Honourable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Animal Kingdom, Certified Copy, Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl, Exit through the Gift Shop, Four Lions, The Ghost Writer, Inception, The Kids Are All Right
12. Blue Valentine (Dir. Derek Cianfrance, U.S.)
Talking about this film, one can write a thousand lines and still fail to adequately put to words how agonizingly honest and organic it is. To tell you about how good Ryan Gosling is and how great a performance Michelle Williams gives is stating the obvious. There’s no doubt that the elements of this film, technical or otherwise, are all extremely strong. (In fact, to be honest, only a few days after posting my favourites in each category, I already regret not including the editing of this film among my favourites. How did I forget to jot that down?)
The truth is that Blue Valentine’s bruising story really hit me hard, more personally than most other films do. Maybe because in my own life, I’m at the beginning end of the spectrum of this tale and the prospect of the other end breaks my heart. Or maybe it’s just because Blue Valentine is far from the cartoonish portrayals of relationships we often get out of American cinema. Whatever it is, in my books Blue Valentine is one of the best films of the year and Ryan Gosling righteously deserves the title of “Best Actor of his Generation”.
11. Black Swan (Dir. Darren Aronofsky, U.S.)
I reviewed this film in full already. I haven’t watched it again since then, but I think about it often, and it has actually grown on me. Black Swan is an imperfect film, but the more I think about that, the more I love it. Aronofsky’s bold and manipulative direction throws a lot of people off, but the more I think about that, the clearer it becomes that that’s the only way he can get us to follow him. He knows how silly and outlandish and bizarre Swan is, but he wants us to know that too; he’s not being pretentious. The only way to like this film is to just let go and enjoy the show. And boy is this show not enjoyable...
10. The Hunter (Dir. Rafi Pitts; Iran, Germany)
The Iranian version of The American, but with a fast-beating human heart. The haunting crime thriller takes its time to settle and lets you absorb the situation and succeeds in calmly integrating the challenging character study into its action sequences. The Hunter is high on politics and filled with details about the Iranian middle class life. This type of film doesn’t come out of Iran often, which is what makes it such a rewarding experience for someone who grew up with that cinema. As good as the central performance is, as compelling as the story and the final act may be and as accomplished as the film is in its technical mastery,in the end The Hunter is my most personal choice on this list. It might not be for everyone, but to me, it is the best crime film of the year and the best of such films from Iran in more than 8 years.
9. Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, Canada)
A perfect example of traditional filmmaking at its best. Incendies tells the story of a mother and a daughter’s journey in the Middle East in two different narratives that are almost twenty years apart, but connected through location. Incendies is reminiscent of Live of Others in its political themes, its glossy production values, and robust direction and acting.
Here, the story twists and moves back and forth several times, every time taking a stranger turn than before, and in its path to the final revelation, shows us shocking details about the war torn region and is full of moving moments of universal familial love. The result is a powerful film, one of the strongest about the state of the Middle East that succeeds on both levels: as a thrilling detective story with the backdrop of civil war, and as a delicate story about loyalty and human triumph.
8. Everyone Else (Dir. Maren Ade, Germany)
It’s hard to find a review of this film that doesn’t include the words delicate and intimate, but those two words so perfectly capture the essence of the film. The success of Everyone Else is that when it’s over, we feel like we’ve known Chris and Gitti for ages. We’ve known all the bits and pieces about themselves and their relationship. This film gets every little detail about this relationship, or in fact, any relationship right. With an intricately written script, and two actors whose chemistry together is unmatched by real life couples, Everyone Else plays like a study of the missing middle section of Blue Valentine: the everyday interactions of a relationship that is not beginning or ending, but is simply existing with all its delights and difficulties. And just like the former film, it moves you in a way no plastic Hollywood relationship ever could.
7. Toy Story 3 (Dir. Lee Unkrich, U.S.)
To tell the truth, the news that a third instalment was being made in this series didn’t excite me as much it worried me. Then, about ten minutes into the film, I knew I was foolish to worry. Toy Story 3 is not just a respectable entry into this beloved series, but one of the best films in Pixar’s already stellar resume. The Pixar crew had proven before that making mature, intelligent animations that don’t lack in entertainment value isn’t at all difficult for them (Ref. Finding Nemo, WELL-E), but Toy Story 3 enters new territory even for their standards.
Aside from that, I feel a personal connection with Andy that I’m sure millions of the film’s fans share with me. I was around the same age as Andy when Toy Story came out, and four years later I felt the strengthened attachment to those toys when the second instalment was released. I’ve almost finished University now; Andy’s a few years behind me in life, but I can’t deny that I’ve experienced the ending of this film first hand myself. Toy Story 3 has a place in my heart that no other film on this list can come close to competing for.
6. The Fighter (Dir. David O. Russell, U.S.)
This film is the rare instance where an auteur steps out of his usual territory, diluting down the characteristics that make up the fundaments of his work in order to appeal to a larger audience, and it actually pays off. The result is a film much stronger and much more complete than anything else in his resume. Russell’s adhered to many of the formulas that make up the core of boxing dramas, but not too much to make the film a cliché. He’s put enough of himself in the film to make it anything but typical. On top of that, this is the most entertaining film of the year. It’s funny, fierce, loud, energetic, full of heart, and endlessly re-watchable. The Fighter is really the perfect balance between art cinema and pure popcorn pleasure. Cinema needs more of these every year.
5. White Material (Dir. Claire Denis; France, Cameroon)
I admit that writing about White Material is incredibly difficult for me. Claire Denis’ film is about a white French woman who runs a coffee plantation in an African country, until her labours escape just before harvest in the wake of a rebellion by child soldiers. The ambiguity surrounding the history of the main character and her family, and Denis’ refusal to take blunt political positions make for a complicated, absurd and yet loosely structured film that is as poetic and dreamlike as it is frightening and brutal. Tindersticks’ magical score is the best musical soundtrack of the year and the band makes as great a case for Director/Composer collaborations as Mansell does in Black Swan.
4. Carlos (Dir. Olivier Assayas; France, Germany)
Modern epic masterpiece. It’s hard to take your eyes away from the screen at all during the whole 5.5 hour long film, and that should tell you how good it is. In Carlos, history is told in a linear fashion, and any other director could have made this into a dull biopic, but Assayas’ ambitious project plays out majestically. One after another, the set pieces, the costumes, the cinematography and the songs continue to marvel. Admittedly, the deliberate set pieces of the first half and most especially the OPEC hijacking appeal to me more than the compressed historical details of the fast-paced second half, but that’s only a compliment to the former. This film is surely the perfect biopic treatment the mysterious twentieth century “superstar” deserved.
3. The Social Network (Dir. David Fincher, U.S.)
It’s no easy feat being compared to Citizen Kane, but The Social Network has managed to accomplish that ever since its debut back in autumn. Ironically, the much revered Orson Welles classic managed to win only one Academy Award for... wait for it... Best Screenplay; a fate that seems to be waiting for The Social Network as well.
Honestly though, I wish the conversation about this film hadn’t become so violently about the Oscar race, and about a head to head race with The King’s Speech. In a bigger scheme of things, none of that really matters. The Social Network is great film that will be remembered as one of the best American films of its time. Only time can tell if it actually defines our generation as some have claimed. The quality of the film however, the sharp dialogue, the crisp images, the moody music, and the brilliant performances don’t need time to define themselves. They already have.
2. The Illusionist (Dir. Sylvain Chomet; France, UK)
In my original review of The Illusionist I mentioned my decision to never call a film “an all-time favourite” after the first screening and wrote that I consider that decision the only reason why I don’t claim The Illusionist is a masterpiece of that level. Six months later and after another screening, Sylvain Chomet’s film still feels exactly like a timeless classic to me. Its own dreamy brilliance aside, in a top 5 list otherwise filled with films about crime and war and greed and perversion, The Illusionist is breath of fresh air among my favourites. And so it is among animated features. It looks like Chomet is single-handedly saving 2D drawn animation. Will American animators ever follow suit?
1. Dogtooth (Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece)
It certainly takes guts to sit through this film. Heck, it even takes guts to sit through the trailer! But once the film is done, it’s impossible to ever get it out of your head again, and repeated viewings only make it more enigmatic. Despite its absurdity, Dogtooth feels closer to me than any other film I’ve seen this year. It’s the only film that made me want to live its characters; the only one that made me reconsider my life from a different perspective. It’s the only one that makes me question my existence, my identity, my childhood, family, memories, and really everything I’ve ever learnt.
Dogtooth is the greatest study of human nature in cinema in a long long time. Its surrealism might be more reminiscent of a children’s fairy tale, but its traumatizing depiction of our vulnerability and simplicity is freakishly bold and refreshingly pure. And when all is said and done, Dogtooth, more than any other film this year, defines great cinema for me: original, confident, powerful, and beautiful. Oh, and that touch of perversity doesn’t hurt either.
Other entries in my year-end reviews: