Here's my very personal list of my favorite films of the year, limited as it is to what I could practically get access to. Unfortunately, I don't live near any major festivals, so I miss out on a great deal of smaller foreign films that struggle for distribution. But I've kept up my reading this year, and I stay pretty up-to-date, so I know exactly what I'm interested in seeing. Furthermore, I just plain missed some of the bigger theatrical releases, which is pretty upsetting (especially considering how I probably won't ever have a chance to see Unstoppable on a big screen again unless the growing legion of young Tony Scott scholars band together enough to support some future theatrical retrospective of his work). At the bottom of the list, you will find an unwieldy pile of films I missed out on this year that likely would have had a shot at the list. They're also films that I will actively keep an eye out for in 2011. Feel free to converse, dissent, and direct me to your own lists. Happy new year!
1. Shutter Island
Upon its release earlier this year, Shutter Island was a hotly debated beast, a work so aggressively divisive that fatigued critics and bloggers seemed to forget about it. But it remains a triumphant return to personal filmmaking for Martin Scorsese, an immensely moving work of art disguised as a chaotic blockbuster. To say that it's a classic Scorsese film is to say three things: it's a film about the emotional limits of a man, about the multiple landscapes (historical, social, geographic, and otherwise) of America, and about cinema. Rarely does a big Hollywood film push so many self-reflexive cinephiliac buttons - referencing Hitchcock, Powell and Pressburger, Kubrick, even Tarkovsky - and maintain a core of complex emotionality, a feature that stands in seeming opposition to the film's deliberately lurid, overwrought qualities. We can only hope Shutter Island marks the beginning of a creative renaissance for Scorsese at this late stage in his career.
2. White Material
Let's be honest: saying Claire Denis is on a roll is like saying the Empire State Building is getting exponentially taller. It's not; it's always been the same towering height, hundreds and hundreds of feet above other buildings. Sure, Denis keeps tinkering with her mastery, refining and taming it, but there aren't any seismic spikes in the quality of her output. White Material is another example of her consistency, a film so expertly subtle that its somewhat pat political undertow - a heated critique of European privilege and colonialism - never becomes sermonizing. Denis has never been this firm and comparatively settled in her storytelling (besides maybe last year's 35 Shots of Rum), but it certainly helps that the internal rhymes of the film are no less layered and complex, the various recurring objects at once more emphasized and ambiguous. And Isabelle Huppert looks and feels great.
3. Enter the Void
Maybe it's rather punishing, pretty redundant, and emotionally one-note (yeah, it's all of those things), but Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void colossally ambitious trip-out picture represents the hardest any director rubbed elbows with the boundaries of the cinematic medium this year. It's a truly overwhelming film, absolutely bursting with visual and sonic innovation and tantalizing alternatives to conventional narration. No other film this year achieves such an immersive, palpable first-person perspective, even as it redefines this perspective cosmically when its central character dies early on, becoming a free-floating, omniscient spirit, an idea Noé literalizes with stunning craftsmanship. If cinema can be taken first as an experiential, visual medium, Enter the Void offers persuasive evidence of it, and it's also Noé's most watchable (it's even fun at times) film yet.
4. The American
One senses George Clooney may have settled into his own acting groove too assuredly in recent years, that he's been comfortable in one too many condescending patriarchal roles and that maybe audiences are growing rather exhausted by his smug, hyper-handsome persona. Interestingly enough, Anton Corbjin's excellent The American both exploits his familiar strengths and subverts them. As a solo gun dealer working in dangerous uncharted European territory, Clooney's character requires a tough, self-assured exterior even as it masks complex emotional conflicts within. Rarely is Clooney this vulnerable and this suave at the same time, especially in so few words. The American is the first no-nonsense art film released in Hollywood to so pointedly recall the great European masters like Antonioni and Bergman since Lost in Translation, and it's a profoundly complete character study from a guy who has previously shown a knack for music videos, not the kind of ruminative psychological thriller he produces here.
(I'm only speaking of the 2 1/2 hour theatrical cut here. Does that count?) Olivier Assayas' latest is a film so daunting and jam-packed that I couldn't even think of how to begin writing about it. But to say this is not to say that it's bogged down by gratuitous detail or exhibitionist grandeur; rather, its impressive globe-trotting, linguistic versatility, and jaw-dropping interplay between grand set pieces and intimate moments coalesce into a film that feels unexpectedly fleet and nimble, so sure of its own scope that the abbreviated cut just begs for more. I'm fairly certain that a five-hour cut that expands upon the gradual downfall of revolutionary-cum-terrorist-for-hire Carlos the Jackal (Édgar Ramírez, in perhaps the most committed male performance of the year) and his increasing dislocation from any tangible ideology would only enhance the power already inherent in the theatrical edit. As I saw it, Carlos is a tease, but it's a gloriously engrossing, insightful, and energetic one at that, the kind of film that continues a tradition of epic, historically acute, and virtuoso biographical filmmaking.
6. The Anchorage
Though it was made in 2006, C.W. Winter's college thesis film with Swedish photographer Anders Edstrom, The Anchorage, wasn't released until this year, and release still remains a nebulous word for a film that only toured universities, niche cinematheques, and small festivals in major cities for a night or two here and there. Regardless of public exposure, it's a lovingly crafted, open film that desires to be seen, preferably on the big screen where its minute attention to atmosphere can be fully savored. In a year that didn't offer many visible artifacts of contemplative cinema (curiously coinciding with the debate earlier this year that took place on the web over this very trend), Winter and Edstrom pick up where Alonso and Ming-Liang left off last year, delivering a sumptuous forest retreat that understands less is more.
7. The Social Network
Every time I start to think The Social Network has slowly fallen from my graces since its October release, I vividly recall the experience of the film and remember that it's a pretty solid work after all. It's far from David Fincher's wildest or most multi-faceted, but it churns like a perfect machine, dishing out stimulating entertainment and astute commentaries on male power hierarchies in equal measure. I'm still wary of Fincher's embrace of traditionalism over the myriad of very contemporary themes laid at his door by the material, as if he had prematurely chosen to make his Citizen Kane before even knowing what his film would be about. But at best, The Social Network succeeds in a fundamental way that movies should: it represents a slick interlocking of various artistic forces - the cool direction of Fincher, the uppity performance of Jesse Eisenberg, the propulsive score of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and the linguistic dexterity of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.
8. Ne Change Rien
Ne Change Rien is not an easy film to evaluate, precisely because it hardly feels like a film. It's such a diffuse mashup (some would say abandonment) of documentary and fiction strictures as well as cinematographic techniques that it almost ceases to bear any resemblance to cinema and that which is cinematic. Of course, that's Pedro Costa's way, and he has less interest in recycling what we've already experienced than in forming new experiences, new worlds in which to luxuriate and to roam. The film, a portrait of singer/actor Jeanne Balibar, is by turns frustrating and transcendent, and eventually it's a breakdown of the barrier the screen creates between the audience and the subject of the film. Costa is judicious in his observation of Balibar, letting her play out her various rehearsal strategies in their tedious and incredible entirety, never shying away. That it ultimately feels like a trance film must have something to say about modern perceptions of reality, because who would expect the towering duration and endless stasis to be bedfellows of the hypnotizing, mysterious emotions Costa's work evokes?
9. True Grit
If the Coen brothers keep making films as agreeable and plainly enjoyable as True Grit, I'm fairly confident I'd never have to raise an eyebrow at their work again. To be sure, this would mean they'd be failing to break any new ground whatsoever, but it would at least be a testament to their strengths as entertainers. True Grit is a classical Western with classical values and moral ambiguities in which none of the characters - except for the young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) - seem to give a shit. They're being ushered down a path, swilling booze or lamenting lost opportunities in the process, and the Coens find ample humor in it.
10. Fish Tank
Were it not for Andrea Arnold's casual poeticism, her firm handling of mood shifts, and the foul-mouthed verisimilitude of the performers, Fish Tank would be a very by-the-numbers piece of British social realism. As it is, it's almost that, but there's enough penetrating insight into the psychosexual maturation of the lead character Mia (newcomer Katie Jarvis) to prevent it from being so. This is not merely grotesque miserabilism; Arnold has an almost magic realist sensibility that renders some fantastically sensual moments, many of which have to do with the ambiguities in the role of Jarvis' opposite performer (Michael Fassbender, the two of whom share amazing chemistry). Is he a surrogate father for Mia, necessary purely as a guardian, or is he closer to a companion, and thus indicative of sexual temptation? The tension makes for arresting drama. (I still plan to write at length about this one.)
Honorable Mentions: Greenberg, Winter’s Bone, Daddy Longlegs
REVISED LIST (as of 12/27/12)
1. Le Quattro Volte (Frammartino, Italy)
2. Shutter Island
3. White Material
4. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Iran)
5. The Strange Case of Angelica (Oliveira, Portugal)
6. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, Thailand)
7. Meek's Cutoff
8. Film Socialisme
10. Dogtooth (Lanthimos, Greece)
Honorable Mentions: Enter the Void, The American, Carlos, The Social Network, The Anchorage, Ne Change Rien, Cold Weather, True Grit, Fish Tank, Another Year, Greenberg, Winter's Bone, Daddy Longlegs, Blue Valentine, Heartbeats.
Films I missed and have yet to see:
36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup
How to Train Your Dragon
The Kids are All Right
Life During Wartime
Mysteries of Lisbon
Our Beloved Month of August
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Temptation of St. Tony