The Year's Best Films
1. The Tree of Life No studio release this year was more ambitious, emotional, or elegant than The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick's searching epic about our place in a family, a town, a galaxy, the universe. Emmanuel Lubezki's innovative cinematography beautifully painted with light and shadow and color, while boy lead Hunter McCracken and screen parents Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain exquisitely navigated existential terrain. It has everything and the kitchen sink (and dinosaurs).
2. Certified Copy There's nothing quite like a two-hander carried off by a pair of actors up for the challenge. Writer-director Abbas Kiarostami had a ringer in the always great Juliette Binoche, but gambled and won by casting opera singer (and first-time screen actor) William Shimell to go toe-to-toe with her. The film itself vigorously works itself into an intellectual tangle over the nature of long-term relationships, art, and what constitutes real life (as opposed to our comfortable illusions).
3. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives As The Tree of Life did this year, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year. And as select American audiences discovered in 2011, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's new film provided its own distinctive take on the big questions of life, the afterlife, history and memory, in a ghost story a far cry from Paranormal Activity 3 (and, sadly, its box office grosses).
4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Tomas Alfredson's commendable adaptation of John le Carré’s celebrated espionage novel was among the year's smartest entertainments. Though it entirely eschews the action of a Bond or Bourne escapade, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has a fascinating central character in carefully measured career spy George Smiley, now embodied by the brilliant Gary Oldman.
5. Nostalgia for the Light Patricio Guzmán takes us with him on a creative leap in this moving documentary, which creatively conflates two searches for answers in Chile's Atacama Desert. The place's unique environmental conditions make it suitable for astronomical study; as scientists look up, widows and orphans dig down, in search of the remains of husbands and fathers "disappeared" by the Pinochet regime.
6. The Mill and the Cross One of the year's most inspired creative excursions, The Mill and the Cross found Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski adapting Michael Francis Gibson's book about the genesis of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 1564 painting The Way to Calvary. Rutger Hauer plays Bruegel, Michael York his patron, and Charlotte Rampling a local muse, but it's all about the imagery in this fascinating—nay, mesmerizing—look at the artistic process, rural life, and fervent faith.
7. The Interrupters Documentary filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams) turns his camera on "violence interrupters" working in Chicago's CeaseFire organization. James focuses on the efforts of three interrupters, former violent offenders now doing the noble work of swimming upstream in one of the nation's most violence-plagued communities. Though the change James observes is almost imperceptibly incremental, there's palpable hope in commitment to community.
8. Margin Call The 2009 market crisis revisited, from within a representative tower of power. A fictional Wall Street investment bank becomes the proverbial canary in the coal mine and, as such, weathers a long, dark night of the soul in deciding how to parcel out its precious loyalty, to employees, clients, and the American economy. Under the direction of breakthrough screenwriter J.C. Chandor, Kevin Spacey and Stanley Tucci excel as morally elastic yet sympathetic executives.
9. The Skin I Live In Pedro Almodóvar's loose adaptation of Thierry Jonquet's novel Tarantula is certified crazy, a treasure of sick cinema. Antonio Banderas plays the disconcertingly dashing mad doctor, a plastic surgeon whose unhinged creativity knows no bounds (ethics? what ethics?). Almodóvar gender-bends with the best of them, exploring with abandon sexual orientation, identity and taboos.
10. The Artist Just for kicks, there's Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist, a transportive celebration of silent cinema and artistic endurance. Though capable of tongue-in-cheekiness, The Artist lives more comfortably in sentimental melodrama, and excels technically in its recreation (through photography and production design) of filmic composition circa 1927. It's also a lively performance piece for French actors Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, whose work can't get lost in translation.
Runners-up: A Separation, Take Shelter, Meek's Cutoff, Weekend, Pina, A Dangerous Method, Outrage, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Coriolanus, Of Gods and Men.
The Year's Worst Films (There But For the Grace of God Go You): Sucker Punch, I Am Number Four, Conan the Barbarian, Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer, The Smurfs, Just Go With It, Jack and Jill, Mars Needs Moms, Zookeeper, Seven Days in Utopia.