Last year was an anomalously fantastic year for film, comprising several masterpieces (Before Midnight, Stories We Tell, Inside Llewyn Davis), thought-provoking films (Museum Hours, No), and a wealth of other great movies – or at least movies with truly great elements (the acting in Blue is the Warmest Color) which there was not room for in this list. Rare is the year when my top ten list features several movies I want to watch over and over again, and likely for years to come.
1) Before Midnight
Richard Linklater’s masterpiece, the dialogue-heavy and character-driven Before Midnight, has no illusions about relationships: it’s the romantic story of two people coming to terms with actually getting what they wanted — a life with their soulmate — which also comes with years of built up resentments. The first time I saw the film, it seemed bleak, considering this is a couple that I felt like I’d known for eighteen years since Before Sunrise. By the third viewing, it had morphed and changed into the most optimistic, as well as the most complex, film of the series. The first two films have always changed for me over time as I grew older, finding new nuances with each rewatch; Before Midnight gets more and more interesting with repeat viewings that are only weeks apart. It never misses a beat or slows to a halt.
2) Inside Llewyn Davis
Joel and Ethan Coen’s remarkable Inside Llewyn Davis is a rich character study of the fictional itinerant folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) whose career is going nowhere. Llewyn is not a particularly nice guy but the genius of the film and of Isaac’s performance is that as the film progresses, it slowly peels back his many layers. He can be charismatic, especially in banter with one-time lover Jean (Carey Mulligan), or with new acquaintances. But his deep-seated anger and pain usually turn any potentially positive interaction sour, even though he often exercises admirable restraint.
The Coens impeccably recreate the atmosphere of the 1960s folk scene, but it’s always tainted by Llewyn’s perspective: are the other acts he hears perform truly grotesque or does he merely insist on seeing them that way? The film has some of the funniest scenes of the year, including the recording session of “Please Mr Kennedy” and the Jewish-Chinese couple that name their son Howard Greenfung. Oscar Isaac gives a terrific performance as Llewyn, who, like a real musician, only lets us really inside, past the abrasive exterior, when he is singing and strumming.
3) Stories We Tell**
Part interviews, historical footage, and recreated historical footage with present-day actors, Sarah Polley’s personal documentary Stories We Tell is about her discovery that the father who raised her was not her biological father. It’s a compelling and insightful meditation on storytelling: why we tell stories and why the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves change over time. Polley interviews her family, her mother’s friends, and her candidate biological fathers to assemble some version of the truth of what happened. In so doing, she discovers that there is no absolute truth: memories get distorted for a variety of reasons, including self-preservation, and each person in the film recalls a slightly different version of events. Since Polley is asking the questions and editing the footage together, what we get is her version of everyone else’s version of the story: the film is thus itself a product of subjective storytelling even as it brilliantly highlights the unreliable subjectivity of its subjects.
4) Frances Ha (now on Netflix USA and Canada)
Noah Baumbach’s strongest film, Frances Ha, starring the luminous Greta Gerwig in a star-making turn as the titular Frances, is like Lena Dunham’s Girls meets Woody Allen — in the spirit of the French New Wave’s François Truffaut. It tells the story of the spirited twenty-seven-year-old Frances as she watches her friends grow up while they grow apart. She struggles to find her path and a permanent address. It’s funny, sweet, moving, and very perceptive about the pains of growing fully into adulthood: even the closest friendships can’t stay the same forever, and the dreams you may have had for yourself may be less fulfilling than the ones you discover along the way.
5) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire ushers in a new model for the profitable studio picture: one with a complicated and realistic strong woman at its centre with almost equally interesting and emancipated men that gladly co-exist with her. It’s not great cinema – there are several directorial missteps and some very poor invented dialogue – and it’s an imperfect adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s book, which does what this movie does even better. But it’s one of the most entertaining and emotionally intense films of the year. Katniss’s (Jennifer Lawrence in yet another phenomenal performance) emotional journey gives rise to her heroism and is not just an afterthought. Katniss’s devastation fuels her anger, which she transforms into her resolve to be compassionate and retain her integrity. Her journey is one of the most empowering and feminist stories of the year. It’s also the sort of film that has widespread appeal – you don’t have to be female or young – without being watered down for easy consumption.
6) Enough Said
In some ways, Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said is like Frances Ha only twenty years later: it’s an uplifting, often hilarious film that moves effortlessly between laugh-out-loud one-liners and tear-jerking emotional moments, to give a mature portrait of figuring out how to mature once you’re already grown up. Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a career-changing dramatic and comedic performance) is in every way a complete adult, but her divorce and her soon-to-be-empty nest leave her needy enough to get into a problematic friendship with Marianne (Catherine Keener) who turns out to be the ex-wife of her new boyfriend (James Gandolfini). Terrified of getting hurt again, she uses her friendship with Marianne to help her build barriers that threaten to destroy her budding relationship, while her need to be needed also leaves her unintentionally alienating those she loves most.
7) No! **
Perhaps the best argument for the power of positive thinking is the success of the 1988 “No” advertising campaign to defeat the brutal Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in a referendum. Unlike previous films about Pinochet’s reign, like Larrain’s Post Mortem or Costa-Gavras’ Missing which addressed the horrors under the Pinochet dictatorship, Larrain’s newest film is about hope for the future. Pinochet was defeated because René Saavedra’s (Gael Garcia Bernal) inspired campaign pedaled a universal, positive message, about moving forward, and was thus immune to attacks; they deliberately did not dwell on the awful events of the past. One of the best working actors in the world, Bernal (Bad Education, Y Tu Mama Tambien) gives an immensely captivating performance, as the capitalist ad man, like a nicer Don Draper, who helps change the direction of his country as he risks potentially great personal cost.
8) Museum Hours
Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours is the rare character-driven film, much like Assayas’s Summer Hours, about the place and importance of art, and the institutions that house it, in our culture. Set in Vienna, Mary Margaret O’Hara plays a Canadian woman, Anne, visiting a sick cousin in the city, who wanders into the Kunsthistoriches Museum and finds herself striking up a friendship with the kind though lonesome museum guard, Johann (Bobby Sommer). As they wander around the museum and his local haunts, the art from the Kunsthistoriches seems to follow them as posters in the restaurants they eat at. Cohen finds art and beauty in the everyday, from the stunning images of the streets of Vienna to the thoughtful conversations between the two friends.
9) A Hijacking
One of the year’s most chilling and thrilling films, Danish director Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking is an incredibly intense suspense film about a Danish ship that gets hijacked by Somali pirates. Lindholm captures the terror and devastation on the ship, personified by the kind cook (Pilou Asbaek), but wisely cuts between the horrors of the hijacking and the headquarters of the shipping company back in Denmark where they are trying to get their employees back alive. The CEO (Søren Molling) insists on taking responsibility as the company’s representative in the negotiations with the hijackers: he’s a man accustomed to staying calm in a stressful situation, but the hijacking is an unprecedented and difficult situation: the best way to keep the men safe is to not give in easily to the hijacker’s demands, which means prolonging the misery. A happy ending is far from guaranteed, but the struggles of these two men on opposite sides of the world, over the course of the hijacking that lasts several months, are always gripping.
Although Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is ostensibly about a somewhat senile old man’s delusional journey to claim the million dollars he was promised as part of a junk mailout, at its heart it’s a wise and often very funny film, because of how perceptive it is, about immediate and extended families. Woody (Bruce Dern) is an alcoholic and neglectful aging father, and his middle-aged son David (Will Forte) agrees to take him to Nebraska to claim the winnings he knows don’t exist to let his father live the fantasy for a few more days and to get to spend some time with him. When the trip finds them making a stop in the town where Woody grew up, David and we start to learn a great deal about Woody’s past that made him the disgruntled man he is today, in the way that you really do find out about your parents: through offhand comments made by his friends who don’t necessarily know they’re revealing life-changing information and from those who knowingly broach sensitive subjects with malice. The most moving scenes of the film are of Woody at a graveyard and at his childhood home when we see all the pain of his past subtly expressed on his otherwise stoic face. The film is side-splittingly hilarious in its incredibly real depiction of David interacting with his extended family, with whom he has nothing in common, and Woody conversing monosyllabically with his brothers.
** Since Stories We Tell and No both premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, and No was the Chilean foreign language film submission to the 2013 Oscars, these are arguably films of 2012; Stories We Tell was also released in Canada in late 2012. However, both films had their US theatrical release in 2013,and so are included in this year’s list rather than last.