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The Film Issue

Looking back on the year in movies, and what's coming in 2012.

Directed by Rupert Wyatt

Who knew a movie about ape revolution would rely so heavily on themes of abandonment and loss? Or feature one of the year's best performances? No, I'm not talking about James Franco, who mostly phones in the role of Dr. Rodman, but rather Andy Serkis. The former Gollum's portrayal of Caesar is a triumph of modern visual effects and, more importantly, remarkably believable. Don't let the commercials fool you, Caesar doesn't start the movie as an enraged "insurgchimp" (sorry), and the way Serkis sells this character development with nothing but a motion capture suit and a head rig is something else.

8. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN

Hugo
Hugo
The thinking cinephile's sex symbol: Michael Fassbender.
© 2011 - Fox Searchlight
The thinking cinephile's sex symbol: Michael Fassbender.

Directed by Lynne Ramsay

(Release Date: January 27)

I won't lie and say this movie doesn't have flaws, but it's a must-see for Tilda Swinton's staggering performance as a mother coming to grips with the fact that she raised a monster. The supporting cast (John C. Reilly as her husband, Ezra Miller as the teenage Kevin) is also solid, and the mixed use of flashbacks and present-day setting will be enough to confirm anyone's worst fears about raising kids: Sometimes it's out of your hands.

9. PROJECT NIM

Directed by James Marsh

Wait a minute...Planet of the Apes and a chimpanzee documentary make the top 10 in the same year? Charlton Heston was right! Actually, this fantastic doc (from the man who brought us the equally engrossing Man on Wire) deserves the recognition. Telling the story of a chimp raised as a human and what subsequently happens to him, Marsh lets his subjects speak for themselves. The results are, by turns, gripping, hilarious and heartbreaking. Nim holds a mirror up to humanity, and the reflection turns out to be pretty ugly.

10. RANGO

Directed by Gore Verbinski

I know a lot of us have written off Johnny Depp, especially following Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, only about one and a half of which were non-tedious. So when I heard he was reuniting with Verbinski (director of the first three Pirates movies), my enthusiasm level could best be described as "muted." How surprising, then, to see this amusingly satirical send-up of everything from Chinatown to Don Quixote. I'm also a sucker for a Hunter Thompson reference.

Honorable Mention:

THE TREE OF LIFE

Directed by Terrence Malick

Oh, Terrence. Your juxtaposition of human passion and failure with the vast indifference of nature has once again polarized the critical community. As for me, I can't deny the man's gifts, and The Tree of Life is a visual achievement unlike almost anything I've ever seen. And yet, somewhere in that 20-year gap between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, Malick stopped being a "director" and became a "visionary," and his films — as narrative vehicles — have suffered for it, undeniably gorgeous as they are.

TEAM MARGARET
Karina Longworth on why you,ve never heard of her favorite movie of the year, plus nine more bests.

Margaret, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me), starring Anna Paquin with key supporting performances from Matt Damon and Mark Ruffalo, is the best film of 2011. Chances are very, very good that you haven't seen it — or were even aware that it was something you could see. And right now, it isn't.

Written in 2003, shot in 2005, and mired in postproduction troubles and subsequent lawsuits, Margaret was not theatrically released until September of this year — and almost as soon as it arrived in theaters (very few theaters), it disappeared. A coming-of-age tale infused with post-9/11 anxiety, Margaret features Paquin — in the performance of the year — as Lisa, a Manhattan high-schooler whose role in a fatal bus accident leads to a battle with her self-absorbed actress single mom, a few reckless (if awkward) seductions, and the obsessive pursuit of retribution on behalf of the accident victim.

Margaret opened in Los Angeles on September 30, on a single screen, and closed two weeks later. In many cities, it never opened at all. Given its production history, it's something of a miracle that it played anywhere.

So what happened? According to the Los Angeles Times, after spending years in the editing room and seeking counsel from friends such as Martin Scorsese (who called an early cut of Margaret "a masterpiece"), Lonergan was unable to produce a version that would, per his contractual obligation with Fox Searchlight, come in at under two and a half hours. Searchlight demanded that Lonergan turn in an edit in 2008; he gave them his director's cut, which was longer than the 149-minute film eventually released. Why did it take three years to get from the director's cut to this year's film? Financier Gary Gilbert and distributor Fox Searchlight sued each other and settled; then Gilbert sued Lonergan, a case that is due in court later this year.

Lonergan has given exactly one interview during all of this, to TIME's Mary Pols, and even that was monitored by his attorney due to the ongoing litigation. "I love this movie," he told Pols. "I have never worked harder or longer on anything in my professional life. It would mean everything to me if the film could at least have a fair chance at a life of its own."

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