i’ll get right to it.

10. cloudy with a chance of meatballs (phil lord & chris miller)

the ultimate expression of this generation’s sense of humor–relentlessly ironic, a penchant for randomness, unreasonably silly–is balanced by a very clever spoof of the disaster movie and satirical yet “touching” take on the family movie.  pitch-perfect music cues courtesy of mark mothersbaugh, a “who’s who in comedy today” cast of voices (andy samberg! bill hader! neil patrick harris! bruce campbell…?) plus mr. t and james caan, and well-executed animation make for the year’s most uninhibited joy ride.  juvenile, abrasive and obnoxious, yes, but i love this movie.  maybe the year’s best title card.

9. the bad lieutenant: port of calls – new orleans (werner herzog)

werner herzog’s defiant fuck you to everything that sucks about hollywood movies is appropriately derived from a script that’s as banal and inept as they get, one that the german maestro might have condemned in his earlier years–he’s since developed quite the sense of humor.    facetiously at odds with the aforementioned screenplay, herzog either indulges in insane improvisation and bizarre, poetic flourishes–singing iguanas, dancing souls, vengeful alligators, verse about dreaming fish, brad dourif–or seemingly plays scenes out as written in order to highlight the stupidity of supposedly greenlight-worthy material (ie the first shakedown outside of the club in which the bad lieutenant ends up getting a handjob in a parking lot), culminating in an amazing, hilarious faux-happy ending.  all of it is riotously hysterical, spurred on by nicolas cage’s otherworldly performance.  comparison to abel ferrara’s similarly-titled film is pointless.

8. bright star (jane campion)

a sensitive, sensuous, and intimate rumination on first love by jane campion, who seems to use john keats and fanny brawne’s romance as an act of remembrance of her own experiences with love during youth–bright star has the indelible sense of being taken from the pages of a young-woman-in-love’s diary.  a dubious statement to be sure, but when coming from such a perceptive mind, it becomes a generous allowance.  campion’s sumptuous aesthetic provides enough to marvel at to sustain a viewing unto itself; the exquisiteness of the soundtrack that the images are paired with is a testament to campion’s brilliance.  ben whishaw continues to be one of my favorite actors with his nuanced performance as keats.  a thing of beauty, bright star isn’t simply about romance and romanticism, but rather in its simultaneous exultation of nature and love’s beauty and acknowledgment of time and nature’s indifference achieves the elegance and breadth  of a romantic poem.

7. tulpan (sergei dvortsevoy)

the most astute blurb written about this kazakh wonder describes the film as a “collaboration with god.”  to say more than enthusiastically recommending this film seems a disservice, as tulpan is simply a miracle that needs to be experienced.  i will say that it’s one of the most joyous and elating movies i’ve ever seen.  it almost makes up for the lack of american distribution for emir kusturica’s recent output.  also, no one uses third rate american pop in their movies as a short cut to jubilation quite like third world countries.

6. tony manero (pablo larrain)

pablo larrain’s twisted and incendiary evocation of pinochet’s chile is mesmerizing in its unflinching yet compassionate gaze at man’s capacity for inhumanity.  sex, politics, humor, and murder haven’t been this effortlessly woven together in a film since shohei imamura.  a story of a man who stops at nothing to achieve a pipe dream during a time of desperation, tony manero uncannily captures a palpable atmosphere not unlike what one imagines chile must have actually felt like at that time.

5. treeless mountain (so yong kim)

the most telling moment in so yong kim’s treeless mountain is the only scene in which jin cries on screen.  where most filmmakers would milk this moment with a close up of the child’s tear-strewn, sniveling face, kim elects to shoot it through a pane of glass that jin leans against, her back towards the camera.  crying isn’t a virtue of childhood in treeless mountain, it’s an expression of grief, one that kim imbues with its due respect before compassion and sympathy.  it’s this recognition of children as human beings and not sentimentality personified that makes this film so worthy.  children endure and abide in cinema but rarely with this kind of nobility and admirable perseverance.  treeless mountain is a tough film about childhood disillusionment and is all the more rewarding for its refusal of easy sentiment and shameless tugging at heart strings.

4. the sun (alexander sokurov) and still walking (hirokazu kore-eda)

two essential japanese films.  one, a curious art film probing a pivotal moment in japanese history from a russian filmmaker, the second a contemporary take on a classic japanese narrative influenced by two japanese masters.

alexander sokurov’s the sun contemplates the day of emperor hirohito’s surrender to allie forces at the end of world war II.  a mysterious, staggering work of brilliance, sokurov combines his usual rigorous art-house aesthetic/mode of expression with a strange but very successful touch of humanist warmth.  the film’s impressionist demystification of a historical giant examines a very traumatic but necessary moment in japanese history, one concerning cultural identity and its re-evaluation.  issey ogata’s turn as emperor hirohito is one of the greatest performances i’ve ever seen.

sublimely incorporating touches of ozu and mizoguchi–train imagery, immaculate composition, hints of the supernatural, and a final boom-up of the camera to usher transcendence–hirokazu kore-eda’s most accomplished film to date (by my count, anyway) still walking is an incisive meditation on japanese family matters.  resentment, things left unspoken, and the necessity of family in enduring life’s merciless forward motion are at the heart of kore-eda’s film, which suffice it to say is incredibly beautiful, patient, confident.

3. up (pete docter & bob peterson)

pixar’s rebuttal to the adage “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to,” up is a classic action-adventure “picture” with a heart of gold.  this is the near-perfect studio at top form.  the cheeky yet earnest interpretation of the disney talking animal–no longer animal characters taking on human speech but rather the articulation of animal thought and behavior into spoken words–is indicative of the ingenuity and heart fueling the movie, at once wildly entertaining and deeply resonant, perhaps the most thematically complete and substantial offering from pixar to date.  with  up, pixar transcends their tendency to be content with visual showmanship and candy-covered cuteness, providing a life affirming movie-going experience full of pathos and joy.

2. a serious man (joel coen)

continuing their doomsday prescience from no country for old men and nihilist comedic riffing that burn after reading hinted they were capable of, the coens once again consider what’s ahead by looking to the past–the sixties, this time–resulting in yet another american classic.  on paper, a serious man is as perfect a film as the coens have ever made.  the craftsmanship alone makes this beyond worthy: perfectly paced rhythmic editing, roger deakin’s career-best cinematography, period details immaculately executed, excellent performances from a cast of virtual unknowns, and an enviably well-conceived piece of writing.  its uniqueness, even among their other work, is achieved in its deft combination of tragedy and comedy as a reverie of the jewish-american experience and life as an act of perseverance.  i’ve never been of the opinion that the coens are damning of their characters or misanthropic in the least (save for burn after reading), and a serious man is an exceptional exhibition of their unorthodox, absurdist humanism and their skill as filmmakers.

1. 35 shots of rum (claire denis)

there’s a scene at the heart of 35 shots of rum involving an after hours gathering in a bar and “nightshift” by the commodores that, in and of itself, is a greater achievement in movies than most of the films released this year.  claire denis’s latest masterpiece is also her best, an exquisite and lyrical variation of ozu’s late spring.  there are no words.  see it.


honorable mention: two lovers, in the loop, tokyo sonata, summer hours, the box, julia, public enemies, moon, la danse, antichrist, extract

haven’t seen: a prophet, the beaches of agnes, the white ribbon, revanche, you, the living, the window, araya, the informant!, the house of the devil, bronson, sherlock holmes, invictus, broken embraces, lorna’s silence, police, adjective, gomorrah, district 9, liverpool, up in the air, nine, afterschool

worst: watchmen, 9, thirst, paranormal activity, coco before chanel, adam, the fantastic mr. fox

academy of the overrated:
(please note that “overrated” and “bad” are not synonymous)

a section in which i pick fights.   i’ll start with the most beloved.

(500) days of summer (marc webb) – THE hipster paean of the decade (“this is not a love story, it’s a story about LOVE” or however the fuck this movie starts), oh so very clever and ironic.  this movie continues the trend of awkward, sensitive guys making movies for awkward, sensitive guys to take girls to in hopes of getting laid.  it connects at times but only when spewing rather obvious truisms.  the ending is so bad it should’ve incited genocide.  i’m officially over zooey deschanel, though that has more to do with her marrying ben gibbard and being a vegan than her participation in this movie.

the hurt locker (kathryn bigelow) – a visceral action movie with a message that’s dubious at best.  while it has the makings of a hawksian ode to men at work, its leanings towards war porn and easy, all too familiar sentiments  about war make it a contradictory mess.  a good adrenaline rush, though.  the hurt locker is a better film of iron man than jon favreau’s.  jeremy renner does give an excellent performance.  does anyone who hasn’t heard or read the director give an explanation know what the title means?

inglourious basterds (quentin tarantino) – i find the kicks tarantino’s films have to offer to be entirely ephemeral.  inglourious basterds (i abhor the intentionally misspelled title) contains tarantino’s best scene ever and some of his starkest imagery but it is, as one can expect by now of tarantino, overindulgent to the point of being masturbatory.  christoph waltz and melanie laurent are great; brad pitt and eli roth are not.  the self-referential last line turns out to be a rather accurate proclamation: relatively speaking, this is, indeed, his “masterpiece.”

where the wild things are (spike jonze) – maurice sendak’s elegantly brief prose poem of a children’s book is overblown, overstuffed, and overworked into a messy film that isn’t so much an evocation of childhood but an act of childishness.  eggers and jonze manage to capture the feeling of being a kid at times but don’t really go anywhere with it except angsty navelgazing.  this movie peaks during the logos before the title sequence.

avatar (james cameron) – south park put it best: dances with smurfs.  amazingly mediocre in all aspects outside of the visual/technological pageantry.

tetro (francis ford coppola) – supposedly a return to form.  long winded, uninspired, boring.  a failed attempt at high drama, tetro certainly won’t be spearheading the return of personal filmmaking in american cinema a la late 60’s/early 70’s

the fantastic mr. fox (wes anderson) – the word “quirky” has and always will be a red herring to me, and wes anderson’s latest is most definitely quirky and completely given over to whimsical, idiosyncratic preciousness.  it’s all so cute, and i fucking hate it all.  this is one occasion in which a film i consider to be grossly overrated is also one i consider to be among the year’s worst.  unfunny, poorly animated, too caught up in its immaculately designed-by-wes-anderson look.  the subdued voice acting is a misstep, though meryl streep’s voice is magnetic, soothing.

ponyo (hayao miyazaki) – even as eye candy, ponyo fails to be anywhere near as fulfilling as miyazaki’s other films.  the plot of this one is just flat-out stupid.  an undercooked effort.

the headless woman (lucrecia martel) – this is the one i’m most troubled by and most interested in reconsidering, eagerly at that.  lauded as one of the year’s great art house works, my defense for including it on this list is that i simply didn’t get it.  i wanted to and still want to see it for the great film it supposedly is.  but for the time being its formal rigor and enigmatic nature eluded me to the point of my having completely missed the boat.