I didn’t cover the year’s releases comprehensively enough to be able to comment on what were the “best” films: I spent most of my movie-watching time tracking down European semi-obscurities I’d never seen before (I’m telling you, that Internet contraption is some kind of miracle). But even if I’d seen everything, I’m sure these ten would be high on the list. Happy holidays - see you in 2012!
Another Year (Mike Leigh)
Focusing on a married couple in their sixties and mostly set in and around their house, this is a quietly devastating work I think, perhaps one of the finest validations of Leigh’s worldview and approach. Many scenes unfold as an investigation of sorts, with the grounded central couple tolerating, indulging or motivating their weaker friends and relatives, the psychological balance ever shifting as the conversations zig and zag. It’s not so different from what Leigh’s done before perhaps, but more maturely dynamic than you get from almost anyone else.
Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
Scorsese’s new film – his best in decades - is as dazzling a deployment of cutting edge cinematic resources as any movie could be (in particular, it’s his first in 3-D), and uses this to reach all the way back into the history of the medium, to celebrate the pioneer Georges Melies. Unusually tactile-feeling for a digital epic, at its centre it sees life and creativity in practical terms – certainly we must dream, but we also have to diagnose and repair. In the process, Scorsese comprehensively fixes the feeling of drift attaching to his recent work, conveying sudden and total refreshment.
Le quattro volte (Michelangelo Frammartino)
Frammartino’s film resolutely refuses the narrative and cinematic conventions that place man at the centre of things. It has no identifiable dialogue – it requires no subtitles – and only one character who receives a close-up. The true star might be a dog, reacting to his master’s absence and to an Easter passion parade by barking at everyone in sight, and then engineering a way to free the goats from their pen – all in one take! By its very existence, the film speaks to the spiritual paucity of hyped-up mainstream cinema.
Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
Set in the 1860’s, this depicts a small group of pioneers heading west, wandering off the main trail after their guide, Stephen Meek, leads them astray. Reichardt’s film is entirely satisfying as a follow-on to and extension of her Wendy and Lucy, confirming her as one of America’s most important filmmakers. There’s not a strained or ill-considered moment in the film; everything conveys a superbly considered weight, all the more remarkable for its extreme economy of means. It carries the most satisfying kind of complexity, flowing from a gloriously intuitive artistic personality, serious and reflective while avoiding strain and pretentiousness in a way that’s simply beyond most directors, even the good ones.
Melancholia (Lars von Trier)
The audacity of Melancholia isn’t so much that it imagines the end of the world, but that it almost seems to be longing for it. The film’s first half lays out the emptiness of our structures and devices and rituals; the second suggests we’re so eroded by them, even the pending end of the world can’t galvanize us to reclaim our inner selves. Von Trier bakes his revulsion into the marrow of his film, shooting most events in a radically unsteady hand-held style; at other times, the film is flamboyantly beautiful, illustrating heightened states as if the world had been polished and prettified until its inner energy started to ooze out.
Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz)
A gorgeous climax to Ruiz’s career – he died this year – this is a visually magnificent four hour odyssey, starting when a supposedly orphaned boy sees a woman he takes to be his mother, and tumbling from there through twisting fates and shifting identities, where one story perpetually triggers another. The film feels capable of perpetuating and reinventing itself forever; I’ve seldom felt so completely happy and occupied by a work of fiction. Ruiz’ sense of ease and wry observation here is a delight: his essential serenity doesn’t blunt his inquisitiveness, and the film gradually evokes the formation of a nation and a culture.
Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois)
A group of eight French monks in 1996 Algeria, none of them young, long-established in a disadvantaged village, must decide whether to leave the country after unrest breaks out. The film is certainly suspenseful, in the Hitchcockian sense that we watch much of it with anticipatory dread. But its strength is in Beauvois’ meticulous, gloriously intuitive observation of their lives and his exploration of the seemingly fundamental and yet largely absent question - not just absent from cinema, from the entire public sphere - of what a life, not even an overtly virtuous one, should amount to.
Poetry (Chang-dong Lee)
This Korean film studies an old woman, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, raising a teenage grandson who’s involved in a terrible crime. Its centre holds the brave and challenging idea that escalating Alzheimer’s, although undoubtedly a sentence, may contain some element of liberation, a final opportunity for clarity. Notwithstanding the title, the film is told in prose, not poetry – it’s a careful, attentive character study, and despite the protagonist’s frequent comments about her love of flowers and suchlike, a pretty tough-minded one, depicting a great deal of naked self-interest, particularly in the way the reaction to the crime becomes entirely a matter of defensive logistics.
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar)
Almodóvar’s new film probably isn’t his best but it’s spectacularly Almodóvarian, while occupying somewhat novel territory for him. By any normal measure, the plot (a fairly extreme parable on what constitutes one’s core identity, built around a mad scientist and his creepy experiments) is nuts. But Almodóvar plays it very straight, with such sumptuous conviction that you just about buy it; the very idea of making such a sober movie around this topic, and then pulling it off, is rather stunning in itself. It’s very easy to criticize, on any number of fronts, but I just loved watching the thing.
Somewhere (Sofia Coppola)
This deadpan counterpoint to the TV show Entourage follows a major Hollywood star, temporarily living in a Los Angeles hotel. He drinks, has lots of sex, passes the time playing computer games and staring into space. The film critiques the societal investment in someone like this: sure, we can find meaning in such a life if we look for it, but why are we bothering? It likely isn’t impactful enough for all tastes, but then if it were more impactful, that would probably only mark it as a product of the machine, rather than being a critique of it.