Going to keep this as brief as possible. I'd prefer to refrain from publishing any kind of year-end list until I'd seen enough movies to be satisfied that I'd taken in all the essentials. Unfortunately, given time, money, a GPS that dropped me off forty blocks away from my intended destination, and other circumstances, I've been unable to see the new film by Roman Polanski (Carnage), or David Cronenberg (A Dangerous Method), or the live-action half of Mr. Spielberg's Christmastime double header (War Horse), or several dozen others, and so, barring repeatedly devastating disappointments (given the at least 30 major blind spots I intend on seeing, this list could theoretically be replaced in its entirety), expect these titles to spread out a bit more in time.
Alas, we're within 19 hours of the Online Film Critics Society requiring my preliminary votes on this year's releases most deserving of recognition, so I may as well share some indication of my personal high points before the next election year gets underway. As with any good or great year at the movies, I could easily provide a top 30 and beyond, so impressive was the selection from the smallest of art house gems to the surprising intelligence lurking beneath several of Hollywood's tentpole attractions. A trend of the retro/nostalgic kind emerged, marked by the nods to cinema past provided courtesy of Hugo, The Artist, and Super 8, but more impressive was the sense that this year's great filmmakers were almost exclusively about reaching for the impossible, some of them having the audacity to find it along the way. In the canals of my mind - which have proven labyrinthine enough to continuously surprise myself, which is how I hope it always remains - such artistic growth and creative self-consciousness sees Terrence Malick and Michael Bay in the same room, I shit you not. And to think of how many discoveries yet await my hungry eyes.
Top 10, plus honorable mentions.
1. Certified Copy - An Everest-sized work of art from a long-standing master - as perfectly conceived, richly drawn and ravishingly enigmatic as any movie yet made. Ever. (Also, a great date movie.) If you don't think so, I have to wonder what exactly it is that you like about movies in the first place. Just sayin'.
2. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives - Catfish cunnilingus and relatives reincarnated as glowing-eyed simians. "Well son, I hope you learned your lesson!" You had to be there, folks. But you should still watch this movie. And if you're a current Netflix subscriber, there's no excuse but poor taste. Hypnotic, mysterious, life-affirming, and somewhere between comfortably numb and seriously chill.
3. In the Family - I missed out on the nearly-as-impossible-to-see Margaret, but this sprawling indie masterpiece came along out of the blue at the exactly right time in my life to reconfirm my belief in a greater, guiding force. Call it God if you want. This, director Patrick Wang's directorial debut, is so wrenching an account of the human experience that I'm sure it's already in His personal collection.
4. Midnight in Paris - Woody Allen's enjoying life again, and the result is his most darling and deceptively rich film in years, if not decades. Seeing this with virgin eyes, completely unaware of any plot particulars before they unfolded in context, is among the greatest experiences I've had at the movies. Go in blind, and be gobsmacked into bliss.
5. The Tree of Life - Once again dividing the adventurists from the chickenshits, Terrence Malick's latest act of trailblazing audacity is sometimes less than perfect, but always more than the sum of its parts. He doesn't merely climb mountains: he builds them. Time and life experience will likely only prove this to be a greater film than I already consider it.
6. Beginners - I saw both this and my above #5 for the first time on the same day, back-to-back. I was doubtful at first: Movies this good don't happen so close together, do they? I couldn't be so lucky, could I? Yes, they do, and yes, I can. See it, and you'll feel more complete. (On a personal note, this and The Descendants, which I liked very much, have formed some kind of parent/child/mortal illness double feature in my mind for collectively paralleling my life in 2011 with an astonishing 90+% accuracy. The ways of the universe are mysterious indeed. I love you, Mom.)
7. Nostalgia for the Light - The documentary of the year connects the microcosmic with the cosmic, examining our roots in the sky and our remains in the ground underneath the most transparent window to the heavens on our planet. Spine-tingling stuff.
8. Take Shelter - If you have to be crazy to know that something terrible's a brewin' in these troubled times, then sanity is most definitely overrated, but perhaps it is the sanest among us who are also the ones who most stand out. As a prophetic man who hopes to protect his family from the coming storm, Michael Shannon deserves a long-overdue Oscar. He won't get it. He's too good for the gold.
9. Shame - The highest of the peaks in the year of Michael Fassbender, this rhythmic, fiercely clinical character study might be the best film about sex since Eyes Wide Shut. A meaningless NC-17 rating overlooks what is obvious to anyone who understands the nature of addiction: that this body, clearly assembled by a technician very close to God, goes beyond providing mere erotic displays and reveals the soul of an empowered junkie on the brink of soullessness. It hurts, so good.
10. Transformers: Dark of the Moon - Learning from his past missteps and thusly executing his latest with newfound poise, poetry and assurance, Michael Bay's second sequel about giant fighting robots (mother of invention, folks) rises above its junk food roots to claim the mount of the $200 million art house action movie, a mix of pop euphoria and uncompromising anti-political discourse. The answer lies somewhere between John Malkovich's head and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley's lower extremities. (As per Douglas Adams, what's the question?) A thousand tin cans from Marvel studios kneel before Bay's devastating war machine.
Honorable Mentions: Attack the Block, Hugo, Source Code, Jane Eyre, Putty Hill, The Skin I Live In, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Meek's Cutoff, Le Havre, Cave of Forgotten Dreams
And some more good, even great films I can't justify not giving a mention: The Interrupters, Silent Souls, Warrior, Drive, 13 Assassins, Hobo With a Shotgun, The Descendants, Kinyarwanda, Moneyball, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, Melancholia, Rio, Black Death, J. Edgar, Fright Night, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, Happy Feet Two, Bad Teacher, Kung Fu Panda 2, Rebirth, 50/50, The Eagle, The Strange Case of Angelica, American: The Bill Hicks Story, Bridesmaids, The Three Musketeers, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Arthur Christmas, Trigun: Badlands Rumble, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Horrible Bosses, Winnie the Pooh, Final Destination 5, Contagion, The Whale, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Of Gods and Men, Sucker Punch
Academy of the overrated: The Artist, The Help, Super 8, Project Nim, The Ides of March
Worst of the Year: Atlas Shrugged, Part I, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Cowboys & Aliens, 13, Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star, Thor, Cars 2, Jack and Jill, What on Earth?, Shark Night
And some additional recognitions and superlatives:
Best director: Abbas Kiarostami, Certified Copy
Best lead actor: Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
Best lead actress: Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy
Best supporting actor: Christoper Plummer, Beginners
Best supporting actress: Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life
Best original screenplay: Certified Copy
Best adapted screenplay: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Best editing: Beginners
Best cinematography: Certified Copy
Best animated film: Happy Feet Two
Best opening credits: TIE, Final Destination 5 and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Best end credits: "99 Problems," Fright Night
Best semi-random line of dialogue: "CAT?!!," The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Best use of 3D: TIE, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Hugo
Best superstar fuck you: Cameron Diaz, Bad Teacher
Best speech: TIE, Patrick Wang in In the Family and Rutger Hauer in Hobo With a Shotgun
Best reboot/sequel/prequel nobody expected to be remotely worthwhile: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Best pure id projection: TIE, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Sucker Punch
Best weepy guy movie: Warrior
Best documentary that cameos somebody I'm happy I'll be outliving: Rebirth
Best opening/closing shot bookends: The Descendants
Best prologue: Melancholia
Best canine: Cosmo, from Beginners
Best slow-motion action climax: Attack the Block
Best vampire: Jerry, as played by Colin Farrell in Fright Night
Best short movie dispersed throughout a feature length one: Rubber
Best short movie within a feature: The prologue to Melancholia
Best musical number: "Smells Like Teen Spirit," as performed in The Muppets
Best title: TIE, Cowboys & Aliens and Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Best unreleased film: Bagel'd