It was also a year about illusions, lies and deception – most of the best films of this year dealt with artifice, the understanding that it’s not about what we want so much as how we disguise it, the truth buttressed and justified by either elaborate hoax or cheap parlor trick. In a year when the nine top-grossing films were all franchise pictures, there was a considerable surplus of surprises. Here are some of them.
HONORABLE MENTION: My ears are still buzzing months later from the year’s best conventional action picture, the hallucinogenic “Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning.” Brit Marling established herself as a major writer and leading lady with “Sound Of My Voice,” while the year’s most audacious science fiction picture had to be the delightfully deranged “Beyond The Black Rainbow.” And very few films were as perceptive about disintegrating relationships as “Oslo August 31” and “The Loneliest Planet.”
The moral discussion that’s been keeping politicians and oblivious bloggers awake at night amusingly reveals that those who believe movies “endorse” something seem to put them on a higher plane than people who actually understand films. Certainly there are serious questions of morality to be addressed, though they should receive their time in the spotlight away from the film, with the hope that the picture spurs on even more of these questions, instead of confirming the worst prejudices of the uninformed. But “Zero Dark Thirty” is an experience of suffocating intensity, a victory as unhappy and disorienting to viewers with nuance and human concern as it is enthralling for rah-rah morons. Credit Kathryn Bigelow for allowing the film to work on two levels; for the rest of us, it’s the year’s most tense and upsetting thriller, and for those without vision, let it be the broken beacon that guides them down the incorrect road.
9. Magic Mike
Quick, what’s the exchange rate on a pair of great abs? The recession got sexed up in Steven Soderbergh’s zeitgeist-baiting workplace comedy/drama, where Channing Tatum plied his trade for willing ladies, hustling to the banks to fulfill his dreams just as suavely as he hustles potential female customers. By a second viewing, it almost feels as if every shot of a bare behind should be accompanied by a *cha-ching*. And dim actors like Alex Pettyfer and Cody Horn, bless them: they’ll never be as interesting as they are absentmindedly bathing in the stage lights at Xquisite.
Nobody dies quite like they do in a Michael Haneke film, and to prove that point, “Amour.” As upsetting as it is seeing this elderly couple (Jean-Louis Tritignant, Emmanuelle Riva, both fantastic) suffer through a decaying relationship through the horrors of Alzheimer’s, there’s also something quite beautiful about what happens not when we stay together, but when, and how, we break apart. Equally heartbreaking is Isabelle Huppert’s concerned daughter, through no fault of her own slowly disappearing as if isolated on her own iceberg, slowly gliding away.
7. Killing Them Softly
The perfect punctuation mark on how countries react to recession, Andrew Dominik’s slyly hilarious tale of the sea of misanthropes feuding from within a broken caste system boasts a brute force honesty. In certain moments, it perfectly addresses the cult of “order” that allows systems to go corrupt when unchecked. In others, it’s providing two of the year’s scuzziest, most diseased supporting performances from James Gandolfini and Ben Mendelsohn.
Upon a first viewing, an ugly, bleak, utterly hopeless film about a man and the human he trains to be his dog. On a second, a twisted laugh riot about a maladjusted “scoundrel” and his blowhard jerk of a friend. By the third, absolutely mesmerizing. Perhaps it’s wrong to go back and re-watch so recent a film when there’s so much still unseen. If I am a cheat because I find myself compelled to surrender to Paul Thomas Anderson’s peculiar mastery of the form, in display in a strange metaphor for post-war rise and fall, then call me Barry Bonds.
Almost an upsetting semi-sequel to “Amour,” the latest from Yorgos Lanthimos peers behind the curtain of grief to find the oddly humanist ways in which we cope, and how those who provide compassion can easily reach a breaking point as well. Like his earlier feature “Dogtooth,” “Alps” is hilariously absurd while maintaining a poker face, a deeply twisted “Simpsons” premise taken to its logical, peculiar extreme. Lanthimos is easily becoming one of the world’s least compromising comedic voices.