Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ten Best Films of 2010

1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/United Kingdom/France/Germany/
Spain/Netherlands/United States)
In what is likely the Thai auteur's greatest achievement to date, Apichatpong explores not only the past lives and origins of his terminal lead, but also those of his own cinematic career - and even of his chosen medium (down to a Platonic shadow-play) - constructing a dense web of self-reference that transforms the filmmaker's reincarnation narrative into a comprehensive career reexamination.  Uncle Boonmee is the best new film in years.

2. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy/Iran)
For Kiarostami's first fiction feature shot outside his native Iran, the director makes explicit the European sources (especially Rossellini and Resnais) of his half-neorealist, half-modernist idiom, while adding a new dimension to his art: a heretofore forbidden sensuality that as always relies upon spectator participation.  A major return to narrative form for Kiarostami, and the best of the recent spate of Asian-made European art films.

3. Mysteries of Lisbon (Raoul Ruiz, Portugal/France/Brazil)
Staging the Chinese box narrative structure of stories-within-stories-within-stories of the director's masterpiece Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983), within gracefully circular sequence-shots that call to mind (without conceptually replicating) the temporally unstable spaces of his very fine Time Regained (1999), Mysteries of Lisbon emerges as a summarizing achievement for the Chilean-born polyglot.  Ruiz's career in 272-minute micro form.

4. Aurora (Cristi Puiu, Romania/France/Switzerland/Germany)
By virtue of one of the year's more comprehensive reinventions of film language, where a series of unmarked events - including a pair of double homicides - unfold within visually occluded beehive spaces, without the aid of narrative exposition, Puiu's essentially experimental Aurora pushes the default realism of the new Romanian cinema into truly novel (minimalist) territory. Puiu's Crime and Punishment has almost unparalleled staying power.

5. Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean, Romania)
A small masterpiece of the new Romanian cinema, Tuesday, After Christmas discovers a formal means of working through its love-triangle subject - physical exclusion - following an extraordinary one-shot, one-take open that maximizes bodily presence.  That it is the 'other woman' who remains off-screen in Muntean's final act, after one of the year's more unsettling exchanges, insures that Tuesday, After Christmas registers as a profoundly moral work. 

6. The Social Network (David Fincher, United States)
Justifiably anointed an instant classic of the American cinema, even if it is not quite to the level of Zodiac (2007), Fincher has again built his narrative around a film historical source - here no less than Citizen Kane - while employing a narrational strategy that generates meaning less from the distribution of bodies in spaces than from the film's lighting strategies and its mimetic scoring; that is, as a top music video artist would.

7. Winter Vacation (Li Hongqi, China)
Among the most distinctive independent comedies to come out of Mainland China in recent years, Winter Vacation spends the end of winter break with a group of aimless teenagers and disaffected adults in a depressed corner of Inner Mongolia. Composed of extremely long takes that expertly serve the film’s uniquely nihilistic sense of humor, Winter Vacation was awarded the Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival.

8. My Joy (Sergei Loznitsa, Germany/Ukraine/Netherlands)
An early contender for the defining cinematic achievement of the autocratic age of Putin, the Belarusian Loznitsa's My Joy divides between a verdant Heart of Darkness forward progress and the stasis that comes with arriving at the cursed, wintery nowhere at road's end. Loznitsa assiduously moors his narrative to his victim-lead with the second half's increasingly conspicuous digressions always returning full circle.

9. The Strange Case of Angélica (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/Spain/France/Brazil)
From a screenplay that centenarian Oliveira wrote in the early 1950s, The Strange Case of Angélica returns not only to the filmmaker's Oporto origins, but to the naissance of the cinema itself (in the documentation of Lumière and the magic Méliès). Emphasizing both poles, Oliveira introduces notable anachronism into his latest - though, of course, his screenplay dates to a moment closer to the art's origins than to the present.

10. Ha Ha Ha (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
In HaHaHa, Hong substantially modifies the "twice-told" narrative format that he inaugurated in his masterful second feature The Power of Kangwon Province (1998), transforming his signature two-part diptychs into a series of alternating inter-cut episodes narrated by a pair of conversing friends. In this sense a way forward for the Mondrian of the art cinema, it remains to be said that the Un Certain regard prize-winner is also one of the auteur's funniest.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Ten Best Films' 2010 Mini-Poll

1. The Social Network (David Fincher) 136 points (AZ, KW, LB, MA, ML, MS, PK, RSu, RSw)
2. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
99 points (LB, MA, PK, RSu, RSw)
3. Mysteries of Lisbon (Raoul Ruiz)
86 points (LB, MA, PK, RSu, RSw)
4. I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino, 2009)
84 points (LB, MA, ML, PK, SB)
5. Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)
66 points (KW, MS, PK, SB)
6. Winter's Bone (Debra Granik)
54 points (ML, MS, PK, SB)
7. Everyone Else (Maren Ade, 2009)
49 points (AZ, LB, MA)
8. Alamar (Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio, 2009)
48 points (ML, MS, RSw)
9. The Strange Case of Angélica (Manoel de Oliveira)
47 points (JS, RSu, RSw)
10. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
46 points (LB, MA, RSu)

Other Films Receiving Multiple Citations: Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino) 45 points (AZ, MA, PK)Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé, 2009) - 40 points (JS, ML), Ha Ha Ha (Hong Sang-soo) - 40 points (LB, MA, ML), Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy) - 35 points (MS, SB), Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard) - 35 points (AZ, RSu), Carlos (Olivier Assayas) - 34 points (ML, RSu), The Robber (Benjamin Heisenberg) - 31 points (AZ, KW)White Material (Claire Denis, 2009) - 31 points (JS, ML)*, The Fighter (David O. Russell) - 29 points (PK, SB), Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois) - 29 points (KW, RSu)A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009) 29 points (AZ, LB)Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, 2009) 29 points (MS, RSw)Aurora (Cristi Puiu) - 27 points (MA, RSw), Inception (Christopher Nolan) - 27 points (AZ, LB).

If I may be permitted, let me offer a few comments and observations on this year's Mini-Poll, conducted over New Year's weekend 2011, with a group of eleven New York University and Yale University graduate cinema and film studies alumni participating.  First, let me commend the respondents on organically forging what I personally believe is the finest consensus of any of this year's on-line group polls, be it Sight and Sound's exciting year-end review, or those of American outlets such as indieWIRE and The Village Voice.  Of course, the Mini-Poll benefited from the advantages of a small group of respondents, many of whom routinely discuss the films they care about most with one another - not that the critics of the aforesaid fail to do the same - and even more, from not limiting itself to 2010 commercial releases.  Indeed, three of the Mini-Poll's top ten (Uncle BoonmeeMysteries of LisbonCertified Copy), including two of its marvelous top three, have in fact yet to receive US theatrical premieres.  With six more cited among the runners-up by multiple respondents, this should suggest the very high caliber of 2010's festival premieres, while also providing a preview of next year's 'best of' choices for critics both inside and outside the poll.  Let me also underline the value of choosing non-distributed films as it proves proscriptive - we all need recommendations; I still need to see four of our runners-up - rather than simply reflective and in some sense (needlessly for the readers) affirmative for the critics.

Let me further offer a word or two on the choices themselves.  It should come as no surprise that The Social Network finished first, as it has in nearly every survey and critics' group vote this year.  It is certainly the film that almost everyone can agree upon.  To this end, nine of the Mini-Poll's eleven respondents selected the film, though, quite significantly, the majority did not place in their personal top five.  Compare this to Uncle Boonmee, our number two, which appeared on five ballots, with four of those five ranking it as their number one - and the fifth, his number two; thus, all five ranked it higher than The Social Network, which failed to score a single number one.  What this suggests is a rather substantial enthusiasm gap between the top two (though not also, as you might except, numerous dissenters for the second).  The fact is that a number of our respondents will not see the film until 2011, making it an early favorite to add to its total should this poll make it to year four.  Among the other films selected as the best of 2010, Enter the Void is particularly notable as it received two first places with no additional citations.  (Here, and I am only speculating, there may be dissenters.)  Other selections for the year's best included The White Ribbon, a popular hold-over from 2009; Black Swan, this year's number five; Alamar, our number eight; runner-up Film Socialisme; and most obscurely of all, Tokyo International Film Festival prize-winner and out-of-competition Cannes selection, the Korean A Brand New Life.  As I said, polls at least in part should be about directing readers to new films.  Thank you to this respondent for this unexpected selection.

Lastly, I have tabulated the on-going totals four our first three years of selections below, with 2010's top two moving into our all-time top ten.  Namely, The Social Network moved into third position, where it will have to stay being theoretically ineligible after this year, while Uncle Boonmee ranks in seventh place, with upward mobility a definite possibility.  

Combined Mini-Poll Results: 2008-2010
1. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, 2008) 147 points
2. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008) 139 
3. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010) 136
4. Two Lovers (James Gray, 2008) - 129
5. A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, 2008) 126
6. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009) 101
7. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010) 99 
8. Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008) 97.5
9. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, 2009) 96
10. (tie) Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009) 93
10. (tie) White Material (Claire Denis, 2009) 93

Note [*]: Films marked with an asterisk received at least one vote in last year's poll. 

Scoring: Each citation receives ten points with an additional ten for a first place citation, nine for second, and so on, on down to one for tenth. This method of scoring is intended to give appropriate weight to those films that have been cited most frequently by this year's participants.

Key: AZ - Alberto Zambenedetti (Ten Best Films), JS - Jeremi Szaniawski (Ten Best Films), KW - Karen Wang (You're Making a Scene), LB - Lisa K. Broad (Tativille), MA - Michael J. Anderson, ML - Mike Lyon (Tits & Gore), MS - Matt Singer (Termite Art), RSu - Richard Suchenski (Ten Best Films), RSw - R. Emmet Sweeney (Ten Best Films), PK - Pamela L. Kerpius (Scarlett Cinema), SB - Soren Bailey (Ten Best Films).

2010: Richard Suchenski

Conditions: With one exception, I restricted myself exclusively to films that were first screened publicly somewhere in the world in 2010.

1. Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard; pictured)
2. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
3. The Strange Case of Angélica (Manoel de Oliveira)
4. Compline (Nathaniel Dorsky, 2009)*
5. Carlos (Olivier Assayas)
6. Mysteries of Lisbon (Raoul Ruiz)
7. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
8. I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhangke)
9. Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois)
10. The Social Network (David Fincher)

*Also for Dorsky’s Pastourelle (2010) and Aubade (2010)

Honorable Mentions (alphabetical): The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Andrei Ujica), The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski), Ha Ha Ha (Hong Sang-soo), O somma luce (Jean-Marie Straub), Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese).

There were many excellent films released in 2010 – including another glorious, unpredictable masterpiece by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and essential works by Manoel de Oliveira, Nathaniel Dorsky, and Olivier Assayas – but, for me, the richest was Film Socialisme. Nothing has given me more hope for the future of digital cinema – and especially for the development of new forms of montage – than this vital, adventurous, and uncompromising work, the latest (hopefully not the last) “first film” by a director who never stops redefining his art.

Richard Suchenski is Assistant Professor of Film and Electronic Arts at Bard College.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Lisa K. Broad's 2010 Mix-Tape

I really miss making mix-tapes.  So instead of composing a 2010 best song list, I put a few of my favorites into the most aesthetically pleasing arrangement I could muster.  Theoretically they should be listened to from top to bottom in order to produce what I imagine to be a revelatory sonic experience.  In practice, please feel free to sample at your leisure.    

“Walk in the Park,” Beach House

“Don’t Cry,” Deerhunter

“Chinatown,” Wild Nothing

“Numb,” Marina and the Diamonds

“Funnel of Love,” The Fall

“I’m Not the One,” The Black Keys

“Monster,” Kanye West

“Twenty Miles,” Deer Tick

“Anyone’s Ghost,” The National

“Bright Lit Blue Skies,” Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

“She Rode Me Down,” Tindersticks

“1977,” Ana Tijoux

“Taxi Cab,” Vampire Weekend

“Mansions of Los Feliz,” Eels

2010: Jeremi Szaniawski

0. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
I have yet to see this most acclaimed film by Thai maestro Apichatpong Weerasethakul. But considering the admiration I have for all his previous features, especially Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, there is very little doubt that it will be featured in my top in 2011 (if I live that long), and should be acknowledged here as the 'grand absent.'

1. Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé, 2009; pictured)
Noe's magnum opus, an incredibly daring and innovative epic of garishness, represents all the obsessions that the filmmaker has carefully sketched out in his two previous features, Seul contre tous and Irreversible. Part homage and recreation of the notion of 'ultimate trip' of Kubrick's 2001; part descent into the gutter of mankind under psychedelic neon lights, the film's hubris is bound to irritate but it must win one over in the ultimate account. In this sense, one of the most amazing features of Enter the Void is how the bad-taste of each consecutive scene makes one cringe, before gradually imposing its aesthetics and earning its full artistic integrity. Blending the basest and the loftiest in a somatic bouquet superbe, Noe has delivered just about the pen-ultimate trip, falling only a little short of his 1968 model - but then again, he never really aimed that high, embodying all that's great about the degraded postmodern culture and ethos suddenly transcending itself, reaching the top by going down to the bottom, as it were.

2. Amer (Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani, 2009)
One of the greatest first films ever made, this surprising giallo pastiche and homage from Belgium, by French filmmakers Cattet and Forzani, is an hymn to the senses. See my review of the film here.

3. World on Wire (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973)
Long in the ZDF's vaults, Fassbinder's miniseries hit MoMA this Spring in a fabulously restored copy, followed by a DVD release. The German enfant terrible unleashes some of his zaniest sense of humor and the epic duration of this sci-fi cum philosophical allegory never feels long at all. A splendor of creativity, it also references just about every single canonical film one can think of, from Metropolis to Citizen Kane, from melodrama to film noir, from political activism to slapstick comedy. A hidden gem, to be ranked among Fassbinder's revered masterpieces.

4. The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet)
Chomet yields a cinephile's wet dream by adapting Jacques Tati's script, preserving his specific rhythm and poetry. The result is a loving, respectful, beautiful and nostalgic evocation of a bygone era as well as a recreation of a whole cinematic universe, hardly altered by a 21st century lens. A rare feat, The Illusionist is as much Chomet's as it is the great master's - and the way it reflects on Tati's misunderstood genius and the sad end of his career is bound to move one deeply.

5. Hadewijch (Bruno Dumont, 2009)
It is better not to say anything about Hadewijch, Dumont's most Bressonian effort, a momentous effort about extremely timely issues in present-day Western Europe, which uses the ellipsis in a more masterful manner than any of the French trans-modern provocateur's film to date. While the second half of the film is slightly inferior to the first one (which is quite perfect in its controlled austerity), and paradoxically less relevant on the socio-philosophical plane, it is also the part in which Julie Sokolowski's titular performance shines through most compellingly - her flat, somewhat chubby face blessed with beautiful and sensitive eyes, a germane canvas for madness and Grace.

6. The Strange Case of Angélica (Manoel De Oliveira)
Still going at 100+, Oliveira graces us with this carefully crafted jewel of a film, based on what would look like a short film's argument, but developing and flowering in unexpected and seductive avenues throughout. Based on a script he wrote in the 50s, Oliveira seems particularly at ease in this Bunuel meets Max Ernst tale of a Sephardic re-immigrant in a not-so present day Portugal, still heavily anti-Semitic and insufferably bourgeois. Among its many enchanting aspects, the film marries an inescapably cinematic metaphor (cinema as mode of embalming reality and bringing it back from the dead, sometimes to a dangerous degree) with a subtle-and essential-investigation of Jewish culture's oft-overlooked role in Western European culture, especially as regards esoterism. It is a bit disheartening, however, to think that one of the year's finest films is the product of the medium's eldest practitioner...

7. White Material (Claire Denis, 2009)
Denis' superb and earnest evocation of the chaos in a generic Central-to-Western African country torn by civil war is particularly poignant, as it features more than a few autobiographical elements for its author, who grew up there. The result is a cross-breed between a dark fairy tale (the massacre of the children being the most obvious example) and a quasi-documentary assessment on the huge socio-political mess that the black continent has tragically become. While Isabelle Huppert is her customary brilliant self, her dry physicality and faded beauty a perfect analog for the ravaged African country's predicament, Christophe Lambert's grotesque performance as her former husband, sadly, prevents the film from achieving an even higher degree of success overall. Amateurish or bad acting had already marred Denis's previous films,including last year's 35 Shots of Rum. But the French filmmaker's earnestness and love of Africa shines in each shot, each one filled with another layer of despair. 

8. Cargo 200 (Alexey Balabanov, 2007)
Balabanov's film came out a few years ago in Russia, but deserves to be featured in any a top ten list. A fantastic combination of the horror genre and the dark social satire, it investigates an 1980s Soviet Russia in shambles (a few weeks prior to Gorbachev's coming to power and initiating the much needed reforms of Perestroyka and Glasnost) and rotten to the bone; Cargo 200 also points out the fact that it is the shrewd, selfish (and cowardly) golden youth of the 80s that now runs the show in the present-day Russia of oligarchs and Czar Vladimir P.

9. The Reverse (Borys Lankosz, 2009)
Surely Lankosz's film can only be fully appreciated by a Polish (or Polish culture and history savvy) audience, rife as it is with socio-historic references that will be lost on anyone who did not have a few family members suffer, be incarcerated, or die during Stalin's rule of terror - that other darkest hour which prolonged the horror of WWII in Eastern Europe for a good 8 more years. Andrzej Bart's fabulously witty dialogues and the film's gorgeous black and white cinematography constantly positing the demons of history in a dark and cruel ironic light. And indeed, when one thinks that Warsaw's most iconic present-day monument remains the once infamous Palace of Culture (Stalin's late gift to the ravaged city), whose building serves as an important plot point in this film (again, lost on anyone without the socio-historic background), it seems like Lankosz's caustic treatment has become a better way for Poles to look at their martyrdom than the recent score of not-so-successful straight-faced hagiographies (which do, however, serve a didactic purpose of some sort, no doubt, shedding some new light on a few of the many dark corners of Polish history).

10. The King's Speech (Tom Hooper)
This obvious Oscar-candidate won me over, in spite of its co-opted nature, by its production values and deft screenwriting, making it one of the least dull efforts in the period piece/biopic genre in years, thanks in no small part to the extraordinary cast. As an added guilty pleasure, one will note the delightful obscenity of focusing on a man's speech impediment as millions of people were getting ready for the slaughter of World War II. But this parapraxis only makes it all the more pithy, as it will no doubt will be lost on the thousands of elderly bourgeois citizens who will swarm to see the film in this holiday season, and relish every second of it -while, unbeknownst to them, digital projection replaces 35mm and cinema dies its slow and tragic death.

Honorable mentions: Black Swan, True Grit, Piranha 3D, Kick-Ass