The second section is a list of honorable mentions that I wanted to make some note about. Comments follow directly the title. (Why change the format? Because the top ten as such looks much more striking standing alone.)
The third section is a list of my favorite revivals-- films that played for at least a week as repertory at a theater such as Film Forum or BAM. Again, comments follow the title.
Do I think that these were the absolute best films of the year in some objective way? Or is their a reason I keep qualifying the top ten with the words "my" or "favorite"?
There is a reason I keep qualifying the top ten with the words "my" or "favorite." So, in particular order:
- NAISU NO MORI (aka FUNKY FOREST: THE FIRST CONTACT)*
- THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP
- CHILDREN OF MEN
- HALF NELSON
- DAVE CHAPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY
- UNITED 93
- THE DEPARTED and INSIDE MAN
- LITTLE CHILDREN
- One of the strangest films I’ve seen in years. The unique “DJ mix”-like structure of the film creates a delirious and strangely satisfying layered experience. The film repeatedly bursts its seams with creativity and utter nonsense, like “The Far Side” meets KUNG FU HUSTLE with a sprinkle of “Naked Lunch.” It sometimes felt as if it’d been formulated just for me.
The reason this film is at the top of my list, however and ultimately, is that it definitely hadn’t been formulated just for me: despite its avante garde presentation, refusal to settle into a recognizable plot, and its 2 ½ hour runtime, it somehow managed to keep the audience totally engaged (or a loudly laughing half of the audience, at least). A number of the best films I saw this year brought home to me the importance of the theatrical experience itself—seeing a film in the company of an involved audience can add something to a film that’s just not there at home. And FUNKY FOREST is probably the most out-there film I’ve seen that still manages to spark that alchemy.
- I have a particular fondness for films that do a good job of blending sadness and humor, and Gondry’s film joins a short list of favorites in this category like PUNCH DRUNK LOVE. And like FUNKY FOREST, THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP is an exhilarating celebration of the creative power of imagination, the charming handmade special effects a quixotic rebellion against the tyranny of both computer graphics and naturalism. At the same time, it serves as a warning about disengaging the power of imagination from the world around one.
The cast was uniformly terrific, with Gael Garcia Bernal again notable for showing himself unafraid to take chances.
My impression of the film is inexplicably tied to the circumstance of seeing it opening night at the Angelika; the audience was impossibly excited to be there, and I don’t think anyone left disappointed.
- As for L’ENFANT, I can’t believe that I felt invested in the life of a man who sells his own child on the black market; at best, most skilled modern directors wouldn’t have approached the theme except by some Hitchcockian manipulation—conventional devices are used to lead the viewer to root for the success of a monstrous anti-hero—such that my nose would be rubbed in my own perversity as a viewer. But the Dardenne Brothers approach with their palms turned up; “no tricks here.”
- This film has some of the most astonishingly staged set pieces I’ve ever seen; I think that maybe only Steven Spielberg (working with Janusz Kaminski) is today capable of a similar level of visual fluency. A classic instance of science fiction being used to show us something about our current world, it feels thrillingly fresh. Great performances across the board.
If I were to have a complaint about this film, it’d be the rare case wherein I actually thought the film was too short.
- When the story of HALF NELSON was first described to me, I couldn’t imagine how it could be any good at all—it sounded like another well-intentioned indie movie that would bite off more than it could chew in presenting some ridiculous situation as having some bearing on reality. But intelligent writing and editing, remarkable performances, and general restraint all went into the alchemy that made it ring true—and larger than it’s ostensible subject—on the screen.
- I saw DAVE CHAPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY at BAM, just a few blocks (and orders of magnitude in income) away from where it was filmed. People in the audience saw themselves, sometimes literally, on the screen, and were delighted. A beautifully put together, warm film that plucks the best from the documentary and fiction film traditions: a meandering embrace of the idiosyncracies of real people and places on the one hand and, on the other, Chapelle’s multi-faceted performance.
- There was nothing delightful about UNITED 93, but it was certainly something given dimension by the audience experience. I admire the film for its rigor and ability to recapture the experience of the morning of September 11, 2001, to remind me of the confusion that everyone felt before that day before it became something called “9/11”. It can be a radical act to remove meaning—it’s true that it can be the re-opening of a wound but it can also, curiously, be the opposite of “it is as it was.”
- I’ve paired these two big, star-studded, scripted-beyond-comprehensibility studio films together as one entry because they represent the return of the ability of two of America’s greatest directing talents to connect with the audience. They are clever but unpretentious and built upon a recognition of the delight that their wonderful stars can bring when they really act their asses off.
Because they work on a mass level (and without pandering), these two pictures are perhaps the best examples this year of what can be great about the theatrical experience. See Sturges’ SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS for more information.
An honorable mention in this category goes to CASINO ROYALE.
- This clever and suspenseful horror picture was a gigantic leap forward for writer/director Eli Roth. I’m not sure how much further I’m willing to defend it once we’re out of the trenches of personal taste and into the no man’s land of objective criticism, but I think it’s fair to offer the following: 1) the film’s wicked thematic evocation of the relationship between the first world and the less developed is more than window dressing, and 2) though the skill of the filmmaking sometimes makes people remember a more graphic movie than they actually saw, there is a reason that the Grand Guignol has existed in civilized societies for so long. I don’t know what that reason is, but the film—and this is one reason why we today treat Hitchcock’s work with such respect today, despite occasional critical and public discomfort during his time—doesn’t avoid the question even as it carries out its work.
- I have trouble explaining even to myself why I so much liked LITTLE CHILDREN (save perhaps for some of the narrative conveniences of the end). Certainly credit belongs to the fantastic performances of Wilson, Winslet, and Haley and some beautifully staged scenes (such as the night league football game and Haley’s pedophile’s visit to the public pool). But above all, I found this often grim film strangely refreshing, and this lies in the credible use of a serio-comic tone, and unexpected turns in an oft-told tale. This is especially true of the resolution of the film—which has our illicit lovers meeting neither a tragic nor a liberal ending.
Some runners-up about which I thought I might say something, in no particular order:
PULSE – Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s most famous, if not necessarily his best film, is finally given a theatrical release in the US after years on the shelf courtesy the Weinsteins. While the moment for the film had passed for most of the audience, there was the poetic justice in the utter failure of the remake.
THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON – deepened my understanding of another human being and my love of a hard-to-love music.
A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION –I loved the autumnal tone and fantastic performances in this film. Another exemplar of the pleasure of the theatrical experience.
STRANGER THAN FICTION – What terrific performances from Thompson, Hoffman and, entirely unexpectedly, Gylenhaal. An interesting script, some visual flair, Ferrell restrained, great music, and a studio film that dares to use expressionistic sets all helped to make this a rewarding trip to the theater. Though it happened to be one of the strangest trips I took this year—the sound in the theater was way too low, meaning some dialogue was lost to the crowds of teenagers who would periodically shift seats, and I sat behind an old man who kept alternately snoring and obliviously answering his cell phone.
CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER – I’m usually not a sucker for films that get quotes involving words like “ravishing” or “sweeping”, but Yimou’s new film really takes this to another level. I felt like I was hallucinating for the last half hour, as if my brain needed another channel to understand the complicated images I was seeing—they’re traumatic, their dimension only understood in recovery. And in spite of myself, I wasn’t at all put off by the Peking Opera style-ized performances, rather appreciating them as of a piece with the Shakespearian drama. It’s the RETURN OF THE KING to HERO and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS.
BROTHERS OF THE HEAD – a rare bird—“mockumentary” doesn’t seem the right word, as it’s more like a real documentary set in a slightly different dimension. It feels like a lost Maysles film, down to the perfect selection of film stock. And it stands apart as well in that most films like this don’t try to have great original music, settling merely to appropriately signify what is meant—“you know, it’s sort of like songs x and y”.
NACHO LIBRE – it’s really stupid humor, but that doesn’t mean it’s a stupid film. And would it be unreasonable to simply appreciate a comedy aimed at a mainstream audience that is so unabashedly bizarre? I like to imagine that it teaches people to appreciate more marginal art.
Much better than NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, in my opinion.
THE PRESTIGE—See discussion of THE DEPARTED and INSIDE MAN. The difference here is that Nolan is not making a comeback—rather, he just keeps getting better and better as a filmmaker—and that there’s actually a lot more going on in this film intellectually. Amazingly well calibrated to keep the audience one step behind—even the jerks who think going to a movie is an intelligence competition based on whether or not they can guess the ending before the movie gets there (not that they haven’t been trained to do this by cynical filmmakers and their enablers).
THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA – a film that I think I probably actually found more emotionally poignant for its rough-hewn quality. It’s flaw were honestly come by. And all that falls by the wayside when the job gets done.
Favorite revival runs (plays for at least a week)
TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER – a revelation to me. I don’t think I walked away feeling that I’d “understood” the film—adding to the intellectual challenge is the fact that it directly references so many figures or works that have either fallen aside in relevance or never reached my consciousness—but rather that I’d recognized the world—the world I’ve grown up in—whose birth Godard was trying to describe and connected on some level with his feelings about it. A sadness about the loss of sacredness that accompanies the insistent availability of the products and messages of modern life, the blandly sunny imperative that the most efficient way is identified and taken, the commercial suggestion that human beings interact with objects as if they were other human beings, the commandeering of language, both visual and verbal, to these tasks. It is exhilarating because it is a visually beautiful film bursting with energetic ideas, but it also inspires a certain helplessness.
Is the frustrating complexity a strategy to prevent it from being absorbed into the system it limns?
MOUCHETTE – Bresson.
SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE – this is one of the films to which I’ve most often returned in my mind since seeing it. We have quite a few films about adolescents and sex, but relatively few about their relationship to death; even in films like BULLY or MEAN CREAK, the response to death isn’t nearly as complex as the exploration of the social dynamics of the events that lead up to it. Echoes can be felt in PAN’S LABYRINTH.
WOMAN IN THE DUNES – what fantastic cinematography. A fascinating and hypnotic film from a source I would have imagined difficult to film.
ARMY OF SHADOWS * – I have to own up to not quite understanding the fuss over this film; it seems a very solid and well conceived, somewhat novelistic, piece about the French Resistance. But I don’t include it here simply out of polite deference to the critical and popular consensus, but rather because having seen the film, I think it will likely repay the effort I will be both actively (reading the reviews, talking to people) and passively (letting it sink in) putting into figuring out what so grabbed people about it.
For now: I really liked the complexity of the characters, the illumination of the moral dimension of the action, and I think that the plainness of the style must be an asset. But I think the answer for surprise popularity of the film must lie in the recognition of a number of notably terrific scenes: Gerbier’s detention in and escape from waiting room of the Hotel Majestic; the execution of the traitor to the resistance, Gerbier’s trip back across the Atlantic that is to end in a parachute jump; the same character’s execution-turned-escape scene. There are more.
Having seen this film makes me eager to again see Verhoeven’s Dutch resistance picture BLACK BOOK. Both films deal with dissension and mistrust within an intense resistance group; though where Melville sees a cruel and complex imperative that must override humanity, a group dynamic that cannot recognize frailty, Verhoeven draws a general indictment of authority and power.* OK, here's where the second fuss about how I designate a film's "theatrical release" could start; ARMY OF SHADOWS was never before commercially released in the US, which is why the New York Film Critics were able to justify selecting it as their top film of the year. I just think that's being too technical, though; the film is 37 years old, and it's perverse to celebrate it as a newborn just because it has only now received its birth certificate. (And further, isn't it a bit arrogant to award a new film prize to film when really it's just new to Americans? How do the French feel, having "discovered" the film back when the Beatles were still together?)