10) Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg)
We cinephiles can be a snooty lot. When the new Lincoln biopic was announced—directed by Steven Spielberg, no less—it sounded like the prestige-iest prestige picture that ever prestiged. A temporary oxygen deficit swept the globe as film snobs everywhere sniffed in unison. Oh, how daring, we thought. It's only a movie about the most beloved president of all time, directed by the most beloved American filmmaker of all time. Why not make a biopic about Mister Rogers and cast Tom Hanks in the lead, since we're apparently going the warm-fuzzies route? (Not that we were entirely wrong to be scornful. Look at the last major political-figure biopic we got.)
The fact that Lincoln turned out not to be manipulative, hagiographic, or sappy seems like a minor miracle in light of this. Savvy as always, Spielberg mostly stays out of the way and lets the screenplay, the cinematography, and the remarkable lead performance carry the film. I'm not saying anything new by praising Daniel Day-Lewis's portrayal to the heavens, but it really is something to see. It's no trick to get Lincoln's folksy anecdotes and impassioned exhortations right. It's when Day-Lewis displays a crafty glint to his eyes during backroom strategizing, or allows Lincoln's frazzled anger to spill over during an ugly argument with his wife, that the man lives and breathes once again.
9) Amour (dir. Michael Haneke)
One of Michael Haneke's most distinctive traits is his drive to strip away the conventions and artifice that we take for granted in movies, leaving us with something that, while not necessarily "realistic," nevertheless feels a lot closer to messy reality than what we're used to seeing on the big screen. With Amour, he pushes back against the pleasant half-truths perpetuated by so many movies, that elderly couples who reach the end of their lives together are cute, or saintlike, or adorably brassy. The slow decline of Emmanuelle Riva's Anne is incredibly painful to watch—Haneke spares her and her caretaker husband no indignity—but it must be so if Haneke is to overcome our defenses and evasions. Love requires a lot from two people—until death, when it requires everything they have. Haneke wants us to look long and very, very hard at this truth. His unsentimental direction shows us love's hard-won, agonizing marvels. As NPR's Linda Holmes so succinctly put it: "It is sad, but it is not depressing. This is the bargain [...] big love, big happy, big sad. Take it or leave it."
8) Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
Let's get two things out of the way up-front: Zero Dark Thirty is not journalistic, and it does not condone torture. Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal seek to be dispassionate in their depiction of events, not because they are presenting us with fact or because they have nothing new to add, but because they know that the events they show are already laden with emotion and complexities. The tidal forces that would be created by offering a specific perspective or thematic bent to this history would have tugged the film to pieces. It exists only to provide a context for us to grapple with the implications of our recent history. The story has a very sharp starting point (the horrific sounds of 9/11, played over a black screen) and endpoint (the man responsible for those sounds, turned into a corpse). Thus, Bigelow effectively orients us in a very specific timeframe. How many of us wanted retaliation in the months after the terrorist attack? How many of us adopted a grim, wartime "ends justify the means" mentality in the years that followed? Zero Dark Thirty plunks us right back in that period and doesn't allow its characters the hindsight or foreknowledge that we have now. When the deed is done, the movie is also done, and it leaves us alone with our consciences. In the end, our consciences, not some movie, are going to dictate what we do next.
7) The Cabin in the Woods (dir. Drew Goddard)
In addition to being top-10 material, this film also wins the Biggest Surprise of the Year Award. All initial signs pointed to The Cabin in the Woods being yet another cutesy "Look Mom, I'm Postmoderning!" exercise, in which the filmmakers expect a pat on the head for their ability to explicitly call out genre tropes: "Ever notice how horror movies always kill off the teenagers who have sex, or did I just blow your mind?" My being mostly lukewarm about cowriter and producer Joss Whedon didn't help either. But the film is a hell of a lot smarter than its advertising made it look, managing to be scary, uproariously funny, and subversive—sometimes all three in the same moment. (I'd discuss how it manages this, but that would spoil it.) It has a lot on its mind, probing at the underpinnings of the horror genre and of popular entertainment in general. Do we watch other people endure misery and terror simply for the guilty pleasure of it, or do we do it to satisfy some darker appetite?
6) The Queen of Versailles (dir. Lauren Greenfield)
The human race's most persistent and universal flaw is its propensity for dividing the world into good guys and bad guys, Us and Them. Once we have determined who is on our side and who is not, we are merciless in our enmity toward those who fall on the wrong side of the line. At a time when the gap between the haves and the have-nots appears to be widening, some of the safest people to hate today are the ultra-wealthy. The sentiment is perfectly understandable, which is why we need a documentary like The Queen of Versailles to remind us that vapid, materialistic rich people are still human beings, as deserving of basic compassion as anyone else. This isn't to say that the people at the center of the film—a time-share magnate, his beauty-queen trophy wife, and their gaggle of children—aren't occasionally infuriating in their oblivious selfishness. But there's a pitiable hollowness to their hedonism, strikingly embodied in the half-finished husk of the obscenely opulent mansion they begin to build before the husband's business empire collapses in the 2008 economic meltdown. Suddenly obliged to worry about money for the first time, they do their best to avoid surrendering to their bottomless hunger for possessions and comfort. The problem is that years of prosperity have caused them to forget how to do anything else.
5) Looper (dir. Rian Johnson)
If nothing else, Looper deserves accolades simply for being a highly original genre film in an industry that seems increasingly ignorant of what "original" even means. It's impossible to overstate the relief of watching a science fiction story in which one has no idea what will happen next. Yet while the innovative concept (a hit man in the service of the time-traveling mafia of the future is forced to hunt down his future self) and the fully realized setting make for good entertainment, it's the melancholic undertones that make it great. The hitman protagonist isn't a nice—or even particularly good—person, and watching him gradually realize this about himself over the course of the film is surprisingly moving. As he witnesses the damage caused by himself and by the man he is destined to become, he experiences a unique personal crisis. The two versions of himself are irreconcilably in opposition to one another, yet they are also inextricably linked. As identical variables on opposite sides of an existential equation, they can only cancel each other out.
4) The Imposter (dir. Bart Layton)
The maxim "Truth is stranger than fiction" seems tailor-made for a documentary like The Imposter. The events it recounts are almost impossible to swallow: three years after 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay's disappearance from his small Texas hometown, he resurfaces in Spain, telling tales of abduction, abuse, and amnesia. He's changed a lot during those three years, though. He's taller. He sports a five o'clock shadow. He now speaks with a French accent. His eyes have changed from blue to brown. Yet despite his looking a lot like a 23-year-old European scam artist, Nicholas's family welcomes him with open arms, swearing to friends, doctors, and the FBI that this is their long-lost teenager. Director Bart Layton presents all this with the visual panache and twisty storytelling of a noir mystery, blending the investigative theatrics of The Thin Blue Line with the subtle reality-warping of Exit through the Gift Shop. Like the charismatic con man at its center, The Imposter draws you into its hall of mirrors, then sneaks away. Have you been paying attention?
3) The Turin Horse (dir. Bela Tarr)
The word apocalyptic has gotten quite a workout in critical essays about The Turin Horse, and for good reason. Spanning six days, Bela Tarr's vision of the bleak existence of an aging peasant and his daughter is the exact antithesis of the Creation. In Genesis, animal life flourishes, God hovers over the waters, and there is light. In The Turin Horse, a mangy horse languishes in the barn, the farm's well runs dry, and the entire world is eventually beset by thick, literal darkness. The world is decaying, bit by bit, but the two main characters can't summon the strength or the passion to rage against it. Every day is the same for them: they wake to the howling of the wind, choke down boiled potatoes, and stare out the window at their barren surroundings. The effect of this repetitious, steadily descending spiral—arrestingly captured in gorgeous black and white by cinematographer Fred Kelemen—is utterly hypnotic. After the fade to black, I felt as if the universe had flickered out and come to an end before my very eyes—fitting for a film that takes its title from a famous anecdote about Friedrich Nietzsche.
Some might say that this sounds like an ordeal, that life is too short to spend time on such a depressing piece of work. They'd be partially right: the film is challenging, and life is short. But who ever said that the highest goal of art and of life was to be comfortable?
2) Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin)
Benh Zeitlin's first film is one of the most promising debut features I've seen in recent memory. It's not terribly common to encounter a first-timer with both the confidence to produce such a wild, singular vision and the chops to keep it from degenerating into an unfocused mess. It is, after all, a fable told through the eyes of the child Hushpuppy, who is played by a six-year-old with no previous acting experience. But Zeitlin evokes a child's sense of scale perfectly: the tiny wonders noticed only by a mind that has not yet become accustomed to them, living side by side with the enormous mysteries and fears felt by the very small. Everything done and witnessed by Hushpuppy, good and bad, is freighted with cosmic significance. The scrappy community she lives in is her entire universe, which makes it all the more poignant when it begins to crumble and another universe encroaches.
1) The Kid with a Bike (dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
David Foster Wallace once wrote that there is something inside all of us that longs to "give ourselves away utterly" to something. For the main character of The Kid with a Bike, a 12-year-old boy named Cyril, that something is his father. It's this deep, inarticulate desire that makes it so profoundly wounding to Cyril when his father abandons him to the care of the state, selling off all their possessions and moving to another town without leaving so much as a forwarding address. Unable to fathom why this would happen, Cyril bolts from place to place in his search for the father who rejected him. He understands nothing but his own desperate, inchoate need. Eventually a kind young woman offers him the parental love he craves, but he also finds himself drawn to the slick leader of a local gang of hoods, who seems to offer him the same thing.
The magic of this film lies in how it sketches these characters and their desires crisply and movingly, without once becoming gooey or false. Cyril is no tow-headed moppet who concocts twee little Hollywood schemes to make his daddy love him again. He's a small, destructive thundercloud of directionless anger and hurt, easier to pity than to love. The other characters' attempts to draw him back from the precipice he stands on are uncertain, and the Dardennes film it all in a mostly straightforward, unembroidered style. Their unassuming approach pays massive dividends in the final minutes, however, with an ending whose impact is so sublimely subtle that it almost passed me by. The Kid with a Bike works because we all have something in common with Cyril. We long to give ourselves utterly to something. We recognize ourselves in him: an angry, lost child who strains to hear the voice of love calling him back home.