The First-Ever ERPs

We’re winding down the year of film that was 2015 – already critics are inundating our Twitter feeds and blogrolls with endless Top 10 lists and back-and-forth debates about the merits of movies that the general public still won’t get to see until at least February. It’s still a few weeks before I join in the fray with the 9th Annual EMOs (Ethan’s Makeshift Oscars), but I’ve been considering how, while rewarding/mocking the new releases of 2015 is fun and all, it isn’t entirely reflective of my experience of the year in film. Every year, between visits to the theater to see the latest Marvel monstrosity, I continue my personal cinematic education in the form of DVD rentals from the public library, Criterion Blu-Ray sales, repertory screenings, etc. Sometimes I take the time to talk about these films from years past in this space – my MoMA Mia series this past summer, for instance – or maybe I’ll take a moment to write a snarky tweet, but far too often I let these experiences go by without further comment.

So I’m unveiling what I hope will be a new annual tradition – the first-ever ERPs (Ethan’s Repertory Picks). These will not be as exhaustive as the EMOs – it’s rather difficult, even with my anal list-making habits, to keep track of every pre-2015 film I watched in the past year, and frankly, ain’t nobody got time for that anyway. But what I can do is give out some notices and recommendations regarding the films that, for whatever reason, stood out to me the most this year. Then we’ll wrap things up with a Top 10, Classic-Style.

(And, for the record, I feel pretty safe handing these out now, because the rest of the December will almost certainly be consumed by catching up with 2015 releases before awards season, along with repeat viewings of “The Muppet Christmas Carol”)

Enjoy!

For When You, Like a Good Soviet, Are Feeling Exceptionally Literally-Minded: “Nine Days Of One Year” (1962), Mikhail Romm

It’s pretty much all there in the title, except for the fatal radiation poisoning. Which is, tragically, far less exciting than it sounds.

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For Proof That Even Legendary Art-House Directors Choke on the Middle Entry of a Trilogy: “La Notte” (1961), Michelangelo Antonioni

I honestly didn’t think it would be possible for Antonioni-ennui to sink in while watching people as beautiful as Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau and Monica Vitti, but dear lord did I not care about a single person in this film.

For A Reminder That American Politics Could Always Suck Even More: “The Confession” (1970), “State of Siege” (1972), Costa-Gavras

I mean I’m not saying it couldn’t happen at all, but at least right this second I am not really concerned about being arrested by apparatchiki.

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For When You Run Out of Funny Animal Videos on YouTube: “Cat Ballou” (1965), Elliot Silverstein

To think that in the ’60s you had to shell out $5 in order to see a drunk horse.

For Prestige Filmmaking That Just Smothers All the Talented People Involved With Its Sheer Competence: “The English Patient” (1996), Anthony Minghella

There is a reason “Oscar bait” is associated with bland, tasteful period pieces, and this movie is pretty much it. Well, that and “Dances With Wolves.” And “Driving Miss Daisy.” And “War Horse.” And “Out of Africa.” And “Forrest Gump”…

For When You Loved “Mad Max: Fury Road” And Want More And It’s Just So Sad They Never Made An Original Or A Third One, Isn’t That Weird? : “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” (1981), George Miller

Strangest franchise numbering outside of the “Fast and Furious” movies, really.

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For When You Want to See John Wayne Wear a Uniform That Really Makes His Eyes Pop: “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949), John Ford

Honestly, the far more momentous John Wayne-related cinematic moment of the year came from Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This, where I learned that John Wayne once looked like this.

I mean, what?

For When You Need to Trick Your Horror-Movie-Loving Friend Into Watching a Landmark Work of American Neorealism:
“Killer of Sheep” (1978), Charles Burnett

Most misleading title ever? Discuss.

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For the “Freaky Friday” Fans: “Cobra Woman” (1944), Robert Siodmak

I really think the body-swap genre could be revived with a copious amount of dick snakes.

For When You Just Need Some Anna Karina In Your Life, Which Is Every Moment of Every Day, Duh: “Vivra Sa Vie” (1962) and “Pierrot Le Fou” (1965), Jean-Luc Godard

Which I’m pretty sure is literally the reason for these movies existing in the first place.

For When You’re Just in the Mood to Feel Shit About Everything: “Prisoners” (2013), Denis Villeneuve

Cue the Tegan and Sara: *Everything is awesooooooome….everything is cool when you’re part of a team….*

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For a Reminder That “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” Is Intended To Be the Most Depressing Holiday Song Ever Written: “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944), Vincente Minnelli

Was Judy Garland ever allowed to be happy? Like, in an unqualified, non-melancholic way?

For When You’ve Just Watched “Going Clear” And Thought, You Know What That Movie Needed, Was More Rock Hudson: “Magnificent Obsession” (1954), Douglas Sirk

I couldn’t in good conscience include it in my Top 10 here, but just know that there was possibly no other film this year that I received as much entertainment from.

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For When You’re Wondering Why Sam Spade Never Went Undercover As a Palm-Reading Psychic: “In the Palm of Your Hand” (1951), Roberto Galvaldón

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t go well.

For a Depressing Reminder That Philip Seymour Hoffman Was Better At Acting Than You Will Be At Anything Ever: “25th Hour” (2002), Spike Lee

Also that Spike Lee is one of the most talented working directors in the world and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.

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For Celebrating the Eternal and Engimatic Majesty That Was Ingrid Bergman’s Accent: “Gaslight” (1944), George Cukor, and “Journey to Italy” (1954), Roberto Rossellini

In fact, throw in Angela Lansbury, Charles Boyer, and Joseph Cotten and we should just rename “Gaslight” to “A Cavalcade of Accents.” It would restore the twist ending while we’re at it.

For When You’re Too Cheap to Rent “Bonnie and Clyde”: “Gun Crazy” (1950), Joseph H. Lewis

Probably about 80% as good, but with 100% more Russ Tamblyn.

For Sunny, Warm Summer Days, Because Watching These In the Winter Might Put You On Immediate Suicide Watch: “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961), “Winter Light” (1962), “The Silence” (1963), Ingmar Bergman

I mean, I guess Sweden has to balance out the universal healthcare, 100% literacy rate and low unemployment somehow. Perpetual theological/existential crisis seems fair enough.

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For the Scorsese Fan In Your Life Who Could Maybe Watch Something With Non-White People Once In a While: “City of God” (2002), Fernando Meirelles

I’m not saying you should be wary of super-Scorsese enthusiasts, but I’m not not saying that.

For Horror Enthusiasts Who Know the True Enemy is Diabeetus: “The Thing” (1982), John Carpenter

The other enemy is CGI.

 

Top 10 Repertory Films of 2015

10. “This Is Not a Film” (2011), Jafar Panahi

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In 2010, the Iranian government placed internationally-acclaimed director Jafar Panahi under house arrest and barred him from making a film for 20 years. Only a year later, “This Is Not a Film” arrived at the Cannes Film Festival – smuggled on a flash drive inside a cake. Part documentary, part video diary, and part declaration of political defiance, Panahi’s film is an astounding and utterly unique reflection on the political, moral and philosophical quandaries facing artists in Iran. Its difficult to say much about the film’s production, as Panahi’s sentence has included a prohibition from giving interviews, but the messy and improvised feel of “This Is Not a Film” may in fact be quite calculated, all the better to reveal the compulsion and spontaneity that drives Panahi, and many other artists across history, to create. Few movies are so radical in their simplicity.

 

9. “Rocco and His Brothers” (1960), Luchino Visconti

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A riveting family epic that combines the gritty, working-class aesthetics of Italian neorealism with operatic emotion. Sibling rivalries of mythology proportion (featuring that modern Adonis himself, Alain Delon) play out in dingy communal apartments and rubble-strewn backlots, captured in the unwavering clarity of Visconti’s deep focus. Two scenes of sexual assault (both against the same, pitiable target) remain among the most brutal, visceral experiences of this or any other year, all the more shocking considering the time in which the film was produced.

 

8. “3 Women” (1977), Robert Altman

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I never realized what a great tragedy it is that Ingmar Bergman never worked with Shelly Duvall, but Altman’s own, mumbly take on Bergman’s trademark crises of identity and sexuality is certainly a suitable approximation. Fascinating enough as an oddball drama about mismatched roommates for its first half, “3 Women” really turns into something special in its woozy, eerie denouement, as Duvall and Sissy Spacek play out their “Persona”-esque role reversal while Janice Rule insistently and methodically paints the most unsettling murals I’ve ever seen. Kudos to the production design and to Charles Rosher Jr.’s camera for its bleary, restless observation of Altman’s enigmatic tale.

 

7. “Paths of Glory” (1957), Stanley Kubrick

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“Paths of Glory” is one of the most blisteringly efficient films I’ve ever seen. In less than 90 minutes, Kubrick jams in the horror, folly and injustice of the First World War – with no scrimping on the spectacle, either. Kirk Douglas gives an extraordinary lead performance, more complex than the usual paragons of virtue at the center of other cinematic anti-war screeds: his righteousness is never in doubt, but there’s a distinct sense he might snap and murder his superior officers for their gross inhumanity at any moment. And therein lies the inescapable, cyclical grind of war, something that good men can rail against but still find themselves consumed by. Features the kind of stunning visual imagery you expect from Kubrick.

 

6. “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring” (2003), Kim Ki-duk

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Gentle, lyrical, meditative – Kim Ki-duk’s masterpiece is as easy and comforting to step into as a hot bath. The curious settings and characters – the film never really leaves the floating retreat of a monk and his young apprentice isolated in the Korean wilderness – feel slipped out of time, in an otherworldly reverie. But intrusions from the outside world (both literal and emotional/intellectual) cloud the film’s calm, reflective waters. Are we meant to take the narrative seriously, as the story of one man’s weaving spiritual journey? Does the seasonal structure hint at a broader allegory for enlightenment? One gets the sense that repeat viewings could give the same kind of fresh contemplation through repetitive action as walking a labyrinth.

 

5. “The River” (1951), Jean Renoir

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Like the previous film, another unhurried, observational piece in love with both the natural beauty of its lush, exotic location and the quiet, ordinary people who inhabit it. Renoir suggests a true coexistence of race and culture in his depiction of a British family in barely post-imperial India – life, love and longing allowed to unfold leisurely, without trumped-up conflict or drama. Stunning Technicolor photography captures local tradition and custom without condescension or possessiveness; it is enough for Renoir to witness and pass along events without claiming to understand or explain them.

 

4. “Blow-Up” (1966), Michelangelo Antonioni

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Thomas (David Hemmings) leads a typical Antonionian life of empty hedonism as a fashion photographer, until the moment when, by chance, he photographs a couple walking together in a park. There is a conflict, or an embrace, and then…what? Thomas has potentially witnessed a murder, or perhaps not. A body appears and disappears again. The woman involves arrives at Thomas’ studio, agitated, but offering no answers. Obsessed, Thomas enlarges his photographs from the scene, again and again, hoping to gain a solution through empirical evidence. But the more he scrutinizes, the more abstract his situation becomes. This is Antonioni at his most quietly riveting – Thomas’ professionalism is fascinating in its single-minded determination, but his goal may be a fool’s errand. Is the illusion of purpose as sustaining as purpose itself?

 

3. “All That Jazz” (1979), Bob Fosse

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An explosion of color, movement, and sound choreographed by one of the best there has ever been at doing just that. Bob Fosse’s vaguely autobiographical fever dream of life on Broadway is more intensely personal than “Cabaret”, and thus crackles with electricity that even that other masterwork can’t quite match. Roy Scheider is stunning – it wasn’t until the very last scene of the movie that I realized the man convincingly, brilliantly played a famed Broadway dancer/choreographer for two hours, despite clearly not being able to dance a lick. That performance takes an exceptional kind of confidence to pull off, but Fosse had more than enough of that to share.

 

2. “Johnny Guitar” (1954), Nicholas Ray

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The original “Mad Max: Fury Road” – come for the familiar male lead, stay for the gonzo committed female performance. Joan Crawford was an odd star and an odder person, but “Johnny Guitar” shows what she could bring to the table: presence, and enough of it to make basically three films at once. Revenge Western, revisionist romance, lesbian psychosexual drama – Nicholas Ray was operating on several different layers here, and Crawford’s knocking them all out of the park. Everyone else, cast and crew both, more or less stay out of her way, and that’s exactly how it should be.

 

1. “Cat People” (1942), Jacques Tournear

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The most special films, and film experiences, often come from lowered expectations. In other words, there are movies that have no right to be as good as they are, and that’s kind of why we love them so much. “Cat People” might be the most extreme example of that I’ve ever encountered. The script is daft, the actors are a B-list studio’s C-list squad – and yet, under Jacques Tournear’s direction and producer Val Lewton’s creative guidance, something utterly magic happens. In Tournear’s shadows we find something as primal and atavistic as the forces that supposedly possess our doomed heroine: an utterly satisfying, riveting, beautiful, innovative entertainment.

And a final word….

While on the subject of old films, I also just want to take the opportunity to recommend one more thing. I did not watch this movie in 2015, for the first time or otherwise – but this is the year we lost Chantal Akerman, whose “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” remains one of the greatest movies you can experience, in this year or any other. It is not a simple sit, and it really deserves to be seen on the big screen – but if you do watch it at home, do yourself, and Akerman, a favor and commit to it. Turn off your phone. Resist the urge to pause, to take a break. Don’t fight the mundanity – think about what it’s doing to you, and why Akerman’s doing it. She was one of the greats, and deserves to be seen and discussed as one.

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Top 10 Films of 2014

Tomorrow, the Oscars will put a bow on the year that was film, 2014. As always, there’s been a lot of ink spilled over what was nominated, what wasn’t, critics’ favorites, audience favorites, yadda yadda yadda. But before we wrap it up, it’s time for The Best Films of Our Lives to chime in, just under the wire. We’ve had time to catch up with the foreign and limited releases trickling into theaters, and now we present to you, dear readers, our Top 10 Films of 2014. Enjoy!

Elaine’s Picks

10. “The Theory of Everything”

The Oscar Best Actor race has been billed as a battle between the British scientists: Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking. But it’s actually the performance of Felicity Jones, as Jane Hawking, that shines in “The Theory of Everything.” Jones, an indie darling for the Sundance hit “Like Crazy,” elevates a middling script with her performance, particularly in the scenes when she first learns of Stephen’s disease. As Redmayne’s Hawking is increasingly trapped by motor neuron disease, the movie relies on Jones for complexity and its emotional center. “The Theory of Everything” didn’t quite live up to expectations, but Jones’ and Redmayne’s performances, its cinematography, and an appropriately mathematical score rescued it from a decidedly mediocre script.

For more thoughts on “The Theory of Everything,” click here.

9. “Boyhood”

Enough has been written about “Boyhood” without me taking up too much space here, and while I was less swept off my feet by Richard Linklater’s latest endeavor than most of the world, I can’t deny that it’s an incredible accomplishment. Following one boy for 12 consecutive years of boyhood, the movie blends a fictional plot with the actual passage of time to create a tableau of adolescence as it passes in real time. But while Linklater should be lauded for his vision and perseverance, “Boyhood” didn’t reach the emotional pitch of his earlier time-bending works, the “Before” series. The pleasure of watching “Boyhood” mainly comes from recognition; those who loved it saw themselves and their childhoods in Mason’s experiences. But it’s not enough to simply chronicle the process of growing up, and that’s all “Boyhood” did.

8. “Belle”

At first glance, “Belle” seems like any other middlebrow period drama, cosseted and corseted women courted by powerful men in pantaloons and wigs. But Amma Asante’s movie rises above the rest due to a fascinating story, smart writing, and a stellar cast. “Belle” is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate daughter of an 18th-century British aristocrat and his slave mistress. She is raised alongside her white, aristocratic cousin under the roof of her great-uncle (Tom Wilkinson), the Lord Chief Justice of England who presided over a key decision that led to the abolition of slavery. It rolls a love story into an intelligent portrayal of British history, asking questions about the plight of women, the hypocrisy of the class system, and the poisonous well of racism and slavery.

7. “Only Lovers Left Alive”

If ever anyone was born to play a vampire, it was Tilda Swinton. Put her alongside Tom Hiddleston armed with Jim Jarmusch’s luscious lighting and hypnotic script, and you have “Only Lovers Left Alive.” The latest from the eclectic director, the movie follows Adam and Eve, a vampire couple who have spent their centuries inspiring and mingling with the titans of Western culture. The movie is less interested in the familiar tropes of vampires, the blood, coffins, and insomnia, and more about capturing a moment and a mood. For much of the movie, nothing happens. But Jarmusch’s striking images and the natural rapport between the two lead actors ensure that it doesn’t matter. At some point Eve’s unstable sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) appears and wreaks enough havoc to drive the plot forward, but for long stretches of this brooding, atmospheric movie, it’s enough to watch Adam and Eve be.

For more thoughts on “Only Lovers Left Alive,” click here.

6. “Selma”

I’ve seen better movies before, but no movie has ever made me as angry as Ava DuVernay’s “Selma.” As the Alabama police attacked the peaceful marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge with clubs and chains, I felt a powerful urge to run out of the theater and go tell someone, anyone, how wrong it was that such things could have happened—and continue to happen. The uproar that “Selma” has inspired shows how important a film it is in our national discourse. But it is as beautiful a movie as it is timely, with exquisite cinematography and a wonderfully controlled performance by David Oyelowo as King. One of DuVernay’s great achievements was to know her limits. Recognizing the foolishness of a traditional biopic of MLK’s incredible life, she narrowed the scope, focusing on the three-month period when King and his supporters marched from Selma to Montgomery. The chaos, volatility, uncertainty, and hope of the 1960s is brought to life with such raw vitality that even if you paid close attention to the civil rights unit in history class, the movie packs surprises and suspense throughout. “Selma” doesn’t top my list for best movie this year, but it’s certainly the most important.

5. “Beyond the Lights”

In a time when Hollywood is busy figuring out how next to blow things up and save the world from alien supervillains, Gina Prince-Bythewood has made an honest, moving drama about two people falling in love. Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw (mentioned above in “Belle”) as Noni, a black pop star whose hypersexualized image has eclipsed her talent, the movie is a love story unashamed of being romantic, a rarity among Hollywood romances that increasingly polarize between saccharine Nicholas Sparks adaptations and indie movies riddled with irony. It’s also the story of a woman who has spent her life “ass up, face down” finding herself, her voice, and her identity. Noni’s image and time have always belonged to everyone but herself—to her exploitative mother (an excellent Minnie Driver), her agents, and her fans—and watching her take those her life back into her own hands sends a powerful, and altogether too infrequent, message to women.

4. “Relatos salvajes” (“Wild Tales”)

Are you mad as hell? Because these Argentines are. Argentina’s Oscar nominee is a compilation of six shorts connected by a single theme: we’re not going to take it anymore. From road rage spiraling out of control to a nightmare wedding, Damian Szifrón’s dark comedy is the rare anthology movie that manages to deliver consistent quality across all six segments, propelled forward by an impeccable sense of comedic timing, a razor sharp screenplay, and excellent performances. While it’s the most uplifting of the foreign film nominees—it’s the only one that doesn’t deal directly with war, oppression, and corruption—it’s no less powerful a political commentary. There’s something rotten in the state of Argentina, be it the bureaucracy, corruption, or inequality. We’ve all had days where we want to lash out at the world. These ordinary citizens show us the heady, delicious sensation of giving in, if only just this once.

For more thoughts on “Relatos salvajes,” click here.

3. “Lilting”

David Carr, the New York Times journalist who died suddenly this month once said: “What I learned from two years of reporting, investigation, and writing is that you can’t know the whole truth. But if there is one, it lies in the space between people.” No movie captures that truism better than “Lilting,” the beautiful, sensitive debut of British-Cambodian writer and director, Hong Khaou. Starring Ben Whishaw and Cheng Pei-Pei as two people mourning the death of the same loved one, the movie is split evenly between English and Chinese and uses the language barrier to explore the space between people. This movie is entirely about relationships, between lovers, parents and children, strangers united in grief. Whishaw and Cheng excel, the cinematography took home top prize at Sundance, but the real standout is the script. Khaou dances between languages, alternating between an on-screen translator and subtitles without ever feeling redundant or cumbersome. By placing translation at the heart of the movie, he also provides a rare, refreshingly sensitive portrayal of the Asian immigrant experience. “Lilting” is one of the quietest movies on this list, but it resonates.

For more thoughts on “Lilting,” click here.

2. “A Coffee in Berlin”

This German indie movie swept the 2013 German Film Awards but debuted to sadly little fanfare here in the U.S. the next year. At its center is Niko (Tom Schilling), a twenty-something Berliner who has dropped out of law school and doesn’t know what to do with himself. As he goes through the city in search of a cup of coffee, it seems that no one else has any idea either. It’s a familiar tale of prolonged adolescence, told time and again in anything from “Peter Pan” to “Frances Ha,” but “A Coffee in Berlin” is one of the best of its genre. Schilling has a sensitive face made for the camera, vulnerable and open, and the movie puts together a string of slapstick moments and absurd situations that make Niko question if it’s really him that’s the problem or everyone else. It manages to be melancholy and silly at the same time, which, in the end, is what being young and confused is all about.

1. “Ida”

After watching “Ida,” you will never forget lead actress Agata Trzebuchowska’s eyes. Filmed in black and white, they appear like deep pools of memory containing the guilt and suffering of Poland’s painful twentieth century. Before taking her vows, Anna (Trzebuchowska), a novice at the Catholic nunnery where she grew up, is ordered to visit her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a chain-smoking, heavy drinking, sexually promiscuous Communist judge whose ardent belief in the cause has hardened into cynicism. Wanda reveals to Anna that her real name is Ida Lebenstein, and she is the daughter of Jews murdered by their Catholic neighbors in the Holocaust. Together they travel to her parents’ village—her own birthplace—to find out who killed them and what happened to their bodies. “Ida” is a technical masterpiece, an acting master class, an inquisition of the Second World War and the Communism that followed it, an inquiry into the power of faith, and the story of one young woman’s awakening. All of that in only 80 minutes.

Ethan’s Picks

 

10. “Whiplash”

Audacious, supremely confident, a cunning film with crowd-pleasing trappings that hide a pitch-black heart. Throw all “realistic” expectations of jazz music or modern teaching out the window – Damien Chazelle’s sharp sophomore feature is a psychological thriller masquerading as one of those “inspirational mentor” flicks. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, a young musician and his insanely abusive teacher, are both superb as two halves of a perverse, symbiotic whole: the hammer and the nail. Virtuoso editing builds the film, rhythmically, to its explosive, altogether masterful final scene.

9. “Boyhood”

The culmination of Richard Linklater’s twelve-year project is a paradox: an achievement of directorial ambition characterized by near-infuriating restraint. At times, the story of young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) drifts along with the aimlessness of Linklater’s “Slacker” or “Dazed and Confused;” at others it flails into the kind of pretentiously over-crafted dialogue and situations that form the worst moments of his otherwise wonderful “Before” trilogy. At times, it seems to be genuinely concerned with the stories of Mason’s mother and father (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, exceptional in fulfilling a challenge never quite asked of any other actors before); at others it dumps them into clichés. What to make of this puzzling, condensed mix of the mundane and the melodramatic? It’s certainly unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

8. “The Tale of Princess Kaguya”

A gentle and heartbreaking fairy tale from Studio Ghibli’s OTHER master animator. Isao Takahata hasn’t gotten the stateside press of his colleague Miyazaki, perhaps because tonally he’s closer to Ozu than Disney – which is a film snobby way of saying he’s got a tendency to bum you the fuck out. “Kaguya” is no “Grave of the Fireflies,” but it’s a film bursting with equal parts joy and melancholy, as the supernatural protagonist grows away from the family and friends she loves and into the rigid mores of high society. Breaking somewhat from the traditional Ghibli style, Takahata’s watercolor-based drawings are dreamy and evocative; the Princess’ flight from her mansion is simply one of the most breathtaking sequences of animation in film history.

7. “Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”

It’s a dangerous place to go, that spot inhabited by art that tries to address the self-indulgence of art. Why do I appreciate “8 1/2” but despise “Stardust Memories?” I couldn’t even really tell you. But after repeat viewings, I can say that I still tremendously enjoy “Birdman,” the unexpected reveal from Alejandro Iñárritu that he does, in fact, have a considerable sense of humor – and more importantly, that he’s extremely willing to turn that humor on himself. Yes, that New York Times critic character is a misstep (or is she just another figment of the protagonist’s nightmares?), but let’s be fair to her – the play-within-the-movie put on by floundering actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) does look pretty god-awful. And that’s the point: not some great battle between high and low art, nor an insinuation that Riggan is an unfairly underestimated talent; just that self-expression, in all its forms, is always a struggle for fulfillment. I’ve seen films try to make that argument in ways far less engaging than an Ed Norton slap-fight.

6. “Timbuktu”

For many of us, religious extremism is a violent intrusion into our everyday lives, a vague threat in the back of our minds pushed to the front by the savage destruction of villages in Nigeria, or a massacre in downtown Paris, or a horrific video flashing across the news. For those not blessed with remove, it’s just the opposite: violent, oppressive evil enacted in the name of god is a mundane reality. Abderrahmane Sissako’s measured, patient film finds the moments of beauty that puncture through the cloud of terror hanging over the titular, jihadist-occupied city: young men playing soccer, a cowherd guiding his flock, a woman’s gentle voice singing in the night. Cinematographer Sofian El Fani’s river-spanning, human-swallowing shot of the aftermath of a tragic confrontation might be the shot of the year.

You can read more thoughts on “Timbuktu” here.

5. “Selma”

In retrospect, A.O. Scott most likely regrets the timing of this piece, which questioned the ability of contemporary American art to tackle the great social-political issues of our times. It ran only a few scant weeks before Ava DuVernay’s film erupted on to screens with a relevance that the director couldn’t possibly have foreseen. There may have been better movies this year (only a handful by my count), but I daresay none that felt so desperately necessary. Out on the streets, protestors screamed that black lives matter, and on the screen Martin Luther King shouted glory, and for a sharp and scathing moment “Selma” wasn’t a movie but a mirror.

Even as the passionate moment in which it debuted recedes, I believe “Selma” will remain a lasting and powerful work of art. It peels back truths that we will never find in history books, creating a fierce and insightful portrait of social change. MLK, played by a quasi-possessed David Oyelowo, forms the film’s center but not its focus. This is a film in which activists, allies, community leaders, ordinary people and presidents come together to perform a complex dance, in which the pattern goes something like: two steps forward, one step back. DuVernay dares to show progress as stuttered, not a straight line – messy, complicated, human.

4. “Ida”

The greatest Bresson film that Bresson couldn’t live to make. Deeply felt yet staunchly unsentimental, Pawel Pawlikowski’s slices open a wound in history (Poland’s not-always-coerced participation in both the Holocaust and Stalinism) and calmly watches it bleed. It’s a painful road to take, but there is something in the frank, unflagging determination of the film’s two female to follow through on their quest to uncover the truth that makes “Ida” feel necessary and endurable. Both Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza, as a young novitiate and her hard-living, disillusioned aunt, are extraordinary; they’re allowed to play fully formed, complex women, of the kind (you know, the realistic one with deeply personal motivations that have nothing to do with men) you wouldn’t find within twenty thousand leagues of Hollywood at the moment.

3. “Under the Skin”

Easily the most distressing and unsettling film of the year, Jonathan Glazer’s ultra-loose adaptation of the Michael Faber novel makes the unease of its alien protagonist achingly visceral with an eerie, shrieking score, uncannily immaculate cinematography and the perfect use of off-kilter special effects. Scarlett Johannson is revelatory (yes, I said it) in a role that seems made for her: as an alien creature inhabiting the body of a human woman, she gradually awakens to the horrors of all that entails, with just a furrow in her brow and a question in her unblinking gaze.

2. “Calvary”

Do we have a word for the opposite of a sophomore slump? John Michael McDonagh’s debut feature “The Guard” was a fine dark comedy in the vein of his brother Martin’s “In Bruges,” but mostly a vehicle for the always-great Brendan Gleeson; his follow-up, in which Gleeson plays a Catholic priest attempting to do his duty in the small Irish village where an anonymous confessor has threatened to murder him, is startling, and not just in subject matter. As Gleeson makes his way through the rogue’s gallery that doubles as the town’s cartoonishly awful populace, the comedy becomes so black you can barely laugh what for all the soot in your mouth. But it’s the film’s underlying streak of sincerity that makes it quite so astonishing: McDonagh is genuinely concerned with what it means to have faith, and what it means to have that faith shattered.

1. “Leviathan”

Russia is not a place. Russia is a condition. There are few other countries on earth quite so concerned with the quality of their national character – and perhaps none that are so brutally and articulately self-lacerating about it. I wrote about this more at length in my piece about the film for The New Republic, but Andrei Zvyagintsev’s film is far more than just a critique of the Putin regime: it cuts through political trappings to the existential dread that has perpetuated centuries of authoritarian rule.

Look, this film was practically pre-programmed to top my end-of-year list. Zvyagintsev is easily the best and most important post-Soviet Russian filmmaker, by my mark; he’s drawing on a century’s worth of Russian cinematic tradition while staking out a mannered style that’s both idiosyncratic and cross-culturally translatable. Spiritual malaise is always likely to capture my attention (see three of my top five here). But no one else this year created a film of such fearful symmetry. Chilling, beautiful, bitterly funny and unsparing, “Leviathan” lived up to the human monstrosity promised by its title.

Ten more (it’s my blog, I can cheat): “A Most Violent Year,” “Foxcatcher,” “Inherent Vice,” “Mr. Turner,” “Dear White People,” “Nightcrawler,” “Force Majeure,” “A Most Wanted Man,” “Starred Up,” “The LEGO Movie”

Top 10 Films of 2013

Getting in just under the wire, we here at The Best Films of Our Lives wanted to be sure to get in our last word on the year in film that was 2013, before tomorrow night’s Oscar ceremony is over and we can all start finally getting excited about how awesome “Interstellar” is going to be.

As with last year, we gave ourselves a little extra time compared to most film critics and bloggers, who put their lists out in late December/early January. As (semi-)average film-goers, it takes a while to catch up with some of the titles we want to be sure to consider. As it happened, even with that extra deliberation, Elaine and I ended up being remarkably in agreement this year – 2 out of our top 3 were the same, including our unanimous choice for the best film of the year. Yes, it’s that good. What do you think, dear readers? After a little extra reflection, where did your year-end list end up?

ELAINE’S PICKS

10. “Don Jon”

“Don Jon” would have gotten much less attention had it not been the directorial debut of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but this little movie about a man so addicted to porn that he cannot find real fulfillment is funny, sweet, and refreshingly simple. Scarlett Johansson, more appropriately cast than ever before, is hilarious as Barbara Sugarman, Jon’s shallow, possessive dream girl, while Julianne Moore, who plays an older woman Jon meets later in the movie, brings a funny frankness to the screen. It is Gordon-Levitt, however, that seems out of place in his own movie, too old and too confident for this coming-of-age story. Jon is a deeply vulnerable and lost young man beneath his bravado and his muscles, but Gordon-Levitt is too smooth, too knowing, and simply a decade too old to play him convincingly.

9. “Frances Ha”

“Sorry I’m so slow, I have trouble leaving places,” says Frances (Greta Gerwig), a 20-something New Yorker who trips when running, turns down a stable job for no good reason, misreads social cues, and can’t seem to leave her college years behind. Yet “Frances Ha” is interested precisely in the stumbling, the pauses, and the uncertainties of this period of life, a whirl of confusion, spontaneity, and possibility. Gerwig carries the film magnificently, at once sweet and irrational, funny and exasperating, full of potential yet unsure of how to realize it. Though director Noah Baumbach’s portrayal of “millennial” New Yorkers is so exaggerated it becomes annoying rather than comical, “Frances Ha” is a vivid, vibrant depiction of one awkward young woman’s search for her place in a world that is actually too awkward for her.

8. “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

Most people groaned when they heard “The Hobbit” was split into three movies, but it does give Peter Jackson two extra chances to get it right. In “The Desolation of Smaug,” he mostly did. Capturing the charming, childish spirit of the book, the second installment was a wild, adventurous ride that inspired renewed interest in the peoples and kingdoms of Middle-Earth, delivering places and characters filled with freshness and wonder. From Dwarves riding in barrels to Stephen Fry in an orange wig to Smaug the Dragon, the movie maintained an energetic pace throughout nearly three hours, and set the stage for what will hopefully be an even better finale.

7. “Philomena”

“Philomena” is the simplest movie on this list. It has no flashes and no bangs; it is neither ostentatious nor innovative. It simply has a story to tell, one of a woman searching for the child she was separated from half a century before, a story that it unveils modestly but powerfully. The star of the show is undoubtedly Dame Judi Dench, who, with a quiver of her lip, can convey Philomena’s 50 years of silent suffering, while the rapport between Philomena and her sidekick, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) adds a touching subplot to the search for her son. Where the movie succeeds is in its portrayal of faith and religion, depicting both the folly and power of faith, along with its many divergences and permutations. With its poignant story and its excellent cast, “Philomena” may not be the loudest or the most memorable film of the year, but it is an emotional, enjoyable exercise in storytelling.

6. “The Wind Rises”

“All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.” These were allegedly the words that inspired Hayao Miyazaki to make “The Wind Rises,” his animated tribute to the designer of Japanese warplanes during World War II. And that is exactly what Miyazaki does here, showing us that a thing of beauty, regardless of what it is used for, is still a joy forever. Perhaps it is irresponsible or ethically dubious for Jiro to design these killing machines, but to him the airplanes are the stuff of dreams. Maybe it was lost in translation (I saw the dubbed English version), but something—the somewhat stilted dialogue or Jiro’s impenetrable character—kept “The Wind Rises” from being as complete a film as some of Miyazaki’s other efforts. But there are enough moments of delight—from love represented by the flight of a paper airplane to a terrifying earthquake that lifts the earth and its people up by their roots—to make it truly something beautiful.

5. “Her”

This is the loneliest movie I’ve ever seen. From Joaquin Phoenix’s melancholy eyes to his high-waisted pants, from the whiteness of his bed sheets to the sepia-hued memories of his wife, “Her” exudes a loneliness and a desperation that seeps out of the screen and slowly fills the theater. Set in the future, this movie about a man, the oh-so-Dickensian Theodore Twombly, and his romance with his computer’s artificial intelligence system, Samantha, never wallows in its melancholy, hilarious at one moment and romantic at the next. What’s great about it is how completely director Spike Jonze embraces the futuristic world he creates; almost all of the characters accept the plausibility of a human/OS relationship, and while we know it cannot possibly end well for Theodore and Samantha, we are drawn into their relationship. Because after all, which one of us hasn’t sought solace from our computer screen?

4. “Before Midnight”

It’s been almost 20 years since Céline (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) first walked, talked, and fell in love in Vienna’s streets. In our third encounter with their lives, they are no longer the dreamy young people who remake the world with their words, but the film does something even more incredible: it shows us love as it ages. It is perhaps unfair to compare this film to the others on the list, as it works in conjunction with its two predecessors, but even without them, “Before Midnight” is a graceful, intelligent meditation on love, life, and time, as it comes to all of us.

3. “12 Years A Slave”

Though the film’s title, “12 Years A Slave”, leads us to believe that it is about Solomon Northup’s enslavement, the film is as much about what he sees as it is about him. At various moments in Steve McQueen’s film, the camera hones in on Chiwetel Ejiofor’s eyes of infinite sadness as he watches the unspeakable unfold before him, at once helpless and complicit. At some point while watching the movie, we forget that it is a movie and become witnesses ourselves. McQueen is not interested in pointing fingers or exacting revenge, but simply shows us the institution that was the scourge of our nation and continues to be our shame, his work serving as a rebuke of last year’s fantasy bloodbath, “Django Unchained.” With its beautiful cinematography and stellar performances from Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, and Sarah Paulson, “12 Years A Slave” is one of the most excruciating cinematic experiences, but also one of the best.

2. “The Square”

There is a moment in “The Square,” the Oscar-nominated documentary about the Egyptian revolution, when the camera pans over a surface, weirdly beautiful, purple and patterned like an exquisite tile. And then the camera zooms out, and we realize that it’s a human back, the back of a young man who has just been tortured by the Egyptian army. Jehane Noujaim’s documentary is not only the most important film of the year, a year when protests rocked the world and overthrew governments, but a beautiful one, capturing the difficulty and the complexity of such movements, the energy and the frustration of people who want democracy but are somehow always thwarted in their quest. Born of the square from which it takes its name, this powerful documentary hopes for the best for Egypt, and for the sake of all of those lives we meet for 108 minutes, and the lives of those protesting in squares around the world, I hope it’s right.

1. “Stories We Tell”

It was impossible to compare this movie with “The Square.” One is an intensely personal, meticulously crafted piece, while the other a documentation of a mass populist movement still taking place. That being said, Sarah Polley’s exploration of her mother’s life and secrets is an incredible composition about memory, the act of remembering, storytelling, and, at base, the act of living. Reconstructing an ordinary life from the testimonies of her friends and family, Polley’s film is so personal, so human that it’s almost impossible to talk about it without drawing from your own experiences. She introduces us to her family so casually that we feel like a part of it, and she exposes the threads and the choices that make up a person’s life so clearly that it’s hard to look away, and even harder not to draw parallels with our own.

The film opens with a quote by Margaret Atwood: “When you’re in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all but rather a confusion, a dark roaring, a blindness… It isn’t afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all, when you’re telling it to yourself or someone else.” There’s a reason Polley calls the film “Stories We Tell,” because we all tell stories of our lives, rendering our choices into a narrative that makes sense for ourselves. It’s just that the rest of us don’t often think about them as stories to be told, or have a filmmaker so talented to tell them.

 

ETHAN’S PICKS

10. “Nebraska”

Anchored by a perfectly cast ensemble, what could’ve been a caricature of Midwest culture and father-son road trips blossomed into an unexpectedly touching tragicomedy. Alexander Payne and his screenwriter Bob Nelson sympathize with the nostalgia and regret of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern, pitiful and endearing) without indulging in it themselves: they have too much affection for the confused, worn-out man he has become, irascibility notwithstanding. Payne’s characters are familiar and humorous, exaggerated only to necessity.

9. “Blue Is the Warmest Color”

This divisive Palme D’Or winner is an ambitious tale of discovery that defies easy coming-of-age narratives. In “La vie d’Adele,” conversations, scenes and sequences all linger beyond their “natural” endpoints – more true to the messy, unedited reality of life. As she matures – somewhat – from questioning teenager to conflicted young adult, Adele (always-beautiful-when-crying newcomer Adele Exarchopoulos) finds through her lover Emma (an enigmatic Léa Seydoux) that romance can be complex, consuming, and destructive.

8. “Her”

What will the future be like? It’s the question of most science-fiction, but Spike Jonze’s film is not most sci-fi. Less concerned with the bells and whistles of his near-future society (although there are those – I can’t wait to see Los Angeles’ new public transit rail system come to fruition), Jonze is interested in relationships, in the way we connect to each other. The writer/director never loses sight of the inherent tension in its central romance, between emotionally rudderless writer Theodore (an engrossing Joaquin Phoenix) and his energetic operating system (voiced adroitly by Scarlett Johannson); this is not a film where you’re rooting for those crazy kids to end up together. Subtle, personal and fantastical without becoming too twee.

7. “Gravity”

A monument to the experiential power of cinema. Cuarón’s space-survival tale made the last decade of souped-up CGI and 3D-enhanced blockbusters look all the more superfluous by comparison; cutting-edge technology doesn’t just make our explosions look more realistic, it can change the way we tell a story. To that end, “Gravity” didn’t break much narrative ground, but it brought a kinetic, visceral immediacy to astronaut Ryan Stone’s plight that was fresh and thrilling.

6. “Inside Llewyn Davis”

The Coen Brothers’ melancholy ode to the self-destruction of near-genius. Like Salieri in Milos Forman’s “Amadeus,” Llewyn Davis is good enough to recognize greatness and to know that he doesn’t quite have it; but while Salieri had his Mozart, a concrete figure on whom to pin all his frustrations, Llewyn seems up against the entire world, and lashes out accordingly, indiscriminately. A gorgeous soundtrack and artfully smudged cinematography by Bruce Delbonnel complemented Oscar Isaac’s terrific lead performance for yet another exceptional Coen film.

5. “Before Midnight”

The fictional equivalent of Michael Apted’s “Up” series of documentaries, Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy (as it stands so far) has turned into a delightful cinematic mainstay, an opportunity to reflect on the passage of time, in real time. “Before Midnight” saw our hapless couple Céline and Jesse, almost twenty years removed from that romantic first encounter in Vienna, attempting to deal with the maturation of love and the complications of married life. This was probably the most uncomfortable film of the trilogy – the two have moved on from naive intellectual arguments about love and philosophy to very concrete, personal conflicts, years in the making – but at the same time that served to build the authenticity and uniqueness of these characters. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are so extraordinarily linked in with Jesse and Céline at this point that it’s difficult to even remember that they are actors.

4. “The Wind Rises”

A most heartfelt farewell from one of cinema’s greatest dreamers. Perhaps only an artist who has flown so far could give us so touching a reflection on imagination and innovation, encapsulating the bittersweet passion of creation. Joyful and subtly troubled, Miyazaki’s embellished version of the life of aircraft engineer Jiro Horikoshi is almost certainly the legendary animator’s most personal film ever: an appreciation of all those who have supported him and an expression of his creative regrets. No need to apologize, Miyazaki – we’re just thankful you shared your journey with us.

3. “12 Years a Slave”

In his twelve years in bondage, Solomon Northup witnessed horror; and in seeing it, in looking into the pit at the very heart of humanity, he felt it, too. Steve McQueen’s extraordinary drama – which, looking back even after a few months, I can see that I instinctually resisted at first, passing off my own efforts to hold the film at arm’s length as McQueen’s problem – is clinical, composed, thoroughly unsentimental, but not disconnected. There is outrage here, and despair, but expressed in the most controlled, painterly of methods: in the silent shattering of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance, or the cold co-existence of brutality and mundanity in the same frame. McQueen knows well the voyeuristic impulse of film, the sense of culpability involved in being a witness to something unspeakable, and uses it to his audacious advantage.

2. “Upstream Color”

Shane Carruth’s debut film, “Primer,” was a maddening, intentionally incomplete puzzle of a film, playing with the limits of science and genius to explain the world. Almost ten years later, his long-awaited follow-up revealed that “Primer” was no fluke. The juxtaposition between Carruth’s tight, expert craft and the out-of-control situation in which his characters find themselves creates a philosophical clash of near-Tarkovskian proportions. Like Kris and Jeff, we float, woozy, through Carruth’s mysterious images, searching for the meaning behind it all. Amy Seimetz’s grounded performance takes care of the emotional heavy lifting as Carruth’s style leaps to the beautiful obscurity of Malick.

1. “Stories We Tell”

Strikingly composed and painfully personal, Sarah Polley’s beautiful, unforgettable narrative about her own mother and the secrets she left behind pushes beyond every expected boundary of both form and substance. Her story is engrossing enough, heartbreaking in its tragedy and hopeful in its affirmation of love and family, but Polley pushes further, questioning the compulsion and fickle subjectivity of storytelling. Why do we insert narrative on to our own lives? It is easy enough to look back and remember meaning and motive, but life in the moment, like this film, is unpredictable, chaotic, a jumble of masked fears and desires. Diane Polley was an actress; her daughter’s film suggests that we are all nothing less.