1) “The Tree of Life.” This is a meditation on faith that challenges viewers to examine their own spiritual beliefs. The loose, almost stream-of-consciousness approach has caused many critics (and moviegoers) to accuse director Terrence Malick of being vague and inconclusive. But the film, with its glorious scenes of a world being formed, moves in a surprisingly coherent fashion for what is such a profoundly personal reflection. One of the leading questions is the existence of human flaws in a supposedly perfect universe. Who is to blame? Why can’t even a single family—a father and a son or even brothers—avoid moments of conflict? Added bonus: an unusually compelling performance by Brad Pitt.
“Margin Call.” It’s the night before the economic collapse of 2008 and a low level employee in a giant Wall Street firm realizes the disaster ahead for his company and its rivals because they are all dealing in flawed (and increasingly worthless) mortgage-based securities. That may not sound like the plot you need for a psychological thriller, but first-time writer-director J.C. Chandor brings us inside the corporate with an intimacy and emotional power that gets us caught up in the debate over how the company should handle the crisis—and there are plenty of heroes and villains along the way. Jeremy Irons is magnificent as the corporate boss and Kevin Spacey nearly matches him as the employee who most wrestles with the ethical issues involved.
“The Artist.” Bravo! Even if this silent, black and white French production by director Michel Hazanavicius did nothing more than thumb its nose at the circus-like effects of modern filmmaking, it’d deserve our affection. But the movie does much, much more to win our allegiance. It’s a love story on many levels. First, the love between a silent actor whose fame has deserted him with the advent of talkies and a fresh-faced young actress whose open, outgoing personality is ideal for the new movie format. Then the movie celebrates the love of a man and his dog, but mostly “The Artist” is about our love of movies. The acting deserves special praise, from Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo as the principals to John Goodman as the head of a Hollywood studio and James Cromwell as Dujardin’s loyal chauffeur. The real strength of the film is the sweet innocence and heart that Hazanavicius unfurls on the screen. Tip: Bring a pencil and pad so you can keep track of all the echoes of classic films, starting with “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Sunset Boulevard.”
“The Descendants.” Just as he showed in “Sideways” and “About Schmidt,” director Alexander Payne has a marvelous way of telling us so much about the rites and rituals of American life by focusing on the private journey of a single individual—and he has absolutely the right instincts for casting. This time out, George Clooney—who is rapidly becoming our generation’s Cary Grant for his ability to charm us in any role, how ever heavy or light—adds to the memorable portraits by Paul Giamati and Jack Nicholson. He plays a husband who tries to act decently as he faces a series of life-altering decisions about his daughters and his role in his larger family’s legacy.
“Double Hour.” To look at this film as only a tip of the hat by Italian film by director Giuseppe Capotondi to the psychological sleight of hand of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” fails to acknowledge the achievement of the movie. Things start off nicely when a failed policeman, now a security guard, meets a mysterious young woman at a social dating club. Are they meant for each other—or is the intrigue they encounter part of someone’s plot? A smart, stylish, ever surprising film.
“Meek’s Cutoff.” Much like “The Hurt Locker,” we step into a remote world of combat (of a sort) and paranoia—a taut, gripping film that is so unrelenting in its mystery and pace that you never sense even a trace of compromise. Director Kelly Reichardt focuses on a small wagon train that gets lost in the vast openness of Oregon in the 1840s and turns to a Native American stranger for help, only to worry if they are being led to safety or into an ambush. Another standout performance by Michelle Williams. Excellent script by Jon Raymond.
The entire list in order of preference:
The Tree of Life
Ides of March
My Week with Marilyn
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Midnight in Paris
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Skin I Live In
Just Go for It
Pirates of the Caribbean on Stranger Tides
(This is a list in progress; some year-end films are still to be seen, so we may add others over the next few weeks.)