According to a personal log I maintain, I saw just under three-hundred films last year.That includes press screenings, festival screenings, retrospectives and public viewings.
It was a strong, distinctive year, but again, I think it worth pointing out, how the lag time, especially with key art films, plays a crucial part in the formulation of my list. Six of the movies on my personal top ten actually premiered, at festivals, in 2011.
In all those cases, I saw the films a second, third or even fourth time. Some films, like the superb new Israeli documentary The Gatekeepers, I saw after the deadline for publishing my ballot in the Village Voice and Indiewire polls. Just to maintain consistency, I have kept my personal list unchanged.
As in past years, I indicate its international premiere and where I first encountered the film.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey): Cannes competition, 2011; Toronto, September 2011.
I’m not sure what else I have to say about Ceylan’s masterpiece. First of all, bravo to the discerning folks at Cinema Guild for sticking their necks out, financially and otherwise, for releasing this film (and also publishing the most ravishing Blu-ray of the year). Ceylan’s inquiry into the nature of man, structured around the search for a corpse, has a mournful, devastating cumulative power. The story’s elusive and mysterious power is located in the taciturn and expressive faces of the forensic specialists assigned to locate the body.
Some of the most memorable are the peripheral figures, especially an incandescently beautiful young daughter of a village leader whose face is illuminated only by candle. As I wrote, “Ceylan is an artist who justifies digital. I still prefer film, but Ceylan’s photorealistic use of the format breaks down my own resistance. The opening draws on the darkness and nighthawk as a kind of annihilation, emblematic of the movie’s futile quest and dead ends.”
Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, USA): Press screening, December 2012.
The best director of action currently at work in the cinema, Kathryn Bigelow has subtly changed from the painterly and kinetic nature of her earlier films to something more immersive and chilling. The story of the CIA’s decade-long search for Osama bin Laden, the movie comfortably fits Bigelow’s recurring concern of tortured, obsessive individuals (Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel, Keanu Reeves in Point Break) who infiltrate closed-off, ritualistic social structures and destroy them.
I will have more to say about this film in the coming days as it approaches wide-release. Jessica Chastain gives the year’s finest performance, precise, tough and unassailable.
Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal): Berlin competition 2012; Cannes market, May 2012.
The third feature of the very gifted Gomes is another phantasmagorical movie experience, riffing on movies and history, especially F.W. Murnau’s similarly-titled final work, that like Ceylan explores the nature of being, related in a novelistic two-part structure that ruminates, poetically, on sex, love and erotic recklessness as a larger exploration of the country’s colonial past. My one viewing experience, in a cramped Cannes market screening space, was less than ideal. Even so, its power and suggestiveness resonates in any format. It’s blindingly beautiful.
Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo, Mexico): Cannes, Un Certain Regard, May 2011.
With The Master, this constituted the year’s most bewildering and botched release. For reasons unknown, Fox acquired the film and then predicated its release on the film securing an Academy award nomination for best foreign language film.
When the perpetually inept branch of the Academy failed to shortlist the film, Fox dumped the movie. Sober and electrifying, Gerardo Naranjo’s superb feature superbly draws on the splintered consciousness of a young beauty pageant contestant as a tragically stark emblem of Mexico’s all-enveloping drug wars. Loosely based on real events, the movie features the poised and beautiful Stephanie Sigman as a beauty contest aspirant who’s trapped in a world of unknown loyalties and fluidly shifting identities.
Sigman's Laura is a pawn trapped between a charismatic cartel leader, cops and the military. Naranjo employs a bracing and lyrical tone that creates a sinister sense of unease and violence. Even the landscapes are imbued with something otherworldly.
Loaded with references to Orson Welles’s great border town classic Touch of Evil and Jean-Luc Godard’s apocalyptic Weekend, Naranjo finds his own idiom. From the cartel’s nighttime raid on a nightclub to the closing shootout in a hotel, Naranjo ensnares the viewer in the mayhem and provides no easy escape. Sigman’s tremulous, vivid performance anchors the movie emotionally.
The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr, Hungary): Berlin competition 2011; Cannes market, May 2011.
Bela Tarr has said this is his final film, and if it be so, it proves a regretful and fitting conclusion to a majestic career too little-known in this country. Interestingly, the first time I saw it was the day before seeing The Tree of Life for the first time, at Cannes.
The films have nearly identical running times and both tell variations of the Genesis story, though in Tarr’s case, he inverts it, becoming instead a tale about the end of civilization. It’s composed in fewer than forty shots, and nearly twenty-minutes pass before the first line of dialogue. Of those who saw it, even those inclined to like Tarr’s work, found it either impenetrable or unwatchable; for me, it distills everything harsh, beautiful and wondrous about his work, his use of time, space and camera movement charged with feeling, emotion and intensity, drawn from the faces and bodies of his characters. (Another Cinema Guild Release, and a fantastic Blu-ray transfer, by the way.)
Many people prefer a cinema that moves and breathes, and I understand, even appreciate that, but the corollary is something else, a cinema that exists beyond our immediate hold that unbound by time and floats and coheres in our consciousness, and nobody does that better than the great Bela Tarr.
Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France): Cannes competition, May 2012.
His first feature in the thirteen years since POLA X, the Franco-American filmmaker Leos Carax has always trafficked in film’s fragile, even disabused history, in creating his own original and startling works. I’ve seen this feature three times now, and what I love, apart from the eerie, provocative, set pieces are the more haunting and fragile moments, like the image of a young girl forlornly captured in the bay window of her parents’ suburban Paris home, or cinematographer Caroline Champetier’s expressive use of the Eiffel Tower, indicative of a wounding vulnerability and serene melancholy.
As the mysterious chameleon at its center, Monsieur Oscar, the fantastic Denis Lavant, with his lithe frame and lined and suggestive face that goes either way, moves between a light touch and something far more sinister and unsettling. Holy Motors is a singular blend of macabre and the transgressive that achieves a true poetry of terror that looks forward and backward, combining science fiction with an upended, funhouse mirror history riffing on Georges Franju, Jean Cocteau, Luis Bunuel, Beauty and the Beast, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and M.
To really succeed and flourish, the movie needed a human dimension to push through, and Lavant is the connecting thread. It is a vision, and Carax and Lavant make sure it all connects spectacularly.
The Loneliest Planet (Julia Lokev, USA): Locarno 2011. Toronto, September 2011. The second narrative feature of Lokev, the Russian-born, New York-based filmmaker moves her to the front rank of American independents. With Holy Motors, it was the most liberating work I saw, in the open and fluid rhythms of the opening, connected to feeling and consciousness, especially Hani Furstenberg’s face, body and the gorgeous red hair, the grouping of shapes and objects, people riding on the back of a motorbike, an orb that floats back and forth between the two young travelers and the unknown pranksters on the other side. Like her great first film, Moment of Impact, Lokev turns the work into her own personal reflection, and it proves as mysterious, strange and beguiling as the movie’s lunar landscapes.
Barbara (Christian Petzold, Germany): Berlin competition 2012; Toronto, September 2012.
The first Petzold film I ever saw was his eerie ghost story, Yella (with his favorite actress, Nina Hoss), the year it played Berlin. I liked the follow up Jerichow, but his new film, Barbara, bracing and taut, is a revelation and a major advance. It clarifies his fascination with Hitchcock and pushes it to new levels of achievement and power, about a politically suspicious doctor (the fantastic Hoss) stranded in the provinces and the state surveillance system of the Stasi that turns every act of hers into a moment of reflection, caution and submission. It was the most frightening film I saw last year.
Goodbye First Love (Mia Hansen-Løve, France): Locarno 2011; Toronto, September 2011. The autobiographically-inflected third feature of French director Mia Hansen-Løve (Father of My Children) limns the ecstasy and tumult of youthful, sometimes crazily self-destructive passion. The story, told in three movements covering about twelve years, charts the bruising and prickly emotional consequences of infatuation as Camille (Lola Créton) oscillates between the dark and handsome young man (Sebastian Urzendowsky) she cannot break free of and the Norwegian architect (Magne-Håvard Brekke) who becomes her mentor. Hansen-Løve illustrates the interior consciousness of female desire as something blinding and all-encompassing.
Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine’s limpid photography and the director’s elliptical passage of time constantly comment on and counterpoint Camille’s fractured state. The water imagery is especially evocative. Incarnating a young woman navigating the frankness and terrifying confusion of adulthood, the stunning, remarkable Créton summons an emphatic mixture of audacity, naïveté and sexual abandon. The one-time protégé (and now romantic partner ) of contemporary master Olivier Assayas (Carlos), the 31-year-old Hansen-Løve coolly justifies the hype.
Bernie (Richard Linklater, USA): Chicago, August 2012. Watching Dazed and Confused recently, I realized I am not aware of a director anywhere who’s given me more a pleasure and joy than Linklater. Belatedly, I caught Bernie and was just knocked out, by the suppleness of the structure, the depth of characterization, the cascade of voices is tonally perfect. Jack Black proved again, in the hands of the right director (Linklater with School of Rock, Noah Baumbach in Margot at the Wedding), he is a terrific actor, evoking just the right balance of pathos and regret.
These are the other films I considered for my top ten, alphabetically listed:
Amour (Michael Haneke)
Argo (Ben Affleck)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)
A Burning Hot Summer (Philippe Garrel)
The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry)
Compliance (Craig Zobel)
Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)
The Day He Arrives (Hong Sang-soo)
The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies)
Detropia (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady)
Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
Farewell, My Queen (Benoit Jacquot)
Flight (Robert Zemeckis)
Footnote (Joseph Cedar)
The Gatekeepers (Dror Moreh)
Haywire (Steven Soderbergh)
Keep the Lights On (Ira Sachs)
The Kid with a Bike (Dardenne Brothers)
Looper (Rian Johnson)
Oki’s Movie (Hong Sang-soo)
Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh)
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Middle of Nowhere (Ava DuVernay)
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)
Starlet (Sean Baker)
Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley)
This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi, with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb)
Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold)