I don’t know how other critics decide what their ten best are, but my list is based on the movies I saw that I was mostly likely to recommend unprompted. If you ask me about, say, “The Descendants” I’ll tell you it’s a fine film and well worth seeing, but if you simply ask what to see this season, I’ll lead off with “Hugo” and “The Artist.” So, in order of release:
WIN WIN ::: In movies like “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor,” writer/director Thomas McCarthy has showcased decent people who find themselves in unusual circumstances presenting them with heart and humor. In “Win Win,” Paul Giamatti is an attorney who tries to do the right thing for his clients and his family but cuts corners once and finds that he can’t contain the results. Bobby Canavale is hilarious as his friend and ought to be much better known.
SOURCE CODE ::: It was a so-so year at the movies, but a pretty decent one in the science fiction genre. “Source Code” was the second feature from director Duncan Jones (following “Moon”), and it showed him as someone to watch for intelligent and moving stories. Here, Jake Gyllenhaal is a soldier who wakes up in someone else’s body on a commuter train and has to stop a bombing. The thriller elements play out but Jones makes us wonder about the ramifications of the technology that makes it possible. That’s the difference between an intelligent filmmaker and a hack like Michael Bay. [READ REVIEW]
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS ::: Woody Allen, it’s nice to have you back. After years of films that made his fans embarrassed for their past support – “Curse Of The Jade Scorpion,” “Hollywood Ending,” “Scoop” anyone? – the man whose films were once hallmarks of American comedy comes around with a hilarious look at nostalgia and how we lionize the past. Not even the presence of Owen Wilson in the lead could ruin a funny and inventive script that, like Allen’s best films, also left you thinking. [READ REVIEW]
SHOLEM ALEICHEM: LAUGHING IN THE DARKNESS ::: The great documentaries change the way you see the world either by taking you somewhere you’ve never been or making you see things you thought you knew in a new way. This biography of the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem turned him from the man who wrote the stories that inspired “Fiddler On The Roof” into the great and complex figure that he was. This movie helps one understand why Aleichem was hailed as “the Jewish Mark Twain.”
CONTAGION ::: A thriller that relies on characters and dialogue instead of big action scenes and special effects? Steven Soderbergh pulled it off with this chilling and realistic look of what would happen if an unknown illness started rapidly spreading and claiming lives in today’s world. A stellar cast – including Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow – made this so real that someone sneezing near you will make you nervous. [READ REVIEW]
DRIVE ::: Ryan Gosling is having an outstanding year (see, also, “Crazy Stupid Love” and “The Ides Of March”), but his turn as the driver of getaway cars made this the existential crime film of the year. Not as flashy as other action films, it was a character driven story about a man who lives by his own code and won’t allow it to be violated. Albert Brooks is an Oscar contender for supporting actor for his chillingly soft-spoken gangster. [READ REVIEW]
50/50 ::: A comedy about cancer? Indeed, writer Will Reiser based it on his own story of struggling with (and surviving) the discovery of a brain tumor in his twenties. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was sensational as the young man facing mortality while Seth Rogen – playing a variation of himself in his friendship with Reiser – is wonderful as the sometimes crude but fiercely loyal pal.
MONEYBALL ::: Quite possibly the best film of the year, this adaptation of the non-fiction best seller of how the manager of the Oakland A’s turned to unconventional means to compete against the big money teams had two great performers in Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, and crackling dialogue from co-writer Aaron Sorkin. Pitt juggling phone calls in forcing a trade of players is one of the great star turns in the movies. [READ REVIEW]
HUGO ::: Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the modern children’s classic The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a sheer delight. It’s the first movie since “Avatar” worth seeing in 3D. A boy lives in the Paris train station in the early 1930s, and uncovers a great secret. Scorsese has assembled a strong cast for a story that reminds us all about what we love about the movies. [READ REVIEW]
THE ARTIST ::: Believe it or not, the feel good movie of the year is both silent and black and white. The story of two movie performers at the dawn of the age of sound, it’s full of life and good humor that will leave you with a big smile by film’s end. Some recognizable faces – including John Goodman, Malcolm McDowell, and James Cromwell – appear, but the film belongs to its two leads, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo. You may not know them now, but you will.***
What is your favorite movie and why? Post your thoughts below!
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.