The Top 10
* 1. The Adventures of Tintin
The 3-D animation unleashes the slapstick poet in Steven Spielberg, who takes the Indiana Jones template to dazzlingly kinetic new heights. My jaw hurt from the inability to stop grinning.
Melancholy and madcap, Mike Mills’s inventive weave of past and present ushers you into the mind of its hero (a superb Ewan McGregor) as he agonizes over his emotional inheritance. As the dad who comes out of the closet at 75, Christopher Plummer is light and lithe, buoyed by his new life among the boys.
Ralph Fiennes stars and directs from John Logan’s canny script. Not definitive, but taut, brutal, and unsettling—Shakespeare’s surly warrior by way of The Hurt Locker.
4. The Descendants
Alexander Payne is either American cinema’s nastiest humanist or its most empathetic jerk. Whichever, the brusque, sometimes ungainly film zigzags movingly between comedy and pathos, pettiness and anguish.
5. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life
Joann Sfar’s inspired Serge Gainsbourg biopic uses fancy temporal leaps and the surreal presence of a beak-nosed, bat-eared doppelgänger to create a portrait of the artist as a brilliant, riven asshole.
6. Hell and Back Again
Danfung Dennis’s documentary is a grueling portrait of a soldier at war in Afghanistan and home after a bullet explodes his leg and hip. Dennis jumps back and forth between this supremely potent fighter in the middle of a war he doesn’t understand and the agonized and impotent man at home with a new, tragic perspective.
7. Into the Abyss
Werner Herzog’s second documentary of the year earns its comparison to In Cold Blood, depicting a sick, tragic ecosystem of senseless crime and uncomprehending capital punishment. In Texas, natch.
8. Margin Call
The view from the one percent, a lacerating business melodrama in which the bad guys win. With Kevin Spacey’s best performance in years and stellar work by Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, and even Demi Moore.
9. Mysteries of Lisbon
Raúl Ruiz’s final film (he died two weeks after its U.S. release) is a Dickensian epic with a dash of magic realism. You study it like a series of paintings—then realize, with a gasp, that it has hold of you like a fever dream.
10. War Horse
Steven Spielberg’s World War I epic, which follows a horse from rural England to the bloody battlefields of Europe, is sometimes cornball and too self-consciously mythic, but his complex humanism—his view of men at their worst and best—shines through. It’s grim yet thrilling.
* This list is in alphabetical order; all ten are good in their own way. But I couldn’t decide which was the very best, or the worst of the best, for that matter. Missing is Melancholia. Lars von Trier has done a masterly job of evoking onscreen his nihilistic worldview. But how can you champion a film that is, in the end, so loathsomely anti-life-affirming?