I rejigged my movie-watching quite a bit this year, spending much more time on discovering or revisiting the masterpieces of past decades and less on chasing the new and usually transient wonders. I doubt then that I covered this year thoroughly enough to be able to comment on what the ten best releases might have been. But here (in alphabetical order) are ten I enjoyed watching a lot. See you in 2011!
Carlos (Olivier Assayas)
Over nearly six hours, the film fluidly summarizes the famous terrorist’s career, entailing a dazzling variety of characters, incidents, locations and shifts of mood and pacing. Assayas is completely in control throughout, although perhaps inevitably has less room here for the mind-bending leaps of insight or structure that make his work so thrilling overall. And at a time of increasingly quasi-revolutionary “take back America” talk, if he doesn’t exactly romanticize Carlos’ heyday, he makes it easy for us to.
Hereafter (Clint Eastwood)
Another year, another Eastwood film. This time it’s a tale of the supernatural – three ultimately inter-connected stories asking (very gently) what happens after we die and what does that mean to those of us who are still here. By its nature, it suggests there is indeed something out there, but otherwise it’s just about as reserved on the matter as a movie could be. Maybe I’m marking this one easily because of Clint, but the film seemed to me an intriguing addition to the expanding Eastwood landscape: illustrating his apparent guiding philosophy of getting close enough and moving on, not just in how to make a movie, but as a way of coping with the existential questions that tie many of us up in knots.
The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko)
The everyday story of how a basically well-functioning family – two women and their two kids - responds to the reemergence of the long-ago sperm donor. Given Cholodenko’s previous work, the film initially surprises by how apolitical it is, which later impresses you as perhaps the most effective political statement she could possibly make. It’s very skillful (quite bravely cruel in how it ultimately treats the interloper), and a consistent pleasure; Annette Bening and Julianne Moore make a compelling and often very funny pairing.
Lebanon (Samuel Maoz)
Although the film is set in Lebanon (in 1982), as far as its participants are concerned it could be anywhere: they’re an Israeli tank crew, and except for the first and last shot, the entire film takes place in the tank’s interior. It partly plays as an exercise in intense, distilled realism, but the overall effect for me was closer to a cinematic concept piece like Paranormal Activity. When I wrote about here I called it engrossing but also complained “it doesn’t prompt any particular thoughts about Israel, or combat, or cinema, which I didn’t have before.” But since I now find it growing enough in my memory to push its way onto this list, maybe it didn’t need to.
The Messenger (Oren Moverman)
A young sergeant, injured in an explosion and now back home, is assigned to casualty notification, accompanying an older captain who informs the next of kin about fatalities. The task, like everything else about the army, comes wrapped in meticulous protocol, some of which contradicts the sergeant’s natural empathy. This very finely crafted film sensitively explores the distorted contours of the military and how the men strain to anchor themselves within it.
Please Give (Nicole Holofcener)
The title points to the film’s key preoccupation, the hopeless intermingling of self-indulgence and altruism. The set-up – built around a middle-aged couple who make a good living by scooping up furniture bargains from families of the recently deceased - allows for almost boundless productive interaction, and it’s amazing how much Holofcener packs into a mere hour and a half. Her creative personality is in many ways overly conventional, but compared to the pure drivel of most commentary on modern-day lifestyles, the film is the proverbial breath of fresh air.
Un prophete (Jacques Audiard)
This is a strong, muscular narrative about a young Moslem prisoner rising within the inmate hierarchy while also making himself a player on the outside. Its greatest impact comes from its implications for a Europe in which the old guard’s power becomes increasingly hollow and formal, a vestige of past glories unsuited to the complexities of the new economy. It’s full of strange and disconcerting moments, reminding us of the deadening precision of the conventional “well-made” film; the violence, although sporadic, is extremely intimate.
The Social Network (David Fincher)
The deservedly acclaimed movie about the birth of Facebook, built around a gorgeously complex portrayal of its founder Mark Zuckerberg, is full of terrific ironies and ambiguities. It thrillingly captures the myth of the new economy, where as someone says “inventing a job is better than finding a job,” but although it’s just about as contemporary as a serious-minded picture could be, it feels somehow elegiac, even nostalgic. At first glance it’s an odd departure for Fincher, but it’s only that the threat to order here is more subtle than the serial killers and aliens of his previous work; he’s brilliantly in tune with the material.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Perhaps my overall favourite from all of these, and one of the most deserving Cannes prizewinners in a long time; it belongs to the privileged circle of cinema that extends and deepens the conversation about why some of us care so much about the art in the first place. Boonmee is dying of kidney disease, and his long-dead wife’s sister and her son come to see him on his farm, followed by other visitations - the generalized notion is that Boonmee’s weakening grasp on this world is stirring up the next. With exceptional grace, it suggests the poverty of our usual rushed or circumscribed perception of things, but Apichatpong’s concerns aren’t merely ethereal either; as Boonmee nears his end, the film makes a startling change of direction, into a photomontage suggesting (to me anyway) the extreme danger that man would only abuse any greater access to the spirit world.
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)
This is a gripping drama, and even if it’s less accurate as anthropology than it seems, it’s still an eye-opener. 17-year-old Ree Dolly, living in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains, searches for her vanished drug-dealer father: it’s not exactly an amateur detective story – it’s not that his whereabouts are inherently mysterious, just that people won’t tell her. The movie is most fascinating simply when following Ree around the neighborhood – a topography of wrecked cars, piled-up tires and general drabness (it’s possible Granik overstates the community’s isolation – this is one of the few present-day movies lacking any signs of telephones, the Internet, video games, or even television). It’s an eye-opener into why Washington and the things that consume the national conversation would seem so alien to so many.