It’s that time of year again, the start of it, that calls for looking back on the best of cinema. So without further ado…
1. True Grit. 5 stars. My favorite Western (aside from Tarantino’s later two) is a remake of the John Wayne classic. The character of Mattie Ross is the film. Hailee Steinfeld’s performance is about the best 14-year old’s I’ve seen (second only to Ellen Page’s Hayley Stark in Hard Candy). I completely fell in love with this girl. She takes the law into her own hands after her father is murdered in 1878, and none of the Arkansas authorities are willing to go after the killer into Indian territory. And Jeff Bridges is far better than John Wayne. The final shoot-out in the open field is orgasmic; and Mattie’s loss of her arm to the rattlesnake bite the perfect ending which could never be happy anyway, given the revenge premise.
2. Stake Land. 4 ½ stars. Not only is this a great post-apocalyptic drama, it’s one of the best vampire films of all time, giving the middle finger to both the aristocratic version (Dracula) and juvenile pop model (Blade, Underworld, Buffy, Twilight). These are vamps as they should be, mindless savages. The story centers around a young man whose family is slaughtered; he’s taken under the wing of a hunter who now slays vampires as they can only be killed, by pounding stakes through the bastards’ hearts. The two embark on a Road-like odyssey to find a mythical refuge up in Canada, and run afoul a nasty religious cult along the way. This is the proper way to do an undead pandemic, and blows away the overrated zombiefest 28 Days Later.
3. Unstoppable. 4 ½ stars. My favorite popcorn director Tony Scott is back in top form: this is easily his best work after Crimson Tide and Deja Vu. And it wouldn’t be a Tony Scott film without Denzel Washington (playing Denzel Washington), and even though he’s such a non-actor, I at least like the character he always plays. There’s the usual fast-paced camerawork, raw energy, and frenetic cutting, on top of searing dramatic conflict despite the lack of villains. The runaway freight train carrying explosive cargo is more than enough villain, a missile barreling ahead at 70 miles/hour straight to Stanton PA, as two hostlers engage in a desperate plan to stop it. Based loosely on an actual event in Cleveland, believe it or not.
4. Winter’s Bone. 4 ½ stars. The odyssey of a teen who is forced to care for a younger brother and sister, not to mention a mentally absent mother, while living in destitution. It’s one of those films carried largely by the lead role, and rest assured that Jennifer Lawrence is a rarely gifted young talent — a lot like Ellen Page and Jennifer Connelly were, and still are. Ree must locate her father who skipped bail, or her family will become homeless, and her rough encounters on the road to a morbid endpoint find her clinging to selfless values in an entirely believable way. More films like this, please.
5. Of Gods and Men. 4 ½ stars. Based on the true account of the French Cistercian monks in Algeria who were taken hostage by Islamic jihadists. They could have easily avoided their fate and returned to France, and some of them wished to do just that, but as a group they elected to stay and minister to the surrounding Muslim villagers who are coming under fire — girls getting killed on buses for refusing to wear the hijab, others getting their throats slit for various violations of sharia law. The film maintains an extraordinary sense of detachment as the monks wrestle with their faith and their conscience. They have no interest in converting anyone to Catholicism, only following Christ’s dictum to help the oppressed even if that means martyrdom, which in the end, of course, it does.
6. Super. 4 stars. Everything Kick Ass should have been, upending superhero conventions through brutal satire, making us laugh as our heroes take pipe wrenches to people who cut in line at the movies and key other peoples’ cars. Their mission is to fight crime, but Ellen Page’s character doesn’t seem to care much about that, as long as she can beat the living be-Jesus out of someone. James Gunn is the flip side to Christopher Nolan, who also redeemed the superhero genre but it a serious way: by destroying our optimism and suggesting heroes as hopeless liberators who escalate terror as they try fighting it. Gunn destroys our seriousness by suggesting heroes as hopeless losers who likewise are barely better than those they go against.
7. Inception. 4 stars. The lack of character development stands out, but hardly counts against a story whose strengths lie entirely elsewhere. Nolan takes us down a tempus fugit which spirals into something more rewarding than mere Matrix imitation. The minimalist feel, the black-greys, and the rigid architectures of the dream world match perfectly with the concept of intentional design, completely unlike the wildly surreal and unpredictable nature of dreams as seen in The Science of Sleep and What Dreams May Come. The synchronized triple climax is flawlessly executed, and the film’s premise — that the “protagonists” are out to destroy a decent man (or at least his financial world) — preserves the amorality of a heist drama as it should. It’s over 2 ½ hours, but over before you know it.
8. Shutter Island. 4 stars. On first viewing it left me nonplussed, but grew on me once I got over being insulted by the narrative rug-jerking and worn out formula of a lead protagonist’s delusional insanity. The fact is that Scorsese does such a great job with the material (from a vastly inferior novel written by Dennis Lehane) that its problematic aspects become invisible in subsequent viewings. It’s a film defined by a haunting atmosphere, Teddy’s intense relationship with the shade of his wife, the gothic mood of the island and its denizens.
9. Black Swan. 4 stars. It says something about how engaging a film is when it takes a subject I’m uninterested in (ballet) and draws me thoroughly into its subculture. Aronofsky seems riveted by the theme of individuals willing to die for sport or athletic art, but where The Wrestler was grounded in mundane reality, The Black Swan revels in hallucinations and Jungian archetypes. Nina’s metamorphosis into the White Swan’s evil twin is patiently realized as her nightmare world gradually tugs her down, and she discovers the impulses of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” mirrored in her own life.
10. Blue Valentine. 4 stars. The most depressing romance I’ve ever seen captures the start and end points of a hopeless relationship begun in puppy love followed by stagnation. As with Black Swan‘s Nina, something was lost along the way for Cindy, but that something is elusive — probably nothing more than a foreordained deterioration into pointless existence. The scene where Cindy tries to enjoy a night out and have sex with Dean, and is revolted by his touch, is the mirror opposite in every way to Nina’s energetic lesbian fantasy over Lily: one grossly real, the other wildly arousing; the first an attempt to heal real-life wounds, the other a retreat from reality, each desperately futile.
(See also: The Best Films of 2006, The Best Films of 2007, The Best Films of 2008, The Best Films of 2009, The Best Films of 2011, The Best Films of 2012, The Best Films of 2013, The Best Films of 2014, The Best Films of 2015, The Best Films of 2016, The Best Films of 2017, The Best Films of 2018.)