10. The Skeleton Twins
Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig in a tragicomedy about family, identity, depression, infidelity and death. Sounds dark, but it's the sort of treatment that will give you the warm and fuzzies and make you want to hug your sibling(s).
9. Gone Girl
As a fan of Gillian Flynn's Definitive Novel of 2012, my blood began to simmer at the news of a film adaptation, then quickly cooled when I learned that David Fincher was at the helm. Even after the news of Ben Affleck's casting as the lead (he does have the perfect creepy smile), I kept my trust in the Fincher, and boy did he deliver. Rosamund Pike is divine as psychopathic Amy, and that last scene with Neil Patrick Harris as Desi is nothing short of perfection. Please let this be a shining example of why more novelists should pen their own adapted screenplays.
8. The Trip to Italy
I was first introduced to the delightful celebrity-impersonating comedians Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan when a screener of Michael Winterbottom's 2010 film The Trip landed in my PO Box when I was covering the San Francisco International Film Festival as an undergrad. Equally enchanted and bewildered by the kooky, epicurean road trip, I wasn't entirely sure when I began my review whether it was documentary or feature film. Four years later, as soon as I saw the sequel in the SFIFF program, I immediately added the screening to my calendar. A little more "serious" than the original, The Trip to Italy still has lots of heart beneath the humor. All those close-ups of handmade pasta and sunlight piercing the Mediterranean made me long for the Amalfi coast.
7. Obvious Child
The abortion comedy. Swallow the questions and preconceived notions that are undoubtedly reverse peristalsis-ing towards your oral cavity and run - don't walk - to the computer. Find this movie. Watch it. And let us all join hands and crown actress-comedian Jenny Slate the new Lena Dunham of girl crushes.
Maybe I'd gone soft from the nostalgia that Jon Favreau's film evoked of my time working on a food truck in Paris, but he seemed to really get food. He captured the lifestyle (the colorful Spanglish, the dick jokes, the camaraderie, the terrible hours, the near-nonexistent personal life) and spun it into a fun, vivid tale of how a passion project isn't necessarily a suicide mission, especially in an industry where the vast majority of new businesses fail. At a time when my professional life was less than ideal, Chef reminded me of why we do what we do.
I bookmarked this Vulture article and read it after I'd seen the film, and all the little mental stirrings and reservations I had while watching suddenly dissipated. This is not to say that Ben Kenigsberg's interpretation is the only - or even the best - explanation, but for me it filled in the gaps, added another dimension to the story and, ultimately, elevated the film as a whole. Christopher Nolan, though talented, is far from a perfect filmmaker, yet Interstellar is as close to a perfect balance between form and content that he's hit since Memento. Sort of like last year's Her, if you saw Interstellar and didn't enjoy it at least a little, then there's a good chance that it went soaring over your head.
4. Life Itself
In addition to the reviews by local critic Moira Macdonald, Roger Ebert's opinions were the ones I trusted most when deciding whether or not to see a film. Later on a touchstone for my own film writing when I felt out of touch with objectivity, Ebert's articles were always reliably straightforward and unpretentious. He didn't fool around with the flowery, erudite language of academia; rather, he was the people's critic. But more importantly than that, he never strayed from the Fundamental Role of a reviewer, as taught to me by my high school journalism teacher: to assess the degree to which the artist succeeded in achieving whatever it was that he/she set out to achieve. In other words, you can't judge a Michael Bay film using the same framework as you would a Darren Aronofsky film. (Unless, maybe, the film in question is Noah. Oof). But I digress. Life Itself was a poignant reminder of how much Ebert inspired me as a film watcher, writer and lover.
3. Dear White People
This is the type of satire that will make you squirm in your seat and cringe as you laugh, because Justin Simien's script is just. That. On. Point. Set on a fictional Ivy League college campus, gleaming ivory tower of white privilege and self-delusional notions of post-racism, the multi-protagonist narrative follows several African American students as they try to reconcile their own emerging identities with the ones pop culture tries to force on them, as well as the everyday struggle of being, as per the tagline, "a black face in a white place." The climax of the film is a blackface party hosted by a white fraternity. Think that sounds too outlandish? Google it. Sadly, this is one of the instances when art imitates reality.
2. Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
This was a close call but, alas, I had already pledged my allegiance to Boyhood as number one this year. Complex, philosophical and witty beyond measure, Alejandro González Iñárritu's film is a caustic assessment of the current state of cinema through the prism of theater. Michael Keaton stars as Riggan, a fading actor best known for his long-ago superhero character Birdman, whose last-ditch attempt to revamp his career by way of writing, starring in and directing a Broadway play may just completely derail him. Keaton himself is probably best remembered by most as a pre-Nolan Batman. Meta, much? Opposite him, Edward Norton as Mike, a pretentious theater actor, lobs the sharpest criticisms of commercial studio films while touting himself as a pure artist. Shot and edited to resemble a single take, Birdman is a tightly-wound, intimate portrait of a comically tortured soul.
Groundbreaking. Brilliant. Breathtaking. These are the buzzwords that have been circling Richard Linklater's Boyhood since its first screening. And, frankly, how else can you possibly describe such a cinematic undertaking? For twelve years, Linklater filmed actor Ellar Coltrane in order to make an epic, accurate coming-of-age film. What you get out of the movie depends on which side of the age spectrum you fall on, and whether or not you're a parent. Being only slightly older than the protagonist is at the end, when he starts college, I found most of the film highly relatable to my own childhood experience. Like him, I also went to midnight Harry Potter book release parties, nearly pissed myself laughing the first time I watched Will Ferrell's viral video "The Landlord," felt confused and hurt after breaking up with my high school boyfriend, etc. But the nostalgia and sentimentality of hearing Coldplay's "Yellow" and Phoenix's "Lisztomania" are only part of what makes it so captivating. Without prosthetic aging makeup or changing actors, there's no need to suspend your disbelief; the narrative unfolds, seemingly in real-time, and pulls you in.
Honorable mentions: Art and Craft, Big Hero 6, Frank, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Guardians of the Galaxy, Nightcrawler, Snowpiercer.
Apparently I was too lazy to compile a 2013 list. Here are my picks for 2012, with links to even older lists should you wish to travel further back in time.