Another year, another top-10 list. I never know what form this list is going to take, and this year, the list is surprisingly mainstream. You've heard of most of the big films, but there are a couple of small and overlooked flicks you should check out:
Argo: Who would've thought that Ben Affleck would one day rise above Gigli and deliver something so appealing? Not me, but he certainly did with Argo, which tells the story of the CIA's efforts to smuggle six Americans out of Tehran after the 1979 embassy takeover by creating a fake movie and having them pose as Canadian filmmakers. Argo is slick, sharp, well-written and funny, and Affleck is pretty good as the CIA agent who creates a fake Hollywood film that results in a terrific real Hollywood film.
Django Unchained: Quentin Tarantino made the last good World War II movie (Inglourious Basterds), and now he's revitalized the western, again celebrating a genre and building on its conventions. The good guy, Django (Jamie Foxx), isn't just a gunslinger; he's also a freed slave. The man who freed him is bounty hunter Christoph Waltz, and the two visit plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in hopes of freeing Django's wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). It's a recipe for an enormous amount of bloodshed, which Tarantino somehow makes unbelievably funny.
Killing Them Softly: Andrew Dominik's movie ended up being the worst box-office opening of any Brad Pitt film, which is too bad, because this talky, artsy gangster movie is terrifically well made. Pitt is Jackie, an enforcer brought in to find the guys who knocked off a mob-protected poker game, and he's like an urban predator, taking everything in and controlling every situation. It's a fine performance that not enough people will see. James Gandolfini, as an aging hit man, does some of the best work of his career.
Life of Pi: We're told at the beginning of the screen adaptation of Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning novel that the main character, Pi, has a story that will make you believe in God. That's a tall order, but I came away at least believing in the power of cinema. Ostensibly the story of a young man stranded in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger for several months, Pi is really about the nature of faith and, perhaps more importantly, the ability of a top-shelf director like Ang Lee to coax beautiful magic out of the latest technology. To date, this is the most stunning film I've seen in 3-D.
The Master: Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the few directors working who can actually make films about something larger than their story. Case in point: The Master, which looks at the strange co-dependent relationship between Freddy Quells (Joaquin Phoenix), a WWII vet drifting through life, and Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a spiritual leader loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard. The scenes between the two of them are extraordinary, and the film itself will leave you meditating on why people follow naked emperors.
Moonrise Kingdom: It's been said—often by me—that director Wes Anderson tells the same story over and over again by examining the dysfunctional relationships within families. The thing is, I'm a huge fan of that story, and I have yet to tire of the way he tells it. Moonrise Kingdom draws on the power of nostalgia and young love, as two young inhabitants of a New England island run off together, forcing the rest of the residents to put aside their differences to find them. It's smart, funny and emotional, which is as much as we can ask for in a movie.
Searching For Sugar Man: Sixto Rodriguez might be the best '70s singer-songwriter no one's heard of. That is, except for anti-Apartheid South Africans, who embraced his music, found it incredibly inspiring and worshipped him even after his death. The thing is, Rodriguez was alive and well, unaware that in one small corner of the world, he was bigger than Elvis. Fifteen years ago, a pair of South African fans tracked him down and shocked their countrymen by not only proving that their hero was still drawing breath, but also by bringing him over to do some shows. It's the sort of story that'll never happen again, thanks to Wikipedia, but it's incredibly nice to enjoy now. And, oh yeah, the music is pretty good, too.
Starlet: The further I get from Sean Baker's little movie, the more it stays with me. On the outside, it seems simple—a San Fernando Valley girl, Jane (Dree Hemingway), tries to become friends with cranky old Sadie (Besedka Johnson) after Jane finds a stash of money in a thermos she bought at Sadie's yard sale. Their friendship gets Jane away from her roommate and her work and gives her something that feels real. At the end, we learn something new about Sadie that sheds some light on everything we've already seen. Usually, that's a twist. In this case, it's just very good writing.
Take This Waltz: Every year, Michelle Williams turns in another amazing performance. She's the lead in Sarah Polley's film, playing a happily married woman who finds herself irresistibly drawn to her artist neighbor. She lays it all out there—confusion, attraction, the sense of needing to follow her heart and the desperation of loving someone else before you're out of love with your mate. Polley's screenplay is on the mark, too, and she coaxes nice supporting performances from Sarah Silverman and Seth Rogen.
Zero Dark Thirty: Kathryn Bigelow's procedural pic tells of the 10-year manhunt that ended with the killing of Osama Bin Laden. I thought this was a far better film than The Hurt Locker, which earned her Best Director and Best Picture Oscars, but it's also much colder and harder to connect with emotionally. There's nothing wasted about it at all—it's precise and tense, and even at longer than two-and-a-half hours, it never drags. Jessica Chastain is terrific as Maya, the CIA agent whose single-minded determination eventually leads the SEALs to the compound in Pakistan. (Opens in San Diego on Jan. 4.)