15. Once Upon a Time In Anatolia- Slow moving but hypnotic, this is probably the longest film (2 hours and 37 minutes) that's ever dealt with what is 30 second fodder in most other 'crime' movies. A group of policeman and a doctor scour the countryside in search of a body when the killer can't exactly remember where he buried it. Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a master of composition and lighting here, none more so stunning than one sequence drained in candlelight and each man noticing the beautiful young girl's face behind it. Pure magic. The film's themes about masculinity and past sorrow are also resounding.
14. Cloud Atlas- Hugely ambitious, “Cloud Atlas” stumbles and fumbles a bit, yet by the end of its almost three hour running time, I was largely moved by its multi-narrative tension and star-crossed human connections. This is a film that one has to let go of their inhibitions (namely Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in bad prosthetics and almost infant like speech) and allow the overall tone and mood to take hold. And that it does, ably controlled by the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tywker.
13. The Grey- After nearly 12 months, Joe Carnahan’s moody and atmospheric survival thriller still resonates. What’s most interesting about “The Grey”, besides its unilateral approach to non-commercial expectations in a commercial release, is its open-to-interpretation narrative and denouement. The wolves, designed solely as glaring eyes in the darkness and CGI rendering, may be real or they could all be paranoid projections of the mind by the sick and genuinely disaffected survivors. Like “Narc”, Carnahan seems fascinated by memories of loss and regret and their powerful impact on strong men. “The Grey” would make for a perfect double feature with his previous film. But besides all that lofty praise, “The Grey” is an excellent genre film, owned by Neeson’s steely performance and a sound editing team that creates a scary atmosphere of blistering winds, off-screen howls and crushing metal that linger long after the film is over.
12. Perfect Sense- David Mackinzie’s utterly terrifying and ruminative apocalypse film was barely released this year. Such a shame, as it’s a terrific example of low-fi ingenuity with a strong cast led by Eva Green and Ewan McGregor falling in love as the world tears apart around them. Set against the musical interludes of the great Max Richter, “Perfect Sense” is an astounding film that feels like something Stanley Kubrick would have made in his younger days.
11. Beasts of the Southern Wild- It starts out with a trance-like fervor, endlessly following a group of poverty ridden people living on the outskirts of the levee in Louisiana, and then turns powerfully raw and lyrical. A terrific debut for director Benh Zeitlin that feels a bit like warmed over David Gordon Green, but eventually finds its own magical footing.
10. Kill List- Ben Wheatley's cocktail mix of a film tries its hand at three different genres, each one more terrifying and disturbing than the next, and establishes him as a great talent to watch. The less one knows about this film, the better.
9. Rampart- Oren Moverman’s “Rampart” is a blazing, hard edged character study that features a tremendous performance by Woody Harrelson doing his best “Bad Lieutenant” impersonation. With a script by the legendary James Ellroy, “Rampart” takes place in a very specific time and place- 1999 Los Angeles, hot summer in the middle of the LAPD corruption scandal. As his sophomore film, writer/director Moverman has crafted a film that feels at once organic and kinetic. There’s a scene early on, around the dinner table, that feels so perfectly acted as Harrelson bounces around in flirtation with each ex-wife and then a back-and-forth with his teenage daughters, it would be easy to tag the film as improvised. But, with the pedigree of Ellroy and other scenes that give Harrelson long, stately (and filthy) monologues, the script firmly proves a foundation to a narrative that is otherwise rambling, but only in the best sense.
8. Killer Joe- William Friedkin's "Killer Joe" is an aggressive white-trash film noir that consistently shifts its point of view between its characters, creating a bizarre and almost over-the-top narrative that accelerates as its progresses to its shattering finale. And did I mention it's brutally funny... as well as just brutal?
7. Rust and Bone- A complex and formally ravishing portrait of two damaged people coming together to make one is yet another audacious effort from French filmmaker Jacques Audiard. Marion Cotillard is stunning and Audiard’s fluent camera captures so many fleeting emotions at the edges of the frame that “Rust and Bone” magnificently outstretches its somewhat clichéd narrative to become an engulfing emotional experience. Nothing is more moving than the final phone call between Cotillard and Schoenaerts or the way Cotillard summons a whale against the glass and forgives it.
6. Oslo, August 31- Joachem Trier's sophomore film is spectacular for the way in which it takes an ordinary subject and weaves a devastating tale. It's also a very personal film. It's not long into the film that Trier adds voice overs of unnamed people recalling the various pleasurable memories of growing up in Oslo, Norway. It feels like an old fashioned novel as memories marry against the image of a bustling but quaint cityscape. And into this city ventures recovering addict Anders (Anders Lie). We desperately pull for Anders to come out unscathed from his inner demons. He's not a bad person.... he's just incredibly confused and damaged. “Oslo August 31” documents this struggle with aching reality.
5. Looper- If "Brick" was a modern film noir diluted through the emo tendencies of teenagers and "The Brothers Bloom" was a 1930's caper film, highlighted by bubblegum aesthetics and an almost child-like attention to puppy love, "Looper" is darker, easily borrowing from both the sci-fi dystopia genre and western. And it has a lot on its mind, eventually turning into a dynamic examination of violence, revenge and that sticky scenario known as time travel. Joseph Gordon Levitt and Emily Blunt are fantastic, and the film itself turns on a dime mid-way through to reveal a deeper current… one that posits its true genre assertions into murky emotional waters and makes us care for everyone across several dimensions of time and space.
4. Anna Karenina- Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” faces a tough challenge: creating something vibrant and refreshing out of a dusty classic Russian novel without trivialization. It does this magnificently. “Anna Karenina” is a highly imaginative interpretation and a cinematic treat. This is a visualization where the carnal affection of love-at-first-sight between two people dancing is symbolized as they weave across a dance floor against motionless couples around them…. where a torn letter tossed into the air morphs into a snowstorm and one door opens up into the backdrop of another like a star gate transporting the actors through time and space. Or where an ornate hand fan melts into the sound of thumping horse hoofs. Basically, I was riveted from start to finish. Wright has crafted a kinetic film and one that feels superbly connected to the emotions and longueurs of its source novel while opening up the parameters of its antiquated narrative in progressive, thrilling ways.
3. Moonrise Kingdom- At this point in Wes Anderson’s career, his visual style, eccentric characterizations and pop song interludes could be lamentable. And yet, his seventh film entitled “Moonrise Kingdom” excels in all of this, creating a pop color world of infectious young love and cinematic dreaminess. Call it his tweener version of “Pierrot le Fou”… or maybe it’s just my auteur-like appreciation ala Andrew Sarris firmly rooted in place. Yes, writer-director Anderson is infatuated with awkward and unrequited teenager love (see “Rushmore”) but he maintains the pulse on the dour aspects of love as well, none more so touching than the short conversation Murray and McDormand share in bed one night, looking up through their ceiling’s skylight. Perfect production design and camera placement aside, “Moonrise Kingdom” is attuned to all the shaggy, imperfect vagaries of love.
2. Zero Dark Thirty- A crackling military procedural with a terrific performance by Jessica Chastain, Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" is a carefully modulated piece that intelligently deconstructs the great manhunt for Osama bin Laden. Jessica Chastain deserves the Oscar for her outstanding performance, exuding an array of emotions in her eyes behind a relatively steely posture.
1. The Master- Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has made the father-son relationship complex a recurring theme in many of his films, whether subjugated within his multi-storyline narrative ("Magnolia") or tangentially within genre ("Hard Eight", "Boogie Nights"), but his latest film, "The Master" may be his most pointed and raw effort yet. From the first time stunted, angry seaman Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and learned doctor Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) meet, the overtures of the father-son relationship are overt and tense in the way Dodd says "alright..." in that fatherly tone of a man sitting behind a large desk, patiently accepting his sulking son's presence either good or bad. And from there, "The Master" gels into a sublime series of scenes where father and prodigal son connect, disconnect, argue, love and work through repressed emotions caused by post-war stress. “The Master” is a towering, oblique and stunning masterpiece.
Honorable mentions: Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Snow White and the Hunstmen, Seeking A Friend For the End of the World, Barbara, Jack Reacher, Trishna