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Top 10 - 2017

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on February 18, 2018 at 5:40 PM Comments comments (0)

Last year, I introduced my Top 10 by enumerating some of the year's cinematic moments that left an indelible impression on me, those transcendent scenes that elicited in me sensations and perceptual states that exceeded language. I was in the midst of my cinema studies Master's program at UCLA and, about to take the concept on as one of my primary scholarly subjects, had affect on the mind.

As an affect-generating machine, film is uniquely bound up with our material and psychical existences, possessing the ability to shape and intensify ordinary life experience. The best films of 2017 were not only enriching and elating, but were able to cut through the mundanely representational to access the primal and the ineffable. Perhaps it is no coincidence that three of the films that appear on my list deal explicitly with memory - the province of affect.

Some notable films I have not yet seen at the time of this list-making: Lady Macbeth, A Fantastic Woman, Loveless, Darkest Hour.


10. mother! / Darren Aronofsky

A delirious, unhinged descent into ululating madness, mother! was the closest any film got to embodying the yawning, terrifying absurdity that was the state of the world in 2017. Aronofsky gleefully abandons whatever modicum of restraint he's shown himself capable of exercising here: his Grand Guignol vision is a suitably chaotic stew of humanity's most destructive impulses, manifest as the horde of uninvited, blithely presumptuous house guests who turn Jennifer Lawrence's Edenic abode into a desecrated hellscape. The invasion of these debauched revelers and the visceral anxieties Aronofsky evokes in their cavalcade of transgressions, rather than the fairly ham-handed biblical allegory, is what animates mother!'s horror and its mordant humor. This is a surreal comedy of very bad manners that might have made Buñuel giddy; rarely has a filmmaker transformed uncouth social behavior into such riotous theater, both cruel and absurd, exasperating and spectacular. And rarely has Aronofsky's craft been this impressive. Every snaking camera movement, disorienting cut, and warped sound effect (surely this is the most inventive sound design of 2017) works in concert to conjure a state of skittish unease and vexation perfectly aligned with Jennifer Lawrence's prodigiously embattled protagonist. That mother! frequently flies off the rails and gets flooded by its own grandiosity is less a demerit than a mark of its exhilarating audacity.

9. Coco / Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina

Has there been a computer-animated film so visually sumptuous? Coco, Pixar's 19th feature film and first non-Anglocentric story, coruscates with an aesthetic plenitude derived from Mexican cultural tradition. The screen teems with the luminescence of life-size alebrijes, a bridge of cascading marigold petals, gleaming, palimpsestic buildings that reach into the perpetually night sky, and a vibrant populace of animate skeletons who celebrate the music of (after)life at town squares, concert arenas, and extravagant galas. The spirit of Día de los Muertos suffuses Coco visually and thematically, acting as the organizing principle of a film that honors its tradition and beliefs without reverting to exoticization. Like the holiday, it offers fulgent festivity that underscores the importance of cultural memory and heritage. Miguel's journey to fill the lacuna that exists in his genealogy is as much a mission to connect with his ancestors as it is a primal need to rediscover the mnemonic channels that are paramount to the sustenance of family and history. It is music, ultimately, that proves to be such an indispensible channel. Through an ebullient, eclectic soundtrack, which weaves Mexican folk with modern pop, music is foregrounded as a preeminent index of people, places, ideas, and sensations that can rekindle their memories. In everything and everyone it evokes, Coco finally becomes its own ravishing, virtual ofrenda.

8. Life and Nothing More / Antonio Méndez Esparza

Antonio Méndez Esparza's sensitive, docu-realist portrait of a working-poor black family in northern Florida did not receive a theatrical release in 2017 and, as far as I know, is still awaiting distribution. I include it on my list anyway because 1) I saw it at the Chicago International Film Festival this past year, 2) because its star, Regina Williams, earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her extraordinary performance, and 3) because it's an exceptional work and a vital film for our contemporary American moment. Life and Nothing More is exceptional, in part, because it accomplishes what so few films of its ilk are able to: observing and illuminating disenfranchised, under-represented communities without recourse to the usual dramaturgy or ethnographic distance. Méndez Esparza instead favors a granular focus on the lives of a family - comprised of single mother Regina, teenage son Andrew, little daughter Ry’Nesia, and eventual new father Robert - and the myriad socioeconomic forces that structure them. Yet even as we hear incidental radio coverage of the 2016 election, Life and Nothing More refuses polemics. Its style is patient, nonjudgmental, inductive; we glean through their behavior how economic struggle impinges on the characters' day-to-day experiences and encounters, how their apprehensions and hostilities are ripples of systemic inequities that have simply become habituated. Subverting aesthetic expectations, Méndez Esparza tends to film in long takes and obliquely composed wide shots, cutting on unusual beats and eliding seemingly crucial moments. It is an unorthodox formal scheme that indicates an empathic regard for lives that exist far beyond the screen.

7. Wonderstruck / Todd Haynes

At a pivotal moment in Todd Haynes's spellbinding Wonderstruck, a girl sits in a theater in 1927 Hoboken, New Jersey watching the latest Hollywood release. Fifty years later, in Gunflint, Minnesota, we see a boy dialing a number left in an old book given to him by his mother. Then, lightning strikes, literally - both in the movie playing on that 1927 cinema screen and over the 1977 house where the boy makes his call, the electricity traveling down his antenna and through the chord of the phone. Haynes's images flash, splinter, and swirl together; for several seconds, the black-and-white, silent film world of Hoboken and the placid Gunflint are molecularly fused, separate eras and aesthetic idioms temporally and spatially united in an elastic visual language that belongs only to cinema. Over the remainder of Wonderstruck, the two children - both hearing-impaired but galvanized by insatiable creative curiosity - will be drawn closer and closer together, the grammar of film not merely juxtaposing their eventually converging paths but facilitating them. Haynes, one of our essential champions of social others, adapts Brian Selznick's graphic novel into a robust, stirring paean to visual storytelling's ability to speak the language of difference. Despite their disabilities, neither child is stymied in their capacity to communicate. Haynes has created for them a powerful cinematic sign system which, like the American Museum of Natural History that serves as the story's locus, allows them to defy and conquer the distances imposed by time and space.

6. Phantom Thread / Paul Thomas Anderson

With its exacting formal rigor and obsessive, fetishistic craftsmanship, Phantom Thread is designed to mirror the uncompromising discipline of its creator-protagonist. Anderson, an at least semi-analogous master artisan, assumes Reynolds Woodcock’s unwavering precision and meticulousness, his epicurean self-indulgence as well as stubborn self-abnegation, crafting a film whose entwined aesthetics of opulence and austerity reflect the condition of an artist for whom devotion to process precludes a certain amount of sensual freedom. Woodcock is an icon of the (male) creative ego so invested in the ritual prowess of his work that any disruption counts not only as a distraction but as a primal violation of his self-possession. Routines must be slavishly observed; personal distance is imperative in allowing him to survey, objectify, and draw ego boundaries. The film, itself an exemplar of imperious classical style, moves rapturously along through sinuous tracking shots, delectably caustic dialogue, and supple mise-en-scène, every element as elegantly placed as Woodcock’s silver strands of hair. But Phantom Thread is also, improbably, a love story, and love cannot abide such a stringent regime. As the equally obstinate and possessive Alma finds darkly creative ways to seize control of the relationship, the film ripens into a romance of low-key psychosexual perversity, pathologies and fetishes covertly consummating under the protection of decorum. Without ceding his own self-discipline, Anderson slyly quirks his classicism so that reality shifts into the realm of the libido. His customary opacity, however, remains; a vexing but apt mode of engaging with the gnomic vagaries of desire.

5. Faces Places / Agnès Varda and JR

As spryly curious and jocular as ever, Agnès Varda fashions Faces Places as another characteristically delightful freewheeling collage, seamlessly weaving together memoir, social portraiture, and documentation of creative praxis in a celebration of living through art. Along with street artist JR, whose resemblance to Jean-Luc Godard is but one of the film’s many nodal points in a rhizomatic structure of memories and associations, Varda exploits the capacity of the photographic medium to extend, magnify, and elevate the human experience. For her cinema is a technology of memory that has and continues to profoundly inform her life, acting as an enduring source of inspiration and connection that provides nothing short of spiritual sustenance. Yet like her other documentaries, Faces Places doesn’t slip into solipsism. Varda refuses to let her deep introspection minimize or draw attention away from her subjects, for whom her reverence is evident in every scene. She manages not merely to evince the constitutive role of art in her own life, but demonstrate its binding, communal social function as well. Outsize portraits of workers and townsfolk plastered on buildings communicates an abiding empathy and egalitarian regard for ordinary people; their selfies in front of them are not derided but upheld as exemplary of each individual’s productive potential. Public art may enliven surroundings, but Varda and JR make it mean something more: to posit the inextricability of faces and places, to index human presence, to add value, color, and shape to life. Faces Places documents such creative ethos while embodying it itself, effortlessly.

4. Good Time / Josh and Ben Safdie

Pitched between a deliriously bad trip and a social welfare nightmare, the feverishly fluorescent-hued Good Time combines the hard-charging, monomaniacal energy of a crime thriller with the compassionate critique of urban realism. The Safdie brothers prove remarkably adept at synthesizing the two aspects in both sensibility and aesthetic: beginning and ending their film with the dejection of a man forced into submission by a society that doesn't know how to accommodate him, they produce a simultaneously propulsive and cyclical narrative in which heightened, nerve-jangling genre elements reinforce an atmosphere of inescapable anomie. Strategically employed as more than mere sensory overload, the film's searing black-light visuals and assaultive sound mix work to convey a trapped, panicked state both endemic to this kind of cinematic idiom and emblematic of characters terrorized by circumstance and bad choices. Robert Pattinson’s live-wire performance is entrained to this aesthetic, and not just because of his shock of bleached hair. The actor’s tetchy intensity rises and falls with the film’s mercurial current, riding its electric highs and underscoring the human costs of its most gut-wrenching lows. Through the events that seal his inevitable fate, and finally in the helpless inertia of his brother, the Safdies locate a morass where the follies of individuals and the failures of society appear nearly inseparable. Their quietly anguished coda, capping an adrenaline rush of movie-mad style, is all the more pained and powerful for arresting such impressive speed.

3. A Ghost Story / David Lowery

A Ghost Story is a gargantuan film in a small package. At just around 90 minutes, it spans hundreds if not thousands of years, granting us the ability to witness, via an ethereal figure moored to a single geographical location, the imponderable flux of existence. Lowery endeavors to capture not so much the vastness of the cosmos as the enormity of consciousness: through meticulous film form that ingeniously manipulates spectator perception, he makes visible and thematic the phenomenological processes that structure our relationship to the world. The house that the titular ghost haunts is not inert material but imbued with strata of memory, history, and existential knowledge that, in fact, also haunt the ghost; transcending both subject and object, he is a representation of the psychic attachments that bind us to places, people, and things. As Lowery contracts and expands time in hypnotic rhythms, positioning us as the ghost/spectator in a reorganized space-time, he dehabituates and recalibrates our everyday perception. Senses enhanced, we become simultaneously attuned to the transience of the material world and the eternal persistence of the affective bonds that exceed it. Uniquely, laconically sensuous in form, A Ghost Story finally prompts an awareness less of our smallness than of the sublimity of the existence that we are ineluctably and intentionally in – and of.

2. Lady Bird / Greta Gerwig

"Don't you think they're the same thing? Love and attention?" Rebutting Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson's assertion that she doesn't love her hometown of Sacramento, she only writes about it reverently because she pays attention, the head sister of the Catholic school she attends offers these aphoristic words. One doesn't have to know the background of the film's writer-director Greta Gerwig, or recognize how Saoirse Ronan superbly channels her gawky charm, to understand that this scene, like every beautifully rendered one in the semi-autobiographical Lady Bird, is self-reflexive. Greta Gerwig pays attention. She pays attention to the formative characteristics of place, culture, and socioeconomic milieu, sensitive to how they shape behavior and reveal desires and insecurities; to, specifically, the colloquialisms and pieties of an early 21st-century liberal California suburb; to how teenagers aspire and compare, posture and despair, perform for themselves and each other as identities are nervously negotiated. As she did in her collaborations with Noah Baumbach, Gerwig brings to Lady Bird a perspicacity about the anxieties of fledgling adulthood that is leavened by inimitable warmth and wit. Yet the film refuses to narrow its focus to the kids exclusively, as many in the “coming-of-age” category are prone to do – rather, Gerwig’s deeply empathetic vision encompasses an ecosystem of mothers, fathers, and teachers who are all afforded equal dimensionality and, yes, attention. In its pithy writing and brilliantly economic formal construction, Lady Bird stands as a crystalline demonstration of Gerwig's canny artistic sensibility, fully formed.

1. A Quiet Passion / Terence Davies

In A Quiet Passion, words are everything. They articulate the 19th-century dogmas that dictate repressive social mores, but also the defiant declarations of an artist who challenges and resists them. They flow into poetic self-expression and convulse into angry argument, shimmer in effervescent badinage and sharpen into ripostes that cut like knives in fiery tête-à-têtes. They coalesce into rhetoric and produce and dismantle discourse. They carry wit, insight, catharsis, self-doubt, and despair. They liberate and they suffocate.

For A Quiet Passion's Emily Dickinson, portrayed by Cynthia Nixon in the year's single greatest performance, words are her bulwark against the stringent mandates of a society to which she refuses to submit. Deploying it like an unimpeachable armor, the English language becomes her veritable second skin. Indeed, Davies's verbose script and its performance by his extraordinary cast stress spoken language as a dense, physically impactful material, the actors' hyper-elocution emphasizing not merely the content of their words but the palpable textures of their cadences. While Dickinson is by no means shown to be the only one so immersed in the discursive realm, Davies suggests how her particular mo just indicates a heightened sensitivity to the world that leaves her more vulnerable to its vicissitudes. This especially attuned orientation is embodied by Nixon as a corporeal state that oscillates between headstrong pride and crushing despondency; the actress makes Dickinson a woman who feels words and their meanings so intensely they visibly alter her comportment and attitude, switching from her refuge to her prison on a dime. Davies, the foremost cinematic poet of melancholy, has found in this different but fellow poet his consummate surrogate. Both artists resist the status quo, choosing to stand obstinately by their convictions in rejection of an unjust social order, even if it results in their seclusion. Both understand the inescapability of language and the ideas it supports, but also how to use it to make an indelible, devastatingly beautiful statement.

The wonderful, (closest) runners-up:

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, by Luca Guadagnino, an exemplary portrait of erotic awakening charged by the astonishing, lissome physicality of Timothée Chalamet.

THE BEGUILED, by Sofia Coppola, with its taut, suspenseful build and sly negotation of audience identification. Also, for Phillipe Le Sourd's gauzy, lush cinematography.

THE SQUARE, by Ruben Östlund, a deliciously withering satire about First World hypocrisies, featuring some of the filmmaker's most bitingly uncomfortable and masterfully constructed comic set-pieces yet.

THE GIRL WITHOUT HANDS, by Sébastien Laudenbach, a gorgeous adaptation of the Grimm brothers fable with animation that flits mesmerizingly in and out of abstraction.

GET OUT, by Jordan Peele, which crafts a shrewd metaphor for white cultural hegemony within a horror-cum-social satire framework, trenchantly unraveling the pretenses of our only nominally post-racial era.

Top 10 - 2016

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on February 16, 2017 at 10:40 PM Comments comments (0)

When I reflect on the best films of 2016, I return to moods, sensations, and melodies that, taken as gestalt, seem to evoke the entire spectrum of human feeling. I remember the almost unbearably overwhelming catharsis of a son seeing his mother for the first time in 25 years after he went missing as a boy; the indignation of a free-thinking student forced to defend himself from the patronizing harangue of a despotic dean; the excruciating awkwardness but even greater ecstasy of a birthday celebration literally stripped naked, a nightmare scenario transformed into a gesture of anything-goes abandon; the pervasive air of dread, disorientation, and grief experienced by a woman and a country following a national tragedy; the boundless exhilaration of a ragtag group of kids on the road pumped up by communal sing-a-long; the mournfulness, inquisitiveness, and compassion of a woman who sees the world through a camera. Certainly any movie year produces a plethora of these indelible moments, but in a year that saw as much callousness toward our basic humanity as 2016 did, the feelings somehow resonated just a bit stronger.

It was noticeable, also, just how many of the year's greatest films were inextricably tied to music, whether they were actual musicals or dramatic films emboldened by unique, unpredictable, and exuberant incorporations of song. Many scenes are now emblazoned into the memory thanks to, among others, Rihanna's "We Found Love," Richard Harris's "Camelot," the SOS Band's "Take Your Time, Do it Right," and the most hysterical rendition of Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All" ever recorded. 2016 was a rollercoaster of a year, mostly not in the good way. Its best films, however, are reminders of the full register of humanity we cannot stand to ignore.

One note up top: as always, tricky release dates have complicated my determinations of what I deem a 2016 film. To keep with consistency, I will continue to go by the year in which the film in question had its major premiere. Therefore, despite it showing up on several critics' lists this year (and receiving an Oscar nomination!), I am considering Yorgos Lanthimos's brilliant The Lobster as a 2015 release. If this were not the case, it would be on my list - very high on it, in fact.

On to the Top 10:

10. Lion / Garth Davis

Based on a true story whose outcome is so improbable - a lost child in India adopted by Australian parents uses Google Earth 25 years later to successfully locate the home village he could barely remember and reunite with his mother who is still living there - Lion registers, despite its historical veracity, as the fantasy it really is. It is thus ideally made for the cinema, not only providing the kind of cathartic, against-all-odds resolution that has such capacity to satisfy our desire for closure, but thematizing it in a story that gives us the poignant shape of a narrative and an actual journey come full circle. Davis's nimble handling of Luke Davies's bifurcated structure reinforces this multiple sense of closure, movingly surfacing the memories of its first half, in which young Saroo is played by the revelatory Sunny Pawar, in the second, where Dev Patel pellucidly conveys the anguish and implacable drive of a man seized by the need to reconnect with his past and cultural identity. As his adopted mother, Nicole Kidman colors a portrait of motherhood equally embattled yet unshakable in her devotion. They contribute mightily to the film's cumulative emotional impact, which is difficult to overstate.

9. Everybody Wants Some!! / Richard Linklater

One of two blissful 2016 films that casually and unsentimentally espouses contentment as a way of life (you'll find the other further up the list), Everybody Wants Some!! is a rare kind of pleasure: a film interested in people who enjoy living, and realize it. Linklater has never been a conventional dramatist, but Everybody Wants Some!!, perhaps even more than its avowed predecessor Dazed and Confused, is the director at his most easygoing and pleasingly ambling, energized not by conflict but by the unbridled spirit of a time of life - young adulthood - and the seemingly endless breadth of possibilities it affords. At the ebullient center of this is a superb ensemble, whose group dynamic is at once rollicking in a broadly comedic kind of way and scalpel-precise, even anthropological, in its playing out of homosocial male behavior in the frat environment. This is a group of guys glued together by physical prowess and gamesmanship, experimentation and jocularity, who embody what it's like to feel young, vital, and invincible. One might expect Linklater's cleverly employed ticking clock structure to count down to some putative end to their fun, but instead, true to life and affirming of it, it only signals the arrival of more present moments to be savored.

8. La La Land / Damien Chazelle

Yes, La La Land pays homage to the effervescent musicals of Golden Age Hollywood (as well as the candy-colored fantasias of Jacques Demy), but it neither looks nor feels particularly like them. Damien Chazelle's modern day musical is really an entity all its own, mixing and matching an array of cinematic idioms to produce a slyly postmodernist variation on some classic themes. We can talk all we want about how the film replicates the (mostly) lily-white fantasy world of classical Hollywood - this is obviously no mistake - but what deserves more comment is the film's ambivalent relationship to fantasy in general, and to the nostalgia it entails in particular. From its very beginning Chazelle is pushing the idealized polychromatic vision of the American musical up against a reality that can hardly support it: take note of all the times aggravating signifiers of contemporary life (traffic and blaring horns, cell phone ringtones, malfunctioning movie projectors) intrude upon and disrupt the romance of La La Land's self-aware "movie magic." Chazelle gets what it's like to be a struggling artist, particularly one trying to make it in an industry where the line between meaningful and meretricious is perilously thin, and it's unclear if anything you do will have any lasting value. As significant as its undeniable mirth, then, is La La Land's tension, moxie and passion in conflict with pragmatism and uncertainty. Chazelle's bittersweet epilogue indulges in one final blast of nostalgia to keep the flame burning, but its power is in its final suggestion that some fantasies ought to remain just that. Thankfully, the screen is a pretty good place for them.

7. Indignation / James Schamus

The centerpiece scene in Indignation, one of the most sensationally performed of the year, is a nearly 20-minute ideological showdown between a defiant, secular Jewish student from New Jersey (Logan Lerman) and the paternalistic dean of a small conservative college in Ohio (Tracy Letts). The power imbalance is such that even before a word is exchanged, the cards are stacked against our erudite protagonist; that the dean articulates his condescending, anti-Semitic charges against the student with such eloquence serves to make this emblematic scene of inescapable dogma all the more terrifying. Adapted from Philip Roth's novel, the whole of James Schamus's Indignation similarly bristles with such palpable angst. This is a quintessential portrait of 1950s America as soulless province of conformity, repression, and covert domestic barbarism, a time and place that only rewards those willing to comply with its prescriptive conditions. In other words, not ideal for Lerman's Marcus, nor for Sarah Gadon's elusive, sultry femme fatale Olivia, whose own stifled desires and sexual hangups open a pandora's box for the inexperienced young man. Schamus's elegant narrative build and perfectly smoldering rein on atmosphere keep the vice-like grip tightening around him. As everything that could possibly go wrong essentially does, Marcus's conviction and recusance feel, paradoxically, both increasingly foolish and laudable. It's a no-win situation in one of the most searing films about the perils of stubborness since The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

6. Toni Erdmann / Maren Ade

Toni Erdmann makes it acutely evident just how lacking so many comedies are in the departments integral to generating, and sustaining, humor: rhythm, timing, suspense, the element of surprise. It is not merely that the film is the most uproarious of 2016, it is that it exemplifies better than any in recent memory how comedy develops and accrues, and even further, why it works so extraordinarily well when it’s working. At nearly three hours, the film on one level operates as a kind of anatomy of a particular film comedy process, using its expansive runtime to offer a methodical demonstration of its comic logic. In this formulation, Ade allows us to see precisely how her situations build and her tone oscillates, how her actors incrementally add and combine inflections of embarrassment, bemusement, pain, longing, and elation through their winching interactions. Nothing in the film ever stays one way for long: its progression is a masterclass in the escalation of incident, carrying a sustained comic momentum that never wavers even as individual episodes flit liberally between farce, pathos, and caustic absurdism. Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek provide the exhilarating tête-à-tête that keeps this tonal mélange authentic and spontaneous. Pushing and pulling at one another, deceiving and dissembling, assaulting and relenting, their brilliant performances illustrate the history of a fraught father-daughter relationship that seemingly only humor, and the blithe, extravagant undermining of social etiquette, can ameliorate. Toni Erdmann is a comedy in that it’s genuinely hilarious, but it’s also about its own hilarity: a tribute to and exemplar of comedy as disarmament, liberation, and euphoria.

5. Hail, Caesar! / Joel and Ethan Coen

Just when you thought every possible interpretation of Hollywood on screen had been exhausted, Joel and Ethan Coen step in to offer a fresh perspective. In Hail, Caesar!, the hegemonic American film industry becomes the church in a parable of faith in crisis, its products - mass entertainments both dazzling and phony - its religion. The witty narrative of the film finds its thrust in how Eddie Mannix, a pious studio fixer tasked with managing the folderol of industry politics, is forced to question the value of his role and the validity of his beliefs in the institution he works for. Rarely has the "Dream Factory" felt as apt a title as it does here: in characteristically sardonic fashion, the Coens satirize the artifice and mendacity of an industry that manufactures fantasies on the backs of exploited - although lavishly paid - labor, with artistic and spiritual worth almost always eclipsed by the profit motive. But this is also an atypically sanguine Coens picture. Rather than unequivocally skewer Hollywood's callous capitalist ideology, their vision evinces a pointed ambivalence that also carries a reverence for its craft and capacity to delight, most apparent in their buoyant homages to genres of the studio system. Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, and Alden Eirenreich as the dashing but guileless Hobie Doyle have a ball with these tributes, navigating with precision their lovingly mocking tone. An allegory laced with irony and acid, Hail, Caesar! ingeniously embeds a philosophical meditation inside of a farce - and argues they mean about the same.

4. Jackie / Pablo Larraín

Jackie offers a surfeit of entry points through which it can be approached, each contributing to its prismatic, multivalent texture. From one angle, it is a feminist refiguring of an iconic historical moment; from another, it is a psychological portrait of destabilizing grief; a commentary on the performance of politics and the porousness of "official" narratives; an existential horror in which the foundations of an individual, and the country she helped represent, are thrown into terrifying limbo; a Brechtian display that uses uncanny simulations to make us aware of all the forces that mediate history. Larraín's film belongs to that special sub-category of the "biopic" in which the very conventions of biographical storytelling and cinematic representation are systematically questioned, in the process rendering conscious the larger epistemological problems of how history is written and received. But this is not a mere academic exercise: Jackie is, underneath all intellectual concerns, a chilling and visceral evocation of an unfathomable nightmare, in which Natalie Portman's haunting, brittle embodiment of Jackie Kennedy and the masterly work of below-the-line artists send physical shockwaves. In concert, they articulate a turbulent American mood with expressionistic force, fashioning a (frighteningly) resonant portrait of American political upheaval that ripples through and beyond the White House's glorified domestic sphere. In 2016, Jackie takes on another shade as an uncomfortably recognizable reflection of identity profoundly upset.

3. American Honey / Andrea Arnold

American Honey is a long movie, its length conferring on the spectator a sense of the drift, ritual, and general repetition of experience its characters endure. But the last thing anyone could call it is listless. On the absolute contrary, Arnold’s film is an exuberant, larger-than-life rush of cinema, a full-bodied sensory submersion that celebrates the will and resilience of its disenfranchised youth even as it palpably laments the socioeconomic circumstances that have led to their status. Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan, shooting in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio that intensifies the film’s raucous energy precisely by not being able to contain it, conjure a cascade of saturated images in sensuous shallow focus. Their subjects, though, are the film’s raison d'être: a panoply of young actors, most nonprofessional, each with their own distinct physiognomies and behaviors that bear the traces of their characters’ pasts. Each actor brings their character to startling life, and in each other’s company create American Honey’s most rapturous effect: the mobilized, indomitable spirit of the group. Employing music as the motor and the glue, Arnold profoundly conveys how the individual surrenders herself not just to the group, but to the group in song. Far from implying an insidious submission, however, she powerfully demonstrates the unifying strength of music and its role in absorbing, and channeling, the collective emotions of a tight-knit community. With anthemic gusto, Arnold and her young actors produce a wellspring of angst-bound-up-in-optimism that’s vivifying, and empathetic without condescending.

2. Paterson / Jim Jarmusch

The other distinguished 2016 film that makes cinematic a worldview of contentedness, Paterson is a Zen-like experience whose measured rhythms and droll, affectionate regard for life's mundane sights and sounds has the effect of renewing a viewer's perceptual attunement to the world. It is a poetic, philosophical palliative, a soothing ode to deriving inspiration from the quotidian that mixes the banal and the idiosyncratic, the local and the cosmic, in ways distinctly Jarmusch-ian but oriented toward more affirming ends. In the largely invariable weekly schedule of Adam Driver's titular character, the director illustrates a blue-collar, workaday lifestyle that's recursive and predictable but also rife with expressive possibilities. Paterson names both the bus-driver-cum-poet protagonist and the city he resides in, and as the film transpires, shrewdly accumulating visual and narrative information in endlessly rhyming patterns, it becomes clear that both have reciprocally informed one another, urban space and individual mutually emboldened by the mere fact of their peaceful coexistence. And although Jarmusch slyly has us inhabit Paterson's subjectivity throughout (this is probably the most loving depiction of solipsism ever committed to film), he sketches a much more generously inclusive social portrait that reveals a whole diverse populace galvanized by creative energy they both produce and absorb. Hilarious, wise, soulful, Paterson encourages an active receptivity to and participation in life even, or especially when, it seems most routine.

1. Cameraperson / Kirsten Johnson

The title of Kirsten Johnson's humane, transcendent documentary memoir may refer to her profession, but its best and truest meaning exists beyond that literal denotation. Instead, the compound word points to a veritable melding of human and machine consciousness, an intimate, corporeal relationship between body and camera that Johnson, throughout her film in a myriad of thought-provoking ways, suggests to be one of the most significant and symbiotic partnerships we have the privilege of engaging in. Every shot and every moment in Cameraperson, all from unused footage Johnson shot for various documentaries over her career, evince the fundamental inseparability of cinematographic apparatus and embodied human subject. Johnson proves that there is no such thing as an "objective" perspective or a recording of subjects divorced from human presence: marshalling our attention, transfixingly, toward aspects of framing, lighting, and cutting, she reifies how images are made and read only through processes of human mediation. And although Johnson only appears briefly on screen once, Cameraperson is among the most personal and powerful of all cinematic autobiographies. It shows not only a woman's unique work, passion, memory, and life inscribed in the corpus of the images she's produced, but shows those images as constitutive, an archive and body all their own with the capacity to touch and transform. Although on the most basic level a superior interrogation of filmmaking practice and ethics, Cameraperson finds its greatest import as an example of cinema as our foremost conduit for communication, expression, and empathy.

And the magnificent runners-up:

THE FITS, by Anna Rose Holmer, a dazzling and assured debut feature that celebrates young female identity and agency blossoming through dance. At just over 70 minutes, an economical and evocative miniature with major power.

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP, by Whit Stillman, an exceedingly witty Jane Austen adaptation with a blisteringly acerbic bite. Silly, caustic, brusque, and as whip-smart as the best screwball comedies.

LITTLE MEN, by Ira Sachs, a beautifully sensitive child's-eye view of vexing adult conflicts that refuses to judge the positions of any of its parties. As the boys whose friendship is both forged and dissolved under their parents' contentious interaction, Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri are extraordinary finds.

Top 10 - 2015

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on February 3, 2016 at 3:55 PM Comments comments (0)

This is the latest I have made a Top 10 list since I began this blog in 2010. As I outlined in a past post, the reason is that I’ve been waiting to see significant 2015 titles that I either missed or that never came to my area, and I didn’t want to compose my list without being able to consider such notable (and obnoxiously late) releases such as Anomalisa and Son of Saul, or streamables available on Netflix and elsewhere. My plan, it turns out, proved to be only partially useful: as of this writing, the second film was only released here last week, and the first is still absent from any theater near me. I suppose it’s my fault for missing them when they were at CIFF back in October…

But something else has delayed my list, something I also made note of in my prior post. It’s that 2015 felt like kind of a bizarre movie year, the rare one in which no single film stood out as a head-and-shoulders-above-the-rest favorite. In other words, you can essentially consider all ten excellent films on my list as equal top-rankers.

One theme emerged, however: cinema. Many of the 2015 films that most spoke to me were the ones that took cinema history and theory as their driving creative forces, building experiences that exploited the material and psychological faculties of the medium. These films were conceptually audacious, aesthetically indelible, and wonderfully exciting in their understanding, and practicing of, film's boundless formal and narrative potentials.

2015 films of note I still, regrettably, have not seen: In Jackson Heights, Queen of Earth, Anomalisa, Mustang, Joy, Chi-Raq, Arabian Nights, Victoria

10. Room / Lenny Abrahamson

Committing to the screen one of the more authentic child’s-eye views in recent memory, Room evocatively inhabits both the physical and psychological perspectives of an inchoate youth. The film accomplishes this through an impressive concert of camerawork, editing, sound, and performance: centered invariably on the amazing Jacob Tremblay, Abrahamson defines time and space through his eyes by nimbly calibrating these filmmaking tools around him, placing us in point-of-view shots that let us viscerally feel his literally expanding worldview. Trepidation, wonder, and disorientation form his turbulent headspace, and we are made to live them all. It is love, however, the primal one shared only between mother and child, that is the inviolable bond that pushes Room outward. Never taken on maudlin terms, Larson and Tremblay make their love felt on a molecular level, capturing the potent mix of biological dependency and fierce, unshakable devotion that tethers them together. In the process, the film's dramatic circumstances and blossoming aftermath magnify steps we all take in our early development as our widening perception of the world begins to redefine and supplant the reality we thought we knew. It's easy to imagine the film bogged down by manipulative tactics in other hands, but this Room fully earns the flood of emotions it elicits.

9. Mistress America / Noah Baumbach

What a terrific year for Noah Baumbach. Not only did he direct While We're Young, a hilarious and perceptive exploration of authenticity and cultural appropriation across the generations, he also made the scintillatingly witty, bracing, and poignant screwball farce Mistress America, which matches rapid-fire bon mots with equally piercing inquiries into identity, integrity, ambition, and being a young adult in the 21st century. And is there a better cinematic portraitist of urban, middle-class 21st century American identity than Baumbach? There's certainly not a funnier or more incisive one: Mistress America, in its blistering register, cannily digs beneath the very Internet-era-specific layers of performance and irony that comprise the profiles of millenials, finding confusion and doubt as familiar cornerstones and turning the awkward search for self-actualization into a blithe comedy of manners. The line is always deliberately thin between mocking, arch observation and empathetic understanding, but there is never the sense that Baumbach, or inexhaustible co-writer Gerwig, regard these fledgling characters with anything but compassion. That they are able to so adeptly tease out their anxieties with such lightness and elan is beguiling – an ability to encapsulate a particular Gen Y condition unmatched in contemporary film.

8. Son of Saul / László Nemes

Son of Saul, in form and function, concerns itself with nothing less than the burden of representing the Holocaust on screen. It presupposes we’re familiar with its history and its manifold, often graphic cinematic depictions, which allows it to take on a new perspective that, even more than presenting another side of the 20th century’s most unconscionable atrocity, actively questions the ethics and limits of its visual recreation and the roles image-makers and consumers play in approaching its memory. Locking his camera in almost unwavering close-up on his protagonist while obscuring the violence taking place around him, Nemes does this by locating his theme as vision itself: the burden of the knowledge it generates, and the extent to which we can see, or should see, such horror. The film’s claustrophobic frames and deliberate optical obfuscation also have a more immediately psychological effect, disabling the spectator’s gaze and denying him the sense of omniscience and control he is accustomed to when watching a movie. This all constitutes a hugely daring and maybe even presumptuous conceptual gambit, and Son of Saul is always running the risk of being too much of a stunt, or being unduly abstract. Yet its scrupulous constriction of vision is in the service of an intensely human story. Laser-focused on the face of a victim trying to do one decent thing in a sea of depravity, it wrests visual power from evil, elevating his experience amid abject horror while calling valuable, thought-provoking attention to the politics of one of cinema’s most morally hazardous subjects.

7. The Forbidden Room / Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson

In a movie year defined by updating, repackaging, rehashing, and remixing older films, Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson's manic movie-devouring fantasia represents the creative apex of what contemporary filmmakers can do with the ghosts of cinema's past. Painstakingly replicating the looks, styles, and moods of early moving image art, the film is on the surface a nostalgic mash-up of silent and early sound film idioms, replete with intertitles, rear-screen projection, superimpositions, and color-tinting. And yet at the same time, the cinema it evokes never looked or behaved quite like this, and couldn't have had without the aid of computers. With distressed images that literally morph, bubble, melt, and oscillate across the surface of the frame, not to mention a nesting doll narrative that shuttles us from a tutorial on how to take a bath to genre-influenced episodes about vampire bananas, sentient mustaches, and dierrere fixations, The Forbidden Room is an explicitly postmodern simulation, returning us to an experience of film at its most primal by way of 21st century technology and culture. Propelled by absurdist logic and a liberal confounding of spatiotemporal coordinates, it epitomizes film as an analog of dream all the same. If this sounds like esoteric cinephile territory, it is, but it's also approachably playful, imaginative, invigorating, and funny, a boundary-collapsing work of art that melds the tools and sensibilities of modern production with the infinitely elastic potentials the cinema brought with it at its birth.

6. Creed / Ryan Coogler

If The Forbidden Room was the year's innovative statement on the possibilities of making the old radically new, Creed was the film that best exemplified, in a classical narrative mode, how to maintain a legacy while reenergizing it with a wholly modern ethos. It starts with Ryan Coogler: from the first frame, the young, preternaturally gifted director commands every element on and off screen with astonishing dexterity, punching up the original Rocky formula with new levels of sensitivity, pathos, cultural detail, and visual flair that put nearly every 2015 Hollywood release to shame. The brio he brings to the table never falters, evinced in boldly dynamic sequences (that one-take boxing match is gobsmacking) and quieter emotional moments that honor real personal struggles. His conviction extends to every other person involved in the movie, all vigorously committed to material that never needed to be this good. That passion finds its concentrated center in Michael B. Jordan, who makes Creed a winning, flesh-and-blood individual we become intimately invested in. Jordan pairs so naturally with the aged Stallone – whose rugged, rueful Rocky parallels and deepens the former's efforts to extricate himself from, and finally embrace, past legacies – that what any other director might have made a rote franchise baton-pass becomes something far richer and more resonant through their interaction. It's an achievement in itself that Creed nails the combination of heart and grit that made the first Rocky special; it's an even greater one that it emboldens its image with a social consciousness that valorizes the look – and voice – of a new generation.

5. Inside Out / Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen

Many films have portrayed the messy, painful, finally inevitable process of growing up (there's even another on my list!), but it's fair to say that none have conceived it like Inside Out. Pixar's film, directed by Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen, is the studio's most cerebral and ingenious idea yet, visualizing a child's transition into adolescence by literally placing us in her head. Here, cognitive functions are vibrantly and cleverly reified, bringing legibility to the mental processes that guide us through life and making knotty psychological concepts fully graspable. In the way it confronts us with our emotions by literally showing us our emotions, the film, skirting oversimplification, manages to be an extraordinary lesson in how art can help us make sense of ourselves. Inside Out certainly proves an edifying tool, and not just for children: its exploration of how identity and emotional constitution evolve as we accumulate experience; its empathic conveyance of how, and why, melancholy and nostalgia become inseparable from joy; its deft internal/external visualization of the dialog between experience and memory; its heartrending yet never mushy fostering of emotional openness - all of this becomes a template for a new awareness. That swell of emotion we feel during the film's climax doesn't arise superficially, but because we have caught something of our human condition that we have always felt but have never seen reflected with such clarity.

4. Cemetery of Splendor / Apichatpong Weerasethakul

You don’t so much watch an Apichatpong Weerasethakul movie as become biologically entrained to it. As his languorous pacing moves us through a procession of placid images, we feel ourselves becoming suspended between states of consciousness. One could locate the position, perhaps rightfully, as somewhere between wake and sleep, and this is certainly the condition that Cemetery of Splendor literally points to in its story of comatose soldiers and their caretakers who drift imperceptibly in and out of lucidity. But Apichatpong’s cinema goes even further, positing itself as not something so typical as a reflection of an unconscious state, but as another mode of consciousness altogether. In Cemetery of Splendor, this alternative consciousness has meditative but also political dimensions: in the military-governed Thailand that the film presents, it has the power to free the individual from external structures that suppress. The cinema’s liberating, healing capacities are demonstrated in Apichatpong’s centerpiece sequence, which begins with our protagonists in a theater watching schlocky, state-sanctioned Thai movies and ends in a becalmed room of sleeping soldiers, neon tubes installed in the latter space filling the frame with a hypnotizing cycle of colors. All boundaries – between forms of perception, past and present, modernity and tradition – dissolve in Apichatpong’s cinema as the temporal and the otherworldly constantly, hushedly intermingle. Cemetery of Splendor distills this in his most emotionally accessible way yet, and the result feels nothing short of soul-enriching.

3. Ex Machina / Alex Garland

Ex Machina was the first film from 2015 I saw, and its seductive, sleekly disquieting surfaces have never left me, nor, certainly, have its haunting ruminations on the nature of reality and power in the digital era. A chamber piece, Alex Garland’s modestly scaled setup is ideally calibrated for a sci-fi exercise equal parts suspenseful and philosophical, in which dread is fomented by stimulating conversation and genre thrills naturally accrue from character interaction. Its space is relatively small and its players are few, but its ideas are big: confidently initiating and juggling dialogues on gender politics, subject/object positions, surveillance, social conditioning, and the increasingly nebulous lines between reality and simulation, human and machine, Garland and his pitch-perfect four-person cast play out a veritable buffet of 21st century anxieties to their seemingly natural ends. This is the rare piece of speculative science fiction cinema that actually feels completely, scarily plausible, extrapolating from our current technological moment to a future that is, in so many ways, already here, populated by hubristic tech wizards and characterized by apprehension over what, exactly, it is they're creating – and we're using. By its last scene, a contemporary allegory of the cave in reverse, Ex Machina puts into sharp relief a world and a society that have always been constructed. The stinger is that, one day, its continued construction may be out of our arrogant human reach.

2. Carol / Todd Haynes

More than an achingly wistful portrait of forbidden desire, Carol is a deeply romantic exaltation of the power of the gaze to cut through even the most rigidly orthodox of social constraints. That gaze, in Todd Haynes’s exquisitely wrought story, is an entirely female one and a resolutely queer one. Not only does it reject the male-ordered dictates imposed on life and love, it moves like a heat-seeking missile beneath a calcified system of heterosexual looking, a tacit recognition between gay individuals who know how to find each other’s eyes while subverting everyone else’s. Among the many aspects of this uniquely sublimated and coded gaze that Carol illuminates is its resilient agency: in an expressively smoggy, tea-stained, and drably proper 1950s New York City, Haynes activates and then empowers the desire of two women for each other, making their glances autonomous from conventions and into the strongest bond in a relationship that doesn’t want for physical ardor. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara realize this relationship as a thrillingly complex romance that’s also mutually emboldening guidance for two LGBT people at very different points in their lives. They may be constantly isolated behind obscuring glass or confined in the narrowly segmented spaces of Edward Lachman’s dreamy-dreary frames, but they know where to look, and Haynes lets them do so in one of the most stirring and sanguine films ever made about the optics of queer desire.

1. Spotlight / Tom McCarthy

As I noted at the very start, for me, no film in 2015 made its case as any kind of definitive "best." Read this #1 placement as belonging to Carol, or Ex Machina, or Cemetery of Splendor, or any of the others and it would be equally true to my feelings. But I like lists and their neatness, so I went with a typical ranking for the sake of tradition. Something had to be on top.

So why Spotlight? In many ways, choosing such a relatively conventional film seems incongruous in the scheme of my other favorites, many of which are on the more adventurous side. Yet to label Spotlight as "conventional" is to be terribly reductive: it would minimize its masterly self-effacement, ignore its consummate craft, and worst of all, treat narrative American filmmaking this humbly assured, measured, and unshowy as if it were a common thing. It's not. McCarthy's film, which tackles the incendiary subject matter of abuse within the Catholic Church and the journalists who dug deep to expose it, actually avoids convention in how tenaciously it steers clear of the usual dramatic Hollywood hallmarks, eschewing sensationalism, grandstanding, histrionics, and facile hero/villain, innocent/corrupt dichotomies at every turn. Also rare? Its focus on the process of doing work, unglamorously and in detail. Its unforced naturalism, exhibited by every cast member in an unerring ensemble, the most well-oiled of the year. The understatement and sincerity with which it approaches every investigation, testimony, negotiation, and incrimination, keeping its characters imperfect, never ironing out the complicated ethical knots and unavoidable compromises they must deal with along the way.

That's a lot of "un-" words. I haven't even mentioned how sharply designed McCarthy's film is visually (despite what you may have heard), how its use of line and pattern not only engender a graphic dynamism that creates a sense of tireless movement and routine, but reinforces the rigid institutional control that permeates the film. Above all, Spotlight stays in the memory because of the humanity it fights for in the face of systemic injustice, doing so with outrage but also uncommon sobriety. It may rein in the big emotions on screen, but the feelings it summons in the viewer are considerable.

And the very closest runners-up:

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, George Miller's indelibly envisioned action blockbuster, which manages to be an exhilarating piece of maximalism and a rousing plea for individuality against the debasing forces of dominant power structures.

THE END OF THE TOUR, James Ponsoldt's exceedingly smart two-hander that recounts the 1996 interview Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky conducted with famed, troubled author David Foster Wallace. A textbook conversation on artistic neuroses, self-concept, consumer culture, depression, and the nature of genius, with career-best performances from Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg.

45 YEARS, Andrew Haigh's delicate, devastating marital drama with the unimpeachable Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, who must deal, in their own telling ways, with the fallout of a revelation that may redefine their relationship forever.

Finally: I don't consider the following films 2015 releases like most critics do (they all premiered in significant places in 2014), but they're brilliant. So watch them.

JAUJA, Lisandro Alonso's tantalizingly enigmatic brain-teaser, a film about people and empires in search of absent objects, dead ends, and unobtainable destinies. A postcolonial allegory that's always just out of your grasp. This would be on my list if I considered it 2015.

THE LOOK OF SILENCE, Joshua Oppenheimer's beyond intrepid documentary, his follow-up to the brilliant The Act of Killing, is nominated for an Oscar this year. It's an equally valuable witnessing, and unraveling of, a country's flabbergasting distortion of its genocidal history, told from the perspective of a victim's brother who refuses to let the past be erased.

A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE, the final film in Roy Andersson's trilogy of "what it means to be a human being" keeps the deadpan, sardonic, and surreal, adds tenderness and maybe - grace?

Top 10 - 2014

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on January 16, 2015 at 10:00 AM Comments comments (0)

The Oscar nominations were announced yesterday, but you needn’t look at them to know what the greatest cinematic accomplishments of 2014 were (as if the Academy would tell you, anyway). Listed below are my Top 10 films of the year, ranked in general order of preference, with runners-up and honorable mentions.

A quick note on the year before we get down to it: like any other year, 2014 had plenty to offer in the way of diverse, compelling, thought-provoking, and artistically and culturally prodigious cinema. If it seems to somewhat pale in comparison to 2013, at least for me, that’s because there were fewer films I unabashedly loved, and decidedly none I would deem masterpieces. In other words, there was no Inside Llewyn Davis. I awarded only one film all year the full four stars, although a few others came close. But in the absence of undeniable knockout punches, there was a lot to like.

Notable films I regrettably missed or couldn’t see in time for this list: Nightcrawler, Goodbye to LanguageThe LEGO Movie, Manakamana, Leviathan, American Sniper, Still Alice, National Gallery, The Tale of the Princess KaguyaTwo Days, One Night.

10. Selma / Ava DuVernay

Nothing really more needs to be said about this film's staggering social resonance with current events. It's all there, and you know it long before Common mentions Ferguson in the stirring closing credits tune. DuVernay's film, a "biopic" about Martin Luther King Jr. and the seminal march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, is a hard-hitting and politically astute film that trades embalmed history for raw, jagged modern rhythms. With its digital cinematography and askew camera angles showing us sides (literally) of the Civil Rights Movement we've never seen before, it's a startling and surprisingly distinctive window into a horribly recent past. As King, David Oyelowo is brilliant, and DuVernay's shrewdest move is in not letting him absorb the picture, because she knows no movement is brought upon by one person, no change instigated by a few. In this refreshingly modest portrait of an outsize hero as in history itself, it takes many. King was the one, but he didn't do it alone.

9. Edge of Tomorrow / Doug Liman

The most exciting and satisfying summer release of 2014 was also one of the year's most narratively innovative pictures, mainstream or otherwise. Working off a fiendishly clever and impressively structured script, itself an adaptation of a Japanese manga, Liman takes gonzo sci-fi action trappings and video game logic to throw Tom Cruise and viewers into a looping narrative machine that reveals and elides crucial information in tirelessly cunning ways. Thanks to pin-sharp editing from James Herbert and Laura Jennings, each repeating episode feeds viscerally and wittily into the next, the ceaseless accumulation of experience and knowledge acquiring tense dramatic friction as time keeps resetting physical progress. Never before has the concept of an alien invasion been so cannily distilled in terms so singularly cinematic.

8. Pride / Matthew Warchus

"There is power in a union," sings Billy Bragg over the soundtrack at the end of Pride, a film whose timely and timeless sociopolitical import is matched in every way by its heart-swelling exuberance. There is power, indeed, and director Matthew Warchus, screenwriter Stephen Beresford, and one of the most infectious and uniformly developed ensemble casts of the year use that power to tell of the 1984 alliance between gay and lesbian activists and Britain's striking miners, an unlikely relationship promulgating the world's most useful virtues: compassion, empathy, and solidarity. Yet nothing about the film is didactic or pandering - this is as purely humanistic as cinema gets, a fervent paean to understanding and gay rights, to equality and community, to charity and to the seismic social and moral profit of collective action. Bringing one of the pivotal events in Britain's LGBT rights movement to bustling life while intimately detailing the individual arcs of his lovingly portrayed characters, Warchus and his team do their real life heroes proud. Solidarity forever.

7. Foxcatcher / Bennett Miller

In Bennett Miller's unsettlingly fastidious drama, a queasily bizarre true story is used as the groundwork for an unblinking study of the perverted American ethos. But the true horror comes not necessarily from what was done - Miller and screenwriters Frye and Futterman indulge in inevitable speculation, even as they underplay or omit some of the most disturbing details - but why it was done and what cultural conditions let it happen. The picture that is painted is one of an ethos gone awry, aspirations and claims to exceptionalism stunted by psychology and economy and sublimated into impulses both capitalistic and animalistic. It's all carried out by one of the most impressive combined acting feats of 2014, with Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo providing three very different but intertwined visions of masculinity, determination, and pursuit, all caught up in a very American mire.

6. Force Majeure / Ruben Östlund

A sharp, uncompromising dissection of marriage, gender roles, social expectations and assumptions, and the sanctity of the family unit, Ruben Östlund's pitch-black relationship drama makes a great companion piece to that other domestic nightmare from 2014, David Fincher's Gone Girl. But don't get the wrong idea: like Fincher's film, Force Majeure weaves a mordant streak of humor through its heavy themes, surveying moments of social behavior in deliciously awkward and scathingly funny detail. Östlund's rigorous formal control, meanwhile, imbues ski slopes, restaurants, and hotel corridors with a discomfiting stillness, as if the ideals and false facades of this already shaky relationship could shatter with the slightest of movements. Watching the fallout and the tireless ensuing dialogue - philosophical, sociological - is a reminder, both scary and absurd, of how tenuously the equilibrium of a relationship can be set, and how much we invest to keep it and ourselves stable.

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel / Wes Anderson

Giddily delightful and effervescent but with a considerable melancholic undertow, The Grand Budapest Hotel is the indie king of quirk's version of a war-time historical drama. In other words, it's a carnival-esque confection of impossibly rich colors, dioramic architecture, and stylized olde-worlde fashion playing host to a story of the decline of civilization. Anderson has always incorporated the dark, wistful, and caustic in his quaint dollhouse universes (Moonrise Kingdom, my favorite of his until this point, does so with a coming-of-age narrative), but here he takes it a few steps further, crafting what is his most physically, emotionally, and thematically textured work yet, a madcap period caper as snappy as an Ernst Lubitsch comedy and as suspenseful and pointed as 1930s Hitchcock. The tremendous, multi-tiered script underlines a poignancy inherent in the film's themes: what we're seeing is so long gone, or perhaps so imaginary, it can only be told through multiple levels of mediation.

4. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) / Alejandro González Iñárritu

Pulling off a truly astonishing technical gambit with incomparable verve and unwavering confidence, Alejandro González Iñárritu and DP Emmanuel Lubezki make the illusion of Birdman a dazzling cinematic accomplishment unto itself. But it's hardly an empty showboating magic trick: the (nearly) single-take premise is visceral and heady and immersive, but it's just as much the film's galvanizing aesthetic identity as it is the story's - and the film's - raison d'être. That's because Birdman is preoccupied with illusion, simulation, and the line between authenticity and artifice in the digital era, and so Lubezki's snaking camera captures all of those disorienting permutations of reality on a single plane. Here, nothing is to be taken at face value: movies are reality, characters are real people (a notion helped out by some brilliant casting), and reality and ego are all informed, and formed by, a media culture that has devoured and replaced daily life. Part sizzling backstage showbiz dramedy, all weird, wonderful meta-commentary, Birdman is a one-of-a-kind plunge into the hyperreal.

3. Inherent Vice / Paul Thomas Anderson

Inherent Vice is a cinephile's dream movie, and stands out in particular as a striking example of the kind of audacious and atmosphere-heavy American cinema that seems to be in short order today. It's also, blessedly, shot on film, and every frame of it is cinematic euphoria: this is the type of movie you can fall into and explore from the inside. Hazily nostalgic for an idealistic era before the visible encroachment of government corruption, political recuperation, and conservative hegemony, Anderson locates his magnificently meandering story on the precipice of a disillusioned cultural transition, weaving a deliberately and absurdly convoluted tale of conspiracy around a stoned hippie P.I. longing for more than just weed. Following him around Anderson's marvelously rich and expansive world is a loosey-goosey pleasure; he doesn't know where he's headed, and neither do we, and that's half the fun. The rest comes from Anderson's tongue-in-cheek direction of Pynchon's baroque prose, and his truly inimitable ability to craft this lavish noir homage as alternately silly and serious, lackadaisical and scrupulous, flippant and ambling but always committed to emotional sincerity and lucid narrative control. Sun-baked and just plain baked, it's a vision of a lost LA that belongs only to the movies.

2. Mr. Turner / Mike Leigh

Strangely, Mike Leigh's unusual and intensely human biopic of English painter J.M.W. Turner has quite a bit in common with Inherent Vice, which helps explain why I fell so hard for both of them. Where Anderson fleshed out an immersive and tactile 1970 LA brimming with character and mood, Leigh brings to magisterial life 19th-century England, populated with artists, aristocrats, innkeepers, patrons and critics. Anderson's film was about an individual caught in the unremitting tides of a rapidly changing culture; Leigh's is as well. Focusing only on the last few decades of Turner's life, Mr. Turner's greatest success is not in detailing the specifics of an artist's process, but in showing the artist living in and interacting with the world around him, its overwhelming beauty and equally overpowering sadness channeled into art considered both rapturous and vile. Leigh and his extraordinary team capture an entire idiom of early Victorian England, transporting us to noble houses, galleries, parlors, and seemingly everything in between while effortlessly outlining the beliefs and mores that constitute this robust social milieu. Huffing and grunting with blustery precision as Turner, Timothy Spall embodies the contradictory emotions of an artist in love with this world and yet ambivalent to it, understanding of it and yet misunderstood by it. It's the year's greatest performance in one of the year's most deeply felt and observed films.

1. Nabat / Elchin Musaoglu

I wrestled with including this film at all, as it has not been released theatrically and, as far as I can tell, has no imminent distribution plans. But I saw it as part of the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival, and the country that made it, Azerbaijan, did choose it as its 2014 submission for the Academy Awards, so I decided I would go for it. If you object to its inclusion, feel free to disregard it altogether and hold the rest of the list as is.

Nabat, about an elderly woman who refuses to leave her village in Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh region after everyone else has evacuated due to war, is an astoundingly enveloping audio-visual experience and a serene, gravely moving portrait of a woman and a nation braving ravages both natural and horrifyingly man-made. Every element has been paid meticulous attention to here: from the irreproachable elegance of long dollies and tracking shots to the precise fluctuations of weather and character disposition that they capture, Musaoglu commands the frame and everything that takes place inside and outside of it. In some of the most breathtaking long traveling shots this side of Dreyer or Angelopoulos, he follows his steadfast protagonist as she withstands isolation and hunger, observing her waning resilience as the tempest of nature convenes around her. Images and sounds haunt us, so tangible we can feel, smell, and hear them as if they were right next to us: mud under our feet during a downpour; mist on our faces; the wet hide of a cow; the howl of a wolf or a gust of wind through a creaking door. Nabat is not a happy watch - it's exceedingly somber and sobering - but it is an enriching, plangently powerful one that honors the entwined suffering and strength of a land and its people.

And the great runners-up:

BOYHOOD by Richard Linklater

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE by Justin Simien

GETT: THE TRIAL OF VIVIANE AMSALEM by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz

GONE GIRL by David Fincher


NOTE: I didn't mention Lukas Moodysson's ebullient WE ARE THE BEST! or Jim Jarmusch's languidly romantic ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE because I consider them 2013 films, but if we're going purely by 2014 US release dates go ahead and add them to the above.

Honorable mentions (films I really liked in some significant way):

IDA by Paweł Pawlikowski


INTERSTELLAR by Christopher Nolan

INTO THE WOODS by Rob Marshall

SOMETHING MUST BREAK by Ester Martin Bergsmark

I liked them, but they're not that great:

UNDER THE SKIN by Jonathan Glazer

WHIPLASH by Damien Chazelle

Top 10 - 2013

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on January 12, 2014 at 4:25 PM Comments comments (1)

For many critics and cinephiles, 2013 was an especially exemplary year for film. Some hail it is as one of the best movie years in, well, years, citing past consensus favorites like 1999 and 2007 as recent, comparable benchmarks. As far as I’m concerned, however, every year is an exemplary movie year: if you dig deep enough (which means watching films that may not show at your local multiplex) and see enough, any year will prove richly satisfying. 2013 was, like 2012 and 2011 before it, one of those richly satisfying years.

There were notable themes among my favorite films. One of the most significant was individuals separated from their environments, and even sometimes from themselves, in terms physical, psychological, or philosophical. These characters were torn precariously between modes of independence and codependence, singularity and acquiescence, stoicism and resignation, their futures as unsettled as their very unspooling presents. Whether it was staring into an existential void, battling the elements, or wrestling with self-contradictions amidst society’s seemingly unfeasible demands, characters in 2013’s best films had to learn how to make it on their own, for better and for worse.

Also prevalent were investigations into truth, family, reality, history, and the cinema itself, some of which took the form of boundary-pushing documentaries. These films, in their vibrant storytelling and invigorating formal experimentation, reaffirmed that film is as personally, culturally, and politically important as ever.

Sadly, there were films I wanted to see that I wasn’t able to before I made the list. These include, but are not limited to: To the Wonder (what’s a Malick fan to do?), Post Tenebras Lux (or is that a 2012 film?), In the House (ditto), August: Osage County (something tells me it wouldn’t have made it…;), Fruitvale Station, and The Great Beauty.

Without further ado, my top 10 films of 2013:

10. Stranger by the Lake / Alain Guiraudie

The other gay-themed film to premiere at Cannes 2013 (and by far the better one, if you ask me), Alain Guiraudie's ultra-minimalist erotic thriller ingeniously utilizes a single location and a few actors to craft a deft and haunting examination of the perilous traps set by love and passion. Allowing us access to no other place but the beach where men go to carry out anonymous sexual flings, Guiraudie paints a portrait of geographical and psychological demarcation that questions the extent to which we're willing to set boundaries in our lives and in our relationships. The final shot, a near-pitch black image of our protagonist stranded in the night, was among the most heartstopping movie moments of the year.

9. The Act of Killing / Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous

Few documentaries prove the old adage "truth is stranger than fiction" better than The Act of Killing, a bizarre, brilliant, ethically dubious act itself, in which Oppenheimer and his filmmaking team (many, tellingly, listed simply as "anonymous") tasked former Indonesian death squad leaders with reenacting their crimes for the camera - all in the style of their favorite Hollywood genres. The result is even stranger than you would imagine, an eye-opening account of systemic corruption, national brainwashing, history-writing, collective delusion, and, finally and most unbelievably, a moral awakening spurred on by, of all things, cinema itself. Politically conscious filmmaking in this day and age hardly comes more radical or provocative than this.

8. Leviathan / Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel

Another documentary, this one just as unorthodox but in an entirely different way. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel set out on a commercial shipping vessel in the Northeast, where they attached tiny cameras to various surfaces, humans, and even creatures aboard and around the massive boat. The footage that came from it is utterly hypnotic, collaged together in ways that turn potentially mundane sights like fishing, gutting, and underwater views into ecstatic, constantly shape-shifting abstracts. A shot of dead fish sliding up and down a waterlogged deck, with the camera positioned at ground level, is one of the most strangely beautiful things I've ever seen. No second feels wasted - this is cinema of the most experiential kind, a testament to what the medium can do with just its most basic, primal visual faculties.

7. Stories We Tell / Sarah Polley

I promise I did not mean to have these three documentaries listed one after the other. But here it is, and how well it goes with the previous two films' playful formal and narrative experimentations. Sarah Polley's film, however, is its own uniquely and creative thing, an intimate investigation into her family history that blossoms into a profound, all-encompassing map of human frailty, fallibility, and dignity. But it doesn't settle at just that, either. As the story unravels, it begins to branch out in all kinds of unexpected directions, with revelations emerging out of revelations like an infinite series of Russian nesting dolls. The film then becomes a treatise on the very form through which it speaks, a consideration of stories and storytelling, and the new, ever-oscillating meanings and perspectives they acquire when they're told and re-told. It's a complex, multi-faceted patchwork that conjures, before our eyes, vivid personal histories, ones that almost imperceptibly become ours, too.

6. Gravity / Alfonso Cuarón

Alfonso Cuarón's awesome, dizzyingly immersive 3D spectacle was as taut and exciting a moviegoing experience as one could have, in this past year or in any year. Emmanuel Lubezki's sterling, vertiginous camerawork makes you feel as if you're as unmoored as Sandra Bullock's isolated Ryan Stone, trying desperately to grasp at the spinning world around you as you ineffectively attempt to fight off the zero Gs. But Gravity is not merely a visceral ride or a display of cutting-edge special effects: the reason it works so well, why it strikes such a resounding human chord, is because it effortlessly taps into our fears and anxieties, and in ways so visually simple (not simplistic) that we hardly even need to think about them before they've hit us straight in the gut. Who can't relate with just not being able to hold on? Or, by the same token, not being able to let go? Cuarón's film distills these concerns into a highly original and, yes, nerve-wrackingly visceral visual language. Then, he shows us the human species' greatest, most intuitive strength: perseverance.

5. All is Lost / J.C. Chandor

A wonderful companion piece to Cuarón's film, All is Lost is also a survival tale focusing on an individual battling the tempest of a volatile, unpredictable, and perhaps indifferent world. Where Gravity took to a more macrocosmic portrait of adversity and endurance, Chandor finds his lone hero (lovingly titled "Our Man") in a more socially and economically precarious situation. It also, wonderfully, does away with dialogue almost completely, leaving us in a state of contemplation and diligent observation similar to that of Redford's main character. While the film takes place entirely in the middle of the Indian Ocean with only one person ever seen on screen, it never wants for thematic or visual inspiration. Every shot and beat of this thing is exhilarating, with Chandor and his superior team of artists drawing out not only the mythical implications inherent in such a story, but also the more unexpected sociological ones. It doesn't take long for us to recognize "Our Man" as a regular, rough-hewn American upended by economic crisis, beginning to slowly and painfully realize society may have moved on without him.

4. Frances Ha / Noah Baumbach

If you wanted to put it simply: delightful. Lovely. Warm. Sprightly, quick-witted, clever, and funny. Frances Ha was one of the most purely pleasurable films of the year, a shimmering black and white urban coming-of-age comedy that bounced along on notes of delicious deadpan humor and offbeat character interactions. That's only half of why it's the fourth best film of the year, of course. What really makes this one stick with you is its open-hearted and poignant portrait of a woman awkwardly stretched between life roles, paving uncertain pathways towards adulthood, independence, success, and self-actualization. Greta Gerwig, as the arrested-in-development title character, gives one of the most winsome performances of 2013, and she is as fully fleshed out as a character who doesn't quite know who she is yet could possibly be. Whether you're 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 or even 100, Baumbach's film is impossible not to relate to, a paean to (trying) to grow up and out that rings with utter truth. In the end, it offers no false consolation, only the acknowledgement of life's small, messy vagaries. That's comfort enough.

3. Her / Spike Jonze

Her takes a vaguely sci-fi premise - a man falls in love with his sentient operating system - and mines it for robust, unspeakably soulful insight on relationships, technology, and the vicissitudes of the human condition. Jonze's clever script works through multiple strands and contexts all at once: his film may be a slice of speculative futurism on the surface (and it's a damn good one - everything he puts on screen reverberates like a prophecy), but its sci-fi trappings are incidental to its profoundly moving dissection of love, relationships, and the process of learning and growing through experience. A masterfully subtle Joaquin Phoenix guides us through a relationship that, like real human ones, is dependent on two wholly autonomous, free-thinking, evolving participants. Simply but ingeniously, Jonze substitues one side of that relationship for a rapidly evolving tech, a device not unlike ones we enjoy today, that briefly meets its human counterpart eye-to-eye before, inevitably, outgrowing it. Her pinpoints the juncture in a relationship where both sides - human or not - recognize how they're fundamentally changing through each other, and must reconcile their former selves with the ones they're evolving into. This is a remarkably compassionate, sanguine vision of a near future that charts not our decay, but our immeasurable capacity to flourish.

2. Nebraska / Alexander Payne

In another year, Alexander Payne's faultless Midwestern portrait would have been my number one film. Directing from a wry and tender script by Bob Nelson, Payne's father-son road trip with the perfectly paired Bruce Dern and Will Forte takes us on an unforgettable foray into the stark beauty of America's heartland, its vibrant inhabitants, and its humble small town values. The regional detail is spot-on - scene after scene feels ripped from any midwesterner's life, with people and places that are so naturalistically rendered we never believe for a second they're fictional. The film presents, like Stories We Tell but in a more linearly narrative fashion, a kind of geneological excavation, with every moment and character interaction revealing new depths in this complicated and wounded family history, one that includes not just the battle-axe wife played by June Squibb and a host of hilariously mum sons, brothers, and cousins, but an entire township of colorful past friends and acquaintances. Everyone in this film knows each other somehow, and learning how they do and what they make of it now, all these years later in their fading little town, is a journey of endlessly beguiling surprises. And I haven't even mentioned just how hysterical Payne's film is, how I literally had tears streaming down my face from laughing so hard. Like the members of our own families, these beautiful characters are frustrating, strange, lovable, hilarious, and, in the end, completely real.

1. Inside Llewyn Davis / Joel and Ethan Coen

The atmosphere is entrancing. Glowing, burnished wintry blues, emeralds and grays envelop us in a state of sustained, trancelike rhapsody. Mellifluous music haunts the heavy air like a specter. A man, ashen, despondent, exhausted, wanders through the milieu in a stupefied blur, arriving at crossroads in which he will decide whether to continue wandering in circles, or if he will find a more concrete and gratifying path. It's 1961 in a folksy Greenwich Village; then it's on the road to Chicago. Then past Akron, back to New York. A circle. It feels less like reality than a bewitching, sad dream, or maybe a long ago memory you could have sworn was a dream, or a dream you could have sworn was a memory. The inimitable Coen brothers' newest film is a thing of miraculous, diaphanous beauty, a wispy, wistful, elegiac tone poem that is also one of the most vivid, tangible things I've ever encountered through a movie screen. It is a tribute to the artist's struggle, of which it is one of the most bruisingly accurate I can think of. Llewyn is an artist, which means he is passionate and creative, unwilling to compromise his vision. It also means he is caught in a cycle of self-doubt, indignation, melancholy and self-sabotage, stubborness and uncertainty. He is unwilling to sacrifice his artistic integrity, even if it will lead to success. He knows a part of himself needs the dejection and the pain to keep creating the art he's creating - to be keyed into the pain of life in order to express it, unfettered. He also knows there's no money in living like that. It's the artist as masochist, Sisyphus, tortured and self-tortured genius. The Coens turn him and his world into something sublime. Long after the movie ends, you keep exploring its alleyways, its diners, its empty streets and snowy highways and dusky cafes. It becomes a part of you. How seamlessly the Coen brothers craft their masterpieces. Their latest is the best film of 2013.

And the great, very worthy runners-up:


For its restraint and bluntly elegant artistry, and its powerful depiction of an institution that infected body, mind and soul in ways we can never let ourselves forget. Spectacular performances.


For its achingly poignant coming-of-age arc, realistic grasp of teenage introversion, and its emotionally walloping mother-son catharsis. And its hilarious ensemble.


For its Twain-esque magical realism and novel-esque script, and its heartbreakingly lovely central performance from young Tye Sheridan.


For its jazzy, free-riff vibe and surprisingly substantial tale of fraud, one-upmanship, disguise, survival, and reinvention.


For its full commitment to being loopy and bizarre and totally original, and for its rather brilliantly realized formal conceit.

Top 10 - 2012

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on January 6, 2013 at 5:30 PM Comments comments (0)


2012 offered an embarassment of cinematic riches. This was the first year I visited the theater almost weekly, at one point even making the trip 11 weekends in a row, from about mid-September to the end of November. Almost every film I saw impressed, in one way or another, and I was finally left with a huge slate of quality movies I had to tragically whittle down to 10. Rarely have I realized just how small a number that is.


If one thing stood out to me as a unifying characteristic of the varied achievements in film this year, it was vision. There was so much vision in movies this year, so much technical, thematic, authorial uniqueness and individuality, that each picture seemed to vibrate with the richness of a distinct voice. This went hand in hand with ambition - so many of the year's movies, from big to small, were nothing if not wildly ambitious endeavors. From Leos Carax's completely one-of-a-kind freakfest to Joe Wright's dizzying and experimental rendition of a Tolstoy classic to Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis' head-spinning Cloud Atlas, an "unfilmable" novel put thrillingly to screen, audacity proved it still survives in the movies. That's something we need to cherish.




Without further ado, the Top 10 films of 2012 as I saw it (saw Amour too late, so I include it in my runners-up, but it's certainly worthy of this list):




10. Les Misérables / Tom Hooper


Some people saw fit to criticize Tom Hooper's unorthodox version of the popular stage musical, as if its filmmaking flaws were somehow the death knell of an otherwise hard-hitting, stunningly acted picture. Not me. Hooper's extreme closeup approach is admittedly hit-and-miss, at times keeping us too close to the actors' faces when pulling back and letting us settle into the geography of their surroundings would have been appreciated. But when it does work, it works in spades - Anne Hathaway's rightly vaunted "I Dreamed a Dream" and Eddie Redmayne's stirring "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," both largely shot in that tight closeup, are the film at its best: rousing, emotionally intimate, and galvanizing in their larger-than-life results.


9. Silver Linings Playbook / David O. Russell


A screwball comedy brought into the 21st century, Silver Linings Playbook was probably the biggest crowd-pleaser of the year, an infectious romance inside a deeply moving portrait of a messy family. Above all, though, beyond its refreshingly non-condescending view of mental illness and its refreshingly unconventional character dynamics, it is a testament to community, to the spontaneous, miraculous moments of life where, with the help of others, order can arise from chaos. Grounded in the beautifully rendered performances of Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert De Niro, as well as a motley crew of other bit players, it is necessarily grubby and irresistibly charming.


8. Cloud Atlas / Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski


It took three directors to wrangle the massive, heady six-story cosmic opera that is Cloud Atlas. Not only did they succeed in committing the sprawling source material to the screen, but most amazingly, they made a hell of a movie out of it, and a coherent one at that. Utilizing a small army of actors that range from Hugh Grant to Halle Berry, Tykwer and the Wachowskis ingeniously have them all appear as multiple characters playing multiple roles throughout all six time-spanning stories. Wearing myriad kinds of insanely transformative makeup - some silly, some astounding - it is a veritable burlesque show, but one with real ideas. There wasn't a more purely gratifying visceral experience in theaters during 2012, or a more grandly ambitious one.


7. The Perks of Being a Wallflower / Stephen Chbosky


High school movies are often not very good. They're conventional, saccharine, cliché-riddled cheese fests that are cringingly raunchy when they're not simply trite. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, adapted by Stephen Chbosky from his own novel, manages to avoid every one of these traps. Instead it is one of the most tender, plainly heartfelt and truthful teenage movies in many a moon, with a ridiculously well-cast ensemble that move and behave like real people. Like any movie that taps so heavily into nostalgic territory, it may be a romanticized vision, but the heart of it rings loud and authentic. Becoming the inspiring anthem of our lovingly misfit characters, David Bowie's "Heroes" will never sound so good again.


6. Zero Dark Thirty / Kathryn Bigelow


A step up from The Hurt Locker in virtually every way possible, Zero Dark Thirty is a genuinely riveting procedural made with white-knuckle intensity and bravura technical prowess. What puts it over the top, though, is its intelligently judged content. What might have been jingoistic, patriotic, gung-ho US glorification is instead anything but: a truly, deeply apprehensive and critical look at the brutal lengths our country is willing to go to in order to meet an end. And what is the end, anyway? What price liberty? There is no triumph, just continued questions. Bigelow's craft here is impeccable, but her weary considerations are what really resonate.


5. Moonrise Kingdom / Wes Anderson


Wes Anderson finally finds the perfect synthesis of form and function, making this, along with 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox, his most complete cinematic achievement. But Moonrise has its own charm, and one that can't be overstated: from the warm, mustard and grass palette to the gorgeous whimsy of the dollhouse-esque sets to the perfectly wide-eyed, mischievous resolve of the kids at its center, every beat of this film is a piece of joy. But it's melancholic, too, and that subtly growing atmosphere of disenchantment is the key to its surprising power. It may be all retro spark on the outside, but inside is a man who realizes there's only so much of childhood we can hold onto.


4. Lincoln / Steven Spielberg


Lincoln is everything an historical epic should be: involving, immersive, authentic, informative, and most importantly, alive. Every line of dialogue and every spool of conversation in Tony Kushner's incredible script crackles with the energy of passionate debate. Talk is not just talk in this movie, but rhetoric and politics, delivered excitingly among many in the House of Reps and profoundly among one or two in various well-dressed venues. Nothing really more needs to be said of the otherworldly Daniel Day-Lewis, but it bears repeating that his portrayal of the 16th president is all you could ask for and more, a fully lived-in portrait of an amazing man who managed to unite a nation with pragmatic words and biting strategy.


3. The Master / Paul Thomas Anderson


Paul Thomas Anderson's opaque double character study was the brainteaser of the year, as well as the most thought-provoking. Its images, with their stunning 70mm clarity, burn themselves in your mind with a primal power not seen in many movies today. "But what is it?", people ask. Well, it's many things. It's a treatise on post-WWII American disillusionment. It's a battle between the Id and the Superego. It's a love story between two personalities that prohibit themselves from ever staying together. It's about the false hope of religious institutions. Most fascinatingly, it's an elliptical portrait of the necessity of subjugation and submission in society. Masters require servants, don't they? Teachers need apprentices. But what happens when one becomes the other, or, more dubiously, when the roles aren't so cleanly defined? Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix learn the answer, volcanically.


2. Holy Motors / Leos Carax


Talking limousines. A fully clothed body suit sex scene in a motion capture studio. An entire theater of sleeping patrons. A man(?) who chomps down on everything he can get his mouth on, from flowers to money to a woman's hair. Leos Carax's Holy Motors is sensationally, brazenly, unimaginably bizarre, defying expectations with each successive scene and leaving the audience in a state of dazed wonderment. Incredibly, it's not as inscrutable or arthouse-mystifying as you would think; as it progresses, its true intentions gradually blossom like a dream becoming increasingly lucid. This is a movie that is literally about an actor acting, but it also becomes a movie about anyone and everyone who devotes at least a part of themselves to a craft, asking what motivates one to express and, most importantly, asking what makes us want to create in the first place.


1. Sister / Ursula Meier


Of all the emphatically big, bold and audacious movies from 2012, my favorite film of the year was this small unassuming gem from Switzerland. This one has it all in its deceptively tiny package: wonderfully nuanced characters, sensitive and achingly human direction, and arresting employment of environment to convey social and economic strata. Kacey Mottet Klein, playing a boy who travels up to a wealthy ski resort every day to steal and sell gear so he can get by with his destitute sister, is absolutely brilliant, a child performer with the wit, agility, and emotional depth of a seasoned actor. He creates a character that we come to profoundly connect with and care for. A mid-film twist, meanwhile, throws our entire understanding of him and his familial relationships into disarray. It's a brave move for a brave movie, one that adds whole new layers of meaning to a disarming tale of childhood endurance.



My fabulous runners-up, all of which are fully worthy of the list above:



Amour, by Michael Haneke, with its stately elegance, unflinching objectivity, and completely unsentimental but entirely human perspective.


The Impossible, by Juan Antonio Bayona, with its staggering recreation of the Thai Boxing Day tsunami and the most heartwrenching depiction of a family torn apart I think I've ever seen.


Anna Karenina, by Joe Wright, with its elaborate mise-en-scène that must have been a pain-in-the-neck to direct and its impossibly luxurious, luxuriant, lavish artistry.


Life of Pi, by Ang Lee, with its great picturesque 3D and elemental folktale storytelling.


Brave, by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, with its majestic animation and moving story of a mother and daughter relationship.


Skyfall, by Sam Mendes, with its electric Roger Deakins cinematography and high-octane action thrills, Bond is reinvented all the while remaining the guy we know and love.


Argo, by Ben Affleck, with its unfettered speed and Hollywood lampooning, an escape movie that's also a satire and a politically relevant drama.

Top 10 - 1999

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on April 21, 2012 at 6:35 PM Comments comments (0)

1999 is generally considered one of the greatest years for film, or at the least, one of the greatest in the last couple of decades. Whether I agree or not is up for consideration, but I do acknowledge the wonderful wealth of diverse, memorable, and influential cinema that was brought to the world in this last year of the millenium. Among the best, for me, were Paul Thomas Anderson's biblically tragic, epic character drama, Spike Jonze's deliriously surreal and utterly bizarre headtrip, Lynne Ramsay's grim but beautiful Scottish miniature, and David Lynch's atypically normal but deeply moving man-on-a-tractor road movie. There's more, still! Look on down below to see what else resonated for me in 1999.

The Best Films of 1999

01. Magnolia
02. American Beauty
03. Being John Malkovich
04. Ratcatcher
05. The Talented Mr. Ripley
06. Boys Don't Cry
07. The Straight Story
08. Toy Story 2
09. The Green Mile
10. The Matrix


11. Sweet and Lowdown
12. Tarzan
13. The Sixth Sense
14. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut

The Overrated Award of the Year:   FIGHT CLUB. There's a lot I like about this gritty, fast-paced 20th/21st century treatise, including Brad Pitt's iconic anarchist (not a character to be idolized, however) and the way Fincher wrings social commentary through an acidically sardonic narrative. But it's all too frenzied, too stylized and stylish for its own good. This is the kind of movie that knows it's cool, and the kind college kids feel cool liking for its coolness.

Top 10 - 2000

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on February 24, 2012 at 5:20 PM Comments comments (0)

2000 wasn't my favorite movie year, yet it still managed to provide me with some of my very favorite films of the decade: Stephen Daldry's irrepressible, ebullient live-your-dream childhood drama; Steven Soderbergh's sprawling, breathtakingly kaleidoscopic character epic; the charming warmth and humor of Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Frances McDormand, Billy Crudup, and more in a brilliant music-focused semi-autobiography; and the dazzling balletic wuxia martial arts of Ang Lee's blockbuster Taiwenese crossover. And I still haven't gotten to a scorching Mexican film or a certain thrilling - yet bloated - gladiatorial action film. Here's how the year played out for me:

The Best Films of 2000

01. Billy Elliot
02. Traffic
03. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
04. Almost Famous
05. The Gleaners and I
06. Amores Perros
07. Code Unknown
08. Quills
09. Gladiator
10. In the Mood for Love

The Overrated Award of the Year:  WONDER BOYS. I appreciated Michael Douglas's graceful, understated work and the drolly humorous script, not to mention Bob Dylan's Oscar-winning tune, but the film simply failed to draw me in on any significant emotional or intellectual level.

Top 10 - 2011

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on January 14, 2012 at 9:20 PM Comments comments (0)

  Here we are, at last. As almost everyone else has long been done with their 2011 Top 10 lists, let alone finished with the year itself, I finally come to reflect on it. And what did I come away with? A list I'm extremely proud of, one compiled top to bottom with what I believe to be extraordinarily memorable, lovingly crafted films that have all in one way or another made a veritable impression on me within the last year. I didn't get to see everything, but what I did see almost uniformly impressed me - this was certainly a large step up over the more middling (but still quality) 2010. When I have to leave off the list as many movies as I did this year, and when I feel so bad about it too, I know it was a truly stellar 12 months at the cinema.

(Films I still need and want to see: Carnage, A Dangerous Method, The Iron Lady, My Week with Marilyn, We Need to Talk About Kevin).

I'll begin with the runners-up, all excellent films that would have been worthy entries in the Top 10 but didn't quite make it. These include War Horse, A Separation, PinaTinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2Take Shelter, and Hugo.

(Ones in bold are movies I saw too late that might have cracked my actual Top 10 had I seen them when I initially compiled the list).

Now, the all-important Top 10:

10. Martha Marcy May Marlene / Sean Durkin

A debut film as assured and as elegantly crafted as the best of them, Durkin's first feature film is an ingeniously structured, highly unnerving account of a girl who lives her post-cult life in a paranoid frenzy of personality shifts and time jumps, meshing current realities and scarring memories in ways that take us directly into her disorientation. Elizabeth Oslen, as the young lead, gives a startling performance - along with director Durkin, it's her first cinematic excursion.

9. The Descendants / Alexander Payne

The Descendants is a drama, and it's a very moving, often very sad one. But it's also just as much a comedy, and in its greatest moments it mixes the two effortlessly, if not somewhat uncomfortably - all on purpose, of course. George Clooney gives one of his best performances as disheveled dad and pressured landowner Matt King, who has to contend with a land deal while also managing his unruly daughters AND his cheating wife who lies in a coma. The journey the characters go on is wonderfully enjoyable, unpredictable, and finally enriching.

8. Midnight in Paris / Woody Allen

Woody Allen's best and funniest film in quite some time, this sweet, impossibly clever nostalgic romp packs the artistic and literary references in tight, transporting us to jazzy 1920s Paris and letting us marvel at some of the most famous international icons at work. Owen Wilson serves as a brilliant Woody stand-in, and his romantic, sunny-eyed nostalgia is the perfect entrance into the near magical world set up here. In the end, we've fallen appropriately in love with the past, but we've also learned to enjoy our surroundings in the present.

7. Young Adult / Jason Reitman

Charlize Theron gives the greatest performance of the year in Jason Reitman's bitter but surprisingly tender comedy. She snarls, she makes belittling comments, she drinks (a lot), and she's deluded herself into believing she can steal back her ex-boyfriend who's happily married and with a newborn child. But somehow this character never feels wrong, never over-the-top or overly abrasive, never despicable or alien. Theron is so deft and so exacting she manages to carve a bold and relatable heart for this character, a woman who has never quite moved on from her high school heyday and longs to recapture a time when she was happy. Her desperate pleas for attention may not be so defensible, but what they mask is something beautifully, agonizingly human.

6. The Adventures of Tintin / Steven Spielberg

The other Spielberg film from 2011, this adaptation of the classic Hergé comic strips is a ridiculously fun, nonstop sensory spectacle that is as thrilling and as purely entertaining as anything else the director's ever made. The jaunty two-dimensional credit sequence is lovely, but when you get your first glance at the jaw-dropping motion capture animation Spielberg has utilized here, you never want to look back. All 100 minutes or so of this film are just unadulterated joy, action set pieces orchestrated with a visual inventiveness practically unimaginable anywhere else. A downhill chase in Morocco, captured in a single magnificently kinetic take, will leave your eyes sparkling with delight and your mouth on the floor.

5. Drive / Nicolas Winding Refn

I initially didn't know what to think of this pulpy, violent, unsettling mash-up of 70s crime noir and flashy 80s kitsch. It was certainly memorable and well made, but to what end? The more the days wore on after seeing it, however, the more I thought about its ambient after-hours queasiness, its calm, underwater atmosphere interrupted by explosions of gunfire and muscle, its pulsating soundtrack, and that enigmatic, endlessly cool (anti)hero Driver, so stealthily well played by Ryan Gosling. I kept replaying scenes in my head, like the "elevator scene" or "the shadow fight," and before long I had fallen under its hypnotic spell. Hero origin stories are rarely this visceral, or haunting.

4. Moneyball / Bennett Miller

Bennett Miller's follow-up to his great 2005 debut Capote is a sports movie that is also just as much, if not more, about business, leadership, value, redemption, and the very nature of the game, on and off the field. In the lead role is Brad Pitt, who's frankly never been as uninhibited and lean as he is here, moving through conversations with scouts and players with a cocky ease that's as domineering as it is susceptible to inevitable failure. But failure is not what this film is about, and neither, exactly, is success - the ending wisely gives us a large dose of melancholy with the triumph. Billy Beane may have not saved his team, but he did something far more important for himself, his daughter, and the legacy of the game. Sometimes it's not all about the numbers afterall.

3. The Artist / Michel Hazanavicius

It's easy to call Michel Hazanavicius's utterly charming silent film homage a lark or a trifle, but that would be to ignore its myriad considerable artistic achievements: the slick editing, the silky smooth B&W photography, the glorious sets and costumes, the fabulous ensemble performance, and the long list of classic visual devices all employed here to spectacularly clever - and occasionally self-aware - effect. This isn't some slight piece of fluff, but a fully formed, uniquely crafted paean to cinema as an art, the fragility of its existence and its creators, but mostly to the ultimate resilience and adaptability of its form. More than anything, The Artist shows by example that long extinct artforms can still live, and resonate beautifully, today.

2. Melancholia / Lars von Trier

There may have not been a more heavy or depressing film all year. Indeed, Melancholia portrays nothings less than the end of the world as we know it, briefly if painfully glancing upon the miserable life that inhabits it, noting that no one will miss it when it's gone, and then dropping the curtain on it all without a hitch. It sounds completely dire, yet through all the lugubrious foreboding and hopelessness is a ravishing, grimly bewitching human drama framed through the mystical and the philosophical. As a portrait of depression, it is brutally, astonishingly truthful in the way it conveys its massive, suffocating omnipresence as well as the way it becomes inadvertantly used as a defense mechanism against pain. As a rumination on science and faith, logic and emotion, romanticism and reality, it provokes endlessly. With the exception of my #1 film, no movie shook me more and implored me to think as cosmically as this one.

1. The Tree of Life / Terrence Malick

No surprise, perhaps, but from the minute I walked out of Terrence Malick's galvanizing and transcendent opus last June, I knew there wasn't a chance any other film could top it. And no film did. Malick has only made five films within the last 38 years, but every time he does it's an event - with The Tree of Life he's made a masterpiece of the cinematic form that is the perfect summation of all that he's expressed in the past: man's place within the grander scheme of the universe, the spirituality of living things, the coexistence of humanity with nature, birth and death, goodness and evil, compassion and indifference. Whatever one thinks of these concepts, or if you even do at all, I can't imagine how it's possible to take in the images Malick is giving us here and not feel overwhelmed by their staggering breadth and beauty, not to mention the simply unparalleled depiction of childhood, all its discoveries and hardships so amazingly in place you feel as if you are literally experiencing life for the first time all over again. This is an enormous achievement; technically, thematically, emotionally. It says and does things mere words cannot demonstrate - this is the power of the movies.

Top 10 - 2001

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on December 2, 2011 at 5:55 PM Comments comments (0)

2001: A year of fantasy, a year of science fiction, a year of innovation and a year of whimsical oddities. Those descriptors can sufficiently sum up about eight of the films on my Top 10 list, and the two they don't quite apply to are not your average films, either. Despite a somewhat wan set of Oscar winners, this was a year characterized by endless imagination and visual panache. These are the films that did it for me, including the first installment in my all-time favorite film(s), and dizzying, mind-bending work from David Lynch and Christopher Nolan.

*NOTE: As I travel further backwards chronologically, there will (often) not be the usual extra four or five films listed after my top 10. This is because I have generally not seen as many films from some of these older years.

The Best Films of 2001

01. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
02. Mulholland Drive
03. Memento
04. In the Bedroom
05. Amélie
06. A.I. Artificial Intelligence
07. The Man Who Wasn't There
08. Moulin Rouge!
09. Y Tu Mamá También
10. Monsters, Inc.


11. The Piano Teacher

The Overrated Award of the Year:  *TIE*, between THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS and GOSFORD PARK. The Wes Anderson picture I find fairly suffocating, the characters within so artificially rendered and self-aware nothing about them registers as human. The Robert Altman film, while laudable in many ways, is ultimately too sluggish for my tastes.