Also, going over all the movies I saw this year, it was hard to let some go unmentioned. Sure, Steven Soderbergh had a great year with Magic Mike and Haywire, but how do those compare with The Turin Horse? I was also big fan of the insanely exciting Indonesian martial arts film The Raid: Redemption, but how do you compare that with Bernie? Then there are the films you list because, despite their flaws, they have a particular personal resonance. Sarah Polle's adept direction of Take This Waltz, and Michele Williams' endearing performance in that film, have not garnered mention on many other year-end lists, but the movie stayed with me for so many months I couldn't leave it off mine.
1. Amour (Dir. Michael Haneke)
Haneke's quiet movie about a dying woman and her devoted husband is simply unshakable. In it we encounter two of the most subtly rendered characters on screen this year, and their last days inside a modest Parisian apartment reveal so much about human interrelation. Here Haneke's penchant for starkly-drawn worlds allows for an exploration of character and affection that resists sentimentality and nostalgia. Instead, his straightforward rendering lays bare our longings, frailties, fears, and failings.
There are plenty of movies this year that try to engage with the peculiar confusion of contemporary life – from blinding violence to a splintered sense of self – but Haneke's film reminds us that perhaps what we often fail to grasp is a nuanced appreciation of the nature of a love that is hard-bearing, sacrificial, violent, open-ended, enigmatic, and necessary.
2. Holy Motors (Dir. Leos Carax)
Leos Carax's Holy Motors is befuddling, enrapturing, diabolical, exhilarating, infuriating, and beguiling. It is a movie-riddle that strikes at something unsettling close to the core of existence. In it, Denis Lavant delivers the year's best singular performance as a hard-to-pin-down actor who glides through Paris in a stretch limo, performing living scenes. It takes a while to begin to understand what Carax is up to with his film, which breaks down our expectations of what we take to be "true" or "real," initially in a cinematic sense, and then more broadly. Lavant plays a businessman, an actor, an artist, a performer, a beggar, a thief, a murder, a father, a scoundrel, a lover, a dying relative. He is lived contradiction, honesty manifested as a lie, whose presence serves as a foil both to society and existence.
Holy Motors is an unholy satire, an elusive and beguiling critique of life itself. Through his character, Carax breaks-down his audience, spinning Holy Motors into a carnivalesque hall of mirrors, an image play about images. "What is beauty if there is no beholder?" Lavant's character speculates at one point. The answer that emerges in the movie is that beauty is something equal parts seductive and horrifying — horrifying, perhaps, because, as we fear (and begin to suspect), in the context of Carax's vision of reality, it may be nothing at all.
3. Zero Dark Thirty (Dir. Katheryn Bigelow)
There has been no small amount of controversy surrounding Katheryn Bigelow's new film. Objections have been raised regarding its depiction of torture, its glorification of war, its blurred moral stance on human rights, its possibly racist depictions of Muslims, its conflicting characterization of feminist vigilantism, its suspected historical untruths and journalistic indiscretions, its flagrant breaching of national secrets, and what might be characterized as callous patriotic blood-lust.
The reason for all of these muddy and uneasy reactions to Bigelow's movie is that while Zero Dark Thirty appears in the form of an exciting Hollywood movie about search and capture of Osama bin Laden, it is equally a challenging critique – of the institutional structures that drove the manhunt, of the structure of human reason and capacity for understanding that deciphered the riddle of bin Laden's location, of the seek-and-destroy mentality that ended up leading a team of Navy Seals to the hated terrorist leader. And while Zero Dark Thirty is ostensibly a movie about hunting for bin Laden, it is also a piece of entertainment that raises its very entertainment as a crucial point of moral questioning. If hunting and killing bin Laden was a victory for America, than Americans share complicity in the murky and unsettling means to that end.