Jessica Chastain is front and centre in Kathryn Bigelow’s riveting Zero Dark Thirty.
You could say the movies in our amalgamated year-end list ponder the mysteries of life, love and death. But those are pretty universal themes. The surprise is that our number-one film was on each critic's list but nobody's favourite - proof that this was an eclectic year.
1. ZERO DARK THIRTY Kathryn Bigelow
Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal compress the CIA's decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden into a crisp, urgent thriller that manages to feel suspenseful and nervy even when the outcome is a matter of world history. Jessica Chastain is fantastic as the operative who gives the film its centre, and in her avoidance of big rah-rah moments, Bigelow has made the anti-Argo. No offence to Ben Affleck's film, but this is the real thing. Released January 11, 2013.
2. AMOUR Michael Haneke
It took an emotional sadist to make the first drama that doesn't flinch from the reality of old age. Michael Haneke's devastating study of an elderly couple (played, for maximum resonance, by cinematic icons Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) deteriorating in their well-appointed Paris apartment uses long, merciless takes to trap us in space and time with its increasingly infirm protagonists. Harder to shake off than any horror film, and twice as disturbing. Released January 11, 2013.
3. HOLY MOTORS Leos Carax
A tombstone refers you to a web page. Two performers dance seductively in motion-capture suits, their exquisite movements rendered into lousy CGI. A woman sports a green-screen mask, giving her aging face new digital life. Leos Carax's wild and intoxicating elegy to celluloid cinema is a Frankensteinish romp that is truly alive. It's not a dour funeral, but a joyous celebration of what the movies have given us and where cinema can still take us.
4. STORIES WE TELL Sarah Polley
If you think you know what Sarah Polley's documentary is about, you've got another thing coming. It's a bravely personal movie, dealing with themes she's covered in her two features. But at heart it's also about how narratives help us make sense of the world. And it employs some of the cleverest recreated scenes ever.
5. ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA Nuri Bilge Ceylan
A group of men investigate a possible crime, and as night turns to day some light is shed on the truth (not to mention those gorgeous Turkish hills), but things turn out to be much more complex. Very little happens in the plot, but so much is suggested about guilt, innocence and the human condition.
6. MOONRISE KINGDOM Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson may only know one note - the nostalgia of the privileged white guy - but he plays the hell out of that note. This melancholy, doom-laden story of runaway 60s tweens (Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman) whose romantic escape reverberates through an island community is his best work since Rushmore - and that's really saying something.
7. MONSIEUR LAZHAR Philippe Falardeau
This story of an Algerian immigrant hired to replace a grade-school teacher who committed suicide in her classroom has a powerful premise but makes its political issues almost completely subtextual and refuses to take the easy, overwrought route. What could have been a blatantly exploitive film turns into a subtle and tender pic that creeps up on you.
8. THE DEEP BLUE SEA Terence Davies
Terence Davies's adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play about a judge's wife (Rachel Weisz) who finally finds love is as richly passionate as the adagio from Barber's violin concerto that soars throughout the movie. The fact that Davies gets the postwar England details just right isn't as surprising as Weisz's soulful, vulnerable performance as a woman who gives up everything for a man. It's Anna Karenina done right.
9. THE MASTER Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson's film is so accomplished and challenging, it's bound to inspire both worship and dissent. Joaquin Phoenix turns in an immaculate performance as a constantly coiled, ready-to-implode WWII veteran who falls in with Philip Seymour Hoffman's charismatic cult leader. PTA explores how mythmaking (whether in religion or the movies) can mend America's fractured identity.
10. THE SESSIONS Ben Lewin
As Hollywood continues to pursue its obsession with action and cartoons, a small, emotionally charged film like The Sessions - made for adults - brings sweet relief. John Hawkes plays a man in an iron lung who hires a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to help him lose his virginity. Hunt is wonderful as the therapist who gets too close, but this is Hawkes's movie. In a jaw-dropping performance he conveys volumes with only the muscles of his face.
Most valuable player
I'm not sure whether Matthew McConaughey or Joseph Gordon-Levitt had the better year, but I do know McConaughey's more likely to end up with the Oscar nomination. Gordon-Levitt broke out as a major star with his leading-man performances in Premium Rush, Looper and The Dark Knight Rises, and got Steven Spielberg's approval as part of Lincoln's massive ensemble. The mighty McConaughey, meanwhile, showed his impressive range in Bernie, Magic Mike, Killer Joe and The Paperboy. The Academy is most likely to nominate him for his terrifying calm in Killer Joe, though I'm thinking his self-mocking Magic Mike ringmaster has a better chance at winning.
Best new concept
The announcement last year that Hot Docs would be renovating the crumbling Bloor Cinema and relaunching it as a state-of-the-art space for non-fiction programming was met with considerable skepticism, but the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema has turned out to be a great idea. Docs that might never have been considered for theatrical runs are finding a decent home - and an appreciative audience - and the theatre's made a welcome return to service as a screening venue for the Toronto Film Festival. Just don't sit too close to the front; you'll give yourself neck spasms craning to look up at the screen.
Worst new trend
Yes, The Hobbit's High Frame Rate 3D has its advocates, but I literally cannot see what they love about the 48-frames-per-second process. Peter Jackson believes HFR makes his latest Tolkien cycle a more immersive and immediate experience, giving audiences a deeper and richer view of his fantastic Middle-earth. All I beheld was a format that made the actors' wigs and makeup look fake and distracting and destroyed the depth of field necessary to follow Jackson's swooping camera movements. But if you've spent the last decade watching movies on a mis-calibrated HDTV, you might think it all looks perfectly normal.
The closing of the Toronto Underground Cinema due to ongoing real-estate issues brought the curtain down on a worthy attempt to give Toronto its own cult cinema. But between the weird location and the self-limiting programming, the theatre was always fighting an uphill battle. Its managers' noble struggle to establish a foothold is preserved in Morgan White's documentary The Rep, currently seeking distribution.