Top Ten Movies: 2010


To steal an opening line from one of Roger Ebert’s reviews about a favorite filmmaker of his, “Sooner or later, everyone who loves movies comes to Ozu.” The same could be said of Abbas Kiarostami. Others like the Italian Neo-Realists had already played with documentary-like narrative but what Kiarostami perfected was new and refreshing. Why not imbue that much more of the real world into the story? In fact, immerse it so much so that there’s no mark point as to where verisimilitude ends and actual reality begins. Movies like Close-up and especially the Koker trilogy are prime examples in this mental exercise of establishing a new interpretation of the real world through several layers of its manipulation, fore-fronting the Iranian film wave that took high strides by the 1990’s. If it all might sound a bit too labored, it isn’t, really. There’s too much humanity in Kiarostami’s characters for any reduction into a sort of film essay genre. Take Certified Copy as an example, a sort of Brechtian Before Trilogy singularity. How far is Kiarostami playing the audience in its portrayal of the relationship between its two leads? They continuously argue about artwork copies in comparison to their original sources, never reaching a conclusion about whether forgery is valid in its own artistry. Once watched, the obvious extension made here is to the protagonist’s own veiled past. Are they two people that actually met for the first time or are they a married couple of fifteen years? Either way, they’re playing roles that the audience can’t separate truth from, for like Kiarostami’s other movies, it’s not easy to distinguish the real from the not. It’s quite astounding to be able to make a film that could express just about every complex trait of its filmmaker all in one narrative. It’s even more astounding to do that with characters like Juliette Binoche and William Shimmell, because no matter how clever the exercise is, you remember their banter and adoration for one another so much more. So who cares if the whole thing feels indecipherable, real or staged or both, if there’s love for it anyway. And so at number one it goes.

1. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
2. Mysteries of Lisbon (Rául Ruiz)
3. Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán)
4. Carlos (Olivier Assayas)
5. Poetry (Lee Chang-dong)
6. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski) and Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
7. Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (Manoel de Oliveira)
8. The Social Network (David Fincher)
9. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasenthakul)
10. 13 Assassins (Takashi Miike)

Mysteries of Lisbon is one of two Rául Ruiz movies I’ve watched and should be more than enough proof to anyone of his directorial legacy as one of Chile’s best… even though this one’s a Portuguese film. Then there’s Patrico Guzman’s Nostalgia for the Light, another Chilean master with a heartrending – and I mean that with every sense of the word – documentary that parallels astronomy with Chile’s own tragic past during Pinochet’s dictatorship. Really, there’s something in the way the astronomers look up towards the stars that gets to you when compared to the relatives of fallen victims whose missing remnants they’re still looking for down in the buried and barren desert landscape. Carlos has the exceptionally well-executed OPEC terroist attack sequence and Poetry has Yoon Jeong-hee with a role almost too complex for anything American, perhaps with the exception of Michelle Williams in Meek’s Cutoff.

The Ghost Writer is my favorite thriller of the year despite some interesting work up against it like Chloe or All Good Things, and Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl is the funniest, although Four Lions comes pretty darn close. The Social Network needs no added commentary and Uncle Boonmee I remember in scenes more than as a whole. I could have also placed Vincere or Sweetgrass at number ten, two overlooked treasures lost in time, but I can’t deny my fandom for the pulpiness of 13 Assassins. I’m just happy to see Takashi Miike up there because a great movie it is.

And yes, I am aware I missed some pretty good stuff like The Kids Are All RightWinter’s BoneAnimal Kingdom, and especially Another Year.  But what I don’t miss is Inception and Black Swan. Just watch The Red Shoes instead.

Next Time: 1923. If Buster Keaton could talk I bet you he’d have a Southern drawl.


Top Ten Movies: 1997


The two at the top of my list for 1997 couldn’t be any more disparate. Boogie Nights is a three-hour race through the golden age of the porn industry. Picture the coke-induced drive at the end of Goodfellas with as many characters as there is depravity. Mother and Son is an hour long Russian piece on the meditation of death between, what else, a mother and her son. It sighs and whispers, with every subtle motion a rift on the screen. And while both exemplify the quality of great films, Boogie Nights has got the fumbled excitement of a child that proudly takes his or her erratic behavior on the chin. P.T. Anderson’s second feature can overwhelm itself in its own scope but its ambition is something to admire. It revels in the hedonistic binge of its content all the while taking a sobering look at the trappings of sterilizing insecurities. Sex isn’t sex but a business, with everybody soon finding out that you can’t even get away with that. Somehow, you end up leaving the movie with the solemnity of exiting an art house picture, getting at something much deeper than all the surface drama. So at number one no doubt it goes.

1. Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson)
2. Mother and Son (Aleksandr Sokurov)
3. Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami)
4. L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson)
5. The River (Tsai Ming-liang) and The Eel (Shohei Imamura)
6. Happy Together (Wong Kar-wai)
7. Funny Games (Michael Haneke)
8. Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino)
9. Lost Highway (David Lynch)
10. In the Company of Men (Neil LaBute)

The once polarizing Taste of Cherry is still the poster child of 90’s Iranian cinema, that decade initiating – and still blazing – movement that’s produced some of the most outstanding narratively experimental social dramas, peeling away layer after layer of film grammar. Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential has tested far better than a lot of its contemporary crime peers by displaying its makers’ unabashed passion for everything the movie stood for. And Jackie Brown, a mutual screenwriter’s class darling, is strictly built upon that principle alone for Tarantino and the 70’s blaxploitation boom.

As for the rest, just look at all the bleakness! You have Tsai Ming-liang’s crumbling family drama desperately attempting to salvage its self-inflicting wounds. You have Michael Haneke perversely playing with the medium in his cool malevolence. You have David Lynch snatching a Luis Buñuel trope of replacing the lead midway in his bristling grumble of a shadowed world. The adjectives! Then there’s Chad from In the Company of Men, who could quite possibly be the most terrifyingly evil character on the screen in the ever most eerily of gratifying ways. A nod to LaBute for that, I guess…

Those that got pretty darn close include Robert Altaman’s Jazz ’34, which I ended up liking more than Kansas City. And I like Kansas City! Paul Verhoeven’s sly and subversive Starship Troopers, dating brilliantly because it never took itself serious… or did it? Richard Kwietniowski’s Love and Death on Long Island, inspiring in its first half but a bit of a let down once Jason Priestly’s character actually arrives on screen. John Woo’s Face/Off, because like Verhoeven, bonkers is the way to go! And Nil by Mouth, Gary Oldman’s directorial debut that I haven’t watched in a very long, and I mean LONG time. For that matter, there’s also Grosse Pointe Blank, Gummo, The Ice Storm, and The Sweet Hereafter. Oh, and Titanic. Yeah… Titanic.

Top Ten Movies: 1987

1987 The Dead 2

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” James Joyce’s The Dead is a beautifully rendered evocation of time forgotten and love unrequited in early 20th century Dublin. What’s even more astounding about this seemingly “unfilmable” story is that it did just that, become an actual movie in 1987. But it wasn’t made into a haphazard adaptation, diluting its content as it went through the stages of pre-production, shooting schedules, etc. No, it became a boni-fied masterpiece all its own! John Huston’s final directing effort trims and rearranges certain aspects of Joyce’s original novella, but the substance is still there, lull and temperate until The Lass of Aughrim croons its way through a parlor door so as to hit Gretta Conroy like a distant ray of light upon her shoulders. The fact that John Huston would die not too long after filming wrapped also adds to the movie’s poignant sense of lament, a coping of the past and death similar to the cinematic bookends Huston provided Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe twenty years before. And so The Dead stands at the top of my list in a surprisingly good year for film. The rest of the decade… maybe not so much.  

1. The Dead (John Huston)
2. Where Is the Friend’s Home? (Abbas Kiarostami)
3. Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders)
4. Au revoir les enfants (Louis Malle)
5. Boyfriends and Girlfriends (Éric Rohmer)
6. Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson)
7. Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick)
8. Hope and Glory (John Boorman) and Empire of the Sun (Steven Spielberg)
9. Yeelen (Souleymane Cissé)
10. Prick Up Your Ears (Stephen Frears)

Where Is the Friend’s Home? and Au revoir les enfants are both magnificent in the way they allow children to play adult roles without having the films compromise their wonder. Add the war themed Hope and Glory and Empire of the Sun and one could even argue that 1987 was the year for kid actors. Wings of Desire and Boyfriends and Girlfriends make for the art-house anchors, while Britain delivers two scathing drama/comedies in Withnail and I and Prick Up Your Ears. Then there’s Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, which, while not being one of Kubrick’s best, still is Kubrick.

A couple of close contenders fishing for the bottom slots include Gillian Armstrong’s “teeteringly” sentimental but still acerbic enough family drama High Tide. Kathryn Bigelow outdid all “hipster vampire” movies twenty years before they became the popular thing with Near Dark, and Todd Haynes bursted onto the scene with his barbie doll biopic – if that’s how to describe it – Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Oh, and Bill Forsyth had Housekeeping, which is this week’s painful omission from my top ten list.

Two impeccably photographed period pieces, The Last Emperor and Red Sorghum, took on Chinese culture. Then there’s Ishtar and its not wanting to focus on much of that – culture, that is – for Morocco, at least not compared to its other more commercially oriented goals. But Elaine May’s infamous flop is still fascinating the same way that Heaven’s Gate is fascinating, that and it’s… hell, it’s even one heck of a funny movie! A couple of well-known titles: The Princess Bride, Broadcast News, Robocop, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Mooonstruck, provided good pleasures. And Evil Dead II… provided good pleasures as well… I guess?

Below those you’ll find Alex Cox’s Walker, Pedro Almodóvar’s Law of Desire, Lindsay Anderson’s Whales of August, and Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. All flawed but in a very likable fashion. Finish it off with Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear and Kazuo Hara’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On – movies I have yet to watch – and that’s just a sliver of the films produced for 1987 (seriously, it was a busy year: House of Games, Predator, Barfly, Radio Days, Babette’s Feast, Maurice, Wall Street, Fatal Attraction, Space Balls, freakin’ Space Balls!, Some Kind of Wonderful, Overboard, etc…).

I’ll be taking a hiatus for the next couple of weeks but will be back at it soon with 1935. A great year for a studio synonymous with horror.