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.


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.


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

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


  • 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.


  • 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
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

Favorite Discoveries of 2008

Things are just the same as they always were, only, you’re the same as you were, too, so I guess things will never be the same again.

-Lucy (Irene Dunne), to her soon-to-be ex-husband Jerry (Cary Grant) in Leo McCarey’s witty, marriage-themed comedy, The Awful Truth

I see a healthy number of films each year, and I enjoy most of them on some level. At the end of the year though, those that come to mind are those that I want to come back to, the films that I can look at and say: you’re that same as you always were, so I guess things will never be the same again. I am thinking of those films that change the way I look at the world or propel me toward greater love and kindness in relationships, those that make me reconsider my commitments or capture something beautiful, true or good. Here are ten discoveries this year that fit that category for me:

3 Bad Men (Ford, 1926)
John Ford’s first masterpiece, this silent film shows early in his career his gift for mythologizing the American west. He brings together melodrama and comedy in such a seamless fashion as the film takes on an epic stature during the lead-up to the Dakota land rush. Here too we see one of the earliest instances in Ford of his “good-bad men” characters, tainted heroes who serve justice and the community even as they remain outside both.

The Awful Truth (McCarey, 1937)
I quoted it above, and its clever, quick-hitting dialogue immediately makes this an enjoyable comedy about a couple on the way to getting a divorce. However, what most impresses me about the film is its commitment to its moral vision—imbuing the marriage of these two selfish people with an almost sacramental reverence, a point that becomes most clear in the film’s final moments.

To Be or Not to Be (Lubitsch, 1942)
Many years ago I saw The Shop Around the Corner and knew that were I in the mood for good comedy, I could trust director Ernst Lubitsch. Sadly, it took me all those years to see another, and this was simply magnificent. The writing is stellar, while the timing and delivery rarely misfire. However, I loved most the deft alternating between screwball comedy and the dark themes of its 1942 Poland locale. Lubitsch, in following this Polish acting troupe as its members attempt to mount resistance to the Nazi invaders, wants us to laugh all the way through, yet never forget the harsh realities of the time.


Black Narcissus (Powell & Pressberger, 1947)
Black Narcissus marks my first exposure to the directing team of Powell & Pressberger, and I suspect I’ll track down as many of their films as possible in the near future. A story of a small group of nuns traveling to the Himalayas to open a school, the film possesses a profoundly spiritual quality to it, delving into the pursuit of true purity, the roots of evil and discouragement, and most significantly, what it means to humbly serve a people in the name of Christ.

Out of the Past (Tourneur, 1947)
Out of the Past possesses all the key elements of a quintessential film noir—the dame (Jane Greer) in distress who’s more dangerous than she appears, the hard-boiled loner (Robert Mitchum) trying to rise above the corruption, the slick businessman (Kirk Douglas) who really does believe money buys anything, and of course there’s that style—beautiful black and white photography, lonely barrooms and hilltop houses, and dialogue that suggests stores of never-ending confidence or masks deep-seated fears. Director Jacques Tourneur’s mise en scène creates a visual tension that works well in this kind of film–two people talk in a cafe while a mysterious third listens in the background; two lovers meet on a beach near fishing boats and nets, hoping not to get caught; and so on. We wonder as the film rolls on whether Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey can rise above his past, whether he can actually start anew, and all the while a church sits silently in the background of the small town, leaving us wondering if it has anything to offer this poor lost soul.

Early Summer (Ozu, 1951)
I really need to see more Ozu. Every time I see one of his films, I am amazed by the way he uses simple, everyday occurrences among families to create deeply moving stories. The rich characterizations add depth, but Ozu’s camera in particular has a way of capturing the interaction between family members that can emphasize the connectedness they have with one another while subtly revealing the fault lines that threaten to separate them. I especially appreciate Early Summer for its comic handling of his common, familial theme, yet he does so without compromising the emotional depth of their relationships.

I Vitelloni (Fellini, 1953)
I caught up on early Fellini this year, and while I enjoyed them all, I Vittelloni was my favorite of the bunch. It’s quiet and unassuming narrator drifts through the film, often put upon but rarely standing up for himself. Instead, his loud and boisterous friends require constant attention as they get themselves entangled in various troubles. Fellini is just so good at capturing the passions of youth, in all their fleeting joy, but also in the inevitable pain that follows. The ending here, as in most of his 50s films, expresses the poignance and heartache of life in the modern world.

The Sun Shines Bright (Ford, 1953)/ Judge Priest (Ford, 1934)
These are John Ford’s two films based on a series of Judge Priest stories, set in late 19th century Kentucky. The 1934 Will Rogers film is simply delightful, filled with comedy and surprising pathos. However, the lesser-known later film from 1953, starring Charles Winninger, was my favorite viewing experience of the year. The story finds Priest in the midst of a re-election campaign, thus much comedy comes out of him trying to drum up support. However, Ford’s portrayal of the town as a splintered little society, with its drunken failures, judgmental prudes, and people of competing interests. Priest, as a respected citizen, stands in the midst of all this, and finds himself in the role of chief mediator—everyone comes to him to solve their problems, but with a close election expected, he may not be good enough to lead them any longer. As the film follows Priest, we see a story of an aging man, looking out at a town that has largely passed him by, but one that still desperately needs him. His wisdom, courage, and sly sense of humor make Priest one of my favorite characters in film. I would be remiss were I not to mention the film’s formal control, expressed best in its climax. This includes what to my mind is the greatest sequence in any Ford film: a funeral procession that proceeds largely without dialogue for several minutes, ending with a sermon at the church. The poetry of Ford’s cinema is never clearer than in this scene—beautiful and humane.

The Conversation (Coppola, 1974)
The movie Coppola made between the first two Godfather movies, I probably prefer it to both of those more championed films. It’s less epic, to be sure, but its ideas seem more complex. Here we have a man who believes that in secretly recording a conversation, he can discover the truth about the two people he tapes. But as he continues to listen, this simplistic notion of truth begins to disintegrate, causing him to lose his confidence in technology, and ultimately himself. What began as a simple contract job becomes a life-altering event. Coppola’s sound design is always interesting here, as the film uses snippets of the original taped conversation throughout the film to communicate the break-up of this man’s mind. It continues to stand as a profound and surprisingly contemporary commentary on modern society.


Satantango (Tarr, 1994)
I finally caught up with Bela Tarr’s seven-and-a-half hour masterpiece, and it was everything I’d hoped it would be. Grim, yes, but somehow, through watching the bleak existence of a small group of people, the film reveals some spark, something truly human. Allowing space for more than tragedy, Tarr finds moments for laughter, celebration, and compassion as well. Tarr’s lengthy shots encourage contemplation, and as the human condition plays itself out in this film, there is much to consider about how we see ourselves in these people and how we react to the kinds of people portrayed in this film.

Other discoveries this year: Cat People (Tourneur, 1942), Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford, 1939), They Were Expendable (Ford, 1945), Laura (Preminger, 1944), The Namesake (Nair, 2006)

Since my quotient of recently released movies has dropped off drastically post-progeny, here are five movies from 2007 that I especially enjoyed. Yes, that’s how far behind I am. But who’s complaining?


(Check back here on January 1, 2010 for my favorite films of 2008!!)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Domink, 2007)
Full disclosure: I was put off by the title and avoided this for a while. But once the film began, I was in. Dominik is going for something poetic and the beautiful images cause a number of people to make comparisons to Malick. I call all such comments bunk. Rather, it seems that the film stumbles in its narration, which was too intrusive, too focused on spelling out feelings and events, and in the process pulls the viewer away from the more visceral elements that have been built up by the visuals and the editing. That said, I really did like it. The film admirably plays with the notion of tragedy, prodding us to examine our own reactions to the events of James’ life, and Ford’s place in it.


Away From Her (Polley, 2007)
I’ve liked Sarah Polley for some time—yes, I’m thinking of you, The Sweet Hereafter—even as she starred in movies that didn’t always utilize her gifts as an actress—yes, I’m thinking of you, Go. But even as a fan, I was blown away by the confidence and sensitivity in her feature film debut about an aging couple dealing with the wife’s Alzheimer’s disease. While the performances shine, it’s the writing and directing I found so invigorating—a willingness to avoid spelling out every little feeling, to have characters say just enough and leave the rest to expression, tone, and the like. Plus, the camera seems to have a voice of its own, through expressive framing, mise en scène, and tracking shots.

I’m Not There (Haynes, 2007)
This Dylan biopic seemed to leave people in one of three camps: loved it, hated it, or confused by it. Consider me in the loved it category. Once I had heard six different actors were portraying Dylan, I gave up all expectations of narrative coherence, instead opting to sit back, enjoy the music, and let the film make its impressions where it would. It’s better, I think, to conceive of this film like a poem—connections between scenes remain opaque, while the vision of Dylan becomes less a historical narrative and more like a piece of music, suggesting emotions and ideas but refusing to put them together into a simple or straightforward narrative.

Lars and the Real Girl (Gillespie, 2007)
The one that most moved me among these “new” films, Lars takes a ridiculous idea for a plot and creates something surprisingly gentle and touching. Gosling’s sensitive portrayal of the withdrawn Lars certainly contributes to that, but I most appreciated the extended reflection on the goodness of his community, both at church and in the wider world. Even as it strained credulity in the closing scenes, I didn’t care, because Lars does something few films these days even attempt: it portrays goodness and offers a vision of what it might actually look like in the world, how it might soothe the pains of modern life and offer something akin to resurrection for those life seems to have passed by.

Manufactured Landscapes (Baichwal, 2007)
I was taken in immediately, during the nearly ten-minute opening tracking shot through that colossal Chinese factory. Based on the photography of Edward Burtynsky, the film examines the effects of manufacturing on the geography of our world. Instead of limestone caves and snow-capped peaks, Burtynsky shoots the gaping remains of iron quarries and mountains of discarded computer chips in Chinese villages, leaving us to think about not only what the endless consumption of products does to the land and sea, but also its impact on the hungry and poor around the world.

2007 in Review

2007 saw the onset of a new job, the purchase of our first home, the birth of our second child, and the completion of the first draft of a dissertation. Obstacles right and left, with nothing to do but appreciate the blessings and struggle through the results. Translation: 2007 offered its own difficulties and adjustments, but as such, ended up a year of significant growth personally. When it came to the movies though, the increasing limitations cramped my opportunities for viewing more than ever before.

The limitations are apparent not only in my viewing schedule, but also in the films themselves: barriers erected, barriers redirecting, barriers transgressed, and barriers overcome. Such limitations can be both negative obstacles that inhibit freedom or prevent engagement, and positive opportunities for change, growth, protection, or victory. For me then, both personally and cinematically, 2007 is the year of the limitation.

True to form, listing my favorite films of 2007 requires an immediate subtraction from the traditional “top ten”: Having only actually seen ten new films, something of the exclusive or unique nature of such a traditional list would be lost if I just listed all ten. So I’ve limited myself to five, each of which illustrate or present limitations in their own way.

The Lives of Others pictures the limits imposed on East German society before the wall came down, and the power of art to cross traditional bounds regardless of walls and guards.

Zodiac recognizes the limits of technology through a retelling of the investigation surrounding the Zodiac killings in San Francisco three decades ago. While the film defies narrative expectations, it cleverly presents a supposedly “connected” world of people frustrated in their investigative efforts by their inability to communicate.

Killer of Sheep, made in 1977 but released for the first time this year, takes place in South Central Los Angeles, where people live lives that have largely been cordoned off from the popular imagination. Stan, struggling to get by and provide for his family, finds poverty at every turn. Even still, Burnett finds the beauty amid the difficulties.

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, Tsai Ming-liang’s latest, follows three solitary figures through the urban environs of Kuala Lampur, struggling to connect, but with little idea of how to do it. Tsai’s dialogue is more limited than ever, which only serves to enhance the barriers between these people.

Offside, easily my favorite theatrical viewing experience of the year, places several women inside the qualifying soccer match against Bahrain in the summer of 2005. However, because Iranian law doesn’t allow women to view such events, the film offers what turns out to be a slyly ironic take on the state of the country in the midst of Iran’s great victory.

With my decreasing ability to take in films during their theatrical release, my favorite discoveries of the year encapsulate my year in film more than anything. The greater variety offered through rentals means that the choices are more personal and more likely to connect with my own sensibilities. Like my favorite films of this year, each of these contains its own comment on limitations—financial, spiritual, or societal; limitations related to knowledge, addiction, health or gender.

Danielson: A Family Movie chronicles the history and life of the indie band(s) led by Daniel Smith, who creates unique and strangely engaging music, mostly on a shoestring budget out of the small studio space in his basement.

Requiem offers an unsettling portrait of demon possession or madness, depending on one’s perspective. Schmid’s use of subtlety in his portrayal of the affected teen and the simple ways in which common relationships are expressed make this film a refreshing antidote to what would no doubt be an overwrought melodrama in a US film.

Monsieur Verdoux is often noted as Chaplin’s first failure from a box office perspective. Thankfully box office numbers fade into oblivion sixty years on, and we are left to assess the film on its merits. Its scathing critique of modern society doesn’t let up once in its 124 minutes.

F for Fake finds Orson Welles in fine form, creating a masterful reflection on truth, certainty, value, and illusion. The editing here is worth the price of admission, as Welles uses it to great effect in destabilizing the viewers understanding of specific circumstances. What really happened and who was fooled? Well, I’d need to see it again to be sure (or not).

Flowers of Shanghai takes place in several brothels in late 19th century China. Hou’s shots linger on his subjects, rarely emphasizing an individual in the midst of others. Instead, we are left with the full scene unfolding before us, left to decide which characters and actions are worth noting. Hou trusts his audience—I love this kind of filmmaking.

Mouchette finds Bresson meditating on the trials of a young teenage girl who lacks love, companionship, and hope. Mouchette’s story is tragic, but the empathy Bresson creates for other human beings remains unmatched.

The House is Black is Forugh Farrokhzad’s poetic chronicle of a leper colony in Iran. Only twenty minutes long, the film remains deeply affecting throughout, as its diseased subjects eat, pray, and play, their humanity shining out through the disfigurement of their broken bodies.

Le Notti Bianche portrays a lonely young dreamer and several encounters he has with a mysterious, troubled, and attractive woman on a bridge. Based on a short story by Dostoevsky (White Nights), Visconti’s film possesses a dreamy quality that only serves to heighten the unreality of the world despite the vibrancy of the man’s encounters.

Half Nelson tells the story of a drug-addicted history teacher in an urban school. It deconstructs the myth of the liberal white savior while creating compelling drama around a budding relationship between the teacher and one of his students, a twelve year-old African-American girl.

Ten. Kiarostami’s film consists of ten dialogues on a variety of issues: sex, marriage, and parenting, to name a few. Yet while Kiarostami keeps our vision limited to a dashboard camera pointed at the front seat of a woman’s car, his film allows us to cross Middle Eastern societal boundaries and hear of life through the eyes of Iranian women and children. Brilliant. Hands down, the best film I’ve seen this year.

Other discoveries I enjoyed: Ace in the Hole (1951), Big Animal (2000), Crimson Gold (2003), Ivan’s Childhood (1962), Limelight (1952), A Moment of Innocence (1996), Shut Up & Sing (2006), Stranger than Fiction (2006), Volver (2006)

2006 Favorites (Older Films)

It’s time for that end of the year wrap-up, which for me, usually comes at some point in late January. So getting it done now, has me right on schedule, if not a little early. I’ve always skewed late (i.e. not December 31) on this, largely because there were always a few extra films I wanted to see whose release dates were crammed into the last week of December. Now that I’m a parent and theater time is even more limited, I skew late because there are a few extra films I want to see that are already out on DVD.

Having said that, I suspect any future write-ups of the year gone by are going to tilt even more to the personal side as the far majority of my viewing tends to be of older films. I simply have less opportunities (and interest) in the heavily marketed “event movies” or even much of the Oscar bait thrown out at the end of the year. I find as I grow older I am less interested in “discovering” some new film and more apt to read weekly reviews, festival summaries, and write ups like these at the end of the year for ideas on how to fill out my viewing list.

In that spirit, this year’s list will be the older films I’ve encountered for the first time, accompanied by a list of new films that came out in 2006. The former is much more difficult in that it includes a much longer starting list. The latter is difficult in being able to find 10 films worthy of listing. As always, my rankings are based on what I most want to see again, and I’ve avoided an unranked list mostly because I enjoy seeing where things end up in relation to one another.

1. Brief Encounter (1945, dir. David Lean)

Yeah, I know. I’m kind of surprised too. But it’s a romance about an adulterous couple, you say? Well yes, but this film had such a powerful effect on me that its place on this list is without much question. When I think back to it, the first thing that always comes to mind is the completely disarming performance by Celia Johnson as the compromised wife. There’s a fragile beauty in her eyes that leaves her at once attractive, helpless, and guilt-ridden. Yet, even as she delves further into her adulterous fantasy, one continues to find hope in her guilt, leading to a stunning conclusion that, frankly, left me gasping for breath. It sure doesn’t hurt a film’s chances either when the director liberally employs some of the most exquisite piano music ever scored – Rachmaninov’s 2d piano concerto.

2. The Man Who Planted Trees (1987, dir. Frédéric Back)

If I’m honest, this is really the only film in competition with Lean’s fine work. A short animated film, The Man Who Planted Trees is a simple fable told with such quiet grace and poetry that it almost sneaks up on you. I say almost, because in spite of its quiet way, it quickly becomes apparent this film offers a picture of a man we would all do well to emulate. The story is simple: it’s about a single man living in a desolate valley who spends his days planting seeds, and the progress of that valley over time. Beyond that, the animation itself contributes to the overall feel of the film, beginning with fewer colors, slowly expanding the palette as the scope of the film expands. There’s a lightness and airiness to the beautiful animation that offers a nice contrast to the ethical and spiritual weight offered in the story itself.

3. Trial of Joan of Arc (1962, dir. Robert Bresson)

This short (61 minutes) feature follows the famous saint in her final days. Bresson typically finds the transcendent through close observation of the physical and finite. The same is true here, as his close focus on Joan, and especially her hands and feet, offer insights into bondage and freedom, life and death, guilt and innocence. Further, while the explicit content of the trial was most often theological, Bresson is careful to highlight the political stakes that were often driving the theological conclusions.

4. Nights of Cabiria (1957, dir. Frederico Fellini)

The star of this film, Giulietta Masina, has been a revelation for me this year. So expressive, but with a hard edge, and yet can still bring out a sensitivity and fragility that is just about heartbreaking. I chose this over Fellini’s earlier La Strada first and foremost because of its pitch perfect ending, a final shot etched into my memory. Beyond that though, Cabiria, a prostitute in Rome who somehow does well enough to get by without often working, is at the edge of a transformative moment in her life. The way Fellini ties in the romantic, financial, and religious elements that bring her toward this moment is so effortless, but also filled with engaging commentary on these elements.

5. Camera Buff (1979, dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski)

Kieslowski’s fictional account of a corporate salesman’s turn toward filmmaking is remarkably personal, astute in its observations of obsession, the dynamics of married life, and the beauty of simple, realistic filmmaking. The always interesting Jerzy Stuhr plays Filip, a young husband and father of a newborn who, having bought an 8mm camera to film his young daughters life, begins to turn the camera on other subjects. As the gaze of the camera leaves his family, Filip’s eye follows, a fact abundantly clear to his wife, who is effectively silenced by all the praise Filip garners for his films made in and around his company. A fascinating look at the nature of the filmmaker, Camera Buff reveals where the truth lies in filmmaking.

6. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, dir. John Ford)

Ford’s gritty, dirty, and dark film that portrays the end of the old West, or at least the West as it moves on toward accommodating a more settled stage of life. Jimmy Stewart plays Ransom Stoddard, an old Senator who has returned to his roots in Shinbone for the funeral of his friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Most of the film occurs in flashback, as Stoddard tells of his early days there, back when the town was run by a common (and often bloody) code of justice rather than lawyers and judges. It is one part nostalgia, another part lament, while Ford’s direction, pacing, and framing offer a complex experience of loss and the clash between old and new.

7. My Life to Live (1962, dir. Jean-Luc Godard)

Godard’s film follows a young, urban woman through twelve scenes as she moves from aspiring actress to full-fledged prostitute. Maybe that sounds just plain depressing, but with Godard’s energetic direction and the wonderful Anna Karina as Nana it is never anything short of mesmerizing to watch. Nana’s liveliness, vivacity, and naïveté create a character that is endlessly watchable, both for the passion with which she lives her life, but also out of concern for her less than ideal choices. She is a human being in the fullest sense, a wonder to behold.

8. Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987, dir. Louis Malle)

A meditation on a childhood spent in war, Malle brings us into the world of an elite Catholic boarding school in the country, where Parisian parents have sent their children to wait out the German occupation of Paris. Julien, being smarter than the other boys and desperately homesick for his mother, is lonely and ends up becoming intrigued by the new boy, Jean, who just happens to be a Jewish refugee the priests are hiding, a secret to all the boys. Thus begins a journey of discovery for Julien, whose curiosity allows him to know Jean better than most, yet whose innocence keeps him from understanding the implications of Jean’s religious affiliation.

9. Best of Youth (2005, dir. Marco Tullio Giordana)

This is a six-hour miniseries made for Italian television that follows the development, suffering, and growth of a single contemporary Italian family – particularly two brothers who are close as young men but diverge in young adulthood and struggle to relate as they get older. In doing so, director Giordana deftly weaves in scenes depicting recent Italian history, making this a kind of historical document that adds a real groundedness to the proceedings. With its wide cast of characters, its mix of comic and dramatic elements, and an often lyrical presentation, it is always interesting to watch.

10. Badlands (1973, dir. Terrence Malick)

This is Malick’s first film, with a young Martin Sheen (Kit) and even younger Sissy Spacek (Holly) traveling across the South Dakota terrain. Malick’s trademark narration, elliptical editing, and visual poetry all make appearances in the finest form. While their young love begins with all the rapture of a honeymoon, things take a turn for the worse for the couple as Kit begins his murdering spree. Holly in her innocence tags along as they evade the police, yet the genius here is her narration, which creates an interesting dissonance between her thoughts and what we see before us.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): All About My Mother, Babe: Pig in the City, The Bad Sleep Well, Cache, Chungking Express, Elevator to the Gallows, The Fallen Idol, Grizzly Man, The Lady From Shanghai, Los Olvidados, Mr. Arkadian, Nashville, La Notte, Pickpocket, Raise the Red Lantern, Sherlock Jr., Shoot the Piano Player, A Short Film About Love, The Squid and the Whale, To Live, The Wages of Fear, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, The World