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50 Best New-to-Me Viewings of 2016

Portrait of Jason

I’ve put together one of these lists for each of the past four years, and now it’s late December so I’m at it again. Below lies an alphabetical overview of the older movies that jolted me out of my jaded cinephile stupor in 2016. It includes some film noir, a few silents, and several exquisite oddities from around the world. These films contained performances that moved me to tears and laughter, courtesy of actors like Jean Seberg and Charles Lane; Reese Witherspoon and Ray Milland; Laura Dern and Anton Walbrook. (Along with Judy Davis, Tony Curtis, Jennifer Jones, Richard Farnsworth, Arta Dobroshi, and Jason Holliday.) I’m eager to revisit each of them in the years to come.

The Boat (1921) · Bonjour Tristesse (1958) · The Boston Strangler (1968) · Breakdown (1997) · A Bronx Morning (1931) · Deadline at Dawn (1946) · Death Is a Caress (1949) · From Beyond the Grave (1974) · From Morn to Midnight (1920) · Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) · Germany Year Zero (1948) · Gerry (2002) · Gone to Earth (1950) · Good Morning (1959) · Happy End (1966) · Harlan County, USA (1976) · Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence (1939) · High Tide (1987) · How Do You Know (2010) · Inherent Vice (2014) · Innocence (2004) · Jewel Robbery (1932) · Ladies They Talk About (1933) · Letter Never Sent (1959) · The Lickerish Quartet (1970) · The Line, the Cross and the Curve (1993) · Lorna’s Silence (2008) · Messiah of Evil (1973) · Mildred Pierce (2011) · Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) · News from Home (1977) · Over the Garden Wall (2014) · Parting Glances (1986) · Penda’s Fen (1974) · Polyester (1981) · Portrait of Jason (1967) · Præsidenten (1919) · The Queen of Spades (1949) · Safety Last! (1923) · Sidewalk Stories (1989) · Smooth Talk (1985) · The Straight Story (1999) · Street Scene (1931) · El Sur (1983) · A Taste of Honey (1961) · The Thief (1952) · The Trust (1911) · The War of the Roses (1989) · What Happened Was… (1994) · Wings (1927)

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50 Best New-to-Me Viewings of 2015

The Cranes Are Flying

This is my fourth consecutive year assembling such a list. It’s a mere roll call of titles, not necessarily a work of actual film criticism, yet for me the viewer it’s an exceptionally gratifying exercise. It reminds me of countless hours spent lounging around on my couch and wondering, “What will this movie be like?” then giggling in delight when it turns out to be a masterpiece. I discovered three great films of 2007, delved further into international art house cinema, and turned up some new favorites that I’d never really heard much about. And oh, the performances! Kathleen Byron and John Gielgud; Kinuyo Tanaka and Ivan Mosjoukine; Sheryl Lee and John Travolta! (Molly Shannon and Aldo Ray; Ruan Lingyu and Olivier Gourmet…) In a couple weeks I’ll start on 2016, but for now I’d just like to scan this list, remember, and smile.

All I Desire (1953) · Bed and Sofa (1927) · Black Narcissus (1947) · Blood and Black Lace (1964) · Le bonheur (1965) · Borderline (1930) · Le brasier ardent (1923) · The Cranes Are Flying (1957) · David Holzman’s Diary (1967) · Dishonored (1931) · The Dying Swan (1917) · Edvard Munch (1974) · Face/Off (1997) · Favorites of the Moon (1984) · Fear (1954) · Le fils (2002) · Flowers of Shanghai (1998) · The Goddess (1934) · Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) · Heaven and Earth Magic (1962) · Home of the Brave (1986) · The House of Mirth (2000) · Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989) · I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) · In the City of Sylvia (2007) · Je, tu, il, elle (1976) · The Ladies Man (1961) · Leave Her to Heaven (1945) · The Life of Oharu (1952) · The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) · The Man Who Sleeps (1974) · The Marriage Circle (1924) · Memories (1995) · Men in War (1957) · My Brilliant Career (1979) · Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) · A Page of Madness (1926) · Poetry (2010) · The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) · Providence (1977) · Rocks in My Pockets (2014) · Smiley Face (2007) · Tiger Tail in Blue (2012) · Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) · Touki bouki (1973) · Twelve Monkeys (1995) · Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) · Two for the Road (1967) · War of the Worlds (2005) · Year of the Dog (2007)

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2014: Darkness and Light

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Snowpiercer, The Double, It Felt Like Love

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Snowpiercer, The Double, It Felt Like Love

The act of making an end-of-year top 10 list is an exercise in futile vanity. It’s reductive, repetitive, more in keeping with the behavior of a butterfly collector than that of an aesthete. (I wonder: do butterfly collectors ever get sick of being used in stale metaphors?) But, as with so many critical bad habits, the fact is that it’s also perversely fun. So here’s my end-of-year top 10 list.

I’ll preface it with a trio of “honorable mentions” which I couldn’t include on my list proper due to byzantine, self-imposed eligibility guidelines: (1) the first season of Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick, which straddles the increasingly permeable TV/movie border and contains some incredible “filmmaking” (or whatever you want to call it); (2) YouTube user Mia Munselle’s minute-long found footage opus “Camera falls from airplane and lands in pig pen–MUST WATCH END!!” which to my knowledge has never screened theatrically yet which is still an accidental gonzo work of substantial artistic import; and (3) Hong Sang-soo’s heartbreaking comedies Nobody’s Daughter Haewon and Our Sunhi, both of which have been consigned to an inter-year limbo (as far as American critics are concerned) by the vagaries of distribution. Whether any of these items falls into the category of “2014 movie” is up for debate, but all are nonetheless relevant to any discussion of film form as this particular year winds to its close.

And now, about that “list proper”… well, first I have more honorable mentions; 15 of them, in fact, in alphabetical order. I just can’t help myself. They are ActressBlue Ruin, CitizenfourThe DoubleDouble Play: James Benning and Richard LinklaterErnest & CelestineGone GirlThe Grand Budapest HotelIt Felt Like LoveJealousyA Most Wanted ManObvious ChildOnly Lovers Left AliveSnowpiercer, and Stranger by the Lake. If you were to gently nudge my top 10, it’s possible that one of those could fall into a slot of its own, because listmaking is (enjoyable) bullshit.

I have 10 “runner-up” performances to cite, too! Patricia Arquette, for her maternal weariness in Boyhood; Emily Browning, dancing and lip-synching her way through God Help the Girl; Macon Blair, a hangdog sad sack out for blood in Blue Ruin; Zac Efron’s comic Adonis in Neighbors, especially impressive given the incoherent writing of his part; Charlotte Gainsbourg, agonizing to watch as the title character of Nymphomaniac; Liam Neeson as a brick-hewn embodiment of human duality in The Lego Movie; Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl as the year’s definitive femme fatale; Tilda Swinton as a Yorkshire-accented burlesque of bureaucracy in Snowpiercer; Paul Rudd as They Came Together’s archetypal romcom leading man (“handsome, but in a nonthreatening way”); Christoph Waltz further proving his versatility while (like Efron) making bad writing sound better in The Zero Theorem; and lastly Robin Wright, acting with body and voice as a sci-fi-skewed iteration of herself in The Congress. Whew! (Oh, and if for some sick reason you want a fuller picture of my year-end activities, I voted in both the Indiewire and 12 Films a Flickering polls.)

These past few years, I’ve handed out awards for Best Performance in a Documentary. Recipients have included Thierry Guetta in Exit Through the Gift Shop, Joyce McKinney in Tabloid, Frédéric Bourdin in The Imposter, and Anwar Congo in The Act of Killing. This year’s addition to that informal hall of fame is Brandy Burre in Robert Greene’s Actress.

And now, the list proper.

Night Moves, directed by Kelly Reichardt

10) Night Moves, directed by Kelly Reichardt

Although its frames are heavy with the ethical weight of 21st century living, this is still a crackerjack thriller: formally exact, noose-tight, never the slightest bit didactic. Bank heists have been pulled off with less precision than Reichardt brings to her camera angles and shot durations, which over time make even the Oregon wilderness feel as restrictive as a jail cell. Though its point (you can run, you can hide, but somebody’s always watching) has been reiterated by generations of paranoid thrillers, seldom has it been expressed with such rigor.

Kim Dickens plays Gone Girl’s hard-ass policewoman with screwball agility, her performance divvying up sympathy between the misled law and Ben Affleck’s patsy.

Though loosely inspired by Philip Roth, the aging literary giant played by Jonathan Pryce in Listen Up Philip functions broadly as a stand-in for a whole generation of successful assholes, their book sales counterbalanced by impotent rage.

9) We Are the Best!, directed by Lukas Moodysson

The mere fact that this is a positive, realistic movie about teenage girls’ friendships is refreshing enough, even if that alone may not a great movie make. (“You know,” I tweeted recently, “between Whiplash, Birdman, & Listen Up Philip, I really appreciate Vi ar bäst! depicting art as not strictly a macho pursuit.”) What does a great movie make, however, is ensemble energy yoked to episodic coming-of-age plotting and sharp-eared dialogue. We Are the Best! nails both the pains of growing up and the giddy pleasures of artistic collaboration.

Amy Seimetz’s role in The Sacrament could’ve been a throwaway “horror tour guide” part. Instead, she invests it with sisterly affection and evangelical zeal, drawing a straight line from friendly “hello”s to mass carnage.

Unlike many of my cinephile friends, I don’t follow wrestling, but I am consistently impressed by wrestlers onscreen: The Rock was my #1 supporting actor last year, and Dave Bautista is the best part of Guardians of Galaxy, as endearing with his deadpan line readings as he is lethal with a blade.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, directed by Ben Rivers and Ben Russell

8) A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, directed by Ben Rivers and Ben Russell

This tripartite avant-garde/doc whatzit is like an invitation to a trance state. Its audio plumbs the extremes of black metal and forest-shrouded silence, mostly forsaking dialogue; its ambulatory camera pushes on through open-air baths, firelit nights, and lakes whose waves lap against a lonely rowboat. It’s maybe baffling, definitely abrasive, yet still tantalizing as it weaves that wondrous spell.

I don’t expect Emily Blunt’s work in The Edge of Tomorrow to receive any awards attention; as far as Academy voting is concerned, acting rarely happens within action movies. But she’s the real deal (here, in Looper, in Your Sister’s Sister, in The Five-Year Engagement), providing the battlefield bravado that makes Tom Cruise’s death-by-death redemption possible.

I keep imagining Birdman as a mediocre remake of His Girl Friday, and maybe that’s in part because Edward Norton has such an old-fashioned charm to him. (See also: his “Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith” riff in Death to Smoochy.) I could see his strut, ego, dick, and all transplanted into the 1930s with minimal fuss.

Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater

7) Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater

By now, I’ve seen innumerable 2014 “best of” lists that foreground Boyhood, whether by naming it an ecstatic #1 or by crowing about its conspicuous absence. But I want to get away from all that, away from the “for or against” atmosphere fostered by a movie’s status as consensus favorite, and back to my feelings when I walked out of the theater this past August. I was gobsmacked, not merely by the unorthodox longevity of the film’s production, but by its dialogue and its complex ideas about family and the self, as well as its frequent grasps at the sublime from within the quotidian. It speaks to cinema’s possibilities, but also to its limitations, like the tragedy that a movie can only run from its beginning to its end.

With her bloodlust and blond mane, Mia Wasikowska injects a necessary dose of goofy id right into the middle of Only Lovers Left Alive. (She’s not half bad as the flawlessly coiffed object of “nice guy” desire in The Double, either.)

J.K. Simmons’ performance in Whiplash is admittedly blunt and showy, alternating between a couple of vicious notes for the whole of his screentime. But sometimes a movie needs an actor to be like a wrench to the rear of the skull, and Simmons is exactly, fatally that.

Listen Up Philip, directed by Alex Ross Perry

6) Listen Up Philip, directed by Alex Ross Perry

Watching this acrid comedy is like having a vial of misanthropy splashed in my face, yet counterintuitively it remains a pleasurable experience. The film zigzags through novel-emulating arcs of asshole behavior with no real comeuppance to be found at the end, yet still I relish its sour aftertaste. That’s because Listen Up Philip is satire that doesn’t resort to caricature, instead frankly replicating the headspace of a very intelligent young man (i.e. the worst type of human being) then dismantles its subject from the inside out.

Typically with a movie like Listen Up Philip I’d expect the antihero to have a “woman who holds him back”; instead, Elisabeth Moss plays “the woman he held back,” and her face (caught in close-up over the span of their break-up) says as much as Philip’s reams of smartass dialogue.

Although Boyhood’s most ballyhooed spectacle is that of a child aging from 6-18, it also depicts Ethan Hawke’s progress through his thirties into early middle age, accompanied by his character’s steady evolution: from songwriting “cool dad” to the uncool dad who drives a minivan and accepts his responsibilities.

The Babadook, directed by Jennifer Kent

5) The Babadook, directed by Jennifer Kent

I think of myself as pretty inured to horror movies’ scares at this point. I still watch them and love them, but—well, it’s like that bit in Kill Bill Vol. 2 where Uma Thurman punches a plank of wood until her fist is numb. And watching The Babadook is like someone chopping that fist off at the wrist. Not only does the film boast immaculate craftsmanship (metronomic editing, monochrome production design) but it also makes motherhood—this fundamental fact of human existence—scarier than any bogeyman you could conjure up. “You can’t get rid of the Babadook,” indeed.

In Night Moves, all of Jesse Eisenberg’s usual mannerisms are tamped down, everything shoved below a stolid surface, with his interiorized fear and despair only bubbling up through his quavering voice and forced half-smiles.

As the author surrogate in Catherine Breillat’s autobio-drama Abuse of Weakness, Isabelle Huppert provokes sympathy and terror, her body put graphically through simulacra of strokes, PT, and a halting recovery.

Manakamana, directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez

4) Manakamana, directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez

You can break this experimental doc’s conceptual simplicity down into numbers: 11 shots, 2-3 people (plus occasional animals) per shot, 1 angle from which a static camera captures it all. Yet even forgoing most conventionally “cinematic” embellishments, the film still supplies a myriad of sights to see and miniature dramas to experience. It’s simultaneously a retreat back toward the basics of filmmaking and a leap forward via the primal power of the frame.

Even saddled with a phony German accent, Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in a fitting farewell performance in A Most Wanted Man. The nexus of the film’s anti-terrorist web, he visibly bears the weight of its moral compromises on his wide, world-weary shoulders.

What impresses me most about Jenny Slate in Obvious Child isn’t her motor-mouthed joke delivery, nor the way she subtly shades her sardonic reactions with pathos, but instead her fully demonstrated capacity for joy—a trait too often undervalued among performers.

3) Goodbye to Language, directed by Jean-Luc Godard

If Manakamana can be both a retreat and a leap forward, then the same is true of Godard’s foray into 3D, albeit in a more berserk fashion. It’s as if this old film-historical trickster god had invented a time machine that could carry him simultaneously into the future and back toward a pre-Lumière past. Breaking old rules, inventing new ones, taunting the viewer with unsolvable visual riddles: this is Godard all right, crafting (with the aid of stereoscopy and a curious pup named Roxy) a movie as fun, beautiful, and mind-bending as it is inscrutable.

Joaquin Phoenix may play a villainous pimp in The Immigrant, but his performance also disrupts such easy labels; though he may radiate wickedness and abjure audience sympathy, he’s still playing a human being first.

Scarlett Johansson’s anti-star turn in Under the Skin is a testament to her wealth of thespian imagination. It awes me that she even attempted to play an incomprehensible alien being, let alone that she succeeds to a terrifying degree.

The Immigrant, directed by James Gray

2) The Immigrant, directed by James Gray

Even though this rich melodrama only squeaked into theaters in 2014, it already feels as if it’s been around for decades. As if it’s an artifact from a bygone era, perhaps carved by Gray from a chunk of solid history, as one might make an amulet out of an elephant’s tusk. Walking into a new release this year, I never expected to see anything so pure, full, emotionally direct, and morally thorny. But then, The Immigrant has zero interest in playing to expectations.

The same applies to Marion Cotillard, who takes on a timeworn character type (“Gish-esque waif”) as the star of The Immigrant and makes the part hers. You can add her close-ups (like Elisabeth Moss’s) to the annals of great screen acting, right alongside Bergman and Garbo.

The aspect of Jason Schwartzman’s performance in Listen Up Philip that cuts me the deepest is the obvious sadness that will never be met by another human being’s compassion, because he lacks even a shred of the requisite humility.

Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer

1) Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer

I hate to hyperbolize, but this is probably a new landmark in science fiction history.  Here, let me put that in hacky pull-quote form: “First came Metropolis, then 2001Star Wars, and now… Under the Skin.” To be terse: it’s just not like other movies.

No actor this year got to me quite like Essie Davis in The Babadook, whose performance incorporates notes of depression, abject terror, and homicidal resentment. She melds uncomfortable realism with outsize metaphor in the way she moves and screams.

And finally, Davis’s total inverse: Ralph Fiennes as the cosmopolitan Gustave H. in The Grand Budapest Hotel. He handles the role’s ornate dialogue, physical comedy, and latent melancholy with the same foppish grace.

[Movies I have yet to see include Beyond the Lights, Force Majeure, Inherent Vice, Love Is Strange, National Gallery, Selma, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and Two Days, One Night.]

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50 Best New-to-Me Viewings of 2014

Journey to Italy

I’ve been compiling lists like these for the past couple years, and they’re so much fun, because they give me an excuse to rifle through my past year of viewing logs, remembering what great movies I watched when. Like that time I pushed through my exhaustion to catch The Saragossa Manuscript at my local art house and was duly rewarded for my efforts. Or the time I was cuddling in bed between two people I love, experiencing One from the Heart for the first time. These movies, which span the globe and most of film history, are a big part of what I’ll take with me from 2014. So are the performances in them: by Oliver Reed and Isabelle Adjani, Glenn Ford and Thandie Newton, Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Jones. (And John Gilbert, Nicole Kidman, Richard Attenborough, Veronica Lake, etc.) Now, I suppose, it’s just about time to get started on next year, with these movies growing in my memory.

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011) · The Angelic Conversation (1985) · Apart from You (1933) · The Big Parade (1925) · Birth (2004) · Blonde Crazy (1931) · Black Sabbath (1963) · Brighton Rock (1947) · City Streets (1931) · Cluny Brown (1946) · Come Back, Little Sheba (1952) · The Devils (1971) · Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (2011) · Elephant (1989) · Equinox Flower (1958) · The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) · Flirting (1991) · The Great Garrick (1937) · High School (1968) · Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998) · The Hole (1998) · Ill Met by Moonlight (1957) · I Married a Witch (1942) · Journey to Italy (1954) · The King and the Mockingbird (1980) · The Lady Without Camelias (1953) · Lessons of Darkness (1992) · Lola (1961) · Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) · Lost in America (1985) · My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1985) · Nostalghia (1983) · One from the Heart (1982) · Point Break (1991) · The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom (1993) · Possession (1981) · Princess Yang Kwei-fei (1955) · Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) · The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) · Seven Years Bad Luck (1921) · The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923) · Storm Over Asia (1928) · There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) · 3:10 to Yuma (1957) · Throne of Blood (1957) · Throw Down (2004) · Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) · A Woman of Paris (1923) · Yesterday Girl (1966) · Zorns Lemma (1970)

[NB: This list consists exclusively of pre-2014 films. I’ll have a list of my favorites from this year up in the next couple weeks.]

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2013: A Lucky Year

Upstream Color, Drug War, This Is Martin Bonner, The Act of Killing

I always like to say that cinema is a menagerie, not a horse race. In support of that sentiment—and because my list employs no faultless critical methodology; my love for #25 is just a hair’s breadth away from my love for #1—here are 15 additional titles, listed in alphabetical order, before I even begin: The Act of KillingAprès maiBefore MidnightComputer ChessDrug WarThe GrandmasterLeviathanNoStories We TellThis Is Martin Bonner12 Years a SlaveUpstream ColorViolaThe Wind Rises, and The Wolf of Wall Street. (For yet more, you can see this year’s Indiewire poll and #12FilmsaFlickering, in both of which I participated.)

Furthermore, here are 10 performances that just barely missed my list (but I guess actually did make my list, since I’m listing them here): Gael García Bernal, blending ad industry satire with political revolution in No; Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, two magnificent actors bound together by love and venom in Before Midnight; Anna Margaret Hollyman, catatonically depressed among holiday cheer in White Reindeer; Sun Honglei and Louis Koo, giving a pair of symbiotic performances as the narcotics officer and his snitch in Drug War; To the Wonders ethereally feminine Olga KurylenkoSaskia Rosendahl, the ideal Grimm fairy tale heroine for Lore; Amy Seimetz in Upstream Color as a woman whose identity is upended by loss; and Miles Teller, who exudes such friendliness in The Spectacular Now.

Each year I give an award for the Best Performance in a Documentary, past recipients of which have included Thierry Guetta (Exit Through the Gift Shop), Joyce McKinney (Tabloid), and Frédéric Bourdin (The Imposter). This year’s winner is the “star” of The Act of Killing, Anwar Congo.

10) Museum Hours, directed by Jem Cohen

Rippling out from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum to the cold city beyond its walls, this uncommonly humane film blurs the border between great art and the real world. Structured by the happenstance friendship of two lonely strangers, Museum Hours dabbles in streetside documentary while capturing a plethora of artistic practices: the paintings of the Old Masters, the music of actress Mary Margaret O’Hara, the architecture of this old European city. It’s a gentle movie, and comforting like a thick winter coat.

Lola Crèton was good in Après mai, but cuts even deeper as a nonverbal abuse victim in Bastards, registering trauma in her bruised body and blank face.

I love the oblivious grin that stays on David Cross’s face while he endures history’s most awkward brunch in It’s a Disaster.

9) To the Wonder, directed by Terrence Malick

Elements of Malick’s style—the impressionistic montage, the pensive voiceover, the magic hour lighting—are becoming commonplace in ambitious new indies, but nobody can pull them off quite like Malick himself. His camera snakes its way through present-day Oklahoma, discovering beauty, passion, and embattled faith at every turn. It’s brash filmmaking, earnest filmmaking, sculpting less a story than a whole emotional environment out of Middle America.

I hated The Great Gatsby, but I loved Elizabeth Debicki, the Australian actress who plays Jordan Baker with sinuous movement and suggestive eyes.

Nick Frost takes a turn as straight man in The World’s End, counterbalancing Simon Pegg’s comic wildness before drunkenly brawling all through the film’s second half.

8) Bastards, directed by Claire Denis

Your unconscious is the soil, Denis is the gardener, Bastards is the seed. The flowers, presumably, will smell rotten and be nothing but thorns. Laced with Tindersticks’ throbbing score, this noir-horror nightmare leaves dark impressions of erotic and financial transgression, of a world where everyone and everything is a bastard at heart. Denis builds this bleak story from the top down, letting images and actions accumulate; by the time you realize what’s going on, you’re already right at the bottom.

Zhang Ziyi is impressive in The Grandmaster not merely due to her elegance, steeliness, and graceful kung fu but because of the palpably broken heart she carries beneath it all.

In Computer Chess, Patrick Riester represents nerdy introversion sympathetically, yet with an undercurrent of extremely deadpan comedy.

7) The World’s End, directed by Edgar Wright

Mixing boozy verbal comedy with John Wyndham-style sci-fi and virtuosic action set pieces, The World’s End is pop filmmaking at its finest (and most affecting). Even as its story expands, putting the fate of humanity in the hands of a few beer-soaked Brits, the film stays intimate, letting its characters mull over their regrets and tangled relationships. Riotous comic motifs like “Let’s Boo-Boo,” The Three Musketeers, and “selective memory” froth with both linguistic wit and increasing poignancy, and it all unfolds at a pace so frantic that it’s easy to lose track of how inventive the whole thing is.

Like Lola Crèton, Lupita Nyong’o plays a victim in 12 Years a Slave, a woman who experiences constant abuse and humiliation, but does so with jarring resilience and a gleam of strength mingling with terror in her eyes.

Rob Lowe’s hair and demeanor in Behind the Candelabra are bone-chilling, yet impossible to look away from. He’s like the Dr. Pretorius of plastic surgery.

6) Like Someone in Love, directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Playfully, meticulously, like someone designing a puzzle, Kiarostami has built his follow-up to Certified Copy out of audiovisual information. He couples 360° of sound with very selective individual frames, telling us exactly what we need to know about young escort Akiko and the men in her life as she drifts through the neon-dotted Tokyo night. It’s an ambling, elliptical film of false surfaces and well-played roles; a puzzle that lacks a solution, but still contains several of the cinematic year’s most unforgettable car rides.

Emma Watson in The Bling Ring puts every “Millennials” thinkpiece to shame with her satirical tweaking of 21st century vanity and greed.

Dwayne Johnson’s born-again doofus in Pain & Gain is like the Second Coming of Curly Howard, growing funnier every time he says the word “Eldad.”

5) The Unspeakable Act, directed by Dan Sallitt

I won’t bullshit you: this is a movie about incest. But it’s not even remotely the kind of the movie that the words “about incest” conjure up. It’s not sensational, miserabilist, or provocative. Instead it’s a coming-of-age story told patiently, modestly, with many quiet scenes playing out in long takes. Jackie does want to have sex with her brother, but she’s also a teenage girl with a razor-sharp intellect who’s growing up in Brooklyn and trying to figure herself out. I want to see more indie dramas as self-defined as The Unspeakable Act, a film whose emotions and sense of humor may be subdued, but are no less powerful for it.

Sun Don’t Shines Kate Lyn Sheil made for a genuinely scary femme fatale, at once sweaty, unpredictable, and childlike.

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street is the latest avatar of white-collar crime, with a black hole ego and a knack for druggy physical comedy.

4) Behind the Candelabra, directed by Steven Soderbergh

Supposedly Soderbergh’s final feature, this is a showbiz biopic that’s been filtered through Fassbinder and mummified in camp. Set deep within the glitzy, gay heaven/hell of Liberace’s estate, the film’s rife with betrayal and body horror—but it also aches with an authentic desire for love. Power and sex are exchanged as Lee tries to become Scott’s “father, lover, brother, best friend,” a gesture that’s both sweet and frightening. Behind the Candelabra intertwines the bodies of Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as they give life to a reality smothered beneath the artifice of the entertainment industry.

Stoker makes a lot of sudden swerves and feints, but Mia Wasikowska is consistently extraordinary, her face flickering between agony and arousal.

Paul Eenhoorn’s very mild-mannered in This Is Martin Bonner, yet his work’s still so powerful, with notes of regret and spiritual confusion submerged within.

3) Beyond the Hills, directed by Cristian Mungiu

Step by harrowing step, this religious drama moves toward its predestined end. No one wants it that way—certainly not the well-intentioned nuns at this drab rural convent, nor their young victim Alina—but the options grow fewer in number over the film’s sprawling run time until finally the story comes to a dead end. Neither Alina’s erratic behavior nor her love for a childhood friend (now wholly committed to God) fall within the order’s narrow moral parameters. So in agonizing static shots, she’s pushed and pulled by medical and economic forces beyond her control. Mungiu’s austerity contains empathy, but the most prominent feeling here is despair at the cost of faith.

As the star of Concussion, Robin Weigert breathes new life into the “bored suburban housewife” type. Her obliging smiles, weariness, sexual willingness, and yes, marriage to a woman all make this performance something different.

Who better to lead the audience through Chinese history than Tony Leung, playing the debonair and ass-kicking yet wistful Ip Man in The Grandmaster?

2) Inside Llewyn Davis, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coens have made a musical comedy where the comedy’s gone sour, and the music stings of the pain that went into making it. It’s a period piece that doesn’t gloss over a single ugly detail of early ’60s Manhattan. And it’s a character study about an artist who keeps losing people and missing out on opportunities, usually through his own short-sighted decisions. Wrenching in its absurdism and cold as the winter air, Inside Llewyn Davis is structured like an odyssey that winds up back at Troy. Good thing, then, that Llewyn’s music (unprofitable though it may be) is still cathartic as all hell.

Acerbic and idiosyncratic, Tallie Medel’s work in The Unspeakable Act resists cliché while pushing deep inside her thorny character.

I still find it hard to believe how dynamic, pathetic, pained, and hilarious Simon Pegg is as he talks a mile a minute through The World’s End

1) Frances Ha, directed by Noah Baumbach

I’ll admit to a certain demographic vulnerability where this movie is concerned. Like Frances, I’m a liberal arts grad and aspiring artist in my mid-twenties who has trouble socializing and earning money. But this movie’s pleasures go so much farther than merely seeing oneself onscreen. It’s musical, whether that refers to the soundtrack’s snatches of Bowie and Georges Delerue or the rhythms that accumulate among its shots, scenes, and bits of plotting. It also has the most biting dialogue in recent memory, flowing in every direction throughout the movie. (I could spend days just unpacking and reveling in Mickey Sumner’s “This douche is my affianced.”) Speckled with joys and tinged with sorrow, Frances Ha is definitely a movie for “now,” but I suspect it’ll be a movie for the decades to come, too.

(If you want more, by the way, a clip of me discussing Frances Ha was included in The Cinephiliacs’ “2013 Favorites (Part 1)” episode, starting around 33:00.)

Of course, Frances Ha couldn’t be what it is without co-writer/star Greta Gerwig, who physically manifests her character’s awkwardness and self-deceit, wrings self-deprecating punchlines out of every encounter, and makes even her feeblest victories feel hard-won.

Nearly matching Gerwig is Oscar Isaac, who plays Inside Llewyn Davis’s sullen title character. He utters resigned “Okay”s like white flags raised toward Fate. He sings as if his world-weariness left him no other choice. Llewyn’s is not the voice of a generation, and Isaac lets us know that it couldn’t be any other way.

[Movies I have yet to see include At Berkeley, Captain Phillips, The Counselor, Enough Said, The Last Time I Saw MacaoLaurence Anyways, Post Tenebras Lux, and A Touch of Sin.]

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50 Best New-to-Me Viewings of 2013

Modern Romance

I did this last year and had a lot of fun with it, so let’s try it again: these are 50 of the best movies I saw for the first time in 2013, listed in alphabetical order. Every one of them will probably, with time, join the ranks of my all-time favorites. They include some classic noir, family dramas, queer indies, and experimental documentaries. They feature an array of indelible performances by actors like Walter Matthau and Sandrine Bonnaire, Jeff Daniels and Jeon Do-yeon, Colm Feore and Nina Foch. (I could go on: Alicia Silverstone, Pete Postlethwaite, Marie Rivière, William Powell, Madonna, and Donald Pleasence.) Their work snaked into my brain this year, took up residence, and altered (subtly but irrevocably) the way I think. I won’t be forgetting these movies.

Angel (1937) · Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) · At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1964) · Before Sunset (2004) · Blow Out (1981) · A Canterbury Tale (1944) · Chimes at Midnight (1965) · The Clock (1945) · Clueless (1995) · The Cobweb (1955) · The Court Jester (1956) · Crash (1996) · Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) · Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) · Down by Law (1986) · Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1975) · From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995) · The Gleaners and I (2000) · The Green Ray (1986) · The Hidden (1987) · History Is Made at Night (1937) · Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937) · The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) · It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) · Jour de fête (1949) · Ladybug Ladybug (1963) · Let There Be Light (1946) · Lianna (1983) · Modern Romance (1981) · My Name Is Julia Ross (1945) · A New Leaf (1971) · ‘night, Mother (1986) · Nitrate Kisses (1992) · À nos amours (1983) · One Way Passage (1932) · The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) · Phantom Lady (1944) · Secrets & Lies (1996) · Secret Sunshine (2007) · Shoeshine (1946) · Silverlake Life: The View from Here (1993) · The Squid and the Whale (2005) · The Tarnished Angels (1957) · Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993) · Totally Fucked Up (1993) · Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) · Wake in Fright (1971) · Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987) · The World of Apu (1959) · Working Girls (1986)

[NB: This list consists exclusively of pre-2013 films; I’ll have a list of my favorites from this year up in two weeks.]

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2012: Endings and New Beginnings

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Cosmopolis, Magic Mike, The Grey

Because the tradition of a “top 10” is cruel and arbitrary, and because I loved so many of this year’s movies so intensely, here are 15 more candidates for best of the year, ordered alphabetically, before I really begin: Amour, Barbara, The Cabin in the Woods, Cosmopolis, Girl Walk//All Day, The Grey, How to Survive a Plague, The Imposter, In Another Country, Lincoln, The Loneliest Planet, Looper, Magic Mike, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and Your Sister’s Sister.

And because all the same is true of performances, here are 10 more of those, too: Carlen Altman, playing sisterhood as venom The Color Wheel; Ann Dowd and her Middle American sincerity in Compliance; Thomas Doret with his wounded puppy look in The Kid with a Bike; Tommy Lee Jones topping his own Lincoln work in Hope Springs; Fran Kranz as horror’s new stoner hero in The Cabin in the Woods; Anders Danielsen Lie, haunted by himself in Oslo, August 31st; Kelly Macdonald (collaborating  with Pixar animators) in Brave; lonely, frumpy Teresa Madruga in Tabu; Aggeliki Papoulia and her roleplaying breakdown in Alps; and Sean Penn, screwier than ever in This Must Be the Place.

Oh, and this year’s award for Best Performance in a Documentary—previously given to Exit Through the Gift Shop’s Thierry Guetta and Tabloid’s Joyce McKinney—goes to Frédéric Bourdin in The Imposter.

And now, my 10 favorite films and 20 favorite performances of 2012…

10) Tabu, directed by Miguel Gomes

Nostalgia pervades the films on this list. Each of them contains some yearning for a past, pre-lapsarian and long-gone, whether before the war, the digital age, or the onset of maturity. Tabu couples this same yearning with postcolonial critique, embedding them both in its form and bisected structure. Languid and bittersweet, throbbing with forbidden romance, the film dances to the beat of its own playful postmodernism. For Gomes, the histories of film genre and sound design are like tropical fruits on the branch, just waiting for an adventurous filmmaker to stroll up and take a bite.

Dame Judi Dench finally got something to do in a James Bond movie, leaving the office and weaponizing her stiff upper lip as Skyfall’s stakes grew personal.

Michael Shannon seemed to bend Premium Rush’s gravitational field around him, making the movie as much about his demented giggles as it was about bikes.

9) Oslo, August 31st, directed by Joachim Trier

This spiky Norwegian character study is in some ways the anti-Trainspotting: subdued instead of stylized, it shifts the emphasis of substance abuse away from the act of shooting up and onto the aftermath—the alienation and awkward apologies. They’re the quicksand that recovering addict Anders must shuffle through on his day-long furlough from rehab. He bounces between bistros and apartments, from one mangled relationship to another, but he can never shake the disappointment and self-loathing that choke up Oslo’s frames. The resulting film is quietly devastating, with an ending that’s still metastasizing in my soul.

In Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck wore a tacky blond wig; as Killer Joe’s femme fatale, Gina Gershon wears a merkin. Her white-trash performance will forever leave a tragic imprint on the words “However much!” and the object known as a breaded chicken drumstick.

Seven Psychopaths was a lumpy witches’ brew of a movie, but Christopher Walken improved it with every second he was onscreen, his idiosyncratic cadences enriching the film with grief and absurdist comedy.

8) Goodbye First Love, directed by Mia Hansen-Løve

Sunlight floods this tender French bildungsroman as young Camille, played by the incandescent Lola Créton, grows from infatuation to heartbreak and regret. Season by season, her story blossoms. Year by year, the burdens of adulthood settle around her shoulders. Time flows here like a mountain stream, making Goodbye First Love a hard movie to hold in your hands. Its sensory details are so rich, yet they recede so quickly thanks to the film’s merciless momentum. But such is the pain of maturation, and Hansen-Løve captures exactly that beneath a warm, glimmering surface.

I loved every one of Damsels in Distress’s damsels (see below), but Megalyn Echikunwoke’s faux-British accent and delivery of the word “operator” cracked me up more than I thought humanly possible.

As the cuckolded husband, Simon Russell Beale has The Deep Blue Sea’s quietest role. Yet he says so much with merely a knit brow, conveying both how alien his wife’s actions are to him, and how gravely they’ve wounded his pride.

7) Moonrise Kingdom, directed by Wes Anderson

Last summer, I wrote about Anderson’s knack for dense, poignant compositions using an example from The Royal Tenenbaums. But I could as easily have made the same point with his latest film, the pastoral lovers-on-the-run tale of two wounded children. Its audiovisual density is startling, whether in the endless bon mots, art design Easter eggs, or musical selections from Benjamin Britten and Françoise Hardy. And yet more startling is the acute loneliness that gnaws at the film’s small island community. Moonrise Kingdom is as heartfelt as it is deadpan; as joyous as it is pained.

The one big saving grace of Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows is Eva Green, cackling and seductive as the wickedest witch this side of Margaret Hamilton.

The highlight of Hong Sang-soo’s lost-in-translation comedy In Another Country is Yu Jun-Sang as “the lifeguard!” who repeatedly, clumsily tries to hit on different iterations of Isabelle Huppert.

6) The Kid with a Bike, directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Little Cyril has two loves: his deadbeat dad, and his oft-stolen bike. That’s it. That’s the whole foundation for this heartbreaking fable, a film of extreme narrative clarity and unadorned technique. The Dardenne Brothers merely follow Cyril, swiftly panning as he runs or bikes across the frame, and by following him extract a complex vision of childhood—as a garden of forking paths; as a blank slate written on by every nearby adult. As pure potential, embodied by flinty child actor Thomas Doret. Helpless, wanting only to be loved back, he’s the heart and soul of this sparse, simple tearjerker.

As the pregnant wife of The Master’s title character, Amy Adams both fulfills and defies the “earth mother” archetype. She bares her teeth as the film nears its climax, especially through an unforgettable, power-exerting hand job.

In Cosmopolis, Paul Giamatti plays unemployment as abjection, turning himself into a lump of malignant flesh, a one-man dose of Cronenberg’s trademark body horror.

5) The Turin Horse, directed by Béla Tarr

This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, not even with a whimper, but with the precise formal control and mordant humor that have permeated Tarr’s filmography. It’s an incredibly experiential movie, making us feel every inch of ground covered by that old dappled mare and every boiled potato dined on by her owners. Broken up schematically into days and interminable long takes, the film grinds—and Mihály Víg’s score grinds with it—toward a small apocalypse. Yet for all its gloom, The Turin Horse is a film of palpable physical realness, and in that realness lies a measure of minimalist beauty.

Jumping, kicking, flying, Anne Marsen is hyperkinetic in Girl Walk//All Day, throwing her whole body into a feature-length fantasy of free dance.

Rarely has Liam Neeson’s low, Irish growl been used better than it is in The Grey. He gives a performance of reluctant leadership wreathed with pain.

4) The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Furthering the elemental violence of There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s new film is an American epic carved from sea, sun, and rock. The relationship between two souls—one broken by war, the other longing to mend that damage—forms its spine, but the real meat of The Master is its images: a ship’s churning wake, a tracking shot through a 1950s shopping mall, the jagged face and jerky gait of Joaquin Phoenix. The Master recasts the postwar years as a war of their own, one that pits atavism against modernity and is destined to end in stalemate.

Ensconced snugly in a gilded cage, Keira Knightley goes through hell in Anna Karenina and registers each mounting indignity across her delicate face.

Jack Black refines and restrains his broad comic persona in Bernie, playing the film’s benign murderer as a smiling surface without a hint of guile.

3) Damsels in Distress, directed by Whit Stillman

No conversation is too frivolous or too silly for this through-the-looking-glass comedy of college life. No bit of zigzag plotting is too digressive. Everything is fair game on Damsels’ verbal playground, from donuts and the smell of soap to dance crazes and mental illness. Led by Greta Gerwig, the film’s feminine ensemble savors all of this absurdity, extrapolating lifestyles from one-liners and collectively establishing a very different, very funny kind of world. Not for a second does Damsels take itself the slightest bit seriously, yet its rhythms and mock-wisdom gave me more pleasure than nearly anything I saw all year.

Emmanuelle Riva’s work in Amour is so physical, vulnerable, intimate. Every year of life experienced by the elderly actress is visible onscreen.

Was Klaus Kinski reincarnated as a ’50s Method actor? Did someone hire a hungry jackal to star in a movie? No, sorry, it’s just Joaquin Phoenix in The Master.

2) Holy Motors, directed by Leos Carax

I dreamed I saw a movie that dismantled the whole engine of cinema, then went on being a movie anyway. Or maybe I just saw the weird and poisonously funny Holy Motors. Energized by “the beauty of the act,” chased by ghosts of the past and future, it hops from one genre to another as if allergic to stasis. It takes on the shapes of different stories, always a little melancholy but never less than entertaining. Carax acknowledges through the film that filmmaking is impossible, immoral, and draining, yet nonetheless… 3! 12! Merde!

In Take This Waltz, Michelle Williams works layers of immaturity and emotion into her body language, casually reminding me that she’s one of the greatest living actresses.

As the star of Holy Motors, Denis Lavant delivers a performance about performance—roughly a dozen of them, in fact—and it’s rendered all the more impressive by how deftly he balances grace and grotesquerie.

1) The Deep Blue Sea, directed by Terence Davies

My favorite movie of the year could so easily have been a soporific, middlebrow prestige piece. But instead of filming a conventional adaptation, Davies shattered Terence Rattigan’s play and transformed it into pure cinema from the inside out. Faceted like a diamond, The Deep Blue Sea criss-crosses time and memory with a frozen-in-amber aesthetic. (Much like The Master, it’s a story of postwar trauma involving a toxic veteran named Freddie.) The bulk of the film consists of strained conversations in private rooms, but that’s all it takes for the small cast and their muted passions to create a tragedy. In an age when the romantic melodrama often seems a dying art, The Deep Blue Sea proves it ecstatically alive.

And, in fact, I wrote about Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea for my answer to the Criticwire Survey question on the best performance of the year:

Just listen for the smoke and mystery in her voice; watch for the sardonic arch of her eyebrows, or the way her body seems to pulse with secrets rather than blood. Her work here, so finely attuned to the film’s postwar milieu, suggests a bottomless capacity for both pain and romantic ecstasy, and makes Hester Collyer one of the most tragic heroines in recent memory.

The last performance I’ll single out is Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe, who resembles either Robert Mitchum or a horny panther. As the film nears it climax, he uses his whole angular body (especially that monstrous jaw) to elicit maximum terror. 16 years ago, a young McConaughey starred in the fourth Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This year, he is the massacre.

[Movies I have yet to see include Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Comedy, Django Unchained, It’s Such a Beautiful Day, Middle of Nowhere, Rust and Bone, This Is Not a Film, and Zero Dark Thirty.]

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