I don't typically compile a "ten best" list each year as I find the entire ritual a narcissistic and even imperious performance of one's own taste. This year, however, I decided to get off my high-horse and share the most outstanding films I saw this year. After all, I am highly credentialed in film studies/analysis, so it would be criminal of me not to share that expertise with the lay public. Be advised, however, many of these films will prove difficult to see, especially if you live in some God-forsaken, cultural backwater.
1. Seven Tangerines (Poston)
Reportedly shot for less than $50,000 without permits in an abandoned brownstone in Queens, Jack Poston’s Seven Tangerines succeeds less as a well-crafted work of cinema than as a raw document of extraordinary writing and acting. As a play, Seven Tangerines never even made it to off-off-Broadway, Poston staging only six performances at a rented community center in Astoria before taking it before the camera. For many productions, that would be a mistake. But here there is a sense that Poston and co-star Jakov Lund, May-December junkies slowly freezing to death in a Bronx tenement, might have over-cooked their characters if they had waited any longer to capture them on film. And the ending remains as haunting as it is enigmatic-- do the two men, at the brink of unconsciousness, see the face of God, or is it merely the lights of a police helicopter? Thankfully, Poston allows the viewer to make his or her own decision.
2. The Winter of the Mouse Friend (Fu)
On the surface, Su Jing Fu’s study of a girl’s dormitory during the Cultural Revolution may seem like a straightforward celebration of female bonding and empowerment. When a small and very bedraggled mouse wanders into the dormitory during the first winter snowfall, the girls nurse it back to health and make it their communal pet, going to great lengths to hide their furry friend from their harsh housemother. The charm of the premise gradually mutates into something more sinister, however, as Xiaobai (“Whitey”) becomes hostage to the various interpersonal struggles between the roommates. Cantopop singer Denise Ho Wan-See is surprisingly good as the dorm’s primary villain, Bao-yu, manipulating her peers for chocolates and other favors by constantly threatening to reveal the mouse’s hidden den in the wall.
3. Jacques et Jacqueline (Courbet)
Hopes were not high after comedian Ricard Courbet’s first feature, Les Idiots sur un Bateau (2009), a broad physical comedy set at a failing yacht rental yard in Nice. And Courbet probably did himself no favors in the follow-up by playing both “Jacques” and “Jacqueline,” combative fraternal twins brought together by the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. But Courbet surprised everyone by crafting a rather poignant character study amid all the requisite yucks, making Jacqueline in particular a stealthily tragic composite of poor life decisions. And while the ending set-piece with the frozen baguettes and broken teeth was a bit crass, overall it didn’t derail this surprisingly complex portrait of sibling rivalry turned bittersweet affection.
4. Zero-Muybridge-One (Muybridge/Locklear)
Experimental cinema can often be unbearable, and on paper, Zero-Muybridge-One looks like it would be no exception. Digital artist Camden Locklear has digitized every single frame of Edward Muybridge’s foundational “motion studies” and then re-sequenced them according to a cryptograph derived from the texts of Walter Benjamin. The effect is a haunting flow of sepia-toned light and shadow punctuated by furtive images that struggle to cohere on screen. Horse and cat strobe toward one another from opposite sides of the frame. A tumbler appears to somersault in and out of oblivion. A nude man strides into the very maelstrom of modernity itself, chin held high as he enters the new century with what we can now see was a sadly misplaced sense of confidence. Credit too must be given to Philip Glass’ architectural scoring that gently accents the emerging images even as it stolidly anchors the overall flows of amorphous light.
5. Yellowknife (Slidell)
Two painfully shy teenagers, he from Vancouver and she from Montreal, find themselves “exiled” together for a summer in the remote wilderness of Yellowknife. While their fathers work together on a geological survey, Marcus and Claudette negotiate a relationship they know is both inevitable and doomed, brought together by their mutual distaste for life in the wilderness and yet knowing their time together will be over come September. First love is an old story, of course, but director Felicity Slidell does an excellent job here undercutting the genre’s more maudlin elements by refracting them through the precocious sophistication of her leads. There are a few missteps (the scene where the young and still awkward couple happen upon moose copulating in the woods flirts a little too heavily with the American Pie series), but overall a touching meditation on the millennial generation’s turn at “summer love.”
6. El vano heredarán la tierra (Urueta)
Transplanting William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair from Regency England to the slums of contemporary Mexico City is an audacious move, as is placing a 14 year-old male hustler in the role of Becky Sharp. But Urueta’s satire of the links between social mobility and sociopathology shares Thackeray’s at times misanthropic eye for the often brutal violence underlying custom and convention. And by removing the “Amelia” character entirely, some might even say Urueta has improved on Thackeray.
7. Tarantula (Emmerich)
Given his last three spectacularly interesting failures (10,000 B.C., (2008), 2012 (2009), and Anonymous (2011), many suspected that Roland Emmerich might just have one truly outstanding film in him struggling to get out. Who could have known that Emmerich would finally strike gold in a remake, especially considering that his 1998 attempt to reboot Godzilla was such a giant reptilian turd? And yet, in reimagining Jack Arnold’s 1955 classic of an irradiated spider on the rampage, Emmerich achieves an emotional depth wholly absent in his turn at the Godzilla franchise. Wisely, Emmerich transforms Arnold’s creepy-crawly Other into a more sympathetic fellow citizen of earth, one that never asked to be trapped in a laboratory much less forced to ingest radioactive grain. In a testament to the director’s subtly in making us identify with what is, after all, merely a CGI program, our attachment to the giant spider is really only apparent at the very end. As “Tarantula” looks down with his 8 eyes, seemingly betrayed by his former scientist protector (played with surprising verve by Tara Reid), we hope for just a moment that the seemingly inevitable laser blast and explosion will not come. But of course, as it must, it does. So far Emmerich’s Tarantula has not found a U.S. distributor, but hopefully that will change in 2012.
8. Reflections (Corday)
Very few people have had the opportunity to see the first feature film by avant-garde video artist Christian Corday, but fortunately I was invited to a screening last month for 25 or so people at the artist’s new loft/studio in DUMBO. It is truly stunning, and I highly recommend you try to see it should it come to a theater near you (although that’s probably unlikely—given the film’s formal and thematic complexity, it is likely only to play in New York City and Los Angeles for the foreseeable future). Corday begins with an odd but intriguing premise. “A” and “B”, married artists in Chelsea, decide to cover every surface of their apartment/loft/studio with mirrors. From there, they decide that all of their daily interactions—both in and out of the house—will be conducted through mirrors as well. Gradually the inevitable happens. Their identities become ungrounded and uncertain, eventually transferring between their two bodies. From here the film engages a series of metaphysical dilemmas—what happens when “A’s” subjectivity is in “B’s” body, and vice versa? Original, profound, and utterly unsettling—it’s a must see for anyone with an interest in film, philosophy, or both.
9, The Royal Disease (Dankworth)
Excruciatingly detailed bio-pic of Prince Leopold, the Duke of Albany and fourth son of Queen Victoria. Leopold lived a short and troubled life, his hemophilia keeping him under the watchful eye of his mother the Queen. Dankworth’s film only has time to sample a few of Leopold’s many failures at love, focusing primarily on his combative relationship with his overprotective mother. But the true star here (no offense to Jude Law’s turn as Leopold) is the set and costume design. Shot entirely on location, The Royal Disease’s painstakingly accurate reconstruction of every costume, object, and room of its Victorian milieu unfolds almost as a type of time travel. One forgets they are watching a movie so complete is the immersion in period detail. Elegantly stunning and highly educational.
10. Up My Own Asshole, with Vigor (Farren)
Playfully self-reflexive morality tale of Hollywood manners, focusing on a screenwriter who sets out to write the most damning critique ever of the Hollywood system, only to find himself co-opted at every turn by the very system he detests. While this material can often lead to a type of insufferable navel-gazing, Farren very effectively foregrounds the film’s recognition that it is nothing more than navel-gazing, thus allowing it to gaze even deeper with absolute impunity. Amanda Seyfried has a wonderful turn as the embattled screenwriter’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, a “granola” type constantly hectoring him to do something more “useful” with his life (until, of course, she lands a role herself in a network mini-series). By now, one would think the public would be tired of “insider” tales of Hollywood’s glamour and duplicity, but Up My Own Asshole, with Vigor proves the genre still has yet to exhaust its creative possibilities.