You know it’s been a good year when creating a list of your favorite movies can’t be limited to just 10 — and two films jockey back and forth for the top spot right up until I hit “publish.”
And yet, rules are rules are rules, and tough decisions have to be made.
So without further ado, and with the full knowledge that Jeff Wells may call me a “beefalo,” here’s my list of the 10 best and most enjoyable movies I saw this year — as well as some honorable mentions and the 10 worst ones too. For my full reviews, click on each of the movie titles.
(Note: At the time of this blog post, not all the films have been officially released in Boston. I’ll add links when those reviews are published.)
1. The Master
It was a very close call this year, but in the end, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film takes the top spot. The Master is PTA at the top of his game, commanding our attention and bringing us along on a mesmerizing journey of faith and belief. The film is told in operatic style, in movements, scored beautifully by Jonny Greenwood, and shot with painterly precision by Mihai Malaimare Jr. It delves deep into the minds of its characters, forcing the audience to succumb to its mysteries. And it’s an acting tour de force: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix are nothing short of brilliant. In a year of great movies, The Master is the one film I can see myself watching over and over again, discovering new layers of meaning every time.
2. Zero Dark Thirty
It was such a close call for the top spot because Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the 10-year manhunt to capture Osama bin Laden is just that good. An intense and provocative film, told with exacting journalistic detail (screenplay is by Mark Boal, who also wrote The Hurt Locker), ZD30 is a white-knuckle thriller that will have your heart racing and your palms sweating — even though we all know how it ends. Kudos to Jessica Chastain, who plays a CIA agent whose dogged pursuit is more than a job, it’s a personal obsession. Chastain portrays the gamut of emotions, and Bigelow’s you-are-there filmmaking style creates an unforgettable viewing experience.
3. The Dark Knight Rises
Christopher Nolan’s thrilling final entry in his Batman trilogy starts on a high note and doesn’t relent until we’re exhausted, elated, excited, and so far from disappointed. Nearly everything about this movie — from Hans Zimmer’s epic score, to the cast, to the shot-with-IMAX-cameras cinematography — is huge, but it’s as impressive story- and character-wise as it is visually. Anne Hathaway, even better than she is in Les Miserables, stands out as the cat burglar Selina Kyle, and deserves her own spinoff.
Led by a predictably good Daniel Day-Lewis, Steven Spielberg’s film zeroes in on just a few months in the life of Lincoln — the ones where he tried to get the 13th Amendment passed and end the Civil War — and portrays the President as a thinker and strategist. The subject is treated with appropriate reverence, without being self-important, making this film a history lesson that engages and entertains.
A biting, pitch-perfect, darker-than-black comedy about women’s intense rivalries when it comes to marriage that made me laugh harder than any film in recent memory has. Think Mean Girls + Bridesmaids + The Hangover — except much, much funnier. Hell, even Kirsten Dunst is great in this movie, and that’s not something I say lightly.
Ben Affleck’s suspenseful, mostly-true film about the 1979 mission to rescue American officials in Iran has all the period details down. Better yet, it’s the kind of thriller Alan Pakula or Sidney Lumet might have made back in the day. It’s also great inside baseball; Affleck gets to make Hollywood both the hero and the butt of the joke, just one reason why he deserves lots of credit for this film.
7. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson taps into the innocence of childhood in a way he hasn’t done before in any of his films, and the result is a quirky (of course), meticulously designed (natch), warm-hearted film about young love among misfits, and the need to get away from a world that doesn’t understand you.
8. Ruby Sparks
This film — directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and written by star Zoe Kazan — tells a story filled with real, human emotion about the price we pay for seeking a perfect partner and relationship. Think Adaptation meets Bride of Frankenstein meets Annie Hall, but know that Ruby Sparks is so much more creative, insightful, and enjoyable than just a mashup of other movies.
9. Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino’s latest is a gleefully violent revenge fantasy set in the pre–Civil War South. Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz play a freed slave and bounty hunter who hunt down and kill a bunch of slave owners, and other very bad men — including a plantation owner (played by a playfully evil Leonardo DiCaprio) who’s the owner of Django’s wife. Funny, bold, and bloody, with a killer soundtrack, Django is the kind of film Inglorious Basterds should have been.
10. Searching for Sugar Man
This film is not just a true story that’s more interesting than some works of fiction, and not just a film about a musician, it’s a universal tale about a man who finally gets the recognition of his work that he always deserved. Who can’t identify with that? A terrific soundtrack and a fascinating, humble subject make this compelling documentary a must-see.
Here, in no particular order, are five more films that just missed the cut:
A taut financial thriller starring Richard Gere that effectively shows how ridiculous amounts of money and wealth are both seductive and inherently corrupt.
Director Sam Mendes and his team successfully revitalize the Bond brand, making affectionate nods to the past and effectively setting up the characters for future fieldwork.
This stylish, enjoyable film shows the filmmaker at a crossroads, and how the lengths he went to get Psycho made changed Hollywood and movie marketing forever.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
I wish there were more earnest, authentic movies about high school like this one is. Perks is the kind of movie its characters would probably approve of, perhaps the best compliment you can give it.
This sweet film about a high school reunion was a nice surprise. It has an easy, unforced quality, and the attractive cast gives believable performances that make you think maybe they all really did go to school together.
And the worst
Of course, it wasn’t all good. So here are the 10 worst, least enjoyable movies I sat through this year:
1. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
Who wants to watch Steve Carell mope around about his lost love, when there are just three weeks left till the end of the world? So much potential for good comedy wasted.
2. This Means War
Reese Witherspoon’s streak of stinkers continues. This far-fetched, unexciting film is intended to be a comedy, but the laughs are few and far between.
3. The Dictator
I can’t remember the last time a comedy made me laugh this little. The less said about it, the better.
4. Jeff, Who Lives at Home
This film is about as depressed (and depressing) as its title character is, and similarly lacking in purpose.
5. People Like Us
This film is too long and too predictable, and too little of it really connected with me.
Nothing in this lame film is as torturous as watching it, and listening to a gorgeous Blake Lively utter silly lines of dialogue like “I have orgasms. He has wargasms.”
7. To Rome with Love
This forgettable film seems confused, it’s oddly cast, it’s too long, and basically, it’s just not one of Woody Allen’s best.
8. Trouble with the Curve
This predictable film, another “get offa my lawn” story about grouchy old Clint Eastwood and his character’s inability to understand or communicate with his younger counterparts, is an exercise in patience.
9. Hope Springs
Meryl Streep plays a character who is so sad and depressed that you feel really sorry for her — and not for the right reasons.
10. Life of Pi
Ang Lee wants to take you on a spiritual journey, but the story and 3D effects are so over the top that instead of being deep, the film ends up wading in shallow waters.
What were your favorite and least favorite films of the year? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.