Among the job qualifications of being a movie critic—fabulous hair, glamorous lifestyle, a well-padded bum—is the most important tick: an insistence that you're right and everyone else is wrong. So what happens when Boxoffice's motley crew lists the best films of the year? Hint: it's not agreement. Heck, the critics couldn't even agree on how to file their favorites. Behold, Boxoffice's Top Ten lists, organized by rank, alphabet or gaffer, and defended by argument, tweet, haiku or solemn insistence. You won't agree with them all—but maybe you'll agree with one.
1. Certified Copy/This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi's film isn't slated to be released in the States until February, but some films can't afford for us to catch up with them. And it's on Netflix Streaming.)
2. The Tree of Life
3. Kill List
4. The Arbor
7. The Skin I Live In
8. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
9. The Adventures of Tintin
10. A Separation
1. Take Shelter - The most terrifying and most beautiful film of the year, a story of a regular man driven mad by the ordinary things in life. Michael Shannon delivers the best performance of his already pitch-perfect career. An unnerving achievement.
2. Senna - A documentary about a Brazilian Formula-1 driver that transcends those apparent boundaries to simply be a film about a man and his dreams. Meticulously built from thousands of hours of video, a technical marvel as well as an emotional one.
3. Martha Marcy May Marlene - Nearly perfectly constructed, ceaselessly terrifying, a piece of art from first-time director Sean Durkin. Elizabeth Olsen broke out with her portrayal of a little girl lost and found—and maybe, just maybe, found again.
4. The Skin I Live In - Pedro Almodovar again pushes the envelope with the year's most bizarre and weirdly absorbing love story. Film as cipher, identity as malleable, sex as currency, revenge as salvation, lies as truth.
5. Shame - Sex wasn't sexy in 2011, and no film proved that point more than Steve McQueen's stunner. Starring Michael Fassbender as a tortured sex addict, the film stripped bare a man in the year's finest (and most wrenching) character studies.
6. Drive - Minute per minute, there was not a cooler film this year. Ryan Gosling flipped the script on his own hip and handsome persona with his performance as the nameless Driver, an anti-hero of the highest order. Nicholas Winding Refn secured his place as modern auteur, with his assured and slick style.
7. 50/50 - Based on writer Will Reiser's real-life battle with cancer, Joseph Gordon-Levitt turned in his best performance yet, and co-star Seth Rogen broke out of his own Fozzie Bear box. "A cancer comedy" filled with unexpected heart.
8. Young Adult - Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody again team up for the antidote to their own impossibly twee Juno, showing the flipside of maturity gone askew through the rose-colored glasses of the Prom Queen Who Never Grew Up, Charlize Theron's repulsive and bizarrely charming Mavis Gary.
9. Warrior - Yeah, yeah, we know: "these men are broooooothersssss." Silly sports announcing aside, we felt the power of Gavin O'Connor's tale of battling brothers, in and out of the ring, desperate for some way to express both their love and anger for each other.
10. Carnage - 2011 was a dark year for the fine cinema, but Roman Polanski's "minor" adaptation of playwright Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage provided some serious levity when the lights went down. Quick, dirty, bizarre, silly, and with an all-star cast, a surprising tale of well-off city-dwellers gone wild.
Honorable mentions: Midnight in Paris, Bridesmaids, Bellflower, The Descendents, Jane Eyre, Like Crazy, Attack the Block, Rise of the Planet of the Apes
1. Meek's Cutoff - Kelly Reichardt's visionary (and re-visionary) Western allegory has few guns, little violence and is shot 4 x 3 like an old John Ford movie. It's also the most startlingly realized and unique depiction of American frontier life this writer has seen since Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man--another metaphysical parable you ought to see, if you haven't. Ravishing cinematography, terse, truthful performances from a stellar ensemble, and a slowly building tension based on character as much as predicament make this a movie that haunted me.
2. The Arbor - Clio Barnard's stunning documentary about the short, self-destructive and intermittently productive life of British playwright Andrea Dunbar deconstructs the documentary form to create a new pictorial language perfectly fitted to the story it tells. Instead of staging Dunbar's unsentimental dramas of the lower class on the great British stages where they were first presented, Barnard recreates Dunbar's plays squarely inside the world they came from: in The Arbor, the nasty public housing ghetto in Bradford, England Dunbar grew up inside of and which she never really escaped. Actors lip-sync to recorded interviews with Dunbar's children—a haunting technique, born of necessity when the family refused to appear on camera—and tell the harrowing story of Dunbar's addictions, and of her abusive and destructive parenting legacy. The artist is neither glamorized nor redeemed, and the fanciful technique makes her victims and their struggles paradoxically more real. There is nothing quite like this film—and how often can you say THAT and mean it?
3. Wrinkles (Arrugas) — Ignacio Ferreras' acclaimed animated adaptation of Paco Roca's graphic novel is this year's kinder, gentler Waltz With Bashir—it gives the lie to the uniquely American notion that animation is a children's medium, incapable of intricate and adult forms of expression. Lyrical but toughminded, Wrinkles tells the story of two old men warehoused in an anti-sceptic nursing home, where they are expected to wait to die, and of the steps they take to regain control of their humanity if not their destiny. There is magic in this story, but it's the magic of memory, of loss and of bravery in the face of a quieter and more universal apocalypse than the makers of UP can even conceive of. In an awful year of screaming waxwork Pixar impersonations (the worst of which was directed by John Lasseter himself), this is the animated movie to see.
4. A Seperation - Asghar Farhadi's compassionate and devastating masterwork about the unforseen consequences of a marital separation is yet another contemporary classic from Iran. Tonally neo-realistic but as structurally intricate as a Hitchock thriller, this is a perfect foreign film: it takes the non-Iranian viewer inside a world so wholly realized that the universal and the specific are responded to with equally powerful shocks of recognition.
5. The Tree of Life - Terrence Malick's ravishing zen koan is both a poem and a treatise—one that tries to contain everything there is. The miracle being: it's nearly up to the task.
6. Mysteries of Lisbon - The epic final film from the great Raul Ruiz is a period movie for those who don't like period films--thoughtful, mysterious, and simultaneously both melodramatic and lived in. Made while Ruiz was dying from complications related to liver cancer, it's a feast of a movie that seethes with life.
7. Uncle Boonme Who Can Remember His Past Lives - Surreal to western eyes, Uncle Boonmee most likely has a very different feel to it when watched in its native Thailand, where belief in reincarnation is a commonplace. I found spending Boonmee's final days with him a delightful and instructive experience, but if you're looking for metaphor in this story of ghosts and memories, you are probably looking in the wrong place.
8. Another Earth - Shoestring Phildickian sci-fi of a very high order indeed, with a career-making contribution from the lovely Brit Marling as both co-writer and star. To describe this film is to spoil it, so just watch it, with an open mind, and (more vitally) an open heart.
9. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 - I am not a big fan of the Potter movies, or of any movies that fall back on "magic" as a plot contrivance (Peter Jackson and George Lucas, are you listening?). But you'd have to be living in a cave to be unaware of the most successful film franchise in movie history, and I was deeply impressed and even moved by how rigorously the final Potter kept faith with its audience, and how imagistic and beautiful the work of director David Yates and cinematographer Eduardo Serra frequently was. It may be unfair to celebrate a movie for something outside itself, but I couldn't help imagining all the 15 to twenty year old viewers who had grown up with Harry and his friends, and who were being so elegantly introduced by this epic farewell to all the very real puzzles—of loss, change and choice—that the real world keeps a ready supply of, just outside the frame. Escapism, sure—but with a real and beating heart.
9. Redland - Asiel Norton's terse, hallucinatory character study was often compared by the handful who saw it to Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven, but if anything, it's a rebuttal witness to Malick's transcendentalist belief in nature-as-god. A primeval tale of death and struggle on a lush but lethal Northern California homestead during the Great Depression, Norton's behaviorist parable puts man in his natural state and then reveals him as a self-interested animal, driven by lust and id. Disagree with that bleak view if you must, but you'll have to resist a powerful visual and narrative experience to do it. The heavily-filtered and asymmetrical compositions of Zoran Popovic leave the actors swimming in violent swatches of color, murk and grain, and are amongst the most memorable images I saw on a screen this year.
HONORABLE MENTION: Take Shelter - A flawlessly made film, Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter does exactly what its maker wants it to do, but it's last on this list because I wanted it to do something else. Anchored by a superb and deeply moving performance from Michael Shannon, this story of a good man's descent into paranoid-schizophrenia is the movie you wanted A Beautiful Mind to be--an acute, nuanced and existential character study about the profound solitude that might be acute mental illness' most heart-rending affliction. Then a wrong-headed O. Henry plot-twist pushes everything into The Twilight Zone, and gives the lie to all that's best in what came before it. I refuse that ending—utterly. And without it, Take Shelter is easily among my ten favorite films of 2012.
1. The Artist - The film is not only five-star perfection, but also a ballsy proposition. How many filmmakers are doing black and white silent movies these days? That it was pulled off with such style is icing on the cake.
2. The Descendants - Director Alexander Payne's return to the directing chair is a complete triumph, a risky balancing act of comedy and drama that ultimately became the year's most human family story.
3. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - The first 9/11 film to get to the heart of the emotional and individual human cost of this catastrophic event. It is a story about loss and renewal, a shot to the heart that proves the we're ready to take another step in our recovery.
4. Hugo - An unexpected treasure from Martin Scorsese who continues to find new areas to explore as a filmmaker. In this case a 3D family film that is also a valentine to the early days of cinema and a plea for film preservation. I hate 3D but this was magic and also the finest example of filmmaking craft seen all year.
5. Le Havre - The greatest joy from this year's Cannes Film Festival (and there were many including Midnight in Paris, The Artist and The Tree of Life) was seeing this delightful entry from Aki Kaurismaki, perhaps the finest film yet from this wonderful finnish filmmaker. That it was essentially a French film proved his remarkable ability to find humanity and recognizable people in any language.
6. Midnight In Paris - When Woody Allen is on his game no one can match him and using Paris as his latest muse this clever and wildly entertaining story of a wayward romantic yearning for life in another era was about as good as it gets when it comes to screen comedy. Deservedly it became Woody's most successful film ever.
7. Moneyball - Director Bennett Miller and screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin managed to do the impossible. They took an essentially dry story about creating a baseball franchise on the cheap and turned it into a brilliantly tuned character study. Brad Pitt has never been better in the kind of role Paul Newman and Robert Redford would have played in their prime. Dare we call this one a home run?
8. The Muppets - Taking a dormant, dead franchise and turning it into a clever show business story and the year's most buoyant, gorgeous musical comedy is cause for celebration but that is exactly what Muppet-fanatic Jason Segel and company did. Kermit, welcome back.
9. Super 8 - Director J.J. Abrams did something unheard of. He made a personal, deeply felt summer blockbuster. Merging monsters with a coming of age story set around an early love for filmmaking (the year's major trend), Abrams (and his inspiration producer Steven Spielberg) created a cross between Alien, The Goonies and Francois Truffaut's Day For Night. The summer's guiltiest pleasure.
10. War Horse - Spielberg again. Yes, it's basically a boy and his horse movie but the most stunning one since Carroll Ballard's The Black Stallion. The play it is based on is pure theatrical magic but the real trick here was coming up with a viable cinematic equivalent. My rule is if it makes you cry, it deserves a place in your top ten.
It's hard to stop at ten in a very good year that also included Terrence Malick's elegiac The Tree of Life, Nicolas Winding Refn's noirish Drive full of 60's style-cool, Tate Taylor's wonderful The Help, Curtis Simon's splendid My Week With Marilyn and Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody's risky dark comedy Young Adult, a movie as close to the genius of Billy Wilder in his prime that I can imagine. Okay let's call it the Top 15. I cheated.
Alphabetical by last name of gaffer, one of cinema's many crucial, unsung production
Midnight in Paris - Thierry Baucheron
A Separation - Koohyar Kalari
Melancholia - Aslak Lytthans
Tree of Life - Mark Manthey
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - Alan Martin (with Gabor Hevesi and Larry Prinz)
Drive - Tony Nakonechnyj
The Arbor - Michael Onder
The Artist - James Plannette
Take Shelter - Michael Roy
The Descendants - Rafael E. Sanchez
Just bubbling under...
Martha Marcy May Marlene - Josh M. Allen
Higher Ground - Shawn Greene
Shame - Bill Newell
Beginners - Jeff Petersen (with Eric Guldbech)
Certified Copy - Alessandro Saulini
Bridesmaids - John Vecchio
1. The Artist - Michel Hazanavicius reteams with his OSS 117 star Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo for a defiant valentine to the pure joy of movie storytelling, foregoing sound, color and widescreen to remind us all that what matters most is heart.
2. Tree of Life - Terrence Malick's magnum opus may fall shy of its aspirations, but its aspirations are so inconceivably lofty that it's impossible not to be dazzled by this immersive philosophical treatise, arguably the closest thing the cinema has come to the painting of the Sistene Chapel.
3. Incendies - Denis Villeneuve's Oscar-nominated tale of the long shadows cast by age-old family secrets is both a cautionary fable and a parable for everything that's wrong in the Middle East. A masterful, bold, impeccably executed and singular achievement.
4. The Skin I Live In - Almodovar reteams with Antonio Banderas for his adaptation of Thierry Jonquet's Tarantula. It's haunting, romantic, chilling and brilliant... in a word, classic Almodovar.
5. City of Life and Death - Lu Chuan's black-and-white widescreen recounting of the atrocities perpetrated by invading Japanese soldiers upon Chinese civilians during the notorious "rape of Nanjing" in 1937 is one of the most gut-wrenching film experiences ever conceived. It is also masterful cinema.
6. Sarah's Key - The popular novel becomes an even more successful film in the hands of director Gilles Paquet-Brenner. Kristin Scott Thomas anchors the story of a present-day journalist's efforts to unlock a World War II era mystery that has haunted her husband's family for decades. Jumping back and forth between the 40s and the present, it's a flawless, profoundly moving melodrama.
7. The Descendants - Alexander Payne's post-Sideways hiatus is finally over, and he's scarcely missed a beat. Based on Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel, the expertly tragicomic Hawaiian-set family drama boasts some of Payne's best work, as well as what is arguably George Clooney's best performance to date.
8. Take Shelter - Jeff Nichols hits the big leagues with this dark, provocative fable starring Michael Shannon as a small town Ohio husband and father whose apocalyptic dreams push his family life and his personal sanity to the edge of oblivion.
9. In Darkness - Agnieszka Holland's return to Polish filmmaking is an unqualified triumph that looks to be an odds-on Oscar favorite. Call this one Schindler's List in a Polish sewer. Based on real events, and executed with uncharacteristic aplomb. Holland's best film to date.
10. Moneyball - Faulted for being too inside baseball—quite literally—the only studio film on this list is a testimony to the only remaining studio that seems to have any sense of class or taste: Sony. Brad Pitt stars as Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane in director Bennett Miller's gripping telling of Beane's unconventional attempts to turn around a withering franchise with nothing but guts, instinct and a lot of clever math. Scripted so smartly by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, it almost defies belief.
Unranked, Alphabetized, Haiku-ized
A Better Life
Meet a dad and son
ignored in a rough city
blind to pride and strength
Tights, yes, but there's more
when Emmerich makes pop genius
of snotty scholars
Starts with a great dog
but its insight into love
has truth, house music
Thank Christ for Kristen
if now women can crack jokes,
command the table
The Green Hornet
Jay Chou is so cool
that 3D, Michel Gondry
just have to keep up
The Last Circus
A sad Spanish clown
whose killer love triangle
is LOL bleak
The end of the world
and Kristen "Sad Face" Dunst knows
but wow, we're awestruck
Is a chimp human
if he is convinced he is
and his friends agree?
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Or, must one brave chimp
fight for the right to control
his own destiny?
We are all prom queens
in our imagination
but hide it better
1. The Tree of Life
3. Meek's Cutoff
5. City Of Life And Death
6. We Need To Talk About Kevin
7. The Interrupeters
9. A Dangerous Method
10. Cold Weather
3. Martha Marcy May Marlene
4. The Interrupters
5. A Separation
7. We Need to Talk About Kevin
8. The Muppets
10. The Arbor
1. The Tree of Life
2. Certified Copy
3. A Seperation
5. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
6. Tuesday, After Christmas
7. Nostalgia for the Light
8. Foreign Parts
9. Meek's Cutoff
11. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
13. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
15. The Sleeping Beauty
16. The Adventures of Tintin
18. A Dangerous Method
20. Take Shelter
• My #1 of #2011Top10 is #TinkerTailorSoldierSpy in part because I always wondered what life after espionage looked like. Thanks @FocusFeatures
• #Tabloid is a perfect marriage of sleaze & monger. (Goes both ways.) #2 on my #2011Top10 Thanks @SundanceSelects & @errolmorris
• Listen to Jean-Claude Carrière: The gesture isn't for comfort; it proof she's safe with you. #CertifiedCopy #3 #2011Top10 Thanks @IFCFilms
• As if quiet chastity and absurd violence are the wrapping paper covering Gosling's package. #Drive #4 on my #2011Top10 Thanks @FilmDistrict.
• Say what you will, but #5 #NoStringsAttached had the smartest gender politics of any RomCom this year. Thanks @ParamountPics #2011Top10
• You can't survive a blood/sex/organic vegetable thirsty cult without some scars. #6 #2011Top10 #MarthaMarcyMayMarlene Thanks @foxsearchlight
• #7 on my #2011Top10 smears strategy and chest-beating into a paste. #RiseOfThePlanetOfTheApes Thanks @20thcenturyfox #ApeIsManlierThanFranco
• Chris Sarandon was romantic in the angular 80s, but Colin put the feral into a sexy beast. #8 #FrightNight #2011Top10 Thanks @DisneyPictures
• 9 on my #2011Top10 is #LoveExposure A battle between Yoko and Hit-Girl would end with Chloe all over the afternoon. http://bit.ly/rphReR
• #Tucker&DalevsEvil spins one joke to the light like a prism. Thanks @MagnoliaPics! I now value responsible rednecks. #10 on my #2011Top10