Sizing up the best movies of the year
Many of this year's most powerful movies reflected the anxiety and unease that has settled into the collective unconscious. From Austinite Jeff Nichols' gripping psychological thriller about a man fearing for his family's safety ("Take Shelter"), to Danish director Lars von Trier's beautiful and foreboding meditation on depression ("Melancholia") and the tortured isolation felt in "Shame" and "Bullhead," some of the best cinema explored universal feelings of personal unrest during a period of global unease.
While movies such as "Fightville," "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," "Martha Marcy May Marlene," and "Where Soldiers Come From" focused on conflict, both internal and external, the movies, as always, offered a joyful escape in unexpected places, such as the nostalgia-inspiring silent film "The Artist" and Japanese director Yoshihiro Nakamura's heartfelt family film, "A Boy and His Samurai."
In addition to an amazing year for Austin filmmakers such as Nichols and Terrence Malick ("The Tree of Life"), Austin's major film festivals once again proved keen arbiters of taste, as selections from South by Southwest, the Austin Film Festival and Fantastic Fest represented some of the year's best films. Today, the American-Statesman's film critics take a look at their favorite movies of the year, from the apocalyptic to the redemptive.
Matthew Odam's top 10 movies:
1. "Shame."Michael Fassbender delivers one of the year's best performances as Brandon in British director Steve McQueen's dark and disturbing film. Brandon's crippling sex addiction shatters his icy veneer, digging its claws deep into the man to touch a wounded place we see reflected on Fassbender's tortured face. Despite the abundance of nudity and sex, there is hardly anything erotic about this graphic depiction of addiction. The movie will stay with you for days after seeing it.
2. "Bullhead."In another gripping performance about a character hiding a secret from the world, Matthias Schoenaerts fumes like a caged bull in Belgian director Michael R. Roskam's powerful feature debut. A victim of a horrific childhood accident, Schoenaerts' Jacky Vanmarsenille must rely on bull hormones to supplement his body's natural chemistry. Jacky's halting desire for intimacy collides with his past, and his life spirals out of control in this film that hints at the work of Martin Scorsese and the Coen brothers. Roskam, who earned best picture and best director honors in the AMD and Dell Next Wave category at Fantastic Fest, deftly balances humor and rage along with hopefulness and despair in the movie that was named Belgian's official selection for the Academy Awards.
3. "Take Shelter."Nightmares and hallucinations haunt Curtis (Michael Shannon), a devoted family man who fears an apocalyptic event in this psychological thriller from Austinite Jeff Nichols. Shannon plays Curtis with a raw vulnerability and palpable paranoia that feels incredibly real and relatable despite the heightened circumstances. Shannon's excellent performance, which should earn him an Oscar nomination, draws you into Curtis' world, as you slowly feel yourself going crazy with him. Nichols has proved himself Austin's next great director.
4. "Beginners."Mike Mills' imaginative storytelling charms without teetering into preciousness. In a story that hopscotches in time, the wonderful Christopher Plummer plays a man who decides to embrace his homosexuality and find companionship and joy very late in life. His son, played by Ewan McGregor, attempts to learn from the errors and successes of his parents, as he struggles to make his heart available to a young actress, played with subtle sex appeal by Mélanie Laurent. Bonus points for the second best canine performance of the year, delivered by Jack Russell terrier Cosmo.
5. "Melancholia."Lars von Trier delivers one of the most breathtaking films of the year with this tale of one woman's descent into depression. Kirsten Dunst delivers the best performance of her career as a disaffected young lady who can find no happiness in her charmed life. The tale of personal catastrophe is told against the backdrop of a cosmic calamity, as a planet lurches towards earth and threatens to destroy humanity. A lush and eerie metaphor that plays out like a symphony of doom.
6. "Where Soldiers Come From."Austinite Heather Courtney reveals the price of war paid by soldiers and their families in this powerful documentary born from the filmmaker's desire to examine the depth and complexity of small-town life. Courtney uses intimate access both at home and in the war zone of Afghanistan to follow Dominic Fredianelli and his best friends as they journey from the anxious purgatory of life after high school to the bruised reality shared by thousands of veterans.
7. "The Tree of Life." Mesmerizing and confounding, Austin director Terrence Malick's meditation on nature and grace is a sublime poem of epic proportions. Brad Pitt blends self-doubt with an authoritarian grit as the father of young boys in mid-20th century Central Texas. Jessica Chastain floats through the scenery with the grace of an angel. Expect Oscar noms for Malick, Pitt, Chastain and, maybe most deservedly, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.
8. "Martha Marcy May Marlene." The world already knows Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and soon they will be very familiar with the twins' younger sister, Elizabeth. The almond-eyed beauty carries the spooky tale of Martha, a young woman who narrowly escapes from a cult in upstate New York. As Martha attempts to piece her life together, torturous visions of her past tear at the seams of her sanity. Director Sean Durkin and his collaborative team at Borderline Films will also be heard from again. Former Austinite John Hawkes terrifies with a riveting musical performance as the guitar-playing patriarch of Martha's adopted family, a role that may earn him his second consecutive Oscar nomination.
9. "Meek's Cutoff."When our technology overlords come to take away our movie theaters, "Meek's Cutoff" should be held up as Exhibit A by the defense. Kelly Reichardt's glacially paced and profound whisper of a film captures all of the nuances of a seemingly homogenous desert landscape — browns, greens and grays all distinguishing themselves beneath the endless blue sky and merciless sun in this pioneer saga. Michelle Williams, with each tiny look and empowered line, proves herself again as one of the finest actresses of her generation.
10. "The Artist."A silent, black-and-white film from a French director. You're probably thinking that doesn't sound like a formula that would make you want to rush out to the theater. You'd be wrong. And take the family. Director Michel Hazanavicius's love letter to the power of cinema captivates from the first frame and never lets go, as the story follows vain silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) on his fall to historical footnote. The best four-legged performance of the year comes from a Jack Russell terrier named Uggie, an adorable sidekick who helps assure some audience sympathy for the film's faded hero.
Charles Ealy's Top 10 movies:
1. "Take Shelter."Austin director Jeff Nichols tapped into our anxieties about the economy, the country and our future in this timely look at a father who fears an environmental apocalypse. Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain give excellent performances, based on Nichols' award-winning script.
2. "The Artist." French director Michael Hazanavicius has reminded us of why we love the movies with this homage to the black-and-white silent era of Hollywood.
3. "Melancholia."Gorgeous cinematography, stunning images and a riveting performance from Kirsten Dunst propel this end-of-the-world tale. Danish auteur Lars von Trier finally creates his masterpiece.
4. "Le Havre." Aki Kaurismäki uses his signature wry humor to bring us this quirky, life-affirming tale of an immigrant teen who's trying to reach his family — and the people who help him.
5. "The Tree of Life."Terrence Malick became the first Texan to win the Palme d'Or in Cannes with this beautiful, visually sensuous prayer.
6. "Incendiary: The Willingham Case." Did Texas execute an innocent man? That's the question Austin directors Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr. pose in this documentary about the Cameron Todd Willingham case. One thing's clear: The evidence used to convict Willingham was faulty.
7. "Nostalgia for the Light."Chile's exceedingly dry Atacama Desert is the perfect site for astronomers gazing into the cosmos. But in an odd twist, it was also the dumping ground for bodies during the Pinochet regime. A reminder of the sublime — and the venal.
8. "Weekend."Two gay men hook up, and the encounter leads to something much more interesting than a one-night stand. Andrew Haigh of Britain directs this low-key, surprisingly touching tale about relationships.
9. "Incendies." A mother makes an odd request in her will, and her two children find out about her tumultuous life while trying to fulfill her wishes. The ending is shocking and unforgettable.
10. "The Descendants." Director Alexander Payne slowly reveals troubles in paradise when a father has to raise his two children after the death of his wife. George Clooney stars, with a breakout performance by Shailene Woodley.
Joe Gross' top 10 movies:
1. "Take Shelter."My two favorite features this year had a few things in common: Low budgets, strong, subtle acting of the "real person" persuasion, a blend of surrealism and paranoia such that you are not entirely sure of the sanity of the protagonists at any given time and endings so ambiguous that you are compelled to watch the movies again, immediately. Michael Shannon convinces utterly as a conscientious, working-class man convinced the end is very freakin' nigh. Austin writer-director Jeff Nichols exhibits exceptional control of image, mood and tempo.
2. "Martha Marcy May Marlene."Elizabeth Olsen comes out of nowhere as a woman who escapes a cult led by a completely terrifying John Hawkes. Points added for creepy use of a great Jackson C. Frank song.
3. "Another Earth."Essentially an extended "Twilight Zone" episode in many ways, this is idea-centric sci-fi on a pauper's budget, a combination for which I am an all-day sucker. A young woman balances guilt and ambition striving to make amends for a tragedy while she aspires to visit an Earth that has appeared out of nowhere.
4. "Fightville."Directors Michael Tucker and Pepper Epperlein follow a group of guys in and around the Gladiators Academy, a mixed martial arts gym outside Lafayette, La., delivering as much a portrait of Louisiana culture as MMA fighting. The stellar soundtrack is almost icing.
5. "A Boy and His Samurai." A genuinely sweet Japanese import about a samurai pulled from the Edo Period into the lives of a 21st-century single mom and her small son. It's the kind of live-action general audience movie that just isn't made in the United States anymore.
6. "Tabloid."After a decade-plus of relentlessly serious movies ("Mr. Death," "The Fog of War," "Standard Operating Procedure"), documentarian Errol Morris goes light-hearted: Joyce McKinney, a busty pageant queen and occasional model, may or may not have kidnapped her Mormon husband in England in 1977, tied him to a bed and had sex with him, for which she was arrested, causing a sensation in the UK. The filmmaker's knack for finding fascinating (and chatty) subjects remains unerring.
7. "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." I would have preferred the apes lead a slave revolt a la the original rather than being created by accident, but this reboot was a kinetic blast, and Andy Serkis as Caesar was a revelation in motion capture.
8. "Senna." A portrait of the Formula One driver as a reckless, charismatic, national hero.
9. "Bullhead." A Belgian noir that reminds you formula can be revelatory — tragic antihero, elusive woman, complicated crime and one of the most hideous acts of violence I have ever seen on screen.
10. "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." For the legendary German director's first (and reportedly last) foray into 3-D filmmaking, Werner Herzog headed to the Chauvet Cave in France, which contains 32,000-year-old cave paintings, the oldest known to man. Also, he compares modern humans to radioactive mutant albino crocodiles and makes it work. Perfect!