10. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)
Perhaps David Cronenberg’s best film since A History of Violence, Cosmopolis was also one of his most offbeat and humorous. With the help of Robert Pattinson’s brilliantly stoic performance, a crisp and icy color palette, and an ineffably off-kilter tone, Cosmpolis transformed the interior of a limousine, where the first hour of the film took place, into a universe unto itself. A veritable hyperreality of futuristic global capitalism that seemingly operated outside the confines of time, this living, breathing entity thrust Pattinson’s Eric Parker through Manhattan to his favorite barbershop, where he was seemingly immune and indifferent to the chaos and danger of the protests, riots, and crime occurring just on the other side of the glass. His crosstown odyssey was filled with a bizarre array of characters feeding him raw data, tactical advice, and philosophical quandaries, as he gazed at them with similar aplomb, even while getting his prostate examined or taking a pie to the face. The film’s final act, where Parker confronts the outside world, capped off what may be the single most effective examination of the unbridgeable gap between the elite and the 99% of this young decade, and while Cosmpolis did not enjoy the heaps of praise most of Cronenberg’s recent output has received, its sheer singularity and bold engagement with the political climate - with the help of the equally fine Don DeLillo source material - made it one of the most important films of the year and his career.
9. Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold)
Andrea Arnold’s earthy, visceral adaptation of Wuthering Heights is quite unlike any other adaptation of the famed novel I’ve seen. The landscape is less magical than magisterial, a commanding presence that looms over all the characters, particularly Heathcliff whose existence is mirrored in its harshness. Arnold’s handheld camerawork is magnificent, intensifying the characters physical interactions with each other as well as the effects of the wind, mud, fog and hills. This materialist depiction may seems at odds with such ethereal material, but the delicacy of the rare moments of happiness between Heathcliff and Catherine play as a beautiful contrast to the harshness of daily existence, the coldness that the older Catherine displays coming as a logical extension of the land’s mysterious hold rather than a desire for wealth or to please her father’s will. Arnold’s skillful and unique style has finally found a proper home, albeit in the unlikeliest of places.
8. Amour (Michael Haneke)
Perhaps the most divisive of all acclaimed international directors, Michael Haneke throws a small bone to his critics who find his films overly academic and devoid of life with Amour. Haneke’s second straight to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Amour tells the story of a couple struggling to deal with increasingly crippling dementia. The awards and positive critical response couldn’t quite squash my fear that Haneke would make the film either too sterile or sentimental, but his ascetic style lends itself perfectly to a subdued take on the troubles of aging and losing the capability to do the things one loves to do. Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant are as lovely and convincing as word-of-mouth has led us to believe, as they so effortlessly sustain the organic ebb-and-flow of a couple who have been together for decades, both in their understated sweetness and restrained bursts of viciousness. Throughout the film, neither character sheds a tear; rather, Haneke methodically tracks the wife’s inevitable descent into dementia and, with a watchful eye, covers a wide range of emotional terrain through her interactions with her husband as well as her distant yet well-meaning daughter. What the film lacks in Haneke’s usually impressive formal rigor, it makes up for with truly earned emotional truths and as the director’s mother suffered a similar fate as Anne’s, one senses the subject matter affects the director on a more humane than intellectual level and, fortunately, the film is all the better for it.
7. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
Zero Dark Thirty is a radically different take on military operations than The Hurt Locker. The latter was an effective and intimate character study where the former’s scope is far broader, encapsulating everything from the mundane daily tasks and protocols of CIA agents to the shifting landscape of global anti-terrorism. Jessica Chastain’s Maya is the central protagonist, but only so far as her involvement with capturing Bin Laden goes. There are numerous extraneous plotlines or relationships that lesser films couldn’t have resisted playing out – Thirty has essentially no love interests or hackneyed backstories thrown in to add emotional heft and Chastain is herself off-screen for most of the 30-minute military op at the end. Bigelow shows enough confidence in that final sequence to allow it to stand on its own rather than rely on constant crosscutting to attempt to put us in Maya’s shoes. This respect of both the material and the audience extends to the much-debated torture sequences. The objective representation of such harsh material has been wrongly interpreted as some as an absolution of such tactics simply because it may have helped lead the CIA to Bin Laden, but it is neither absolving nor condemning, but rather presenting as accurately as it knows how the events as they happened. This deft handling of such tricky material, that miraculously never devolves into jingoistic or anti-American propaganda makes for a remarkably economical film that is as great for the things is doesn’t do than for those it does.
5 & 6. Paradise: Love (Ulrich Seidl) & Whore's Glory (Michael Glawogger)
Like his equally brilliant Import/Export, Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love, the first film in his Paradise trilogy, seamlessly melds devastating social conditions and dispassionate sexual encounters to deadpan humor and sharp satire. Set mostly in Kenya, where a 50-year-old Austrian woman travels as a sex tourist, the film operates with equal aplomb as a metaphor for Western imperialism and an intimate character piece exploring the depths of a woman’s loneliness and her inability to fill that void with anything within her power. The exotic locale and explicit sexual content are rendered flat and lifeless through Seidl’s dispassionate eye and schematic staging, but the film is nonetheless intensely emotional and surprisingly funny. The mutual exploitation of the woman/West and Africans is portrayed with such vibrancy through the astounding performance of Margarete Tiesel, who conveys tenderness and viciousness with equal skill, and portrays the hypocrisy of her character with a careful balance of pathos and ferocity. Seidl’s work with all of these dichotomies is remarkable, and this film makes it easy to see why he’s one of Werner Herzog’s favorite working directors. A perfect companion piece to Paradise: Love, Michael Glawogger’s globe-trotting documentary, Whore’s Glory, examines the nature of prostitution in three separate countries (Thailand, Bangladesh and Mexico) with an array of interviews with pimps, prostitutes and johns. It's quite an impressive feat both for tackling that subject matter without resorting to anything remotely exploitative or emotionally manipulative and for effectively capturing its three milieus with extensive research and interviews rather than latching onto one particular person or guide. Glawogger’s subdued, direct approach shows a respect both for the material and the audience, understanding that the content is powerful and disturbing enough without dressing it up. It’s a tough watch, but rewarding nonetheless.
4. Tabu (Miguel Gomes)
Miguel Gomes’ odd and intriguing love story starts off like a typical, slow-burning Eastern European drama centered on the struggles of a curmudgeonly old woman, her maid, and her kindhearted neighbor before drastically shifting gears into a delicate, sweet yet unsentimental retelling of the woman’s youthful dalliances in Africa. In what essentially transforms into a silent film in one respect (none of the dialogue is heard) is in another respect a truly experimental aural, sensory experience. The lack of dialogue heightens the characters’ connection to nature and their surroundings while also intensifying the drama through its dreamlike atmosphere. The crisp black-and-white cinematography captures the stark contrasts of modern-day Lisbon, with its rigid angular architecture and the lush fluidity of Africa. For a film that easily could teeter on the edge gimmickry or preciousness, Tabu is especially striking in its knack for grounding the ethereal in the real, its paradise lost remaining tangible and full of genuine passion and emotion. Gomes is a talent to watch out for, possessing an original voice and eye for detail.
3. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Returning with the aesthetic developed and perfected in There Will Be Blood, complete with another brilliant accompanying score by Jonny Greenwood, The Master perplexed and underwhelmed a number of Paul Thomas Anderson’s biggest supporters. All of Anderson’s prior films, at least since Boogie Nights, have contained scenes or moments of great awkwardness, where emotion erupts violently from within a character (Julianne Moore in the pharmacy in Magnolia, Adam Sandler’s outburst in the bathroom in Punch-Drunk Love, Day-Lewis’s famed milkshake monologue in Blood) to such a degree that its intensity, under the patient, watchful gaze of PTA, gives the audience a concrete, albeit odd and unsettling, cathartic expression. While The Master has a smaller scope than the director’s previous film, it is far less accessible, essentially taking odd moments like Plainview throwing a napkin over his face and creating a feature length expression of that peculiarity. Not that The Master is simply strange only for the sake of it – it’s one of the most fascinatingly original depictions of post-war, pre-50s America, with both Phoenix and Hoffman embodying different sides of the incomplete modernist man before suburbia was fully crystallized and the uncontrollable yearnings and feelings of emptiness of the new self-aware generation were given an ample social construct behind which they could vanish. This fascinating piece of gonzo Americana is yet more evidence than Anderson is our country’s finest filmmaker and working with two of the finest actors out there only helps to cement that fact.
2. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel)
Co-directed by Sweetgrass director Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, Leviathan is a difficult film to describe, but if you imagine an episode of The Deadliest Catch as directed by Stan Brakhage, you’re on the right track. Shot with an array of tiny cameras on a commercial fishing boat off the New Bedford coast, the film captures the brutal realities of life at sea in a terrifyingly visceral, kaleidoscopic montage of perspectives. Shots with cameras attached to wires, chains, nets, and the fishermen themselves, take us up and down the ship, put us in the pits among the freshly captured and sliced-up fish, plunge us in and out of the ocean, and soar us into the sky amidst the seagulls, creating a purely sensorial, visual abstraction that changes what would typically be an observational documentary into an intensely physical and experiential avant-garde piece. If given the chance, this is not to be missed on the big screen.
1. It's Such a Beautiful Day (Don Herzfeldt)
I’m as surprised as anyone that my top two films are a documentary about fishing and an experimental animated film with a stick figure protagonist, but both Leviathan and It’s Such a Beautiful Day defy categorization in their sheer singularity, the former for its batshit crazy adherence to its preset aesthetic limitations and the latter for its intensely personal material and the avant-garde stylizations that perfectly and creatively mimic the oft-shattered mental state of the film’s protagonist. My first foray into the world of Don Herzfeldt, It’s Such a Beautiful Day is deeply moving, intensely neurotic and gut-bustingly funny. Herzfeldt’s rough-edged, simple animation belies the amount of thought and skill that went into make this film (a combination of 3 short films to make a complete 70-minute feature), but is perfectly suited for the unstable, delicate mental states it depicts. Of course, the film is far more than stick-figure animation, incorporating trippy backdrops and dizzying animated asides that enhance Herzfeldt’s quirky voice-over work and its almost confessional content. The balance of emotional turmoil with humor and pathos gives the film a much-needed levity for such a devastating narrative, its overwhelming creativity and originality as responsible for its transcendent effect on the viewer as its highly potent emotional subject matter.