This is a film to swallow up existence, not to mention block out the sun. From the opening images, it takes you someplace within the human spirit from which there’s no return, where horror makes no concession to beauty and beauty makes none to horror. A close call over The Artist and The Tree of Life, this is the movie you’ll remember 20 years from now.
Director: Lars von Trier, Melancholia
Of course this Danish filmmaker is by all evidence not the guy you want at your cocktail party, what with his infantile penchant for provocation and movies that range wildly from the hollow (Europa) to the brilliant (Breaking the Waves) to the manipulative (Dancer in the Dark) to the abusive (Antichrist). But this is the most haunting film he’s made as well as the deepest and most compassionate—and what does it say about Trier (the “von” is an affectation) that for all his bad-boy posturing, his talent for eliciting consistently remarkable performances from actresses (Emily Watson and Björk in the past, Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg here) is unsurpassed by any filmmaker?
Actress: Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn
Playing the 20th century’s most famous woman, who’s inspired countless impersonators, from drag queens to Madonna, Williams doesn’t really look like Monroe—something you’ll forget 90 seconds after she comes onscreen. What she catches is the sweetness and heartbreak of Marilyn’s eroticism, why men didn’t just want her but fell in love with her. And yes, I admit it: I would rather watch Michelle play Marilyn than Meryl play Margaret Thatcher.
Actor: Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
Here is the year’s best demonstration of how a great actor’s craft isn’t about control or lack of it but knowing when to exert it and when to lose it. By the time sand-mining operator Curtis explodes in fury—the possessed apostle of a lost book of Revelation—before his aghast family and neighbors, Shannon has earned the eruption, as dogged in his pursuit of Curtis’s humanity as Curtis has been in the construction of a shelter from the most perfect storm of all. The American actor of tomorrow, heir to Hackman, De Niro, Penn.
Supporting Actress: Shailene Woodley, The Descendants
As George Clooney’s teenage daughter embarking on a road to ruin as the film opens, the 20-year-old Woodley holds the story’s secrets, which means she holds its truths. This is the film’s crucial performance, and Woodley never has a false moment as a woman-child who navigates her father to an understanding about his wife, only to realize she’s navigating herself to an understanding about her father.
Supporting Actor: Albert Brooks, Drive
The actor’s stroke of genius is to realize that his murderous mobster, Bernie Rose, isn’t so many degrees of pathology removed from, say, the shlub of Lost in America. There’s not a more cold-blooded scene this year than when he tenderly dispatches Bryan Cranston, quietly comforting his victim to his end—which tells you as much about how savagely Rose fears he’ll die someday as anything else.
Original Screenplay: J.C. Chandor, Margin Call
Amid the year’s reveries of a reimagined past and an unspecified future, here’s an autopsy of the American present. Money is both its own currency and the currency of something bigger—if only Kevin Spacey and his entourage of capitalism’s winners and losers knew that there’s something bigger.
Adapted Screenplay: Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Whatever its popular success over the years, John le Carré’s novel is harder to understand than Gravity’s Rainbow, and if O’Connor and Straughan can’t be said to have made the plot crystal clear, that’s because its malevolent machinations flourish only in the dark. What the writers have located are the passions that never were as subterranean as Le Carré (or the BBC adaptation more than 30 years ago) implied.
This collaboration between the film’s director and Chilean-born cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro, juxtaposing the docudramatic with Kubrickian formalism, evokes next year at Marienbad.
Art Direction, Hugo
Dante Ferretti’s Paris is none where anybody ever has lived other than in one’s imagination, which, come to think of it, is the Paris where everybody lives even when actually in Paris. With the city’s inner magic running amok, the imagination in this case is as much Georges Méliès’ as Ferretti’s or director Martin Scorsese’s.
Editing: The Tree of Life
Notwithstanding his team of credited editors, director Terrence Malick certainly was the grand orchestrator of this film’s many movements, in the service of as audacious a cinematic vision as any since 2001 if not Intolerance. When this time machine of a movie opened in Italy, the first two reels got switched and played that way for a week before anyone noticed—a testament to either the film’s genius or folly. Sometimes there’s no difference.
ALSO: Read The Dark Age, Steve Erickson's review of the year in film
Click here to place your Oscar ballot