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)