I hate best-of lists. Loathe them. Which is why when I compile my year-end list of movies, I simply pick the flicks I enjoyed the most, the ones I would highly recommend to people, and then lump them together into one unsorted group.
Perhaps you agree. Perhaps not. I care not, because this is just my one opinion and it makes no difference to either of us if we didn’t have the same experience.
My goal is that, if you haven’t seen one of these movies, its inclusion here piques your interest into giving it a look. Enough about me.
On with the non-best-of list!
HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE
A masterfully constructed, devastating, and yet surprisingly uplifting documentary that chronicles the rise of Act Up, an activist organization that battled the FDA to get AIDS patients more access to potentially life-saving drugs during the deadly epidemic of HIV in the 1980s and 1990s.
Told mainly through archival footage and occasional voiceover from those who lived through the plague, I haven’t been moved by a documentary like this in quite a while. Incredible to see how, a mere 20 years ago, HIV was a death sentence. And it’s unconscionable that while a disease was spreading like wildfire throughout the country – and the world – our leaders were justifying their inaction (or minimal action) on the fact that this illness was different because your life choices were potentially instrumental in causing you to catch it.
Infuriating, sad, but thankfully, it has a happy ending.
ZERO DARK THIRTY
Now, this one is a power keg of controversy.
While the filmmakers have been taking it from all angles, it’s got to be an artist’s dream to have such discussion and opinion about your work. You don’t make a film about the decade-plus-long search for Bin Laden unless you want to jump into the highly charged conversation of torture, terrorism, and American foreign policy. That so many people have opined on the film goes to show how top-notch it is; you sure didn’t hear this much conversation when ACT OF VALOR or SEAL TEAM SIX: THE RAID ON OSAMA BIN LADEN came out.
It’s thrilling, tense, and suspenseful, when, by all accounts, it shouldn’t be considering we all know how this one turns out. Of course, it helps to also have a fantastically well-structured script, compelling performances, and stellar direction.
But what everyone seems much more interested in talking about isn’t the craft, instead focusing only on how the film addresses torture. As someone who found the torture regime implemented at the very top of the Bush Administration, and disseminated through much of the U.S.’s military and intelligence agencies, absolutely repulsive and reprehensible, ZERO DARK THIRY approaches this in a way that has troubled many with my similar point of view: it shows that torture was involved in finding Bin Laden.
The problem is that it wasn’t. Unless the findings from the Senate inquiry and the responses from numerous high officials including Sen. John McCain and acting C.I.A director Michael J. Morell aren’t to be believed.
However, from the way this line of criticism (coming from both film critics and political writers alike) suggests, you’d think ZERO DARK THIRTY has a Liam Neeson-in-TAKEN-style scene where, after a bout of brutal waterboarding, the terrorist finally blurts out that crucial nugget of real information that gives the authorities exactly what they need to find Bin Laden. The problem is that’s not how it happens in the movie. (Likely much of the criticism came because overzealous reviewers were dropping their scorn on the film before even having seen it.)
Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal craft a far more ambiguous way of having the prisoner deliver the information; there’s no direct one-to-one connection showing torture itself produced a viable lead. But what’s even more nuanced – and troubling to some – is how the filmmakers avoid placing a moral judgment on anything that happens in the film, which could be construed as being sympathetic to the torture regime. But this is highly unfair. By not taking a firm moral stance, the filmmakers do what more films should: leave it up to the viewer. It’s up to us to decide our own feelings on torture, on the years and resources and techniques we spent on combating terrorism, and on the travesties that took place over the past decade. And for many people, that leaves them extremely uncomfortable.
It’s much easier to have a film spoon-feed you what to want to hear. Rarer, and superior, is the film that makes you come to your own conclusions.
The reality is that ZERO DARK THIRTY is not a documentary. And given the response by the C.I.A. recently, it’s hard to say just how factual this account really is. (Would the C.I.A. really give these Hollywood filmmakers the exact rundown of what happened? And why should any reporter or filmmaker take this as the truth?) It may be based on some real events and some real people, but anyone who takes this as total fact needs a refresher course in the difference between fact and fantasy.
Besides being both thrilling and thought-provoking, I’m just glad that people are making movies commenting on the wars of the past 12 years. Some of the best films about Vietnam came a decade or more after that conflict ended, so I’m hoping this just the beginning of filmmakers reflecting on our generation’s conflicts. We could definitely use the introspection.
THE IRAN JOB
For too many Americans, Iran is a bogeyman, identified simply by the radical regime running the country rather than by the average Iranians living there. It’s not entirely our fault; our conflict-focused media combined with the poor relationship between our two governments doesn’t leave many windows through which to see the real Iran.
Here’s a glimpse.
It’s the true story of Kevin Sheppard, an instantly likable African-American athlete who moves to Iran to play professional basketball. The documentary crew of one (director Till Schauder) follows him around for the better part of a year as he trains with his Iranian (and one Serbian) teammates, gets accustomed to a decidedly foreign culture, makes friends, and deals with the distance between him and his girlfriend.
Schauder wisely wraps his social commentary around the exciting framework of a sports movie, coaxing you into getting caught up in the basketball tournament, while learning about real Iranian people and not seeing them as evil caricatures. Ideally, THE IRAN JOB just might make a few more people realize that dropping a bomb on the entire Middle East is not the way to deal with the political conflicts in the region, by exposing the light from a world still dark in many people’s minds.
Think of a cross between THE STATION AGENT and THE WRESTLER, only not nearly as depressing as the latter. This little foreign flick follows Dennis, a socially inept, aging professional bodybuilder, still living with his cripplingly dominant mother, who craves escape and romantic love.
When his similarly unlucky-in-love uncle comes back from Thailand with a wife, he decides to give it a shot himself. What ensues is a funny and touching tale anchored by the fantastic performance by real-life Danish bodybuilder Kim Kold. I caught this a film festival so hopefully it will get distribution at some point.
THE INVISIBLE WAR
This was an absolutely amazing year for documentaries and I put this one near the top for exposing the number of rapes and sexual assaults in the military that get covered up by the government. The same power structure that keeps units in line also has a tragic flaw that allows women – and men – to be violated in the worst ways, and then blamed – sometimes even punished – for what was completely out of their control. All the while, most of their perpetrators get away scot-free, or even promoted.
Even better than simply opening our eyes to these horror stories, the film offers solutions that could help curb this epidemic.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
Director Benh Zeitlein sets his debut feature film – co-written by Lucy Alibar, based on her play – in the depths of poverty on islands off the coast of New Orleans called The Bathtub. Here is where Hushpuppy, and her dad, Wink, endure natural disasters – personal, natural, and supernatural. To say more still wouldn’t convey how truly moving and visually spectacular this film is. If you only see one movie on this list, see this one.
This one didn’t get a wide release, and when it hit Netflix, I thought it looked like a movie-of-the-week. And it could’ve easily gone into that territory had it not been done so well. Directed by Tony Kaye, who did AMERICAN HISTORY X, this film is an admittedly melodramatic and overly bleak look at our inner-city schools.
Still: it’s moving, the performances are solid (lots of familiar faces in here), and I found it quite an important film since, as much advancement we’ve made as a society, it’s thoroughly unacceptable how poorly (pun intended) we handle schools in impoverished areas, the children who attend them, and the teachers and administrators who run them. Definitely don’t watch this if you want reassurance that things are mostly good in the world.
While I do like to focus on the positives, sometimes we do need to be reminded that The Secret is upper class fantasy bullshit. This one will linger with you for a bit.
If it weren’t for BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, this would be my favorite indie flick of the year. As it is, it comes in as a not-too-distant second. Based off the plot alone you might roll your eyes and think that you were about to dive into an overly pretentious mess. That was my initial reaction. But, to my great surprise, I was wrong.
Instead, this tale of Rachel (playing by the going-to-be-a-huge-star Julia Garner), a teenaged, Mormon girl growing up in a fundamentalist community in Utah who, after believing she was inpregnated by listening to a rock song, goes off to Vegas to find her unborn baby’s father, is impressively honest and tender. That this is the first feature by writer/director Rebecca Thomas makes the film even more of a success.
Also, the fertile song that Thomas chooses to use for Rachel’s conception is beyond perfect — it’ll be in your head the rest of the day (in a good way).
JOHN DIES AT THE END
A completely bizarre acid-trip from the filmmaker of PHANTASM and BUBBA HO-TEP, this one is frantically entertaining and ridiculously hilarious. Honestly, I can’t remember half of it other than it involves these friends who get hooked on some new drug called Soy Sauce that causes absurd, NAKED LUNCH-style hallucinations that may or may not actually be windows into another dimension. I think. With awesome practical effects and a plot that keeps going off in unpredictable directions, here’s a straight-up fun flick that could become one of those oddball cult classics one day — if it hasn’t already.
Having just finished reading the David Mitchell novel on which this movie is based, I had no idea how they were going to pull it off — especially in under three hours. But somehow the writer-director hydra of Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer crush it. I have no idea how they pulled it off.
That said, I’m not sure what the experience would be like for someone who hadn’t read the books, because I used the movie in my head to help me along with what I was watching on screen. And there’s a ton going on. Dozens of characters in several different spacetimes speaking varying dialects all centered around the theme of the cycle of life?
No wonder this was a tough cinematic sell, but the brilliance of this film is that even though you most likely won’t catch 95 percent of what’s going on underneath the surface, these filmmakers know how to tell a damned good story, so that the 5 percent you do grab will still knock your socks off. And have you wanting to watch it again and again to catch the rest.
More brilliance from Quentin Tarantino, who seems to be getting better with age. This one-two punch with INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS could be the best mid-career output of his generation — even more impressive given that he started with the modern classic combo of RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION. Really, having one ending too many is the only major criticism I could level at DJANGO, which has likely already landed in my top 3 Tarantino flicks (here I go making best-of lists…).
The story is pure Tarantino: a freed slave (the excellent Jamie Foxx) and a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz, outdoing his own classic Hans Landa) team up to find Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) in the pre-Civil War South. However, the filmmaking itself displays a new maturity and confidence (as if the guy needed any more). While still full of genre-specific references, they’re not so on-the-nose that they pull you out of the movie you’re watching – which can be an issue with his previous flicks (especially KILL BILL, which, at least in the first volume, felt much more interested in paying homage to a bunch of other films he loved than creating something of his own in service of a story). He also opts for a traditional narrative structure, eschewing his usual method of telling the story in chapters and out of chronological order. All solid choices for a film whose subject matter is already so controversial and compelling that the simplest form of storytelling suffices.
What’s truly impressive is how masterful Tarantino is at manipulating the audience, lowering our guard while making us belly laugh at ridiculously inept white supremacists and then turning around and smashing us in the face with a not-remotely-funny and brutal scene of a slave being ripped apart by dogs. The brilliance of his social and racial commentary is how he so fluidly elicits such varying responses from what we’re watching on the screen: at moments hilarious, others scary, and usually an offensive combination of both. We’re forced to laugh at the absurdity of the whole concept of owning other human beings because at some points it’s the only reaction that we can have to such atrocities. And yet, Tarantino doesn’t at all shy away from making sure we see and feel the visceral horror that slavery was. That he pulls all this off while also telling an endlessly entertaining tale makes this another triumph in a career full of them.
THE TURIN HORSE
Haunting and hypnotic, this bleak, slow-moving drama doesn’t feel like it was made last year. Its long takes, minimalist dialogue, and black-and-white cinematography lend itself more to its narrative’s late-19th century time period than our own.
Honestly, I don’t imagine many people who are accustomed to traditional movies – even indie flicks – will find THE TURIN HORSE their cup of tea; but, for those who do, it’s an incredibly powerful film that accomplishes so much through showing so little. Capturing the monotony of impoverished rural life by subjecting us viewers to those long, boring daily rituals places us directly in that world in ways most movies wouldn’t bother to attempt.
Hungarian director Bela Tarr tests the limits of our attention and patience, but rewards us handsomely, with a film has much going on under the surface than you’d think. Seriously, someone please watch this so we can talk about it. You’d be surprised what questions arise from a film that is set in a one-room stone house and has maybe 30 lines of dialogue total during its two-and-a-half hour runtime.
NOTABLE MOVIES I HAVEN’T SEEN YET BUT HEARD ARE FANTASTIC
RUST AND BONE, HOLY MOTORS, THE HOUSE I LIVE IN, SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN, ROOM 237, THE MASTER, OSLO AUGUST 31ST, AMOUR, TAKE THIS WALTZ, SLEEPWALK WITH ME, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, NOT FADE AWAY, THE SESSIONS, WEST OF MEMPHIS, THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE
HONORABLE MENTIONS, OR MOVIES THAT WERE SOLID BUT COULDN’T QUITE CRACK MY FAVES LIST
THE HUNTER, LIFE OF PI (mainly for the visuals in the middle, which were mindblowing), GOON, THE KID WITH A BIKE, INDIE GAME: THE MOVIE, THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, KILLER JOE, COSMOPOLIS, HEADHUNTERS
MOVIES I WANTED TO LIKE MORE THAN I DID, BUT DIDN’T
ARGO, LOOPER, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, LAWLESS, ARBITRAGE
MOVIES THAT WERE WAY BETTER THAN THE SHIT THEY RECEIVED
MOVIES I WISH I HADN’T SEEN ONCE, MUCH LESS EVER AGAIN
MOONRISE KINGDOM, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, TED (realized this upon second viewing), PREMIUM RUSH, THE CAMPAIGN
REQUISITE SPIELBERG HATE
I love me some Daniel Day-Lewis. I also find the historical figure of Lincoln fascinating. What I still have no interest in seeing is Spielberg’s (inevitably) schmaltzy handling of both in the creatively titled, LINCOLN. I’m a hater so it very well could be a solid flick but Spielberg’s run of mediocre December Oscar bait continues to annoy the shit out of me. (Seriously? WAR HORSE? That trailer alone has turned me off to his movies even more than I had been before.)