It’s that time of the year again when film enthusiasts reflect on the year that was and compile a list honoring the best of the best. But in the end, its all subjective and one of the best parts of “ten best” lists is to argue about them. So, it goes without saying, that the ten I’ve picked are films that have had a lasting effect on me but ones that I personally feel push the medium further as an art-form. But before I list my selection, I feel obligated to talk about other films that have caught my attention this year. This includes films that just missed the cut and others that were interesting (and sometimes disappointing) misfires. One of these films is Abbas Kiarostami’s first non-Iranian film, Certified Copy (Copie conforme). Described as Kiarostami’s most convention film to date, but the film is still fascinating and experimental. At first it would appear as if the legendary director was channeling Richard Linklater (think Before Sunset and Sunrise), but as the film progresses characters begin to change, making it’s viewer question whether they are revealing their true selves or hiding behind a persona. It was one of the best films I’ve seen this year and its probably my choice for the 11th spot (though I almost want to tie it with my number ten). Another favorite of the year was Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew (Hai shang chuan qi), a film that underwhelmed many of the critics who saw it at the Cannes Film Festival but impressed me. Beautifully shot and heart warming interviews made it one of the most unforgettable documentaries in recent years. Hopefully it will get a wide enough US release in 2011 so other film enthusiasts could weigh in. Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux), however, won a lot of acclaim at the festival (winning the Grand Prix) and deservingly so. Its a magnificent and subtle film that just missed my list.
This year also saw the release of very highly anticipated films which I hoped would end up on my list. One film that shouldn’t surprise many reading is Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan; I know I’m not alone when I say that this was sort of a disappointment. While I enjoyed aspects of the film (the background ballet scenes, the wonderful hand-held camera movements, the many good performances) but the film is ultimately undone by Aronofsky. Black Swan begins to lose all subtlety after we see Natalie Portman hallucinate and turn into a swan. Had Aronofsky resisted his urges to allude to is his favorite horror films (Ex: Suspiria, Repulsion, The Fly) and to revert back to his old overtly surrealist visual tricks. I could have actually seen Black Swan reach the level of a brilliant psychological horror film like David Cronenberg’s 1988 masterpiece Dead Ringers, but instead it will remain a very fascinating misfire. I think the film is good enough to maybe grow on me in the future but when compared to his last two films (the brilliant and underrated The Fountain and his magnum opus The Wrestler) it’s a huge disappointment. I could also include Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere on that list. While I admit that I’m not the biggest fan of Coppola’s films (I like Lost in Translation but I don’t put it on the pedestal that others do), I can at least tell that she is talented and capable of creating a masterpiece. Somewhere, while it won the Venice Film Festival’s prestigious Golden Lion, is not that masterpiece. While it features solid performances, it fails because you get the feeling that Coppola is trying too hard to be like the filmmakers she admires (something one could say the same about Black Swan). I’ve heard on many occasions (including her Academy Award acceptance speech) where Coppola mention her love of the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and Wong Kar Wai, and I guess it’s evident in Somewhere (and some of her other films). The problem is that her films don’t even come close to showing the emotional depth and sadness of those who she admires. Another film that sort of falls in this category is the Coen Brothers’ True Grit. Its a film that I really did enjoy and one that has grown on me since the last time I watched it. Its filled with wonderful performances (especially newcommer Hailee Steinfeld who steals the film) and offers everything one expects from a fun film. Maybe the only thing that disappoints me about this is that it falls short to their other great films, including their masterful A Serious Man which I thought was the best film of last year and the best the Coen Brothers have ever directed.
With all that out of the way, I think it’s best I just reveal the list…
1o. Shutter Island – dir. Martin Scorsese; US
Scorsese’s Hitchcock homage Shutter Island is a film that was made for people who love movies. Its a film that divided most critics and film fans, but I thought it deserves to be recognized as one of the strongest of the year. Personally its my favorite from the great director in the last ten years (far more interesting the Oscar friendly Gangs of New York, Aviator, and The Departed). Adapting from Dennis Lehane’s pulp detective novel, Scorsese fuses elements of both classic suspense thrillers and modern crime films (with a dash of psychological thriller) to create one of the best films of the year.
9. Poetry (Shi) – dir. Lee Chang-dong; South Korea
Lee Chang-dong has been getting a lot praise for his film Secret Sunshine this year, which had come out in 2007 but released in the States in 2010 (which is why it wasn’t on this list), but Poetry is no slouch. This is a wonderful film that proves that South Korea is producing some of the greatest filmmakers and films in the world. Last year, Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho made two incredible films (Thirst and Mother were both in my top 5 in 2009) and now it’s Lee Chan-dong time to shine. Poetry in a way is very much like Joon-ho’s Mother; Both are moral tales which showcase the talent of their veteran lead actresses (Jeong-hie Yun delivers a great performance). While is not the stylist that Joon-ho is, but Chang-dong masterfully handles material with subtly. This is a great film.
8. Toy Story 3 – Lee Unkich; US
Toy Story 3 was probably the most popular film of the year and it’s not surprising. Its final installment to one of, if not, the most loved and successful animated film franchises ever. The first Toy Story was a monumental achievement for animated features and one of the best films of the 90s and the sequel was just as widely lauded (though not by this reviewer). Combine that with the fact that Pixar had already hit critical and financial gold with their last three pictures (Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up each won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, with the latter being nominated for Best Picture) and the thought of a third Toy Story was enough to garner anyone’s (die-hard film lover or not) attention. And with such lofty expectations, its so reassuring to see that the film deliver. This might be the best film Pixar has produced since the original Toy Story started it all back in 95.
7. Film Socialsme – dir. Jean-Luc Godard; France/Switzerland
I could make a very strong argument that Jean-Luc Godard’s status as a great filmmaker wasn’t solidified by the work he produced in the 60s, during the height of the New Wave, but his experimentation from the decades since. Godard has produced so many polarizing films, each helping to push the art-form. The last decade alone has shown some of the filmmaker’s most daring works, the height being his 2001 masterpiece In Praise of Love (Éloge de l’amour). Film Socialisme continues the Godard’s experimentation with the medium being the first of his films to be shot on HD Video (though he has experimented with digital format since his 1975 film Numéro deux). While I won’t say this is the best of Godard’s films from this century nor is it a perfect one. But the film’s first segment, taking place on a cruise ship, is as good as anything the Godard has ever filmed. Its good enough to overlook a rather slow second segment. The film’s final segment is a brilliant video montage that is nothing less than brilliant. While that might sound like I’m praising 2/3 of great film (and in a way it might be), the best parts of Godard’s Film Socialisme are worth it. This is a film that I can’t wait to view again.
6. Carlos – dir. Olivier Assayas; France/Germany
No art house film this year has been more critically acclaimed than Assayas’ Carlos. It was number one on Film Comment’s end of the year poll and finished number two (behind the Social Network) on the Village Voice Film Poll. A 5 1/2 hour film that makes you forget it’s time length and a center piece performance (from Édgar Ramirez) that is easily the best male performance of the year. On the surface Carlos might look like a toss up to Lean’s grandiose epics from the 60s (in the way Che was) but really the film shares more with the intelligent crime thrillers of the New Hollywood movement (think something like the Godfather or even Dog Day Afternoon). This is a film that is destined to be an instant classic.
5. Honey – dir. Semih Kaplanglu; Turkey/Germany
Honey, the third of Kaplanglu’s Yusef trilogy (after Milk and Egg), is nothing if not a masterpiece. A beautiful coming of age story that made me think of Ray’s masterpiece Pather Panchali and Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive. Winner of the Berlin Film Festival (awarded by a jury headed by the great Werner Herzog), the film doesn’t disappoint. Its filled with so many beautiful moments and takes it’s time to show us (not tell us) Yusef’s life. Its a small film but a memorable one and filmmaking at its best.
4. My Joy (Schastye moe) – dir. Sergei Loznitsa; Ukraine/Germany/Netherlands
When I saw Hunger a couple years ago, I remember telling everyone I knew that Steve McQueen has established himself as the most talented new filmmaker of the decade. In hindsight it might be a little premature to make such a statement, at least until McQueen’s follow-up, Shame, is released. But how could you blame me? Hunger was debut for the ages and was one of the best films of the decade. After watching My Joy, I feel myself wanting to say the same about Sergei Loznitsa. His debut is just as deserving of attention, but most American critics won’t see it (like most of the films on this list) until later this year. This is a dark allegory that examines the history of violence rooted in the soil of Russia. The best way to describe it is as an endless nightmare. Its a film that is bleak, and at times almost absurd, but its a film that will surely stir up some discussions.
3. Tuesday, After Christmas (Marti, dupa craciun) – dir. Radu Muntean; Romania/France
The Romanian New Wave is still producing masterpieces, this time from Radu Muntean. Tuesday, After Christmas is not only one of the most heartbreaking portraits of a marriage falling apart, but one of the greatest Christmas films ever. But this film shows the holiday for what it really is; nothing more than a holiday celebrating consumerism. But that is secondary. The centerpiece is an intense domestic drama that is handled so perfectly. Its also a showcase for great acting as the director lets scenes play out, without any cuts. This ranks among the greatest films the Romanian New Wave has produced.
2. The Ghost Writer – dir. Roman Polanski; UK/France/Germany
The Ghost Writer is no less of an achievement than Polanski’s own Chinatown from 1974. This is a film that works on so many levels: a fun pulp conspiracy theory thriller, a send up to the great suspense classics (much like Shutter Island), a political satire, or even a personal parable to the director’s recent troubles. But above all else, its an incredibly entertaining film; the rare kind of gem that can appeal to both the art house lover and the causal film goer. With incredible performances from a talented case (especially Pierce Brosnan and Olivia Williams) and Polanski creating an eerie paranoid atmosphere (a Polanski trademark), it hard not view this as one of the best films of the year.
1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee raleuk chat) – dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul;Thailand/Germany/Spain/France/UK
While Polanski’s The Ghost Writer made an excellent case for best film of the year, I just couldn’t recognize it as such. Apichatpong Weerasethkul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives just had too much going for it. A great piece of filmmaking that best personifies why I love film. Combining aspects of avant-garde filmmaking, Thai folk lore, absurdist humor, strange creatures, and political defiance, Weerasethkul presents his viewer with what could be the most euphoric 113 minutes any film could possibly wish to offer. We follow the final days of Uncle Boonmee, as he spends them with his sister-in-law and family friend while mysterious spirits come to communicate with him. I feel like telling more but I just want the world to go out and watch it for themselves (that is when it gets its official release in the States). I don’t expect to see a better film in a while.