It’s Such a Beautiful Day (directed by Don Hertzfeldt)
From my review: Hertzfeldt can take us to heart-rending moments of illumination. There’s a memory Bill has of a time when he was staring out at the sea and contemplating “all the wonderful things he will do with his life.” That moment is led into with grace and empathy and never underlined by the filmmaker. It is the audience who will make the connections with the facts and emotions of the scene: Bill’s memories feeling like he’s living in them only to encounter a moment where he had all possibilities laid out before him. He’s snapped back to the present, his situation very dire and his whole self in a state of deterioration.
Wadjda (directed by Haifaa al-Mansour)
From my review: The most blatant perpetrators of oppression ironically enough are other women. Wadjda’s father, her mother’s driver, and a neighborhood boy are about the only male figures she has any regular contact with. The people in her life dictating how she should act and present herself are her mother and the headmistress of the school. In private, these women wear make-up and beautiful clothes, so there isn’t a complete rejection of Western ideals. They go to a mall where the mother tries on a dress that she thinks might convince the husband not to take a second wife, but never wears it for him. So much of what these women do is shaped around not the fear of being abused but the fear of having their value in the eyes of men taken away. The mother is continuously talking to her friends on the phone or to Wadjda’s about another woman catching her husbands eyes. These women and girls have been so disunified that they only know how to impose these rules on each other.
Lincoln (directed by Steven Spielberg)
From my review: To watch this film or any film about President Lincoln is to wonder will a leader like this ever come again. The soft-spoken nature, the ever seeming fragility of his physical form, the oration and storytelling of a lawyer telling contemporary political parables. Yes, there is a mythification going on with Lincoln, and no leader will ever truly live up to the public relations gig Hollywood can do for them. However, with as dark as our nation’s current leadership is, I have to hope that someone like Abe can come again. His time was even more divisive than our own, the nation in full out civil conflict while ours simmers and rages in bursts of violence. The other question is, can we have a leader like Lincoln, who won’t be killed by people so mired in their hatred? I don’t know the answer to any of these things, and I doubt anyone else does.
The Hunt (directed by Thomas Vinterberg)
From my review: I don’t believe Vinterberg intends to make a film about how people are falsely accused of child molestation, but he uses real-life incidents of false memory as a jumping off point to explore group mentality surrounding false reality. Early on in the film, Lucas is talking with his best friend Theo, Klara’s father, about Lucas’ custody issues and Theo remarks that “I can tell when you are lying.” Later, Theo assaults Lucas when the teacher comes to his home to explain there has been a horrible misunderstanding. What proven in this scene is that Theo does not possess an objective ability to distinguish truth from lies when his own emotions come into the picture. This is why our society employs independent investigators whom we trust will get to the fact without allowing their personal feelings to interfere.
Here Comes the Devil (directed by Adrian Garcia Bogliano)
Not the critical darling at all, Here Comes the Devil is one of the better post-grindhouse films, in my opinion, to have come out since that subgenre’s modern revival. The plot is often obscured, and the ending doesn’t necessarily track, but the whole creepy mood pulls you in and cocoons you in the unsettling. A brother and sister wander off from their parents during a trip out to the wilderness. They reappear after emerging from a cave, which earlier has been shown the site of a rage-filled murder, and the children are changed. This is the creeping demonic horror I always go for, less about gore and more about the unseen and unspoken atrocities evil is capable of. While the children are disturbing, and it’s implied they do some genuinely obscene things offscreen, what is captivating is how the parents are distorted, unable to see what their children are capable of. There are the seeds of something masterful within this film, and despite how muddled it can become it’s that significant potential for horror that makes this one of my favorites of 2012.
Silver Linings Playbook (directed by David O. Russell)
From my review: I avoided Silver Linings Playbook when it first came out because of the awards season hype built up around the movie. So often the films that get that level of attention fail to be artistically sophisticated, but I shouldn’t have doubted Russell. He’s the director of one of my favorite films from the 00s, I Heart Huckabees, and it’s nice to see how he’s taken that energy and passion from his independent film work and brought into films that are getting full releases in theaters across the world. He makes movies now that have deep roots in the classic stories of Hollywood but are infused with his unique style and aesthetics.
Sightseers (directed by Ben Wheatley)
Ben Wheatley will be one of the most frequent filmmakers to come up in my 2010s favorite films lists, and he was my best discovery of the decade. He manages to combine sardonic British wit with truly chilling horror elements to create films that feel classic as soon as they hit screens. Wheatley’s secret ingredient is cinematographer Laurie Rose. Rose is monumentally talented, and it would be easy for a viewer not to realize the same person is creating the images on the screen for movies as different as Kill List, Sightseers, and A Field in England. It may be ostentatious to say, but I see Rose reaching the level of Roger Deakins, his craft is that good. Sightseers does an excellent job of showcasing a destructive codependent relationship with strokes of humor and the darkness you expect from Wheatley.
Holy Motors (directed by Leos Carax)
Only the elusive Leos Carax could make a film as ambitious and bombastic as Holy Motors and not fall flat on his face. The actor Denis Lavant, a gifted French performer who uses his body like molding clay, plays a Monsieur Oscar, an actor moving between performances of wildly varying genres. He performs motion capture for a slick CGI picture; he pulls off a Charlie Chaplin pastiche, a romantic melodrama, a classic monster in the catacombs a la Phantom of the Opera, to name a few. Much of Holy Motors takes place in the back of a limousine as Oscar moves from setting to setting, mirroring the life of an actor, that downtime and uncertain transition between projects. However, even more, significant than that, Oscar is like the spirit of theater and performance, having an effect on the people around him, changing their personas into roles he wants to explore. There is nothing quite like Holy Motors, and it reminds us what a transcendent creative mind Leos Carax is.
Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (directed by Eric Wareheim & Tim Heidecker)
Tim & Eric are at the epicenter of a subgenre of comedy in the 21st century. Starting with Tom Goes to the Mayor on Adult Swim, they fashioned a dark, awkward anti-comedy reappropriating iconic capitalist imagery into a horrific tableau of the mundane. Suburban life is an endearing hell, and there’s no more suburban setting than a mall. Playing twisted versions of themselves Tim & Eric purchase a rundown mall in a desolate California neighborhood and become entangled with the strange people who live there. The premise is merely an excuse for the duo to create more anti-comedy outside of the constraints of basic cable television. There’s no appeal here to a mass audience but for a Tim & Eric fan this is a culmination of years of their work, and it couldn’t be more satisfying.
Looper (directed by Rian Johnson)
Time travel is a tightrope in films, and some do it well (Primer) while others can’t seem to be consistent (Avengers Endgame). Looper manages to create a cohesive and unique take on the trope. Much like Dark on Netflix, there’s a beautiful tragedy to this form of time travel. By the end of the film that full emotional weight of that hits the viewer and it’s pretty affecting. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays a hitman who specializes in killing people sent back from a future crime boss. He goes to a specific location; the body shows up hooded and bound, he shoots, he collects the gold bars off the corpse. Eventually, the person who gets sent back to be killed pulls their hood off, and our hitman sees his future self and is unwilling to pull the trigger. Rian Johnson, pre-The Last Jedi, does a great job at subverting expectations of future noir, setting Looper in a midwestern city surrounding by cornfields. There’s a strange contrast between the future and distant future we glimpse that makes the worldbuilding in Looper feel, unlike anything you’ve seen before.
Frances Ha (directed by Noah Baumbach)
From my review: Frances Ha manages, through both its storytelling and aesthetics is a retelling of the classic “making it in New York City” narrative. Ever since the resurfacing of Woody Allen’s sex crimes I’d been bummed because out of principal Manhattan has become a film, I’m just not comfortable revisiting any longer. I loved the look and atmosphere of that film, the way the music and the city intermingled to create something heightened and fantastic. Thankfully, that tone has been recaptured in a much less problematic film with Frances Ha. I never spent my youth in New York City but did bounce around from couches, and spare bedrooms in my twenties in urban areas, and this film captures that wandering.
Moonrise Kingdom (directed by Wes Anderson)
After some meandering (I am not a big fan of The Darjeeling Limited and only moderately so of The Life Aquatic), Anderson rediscovers and recaptures that comedic sensibility his earlier work was fantastic at. Moonrise Kingdom is unabashedly an Anderson film filled with all the expected quirks and over-produced detail in the sets. Most importantly it has heart, richly developed characters who, while existing in a comic world, evoke our empathy. Nostalgia is used not to remind us of specific things, but to bring us back to a childhood of checking out a stack of books from the library and getting lazily lost in them over the summer. There’s a sheen of the fantastic, a magical evocation of youth and the potential of our lives juxtaposed against a marriage that is crumbling and the pending harsh reality of a hurricane. Anderson has confidence in this picture that had wavered in previous works, and it signaled a return to form that continues to this day.
The Comedy (directed by Rick Alverson)
The Comedy is not a comedy; it is an in-depth exploration of a particular contemporary psyche of the privileged. Rick Alverson has made a furious film that has no love lost for people like him, the overgrown male children he exists alongside in places like Williamsburg, New York or Austin, Texas. He targets explicitly those disaffected and cynical man-brats who find their only humor and joy in punching down on women and immigrants. These are the type of men who would profess a liberal, progressive viewpoint yet want to be “edgy” by telling racist jokes once in the comfortable bubble of their like-minded friends. Think Gavin McInnes and his laughable Proud Boys. This is not an enjoyable film to watch but is an urgent call to pay attention to the irony-laden and sarcastically nasty rhetoric that has come to dominate the conversation in specific spaces, both online and material.
Amour (directed by Michael Haneke)
From my review: You don’t typically associate director Michael Haneke with films about love and devotion. He’s often criticized for making films so neutral and cold that the audience finds it hard to connect with the characters. That is, of course, his intent in those movies, to place the audience in a place of non-judgment so that the feelings the characters evoked are not manipulations of the director. Amour presents a very different sort of Haneke film, yet still very true to his philosophy as a filmmaker. This is a poignant and honest love story that never descends into maudlin sentiment. The love between George and Anne feels painfully real, and the challenges they face are not sugarcoated. The path they have chosen in the wake of the stroke is a difficult one, and there will be moments of breaking for them both.
The Master (directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)
From my review: The Master is an enigma, the music of Jonny Greenwood helping to assist that sense of mystery. While the plot of the film uses the historical skeleton of Scientology’s founding, I believe the themes to be less about L. Ron Hubbard. Anderson isn’t making a fictionalized biopic, there’s a love story going on between Freddie and Lancaster, there’s an examination of post-War America and the lack of spiritual direction, some critics have even argued that the movie pits the classical style of acting (Lancaster) against the torment-filled physical acting of the 1950s (see James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando). I am of the thought that all of these are valid interpretations because Anderson has indeed created art in this work. The Master is capable of so many modes of analysis because like great art, it’s creator has not chosen to pin it down to one thing. I am sure Anderson pulls new things out of the film when he revisits it. The Master is the kind of film that reignites a love for movies in me, that feeds my hunger for art, that keeps me going back to the theater in the hopes of having that transcendent experience again.