NOTE: A different version of this list will appear on College Movie Review.
10. Blue Like Jazz (dir. Steve Taylor)
One of my favorite books is now one of my favorite movies. Based on Donald Miller’s brutally honest college memoir, the film version refuses to toe the line of many other “faith-based films” by using actors who can act and developing its story organically. This isn’t a sermon in narrative form, but a highly personal tale of a man’s full-on identity crisis. Marshall Allman does fine work as Donald, but it’s Justin Welborn as Reed College’s partier-in-chief that remains the film’s biggest revelation.
9. The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Incredibly divisive, not everyone will take a shine to Paul Thomas Anderson’s bold vision. But for patient viewers, this was one of the most breathtaking experiences of the year. Shot on lush 65mm film, it’s the story of a drunken sailor (Joaquin Phoenix) and his experiences with a cult led by a charismatic con man (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his wife (Amy Adams). But of course it’s so much more. As with all Anderson films, it’s about surrogate families and the illusion of control, but also about magnificent craftsmanship. While not as moving as some of the other movies on this list, none could match the individual aspects of the film, from the acting to the music to the cinematography and editing. Everything is left on the screen and that’s about as perfect as movies can get.
8. Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson’s melancholy summer romance features all his trademark quirks on full display, which would cause any who already find such things irritating to be completely insufferable. But as someone who adores Anderson’s work, this might have been his finest hour. Led by two incredible child actors in their film debuts, Moonrise Kingdom feels at once innocent and mature, pure yet heavily detailed.
7. Bernie (dir. Richard Linklater)
Based on the unbelievable true story, Bernie is a movie about Texas that actually gets things right. Directed by Richard Linklater and co-written by Texas Monthly writer Skip Hollandsworth, the movie gets all its details perfect, then throws in three performances from Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey, which would qualify as their best in years, if not ever. Black is Bernie Tiede, a charming funeral director who becomes the companion of the richest and meanest lady in town (MacLaine). Then comes betrayal, deception and murder. But you haven’t seen it the way Linklater and Hollandsworth tell it.
6. Wreck-It Ralph (dir. Rich Moore)
It’s hard to recall a movie that so regularly surprised me as I was watching it. From its twisty script to its fully developed characters, Wreck-It Ralph constantly blew me away. Even if it didn’t have all those beautiful extras, this is easily the most eye-popping movie I’ve seen all year. No movie used color better or more boldly than this Disney production. Anyone who has ever played a video game will be delighted by the dozens of references and jokes pulled from the rich history of gaming from the arcade to the console. For anyone else, they’ll just be enthralled by the most visually dazzling film of the year.
5. Looper (dir. Rian Johnson)
Rian Johnson has long been one of my favorite writer-directors and he outdoes himself here with a blazingly original sci-fi flick. Joseph Gordon-Levitt caps another banner year as the younger version of Bruce Willis, constantly conflicted about his future-altering choices. Yet even after Johnson delivers a super-smart sci-fi story in the first hour, he’s not done subverting our expectations, shifting the action to a small farmhouse for the last hour, setting us up for a violent stand-off. Looper is constantly surprising and exciting and might just be the best story of the year.
4. Argo (dir. Ben Affleck)
Give it up to Ben Affleck, still enjoying the greatest second act of any actor in recent years, for his skill behind the camera. He manages to tell a story to which we all know the ending and kept you glued to the edge of your seat the whole time. The ensemble cast of American escapees is uniformly terrific and believable. But that’s only half the story. The other half, told from Hollywood, is often a hilarious satire of the whole industry, led by producer Alan Arkin and make-up guy John Goodman. Balancing both stories, with their juxtaposing tones, and keeping the story perfectly paced, is an incredible feat Affleck pulled off even more skillfully than the escape itself.
3. Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
The movie has only been out a short while and it’s now impossible to discuss it without addressing the allegations of it being “pro-torture,” as if a movie could be such a thing. The fact that so many people can see the film and arrive at such wildly different conclusions speaks to Bigelow’s power as a filmmaker. Controversy aside, this is an exhilarating film about obsession, anchored by Jessica Chastain’s terrific performance. The raid, which takes up a good half-hour of the final act, is one of the greatest scenes ever put on film. Those 30 minutes alone would cause it to make this list, but it’s the gripping two hours before them that place it so high.
2. Cloud Atlas (dirs. Tom Tykwer & The Wachowskis)
Incredibly divisive but undeniably ambitious, the wild vision of the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer is the work of mad geniuses. Though some of its parts may not work or fit, this was a wholly unforgettable experience, one that can only be made a truly committed cast and crew working outside the Hollywood system. Mass audiences rejected it, but in time it will be studies as the brilliant work of art it is, flaws and all.
1. Silver Linings Playbook (dir. David O. Russell)
When I pick my number one film of the year, a lot of the criteria I generally look for—great acting, a top-notch script—become irrelevant. I have to go with the movie that made me feel the most when I walked out of the theater. I have to go with the one I wanted everyone to see. So I’m a little dumbfounded that Silver Linings Playbook has not become a massive success yet. This is a movie that gives romantic comedies a good name again. This is the best American sports movie in ages. It’s a pure pleasure. But it’s also deeper than that. David O. Russell’s magnificent film portrays mental illness with care, managing to pull off the impossible task of keeping what’s essentially a very depressing story lighthearted. Bradley Cooper has never been better as Pat, the Eagles fan who reluctantly strikes up a friendship with a young widow (Jennifer Lawrence) after he’s released from a mental hospital. But those criteria I mentioned going out the window earlier? They’re in full effect here. The ensemble cast—which includes Chris Tucker and Robert De Niro, both doing actual acting for the first time in over a decade—kills it and Russell’s script is terrific. I don’t want to write anything else about this other than: Go see it.
Honorable Mentions (I’m expanding to 20 this year because there were just that many good ones): 21 Jump Street, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, Brave, The Cabin in the Woods, The Dark Knight Rises, Django Unchained, Flight, The Grey, God Bless America, Killer Joe, Lincoln, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Pitch Perfect, Prometheus, Safety Not Guaranteed, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Shut Up and Play the Hits, Skyfall, Sleepwalk with Me
10 MOVIES I PROBABLY WOULD HAVE LOVED BUT NEVER GOT AROUND TO: Chronicle, End of Watch, Holy Motors, The Imposter, The Intouchables, Life of Pi, The Raid, A Separation, The Sessions, Seven Psychopaths