MATT KELEMEN’S TOP 10
1. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature was the strongest cinematic vision of the year. The Queens-born director moved to New Orleans in 2008 and soaked up the South’s atmosphere before adapting Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious. What he does with a 16mm camera is mesmerizing, but the pairing of pre-adolescent Quvenzhané Wallis and first-time actor Dwight Henry was crucial to the magic. Henry’s hotheaded Wink seems unstable and abusive to Wallis’ Hushpuppy at first. As their bayou community is devastated by floodwaters, he is revealed as a dying father preparing his daughter for survival. Line of the year: “No crying in The Bathtub, Hushpuppy.”
2. Seven Psychopaths
Writer/director Martin McDonagh’s crime-comedy successor to 2008’s In Bruges carried the flag for fresh filmmaking. Its ingenious structure and reflexive plot were fleshed out by the ensemble cast of the year, pitting gangster Woody Harrelson against dognappers Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell, with Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Waits on board as psychopaths. Colin Farrell’s screenwriting protagonist pushes the narrative forward as he tries to complete a screenplay, while Rockwell scores with the best performance of his career.
Could Steven Spielberg score a third Best Director Oscar? Maybe not if Lincoln takes Best Picture and garners Best Actor honors for Daniel Day-Lewis as the man in the stove-pipe hat. Tommy Lee Jones absolutely deserves Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of cantankerous radical Republican Thaddeus Stephens, who carries out the surprise twist ending conconcted by screenwriter Tony Kushner. Somewhat verbose early on — like Lincoln himself — Kushner proceeds to expertly dramatize the most critical political flashpoint of the Civil War and the toll it took on the 16th president.
4. The Impossible
Stunning scenes and brave performances make it impossible to not add The Impossible (slated to open Jan. 4 in Las Vegas) to any year-end list. Naomi Watts carries most of the film as a wife and mother who becomes one of the walking wounded in the wake of the tsunamis that hit Thailand in 2004, but Tom Holland’s portrayal of the son who discovers the humanitarian within him is crucial. The you-are-there cinematography and sound design is devastating.
5. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Adventure
The future of 3-D starts here. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was the first modern film completely envisioned in three dimensions, but Peter Jackson shot the first of three Bilbo Baggins adventures at twice the speed of normal films, to mixed reception. Maybe some people aren’t ready to feel like walking into the screen, but The Hobbit was practically holographic and a harbinger of things to come.
6. Anna Karenina
Joe Wright went in a magical realism direction in adapting Leo Tolstoy’s epic tragedy. With Keira Knightley in the title role and Jude Law as her cuckolded husband, Wright blended in theatrical elements and outdoor scenes constructed on expressionist sets. Meanwhile, Anna both creates her own doom and exemplifies the limited options available to 19th-century women.
7. Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow steered clear of infusing political subjectivism or sanctimony into her follow up to The Hurt Locker. Instead, she and screenwriter Mark Boal meticulously trace the hunt for Osama bin Laden — and humanize the hunters — through Jessica Chastain’s counterterrorism specialist without prejudice or editorializing à la Oliver Stone. Reactions to the film (scheduled for a Jan. 11 Vegas opening) say more about the viewer than the filmmakers.
Ridley Scott’s sequel to Alien has been nearly forgotten, but scores for stunning visuals and stands on its own as a sci-fi masterpiece. The mystery of the mutant aliens is revealed, giving pause to anyone optimistic about why extraterrestrials might seek out Earth. The 3-D effects shimmered from the screen and Michael Fassbender’s android is the best out of all the series’ robotic characters.
9. Silver Linings Playbook
Bradley Cooper transcends the trappings of being the Sexiest Man Alive by portraying a borderline personality who meets the girl he should really be with (Jennifer Lawrence) while trying to win back the ex who took out a restraining order on him. David O. Russell is an actor’s director, mining his cast’s potential for all it’s worth.
10. Looper/Ruby Sparks
Rian Wilson added a new twist to time travel with Looper, ingeniously exploring the concept of being sent back in time to kill one’s past self. With Ruby, Zoe Kazan wrote a superb screenplay about a romantically challenged writer (Paul Dano) who types his dream girl (Kazan) to life, then has to deal with unexpected consequences. Both films were conceived by talents to watch in the years ahead.
COLIN BOYD’S TOP 10
1. Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty is obsessively focused on hunting Osama bin Laden. No politics, no subplots, no family or loved ones left out of the loop and no wasted motion. Jessica Chastain is captivating, the torture scenes are unbearable and the payoff delivers the best scene of the year in the best film of the year. Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker is bigger, better and more visceral. It’s a two-and-a-half hour climax.
2. Silver Linings Playbook
David O. Russell’s mental-illness love story is chock full of great work: from a resurgent Robert De Niro; from a surprising Bradley Cooper; and from an emphatic Jennifer Lawrence, who through this performance, Winter’s Bone, and even The Hunger Games has written a blueprint for how young actresses should evolve. Only 22, it just doesn’t happen this easily this suddenly this often.
3. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Beasts uses an impending hurricane and an imagined bayou backdrop to create one of the most beautiful fantasies in recent years. The film hangs on every word and every thought of Hushpuppy, played by then 6-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis. She’s assured of an Oscar nomination, and she’s the perfect conduit for such an inventive piece of cinema.
Ben Affleck had made a couple good films, but he becomes an honest-to-goodness Worthy Director with Argo. It’s hard to manage international detente, hostages and Hollywood comedy in the same film, but Affleck makes it look astonishingly easy.
5. Safety Not Guaranteed
Less a movie about time travelers than a primer on how to catch one in the wild, Safety Not Guaranteed takes a loopy premise about going back in time and transforms it into a surprisingly deep, surprisingly heartfelt hipster comedy.
6. Searching for Sugar Man
Empirical evidence of the power of music, even where its power is least expected. Heartwarming, eye-opening and all that other feel-good stuff.
7. The Raid: Redemption
You’ve probably got more money rolling around under your driver’s seat than this thing cost to make. Still, this unlikely Welsh-Indonesian production is the best pure action movie since The Bourne Ultimatum.
8. The Imposter
If the events in The Imposter had never happened, someone would have needed to make them up because the story is just too bizarre to not become a film. Best you don’t know the story going in, although the title gives you some clue.
You know that annoying trend where American studios remake Swedish movies in a real hurry (Let Me In, Dragon Tattoo)? Expect them to look next door to Headhunters, Norway’s fantastic, clever American-style thriller.
10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Awkward, funny, tense, dangerously sad and heartbreaking — just like high school. Based on his own novel, first-time director Stephen Chbosky hands in an absolutely assured film, one that may not have a lot of surprises but aches with emotional familiarity.