Separating the best from the rest
The 10 best films in a year full of comic book characters, vampires and other big-budget spectacles
When the movie year consists of big-budget comic books, tween vampire franchises and computergenerated spectacles, pulling a Top 10 list together can be a little challenging. Hunger Games was fine, and all, but Hollywood seems to be losing its appetite for fresh and original storytelling that doesn’t have built-in marketing tentacles. That means this year’s Top 10 list is dominated by documentaries, grown up nods to war and those rare reels that truly managed to surprise in what was a largely uneven year.
1 The Stories We Tell As far as this critic was concerned, this was the most moving voyage of the year thanks to Sarah Polley’s full understanding of the film medium as well as the unflinching courage of her own family. A documentary look at a secret with endless ripples, Polley allows the viewer to enter the story from every angle and comes up with a uniquely poignant picture of humanity.
2 The Dark Knight Rises Christopher Nolan’s rousing finale to the Dark Knight trilogy had a lot of mechanical clutter, but we could always feel a beating heart beneath the rubberized chest plate of the central character. Tapping into the spinal fluid of the current moment, Nolan found parallels with the French Revolution and brilliantly translated them to the screen with modern clarity.
3 Searching for Sugar Man A quiet little documentary that proved the feel-good movie of the year, this film about an unknown folksinger from Detroit who unwittingly became a folk hero in South Africa is the sweet nectar movies are made of: surprise, sentiment and substance.
4 The Impossible Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts play a couple swept away by the tsunami in Thailand. The film was inspired by a true story, but the footage is unbelievably realistic, allowing the viewer to enter a post-cataclysm, altered state where all the conveniences we take for granted look absurd and the only thing that counts are the people we care about.
5 Zero Dark Thirty Kathryn Bigelow returns out of nowhere for a spot on the Top 10 — again — with this reprise of Middle East war themes. In Hurt Locker, Bigelow proved she could take us inside the life of a soldier. In this thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, we watch Jessica Chastain take on public enemy No. 1 in a bid for elusive justice.
6 Where Do We Go Now? Where Bigelow navigated the moral abyss of government torture tactics, Nadine Labaki pulls us into the civilian side of war in this tragicomic story of a small town split by religious tension when a young man dies. Shrinking the global politic down to human scale, Labaki makes hate look absurd.
7 Hitchcock Any film that gives two Oscar-winning veterans a chance to reanimate Hollywood history is going to be a lot of fun, and Sacha Gervasi didn’t miss a beat in this tribute to Hitch and the creation of Psycho. Smart, well-designed and craftily acted, it evokes the spirit of the master because it’s also highly entertaining thanks to Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren in the title roles of Hitch and wife Alma Reville.
8 Les Misérables This kind of contrived spectacle can go so wrong, but thanks to Tom Hooper’s clear direction and a truly heartbreaking performance from Hugh Jackman, this filmed version of the Broadway phenomenon approaches a level of beauty and intimacy the stage simply cannot conjure.
9 The Master Sure, Joaquin Phoenix is disturbing and the whole movie is a long, and frequently nonsensical, indulgence from director Paul Thomas Anderson. But as he gropes in the dark for the ghosts of war, Anderson touches on the dark heart of American alienation from itself. Besides, watching Philip Seymour Hoffman as a cult leader has endless cinematic appeal.
10 Cabin in the Woods It’s not often you can really get a new twist in genre, but this horror movie actually managed to rewrite its own rules thanks to an underlying nihilist sensibility and a fearless approach to formula.