one of Hollywood’s best new directors.
Drive, dir. Nicolas Wending Refn
It sounds superficial to call Refn’s Drive the coolest film of the year, but it’s an exercise in style that makes you forget there’s not much underneath all the neon wrapping. Whether its the Miami Vice style credits, the pulsating Tangerine Dream-like score, or the lean opening car chase reminiscent of Walter Hill’s The Driver (another paragon of cool), the film feels like a lost relic of the 1980s – perhaps if Michael Mann and Abel Ferrara had collaborated on a project. Carey Mulligan’s luminous performance gives the film its velvet heart, Ryan Gosling does as little as possible to surprisingly good effect, and Albert Brooks is the nastiest screen villain of the year, unless you consider Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins a 2011 release. Drive is a cinematic fever dream which won’t leave you much to think about, but will certainly send you out of the theater with a buzz.
Meek’s Cutoff, dir. Kelly Reichardt
An enigmatic and frustratingly naturalistic film, Reichardt’s fourth feature engages despite employing aesthetics that would normally disengage, including scenes playing out in complete darkness and dialogue which is often inaudible. Yet Meek’s Cutoff lingers in the mind long after it’s over, and in Bruce Greenwood and Michelle Williams has two of the year’s best and beguiling (Greenwood) performances. The scene in which the pioneers must slowly roll their rickety wagons down a canyon-side or, inevitably, die is one of the most riveting of the year.
15 other films I liked, in no particular order:
Win Win, dir. Tom McCarthy
Certified Copy, dir. Abbas Kiarostami
War Horse, dir. Steven Spielberg
Cedar Rapids, dir. Miguel Arteta
The Way Back, dir. Peter Weir
Hanna, dir. Joe Wright
Super 8, dir. J.J. Abrams
Your Highness, dir. David Gordon Green
Jane Eyre, dir. Cary Fukunaga
Midnight in Paris, dir. Woody Allen
Beginners, dir. Mike Mills
Weekend, dir. Andrew Haigh
50/50, dir. Jonathan Levine
The Descendants, dir. Alexander Payne – though I hate the voice over
A Dangerous Method, dir. David Cronenberg
10 films I still haven’t seen which may enter the conversation, in no particular order:
Source Code, dir. Duncan Jones
Attack the Block, dir. Joe Cornish
Warrior, dir. Gavin O’Connor
Margaret, dir. Kenneth Lonnergan
Take Shelter, dir. Jeff Nichols
Margin Call, dir. J.C. Chandor
Melancholia, dir. Lars von Trier
Shame, dir. Steve McQueen
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, dir. Tomas Alfredson
The Interrupters, dir. Steve James