Saturday, March 23, 2013

Films of 2012

The following, in alphabetical order, are my favorite films of 2012. 
If Giorgos Lanthimos' fourth film (his second to reach Stateside) isn't quite the jolt that his previous film, Dogtooth, a film that more and more seems like the Breathless for the New Greek Cinema, was, it's not for lack of trying. Like Dogtooth and compatriot Athina Rachel Tsangari's Attenberg, this is an audacious, strange, potently emotional film. Essentially following a small group who are paid to fill in the roles in families left by the recently deceased, Lanthimos finds odd corners and indulges in the same kind of games, dances and outbursts of violent emotion that his characters did in Dogtooth. It's fascinating to watch, and as you unpack the unpredictable emotional terrain Lanthimos treads in, it becomes a powerful one too.

The Palme d'Or winning entry from Michael Haneke is less austere than his previous (also Palme d'Or winning), nearly perfect The White Ribbon, but though it flirts with a more conventional film making style than Haneke has employed before (one unfortunate dream sequence looks like it could be out of Mirrors), it retains Haneke's emotional detachment, with a denouement worthy of Haneke's notoriously cold, isolating career. The bulk of the movie is reliant on the performances of two French film icons, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. It's a rare and great opportunity to see such great actors at such an advanced age give such strong, emotionally complex performances. It's their work, particularly Trintignant, that keep the course of the film from meandering into more maudlin territory.

Six years after the first rush of so called Romanian New Wave films in 2006, one would not be wrong to wonder if the movement had been merely a flash in the fickle international film scene's pan. It seemed as if in the years following the Palme D'Or win of Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the once flourishing movement was already in its last breaths, so it's reassuring to find, five years after that triumph, Mungiu return to feature film making with an enlivened voice. Though retaining the Romanian penchant for long, static takes, Mungiu treads in territory one is more likely to find in early Bergman or Rossellini. Set in a snowy monastery in the hills, Mungiu's film tackles the necessity and extremes of religious devotion and ritual, and particularly the role of spiritual leaders as arbiters for morality and justice. It is a strangely objective film, considering the horrors within, but as with the best of this nascent movement, its surface objectivity allows for a far more devastating effect. By showing the natural progression of events, and the consequences of them, Mungui illuminates the more bleak aspects of humanity in a way few other filmmakers outside of Bresson are capable of doing.

Alex Ross Perry's second film is at once a sloppily put together comedy, and also perhaps the most important rallying call for American independent cinema. Shot on 16mm black and white, Perry eschews the easy, often hermetically tinkered over digital cinema that makes up a majority of no budget film making these days in favor of a mistake filled, accident prone, meandering road movie that offers none of the familiar beats of a road movie and is at often times aggressively unfunny in a purposeful way. Perry and co-writer Carlen Altman are to be credited with the subtle telegraphing of the film's conclusion, which on the surface might seem like an arbitrary shock, but is actually tightly woven into the fabric of the film from the first minutes. The film is very funny though, and even it's unexpected conclusion doesn't alter mordantly funny, misanthropic tone of the film.

An aching film, part tragic romance, part elegy for a long forgotten England. Centered on two wonderful performances from Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston, Terrence Davies' film offers nostalgia without sentimentality, a kind of outre, less poised version of Atonement. Aesthetically, Davies always seems to flirt with the subtly avant-garde, and that pervades the screenplay too, adapted from Terrence Rattigan's play. Nearly nothing the characters say is what they mean, but the stellar cast communicates the internal lives of the characters so well that its as if a separate screenplay is being read in their faces, their posture, their movement. It's a devastating film.

By no means the out and out masterpiece that Inglorious Basterds is, Quentin Tarantino's seventh film continues his streak of unwavering quality. Essentially his take on a revenge movie/western, it hits a lot of the familiar Tarantinian beats, but with dialogue so enjoyable delivered so wonderfully, it's hard to complain. It also features some of Robert Richardson's most beautiful work behind the camera, and more than a few delightful monologues by Christophe Waltz, an actor perfectly suited to Tarantino's world. There is a difference, both in pace and tone from the rest of Tarantino's work, which I think can be attributed to this being the first film he's made without the late Sally Menke, a collaborator as integral to his work as Schoonmaker is to Scorsese's.

I've long been cool to the films of So Yong Kim, and so I was surprised and happy to find this one so engaging. The film is essentially a character study of an absent young father/failing rock star (Paul Dano) and his attempts to reconnect with the daughter he's abandoned. One thing I've always admired in Kim's films has been her direction of children, and the saddness of 6-year-old Shaylena Mandigo is heartbreaking, and holds the emotional center of the film. Dano is great aswell, and the cinematography of Reed Morano (who shows up again on this list) is as observant and right as one could hope for with such a piece. The film's ending, borrowed from an iconic American film of the 70s, hits exactly the right note and betters everything that happened before.

On my first viewing of the Dardenne brothers' seventh feature at the 2011 Chicago International Film Festival, I took it as perhaps their lightest work, I thought they'd gone soft, providing the kind of easily marketable personal drama they'd so long avoided (hell, they even had a score, albeit a sparsely used, small snippet of a Beethoven piano concerto), and casually wrote it off as a disappointment. But when the film came out that following Spring I revisited it, and what I found is perhaps one of the strongest films the Belgian duo has made. Every gesture of the film is centered on the confused, frightened face of Cyril (Thomas Doret), and if the Dardennes are less hard on him than their other protagonists, it's because that face demands a more gentle, sympathetic touch. Few filmmakers are able to invest you so strongly in characters, particularly ones you may find irredeemable at points, but they invest you here, perhaps deeper than they ever have.

 Yes, the running commentary of the 2008 election is unnecessary, yes, using "Heroin" during a scene where characters take heroin iss too on the nose by about a thousand, and yes that final speech is clunky and doesn't deliver the kind of astonished wallop you know Andrew Dominik envisioned when he was writing it. So why is this one of the best movies of the year? Flawed though it may be, no one took more chances aesthetically on what is largely a crime movie. There's a hell of a lot more to it than just the crime plot, and even putting aside the political parallels throughout, it's a movie of tone. Tone of conversation, of rooms, of movement of the camera, of sound, of picture. It's pure movie-making and it's a god damn thrill to watch.

That a movie centered around a male stripper has far more in commong with '70s character studies like Serpico, and Five Easy Pieces than a fireman's calendar is entirely owed to Steven Soderbergh. With his continuously adventurous camera work (serving as his own DP again, Soderbergh busts out what is now a new trademark, the unmotivated pan, it's as if his camera is looking around his story, seeing if there's anything more interesting elsewhere), and natch for finding interested ways of exploring pretty boring people in a fascinating way, he's made a movie that is at once entirely familiar and feels quietly thrilling. After starting out the year with the great, underrated Haywire, Soderbergh delivered a small-scale summer blockbuster that is by turns a somewhat seedy character study, a romance, and a non-preachy comment on the capitalist, enterprising American Dream. Most of all it's incredibly fun.

 It's daunting, even in short, to try and talk about Paul Thomas Anderson's sixth film. Part of this is that the film, by its nature, announces itself as an event. From the opening shot of the ocean, seen in crisp 70mm through Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s camera, a striking immediate representation of the vastness this film will encompass. Anchored by a slew of great film performances, perhaps most especially the one by Joaquin Phoenix, incredibly dense production design, great sound, stunning images, it's a film of a higher class in its making than most. But when you combine all of these elements you're left with a film of ideas, and it's those ideas, identity, death, love, purpose, etc. that are hard to talk about. Few filmmakers tend to top themselves with each successive movie so thoroughly and surprisingly as Anderson, but, with The Master, he has. This is the best film of the year.

Taking what he learned making the wonderful Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson applies that miniaturized, controlled mode of film making to his return to live action. Anderson's first overt period piece is both a funny, touching portrait of a community, and a tender, nostalgic story of young love. Working for the first time on super 16mm, Anderson embraces not only the 1960s period music and clothes, but also its film aesthetic, fusing it with his own distinctive style to make another great Wes Anderson film.

A funny, touching, fascinating, awesome portrait of the end of my favorite band. Yes, the film works better if you know LCD Soundsystem, even better probably if you, like me, attended that final show, but the film is more than that. James Murphy is a fascinating person, he makes great music, he walks his dog. Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern smartly structure the film non-linearly, jumping from the show, the day after the show, and intersperse a conversation Murphy has with Chuck Klosterman, the film is stylishly shot by Reed Morano (see!), and it's aesthetic caliber elevates it. This is far more than a concert film (though it's a great one) and it's far more than a band documentary, it's a portrait of a unique artist who works only on his terms, and it is, ultimately, a great movie.

Olivier Assayas' does well with revolutionaries, particularly misguided or ineffective ones. He also does well with period, and this thoroughly enjoyable, beautifully shot film (by the godly Eric Gautier), is a great portrait of young political activism amongst a group who is a generation too late to really be involved in the major rebellions that occurred just years prior, and the way that political awakening and frustrations weaves through their art and relationships.

One of the most remarkable things I've seen. Part video diary of the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, contained on house arrest, and barred from film making, we see him as he talks with his lawyer, pets his iguana, maps out the film he intended to make at the time of his arrest, and tries to engage with the world he's been cut off from. This stunning film ends up being far more than a portrait of governmental oppression, it's heartbreaking, funny and indicative of a much larger political and human landscape than just Panahi's story.

What an odd film. It is, in some respects, a barebones adaptation of Emily Bronte's much adapted novel, naturalistic to the extreme, but it's really far more avant-garde than that. It's a film textures, of wind, of wheat and grass and wood and dirt and cloth and hair and heartache. It's almost as if Andrea Arnold was able to reach into the English countryside and pull out all of the longing and pain and anger from its muddy, overcast hills and put them on film. A truly staggering film.

It's a story we all know, to some degree, and the outcome of which is isn't a surprise, but it's that journey getting there, funneled through one woman played extraordinarily by Jessica Chastain, that is so interesting and grand in scope. Kathryn Bigelow is able to find striking images anywhere, and with this, her second consecutive film centered on military operations, she may have found her genre. Like Leone with the Western, Bigelow is perfectly suited to these settings, and in Mark Boal she has found the writer who is as investigative with his words as Bigelow is with her camera. A great film by a great filmmaker.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Music Videos of 2012

These are my twenty favorite music videos of the year, the first three seem like a trilogy.

1. Grimes - Oblivion
directed by Emily Kai Bock

2. M.I.A. - Bad Girls
directed by Romain-Gavras

3. Solange - Losing You
directed by Melina Matsoukas

4. Chairlift - Met Before
directed by Jordan Fish

 5. Earl Sweatshirt - Chum
directed by Hiro Murai

6. Nicki Minaj - Stupid Hoe
directed by Hype Williams

7. David Byrne & St. Vincent - Who
directed by Martin de Thurah

8. Sigur Rós - Ég anda
directed by Ramin Bahrani

9. Hospitality - Friends of Friends
directed by Scott Jacobson

10. Purity Ring - Lofticries
directed by AG Rojas

11. Bob Dylan - Duquesne Whistle
directed by Nash Edgerton

12. 2 Chainz - Birthday Song
directed by Andreas Nilsson

13. Le1f - Wut
directed by Sam Jones

14. Tennis - My Better Self
 directed by Lilliput

15/16. Hot Chip - Night & Day/Don't Deny Your Heart
directed by Peter Serafinowcz

17. Ava Luna - Ice Level
directed by Carlos Hernandez

18. The Crystal Ark - We Came To
directed by Viva Ruiz

19. King Krule - Rock Bottom
directed Paraic and Michael Morrissey

 20. Sinkane - Runnin'
directed by Philip Di Fiore

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Music of 2012

The year is 2012. This is music that I like that came out this year. It is presented alphabetically unless otherwise noted.


Chairlift - Something
Completely bowled over by this one. They lost Aaron Pfenning inbetween their debut and this album, but it most certainly did not hurt them. This is an incredibly strong record, with a handful of great singles, and half a dozen more stellar songs, all bolstered by one of the most under-praised, strongest, most versatile voices in music, Caroline Polacheck. From the oddness of "Sidewalk Safari" to the gentleness of "Ghost Tonight," this album is full of range and vocal ticks, both on display in the wonderful song below.
Live: Sandy benefit show at Glasslands. Very good, fun, playful live, Polacheck's voice holds up, as does her younger sister's, who joined her on backing vocals.

Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan
An endlessly interesting, at times arhythmic but ultimately very poppy record. There's an element of David Longstreth that's always been a bit self-serious, but it's that confidence (or ego) that lets you make this record. Beyond the obvious parallel of "Hi Custodian" and "Runaway," Longstreth is in many ways the indie Kanye West. Bold, brash, annoying at times, but always interested in the sonically new, and in pushing the boundaries of his respective genres. In any other band the high-pitched harmonizing would be a gimmick, but with Dirty Projectors it feels like an essential component in the weird, wild sound of one of America's best bands.
Live: An incredibly tight, deeply enjoyable set in Prospect Park was one of the concert-going highlights of the year for me.

Grimes - Visions
How this Canadian art school cliche was able to charm a subset of the music obsessed, I will never know. On paper this seems like everything I should bemoan. She makes her music in Garage Band for fucks sake, she has tattoos on her hand from a shitty Luc Besson movie, she's fucking pictureplane, and she tried to live on a god damned house boat on the Mississippi. And yet this is in many ways THE album of the year and the one that makes the biggest case for the laptop musicians of the future, in her case it's not the tools but how she uses them. It is, in some ways, outside the context of music. It's noise, it's emotion, it's unrelentingly great. There is no genre, there is only style, tone, mood, and abandon not seen in even the most raucous of traditional pop music. The ideas, however opaque, are incredibly simple, but in it's simplicity it's able to convey an astounding amount of emotion. If you had to define what music was in 2012, this would be a good place to start.

Live: Twice, once in Chicago at a free Lollapalooza aftershow, it took an hour to get in but fuck was it worth it. The most fun I had at a show in 2012, free, anti-anxiety pill of youth. Again, in Williamsburg, a bit bigger stage show (she pilfered a few things from her time on tour with Skrillex), but retained the energy of the earlier, more intimate shows.

Hospitality - Hospitality
Surely the most accomplished traditional rock record of the year. If you weren't already in love with them from "Betty Wang," pick a song at random and try not to have a guitar riff or lyrical quirk stick in your head for months. This is what so many people are asking for and here it is, waiting to be adored.
Live: Twice, once in Chicago opening for Eleanor Friedberger, they blew me the fuck away, once on the South Street Sea Port. They rocked so hard the goddamned pier caught fire. See them.

Hot Chip - In Our Heads
One of the finest living bands, period, put out what might be their best record. On the surface there are no stand-outs, but with repeat listens you begin to realize that's because the whole album is a stand-out. From the masterful opening ("Motion Sickness," seemingly written to get people excited as the first song of a live set), to the tender ballads ("I Will Always Be Your Love"), the obvious first single ("Night & Day"), every song sticks in your head, every song is drastically different than the previous, but they are all very much of a piece. There is no other album this year I would feel confident throwing on any song from in a mix and knowing it will please. Very few bands stay as good as this one, almost nobody gets better this late in the game. A bunch of polite British fathers made the best dance record of the year.

Live: In New York, they've expanded their live band, and even though Al Doyle still runs around to fifteen different instruments during every song, it feels as though they've finally hit the right number, every single song hit and hit hard. Probably the best live touring band now that LCD Soundsystem is gone.

Purity Ring - Shrines
When I saw Purity Ring open for Dirty Projectors this past summer in Brooklyn I was left unimpressed. I'd somehow avoided them, and first encountering their music on a hot summer day in a park, with their light machine and what not was not the best first encounter. I gave them a second chance though and I'm glad I did. Lyrically they're a genuinely odd band, and sonically I think they've tapped into the love that white indie-ism has long held for some of the worst hip-hop. They're essentially a rap-synth band, but that combination doesn't send me screaming for some reason. It's carefully crafted, even if its intent is to be direct. There's a depth to them that I hope they explore on future records. I didn't get it for a long time, now I do.
Live: I was bored. Now that I'm more familiar with them I have a feeling I'd have a much better time. Next time indoors though, okay?

Sleigh Bells - Reign of Terror
How do you follow up what is, in retrospect, kind of a perfect album? You can't repeat yourself wholesale, especially when your first album was, even in its greatness, a bit of a gimmick. What you do is flesh out the less fashionable part of your aesthetic, play to your strengths. That's exactly what Sleigh Bells did. This is a somber, angry record, but one filled with the cheesiest, most fun guitar rock this side of Warrant. It doesn't equal "Treats" (seriously, go back and listen to that, there's not a weak track on it), but it's a damn fine record and it should abate some of buzz-cooling they've experienced.

Tennis - Young & Old
Like Sleigh Bells, Tennis started off with a gimmick. The lo-fi pop music of another era, filtered through a sun-soaked boat trip. What to do for a follow up? Working with producer Patrick Carney, they refined their sounds slightly, made it a bit cleaner and dare I say rockier. I first encountered a few of the songs on this album live, and thought I adore the first record, they stood out in an incredibly good way, in a way that new material often doesn't live. The record, without the through-line of the first one, can be tricky to navigate at first, but time spent with it reveals it to be a superior effort. The songwriting is stronger, the music denser. It's a great record.
Live: I thought they were solid the first time I saw them, before they got signed, but they've improved as a live band through incessant touring. They structure sets well and they've loosened up a bit. I've seen them now four times and there's a reason for that, the most recent time was just after I'd been forced back to Chicago and even that (at the time) indignity didn't stop me from having a great time.

My other favorite albums of the year (alphabetically):

The Crystal Ark - The Crystal Ark
A solid, if meandering debut full length. They're an incredible live band, and their 12 inches over the years have nearly all turned into classics. Nothing on here is as as strong as any of those releases, but it's still great, great stuff. I look forward to their development, and hope momentum builds for them as a live act. They're terrific people (some of whom I have danced with) and they are splendid music.

Live: Twice, in two iterations, both made me feel proud to be a new New Yorker. The first one was a full live band at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, the Village Voice used my picture for their review. The second was a newer iteration of the band called The Crystal Ark Party Machine. This is less live, but so fun. Dancers, crazy keyboard playing. The name is appropriate. Bonus: Danced with some of the dancers and Viva Ruiz herself until 4am. So fun. This is my happening and it freaks me out.

David Byrne & St. Vincent - Love This Giant
There's no way that this record could be anything but a let down. When you hear of a collaboration like this your mind wanders, what could it possibly sound like? It ends up sounding like a pretty even split between Byrne and Clark, and that's not a bad thing. Once you dig into the songs and find the niche they're working in, drop your preconceived notions and just listen to the songs themselves you'll find a strong, searching record. It's not the record of your dreams, but something great nonetheless.
Live: I cannot afford to subsidize David Byrne's bike racks, but I did let Annie Clark use our bathroom at work two minutes before we closed and then awkwardly yelled "You're great!" as she left, she didn't hear me, I had to repeat it and she thanked me. Everyone who was there hasn't stopped making fun of me, and rightly so.

Memoryhouse - The Slideshow Effect
At this point I think I'm the only one still beating the drum for these guys, and thought I had some initial disappointment in their debut full length, I grew to love it. Gone is the washed out loveliness of their pre-Sub Pop recordings, but here instead is a focus on structured song writing. Abeele has said he wanted to get rid of the echoey noise of their earlier work because it felt like they were hiding in it. I get that, and the cleaner sound emphasizes what good players they are and how unique and distinctive Denise Nouvion's voice is. I'm a fan, I always will be, and I hope to bring more people onto this bandwagon because they deserve it.
After the break, the best singles of the year, and coming soon, the best videos of the year.

Monday, January 02, 2012

The Best Films of 2011

I saw more films in a theater this year and any since I've kept track. All told in 2011 I saw 114 films in a theater, but a large number of them were repertory screenings. Below are some of the ones that were not. They are not ranked, and are listed alphabetically. As ridiculous and arbitrary as the list is, it seems even more ridiculous and arbitrary to put them in a ranked order. So there you are, there may be additions as I see some of the films that I didn't have a chance to during the year.

The Best Films of 2011
This exceedingly brilliant film by Athina Rachel Tsangari builds on the detached style last year's Dogtooth (whose directer appears in this film), and spins off into a strange kind of love story. Absurd at every turn, filled front to back with striking, original images, you could very well call the film relentlessly idle. Scenes of great emotion are played out in long takes, where actors act like animals, grab their crotches and walk down the street, or discuss the band Suicide. It's one of the most original films of the year, and one of the best by far.
Mike Mills' story of love and loss, in several forms, is strikingly personal not just in autobiographical details, but in the intimate way he explores characters' relationships, those between a gay, dying father and his young, depressed son, a man and a dog, a man and woman who doesn't speak. I largely admired Mills' first film Thumbsucker, but this is huge leap forward. The film often breaks so its lead character can narrate a brief history, familial or otherwise, and ends up having more to say about gay rights, dying in America, and art than most films have to say about anything.

Richard Press' incredible documentary about The New York Times street photographer and semi-unwitting fashion taste maker Bill Cunningham is fascinating and hilarious, and also serves as a kind of portrait of life in New York for an artist and the loud, lavish, eccentric people he's photographed and known over the past fifty years. Part portrait, part elegy for a dying New York, it's the finest non-fiction film I saw all year.

A frightening, realistic portrait of infection from one of the best, most process-obsessed filmmakers working today. Steven Soderbergh, working as his own Cinematographer, exploits the limitations of the RED camera it was shot on, using the flatness of the image to draw focus to surfaces, bringing into consciousness the germ-phobic, nagging ideas of the film. Seeing the film in a theater made the experience even more palpable, as every cough was a reminder that if it were to happen, this is how it would happen. 

Miranda July's second film is a searching, at some times dark, but endlessly inventive film about unhappiness. There are hallmarks here that detractors could point to as "the problems with her work," the film is narrated by a cat, a man can stop time, and there's a sentient t-shirt, but none of that feels artificial in the film. It's a better film than her debut, which I was enormously fond of, and July and co-star Hamish Linklater effectively create two distinct sides of the same person in their characters. If, when one makes a movie, every single character has a bit of its maker, then this is the most direct representation of that. A man and a woman with the same haircut, ambition, and ultimately desires explode off one another. A scene in the film where July reunites with the aforementioned t-shirt, set to a Beach House song, is one the very best pieces of film I saw all year.

A stylish, engrossing mystery that, while interesting in and of itself, is second to the fascinating investigation and the two characters who carry it out. So interesting are the two leads (Rooney Mara's performance is my favorite in any film this year) that you can't help but be anxious throughout the first half of the film for the moment when their stories merge. David Fincher handles brutal scenes with such tact and yet also allows them to be as upsetting as they should be. That he achieves this without ever exploiting the performers and that the film isn't a tough watch is a credit to Fincher's skills as a director. It's clever, quick and completely entertaining.

Joe Wright's fourth film is a return to form, but also an expansion of talents. Having previously made one of my favorite films from a few years ago, Atonement, Wright had seemed to settle into a comfortable spot of making Oscar-baity type fare and filling it with his own personal style. That trend ends here. Although film retains Wright's panache with the camera, music (the film has a great score by The Chemical Brothers), use of color and editing, it drops any of the "this is important" pretense from the proceedings. It spirals off into weird digressions, but it's also singularly focused on its title character's forward motion. It's a fantastic film, and one that gets away with more modern-day fairytale nonsense than just about any other.

An expensive, 3D family film about the death and rebirth of film by one of the world's greatest living directors. That proposition alone is enough to make exciting, but actually seeing the film and particularly its stunning last third is one of the most pure, enjoyable moments I had in a movie theater all year. Martin Scrosese's recreations of Melies films are astounding, in 3D or otherwise. The film's message about preservation is obviously one close to Scorsese's heart, and it impossible to imagine anyone else making a film so enamored with the magic and history of the movies.

Kenneth Lonergan's long in the making opus is an imperfect masterpiece. A  movie that at 2 1/2 hours feels truncated, it's a thrilling, original work. Calling it a coming of age story seems reductive given its massive scope and nuanced exploration of guilt, but it is nonetheless one of the most complex portraits of young personhood I've ever seen. It's a stunning film that, though it was shot six years ago, feels vital and fresh.

This bare, quiet, understated Western is only Kelly Reichardt's fourth feature film, and that fact is a testament to her artistic reach and ambition. After two brilliant, observational films set in contemporary Oregon, Reichardt and writer Jon Raymond dip back into history, while bringing the same penchant for small moments and sharply observed (sparse) dialogue. It's one of the most beautiful movies of the year, and one of the most affecting.

Like Lars von Trier's last film, Antichrist, this one is focused on the depression of a young woman. It's massive, odd, and ultimately great. If it's not as emotionally piercing as some of von Trier's best work, it is one of his most gorgeous, accessible films. What von Trier is asking you to engage in and accept (the end of the world) is tough, but he rewards you by making that horrible, anxiety causing thing a gorgeous piece of art that wears its allusions and hopelessness on its sleeve.

Woody Allen's fine comedy of time-travel and wish fulfillment is among his best. Shot gorgeously in the title city, filled with a great American and French cast, it's one of the lightest films Allen has made, unabashedly Romantic. It's pure pleasure.

This expansive film by Todd Haynes is the second to be made from James M. Cain's novel, and it's far and away the best. Part feminist exploration of the life of a woman in the 1940s, part tawdry sexual psychodrama, Haynes finds a unique tone, one where melodrama and naturalism are side by side. Aided by Kate Winslet's great performance, Ed Lachman's Saul Leiter-influenced cinematography, Carter Burwell's plaintive score, and Haynes' and Jon Raymond's script, Haynes has made the most endlessly watchable six hour film of the year.

After months of praise, garnering acclaim from every awards body and critic in the Western world, any film would be forgiven for not living up to the hype. Asghar Farhadi's film does just that and more. Few films have ever held me in such suspense, or in such a meaningful way. Every piece of praise heaped on the film is correct, and it's one of the few films I'd recommend to everyone. It's a deeply human film, and one that deserves recognition far after the awards are handed out.

Steve Mcqueen's drama of sex addiction, sibling frustration and the emptiness of the modern world is aesthetically bold and uncompromisingly dark. It is wise both about its characters, but also about addiction, attraction, and the ways in which various forms of abuse can affect both the abused and abuser.

The second film by Jeff Nichols is a striking portrait of mania, centered on a committed performance by Michael Shannon. It's unpredictable and absolutely enthralling, stunningly well acted and crafted.

A strange collective unconscious masterwork where nothing makes sense and doesn't have to. Tomas Alfredson's film is an intensely idiosyncratic spy film that  puts aside the need for narrative cohesion in favor of constant striking scenes filled with metaphor. Filled with some of the greatest actors working, it's gorgeously conceived and executed. Possible the most quietly radical, strangest studio release of the year.
In what is perhaps Terrence Malick's least-narrative driven film, Malick attempts to encompass the totality of human life into one meandering, nostalgic, emotional film. It may be Malick's least accessible film, but I think it portrays childhood, and the feeling of growing up and the changes that occur internally better than any other film I've seen, and the scenes of family and death and creation and destruction are relatable to anyone. It's gorgeous and moving and truly epic and the best film of the year.

Bela Tarr's dazzling, allegorical, rough film is the first of his I've seen. I'm still in awe months after I've seen it. It's such a masterwork, such an unclassifiable, indescribable piece of filmmaking that it seems inappropriate to take it on any other terms buts its own. Every element of the film from the score, to the sound, to the movement of the camera, to the light in the spaces, to the actors who don't seem like actors, to the few words spoken all fit together so soundly that to emphasize one element over another seems anathema to the whole creation of this brilliant, unique film.

Unseen: Mysteries of Lisbon, House of Pleasures, The Adventures of Tintin, A Separation, Immortals, Carnage.

Special consideration to: Spike Jonze's Scenes From The Suburbs and Mourir Auprès de Toi, Josh and Benny Safdie's John's Gone, and Louis Garrel's Petit Tailleur, all wonderful shorts.

Secondary Subset of The Best:

Aurora - A startling, intense film from Cristi Puiu, who also stars in a great performance. 

Belle Épine - A quietly stunning debut film from Rebecca Zlotowski, single-mindedly following the travails of a young girl who has recently lost her mother. With shades of Maurice Pialat, albeit a more feminine, complex take. The film is anchored by a subdued performance by Léa Seydoux, who is just as hurt and impulsive as she was in the great La Bell Personne, but conveys it in such a different way.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams - Werner Herzog's meditative 3D exploration of the Chauvet Caves, playful and thoughtful in turn, one of the best uses of the format thus far. 

Cold Weather - Aaron Katz's immensely likeable detective story bucks the trend of so many low-budget films and actually gives a damn about the way it looks, feels and sounds.

A Dangerous Method - David Cronenberg's film about Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, and a difficult patient. It's reserved, especially for Cronenberg, but it's a well acted piece of drama.

The Descendants - My favorite of Alexander Payne's films thus far, not as cynical as his past work, and even more emotionally dense.

Film Socialisme - A maddening film from Godard to be sure, but also one exhiliratingly free from any obligation towards the audience. If all Godard is offering is images, then I'll take the film at that.

Goodbye First Love - Mia Hansen-Løve's delicate, sensitive, beautiful film about young love. Plumbs the depths of despair that such a story can conjure, while also emphasizing the sweetness that accompanies it.

The Guard - John Michael McDonagh's debut is charming and hilarious, featuring a great performance from Brendan Gleeson.

Le Havre - Aki Kaurismaki's comedy fantasy that embraces Hollywood conventions while taking serious very real social issues. Hard not to love.

J. Edgar - Strong biopic of an obsessive, paranoid, closeted figure. If it embellishes a little it can be forgiven for making the portrait a compelling one.

Martha Marcy May Marlene - A very strong debut film from Sean Durkin, unexpected in the way it reveals things about its lead character.

Moneyball - A fine drama from Bennet Miller, has little to do with baseball and more to do with the willingness to try new things with the determination that they're going to work out.

Rampart - Oren Moverman's follow-up to The Messenger, his excellent film with Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson. Harrelson stars this time, and it's such an aesthetically bold, deeply dark film. With the cast Moverman's assembled and the subject matter, you'd assume a bigger distributor would pick it up, but seeing the film it's easy to understand why that didn't happen. It's almost a Claire Denis-esque tackling of the corrupt cop film, and that's not just because Dickon Hinchliffe scored it. It's weird, internal, formally challenging and great.

The Skin I Live In - A wild, lurid melodrama from one of the masters.

Tabloid - Errol Morris' funny, provocative documentary, his best in years.

Urbanized - The third in Gary Hustwit's design trilogy tackles nothing less than the way we live our lives. Like Hustwit's previous two films, it's one that actually makes you change the way you look at the world.

We Need To Talk About Kevin - Lynne Ramsay returns to filmmaking and makes one of the most interior, strange films I've seen. Not coincidentally a hard film to talk about, it's experience that's worth having.

Weekend - Andrew Haigh's lovely day long romance between two men is finely observed and exceptional.

The Worst of the Year

Drive - An empty, formless, violent endorsement of everything that's wrong with movie-fan culture. Everything about the film is contemptible.

Certified Copy - I've never responded to Kiarostami before and this film is no different. Endlessly circling around dull conversation and a bullshit secret. I don't care about his characters enough to care who they are to one another, and his basic disregard for language of cinema infuriates.

The Hangover: Part II - It seems impossible to make a movie full of funny people and not have a single laugh in it, but alas...

The Debt - It seems impossible to make a movie full of great actors and not have a single good scene in it, but alas...

Your Highness - A massive disappointment.

Other favorites included: Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin, Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist, Joe Cornish's Attack The Block, Paul Fieg's Bridesmaids, Miguel Arteta's comedy Cedar Rapids, Rodman Flender's Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, Jonathan Levine's 50/50, Vera Farmiga's Higher Ground, Claude Chabrol's Inspector Bellamy, Cary Fukunaga's Jane Eyre, Brad Bird's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, James Bobin's The Muppets, Lee Chang-dong's moving Poetry, Francois Ozon's Potiche, James Marsh's Project Nim, Gore Verbinski's Rango, David Gordon Green's The Sitter, James Gunn's Super, JJ Abrams' Super 8, the quality musician documentary The Swell Season, Azazel Jacobs' Terri, the wonderful A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas, and Todd McCarthy's Win Win.