1. The Artist
An exuberant silent movie about a silent movie star. Set in 1927 Hollywood, the gorgeous black and white feature follows the career of a leading man (Jean Dujardin) at the top of his game and a charming newcomer (Berenice Bejo) on her way up. The story is packed with clichés and broad acting, but it all works in this context. Dujardin and Bejo are perfect, the score is wonderful (they use xylophones liberally and get away with it, for God's sake!) and the mix of humor and melodrama is spot on. In theaters now.
2. Win Win
Beguiling low-key slice of life movie about a nice guy who does a rotten thing. Not enough space to lay out the plot here. Suffice to say that a struggling lawyer and coach of a lousy high school wrestling team (Paul Giamatti) gets involved with an old man (Burt Young) and, later, the old guy's grandson (Alex Shaffer), who happens to be a great wrestler. The cast is exceptional, especially Giamatti, Amy Ryan and Bobby Cannavale, and the script is funny and engaging. From Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent). Available now.
Forget the romance you associate with Pedro Almodovar films. He goes someplace else this time, presenting dark, bizarre events in a matter-of-fact fashion. Antonio Banderas plays an intense plastic surgeon monitoring a beautiful woman (Elena Anaya) wearing only a flesh-colored body stocking and a frantic expression. Slowly, with lots of flashbacks, the dynamic of their relationship is revealed. The more you learn, the more rattled you feel. During the closing credits I was still reeling. So freaky. So disquieting. So cool. Available for home viewing March 6.
Yeah, I know some of you are reading this and rolling your eyes. Terrence Malick's meditation on life, the universe and our place in it annoyed the hell out of a significant number of viewers. I felt the same way about some of his other films, but this one grabbed me like nothing else this year. The most touching parts of the production deal with a rural American family in the '50s. Malick does an excellent job creating a specific, credible portrait of the family, aided by great performances by Brad Pitt and young Hunter McCracken). See it when you're in a reflective mood. Available now.
5. The Guard
Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle star in a quirky mismatched cop story set in Ireland. Expect rich characters, caustic humor and emotion without a whiff of sentimentality. Cheadle plays straight man most of the time, giving Gleeson plenty of room to stretch as Sergeant Boyle — foul-mouthed hedonist, skilled police officer, devoted son and accomplished irritant. What a treat. Warning: Some of the Irish accents are very thick; you may want to watch with the closed-captions on. Available Jan. 3.
George Clooney plays a man who has been emotionally distant from his wife for some time. His relationship with his daughters has also suffered from his frequent absences. When a boating accident leaves his wife near death, he must step up and be a full-fledged father. Alexander Payne's film mixes drama and comedy adroitly. The characters are distinct without feeling contrived, the conversations seem genuine, and the Hawaiian setting is used nicely. In theaters now.
7. Young Adult
The new feature from the Juno writer and director team of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman is a wicked mix of abrasive comedy and pathos. Successful author Mavis (Charlize Theron) comes up with what her alcohol-soaked noggin considers a great idea. She'll go back to her small hometown and “rescue” her ex-high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson) from his wife and baby. Theron is terrific as a walking disaster area, while Patton Oswalt humanizes the film as an embittered former classmate. Get ready for a series of achingly embarrassing moments. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll even care. In theaters now.
8: Margin Call
Margin Call takes place over the course of one night, the night in 2008 when Wall Street came undone. It focuses on a small group of people at one company. Someone has discovered the very bad things the company has been doing. The information will become public tomorrow. What to do, what to do? Scramble, hold high-level meetings, make speeches and do more bad things. Mesmerizing fare, with a cast including Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci and — surprise — Demi Moore, relevant again! Available now.
9. Take Shelter
In this drama the villain is dread. The apocalypse is also a factor, and maybe mental illness. Writer-director Jeff Nichols offers a scenario where one man's most immediate threat appears to be his own fear of disaster. Michael Shannon is aces as a small-town Ohio husband and father — a good man — who begins experiencing vivid, terrifying apocalyptic dreams. He worries whether the dreams are omens, or whether he is simply coming unglued. The gap between realizing you're probably mentally ill and corralling the illness is huge, as the film makes abundantly clear. Michael Shannon's performance is searing. Available on Feb. 14.
A straight-laced journalist (Daniel Craig) teams with a mega-sullen computer hacker (Rooney Mara) decked out in full punk/goth regalia. David Fincher's version of the first novel in Stieg Larsson's trilogy that spawned three hit Swedish films is a dense but trackable mystery/thriller with loads of dark imagery shot with great style. The story includes a graphic rape scene, plus Nazis, serial killing, incest and torture. Merry Christmas, everybody, would you like a dollop of strychnine-laced whipped cream on your mincemeat pie? In theaters now.
Honorable Mentions: Hugo (Scorsese's beautifully shot adventure and love letter to the early days of movies), Moneyball (baseball flick that makes numbers fun), Super 8 (The Goonies meet ET's grouchy cousin), Warrior (battling brothers with daddy issues — intense and moving), The Lincoln Lawyer (Matthew McConaughey puts his surfer dude persona on hold for a legal drama), 50/50 (believable cancer drama/buddy comedy), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Summer's biggest surprise. Apes triumph over damn, dirty humans), Crazy, Stupid Love (swell romantic comedy), Tabloid (documentary about a short blonde bombshell accused of kidnapping her Mormon boyfriend. Must be seen to be believed).