You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Film’ category.

This is over a year late– the time for my 2014 list has already come and gone– but I am finally posting my list of the best films of 2013. This year’s list is short, partly because of the incredibly long delay, and partly because it was a so-so year for film. Having said that, I fully stand behind these 6 films, and recommend each of them highly. At the time of writing, it has been a long time since I first saw several of these films, so I apologize if the descriptions are briefer than usual…

(6) 12 Years a Slave

Based on a real life story, 12 Years a Slave is a brutal expose of America’s history with slavery, and is particularly apt when considered in contrast to the (tongue-in-cheek) post-racial world that many profess exists today.

(5) Dallas Buyers Club

Undoubtedly the year’s best acting performances come from this film; the Oscars got this one right, with both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto winning for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor respectively.

(4) Inside Llewyn Davis

This is the Coen Brothers’ tribute to the 1960’s folk revival scene, a combination of director(s) and theme which might just be the most perfect fit possible. Beautiful music together with a compelling character study (which also doubles as a sub-cultural analogue), makes Inside Llewyn Davis one of the softest spoken and most overlooked Coen bros. movies in a long time.

(3) Her

It’s been almost 2 years since I saw this film, so I feel entirely inadequate at articulating the many-layered ways that this film has import at this time. But if I had to pin down this film’s grandest philosophical achievement (though this is hardly its only one), it’s in how it shows where the real limits of love and intimacy lie. Those limits lie not in the possibility of our virtual connections, if you will. But rather, they lie in our embodied ones.

(2) Mud

A coming of age thriller with equal parts grit and magic, “Mud” might most simply be described as a cross between “The Goonies” and “Stand By Me”. I think it deserves to be on the same cinematic mantle, for sure. “Mud” is also wholly unique, though– a genuine American classic in its own right. It’s unfortunate that this film continues to slide under the radar. It’s the movie that officially put Jeff Nichols on my shortlist of favorite writer-directors (though I think his “Take Shelter”, from 2011, may have been a superior film, “Mud” is absolutely lathered in more heart). This is the must-see surprise of 2013.

(1) Gravity

Simply the best all-around film of the year, the aptly-titled “Gravity” is a space-age thriller that puts the awe of life in focus from the grandest of perspectives: Earth’s orbit. Putting some of the physics errors aside for the sake of cinematic appeal, it’s impossible not to walk away from this film without feeling inspired to live. The triumph of its main character in the end is personal as much as physical. Awe-inspiring, tear-jerking, breathtaking, exhilarating, heart-lifting… “Gravity” is the whole package.

I’m posting this incredibly late this year. The reason? I was mostly uninspired. The 2012 film class was extremely weak. In fact, it was one of the worst classes in recent memory. (Which is too bad, because 2011 and 2010 were both strong years.) A number of films which received acclaim this year fell flat (e.g., Silver Linings Playbook was not just bad, it was abhorrent). Even the 7 films that made the cut this year had their faults, but I felt these 7 had enough redeeming qualities to be worthy of mention.

Here it is, the definitive list of the top 7 films of 2012:

(7) Argo

Overall Argo was a well-constructed film; it was an entertaining political thriller. I felt this made it list-worthy. But there was nothing particularly standout about it either. The film also took a fair amount of liberty with the historical events it was portraying. That’s nothing new for film, of course– thus the “based on a true story” label– but it’s a pet peeve of mine when a film like this blatantly embellishes events purely for the sake of its primary target audience. In this case, the story was rewritten to give the American CIA most of the credit, when the real historical heroes were the Canadians. Nevertheless, the film does a good job at building suspense and serves its purpose as an entertaining dramatization.

(6) Your Sister’s Sister

It’s got an implausible, bizarre premise, but somehow Your Sister’s Sister succeeds at tapping into something truly genuine. This could also be the year Mark Duplass officially became an indie film darling. The performances are particularly noteworthy in this film because most of the script was improvised by the actors, and save for a few minor exceptions, you probably won’t notice. Candid and witty, Your Sister’s Sister was a rare pleasant surprise this year.

(5) Amour

A beautiful, haunting film. In some ways, it’s as much a horror story as it is a story of love and dependence. Its only limitation– and sometimes it really is just this simple– was that I found the story rather tedious. Even so, I always do my best to keep my own lack of connection with a film from tainting my overall sense of its aesthetic value. So here it is on the list, despite being wearisome: Amour.

(4) Killing Them Softly

Featuring an excellent cast, and based on the novel Cogan’s Trade, Killing Them Softly has a lot going for it. My one complaint– and its a minor, though omnipresent one– is with the lack of subtlety in the script. Overdubbed political speeches and the film’s final scene, when Brad Pitt’s character most blatantly delivers its keynote address, are a tad too explicit. The symbolism here is barely symbolic at all– it’s obvious. As a result, the motif doesn’t come across as very profound. Even so, there are worse complaints to have. In a disappointing year for film, Killing Them Softly easily distinguishes itself.

(3) The Master

P.T. Anderson rarely disappoints, especially in regards to his ability to pull out amazing performances from his actors. The Master is no exception. It easily contains the best performances of the year. Joaquin Pheonix and Amy Adams are both noteworthy, but Philip Seymour Hoffman really steals the show with his portrayal of a charismatic cult leader eerily reminiscent of Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard. Strangely, Hoffman is so good here that it might be to the film’s detriment. Pheonix’s character is instead the focus– a primal man brilliantly portrayed by Pheonix– but a difficult point of view from which to connect with the audience. The character had few redeeming qualities from which to relate. The film would have made a stronger emotional connection, I think, if its primary focus was Hoffman’s enrapturing persona rather than Pheonix’s. The result was an emptiness– a vacuousness– that failed to adhere. Even so, the film is worth it for the performances alone.

(2) Safety Not Guaranteed

First off, I want to say that I’m somewhat embarrassed that I am ranking this film at #2. Let me preface this ranking by acknowledging that this movie, and its script, is filled with flaws. The reason the film is getting such a high ranking in spite of its flaws is that I think it works within its genre. It had genuine heart, despite its quirky plot. (Of course, it also helps that this was a particularly poor year in film; an opportunity to take a little liberty with my top rankings.) These sorts of movies also tend to have the unique quality of being able to wow you in the end, and Safety Not Guaranteed is no exception. As zany romantic comedies go, I’ll take this film over a movie like Silver Linings Playbook any day. The key difference in the case of Safety is that the plot gimmicks aren’t forced, and the ending isn’t a cliche sell out. Quite simply, it was a joy to watch and it struck me as authentic– and Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza make for a charming tandem. This is how the genre should look.

This ranking is also a reflection of just how shitty movies were this year. If I’m being honest, the only reason I’m ranking it at #2 is because it’s one of only two films from this year that I wouldn’t mind watching a second time. That should count for something, right?

(1) Beasts of the Southern Wild

In considering the best film of the year, there was never really any competition. Beasts of the Southern Wild stands alone as this year’s only true heavyweight. Beautiful, poetic, captivating, inspiring– a true modern day fairytale. Though it dances in mythology, Beasts is a visceral, authentic narrative that connects. Simply breathtaking.

Well it’s that time of year again: this is the definitive list for the best films of the year. Much like last year, the field of good films runs quite deep, even though it isn’t very top heavy– that is, there aren’t many ‘elite’ films; but lots of good ones. I usually only rank the top 15, or 10 (in down years), but this year I even considered extending the list to 25. That said, this is also one of those years that the Academy Awards are destined to get wrong. Most of the year’s best films are smaller, indie films or far too edgy or violent for Oscar sentiments to handle. In fact, many of the major Oscar categories are filled with mediocre films this year (one perfect example: “War Horse” is not just bad, it is probably Spielberg’s worst film ever). Acting nominations are also awry, as many of the best performances of the year– especially from women– were completely unrecognized (Glenn Close in “Albert Nobbs” instead of Carey Mulligan in “Shame”? Seriously?). If you’re the type to use the Oscars as a guide at year’s end to catch up on some of the best films of the year, you really need this list instead this year.

Before getting to the list, the usual disclaimers: I can’t see every film. While I have a pretty stringent vetting process, there are some good movies that I might have missed. Also, many foreign films are impossible to find and watch until later into the following year, so this list is always up for revision and occasional reshuffling. Secondly, several of my reviews of movies on this list are critical. Those criticisms are there to justify why I have ranked the films as I have, not to suggest that any film on this list is not worth seeing. If it’s listed, it’s a good film.

Now without further delay, here’s the 20 best films of 2011!

(20) 50/50

This is a film I avoided until much later into the year. Any film that advertizes the fact that it’s from the same people who created “Superbad,” but is about a young man who gets cancer, can’t leave many people with high expectations, can it? The good news is this film is actually only barely a comedy, and treats the subject with honesty. Don’t get me wrong, it has its faults, but in the end 50/50 tugs at genuine heartstrings.

(19) Margin Call

‘Margin Call”s biggest strength lies in its excellent script, even though the acting is, with a few exceptions, largely dry. Dialogue is punchy and smart, filled with poignant reflections on the warped values that ultimately led to the financial collapse of ’07.

(18) We Need to Talk About Kevin

Tilda Swinton is the first notable actress among many from the movies on this list that got snubbed by the Academy this year. She easily deserves a nomination over all those who did receive one, with the only exception being perhaps Michelle Williams. ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ is an edgy, creepy thriller, beautifully shot and edited, and as said, well acted too. It falters, however, in the non-linear way with which the storyline unfolds. The narrative gets a bit lost for the concept, and for this reason I found myself occasionally bored and disconnected from the plot. Even so, the film brilliantly unfolds like a nightmare– and may leave you laying awake at night pondering its premise.

(17) Tyrannosaur

This is one of those obscure little gems that come from out of no where to leave an impression. Paddy Considine’s directorial debut is rough around the edges, but soft on the interior. It never tries to be anything more than what it is, which is just enough. Acting is also superb: each character is deeply damaged, but somehow retain the best of intentions.

(16) My Week with Marilyn

Among those nominated for best actress this year, Michelle Williams is the most deserving. This is a side of Marilyn Monroe we’ve not fully seen before, a vulnerability that Williams captures flawlessly. Ironically, though, the film’s biggest asset is also its biggest obstacle– Williams’ performance. Quite simply, filling the role of one of the greatest sex symbols of a generation is no simple role call. As wonderful as Williams’ portrayal is, she just doesn’t carry the allure that the role demands. This is no fault of Williams– who transcended her own boundaries in many ways here– but the shoes are just too big to fill, and as a result the film fell a bit flat.

(15) The Artist

Oscar bait. Odds are strong that this film will win for Best Picture this year. First, what worked: cinematography is stunning. Really beautiful. Acting is also top notch– Jean Dujardin deserves to be in the discussion for best actor. Lastly, the film’s concept is extremely clever. The problem, though? Who wants to honestly sit through a silent film anymore? Sound does get incorporated into the film incrementally, but this technique is too under-utilized. If sound had been more consistently incorporated as character development escalated and the plotline progressed, I think this movie really could have transcended itself. But instead it just embraced itself as a silent film. It just didn’t follow through with the concept enough to engage me with it. In the end, the antique aspects of the genre just won’t appeal to the modern movie goer.

(14) The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito)

Before saying anything about the film, take note: If you’re watching the trailers I’ve posted for these movies, this trailer is one of the worst, most amateurish trailers I’ve ever seen. Best to ignore the text in it entirely– it’s awful. Please, do yourself a favor and don’t judge this movie based upon its trailer. That said, on to the movie itself: anyone who is a fan of Pedro Almodóvar will probably think this film is another masterpiece– and they wouldn’t be terribly far off. The narrative is a bit zany, but there are some poignant philosophical quandaries explored here. (Think along the lines of gender being only ‘skin deep’).

(13) Carnage

I found myself laughing out loud throughout this film. The escalation of the dialogue is like a symphony into chaos, carefully stripping away the facade of civilization into the raw carnage that lies underneath. The cast here is fantastic, with excellent acting by each. If one performance stands out, though, it belongs to Kate Winslet (another actress this year who may have deserved an Awards nod).  The first half of the film is far more effective than the second half– it begins to lose its authenticity, or believability, as things progress (and by this, I don’t mean in the way that the film had intended to descend into chaos– I mean that the dialogue and character swings became unrelatable). This isn’t a long film, you can watch it in a little over an hour, but you may want to watch it again.

(12) The Tree of Life

As a huge Terrence Malick fan, I went into this film with the highest of possible expectations. This was supposed to be his magnum opus; an all-encompassing epic that would profoundly answer all of nature’s mysteries about humankind’s place in the cosmos. In other words, I was pretty much destined to be disappointed. And by comparison to those expectations, and to Malick’s body of work, this film did fall short. First, though: the cinematography in this film is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. If you go into this film thinking of it more as a videographer’s portfolio than a film with a real narrative, you’ll have your breath taken away. The problem with the movie comes with the narrative. The narrator’s dialogue is extremely vague and abstruse– it adds almost nothing to the progression of the narrative, or to the imagery (basically, the narrator only asks the vaguest of questions throughout the film, things like: “Who am I?”, “Why am I here?”, etc. with little nuance). I’d rather it just have been left out. Several other aspects to the narrative, such as a few brief scenes at Sean Penn’s character’s workplace, are left completely undeveloped. In the end, the ethereal aspects of this film’s narrative just leave you floating aimlessly in thin air. For those who require something to grasp onto here: don’t overthink it. The entire plotline is really just a story about a family coping with the death of a child– trying to make sense of it in the grand scheme of life on Earth. That’s all this really is, at heart. It’s a beautiful film, but also a tad overarching.

(11) Midnight in Paris

Many people are lauding this as the best Woody Allen movie in over a decade. Not quite. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” was easily superior, but it was a few years ago and how quickly we forget. It’s true that Allen hasn’t left us with many memorable films in these latter years, though; Allen has been shooting blanks for a long time. So ‘Midnight in Paris’ was a welcome relief! The script is endlessly charming and endearing, and the plotline is original and well-executed. Where this film can be criticized, it’s in the acting. Owen Wilson does a half-hearted Woody Allen impersonation– he was poorly cast. Most of the supporting performances are forgettable too. But overall, this is an endearing film. It’s nice to have you back, Woody Allen.

(10) Martha Marcy May Marlene

What’s this? An Olsen sister that can actually act? Elizabeth Olsen doesn’t just act– she delivers one of the best performances of the year by a female lead. It’s yet another great female performance that went overlooked by the Oscars this year. This film is extremely smart as it unravels psychologically– even the viewer is likely to mix up dreams and nightmares from reality– much as a cult might weave its way into a young woman’s vulnerable psyche. I’ll guarantee you one thing about this film: it’s got an ending that you’ll never see coming.

(9) Incendies

Technically part of last year’s Oscar class, “Incendies” wasn’t released to most audiences until later into 2011, so for me it’s included in this year’s class. A haunting, haunting film that is as engaging as it is poignant. And poignant it is. Conflict in the Middle East is tragic for many reasons, but perhaps the most devastating is the fact that when you strip away the veneer of history, it’s really just neighbor killing neighbor; or maybe an even closer relation than that.

(8) Beginners

An endearing script, “Beginners” is director Mike Mills’ autobiographical dramatization of his own life. But you don’t need to know that fact to enjoy this film. Non-conventional modes of storytelling are interwoven seamlessly throughout the film, such as a dog which gets its own subtitles, and narration that gives the story both a place in time and a generalized, universal relatedness that is timeless. In the end, it’s just a sweet story about people finding their own value in each other. Christopher Plummer has the noteworthy performance here, as a man who “comes out” to his son at the age of 75.

(7) Take Shelter

This is one of the true indie gems from this year. The way the drama escalates is done to subtle perfection, ultimately climaxing in a riveting final 20 minutes. The film seems to end in a flawlessly-executed faux-resolution, until that ending is usurped by the true ending, one which ties it all together brilliantly, and will leave many audiences both perplexed and enlightened. It’s simply great filmmaking. Michael Shannon deserved an Oscar nod for this performance, but was overlooked. The thing that really makes this film transcendent, however, is in what it represents. Few films better capture the insecurity and restlessness of the current American psyche. Is it really so crazy to prepare for a coming storm?

(6) Young Adult

This film really shows the maturity of screenwriter Diablo Cody (“Juno”), and is her best work to date. Charlize Theron also deserves recognition for putting on a fantastic performance– she was perfectly cast. Theron plays an author of books in the ‘Young Adult’ genre– a label with meanings on multiple levels within the movie. Aside from being funny, this script is devastating (in the best possible way) during its protagonist’s final redemption. Despite a few plot bumps (why was Mavis’ mother and father at the party at the end?), the script completely floors you by the time it’s over. There’s no holding back here, no time for pleasantries. The dialogue is cutting and honest, especially in the film’s last series of scenes and interactions. (The last conversation in the film is brutally authentic!). Anyone with ambition who has a hometown that they have left, but occasionally return to, will find this film poignantly relatable. On the other hand, those who live ordinary lives having never left their hometown may want to be forewarned: this film will kick your ass.

(5) The Descendants

Alexander Payne has quickly become one of my favorite screenwriters (Sideways, About Schmidt, 14e Arrondissement), and I really, really wanted to rank this film higher than fifth. In the end, though, I couldn’t do it in good faith. The film has all the wonderful elements characteristic of a Payne script: character faces a major change or life moment, goes on some kind of journey to find resolution through a series of missteps, then reaches an existential resolution. Part of what makes his scripts so charming is that he finds this resolution in otherwise ordinary characters. With “The Descendants,” though, there were a couple of elements in the script that just didn’t fit right. Namely, the comedic elements. Case in point: the young man who Matt King’s daughter brings along on the journey. The character is meant to be a comedic element, but instead his placement throughout the film is just awkward and doesn’t really make much sense. A number of other comedic moments also fall short. Where this film earns its top 5 ranking, however, is in its dramatic elements. Payne is simply a master at creating authentic dramatic climaxes that are gut-wrenching and true, and which are relatable to just about anyone. “The Descendants” is no where near the level of the brilliant “Sideways,” but it was still one of the best films of this year.

(4) Moneyball

Aaron Sorkin has done it again: turned a story which has no business being made into a film, into a really good film. Last year, he somehow turned out a script about Facebook into one of the best films of the year. This year, he turned a book about baseball statistics (baseball statistics!) into a complex, brooding character study. How does he find these stories buried underneath otherwise un-filmable content? Anyone who hears the premise of this movie would be forgiven for being turned off– but you’d also regret it. “Moneyball” is layered with value. The best movies also find a way to wow you in the end, and that’s exactly what “Moneyball” does. The final scene with Pitt driving in his car contains so much value in such a subtle moment– a moment which is set up deliberately throughout the whole film. You just have to appreciate great screenwriting when you see it.

(3) Shame

Not a flaw to be found in this filmmaking. “Shame” is a penetrating character study which uses sexual addiction as its metaphor; and it’s simply captivating. It also contains the two best performances of the year. If I had my way, both Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan would win for best actor and actress respectively (unfortunately this film might be too dark and real for the Academy to handle.) Mulligan, in particular, takes it to another level. Her performance absolutely blew me away. Not just the best performance from an actress this year, but I would now place Mulligan atop a shortlist of the best actresses in the business right now– from this performance alone. I can’t speak more highly of it. Beautifully filmed and utterly heart-wrenching, I wouldn’t fault anyone for ranking “Shame” as the best movie of the year. For me, though, there were two others…

(2) Like Crazy

Every once in a while a film comes out of no where, totally unexpected, and just floors you by how right it gets it. Few films have captured at once the beauty and destructiveness of first love better than “Like Crazy”. It’s simply one of the best films on the obsessiveness of young love that I’ve seen in a long, long time. Anyone who has dealt with the ambiguity of a long distance relationship on top of it will find this film crushingly relatable. Acting is also great, with Felicity Jones being another overlooked actress this year. There are a lot of good films. There are a lot of great films. But I think the best films are the ones that somehow, someway just get it completely right. This film hit me there, in that place. Also, the trailer for this film might be the best trailer of the year. I dare you not to watch this film after seeing that trailer.

(1) Drive

In a year when many of the best films turned out to come from no where, it’s appropriate that ‘Drive’ should be #1. When I went to see this film, I didn’t go with high expectations. I knew it had received trustworthy reviews, but in my head I just assumed it would probably turn out to be an arthouse attempt at “Fast and Furious,” or something. Instead, I got blown away. Unfortunately, this film is likely too dark and violent for the Academy– which is a shame, because it was the clear-cut best film of the year. Thematically, this is simply a classic anti-hero character study done to perfection. I suppose the highest compliment you can afford any movie is just to say that it was good cinema. Yes, this film has great acting (notables: Carey Mulligan, again… as well as Albert Brooks), a great script, beautiful cinematography. But it was also just damn good cinema. This is what people go to the movies for. Did I mention that it was beautifully filmed? And just damn cool?

All in all, I thought this year was a good one for film. Although there are only a couple of ‘elite’ films, the amount of films worthy of mention this year runs relatively deep. For those who are uninitiated, I am a big film buff and do these rankings every year. Here’s a quick look at my ratings from the last couple of years– you can find my 2009 rankings here, and my 2008 rankings here. Sometimes I rank 10 films, 15 films, 20, or some other number, such as this year’s 18– it all depends on how many films I feel are worth recommending in a given year.

Without further ado, here are the best movies of 2010, ranked from last to first (the links lead to the film’s trailer). Also, I criticize some of the films at the top of this list mostly to justify their worse ranking; but all films on this list are still worth seeing and at least partially exceptional.

(18) The Way Back

Although the film fell short of my high hopes, Peter Weir’s latest is still worth a spot on this list. Based on a true story of escapees from a Siberian prison camp who walked over mountains and deserts, as well as through history, all the way to India for their freedom, “The Way Back” could have been as epic as the story it portrays. Unfortunately, the characters are stoic and largely expressionless for most of the film (until a young woman joins their ranks), leading to a pervasive lack of real connection to their individual plotlines. And too much time was spent early in the movie regarding their escape, when it would have been better spent focusing on the trials of their inspiring journey. Nevertheless, this film will inspire you.

(17) Fair Game

Well done, accurate dramatization of the Valerie Plame leak scandal, and how WMD ‘evidence’ used to bring the USA to war with Iraq was done so fraudulently and deliberately. Bush administration apologists will undoubtedly find some fault with it. Sean Penn delivers a fantastic performance.

(16) Never Let Me Go

The depth of the content of this film can be far better appreciated in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel of the same name, which the film is based on. The film seems to border on this depth throughout, but never seems to shove the viewer fully in. Instead, the movie has a slow pace and a depressing payoff which will likely leave a lot of viewers feeling let down. This is a depressing movie, and it does seem to be missing something essential that’s difficult to articulate, but Carey Mulligan puts together a fantastic performance and the film has subtle, beautiful connection to the human condition that will impact you long after the credits roll. You will probably forget that this is a sci-fi film entirely.

(15) Rabbit Hole

A movie about dealing with grief, “Rabbit Hole” is a well-constructed script and Nicole Kidman delivers a fantastic performance. The film can be difficult to watch in parts due to its content; it’s a film about learning how to move on without completely having to let go. I’m still not really sold on Aaron Eckhart, but overall he does a pretty good job here.

(14) Kick-Ass

This film might seem out of place on this list, but for me it was quietly one of the biggest surprises of the year. It’s a bit of a spoof of the comic book/superhero genre, and much in the spirit of the charming ’99 movie, “Galaxy Quest,” it manages to be incredibly funny and entertaining, with a genuine heart, despite its outlandish premise. Though it is meant as a spoof, this film may quietly be one of the best superhero movies ever made. You heard me right.

(13) Barney’s Version

A delightful script and excellent performance from Paul Giamatti make Barney’s version of his own passionate life shrewdly entertaining and, in parts, touching.

(12) Biutiful

Beautiful cinematography pulls this character study and story of atonement together. Javier Bardem delivers one of the best performances of the year.

(11) True Grit

When the Coen Brothers make a movie, it’s almost always a shoe-in for my top 10 of the year. Though True Grit falls just outside of the top 10 this year, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t still a damn good flick. It just means it’s not up to snuff for the Coens. Jeff Bridges, one of the best actors in the business, offers a fantastic performance which might have landed him the Oscar for Best Actor this year if it weren’t for a certain stuttering Brit (to be mentioned later in this list). Hailee Steinfeld also delivered one of the best performances from a young actress of all time, as the sharp-witted, and revenge-driven Mattie Ross.

(10) Hereafter

This was one of the best constructed films of the year. The subtlety and pace of the character development is pure poetry– and I mean that with the highest praise possible. That character development is the movie’s shining strength; the film only falls short in its rather bland payoff in the end and the seriousness with which it takes its metaphysical and spiritual aspects. Those aspects would have been just fine as metaphors, but ultimately the film’s payoff seems to rely heavily upon its viewers taking its metaphysics literally. Nevertheless, don’t let this discourage you– the way this film develops its characters is like a subtle, elegant, perfectly paced dance. Really beautiful.

(9) The Fighter

This film probably contains the best overall acting of the year. Look for “The Fighter” to sweep the Oscars for all the supporting actor/actress awards this year. Christian Bale is almost certainly going to win the supporting actor award, and Melissa Leo is probably going to take the supporting actress award. Amy Adams is also nominated here; outshined only by Leo. These are fantastic characters, and they make the movie what it is.

(8) Winter’s Bone

One of the indie film surprises of the year, “Winter’s Bone” is a very real film with excellent performances from everyone involved, particularly Leo and Lawrence. Chilling, frightening, intriguing and brave, the movie will takes you into the corrupt culture of meth dealing, economically depressed Appalachia, a culture just as sick the addicts it manifests.

(7) Somewhere

Don’t get me wrong, this is no “Lost in Translation”, but anyone that enjoyed Sofia Coppola’s masterpiece will immediately find “Somewhere” recognizable. Coppola is simply a master at subtlety. The beauty found in the most ordinary and simple moments throughout this film not only make it exceptional, but those unexpected scenes are also the places where its characters make the most sense. Like with “Lost in Translation”, Coppola somehow finds an untranslatable, subtle understanding in what almost seem like accidental moments. She lingers on those moments, once found, as if to let them speak entirely for themselves. To me, it demonstrates incredible conceptual control.

(6) 127 Hours

I’m still surprised an entire feature film could have been made from this story, but Boyle pulled it off. Brilliantly directed and edited (this film deserves to win the Oscar for best film editing), with a great performance from Franco, “127 Hours” is an inspiring testament to life. It’s worth at least one of your arms to see.

(5) Blue Valentine

This film piqued my interest when it was initially given an NC-17 rating– a sign that it was quite a bit braver and more poignant than the cheesy hipster romance I first assumed it would be. Even though Gosling’s hipster lameness was painful to endure in parts, this film impressed me in every other way. Of course, it’s not really a film about romance– it’s a film about a relationship, and a marriage, that has run its course. It’s brilliantly real and poignant in its portrayal– a very well constructed film. Michele Williams makes up for Gosling’s woes– it’s time to recognize her as one of the best young actresses in the business.

(4) The King’s Speech

Colin Firth should easily win the Oscar for best actor for his exceptional portrayal of stuttering royalty in this incredibly well-constructed film. There are really no flaws in this movie at all, and it is one of only three real competitors for the best film of the year by Oscar measures (along with two others to be mentioned later in this list). The speech at the end of the film is truly breathtaking, and so well acted that this might actually be one of the best performances of the decade. Firth should finally get recognition from the Academy for this role.

(3) The Social Network

I never thought a film about Facebook could draw such a great script and such great talent, but somehow this might be the first iconic film that belongs solely to the 21st century. This is Fincher’s best work since “Fight Club” and “Seven”, a great improvement over the disappointing “Benjamin Button”, and probably the best movie of his career. He should win the Oscar for best director. Although I personally rank it as the third best movie of the year, I predict that “The Social Network” will also win the Oscar for best picture.

(2) The Kids Are All Right

My favorite movies usually have the best scripts– I’m a screenplay-oriented movie goer– and “The Kids Are All Right” had the best script of the year. It helps that all of its actors delivered brilliant performances– the best overall acting of the year, maybe only behind “The Fighter”. Annette Bening is a serious contender to win the best actress Oscar, and Julianne Moore deserved (though didn’t get) a nomination too. Mark Ruffalo is also deservedly nominated for supporting actor, and he was superbly cast. But this film truly shines in its script and its story; it is endlessly witty with extremely well-imagined characters, and genuine heart.

(1) Black Swan

Not only the best film of the year, “Black Swan” is also probably one of the best films of the decade. I’m not sure everyone who sees it will fully appreciate the ambition of what this film is doing artistically. The film ends with its main character experiencing “artistic perfection”. For that to work, the film itself needs to portray that sense of artistic perfection too– and it succeeds. Surrealism done to perfection, this movie is also the best horror film in years. Portman delivers the best performance of her career, and deserves to win the Oscar for best lead actress. I didn’t think Aronofsky could ever outdo “The Wrestler”, but now I think it’s time to consider him one of the best directors in the business. He, and this film, deserves to win at the Oscars, but I suspect it will go to Fincher and “The Social Network” instead.

As an annual tradition, here’s my rankings of last year’s top 10 films. Usually my lists extend to a full 15 films, but this year I had an incredibly difficult time even finding 10 films worth commending. To put it plainly, 2009 was a miserable year for film. My list this year, therefore, had to be cut short. Furthermore, this year’s list is probably unlikely to surprise too many people. Quite simply, there were so few decent films this year that a lot of critics’ lists are likely to look similar.

Moreover, as always, I like to include a few disclaimers before getting on to the rankings: (1) I don’t include documentaries in my lists, simply because I think they’re a completely different kind of film and can’t be rated alongside feature films. Having said that, this year was actually a very good year, relatively speaking, for documentaries (‘The Cove’ and ‘Food, Inc.’ are must-sees!), and my condemnation of 2009’s movie class doesn’t carry over to documentaries. (2) I try to see all the movies which I think qualify that I can each year, but I haven’t seen them all. Most notably– many of 2009’s foreign films are not always easily accessible this early into the next year, and I simply haven’t seen a wide variety of critically acclaimed foreign films this year. (3) This list is always subject to change and revision.

Now on to the list (links are to each film’s trailers)!

(10) Sin Nombre

Although the gang sequences were filled with a number of cliches, the personal and cultural subplots are woven together well to deliver a gritty, moving and very real film. This was the only foreign language film I’ve seen this year which moved me at all, though my selections this year have been limited.

(9) Precious

Fantastic acting from unexpected talent is this film’s greatest highlight. The filmmaking joy here lies in the juxtaposition between dream/fantasy sequences and reality, and the way transitions are made between them. But the film flounders overall thematically, promising to portray a harsh reality, but often times just leaving the audience with perverse racial stereotypes. Those stereotypes are redeemed only briefly with hints at commentary on social perception– and, frankly, those moments are far and few between. I’m not so sure how much reality is really contained in this supposedly ‘real’ film.

(8) The Messenger

This is a good complimentary movie to this year’s much superior film, “The Hurt Locker”. While the film shines in portraying the psychological struggles and burdens of a soldier returning home from war, and in showing the grief of dealing with what was lost from it, “The Messenger”‘s real strength lies in the performances of its supporting actors, Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton. Harrelson delivers confident, witty dialogue which is only a veneer for a lonely, desperate man, and Morton superbly plays a grieving housewife in an unconventional casting of a romantic lead.

(7) Avatar

If 3D ever officially crosses over from being the latest trendy, Hollywood ploy to gaining mainstream notoriety, then it will have Avatar to thank. Visually, the movie is enthralling and otherworldly, a real masterpiece. Where the movie goes wrong is in its script. Let’s face it, this script is mediocre at best. While I quite enjoy its overall themes of nature worship, environmentalism, anti-militarism and anti-corporation, this film isn’t likely to move any cultural mountains– at least, not in any sophisticated way. But as a compliment for anyone who already shares its sentiments, Avatar is a visual treat and an exceptional moviegoing experience which genuinely pulls the viewer in and makes them wish they never had to take the 3D glasses off.

(6) An Education

Carey Mulligan deserves to win the Oscar for her nomination as best lead actress here. She’s my pick. Although the film seems to struggle in finding– and delivering– its occasionally ambiguous message, Mulligan shines in portraying an intelligent young woman’s coming of age.

(5) A Serious Man

The Coen Brothers never disappoint, and ‘A Serious Man’ is the first film on this list which doesn’t warrant any sort of substantial disclaimer or criticism to weigh against its highlights. Executed rather flawlessly, this existential film over Jewish angst only really falters in that it’s occasionally rather boring. That flatness, however, is nevertheless a shining example of great tonal control– something the Coens excel at. This isn’t going to be your favorite Coen Brothers movie, but it won’t be a let down either.

(4) The Road

I’m a bit surprised by the fact that this film has been largely overlooked among critics this year– perhaps they missed its deep layers in the film’s subtlety. It was one of only 4 movies I considered as a candidate for best film of the year. Well acted, particularly by Mortensen, though there’s also a noteworthy role played by Robert Duvall too. The film undoubtedly struggles to compete with the book, but taken on its own merits, it touched me more than any other in this year’s class.

(3) Inglourious Basterds

This is Tarantino’s best work since his masterpiece, Pulp Fiction. Although the film is far more playful than poignant, a problem which plagues the whole Tarantino’s catalogue other than ‘Pulp’ and perhaps ‘Jackie Brown’, it’s easy to forget these flaws amid its brilliantly escalating dialogue. The opening sequence is so wonderfully executed that I was nearly prepared to declare it as Tarantino’s finest moment while in the middle of it. Extremely entertaining film. I wouldn’t mind if it won for Best Picture, though it isn’t my first choice among the nominees this year.

(2) A Single Man

A stunningly well put together film from Tom Ford, ‘A Single Man’ would be a fantastic accomplishment for any year. Colin Firth is perfectly casted and delivers a striking performance, and the film’s dialogue walks a near flawless tightrope between being over-intellectualized and being visceral and deeply emotional. Rather, the movie is intellectual in the most genuine way– as a complex, existential, aesthetic, abstract and layered character story touching in equal parts with sensuality and despair.

(1) The Hurt Locker

This is a movie about the thrill of war, yes. But it’s more about the thrill than it is about the war. The story will touch you in a far deeper and more abstract way than its gritty, intense war scenes would at first imply. Walking away from this film, it’s difficult not be struck with an echoing undulation and, frankly, acute sense of banality with one’s life– that, or a longing for something more. The film’s most poignant moment does not come during any of the intense battles and suspenseful moments, oddly enough, but rather in a few short scenes that happen when Jeremy Renner’s soldier returns home. A short scene in a supermarket and another cleaning out a gutter, while seemingly out of context from the whole rest of the film, are actually the moments that give the film its character and meaning. Subtle, though extremely powerful, the juxtaposition that is established in only about 5 minutes of this feature length film show incredible control by its filmmakers and writers, shaping ‘The Hurt Locker’ into the best movie of 2009.

Film has always been a passion of mine, and in now-traditional fashion I’d like to present the 15 best films of the year, in my humble opinion. First, a couple of disclaimers. Although I make an effort to see most of the movies which I think have a chance of making this list, I can’t see every movie. So, it’s certainly possible that a couple of films slipped through the cracks and deserve to be on this list, but aren’t. If you think something deserves to be here, please tell me!

Next, this list will be subject to change. I’ve been known to expand it to the top 20 films, and I reserve the right to edit this list frequently as I see the movies a second time, or just have second thoughts.

Now, the list.

If you click the links, you can view the film trailers…

15. Let the Right One In (Låt den Rätte Komma In)

An entirely original take on the vampire/horror genre, this genre-bending Swedish film (a Swedish vampire movie?) is an isolationist coming-of-age story with loads more heart than creepiness and gore. Definitely worth seeing even if you’re not usually a fan of vampires.

14. Wendy and Lucy

There’s nothing minimal about this minimalist film– filmed locally right here in Oregon. Its extremely low budget gave this film some real limits, but its subtle tones and implicit emotional underpinnings make this lonely character study particularly poignant for our economic times.

13. Happy-Go-Lucky

Mike Leigh, usually known for his cynicism, makes his commentary on optimism here. Loaded with irony and tongue-in-cheek looks at its ceaselessly cheerful (and terribly annoying) main character, Poppy, this film is ultimately about how far she’ll go to maintain that optimism. The film’s real magic comes out during Poppy’s interactions with her driving instructor, Scott, who offers the biggest challenge to her optimism– and ultimately brings out the worst in her cheer.

12. In Bruges

Clever, witty, entertaining– I was surprised by how tightly well written this script was. As a cynical comedy, it was bested this year by only ‘Burn After Reading’.

11. Milk

Sean Penn is brilliant in his portrayal of Harvey Milk in this true story of the first openly gay man elected to public office, a Gus Van Sant film. This movie isn’t breaking any new ground as a film, but it’s a well-acted and an inspirational tribute, not just to Milk, but to the power of political will and activism.

10. Frost/Nixon

Ron Howard directed, this film is best as a character study of Richard Nixon, played brilliantly by Frank Langella. Frost’s story is mostly a banal backdrop to Nixon’s personal and intellectual motivations. Nixon is portrayed as an intellectual mastermind, though deeply troubled and disconnected. Don’t be mistaken, this is a character study before it is a political commentary, but it’s difficult to avoid making comparisons to current political environments.

9. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Perhaps more a criticism of passion than an endorsement for it, this Woody Allen film is endlessly witty and cleverly woven together. This is easily the most gripping film from Allen in the last decade, and I’m definitely digging the Johansson/Allen match– a chemistry which was missing in the horrible ‘Match Point’. These Allen-designed characters, always biting, complex and explicit, have the potential to bring out the best in actresses, and the best performance here comes unexpectedly from Penelope Cruz.

8. The Visitor

Richard Jenkins is stellar in this role, of a bored and uninspired old professor, who discovers himself again when he becomes open to seeing life anew through the eyes of others. A touching, relatable film that at times alludes to larger, cultural commentary without losing its heart as a simple character story.

7. Frozen River

A gripping, real film which subtly touches on struggles at so many different levels, whether institutional, cross-cultural, racial, educational, economic, familial or personal. A wonderful performance from Melissa Leo here caps off one of the better scripts of the year.

6. Burn After Reading

The Cohen Brothers do it again, this time more playfully than in last year’s ‘No Country for Old Men’, but equally as poignant and entertaining. This is easily the best assembled cast of the year– an intricate cultural commentary, alight with confusion, stupidity and conflict which ultimately results in a shallow, simple woman getting a boob job to help inspire her self-esteem. Brilliant.

5. Synecdoche, New York

If I had to pick one movie from last year ahead of time as my favorite to be the best of the year, it was this one. As many know, I’m a huge, huge, huge Charlie Kaufman fan and I’ve been waiting for this film for around 4 years. While it was brilliant– in the scene with the priest giving a speech, Kaufman may have had his ‘Hamlet moment’– it had its flaws too. This was Kaufman’s first directorial attempt, and in parts we’re reminded that every great writer still needs an editor. Still, this film is an all-encompassing masterpiece which continues Kaufman’s march into legendary screenwriting status. You can read a fuller review I wrote on this movie at my blog here.

4. Slumdog Millionaire

Every once in a while there’s a movie that, despite its absurdities, hovers in a realm of otherworldly scrutiny; a film that romances you with its ideals and heart, which touches you on such an inscrutable level that you become utterly hypnotized by the world it posits. That’s the idea behind Slumdog Millionaire. Can you believe a lowly slumdog could win one million dollars? Ultimately, this is a film about what’s really important– and its main character never lost sight of that, no matter what kind of shit he had to crawl through (literally). What made Jamal truly rich was something inside of him which he refused to lose sight of, even when everyone else around him floundered or sold out. Indeed, it was written.

3. The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke is pretty much a shoe-in for best actor of the year for this role. An astonishing real, touching, remarkable character study which never lost site of its subject. This might be the ‘truest’ film of the year.

2. Doubt

Doubt vs. Faith. Orthodoxy vs. Liberalism. Sternness vs. Compassion. This film ultimately settles in the gray area that muddles these false catholic dichotomies; it settles among ambiguity, the realm where all our defining choices are really made. It is perhaps particularly poignant for those who, like me, grew up surrounded by the Catholic institution. The acting all around is superb, and the script– based upon the pulitzer prize winning play– is the best script of the year.

1. Revolutionary Road

Despite some directorial wrinkles, this was easily the most poignant film of the year. And I’m happy to admit a thematic bias here, too. Kate Winslett was shafted by being nominated best actress for ‘The Reader’ instead of her role here– she was stunning in this film. The best performance of her career, easily. This criticism of the American Dream and suburban psychology brutally challenges its squeamish, escaptist American audience. Pure delight for me, but probably gritty torture for them.

There’s no secret about my love for Charlie Kaufman movies, so needless to say I’ve been waiting for this one all year long. Usually reserved to screenwriting duties, Kaufman went a step further with Synecdoche, New York, and made his directorial debut. Perhaps for this reason, this film peers even deeper into the absurdities and recursions of Kaufman’s mind than we’ve seen in the past. The film also features what may be the perfect marriage to Kaufman’s characters, with Phillip Seymour Hoffman playing the lead.

If Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind tiptoed the surrealistic line, Synecdoche, New York tumbles right over the edge. Unlike his previous films, Synecdoche also largely abandons a cohesive narrative flow. Although we do grow older with the character, each snippet of the character’s life is so stock full of recursion and self-reference that aging does little to offer narrative structure to the viewer.

“Synecdoche” is a literary term which refers to a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part. And likewise, the film as a whole can potentially be either praised or criticized scene for scene. It has moments of sheer brilliance, perhaps most notably during a funeral scene where a priest gives a breathtaking speech, which might just be Kaufman’s “Hamlet moment”. Unfortunately, the film has many scenes and symbols which are also extremely frustrating, definitely a reminder that every great writer still needs an editor.

Overall, this is a film that needs to be seen multiple times– really, it should be viewed multiple times. To be praised for its ambition and profundity, I find it difficult to ultimately fault Kaufman for slipping up on occasion within a film that’s trying to say everything.

The only real question left is: Where does Kaufman go from here? Can he return to writing more accessible films, or will Kaufman go completely David Lynch and get even more recursive? Kaufman has left his career in a precarious place: Does he continue to recycle the same grand ambition? After making a film which attempts to say it all, perhaps the most mysterious thing about Synecdoche, New York is wondering about what its intellectual sequel could possibly be.

Hopefully we won’t have to wait another 4 years to find out.

The Angriest Dog in the World
I’ve always been a big fan of David Lynch’s films and his television series, Twin Peaks, but what some people don’t know is that he’s also been a pioneer as a comic strip writer. His comic strip titled, The Angriest Dog in the World, is a favorite of mine. Each strip almost always has exactly the same progression of images, and every strip begins with the same caption:

The dog who is so angry he cannot move. He cannot eat. He cannot sleep. He can just barely growl. Bound so tightly with tension and anger, he approaches the state of rigor mortis.

Here are some links to a few favorite examples:

If everything is real…
The psychological origin of the idea of space…
Pete has a “running gag”…
It must be clear even to the non-mathematician…
Some weeks, nothing is funny…
It doesn’t get any better than this…

David Lynch is also my favorite source for getting the weather in the morning.