The Bestest 2016: Filmmage

Mercury Rev

Mercury Rev, scoring Vampyr

Great TV is inflicting pain on the movie business. Not just because the most creative writers and directors are expanding their ambitions to the small screen, but also because many of the theaters where you see high-brow films have disappeared. But the Golden Age of TV has also made it possible to see these small films from the comfort of your couch, not long after their theatrical release or occasionally at the same time. This list is filled with a bunch of heavy seeming stories, fitting given the events of the past year, but in this relative gloom, there is so much beauty. Art always helps bury sorrow, even if the art is sorrowful.

1.  La La Land– Dir. Damien Chazelle (Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling)

So soon after “Whiplash,” it’s hard to imagine a director making a film as ambitious, creative, and seemingly unmakable as “La La Land” – unless you’ve been dreaming about it for years and years. Although, I am fanatical about music, I am not usually a fan of musicals, but somehow this film both transcends the genre, and but also exists squarely within it.

For it’s portrayal of ambition, celebrity, self-doubt, human magic, and of course the city that is it’s muse, “La La Land” is truly a modern masterpiece. It’s impossible to imagine this film starring anyone but Gosling and Stone, but we don’t need to. Both actors were already two of the best of their generation, but now there is no doubt. This is the kind of film that reassures me that people will always go to the theater. It is also the kind of film that reinforces my hope that greatness will always find a way to be seen and heard. Art is often magical, and the best magic is almost found in great art.

 2. O.J.: Made in America – Dir. Ezra Edelman (OJ Simpson)

Like “La La Land” this sprawling documentary about a figure you thought you knew everything about, is telling a very similar story. It is a story about Los Angeles in all its surrealism. It’s where dreams are made and destroyed; a factory town, where people are the product, and even when you do succeed, you live precariously close to failure all of the time. And often when the world gives you more than you could ever imagine, you lose perspective.

Director Ezra Edelman is beautifully even handed and revealing of one of the most accomplished and complicated people to ever live their life so publically. From genuine American hero, to the tortured product of a country still trying to resolve why we struggle so hard with race in America. This is a towering film not just about a person, but about the world we clearly still live in today. It is such a painfully timely film, that it is hard to imagine how it shouldn’t be required viewing for everybody who is trying to make a difference and understand the times, but is blinded by the obvious realities that make peace seem so far away.

3. Captain Fantastic – Matt Ross (Viggo Mortensen, Kathryn Hahn, Frank Langella)

Most parents either think they are raising their children the right way, or at least think they are doing the best with what they have. “Captain Fantastic” takes you way off the grid where the home-schooled children, living in the woods of Oregon, are the brilliantly flawed disciples of a mercilessly well-intended father. Viggo Mortensen gives a career defining performance as the dominant patriarch who manages to seemingly create a kind of unsustainable nirvana where children can grow and learn without the potent venom of the outside world.

But as we know, the world is all connected now and there really isn’t any such thing as truly off the grid. We learn this as the family boards the family bus to attend the funeral of their mother. Each performance is exquisite, the writing is exceptional and the cinematography is incredible considering the low budget. This is a film that makes you think about everything you always thought was black and white about being a parent … and a child.

4. Manchester By The Sea – Dir. Kenneth Lonergan (Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams)

Medical research has proven that sad art (movies, music, paintings) actually make us happy. It forces us to reflect on the things in our lives that seem better by comparison and appreciate the relationships that we have even more. “Manchester” is an exquisitely devastating film, about love and loss and redemption. It’s about family, and friendships and the never-ending struggle to keep moving through all pain that accumulates along the way.

Director Kenneth Lonergan, long a favorite playwright and screenwriter of mine, has assembled the perfect cast, in perfect climate (a brutally bleak Boston winter) to weave back and forth through time towards some shattering truths. Casey Affleck will finally get credit as an even more serious actor than his brother, and will draw us into the kind of suffering we all hope to ward off in life. This is one of the hardest and most naturalistic films in quite a while.

5. Sing Street – Dir. John Carney (Aiden Gillen, Ben Carolan)

 The second great musical of the year is also one of the most entertaining. I don’t remember seeing a film as nostalgically human since John Hughes was in his prime. The director John Carney (who made the hugely underrated “Once”) has tapped right into the main vein of 80’s, through the eyes of a new wave music obsessed teenager set on starting a band and winning the girl. The mostly fresh-faced cast allows you to just lose yourself in each odd character without any baggage or preconception, and the music, played by the fictional band, and that which inspired it (Duran Duran, The Jam, The Cure) is so effortlessly woven into the film that it becomes a character unto itself.

The plot is simple enough, but the execution is perfect in the quiet way that the best films of this kind are. In what is basically a coming-of-age tale, Carney weaves gold by capturing the creative process at work, as a bunch of kids learn how to write and perform music together. There is nothing new here, but that’s what makes this film so special and how it reminds you to never give up on your dreams, to always be yourself, and to never stop reinventing your life.

6. American Honey – Andrea Arnold (Shia LaBeouf, Sasha Lane)

This beautifully disturbing, sprawling epic of a film inhabits a strange and unsettling world that exists somewhere between the gritty voyeurism of “Kids” and the precious naturalistic beauty of a Terrence Malik film (Days of Heaven, Tree of Life). It’s a largely plotless road movie about runaways traveling through the Midwest selling magazine subscriptions, partying and living a strange lawless existence, and rejecting the demands of the real world.

This ragtag band of misfits is led by Shia LeBeouf who astounds as a renaissance charlatan. He discovers the young Sasha Lane at a WalMart and recruits her to drop everything and join the party. The kids here are too young to be living the life they are living, and although the director Andrea Arnold lets the movie run for 163 minutes, there is very little I can imagine cutting. From the beautiful close ups of bugs and landscapes, to the excessive and awkward moments of sex and impropriety, the film rolls like a waking dream. This is not a film for everyone, but it is important, urgent and unafraid.

7. 20th Century Women – Dir. Mike Mills (Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig)

Films about mothers and sons are a far rarer breed than those about fathers and sons. But in this exquisitely quirky film set in the late 70’s Santa Barbara, Annette Bening plays a happily lonely chain smoking oddball, who is much cooler than her son (a great Lucas Jade Zumann) gives her credit for. He stumbles clumsily into adulthood, surrounded by the communal joy of the patchwork family of colorful boarders that inhabit the slow burning remodel of the house where they live.

The film is saturated with the music, styles and ethos of the era. A looser time, long before the Internet where time was spent talking directly to each other, and wandering around the exploring the world. Billy Crudup’s hippie Mr. Fixit is a perfect faux father figure, while the lovable Greta Gerwig stands in as the adopted older sister. There is a rustically realistic charm that saturates every scene, while Annette Bening delivers the performance of her career, in a career filled with great performances. This film leaves you longing for a time long gone, but actually not that long ago.

8. Hell or High Water – Dir. Taylor Sheridan (Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges)

This is perhaps the finest “modern western” I have ever seen. In it the anti-villains, two brothers played by the always explosive Ben Foster and the calmer but more urgent Chris Pine, are contemporary Robinhood’s, stealing money from the bank that snake-charmed their ranch away from their dying mother. Sadly it doesn’t get more realistic, as the great urban migration of the past fifty years has left a sea of crumbling towns being eaten by predatory lenders.

Although most of the action focuses on a series of lo-fi bank robberies throughout these barren shabby towns of West Texas, everything moves at an effortlessly slow but thrilling pace. Even the Sheriff, a wonderful Jeff Bridges, takes his time tracking the thieves casually napping on benches and sipping cold beer while he waits for them to stumble into his lair. But mostly the film just kind of burns like a mile long fuse, crackling and hissing through the dusty landscapes of Texas. A masterpiece of patience and nuance, proving again that the American West is still alive and kicking, albeit a shell of its former self.

9. Birth of a Nation – Dir. Nate Parker (Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King)

If not for the personal controversy surrounding the director, this heart-wrenching, often painfully violent story about the life of Nat Turner would be a shoe in for awards consideration. Like all films about slavery, I watched this awestruck by how this very real history is still only 150 years old. It does as good a job as any illuminating the complexity that existed between slaves and their owners (the good and the bad).

Parker’s debut direction and starring performance is easily one of the most accomplished I saw all year. Alas, the media made this film the most talked about and highest priced film ever purchased at Sundance, and then buried before it had the chance to succeed. Like “12 Years A Slave” this is an important film, as relevant today as it would have been at any point in history. Ignore the backstory and see the film.

10. Moonlight – Dir. Barry Jenkins (Alex Hibbert, Aston Saunders, Janelle Monae)

“Moonlight” is a heavy film that doesn’t so much as feel light, but just kind of meanders weightlessly through the heat and sweat of Miami. It is the story of one man, but told in two parts by incredible younger and older versions of himself. It is also the coming of age film about a gay black child growing up in the projects to a drug addicted mother. There would be no reason for someone not from this place to have spent time considering this story, but it is a revelation to have the time to spend with it.

Adapted from a play, director Barry Jenkins, has crafted a story for the big screen that is so nuanced, and he has discovered actors that are so compelling, that each scene just slowly gets under your skin and demands empathy and consideration. Filled with some vaguely familiar faces, and few others you we will no doubt see again, this film is not so much another meditation on race, but on sexuality and circumstance, and finding a place in a world that is still shamefully rigid.

11. Indignation – James Shamus (Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon)

I loved this film for the same reason I love “The Catcher in the Rye” and “A Separate Peace.” It takes place in an era before I was born, but not so far away that I can’t understand it. Adapted from a short novel by Philip Roth, the story takes place at a tony liberal arts school in Ohio where a blue collar Jewish kid from New Jersey comes to change the course of his young life. The legendary producer James Shamus directs his debut film weaving pure magic into this elegant looking story of pride, tradition and fragile egos.

Tracey Letts couldn’t be better as the rigid headmaster of the school who spars with this stubborn Freshman, an incredible Logan Lerman, who refuses to attend the required twice weekly Chapel gatherings, pleading atheism. As he struggles to fit in, and to follow the rules, he falls for a fragile and once suicidal beauty who takes us to another place entirely. We fall so naturally into this vastly more innocent time, but bask in the realization that simplicity and innocence is always relative, and growing up is always painful, no matter when we live it.

12. The Intervention – Clea DuVall (Melanie Lynsky, Jason Ritter, Natasha Lyonne)

The funniest film I saw this year barely reached the theater, but kept me laughing out loud not just at the endless sea of pitch perfect banter, but because each character manages to nail each of the stereotypes it sets out to illustrate. Four couples steal away to a beautiful family home in South Carolina to perform a “marital intervention” on their seemingly insufferably unhappily married friends.

The irony, which drives the consistent hilarity, is that each of the couples could use an intervention of their own. Nobody realizes that ‘the invention’ could just as easily be on themselves. They drink, fight, flirt and imagine everyone else is somehow worse off than each other. Clea DuVall is confidently sure-handed in her debut film which feels like a modern day “Big Chill” complete with one of the most appealing and competent young casts of the year.

13. Nocturnal Animals – Tom Ford (Michael Shannon, Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal) 

This film is all about mood. In it, director Tom Ford tells three stories: one of the from the past, one set in the present and the other abstracted from a harrowing novel written by one of the protagonists and taking place somewhere in between. Ford’s time as a fashion designer is core to the way he makes films. This one is dark and as impeccably detailed as it is emotionally complex.

Amy Adams plays both the young idealistic dreamer who marries an artsy, rustic aspiring writer played by Jake Gyllenhaal. But she thrives more as the older version of herself, having moved past her young lover only to become a richer but not happier, art dealer disgusted with the superficially of her life and the art she deals. When she receives a copy of a novel written by Gyllenhaal, the past, present and future converge into one of the most suspenseful films of the year.

14. Hunt For The Wilderpeople - Dir. Taika Waititi (Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rachel House)

Great films that my still young kids also love get an extra bump when I look back. I’m also a sucker for all things quirky and Kiwi, so this tale about a misfit kid, and his kooky adopted uncle who end up on the lamb crisscrossing the New Zealand bush for a series of crimes they didn’t really commit was destined to win.

After being bounced around from foster home to foster home, Ricky (played by the wonderful Julian Dennison) winds up with Aunt Bella and a grizzled Sam Neill as Uncle Hec. After Bella dies, and child services threaten to put Ricky back in foster care, he runs away from home and an over the top national manhunt takes place. You haven’t seen two less threatening outlaws than these two, but the journey is an outrageous mixture of comedy and bizarrely exciting action. Hard not to love.

15. Green Room – Dir. Jeremy Saulier (Anton Yelcin, Imogen Poots, Patrick Stewart)

There is almost nothing more punk rock than a great indie horror film, especially when that film is about a punk rock band trapped in the green room of a neo-Nazi bar in the Pacific Northwest. As seemingly outrageous as the plot might be, everything about the way the film unfolds is as plausible as it is perfectly executed. A hardcore band Ain’t Right is trying to scrounge up enough cash to pay for gas to get them back to the relative calm of the East Coast.

After playing a predictably hostile show for a room of angry skinheads, the band witnesses a murder and is forced to fight their way to safety against a well armed group of thugs led by the wonderfully acted character leader played by Patrick Stewart. There is blood and violence and a kind claustrophobic creepiness that drives this slim 94 minute tour de force. No zombies, no aliens, no hockey-masked psychopaths, only the angry drug dealing white supremacists … that we know exist on the fringes of todays hinterlands.

A few more …

16. The Witch – Dir. Robert Eggers (Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie) This is easily the creepiest 17th century horror film I have ever seen, reminding you how incredibly uncertain and utterly helpless the earliest settlers must have felt out there in the woods.

17. Eye in the Sky – Dir. Gavin Hood (Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul) There was almost no film that had me thinking about the moral complexity of terrorism and the awesome and frightening power of drone warfare more than this film.

18. Arrival – Dir. Denis Villeneuve (Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner) This visually stunning, thrillingly crafted sci-fi voyage, explores the possibility of life beyond earth through the more human lens of basic communication. Director Villeneuve is quietly following in the footsteps of Kubrick, focusing on every detail and reframing all of the hard questions about what it means to be alive.

19. Everybody Wants Some – Richard Linklater (Blake Jenner, Ryan Guzman) Although Linklater doesn’t quite hit that same perfect note he did in “Dazed and Confused,” this whimsical “spiritual sequel” is an easy going romp through the wonderful feeling of that first weekend back at college. I wish I could do it just one more time.

20. Bleed For This – Dir. Ben Younger (Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart) Miles Teller is well on his way to becoming one of the finest actors working today. In this gritty real life story about the boxer Vinny Pazienza, he has elevated the genre, and done justice to one of the most incredible comeback stories in the history of sports.

21. Paterson – Dir. Jim Jarmusch (Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani) In some ways this is one of Jarmusch’s most accessible films, on the other hand, this somber story about a bus driver poet, is exactly the kind of film he has been making his whole career. Brilliant.

22. Hacksaw Ridge – Mel Gibson (Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington) Say what you will about Mel Gibson, but he is still an incredible storyteller and filmmaker, and has made one of the most astonishing war protest films ever made, and given Andrew Garfield yet another career making role.

23. High Rise – Dir. Ben Wheatley (Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller) There wasn’t a slicker, starker or more beautifully stylized dystopian film this year than “High Rise.” Like the bastard child of “A Clockwork Orange” and “ The Road”, there is a beauty and horror in the bleakness of modern life.

 24. The Free World – Dir. Jason Lew (Octavia Spencer, Elizabeth Moss, Boyd Holbrook) This was one of my favorite films at Sundance last year. Holbrook and Moss are two of the most beautifully damaged souls, who together try to escape the injustice of their brutal circumstances.

25. Hidden Figures – Dir. Theodore Melfi (Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Taraji Henson) I don’t know anyone that knew this story before seeing this film- and I live in the Bay Area where scientists are rock stars. An incredible story about three black women working for NASA 50 years ago.

 

 

 

The Bestest 2015: Filmmage

IMG_0319Although in many respects great TV is crippling independent film (https://pando.com/2015/10/02/has-tv-stolen-independent-film/), it is hard for me to remember a better year for films of all shapes and sizes. Sure, I saw many of them on the small screen, but the breadth and quality of this year’s films was remarkable. Many of my favorites were documentaries, more than I can remember in the past, which also happen to be well suited for television viewing. Any way you slice it, actors still love feature films, despite the fact that serialized television is actually reaching a larger audience in many cases, pays better, creates realistic consistency of work, and now comes without a negative stigma. More than anything though, I urge you to continue to see films in the theater where you can check your phone at the door, lose yourself in the story, and have a real life shared experience with other human beings. It’s worth it.

  1. Ex Machina – Dir. Alex Garland (Oscar Issac, Domhall Gleeson)

Although “Ex Machina” is clearly a sci-fi film, it is more appropriately a psychological meditation on the moral and ethical implications of a world teetering on the brink of a very practical and ubiquitous artificial intelligence. Set in a gorgeous isolated compound in Alaska (but actually filmed in Norway) the reclusive and brilliant CEO of a Google-like technology (Oscar Issac) has created a beautiful “robot” (Alicia Vikander) to test whether or not an AI being can experience or at least simulate real emotions.

For this experiment the wonderful Domhnall Gleeson, a programming genius, is recruited to spend a month with this creature to evaluate how successful Issac was at playing God. This is the kind of film a young Stanley Kubrick would have made, but with all the advantages of modern technology. There is a kind of deep, slow burning urgency that pulses through every frame, but in the end director Alex Garland’s accomplished debut is as slick and cerebral as almost anything you are likely to see for a long while.

  1. Dope – Dir. Rick Famuyiwa (Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons)

If Spike Lee were just starting out today, living in LA, and passionate but not yet truly angry, he might have made a film like “Dope.” This is a modern high school comedy focused on three social outcasts who manage to get into the kind of trouble that might seem like an updated version of “Risky Business.”

The film bounces around themes that include the main character’s love of classic 90’s Hip-Hop and setting up of a Silk Road – like website to sell drugs for Bitcoin.  I didn’t see anything as fast moving, topical and just down right funny as “Dope” this year. In an age where young people are increasingly less interested in films, and preoccupied with shorter content, “Dope” reaffirms my hope that the kids will come back around and start watching movies that aren’t sequels again.

  1. The Revenant– Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Leanardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy)

There is almost no director working today that would have dared make a film as bleak, brutal and beautiful as Inarritu’s “The Revenant.” Shot in the pristine expanses of Canada and Argentina in the devastatingly harsh winter months, the story is set nearly 200 years ago in an age of almost unimaginable hardship. DiCaprio, in a wonderful and virtually wordless role, plays a frontier guide named Hugh Glass who is hired to guide a crew of trappers through the a nearly impenetrable wilderness inhabited by Native Americans and bears.

In one of the most violent and realistic scenes ever captured on film, Glass is mauled and battered by a bear and left for dead in the ominous wilderness. Although the film is mostly about his epic struggle to survive, it also seriously explores themes revolving around revenge, loyalty and the shameful mistreatment of the Native tribes who were lived on the land before we did. With cinematography as starkly gorgeous as anything this year, and a kind of relentless violence that is both impossible to turn away from but devastatingly realistic, this has to be seen, and on a big screen.

  1. Room – Dir. Lenny Abrahamson (Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay)

The premise of this film, a mother and child held in a shed for 7 years by a sexual predator, is so sadly realistic and disturbingly commonplace, that it is almost impossible to imagine it being a remarkably hopeful and optimistic film. While the story could have been mired in a shallow kind of “love conquers all” message, it exists in a much more fluid and almost surreally believable space.

But Brie Larson, who is mesmerizing, as the doggedly optimistic mother of young Jack, has created a wonderful world that deflects the reality that exists outside of their tiny shack, and almost extends beyond it. Young Jacob Tremblay has also turned in what will likely go down as one of the best performances by a child his age in long time. This film is pure gold.

  1. Love & Mercy – Dir. Bill Pohlad (Paul Dano, John Cusack)

Film biopics about musicians are rarely as good as their promise. Either their characters are already too rich and well known publically to be played effectively by someone else, or their stories lack any kind of truth worth unpacking. But both the Brian Wilson who really was the genius behind the Beach Boys, and the mid-life Wilson who disappeared from public view in the 80’s, are actually elusive curiosities whose stories have never been very well explored given the impact of his creativity.

“Love & Mercy” is  a masterpiece in both casting and acting. Paul Dano’s “Pet Sounds” era Wilson is a perfectly cherubic doppelganger for the real life Wilson, whose idiosyncrasies and mannerisms seem lifted straight out of the limited archival footage from that period. Mid-life, mid-meltdown Wilson played by John Cusask is also a perfectly realized version of the Wilson who disappeared along the way. This film is both inextricably sad and masterfully redemptive, but the ride is so well crafted you are bound to lose yourself along the way, saved in many ways by that exquisite music.

  1. Me Earl and the Dying Girl –Dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke)

 I loved every minute of this film. Despite a plot line that reads like a cliché wrapped in an after school special, there is something irresistibly nuanced and fresh about this story about two outcast buddies Greg (Thomas Mann) and Ronald Cyler (Earl), and their friendship with a dying girl. It is relentlessly funny, cynically clever , and feels at times like a Wes Anderson film with its attention to tiny details and thin layer of surrealism.

Greg and Earl have been making low budget re-interpretations of classic movies like “A Sockwork Orange” since childhood, all the while managing to slip almost unnoticed in the sea of high school cliques , living in a kind of perpetual invisibility. But it is Olivia Cooke’s ” dying girl” who grounds the film with a kind of emotional honesty and realism that elevates it into something truly remarkable.

  1. Spotlight– Dir. Tom McCarthy (Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton)

This is a film that reminds you how great movies can be. It features one of the biggest and best ensemble casts in a very long time. It is topical and modern, but feels more like the kind of handcrafted film a director like Sidney Lumet would have made decades ago. It emanates from a newsroom, but one that sits on the precipice of reinvention, increasingly dominated by the internet- link-bait, and superficial reporting and a race against time to make what’s physical  , digital.

The crimes buried by and within the Catholic Church have dominated the headlines for years now, but untangling the threads, politics and bureaucracy has forced a kind of global complacency. Director Thomas McCarthy whose prior films include the nearly perfect “The Visitor” and “The Station Agent,” has such a careful eye and sets such an even but urgent pace, that you get to savor each of many varied wonderful performances. This film is an absolute joy.

  1. What Happened, Miss Simone – Dir. Liz Garbus (Nina Simone)

It’s hard to know how much of my love for this film is biased by my long time love for the music of Nina Simone. She always transcended race, gender and genre with her otherworldly voice but her career and legacy eventually became tangled up with erratic perhaps bi-polar and self-initiated exile to Liberia and her outspoken defense of civil rights. But this film manages, through a comprehensive montage of photos, interviews and most importantly captivating live performances, to paint a portrait of a complicated and brilliant musician and activist.

Unlike many of the best rock documentaries of the past few years (Amy, Montage of Heck, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me) “What Happened” isn’t the story of an artist overwhelmed by early success, then succumbing to an early death. It is instead one where we watch the pressures of an artist and socio-political celebrity more slowly shape the course of her life. Whether you knew her as a musician or as a political agitator, this is a profoundly poignant tribute to the magic of her genius and depth of her passion.

  1. Amy – Dir. Asif Kapadia (Amy Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil, Mark Ronson)

Even if you didn’t know all of the music of Amy Winehouse, most people probably knew enough to recognize that she was driving on that familiar road to nowhere, the same road that has taken so many rock stars before her right around the same age (Hendrix, Cobain, Joplin, Buckley). What most people didn’t know is that she really was one of the most talented singers to have emerged in a very long time. She was an old soul in a young body, who seemed to understand jazz the way Tony Bennett understood jazz.

But unlike many of her peers whom we lost too early, “Amy” seems to make the point that although the velocity and pressure of today ‘ s hype can be overwhelming and incapacitating, it didn’t have to end this way. Her boyfriend, father and others merely fed the fire, instead of helping to put it out. Music is a business. Amy Winehouse was a business. Perhaps if she w ere merely a singer she’d still be making music today.

      10.  The Big Short– Dir. Adam McKay (Steve Carrell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt)

If you read Michael Lewis’ fantastic book, it would have been unimaginable to consider this book becoming a mainstream dramedy. Against all odds, this fantastic film, aided by an impeccable cast, manages to tell one of the most complicated financial conspiracies in modern capitalism in a totally accessible way. Whether it be CDO’s, the rigged co-dependence of the banks, ratings agencies, mortgage sellers, and other ancillary players, this is a rich multi-layered ponzi scheme whose intricacies could have easily overwhelmed the story, but didn’t.

What makes each of the five main characters, our anti-heroes, so intriguing is that each of them individually is so quirky and occasionally offensive, but under McKay’s deft direction they are all almost lovable underdogs. Carrell, Bale, Gosling, and Pitt are perfect caricatures of themselves. The film plays almost like a series of perfectly realized skits that ultimately hang together as one of the most complete films of the year.

      11.  Mississippi Grind– Dir. Anna Boden / Ryan Fleck (Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds)

I love movies about gambling. I love road movies. As such, this road movie about gambling had an easy path to my heart. The great Ben Mendelsohn, and a surprisingly compelling Ryan Reynolds, play two outsiders who meet at a poker table in the drab gloom of an Iowa winter. From these very first scenes and the subsequent voyage down the Mississippi to New Orleans, the film has a kind of worn and ragged texture that is captured both in the landscape and the weariness of the actors.

As the two travel down south in search of a mythical big poker game, they reveal their tortured disappointed selves to one another while inflecting the kind of inevitable self-destructive abuse that seems to plague those trapped in a classic gamblers dilemma. Even the best of these films always seem to have a kind of inevitability about them. “Mississippi Grind” is filled with surprises right up until the final shots.

     12.  Mad Max: Fury Road – Dir. George Miller (Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron)

“Mad Max” is one of two sequels in 2015 that not only do justice to the originals but in many respects far surpass them. It is also another reason why there will always be movie theaters. George Miller’s post-apocalyptic reboot was easily the most consistently entertaining and enjoyable two hours of filmmaking this year, and when seen on a big screen with massive images and explosive sounds assaulting your eyes and ears , it makes you remember how great the “movies”  are and how not great the “TVs”  are.

From the sumptuous barren landscapes to the bleakly optimistic plight of the survivors, led by the stoic but determined Tom Hardy and the furiously committed Charlize Theron, to the battle worn War Rig that they steer off course in a non-stop race for survival, this voyage is a marvel. As they are pursued through hell on earth by a colorful rag tag band of outlaws in Burning Man-like vehicles, we are forced to think about the world we are living in today, perhaps not so far away from this not so distant future.

     13.  99 Homes – Dir. Ramin Bahrani (Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern)

Michael Shannon always seems to be boiling under the surface, about to explode, leveling anything in his wake. In “99 Homes” his predatory foreclosure agent character seems to be that perfect combination of anger mixed with occasional humanity. He is matched by a wonderful Andrew Garfield, who plays both the victim and eventually the victimizer, in what has become the reality of this latest American saga.

Apparently enough time has passed that it is now safe to reflect on what happened and why.  As such, this year’s two films focused on the collateral damage inflicted by the sub-prime crisis (“The Big Short” being the other). This film is surprisingly and relentlessly intense, playing almost like an action film minus the explosions and CGI. Director Bahrani has crafted a minor masterpiece, a thick chapter in the history of American capitalism and the psychological ambiguity of the modern age.

     14.  Creed– Dir. Ryan Coogler (Michael B. Jordan, Sylvestor Stallone, Tessa Thompson)

It is easy to forget how great those early Rocky films were. Not that many movies can get you both choked up and pumped at the same time, but Sly made it work. “Creed” the hugely entertaining second film by “Fruitvale Station” maestro Ryan Coogler, is cut perfectly from that old Rocky cloth, but newly polished to feel modern without seeming “slick.”

Michael B. Jordan continues to establish himself as one of the most versatile and likable actors out there. This time he plays the orphaned son of the great Apollo Creed, determined to make it on his own. Sure the story pulls hard at the corners of predictability, but manages to stay far enough away from the edges. In the end, this is the kind of film that demands to be seen on a big screen, in a packed house, where you can feel the energy and joy bouncing around the room.

     15.  The Wolfpack  –Dir. Crystal Moselle (The Angulo Family)

Imagine being locked in a small Lower East Side Manhattan housing project with your six siblings and two crazy parents for the first 15 years of your life. Some years you never get outside at all, other years you were allowed out once a month. The one thing you did have was movies. And so you began to devour them – – they were your outside world. You started acting them out with your siblings and strangely you managed to keep yourself sane.

Well, this is the real life story of the Angulo family. Thanks to loads of home footage captured over the years, and interviews with the most of the Angulo clan, we can be a voyeur into one of the most bizarre social experiments that I have ever seen. There are more than a few questions that are never really satisfactorily answered, but you can’t help getting drawn into this tangled web, and rooting for this weird Wolfpack to get a chance to live in the real world.

A few more that are very worthy …

     16.  Meru– Dir. Jimmy Chin (Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk) This amazing documentary tells the story of three talented and committed climbers who embark on climbing a Himalayan peak that has never been summited before. Beyond the harrowing ascent, the footage is filmed by the climbers themselves and has a handful of amazing backstories too incredible to believe.

     17.  Youth– Dir. Paolo Sorrentino (Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel)“Youth” is that rare beauty of a film that not only reminds us how lucky we are to still have two of our greatest living actors still making great films, but also that growing old can be beautiful and filled with the smallest and loveliest details that we tend to take for granted while we are young.

     18.  Anomalisa– Dir. Charlie Kaufman(David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh) Only Charlie could imagine a world as detached but honest as this one. Somehow the wizardry of this truly groundbreaking animation makes the story seem even more real than it would if it was merely the real actors. Astounding.

     19.  71’– Dir. Yann Demange(Jack O’Connell, Charlie Murphy) This might be the best film that virtually no one saw last year. It tells the story of a soldier inadvertently abandoned in a sharply divided Belfast war zone in 1971. As he tries to get back to safety, I couldn’t help remembering how I felt watching “The Warriors” as a kid.

     20.  Sicario– Dir. Denis Villeneuve (Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin) Director Villeneuve is a bare-knuckled realist who is not afraid to make an unsqueamishly  gritty, film about the war on drug cartels and the impossibly gray area that exists in our ongoing fight. Like his last film “Prisoners,” this one will have you wondering where we draw the line, and how to judge the people caught in the crossfire.

     21.  The Martian – Dir. Ridley Scott (Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain)A few years back David Bowie’s son made an excellent film called “Moon.” It was eerie and isolating in the same way that Matt Damon’s kinetic energy and higher tech environs is in “The Martian.” But like “Gravity” this story about people stranded in space, alive and in contact but impossible to bring home, will no doubt become more and more realistic.

     22.  Carol – Dir. Todd Haynes (Cate Blanchette, Mara Rooney) Todd Haynes has always made patient and slow burning old-fashioned films focused on complicated characters trapped in confining times and places. “Carol” is a visual feast, and Rooney and Blanchette are spellbinding.

23.  Joy – Dir. David O. Russell (Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro) Under the direction of anyone except David O. Russell and starring anyone other than Lawrence, this story could have easily been mired in feel good clichés and a hugely predictable outcome. Instead it is a true joy!

     24.  The Diary of  Teenage Girl– Dir. Marielle Heller (Bel Powley, Kristin Wiig, Alex Skarsgard)There is almost nothing more compelling than a coming of age tale set in San Francisco in 1976, a much different city in a much different time, but in the end teenagers haven’t changed much. Every year I get a little bit older and they stay the same age.

     25.  Brooklyn – Dir. John Crowley (Jim Broadbent, Saoirse Ronan) Like a kind of wonderfully innocent guilty pleasure that harkens back to an America that barely resembles the one we live in today. More than anything it makes you consider how we became so much less welcoming to the plight of immigrants, than we were not so long ago.

     26.  The End of the Tour – Dir. James Ponsoldt(Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel) David Foster Wallace was that rare genius who wrote impenetrable books of honest but hard to grasp fiction, but despite his rock star status, was never able to find peace. This film deftly explores the man behind the myth.

     27.  Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck – Dir. Brett Morgen(Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love) For anyone who doubted the raw genius of Cobain, this amazing film reconstructs his life through his  unbelievably prolific collection of drawings, lyrics and diary entries. Remarkable.

     28.  Son of Saul – Dir. Lazlo Nemes (Geza Rohrig, Todd Charmont) Another bleakly beautiful Holocaust film where mere survival sheds an impenetrable light on the moral ambiguity of life itself.

     29.  Phoenix – Dir. Christian Petzold (Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld) As Holocaust films go, this one is neither sentimental nor merely a recounting of the horrors. Instead Zerhfeld has created a Hitchcockian mystery where nothing and no one is what it seems.

     30.  Cop Car  –Dir. Jon Watts (Kevin Bacon, Hays Wellford, James Freedson-Jackson) This small but harrowing thriller about two kids that accidentally steal the wrong cop car from a terrifyingly good Kevin Bacon, is a wonderful reminder about how fun and creative low budget films can be.

Bestest Television

  1. The Affair
  2. Sonic Highways
  3. Shameless
  4. Ray Donovan
  5. Making a Murderer
  6. Broadchurch
  7. Red Oaks
  8. Transparent
  9. Halt and Catch Fire
  10. Narcos
  11. Luther

 

 

 

The Bestest 2013: Filmmage

Despite the current state of independent film (increasingly fewer screens, economically challenging business models, compressed distribution windows) 2013 proved to be one of the best years in a decade for films large and small. In some ways almost every film I loved was a new take on an old subject (horror, spring break, slavery, the 60’s, the 70’s). The actors and actresses we love continued to reinvent themselves, trumping everything that has come before with performances seemingly inspired by the past and the future.

1) Inside Llewyn Davis – Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen (Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan)

A Coen brothers film about a folk singer is still a Coen brothers film. Llewyn Davis is a perfectly crafted moody time-bomb of a character, drifting from couch to couch in the cold winter of 1963 New York. As in all  their films, the Coens here cover quite a bit of ground in what seems like a simple story. It is both an examination of the West Village folk scene right before Dylan changed the game completely, and  also an uncannily authentic look at New York intellectuals and their blue collar counterparts.

But like many of their most recent films, “Llewyn Davis” is a film where the music itself is an important leading character. Oscar Isaac gives an award caliber performance both playing a folk singer and performing as one. He carries a kind of fragile humanity right behind the surface of a loathsome exterior. Less accessible, or perhaps just less upbeat than many of their films, “Llewyn Davis” is a patient, incredible precise slice of a time and place, and even greater gem for fans of new and old folk music.

2) Her – Dir. Spike Jonze (Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansen)

“Her” is easily one of the most creative romantic films in eons. Like “500 Days of Summer,” “Upstream Color,” “Like Crazy,” and “Eternal Sunshine,” but obviously something completely different, Spike Jones has crafted one of the weirdest, but most genuine love stories of all time. In his semi-futuristic world, true love is neither physical nor it is even reciprocal in the truest sense of the word. It is more of a state of mind, or state of intellectual compatibility.

It would be hard to imagine this film without the effortless vulnerability of Joaquin Phoenix, and the seductiveness of Scarlett Johansson who exists only as a voice through an earpiece. To fall for an operating system is really no different than falling in love with a character from a book, a voice on the radio, or a picture in a magazine, except that the idea also understands you. Like a dream captured on film, “Her” falls like fresh snow, slowly, beautifully and ephemerally.

3) 12 Years A Slave – Dir. Steve McQueen (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender)

In sheer contrast to Tarantino’s “Django,” McQueen’s masterpiece is a brutal, but beautiful reflection on our shameful past. There is nary a smile or laugh to be had, just an endless sea of largely horrible masters and powerless defeated slaves. As in his previous films (“Shame” and “Hunger”) McQueen can’t help but make you confront history and suffer through long, graphic reenactments.

Every character is clearly defined, most of the time without words, but with angry or hopeless expressions. This is not really a film to enjoy so much as to confront, endure and then ultimately appreciate. Although filled with cameos from everyone from Brad Pitt to Paul Giamatti, the film belongs to Chinwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender. Good and evil personified. Although not for everybody, perhaps it should be required viewing for everybody.

4) Fruitvale Station – Dir. Ryan Coogler (Michael B. Jordon, Octavia Spencer)

There is no waste in “Fruitvale Station,” it is a perfect little film based on a totally avoidable tragedy. In his directorial debut, Ryan Coogler was able to tell a story that took place in his hometown, and approach it with the kind of unemotional distance you wouldn’t have thought possible. Michael B. Jordan, whom we have watched grow up on “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights” is Oscar caliber playing the real life Oscar Grant who was shot to death by BART police on New Years Day 2009.

Like Cassavetes, Coogler’s debut is a subtle hand held masterpiece, as he manages to get close enough to Oscar Grant to expose him as a massively flawed but hugely empathetic person. In lesser hands this story becomes a racial-political statement that exposes history yet again repeating itself shamefully. But somehow the story just flows along so quickly and easily that before you have time to poke holes it is over. Simplicity in filmmaking is the hardest thing to accomplish, but here it is impeccably executed.

5) Before Midnight –Dir. Richard Linklater (Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy)

Beyond the “Godfather” trilogy I can’t think of another trio of films that I have loved as consistently. Where the Godfather films are sprawling epics, Linklater’s films are precious- basically just one long rolling conversation between two people who think and speak as cleverly as most people wish they could, and have a relationship both as fleeting and occasionally perfect as any.

In this chapter Delpy and Hawke are now married with children and living in Europe. At this point we know both characters quite well. We both love them and hate them. They bicker and spat, hold hands and kiss, reminisce and dream, and then start all over again. Like the previous films nothing much happens, except of course one of the most curious and naturalistic modern love stories of our time. [Read more…]

The Bestest, Tunage 2012

This year, building a music discovery platform called TastemakerX, I was looking harder than usual at new music. I was doing this primarily to prove my thesis that music discovery is becoming increasingly more difficult. This is due in part to the enormous decrease in the costs of producing and distributing music, thanks in part to technology (for production) and the internet (for distribution). As a result there is much more music being produced than ever before and, not surprisingly, it is nearly impossible to stay on top of it all. You’d think that the internet would have solved this problem, but algorithms don’t turn people onto music, people do, and for the most part digital music hasn’t been very social up to now. With that said, this has been another stellar year for music. You should make a point to try it all.

1) Angus Stone – Broken Brights (Nettwerk)

I didn’t pay much attention to Angus & Julia Stone last year, so when I stumbled in to see Angus playing a gig supporting his new solo album I was woefully unprepared. As history will prove, I am a sucker for the warm modern but nostalgic music of today’s bearded neo-hippie indie folk scene (Fleet Foxes, Head and the Heart, Midlake). “Broken Brights” is far and away the album that has stuck with me most deeply.

Although, Stone is an Aussie, the 13 songs on this record are cut crisply from 70’s Americana lore. There are all sorts of obvious reference points from Neil Young (“Bird and the Buffalo”) to Dylan (“Monsters”) but there is nothing merely derivative here. The band, which features a lovely assortment of strings, brass, guitar and banjo, is just sublime. Every year there is one that raises above all others, and this year it is Angus Stone. This is that warm, woody music that will never feel out of time or place. Angus Stone

2) Alt-J – An Awesome Wave (Ribbon Music)

Some music just gets under your skin. Alt-J is an acquired taste but once you turn onto it it sticks hard – like the first Violent Femmes record for a dated example. “An Awesome Wave” is a delicate, textured experiment in genre bending rock. There are quiet pianos, and soulful vocals, that come across almost like B-sides from a Windham Hill record juxtaposed with songs held together by a broad smattering of loops, blips, and drum lines that bounce around like bare feet on hot pavement.

A bit like Zappa filtered through a lava lamp, but every song here is sliced from the same pie in an impeccably produced series of soundscapes as potent as anything this year. From the edgy and beautiful “Dissolve Me” and “Fitzpleasure” to the pristine balladry on “Mathilda” or “Bloodflood.” Like Django Django, Alt-J runs the modern history of rock through a psychedelic sieve and comes up multi-colored roses. Alt-J

3) Django Django – Django Django (Ribbon Music)

As much as I love mellow countrified indie rock, my other real musical love is for groove based new wave music. This includes almost any music that probably uses the Velvet Underground as a starting point, passing through Pink Floyd en route to Radiohead. Django Django is one of two bands that broke through using that blueprint this year (the other being Alt-J).

The band is another in a series of great Scottish bands (The Beta Band, Hot Chip) that fuse incredibly catchy songwriting with approachable electronica. “Django Django” is a relentlessly upbeat album (“Default” and “Hail Bop”) although it is more light bursting through the shadows than beach music. It’s hard to resist the toe tapping beats, and bite sized chorus’ throughout, and they rarely give you time to catch your breath. Django Django

4) Polica – Give You The Ghost (Conveyor)

Polica’s singer Channy Leaneagh, a former member of Minneapolis supergoup Gayngs, and starring Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, is a legit star. Just watching her move on stage is something else, and then she starts to sing. On tracks like “Lay Your Cards Outs” and “Dark Star” you fall immediately into the smoothest grooves, with the double drum tracks steering gently towards something on a hazy horizon.

I first saw Polica at SXSW in 2012. I knew almost nothing about them, but the music felt immediately recognizable yet brand new. Like a torch passed from the great female vocalists from the 90’s (Cocteau Twins Elizabeth Frazier, and Morcheeba’s Skye Edwards), trip hop it seems is again alive and well.  Polica

5) Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan (Domino)

Although it’s fair to describe “Swing Lo Magellan” as the Projectors most “accessible” album to date, it is still a challenging record. “Swing Lo Magellan” is truly a brilliant accomplishment: complicated, melodic, harmonious, discordant, catchy, and somber. It is the most unique “pop” record of the year by a city mile, bathed in lush instrumentation and Ivy League lyrics.

The band is the brainchild of Yale dropout David Longstreth, and what is most distinctive about Dirty Projectors music is both the ridiculously difficult guitar lines and tunings, and the incredible transitions. In the end what we get is a collage of sweet discovery (“Swing Lo Magellan” and “Impregnable Question”) mixed with strange pop incarnations like “Dance With You” and “About to Die.” It is a weird and wonderful joy. Dirty Projectors

6) Michael Kiwanuka – Home Again (ATO)

Not since the 70’s masterpieces by Curtis Mayfield, Issac Hayes, Rodriguez (and others), has there been a record this soulful and authentic. Kiwanuka is a 24 year old Brit with a voice as smooth as anything you are likely to hear. Discovered by The Bees Paul Butler, himself a musical revivalist, “Home Again” is an album of anachronistic magic, and old-fashioned modern soul.

Kiwanuka originally imagined himself primarily as a guitarist, but on instant classics like “Tell Me  Take” and “I’ll get Along” you hear Hendrix filtered through Van Morrison, silky and smooth. The production and instrumentation is a perfect compliment to the truly special magic that happens on “Home Again.” It doesn’t get much better. Michael Kiwanuka

7) Sharon Van Etten – Tramp (Jagjaguar)

I remember the first time I saw Jeff Buckley live, solo and plugged into a small amp at Sin-é Café on St. Marks in NYC. I had heard the tapes, but to see him live was to get the context that made it all make sense. I feel the same way about Sharon Van Etten. She is a blossoming genius with a heavenly voice, hugely personal lyrics and a presence that is both surprisingly whimsical yet profoundly intense.

Some artists write beautiful lyrics or music, others have voices like angels or devils, while others bleed passion and genius across a complete spectrum. But the very best of them transport us to a totally new place, they get hold of us and don’t let go until the last chord is strummed, the last lyric falls, leaving us longing for more. Sharon Van Etten is that rare combination of raw honesty and accessible emotion. Three albums into what will hopefully be a long career, Van Etten, has found a middle ground between the  precious, raw and spare “We Are Fine” and the  straight forward rock ““Serpents”. I’m in love. Sharon Van Etten

8) Foxygen – Take The Kids Off Broadway (Jagjaguar)

When two kids about a third the age of their apparent idols: Bowie, Lou Reed, Mick Jagger, and Nick Cave, reinterpret the 70’s, the result will either be disastrous or incredible.  “Take The Kids Off Broadway” is a brilliant breezy trip to the past channeled through something uniquely modern. If Wes Anderson were looking to score his movies with modern artists, Foxygen would be his house band.

On tunes like “Waitin’ 4 U” you are hurled back into a Stonesy state of mind, and a moment later on “Make it Known” it is more like  David Johansen’s New York Dolls swagger.  For most people born after 1965, this whole era of music was missed completely, which is a tragedy. Thanks to bands like MGMT and Foxygen, dirty, dirgy rock music is alive and well again. Foxygen

9) Tame Impala - Lonerism (Modular)

Australia’s Tame Impala is an old school, big time psychedelic rock band. From the very first chords on “Lonerism” (the sublime “Got to Be above It’) you feel transported back to an epic Pink Floyd show from an age long gone. Most of the band members were born a decade after “The Wall” but with a breadth of keys, swirling guitars and a steady baseline, everything just falls neatly into place despite the controlled cacophony.

To see the band live is to re/experience what a rock show used to be like: extended jams, trippy lights, and long improvisational moments of musical theater. Songs like “Elephant” thump and thud with an irresistible hard rock beat, while much of the rest of this minor masterpiece reflects the past through a two way mirror into the future. Tame Impala

10) Grizzly Bear – Shields (Warp)

Like the Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear aspires to something well beyond conventional rock music. Their musical abilities have finally caught up with their ambition. Alternating between precious and raucous, the band refuses to play it straight and instead chooses a stranger road paved with unexpected transitions and odd tunings.

Occasionally they make it easy on the listener with tunes like “Yet Again” and “Gun Shy,” which seem to glide on a careful pop structure, filled with crystalline vocals exchanged among the band’s multiple vocalists. Other times they tend to push you into an entirely different direction, as in  “Sleeping Ute,” where the melodies explode into a wall of sound. “Shields” is a magical place, filled with magical players and sounds. Grizzly Bear [Read more…]

The Bestest, Filmmage 2012

Another great year for films large and small, but in reality I think it was the bigger films that were better than the indie’s. Perhaps it’s that the indie film marketplace has never been more difficult than it is today. Art house screens are disappearing and the ones that exist are often not much bigger than the screen in your living room. Add to that the compression of release windows, and you’ll find most indie’s on Netflix or Amazon within a few months. But the big films were smarter, longer and largely better than any year for the past decade, and any of the most respected auteurs working had films this year (Tarantino, Haneke, Wes Anderson, PT Anderson, Speilberg, Russell). Half of this list is already streamable and the other half, should probably be seen on the screen, so go make it happen.

1) Searching For Sugar Man – Dir. Malik Bendjelloul (Sixto Rodriguez)

Every year there is a film that transcends all others, both in creativity and also in its earnestness. “Searching For Sugar Man” is just that film. It is really two films in fact, the first a bizarre backstory about how an obscure folk singer became the most important musician in apartheid South Africa without ever having a clue. The second film within a film is about the journey to rediscovering one of the most criminally under heard musicians of the 70’s.

Most music docs put the music at the forefront because the stories behind the musicians are already broadly known (The Last Waltz, Marley) but “Sugar Man” is a story of a man nobody knew. A man who lived in quite, simple, peaceful, obscurity in a very modest apartment in Detroit making a living as a day laborer. But Rodriguez, whose records I discovered only a decade ago, and like Nick Drake who struggled to find an audience around the same time, had a voice like and angel, and wrote words even more piercing and honest than Dylan. But unlike Drake, he survived, and never seamed to carry any anger about his lack of success. He was and is still a beacon of light who exudes a kindness that makes his music so unquestionably beautiful. This film is a true masterpiece.

2) Django Unchained – Dir. Quentin Tarantino (Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz)

Picking up where “Inglorious Bastards” left off, “Django” is the perfect canvas to enjoy watching bad guys get slaughtered comically while the good guys tow that fine line. The violence is funny, but the drama is real, and for almost three hours, Tarantino entertains you mashing up spaghetti westerns with “Roots.” In almost anybody else’s hands a bloody slavery revenge film would watch like a sloppy mess, but Tarantino is a film buff with brass balls, so anything goes.

Christoph Waltz is again brilliant as German bounty hunter, who ends up freeing Jamie Foxx’s Django from chain gang early on to help him kill the Brittle brothers. Like all of his films Tarantino spins a great yarn of a story, juxtaposes good and evil, uses music as well as can be imagined, and extracts exquisite performances from everyone. Django the character, represents the underdog who not only overachieves, but blows up roof when given the chance. Of the two anti-slavery films this year, “Django” wins if for nothing other than originality alone.

3)  Beasts of the Southern Wild – Dir. Ben Zeitland (Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry)

You have never seen a film like this before. That is because the topic is so specific and the performances are real you’d swear you were watching real life unfold, albeit a strange and almost surreal one. This world is the one inhabited by the remarkable Hushpuppy, a six-year old survivor from the Bathtub region – an impoverished island like area off the coast of New Orleans. She lives in a ramshackle trailer with her alcoholic father until the storm comes, and turns everything into a swampy jungle.

Cast largely with first time actors, and shot on a shoestring in the ravages post Katrina Bayou’s “Beasts” plays like a slow motion, waking dream. And although each character seems pathetic and worthy of our sympathy they are all beautiful fighters, who neither want our pity nor expect it. Life in the Bathtub is filled with fragrant colors and characters who form a dysfunctional family, rag tag yet indestructible. You will not see another quite this rich in so many ways this year.

4) Moonrise Kingdom – Dir. Wes Anderson (Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Francis McDormand)

Most people either are or aren’t Wes Anderson fans. There is no middle ground. If you’re a fan, this will be one of your favorites- right up there with “Rushmore” and “Fantastic Fox.” Everything is so small, nuanced and twee that it would be almost impossible to not appreciate his obsessive detail focus.  In fact the film almost looks like you are looking into a dollhouse of tiny real people, scattered across a rustic wonderland filled with strange caricatures.

Largely a story of young love and the minor adventure that ensues when the community gets involved in the search, this film is mostly about getting know a dozen or so genuinely unique characters: Ed Norton’s super serious boy scout leader, to the Bill Murray and Frances McDormand’s detached parents, to the Bruce Willis wacky Captain Sharp. The film is a visual feast, but also one of the most creative films of the year where watching very happen couldn’t be more entertaining.

5) Argo – Dir. Ben Affleck  (John Goodman, Alan Arkin)

Ben Affleck is on a helluva run these days. “The Town,” “Gone Baby Gone” and now “Argo” are all nearly perfect films. There is nothing flashy, but everything is rock solid: cinematography, acting, and the overall texture. Perhaps it took him a while to get rolling, but his films are beginning to have the substance of Clint Eastwood’s directorial efforts.

“Argo” tells the story of the Iran hostage crisis, and the outrageous plan to free them by staging a fictional film. Affleck is perfect in his role of producer, but John Goodman, Alan Arkin and the rest of the cast are superb, bathed in a crisp 1980 authenticity. There was no film easier to watch than this one in 2012.

6) Lincoln– Dir. Steven Spielberg (Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field)

Watching “Lincoln” is like eating vegetables, but the ones that taste good – onion rings perhaps. Weighing in at nearly 3 hours, it flies by. In it we learn much about the politics of getting the 13 Amendment passed, but mostly we learn about Lincoln. If we believe the film, we learn that he was laugh out loud funny, a consummate and talented storyteller, and perhaps our country’s most gifted politician.

Daniel Day-Lewis makes very few films, and as a result he is staggering in nearly all of them. This might even be his best role yet, not only physically becoming Lincoln, but creating a character so nuanced (he sounds a bit like Bill Clinton on vicodin) you’ll forget at times he isn’t the president. Conversely, Spielberg makes loads of films, and they cover a massive amount of ground, but with “Lincoln” he plays right at the intersection of his passions: history and quashing bad guys. It’s really good.

7) Robot and Frank – Dir. Jake Schreier (Frank Langella, Liv Tyler, Susan Sarandon)

I love this film. It is small in scale but huge on humanity, realism, empathy and a bunch of other good qualities. Frank Langella, who just seems to be getting better with age, this time plays a cranky white collar ex-thief who is sent a robot by his son to keep him company. Living in quiet isolation in a quaint New England town, he occasionally ventures into town with stops at the library (which is closing) where flirts with Susan Sarandon as soon to be out of work librarian.

Although the film moves briskly through a pretty straightforward plotline, it is wonderful in that it juxtaposes the technological advantages present with the beautiful simplicity of the past. No film this year personalizes the both the realities of growing old, with the genuine human need to have meaningful companionship as a reason to survive. And yes there is a surprise twist, pay close attention.

8) Zero Dark Thirty – Dir. Kathryn Bigelow (Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton)

If you watch and love “Homeland” you will no doubt like “Zero Dark” but perhaps a little less than if you didn’t watch the show. As great as the film is, unlike “The Hurt Locker” which was just raw, gritty, fresh, and unexpected, this time you are seeing a story you have likely been following for a dozen years, and whose theme and setting is much more topical today that it was even five years ago.

That said, this is truly solid filmmaking with an incredibly deep cast, led by Jessica Chastain, but featuring a deep bench of familiar faces. Given that we know how the story begins and ends, watching the fat middle unfold is surprisingly intense and compelling. Katherine Bigelow has all of a sudden seemed to hit a kind of Ridley Scott stride.

9) 2 Days in New York –Dir. Julie Delpy (Chris Rock, Julie Delpy)

I miss the “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” era Woody Allen films, which is why I was so delighted to see Julie Delpy pick up where he left off. Everything is there in spades, the cramped but homey NYC apartments, the improbably contrived situations, the hilarious rapid-fire dialogue, and lovable characters. Instead of a nebbish Allen, we get a hipster Chris Rock, and an irresistible Delpy and her real life father.

This film is far superior to its Parisian predecessor, and might be the best performances to date from Rock and Delpy. The dialogue is relentlessly comedic, and revolves around the disastrous visit of Delpy’s French relatives as they descend on her tiny Manhattan apartment. The film is both laugh out loud funny, and genuinely sentimental.

10) Cloud Atlas – Dir. Tom Twyker / Wachowski’s (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry)

In a year filled with long movies, “Cloud Atlas” is the one probably deserves the longest running time, as it is derived from an enormous original work, and actually tells 6 interconnected but separate tales spanning 300 years. Although you might find the underlying “past lives spiritualism” a bit hokey, there is much to love even at a superficial level.

Of the many visual and plot gimmicks, the most clever, and almost always effective trick is that Hanks, Berry, and the rest of the play different characters in each of the six stories which begin on a Polynesian island in 1849 and end in futurist Seoul, Korea 2044. The scale and ambition of the film is among the most ambitious of the year, so despite holes here and there, I think it fair to describe it as remarkable.

11) Your Sister’s Sister – Dir. Lynn Shelton (Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt)

This is bona fide chick flick that even self respecting dudes will no doubt relate to. In part this is because at some point, everyone probably wishes that they could go back in time, not have kids, mortgages, and the anxiety of adult life. This film feels more like a play shot on film than a film, but it doesn’t really matter because this is all about the dialogue.

Mumblecore superstar Mark Duplass is increasingly becoming a legitimate, card-carrying movie star, but it is in roles like this where he really thrives, as a dude kind of lost in the middle of his life. Thankfully he is shuffled off to recuperate at the beautiful cabin belonging to his best buddy (Emily Blunt) where he finds her irresistible lesbian sister. The rest unravels like a beautiful sweater.

12) Silver Linings Playbook – Dir. David O. Russell (Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper)

It is hard to see this film without lofty expectations unless you’ve been hiding under a rock. That said David O. Russell, manages to take what could have been a painfully cliché mass dramedy and turn it into a near perfect romantic comedy. Bradley Cooper’s manic lead, is spot on, as a recovering bi-polar former teacher looking to restart his life from his parents blue collar Philadelphia home.

Ripping what seems like a page from Frederick Exley’s brilliant novel “A Fans Note,” DeNiro plays the football obsessed patriarch (although his team is the Eagles not the Giants) and delivers his best performance in years. As good as Cooper is though, Jennifer Lawrence, is adorable and more important believable as the girl who will help him start again. This film won’t hurt your brain, but is very easy to swallow, and makes you smile throughout.

13) Liberal Arts – Dir. Josh Radnor (Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins)

After seeing the film at Sundance, I assumed it would be the runaway indie comedy of 2012. Perhaps it’s that the film has a whole bunch of personal relevance, having spent a bunch of lost weekends on the set (re: campus) when I was younger. In the film a 30-something graduate returns to his alma mater, Kenyon College, for a weekend to watch his second-favorite professor (Richard Jenkins) honored after a lifetime at the school.

While there he falls in love both with the past, and a beautiful, precocious girl half his age played by the most talented Olson sister (Elizabeth). Although it won’t stretch your brain too much, there are plenty of bittersweet reminiscences and a handful of wonderful cameos including a brilliant one from Allison Janney as a cougar-esque English teacher. This film was criminally under seen.

14) The Deep Blue Sea – Dir. Terrance Davies (Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston)

Rachel Weisz is one of the most underrated actors working today. She always delivers perfectly understated performances, but this time around her patience and sadness is as good as anything this year. The film has an incredibly slow but compelling pace, in part due to the fact the film is remake of a film, adapted from a 1955 play. But director Terrance Davies manages to execute the authenticity of the time a place (post WWII London) to a tee.

But the story is largely about love, or the lack thereof, and features Weisz in an almost Sylvia Plath “Bell Jar” role, despondent, but with a sliver of hope shining faintly. She is married to a rich older man, but this gives way to an affair with much younger but volatile man. For people looking for an upbeat feel good film, this is not the one, but “The Deep Blue Sea” harkens back to an older more formal kind of filmmaking.

15) Marley – Dir. Kevin McDonald (Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Jimmy Cliff)

Who doesn’t love Bob Marley? Maybe there are two other artists in the history of rock music who are as universally loved as he is, but oddly most people know almost nothing about how he started and how his life ended. Although this is not a film that shines a particularly bright light onto the mind and soul of Marley, it does a more than adequate job of outlining the basic details of his life, all set to a wonderful soundtrack of rarities and hits.

Directed capably by Kevin McDonald, “Marley” features interviews with friends, family, band mates and business associates, concert footage, rare photos, it is a delight to revisit Marley as a younger man making his way, and established start, and then one dealing with a fatal illness. There are no real revelations here, but I’m not sure there needs to be.

16) The Sessions – Dir. Ben Lewin (John Hawkes, Helen Hunt)

When I saw “The Sessions” at Sundance last year, it was called “The Surrogate.” I loved it for many reasons, but mostly it was the combination of the fact that it was based on a true story, and the blunt courage of the actors. In it the great John Hawkes plays man trapped in an iron lung for most of his life, and his relationship with a sex surrogate played by Helen Hunt in easily the finest performance of her career.

Although much of film involves quite graphic and awkward sex between the two, the film really revolves about the relationship the two develop over the course of their sessions. In an age increasingly divorced from actually human contact (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) watching two people interact as intimately as this reminds us how important it is to be alive and living in the physical world.

17) The Master – Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson (Joachin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman) You will either love or loath this film about a the leader of a Scientology-like cult, and one of his rabid followers. More sheer power from PT Anderson.

18) Bernie – Dir. Richard Linklater (Jack Black, Shirley McLaine) Off character brilliance from Jack Black as a small town mortician caught up in murder, and winding weirdly towards a something genuinely original.

19) Looper – Dir. Rian Johnson (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt) The mind-bending “Looper” sends assassins from the past into the future to kill and then dispose of bodies in the past. Yup, awesome even for non-sci-fiers.

20) Amour – Dir. Michael Haneke (Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Riva) The story of two retired music teachers, and their daughter who reenters their life and flips it upside down.

21) Arbitrage – Dir. Nicolas Jarecki (Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth) This wonderfully topical film about a loathsome hedge master of the universe whose world is crumbling around him.

22) Sleepwalk With Me – Dir. Mike Birbiglia (Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose) A breezy little romantic comedy starring an incredibly lovable aspiring comedian and the incredible girlfriend who for some reason still loves with him.

23) Dark Horse – Dir. Todd Solandz (Selma Blair, Christopher Walken) Another painfully sad suburban tale of loneliness and longing from the indie sad sap Solandz. Heartbreakingly hilarious.

24) Oslo, August 31 – Dir. Joachim Trier (Anders Danielsen Lie, Hans Olav Brenner) As stark and patient a film as you are likely to see, also as bleak and depressing as you are likely to watch.