I think it’s only in the runners-up that we have this many ties. Quite a few in part one of this article. Don’t blame me. Blame all the filmmakers who did worthwhile and interesting work this year. In the top ten, each film had to fight for its own slot. Here, though, I’m trying to spread the love a little bit…
#15 / “Anti-Christ” and “Love Exposure”
Lars Von Trier was damn near attacked by the crowd at Cannes over his newest film, and trying to get a mainstream American distributor to pick up a four-hour film about a kid who decides to become the best upskirt panty photographer in Japan is madness. Both of these films sound like transgression for the sake of it, but I don’t think that’s a fair description in either case. “Anti-Christ” has been called misogynist, but that seems like an almost deliberate misreading of the material. This is a powerfully controlled piece of mood and atmosphere, an emotional horror film about the cumulative effects of misogyny on women and what happens when all of that cultural pressure finally causes someone to crack. It is no accident that Von Trier named his protagonists Woman and Man. He’s painting with big symbols here, and it works precisely because he aims so broad. There are horrible images in the film that sear the eyes, but that’s the point. This is what horror does at its best… it forces us to deal with the things that most profoundly unsettle us. I know most “horror” fans don’t really want anything that is difficult or upsetting, but that’s your flaw, not the genre’s, and Von Trier’s movie shouldn’t be penalized for being deliberately ugly. Not every film needs to comfort us or hold our hand. “Love Exposure” tackles at least a half-dozen big ideas, including institutionalized religion, love, the way fetishism in our culture defines people, and more, and it juggles them all with aplomb. A young man with a strict Catholic priest for a father decides to become an epic-scale sinner so he has something to share with his father in confession, and that drive leads him to meet the love of his life while dressed as a woman. She falls in love with his female self, but he wants desperately to make her love him as a man, and that fuels a huge, sprawling story that is ultimately one of the most innocent things I’ve seen all year. In both cases, audiences might read descriptions of these films or individual scenes in them and decide they aren’t going to watch them because they are “dirty.” Don’t deprive yourself. Any real adult who is interested in the full range of what cinema can do should seek these out.
#14 / “Up”
Pixar’s latest is front-loaded, to be sure, with an opening ten minutes that lays an audience flat and a third-act that seems almost mundane compared to much of what the company has done. No matter. “Up” is yet another triumph from one of the best storytelling units that has ever been assembled, and they’ve added more classic characters to the roster while telling an effective, affecting tale about the unlikely way people come to depend on one another. Russell, Carl, and Dug are all equally charming character who couldn’t be less alike, and the way the story gradually unites them to help a strange bird named Kevin is damn near effervescent.
#13 / “Observe & Report” and “The Invention Of Lying”
Comedy is not pretty. I remember hearing that when I was young, and it’s never seemed more true than when watching these films this year. “Observe and Report” tells the story of a disturbed young man looking to make his mark on the world, even if that mark is a bullet hole, and “The Invention Of Lying” takes a clever “Twilight Zone” style conceit and uses it to launch a stealth attack on the entire notion of conformism and conditioning in our society, while also daring to question to purpose and nature of religion. Both films are blunt to the point of feeling like weapons more than movies, and both films turned audiences off in droves. No matter. These are not disposable comedies, built to forget as soon as you’re done watching them. These are smart, edgy films that reward repeat viewings, and that dare to treat their audiences like intelligent adults. It’s amazing they even exist.
#12 / “A Prophet”
Jacques Audiard has been building an incredible resume as a director over the last decade, and he’s been working as a writer for almost 30 years now, but to me, it feels like everything came together for the first time here, with “A Prophet,” a haunting film that takes the “life in prison” genre and supercharges it with a soul that’s normally lacking from these films. A young Arab man is sent to prison, where he has to learn the rules of survival. He demonstrates a real knack for it, though, and gradually starts to move his way up the social ladder, eventually crossing into a world that is typically closed to his kind, the Mafia. The relationship between him and an Corsican crime boss is a study in the way power works, and in the way it fosters resentment that slowly simmers until someone has to die. The film is visually arresting, but beyond that, it feels authentic, organic, never forced despite the rigid structure of the script. It is a singular experience, and it managed to take a basic story (someone learning to survive in prison) and make it feel like it’s being told for the very first time.
#11 / “Adventureland”
A fantastic cast and an assured director work together to make this deceptively slight piece into something that really sticks to the ribs. James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) gets stuck working for the summer, and even worse, he gets stuck working at a low-rent amusement park. What he views as a punishment rapidly becomes one of the formative experiences of his life thanks to the people he meets and the life experience he racks up during the park’s off-hours. Greg Mottola doesn’t try to turn this into a wacky comedy, but instead allows the genuine nature of the film’s observations on summer jobs and the way we survive them to set the tone. It’s a gentle film, a small film, and, yes, a great film.
And someone should give that Kristen Stewart some work in films people actually go to see. She’s good.
That’s it for the runners-up. So far so good, eh?
Now it’s time for the big show… the top ten…
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