Das weiße bande (The White Ribbon)
Michael Haneke, 2009; German
Haneke's most mature film by a pretty wide margin, largely by dint of the fact that it's the first one in which he longer seems to be consciously trying to torture the audience. A dark, subtle and excellent film.
The Hurt Locker
Kathryn Bigelow, 2009; English
Terrific movie. Great lead performance, great cinematography. Actually made me think it's be kinda neat to do that job, which is probably the worst job possible.
El Secreto de Sus Ojos (The Secret In Their Eyes)
Juan José Campanella, 2009; Spanish
An intriguing mystery, a well told story, and just the sort of "quality entertainment" that comes out a few times a year and gives critics an excuse to complain that there aren't more like it. It helps to understand a little about Argentinian politics in the 1970s (which I didn't), but still quite enjoyable even if you don't.
Un Prophète (A Prophete)
Jacques Audiard, 2009; French, Corsican, Arabic
Did you know that in French prisons the inmates get fresh bread every day? My favourite detail from the film. Good solid crime drama, classic story of the kid who starts at the bottom and winds up in charge.
Bong Joon-ho, 2009; Korean
Excellent, one of the best films I saw this year. Bong reminds me of the early Cohen brothers, when each of their films was like a weird genre exercise. This one's a noir movie; he's also got a crime procedural, a quirky indie comedy and a monster movie to his credit.
Kasi Az Gorbehaye Irani Khabar Nadareh (No One Knows About Persian Cats)
Bahman Ghobadi, 2009; Persian
A bit thin as far as the story goes, the film is essentially an excuse to show a bunch of actual bands from around Tehran. No complaints here. My favourites: the angular math-rock band, the rappers and the stoner metal band. Despite my lack of emotional investment in the plot, I still found the ending ruinously unsatisfying.
Cremaster 1 (R)
Matthew Barney, 1995
The one with the blimps and the Boise State football stadium. Not the first one filmed, but a good start as far as viewing them goes.
Cremaster 2 (R)
Matthew Barney, 1999; English
Shown together with the first one, and a big improvement. Here's where the series gets really interesting. Also the only one with any dialogue, at least that I can remember. Also the one with Dave Lombardo from Slayer on drums.
Cremaster 3 (R)
Matthew Barney, 2002
The longest and best of the series, this one is awesome. It's the one with the Chrysler Building and the Guggenheim Museum in it. The demolition derby in the lobby is one of the most audacious things I've ever seen filmed.
Micmacs à tire-larigot (Micmacs)
Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2009; French
Overlooked this year, probably because it's not quite as substantive as Amelie or City, but I loved it. I wish I could think of a better word than whimsical, but for Jeunet's films I'm not sure there is one. A delight.
Nicole Holofcener, 2010; English
Great performances, great script, a terrifically scathing indictment of white liberal guilt. I thoroughly enjoyed this one. I don't think I've ever seen Catherine Keener play a character this vulnerable. Nor Oliver Platt one this funny.
Cremaster 4 (R)
Matthew Barney, 1994
The one with the race cars. The whole enterprise starts getting a little old here, but still a lot of interesting imagery to keep one occupied.
Cremaster 5 (R)
Matthew Barney, 1997
I thought this one was pretty boring. But overall I'm glad I had a chance to see the whole series.
Jean-Luc Godard, 1960; French, English
I had never seen this one before. It's good, but I wasn't floored. I guess when soemthing's been so influential for so long it can't possibly seem so revolutionary anymore. I think my favourite moment was early on, when the main character suddenly break the fourth wall, saying something poetic and oh-so-French right to the camera before telling the audience, "You can go screw yourself."
Debra Granik, 2010; English
Again, good but not great. This is being hailed by many critics as the best film of the year. Maybe it is. I mean, it didn't blow me away, but I'm hard pressed to find any flaws with it. And the lead actress's performance really is as good as everyone's saying it is. Plus, hey, Laura Palmer.
Emile de Antonio, Haskell Wexler, Mary Lampson, 1974; English
An obscure documentary about the Weather Underground, who were all fugitives being sought by the FBI when interviewed for the film. A bit meandering, but an important time capsule. It's hard to imagine this sort of extreme political activism happening today, schizophrenics in Arizona notwithstanding.
Jay and Mark Duplass, 2010; English
Hilarious. Jonah Hill's performance is staggeringly weird; I really hope he gets a Best Supporting nomination. A positive indicator of the possibilities when the mumblecore generation get real budgets and actors.
Mother and Child
Rodrigo García, 2009; English
A great movie trapped inside of an OK movie, struggling to get out. There's some good storylines, writing and acting here, but the whole thing is way too heavy-handed. Really, couldn't Garcia have just let Annette Bening's performance breathe a little?
Giorgos Lanthimos, 2009; Greek
The most freakishly weird movie of the year. In a way, it's the kind of Michael Haneke movie that Haneke himself may have finally outgrown.
The Kids Are All Right
Lisa Cholodenko, 2010; English
Revolutionary because it's so middle of the road. It's about a gay couple, but their sexuality is never even addressed as any sort of political or social issue. With all that stripped away, we're left with a straightforward family comedy about a slightly non-traditional family.
Christopher Nolan, 2010; English
This is one of those movies that's really good until you start thinking about it later, at which point it all sort of falls apart. For one thing, they cross the streams one too many times, so to speak. First if you get shot in a dream you wake up, but in this dream you go into a coma. First you should never use actual locations as dream locations, but in this dream you have to. I'm willing to accept just about any premise in a sci-fi story as long as it's kept consistent. Also, the climactic action sequence was too long, the build-up not long enough. Seriously, I wanted more investigation, less action. The set-up felt a bit rushed, whereas the actual mission was just endless.
Life During Wartime
Todd Solondz, 2010; English
I watched Happiness for the first time just a few days before watching this sequel, so I was able to recognise all of the characters and references pretty easily. An enjoyable film, but without a character as singularly challenging to the audience as Dylan Baker's in Happiness. Still, the little kid was pretty intriguing.
Pauline à la Plage (Pauline At the Beach) (R)
Eric Rohmer, 1983; French
They showed a whole pile of Eric Rohmer movies at Lincoln Centre for like a month, but this was the only one I caught. I'd never seen any of his movies before, and was pleased with this one. It's pretty light as subject matter goes, but the way he draws relationships between characters is effortless and masterful.
Michael Almereyda, 1994; English
A New York 90s indie time capsule, from the cast to the music to the jokes about Brooklyn. Drags a bit in the third act, but worth seeing just for the use of Pixel Vision.
Mesrine: L'instinct De Mort (Mesrine: Killer Instinct)
Jean-François Richet, 2007; French, Spanish, English
A good solid crime drama with a fantastic performance at its centre. Vincent Cassel is at once terrifying and irresistable.
Mesrine: L'Énnemi Public No. 1 (Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1)
Jean-François Richet, 2008; French
At some point here the story starts to drag a little, as it devolves into little more than one lurid crime setpiece after another. Worth seeing if only for the presence of Ludivine Sagnier, my favourite holy-shit-she's-hott actress of the year.
Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, 2010; English
I liked this movie, and for the most part I believe that it's true. The only part I think they might have fudged is when they sudfdenly discover all of her lies over the course of one night in Colorado. I'm guessing they knew some of that stuff already and decided to shoot a scene for the sake of the story. Other than that, I have no trouble believing it.
The problem I had with it was their decision, when editing the film, to focus on their own experience, rather than use the footage as an opportunity to paint a portrait of the film's true heart and soul, Angela. She strikes me as a genuine outsider artist in the most fascinating sense, as in like Henry Darger-level, and I don't mean her paintings. I think the community of characters she has created (and is probably still creating) online is an immersive installation piece in a medium we have yet to even name. The filmmakers were not her victims, as they seem to be trying to make themselves out to be; they were her audience.
Never Let Me Go
Mark Romanek, 2010; English
While the sci-fi elements of the story present an intriguing premise that could have been explored further, the film instead focused on a somewhat dreary love triangle. But the idea of making a sci-fi film with almost no visual effects is an interesting challenge. Beautifully shot, by the way, as anyone familiar with Romanek's music videos would expect.
Enter the Void
Gaspar Noé, 2009; English
One of the most self-indulgent films I've ever seen, and I mean that in the best possible way. After the seizure-inducing opening credits, the opening scene in which the protagonist smokes DMT and just trips out on spacey visuals for about ten minutes sets the pace of the film so well that I was actually a little disappointed when the story was finally introduced. Love it or hate it (and I don't think anyone was on the fence about this one), you can't tell me you've ever seen anything like it before.
Olivier Assayas, 2002; French, Japanese, English
I loved this movie, absurd premise and all. Complex plot, characters whose motives and allegiances keep shifting, everything you want in a smart thriller. I also liked the global aspects of the film, a common thread of Assayas's more recent work. Besides the location shoots in both Tokyo and Paris, the film contained enough spoken English and French that neither can really be called the film's primary language.
Punching the Clown
Gregori Viens, 2008; English
A no-budget comedy about a struggling novelty songwriter starring a struggling novelty songwriter playing himself. I don't care for the musical genre, and had a lukewarm response to the film for pretty much the same reason: like most novelty songs, it's good for a few chuckles but not funny enough.
Fin août, début septembre (Late August, Early September) (R)
Olivier Assayas, 1998; French
Earlier Assayas in a more conventional French mode. A circle of friends lives, loves and copes with one of the group's terminal illness. A well-written and well-acted drama that dragged just slightly.
Chris Morris, 2010; English
If you're not familiar with Morris's previous work, go to a bootleg website and find some torrents of his British TV shows, specifically Brass Eye and Nathan Barley. As a brilliant and fearless satirist, a quirky comedy about a group of bumbling, slapstick English Muslims looking for a way to become martyrs by blowing up some infidels seems like a natural fit for him. Works in a lot of ways you wouldn't have expected.
Doug Liman, 2010; English
What seems on the surface a good, solid Hollywood political drama is actually a rather angry film, with Joe Wilson painted as a crusading hero, Valerie Plame the unfortunate victim of his tireless efforts to expose the truth. Highlights the underlying tragedy of our ongoing war in Iraq, in case we'd forgotten.
Lena Dunham, 2010; English
A charming debut in the quirky-indie-comedy genre. Dunham is certainly a talent to be watched, but what subject matter will she turn to when she's exhausted the possibilities of talking about herself?
Raging Bull (R)
Martin Scorsese, 1980; English
Bill Simmons, who's seen a lot of them, believes that rewatchability is one of the primary criteria for a great sports movie. For this reason he says that Raging Bull doesn't cut it: certainly it's an admirable cinematic achievement, but too painful an experience to watch over and over. I disagree. I went through a phase when I watched this movie several times a week. Granted, this was a particularly dark period of my life, when I was subsisting largely on White Castles and cheap Scotch, but Raging Bull was there for me, and that's what counts.
The Agony and the Ecstacy of Phil Spector
Vikram Jayanti, 2008; English
The fascinating subject matter overcomes the poor documentary construction and leaves a film that is riveting in spite of itself.
Love and Other Drugs
Edward Zwick, 2010; English
For some reason the reviews led me to believe this was a smart indie comedy, but it's really a pretty generic Hollywood rom-com. A few bonus points for some smart criticism of America's pharmaceutical-industrial complex, but neither that nor the repeated exposure of Anne Hathaway's breasts (not to mention Jake Gyllenhall's buttocks) is enough to save the film.
Lucy Walker, 2010; English, Portuguese
This documentary about an artist making portraits out of trash from the world's largest landfill is surprisingly heartwarming, but also a bit unchallenging. There's very little conflict here, which is certainly not the fault of the filmmakers. It's a documentary; some things in life go off without a hitch.
Joel and Ethan Cohen, 2010; English
After the delightfully weird and sadistic A Serious Man, the Cohens have swung back to mainstream entertainment mode, and done a fine job of it. The real star of the film is the idiosyncratic language, rescued from the original novel after having been watered down by the earlier adaptation starrting John Wayne. The cast clearly relishes chewing on some of the more convoluted turns of phrase, and it imparts a unique tone to what might have otherwise been a fairtly straightforward Western.
Favourites (new releases only):
Top five of the year in no particular order
Mother, Please Give, Cyrus, Dogtooth, Enter the Void, Four Lions
(I know that's six, I couldn't choose one to leave out.)
Kim Hye-ja in Mother, Catherine Keener in Please Give, Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone, Vincent Cassel in both Mesrine movies, Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit
Niels Arestrup in A Prophet, Amanda Peet in Please Give, John Hawkes in Winter's Bone, Jonah Hill in Cyrus, Nigel Lindsay in Four Lions
Everybody in The Kids Are Alright and Life During Wartime was really good.
Micmacs, Never Let Me Go, Enter the Void
Inception, Enter the Void
And by the way, regardless of whatever complaints I had about Inception overall, I had no trouble following the five simultaneous storylines, in which time itself is moving at a different pace in each, during the climactic sequence. If that doesn't win the Oscar for editing, then I have no idea what an editor does.
One more interesting note: six of the new releases listed above were directed by women. Other than one co-director on a documentary, none of the repertory films were. This could mean that the selection process for the canon is heavily phallocentric, but I doubt it; I think there are just far more female directors nowadays. A good trend.