1. "Beyond the Hills” – Cristian Mungiu
Cristian Mungiu’s autumnal epic of an orthodox nunnery in rural Romania, and the outsider who intrudes it, is damning and gorgeous. An uncompromising critique of superstition as institutional malevolence.
2. “The Grey” – Joe Carnahan
Joe Carnahan’s millennial “Deliverance” floored me, not least because it’s a mainstream movie unafraid to be relentlessly bleak. Liam Neeson’s performance is dedicated and hard-as nails to the bitter end, and the CGI wolves who stalk the film are viscerally terrifying.
3. “Perfect Sense” – David Mackenzie
This poetic, sexy and very sad apocalypse film played for a week at the Santa Monica 4-Plex before disappearing from theaters. A brilliantly matched Ewan McGregor and Eva Green play prickly cynics who fall in love as an epidemic of sensory loss sweeps the globe.
4. “Sister” – Ursula Meier
Ursula Meier’s fairytale of a sparkling ski resort at the top of a mountain and the forgotten young woman and child who live in unromanticized poverty at its base. The film’s resonant last shot of two souls passing on a ski lift communicates the complex, wretched yet inextricable bonds of family.
5. “Django Unchained” – Quentin Tarantino
I sometimes find Tarantino’s films overly clever and referential, but this Spaghetti Southern has the genuine feel of Sergio Leone lifted from the grave. Christoph Waltz’ hilarious, charismatic turn as Dr. King Schultz is a revelation in an already very strong ensemble cast.
6. “Amour” – Michael Haneke
Immaculate direction and stunning, energetic performances from octogenarian French legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. Haneke’s unsentimental, clinical style is a perfect match for a story that in other hands could turn sappy.
7. “Ginger & Rosa” – Sally Potter
A beautiful, intensely personal portrait of two British teen girls coming of age as the Cuban Missile Crisis looms like the Grim Reaper over the world. 14-year-old Elle Fanning’s turn as a budding artist and revolutionary is superb.
8. “In the Shadow” – David Ondricek
The Czech Oscar entry is a gorgeously rendered neo-noir and policier, which at once recalls the aesthetic of “Miller’s Crossing” and the shot-to-shot elegance of a fine graphic novel.
9. “Zero Dark Thirty” – Kathryn Bigelow
An investigative epic, a ghost hunt, and a steady trek through the dark that, at 157 minutes, never loses its momentum. I admire Jessica Chastain’s unwieldy performance, and Bigelow’s refusal to give us a pat sense of resolution.
10. “Stories We Tell” – Sarah Polley
Sarah Polley’s documentary unearthing family secrets and lies is melancholic, funny and even suspenseful. She shows a knack for the form, and for playing with it in a way that questions the dubiousness of memory, bias and loyalty.
A first-place tie is a cop out, I know. But these two films — deeply felt, thematically resonant, drop-dead gorgeous — fit together as two halves of the same whole, impossible to pry apart. At the heart of each is a young castaway beset by beasts, storms, and spirits. Stumbling but brave, their return from exile registers as the rebirth of the world, nothing short of miraculous.
It isn't the perfect tale of slavery's end, but Steven Spielberg's historical drama, aided by Daniel-Day Lewis' extraordinary performance in the title role, moves beyond heroism to highlight Lincoln's tenacious pragmatism. Powerful, controlled, and murkily beautiful, it is attuned to our troubled politics in the way of few movies, past or present.
Almost wordless, Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky's bleak, finely observed independent stars the amazing Melissa Leo as an ex-convict trembling back into society. Walking the line between American Dream and American nightmare, it is not only the story of a woman tasting life anew — it's an oblique, pained portrait of the real lives of "the 47 percent."
5. "The Master"
If Paul Thomas Anderson's deeply misanthropic epic is about the life of a cult, the cult isn't Scientology — it's unthinking patriotism. As perhaps the strangest entry in his four-film revisionist history of the twentieth century, "The Master" may meander and wobble, but it is an ambitious, beautifully wrought rejection of the master narrative of postwar America. Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams comprise the best ensemble of the year.
Tense and timely, an electric blend of "The Parallax View" and "Day for Night," Ben Affleck's tale of Hollywood magic during the Iran hostage crisis (from Chris Terrio's Oscar-worthy script) builds to a brilliant climax. It's a compelling reminder that the fantasy of the movies knows no borders.
Funny, good-natured, and unassuming, Lynn Shelton's story of an unexpected love triangle finds its rhythm between the beats; its pauses are more important than its punchlines. With Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt prove once again that they're the most charming, versatile performers in the business.
Jack Black, never better, stars as the eponymous undertaker and small-town Texas hero in Richard Linklater's genre-blurring black comedy/confidence game, but it's the hilarious interviews with Carthage's coarse real-life citizens that make it so distinctive. They're a macabre, rollicking Greek chorus, and the film a gleefully unsettling surprise.
9. "Silver Linings Playbook"
It isn't the most innovative romantic comedy you'll ever see, but "Playbook" is a bighearted, winsome beauty, and it had me at hello. Jennifer Lawrence, turning her unstable young widow into a vivacious heroine, gives a good, old-fashioned star turn.
10. "Moonrise Kingdom"
Two kids in love's first blush, running away from storms literal and familial, are at the center of Wes Anderson's most recent piece of American Gothic. If the film's symbolism is a bit too on-the-nose, its blissful, bucolic aesthetic is still a dreamlike rendering of youth's possibilities.