The general consensus 'out there' is that 2010 was a bad year for movies. And that 'out there' generally comes from people who have seen a lot of movies. And among those who have seen a lot of movies, most have been to a number of festivals. And indeed, many of this year's festival titles are pretty stunning compared to this year's offerings, and, because they are on the US slow train of distribution, they will technically be 2011 films. But festival and arthouse titles aside, when I look at the landscape of film in 2010, there was certainly no slack. When I think of the thrill-filled last 40 minutes of Inception, or the honesty and bravery of The Kids Are All Right or mysterious-laden antiquity of Shutter Island or the hyperkenetic vernacular of The Social Network, they all give me goosebumps, despite the fact that most of those didn't even make my list. Even my cynicism about the end-of-the-year powerhouses was quashed under the ultra-engaging likes of I Love You Phillip Morris, Black Swan, True Grit and The Fighter.
And so I give you my list of 30. My list of 30 films I saw this year that I loved. My list of 30 that has admitted gaps. (I never saw Scott Pilgrim, Toy Story 3, Inside Job and gobs more that maybe I'll get to in this lifetime or another.) My list of 30 that hopefully everyone will find a film they recognize and one they don't recognize.
Year end lists are a treasure trove of discovery for me so hopefully there is some of that for others as well. I am all-inclusive in this list with one stellar film from 2009 that screened late in Minneapolis (Police Adjective), a handful of films from 2010, a handful of films that will come around in 2011, and unfortunately a few films that may not come around at all. I've tried to make notes on US release dates and/or the speculative possibility distribution. Enjoy.
1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)
(Read my review of Uncle Boonmee in my VIFF dispatch over at In Review Online.) Frequent readers will be aware that I am a big fan of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and when his new film won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival I was overjoyed, sight unseen. Although I was already toying with the idea of going to Vancouver, the announcement of Uncle Boonmee pretty much sealed the deal. Although Uncle Boonmee takes a more direct path in its narrative explorations compared to Weerasethakul's previous few films, it is equally as rich, mysterious and wonderful. A film about a man reconciling his own mortality, it becomes an incredible discovery of a textured existence and the beautiful mysteries of life. Uncle Boonmee requires a certain leap of faith from the viewer, but the rewards that are paid out are far beyond anything you are ever going to get out of any other movie. For real.
Uncle Boonmee was picked up by Strand and will be in limited release early this Spring. For those in the Twin Cities, the good people at the Walker have secured two screenings on February 18 and 19. (They will also be hosting a free screening of Weerasethakul's equally seductive Syndromes and a Century on February 24.)
2. Winter Vacation (2010)
(Read my short take on Winter Vacation in my VIFF dispatch at In Review Online.) Humor doesn't get much more wry than that in Li Hongxi's Winter Vacation. Aptly compared to Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise, Li takes the absurdity of life and gently turns it up to eleven. Although the sardonic humor feels completely new in a Mainland Chinese film, Li is following in the footsteps of the social comedies of Huang Jianxin and Feng Xiaogang only a little drier, a little more self-reflexive and a lot more hilarious. Simple settings and simple actions have the most satisfying results: a woman who buys a head of nappa cabbage, a battle of wills between a man and his grandson, the incredible inactivity of a group of teenagers. Li also has a keen sense for music with a brilliant but sparse score that includes Top Floor Circus and the experimental musician Zuoxiao Zuzhou. My only hope for Winter Vacation distribution is Europe. No one has picked this up for distribution anywhere, but it won top prize at Locarno Film Festival and there seems to be at least some minor buzz about this film there. I don't see this ever being distributed in its home country and unfortunately I don't see it happening here in the US either. Somebody prove me wrong.
3. White Material (2010)
I am firmly convinced that Claire Denis is one of the most talented and important directors in the world. A bold proclamation, but after last year's incredibly beautiful 35 Shots of Rum combined with this year's powerfully realized White Material (not to mention her amazing back catalog), it is hard to argue otherwise. It was someone else that connected White Material with the Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart, but I can't stop thinking about it. It has taken fifty years for Achebe's story to find a companion piece from a colonial counterpart, and indeed, history and what colonialism has done to the African continent, with its false boundaries and corruption for commerce (see also Darwin's Nightmare), is at or beyond a tipping point. Denis version is the Western consciousness (not guilt) finally catching up with our collective actions. In an unnamed African country, things are indeed falling apart in the form of civil war. Maria is a French woman who runs a second generation coffee plantation started by her father-in-law. Instead of facing the chaos around her, Maria buries her head in her work until the chaos comes to her in the form of violent revelation. There are no heroes and no villains in White Material, just a catastrophic mess where no one and everyone is to blame. Isabele Huppert plays Maria with fragile ferocity, and with one final action comes a symbolic action of the impossibility of righting wrongs.
White Material got a theatrical release in the US here at the tail of 2010 and should be out on DVD early or mid-2011. Maybe it is even available on-demand if you are able to do such things.
4. Le Quattro Volte (2010)
Trailer (with Italian narration)
Images, in my book, are far more powerful than words, and it is one reason why I love movies. And, wow, if Le Quattro Volte didn't just knock me off my feet with its simple yet profound pictorial storytelling. Words are spoken in Le Quattro Volte (which literally translates the the clumsy title of The Four Times) but they are passive objects. The active objects in this story are an old man, a young goat, and a tall tree. Through earthbound spiritual transference, Frammartino shows us a cycle of life that is poetic, violent, industrious, and completely natural. It's hard not to think of Uncle Boonmee in connection with Le Quattro Volte mostly because they mine the more ethereal unknowns of the world. But I can't help of thinking of the smoking UFO in A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and the smoking mound that opens and closes Le Quattro Volte. The mound is something of a mystery—not a mystery as to what it is, but a mystery of human ingenuity and a mystery of the natural elements that we live with in the world. Le Quattro Volte is a completely unique film, and needless to say, I was completely taken with it.
Le Quattro Volte opens in NYC at the end of March and hits the Lagoon locally on May 13. I also wouldn't be surprised to see this as a selection at MSPIFF in April. I'll see it when ever and where ever I can!
5. Mundane History (2010)
Trailer (Wow. I love this movie.)
I'm only at number five, and I'm on my third spiritual film. Maybe this says more about me than trends in film, but I'm inclined to think it is a little of both. Mundane History is grounded in a story about a teenage boy who was recently paralyzed in a car accident who is assigned a new caretaker. The two young men are both struggling with there own unspoken demons, but find a way to live and heal through their forced companionship. The film slowly becomes deeply invested in spiritualism and very specifically the cycle of suffering and rebirth. The two young men, through a push and pull of cooperation, discover a modest path of awareness together. The grand aspirations of this film, whether they have to do with the Nobel Eightfold Path or the Golden Rule, are handled with care and tenderness and not the heavy hand one might expect. Anocha Suwichakornpong's first feature film is something pretty special. The finale is unbelievably riveting, frightening and beautiful.
Mundane History played at MoMA In December, and will probably be doing the festival/independent theater circuit. It won a Tiger Award in Rotterdam and will likely find a DVD release somewhere. I'm dying to see it again.
6. I Wish I Knew (2010)
(Read my review of I Wish I Knew in my VIFF dispatch over at In Review Online.) Commissioned by the Shanghai Expo, I Wish I Knew compiles interviews from Shanghai's past and present as an emotional exploration of the city's history. As beautiful and elegant as one familiar with Jia Zhangke's work might expect, his newest travels a straight and narrow path of documentary structure with clarity and beauty. Interviewing exiles and loyalists, Communists and Nationalist, famous and ordinary, Jia builds an archive through storytelling of Shanghai's modern past. Although I Wish I Knew focuses on the most tumultuous era for Shanghai's in 30s and 40s, the film builds to a crescendo of modernization and nostalgia.
I Wish I Knew has not been picked up for US distribution yet, but it probably will be. The important thing to realize is that there are two edits of this documentary: Jia's original running 138 minutes and an edited version that got played at the Expo running 125 minutes. Some of the interviews that portrayed the Communists in a poor light were cut. For some reason, the cut version is making its way into US festivals. If at all possible, see the 138 minute version.
7. Alamar (2010)
(Read my brief thoughts on Alamar in my MSPIFF coverage at In Review Online.) A beautiful film signed, sealed, and delivered by the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival. I was so glad to have seen this first on the big screen with absolutely no pretense. The simple story of Alamar is adorned with the grace and perfection of a folklore or a myth. A young boy born to an Italian mother and Mexican father goes on a final farewell visit with his father and grandfather to the island of Quintana Roo, 30 miles off the coast, in the Caribbean Sea: a pictorial paradise where the way of life has not changed for hundreds of years. The father gives his son a memento of ancestry and history before sending him off to Italy with his mother. A mixture of documentary and fiction, Alamar is as close as most of us will ever get to the rough realism of the simple life.
Alamar played at MSPIFF locally and opened in limited release around the US. If you are a subscriber to Film Movement, you would have received this DVD 6 months ago; the DVD hits the streets January 11, 2011.
8. Police Adjective (2009)
Police Adjective was definitely one of those films people were crowing about for 2009, but didn't his theaters in the Twin Cities until well into 2010. Those who saw Corneliu Porumboiu's new feature is not unlike his last, 12:08 East of Bucharest, full of incredibly dry wit and clever sense of detail. And yes, a slow and convoluted story, but not without effect! A young police officer painstakenly monitors the coming-and-goings of a group of kids in order to make a petty drug bust. Many films have attempted to underline the mundanity of police work, but Police Adjective earns some bragging rights in this corner. This detective is careful and slow and, as we eventually realize, doubtful that his investigation is heading down the right path. Nothing, however, prepared me for the quick-minded finale pulled from the pages of a dictionary. Absurd, hilarious and cunningly brilliant.
Police Adjective got a theatrical release late 2009 and early 2010. I just realized, however, that it has not been released on DVD or Blu-ray yet in the US. Criterion?
9. Aurora (2010)
It seems only fitting that I would follow up Police Adjective with Cristi Puiu's newest film, an equally challenging and rewarding film from Romania. First, I have to admit that I am in terrible need of a second viewing of Aurora: although I was completely captivated by it, I was fighting some serious fatigue in the final days of VIFF when I saw it. Puiu's follow up to The Death of Mr Lazarescu is drawn with the same kind of composure and slow dark observation. The thing that really sets Aurora apart is the fact that Puiu himself plays the lead and is in nearly every shot in this 3 hour movie. Aurora is one of those films that is a discovery from beginning to end. Completely unpredictable, this film strings you along with clues and nuances about this mysterious and serious man who is obviously on some sort of mission. Slow, methodical and strangely orchestrated, Aurora is completely unique.
Aurora made the festival rounds this year and has been picked up by Cinema Guild for theatrical release in the US in 2011.
10. Cold Weather (2010)
The Sound Unseen International Duluth Film Festival was a blessing in 2010. I wormed my way onto the jury, saw some of the best films of the year and met some of the most brilliant young filmmakers in the US. Included in the batch of films they showed was Cold Weather and included in the directors in attending was Aaron Katz. I may have been lukewarm to the mumblecore movement, but Aaron's films Dance Party USA and Quiet City were certainly standouts. His new film, Cold Weather, breaks him free of being pigeon-holed into anything but one of the best independent filmmakers is the US. It is a well-designed mystery build around the familiar relationship of a brother and a sister. These characters are familiar even if their actions are surprising or unusual or perfectly ordinary. Cold Weather is a genre film that seems to work by completely different rules. Top notch performances by Trieste Kelly Dunn and Cris Lankenau and a killer soundtrack by Keegan DeWitt.
Cold Weather ran the festival circuit in 2010 and is set for a theatrical release in early 2011. Here's hoping that 2011 is Cold Weather's year!
11. Putty Hill (2010) Matthew Porterfield / USA
Trailer and website
Yet another gift of Sound Unseen International Duluth, Putty Hill was picked up by Cinema Guild and will be released in 2011.
12. Certified Copy (2010) Abbas Kiarostami / France
I can't believe that such a great film is all the way down here at number twelve. Read my assessment of Certified Copy in my VIFF dispatch at In Review Online. Certified Copy is set for US theatrical release in early 2011.
13. Another Year (2010) Mike Leigh / UK
Mike Leigh's best film since Secrets and Lies with four incredible performances: Ruth Sheen, Leslie Manville, Jim Broadbent and Imelda Staunton. Another Year is opening in limited release right now and hits Minneapolis on January 21 at the Uptown.
14. I Am Love (2009) Luca Guadagnino / Italy
Melodrama, beauty and awakened passion. Utterly gorgeous film that seduces on every level. I Am Love is out on DVD and Blu-ray.
15. Fortune Teller (2010) Xu Tong / China
This independent documentary delivers some of the most candid interviews I have ever seen. Fortune Teller is a snapshot of life on the fringes in Mainland China. Unbelievable and riveting. I wish I could tell you that this would be available sometime soon.
16. October Country (2010) Michael Palmieri, Donal Mosher / USA
Trailer and website
Sound Unseen International Duluth delivered again with this personal and universal documentary about life on the fringes. October Country is available on DVD.
17. The Arbor (2010) Clio Barnard / UK
An account of the life, trials and travails of late British playwright Andrea Dunbar told through the voices of her family and the voices of her plays. The Arbor is a pretty unique documentary in form and structure, but its formalism in no way dampens its emotional impact. Quite the contrary, the stories here are powerful and moving. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. Strand has picked up the rights to The Arbor, and will be released in 2011.
18. End of Animal (2010) Jo Sung-Hee / South Korea
Two of the most original sci-fi films I have ever seen have both emerged from South Korea. The first was Butterfly (2001) and the second is this low-key surreal nightmare. I don't know if End of Animal will ever surface on DVD, but I will be there when it does.
19. Shutter Island (2010) Martin Scorsese / US
Scorsese back in fine form. The best film he's made is some time. Available on DVD and Blu-ray (which looks crazy good.)
20. Poetry (2010) Lee Chang-dong / South Korea
Trailer (sorry no subtitles)
Poetry is still doing theatrical engagements. It played as MFA's Asian Film Festival and is scheduled for the Lagoon on March 18.
21. Wild Grass (2010) Alain Resnais / France
A total wing nut of a movie from the 78-year-old auteur about aging, vanity and pride. Available on DVD.
22. Eccentricities of a Blond Haired Girl (2009) Manoel de Oliveira / Portugal
A gorgeous film that works wonders in 78 minutes. Available on DVD.
23. Hahaha (2010) Hong Sang-soo / South Korea
Trailer (sorry no subtitles)
(Read my thoughts on this film over at In Review Online.) No one has picked this up for US distribution, but DVD and Blu-ray is available from South Korea.
24. Trash Humpers (2010) Harmony Korine / USA
Trailer and website
A dystopian dream where creatures display their very human impulses to create a sort of mundane mayhem. Available on DVD, VHS and 35mm!
25. The Social Network (2010) David Fincher / US
Trailer and website
You don't need me to tell you about this film. Everything they say about this film is true, but I just rank it a little lower.
26. Dogtooth (2009) Giorgos Lanthimos / Greece
Ever think you would like to raise your kids in a vacuum? This film will change your mind. Disturbing and thought provoking. Dogtooth comes out on DVD January 25.
27. Mother (2009) Bong Joon-ho / South Korea
Bong Joon-ho's new film has one of the best performances of the year from veteran South Korean actress Kim Hye-ja. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.
28. Karamay (2010) Xu Xin / China
In 1994 a tragic fire killed 323 people, most of them kids. Thirteen years later this incredible six hour documentary give the parents a voice they have never had. With many of the facts covered up by politicians, Xu Xin risks everything in telling their story. Riveting and devastating. I hold out hope that someone like Mubi or dGenerate Films will make this available online.
29. Ne Change Rein (2009) Pedro Costa / France
Pedro Costa's new film is a meandering documentary that focuses on singer Jeanne Balibar. Shrouded in black and white chiaroscuro, Ne Change Rein is completely mesmerizing. Ne Change Rein will very likely make an appearance in the Twin Cities in 2011.
30. Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno (2009) Serge Bromberg, Ruxandra Medrea / France
(Read my review here at In Review Online.) This played at MSPIFF and eventually will make its way to DVD in 2011.