One BIG caveat: Whenever I've put together these lists in recent years, the process always really shows me how few movies I actually bother to see anymore. I only saw one ("Tree of Life") of the Oscar-nominated films this past year. Many movies -- "Shame," "My Week With Marilyn," "The Artist," "Melancholia," etc. -- that I wanted to see completely slipped through the cracks. So this is not meant to be a definitive list by any means.
But of the films I DID see, these are my favorites.
1. Take Shelter
Every so often someone puts out a movie that seems like pretty much the exact movie I want to make. Duncan Jones's "Moon" was that in 2009. Last year, it was Jeff Nichols's "Take Shelter." The story of a hardworking Midwestern family man (Michael Shannon) who begins experiencing apocalyptic visions and the toll this takes on his exasperated wife (Jessica Chastain) and young daughter, "Take Shelter" is about as moving an exploration of quiet, encroaching insanity as I've ever seen. Neither as narratively crazy nor as hopeless as "Jacob's Ladder" and "Pi" (both movies I love), Nichols's film is no less haunting for its sheer starkness. It's also beautiful to look at. And it's got one doozy of an ending.
2. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Believe it or not, that girl in the trailer above is the younger sister of the Olsen twins. But don't hold that against her. Elizabeth Olsen's performance as the title character in Sean Durkin's debut film "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is a powerhouse. She owns this movie from start to finish -- which is an accomplishment, considering she's playing opposite the always amazing John Hawkes ("Winter's Bone"). Durkin's movie is about a young woman (Olsen) who escapes the clutches of a Manson-esque cult in upstate New York. Her sister (Sarah Paulson) and her sister's husband (Hugh Dancy) take her in, but are at a loss to explain her increasingly bizarre behavior (it doesn't help that they only think she's running away from an ex boyfriend). The movie cuts seamlessly between her listless existence at her sister's lake house and her time with the quietly terrifying Hawkes and his moon-eyed clan. Like "Take Shelter," so much of the power of this movie comes from its simplicity. Durkin is an able filmmaker with a sensitive hand, and he knows how to take his time and when to get out of a scene before blowing it. This is one of those movies where what's not said or seen is much more important than what is.
3. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
It was fashionable amongst the snobs to deride this film before it was even released in favor of the Swedish originals, and then to knock it after it came out for supposedly gutting author Stieg Larsson's feminist commentary. Here's a little secret: the Swedish films are MUCH more gratuitously sexed-up than Fincher's American remake, and I always felt Larsson got way too much credit as a progressive firebrand than he deserved. Sure, the feminist angle was there, but the books were always pretty pulpy. What Fincher gets right in his version is the vulnerability of its lead character. Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is a tough but heartbreaking figure, and she should be. She's not a superhero. Mara doesn't try to soften her edges, but she does show the painful beating heart within her in a way that Swedish actress Noomi Rapace never pulled off. Fincher and Mara defetishize Lisbeth. They allow her to be sexual, but don't get lost in the goth sex-doll dreaminess that Rapace inspired with the first film's devoted fans. The sex itself (and I'm not talking about the rape scene) is pretty honest and real and matter-of-fact here, whereas it's all gloss and steam in the original. As directed by Fincher, the movie itself is a suitably creepy and stylish thriller with at least a little something to say. It bums me out that it tanked at the box office. For those of you who let all the snark and criticism keep you away, I'd suggest giving it another chance.
4. Super 8
I'm perfectly willing to admit that this isn't necessarily a great movie, but it's so perfectly designed to trigger the nostalgia reflex in people like me (specifically geeky thirty-something dudes who grew up with Spielberg and "The Goonies") that I have to give director J.J. Abrams credit. I don't have a lot to say beyond that, but I probably had more fun with this than I did any other movie this year.
I decided to post a clip instead of the trailer because the trailer completely missed what's so great about this movie. This isn't "The Fast and The Furious." Instead it's a moody and ultimately sad character study of an antihero who is basically psychotic, as well as a wildly stylistic rumination of everything that's awesome about the 80s. I was sold the moment the neon pink opening titles kicked in over a glistening nightscape of LA and the drone of Kavinsky's "Nightcall." The plot itself is pretty standard heist/revenge stuff, but there's an actual heart to this movie that I completely engaged with. Neither Ryan Gosling nor Carey Mulligan have much to work with, but what they do they do with aplomb. And the fact that Albert Brooks was snubbed for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar is just further proof that the Motion Picture Academy has lost all relevancy.
6. Margin Call
There's a general wisdom amongst those of us who are trying to make movies that no one wants to see a film where a bunch of people just sit around around and talk. Tell that to Sidney Lumet, Roman Polanski, David Mamet, and first-time writer/director J.C. Chandor, whose "Margin Call" is as tense a thriller as you're likely to see. And it's basically people sitting around talking. A fictionalized look at the financial meltdown in 2008, Chandor's film is likely to provoke outrage in you if you're able to keep up with it. He doesn't waste time trying to explain the mechanics of short selling, securities or collateralized debt obligations (thank God). Instead he focuses in on the people whose selfish decisions lead to the mess we're all in now. This is a classic morality tale in the vein of Lumet's "12 Angry Men" or Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross." It's also (next to "Martha Marcy") the most self-assured debut film I saw this year.
7. The Ides of March
This movie kind of got lost in the shuffle this year, which is a shame because (without having seen most of the nominated films) it seems to me it should have been perfect Oscar bait. George Clooney directed this political drama based on Beau Willimon's popular play "Farragut North," and does a solid job portraying an idealistic (but flawed) presidential candidate, Senator Mike Morris, who seems equal parts Barack Obama idealist and Bill Clinton triangulator. Ryan Gosling stars as Morris's "media guy", a political prodigy whose own idealism is his undoing. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and Evan Rachel Wood all turn in strong performances in roles that could have easily been nothing more than stock. Clooney doesn't reinvent the wheel here, but this movie shows that -- with the right star power attached -- Hollywood can still deliver smart straight-forward drama for grownups. That's something to be celebrated.
8. The Tree of Life
What to say about this film? Only Terrence Malick could make a movie that encapsulates all of existence within the story of a kid growing up in Texas. It's gorgeous. It's overloaded. It's wildly, gloriously pretentious. And yeah, it has dinosaurs. It's less a movie than an experience, and you're either going to be on board with it or you're not. I was on board.
9. Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy
Like "Margin Call," Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of John Le Carré's "Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy" is mostly a movie about old men sitting in dark rooms talking to other old men. And it's awesome. The knock on it has been that it's boring and confusing. Bullshit. I didn't find it hard to follow (I do want to see it again, however, just to be sure I got it all), and I was never bored. Only a culture bred on James Bond-style histrionics would balk at a spy movie as subtle and smart as this one. Gary Oldman gives one of the finest (and quietest) performances of his career, and the rest of the cast -- from Benedict Cumberbatch (the BBC's "Sherlock") to the great John Hurt -- simply kill this thing. It's a murky film -- both visually and morally -- which is probably why people didn't really go for it. Those people are stupid. After this and "Let the Right One In," Alfredson has established himself as one of the directors to watch.
10 Rise of the Planet of the Apes
I love, love, LOVE the original "Planet of the Apes" series (all of them, from 1968's original through 1972's "Conquest". I like to pretend 1973's "Battle" doesn't exist), but -- knowing how Hollywood screws up these things and considering Tim Burton's 2001 mess of a remake -- I did not have high hopes for this one. But married screenwriters Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa ("The Hand That Rocks the Cradle") are clearly fans of the original series and worked really hard to reclaim the franchise for a new generation. The script is silly at times (the whole smart gas thing feels kind of tired), but overall they do a commendable job of capturing what made Roddy McDowell's Caesar (in "Conquest") such an iconic character. The humans here (James Franco, John Lithgow, and a bunch of other people) are pretty mediocre, but the apes are badass and Andy Serkis's reinterpretation of Caesar further shows that he should pretty much be the only guy allowed to act in motion-capture performances. It sets up a new franchise nicely, and I'm glad to hear that Silver and Jaffa are back to pen the next installment. Fingers crossed.
Honorable mentions: Contagion, Source Code, Carlos, Bridesmaids