I always like to say, first of all, that there's no such thing as a bad year for film, and I mean it. I saw 150 new-release films last year; there were a lot of bad ones, but when I started to assemble this list, I was once again struck by just how many were really quite good. This was a year in which many a director really went all-out, aimed for something truly grand, and hit varying degrees of success along the way. That there were people willing to finance and/or distribute films like Twixt, Passion, The Canyons, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Bling Ring, Spring Breakers, Stoker, The Act of Killing, A Touch of Sin, Blancanieves, Beyond the Hills, and Leviathan is nothing short of astounding, even if none of them made the list below. Add to that Upstream Color, which its filmmaker distributed himself, and more perhaps normative, but still exceptional, films like Frances Ha, Nobody's Daughter Haewon, The Place Beyond the Pines, White House Down, Furious 6, Captain Phillips, About Time, and Before Midnight, and it's hard to really complain at all. That said, in all fairness, I should note that my pick for the year's best film, one I find absolutely wonderful, singular, vital, and so deeply moving, would have only barely cracked my top five in 2011. That isn't to diminish this year's achievements - as you can already gather, they were considerable - just to place it all in context.
And so, onward we go.
You know, I’m not big on the idea that the best movies are the ones you want to pop in on a rainy day and watch over and over again, but I certainly understand the mindset, and do think there’s quite a lot of merit to those films that spark such interest and passion. And so we have Star Trek Into Darkness, a film I was amazed to love so much (I am not a big Trek guy, but have an operational understanding of, and occasional appreciation for, its most popular incarnations) that I saw three times in theaters and now own, very happily, on Blu-ray. J.J. Abrams has built, as he did with Mission: Impossible III, a freaking machine, moving briskly from conflict to conflict, doing away with all the squabbling that made the first film so relentlessly dull and sticking us instead with a group of people who are very good at what they do, genuinely respect and like one another, but have different ideas on how their collective job should be done. The aesthetics of the conversations - the vocal patterns, physical stances, quickly-dispelled dialogue - are as rousing as they are reliable (never mind more traditional aesthetic pleasures - Dan Mindel’s genuinely anamorphic, boldly-lit celluloid images are breathtaking). That it also has the two best action set pieces (the ship-to-ship space jump and the Enterprise falling) I’ve seen all summer, and probably in many years, is no small bonus.
There is the matter of the plot, which is, it must be said, kind of a chore, but even as it simply, repeatedly rips off the beats and often direct actions of an earlier beloved entry in the Star Trek franchise, doing so actually has the (probably accidental) effect of justifying the absurd decision they made in the last film to make this universe a parallel timeline to that which we are most accustomed. By regurgitating so much of The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek Into Darkness suggests that all of this was fated to happen in various configurations, and there’s only so much one can do to change the course of history, which, for a reboot said to be dreadfully low on such things, is a pretty Trekkian concern. (Available on DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube, and Redbox Instant)
This is not a film about slavery. Granted, it takes the system as its subject, but what makes the film so powerful is the way in which director Steve McQueen and writer John Ridley use it as a means of exploring the very idea of institutional evil, the way it can develop and, more damningly, the way it can flourish. They take for granted that you know that slavery was a bad thing, that the people who profited from it were bad people, and then show the kind of delusion required for someone to convince themselves that they are in the right. For some it’s religion, others the law, others a sense of power, and many simply the supposed morality of the free market - it’s good because it works. Those are themes not at all bound only to 19th century America. They then go a step further and show the complicity required not only of the profiteers, but of all of us, in order for such an evil system to thrive; no, this is not only a story of one man’s suffering, but how we all, constantly, every day, then and now, tacitly allow these things to happen for any number of reasons. Maybe because the problems seem too vast, or too entrenched. We’ve grown up with them, so they must be a fact of existence. Maybe we have turned away from them so much that they hardly seem like problems at all. Maybe the punishment for opposing it would be too great. Or maybe we simply avoid them for fear that the total acknowledgement of how much suffering results from the systems that bring us life’s most essential ingredients - food, clothing, shelter - seems almost too much to bear, or even comprehend, and we cope with them for our basic sanity.
That’s what 12 Years a Slave is about - being forced to look at something so bizarre and inhuman and awful from which we, as so many characters (including its protagonist - the flashback to him in the shop isn't there merely to establish the shopkeeper) do throughout the film, so often turn away. (Currently in theaters)
As films about the desire to uncover something horrible buried in oneself goes, I understand why many value Shane Carruth’s spectacular Upstream Color more, but for me, Danny Boyle’s truly nasty, lurid thriller resonates much more palpably, in no small part for refocusing that horror as a true part of the protagonist, and not something foisted upon him. Simon (James McAvoy) is an art auctioneer who teamed with a gang of thieves, lead by Vincent Cassel’s Franck, to steal an incredibly valuable painting; when a whack on the head renders Simon unable to recall where he stashed the damn thing, he goes to a hypnotist (played, hauntingly, by Rosario Dawson) to try to recover the memory, and thus the painting. And that’s just the surface of how truly ludicrous and silly the plot is. As one might guess from my set-up, however, she and Simon uncover a great deal more than that, about each other and about a very real, honest desire we all have to forget our worst traits and actions, and the horror that comes about in being forced to face them. Boyle layers the film with the ache of memory, familiarity, sub- or unconscious passion, with so many frames (Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is extraordinary) echoing elements palpable and yet unnameable. (Available on DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube)
7. Museum Hours
My high school drama teacher used to say that there were really only basically two stories - boy meets girl, and new guy comes to town. I don't agree, but it’s still interesting to consider just how many stories more or less fall into these two fields. Museum Hours has both, but not with the usual connotations. Johann (Bobby Sommer), a security guard at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, befriends Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), a visiting Canadian, but they’re hardly on the path to romance. Moreover, she’s not in town on pleasure or to escape her sordid past or whatever; she was the only family member available to visit her cousin, whose illness has sent her into a coma, and they were never terribly close. Jem Cohen crafts an air of melancholy, yes, and the emotional effect of the film is considerable, but it’s the way he interweaves very personal conflict and intimate relationships with the museum’s art that really makes this an exceptional work. By showing so much of the painting so prominently and intercutting it with Johann and Anne’s trips around the city, along with a museum guide or two along the way to explicate the innumerable approaches and interpretations of the original art, we begin to pick up on the connections this art, hundreds of years old, has to our contemporary lives, and how little separation there is not only between classical art and our everyday experiences, but by extension, our lives and those who lived hundreds of years ago. We are all part of the same continuum; their art expresses something of us as much as it did theirs. It may not be a gigantic revelation to those who think about artistic expression on a regular basis, but Cohen has found a very emotional, personal way to express it that lifts the supposition out of its academic nature and into the streets, as it were; to our economic hardships, our losses, our joy, our momentary elation and our everlasting satisfaction and despair. (Available on DVD, Blu-ray, iTunes, and Vudu)
6. To the Wonder
6. To the Wonder
Describing this as a “minor” film by Terrence Malick is both informative and revelatory, in that it is not perhaps as fully-formed an idea or piece as his previous films, and yet is so staggering and wholly felt that it just goes to show how gifted an artist he truly is. Forty years after his debut film, Malick has found a team of collaborators that allows him to use the cinema as another type of artist might sketch, expressing the urgency of certain feelings that would be stifled under further refinement. His familiar traits are present as always, bringing out the beauty and grace in the most everyday and ordinary (a laundromat, a drive-thru), never mind those things theoretically earthbound but quite actually fantastical (the breathtaking Mont Saint-Michel). But he hasn’t dwelled with such specificity on this film’s inner themes, of the way people pull intensely together only to almost unconsciously drift apart, since 1978’s Days of Heaven, but whereas that broken relationship came from poverty and greed, this comes merely from incompatibility and an inner, unquenchable desire and yearning. Malick directs his cast not to any sense of realism, but to using their bodies as means of expression, so that every element is truly felt rather than said. (Available on DVD, Blu-ray, Netflix Instant, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube, and Amazon Instant)
If there are two cinematic mainstays from which I have come to expect very little in this day and age, it’s the romantic comedy and the mid-level, character-based, quasi-indie “dramedy.” That Nicole Holofcener could combine the two and create something so potent as this seems nothing shy of a miracle. Or at least a massive creative accomplishment. Taking a premise as built for screwball as any - middle-aged divorcee (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), finds out that the man she’s dating (James Gandolfini) is actually the ex-husband about whom her new close friend (Catherine Keener) has been complaining for weeks on end - and downplaying it at every turn, Holofcener has built a film that speaks to the way we protect ourselves in romantic endeavors, all within the form of a frequently hilarious, densely-but-not-suffocatingly-structured 90-minute comedy. Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini are in peak form, doing all the complex work that it takes to just play regular people, with all their foibles and faults, none of which diminish their humanity, or, if you like, “likability,” but rather enhance it tenfold. It’s been years since a film carried itself so well by just giving us two characters worth caring about. And getting quite a few laughs along the way, at that. Louis-Dreyfus’s expression of confused disgust at herself when she says “Yeah, I got real boobs” on their first date will forever make me laugh. (Available on Amazon Instant, iTunes, Google Play, and Vudu; on DVD and Blu-ray January 13th)
One small apartment. A seemingly-ever-expanding family gathering for a meal. A number of small machines on the fritz. And a cat perhaps not as odd or diminutive as the title would suggest. Ramon Zürcher’s debut film combines all of these, with healthy doses of Jacques Tati, Robert Bresson, and Alain Resnais for good measure, yet emerges the most singular and undefinable cinematic experience experience I’ve had all year, one so enrapturing I restarted it the moment the credits had finished (its 65-minute running time was certainly complicit in this instinct). I can guess at its themes, if it has any, but I’d rather not. I’d rather just mention that nothing else this year provided such sheer delight. Zürcher, by dispensing with any requirement to reveal even the barest of plot concerns, uses every minute for invention, for controlled bits of chaos, for quiet observation and the surprising abnormality of everyday life. (Currently without distribution)
Michael Bay has made several very good films in the past. This is his first masterpiece, the kind that makes even his fans reexamine those that came before, and his talents altogether. Following three bodybuilders (Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie, and Dwayne Johnson) who hatch a scheme to steal everything from one rich asshole (Tony Shalhoub), Pain & Gain so thoroughly eviscerates the commercialized portrait of the American Dream that it’s a wonder there was anything left of it for a half-dozen other films to tackle this year. The bodybuilders aren’t just looking to become successful - they want the fame, the glory, the women, the drugs, the boats, the LIFE. And they want it now. And Bay gives it to them on their terms, framing them the way they see their lives, on the edge of desert cliffs, against American flags and churches and neon lights, more than a little complicit in their sociopathy. Where Martin Scorsese couldn’t help but judge his Wolf of Wall Street protagonists, Bay is just enough a degenerate director to completely soak you in the psyches of his, leaving you questioning your own complicity in even viewing the damn thing. But by contrasting that with their actual behavior and complete stupidity, he more forcefully undermines his entire aesthetic than ever before. The result isn’t just ideologically invigorating, but wildly entertaining and by far the funniest I’ve seen all year. Wahlberg hasn’t been this good since Boogie Nights, completely unafraid to warp his natural earnestness into total moral corruption, but somehow, Dwayne Johnson still steals the show as a drug-addict-turned-evangelical-Christian-turned-drug-addict who’s never able to totally square the warring factions of his own psyche, even when they seem to be quite clear. I could not have possibly loved this film more. (Available on DVD, Blu-ray, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, and Redbox Instant)
Joel and Ethan Coen have made so many great films that each new one causes me to wonder if they’ve ever done anything better, and so it is with Inside Llewyn Davis. It feels like their best, but that can’t possibly be true...or can it? Ah, well, it’s a good problem to have. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer in New York in 1961. He plays gigs, sleeps on friends' couches, accidentally impregnates women, insults damn near everyone sooner or later, and lives by intense principles to guard his ability to continue to play other people’s songs independently. We can mourn Llewyn’s difficulty in making a living, but one must ask oneself, what, really, does he have to contribute? Among its many other noteworthy points, the last scene cleverly suggests that it is not simple exposure he lacks, but inability to stand out from a flock of others doing the same thing just as well. Yet he remains a deeply sympathetic character, an outlet for so many of our worst impulses, and as potent a figure in mourning as the cinema has ever seen. The Coens and Isaac craft dozens of small moments that belie years of struggle and hardship; the film takes place over a single week, but seems to encapsulate a year. Who would have the best attitude after all that?
Isaac, so good in so many unremarkable films over the past few years, gives the best male performance of the year, deeply in tune with precisely what film he is in and how he can contribute, able to convey depths of regret, uncertainty, and misplaced aggression with the line reading of a single word. His relationships with the few characters given more than one scene seem to constantly deepen; what stands out first as contemptuousness later feels more like jealousy, then like compassion, then like mutual understanding of respectful differences. Llewyn, like the Coens, looks at first glance like a guy who snobbishly insists that he has it all figured out; the closer you get, the more you see the doubt, the fear, the longing, and the despair. (Currently in theaters)
Like Francis Ford Coppola (whose beautiful Twixt finally came to Blu-ray this year), Alain Resnais is making old man films with a young man’s vitality. Perhaps that has contributed to neither being terribly fashionable anymore, and I guess I just have to square whatever that says about me with the fact that I adore the work both have done in recent years, most of all this new wondrous film by its 91-year-old auteur. Such a promise as the one contained in its title would be tantalizing from anyone; from Resnais, who has given us such singular and undefinable experiences as Last Year at Marienbad, Mon oncle d’Amerique, Je t’aime je t’aime, Providence, and Wild Grass, it seems downright impossible. And yet, I do believe it to be true. In it, a group of actors, all playing themselves (they include Sabine Azema, Mathieu Almaric, Pierre Arditi, Anne Consigny, Lambert Wilson, and Michel Piccoli), assemble to watch a recording of a new production of the play Eurydice, in which they all starred many years ago in various incarnations. As they view the film (which was made separately from the production of YASNY, and directed by Bruno Podalydès), they begin to casually recite their lines along with the actors, before finally standing up and gradually performing the play themselves, sometimes interacting directly with the film they are viewing, with Resnais infusing CGI backgrounds to fill the imagined space of a black box theater.
So the film is at once a straight adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s play, and an expression of longing for one’s youth, giving these older actors a chance to dig into emotions they’ve perhaps long left behind. Azema in particular is extraordinary, and those who have seen the work she did with Resnais in the 1980s will certainly find much to celebrate; those who have not will doubtlessly seek it out. Anouilh used the legend of Orpheus as a jumping-off point to explore the intense selfishness of young romance, and there’s something about Eurydice that seems almost unhinged in how totally committed she becomes to Orpheus, especially given the past she gradually reveals, and Azema plays right into Eurydice’s wild-eyed amazement at the tiny joys and unacknowledged tragedies that we quietly accept every day. As the title indicates, Resnais has a playful streak within him, but never at the expense of the drama, either inherent to the play or the extratextual themes he’s exploring, making for a tragic melodrama that’s a lot more fun to watch than one might expect. Approaching his 70th year of filmmaking, Resnais continues to find new ways to reinvent his chosen medium, and I couldn’t be happier to be here experiencing it. (Available on DVD, Netflix, iTunes, Google Play, and YouTube)