I am not a professional film critic and I don’t attend film festivals. Since moving to Los Angeles in the spring, I’ve attended fewer pre-release screenings than any time in the past five years. But since that move, movie going has become my single biggest pastime; it’s a social occasion without the socializing. Seeing movies is just better here. The theaters are cleaner and bigger. The seats are assigned at places like the unfadeable Arclight chain, and smaller boutiques spots, like Pasadena’s iPic. The boutique arthouses, especially Cinefamily and the New Beverly, are elite and amazingly curated. The crowds are calm, almost reverent. (Post-screening ovations are common; often irritatingly so.) That old chestnut about the theater being Hollywood’s church is sort of eerily true. In a mission I often cannot understand, I try to see as many of the year’s releases as I can. Which has, at last, been made easier by L.A. This year, I’ve seen 107, with an eye to 58 more, according to the ill-defined That looks interesting rolling list I maintain. (And another 100 or so older movies, too. You guys should definitely see Black Narcissus!) Some unseen are sitting on my desktop, others in red envelopes, more still unreleased on DVD and missed in theaters. I’ll catch a few more that I’m genuinely excited for in January — thinking particularly of David Chase’s Not Fade Away, Mads Brugger’s The Ambassador, David Ayer’s End of Watch, and a handful of prestige documentaries I missed, like How to Survive a Plague, The Central Park Five, and The Imposter. I’m even sort of excited to catch up with The Paperboy and Cloud Atlas, unholy tangles though they will likely be.
This typically goes on until December 31, because I like to feel as though this is some sort of race against time (it isn’t) and people will care about what comes in under the wire (they don’t). That explains why I spent two hours of my life watching the Total Recall reboot on Christmas Eve night. (NOTE: I recommend taking up competitive mahjong or artisanal iPhone cover-design over that movie.) One other thing: Reading and thinking about movies and television and music as much as I do creates an unhealthy atmosphere of expectation. Most of my feelings here are not of the objective blind man’s approach because that doesn’t exist. I often know far too much about these movies before I see them and that colors every opinion. I think that matters.
And so, here’s the top quarter or so of my favorites from the year. They are in order and mostly troll-free.
25. Silver Linings Playbook
Dir. by David O. Russell
I said mostly troll-free, so let’s get this out of the way quickly. I liked this movie as I was watching, laughed a lot, and was drawn in emotionally. It’s been downhill ever since. While watching, I turned to my wife more often than usual, to check in on her reactions. Was she enjoying this? She looked placid, stony, unmoved throughout. Like a sculpture garden. I always look forward to talking to Ilene after movies, and I really like disagreeing with her (to her eternal chagrin), teasing out what I think I liked and what I wanted to like. This was different, because I felt as though I was enjoying it, and knew she wasn’t. I felt burned by the 360-degree spin-kiss ending, which I alluded to here in this Oscar chat last month. And the more I thought about it, and Russell’s weirdly jerry-rigged script, the more I disliked it. Then I started thinking about Jennifer Lawrence and her hellion performance. My pal Zach Baron had one of my favorite lines of film-writing this year when he described her as “she is Godzilla stomping a building, she is a Just Blaze beat, she is all the natural disasters at once” in the movie. Which I think is true. But I can’t shake the feeling that Lawrence isn’t an “intelligent” performer. I realize that’s loaded and codified. Ultimately, it means, I think Lawrence is a bumpkin. A sexy, physical, defiant, irresistible bumpkin. But still a bumpkin. And her noted miscasting (the character she plays in the book that the movie is adapted from is at least a decade older), for some reason, feels strangely wrong. I should also note that I have a longstanding rivalry with the city of Philadelphia, a lovely place full of insane people. What does all this mean? I liked this movie and also I am learning to hate it. Two sides of criticism: in the moment and removed. So it’s here, and at the end.
24. This Is 40
Dir. by Judd Apatow
Four different people whose opinions I sincerely respect told me, in one form or another, that this was “terrible,” “an abomination” and “the worst movie ever.” Hey, those are lies! The reactions to this one —White privilege! Family casting! Alice-in-Chains-is-better-than-Nicki-Minaj laugh lines! — are justified. That, of course, ignores the fact that Judd Apatow essentially hates his life, like all people, even the happy ones, and is not afraid to say that. Hating your life isn’t a singular state of mind. You can hate your happiness or perceived happiness. You can drown it in possessions and pools. You can hug your kids and want to leave them at a bus station forever. You can have the job of your dreams and still want to quit and sleep forever on a couch. Being an adult with responsibility, regardless of privilege, pain, or procedure, is not easy. Granted, I am a white male with a life that is far better than I ever expected to have. But that’s not a reason to shut up and go make another 40-Year-Old Virgin. Grow, change, throw some shit out there. Apatow is questing, and he’s doing it messily. Sometimes that’s a drag to watch (hemorrhoid jokes, iPad bathroom humor, etc.), it feels selfish and dim and unfunny. But sometimes — sometimes! — it is jarring and gripping to watch a movie that features his handsome simulacra and his wife yelling ungodly things at each other in the exact way that the actual him and his wife yell at each other. That’s what Cassavetes did and that’s what Nicolas Ray did and that’s what James L. Brooks does and that’s what Noam Baumbach does. (Disclaimer: four privileged white men.) Those guys are fearless and hopelessly intelligent artists, and Apatow’s desire for that same kind of career is compelling. Being married matters here, I think.
23. Seven Psychopaths
Dir. by Martin McDonagh
Speaking of yelling ungodly things. Come for the profanity, stay for the trip through Joshua Tree National Park. I have relatively uncomplicated Irish Allegiance feelings for McDonagh. He’s a funny mean motherfucker and he reminds me of my cousins and the guys that never leave bars that are somehow not drunks. Is he a poet or a great filmmaker? It basically doesn’t matter. He makes movies that entertain and fascinate me. Sometimes they’re like death by hair-pluck, bit by bit, and sometimes they’re like a sawed-off to the face, fast and sticky. Seven Psychopaths, despite one of those great, rare, tender, glassy-eyed Christopher Walken performances and a nifty construct, is not nearly the movie that his previous, In Bruges, is. It not only lacks empathy — except for McDonagh himself — it lacks rhythm. But it’s very fun, features more than one Walkmen song, and Sam Rockwell is encouraged to be deeply strange. You just don’t get that combination very often.
22. The Loneliest Planet
Dir. by Julia Loktev
Tough thing, this. A quiet, epic, chilling film. Shot in the Causcaus mountain range in Georgia — of the former Soviet Union, not the Peach State — it looks like someone painted over Jeremiah Johnson in all green. Starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg as an affectionate couple on a pre-honeymoon of sorts through this country led by a gnomic local travel guide, the movie ambles for about 45 minutes. The sounds — the crunching of grass, boots against rock, the sifting-through of backpacks, the subtle grunts of hiking — are closely captured. The dialogue is spare. The mountains look like prehistoric land. Then, as nearly every review of this movie indicates, something irrevocable happens. It changes the tone of their relationship and the movie. Loktev feels like a major, daring filmmaker and this, while imperfect and arguably overlong, is bracing at times. In its way, and this may sound dumb, it’s a companion to This Is 40. Commitment is a tricky thing.
Dir. by Nicholas Jarecki
I heard Jarecki chatter on with Elvis Mitchell on The Treatment podcast about the influence of ‘70s cinema on this tale of a Madoff-esque corporate villain, humanized by Richard Gere. This is something filmmakers say to accrue credibility and indicate taste. That feels half-right in this case. There’s some ‘70s in here, I guess, in the character complexity, but it feels far more like an early ‘80s gloss. The sheen and professionalism of Oliver Stone coming into focus, with morality and high-toned camera work. Or De Palma’s goofy take on Bonfire of the Vanities. Or even some of the coolly administered work that ‘70s auteur-ish guys like Alan J. Pakula and Sydney Pollack and Sidney Lumet and Adrian Lyne fell into. In other words, this is a grown-up movie about grown-ups making mistakes and acting duplicitous on a grand scale. It really works, too — it moves and its consequences feel real. Gere gets a lot of credit. He’s still a prototype movie star for me: slick, smart, untrustworthy, wolfish. I do, however, resent the implication that if Gere and Susan Sarandon had children, one of them would be Brit Marling.
20. The Color Wheel
Dir. by Alex Ross Perry
This might actually be a bad film. I probably need to see it again. It works hard to make you dislike it. Its leads, Perry and Carlen Altman, are a shallow, striving, pointless brother and sister pair on a road trip. They needle and pester and moan. People are like this, sure, but we avoid them. But they’re vividly drawn and intimately portrayed, in a grainy black and white stock. This movie also turns on a climactic event, and when it happens, I sort of forgot all of the distaste and intentional awkwardness. It hung with me, too. Perry manipulates a bit, but he’s got the chops to do so. According to this Dennis Lim feature, he’s a bit of an aggressive misanthrope. Looking forward to what he does next.
Dir. by Steven Soderbergh
18. Magic Mike
Dir. by Steven Soderbergh
Cool year. There’s not much more for me to say about Soderbergh other than he makes highly entertaining, deceptively deep movies. To tell stories in so many different genres without losing that almost ineffable tone — intelligence permeates, even if it doesn’t find its way to his characters — is remarkable. Most filmmakers can’t do straight genre. He simultaneously subverts and subsumes.
P.S. Cody Horn’s mouth when she speaks.
17. The Queen of Versailles
Dir. by Lauren Greenfield
Phenomenal circumstance and timing made this possible. Greenfield is a gifted photographer who clearly found the right subject and the right level of connection with those subjects for this doc about a wealthy family building the largest residence in America, only to have their lives thundered by the financial crisis. There are a lot of ideas in play here —rich people, they’re just like us; greed kills; ostentation has no reward; the time share industry is a colossal scam; don’t wear Uggs — and almost none are conclusive. It’s not that kind of movie. It’s a sympathetic portrait of unsympathetic people, and it’s immersive and sincerely funny. That’s enough.
16. Anna Karenina
Dir. by Joe Wright
Another beautiful mess. I don’t understand most of the decisions happening here, particularly setting half the movie on a stage, a la experimental theater, and the other on traditional sets, like a Saint Petersburg estate house and the wheat fields of Russia. It’s distracting, if often gorgeous. I also don’t quite understand why this movie is only 130 minutes when it could have been three hours and more fully realized. (Huge chunks of plot have been excised, presumably for pace, but in fact it felt like this ended far too quickly for me.) But there’s so much to admire, like the staging of the ballroom scene, phenomenal costumes, and such great performances. Particularly Jude Law, who is incredible — compact and unflinching — and Keira Knightly, the greatest jaw since Jack Palance. Joe Wright is so adept at taking stodgy-seeming source material (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) and infusing a riveting energy. As I get older, I get more excited for movies like this. I have changed.
15. Killing Them Softly
Dir. by Andrew Dominik
Ultimately a pretty dumb movie to think about, but not to watch. There’s so much visceral power and oddball criminology, I can forgive the one-note, unnecessary Ain’t we all just robbers and thieves? political allegory. Brad Pitt’s got the hair, James Gandolfini’s got the mouth, Scoot McNairy’s got the voice. It also marks the first entry in the Richard Jenkins Bureaucratic Middle Man of the Year category. Dominik is a trickster, and I doubt he’d be as fun to think about without all the stop-motion bullet sequences, vomit-on-your-shoes punching action, and crayon-thick image blurring. But I like watching his movies for their brutality. It’s not horror, but something like it.
Dir. by Michael Haneke
Love the one you’re with, etc.
13. Take This Waltz
Dir. by Sarah Polley
Bear with me here. I know more than a few people who watched 20 minutes of this, with the cutesy airplane scene and Michelle Williams’ manic-pixie-thrift-store wardrobe and Seth Rogen as an oafishly sweet chicken cookbook author and ran away screaming. Not unforgivable. For some reason, Ilene and I stuck with this and both connected with what it had to say about commitment — there’s that thing again — and making dangerous choices and possibly shacking up with a bro who wears tank tops and pulls a rickshaw. This sounds so much worse in print, but there are moments, especially a scene on Tilt-a-Whirl, that forgive all that and more. Polley is talented and earnest. Sometimes that betrays her; other times, it transports you.
Dir. by Richard Linklater
Like Argo, but not mediocre. Sometimes true-life stories don’t have to be certain about everything. (See: No. 2 on this list.)
11. Django Unchained
Dir. by Quentin Tarantino
By QT standards, this is a big disappointment. He’s still more talented, funnier, and more insane than any of his contemporaries. But some of my earliest concerns about this one — ahem, expectations — did play out. That this movie is his first without longtime editor, Sally Menke, who died last year, and also his first through-and-through linear story feels not quite like a coincidence. That this is another revenge story — that’s five in a row now — has surpassed thematic consistency and entered obsession/one-trick madness territory. The things that seem like they’d be great — everything Leonardo DiCaprio does, Christoph Waltz, the soundtrack, Sam Jackson’s hair — are. But there’s something unfinished and almost flabby about Django. Set aside the complicated politics, the unrealized sketches of Django and Broomhilda, the Aussie QT cameo and there’s still something reliant on pastiche without feeling resolved. He can’t escape archetype. Inglourious Basterds, while dependent on WWII ragtag mission movies like Where Eagles Dare and The Dirty Dozen, obliterated the necessity for them in the end. There’s so much Corbucci and Mandingo and Leone in Django, that if you’ve seen them, you may struggle to shake them off.
And, here comes the hedge…
That said, this is quibbling. Quentin Tarantino made a Southern. It’s better than almost everything.
10. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Dir. by David Gelb
Last week, Adam Sternbergh cracked on Twitter about having this movie recommended to him based on his interest in three completely unrelated things. And it’s true, Netflix’s algorithm ceaselessly recommends this lyrical doc — possibly a 2011 release, but I’m holding firm to this year — about a sushi chef who operates a small ten-seat, Michelin-starred restaurant outside a subway station. Glad it does, too. It’s a story of family, fatherhood, blue-collar dedication to craft, and lifespan and it’s resonant. It’s also sushi porn — watching Jiro craft his feasts, single shots of densely-packed fish and rice, glimmering and set to luxury car commercial classical music, is bewitching and may or may not be cultural rubbernecking. Would this movie seem as enchanting if it were about a pastry chef living in Calabasas? I’m not so sure. But in these food-crazed, foam-infused, nitrogen-swathed times, it felt good to watch a portrait of simple, perfect craft.
Dir. By Josh Trank
8. The Cabin in the Woods
Dir. by Drew Goddard
Genre disruption of the highest order. Two first-quarter movies that I couldn’t love more. I saw both by myself, mostly because I couldn’t find anyone in New York who wanted to see them with me. It was better that way. What Trank does with the mythology of superpowers (and less so with found footage) and Goddard (along with co-writer and major domo Joss Whedon) does with horror — essentially showing us all of it, all at once — felt like someone reaching down my throat to grab my spleen and squeeze. Neither film is terribly sophisticated upon closer examination, but I liked how they felt, how they looked, how they sounded.
Dir. by Ridley Scott
In the course of the last 15 years or so, I realized I was more of a Tony Scott guy — I liked the machismo and all that whiz-bang and machinery romanticism. Ridley’s brother died this year, jumping off a bridge for a reason known only to him. But one of the things I like about Ridley’s movie is that it’s a secret Tony Scott film. It’s physicality and techno-geekery and quaking tension is pure Tony. Of course, the mystery and the gut-ripping terror is Ridley, too. I wrote more about what I liked about this over here, but all’s to say, it is a furious, nonsensical, exciting movie.
Dir. by Steven Spielberg
Underrated subgenre: old men yelling at each other. I like the stately feel of everything here. I bow before Tony Kushner’s prose. I quiver at the thought of DDL bellowing “I am the President of the United States of America, clothed in immense power.” I marvel at Janusz Kaminski’s sooty, darkened majesty. I shudder at the thought of Tommy Lee Jones’ alopecia-induced hairpiece. But I like this most for all the chest-beating chamber room melodrama. Lee Pace fulfilling his destiny as a growling, racist villain was particularly satisfying. People who complain about this movie being too long and talky curry no favor with me. Best Spielberg since War of the Worlds.
Dir. by Rian Johnson
My friend Chris and I see a lot of movies together, and he’s made it clear to me that I have not been more enthusiastic after seeing something than I was after this. I trust him on this. But the truth is, I don’t remember it very well. Part of that may be that it’s knotty, a brain-turner, and so it requires a few viewings. But Rian Johnson might be the single most exciting young director on the planet, for sheer invention, knowledge of movie history, and implementation of that knowledge. He’s like Tarantino in reverse. First you see the story, then you see the influence. Also, I’m moving to a farm with American Accent, Shotgun-Toting Emily Blunt.
4. Moonrise Kingdom
Dir. by Wes Anderson
There’s a moment here I can’t escape. Suzy says to her parent-less new boyfriend, Sam.
“I sometimes wish I was an orphan. All my favorite characters are. I think your lives are more special.”
“I love you but you don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says to her, quietly pained.
“I love you, too,” she replies, flattened.
Man, that’s a good scene. And it’s got nothing to do with taking an inventory or whimsy or the perfect musical accompaniment or Tilda Swinton’s wardrobe. Anderson’s always felt like a naive, almost childlike emotional operator. Surprised it took him this long to focus a story on adolescents and adolescence.
3. Holy Motors
Dir. by Leos Carax
Here’s how powerful this movie is: I was dreadfully bored during at least three of the 11 segments that comprise its story. And still, it sits this high. Denis Lavant will not get major awards consideration, and most Oscar voters will never see this movie, which along with Amour has emerged as the arthouse foreign language favorite among the criterati. No wonder and it’s a shame; even with the dull spots, there’s so much WTF, so much manic genius, so much throw-it-at-the-wall, so much mystery. It’s pulling at so many threads. And yet, it’s also neatly composed. It reminded me a bit of a Kanye West album. Sloppily precise, built on ideas and bullshit, with a madman maestro at its center.
2. Zero Dark Thirty
Dir. by Kathryn Bigelow
Fuck a Based on True Events title card and think of this as the white-knuckle procedural it was always meant to be. Jessica Chastain is the silent Blackhawk chopper of my dreams. The final 45 minutes or so are the best sequence of the year, and it ain’t close. Believe what they tell you, ignore the politics, embrace the details. It’s not that they’re true, it’s that they’re enrapturing.
1. The Master
Dir. by Paul Thomas Anderson
I am the mark of all marks for PTA and I put that right up front. I think he is the most daring and interesting moviemaker of the past 20 years. I think his commitment to the stories of strange, obsessed people is the undercurrent of all American success stories. (He’s also staggeringly good at exposing the bonds between men — friends, enemies, co-workers, and brothers.) In the case of The Master, there is Lancaster Dodd, the Hubbard-esque writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, et al. and the consequences of his obsessions and his dependence on an impressionable, uncontrollable mentee. But the obsession that truly haunts this one is inward: Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is infatuated with his own dick and it’s the year’s greatest love story. I will love this film forever, in part because I cannot explain its power. This month, Alex Pappademas wrote about a moment at an opening night midnight screening. When it ended, no one spoke. Everyone sat quietly trying to figure what had just happened. I was there. We still don’t know.