My one wish for the New Year would be to wipe my brain clean of all the movies I’ve ever seen. With a fresh slate, I could sit back and enjoy, say, some new neo-noir without comparing it to “Chinatown.” On a bad day I’ll think that cinema is most intense at first blush, that the films that imprint themselves onto our youth will never be surpassed. But then I’ll go out and see something like Makoto Togashi’s performance in “Koi no Tsumi (Guilty of Romance),” as powerful and disturbing as Malcolm McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange” oh-so many years ago, and realize that the thrills are still out there.
1. “Black Swan”: How Darren Aronofsky managed to pull off an Oscar-winning blockbuster with this surreal and elusive film about a paranoid ballet dancer is beyond me, but the director’s canny use of horror-movie shock and an all-out performance by Natalie Portman somehow combined to pull in the punters. While Hollywood is loathe to finance nonformulaic films, “Black Swan” took $330 million on a budget of only $13 million.
2. “The Illusionist”: One look at the beautifully textured world on display in this animated film about an aging magician and his sad attempts to impress his last fan, and you have to wonder why in the world Steven Spielberg chose that plasticy CG for “Tintin”; “The Illusionist” is like the look of Herge taken straight off the page, with a magical story that barely needs any words to deliver it.
3. “The Social Network”: An excellent character study (some would say assassination) of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg by director David Fincher. Whether it’s all true or not doesn’t really matter: was “Citizen Kane”? Fincher makes the point that the digital realms that increasingly drive our lives and command our attention are reflections of the people who made them — and their hangups.
4. “Mary and Max”/”Fantastic Mr. Fox”: This year’s best animation eschewed CG and 3-D: “Mary and Max” uses clay-based stop motion to tell its tale of a bullied Australian schoolgirl and a neurotic middle-aged New Yorker who become pen pals; the result is something like F.W. Murnau meets Woody Allen via Gumby. “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Wes Anderson’s stop-motion adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s classic, was silly, inane, hermetically style-obsessed and thoroughly entertaining.
5. “The Runaways”: If you were to pick any one film that encapsulates the teenage dream of rock-star fame (followed by the inevitable fall from grace), this could well be it. A butch Kristen Stewart (as Joan Jett) pees on the guitars of cock-rock bands, Dakota Fanning (as Cherie “Cherry-Bomb” Currie) plays the jailbait card to her own advantage, while Michael Shannon goes over the top as their demented Svengali. A deserving homage to an overlooked classic band.
6. “Of Gods and Men”: A lot of the festival-focused “slow-cinema” filmmakers try to play the spiritual card these days; this is one of the few results that feels sincere. This Cannes Grand Prix winner is set in Algeria during its civil war in the 1990s, where a small group of French monks try to hang on to their life of prayer amid growing fundamentalist violence. An ode to faith — in each other, as well as the guy upstairs.
7. “True Grit”/”A Serious Man”: The Coens turn in their two straightest and most personal films ever in the same year. “True Grit” managed to make a bog-standard Western entertaining in this day and age — largely due to the wonderful pairing of Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld — while “A Serious Man” is the Coens’ cynical and darkly humorous return to the 1960s Jewish Minnesota suburbia of their youth.
8. “Inside Job”: If 2011 was the year in which the Occupy movement focused populist rage on Wall Street, this is the film that shows why those thieving bastards deserve it. “Inside Job” explains financial chicanery in terms that anyone can understand. This Oscar-winning documentary was dumped onto the local market by distributor Sony with almost no promotion; conspiracy theorists can draw their own conclusions.
9. “Super”: I like superhero movies about as much as hemorrhoids; “Super,” aside from being a joyously whacked-out film, is the best parody of the genre to date. Rainn Wilson plays a dumped-upon loser who — after suffering religious delusions — decides to act out in a Caped Crusader kinda way. Hilarious, and unlike “The Green Hornet” or “Kick-Ass,” it never devolves into what it’s satirizing.
10. “Blind”: This five-minute short film by Yukihiro Shoda and Jamie Holland was crowd-funded via Kickstarter and uploaded directly to Vimeo. It strikes at the heart of the bizarre normality that settled onto Tokyo this spring, even as three nuclear meltdowns were in progress a day’s drive to the north. The almost complete silence on this issue by the rest of Japan’s film world is shameful; Studio Ghibli, however, will reportedly break the ice with a Fukushima film slated for 2013.