4. "The Loneliest Planet," Julia Loktev
Loktev's spare yet visually fecund adaptation of a little-known short story is the perfect example of Manny Farber's idea of "termite art." That a film as small as this one, with a revelatory lead performance by Hani Furstenberg as the female half of a wayward young couple mired in betrayal, manages to be as revolutionary as — if not more than — some of the big elephants of the year puts a song in my heart.
5. "In Another Country," Hong Sang-soo
Two Hong films reached our shores this year -- "In Another Country" and "The Day He Arrives." While the former is not so much a radical departure for Hong and his trademark affinity for the meta-antics of long sozzled, chain-smoked conversations amid filmmakers, it is the South Korean director's first film that feels high on the possibilities of cinema, as if (re-)discovering it for the first time.
6. "Paradise: Love," Ulrich Seidl
Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl is some kind of latter-day Pasolini in his unflinching use of brute symmetry and highly constructed set piece as a means to suffuse the banal with a colorful sense of wonderment. All the boos and jeers at Cannes should be long forgotten by the time, if ever, this other film called "Love" comes stateside -- this is a funny, tragic piece with an amazing lead performance by Margarete Tiesel as a dowdy sex tourist at its center.
7. "Silver Linings Playbook," David O. Russell
Levy any criticism of this unabashedly heartwarming charmer upon me and I will likely concede. I cannot explain away some of the faults and contrivances of David O. Russell's cracked, whacko romantic comedy but I can forgive them. In a year of chilly, arthouse dirges, no film kept a smile on my face as consistently as this one. For once, a feel-good movie that earns its foolish feel-goodery. Jennifer Lawrence > Jessica Chastain.
8. "The Master," Paul Thomas Anderson
Like "Amour," "The Master" is another one of those skyscraper movies that feels imposing and large, at once out of your reach but made specifically for you, that you may feel you have to love even if you don't "get" it. I don't love all of it. I think Phoenix overdid it, and even, at times, Hoffman. But unlike many of the film's detractors, I adore "The Master" for its ambiguity and fearlessness in terms of storytelling. Anderson does leaps and hurdles over his own "There Will Be Blood," forsaking tight, rigorous style for filmmaking that is looser, more open and potentially more dangerous.
9. "Kill List," Ben Wheatley
Holy hell, this is a fucked up movie. It is the occult movie sent caterwauling, the Lynchian art film crossbred with the One Last Job crime movie. With impeccably creepy sound design, a looming sense of dread and a balls-to-the-walls willingness toward batshit insanity, "Kill List" is the best horror movie in years. And it's unfair to call it a horror movie, because that kind of genre-pigeonholing doesn't do this film justice, nor do any adjectives or alliterations I could possible conjure.
10. "Shit Year," Cam Archer
Does this count as a 2012 release? I don't know, but let's run with it. It debuted at Cannes' Un Certain Regard in 2010 and floated around in the ether until reaching San Francisco this past summer, which is when I caught it. Archer's disturbing, cinematic fluxus box of jagged, jangled images is one of the most criminally forgotten films of this or any year. Clad in a fur coat and fiery wit, Ellen Barkin plays the kind of iconic diva only a gay man who's seen "Opening Night" a thousand times could have dreamed up.
Honorable Mentions, which I loved as much as the rest: Antonio Mendez Esparza's "Here and There" (I love quiet, subtle movies that eschew obscurity); Leos Carax's "Holy Motors" (inventive but kind of soulless); Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" (this is the year of "messy," "sprawling" filmmaking, isn't it?); Xavier Dolan's "Laurence Anyways" (see this in the Spring).