I surprise myself by including a superhero extravaganza on a best of the year list, but Christopher Nolan's climax to his staggeringly successful Batman trilogy represents an exceptional display of protean filmmaking ability, unnecessary but gratifying ambition for the genre, a keen taste in actors and the creative power, rivaled only by Skyfall this year, to infuse one-dimensional and highly familiar material with an elevating sense of operatic gravitas.
While some might feel that Quentin Tarantino's penchant for running big wrenching topics—the Nazis, American slavery—through the idiosyncratic prism of his own cinephilia represents a trivialization of those issues, my awe for the originality and sheer chutzpah of his dramatic face-offs is only increasing. No one else thinks and makes movies like this, no one else on the commercial landscape so confidently goes his own way and still finds his way home to a large audience.
Academia has seldom been shown with such a realistic and pointed sense of the rivalries and personal stakes involved as it is in Joseph Cedar's exceptionally intelligent film, which pits father and son, Talmudic scholars both, against one another in a vibrantly portrayed contemporary Israeli setting. A sequence in which academic officials rancorously argue in a tiny airless room over who will win a top prize is as spectacular as any great battle scene.
Other Bond films have attempted to stick a toe into the “real” world from time to time, but never in a way that gave them the weight that Sam Mendes and his first-class collaborators thrillingly achieve from shifting the villainy from the realm of delusional megalomaniacs to threats on the very essence of Western proficiency. Yes, the Union Jack is still flying at the end, but it has been threatened in a way that sobers even the inveterate martini drinker.
The irresolutions of the final 20 minutes or so leave Paul Thomas Anderson's film forever puzzling and frustrating on a dramatic level. And yet, it offers far more unforgettable images and scenes than any other recent film. Further, it taps into weird veins of consciousness and perception that belong to a different realm than that of any other remotely mainstream filmmaker. Memories of isolated moments pop into my brain with alarming frequency.
I believe Kathryn Bigelow puts it all together here, more than she did in The Hurt Locker, as there are more elements and issues at play here that were challenging to balance. From the beginning of her career, the director has explored a lean, thoughtful, non-ideological visualization of action and violence, and it's both ironic and gratifying that she finally found a way to channel that abiding interest and to place a driven female character at the center of it.
From Turkish high art master Nuri Bilge Ceylan, this visually staggering film is a murder mystery the way L'avventura was a missing person investigation—its premise is merely an excuse to take the temperature of many other things, from the mundane realities of society to the existential. It's long, it's slow, it's deliberately obscure. And unforgettable.
By contrast, the Bathtub, the Louisiana fringe community depicted herein, had never before been revealed in a dramatic film I know of. But it will remain emblazened in the minds of everyone who's seen it through the hyper-imaginative vision of BenhZeitlin, whose debut feature is one of the most strikingly original American independent films of the Sundance era.
Similarly, there have been innumerable documentaries about Israel and the Palestinians. But hearing it all straight from the six surviving former heads of the Shin Bet intelligence agency in Dror Moreh's penetrating account forces a blunt reassessment of the reality of Israel's predicament in the Middle East that is sobering at the very least and urgently provokes soul-searching as well as long-range strategic thinking.
We've all seen countless films about old age and dying, from disease-of-the-week TV movies to comedies about old grumps and bucket listers. But Michael Haneke's film cuts to the essence of facing the end of life more honestly, brutally and realistically than any other. It's very potent medicine of which one dose may be enough but it will remain in the system a very long time.