Update 1/24/13: I have since seen Holy Motors and Django Unchained. Also, I have added more honorable mentions to the list.
I have not seen every movie that came out last year (for example, I still haven’t seen Holy Motors or Django Unchained), and the ones that only came out recently in Seattle (like Zero Dark Thirty) will have to wait until next year’s list. Still, here are the movies that stuck with me throughout the year, in alphabetical order. If I reviewed it, you can click on the title to go to the review.
The most suspenseful movie out this year. Ben Affleck’s story of the freeing of six American Embassy workers from Iran may not be factually accurate, but who cares? I go to the movies to be entertained, and if fiction is more entertaining that reality, I’d rather have the fiction. Still, the outline of what happened did occur, but it’s the tension that Affleck adds to the film, especially in the last 15 minutes, that makes this such a great movie.
Vying with Skyfall for the best film of the year, this sweet movie about the world’s greatest violinist and his last days on earth are filmed with much creativity, love, and pathos. The directors don’t go for tear-inducing sadness; instead, the last section of the film is filled with a great melancholy that ends with a perfect image, and then fades to credits.
3. Cloud Atlas
The most ambitious film of the year has a lot of heart and a lot of complexity, but if you approach it like music, where every theme resonates through time like a forgotten melody, then you may be able to make sense of this sprawling masterwork. Visually stunning, emotionally touching, and able to entwine the strands of each story without tying them into knots. A notch below Skyfall and Chicken with Plums, but certainly the best sci-fi film of the year (take that, Prometheus!).
The last film released by Mohammed Rasoulof before being put under house arrest, Goodbye deals with a woman who gets pregnant so that she can leave the country. As realistic as the director’s previous The White Meadows was fanciful, but equally powerful in its depiction of the oppression felt in Iran by those who would dare cross the regime.
A documentary on the formation of ACT UP and its efforts to get more effective and cheaper AIDS drugs on the market. Put together almost exclusively through video tapes recorded by its members, this is a harrowing, informative, and brilliant film.
6. Searching for Sugarman
A film about a musician named Rodriguez, who only recorded two albums in the U.S. before being released by his label, due to poor sales. On the other side of the world, however, a copy of his debut album, Cold Fact, made it to South Africa and helped launch the anti-apartheid movement. Years later, two Rodriguez fans try to track down this mysterious musician. What results from their search is nothing short of incredible.
7. The Sessions
John Hawkes shows off his versatility once again as a man hooked up to an iron lung. Only able to leave it for several hours at a time, he ends up meeting with a sex therapist (Helen Hunt) while in the course of writing an article about people with disabilities and sex. This movie is not about sex. Rather, it is about connecting with others, and learning to accept ourselves for who we are. This one got to me.
I thought Casino Royal was one of the greatest action movies I’d ever seen, never mind one of the greatest Bond films ever. Then came Skyfall. As good as Casino Royal is, this is even better, with a final shootout sequence that reminded me (in the best way possible) of the shootout scene in L.A. Confidential. Plus, by revealing more of M’s past, as well as Bond’s, the film goes beyond their iconic status to show us two flawed human beings who are at the mercy of their pasts. And in a film which focuses as much on her character as it does on Daniel Craig’s, Judi Dench once again reminds us what a great actress she is (in case we forgot). Plus, Javier Bardem has to be one of the creepiest Bond villains ever.