With so many end-of-the-year releases garnering awards and nominations, you might ask the various selection committees and critics groups, “Where have you been?” Going over their 10 best lists, some overlap is inevitable, but it’s as if they have had amnesia for 10 months, overlooking many films released before November. And if you had a chance to see many of these high-profile Oscar-baiters, you might ponder, really, is that all there is?
One of the two presumed contenders, Zero Dark Thirty compels because of its subject matter, the search for Osama Bin Laden, but the film’s kind of inconsistent, trying to be too many things at once. It has the tone of a quasi-journalistic overview of the war on terror, combined with a detective thriller (the film’s most lucid part). Director Kathryn Bigelow tries to have it both ways: depicting the old-fashioned, step-by-step gathering of clues to Bin Laden’s whereabouts, while unmistakably linking Bush-era torture as instrumental to discovering bin Laden’s hideout. Even more dramatic than the film have been the off-screen critical reactions from U.S. senators and the demure rebukes from Bigelow. Meanwhile, the in-your-face musical Les Misérables leaves no close-up behind. You see every tear drop fall, hear every quivering sigh, which is part of the problem (besides the mis-casting of the stiff Russell Crowe). The actors feel all the emotion, but, unfortunately, not the audience.
Part of this site’s function is to highlight what has been overlooked, and sadly, that has been the case for many of the films below—one of which ran only one week in a small Manhattan theater. However, they are each as memorable at the end of the year as they were when they were first released. (Miss Bala, for instance, came out last January). But the list is not entirely and purposely made up of the esoteric. Two Hollywood heavyweights are hard to avoid. (Hint, one delivers one of the best biopics in years). Kent Turner
Bernie is a totally engrossing character study, and not simply because of how the wonderful Austin-based director Richard Linklater chooses to structure it. The fact-based story weaves in talking-head interviews with Carthage, Texas locals reflecting on the murder trial of the town’s real-life favorite son, mortician Bernie Tiede. Almost all still stand behind this unassuming but admitted killer, and this footage makes the movie more of a docudrama than a simple dramatization. Yet what really stands out is the story’s oddness. There is a certain innocence, charm, and small-town folksiness that is hard to really scoff at, unless you’re a total cynic, given that Jack Black plays Bernie with a sweetness that disarms. He makes Bernie a lovable enigma, a “people person,” though we still don’t quite know entirely what to make of this very three-dimensional character. The combination of crackling comedic/dramatic dialogue, intensely realized characterizations, and an off-center lightness make the film surprisingly endearing. Jack Gattanella (Available on DVD/streaming video)
Bullhead catapults two extraordinary Flemish talents to the top tier of international cinema. Debut writer/director Michael Roskam sets his dark, complex thriller of fraud, murder, cops, and criminals in the cattle farms and abattoirs around his home town in Flemish Belgium. An incredible hulk of a man, actor Matthias Schoenaerts wholly embodies Jacky Vanmarsenille—a farmer as illegally pumped up on steroids and hormones as his cows—both physically and emotionally when the inner scars from his tormented past horribly resurface. His psychic wounds are aggravated when he crosses into the French part of the country with its different language and social snobbery.
While you may not want to eat meat after seeing this nominee for last year’s foreign language film Oscar, you will want to see Schoenaerts again to see if he could possibly combine ferocity and heartrending sensitivity in any other role that could fit him like such a taut glove. He did later in the year—inFrench director Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone. Not only packing on pounds, Schoenaerts also transformed his muscular heft to communicate protagonist Ali’s struggles as an over-the-hill avatar of masculinity in contrast to Marion Cottilard’s damaged femininity. Her character, Stephanie, is reduced to instinctual, primal reactions after a terrible accident cripples her. (Okay, so her job taming wild orcas is a bit too heavily symbolic of her relationship with Ali, but it does make the point dramatically visual.) Together, the tentative couple compellingly challenges every difference between them when they explore what their bodies can do in the dark and the bright sun, from the dance floor to the Mediterranean waves, as they quite convincingly fall in love. Nora Lee Mandel (Bullhead out on DVD/streaming video; Rust and Bone in theaters)
Quentin Tarantino is a grand master of the pastiche. He is to cinema what DJ Shadow or Girl Talk are to music—he creates wildly ambitious, deeply idiosyncratic, and transformative works that explicitly acknowledge, and pay homage to, his artistic forebears. This can be both a strength and a weakness, but when Tarantino is firing on all cylinders, as he is now with his latest, Django Unchained, it’s a thrilling sight to behold. Consider this the gleefully anarchic flip side to the solemn prestige of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, one that rubs our face in the nasty details of the vile institution of American slavery. Tarantino nails not only the dehumanizing aspects of this period of history but its cruel absurdity. Plantation owner Calvin Candie and head house slave Stephen (played respectively by Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson in career-high performances) are as scary and imposing as they are rather ridiculous villains, who appropriately get their just desserts. Tarantino is well aware (despite what Spike Lee may think) that filtering history through the lens of genre filmmaking is not disrespectful but often the most effective way to get your points across with maximum entertainment value and minimum pretension. Christopher Bourne (in theaters)
The elegant Russian film Elena is an excellent example of what critic Mark Cousins (see the last film below) would call “Slow Cinema”—films that aim to capture the closest sense of realism in a fictional setting. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev begins this slow-burner with an unhurried exactitude that builds to a tough and trenchant ending. You can look at its lean and mean storyline as exposing the gap between the old Soviet mentality of entitlement vs. the self-centeredness of the new Morally Questionable Elite. Or, it can be taken simply as a family squabble over money that gets very, very ugly. Both work. In its own quiet manner, the film’s horrifying and melancholic, and accompanied by a great Philip Glass score. KT (DVD/streaming video)
Israeli filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger places himself and his family under scrutiny in the absorbing biographical documentary The Flat, where, apparently, the personal and the political can be rigidly segregated. The tile refers to Goldfinger’s German-born grandmother’s Tel Aviv apartment. While clearing it after her death at age 98, he and his family make a discovery that sets off just one of the film’s provocative mysteries—why did his grandparents save Nazi propaganda and decades-old correspondence from an aristocratic German couple connected to the Nazi party? He unravels many family secrets, and the reactions of those involved are fascinating, including the director’s, disappointed by his mother’s dispassionate response to a family tragedy. KT (in theaters)
Las Acaciasis the most charming road movie of the year, and it slowly casts its spell, mostly within the warm cab of the huge log-hauling truck of Rubén (Germán de Silva). He sets off on a 900-mile delivery from central Paraguay to Buenos Aires, but he has to detour to pick up another of his boss’s employees. His passenger turns out to be the attractive Jacinta (first-time actress Hebe Duarte), a young indigenous Paraguayan. To his surprise, she is not alone—she has brought an infant. Little Nayra is the most adorably expressive baby on screen this year, and the magnificent scenery along the route is filmed beautifully, but Argentinian debut director Pablo Giorgelli’s subtle film is about much more than simply the melting of a grizzled loner. With glances, minimal dialogue, and deft editing from every angle inside and outside that cab, the two shy adults gradually get to know each other in very quiet ways, helped by just a few stops where bystanders mistake the trio for a family. By the end of the trip, any audience with a heart is rooting for them to start their journey together all over again. NLM (DVD out later in the year; add it to your queue)
Fortunately, some of the films on the list were actually well attended, like the boffo box-office biopic Lincoln, directed by Hollywood’s reigning commercial director, Spielberg. Despite some hagiographic flourishes, schmaltzy moments, and static direction, Tony Kushner’s lucid and complex script holds together its many strands and breathes life into the genre. It nimbly weaves the 16th president’s personal history, the bickering of his factious cabinet, and the wheeling and dealing in Congress to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. The film takes it for granted the viewer knows something about the time period and its many historical figures. In other words, it forces one to pay attention (and is likely to drive viewers toward the history books). Among the large ensemble, there are many performances to single out: Hal Holbrook as powerbroker Preston Blair or James Spader’s go-for-broke lobbyist. Literally towering over all, Daniel Day-Lewis melts into the title role. Only his arched eyebrows give him away. Some prequels, please. KT (in theaters)
Not a dull moment plagues the Mexican thriller Miss Bala by Geraldo Naranjo, from its electrifying opening sequence in a Baja nightclub to a closing, brilliantly orchestrated assassination scene where our heroine, beauty pageant contestant Laura, again lies on the floor fearing for her life. Played by a spot-on Stephanie Sigman, Laura is the picture of beauty, and, against her will, she falls in with a fearsome drug gang in Tijuana. Her delicate poise at every moment opposes that of the gang’s Bronson-esque leader—himself a gruff picture of masculinity. It’s simultaneously the scariest and the sexiest film in a long time. There are a dozen other extraordinary scenes throughout, including an awesome one-and-a-half minute one-take Steadicam shootout between the gang members and Federales. All the while we’re witness to the ramifications of the illegal drug trade and its collateral damage, particularly on women. Miss Bala is an action movie in the form of a sexy psychological thriller listed as art-house fare. Michael Lee (DVD)
Exhaustive, provocative, and eye-opening, The Story of Film: An Odyssey accomplishes its mission, surveying cinema’s history from all over the world (representing Japanese and Iranian film particularly well.) It’s really the story of innovation, according to its director, British film critic Mark Cousins. This is a film buff’s nirvana, but don’t be surprised if you talk back to the screen, arguing over omissions and generalizations (uh, films did not invent the flashback). Watching this with another film fanatic might result in cinephile fisticuffs. But throughout Cousins makes his case numerous times, like when he singles out the ahead-of her-time work of 1930s Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu, or why Alfred Hitchcock is the most important image maker of the 2oth century. Even if you are familiar with Jean Vigo or Jean Renoir, you will appreciate Cousin’s up-to-the minute summation of the last two decades, covering digital’s dominance and the influence of nonfiction on feature films. He also showers special attention on New Korean Cinema, though this might be the only forum for a gushing appreciation of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. The episodic overview played briefly at the Museum of Modern Art, and is now available in a five-disc, 15-hour set. KT (DVD/streaming video)