The Bestest 2016: Filmmage

Mercury Rev

Mercury Rev, scoring Vampyr

Great TV is inflicting pain on the movie business. Not just because the most creative writers and directors are expanding their ambitions to the small screen, but also because many of the theaters where you see high-brow films have disappeared. But the Golden Age of TV has also made it possible to see these small films from the comfort of your couch, not long after their theatrical release or occasionally at the same time. This list is filled with a bunch of heavy seeming stories, fitting given the events of the past year, but in this relative gloom, there is so much beauty. Art always helps bury sorrow, even if the art is sorrowful.

1.  La La Land– Dir. Damien Chazelle (Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling)

So soon after “Whiplash,” it’s hard to imagine a director making a film as ambitious, creative, and seemingly unmakable as “La La Land” – unless you’ve been dreaming about it for years and years. Although, I am fanatical about music, I am not usually a fan of musicals, but somehow this film both transcends the genre, and but also exists squarely within it.

For it’s portrayal of ambition, celebrity, self-doubt, human magic, and of course the city that is it’s muse, “La La Land” is truly a modern masterpiece. It’s impossible to imagine this film starring anyone but Gosling and Stone, but we don’t need to. Both actors were already two of the best of their generation, but now there is no doubt. This is the kind of film that reassures me that people will always go to the theater. It is also the kind of film that reinforces my hope that greatness will always find a way to be seen and heard. Art is often magical, and the best magic is almost found in great art.

 2. O.J.: Made in America – Dir. Ezra Edelman (OJ Simpson)

Like “La La Land” this sprawling documentary about a figure you thought you knew everything about, is telling a very similar story. It is a story about Los Angeles in all its surrealism. It’s where dreams are made and destroyed; a factory town, where people are the product, and even when you do succeed, you live precariously close to failure all of the time. And often when the world gives you more than you could ever imagine, you lose perspective.

Director Ezra Edelman is beautifully even handed and revealing of one of the most accomplished and complicated people to ever live their life so publically. From genuine American hero, to the tortured product of a country still trying to resolve why we struggle so hard with race in America. This is a towering film not just about a person, but about the world we clearly still live in today. It is such a painfully timely film, that it is hard to imagine how it shouldn’t be required viewing for everybody who is trying to make a difference and understand the times, but is blinded by the obvious realities that make peace seem so far away.

3. Captain Fantastic – Matt Ross (Viggo Mortensen, Kathryn Hahn, Frank Langella)

Most parents either think they are raising their children the right way, or at least think they are doing the best with what they have. “Captain Fantastic” takes you way off the grid where the home-schooled children, living in the woods of Oregon, are the brilliantly flawed disciples of a mercilessly well-intended father. Viggo Mortensen gives a career defining performance as the dominant patriarch who manages to seemingly create a kind of unsustainable nirvana where children can grow and learn without the potent venom of the outside world.

But as we know, the world is all connected now and there really isn’t any such thing as truly off the grid. We learn this as the family boards the family bus to attend the funeral of their mother. Each performance is exquisite, the writing is exceptional and the cinematography is incredible considering the low budget. This is a film that makes you think about everything you always thought was black and white about being a parent … and a child.

4. Manchester By The Sea – Dir. Kenneth Lonergan (Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams)

Medical research has proven that sad art (movies, music, paintings) actually make us happy. It forces us to reflect on the things in our lives that seem better by comparison and appreciate the relationships that we have even more. “Manchester” is an exquisitely devastating film, about love and loss and redemption. It’s about family, and friendships and the never-ending struggle to keep moving through all pain that accumulates along the way.

Director Kenneth Lonergan, long a favorite playwright and screenwriter of mine, has assembled the perfect cast, in perfect climate (a brutally bleak Boston winter) to weave back and forth through time towards some shattering truths. Casey Affleck will finally get credit as an even more serious actor than his brother, and will draw us into the kind of suffering we all hope to ward off in life. This is one of the hardest and most naturalistic films in quite a while.

5. Sing Street – Dir. John Carney (Aiden Gillen, Ben Carolan)

 The second great musical of the year is also one of the most entertaining. I don’t remember seeing a film as nostalgically human since John Hughes was in his prime. The director John Carney (who made the hugely underrated “Once”) has tapped right into the main vein of 80’s, through the eyes of a new wave music obsessed teenager set on starting a band and winning the girl. The mostly fresh-faced cast allows you to just lose yourself in each odd character without any baggage or preconception, and the music, played by the fictional band, and that which inspired it (Duran Duran, The Jam, The Cure) is so effortlessly woven into the film that it becomes a character unto itself.

The plot is simple enough, but the execution is perfect in the quiet way that the best films of this kind are. In what is basically a coming-of-age tale, Carney weaves gold by capturing the creative process at work, as a bunch of kids learn how to write and perform music together. There is nothing new here, but that’s what makes this film so special and how it reminds you to never give up on your dreams, to always be yourself, and to never stop reinventing your life.

6. American Honey – Andrea Arnold (Shia LaBeouf, Sasha Lane)

This beautifully disturbing, sprawling epic of a film inhabits a strange and unsettling world that exists somewhere between the gritty voyeurism of “Kids” and the precious naturalistic beauty of a Terrence Malik film (Days of Heaven, Tree of Life). It’s a largely plotless road movie about runaways traveling through the Midwest selling magazine subscriptions, partying and living a strange lawless existence, and rejecting the demands of the real world.

This ragtag band of misfits is led by Shia LeBeouf who astounds as a renaissance charlatan. He discovers the young Sasha Lane at a WalMart and recruits her to drop everything and join the party. The kids here are too young to be living the life they are living, and although the director Andrea Arnold lets the movie run for 163 minutes, there is very little I can imagine cutting. From the beautiful close ups of bugs and landscapes, to the excessive and awkward moments of sex and impropriety, the film rolls like a waking dream. This is not a film for everyone, but it is important, urgent and unafraid.

7. 20th Century Women – Dir. Mike Mills (Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig)

Films about mothers and sons are a far rarer breed than those about fathers and sons. But in this exquisitely quirky film set in the late 70’s Santa Barbara, Annette Bening plays a happily lonely chain smoking oddball, who is much cooler than her son (a great Lucas Jade Zumann) gives her credit for. He stumbles clumsily into adulthood, surrounded by the communal joy of the patchwork family of colorful boarders that inhabit the slow burning remodel of the house where they live.

The film is saturated with the music, styles and ethos of the era. A looser time, long before the Internet where time was spent talking directly to each other, and wandering around the exploring the world. Billy Crudup’s hippie Mr. Fixit is a perfect faux father figure, while the lovable Greta Gerwig stands in as the adopted older sister. There is a rustically realistic charm that saturates every scene, while Annette Bening delivers the performance of her career, in a career filled with great performances. This film leaves you longing for a time long gone, but actually not that long ago.

8. Hell or High Water – Dir. Taylor Sheridan (Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges)

This is perhaps the finest “modern western” I have ever seen. In it the anti-villains, two brothers played by the always explosive Ben Foster and the calmer but more urgent Chris Pine, are contemporary Robinhood’s, stealing money from the bank that snake-charmed their ranch away from their dying mother. Sadly it doesn’t get more realistic, as the great urban migration of the past fifty years has left a sea of crumbling towns being eaten by predatory lenders.

Although most of the action focuses on a series of lo-fi bank robberies throughout these barren shabby towns of West Texas, everything moves at an effortlessly slow but thrilling pace. Even the Sheriff, a wonderful Jeff Bridges, takes his time tracking the thieves casually napping on benches and sipping cold beer while he waits for them to stumble into his lair. But mostly the film just kind of burns like a mile long fuse, crackling and hissing through the dusty landscapes of Texas. A masterpiece of patience and nuance, proving again that the American West is still alive and kicking, albeit a shell of its former self.

9. Birth of a Nation – Dir. Nate Parker (Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King)

If not for the personal controversy surrounding the director, this heart-wrenching, often painfully violent story about the life of Nat Turner would be a shoe in for awards consideration. Like all films about slavery, I watched this awestruck by how this very real history is still only 150 years old. It does as good a job as any illuminating the complexity that existed between slaves and their owners (the good and the bad).

Parker’s debut direction and starring performance is easily one of the most accomplished I saw all year. Alas, the media made this film the most talked about and highest priced film ever purchased at Sundance, and then buried before it had the chance to succeed. Like “12 Years A Slave” this is an important film, as relevant today as it would have been at any point in history. Ignore the backstory and see the film.

10. Moonlight – Dir. Barry Jenkins (Alex Hibbert, Aston Saunders, Janelle Monae)

“Moonlight” is a heavy film that doesn’t so much as feel light, but just kind of meanders weightlessly through the heat and sweat of Miami. It is the story of one man, but told in two parts by incredible younger and older versions of himself. It is also the coming of age film about a gay black child growing up in the projects to a drug addicted mother. There would be no reason for someone not from this place to have spent time considering this story, but it is a revelation to have the time to spend with it.

Adapted from a play, director Barry Jenkins, has crafted a story for the big screen that is so nuanced, and he has discovered actors that are so compelling, that each scene just slowly gets under your skin and demands empathy and consideration. Filled with some vaguely familiar faces, and few others you we will no doubt see again, this film is not so much another meditation on race, but on sexuality and circumstance, and finding a place in a world that is still shamefully rigid.

11. Indignation – James Shamus (Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon)

I loved this film for the same reason I love “The Catcher in the Rye” and “A Separate Peace.” It takes place in an era before I was born, but not so far away that I can’t understand it. Adapted from a short novel by Philip Roth, the story takes place at a tony liberal arts school in Ohio where a blue collar Jewish kid from New Jersey comes to change the course of his young life. The legendary producer James Shamus directs his debut film weaving pure magic into this elegant looking story of pride, tradition and fragile egos.

Tracey Letts couldn’t be better as the rigid headmaster of the school who spars with this stubborn Freshman, an incredible Logan Lerman, who refuses to attend the required twice weekly Chapel gatherings, pleading atheism. As he struggles to fit in, and to follow the rules, he falls for a fragile and once suicidal beauty who takes us to another place entirely. We fall so naturally into this vastly more innocent time, but bask in the realization that simplicity and innocence is always relative, and growing up is always painful, no matter when we live it.

12. The Intervention – Clea DuVall (Melanie Lynsky, Jason Ritter, Natasha Lyonne)

The funniest film I saw this year barely reached the theater, but kept me laughing out loud not just at the endless sea of pitch perfect banter, but because each character manages to nail each of the stereotypes it sets out to illustrate. Four couples steal away to a beautiful family home in South Carolina to perform a “marital intervention” on their seemingly insufferably unhappily married friends.

The irony, which drives the consistent hilarity, is that each of the couples could use an intervention of their own. Nobody realizes that ‘the invention’ could just as easily be on themselves. They drink, fight, flirt and imagine everyone else is somehow worse off than each other. Clea DuVall is confidently sure-handed in her debut film which feels like a modern day “Big Chill” complete with one of the most appealing and competent young casts of the year.

13. Nocturnal Animals – Tom Ford (Michael Shannon, Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal) 

This film is all about mood. In it, director Tom Ford tells three stories: one of the from the past, one set in the present and the other abstracted from a harrowing novel written by one of the protagonists and taking place somewhere in between. Ford’s time as a fashion designer is core to the way he makes films. This one is dark and as impeccably detailed as it is emotionally complex.

Amy Adams plays both the young idealistic dreamer who marries an artsy, rustic aspiring writer played by Jake Gyllenhaal. But she thrives more as the older version of herself, having moved past her young lover only to become a richer but not happier, art dealer disgusted with the superficially of her life and the art she deals. When she receives a copy of a novel written by Gyllenhaal, the past, present and future converge into one of the most suspenseful films of the year.

14. Hunt For The Wilderpeople - Dir. Taika Waititi (Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rachel House)

Great films that my still young kids also love get an extra bump when I look back. I’m also a sucker for all things quirky and Kiwi, so this tale about a misfit kid, and his kooky adopted uncle who end up on the lamb crisscrossing the New Zealand bush for a series of crimes they didn’t really commit was destined to win.

After being bounced around from foster home to foster home, Ricky (played by the wonderful Julian Dennison) winds up with Aunt Bella and a grizzled Sam Neill as Uncle Hec. After Bella dies, and child services threaten to put Ricky back in foster care, he runs away from home and an over the top national manhunt takes place. You haven’t seen two less threatening outlaws than these two, but the journey is an outrageous mixture of comedy and bizarrely exciting action. Hard not to love.

15. Green Room – Dir. Jeremy Saulier (Anton Yelcin, Imogen Poots, Patrick Stewart)

There is almost nothing more punk rock than a great indie horror film, especially when that film is about a punk rock band trapped in the green room of a neo-Nazi bar in the Pacific Northwest. As seemingly outrageous as the plot might be, everything about the way the film unfolds is as plausible as it is perfectly executed. A hardcore band Ain’t Right is trying to scrounge up enough cash to pay for gas to get them back to the relative calm of the East Coast.

After playing a predictably hostile show for a room of angry skinheads, the band witnesses a murder and is forced to fight their way to safety against a well armed group of thugs led by the wonderfully acted character leader played by Patrick Stewart. There is blood and violence and a kind claustrophobic creepiness that drives this slim 94 minute tour de force. No zombies, no aliens, no hockey-masked psychopaths, only the angry drug dealing white supremacists … that we know exist on the fringes of todays hinterlands.

A few more …

16. The Witch – Dir. Robert Eggers (Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie) This is easily the creepiest 17th century horror film I have ever seen, reminding you how incredibly uncertain and utterly helpless the earliest settlers must have felt out there in the woods.

17. Eye in the Sky – Dir. Gavin Hood (Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul) There was almost no film that had me thinking about the moral complexity of terrorism and the awesome and frightening power of drone warfare more than this film.

18. Arrival – Dir. Denis Villeneuve (Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner) This visually stunning, thrillingly crafted sci-fi voyage, explores the possibility of life beyond earth through the more human lens of basic communication. Director Villeneuve is quietly following in the footsteps of Kubrick, focusing on every detail and reframing all of the hard questions about what it means to be alive.

19. Everybody Wants Some – Richard Linklater (Blake Jenner, Ryan Guzman) Although Linklater doesn’t quite hit that same perfect note he did in “Dazed and Confused,” this whimsical “spiritual sequel” is an easy going romp through the wonderful feeling of that first weekend back at college. I wish I could do it just one more time.

20. Bleed For This – Dir. Ben Younger (Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart) Miles Teller is well on his way to becoming one of the finest actors working today. In this gritty real life story about the boxer Vinny Pazienza, he has elevated the genre, and done justice to one of the most incredible comeback stories in the history of sports.

21. Paterson – Dir. Jim Jarmusch (Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani) In some ways this is one of Jarmusch’s most accessible films, on the other hand, this somber story about a bus driver poet, is exactly the kind of film he has been making his whole career. Brilliant.

22. Hacksaw Ridge – Mel Gibson (Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington) Say what you will about Mel Gibson, but he is still an incredible storyteller and filmmaker, and has made one of the most astonishing war protest films ever made, and given Andrew Garfield yet another career making role.

23. High Rise – Dir. Ben Wheatley (Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller) There wasn’t a slicker, starker or more beautifully stylized dystopian film this year than “High Rise.” Like the bastard child of “A Clockwork Orange” and “ The Road”, there is a beauty and horror in the bleakness of modern life.

 24. The Free World – Dir. Jason Lew (Octavia Spencer, Elizabeth Moss, Boyd Holbrook) This was one of my favorite films at Sundance last year. Holbrook and Moss are two of the most beautifully damaged souls, who together try to escape the injustice of their brutal circumstances.

25. Hidden Figures – Dir. Theodore Melfi (Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Taraji Henson) I don’t know anyone that knew this story before seeing this film- and I live in the Bay Area where scientists are rock stars. An incredible story about three black women working for NASA 50 years ago.

 

 

 

The Bestest 2015: Filmmage

IMG_0319Although in many respects great TV is crippling independent film (https://pando.com/2015/10/02/has-tv-stolen-independent-film/), it is hard for me to remember a better year for films of all shapes and sizes. Sure, I saw many of them on the small screen, but the breadth and quality of this year’s films was remarkable. Many of my favorites were documentaries, more than I can remember in the past, which also happen to be well suited for television viewing. Any way you slice it, actors still love feature films, despite the fact that serialized television is actually reaching a larger audience in many cases, pays better, creates realistic consistency of work, and now comes without a negative stigma. More than anything though, I urge you to continue to see films in the theater where you can check your phone at the door, lose yourself in the story, and have a real life shared experience with other human beings. It’s worth it.

  1. Ex Machina – Dir. Alex Garland (Oscar Issac, Domhall Gleeson)

Although “Ex Machina” is clearly a sci-fi film, it is more appropriately a psychological meditation on the moral and ethical implications of a world teetering on the brink of a very practical and ubiquitous artificial intelligence. Set in a gorgeous isolated compound in Alaska (but actually filmed in Norway) the reclusive and brilliant CEO of a Google-like technology (Oscar Issac) has created a beautiful “robot” (Alicia Vikander) to test whether or not an AI being can experience or at least simulate real emotions.

For this experiment the wonderful Domhnall Gleeson, a programming genius, is recruited to spend a month with this creature to evaluate how successful Issac was at playing God. This is the kind of film a young Stanley Kubrick would have made, but with all the advantages of modern technology. There is a kind of deep, slow burning urgency that pulses through every frame, but in the end director Alex Garland’s accomplished debut is as slick and cerebral as almost anything you are likely to see for a long while.

  1. Dope – Dir. Rick Famuyiwa (Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons)

If Spike Lee were just starting out today, living in LA, and passionate but not yet truly angry, he might have made a film like “Dope.” This is a modern high school comedy focused on three social outcasts who manage to get into the kind of trouble that might seem like an updated version of “Risky Business.”

The film bounces around themes that include the main character’s love of classic 90’s Hip-Hop and setting up of a Silk Road – like website to sell drugs for Bitcoin.  I didn’t see anything as fast moving, topical and just down right funny as “Dope” this year. In an age where young people are increasingly less interested in films, and preoccupied with shorter content, “Dope” reaffirms my hope that the kids will come back around and start watching movies that aren’t sequels again.

  1. The Revenant– Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Leanardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy)

There is almost no director working today that would have dared make a film as bleak, brutal and beautiful as Inarritu’s “The Revenant.” Shot in the pristine expanses of Canada and Argentina in the devastatingly harsh winter months, the story is set nearly 200 years ago in an age of almost unimaginable hardship. DiCaprio, in a wonderful and virtually wordless role, plays a frontier guide named Hugh Glass who is hired to guide a crew of trappers through the a nearly impenetrable wilderness inhabited by Native Americans and bears.

In one of the most violent and realistic scenes ever captured on film, Glass is mauled and battered by a bear and left for dead in the ominous wilderness. Although the film is mostly about his epic struggle to survive, it also seriously explores themes revolving around revenge, loyalty and the shameful mistreatment of the Native tribes who were lived on the land before we did. With cinematography as starkly gorgeous as anything this year, and a kind of relentless violence that is both impossible to turn away from but devastatingly realistic, this has to be seen, and on a big screen.

  1. Room – Dir. Lenny Abrahamson (Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay)

The premise of this film, a mother and child held in a shed for 7 years by a sexual predator, is so sadly realistic and disturbingly commonplace, that it is almost impossible to imagine it being a remarkably hopeful and optimistic film. While the story could have been mired in a shallow kind of “love conquers all” message, it exists in a much more fluid and almost surreally believable space.

But Brie Larson, who is mesmerizing, as the doggedly optimistic mother of young Jack, has created a wonderful world that deflects the reality that exists outside of their tiny shack, and almost extends beyond it. Young Jacob Tremblay has also turned in what will likely go down as one of the best performances by a child his age in long time. This film is pure gold.

  1. Love & Mercy – Dir. Bill Pohlad (Paul Dano, John Cusack)

Film biopics about musicians are rarely as good as their promise. Either their characters are already too rich and well known publically to be played effectively by someone else, or their stories lack any kind of truth worth unpacking. But both the Brian Wilson who really was the genius behind the Beach Boys, and the mid-life Wilson who disappeared from public view in the 80’s, are actually elusive curiosities whose stories have never been very well explored given the impact of his creativity.

“Love & Mercy” is  a masterpiece in both casting and acting. Paul Dano’s “Pet Sounds” era Wilson is a perfectly cherubic doppelganger for the real life Wilson, whose idiosyncrasies and mannerisms seem lifted straight out of the limited archival footage from that period. Mid-life, mid-meltdown Wilson played by John Cusask is also a perfectly realized version of the Wilson who disappeared along the way. This film is both inextricably sad and masterfully redemptive, but the ride is so well crafted you are bound to lose yourself along the way, saved in many ways by that exquisite music.

  1. Me Earl and the Dying Girl –Dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke)

 I loved every minute of this film. Despite a plot line that reads like a cliché wrapped in an after school special, there is something irresistibly nuanced and fresh about this story about two outcast buddies Greg (Thomas Mann) and Ronald Cyler (Earl), and their friendship with a dying girl. It is relentlessly funny, cynically clever , and feels at times like a Wes Anderson film with its attention to tiny details and thin layer of surrealism.

Greg and Earl have been making low budget re-interpretations of classic movies like “A Sockwork Orange” since childhood, all the while managing to slip almost unnoticed in the sea of high school cliques , living in a kind of perpetual invisibility. But it is Olivia Cooke’s ” dying girl” who grounds the film with a kind of emotional honesty and realism that elevates it into something truly remarkable.

  1. Spotlight– Dir. Tom McCarthy (Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton)

This is a film that reminds you how great movies can be. It features one of the biggest and best ensemble casts in a very long time. It is topical and modern, but feels more like the kind of handcrafted film a director like Sidney Lumet would have made decades ago. It emanates from a newsroom, but one that sits on the precipice of reinvention, increasingly dominated by the internet- link-bait, and superficial reporting and a race against time to make what’s physical  , digital.

The crimes buried by and within the Catholic Church have dominated the headlines for years now, but untangling the threads, politics and bureaucracy has forced a kind of global complacency. Director Thomas McCarthy whose prior films include the nearly perfect “The Visitor” and “The Station Agent,” has such a careful eye and sets such an even but urgent pace, that you get to savor each of many varied wonderful performances. This film is an absolute joy.

  1. What Happened, Miss Simone – Dir. Liz Garbus (Nina Simone)

It’s hard to know how much of my love for this film is biased by my long time love for the music of Nina Simone. She always transcended race, gender and genre with her otherworldly voice but her career and legacy eventually became tangled up with erratic perhaps bi-polar and self-initiated exile to Liberia and her outspoken defense of civil rights. But this film manages, through a comprehensive montage of photos, interviews and most importantly captivating live performances, to paint a portrait of a complicated and brilliant musician and activist.

Unlike many of the best rock documentaries of the past few years (Amy, Montage of Heck, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me) “What Happened” isn’t the story of an artist overwhelmed by early success, then succumbing to an early death. It is instead one where we watch the pressures of an artist and socio-political celebrity more slowly shape the course of her life. Whether you knew her as a musician or as a political agitator, this is a profoundly poignant tribute to the magic of her genius and depth of her passion.

  1. Amy – Dir. Asif Kapadia (Amy Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil, Mark Ronson)

Even if you didn’t know all of the music of Amy Winehouse, most people probably knew enough to recognize that she was driving on that familiar road to nowhere, the same road that has taken so many rock stars before her right around the same age (Hendrix, Cobain, Joplin, Buckley). What most people didn’t know is that she really was one of the most talented singers to have emerged in a very long time. She was an old soul in a young body, who seemed to understand jazz the way Tony Bennett understood jazz.

But unlike many of her peers whom we lost too early, “Amy” seems to make the point that although the velocity and pressure of today ‘ s hype can be overwhelming and incapacitating, it didn’t have to end this way. Her boyfriend, father and others merely fed the fire, instead of helping to put it out. Music is a business. Amy Winehouse was a business. Perhaps if she w ere merely a singer she’d still be making music today.

      10.  The Big Short– Dir. Adam McKay (Steve Carrell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt)

If you read Michael Lewis’ fantastic book, it would have been unimaginable to consider this book becoming a mainstream dramedy. Against all odds, this fantastic film, aided by an impeccable cast, manages to tell one of the most complicated financial conspiracies in modern capitalism in a totally accessible way. Whether it be CDO’s, the rigged co-dependence of the banks, ratings agencies, mortgage sellers, and other ancillary players, this is a rich multi-layered ponzi scheme whose intricacies could have easily overwhelmed the story, but didn’t.

What makes each of the five main characters, our anti-heroes, so intriguing is that each of them individually is so quirky and occasionally offensive, but under McKay’s deft direction they are all almost lovable underdogs. Carrell, Bale, Gosling, and Pitt are perfect caricatures of themselves. The film plays almost like a series of perfectly realized skits that ultimately hang together as one of the most complete films of the year.

      11.  Mississippi Grind– Dir. Anna Boden / Ryan Fleck (Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds)

I love movies about gambling. I love road movies. As such, this road movie about gambling had an easy path to my heart. The great Ben Mendelsohn, and a surprisingly compelling Ryan Reynolds, play two outsiders who meet at a poker table in the drab gloom of an Iowa winter. From these very first scenes and the subsequent voyage down the Mississippi to New Orleans, the film has a kind of worn and ragged texture that is captured both in the landscape and the weariness of the actors.

As the two travel down south in search of a mythical big poker game, they reveal their tortured disappointed selves to one another while inflecting the kind of inevitable self-destructive abuse that seems to plague those trapped in a classic gamblers dilemma. Even the best of these films always seem to have a kind of inevitability about them. “Mississippi Grind” is filled with surprises right up until the final shots.

     12.  Mad Max: Fury Road – Dir. George Miller (Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron)

“Mad Max” is one of two sequels in 2015 that not only do justice to the originals but in many respects far surpass them. It is also another reason why there will always be movie theaters. George Miller’s post-apocalyptic reboot was easily the most consistently entertaining and enjoyable two hours of filmmaking this year, and when seen on a big screen with massive images and explosive sounds assaulting your eyes and ears , it makes you remember how great the “movies”  are and how not great the “TVs”  are.

From the sumptuous barren landscapes to the bleakly optimistic plight of the survivors, led by the stoic but determined Tom Hardy and the furiously committed Charlize Theron, to the battle worn War Rig that they steer off course in a non-stop race for survival, this voyage is a marvel. As they are pursued through hell on earth by a colorful rag tag band of outlaws in Burning Man-like vehicles, we are forced to think about the world we are living in today, perhaps not so far away from this not so distant future.

     13.  99 Homes – Dir. Ramin Bahrani (Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern)

Michael Shannon always seems to be boiling under the surface, about to explode, leveling anything in his wake. In “99 Homes” his predatory foreclosure agent character seems to be that perfect combination of anger mixed with occasional humanity. He is matched by a wonderful Andrew Garfield, who plays both the victim and eventually the victimizer, in what has become the reality of this latest American saga.

Apparently enough time has passed that it is now safe to reflect on what happened and why.  As such, this year’s two films focused on the collateral damage inflicted by the sub-prime crisis (“The Big Short” being the other). This film is surprisingly and relentlessly intense, playing almost like an action film minus the explosions and CGI. Director Bahrani has crafted a minor masterpiece, a thick chapter in the history of American capitalism and the psychological ambiguity of the modern age.

     14.  Creed– Dir. Ryan Coogler (Michael B. Jordan, Sylvestor Stallone, Tessa Thompson)

It is easy to forget how great those early Rocky films were. Not that many movies can get you both choked up and pumped at the same time, but Sly made it work. “Creed” the hugely entertaining second film by “Fruitvale Station” maestro Ryan Coogler, is cut perfectly from that old Rocky cloth, but newly polished to feel modern without seeming “slick.”

Michael B. Jordan continues to establish himself as one of the most versatile and likable actors out there. This time he plays the orphaned son of the great Apollo Creed, determined to make it on his own. Sure the story pulls hard at the corners of predictability, but manages to stay far enough away from the edges. In the end, this is the kind of film that demands to be seen on a big screen, in a packed house, where you can feel the energy and joy bouncing around the room.

     15.  The Wolfpack  –Dir. Crystal Moselle (The Angulo Family)

Imagine being locked in a small Lower East Side Manhattan housing project with your six siblings and two crazy parents for the first 15 years of your life. Some years you never get outside at all, other years you were allowed out once a month. The one thing you did have was movies. And so you began to devour them – – they were your outside world. You started acting them out with your siblings and strangely you managed to keep yourself sane.

Well, this is the real life story of the Angulo family. Thanks to loads of home footage captured over the years, and interviews with the most of the Angulo clan, we can be a voyeur into one of the most bizarre social experiments that I have ever seen. There are more than a few questions that are never really satisfactorily answered, but you can’t help getting drawn into this tangled web, and rooting for this weird Wolfpack to get a chance to live in the real world.

A few more that are very worthy …

     16.  Meru– Dir. Jimmy Chin (Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk) This amazing documentary tells the story of three talented and committed climbers who embark on climbing a Himalayan peak that has never been summited before. Beyond the harrowing ascent, the footage is filmed by the climbers themselves and has a handful of amazing backstories too incredible to believe.

     17.  Youth– Dir. Paolo Sorrentino (Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel)“Youth” is that rare beauty of a film that not only reminds us how lucky we are to still have two of our greatest living actors still making great films, but also that growing old can be beautiful and filled with the smallest and loveliest details that we tend to take for granted while we are young.

     18.  Anomalisa– Dir. Charlie Kaufman(David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh) Only Charlie could imagine a world as detached but honest as this one. Somehow the wizardry of this truly groundbreaking animation makes the story seem even more real than it would if it was merely the real actors. Astounding.

     19.  71’– Dir. Yann Demange(Jack O’Connell, Charlie Murphy) This might be the best film that virtually no one saw last year. It tells the story of a soldier inadvertently abandoned in a sharply divided Belfast war zone in 1971. As he tries to get back to safety, I couldn’t help remembering how I felt watching “The Warriors” as a kid.

     20.  Sicario– Dir. Denis Villeneuve (Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin) Director Villeneuve is a bare-knuckled realist who is not afraid to make an unsqueamishly  gritty, film about the war on drug cartels and the impossibly gray area that exists in our ongoing fight. Like his last film “Prisoners,” this one will have you wondering where we draw the line, and how to judge the people caught in the crossfire.

     21.  The Martian – Dir. Ridley Scott (Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain)A few years back David Bowie’s son made an excellent film called “Moon.” It was eerie and isolating in the same way that Matt Damon’s kinetic energy and higher tech environs is in “The Martian.” But like “Gravity” this story about people stranded in space, alive and in contact but impossible to bring home, will no doubt become more and more realistic.

     22.  Carol – Dir. Todd Haynes (Cate Blanchette, Mara Rooney) Todd Haynes has always made patient and slow burning old-fashioned films focused on complicated characters trapped in confining times and places. “Carol” is a visual feast, and Rooney and Blanchette are spellbinding.

23.  Joy – Dir. David O. Russell (Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro) Under the direction of anyone except David O. Russell and starring anyone other than Lawrence, this story could have easily been mired in feel good clichés and a hugely predictable outcome. Instead it is a true joy!

     24.  The Diary of  Teenage Girl– Dir. Marielle Heller (Bel Powley, Kristin Wiig, Alex Skarsgard)There is almost nothing more compelling than a coming of age tale set in San Francisco in 1976, a much different city in a much different time, but in the end teenagers haven’t changed much. Every year I get a little bit older and they stay the same age.

     25.  Brooklyn – Dir. John Crowley (Jim Broadbent, Saoirse Ronan) Like a kind of wonderfully innocent guilty pleasure that harkens back to an America that barely resembles the one we live in today. More than anything it makes you consider how we became so much less welcoming to the plight of immigrants, than we were not so long ago.

     26.  The End of the Tour – Dir. James Ponsoldt(Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel) David Foster Wallace was that rare genius who wrote impenetrable books of honest but hard to grasp fiction, but despite his rock star status, was never able to find peace. This film deftly explores the man behind the myth.

     27.  Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck – Dir. Brett Morgen(Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love) For anyone who doubted the raw genius of Cobain, this amazing film reconstructs his life through his  unbelievably prolific collection of drawings, lyrics and diary entries. Remarkable.

     28.  Son of Saul – Dir. Lazlo Nemes (Geza Rohrig, Todd Charmont) Another bleakly beautiful Holocaust film where mere survival sheds an impenetrable light on the moral ambiguity of life itself.

     29.  Phoenix – Dir. Christian Petzold (Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld) As Holocaust films go, this one is neither sentimental nor merely a recounting of the horrors. Instead Zerhfeld has created a Hitchcockian mystery where nothing and no one is what it seems.

     30.  Cop Car  –Dir. Jon Watts (Kevin Bacon, Hays Wellford, James Freedson-Jackson) This small but harrowing thriller about two kids that accidentally steal the wrong cop car from a terrifyingly good Kevin Bacon, is a wonderful reminder about how fun and creative low budget films can be.

Bestest Television

  1. The Affair
  2. Sonic Highways
  3. Shameless
  4. Ray Donovan
  5. Making a Murderer
  6. Broadchurch
  7. Red Oaks
  8. Transparent
  9. Halt and Catch Fire
  10. Narcos
  11. Luther

 

 

 

The Bestest 2013: Filmmage

Despite the current state of independent film (increasingly fewer screens, economically challenging business models, compressed distribution windows) 2013 proved to be one of the best years in a decade for films large and small. In some ways almost every film I loved was a new take on an old subject (horror, spring break, slavery, the 60’s, the 70’s). The actors and actresses we love continued to reinvent themselves, trumping everything that has come before with performances seemingly inspired by the past and the future.

1) Inside Llewyn Davis – Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen (Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan)

A Coen brothers film about a folk singer is still a Coen brothers film. Llewyn Davis is a perfectly crafted moody time-bomb of a character, drifting from couch to couch in the cold winter of 1963 New York. As in all  their films, the Coens here cover quite a bit of ground in what seems like a simple story. It is both an examination of the West Village folk scene right before Dylan changed the game completely, and  also an uncannily authentic look at New York intellectuals and their blue collar counterparts.

But like many of their most recent films, “Llewyn Davis” is a film where the music itself is an important leading character. Oscar Isaac gives an award caliber performance both playing a folk singer and performing as one. He carries a kind of fragile humanity right behind the surface of a loathsome exterior. Less accessible, or perhaps just less upbeat than many of their films, “Llewyn Davis” is a patient, incredible precise slice of a time and place, and even greater gem for fans of new and old folk music.

2) Her – Dir. Spike Jonze (Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansen)

“Her” is easily one of the most creative romantic films in eons. Like “500 Days of Summer,” “Upstream Color,” “Like Crazy,” and “Eternal Sunshine,” but obviously something completely different, Spike Jones has crafted one of the weirdest, but most genuine love stories of all time. In his semi-futuristic world, true love is neither physical nor it is even reciprocal in the truest sense of the word. It is more of a state of mind, or state of intellectual compatibility.

It would be hard to imagine this film without the effortless vulnerability of Joaquin Phoenix, and the seductiveness of Scarlett Johansson who exists only as a voice through an earpiece. To fall for an operating system is really no different than falling in love with a character from a book, a voice on the radio, or a picture in a magazine, except that the idea also understands you. Like a dream captured on film, “Her” falls like fresh snow, slowly, beautifully and ephemerally.

3) 12 Years A Slave – Dir. Steve McQueen (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender)

In sheer contrast to Tarantino’s “Django,” McQueen’s masterpiece is a brutal, but beautiful reflection on our shameful past. There is nary a smile or laugh to be had, just an endless sea of largely horrible masters and powerless defeated slaves. As in his previous films (“Shame” and “Hunger”) McQueen can’t help but make you confront history and suffer through long, graphic reenactments.

Every character is clearly defined, most of the time without words, but with angry or hopeless expressions. This is not really a film to enjoy so much as to confront, endure and then ultimately appreciate. Although filled with cameos from everyone from Brad Pitt to Paul Giamatti, the film belongs to Chinwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender. Good and evil personified. Although not for everybody, perhaps it should be required viewing for everybody.

4) Fruitvale Station – Dir. Ryan Coogler (Michael B. Jordon, Octavia Spencer)

There is no waste in “Fruitvale Station,” it is a perfect little film based on a totally avoidable tragedy. In his directorial debut, Ryan Coogler was able to tell a story that took place in his hometown, and approach it with the kind of unemotional distance you wouldn’t have thought possible. Michael B. Jordan, whom we have watched grow up on “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights” is Oscar caliber playing the real life Oscar Grant who was shot to death by BART police on New Years Day 2009.

Like Cassavetes, Coogler’s debut is a subtle hand held masterpiece, as he manages to get close enough to Oscar Grant to expose him as a massively flawed but hugely empathetic person. In lesser hands this story becomes a racial-political statement that exposes history yet again repeating itself shamefully. But somehow the story just flows along so quickly and easily that before you have time to poke holes it is over. Simplicity in filmmaking is the hardest thing to accomplish, but here it is impeccably executed.

5) Before Midnight –Dir. Richard Linklater (Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy)

Beyond the “Godfather” trilogy I can’t think of another trio of films that I have loved as consistently. Where the Godfather films are sprawling epics, Linklater’s films are precious- basically just one long rolling conversation between two people who think and speak as cleverly as most people wish they could, and have a relationship both as fleeting and occasionally perfect as any.

In this chapter Delpy and Hawke are now married with children and living in Europe. At this point we know both characters quite well. We both love them and hate them. They bicker and spat, hold hands and kiss, reminisce and dream, and then start all over again. Like the previous films nothing much happens, except of course one of the most curious and naturalistic modern love stories of our time. [Read more…]

The Bestest 2011– Filmmage

Some have argued that 2011 was a terrible year for films. Perhaps they should clarify that it was the Hollywood system with its upside down economics that massively under-delivered, leaving room for little films, documentaries and comedies to shine through. I was able to see most of these films at festivals or stream them on Netflix or Amazon not long after they had quickly come and gone in theaters. Which invites the question, when will theaters follow the book and record store path, and become unnecessary? I’d like to think that films are always better on a big screen that forces you to put away your phones, tablets and remote controls and tune off the internet and tune into the movies themselves. That said, it seems incredible that even now certain films find themselves without an easy way of being seen. There still exists a kind of limbo where films leave a theatrical run and exist, but are inaccessible on pay-per-view, streaming, iTunes or even DVD. Perhaps this is the real problem. Why shouldn’t people be able to choose what they want and where and when they want it if they are willing to pay. Perhaps a year from now there will be a solution; until then it is somewhat reassuring that films’ loss has been usurped by an increasingly more sophisticated television marketplace where the best talent has come to work.

1) Tree of Life – Dir. Terrance Malick (Brad Pitt, Sean Penn)

This is not a movie for the masses, but it is one for the ages. Beautiful, sweeping, serene, explosive, pretentious, chaotic, non-linear, heart-wrenching, uplifting, metaphoric, and nostalgic- all of these words help describe the most challenging and provocative film of the year. “Tree of Life” is a masterpiece that is equal parts “2001”, “Koyaanisqatsi” and “Stand By Me,” mixing images, emotions and glimpses of a time gone by.

To enjoy this film it is helpful to prepare yourself for it emotionally. Far from your typical Pitt-Penn Hollywood fare, auteur Terrance Malick, who has only made 5 films in four decades, has created a visual, sensual film that relies on mood and images far more than on dialogue or plot. Ultimately it is the story of a family in Waco, Texas who experiences a tragedy that is described only vaguely, but expressed metaphorically as merely a part of the cycle of life, the randomness of nature, and the unpredictability of the human experience.

The cinematography is brilliant, with lush bucolic domestic small town USA serenity and other-worldly natural and scientific images that convey the interconnectedness of life. Brad Pitt’s strict, dominating father is as compelling as anything he has ever done, but exposes the tension between a parent’s desire to impose morality and the constraints of being human. In the end this film is the ultimate exploration of what it is to live a life in a world filled with natural and omnipotent forces well beyond our comprehension.

2) Drive – Dir. Nicolas Winding (Ryan Gosling, Albert Brooks)

Over the past decade Ryan Gosling has emerged as the undisputed king of cool, a real life chameleon of an actor who most likely picks the best movies and the broadest range of characters.  In “Drive” he blends the icy cool of Steve McQueen with the understated sparseness of Brando. This is a film, however, with everything: violence, stylized cinematography, incredible chase scenes and a rich cast of colorful supporters.

At its core “Drive” is an action film, but it is also a drama. Gosling’s mechanic/stunt man has wheels that never stop turning, and a plot that never slows down. There was not another film this year that moved so quickly, but lingered just long enough to capture every detail.

3) The Trip – Dir. Michael Winterbottom (Steve Cooghan, Rob Brydon)

Like a bromance for Ivy leaguers, “The Trip” is a relentless romp through the English countryside where two friends trade impersonations, eat wonderful meals, and reassess the current state of their respective lives. The always wonderful Steve Cooghan plays a version of himself, a still single playboy on hiatus from his much younger American girlfriend. Buddy Rob Brydon fills in for her on this magazine-sponsored foodie tour.

For Byrdon, with two kids and a loving wife at home, the trip is a much needed break, and although he has no real complaints, there is the nagging envy of his single friend and his life of freedom. Of course the fundamental irony is that Cooghan longs for the boring familial existence of his friend. Shot across the beautiful English countryside, and filled with a relentlessly clever script, “The Trip” is a trip through the adolescent preoccupations that fill the male mind.

4) Martha Marcy May Marlene – Dir. T. Sean Durkin (Elizabeth Olson, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy)

There was not a more beautifully creepy film in 2011 than this one. There was also no more surprising and seductive a performance than that of Elizabeth Olson, the younger sister of her more famous twin sisters. The story begins as a disoriented Marcy (Olson) flees a rural farm, and stumbles into town where she frantically calls her older sister from a pay phone.

Alternating between an initially peaceful seeming commune in Upstate New York, to an opulent and tranquil lake house in rural Connecticut, the film is a puzzle that leaves you unsettled and mesmerized at the same time. But the core beauty of the film is in its infinite ambiguity. Something tragic happed to the siblings while growing up, but it is never clear. What happened to their parents? What else happened on the commune? How did she get there? This film is a dreamy mediation on how life just tosses us around leaving us no choice but to keep moving.

5) Win Win – Dir. Thomas McCarthy (Paul Giamatti, Bobby Cannavale)

No matter how many times I see Paul Giamatti play the same sad-sack depressive, I still can’t help but like him even more. Like Nicholson or DeNiro, he has a very specific presence that draws you in immediately. For most actors such a distinct persona relegates them to recurring character acting bits. But Giamatti is a star, the anti- Tom Cruise in every way. The film is directed by the criminally underrated auteur Tom McCarthy whose “Station Agent” and “The Visitor” are among the finest independent films of the decade, and whose delicate touch and understanding of human nature exude a kind of beautiful realism throughout “Win Win.”

In the film, he plays a floundering small town lawyer who moonlights as a wrestling coach for a hapless bunch of losers. Then in walks a small miracle in the form of a damaged teenage boy who has shown up in town to stay with his grandfather, whose estate Giamatti is “managing.” Despite appearances, this film is very much a comedy but does so with a subtlety that creates a different kind of texture. It is a film about the infinite gray areas that defines modern life and how right and wrong they are and rarely so simple. Many lives are saved in this film, but mostly it is about the title that reminds us to do the right thing.

6) Cedar Rapids – Dir. Miguel Arteta (Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche)

It is hard to imagine a better John C. Reilly performance than what he did in “Cyrus” last year, but in “Cedar Rapids” he officially one-ups himself by playing  an even more amped-up caricature of his everyman personna. Here he plays an oafish insurance agent letting it all hang out at a conference held at a cheesy Cedars Rapids business hotel.  Tthe film really belongs to Ed Helm’s beautifully naïve and somewhat tragic hero. His character has literally never been out of his small town, and to him Cedar Rapids represents not only the big city, but the moment when the picket fences give way to the real world.

Although there is a serious thread that lurks just below the hysterical surface of “Cedar Rapids,” there is as much humanity in this film as in  any of the more serious films that were released this year. In between endless comedic innuendo, ace director and true master of the indie dramedy, Miguel Arteta, explores loneliness, escapism and the massive walls people create to keep others from knowing who they really are. You will just as easily laugh as cry as pump your fist rooting for the underdog to wake up and grab life by the horns.

7) Margin Call – Dir. J.C. Chandor (Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey)

You’d be hard pressed to find a better cast and a more topical film than the shockingly under-seen Wall Street fiction “Margin Call.” Set over a twenty-four hour period, it chronicles the discovery of and reaction to the impending Armageddon of the sub-prime mortgage meltdown at one venerable Wall Street firm (insert whichever: Goldman, Lehman, Morgan …).

But unlike the glitz of “Wall Street,” this film is shot in dark saturated tones, and despite its blue chip cast, it is performed with thoughtful restraint. What “Margin Call” manages to capture is the pervasive schizophrenia that drives Wall Street. On the one hand greed, while not good, is more the evil that drives the capitalist system than it is an inherent quality of the people who work there. In the end you realize that modern capitalism has become an untamable monster that has evolved uncontrollably over hundreds of years. To unwind the problem seems impossible, but something has to change.

8) Midnight in Paris – Dir. Woody Allen (Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams)

Prolific, profane, provocative, and occasionally prophetic, Woody Allen seems nowhere close to having said everything that he has to say. In his finest film since “Deconstructing Harry,” Allen cast Owen Wilson as himself, to explore the timeless question of whether or not every past generation lived in an era more romantic than the ones that followed. Nostalgia here is a drug that is both blinding and euphoric, yet necessary and unavoidable.

Set in and elegantly filmed in Paris, Wilson plays a writer engaged to a woman he doesn’t really love, in a city that he loves for what he imagines it to be. Most Allen films rely on a gimmick, but in “Midnight in Paris” it is a time warp that allows you to look back to a time with both a longing and logic that suggests the importance of living in the now. Wilson has never been better and more authentic than he is here, McAdams plays her prissy idealist perfectly, and Allen is  at peace as both a realist and a cynic for the ages.

9) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Dir. Tomas Alfredson (Gary Oldman, Colin Firth)

Most Le Carre novels and films rely on keeping very close track of the details and paranoia of the complicated spy business of the Cold War. Although I’ll admit to being lost for large chunks of the film, the gray-toned cinematography and ambiguous calm and texture of this film is mesmerizing. Gary Oldman’s M16 agent George Smiley is the perfect manifestation of  clever bureaucratic competence that drives the workings of multi-national geo-politics.

The plot, if you can follow it, is oddly straightforward. There is a Russian mole in the British secret service. With a broad cast of potential infiltrators, Smiley is tasked with flushing out the rat. The film captures the colors and nuance of the era effortlessly, creating a familiar yet disorienting feeling that makes the film compelling despite its complexity. If there is  a film that deserved to be seen more than once this year, it was this one. Sometimes history plays like fiction and modern society seems much more complicated than yesterday’s.

10) The Arbor – Dir. Clio Bernard (Andrea Dunbar)

You have never seen a documentary as creative and unusual as “The Arbor.” Based on and incorporating the stage play of the same name, written by a 15 year old girl from the projects outside of Manchester, the film takes archival footage of the young Andrea Dunbar and mashes it up with reenactments of the play itself and lip-synced performances by actors of  real interviews with the late Dunbar’s family and friends. The play feels like Bukowski or R. Crumb as told by a young girl.

As hard as it is to imagine, the film flows fluidly, creating a lovely distance from the heartbreaking reality of the actual story. Dunbar’s working class roots, and self-destructive short life, create a gritty tragic backdrop against which to explore the lives of the children she left behind. History and self abuse repeat themselves here, but even on the dingy streets and neglected buildings of Manchester there is hope, redemption and forgiveness. [Read more…]

The Bestest 2009 – Filmmage

There seemed to be fewer films that will stand the test of time this year than in the past, but that is not to say there weren’t a handful of gems. For me the most important filmic discovery was jaw dropping accessibility provided by Netflix “Watch Now.” I started the year with a Roku box, which was cheap and easy to use. Hooked on the drug, I upgraded to Netflix over Xbox Live. Not only can you watch a seemingly infinite number of films instantly and on a whim, the release window is incredibly fast for indie films. In fact five of the films on this list are already available on demand and by the time I get around to finishing this list I’m sure there will a few more.

1)   The Hurt Locker – Dir. Kathyrn Bigelow (Jeremy Renner, Ralph Fiennes)
Rarely does a movie that is so intrinsically political make such lucid points without seeming the least bit preachy or biased. Even more remarkable is that the film is set in a war that is actually still ongoing (Iraq) but is so focused, on one small specialized unit tasked with doing something most people know nothing about, the bomb diffusing unit, that it could be any modern war.

Despite high profile cameos by Ralph Fiennes and David Morse, the film belongs to Jeremy Renner, who like the bombs he is charged with diffusing, seems ready to explode at any moment. The only time he seems calm and at peace is when he is encased in his heavy futuristic protective suit carefully dismantling the sketchy homemade bombs strewn throughout the city. There is very little downtime in the film; it all seems filled with a relentless intensity. This is a small masterpiece, about a big subject, executed with a precision of a surgeon. When eventually the dust settles I’m not sure there will be a more compelling film about this war.

2)   Crazy Heart – Dir. Scott Cooper (Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall)
It’s hard not to love watching Jeff Bridges act. In part he often picks likable characters, but often he just makes them far more likable than they actually are. His role in “Crazy Heart,” as a banged up fading country singer, Bad Blake, is, without a doubt, the strongest and most compelling of his career. In it he is channeling his inner Kris Kristofferson but mashing it up with a “Barfly” era Bukowsky. For much of the film, watching him struggle to breathe through Marlboro lungs, and steady himself after a full day of drinking is almost too convincing. You nearly worry for the actor, not just the character.

As much as you hope the story will avoid a quasi-predictable storyline, you really know where things are heading. No matter.  The always exceptional Maggie Gyllenhaal, is quite wonderful as Bad’s live or die forcing function, but the show is all Bridges. He becomes this character, very much like Mickey Rourke’s “Wrestler,” even proving himself a capable singer. This is that magic small film that make you laugh and cry, grateful that someone, somewhere, picked it up off the floor and gave it a chance be seen on theater screens.

3)   500 Days of Summer –Dir. Marc Webb (Zooey Deschanel, Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
This film features two of my favorite young actors and a non-linear  story about love that isn’t meant to be, even though you spend the whole movie wishing that is were. Our protagonist, Tom, played by David Gordon-Levitt, somehow ended up writing greeting cards despite his original dream of being an architect, and the irony of a professional iterating on clichés, sets the tone for a romance that refuses to be lifted from the world of the predictable.

Zooey Deschanel (Summer) is the everything you want her to be: smart, clever, cute, but also brutally honest to a painful fault. But what separates this film from something hopelessly inevitable is the inventive and occasionally frustrating craft of the film. Built on a gimmick, in a good way, the film starts near the end and winds its way to the beginning, exposing shards of the pair’s 500 days “together” in an uncommonly engaging manner. I guess we’re all still wondering what love really means, and whether the hindsight we all wish had been foresight when we were young would have made life any better.

4)   An Education – Dir. Lone Scherfig (Peter Sarsgaard, Carey Mulligan, Alfred Molina)
There is a wonderful texture and sense of time and place about this film. The swinging pre-Beatles London captured on screen, circa 1961, from the physical locales to the music and costumes transports you not just into a physical geography but even deeper into the minds of the characters who effortlessly draw you in. Adapted crisply by Nick Hornby, the film is a kind of modern Lolita but with an older victim, 16, and a younger “predator.”

This is largely the tale of a precocious high school girl (a career launching performance by Carey Mulligan) who is seduced by an older man slickly and slimily played by the consistently great Peter Saarsgard. But unlike the hundreds of similar seeming stories that have come before, this fast moving screenplay is thick with tension and a beautiful rhythm and a startling surprise twist that adds just enough spice to make it great. All of this is even more remarkable considering that the director is a young Dane who manages to access the zeitgeist with an incredible acuity and authenticity.

5)   Gomorrah – Dir. Matteo Garrone (Salvatore Abruzzese, Vincenzo Fabricino)
Between The Sopranos and the films of Scorsese, the American mafia genre has such a high ba, that most attempts at something new will suffer badly. In part this is why the gritty, Italian take on the subject is so refreshing, despite its consistently overt bleakness. This is a documentary-feeling tale about the Camorra system that seems to control every inch of Naples- a place where there are no heroes, and no victims, only a ruined landscape and an endless cycle of acquiescence and surrender.

Among the handful of interconnected stories, each leads to the same place and seems to paint the picture of a society stuck behind the bars of something too powerful to escape. From the young kids who have the naïve arrogance to try to chart their own course to the withering elders who are just trying to hold on, this is the least sentimental film in quite a while. The film swims in violence, but none of it is remotely gratuitous. It feels real, and sad just like the people walking on glass that we know will, in the end, always shatter.

6)   Summer Hours – Olivier Assayas (Juliette Binoche, Jérémie Renier, Charles Berling)
This is a quintessential French film. It is beautiful and contemplative, artfully filmed and perfectly paced. At its core this is a film about family, specifically the three siblings who gather at their gorgeous French country estate to celebrate the birthday of their mother. Over the years she has filled the house with rare and beautiful paintings, sculpture and one of a kind furniture. For her each piece is cherished for its intrinsic beauty and even more the emotional significance it holds. To the rest of the family the collection is the passion of someone else, beautiful perhaps, but someone else’s memories.

Shortly after the matriarch dies, the film becomes more a meditation on the meaning of material things. As the siblings, who are now dispersed throughout the world, China, Paris and New York, debate what to do about the estate and the collection, the film asks us to consider what globalization has done to the concept of family and tradition. As I watched it made me think about my own collections, and specifically the massive collection of music (vinyl, cassettes, CDs) now packed away in boxes, replaced by digitized copies and stored on tiny hard drives. For me, collecting, the endless discovery, provided a journey, and the music a way to remember the moments along the way. ‘Summer Hours’ is a tranquil, subtle exploration of what is important. In the end it is about those things that enable us to bring back memories and what helps us to create the new ones.

7)   The White Ribbon – Dir. Michael Haneke (Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Tukur)
There was not a bleaker more beautiful film this year, than the Bergmanesque German art film “The White Ribbon.” Like most prior Haneke films (“Funny Games,” “Cache,” The Piano Teacher”) the film paints a crisp picture of mankind’s instinct towards cruelty and hate. But this time the perpetrators are likely the children living in a stark, isolated pre-WWI northern German town.

Although very much a European film in the sense that there are many loose ends and ambiguous resolutions as you watch the credits roll, the story moves along briskly as told by a narrator recalling  vague incidents from 50 years earlier. The epidemic of tragic events that afflict the town seems both the product of the feudalism that is still a part of the society at the time, which spills directly from the cold, Puritanism of the towns’ elders. It is rare a film is able to maintain a level of unease as consistently as “The White Ribbon.” It is not exactly the edge of your seat you are feeling, but a kind slow burning emptiness. Great films make you “feel” something, but for most people this film won’t make them feel great! 

8)   Adventureland – Dir. Greg Mottola (Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Ryan Reynolds)
In some ways this film so closely mirrors my own experience that it is hard for me to judge it objectively. It doesn’t really matter though, because like a light beer on a hot day, this one goes down so easily. The film is set during the summer of 1987 primarily at a lame Pittsburg amusement park (I spent that same summer making snow cones at a lame Cleveland amusement park for $3 an hour).  The story focuses on the always lovable Jesse Eisenberg who was supposed to have been traveling around Europe using his college graduation money, which he never got because his father lost his job, and instead mans a game booth with the same insufferable music blaring all summer long. 

 Unlike the endless films of its kind, where a geek falls for a beautiful girl who is in love with the wrong guy, this film feels more like swan song from the late John Hughes. The film’s hugely appealing cast stretches the thin plot into something nostalgic and authentic, with the pitch perfect soundtrack and the kind of nerdy naiveté from the 80’s now seen from a distance. Perhaps this isn’t a masterwork like ‘Sixteen Candles’ or ‘The Breakfast Club’ but there haven’t been many since then that capture a moment in time so carefully.

9)   Inglourious Basterds – Dir. Q Tarrantino (George Clooney, Dianne Kruger, Christoph Waltz)
With every Tarrantino effort I tend to lose track of the fact that most of his films never really find a mass audience despite the technical finesse, incredible dialogue and near perfect performances. With “Basterds” of course there is violence, but this time around the focus seems to be more about the thick air of tension that surrounds individual scenes versus the blood and gore of previous efforts. At the most basic level, this is a WWII movie, where a gang of rogue Americans, “the basterds” is unleashed on the evil Nazi’s. This filmis about revenge, but it succeeds in part because the Nazis,  represented by the Oscar worthy Christoph Waltz, are even more evil than you might have thought, and the rampage that the Basterds undertake occas don’t  seem cruel enough.

The film is told in chapters, and with the exception of two which seem flatter and slower than the rest, each scene can almost be appreciated in isolation as a complete work. Tarrantino is a master, but this time around it almost feels like he wields a collective hatchet for all the victims of the Nazi’s terror. Never has rooting for vengeance felt so right. I’m not sure why it increasingly seems that “Pulp Fiction” will go down as Tarrantino’s opus, despite a handful of better, deeper films since then. This one and Jackie Brown and ‘Kill Bill 2 are classics, made by the Kubrick of the modern age.

10)    Sin Nombre – Cary Joji Fukunaga (Paulina Gaitan, Edgar Flores)
In the wake of the great Mexican cinema of the past decade (Amores Perros, Et Tu Mama Tambien) comes the grittiest, most riveting journey for freedom in a long while. Produced by Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna and directed by an American first-timer, Cary Fukunaga, ‘Sin Nombre’ tells the story of a family of Honduran immigrants who jump on a rusty train and travel north through Mexico en route to America with hundreds of others, camped out on the roof, grasping onto the same dream.

More than any other the film this year, it is both a love story that you know will end badly, and an exploration of the brutal Central American gangs that cover the country by way of a network of cell phones and spotters. This is a different kind of road movie, but a road movie nonetheless, where the voyage is less about self-exploration than it is about survival. To consider a film like this is to remember that in a country not all that far away, chaos, violence, and poverty are a way of life, not just occasional headlines. This might be best debut film of the year.

11)   The Cove – Dir. Louie Psihoyos / Food, Inc. – Dir. Robert Kenner
Two of the scariest movies of the years had nothing to do with alien prawns or paranormal activity but were obviously one-sided explorations of how we humans treat animals (or mammals). The first was “Food, Inc.” a kind of documentary version of Eric Schlosser’s book “Fast Food Nation.” In it we are exposed to the “real life” practices of the poultry, beef and pork business.’ Beyond the obvious hard to watch clips of slaughterhouses and overcrowded chicken farms the film spends as much time analyzing the global business of food, controlled by a handful of massive multinationals. The business of food is almost harder to watch than the frightening story of getting food from a farm to table. It is not just eating animals that will forever seem a dangerous voyage after watching this, food as innocent and healthy seeming as soy has, if you believe the filmmakers, an ugly back story as well. Best watched without snacks.

The second film cut from the same cloth is the eco-thriller doc. “The Cove.” This documentary is a much more creative piece of filmmaking, with a story that seems somehow even more gripping. The film follows the man largely credited with inadvertently starting the multi-billion dollars dolphin park business, after bringing Flipper to living rooms. The story ultimately follows a crew of explorers to a small town in Japan where 23,000 dolphins a year are slaughtered for food in a heavily guarded hidden cove. There is more to the story than this, including how the team captured the grizzly footage of one day’s slaughter. You can’t help but feel an incredible sadness.  a guilty shame, watching this film, much of it because it appears that dolphins have a considerably higher intellect than the pigs, cows and chickens who appear in “Food,Inc.” Either way, I suppose the idea of natural selection, no matter how brutal, is much better exposed in these films than it is on the Discovery channel. Again, this film is best watched on an empty stomach.

12)   Goodbye, Solo – Dir. Ramin Bahran (Souleymane Sy Savane, Red West)
No one saw this film. This is a sad fact, but not a surprise. It’s a story about two ordinary people who meet under imperfect circumstances and have the kind of short of intense human interaction that delves much deeper than most longer, seemingly more intimate relationships. The story is a simple one in which a crusty old man, played with a quiet power by Red West, steps into a cab in a southern town and effectively commissions a ride in 30 days to his own self-inflected funeral from the infectiously optimistic cabbie, Souleymane Sy Savane.

Over the course of the days that follow the two begin to build something resembling a friendship different than anything either could have ever anticipated. But this isn’t a Hollywood film, and the story that plays out is real. It is neither happy nor sad. The two characters are moving through time- one with an eye on the future, the other reflecting on the past. There something sublimely calming about “Goodbye, Solo” which reminds you that time never stops.

13)   Up In The Air – Dir. Jason Reitman (George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Jason Bateman)
Yes, this film is easy to watch. It is slick, clever, and just deep enough to make you feel okay about loving it. Jason Reitman is now 3 for 3 (Thank You for Smoking and Juno) and has such a light touch, adding just the right amount of emotional spectrum, cool music, and perfect casting to insulate his films from any real criticism.

The thing I appreciated most about Up In the Air is the nuanced attention given to getting into the mindset of serious traveling. As someone who flies often, the subtle, unconscious, ultra-efficient decisions at security checks, airport lounges and hotels seem as perfect as the often irrational brand loyalties. Sure there are flaws, but in the end they are hardly worth acknowledging. This film is an obvious joy, and you don’t need me to tell you that.

14)   Avatar – Dir. James Cameron (Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver)
There is not much I can offer about this movie that hasn’t already been said. It is a mesmerizing, magical thing of beauty to watch. It is technically and artistically paradigm shifting in the way that “Star Wars” was while also sharing a kind zeitgeisty philosophical, neo-religious world view. Sure the story is really nothing new, albeit updated with a topical eco-friendly theme, complete with a predictable love story and obvious good versus evil polarity, but the film is more a visual feast than a  character study. I could go on, but why. This film is a masterpiece that, more than any film in years, needs to be seen on a massive screen, in 3D, and with a large bucket of popcorn.

15)   The Messenger – Oren Moverman (Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Samantha Morton)

16)   Sugar – Dir. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Algenis Pérez Soto, Rayniel Rufino)

17)   A Serious Man – Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen (Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed)

18)   The Maid – Dir. Sebastian Silva (Catalina Saavedra, Alejandro Goic)

19)   The Informant – Dir. Stephen Soderburgh (Matt Damon, Scott Bakula)

20)   A Single Man – Dir. Tom Ford (Colin Firth, Julianne Moore)