This was an interesting year. Through some quirks of distribution, I was not able to see Petzold’s Barbara, which is the film I was looking forward to the most. I also didn’t get a chance to see Tabu or This is Not a Film. From what I gather, all three of these are challenging films that fit neatly in my critical groove. I look forward to talking about these as I get a chance to see them. I hope that we can see better distribution from US/Canada side buyers of such films in the future. At this point, I would settle for names like Film Movement or Music Box or IFC picking up these kinds of annual conversation pieces. It is time to better support distributors that can actually make films available within a reasonable distance from the festival cycle.
So, there is my angst out of the way. On to some arresting moments.
1. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
I already wrote a bunch about why this is Anderson’s great film to date. The beach scene is that which directors like Ramsay, Truffaut, and Roeg tried to catch. Anderson got it, and it is a sheer wonder to behold.
2. Turin Horse (Bela Tarr)
Upon the film looms the “Nietzschean shadow.” The literary history of this film is the stuff of grad school melancholy, but in a good way. We now know what happens to the existential horse – Tarr’s films locked into a particular sense of dread that has a brutal redemptive scope. This film is an awful, heavy, eschatological psalm. (The Christian eschatology contains a brutal narrative. Tarkovsky got this, Tarr rubs it in. If you are looking for a grad school thesis topic this direction, take Hauerwas or Augustine in one hand and Tarr in the other. Routledge would publish that in a heartbeat. Tarr: “The apocalypse is a huge event. But reality is not like that. In my film, the end of the world is very silent, very weak. So the end of the world comes as I see it coming in real life – slowly and quietly. Death is always the most terrible scene, and when you watch someone dying – an animal or a human – it’s always terrible, and the most terrible thing is that it looks like nothing happened.”)
3. Once Upon A Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
My yet unpublished notes on this film are about horizonless landscapes, apples tumbling into metaphors for EU backwaters, and well… death. Mike Hertenstein had his say on this. I know not of a better review. The flat nocturnal geometry of the first half of this film is a technical marvel. In one notable shot the camera pans up and across a wall of grass in the distance. As the pan reaches its apex, the lights of a distance town slip into the frame from the right. Ceylan’s poetry is a gift in an age characterized by the broad anxieties he captures in his films.
4. The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev)
Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet was so provocative that it generated a review which included a previously untold tragi-comic story about my wife and I. Apart from the few moments that contain the actual narrative, the film is a naturalist success.
5. The Kid With a Bike (Dardennes)
There is a great failure in this film to articulate the reason why a certain lady decides to take on the internal conflicts of a forgotten boy. That failure is a formal approximation of: grace. I appreciate the way the Dardenne brothers wreck cinema to preserve these perfect, transformative stories. I could write an essay on the redemptive implications of the ripples of Cecile de France’s bicep.
6. Looper (Rian Johnson)
When was the last time you saw a really, really good sci-fi film? It has been awhile. Joe pegging the pavement with his shotgun is Harry Harrison epic. The last shot is Bradbury territory. Someone needs to hand Johnson an Ubik script.
7. Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
If I had more time I would post youtube snips of Denis Lavant dancing. Okay, settle for an interview:
This was by far my favorite writing experience of this year. I finally got to digress on Lavant. I have a list of top five people to have a beer with. Lavant is firm at three after Bob Dylan and David Dark.
8. Let The Bullets Fly (Wen Jiang)
This really should be higher, and I predict that despite its totally dismaying effect – this is the film against which all Chinese cinema of the next decade will be measured. It is funny, complicated, disastrous, and winsome at the same time. I haven’t talked to anyone that has made it through this film in the first shot – but it makes Tarantino look like a schlub. This is a far cry from standards like Yellow Earth or Raise the Red Lantern in the sense that it doesn’t shy away from the “indigestible whiplashing change in Chinese politics and society.”
9. Haywire (Steven Soderbergh)
I have long suspected that if actually accomplished, pure action cinema would look a lot like pure cinema. Haywire comes awful close to proving the hypothesis.
10. Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier)
I failed to publish my review of this film in a timely way because it hit too close to home. This is one of the best films about the horror of addiction I have seen. It doesn’t have the pizzazz of Aronofksy’s extended heroin paean or the noir verve of Leaving Las Vegas or the drama of Flight. It does understand addiction narratives as locked room mysteries – troubling stories whose clues only really make sense when seen in reverse. Let this film inform your responses to those people in your life that befuddle you with a penchant for self destruction.
Note: I initially had two films on this list that I thought had passed the “one week theatrical release in NY standard” most use to compile these lists. The following two did not:
Walker (Tsai Ming-Liang)
A Buddhist monk walking in slow motion against Gursky backgrounds and Mondrian geometric wonders. I will never not show this to a religious studies class, as it is Buddha via McLuhan. It is easy to extract a number of lessons about the pace of modern life from this little film, but its mute witness is a formal masterpiece that could hang in the finest of galleries. I initially had this positioned at “1” for this year, but its release mode makes that problematic. I caught it, like most of the planet, on China’s version of YouTube. As we begin to see similarly web-based releases for such directors in the future, that makes current list-making modes a mismatch for emerging distribution trends.
Seeking Asian Female(Debbie Lum)
Originally at “9” for the year. but I guess this was largely reserved for the festival circuit also. Few saw this documentary by a San Francisco filmmaker about an older American guy trying to buy an Asian wife. And then they actually fall in love. This is a wonderfully baffling documentary. Lum’s direction is conflicted in a very constructive way. She also turned out to be one of the most transparent directors I have had the privilege to interact with. I am intensely interested in what she does next.
Additional films: Thanks to the below comments for reminding me that I neglected to mention a few films that could very well be on this list, depending on the day, weather, etc… Zvyagintsev’s Elena is a complex genre experience that puts a mercenary sense of class under his observant lens (and it is scored by Philip Glass). I am still puzzling out the implications of Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, which avoids his typical body horror but may be a sort of précis for his filmography. Oh, and Pattinson is pretty stunning in this. Greece was really active in the art house this year with Lanthimos’ Alps and Tsangari’s Attenberg finally making the rounds. Both are challenging, awkwardly humane, finely crafted films. And for more traditional fare, I really enjoyed Kurtzman’s People Like Us, largely because its trio of leads really sells what would otherwise be a pretty pedestrian drama.