As the year goes on, and I see more films from it, I plan to keep updating this list. Right now, this is the order in which I’d rank them. To be honest, I have been disappointed with a few films (most notably with The Turin Horse), but most have been worthwhile.
1. Holy Motors; Leos Carax
It is quite a wonder to see a film this mired in dreams, images, and film in theaters, especially when it seems that surrealism has become the bane to most filmmakers working today (who would rather delve entirely into reality [not a bad thing at all, of course], or who would like to make an unrealistic scenario believable). Carax throws you into this crazy quilt of a world, where intersections converge into meaning, and where life begins to show its age. It is a strange film, because it is going after so many topics at the same time: Studio as industrial complex, the role of an actor in society, and in film, the role of a parent, an adult, a human being, etc. This is a film that brims with life, hurtling you along for the entire ride, and which, it must be said, is entirely entertaining, even during some of its more gruesome moments; each change in Denis Lavant’s character alters the film significantly from what it was before, and many of those scenes, as well as they work within the film, could simply be left alone as short films, and they would have massive importance for the wonders they provide to the short form. It really is a film that needs to be seen, especially considering the fact that, as I am aware, films like this just don’t get made that often.
2. The Color Wheel; Alex Ross Perry
Without a doubt the funniest film I have seen in a very long time is The Color Wheel, a film that relies so heavily on greedy nihilism of nearly every character that it’s amazing anyone in the audience could, and does, become attached. When a self-loving sister invites her self-loving brother along to get her things from her Professor’s house (where she’d been living), the trip takes them on a ride through destructive pasts, presents, and futures. Every turn, there is a new obstacle to overcome, and each time is as funny as the one previous. The way the film plays off its brother and sister, allowing them to wallow in self-pity and fear, all the while making them, in some ways, endearing, is one of its masterstrokes, and its transformation of its characters (or rather, of its characters’ relationship) comes across as both a shock and in some ways a necessity (although one must consider that it involves some rather depressing logic at the center of it all). Perry’s grapple, to, with film as a medium is tremendous, and his utilization of Rivette/Moullet/Lewis touches adds a spark and an interest to the film that makes all its sloppiness work (intentional sloppiness, that is). Really, I fell in love with this really hilarious and pathetic set of circumstances, and the filmmaking behind it all.
3. Marriage Material; Joe Swanberg
This fifty-odd minute film is a true wonder, a delight that sweeps you in casually through its amusing and realistic characters, and through its ability to use the text of the film almost as an essay in relation to its title. Swanberg’s incredibly low-key style brings personal problems, relations, and interactions, to the forefront, allowing us to slowly and carefully form an understanding of everything that is going on with its characters; Swanberg shows that, no, not every marriage will be built on the strongest of foundations, but there comes a point in life where a settlement of tastes and desires must be had, and, if one tries to escape it, he will only find himself alone.
4. 4:44 Last Day on Earth; Abel Ferrara
One of, presumably, the most accurate depictions of the end of the world with a foresight, this near-masterpiece creates an atmosphere of calmness even in the face of sheer terror; through his story, Ferrara creates a world centered on desires and connections, and, inherently, the interconnectedness of people. The film’s slow pacing gives way to a reality in which time moves forward slowly, as the anticipation of the oncoming event always hovers overhead; because of this, every character simply wishes to satisfy his or her own desires, whatever those desires may be. The ending – a cold, dark, and yet strangely optimistic piece of filmmaking – is one of the most astonishing ways for the human spirit to be connected with another that I have seen.
5. The Avengers; Joss Whedon
Whedon’s film of the superhero team The Avengers comes as a very pleasant turn in the rather dismal last few Marvel films that have surfaced ( Thor, Captain America, and, particularly Iron Man 2); here is a film that finds its characters and so neatly ties them to one another, showing the progression of relations between them as a film like this should. Each character has a distinctive personality, and the trials each must go through to gain what he or she wants helps develop each personality into a distinctive form that stands apart from the pack (but which must, in turn, unite with the other members to stop the evil plaguing the planet). The twists and turns of the film are quite impressively handled, with the pleasure of every new development inciting a little joy within me as I was able to see how the film was built like clockwork. Would it be fair to compare this film to something like The Rules of the Game in its construction (a film that I think is nearly, if not entirely, perfect)? I think so, although to a lesser extent. Seeing the plot build and build and build until it absolutely must come to its climax, when there is no possible means of doing anything else, is just wonderful. The acting is great, and the action is intense and fun. I will admit that the beginning was a little rocky, but once the film settled into itself, I felt it never let me go.
6. The Cabin in the Woods; Drew Goddard
This little piece of subversive filmmaking took me for a ride unlike nearly anything I was expecting; I knew going in that it toyed with the horror genre, but the method in which it does this, and its reasoning for doing so, is together hilarious and ingenious, utilizing and constantly subverting tropes for a purpose hinted at throughout (intercutting scenes in which we attempt to piece together everything we’re seeing before us, without actually being able to do so until closer toward the ending). Its ending is bleak, to say the least, but also, as in 4:44, it is strangely uplifting, even with a solution that does not allow a chance for escape. The smarts with which Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon build the film (essentially as a metaphor for filmic storytelling within a defined genre) is something that I was ever glad to finally witness.
7. The Grey; Joe Carnahan
I never thought I would find myself enjoy a Joe Carnahan film as much as I did this one; from his previous works (which I mostly did not like, due to their seemingly inherent self-righteousness), I would think that there might not be a possibility for his true self to be conveyed onscreen without coming across as preachy and self-serving. The Grey, though, is a whole other story. This film does, yes, use a few similar notions that Carnahan has expounded upon in previous works, but somehow he manages to, through sheer force of scripting this truly terrifying spectacle as a be-all, end-all event, convey everything he has to say with grace, eloquence, and a true passion (that which usually comes across as a hackneyed attempt at such emotion) for life, and a true wonder toward death. It was actually, perhaps, the first film I can remember that really made me think about the actual process of dying, and what it is like as the mind begins to turn itself off, allowing consciousness to become null. Carnahan’s action scenes are very good, but the film’s intense defiance while staring into the face of death and not backing down (similar to 4:44, as well) is truly remarkable.
8. Haywire; Steven Soderbergh
I had looked forward to this for a long time, but, by the time I came around to actually watching it, I had forgotten almost any criticism of it that I had read; looking at it with more-or-less fresh eyes, I was able to notice that Haywire, as designed by Soderbergh, is clearly a film that cared very little for its plot, but very much for its plotting (more how a plot is told than the actual telling of this plot). Because of this, it appears as if Soderbergh has made the film to toy with both storytelling, and with genre. The action scenes are not punctuated by music, but almost everything leading up to them is; the actions made, then, during the fight scenes become of the utmost importance, since the score so heavily punctuates the majority of the film (leaving it out completely draws so much attention that one is able to notice incredibly exacting choreography, and how fighting is accomplished through such motions). It seems as if Soderbergh has made this film to see what can be done in the action genre, creating a kind of groovy exercise in alterations of storytelling.
9. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning; John Hyams
After all the hype for Universal Soldier: regeneration had been built up, I was extremely pleased to find that I loved that film probably about as much as anyone else, and so I was very excited to have the opportunity to see Day of Reckoning this year at Fantastic Fest. This sequel is a film, though, that I have a very hard time wrapping my head around, and I am not quite sure what to make of it yet. Perhaps it was my expectations that led me astray, or maybe the film has this way of leading up to some grand sequences without much in the way of motivation behind them, all the while pushing along this narrative that seems to exist outside itself, so that, while it is clearly of the utmost importance, it also somehow seems to matter little. And so I must ask what really does matter here? John Hyams described the film as a monster movie from the POV of the monsters, and, while that is true, it makes it very hard to either identify with anyone, or to know how to feel toward any character in the entire film (I, for one, am completely unsure who the bad guy is in the film, although I do understand that this could very well be the point). I don’t know. Maybe it just didn’t rub me the right way. It’s very stylish, and I appreciate Hyams’ effort to really branch out and do something not only different with the franchise, but with the action genre in itself, and yet I still felt a little indifferent to the entire film. Perhaps on a rewatch I might feel different.
10. The Turin Horse; Bela Tarr
Bela Tarr’s final film is not necessarily a mess, but it is certainly one that gives too much ambiguity to its subject matter; so much so, in fact, that its ending, which, in another context, would have worked brilliantly, becomes tedious and, while beautiful, nearly an empty excercise in the same theme that Tarr has approached in other, better works. To be fair, the movie does have a sense of foreboding, and it is beautifully shot – but why is it foreboding? Foreboding for what reason? Where does choice go, and why does it disappear? Tarr raises more questions than he answers (which is not inherently a bad thing) – so much so that any emotional involvement becomes difficult. As one becomes more involved in the form, which, here, isn’t serving the grand purpose that it might seem, he loses his ability to care. Maybe we ought not care? But, if so, then why should I be given reason to worry?
11. The Amazing Spider-Man; Marc Webb
Here is a superhero film, an origin story, no less, that completely abandons the fact that it is actually kind of exciting when you realize the potential you have after being imbued with such power. At over two hours, and with quite a bit of story to tell, The Amazing Spider-Man puts its focus on too many areas, attempting to both be an origin story, but to also be something more than that, something that can stand on its own two feet and not make the viewers feel they must wait for a sequel to get a “good, full story.” Regrettably, that’s exactly what happens. While there are some interesting sequences, it is a much more exciting film when it focuses on the character dynamic between Peter and Gwen Stacy, the girl of his dreams, than when it focuses on Spider-Man performing his heroic antics. Also, while the film seems like it’s trying to fit in with the real world, it somehow manages, through its images and its story, to become one of the most cartoonish of superhero films I’ve seen in a while, making the truth to certain moments seem less than they might in other hands. And The Lizard as the villain? Somehow, such a personal villain with such a big plot as he creates seems to not quite work. Really, the film just ends up feeling very wonky, as though there were many important portions missing. Primarily, though, it’s just not too fun as a superhero film.
12. Prometheus; Ridley Scott
The newest film by Ridley Scott provides for some very interesting set pieces, but it is the kind of film that, like The Turing Horse, raises too many questions that it doesn’t answer. Here, though, the issue is that, while it doesn’t answer the bigger philosophical questions it raises (how can you?), it also fails to answer some very big plot questions. The film works, then, as a riddle, but one in which characters’ actions, knowledge, and motivations disappear under a cloud of confusion, never to be fully restored. It is another beautiful movie, and it does give some very interesting questions (bringing up some very interesting issues), but it builds itself as almost too much of a classical narrative (albeit one that doesn’t always make sense – that doesn’t always have the consistency that one might wish) for those questions to build the interest that they might have otherwise. There are definitely some intense sequences, and I did care for the protagonist (as I felt was necessary), but, on the whole, the film might leave one feeling rather empty.
13. Rock of Ages; Adam Shankman
This film has one element to it that is very interesting; it stars Juliette Hough, a dancer, as a girl who wishes to sing. As a real-life performer, I must say that her chops at singing are not very high, but her dancing skills are quite impressive. There is one moment in the film where, when she discusses having given up her dreams at singing, she has become “a dancer,” the words come out with such disdain that the film seems to actually be making a comment on dancing as opposed to singing, and what Rock n’ Roll stands for. But that is about it (even though it is kind of fun to watch Tom Cruise as one crazed rock star); the film is too confusing in what it believes in, because it utilizes several different genres of 80’s music while exalting Rock n’ Roll the entire time. Really, the movie loves the 80’s in general, but it also mocks several elements of that period (even those it seems to hold close to it), and so it becomes a rather confounding musical about what it means to be a rock star…which might also me to be an idiot.
14. The Dark Knight Rises; Christopher Nolan
It’s the movie I have discussed more than any other film I’ve seen this year, and so I will attempt to be brief. I do not like this movie. I feel it is sloppy and a mess, in that it seems to pull elements from hugely varying worlds and tries to sew them into a beautiful tableau, all the while failing miserably at making any of it coherent. I did not care for any character within the film, except for Selina Kyle, who I though was portrayed magnificently by Anne Hathaway, and who I felt deserved a better film. The action sequences were, for the most part, quite dull and unmoving; rather, I’ll describe the whole picture that way, simply because it is one of the worst-paced films I have seen in a long time. It seemed as though Nolan was attempting to replicate the sense of momentum with which he built The Dark Knight, without being able to conjure up a shred of it, and he thus creates a very boring mess. Would that I could have loved the film. I enjoy both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight quite a lot, and Nolan does have the ability to make great films (see The Prestige); but maybe that was just an accident?