Favorite Films of 2017, Part II

It’s two months into 2018, which means it’s time for me to compile my top films from the previous year. With the Oscars right around the corner, this seems as good a time as any to roll out the list.

I already offered up #10 through #6. On to the top five.

5. While I am quite fond of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, this film’s treatment of race feels even more subversive as its dazzling technique at first masks then reveals its pointed thesis on race in American culture: being white means possessing the ability to take advantage of societal good will, while being black means being associated with crime or lack or sexual promiscuity. Good Time (dir. Safdie) accomplishes its purpose by following 24 hours in the life of two (white) brothers, one of whom is seeking to get the other out of jail. This film moves, its frenetic pace buffeted only by a couple of emotional scenes that bookend the film.

Good-Time

4. In The Lost City of Z (dir. Gray), James Gray manages to provide both a sense of adventure as well as an intensely personal statement about longing for something more than this world offers. This film is about appreciating mystery, about searching elsewhere for what we need here, and about our reach needing to exceed our grasp. But even as we might be carried away by such flights and explorations, Gray roots us in the real world of loss, sacrifice, and failure. Gray’s film lives in the midst of a tension, between “this city” and “the city yet to be discovered.”

lost city

3. Phantom Thread (dir. Anderson) finds director P.T. Anderson exploring 1950s London fashion scene, through the experiences of Reynolds Woodcock, a designer of high quality (and even higher-priced) dresses for the elite women of Europe. The lead character prefers his world tightly controlled, and his women more so. When his newest love interest, Alma, moves into the house, a battle of wills commences, as the couple seeks an elusive but glorious reality—artistic achievement in communion with relational satisfaction—which we come to discover carries its own dark underbelly.

Phantom_Thread

2. In Lady Bird (dir. Gerwig), the easy (and, at times, abrupt) movement between comedy and heartbreak mirrors the life of a teenager well, while Gerwig’s script creates a sense of groundedness–both in place (Sacramento, CA), and in its attachment to wisdom as well. The Catholic elements add a sense of depth and transcendence to the proceedings as Lady Bird learns something of what it means to mature personally and to love others–namely, to offer others the gift of attentiveness.

lady bird

1. The Unknown Girl (dir: Dardennes) follows a young doctor, Jenny, as she plies her trade in a low-income neighborhood. But when a murder happens very near her office, everything changes. By staging the doctor as something of a community priest, the Dardennes are able to access more directly something that has undergirded all their fiction films: the humanity and dignity of all people. Jenny affirms her neighbors by caring for their needs, tending their wounds, and even hearing their confessions. The brilliant final shot provides a downright incarnational vision for humanity that I won’t soon forget.

unknown girl

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Favorite Films of 2017, Part I

It’s two months into 2018, which means it’s time for me to compile my top films from the previous year. With the Oscars coming up this weekend, this seems as good a time as any to roll out the list.

2017 was a strong year at the movies, especially suggested by the presence of certain excellent films just outside my favorite ten, such as Personal Shopper, Olivier Assayas’ meditation on materialism and spirituality; Get Out, Jordan Peele’s comedic horror film that brilliantly portrays what it means to be other as a person of color; and Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, an unvarnished, humanist portrayal of poor people living in the shadows of Disneyworld.

On to numbers 10 through 6.

10. The Work (dir. Aldous/McCleary) traces a long weekend in the life of civilians and prisoners in the midst of an intense group therapy session inside the walls of Folsom prison. The film’s portrayal of “The Work” humanizes both the prisoners and the civilians, as empathy gradually develops among the men in the group. It is in and through this process of knowing and being known that a glimmer of hope awakens: Hope that we might resist easy narratives about prisoners and civilians; hope that life might flourish in dark places; and hope that we might truly see someone outside ourselves, and that in seeing, we will understand better what love truly means.

work

9. Set in Kabul at the height of the Taliban’s power, The Breadwinner (dir. Twomey) shows us what life is like for both males and females in a sexist, misogynist, and unjust society. That it is able to do this through the eyes of a single character, an 11-year old girl forced to cut her hair and pose as a boy just so she can buy food for her family, is a testament to the strength of the original story, in addition to the adaptation by the filmmakers. The profound sense of injustice is palpable, though Twomey wisely keeps the most shocking moments out of sight, just enough to keep it bearable for younger audiences. That The Breadwinner recognizes the importance and power of stories to form and stabilize our identities as individuals and communities gives it a transcendent wisdom that is both inspiring and moving.

breadwinner

8. Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Villeneuve) continues the story begun by the original film 25 years ago. Some years on from the events of that earlier film, the haze of the city is matched only by the mystery that confronts the main character, a detective called K, about his particular case and, more generally, about his (and the film’s) looming questions on the nature of humanity. The oppressiveness of the music adds to the mystery an appropriate feeling of imprisonment or constriction. Gosling acquits himself well here, even as most of the other actors have much less to do. A brief scene between Gosling and a memory creator played by Carla Juri makes a poignant centerpiece for the film, though there are a number of other excellent sequences that mark the emotional landscape.

blade-runner-2049

7. Nearing the graduation of his daughter, Eliza, from high school, Romeo’s plan to have her study abroad (and thereby have access to a better life outside Romania) is nearly complete. But a day before Eliza’s senior exams, she is violently attacked, leaving her future in doubt. Graduation (dir. Mungiu) carefully unfolds the ethical dilemma that faces a father who wants the best life possible for his daughter. The film sharply traces the destructiveness of dishonesty on relational, generational, legal, and even political levels. Mungiu builds toward a pretty affecting conclusion that raises questions even as it moves toward some semblance of resolution.

graduation_2016

6. The Son of Joseph (dir. Green) is a joyful film, which sort of feels odd to say given the strict formalism of the first two-thirds. But the static and balanced shots early give way to movement and imbalance in the last act, which mirrors the deeply personal journey of the titular son. The film’s conclusion, which employs a formal technique used often earlier in the film, was shockingly vulnerable, and makes a profound statement about love and care as the centerpiece of true family.

sonofjoseph-a

Six Discoveries in 2017

Each year I enjoy the opportunity to seek out older films that I’ve never seen. In the process, I discover some gems that I feel grateful to have uncovered. For me, this historical work is important, as it reminds me that there is much out there sitting on the shelves of Netflix’s warehouse, or worse, are simply unavailable. The films on this list share a common concern for truthful portrayals of humanity, craftsmanship marked by beauty, and/or an appreciation for the good.

Six Discoveries from Years Past:

  • Nightjohn (1996, dir. Burnett): Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Burnett was working for Disney on this film, and so the standard feel-good sentimentality caveats are in order. Despite (or maybe because of) those limitations, Burnett manages to imbue this with real heart and humanity. The story centers upon an enslaved man, John, arriving at a new plantation. Unbeknownst to the plantation owner, John has an especially rare skill: he knows how to read. He begins to teach a 12-year old girl, Sarny, in secret, because such an action is punishable by death. To Burnett’s credit, the people on screen come across as actual human beings (including the white villains, but especially the black leads) rather than stereotypes, and Burnett manages to direct our attention to a variety of themes: literacy, freedom, feminism, power, etc. As John tells Sarny, “Words are freedom.” In that spirit, films can be as well.

    nightjohn2

  • Pickup on South Street (1953, dir. Fuller): Fantastic storytelling in this crime drama. The camerawork is distinctive without being flashy. And it includes the wonderful Thelma Ritter, who’s as good as she ever was in this film.

    pickup on south street

  • She’s Gotta Have It (1986, dir. Lee): Formally, so good. Loved the mirroring of the opening shot with the closing. The interspersing of New York photographs hearkened back to Allen’s Manhattan, helping to develop the film’s sense of place. And the exquisite dolly shot that has become Lee’s trademark didn’t disappoint. The film is challenging in its characterization of Nola–an independent woman (a positive, for sure) who takes a reckless and destructive approach to relationships.

    shes gotta have it

  • Chimes at Midnight (1965, dir. Welles): Striking imagery and a fabulous characterization from Welles undergird both the comedy and the tragedy of this tale of Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff. As usual, Welles’ camera never ceases to find an interesting angle from which to shoot, moving in for extreme close-ups or shooting wide in a cavernous palace or on a barren hillside. And the battle scene feels quite modern, creating a sense of chaos that seems appropriate to the moment.

    Chimes-At-Midnight

  • Silver Lode (1954, dir. Dwan): After Dan Ballard is arrested by Marshalls on charges of murder and theft, the accused simply refuses to tell anyone what actually happened, because he knows no one would believe him. Though he had lived for years in the community, once labelled with false charges, he becomes persona non grata. This underscores the film’s McCarthy-era echoes, while giving them a sense of humanity, prompting us to ask ourselves whether we would join the mobs gathering to oppose “the bad guy” or if we would take a more measured approach and listen to reason. The only one willing to listen in Dwan’s world is the whore. . . sounds about right.

    silver lode

  • White Heat (1949, dir. Walsh): A well-paced thriller in which every character of significance tries to scheme or manipulate someone else. This fundamental human disconnection reveals an underlying lack of humanity at its end, portrayed ferociously and tragically by Cagney.

    white heat

Favorites of 2012

With the Oscars right around the corner, I’d like to take the opportunity to post my twenty favorite films of 2012. Enjoy.

  1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011, Ceylan): As is often the case in the best films, writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan does remarkable things with a simple story, effectively combining his penchant for glorious cinematography with a masterfully written screenplay. The film tracks a group of police officers taking a confessed murderer around the countryside trying to find the exact place he buried the body (he was drunk when he killed). The visuals give the film something of an ethereal quality, which works well for the “fairy tale” aspect of the narrative. The layers to the narrative seem endless, touching on life, death, the nature of truth, the role of science/logic in the world, and compassion. The final act at the hospital takes the film to a level of complexity and beauty unmatched by most anything I’ve seen.
  2. The Kid with a Bike (2011, Dardenne): A masterpiece from the Dardenne brothers, the film follows 11 year-old Cyril as he seeks connection upon being sent to an orphanage by his father. A Bressonian meditation on the mystery of grace, the film benefits from a strong lead performance, an empathetic camera, and a refusal to sentimentalize a story about a child. The use of music seems a direct reference to Bresson’s A Man Escaped, while the use of red brings Lamorisse’s beautiful The Red Balloon to mind. And yet, the final product is all their own.
  3. Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson): Sam abandons his summer camp to meet Suzy. These twelve year-olds are seeking to start something of their own, apart from the failures of the world they have known. Anderson’s wide-angeled world is on full display here, as characters wander at frame’s edge searching for connection. With Christian and native American imagery, Anderson’s direct interaction with the spiritual realm expands the film to a more mythic scale. The “once upon a time” nature of the story, and a sometimes fairy tale score also point in this direction. Combined with the typical eccentricities of Anderson’s films, these elements create one of the director’s most significant films.
  4. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2012, Freidrichs): This wonderfully complex portrait of a St. Louis housing project offers no easy answers about the failure of the government initiative, alternately implicating the idea, the maintenance, and the criminal element that made the projects their home. While examining the ins and outs of public policy and sociology, the film enters into territory few have entered–it adds real heart and humanity to the discussion, reminding us that public policy is always ultimately about people.
  5. The Turin Horse (2011, Tarr): Horse. Father. Daughter. Home. Wind. Gypsies. That about sums up the elements of this apocalyptic film. Béla Tarr’s “final” film transitions from movement to stasis, from open to closed, and from light to darkness–a true de-creation. And yet, it ends with a pause, one that seems more question than statement, “Now what?” The film’s intense focus on action over statement is its strength, as it includes only a single scene of extended dialogue. As the light flickers out near the end of the film, one wonders about the future of the dad/daughter, the future of our world, and the future of cinema. Will the light return?
  6. Elena (2011, Zvyagintsev): Exquisite visual style imbues this thriller with frustration, dread, and a set of questions that linger long after its conclusion. Zvyagintsev seems to have a knack for composition, tracking shots, and editing to a certain rhythm, as the film quietly and formally gains momentum during its run time. Also, the director is once again drawn to material dealing with family strife—a mother seeking to provide for her grown son, a father’s tendentious relationship with his daughter, and a married couple’s disagreements about how to spend their money—though this time the family shares the space with a hard and incisive look at blended families and social class in the new Russia.
  7. Damsels in Distress (2011, Stillman): Four collegiate women run a suicide prevention center as a way to serve their campus. The damsels of Stillman’s film spend most of their time trying to help others in their strange, off-kilter way. And yet, their distress arises because of their commitment to a kind of life in the world which their peers seem to have given up on. That Stillman makes his heroines so strange serves to underline the way the modern world has given up on their values. Stillman’s comedy is typically droll, and Gerwig’s line readings are especially effective. Great comedy.
  8. Looper (2012, Johnson): So Levitt’s face make-up doesn’t really work, but otherwise this is a largely satisfying time travel adventure about breaking generational cycles of violence and wrong-doing. The story involves Joe, a “looper” who has been hired to execute people sent from thirty years in the future. When Joe encounters his older self, everything changes. Johnson manages to keep the audience guessing on where the film will ultimately go, and the noirish sensibility offers plenty of intriguing visuals. The conclusion presents a somewhat troubling solution to the problem, but I can partly forgive that because the ending actually inspires further thought about how to break the cycle.
  9. Bernie (2012, Linklater): Bernie is based on the true story of an East Texas funeral parlor worker/worship leader who befriends the meanest (and richest) woman in town. When she turns up dead, suspicion—and sympathy—falls on Bernie. The comedy here, much of which is very effective (the division of Texas was right on), serves as a counterpoint to the more dramatic, even horrific elements of the film. The inclusion of real townspeople among the “interviewees” underscores the horror as they illustrate, with their own words, the power of mass delusion. Through the use of laughter and local color, the film’s darker sensibility sneaks up on us, and those final real-life photos and footage slam home cold facts of the case.
  10. The Deep Blue Sea (2011, Davies): Beautifully rendered by Davies and his cast, this tragic tale of misdirected love succeeds especially because of its exquisite writing and direction. The best scenes involve Weisz and Beale, whose cautious, (re)strained relationship elicits an aching beauty. The film is a bit uneven when it involves Hiddleston, but still largely succeeds due to the careful observation and humanistic perspective that characterizes the direction. There are no easy answers or villains here–just the difficulties of life and love.
  11. I Wish (2011, Koreeda): Two brothers separate to live with their separated parents. The children eventually hatch a plan to get mom and dad back together, one that involves making a wish at a special spot. Gentle and light for most of its run time, the film shifts to something weightier during its final quarter. I Wish effectively captures the innocence and the straightforward (albeit often profound) hopes of children. A sequence when the children meet an elderly couple might be my single favorite bit in a film all year. While some sense of resolution occurs, Koreeda rightly keeps a major loose end dangling, bringing a sense of the real loss these kids have experienced.
  12. The Queen of Versailles (2012, Greenfield): This documentary tells the story of the couple who set out to build the largest home in America. However, when the economy drops out, everything changes. The film reveals the void in these people’s lives, utilizing the unfinished home as a poignant symbol of the lives they’ve created for themselves. Further, and maybe more importantly, the film reveals the often predatory nature of the US economy, where consumers, business leaders, and banks are all trying to get the best of each other. In the end, everyone loses. The absence of cooperation in the lives of these people both personally and professionally is a story with genuine relevance today.
  13. Safety Not Guaranteed (2012, Trevorrow): Sent on a trip to investigate a mysterious want-ad for a time travel companion, a young reporter (Aubrey Plaza) ends up increasingly intertwined with Kenneth—a man who seems to walk a fine line between passion and insanity. There’s no reason why this science-fiction/romantic comedy mash up should be good—obvious plotting, cheap effects, and a general goofiness to the whole thing. However, in light of its impossible-to-guess conclusion as the end point in a sequence of relationship stories, the critique of common sexual practice outside of committed relationships resonates. That, and Aubrey Plaza’s excellent turn in a pretty difficult role: having to convince an audience that she really did fall for Duplass’ committed nonconformist.
  14. The Master (2012, P. T. Anderson): Two men (master and student) become acquainted through a religious cult similar to Scientology. Anderson’s bold visual language is unparalleled in American cinema today. His use of space, his attentiveness to the physicality of his subjects, and his desire to make the personal epic are all on display here. Phoenix’s excellent performance (esp. the use of his body and face) stands out in a film full of them. However, the emotional and moral distance of the film is off-putting, particularly since the solution to deep-seated problems amounts to: ‘___ ___.’ (Don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t seen it)
  15. A Burning Hot Summer (2011, Garrel): A quietly remarkable film from Garrel, A Burning Hot Summer revels in the beauty of true love by way of illustrating the lack thereof. The younger Garrel and Bellucci are appropriately beautiful and passionate, and the film plays against these qualities quite nicely, turning in the last quarter of the run time to examine a tenderness borne out of commitment that the lead couple could never approach. The editing is often inspired, creating fascinating conjunctions between scenes.
  16. The Grey (2012, Carnahan): Liam Neeson leads a group of plane-crash survivors through the Alaskan wilderness, trying to reach safety before the wolves track them down. Visually, the film exudes the essence of its title. The men walk through a world with limited vision. Overcast skies, forest trees, blizzard conditions, and darkness all manage to keep them only in the moment of their experience. That leaves the focus of the film on staying alive and especially on dealing with the prospect of death. Neeson seems made for the role, and Carnahan’s choice to make the wolves barely visible effectively ratchets up the tension.
  17. Haywire (2012, Soderbergh): The plot is simple: a covert operative seeks revenge after a former colleague makes an attempt on her life. The film ends up as an amazingly good piece of entertaining fun. The real treats here are the formal choices Soderbergh makes, elevating a mildly interesting script to something much more engaging. I could watch the chase in Barcelona or the escape in Dublin over and over again–great visual film-making, with an inventive camera and editing that matches the pace of the moment. And the ending is just right, punctuating the conviction of the movie that Kane is more than a handful to deal with.
  18. Marley (2012, Macdonald): Solid documentary that underscores the most positive aspects of Bob Marley’s short life. The film walks a fine line between honest depiction and hagiography, crossing over into the latter on occasion. That said, there is some fantastic performance footage here, as well as interviews with the key figures in Bob’s life. While the film may not get too far into the darker side of Bob, it clearly portrays his hope and work for a better world, a place where everything’s gonna be all right.
  19. Searching for Sugar Man (2012, Bendjelloul): This film tells its “so-strange-it-must-be-true” story in two distinct halves: the first explores the South African myth that grew up around a mysterious folk singer from the 70s. The second offers a striking contrast–the story of a man in touch with both the harshness and the beauty of reality. These two halves together form a fascinating film that manages to be both thought-provoking and inspiring.
  20. The Forgiveness of Blood (2012, Marston): While the languid pacing certainly elicits something akin to the stir-crazy feeling of the main character on a formal level, I’m not sure Marston’s imagery is strong enough on its own to carry the film. The overarching story is simple but substantive, as the film seems to be asking significant questions about the practice of Albanian blood feuds and its effects on, especially, the next generation. I appreciate Marston’s willingness to shoot in foreign languages as he tells his international stories (see also, Maria Full of Grace).

Need to see: This is Not a Film, The Loneliest Planet, How to Survive a Plague, Lincoln, The Hobbit, Argo

 Favorite First-Time Films Shown Theatrically Before 2012: Love Affair (1939); Equinox Flower (1958); The Crimson Kimono (1959); The Devil, Probably (1977); Lourdes (2009); The Trip (2010); Le Havre (2011); Hugo (2011); Margaret (2011); The Swell Season (2011)

Top Films of 2011

With the Oscars signifying the end of the awards season, I’m taking the opportunity to write up my favorite films from 2011. The year has seen the release of a number of remarkable films, noted by the fact that I have had no troubles whatsoever filling out a top ten. Still, with many yet left to see, the following represent my favorites at the moment:

10. Pearl Jam Twenty: A highly personal pick to be sure, but one for which I feel great enthusiasm. Experienced director and unabashed fan Cameron Crowe offers up a history of the band laced with live performances, found footage, and interviews. The film’s opening sequence detailing the tragic end of Andy Wood brings heartfelt context to the band’s sometimes criticized earnestness. This is, admittedly, a documentary with little illumination of the darkest corners of Pearl Jam’s history. But the heart, the peace, and the connectedness of the band offer an intriguing counterpoint to their music.

9. Bill Cunningham New York: Bill Cunningham, a fashion photographer for the New York Times, is an inspiring individual. His simple joy for life, his consistent kindness to those he meets, his unending interest in others, and his absolute embrace of beauty wherever he finds it make him one of the rarest of people: a genuine human being. And when the interviewer asks Bill about his regular church attendance? A beautiful moment that simply has to be seen. I wrote more extensively about the film here.

8. Meek’s Cutoff: Reichardt’s humanist vision for America—or really, the world—set amid a 19th century Oregon wagon train makes excellent use of its well-rounded characters and compelling, real-world story. While Reichardt focuses on the simple, everyday lives of the settlers, the film slowly evolves into something much more complex and layered, a horrific vision of a people without direction and their mechanisms for trust badly in need of repair. And as Reichardt obviously allows her camera to favor the female characters in this male dominated world, the film stands apart as a unique testament to the ills and sufferings of a world badly in need of vision. I wrote more extensively about the film here.

7. A Separation: A complex, psychological portrait of not just a couple, but a family, a community, and dare I say, an entire society. What begins as a simple disjunction between a married couple continues to grow and manifest itself in ever larger networks of people, involving children, neighbors, employees, community officials, and even the justice system. The acting is exceptional, none more so than the young lady playing the daughter, while the opening and closing shots express at once the beauty and the tragedy of life in Iran.

6. Nostalgia for the Light: An extraordinary essay film less interested in facts and more interested in ideas, atmosphere, and the experience of life. The film deals in a central paradox: How can a place be at once so well-suited for examining the past (in the heavens and on earth), and yet be located in a country unwilling to deal with its own more recent, and tragic, past. Guzman’s photography is exquisite. As one shot blends into the next through creative editing, the film’s underlying humanism stands out all the more. I wrote more extensively about the film here.

5. Of Gods and Men: Love endures. This is a film about a group of men on a mission to love people as best they can, to be neighborly, to give of themselves however they can for the betterment of others. This is a physical and social task, but these men reveal that it is also a spiritual task, one deeply connected with who human beings are and ought to be. The quiet rhythms of the film mimic those same rhythms of monastery life, including sequences of profound goodness & beauty and a Christian ethic made tangible.

4. Tuesday, After Christmas: Muntean’s achingly restrained film illustrates the beauty of marriage by helping the audience to feel real loss when a marriage fails. Using lengthy shots filled with subtext, the film builds tension as the philandering husband nears, and eventually makes, his fateful decision. The key scene is an 11+ minute shot chronicling the aftermath of his choice, along with a wonderfully complex, expertly-acted, and heartbreaking final sequence. I wrote more extensively about the film here.

3. The Tree of Life: More ambitious than Malick’s other features, The Tree of Life brings a cosmic perspective to profound tragedy through the lens of a struggling man’s memories. The first hour of the film, up through and including the creation imagery, succeeds beautifully. As the film refocuses on the family for the final hour plus, it becomes more diffuse as the boy’s relationship with his family fractures. The search for peace, meaning, and beauty comes only in a proper rendering of the past–our own and that of the world.

2. Poetry: A beautifully shot and rendered film, Poetry encapsulates empathy for the other, the joy and the pain involved in truly seeing, and the continued–and maybe even increased–necessity for poetry in the modern world. Yun Jeong-hee’s performance is touching, nuanced, inspiring, and devastating. The film slowly builds to a narrative and emotional crescendo that prompts reflection long after the film ends.

1. Certified Copy: A magnificent achievement from Kiarostami both in writing and direction, as well as a stand out performance from Binoche, who is more compelling than ever. The camera’s gaze slowly humanizes these people, as they grow at once both more concrete and more cryptic. Each successive moment reveals and conceals. As the film drives toward its enigmatic conclusion, the film’s themes become ever clearer: the relationship between truth and fiction, the vulnerability associated with an openness to the other, and the mystery of matrimony.

The Best of the Rest

  • All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (dir. Adam Curtis): A dizzying document of the way our understanding of machines and technology is changing our conception of humanity.
  • Buck (dir. Cindy Meehl): The film documents the life of a serene horse whisperer, a man who knows tragedy and has come out better on the other side of it.
  • In a Better World (dir. Susanne Bier): Bier has a gift for drawing out and dialing up tension in quiet and unobtrusive ways, which she does beautifully here in a film which divides the setting between Europe and Africa to compare and contrast approaches to vengeance.
  • Le Quattro Volte (dir. Michelangelo Frammartino): A series of four movements following the life of a shepherd, a goat, a tree, and charcoal, the film immerses the viewer in creation. Even without the aid of words, Frammartino provides a strong sense of connection to his subject matter.
  • Midnight in Paris (dir. Woody Allen): The scenes set in the 1920s were full of energy, life, and well-rounded characters. If Woody had done the same with the contemporary scenes, this would have easily made the first ten.
  • Mysteries of Lisbon (dir. Raoul Ruiz): Ruiz captures light in ways rarely seen in the cinema, adding a layer of beauty to this exquisitely costumed, sublimely written, visual feast for the senses. The priest stands as one of the most quietly compelling creations in recent years. The story, though it spreads out over wide swaths of time and geography, never lets up, while the constantly shifting perspectives invite us to explore the potential and the limits of narrative.

Harmless Entertainments: A Better Life; Cars 2; Page One: Inside the New York Times; Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows; The Way Back

Frustrating: Contagion; Take Shelter

Still to See: The Arbor; Aurora; Being Elmo; Boxing Gym; Brighton Rock; Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop; House of Tolerance; Hugo; The Ides of March; Into the Abyss; Margaret; Martha Marcy May Marlene; Moneyball; Mother; My Joy; Norwegian Wood; Our Beloved Month of August; The Swell Season; Tabloid; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Trip; Tyranosaur; Uncle Boonmee; United Red Army; The Way; Win Win

Six Outstanding Discoveries from Years Past:

  • Lucky Life (dir. Lee Isaac Chung): Taking its inspiration from the poetry of Gerald Stern, the film offers a sensitivity to the way pain and memory ripple through life. Chung edits the film intuitively, making connections that inspire reflection rather than determine meaning. And what a final shot.
  • Secret Sunshine (dir. Lee Chang-dong): A remarkable film about a woman’s journey from isolation and abstraction to a more connected and human existence. Its nuanced portrait of Evangelical Christians brings something unique to cinema. I wrote more extensively about the film here.
  • Night of the Demon (dir. Jacques Tourneur): Terrific horror that focuses on the subtle psychological transformation taking place in the lead character.
  • Los Angeles Plays Itself (dir. Thom Anderson): An engaging and engrossing essay film on the presentation and identity of Los Angeles.
  • Happy Here and Now (dir. Michael Almereyda): An atmospheric film from New Orleans that explores the loss of identity we experience as technology encroaches, even to the point of mediating our relationships for us.
  • Another Year (dir. Mike Leigh): Magnificent film from Leigh, attempting and succeeding at one of the most difficult tasks for a filmmaker and storyteller: presenting a believable and compelling vision of goodness—in this case, through marriage.

Favorites of the Decade

The prospect of creating a list of favorite films for the decade both excites and terrifies me. I am certainly a compulsive list-maker, but with the number of films I’ve seen, and loved, from 2000 through 2009, the task seems a bit like choosing a favorite among my kids or deciding whether Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov is my favorite Dostoevsky novel. Either it just can’t be done—as is the case with my kids—or one day I might feel a stronger connection to one, only to see my loyalties shift the next day. Today, it’s Crime and Punishment.

That said, the first five entries on the list were shoe-ins. I couldn’t imagine them ever falling off. I’ve seen each of them multiple times (they hold up—an important qualification for making a list like this), and their artistry is without question. The other five might be replaced by films like Spirited Away, Punch-Drunk Love, Persepolis, Take Out, When the Levees Broke, or The Royal Tenenbaums, but in the end I have to admit a certain level of comfort with the list.

I am most pleased by its diversity—3 films from Europe, 3 from the U.S., 2 from Asia, and 2 from Iran. (And honest, I didn’t plan it that way.) I am most disappointed with the lack of animation—Linklater’s Waking Life was important in pushing my personal boundaries as to what films could do on levels beyond plot mechanics and narrative development.

I suspect this list to change as time goes on, not so much because I think these films will fade in my estimation, but because I expect a great number of other films made this decade could rival many of the titles on this list. Here’s where it stands today:

10. Mutual Appreciation (2005)

The final film on the list comes from American indie director Andrew Bujalski, whose first film, Funny Ha Ha, treads some similar ground as Mutual Appreciation. However, where the former film focuses primarily on the romantic trials of a single young woman, Mutual Appreciation expands that palette to include three separate people, each looking for friendship and love while trying to make it on their own. Mutual Appreciation comes across as an unassuming film—it looks like nothing is happening. But on careful reflection, the lives of its three leads are slowly changing, learning to live with and rely on one another. That Bujalski is able to slide this under our noses in such an understated manner while rooting his characters in an all too real world makes this one of my favorite films of the decade.

9. Ten (2002)

Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten is something of a formal experiment, but one that succeeds precisely because it doesn’t lose the hearts of its characters inside the confines of its technical achievements. The film holds its loose narrative threads together throughout the film, bringing them closer and closer together as the successive conversations progress between a female driver and various others—a son, a sister, a pious woman, a whore, and a young single woman. Kiarostami’s film humanizes the “unseen” of Middle Eastern culture, providing a way into the hearts of women and children through the everyday concerns of life: weakening marriages, the aftermath of divorce, parent-child relationships, sex, and prayer.

8. What Time is it There? (2001)

Tsai Ming-liang’s greatest film finds a strict balance between slightly surreal events and the realistic feeling of apathy, loneliness, and confusion among Taiwanese youth. Tsai’s lengthy, often static shots, his frankness about the sexual dysfunction among youth, and the absolute yearning for the mysterious and beautiful other in this film combine to create a strangely affecting cinematic experience.

7. Offside (2006)

Jafar Panahi’s energetic and impassioned film takes place during a World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Bahrain, as a young woman attempts to disguise herself as a man to gain entry to the stadium. Panahi films the scenario during the actual match, bringing a level of documentary realism to a film that has important observations to make about the role of women in Iranian culture. He creates several compelling young characters that evidence the diversity of opinion even among Iranian teenagers. Panahi’s stirring conclusion celebrates his country’s better instincts, even as it indicts the official, lawful position of the government officials.

6. Summer Hours (2008)

Oliver Assayas directs this brilliant, understated film about the effects of a global society on a contemporary French family. As the matriarch passes away, her grown children are faced with the prospect of completely uprooting themselves from their family home, as cares and concerns drive them to the four corners of the globe. The camera persists in quiet observation as each of the children struggle to balance the demands of the immediate family with the concerns of the extended family. Assayas makes that family home the most vibrant and interesting location in the film, a move which effectively creates space for the kind of tension the family feels as they make difficult decisions. And rather than leave the film on a note of simple tension, Assayas offers a five-minute coda that brings the film to a stunning conclusion, one that points to a future with its own pitfalls and hopes.

5. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Speaking of sublime, the opening scene of Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies pictures a beautiful dance of drunken men as they mimic the motions of planets and stars in the solar system. This mysterious image of an imminent cosmos brings a grand scope to the apocalyptic narrative that follows. That said, we can only use narrative in the loosest sense, as Tarr’s purposes are more focused on the fear, the judgment, and the puzzlement of the Hungarian people in the face of inexplicable and tragic circumstances. The film, like Tarr’s other work in the past two decades, encourages contemplation and reflection on the spiritual and ethical realities that always seem just outside the reach of a clear and persuasive articulation.

4. Before Sunset (2004)

A number of the films on this list I discovered after the fact, due to word of a few well-chosen mouths. However, in 2004-2005, director Richard Linklater had long been a known quantity to me. That meant that Before Sunset was my most enjoyable theatrical experience of the decade, minus of course the woman next to me who insisted on asking her husband for explanations of the action all through the film. It also helped that Linklater had already introduced the characters to us in his more than capable previous foray into the world of these characters, Before Sunrise. While similar in structure, Before Sunset is the better film of the two, both in its stricter use of real time, and in its matured and in certain ways, chastened characters. Several moments throughout the film resonate with the pains and desires and failures of relationships, and of course, with the music of Delpy and Nina Simone, this film boasts the most sublime ending of any on this list.

3. The New World (2005)

Terrence Malick’s resurgent film career these last ten years is one of the most encouraging things to happen in the American cinematic landscape since the decade he stopped making movies: the explosive and inventive 1970s. Malick’s The New World carries a much stronger narrative line through its runtime than its more unwieldy predecessor, The Thin Red Line, which only enhances, rather than takes away from Malick’s trademark use of voice-over narration and his propensity for elliptical editing. The film deftly weaves together numerous seemingly disparate strands as it barrels ahead from Smith to Rolfe, from the new world to the old and back again. In the process, we gain both a sense of the intense joy associated with discovery intertwined with the tragic loss that occurs through the change that inevitably follows.

2. Still Life (2006)

In the interior of China, Jia Zhang-Ke films this dual storyline of two deserted spouses (a man and a woman) each looking for their significant other after many years apart. They each tramp through a slowly disintegrating city, one that is being demolished brick by brick to make way for a massive new dam on the nearby river. The setting evokes thoughts of loss, regret, and forgetfulness, even as Jia’s camera sees its deep and resonant beauty. The emotional stakes continue to rise as Jia’s protagonists discover their respective spouses, offering a window of insight into the tradition of an old China giving way to the promise of a new one. The film sticks in my memory as the most beautiful achievement of the decade, with awe-inspiring images, shocking in their magnificence.

1. The Son (2002)

The Dardenne brothers were my greatest discovery of this decade, so it’s only appropriate that their masterful film, Le Fils sits in the top spot on this list. The themes of the film resonate because of their complexity and immediacy in the world where people actually live out their lives. Who hasn’t tried to dig into the difficult ground of forgiveness or wade through the murky waters of a questionable relationship? The film thankfully eliminates false distinctions between ethical problems, spiritual poverty, and relational needs so popular in a strictly rationalist society. Instead, the brothers Dardenne root their film in the intimate and often mundane details of its character’s lives, revealing an intense emotional immediacy and a mysterious sense of the transcendent.

Other films I loved this decade, in no particular order whatsoever:

Spirited Away
Half Nelson
Punch-Drunk Love
Saraband
Persepolis
Gosford Park
Royal Tenenbaums
You Can Count on Me
In the Mood for Love
Funny Ha Ha
The Child
13 Conversations about One Thing
All or Nothing
Crimson Gold
Take Out
Three Times
When the Levees Broke
Lars and the Real Girl
Yi Yi
Best of Youth
25th Hour
Monsoon Wedding
Waking Life

Favorites of 2009

I’ve seen many great films this year, and for the first time in a couple of years, I can happily say I’ve even seen enough to create a list of my favorites for 2009. I’ve also continued the tradition of noting my favorite discoveries from past years, noting my favorite films that were released in 2008 or before. This year closes my first full ten-year period of watching films more seriously. Only in the late 1990s did I begin to seek out a wider variety of movies, a process that continues even to this day. Now more than ten years on, I still struggle with how to balance life as a parent of young kids with the desire to “keep up” to any measurable degree with some of the exciting newer films. I think I’ve gotten close to striking that balance, even as a third child is on its way in a few months.

That said, I am most sorry to have missed the short run of Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles a few weeks ago. I also continue to be frustrated at the overwhelming lack of variety in Dallas’ theatrical lineup (Jia’s 24 City and Bujalski’s Beeswax were both scheduled but never shown). Only Lorna’s Silence (with a one week partial run) and the star-powered Public Enemies showed theatrically in the Dallas/Forth Worth area. Any other films under real consideration for the list had to be acquired on DVD, and the simple fact is that many won’t get a DVD release until into 2010, if at all.

Great films are being made all over the world, and have been made throughout history. I still hang onto the hope that distributors will loosen their purse strings and do a little marketing for good films that might fly under most people’s radar, and that theatrical venues will find ways to broaden their selection of films beyond the typical fare available everywhere. Ok . . . rant over. Let’s get on to the list of my favorite films of 2009 [Thanks to Darren over at Long Pauses for reminding me of James Gray’s 2009 film Two Lovers, which I sadly forgot when I initially published this list. I’ve now remedied the problem.]:


5b. Public Enemies

Michael Mann’s exploration of John Dillinger’s crime spree in the 1930s continues to linger in my mind for its beautiful images and Mann’s willingness to offer something of a psychological portrait of the criminal life within the confines of a genre picture. In his film work, Mann has long shown interest in the criminal mind, including Manhunter in the late 1980s, 1995’s Heat—still his most famous work, and his film Collateral earlier this decade. Mann never seems all that interested in celebrating his criminal protagonists, but rather showing them for who they are—complex human beings with various drives and desires, some good and some not. That continues in Public Enemies. Mann beautifully choreographs his action sequences, but they come off as more cerebral than visceral. This choice creates an opportunity to continue the reflection on the criminal outside the confines of the exciting moments the audience tends to expect in a “bank robber” movie. I like that Mann is headed in this direction, as evidenced in his last couple of films, and look forward to his next project.

5a. Two Lovers

This wonderful film from writer-director James Gray really solidifies him in my mind as a filmmaker to keep an eye on. I saw his second feature, The Yards, back in 2000, and I thought it a strong and understated film. In Two Lovers, Gray shows a great willingness to avoid long and talky sequences in favor of short bursts of dialogue and allowing his actors to communicate with their bodies as well as their words. The writing develops each of the three leads, the ladies a bit less than the man, but enough for them to be full-blooded characters. Gray sets up the narrative well, refuses to give us easy answers and doesn’t avoid meaningful ambiguity-all pluses.

4. Still Walking

Without a doubt this comparison has been made numerous times, but Koreeda’s film feels like an updated and modernized Ozu film, a point which should be taken as high praise for Koreeda. It’s rare that a contemporary film compares favorably with the films of one of the great masters of cinema. Still Walking pays close attention to the simple, everyday details of the Yokoyama family, an elderly husband and wife whose two grown children (with families in tow) come for a weekend visit. Long-standing tensions are revealed in hints and snippets of information throughout the film, but thankfully remain underplayed. Instead of big emotional blow-ups between characters, Koreeda’s camera is more interested in capturing close-ups of food preparation, children playing in the yard, or noting the way nature breaks into their world. Koreeda’s camera always seems well-placed to capture the physical interaction between these family members, implicitly revealing their connection to one another, in spite of the disappointments life has brought. In the end, the film stands both as a warning and a reflection of a hard reality: we must care for people while we still have them with us, because life (and death) rolls along without our permission.

3. Lorna’s Silence

A year after (rather than ‘the year of’) the release of a new Dardenne film is always a treat—since I have to wait more than a year for it to cross the Atlantic. Lorna’s Silence, like the Dardennes’ earlier films, explores ethical issues in modern society through closely observed portraits of its character’s lives. In this case, we witness the moral awakening of an Albanian woman seeking Belgian citizenship by her marriage to a known drug addict. When it comes time for Lorna’s handlers to dispose of her husband, she begins to see that the true cost of her actions goes beyond a simple exchange of money. And it’s that dehumanizing tendency to place economics on a pedestal that seems most in the Dardennes’ view: Lorna begins to lose her humanity as she fights for life against the “sound logic” of where the money leads. Can anyone retain their humanity in such an environment?

2. Munyurangabo

A powerfully understated tale of revenge in modern, post-genocidal Rwanda, this film stands out from the pack of “Rwanda films” in examining the lasting impact of the genocide that took place there in 1994. The titular character, shortened in the film as Ngabo, sets out on a journey with his friend from Kigali to the countryside where he means to revenge his father’s death. Old tribal divisions, questions about the meaning of justice and lasting peace, and the short tempers of young men create tensions that only grow as Ngabo inches closer to carrying out his plan. Rather than rely on typical narrative tricks to enhance the drama, first-time director Lee Isaac Chung instead aims for a more poetic rendering, allowing his camera to linger on faces, hands, and feet as people proceed with the largely mundane tasks of their lives. This ultimately enhances the power of the film, eschewing immediate reaction and emotion for something more lasting and thought-provoking.

1. Summer Hours

Assayas’ Summer Hours also made it onto my best of the decade list, and it stands as my favorite film of the year, though the top three are tightly bunched in my mind. Set in contemporary Paris and an outlying village, the film both reflects and offers an opportunity to contemplate our increasingly global society and its effects on families. As a kind of flip side of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake, Summer Hours looks at the home base of a family, and the effects of globalization on their family as various members drift further and further from one another, both in their geographical locations, but also in their relationships with one another. This is a film that evokes the tragedy of traditions passing away with the death of valued family members, the pain of physical locations losing their significance as places that inspire deep connection with others, and the mystery of life that continues on in new ways when the old has passed away.

Now to turn our attention backward in time, here are my favorite discoveries of 2009:

5. La jetée (1962)

The final film on this list is probably best known to modern filmgoers as the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film 12 Monkeys. However, La jeteé, a thirty minute short film which tells its tale entirely in still pictures, is a much better and more interesting film. The film takes place in some kind of post-apocalyptic future, where we meet a man who vividly remembers a shooting he witnessed as a boy. He desperately wants to return to that moment, and when he is chosen for a time travel experiment, he sees his opportunity. The power of the film comes in the mystery of the photographs, which with the spare dialogue tell just enough, but not too much. It’s really a beautifully chilling film.

4. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

On the face of it, the film seems a recipe for disaster: an existential drama stuffed inside the confines of a cheap science fiction picture. However, because of the close union between the central idea of the movie (that a man is being lost within the ever increasingly terrifying modern world) and the science fiction angle (a man mysteriously shrinking making him unsafe even in the protective world of his own home), the film works brilliantly. The focus of the first half of the film is on the set up and the initial loss of size. However, it’s in the latter half, when the shrinking man finds himself trapped in the basement with a tarantula, when the film really takes off. And because of the investment in the character, the film even manages to wring a few truly creepy moments out of its plot. A great movie for goofy fun and for thought provoking post-film conversation as well.

3. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

One of the holy grails on the cinematic landscape, Turner Classic Movies in the U.S. ran Welles’ star-crossed film one day early this year. It would certainly be number one on the list were it in its original form, but the studio enforced ending is so terribly and obviously tacked on that I couldn’t justify placing it at the top. However, the film as a whole is nothing short of magnificent, with the typical Wellesian energetic camera and editing in evidence throughout. The film is a grand spectacle, on the scale of Citizen Kane, and probably even beyond it due to the number of primary characters within the Amberson’s world. If you can track down a copy of this excellent film, don’t miss out.

2. Ballast (2008)

Director Lance Hammer’s debut film, Ballast follows the lives of three poor African-Americans scraping by somewhere near the Mississippi Delta. Hammer’s use of the handheld camera seems a questionable choice early in the film as it follows a boy running through a field. However, he settles in admirably. With limited dialogue and a camera that lingers on its subjects, Hammer is clearly of the school that show is better than tell. The director creates a number of memorable moments by, as John Ford once said of his own films, letting the pictures do the talking. But it’s the combination of Hammer’s style with the particular milieu that makes for such an effective picture. The film encourages the viewer to engage the world of these unfortunate people, portraying their lives as something worth looking at, people worth thinking about. Hammer concludes with a fine moment—a single sweep of the camera through a moving car that beautifully ties together the narrative in a most satisfying conclusion.

1. Manhattan (1979)

I am up and down on Woody Allen, but his poetic, Gershwin-drenched paean to New York City was a revelation, and not just for its musical interludes. Allen tends to have a self-effacing way about him, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen it portrayed on screen as artfully as he did here, particularly in the film’s Cabiria-esque conclusion. Of course, where Fellini’s Cabiria has troubles that are almost entirely inflicted upon her due to a certain naiveté about the modern world and men in general, Allen’s lead character here suffers from largely self-inflicted wounds. Manhattan reveals a world grown small, where characters struggle to see beyond themselves, even in the hustle and bustle of a city like New York. That it’s presented with such attention to beauty—accompanied by the aforementioned Gershwin and gorgeous black and white photography—offers a striking contrast to Allen’s limited perspective that underlines the fundamentally comic tone of the film.

Other films I appreciated in 2009: In Bruges; Dance, Girl, Dance; Paranoid Park; Doubt; I am a Sex Addict; The Exterminating Angel; The Player; The Station Agent; sex, lies, and videotape; Greed; Silent Light; I Walked with a Zombie; My Man Godfrey; Nanook of the North; The Immigrant