Director Richard Linklater has done the seemingly impossible: he's made a true crime comedy that's equal parts funny and tragic, filmed in a completely original docudrama style with some of the actual participants. Jack Black stars as the nicest guy in the town of Carthage, Texas who also happens to be guilty of murdering a little old lady. An effeminate undertaker who loves singing gospel music, Bernie Tiede is equal parts Stuart Smalley and Tenacious D. Black's performance is a high-wire act, and he pulls it off miraculously. Bernie is a folksy modern parable that has a lot to say about our justice system and how sometimes you have to lie and steal to do the most good. It's a great American movie.
2. The Cabin in the Woods
Marvel's The Avengers is the Joss Whedon film everyone has been talking about this year, but except for Mark Ruffalo's performance, I was less than blown away by the summer's undisputed box office champ. I have no reservations about The Cabin in the Woods, which is my favorite horror-comedy since the original Scream. Read my full review here.
This is the year's biggest arthouse smash, and it's easy to see why: never before has Wes Anderson made such a warm, relatable film. That doesn't mean he's broken new ground here. The movie offers a lot of what you'd expect from Anderson, the quirky details that make his work so recognizable. All of the books featured in the film have covers that were created from scratch (one of them pays homage to the movie poster for Bonjour tristesse), and, of course, all of the songs are wonderful. (Moonrise is the first soundtrack I've purchased since, well, The Darjeeling Limited.) The difference between this and The Life Aquatic and Darjeeling, both of which I found kind of alienating, is we understand where the filmmaker is coming from. Anderson has said the film was inspired by a childhood crush, a fantasy that never became real, and it's nice to think of Moonrise as the most elaborately constructed love letter ever.
4. The Dark Knight Rises
I had my doubts going in, but Bane won me over from the very first scene, and the "Occupy Gotham" sentiments expressed by Catwoman helped make this Christopher Nolan's timeliest and also one of his most compelling action-adventures. I was worried the death of Heath Ledger had left a hole in this series that couldn't be filled, but Nolan has given us a seamless trilogy, making this more of a sequel to Batman Begins than The Dark Knight. TDKR is funnier than the previous entries (Cillian Murphy has never been more hilariously cracked in the role of Judge Crane/Scarecrow), and the brilliant way the director and his screenwriting partner/brother Jonathan handle characterization (especially Catwoman and - spoiler alert! - Robin) suggests this series could go on in the form of spin-offs that meet the Nolan standard of excellence.
Not only a terrific original superhero movie (the best of its kind since M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable), Josh Trank's sleeper hit is also a fresh take on the "found-footage" genre. Dane DeHaan delivers one of the year's breakout performances as Andrew, an angry young man who chooses to be an apex predator instead of a Jedi knight.
The script for Ridley Scott's unofficial Alien prequel has been widely mocked by fans, but I'm willing to bet many of the film's unanswered questions (explored in detail by Mike and Jay at Half in the Bag) will be addressed in the Prometheus sequel. We haven't seen this level of spectacle in a science-fiction movie since Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, and that counts for quite a lot in my book.
Even though it tackles unpleasant issues like suicide prevention and the general smelliness of an all-male dormitory, Damsels is an absolute delight. This is the college Clueless, a hilarious and super-stylized portrait of campus life from one of cinema's least prolific poets, Whit Stillman (The Last Days of Disco). As the brightest ray of sunshine in a very sunny film, Greta Gerwig reaffirms her status as the most lovely specimen appearing on movie screens these days.
8. The Hunger Games
In the tradition of Battle Royale and Stephen King's novella The Long Walk, Suzanne Collins' dystopian tale of teens playing the most dangerous game for the amusement of the masses has been given the royal Hollywood treatment, with a riveting lead performance by Jennifer Lawrence.
Boy rejects girl, and what follows is by the far the most terrifying prom night since Carrie White got soaked with a bucketful of pig's blood. It's an understatement to say Sean Byrne's feature directorial debut is not for the faint of heart, as it comes very close to Saw levels of grisliness. But The Loved Ones is to be commended for its startling unpredictability, its original father-daughter team of psychos, and Robin McLeavy's squirm-inducing portrayal of the ultimate prom date from hell.
Once upon a time, Oliver Stone was my favorite filmmaker. He made his best movies when I was at an impressionable age, and they were loud and passionate and violent as hell. In other words, they were perfect for a teenager. Savages represents a welcome return to form after years spent in the wilderness. (I'll defend W. and a few of his documentaries, but basically everything after U Turn is a no-go.) Based on Don Winslow's 2010 novel, Savages is a heady mix of sex, drugs, violence and postcard images of Laguna Beach. For the first time since the glory days of JFK and Natural Born Killers, Stone has worked wonders with an ensemble cast, including John Travolta, Salma Hayek and Benicio Del Toro.
11. 21 Jump Street
"You see, the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice."
This is a Studio Ghibli film based on The Borrowers, so needless to say it has images you'd like to crawl inside of and explore, much like the little people in Mary Norton’s fantasy novel sneak inside houses and lift valuables.
13. God Bless America
A daring, acidly funny comedy directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, the sarcastically titled God Bless America updates Bonnie and Clyde while taking aim at a society that rewards "the shallowest, the dumbest, the meanest and the loudest" among us.
14. The Woman in Black
I'm happy there seems to be life after Harry Potter for the talented Mr. Radcliffe, but is this beautiful, gloomy, often very scary Gothic horror tale really a change of pace? The last few Potter sequels were horror films, weren't they?
In addition to this bloody hockey comedy (starring Seann William Scott in his most likable performance to date), I'd also include John Carter, Wanderlust and The Dictator. It's been been a solid year so far.