Devising an end-of-the-year top-ten list is one of the great pleasures of film criticism, although many established critics might disagree. I personally enjoy taking stock of what I saw and how it affected me. And I am always eager to see how my choices reflect or contrast with those of people I respect and admire. The list of my favorite films of the year is, as per usual, preceded by a number of films which I deem lesser, still interesting efforts, and my choice of honorable mentions.
Alemanya: An interesting entry in the corpus of intercultural mediation films. I am rather dissatisfied with the narrative progression of the film overall but it is an interesting look at how immigrants perceive the process of cultural assimilation.
J. Edgar: Clint Eastwood continues to refine his post-Dirty Harry legacy with this interesting look at the founding father of the FBI. Leonardo Di Caprio’s performance is stellar.
Shame: An art-house character study that fails to sufficiently probe the psychology of the central character. Shame’s graphic depiction of sexual addiction only partially covers up its lack of precision in characterization.
The Adventures of Tintin: Beautifully animated and directed with verve by Steven Spielberg, this Hergé adaptation fails to capture the spirit of the source material (except for the marvelous opening credit sequence which is, alas, not integrated into the style of the film) but boasts an incredible long-take action sequence and excellent displays of visual witticism.
Runners-up / Honorable Mentions
13 Assassins: Takashi Miike’s period piece about feudal Japan features the most extravagant bloodshed of the year, a towering piece of action filmmaking.
Bridesmaids: One of the funniest films of the year. Often unfairly compared to the similarly R-rated comedy sensation The Hangover (2009), Bridesmaids interweaves scatological humor, romance and quirky charm in a feminist narrative that sets itself apart from its chauvinistic raunchy action counterpart.
Contagion: Steven Soderbergh continues his exploration of genre with an unnerving body horror exercise.
Drei: Tom Tykwer’s treatise on sexuality is formally conservative, except for a gripping opening sequence which introduces the narrative’s central impulse in an elegant manner.
Fast Five: The fifth installment in the series constitutes a remediated video game, devoid of any moral implications, yet rife with excessively staged chaos sequences. Stupid fun, and a lot of it!
I Saw the Devil: An aggressive addendum to Park Chan Wook’s seminal South-Korean revenge trilogy, directed by genre extraordinaire Kim Jee-woon.
Meek’s Cutoff: Kelly Reichardt’s naturalist-feminist take on the male-dominated genre of the Western is a subtle paradigm of generic revisionism. And its pictorial long-take aesthetic is utterly refreshing.
Midnight in Paris: Woody Allen’s excursion into Paris’ history is a charming and witty tale about nostalgia. Beautifully acted and subtly realized, it never indulges its gimmick.
Pina: Wim Wenders pushes 3-D to its limits in this wonderfully choreographed, beautifully photographed dance documentary.
Rango: Gore Verbinski’s foray into animation is a solid entry in the Western genre. The director masterfully transposes the generic characteristics into the colorful texture of animated entertainment. And Rango displays an authenticity in its rendering of the Western landscape that is simply remarkable.
Weekend: A truly unique specimen; a film about a homosexual romance that is just a romance.
Super is as much a fantasy as any other mainstream comic-book movie. But it is still different, and refreshingly so, as it works to provide a radical counter-perspective to a burgeoning key mainstream genre. I appreciate, most of all, that writer-director James Gunn pulls no punches. Super’s satirical impulse to subvert the generic conventions of the superhero film is taken to its extremes. While Matthew Vaughn’s Kick Ass (2010) essentially appropriated the mythology as a vehicle for outré action, abandoning its perfunctory critique for an ironic self-referentiality that embraced, rather than upended, the genre, Super unapologetically tears it to pieces, offering a number of shocks that provoke both laughter and consternation. The sheer overkill of violence and sex is, however, not exclusively in service of generic deconstruction. Super is, at its core, a character study, exploring issues of depression, masculinity and fandom. It is, by no means, a profound mediation, but it is a thought-provoking piece that should not be devalued for its graphic excess.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is the best action film of the year. The series is frequently erroneously subsumed under the rubric of espionage thriller. But in my estimation, the elaborate technology the films put on display is merely a vehicle for extravagant action sequences. And action is, in its essence, a forum for experiments in motion. Seriousness is not its primary concern. If anything, it derives its respectability from a believable demonstration of utter ridiculousness. Brad Bird, a veteran director of excellent animated features, understands the concept of action. And, as a result, his entry is by far the most accomplished in the MI series for it dispenses with the false veneer of seriousness the other films maintained, instead embracing, unapologetically, the high art of indulging in preposterous action choreography that is, for this very reason, engrossing and captivating. Bird basically conceptualizes the film as a slapstick exercise. In other words, he places emphasis on movement. And, by extension, he lays a foundation for a display of cinematic technique. The action sequences, to a large extent, are silent vignettes, amped up with piercing sound effects. Information is frequently conveyed visually, by virtue of astute point-of-view and establishing shots. The skyscraper sequence makes full use of the widescreen framing, evoking a sense of real danger, entirely absent from the previous films (except for J.J. Abrams’ effort, to a lesser degree, nonetheless). The highlight of the film is the sandstorm chase which, I argue, offers one of the most judicious uses of chaos cinema. Not only does it employ chaos technique; it extends the effect to the setting itself. Brad Bird has proven, quite admirably, that, in the genre of the live-action action film, he is a force to be reckoned with.
The Artist is indubitably the overhyped film of the year. As a result, it has been unfairly maligned as a superficial stylistic exercise, a vapid ode to silent film, mired in nostalgia and sentimentality, devoid of any deeper substance. Rest assured, the film does not offer any notable psychological complexity. And it is informed by earlier, arguably more accomplished films, particularly Singin’ in the Rain (1952). But it is more than just a pastiche. Its charm does not exclusively reside in its quirky appropriation (and inversion) of silent film tropes – although this is certainly one of its strong points. I like the film for its beautiful portrayal of human interaction. Its structure is organized around looks, looking at another person, being looked at by this person, and being looked at by a surrounding audience in Hollywood (in which we, as movie-goers, are included). For all its sugary exterior, The Artist has moments of deep reflection that are primarily concerned with movement, gestures, mimics, smiles, frowns. The silent film as the central point of reference is not a gimmick. It forms the heart of the film. And it is not afraid to show it; and neither am I to embrace it.
The Dardennes have crafted one of the most emotionally dense films of the year with this story about a quasi-familial relationship between a disturbed youth and a caring woman. The directors’ respectful and restrained observation of the two’s developing trust and understanding is an exceptional demonstration of humanism. The characters, settings and situations in their films feel real. Authenticity is their key signature. The greatest accomplishment of the film, however, is its casual documentary eye which carefully observes the social malaise of urban France, without ever subjecting it to sensationalism, as so many lesser works do. The duo’s consistently mobile camera is not only a metaphor for the title character’s coming-of-age; it is primarily a reflection of the social structure that he inhabits.
In Lars von Trier’s dystopian worldview, the end of the world is a beautiful, transcendental experience that puts life in perspective. Melancholia proffers a gripping exploration of the human psyche. I am aware that this is a rather obscure characterization of the film but it is definitely accurate. The characters take divergent positions towards the possibility of the apocalypse, denial, fear, glee. Von Trier’s impressionistic aesthetic provides an ironic counterpoint to the depths of human misery his narrative plumbs. And the film is one of the rare occasions where he explicitly entertains the notion of compassion and empathy. The director’s latest boasts great emotional power, devoid of any exploitative undercurrents.
Martin Scorsese’s film is particularly notable for its elaborate synthesis of cinema’s historical poles, integrating the wonders of modern stereoscopic technology into a nostalgic narrative about the origins of the art form. And it serves as a vehicle for the director’s personal commitment to the medium, offering a heartfelt and sentimental manifesto for film preservation. Furthermore Hugo‘s texture emphasizes the versatility of cinematic storytelling, interweaving brief silent vignettes with literary adventure and flash-back sequences. Scorsese’s retrospective of the past has contributed immensely to cinema’s future.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s first English-language feature openly telegraphs its postmodern texture. Drive is an explosion of stylistic references, a cinephiliac kaleidoscope. But Drive transcends the status of pastiche, creating its own tone and atmosphere, which masterfully blends fairytale romanticism with exploitation brutality. Drive’s narrative is concerned with rendering Los Angeles in all its eerie beauty, establishing it as a place of lost souls, a space in which redemption and sacrifice assume mythological proportions. The film is, at times, sentimental but it never devolves into kitsch, maintaining a rough action veneer which renders the occasional moments of human interaction deeply affecting. Winding Refn displays an unforeseen sympathy for romance and pathos. But he equally refines his signature style, particularly his aggressive use of sound design, delivering some of the most haunting action scenes of the year.
Carnage is by all accounts a simple film. It has one (technically two) locations, four (actually six) principal characters, and a straightforward (arguably quite complex) aesthetic. Alas, the designation as simple is only all too frequently confused with the much more negative term simplistic. Roman Polanski’s adaptation of the Yasmina Reza play God of Carnage is not at all a simplistic film. In its committed focus on human depravity, it actually manages to maintain an argument that is quite complex, situating itself in a discourse, dictated by such seminal artists as Albert Camus, Eugene Ionesco and Jean-Paul Sartre. The latter’s own work, Huis Clos, a play published in 1944, serves as an interesting companion piece. Sartre’s notion of la mauvaise foi, man’s tendency to construct a false veneer in the public eye to minimize his own responsibility, is consistently on display in Polanski’s biting satire of bourgeois urban life. His camera alternates between revealing and masking angles, reflecting, moment-by-moment, the characters’ mental states, which are, undoubtedly, quite mercurial. Some deny the existence of the god of carnage; others embrace it, overindulge in it. A definite conclusion is not provided, as the brief exterior epilogue ironicizes quite overtly. Carnage is by no means to be regarded as a modern retelling of Sartre’s critique of fascism. But it makes us think about appearance and behavior, and, most importantly, self-responsibility. And, it does so, with humor. Intelligent design and masterful acting produce an excellent, multi-faceted chamber piece.
David Fincher’s adaptation of the popular Stieg Larsson novel, equally a remake of the eponymous 2009 Swedish TV movie, is an excellent addition to the director’s ever-expanding auteurist canon. The grisly story has Fincher return to the pathological subject matter of Se7en (1995), while the claustrophobic interior framings, along with the harsh low-contrast lighting, hark back to his genuine genre exercise Panic Room (2002). References to The Social Network (2010) are evident in the film’s variations on the classical shot/reverse shot pattern and the propulsive score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, with the emphasis on marginalized characters providing a further thematic parallel. The central reference point is his 2007 masterpiece Zodiac, specifically its focus on analogue research methodology, which in this recent effort, is situated in the digital era. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s most intriguing attribute correspondingly remains its effortless alteration between past and present, history and its exploration. Fincher’s employment of light and color, in accordance with symmetrical compositions, evokes a dense, eerie atmosphere that elevates the pulpy material to an unexpected formal complexity that renders it an extraordinary display of genre cinema.
The Tree of Life is Terrence Malick’s magnum opus. Still, it may not be his best film. Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005) display a clearer focus. They are more pointed because they reveal an explicit vision. The Tree of Life, by contrast, constitutes a fly-on-the-wall exercise, a total experiment in film form. It is an extravagant work, mercurial and opaque in its texture, seemingly simplistic in its focus on personal memory and trauma. But to me, it is still primarily an inspiring work, full of artistic bravado and creative brio. And it moves me. It moves me deeply. There are shots and sequences that seem to have no overarching purpose or narrative grounding. Yet, they are, in themselves, so impeccably composed and emotionally dense, that I cannot help but embrace them. I see The Tree of Life as the attempt to visualize the troubled mind of a character and his efforts to come to terms with the life he has lived so far. And, for some reason, I see myself in it. There are films that make me appreciate cinema. And they are wonderful. But Malick’s film makes me appreciate life.