Yes, we did this last year. It’s a simple and possibly durable idea: that movies tend to fall into categories, and one way for a year-end list to make itself useful is by sorting the well known from the worthy alternatives. Like so:
1. The Cosmic Contemplation
Certainly every adventurous moviegoer ought at least to scan the much lauded, intermittently loathed “tone poem” that is Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” But it’ll be hard not to notice that Malick’s lack of discipline becomes discourteous to his audience — and to his ideas. For a more eloquent cinematic poetry, a more socially meaningful articulation of awe, try Patricio Guzmán’s documentary “Nostalgia for the Light” (pictured). This personal survey of the driest place on Earth — an essential hub for astronomers and a dumping ground for the bodies of political prisoners “disappeared” by the Chilean army in 1973 — has the rigor and humility to really show us what we’re made of. Guzmán is, as Geoff Dyer once wrote of Ryszard Kapuscinski, “an unflinching witness and an exuberant stylist.” And his film, equally earthbound and star-reaching, is a magnificent achievement.
2. The movie-history reverie
It’s not a contest. I mean, it is, because that’s what we’re doing here. But look: Martin Scorsese clearly had a fine time making a fine film with “Hugo,” but it sometimes seems like a movie for old people who won’t shut up about wishing there were more movies for young people. Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” just moves more gracefully, and always seems like a movie for all people — except maybe those few film-history know-it-alls who feel unnecessarily anxious about having their authority threatened.
3. The woman, roaring
Vengeance-dispensing cyberpunk as feminist icon? Too easy. Try being a redeemer of fat-chick shtick. Rooney Mara fully commanded “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” yes, but to my mind the real badass of the year still was Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids.”
4. The sleek, sexy danger
“Drive” director Nicolas Winding Refn might enjoy finding himself cited in a paragraph also citing Steve McQueen — except in this case, when the McQueen in question is the one who directed “Shame.” As Euro-minimal, borderline-pretentious movies with cool dudes and Carey Mulligan go, the latter had a clear advantage: an interest in actual human behavior. There’s the coolness of ingratiating pop-pastiche chic, and then there’s the coolness of composure.
5. The alien invasion
6. The coping with awful offspring
Right, so if there wasn’t really anything to say, why exactly did “We Need to Talk About Kevin”? The bogus social conscience of director Lynne Ramsay’s wanton Tilda Swinton squandering might seem offensive if it weren’t in the end just a hollow horror flick dressed in ill-fitting clothes from the floor of the indie-1990s closet. Meanwhile Yun Jung-hee, as a grandmother with her hands full in director Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry,” got the refined and powerful movie she deserved.
7. The great depression
It takes special fortitude to build a whole film around a single soul being crushed, and so directors Lars von Trier and Jodie Foster are hereby commended. One must choose one’s concept and one’s lead performer carefully, however. Whereas Kirsten Dunst gamely bore the weight of the world — two worlds, actually, when you count that looming other planet — in “Melancholia,” Mel Gibson’s morose puppeteer in “The Beaver” merely was a bore, who left us with this quotable decree to remember him by: “You give the word, we’ll make the turd.”
8. The kaleidoscopic view of fractured young psyche
One thing the titular fictive cult survivor in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and the variously ventriloquized playwright in “The Arbor” have in common, aside from some harrowing life experience, is a movie that deliberately doesn’t let us get a full read on her. Ultimately the former felt like a pretty gimmick; the latter still haunts like a broken embrace.
9. The animals who will talk us out of tweeness
Let’s call these two tied because their makers are each other’s spouses: Mike Mills’ “Beginners” and Miranda July’s “The Future” both addressed commitment phobia, generation gaps, creative paralysis, and the limits of their makers’ own adorableness, by means of, among other devices, cute talking animals. Hm. You know, this one might really be better for the trends list. Actually, this whole list might belong on the trends list. Come to think of it, the question of one list belonging on another list might even belong on the lists list. Is this all getting unbearably self-conscious? Well, try channelling that feeling into a whole feature film. It’s not easy, but that’s just what both “Beginners” and “The Future” did.
10. The soul growth, amid wondrous natural splendor
They are such different films that comparing “The Descendants” with “Le Quattro Volte” might seem inherently unfair. (It is: The latter should be so lucky as to have former’s marketing budget.) We just need an excuse to discuss them, and anyway, we’re at list’s end. It’s nice to be reminded that director Alexander Payne is such a specialist of real-seeming people that he can even make George Clooney look like one. In the fertile Hawaii of “The Descendants,” maturation seemed like something we all do, or hope to, instead of just a chapter title in some screenwriting guide. It’s even nicer, though, to behold Michelangelo Frammartino’s deliberative and delightful docu-essay on the transmigration of a rural Italian soul. Where Payne’s movie talks too much, Frammartino’s needs nary a complete exchange of dialogue to fully and nonchalantly dramatize its cycle of life. Speaking of which, this brings us back to number 1 above; the arboreal-majesty-seeking but Malick-averse viewer may also be happy to know there are no digitally anthropomorphized dinosaurs in “Le Quattro Volte.” Just a bunch of plain old goats.