The best movies of their years

The Turin Horse

★★★★★

It’s that time of year when critics survey their work from the past twelve months and choose a list of the ten best films (or music, or games, or what have you). One of the very best, and one that may have slipped under the radar, is Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2012), from Hungary. The movie begins by following up on a story about how Friedrich Nietzsche tried to stop the whipping of a horse in 1889. The owner of the horse, a farmer (János Derzsi), lives with his grown daughter (Erika Bók); as he returns home, a huge windstorm whips up. They await the storm’s end while things seem to grow steadily worse. Tarr usually films in stark black-and-white, and prefers very long takes, often with no dialogue, and often simply observing some ordinary task, like eating or walking. Yet he finds extraordinary truths in these moments. Sadly, it was announced that Tarr is retiring, and that The Turin Horse will be his final film.

Dark Horse

★★★★☆

Brand new on Netflix is the latest movie from indie filmmaker Todd Solondz, best known for his 1990s films Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness. Dark Horse (2012) is another excruciatingly dark comedy, peering deep into the most uncomfortable, insecure moments of human behavior. Jordan Gelber plays Abe, a full-grown, overweight adult who lives with his parents, works at his dad’s firm, and collects action figures. He meets the emotionally damaged Miranda (Selma Blair) at a wedding and pushes his way into a relationship. The movie employs weird dream imagery and manages many hilarious moments as well as poignant ones. Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow are standouts as Abe’s parents, as is Donna Murphy as a secretary that haunts Abe’s dreams.

Oslo, August 31st

★★★★☆

Another of the year’s most acclaimed movies, Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st (2012), from Norway, is a deceptively simple drama that takes place on one day. Recovering addict Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) checks out of a treatment center to go on a job interview. While he’s out, he looks up a few old friends, goes to a party, meets a girl, and generally re-assesses his life. It may seem like a heavy-handed “issue” film, but instead it’s a story about life’s lost moments, and the few you do manage to catch.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

★★★★☆

Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan came up with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2012), a two-and-a-half hour police procedural that, like many great films, slowly becomes something more. Over the course of a night, a group of police, doctors, coroners, prisoners, etc., search the countryside for a dead body; Ceylan makes haunting use of car headlights to illuminate the undulating hills. During the wee hours, the conversations turn to many curious topics, and eventually, as the group returns to civilization, other stories aside from the murder have come to light.

Road to Nowhere (expiring 1/15)

★★★★☆

Though it barely gained any attention, one of the most exciting cinematic events of 2011 was the return of the American cult director Monte Hellman, who had made several existential masterworks in the 1960s and 1970s (Two-Lane Blacktop, etc.). Road to Nowhere (2011) stars Shannyn Sossamon as an actress in a movie based on a real-life murder case. Hellman intercuts footage from the finished “film” with the making of it, and the crossover begins to reveal more about the mystery itself and the people behind it. Road to Nowhere can be disorienting, just as Hellman’s greatest films were, but hopefully audiences will come to appreciate it.

The Strange Case of Angelica (expiring 1/12)

★★★★☆

The Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira made this film—his first to use digital effects—at the age of 102, and he’s now 104 and going strong. In The Strange Case of Angelica (2011), Oliveira’s grandson Ricardo Trêpa stars as Isaac, a young Jewish photographer hired to photograph a the corpse of the beautiful Angelica (Pilar López de Ayala). When Isaac looks at her through his viewfinder, she opens her eyes and smiles at him. Isaac continues his work, but finds himself haunted by visions of Angelica. This beautiful, poetic film may be one of Oliveira’s most accessible.

Alamar (expiring 1/11)

★★★★☆

Going back to 2010, Pedro González-Rubio’s Alamar (2010), an amazing combination of documentary and dramatic filmmaking, was one of the year’s treasures. After a whirlwind romance and a hasty marriage, an Italian woman and a man of Mayan heritage split up. Their son comes to stay for a while with his father, a fisherman living near Mexico. Father, son, and grandfather go fishing, snorkeling, and boating, with hardly any talking, and these things, as well as a rescued egret, become a beautiful part of the boy’s life.

Blue Valentine

★★★★☆

Thanks to an Oscar nomination for lead actress Michelle Williams, Derek Cianfrance’s drama Blue Valentine (2010) became slightly more visible on the movie landscape than some of its independent fellows. However, it was a tough, uncompromising look at the way a marriage comes together, and then falls apart; the beginning and the ending are cross-cut together. Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Williams) have a meet-cute, complete with a ukulele rendition of “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” and a rendezvous in a cheesy hotel room decorated to look space-age. It’s driven by cluttered, confused emotions rather than plot, and it’s unforgettable.

Lake Tahoe (expiring 1/12)

★★★★☆

Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke (Duck Season) has been compared to Jim Jarmusch for making ultra-deadpan comedies without much forward momentum. Yet the moments they create out of seemingly nothing at all are both hilarious and fascinating. In Lake Tahoe (2010), a young man crashes his car and spends the next 80 minutes searching for both auto parts and a helpful mechanic. One scene in particular merely depicts a man and a dog eating breakfast together, but it’s absolutely hilarious.

Topsy-Turvy

★★★☆☆

At the tail end of the year in 1999, acclaimed British director Mike Leigh came out with perhaps the most ambitious movie of his career, Topsy-Turvy (1999, see image at top), the story of Gilbert and Sullivan (played by Allan Corduner and Jim Broadbent) and the creation of their musical play The Mikado. Running two hours and forty minutes, it’s a wonderfully detailed, funny look at the whole process, which allows for missteps and moments of life to seep in. It also has some spectacular moments, with great costumes and musical numbers. Though it’s not as neat and tidy as other films of its type, it’s still has great crowd-pleasing potential.

Miller’s Crossing

★★★★★

Way back in 1990, there was a glut of gangster movies, led by GoodFellas and The Godfather Part III, and followed by half a dozen others. Lost in the shuffle was the third movie by Joel and Ethan Coen, Miller’s Crossing (1990), a glittering, hard diamond of a film, based very loosely on Dashiell Hammett stories, with nary a misstep. Gabriel Byrne stars as a right-hand man to a crime boss (Albert Finney) during the prohibition era. He finds himself dealing with a potential war between gangs, and also a silken, deadly femme fatale (Marcia Gay Harden). A great supporting cast (Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, Jon Polito) rounds things out. Joel’s wife Frances McDormand appears in one scene, and director Sam Raimi has a cameo.

What’s new

  • All or Nothing
  • The Big Bird Cage
  • Caged Heat
  • Death Race 2000 [1975]
  • El Dorado
  • Escape from Alcatraz
  • Four Brothers
  • Funny Face
  • Hondo
  • The Hours
  • The Hunt for Red October
  • I Was a Male War Bride
  • An Inconvenient Truth
  • Iron Monkey
  • The Long Goodbye
  • The Machinist
  • Mad Hot Ballroom
  • Neil Young: Heart of Gold
  • The Original Kings of Comedy
  • Planes, Trains and Automobiles
  • The Rescuers
  • Rock ’n’ Roll High School
  • Romeo and Juliet [1968]
  • Rosemary’s Baby
  • Searching for Bobby Fischer
  • Slap Shot
  • Soapdish
  • Tape
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day
  • The Untouchables
  • V/H/S
  • War and Peace [1956]
  • WarGames
  • The Warriors
  • World Trade Center

Expiring soon

  • The Fighter (1/13)
  • Hollywoodland (1/16)

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