It was, all told, a disappointing year for movies: several of the films I had most looked forward to seeing (Cosmopolis, Holy Motors) left me unimpressed, and one that I had been hotly anticipating—Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, originally slated for a fall release—ended up getting pushed to 2013. Even many of the better films I saw this year felt like let-downs; I stand firm that Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is an accomplished, thought-provoking, hugely entertaining movie, but I still can’t help feeling that he failed to really knock it out of the park. Upon reflection, I really only saw two films this year that I found deeply satisfying. The Master (pictured above) continues to obsess, confound, and hypnotize me some five months after I first screened it theatrically; its images are still rattling around maniacally in my head. (The experience of seeing this film projected in beautiful 65mm—at a moment when theaters across the country are undergoing conversion to digital projection—was extraordinarily powerful.) Philip Seymour Hoffman’s rendition of “Slow Boat to China” was one of only two moments at the movies this year that left me physically trembling, the other being Emmanuelle Riva’s excruciating death scene in Amour, a film worthy of instant canonization within the European art film tradition to which it pays homage. Compared to these two masterworks, everything else just seemed inconsequential. Nevertheless, here are the ten best films I saw this year, with links to full reviews of each:
1. The Master, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
2. Amour, dir. Michael Haneke
3. Django Unchained, dir. Quentin Tarantino
4. Bernie, dir. Richard Linklater
5. The Turin Horse, dir. Bela Tarr
6. The Loneliest Planet, dir. Julia Loktev
7. Zero Dark Thirty, dir. Kathryn Bigelow
8. Lincoln, dir. Steven Spielberg
9. Tabu, dir. Miguel Gomes
10. The Central Park Five, dir. Ken Burns, David McMahon, and Sarah Burns
Five additional films I enjoyed: Silver Linings Playbook (dir. David O. Russell); Argo (dir. Ben Affleck); The Kid with the Bike (dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne); This Is Not a Film (dir. Jafar Panahi); and Brave (dir. Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman).
As for performances, I was most impressed by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose work in The Master is nothing short of staggering (I wrote in my original review that each actor depends so much on the other that they appear to be giving a single performance), as well as by a surprisingly scary Amy Adams, who lends capable support in the same film; Jennifer Lawrence, for her deft screwball turn in Silver Linings Playbook; Christoph Waltz, as the smooth-talking bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained; Sally Field, who makes Mary Todd Lincoln into a tragic heroine of Shakespearean dimension (and nearly steals the film away from Daniel Day-Lewis); Jessica Chastain, who shows a certain steeliness in Zero Dark Thirty that I hadn’t seen in her previous performances; and Jack Black, whose work in Richard Linklater’s Bernie made that film one of the year’s most pleasant surprises.