Any one of these films could have easily had made my top 10 list – especially starting at number 15. Unfortunately there just wasn’t room.
20. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt)
No other summer blockbuster was as exciting or as rewarding as Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes – and no one is more surprised than I am that I think that way. I walked into the theater with few expectations, and was rewarded with this intelligent, emotional, action packed film. What makes this better than any of the other Planet of the Apes films, is that it focuses on the apes themselves, not the humans. James Franco, Frieda Pinto and John Lithgow are fine as the main human characters, but this is a movie from the apes’ point of view – and you cannot help but think they’re justified in doing what they do. The film’s ace in the hole is Andy Serkis, who does a brilliant job as Caesar, the ape who will lead the revolution against their human counterparts. This is big budget, popcorn entertainment done right.
19. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
The Artist seems like the likeliest choice to win the Best Picture Oscar at this point, and while it obviously wouldn’t be my choice, I really don’t have a problem with that. The Artist is a technical marvel from beginning to end, recreating the silent era movies, but also incorporating elements of noir and later musicals as well. The cinematography is perfect, as is the score (and yes, I do know that not all of it was original, but no, I don’t see how Kim Novak can claim her career was “raped” because they used the score from Vertigo at a key point in the film). Beyond the technical aspects of the film, the acting is also top notch – Jean Dujardin as a silent screen star who falls on hard times, and Berenice Bejo as the up and coming star are wonderful, and supported by a top notch cast – a cigar chomping John Goodman, and an emotional James Cromwell are especially wonderful. Yes, The Artist is about as deep as a thimble – it’s about nothing other than itself – but when a movie is this much fun, I can’t complain.
18. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
A Separation is a deceptively simple movie – the further along it goes, the more damn complicated it gets. At the heart of the movie is a separation between and a man and his wife, and the hiring of domestic help to take care of the husband’s aging father with Alzheimer’s. Things turn violent, the man pushes his new employee out the door, where she falls down the stairs, and loses the baby she was pregnant with. What follows is an examination of the Iranian justice system, and tests the viewer’s loyalty – as more information comes out to make us question who is right and who is wrong – or if anyone is either. The screenplay is meticulously crafted, the acting natural and unforced, the direction simple, yet effective. Yes, the movie takes place in Iran, but the themes are universal. A probably winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year, and a deserving one.
17. Poetry (Lee Chang-dong)
Lee Chang-dong made one of my favorite films of the last decade with his brilliant feature Secret Sunshine (now available from Criterion, so you have no excuse missing this film I have been praising since seeing it at TIFF in 2007). His follow-up, Poetry, is not quite as good, but is still an emotionally rich film about an elderly woman taking care of her grandchild, who has to deal with the knowledge that he participated in a gang rape, in which the victim then killed herself. She also learns she has Alzheimer’s. She and her grandson discuss neither of these things, as she tries to bravely forge on with these heavy burdens. She decides to take a poetry class. The film is all about language, and how this woman wants to use it (hence the poetry) before she loses it to her illness. In the lead role, Yun Jeong-hie, is brilliant. This is a quiet, perceptive character study.
16. Aurora (Cristi Puiu)
Crisit Puiu’s Aurora turns the crime movie on its head, showing us a warped individual (Puiu himself) stalking the streets of Bucharest and getting angrier and angrier, until at about the half way point of the three hour movie, he murders two people in a parking garage. Why does he do this? You have to wait until the end of the movie to find out, and even then you will not be satisfied, as even when the “motive” is explained, it doesn’t snap everything into place. This is not an M. Night Shyamalan movie after all. Aurora is about this damaged individual, who lives in a damaged city in a damaged country, still struggling with the fall of Communism 20 years later. This is not an easy film to watch, but it is a great one.
15. A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
The last thing you might expect from David Cronenberg is a repressed costume drama – but not only does the famed Canadian provocateur attempt it, he pulls it off, and injects much of himself into the movie. Circling around the triangle of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) his mentor turned rival Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson) and a female patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), the film is about repressed sexuality that eventually bubbles itself up to the surface. Mortenson is great, Knightley uneven at first, but settles into her role as it goes along, and Vincent Cassell is wonderful in what is essentially a cameo. Best of all though is Michael Fassbender as Jung, who fights against his urges as much as he can. This is a movie about the conflict between the mind and the body, so while it doesn’t seem like Cronenberg’s typical film, can you imagine anyone doing it better?
14. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)
Most of the time, when Hollywood remakes a foreign film, the result is a neutered, not very good copy of the original. In this case, David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is better in pretty much every way than the first film. From the magnificent opening credit sequence (easily the best of the year), to its perfect wordless finale, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a Hollywood thriller at its finest. As Lisbeth Salander, Rooney Mara delivers one of the best, bravest performances of the year, digging into her complex role with energy and verve. This is not a neutered, watered down film or performance. As they did last year, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross once again deserve to take home the Oscar for best score. The film is the flip side of the coin to Fincher’s Zodiac – that film was about the more you dig, the less you know for sure, and this one says that if you dig long enough, you’ll discover the truth. Zodiac is the better film – but I have no doubt that audiences enjoyed this one more.
13. Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes)
Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus is a bold adaptation of a lesser known William Shakespeare play. Set in modern times, Coriolanus takes on contemporary resonance, because the themes and events seem timely to today’s cynical, political climate. The story, about a Roman General (Fiennes) who is pushed by his monstrous mother (Vanessa Redgrave) to try and become Consul, and ends up seeking revenge, is thrilling, violent, superbly crafted and masterfully acted by the entire cast – particularly the wild eyed, violent Fiennes, and the calmly manipulative Redgrave. This is the best Shakespeare adaptation I’ve seen on screen since Julie Taymor’s 1999 film Titus.
12. Melancholia (Lars von Trier)
Had the second half had been as strong as the first half, than Lars von Trier’s Melancholia easily would have been in the top 10. As it stands, the first hour of the film, set at Kristen Dunst’s wedding, is absolutely stunning – a portrait of depression as deep self involvement, and of family dysfunction run amok. The second half, set on an expansive estate as Dunst and her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourgh) and her family wait for the planet Melancholia to crash into earth and destroy everything. Yes, the finale of Melancholia is brilliant – but too much of the second half is over baked and as much as I love Charlotte Gainsbourg, her role is underwritten. The film is a visual masterpiece however to rival Trier’s last film, Antichrist, and there is so much of Melancholia to love, that’s its hardly fair to pick on the films few flaws.
11. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
Take Shelter is about an ordinary family man from middle America who wonders if he is going crazy, or if the world really is about to end. His mother was a paranoid schizophrenic, and when he starts having dreams about a storm coming and wiping everyone out, he worries that he is following down the same path – but cannot help himself as he builds a bomb shelter, and slowly starts driving everyone away from him. Jeff Nichols, whose brilliant Shotgun Stories also starred Michael Shannon, and was criminally ignored, makes a major leap forward here as both as a director and writer. His film has a paranoid feel from beginning to end, and brilliantly evokes Hitchcock’s The Birds. In the lead role, Michael Shannon delivers his best performance to date. Despite what we see at the end, the question of whether he’s crazy or not is still up in the air.