Movies While They Last

Putting this year's best-of list together has led me think a little bit about the different ways in which we see movies. The contrast, for example, between my #1 and #2 picks seems to emphasize the significance of following such a train of thought. The former was truly one of the twenty or so most powerful theatre-going experiences I've ever had, yet, sadly, I doubt--mostly because of the vagaries of DVD distribution but also because of the time-commitment required to properly watch a six-hour film--that I'll see it again anytime soon. #2, on the other hand, I've seen no fewer than a dozen times since first catching it at the multiplex. Like the films that occupied the top two slots on my best of the 2000's list, I've come to like it even more than I did initially because of the hidden surprises it's continued to yield upon revisiting. Several other titles on my list would, I suspect, benefit similarly if they were currently available on DVD, while a few others (such as #18 and #19) likely wouldn't pack anywhere near the same punch on a TV screen, with the option of pressing pause and without an audience sharing in the experience. Which is to say, this is a considered but by no means inflexible snapshot of what I liked or admired most in movies this year, from the not necessarily prime vantage point of late December.

The other thing I got to thinking about is how much movies can really mean. Not just personally, to me or you, but, you know, in the Grand Scheme of Things. I would argue that, sometimes (my #1 and #5 and even #20 come to mind), they can mean quite a lot--they can mean the power of a voice speaking firmly and eloquently against political oppression and corruption; they can mean guiding us to remember past events in danger of slipping beyond memory or immediacy; they can mean challenging contemporary projections of what constitutes the status quo. I can't help but think of Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi, one of the finest filmmakers working today. Unless something changes for the positive soon, he'll spend the next six years in prison and will be banned from making movies for the next twenty in punishment for vocally supporting the opposition to the Ahmadinejad government. I'm sure the sympathies of not just cinephiles but remotely compassionate people everywhere are with Panahi right now, and for what it's worth (probably not much, granted), this list is dedicated to the spirit of thoughtful resistance and meaning that his work exemplifies.

First, a half-dozen runners-up that in a less stellar year would've surely made the cut:

Dear Prudence Rebecca Zlotowski's uncommonly sensitive study of a teenage girl's day-to-day life following her mother's death is, for my money, the year's most assured and promising directorial debut. Lea Seydoux's titular turn impresses in a year brimming over with outstanding performances by young actresses.

The Illusionist Sylvain Chomet's charming filmization of a Jacques Tati script is the year's 2nd-best animated feature--and, upon reflection, it's not all that thematically dissimilar from the final chapter of Woody and Buzz Lightyear.

Kawasaki's Rose No film this year, besides maybe #20 on my list, felt more generous or inclusive toward all of its characters, despite or sometimes maybe because of their myriad shortcomings. Remarkably, that warmth doesn't entirely soften the film's political bite either.

The Strange Case of Angelica In placing Manoel de Oliveira's latest here, I do so with the reservation that I strongly suspect it would've finished higher had I not seen it in a film festival setting, where such a compact, understated, and wry film is inevitably overshadowed by flashier works like the sprawling Carlos and the delirious Uncle Boonmee. I hope to revisit this Strange Case as soon as possible.

13 Assassins and True Grit Mostly straight-faced, thoroughly accomplished genre exercises from filmmakers who usually work in self-conscious quote marks. Takashi Miike's samurai yarn is as much pure popcorn fun as any movie released this year, with the always awesome Koji Yakusho demonstrating some Eastern true grit. The Coen Brothers' take on the Charles Portis novel (and the subsequent movie that won John Wayne a late-career Oscar) is a legitimately engrossing western, complete with an immensely charismatic Jeff Bridges performance and some great references to The Night of the Hunter. Two things, in my view, prevent it from climbing a little higher on this list: 1) It can't help but feel a tad minor following A Serious Man, one of the Coens' most personal and distinctive films, and 2) While this True Grit is probably superior to the 1969 version, that film packs extra poignancy within the context of John Wayne's career and place in the popular imagination; Bridges is a terrific actor, but he's not mythic.

20.The Kids Are All Right In a year dominated by three-dimensional spectacles, Lisa Cholodenko's very smart, very funny ensemble piece offers actual, three-dimensional human beings. It also provides real hope that Hollywood can still winningly pull off the "small film." The most radical thing about this movie is how happily mainstream it is, in theme and in presentation; implicitly, Cholodenko seems to be asking: why should this movie be any stranger or more marginal than any other relationship- and family-centered comedy/drama? The script is sparkling and the performances across the board are superb, especially a never-better Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo, adding nifty new twists on the character he's been more or less consistently typecast as since You Can Count on Me.

19.L.A. Zombie and 18.Enter the Void These two, on the other hand, are purposefully radical experiments that mostly succeed. Bruce LaBruce's horror-porn hybrid offers an unflinching, if tongue-in-cheek, look at life on the margins of Los Angeles, both for a gay community that doesn't live nearly as comfortably as Bening and Julianne Moore in Kids and for the homeless and mentally unwell residents of L.A.'s less scenic districts. The great surprise of Enter the Void--given both the subject matter and Gaspar Noé's track record--is that it's finally more pleasurable than it is off-putting. Sure, the film is overlong by at least a half-hour and Noé ventures places he's frustratingly unwilling to actually spend much thought investigating, but while it's on-screen, it's hypnotic, frequently exciting, and sporadically breathtaking in its vision and audacity.

17. Aurora and 16.Winter Vacation If, as the Talking Heads predicted, heaven is a place where nothing ever happens, then Cristi Puiu and Li Hongqi are certainly on the right track. These are films about, first and foremost, time passing--slowly, very slowly. The former presents, elliptically yet in paint-drying detail, the events leading up to a violent crime, with Puiu turning in an appropriately unreadable lead performance. The latter is a deadpan comedy observing the goings-on (mostly, among the kids on break from school) in a small Inner Mongolian community; the final scene solidifies the sharp sociopolitical metaphor suggested more loosely by what precedes it.

15.Air Doll Teresa liked Hirokazu Koreeda's dark, Pinocchio-esque fantasy so much she named it her top movie of 2009. I didn't see it until this year, but I was nearly as impressed. Air Doll is full of surprises, some splendid and others shocking, shifting between tones without ever feeling discombobulated. Koreeda's Tokyo might be the loveliest depiction of the metropolis I've ever seen on film; Doona Bae's performance as a sex doll come to curious and painful life is as heartbreaking as Haley Joel Osment's in A.I..

14.Carlos and 13.Toy Story 3 On first glance, these are two films with very little in common, but they both present deeply resonant portraits of life after irrelevancy. The adventures of the previous two Toy Story installments(which I've now seen dozens of times each, thanks to my two year-old son who loves them) are comparable with the first two-thirds of Olivier Assayas' epic biopic, culminating with Woody & Co.'s triumphant return home in Toy Story 2 and the breathlessly sustained OPEC raid sequence in Carlos. Then, Andy, inevitably, grows up and must head off to college sans toys; international terrorism evolves beyond Carlos' cult-of-celebrity hijinks. The final moments of Toy Story 3 are among the year's most beautiful and wistful, suggesting a cyclical nature of existence. The ending of Carlos implies, too, a cyclical continuity--but the events we all know well enough not to have to see are anything but beautiful or wistful.

12.Around a Small Mountain and 11.Bluebeard Understated almost-masterpieces from great French filmmakers. What might well be Rivette's swansong is an affectionate study of a circus troupe that's so low-key and modest that its greatness sort of sneaks up on you near the end. Catherine Breillat's Bluebeard (which opened commercially in North America this year and is much preferable to its muddled follow-up, The Sleeping Beauty) is a take on Perrault's fairy tale where the titular villain is a moody, world-weary giant burdened by what he regards as a fatalistic obligation. The framing device, with two young sisters reading Perrault's story together, circles back on Breillat and functions provocatively alongside her ambiguous, muted telling of the main tale.

10.Dream Home and 09.The Social Network The year's most immediately relevant films: one a high-grossing, Oscar-contending Hollywood product, the other a Hong Kong extreme horror movie we luckily plucked off the shelf of a bootleg DVD kiosk. David Fincher's career-best effort gets the slight edge for Justin Timberlake's pitch-perfect, scene-stealing supporting turn.

08.I Wish I Knew Jia Zhangke is the most consistently excellent filmmaker working anywhere in the world today. I Wish I Knew preserves his status, as Jia takes a probing, concentrated look at the history and evolution of Shanghai. His long-time muse, Zhao Tao, wanders around the city like a ghost navigating somewhere, at once, familiar and alien.

07.The Tiger Factory and 06.Winter's Bone Young females making their way in a harshly unwelcoming world was surely one of 2010's great cinematic themes. We find it in Dear Prudence, in Air Doll (not as young technically, but youngest of all in terms of experience) and in the Coens' version of True Grit. And this concept is given especially brilliant treatment in Woo Ming Jin and Debra Granik's films. The former is a haunting look at day-to-day life in the developing world of Southeastern Asia, where money talks and literally everything has its price. The latter evokes The Night of the Hunter more powerfully than the Coens do in telling the story of a teenage girl in the Ozarks looking for her missing meth-cooking father. The scene where she finally "finds" him might be the year's single most indelible movie moment.

05.City of Life and Death Lu Chuan's harrowing account of the Japanese occupation of Nanjing might've placed higher if I could work up the nerve to watch it again. After one viewing, however, I do feel confident in ranking it alongside the greatest war films ever made--in recent memory, only Malick's The Thin Red Line, De Palma's Redacted, and Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker are as potent and powerful.

04.Valhalla Rising and 03.Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives The year's most flooring (and unclassifiable) exercises in pure cinema. I kind of feel sorry for the Gladiator- and 300-loving dude I see pulling Nicholas Winding Refn's Viking headfuck off the shelf at Blockbuster (where it's hilariously being promoted as if it's your garden variety period swashbuckler). But I'd also kind of like to sit down and watch it with him. And if, somehow, he ends up liking it, I'll enthusiastically recommend Uncle Boonmee.

02.Greenberg I've already written at length and on multiple occasions in this space about how much I love Noah Baumbach's film, so I'll use this blurb as an opportunity to list a few of the things I've come to additionally love from subsequent viewings: Rhys Ifans and Jennifer Jason Leigh's performances (every bit as on-the-mark as Ben Stiller and Greta Gerwig's more prominent turns); that when his niece and her friend tell him that he should go to Australia with them, Roger's first reaction is, "There's this great Kinks song called 'Australia'..."; the scene where Roger asks his brother on the phone from Vietnam if pools can overflow ("Can pools overflow? Fuck you!") and then tries to remedy the situation; Florence coming to after her abortion and telling Roger: "You like me so much more than you think you do".

01.Karamay Xu Xin's monumental documentary is so unforgettable that I find myself thinking of individual scenes--of particular parents discussing their children or that video footage of the kids just before the fated performance--on an almost daily basis since seeing Karamay months ago. It's one of those rare films that you just can't shake. Its final scene edges Uncle Boonmee's for the year's greatest: a young girl performs a musical ode to Chairman Mao in her parents' (who lost a child in the Friendship Hall fire) living room when, all of a sudden, Xu switches from gritty black and white to DV color and then, with her song still lingering on the soundtrack, the shot jumps to the rebuilt Friendship Hall as a couple teenagers skateboard out front. Life goes on, Xu suggests, but the present is always colored by the past and our ability the shape the future depends critically on our understanding of this truth.


Buyer's Market

In my experience, it's exceedingly rare that halfway through a film you're just about ready to write it off as a potential-packed-but-muddled, exceptionally well-shot (by Jia Zhangke's DP of choice, Yu Lik Wai, sometimes credited as Nelson Yu Lik-Wai) dud and then, within the last ten minutes, you suddenly realize the movie you're watching is much smarter and tighter than you'd previously assumed and even, perhaps, one of the year's best films. Such is the case with Pang Ho-Cheung's Dream Home, a darkly comic (and decidedly not-for-the-faint-of-heart) slice of extreme horror about, of all things, real estate.

The 2007-set film centers on a young woman, born and bred in Hong Kong but relocated (not far, just far enough to be deprived of that fabled real estate commodity: A View of the Water--a concept instantly relatable for this Vancouverite) in her childhood away from Victoria Harbor. In flashbacks to 1991, we see banners accusing the government of collaborating with gangsters and greedy developers; at one point, snakes are left on a working class resident's porch in an attempt to intimidate them into moving away from the waterfront.

The melodramatic tone of these scenes coupled with the psychological fragility and quasi-unreadability of Josie Ho's lead performance purposefully confuse us as to what sort of movie we're watching. This is especially true as they're intermingled with the 2007 scenes, in which our deranged heroine is brutally murdering various occupants of an upscale condo building. This strange brew of wistful nostalgia and blood-and-guts effectively prevents us from predicting the first final-act twist (or should I said I say, double twist since in the denouement, Ho's character gets her just desserts in a manner far more delicious than mere jail-time) in ages that is legitimately clever and radically alters what's preceded it without feeling remotely contrived. The same goes for the film's puzzle-like structure complete with time-stamp clues; at first, it struck me as a superfluous stylization, but once the pieces fit together, I couldn't help but admire it as a slyly executed necessity for Dream Home's tonal ambiguity and final curveball.

Those twist(s)--which I won't reveal in this space--function as well-earned punch-lines to a very grim (but not unfunny) joke. They also render Pang's film immediately relevant to the here and now, as well as explaining why a 2010-released film is set in 2007. I don't know when, or if, a North American theatrical release is in the works, but I highly recommend hitting up your local Asian bootleg DVD spot ASAP. This one's worth seeking out.


Mesmerizing, Too

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Funstyle are two of the best albums of 2010, but they're also two of the year's weirdest, most playfully experimental and eccentric collections. I love 'em both--but most people don't. This is worth considering not because I think everyone should share my musical tastes or because they're at all comparable musically (obviously, they're not). But I do feel they were crafted in essentially the same spirit: deeply personal statements from embattled (whether mainly in their own mind or in reality) artists that--more than ever before in their respective careers--throw everything against the wall and watch, with a certain, warranted degree of self-amusement, to see what sticks.

Kanye's record is superior insofar as the success rate of his experiments is markedly higher, but Kanye's a perfectionist--a self-described "jerk-off who never takes work off." Phair, by contrast, is returning to the quirkily handmade aesthetic of her rightly treasured Girlysound tapes, and here as there, even the stuff that falls flat puts a smile on your face. Now Phair is a 43 year-old woman, for better and for worse. The for worse was Somebody's Miracle, her appropriately dull 2005 stab at the adult-contempo market. The for-better (far outweighing the for-worse) is that the professional and personal (which, for an artist like Phair, might well be inextricable) highs and lows she's experienced have prepared her to record a song as gives-you-goosebumps-good as "Satisfied," as fine a track as nearly any on the canonical Exile in Guyville or should-be-canonical Whip-Smart. The Phair of Funstyle sounds ultimately more comfortable in her skin than ever before, which is the last thing anyone would've said about her 2003 self-titled misfire (except maybe Liz Phair herself, who was decidedly wary of the expectations projected onto her by critics and fans in the wake of Exile's impact).

Kanye's album is the year's across-the-board rave-magnet; Funstyle has received mixed reviews, with some scathing. Phair raps (badly, though only slightly worse than, say, Debbie Harry--and that's not the point anyway), has an Indian guru-type deliver a stupid-funny sermon about suburban trophy wives faking it in bed, and preempts barbs coming her way (including from the record label that dropped her after hearing Funstyle) with a sound-collagey track called "U Hated It"; Kanye's album opens with Nicky Minaj slipping on a British accent to embellish a bit from Roald Dahl's version of Cinderella, includes an extended Chris Rock sketch tacked onto the outro of its loveliest and saddest track, and concludes with a Gil Scott-Heron monologue asking "Who will survive in America?"

Which is to say, neither of these are Rubber Soul-type great records, where said greatness is more or less quantifiable through a song-by-song measure. Which isn't to say, that there aren't great songs on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Funstyle. There are; for starters: "Power," "Hell of a Life," "Monster," "Satisfied," "My, My," and "Oh, Bangladesh." But Kanye and Phair are both decidedly dabbling in White Album territory, artists discernibly bored with song forms they've long since perfected and audacious enough to take real and exciting risks on, respectively, their fifth and sixth full albums. The difference is that the genius tag has stuck firmly enough to Kanye that critics give his more peculiar flourishes the benefit of the doubt they deserve; if anything, those who were disappointed by 808's & Heartbreak have been the most eager to heap unqualified praise on the new disc. Something tells me that if Phair had released Funstyle in 1994 as a follow-up to Exile in Guyville (rather than Whip-Smart, which sadly got stuck with the similar-to-Exile-but-not-as-good rep) it would've still proven divisive, but a much more substantial and vocal segment of music scribes (especially those who fell for Phair via Girlysound) would've championed this charmingly obtuse collection and even flirted with the "g-word."


The One That Got Away

With the queasy spectacle of LeBron's return to Northeast Ohio looming this evening, here's "Believeland," Wright Thompson's superlative examination of Cleveland, its sports history, and how LBJ factors in.