Winter is upon it, and with the blistering cold comes the inevitable avalanche of top ten lists. I always regret putting something on there or missing something else, and I'm sure I'll try to correct the record before the year is done. But since I just submitted my favorites to the indieWIRE and Village Voice/L.A. Weekly polls, I figured I'd post the main list here, too, with some links to elaborations on my choices when I've had the opportunity to write about them. Titles -- and photos shamelessly culled from Google Images -- follow after the jump.
The Greek thriller “Dogtooth” has an original premise that should pique interest for the sake of its ingenuity alone, but the major accomplishment of director Yorgos Lanthimos’s Orwellian story emerges from a careful navigation of moods. Few movies convey such a deeply unnerving atmosphere in nearly every scene while simultaneously capitalizing on an absurd black comic sensibility. Ostensibly designed as bizarre commentary on suburban control, “Dogtooth” blends satire with psychological dread.
EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP
From the moment elusive street artist Banksy appears on camera in “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” something seems fishy. With his face obscured by shadows and his real voice rendered unrecognizable by mechanical distortion, Banksy remains the mysterious figure he has always been. In “Exit,” the context of his anonymity shifts from public vandalism to cinema, an equally appropriate venue for creative tomfoolery. (Other critics have aptly compared it to Orson Welles’s 1974 essay film “F for Fake.”) Although the movie ostensibly tells a true story, much of what appears on screen raises the possibility of a trickster behind the scenes, expanding its allure.
An elegant, soft spoken noir, Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” exudes desolation. Adapting Daniel Woodrell’s novel of the same name, Granik simultaneously develops a dreary backwoods environment while situating her layered story of deceit within it. Set in the heart of Missouri’s Ozark woods, the movie revolves around despondent teenager Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence, in a focused, incessantly serious performance), whose father vanishes after selling their house as jail bond. Serving as a surrogate mother for her two younger siblings, Ree begins a trenchant investigation into her father’s whereabouts, desperately seeking to keep her family from losing the only shelter available to them. Her determination, emboldened by the discouragement of those around her, drives the narrative forward with pulsating momentum.
Shot, like "The Pleasure of Being Robbed," on scruffy 16mm film, "Daddy Longlegs" captures the city from numerous expressive angles - from cramped apartment buildings to late-night police busts and a concluding trip to Roosevelt Island. New York faces populate the movie as well: Legendary underground filmmaker Abel Ferrara pops up as a despondent mugger, while various young actors from the Safdies' earlier movie appear in familiar roles. The best New York personality in Rosemary is its lead, an eternally sloppy single father named Lenny, played by Ronnie Bronstein - another noteworthy underground director from the area. Bronstein's 2007 cult hit Frownland forced audiences to probe and eventually sympathize with an extremely annoying personality, and Rosemary works in that vein by going one step further. Lenny's behavior goes beyond annoying to reach a point of being reprehensible. Although he puts his two pre-adolescent kids, Sage and Frey (real brothers Sage and Frey Ranaldo) in a series of increasingly dangerous situations, Bronstein makes you see past Lenny's demented antics and actually feel sorry for the guy.
Stories of aging, loneliness and despair typically don’t translate into crowdpleasers, but there’s nothing typical about a Mike Leigh movie. With “Another Year,” a skillfully understated character study from the master of subtext, Leigh magnifies the existential reflections of his middle-aged subjects, eschewing plot for mere observation and stuffing emotional realism into near-theatrical constraints. Smoothly oscillating from comedy to crisis with an unparalleled eye for naturalism, Leigh once again puts intangible feelings in the spotlight and—using brilliant finesse—makes them funny and profound.
Equal parts crime thriller, neo-western and coming-of-age story, the Australian drama “Animal Kingdom” puts its moral compass into a tailspin. Initially, first time writer-director David Michod introduces a basic sense of right and wrong adopted by the most casual entries in good-versus-evil sagas, but he later endows his cruel world with a fittingly tilted vision of justice. Our sympathies lie with alienated teen Josh (James Frecheville), a Melbourne youth whose innocence gets challenged by his older gangster relatives. Michod situates Josh as the moral center, then sneaks in a finale suggesting nothing is sacred. Josh grows up when he grows bad.
Many movies over last ten years have engaged with the dangers of online communication, but Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost’s “Catfish” delivers the definitive narrative of social networking gone awry to cap off the decade. By turns hilarious, unsettling and sad, the documentary engages with the rampant instability of new media. The filmmakers focus on Schulman’s brother, Nev, a 24-year-old New York photographer whose relationship with an eight-year-old painter named Abby via Facebook leads to more questions than answers about her identity. Ostensibly a child prodigy, Abby sends Nev gorgeously painted renditions of his own photographs. As their relationship grows, Nev begins to develop remote connections with other members of Abby’s family—particularly her older sister, with whom he cultivates a hilariously puerile digital love affair. For hopeless romantics, the Internet apparently endangers swift intellectual regression.
(At some point I would like to record my thoughts on this dazzling, nostalgia-inflected quasi-documentary for all the amazing things it says about childhood, family and the universal innocence of finding beauty in the natural world.)
PRINCE OF BROADWAY
An airtight Hollywood tale of burgeoning parenthood applied to an unconventional setting.
ENTER THE VOID
Borrowing from the aesthetics of "Cloverfield," first-person shooters and the extreme long-take style of Mike Figgis' "Timecode," Noé's audacious work begs for big-screen treatment, a patient audience and a willingness to give the director a certain amount of leeway. In concept, it's just plain dumb; in execution, it's somewhat pretentious and far too ambitious. In the right frame of mind, however, "Enter the Void" offers a wholly original twist on the role of the spectator in storytelling. Love it or hate it, the movie succeeds as a radical experiment in film form.
Honorable Mentions Worthy of Further Discussion: "Winnebago Man," "Gasland," "Please Give," "Life During Wartime," "Boxing Gym," "Black Swan," "Idiots and Angels," "Monsters."