Last month The L's senior film writers, myself included, unveiled their year-end Top 10 lists; now, in an attempt to define, beyond our (sometimes profoundly) individual tastes, the sensibility of the L's film section—which, despite the somewhat chance-filled way in which our roster of critics has been assembled, seems now to exist—we present our second annual poll of our regular contributors.
There are far too many year-in-review film polls, but The L's poll is, at least, one of the last to finish voting. Final ballots for the Village Voice/LA Weekly poll were due on Thursday, December 9th, as were Film Comment's; indiewire's deadline was the 17th and ours was the Monday subsequent. I submit that this makes our poll more rather than less valuable: voters have more time to see stuff. This is valuable not so much for the sake of the late December awards-bait titles everyone is so eager to fit in under the wire—Paramount had a special screening of True Gritin the first week of December just for Village Voice Media voters—than for catch-up. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, screeners of, to name just two, Daddy Longlegs (#15) and Our Beloved Month of August (#9) changed hands multiple times; ample opportunity to look backwards at the preceding eleven months, at least as much as forward to the next four weeks, seems a necessity for even the most devoted practitioner of this increasingly part-time profession. The aforementioned Our Beloved Month of August placed in our Top 10 despite playing for just a single week at Anthology Film Archives.
More esoteric results are also probably a function of a smaller voting pool: though there's considerable overlap with the VVM and indiewire bodies, our dozen-and-a-half voters—who have regular bylines at the L in common with one another, and sometimes not much else—managed, like the voters at Slant's and Reverse Shot's similarly internal polls, to avoid marching lockstep with 2010's critical consensus. (At #25 on our list is an undistributed film that screened in NYC just enough times to receive two first-place votes from L contributors. Another, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu, just missed getting written up.)
Our results speak to a rather variable year for film culture: big-name and breakthrough foreign films, released this year after gaining strong advance word on the 2009 festival circuit, make as strong a showing as 2008's festival hits did in the L's first annual film poll in 2009, while fewer English-language auteurs produced career-quality works. Indie hits were more sparse than divisive, and glib recapumentaries of hot-button political topics get more ink in their release week than when film history is written (our nonfiction-film picks better represent the genre's virtues, in this year featuring new work from and a major retrospective on Frederick Wiseman ). It was a better year for blockbusters than our top 25 indicates—our hive mind didn't seem to settle on any single one to champion, though The Town, Unstoppable and Inception all had their backers, and Predators is awesome.
On to the results. Films of any year which had their premiere NYC theatrical run were eligible, as were films which had their NYC premiere and were undistributed as of the voting deadline. Capsules authored by the voter indicated. Mark Asch
1. Everyone Else (Maren Ade)
The virtues are those of the "small" film: naturalistic writing, well-served by invisible directing and unselfconscious acting, attuned to the subtle gradations and microbial mood swings of interpersonal relations. But the small-bore filmmaking renders intimate and subjective the biggest possible subject: the distance between any two human souls, dramatized here as a note-perfect study in the uneasy, unresolved heterogeny of coupledom.
2. The Social Network (David Fincher)
Something for every kind of critic: There's the mediocre HBO-style amusing drama and Fincher's airless formalist thing, and even critics skeptical of both those styles can appreciate the brilliant way the two are constructed together in a closed loop of insecurity in which the go-nowhere diversion is the point of the film itself.
3. Carlos (Olivier Assayas)
Fast-moving at five hours plus, Carlos is a portrait of a narcissistic fame seeker whose medium of choice was violence. In this intimate epic, Assayas uses the (true) story of Carlos the Jackal to trace the rise and fall of terrorist chic in the mid- to late-20th century.
4. Greenberg (Noah Baumbach)
Yes, Greenberg was droll, witty, tender and insightful, especially for disaffected, male creative types approaching middle age. But we enjoyed it most for the one million feature profiles it spawned about Greta Gerwig, garnering greater exposure for our favorite actress and showing her off to the larger audience she deserves.
5. Mother (Bong Joon-ho)
Genre is like Playdoh in Bong's hands. Fusing the Devoted Mother Melodrama and Vigilante Amateur Detective, Mother embodies everything we've come to love and expect from Bong—gleefully perverse, tonally diverse, with spontaneous flourishes of violence and comedy—but in Kim Hye-ja as the titular matriarch, he's found his most compelling and unpredictable main character yet.
6. White Material (Claire Denis)
The sense of suspension in Claire Denis's work, partly sustained through their intuitive rhythms, well suited the gathering storm of civil war in her latest. The tragedy of embattled homelands plays out its endgame (with Isabelle Huppert as dug-in colonial), yielding a macabre counterpart to the family affairs of 35 Shots of Rum.
7. Wild Grass (Alain Resnais)
In his late eighties, Resnais continued his career-long inquiry into themes of memory, time and love with a frisky, inevitable collision of two middle-aged people who find some solace in chance and the dreamlike fantasies of the cinema.
8. Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese)
The latter-day B-movie homage is always a showcase, and much has already been written about the filmmaking flair of Scorsese, a director with, at last, nothing less to prove—but Shutter Island is most notable for the star turns by the two collaborators most indispensable to Marty this century: human release valve Leonardo DiCaprio, of course, but also editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who cuts with such bullying speed, and with such subtle disregard for matching, that she can turn a day player drinking a glass of water into a moment of haunting ambiguity.
9. Our Beloved Month of August (Miguel Gomes)
Concert footage, local testimonials, and a warped Partridge Family-esque melodrama overlap in Portuguese director Gomes's second feature, a totally beguiling investigation into the porousness of fiction and nonfiction. The film is pretty much sui generis, but its casual evolvement and frequent peeks behind its own scenes suggest nothing less than vintage Kiarostami.
10. Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)
You can read a lot about what Aronofsky's psycho-ballet thriller "really" is beneath all of his seriousness and grainy film and following shots: a gussied up horror movie, porny lipstick lesbianism, faux-genius that isn't fit to tie The Red Shoes, and so on. But one of Aronofsky's greatest strengths—his fusion of high-minded art-film seriousness with genre exploitation—is at its peak here, spinning a simple story into hypnotic, operatic hysteria. The good kind. The movie kind.
11. Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos)
The year's psychosexual art-film hothouse bloom unrolls in a bourgeosie suburban compound in which three systematically sheltered teenage siblings gallivant and battle and fuck and, eventually, helplessly, rebel. Neo-con paranoia hatches totalitarian madness, and the upshot feels in your shorts like the creepiest avant-garde science fiction movie Kafka never wrote.
12. Lourdes (Jessica Hausner)
A meditation on, not so much on the possibility of the divine, as the hopes, envies and petty resentments of mankind, Hausner's film steeps its eponymous miracle-seeking mecca in an aura of the godly—until a mid-film intrusion of the (possibly) miraculous exposes what it means to be all too human.
13 (tie). Around a Small Mountain (Jacques Rivette)
A movie with artistry so subtle it's easy to dismiss, or to miss. There are scenes that illustrate the singularity of film art and then scenes that casually support those. Demonstrates what Hawks said was the filmmaker's discipline: Make a few great scenes and the rest of the time don't annoy anyone.
13 (tie). Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg)
This isn't just a documentary about a brain-damaged man turned outsider artist and the (analog) Second Life he creates with dolls in his backyard. It's about the way we all turn our lives into stories, and how that helps us make sense of our lives—but also damagingly oversimplifies them.
15. Daddy Longlegs (Josh and Benny Safdie)
To Lenny (Ronald Bronstein), divorced father of two (graffiti tag: Dad), somebody else is always at fault, and everything is always in flux. The Safdies' remarkable film is funny for its depiction of a topsy-turvy Manhattan, alarming for its catalog of parenting blunders, and moving for its uncanny texture of memory.
16 (tie). The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Chodolenko)
Chodolenko and her uniformly excellent cast find endless shades of subtlety and subtext in broad situational comedy. Each fully realized performance would be an achievement unto itself, but Chodolenko's ability to juggle four or five of them during the film's several sustained dinner scenes is a revelation worthy of Mike Leigh. (If you want to appreciate just how much work those seemingly simple meal sequences are doing, try keeping your eye on a character who's not the focal point of a given shot.) Building on her past studies of post-sexual-revolution mores in High Art and Laurel Canyon, Chodolenko's character-driven portrait of a post-nuclear family is as personally generous and ethically demanding as ever—but this time around, the drama is far better sustained. Visually, Kids is a wet dream of the West Coast: as breezy as an afternoon motorcycle ride, as mellow as a downtempo electropop lounge, as warm and social as a SoCal summer night.
16 (tie). Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright)
In a year littered with disposable-at-best, toxic-at-worst romantic comedies, Wright made a buoyant one by one-upping into the heart and brain of an eight-bit videogame via an anime-inspired graphic novel series—exactly the kind of branding that studio movies thrive upon and that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World transcends with its deadpan humor/surprising emotion combination punch.
18. Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong)
A sublimely materialist, suggestively transcendental study of ineffable sadness and religious faith (the less plot you know going in, the better). Though Lee's work as a director ranks alongside that of East Asia's great art-house auteurs, he is usually dismissed (or begrudgingly praised) as a "literary" director. Chalk it up to his background in novels and screenwriting, as well as his increasingly rigorous refusal of self-conscious stylistic mannerism or button-pushing technique—but the style in Secret Sunshine is hardly functional. Lee offers attentive viewers the sublimely visual experience of Bazinian realism, where every element of the frame interacts with every other in a ballet of micro gestures. There are tonal nuances in this film so subtle I didn't appreciate them until the third screening. So please, don't ever call it "un-cinematic."
19. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski)
Blue is an overused tint in modern movies, but Polanski seemed to discover new shades of the color here. The mood of dreamy dread is more considered and nuanced than the movie's political implications, but it's indelible—and various German islands serve eerily and brilliantly as stand-ins for Martha's Vineyard.
20. Winter's Bone (Debra Granik)
Winter's Bone is so chockablock with indie cliches that it's a wonder the film still proves an authentic, condescension-free portrait of rural familial struggle and sacrifice. Credit that triumph to writer/director Granik's rugged, resignation-infused depiction of her tale's backwoods Missouri Ozarks setting, as well as to artless performances by Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes that radiate bone-deep determination and sorrow.
21. The Father of My Children (Mia Hansen-Love)
The opening credits, like those of 127 Hours but far less insistent, present in their car-window-level Parisian street scenes a world teeming with human activity and possible connections: it's the world the film's first protagonist, Louis-do de Lencquesaing's narrow-margin producer, opts out of and the world to which his on-screen and real-life daughter Alice de Lencquesaing gains excited entry—parties, foreign films, even the act of ordering coffee fresh-seeming pleasures—until her own rueful exit, on her defeated mother's terms, and end credits playing over retreating views from the same window. A lovely little film about the very quick cycling of enthrallment and disillusionment.
22. Vincere (Marco Bellocchio)
Bellocchio sets out to prove a point about the seductive power of mass media, and proves it. Heartrace-paced period reenactments of seismic upheavals in pre-Fascist Italy are interrupted by even more breathless newsreel interludes and superimposed sloganeering. War! War! War! The excitement is contagious, and totally hot, climaxing (a bit early, it must be said), with the year's most audacious sequence: a sweaty, muscular, semi-illicit tryst celebrating the sexual prowess of the young Benito Mussolini.
23. Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash, Lucien Castaing-Taylor)
In a year where several poignant yet unsentimental portraits of life "off the map" served as reminders of worlds beyond glowing computer screens, this sheepherding documentary left a particularly deep impression with a patient, fully engrossing account of its last-of-their-kind subjects, still practicing traditional, mountain-traversing herding as the electronic age beckons to ease their burden.
Michael Joshua Rowin
24. Ne Change Rien (Pedro Costa)
In Costa's patient, minimally lit ode to Jeanne Ballibar's singing career, he distills the essence of an actress to light, shadow and voice. If Marlene Dietrich had directed her own music video, it'd look like this. Also includes the best constructing-a-song scenes since Godard's One Plus One.
25. Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard)
Free access; world without borders: free trade of subject/object, shots as hyperlinks through collective visions. "If every sign refers to a sign"? Language first recorded with money, near Delos: economy of visions: the world as it might be only from the world as it's variably perceived: the circulation of waves only has sense in sound. Circulating vision, subconscious history of revolt: animals, women, movies (bartered images, commodities)--but revolt has no origin, requires opposition for its terms: No Comment is, of course, a comment, but itself with Janus vision on both the FBI and Godard's humility before the materials of the modern world.