Contrary to popular opinion, I have to say this was an awfully weak year for movies. As so often occurs, with what seems to be increasing frequency, I found myself underwhelmed by most of the critics' favorites. Indeed, this year had more than its fair share of critical responses that simply seemed bizarre to me. Like, for instance, A Separation. Nice movie, kinda forgettable, pretty typical Iranian film, really, the kind I've seen many times before... and yet it had the critics declaring it a masterpiece to be placed alongside the canonical greats of all time (of course, neither am I a big fan of Kieslowksi's Decalogue, A Separation's spiritual antecedent... ethical dilemmas seldom hold much interest for me as plot material, which is why the Dardenne brothers generally leave me cold, as well). Or The Artist, this year's The King's Speech, a cute crowd-pleaser that was mysteriously exalted as something brilliant and momentous. Or The Tree of Life, which was just laughably bad, like a pretentious student film with a Hollywood budget and a top-notch D.P. And there were others, mostly with one-word titles: Hugo, Drive, Shame, Melancholia et al.
All right, now that I've most likely alienated half of those reading this, I can move on to my top 10 list, which will no doubt alienate the other half. In ascending order (well, numerically descending, but you know what I mean):
10. The Arbor
One of my favorite films of 2002 was The Laramie Project, a docudrama based on a play in which actual interviews with people connected to the Matthew Shepard murder case were transcribed and then performed by actors as dialogue, which proved to be a surprisingly effective experiment in cognitive dissonance between drama and reality. With The Arbor, filmmaker Clio Barnard took that concept a step further, by having her actors actually lip sync to the recorded interviews of real-life people (in this case, the friends and family members of English playwright Andrea Dunbar). I know what you're thinking, probably the same thing I was thinking when the concept was explained by on-screen text at the start of the film, which was something along the lines of: "Wait, what?" But it only took one sentence to convince me of its efficacy as a weirdly poetic device. Barnard intercuts these docu-dramatized scenes with sequences of Dunbar's autobiographical play (called The Arbor, natch) being performed (outdoors in the very neighborhood in which it is set), and real television footage of Dunbar herself. It's like layers of reality upon layers of reality, making for an eerily fascinating examination of the meaning of truth versus art.
9. How I Ended This Summer
I've never seen a movie quite like How I Ended This Summer. Even the title betrays an unusual sense of whimsy that you have to actually see the movie to understand. The film is a two-hander about a pair of meteorologists living in an isolated weather station on a remote island off the Arctic coast of Russia, and the plot concerns what happens when a lack of communication between these two men creates a misunderstanding that ultimately spirals out of control. It takes roughly the form of a thriller, but, really, it's an anti-thriller, in which the plot is moved forward by inaction rather than action. More contemplative than kinetic, but infused with humor so dry and deadpan that it's easy to miss it entirely.
8. The Future
Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know was my favorite movie of 2005, and, really one of my favorites of all time. Finally, after six years, she made her second feature film, and while it doesn't reach nearly the heights of brilliance of her first film, it still outstrips most films that came out last year. July once again directs herself, this time as half of a self-involved bohemian couple whose uncharacteristically magnanimous adoption of a stray cat sends them spiraling into some sort of existential, premature mid-life crisis (their reasoning goes something like this: "This cat will live another five years. In five years we'll be 40, and 40 is basically 50, and everything after that is just loose change.") It's a hilarious look at thirtysomething neurosis, but also, ultimately, kind of a sad one.
7. The Descendants
It says a lot about Alexander Payne that his latest movie is my second least favorite film that he's made, and yet it still makes my Top 10 list of the year. The thing that strikes me most about his style, evident in this film more than in any other, is his sense of place. He's so specific in his treatment of scenes and social milieus that it's almost impossible to come away from one of his films without feeling like you've just spent a year of your life living in whatever locale it's set in, whether it's the wine country of Santa Barbara County (Sideways), or, in this case, the Hawaiian islands. And, just like with all of his other movies, the performances are terrific across the board (Shailene Woodley, a young television actress, is particularly impressive, if only because she's young and from television), and the script is equal parts sensitive and acerbic. I love this guy.
Herein lies the value of film critics. Without them, I never would have seen this generic-looking baseball movie, never would have known I was missing out on maybe (probably... almost definitely) the best baseball movie ever made. And it's a great baseball movie made from such unlikely material. The drama isn't based on homers or strike outs, but on board meetings and conference calls, as it follows Oakland A's manager Billy Beane's quest to build a winning team based on statistics and computer analyses rather than talent. It's surprisingly riveting stuff, and, even with the focus on the business of baseball over the actual sport, there's still room for those stirring crowd-pleasing moments that are the benchmark of any sports movie. What a nice surprise.
5. Tucker and Dale vs Evil
In an era of dumb horror movies and dumber comedies, Tucker and Dale vs Evil feels like a miracle. It's a smart, hilarious horror-comedy that, even more surprisingly, actually has something to say. The premise is truly inspired: a group of college kids go camping in the woods, and run across a pair of redneck hillbillies who, um... just want to go fishing. But since the college kids have seen... well, take your pick of horror movies... they assume that the two hillbillies are inbred psychotic killers, particularly after the kids keep meeting with grisly accidents one by one. In reality, the hillbillies are just regular, nice guys minding their own business, utterly perplexed that college kids keep dying around them. So what we get is both a spoof on slasher movies and a commentary on prejudice, as well as a sweet character study and some of the most pitch-perfect moments of gruesome dark comedy I've ever seen. First-time(!) writer-director Eli Craig is definitely one to watch.
4. Putty Hill
If The Arbor is a documentary posing as a drama, Putty Hill is a drama posing as a documentary. Not that it can really be classified as a mockumentary, but the film occasionally takes time out from the action to hold interviews with the characters, conducted by the (unseen) filmmaker himself. The film itself plays a bit like something Richard Linklater and Gus Van Sant would come up with if they ever decided to work together. It follows the friends and family members of a young man who recently died from a drug overdose, and how his death affected (or didn't affect) the community in which he lived. Absolutely mesmerizing from one shot to the next, filled with uncannily naturalistic performances and a formal mastery not commonly found in low-budget American indies, it's the year's most overlooked film by a mile.
3. The Guard
My first response upon seeing The Guard was that it was this year's In Bruges: a witty, darkly comic British (well, Irish, in this case) thriller with a first-rate Brendan Gleeson perfomance. So it wasn't much of a surprise to learn that the writer-director, John Michael McDonagh, is the brother of Martin McDonagh, the writer-director of In Bruges. Clearly, this family is awesome. In Bruges is the better film, I think, but The Guard is a more than worthy companion, with the same breezy wit, the same loving attention to character development, the same visual aplomb. The trailer makes it look like a lame cross between a buddy cop movie and a fish-out-of-water comedy (the "fish" being Don Cheadle's FBI agent, paired with Gleeson's drunken Irish cop to catch a gang of drug smugglers), but the actual film delights in subverting these cliches, and others like them. Far more interested in character than comedy or action, it ultimately becomes Gleeson's movie as it gradually stakes its claim as, really, little more than a detailed character study. And what a wonderful character it is.
2. Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen is very hit or miss, especially lately, but when he hits, it's magical. This is one of his best films, and easily his funniest. It's the kind of movie he was making back in the '80s, when he would have a new masterpiece practically every year, and particularly recalls The Purple Rose of Cairo, its most obvious thematic sibling. In one of the most canny marketing campaigns since The Crying Game, the trailers avoided revealing what the movie is actually about, and I wouldn't dream of spoiling it here; but it's a story so enchantingly told, so fraught with pleasures both small and large, that it's no wonder it became Allen's highest grossing film to date, and his first in quite some time to get serious Oscar buzz. It's his most assured film in years, with gorgeous camerawork, absolutely brilliant casting in all of the key roles, and a screenplay that, while it might belabor the central thesis a bit much, is decidedly pointed and utterly charming.
1. War Horse
Somehow, Steven Spielberg made one of the great masterpieces of the 1940s and nobody noticed. Maybe because he made it in 2011. But whatever... War Horse is the closest thing we have to the days of John Ford and Victor Fleming, King Vidor and Powell and Pressburger. It's a glorious, old-fashioned epic about a great love being torn asunder by war. The fact that it's a love story between a boy and a horse does nothing to dilute its emotional potency. Even I, who groaned at the thought of seeing a horse movie, was captivated by this story. I can't imagine it working as well on stage (it's also a Tony-winning play), without Spielberg's knack for anthropomorphizing these animals... not in a silly kids movie kind of way, but in subtler ways that simply serve to remind us we're watching living, feeling creatures. For it's the horse who is the film's protagonist, not the boy, and without such an uncannily expressive treatment of our hero, it would be an entirely different movie... Au Hasard Balthazar with a horse, or something. The whole film is magnificent, with the expected stunning war scenes and unexpected moments of humor, but the ending is what I'll remember most. The ending is quite simply one of the most insanely beautiful things I've ever seen in my life. To say that it moved me to tears is a severe understatement. It freakin' destroyed me.
Worst Movie of the Year:
I watched this only because Ebert put it on his Top 20 list for the year. Every so often I forget why I don't read Ebert anymore, and I need a movie like this to remind me. Think of the absolute worst '80s Afterschool Special you ever saw. Then imagine that it was about internet sexual predators, maybe involving Chris Hansen from Dateline somehow. Now, imagine that Afterschool Special remade as a feature film in 2011. That movie you're imagining is way better than Trust. This movie is hilariously awful, a two-hour piece of propaganda against something we already know is bad. It's a movie in which every scene seems to be calculated solely to teach teenage girls the dangers of online messaging, complete with a creepy sexual predator who, like most movie sexual predators, couldn't be simply creepy by being a sexual predator, but has to have an extra layer of creepiness even above that, like creepiness squared. But the funniest moment is when the teenage victim, who up until now has been defending the sexual predator and insisting the sex was consensual, suddenly has a breakthrough and realizes, "Oh my god, I was raped!" Rape, incidentally, is the film's key word. The dialogue in any given scene invariably goes like this: "blah blah rape blah rape something something rape, yadda yadda rape... rape rape rapity rape." PSAs have more subtlety.