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1Life Without Principle Johnnie To's opus about the speculative economy defies categorization. It plays like a great action movie but contains little violence. It recalls classic comedies in its farcical plotting and broad characterizations, but its theme—how to preserve a sense of morality in an amoral society—is deadly serious. The mise-en-scene is as vibrant and fluidly interconnected as that of an animated fantasy, yet the plot addresses some of the most sobering crises of 21st-century economic life. Like John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock before him, To works in a genre all his own, transcending boundaries between commercial movies and art movies and creating cinema that speaks to everyone.
2Possession Thanks to local archivist Brian Block, the greatest film by maverick Polish director Andrzej Zulawski finally received its Chicago theatrical premiere this April, nearly 31 years after its Cannes festival debut. It's the breakup movie to end all breakup movies—wrenching, horrific, unpredictable, and darkly funny. It also features some of the most astonishing performances I've ever seen. Zulawski famously worked Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, and Heinz Bennent into a trance state before he started filming; they really seem to be going mad onscreen.
3A Simple Life Another Hong Kong masterpiece about contemporary social ills, Ann Hui's deeply felt domestic drama considers the fate of isolated people, particularly the elderly and disabled, in a culture that values individualism at the expense of community. Remarkably subtle, the film feels gentle and unstructured while you watch it, but pointed and heartbreaking when you reflect on it. This received its local premiere in May at the River East 21 with no fanfare whatsoever, but Facets Cinematheque brought it back to Chicago in August.
4The Master Paul Thomas Anderson's most daring film to date teases at a panoply of meanings while confirming none. At present I read it as an epic black comedy about the American success ethic, positing that a phony shaman-cum-CEO would claim as his soul mate a borderline-retarded sociopath whose only talent is making moonshine out of chemicals (though I suspect I'll arrive at different interpretations after subsequent viewings). Singular and mysterious, down to Anderson's decision to use 70-millimeter film for a movie that transpires largely in close-up.
5Sack Barrow The best work to screen at this year's Onion City Film Festival, this short documentary by British experimentalist Ben Rivers (Two Years at Sea) is several things at once: an elegy for London's industrial working class, an eerie piece of found science fiction (with images of industrial corrosion that recall Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker), a witty photo-essay about outmoded lifestyles, and a master class in 16-millimeter cinematography. No other working filmmaker creates textures like these.
6We Have a Pope Here's a movie Luis Buñuel might have admired. Under the guise of a family-friendly (and very funny) comedy about a pope-elect (Michel Piccoli) getting stage fright, Italian writer-director Nanni Moretti (The Son's Room) argues that the civilized world no longer has any need for organized religion. This is the rare movie that truly merits the term subversive.
7Holy Motors The first feature in 13 years by Leos Carax (The Lovers on the Bridge) is a literal dream of a film, evidently taking place in the writer-director's limitless subconscious. It jumps playfully between popular movie genres—slapstick, musical, action, sci-fi—while gradually revealing an obsessive, mournful subtext. Once the boy wonder of French cinema, Carax remains a youthful filmmaker, drunk on the notion that anything is possible in movies.
8The Paperboy In adapting Pete Dexter's southern gothic novel, director Lee Daniels radically presents all outward expressions of sexual, racial, and class identity as forms of theater, which strengthens, rather than distracts from, his theme of impossible love. Like his characters, Daniels believes in a desire so powerful that it can obliterate social barriers, but he also understands how firm those barriers are. Beneath the movie's campy surface lies a profound sense of tragedy.
9This Is Not a Film This pseudo-documentary by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (codirected by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb) is already the stuff of legend. Panahi made it while under house arrest and forbidden to make movies by the Islamic Republic (the sentence continues to this day); the finished version was smuggled into the 2011 Cannes film festival on a flash drive hidden inside a cake. But this is more than a stirring act of protest; it's a witty, probing meditation on what cinema means in an age when anyone can make a "movie" on his cell phone.
10Cosmopolis David Cronenberg's adaptation of Don DeLillo's 2003 novel improves on the source material while preserving its funniest and most astute cultural observations. It's also a thematic breakthrough for Canada's greatest director. In his previous films Cronenberg charted a human character's transformation into some frightening Other; here he imagines a tech-wizard billionaire (a brilliantly cast Robert Pattinson) trying to reclaim his humanity before he loses it entirely.
Runners-up: 11. Bruno Dumont's Hors Satan . . . 12. David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook . . . 13. Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike . . . 14. Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom . . . 15. Andre Techine's Unforgivable . . . 16. Ulrich Seidl's Paradise: Love . . . 17. Joe Carnahan's The Grey . . . 18. Philippe Garrel's A Burning Hot Summer . . . 19. Hiromasa Yonebayashi's The Secret World of Arrietty . . . 20. Richard Linklater's Bernie