1. Wuthering Heights- I almost feel bad putting this as number one because of how limited its release was (only a total of about two weeks in LA and NY), but it truly was the best film I’ve seen all year. In a year full of literary adaptations, this one takes the most risks. The risks include restricting dialogue to a bare minimum, no score, only handheld camera work, natural lighting, and the use of imagery to move the story forward. The love story of Kathy and Heathcliff is not developed through dialogue or even story, but through images. More specifically the senses of sound, touch, and sight. This is why Wuthering Heights is so important in my mind. It is pushing cinema away from borrowing from other art forms and towards developing its own unique form of cinematic storytelling. It is raw, heartbreaking, and groundbreaking.
2. Turin Horse– Another film that got little publicity even though it is Hungarian auteur Bela Tarrs professed last film.Despite having seen it over a year agoThe Turin Horse remains one of the most distressing films I’ve ever witnessed. One does simply watch this film, they experience it. It wears the viewer down and tests ones patience. The black and white images captured are stunning and the long takes compelling. Why is it so distressing? The Turin Horse convincingly challenges any belief system that claims existence has a purpose through its apocalyptic-esque narrative.
3.The Master– PT Anderson is one of the best filmmakers alive and working today. His sixth feature, The Master, is layered, bizarre, and enthralling. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix give exceptional performances as two broken souls slowly manipulating and controlling one another. While Hoffman’s character and religion undoubtedly resembles scientology, The Master is far more interested in the universal themes of what draws humans to religion and whether it is possible to live life without serving a higher power.
4. The Loneliest Planet- This film takes the smallest incident and demonstrates how it can slowly eat away at love until there is nothing left. It full of stunning images, feminist motifs, and subtle acting. I found myself surprised how emotionally invested and enthralled I became in this couple’s doomed vacation through the beautiful, vast Argentina mountains. The Loneliest Planet sneaks up on the viewer and doesn’t leave till long after.
5. Amour- Michael Hanake has always made unsettling and disturbing movies. Still Amour still stands out as one of the most brutal because this ‘story’ happens everyday and will probably happen to everyone eventually. It isn’t about a home invasion, a small German town in 1911, the end of the world, a masochistic piano teacher, or murder. No, Amour tells the story of an old married couple who have to deal with the slow deterioration of their bodies that comes with age. Haneke’s camera is unflinching as it watches moments humans would rather not think about. The film is never schmaltzy and the two leads never once seem melodramatic, only painfully human.
6. Moonrise Kingdom-Wes Anderson’s new film is a celebration of youth, diversity, love, the humor of life, and of cinema. No other art form could convey the emotions or tell this story like the film medium could. Farthest from a trite cold visual aesthetic experiment, Wes Anderson has found a way to create visual storytelling that feels authentic as he creates one of his best films to date.
7. Les Miserables– Is this a perfect film? Not by any means. However Les Miserbales, despite its flaws, manages to be the one of the most successful transitions from the stage to the screen in recent years. It takes the story from the stage and tells it in a way that is distinctly cinematic, while still retaining the play’s powerful songs and emotional heart. Through close-ups, tracking shots, and handheld camera work one is able to see reactions and nuances never before available on stage producing scenes of raw emotion (I Dreamed a Dream, On My Own, Red and Black) and beautiful celebration (Do You Here the People Sing, A Heart Full of Love, Epilogue). *
8. Kid With a Bike– Another quiet and nuanced film from the Dardenne brothers that is surprising in its depiction of human kindness, love, and care in the midst of small everyday frustrations. It is a little more plot heavy than their previous outings, but that doesn’t take away from the Dardenne’s ability to lull the viewer into the hopeless cynicism only to challenge them with cathartic moments of grace.
9. Oslo, August 31– Oslo, August 31 opens up with a montage of images of Oslo accompanied by voices describing their memories of their lives while staying in the city. The screen then cuts to black. The next image begins the story of one broken man trying to understand his place in the world after recovering from drug addiction. On August 31 he travels to Oslo to reconnect with old friends and interview for a potential job. It is simultaneously a slice of life film, but also so much more. It is isn’t preachy, melodramatic, or overwhelmingly disturbing like a lot of films involving drug addiction. However in the end Oslo, August 31 does ask the viewer to contemplate and consider the importance of human connection amidst our externally busy lives.
10. Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present– One form of art most often dismissed by the public is the seemingly always controversial and confrontational performance art. This enlightening and thought-provoking documentary creates a portrait of a woman who many critics call the queen of performance art: Marina Abramovic. Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present is carefully constructed film that chronicles both her artistic/personal past and the retrospective exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, which presents her with another challenging performance piece. This results into a great exploration into the rhyme and reason (yes there is a purpose) of Abramovic’s works therefore broadening ones own understanding of how to approach and intelligently engage with controversial works. The best aspect of the documentary though is how it manages to demonstrate the ability of her performance art to strip away exterior falsities and forces. Abramovic’s galleries reveal humanities deep desires for connection and honesty transforming her work and this excellent documentary into a very spiritual piece of art.
Honorable Mentions: Anna Karenina, Holy Motors, The Deep Blue Sea, Vito, and Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty
Yes I did see Silver Linings Playbook. It is not on this list for a reason.
*Les Miserables has received a fair share of intense, really intense, criticism, but after seeing the film twice I stand by my ground in saying I think it is a very good film. In my opinion the best, and perhaps most thoughtful, defense of the film comes from Brett McCracken. Check it out here.