This has been a phenomenal year for film. There were at least 40 films I rated 4 stars and above, so making this list was fun, but excruciating. I had to leave off so many great films. As a theme for the year, I’ve listed 15 game changers, films that either tackled a theme or subject in a completely different way or surprised me with a bold, unique vision.
1) Silver Linings Playbook
Dir. David O. Russell. Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver and Chris Tucker.
A game changer on every level, beginning with Cooper and Lawrence who show audiences, now familiar with their faces, something completely different and winning. Cooper employs his acerbic sense of humor with a grace and humility missing from previous roles. Lawrence shows she can do more than strong, stoic female loners with a performance so engaging you see the true range of her talent. I recommend this film on a daily basis, but have the hardest time describing it. It’s not a romantic comedy, but the most romantic and funniest film of the year. Russell tackles serious issues (mental illness, domestic violence, economic hardship) and succeeded in making us care about these characters and their relationships. With a great soundtrack, including songs by Led Zeppelin, The White Stripes, and the Alabama Shakes, Silver Linings Playbook made this great year in life ever greater.
2) Django Unchained
Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, and Samuel L. Jackson
A mind-blowing film experience in every way, Tarantino made the film I always wanted to see, but never knew could exist. Django Unchained uses the violent and shameful context of American slavery and places a liberated, sharp-shooting Black man in the center, played powerfully by Jamie Foxx. Christoph Waltz makes a charming and lethal companion, but never usurps Django’s mission. Kerry Washington is the emotional center of the film, as Django’s wife. Samuel L. Jackson plays a complete scoundrel, who wields his power with loathsome glee. Finally, Leonardo DiCaprio kills it as wretched, spoiled slave-owner Calvin Candie. In the film, especially when DiCaprio is on screen, you go from laughing to complete shock and fear. I know Django Unchained will be a film I revisit over and over again.
3) The Dark Knight Rises
Dir. Christopher Nolan. Starring Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Gary Oldman. Tom Hardy, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Marion Cotilard, and Joseph Gordon Levitt
I’ve always had a connection with Batman. The idea of a man who turns his tragic past into a quest to rid his city of those who prey on others has always compelled me. And after all these Batman stories, I’ve never really thought about the darkness plaguing Bruce Wayne in being Batman. The Dark Knight Rises stands above other films in this genre by delivering an emotional character study along with thrilling action scenes and a villain we can truly despise in Bane. Nolan brings his Batman to the darkest depths, breaking his body and his soul with images of his beloved city tearing itself apart. Bruce has to realize what being Batman has done to him and rediscover his own inherent value as a person without the mask. Everyone in this dazzling ensemble raises the caliber of this franchise and genre, especially Christian Bale and Anne Hathaway as the perfect Catwoman for today’s audience.
4) Beasts of the Southern Wild
Dir. Benh Zeitlin. Starring Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry
Seeing Beasts was a rare and riveting experience. It’s a children’s film where the dangers aren’t inexplicably wicked stepmothers or magical creatures. Instead, Hushpuppy faces an uncertain and insecure world of family abandonment and ecological dangers. Hushpuppy is a model of strength, facing down hurricanes and her unsteady father Wink with dignity and unfettered resolve. Just as Hushpuppy insists the scientists of the future will know of her existence, young actress Quvenzhané Wallis asserts herself on to the tapestry of film history with her powerful lead performance. Finally, the film’s music, composed by director Benh Zeitlin is the perfect companion to the film; whimsical, beautiful, and grand- just like Hushpuppy herself.
Dir. Steven Spielberg. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln deserves to be seen, praised, and remembered for the rest of recorded time. It’s a perfect film. The structure builds an incredible amount of tension in a well-covered historical event. Sally Field humanizes Mary Todd Lincoln, displaying the cunning and wit of the First Lady, while also digging deeper into the grief and pressures she faced. Daniel Day Lewis gives the greatest performance by a human being in a medium called film. It’s not even fair to compare his other work or other performances this year to this masterpiece.
6) Zero Dark Thirty
Dir. Kathryn Bigelow. Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Joel Edgerton, and Chris Pratt
I saw this last night and I’m still processing, but I know this is a true cinematic achievement. Zero Dark Thirty focuses on the long, stressful, tense, and sometimes tedious process of fighting the “War on Terror.” It shows, in gripping and harrowing detail, the use of torture to gather and confirm leads. It also shows the strain on individual agents- the loss of friends, snares of politics, and the slow defeat by the lack of clear clues. Jessica Chastain leads and holds this film with a fierce and memorable performance. As the movie approached the inevitable mission, I felt incredibly uncomfortable- not really wanting to see this event through Bigelow’s unvarnished and unforgiving lens.
Dir. Sam Mendes. Starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, and Ben Whishaw
In one of the longest and most popular film franchises, Skyfall proves Bond can still surprise and captivate audiences. Daniel Craig takes his rugged Bond to a new and exciting level here. Over the years, we have seen Bond’s capacity for violence, sex, and heroism. Skyfall makes this series vital again by exploring the character’s capacity for love and loyalty. The storyline between Craig’s Bond and Judi Dench as M surpasses anything in this franchise. Initially, I was suspicious of Sam Mendes directing Bond. Yet after Skyfall, I will never accept another director’s vision in this world again.
8) The Master
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams
Every frame in this film is masterfully constructed. The performances shock, disgust, and intrigue. I left the film completely disoriented. In Freddie Quell we see how our society has mastered the destruction of human beings. Freddie’s soul, moral conscious, and ability to function have been eroded by abuse, war, and social isolation. The Master is less an indictment of religion, if you want that There Will Be Blood nails it, and more an exploration of the hypocrisy involved when any man dares to have the cure to another man’s brokenness, especially if his tools are control and unquestioned obedience.
9) Perks of Being a Wallflower
Dir. Stephen Chbosky. Starring Logan Lerman. Ezra Miller, and Emma Watson
This film completely took me by surprise. It’s charming, real, and heart wrenching in the best possible way. Logan Lerman gives one of the best performances of the year as Charlie. Looking to make friends and deal with a traumatic past, Charlie falls into a group of charismatic misfits led by Ezra Miller and Emma Watson as Patrick and Sam. Even if you weren’t re-enacting Rocky Horror or listening to David Bowie in high school, the hopes, disappointments, fears, and moments of connection in this film will touch you.
Dir. Rian Johnson. Starring Joseph Gordon Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt
Johnson creates a bold and fascinating world to explore questions of fate and choice. Joseph Gordon Levitt stars as Joe, an assassin of targets from the future. It’s a thrilling action film with stunning visual effects, great performances, and a tightly wound story that keeps you engaged throughout. Many films contemplate good and evil. I appreciated Johnson’s specific take on the motivations behind evil and how to break the cycle of violence.
11) End of Watch
Dir. David Ayer. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena
Ayer’s gritty portrait of two Los Angeles cops in their gang and drug riddled beat entertained and stayed with me. End of Watch shows a different LAPD from the corrupt cops of Training Day and Rampart with Gyllenhaal and Pena as genuinely good cops facing a changing city of multiple threats. The chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Pena powers the film and delivers an emotional punch.
12) The Hunger Games
Dir. Gary Ross. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, and Donald Sutherland
A thrilling and brilliant adaptation of the dystopian novel, The Hunger Games is a deft critique of our reality television obsessed culture. It reminds us using the bleakest narrative of the value of life and the importance of integrity. Through Katniss Everdeen’s journey to survive, you see the moral awakening and maturity of a character glimpsing the broader structures shaping her circumstances and choosing to resist.
13) Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
Dir. Alex Gibney
In his fascinating and horrifying documentary about sex abuse in the Catholic Church, Gibney’s film inspires outrage and hope through the story of deaf sexual abuse survivors who refused to stay silent. Through the lens of disability, you can clearly observe the mindset of sexual predators, particularly priests, who used their power and position in the lives of believers to destroy people’s faith and lives. I’ll never forget this film.
14) Moonrise Kingdom
Dir. Wes Anderson. Starring Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, and Francis McDormand
This sweet but melancholic love story between two misfit kids would have been my favorite film as a kid. The wry humor, visual pallet, music, and costumes all worked for me. I would still put Rushmore as my favorite Anderson film, but this one isn’t far behind.
Dir. Robert Zemeckis. Starring Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, and John Goodman.
Growing up watching Denzel Washington on television and film, I’m pretty certain he could fly a plane upside down while drunk. The opening sequence depends, more than anything, on our collective trust in the man playing the lead character. However, Flight transcends the formula, taking a dark and emotional turn into addiction and challenging our screen relationship with Washington.
Honorable Mentions include: The Sessions, The Invisible War, Magic Mike, The Deep Blue Sea, and The Central Park Five.