The Descendants George Clooney drops his macho persona for a sensitive and insecure one, in this richly rewarding dysfunctional family story. Anyone who has confronted major grief in the passing of a loved one knows that Hollywood just doesn’t get it. So what a strangely comforting surprise it is to encounter Alexander Payne’s film, which reveals warts and all, just how unimaginably awkward, turbulent and even surreal grieving can be.
2. Drive In the eerie neo-noir Drive, Ryan Gosling is a sort of 21th century Travis Bickle-time traveler from Taxi Driver, taking audiences for a ride to the darkest recesses of fantasy. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (The Pusher Trilogy), Drive penetrates the American psyche with its constantly murky menace.
3. Meet Monica Velour Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall isn’t shy about embodying older female sexuality on screen. Here, Cattrall is a struggling single mom and stripper. Helmed by Keith Bearden, a self-described “male feminist,” Meet Monica Velour doesn’t have a hint of lewd intentions, just plenty of saucy satire with Cattrall as an aging cougar coping with a hayseed fan enamored with her porno past.
4. Albert Nobbs Glenn Close turns in a mesmerizing performance as a woman in 19th century Ireland determined to live her life covertly as a man—not out of any gender identity imperative, but to never again endure male sexual violence. Under the astute direction of Rodrigo García (Mother and Child), gender and class divisions collide and resonate.
5. The Conspirator If corporate media are notorious for reporting only what they deem politically expedient, official history may be even worse. Take the military trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), who was linked to President Lincoln’s assassination. With a masterful style, director Robert Redford connects her startling story to the deeply rooted urgency to round up scapegoats like her during periods of national hysteria and sorrow, such as the current war on terror.
6. The Music Never Stopped By far the best movie about music this year, Jim Kohlberg’s loosely adapted biopic is drawn from Dr. Oliver Sacks’ case study, “The Last Hippie.” Lou Taylor Pucci is Gabriel, who fled home as a teen during the ’60s. Found years later, homeless and disoriented from a brain tumor, Gabriel believes he’s still living in the past. A therapist discovers that music from that time, including Dylan, Steppenwolf and Donovan, can help draw her patient into the present.
7. 3 Backyards In Eric Mendelssohn’s trilogy of solemn tales, Long Island may not be the ’burb you’re more accustomed to, but that sense of place is viewed through a prism of wonderment and despair. Filmed around Northport, this Sundance Best Director winner goes deep into the surrounding physical and human worlds alike.
8. Red Shirley This charming Lou Reed documentary is a conversation he has with his vibrant and humorous 100-year-old cousin, Shirley, an unsung union activist in the 1930s garment district sweatshops. Attired appropriately enough in a bright red dress, Shirley got condemned by the bosses as “Red Shirley”—a moniker she still embraces with pride.
9. The Price of Sex Bulgarian-born investigative filmmaker Mimi Chakarova went underground disguised as a sex slave for this harrowing documentary that uncovers what befell the post-Soviet women of her generation. Chakarova defiantly enters “the mouth of the wolf” to tell their story. She also exposes how governments profit from the merchandising of young women as a major export in the new market economy.
10. Semper Fi In this scathing documentary directed by Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon, lifelong Marine Sgt. Jerry Ensminger recounts his profound rage at the U.S. military as one of the “Poisoned Patriots,” who are struggling to make the Defense Department’s spin doctors and lawyers come clean about the cancerous contamination and corporate cover-up at Marine Camp Lejeune, where Ensminger’s own daughter Janey succumbed to a rare type of leukemia at the age of nine.
11. 50/50 Some may feel uncomfortable with the notion of a cancer comedy but in Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 laughter is indeed the best medicine. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the stricken young patient and his boisterous best friend is played by Seth Rogen. Screenwriter Will Reiser based it on his own bout with the disease and the fortitude he drew from the outrageous humor of his real life best friend—who happens to be Seth Rogen.