The year’s best theatrical releases, numerically ranked, by title, (director and country), and where I first saw the film.
1. Carlos (Olivier Assayas, France): Cannes, official selection, out of competition. The second straight year a flick by Assayas takes the top prize. After what I had to say here and here, I’m not sure there’s much left to be said, except the circumstances that I first saw the movie, at the Cannes screening, mid-festival, an all afternoon affair, with a break after the second installment, was one of the great experiences of my professional life.
2. Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, US): Toronto. It’s hypnotic and way too ripe for some people’s taste; normally, I’m very resistant to this kind of “art,” but I was knocked out from the first viewing. It’s brash and kinetic and bravura filmmaking, and provides unimpeachable evidence Natalie Portman has a depth and presence neither demanded nor imagined.
3. Ne change rien (Pedro Costa, France): Cannes, 2009. Director’s Fortnight. In my ballot for Village Voice/LA Weekly critics’ poll, I also list it the best documentary of the year. It’s more an essay film. A melancholy and gorgeous study of the beautiful and gifted Jeanne Balibar, the actress and singer, Costa creates a fascinating and beautiful bookend to his extraordinary portrait of filmmakers Straub and Huillet, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, using his sinuous and rhapsodic camera to excavate the private realm of artists creating and even transcending art.
I’ve still only seen it one time, at Cannes nearly two years ago, but it’s a staggering and transfixing work. For more on Costa, here’s my interview with him on the occasion of Criterion’s superb box set, Letters from Fontainhas.
4. White Material (Claire Denis, France): Toronto, 2009.
Claire Denis’ extraordinary work is her third feature (following her autobiographical debut Chocolate and the 1999 masterpiece Beau travail) set in Africa, where she lived as a young girl.The new film unfolds in a bleak and hostile unnamed outpost.
The imagery evokes all manner of recent terror and devastation, from Rwanda to the Sudan, of a parched, ruined landscapes, a sky awash in smoke and a corpse-lined interior. Isabelle Huppert plays Maria, a coffee plantation owner caught between warring factions of government soldiers and rebel armies in a civil war.
She turns down the French authorities demanding she evacuate the country, preferring to shore up what remains of family’s dissolving empire.The political crisis mirrors her family’s deeper unraveling. Denis’ filmmaking is as sensational and tactile as ever. She ruptures the narrative track, elliptically playing with time and space in attaining a ravishing hallucinatory physical grounding of terror and disruption. The recurring use of water imagery, of an innocence trampled, repose denied, is particularly effective and striking.
White Material is sustained by an eerie and annihilating sense of disassociation. Nothing quite coheres logically or internally. The movie unfolds as a fever dream, concentrating Denis’ strengths as an imagist and a poet of the dispossessed. Her best films are liberated from stories or plot.
Huppert’s own ferociously ravaged state leaves the strongest impression. Her splintered emotional consciousness becomes a haunting gateway to consider the material. The personal ruin becomes a startling commentary on the moral ramifications of French colonialism. It ends like a moment out of Conrad, a haunting and devastating “heart of darkness,” made real and plangent.
5. Greenberg (Noah Baumbach, US). Press screening. The sixth feature of the very gifted American independent Noah Baumbach is pretty enthralling stuff. I wrote it at length here. Greta Gerwig gives one of the year’s best performances.
6. Around a Small Mountain (Jacques Rivette, France). Toronto festival, 2009, special buyer’s screening. This year is remember for two significant losses, the deaths of two founding members of the nouvelle vague, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol. Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard, who just turned 80, are the only surviving members. I’ve read, but not had it verified, in some accounts that Rivette himself was very ill and not even able to finish this film. Even some of his enthusiasts think this a minor work; I’ve watched in four or five times. Each subsequent viewing provides me something to savor. I wrote more about it here.
7. Everyone Else (Maren Ade, Germany). Berlin, 2009. Ade’s superb second feature, about the fissures and cracks of a complicated, evolving relationship of a moody young architect and his girlfriend, a music publicist, during a Mediterranean retreat. The references (Voyage to Italy, Cassavetes) are subtly entwined, the acting is sensational, and the prowling, moving camera, especially the way it moves and dances around the faces and bodies of the two leads, is absolutely spellbinding.
8. The Social Network (David Fincher, US): Public screening. I was apprehensive a year ago when I heard this was Fincher’s next project. I couldn’t quite imagine how he’d dramatize the material. I found out. It’s another of his obsessive studies of the outsider, a beautiful synthesis of style and technique. Thanks to Aaron Sorkind’s terrific script, it’s the most novelistic of Fincher’s films, burrowing, questioning, tough and tragic, outlining and imagining a peculiar ecosystem without losing the verve and kick of the brash, impudent and outsized personalities.
9. Somewhere (Sofia Coppola, US). Press screening. I was skeptical when I heard it won the top prize at Venice, from a jury presided by Quentin Tarantino. (For what it’s worth, my favorite American film of the year was Kelly Reichardt’s extraordinary Meek’s Cutoff, which was acquired but will not open until early next year.) In her Oscar-acceptance speech years ago, Sofia Coppola talked about Wong Kar-wai and Antonioni. The autobiographical flourishes don’t terribly interest me. I’m more interested in form and content; she pulls it off. She’s after difficult emotions and feelings to evoke, but it’s the spaces in between that are involving, delicate and often beautiful to behold. Like Baumbach’s Greenberg, it was shot by the great Harris Savides. Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning are both superb.
10. Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, US). Sundance. I don’t grade on a curve, but I can’t help but notice four of my top ten films are directed by women. This is an extract from my out of Sundance review:“Six years ago at Sundance Debra Granik debuted Down to the Bone, a downbeat, persuasively directed piece featuring a star-making performance by Vera Farmiga playing a working-class woman ravaged by her private addictions. The performance catapulted the career of Farmiga, and it marked Granik as a bright talent to watch.
Now Granik's second feature, Winter’s Bone extends and deepens the considerable promise of that film. Likewise, it features an absolutely stunning performance by a young actress who is something to see. Jennifer Lawrence has an open face, darting eyes and an inquisitive, tactile physical expression that gives considerable weight to the emotional complications of her character's plight.Granik and the writer Anne Rosellini have adapted the novel of the same title by Daniel Woodrell.
A hillbilly noir, set in the Ozarks, in rural Missouri, the film is suffused with genre elements colored by ethnographic details about the local culture that governs the daily lives and specific characteristics of the local inhabitants.Granik and her cinematographer Michael McDonough, shooting with the digital RED camera, establish the physical environment of rippled landscapes, harsh terrain and unforgiving forests.
In the daily movements and actions, Granik sharply illustrates the social significance of music, folklore and the very distinctive vocal patterns and dialect. But there's also a deep suggestion of menace and uncertainty, brought about by the constant threat of violence and the pervasive use of guns and drugs.
The story, both involving and rich in nuance and texture, details the extraordinary measures undertaken by 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Lawrence) to uncover the fate of her missing father. The larger social and cultural framework provides a lot of small, compensatory qualities that cohere and flow into a sustained whole.”
Other films of note:
The Strange Case of Angelica (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/France): Cannes. Un Certain Regard. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know until recent this film qualified as a 2010 release. I wrote about it here. What more is there to say about a 102-year-old director still turning out masterpieces?
A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, France). Coverage from Cannes, 2009.
Wild Grass (Alain Resnais, France). Cannes, 2009.
The Father of My Children (Mia Hansen-Love, France). Cannes, 2009.
The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, US). Sundance. My review here.
Please Give (Nicole Holofcener, US). Sundance. Review.
Another Year (Mike Leigh, UK). Cannes. Review.
Stutter Island (Martin Scorsese, US).
Vincere (Marco Bellochio, Italy). Cannes, 2009.
The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, UK/Germany).
The Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, South Korea). Cannes, 2007. Review.