Storms, disenfranchisement, Katrina. Melting ice caps, trauma inflicted upon children, floods. In this wildly imaginative tale about a little girl (Quvenzhane Wallis) living with her ailing, alcoholic father (Dwight Henry) in a feral, lowland community, first-time director Benh Zeitlin plucks our loosely connected shared experiences from the past few years and releases them into the air, where they intermingle like the bits of dust and pollen so often captured by his nature-attuned camera. In a uniquely exhilarating way, Beasts is both mournful and cathartic, not to mention anchored by two of the best novice performances I’ve ever seen.
We uphold the truth as an ultimate end to be achieved at any cost, but is the truth sometimes better left unsaid? That’s the question posed by this contemplative drama from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, which follows the meanderings of a search party across the Anatolian countryside looking for a murder victim’s body. Ceylan’s landscapes are so captivating that when movement occurs within the frame, it’s as if the cinema has invaded a lush painting. You don’t watch Anatolia; you soak in it.
Arrietty is an unassuming pick for a top-ten list, unless you highly value the serenity this Japanese import offers (especially in light of the increasing cacophony of family animated pictures). Based on the children’s novel The Borrowers, about a family of tiny people living beneath a house, Arrietty has some adventure, but it mostly luxuriates in elegantly detailed stillness. That’s a quality not to be underestimated these days.
Another cinematic vice grip from director Michael Haneke, though this time it’s tinged with uncharacteristic mercy. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva give two of the best performances of the year as Georges and Anne, an older couple whose life of quiet contentment is irrevocably altered by her stroke. This is brutally true to the awfulness of aging, yet Haneke’s camera – a sadistic tool in some of his movies – here lends Georges and Anne a dignity they so greatly deserve.
Slyly political (consider the delightfully multicultural implications of having Will Ferrell anchor a Spanish-language drug comedy in the same year that immigration debates raged across the country), Casa de mi Padre is also a picture of outrageously surreal beauty. From the DayGlo glare of the opening credits to the over-saturated hues that dominant most scenes, it often seems as if the camera has been dazed after looking too long into the sun. I would have been worried that my retinas were being seared, but I was laughing so hard I didn’t care.
A movie so rich, I’ve written about it a few times already and have yet to talk about its most distinguishing characteristic (at least within the Wes Anderson canon). In lending so much of the soundtrack to the classical compositions of Benjamin Britten, Anderson found a new way to underscore one of his favorite themes: the value of community. By the end of the film both the instruments in the orchestra and the lost, lonely characters on New Penzance island have created beautiful harmony.
7. The Master
I’m still not sure exactly what Paul Thomas Anderson is up to here, and that’s largely why I love his idiosyncratic opus about a troubled World War II veteran (a mesmerizingly creepy Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in with a Scientology-like self-help movement. It’s a rare director who can hold you in thrall with every frame, then have you eager to return to the film to see what you might have missed. I think they end up calling those movies classics.
Slight as a documentary, Versailles is hugely resonant as a cultural snapshot of an early 21st-century America sick with consumption. Director Lauren Greenfield set out to follow a timeshare mogul and his trophy wife as they built the largest home in America, but plans changed when his business goes under amidst the 2008 financial collapse. The couple’s attempts to “cut back” are never mocked, even as they serve as tacky, exaggerated metaphors for how most Americans are addicted to obtaining things they can’t afford.
You know those “silly” sci-fi movies from the ’50s and ’60s that we now hold in high esteem for the way they captured their moment in time? The Hunger Games, as a sharp allegory about our intertwined obsessions with voyeurism and televised exhibitionism, will be one of those movies in the ensuing decades. For now, Jennifer Lawrence’s sullen lead turn is enough to keep the silliness at bay.
Can a movie make a top-ten list for a single image? In Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of the Emily Bronte classic, there is a shot of a duck hanging in a kitchen, its dead eye letting loose a supple drip of blood, and it starkly captures the sort of tragic, earthy sensuality that defines the picture. Need a second reason? Newcomer Solomon Glave gives a remarkable, nearly wordless performance as the orphan boy Heathcliff.