(In Alphabetical order)
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Kelly Reichardt had a stellar if hushed 2000s, and then she commenced the current decade with a film that is already beginning to feel like an unsung modern classic. Meek’s Cutoff is one of those exhilarating instances in which a marriage of disparate styles produces something tricky to imagine, but perfect to behold: a period piece set in mid-1800’s Oregon, shot in academy ratio and classically beautiful for it, but with Reichardt’s signature severe naturalism. The result is so stark and understated that it begins to feel graceful, weirdly epic. A small caravan of settlers (featuring Michelle Williams and a once again devout Paul Dano) hires a guide, big-talking Stephen Meek, to help them navigate the Oregon Trail. As the terrain grows less forgiving and water evermore scarce, the settlers begin to wonder if the route Meek advocated won’t turn out to be the death of them all. Feminist and racialist readings aside, here is a film which displays full conviction in the weight of the situation it is depicting, so much so that it is willing to simply sit and watch it all unfold. More suspenseful than most thrillers, this is immersive cinema of a type that appreciates movement and stillness alike, behaviour and lack thereof, and the drama of the everyday even if the everyday is on a knife’s edge. This is one worth singing about as loudly as the film is quiet.
Me and You and Everyone We Know
Directed by Miranda July
“I want to poop back and forth. Like, I’ll poop into her butthole, and then she’ll poop it back. Into my butthole. And then we’ll just keep doing it, back and forth. With the same poop.”
In Me and You and Everyone We Know, these words are dictated by a six-year old boy to his older brother who’s chatting online with an anonymous woman. If you’re seduced by the tone of July’s debut feature, those words become poetry, touching and funny. That tone is balanced between, on the one hand, soft and benign; and, on the other, life-affirming and near-fantastical, with a faith in the idea that magic could happen at any moment. It’s a delicate balance – one slip and the film’s humour would become broad, and its philosophy disingenuous.
What keeps it all upright is July’s strong perspective – which includes her sense of humour (her comedic timing and physicality are superb). The stylistic and emotional unity of the film seem to derive solely from this perspective, which resonates through the various characters and situations, attracting them to its curiosity, trust, and promise of love – in Richard’s words: “I am prepared for amazing things to happen. I can handle it.” Equally, though, July’s is a distanced, objective perspective on human behaviour, but, in being so, manages to unveil the common humility behind behaviour that would otherwise appear questionable or unethical.
This is nowhere clearer than in the storylines dealing with sex and intimacy. July presents sex as seen through children’s eyes – even if those children are actually adults. In the latter case, this suggests arrested sexual development, or, perhaps, a willful regression. Through those eyes there’s no sign of judgment, just curiosity, humour, compassion and trust. That’s the very heart of the film, and it could easily result in a claustrophobically sweet and sentimental atmosphere, but MAYAEWK escapes by choosing not to erase the sense of fear that seems to inhibit most of the characters, even when they manage to transcend it. In doing so, the film presents a challenge to its characters and audience: how will you respond to the continuing presence of such fear? With cynicism and despair, or with curiosity and faith?
Meshes of the Afternoon
Directed by Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid
If you’ve seen this, it was likely in your film class (admit it) and for good reason. Meshes is a difficult film to comprehend, even on a 10th viewing, but it’s a film that lingers. It forces you to contemplate its symbolic visuals and perplexing narrative. Yet, it’s an inviting experience. Set in a familiar environment, the film posits an ordinary situation (basically the act of going home) in the physical realm of a dream. It plays with perspective and time and the notion of cause and effect, revisiting scenes and folding in on itself similar to David Lynch’s Lost Highway or Christopher Nolan’s Doodlebug, both of which may have found influence here.
Meshes was created by the husband-wife team of Alexander Hammid and Maya Deren, who both appear in the film. Hammid also shot the film and creatively manifests the story’s psychology through technical means. Noteworthy is his use of split-screen to create multiple Maya Derens, which is impressive and beautiful even out of context. The film later gained a score from Teiji Ito (Deren’s later husband) in 1959. Unfortunately, it’s audibly distracting and at times out of sync with the on-screen action. Try watching Meshes on mute to get the original intended effect. In any case, see it now on YouTube, form your questions, then watch it again for answers (or even more questions).
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Monster is as painful, disturbing and brutal as the real-life story of Aileen Wuornos. Wuornos spent much of her childhood living in the woods, in exile, at the outskirts of her hometown. She had few real friends. As a child she was molested by her grandfather and raped by one of his friends. At school she performed sexual favours for small material rewards. She became a prostitute in her teens, and was homeless for most of her life. Yet, in spite of the despicable acts we witness, Patty Jenkins’s and Charlize Theron’s choice to inhabit Wournos’s devastating loneliness make Monster an extremely compassionate film, while never justifying the murders that she felt necessary. This is the kind of film that can result if we’re charitable enough to allow a person’s own victimhood to become a legitimate factor in their ensuing and ostensibly unforgivable behaviour.
Theron’s performance, rightly lauded, is incredible and mesmerising – the desperation and nervousness, the unsettled and unsettling nature of the character’s relationship to her self and body. It’s a performance capable of invoking genuine pity for Wuornos, as well as for many of her victims. As many critics have noted, ‘performance’ doesn’t describe Theron’s onscreen presence adequately; ‘embodiment’ or ‘inhabitation’ hit closer to the mark.
Crucial to Monster’s success is the fact that it doesn’t set out to sensationalise the story of a serial killer (how easy it would’ve been to keep her at a menacing distance from the viewer) but rather stays close to Wuornos’s emotional perspective and reasoning – however irrational and indefensible it becomes. Despite the marketing, the film’s title is not a statement, but a question and a challenge: should we believe Aileen is simply, inherently bad?; or should we search for enough compassion in ourselves to try to understand her actions? The tension between these two perspectives lingers and resonates long after we walk away, shaking our heads both at how irreparably broken a person can become given the right (wrong) circumstances, and at how Monster is able to evoke such charity and understanding.
Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Based on Alan Warner’s 1995 cult novel, Morvern Callar was the second film from Lynne Ramsay, Scotland’s celluolid laureate, which was released to a chorus of critical fanfares in 2002. Samantha Morton, emitting her usual ethereal empathy, is the titular character, a young woman from a small seaside resort town in Scotland. One Christmas morning she awakes to contfront a horrific scene – her boyfriend has committed suicide, leaving the manuscript of his recent novel at their bedside computer, with an Alice In Wonderland like invitation to ‘Read Me’. Erasing his name she assigns the literature to herself and flees to Almeria in the Costa del Sol, where she subsequently sells the book to a publisher as her own, individual work. With its vivid deployment of colour, Morvern Callar is a slightly impenetrable daydream, a curiously moving drama with a puzziling central character, inscrutable and unconventional with a great soundtrack to boot. A clear companion piece to the androgynous Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
There’s something stunning about watching Near Dark now and knowing what Bigelow was going to become as a director. Near Dark is an audacious breakthrough that serves as an excellent reminder as to why vampires shouldn’t sparkle. Its small town boy (Adrian Pasdar) meets pretty girl (Jenny Wright) has a sexy one night stand and wakes up the next morning a vampire, and is then kidnapped and tortured by her psychotic family story.
Bigelow uses her surroundings to create a heady mix between westerns in a wide open, dry and dusty landscape and good old fashioned terror. I dare anyone watching not to be absolutely horrified by Severen’s (Bill Paxton) brutal bar attack. Near Dark stands up as a fine example of how effective horror films can be when their done right. Bigelow uses everything at her disposal, including a killer script, and creates a story that’s a cross between old school horror and uniquely inspired film. Near Dark more than deserves its cult classic status, and it’s probably the one and only time Bill Paxton could be considered scary.
The Night Porter (Il portiere di notte)
Directed by Liliana Cavani
The Night Porter is a highly controversial film made by Liliana Cavani depicting a sexually charged relationship between a concentration camp guard and one of the camp’s inmates. Reunited over a decade later by chance at a hotel in Vienna, the film blends flashbacks to the modern day in order to establish the complexity of their relationship and the changing power dynamics within it. A far cry from exploitation, the film quite sincerely suggests the impossible obsessions and desires of humanity even in the most difficult of circumstances. I would not go so far as to say this is a film about love, but the influence and power of sex is immeasurable and certainly clouds the judgement of ideology. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are incredible in their respective roles.
Directed by Jane Campion
Campion’s one-woman masterpiece – she wrote, directed and produced – holds the sad accolade of so far being the only film directed by a woman to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1993. The Piano melds naturalism and historical drama into an offbeat romantic triangle, in which, of course, romance as we usually understand it is all but absent. Instead, the threesome is punctuated by cruelty – remember the finger chopping scene?- arrogance, and power struggle, as Ada’s stubborn character evolves from an unhappily married self-imposed mute with a symbiotic relationship with her piano (symbiosis bordering on pathological dependence) to a happily-loved piano teacher. Boosted by Michael Nyman’s evocative soundtrack (at beautiful odds with the ruggedness of humans and landscapes) and a cinematography which amplifies the brute beauty of the natural setting, the film remains one of the most watchable, aesthetically accomplished, heartfelt Palme d’Or winners.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
There was a time when Kathryn Bigelow was merely known as Mrs. James Cameron. With a string of modest hits under her belt, Point Break was when she truly came out from under his shadow. Keanu Reeves stars as rookie FBI agent Johnny Utah, who goes undercover as a surfer to investigate a number of bank robberies and eventually befriends local head honcho Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). Cue the odd emotional conflict and a perfect celluloid definition of ‘frenemies’, resulting in probably one of the best films ever to revolve around surfing.
Even though it remains as one of her least well-received films, Bigelow manages to capture stunning surfing scenes as well as the testosterone-fuelled adrenaline of sheer reckless abandonment. At the end of the day, Point Break reaffirms the fact that she was – and still is – a female director with balls.
Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Lynne Ramsay’s striking debut set the stage for her follow-up films: off-center framing, flat compositions, and camera moves that teeter on the edge of bravado. What would later morph into the non-linear Warhol-world of We Need to Talk About Kevin began as a gold and gray-toned 1970s Glasgow-set coming of age tale. Featuring arresting moments of freedom in the midst of an otherwise banal, ugly world, Ratcatcher’s texture gets under your fingernails.
Directed by Andrea Arnold
Andrea Arnold’s seemingly discreet feature film debut delivers a mix of Dogme-inspired cinema vérite, social realism and suspense thriller set around a bleak housing estate in a grim part of modern-day Glasgow. The first of two Cannes Jury Prize wins for Arnold, Red Road features naturalistic acting and Dogme-style aesthetics, not usually associated with the thriller genre. Indeed Red Road to a large extent defies both genre and narrative expectations. Suspense is delivered through other means – the razor-sharp performances of the largely unknown cast, the eerie, creepy tracking shot sequences and the seemingly inexplicable motivation of main character Jackie’s stalking a stranger freshly released from prison, all combine into an ominous atmosphere which leads on to the jolting twist at the end. All in all, however, this quietly powerful psychological drama surprises with yet another plot twist – revenge is an illusion; forgiveness, albeit infused with hatred, is the only way out for both victim and perpetrator. With two Jury Prize wins for her first two features, Arnold seems one of the likeliest candidates to repeat Jane Campion’s feat and earn a Palme d’Or some day. Here’s hoping.
Seven Beauties (Pasqualino Settebellezze)
Directed by Lina Wertmüller
Lina Wertmüller’s pitch-black comedy of horrors is still one of the most gleefully subversive explorations of totalitarianism and debasement ever made. It’s also one of the least likely films ever to attract significant love from the Academy: it made Wertmüller the first woman ever to be nominated for Best Director, and also nabbed nods for its screenplay and the incredible central performance from Giancarlo Giannini, who flails amorally for 115 minutes but still manages, somehow, to sometimes earn our sympathy. Watching it now, it’s remarkable that a film this hopeless (and hilarious) found suuch wide acceptance; that must be a tribute to how unmistakably stellar its construction is, and the power that exudes from sequences like the infamous “seduction.”
Sita Sings the Blues
Directed by Nina Paley
Annette Hanshaw of the Jazz Age and Sita of the Ramayana seem like odd bedfellows, and that Nina Paley made it happen—elegantly—is a miracle. She divides her film into four threads, each with a distinct animation style and responsible for different aspects of the story. Then, she weaves these parts together, blending characters and themes. Sita Sings the Blues takes a canonical story and retells it, in the finest tradition of re-telling this particular canonical story, in order to say old truths in new ways. Don’t believe me? Watch it here. If her artistic achievement alone isn’t enough, we might remember Sita Sings the Blues for its role in how films are protected and presented.
Swept Away (Travolti da un insolito dstino nell’azzurro mare d’agosto)
Directed by Lina Wertmüller
Wertmüller, whose start in filmmaking came working as Federico Fellini’s assistant, would go on to craft some of the seminal films of mid-period Italian cinema. She was the first female nominated for the Best Director award and her adventure-comedy-drama Swept Away caused quite a controversy when released. This is the story of a wealthy woman whose boating vacation in the Mediterranean Sea takes an unexpected turn when she and one of the boat’s crew are separated from the others and left stranded on a deserted island. Swept Away is about shifting power balances. The woman’s capitalist beliefs and the man’s communist convictions clash, but during their struggle to survive, their social roles are reversed. Funny, at times tragic, and often touching, Swept Away is a near-perfect film.
Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens)
Directed by Leni Riefenstahl
Triumph of the Will was released in 1935 and rapidly became one of the most famous and infamous propaganda films of all time. Made by Leni Riefenstahl, it chronicles the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, which was attended by more than 700,000 Nazi supporters. Triumph is a frightening document and a reminder of the power that Hitler had over the German people. As repellent as it might be to watch, this horrific snapshot of a time and place is important in helping us learn of and from the past. Riefenstahl’s techniques, such as moving cameras, the use of long focus lenses, aerial photography, revolutionary montage of sound and image and exquisite cinematography, have earned Triumph recognition as one of the greatest films in history. Despite the subject matter, the film has continued to influence movies, documentaries, and commercials to this day, including Frank Capra’s seven-film series Why We Fight and Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.
Trouble Every Day
The increasingly diverse French auteur Claire Denis directs a film that is profoundly disturbing and hauntingly unforgettable. Trouble Every Day is a modern-day horror story about a man and a woman, living thousands of miles apart, who are afflicted with the same self-destructive brain damage that affects their sexual appetites. Trouble Every Day looks, sounds and feels like no other vampire film in recent history, viewed as more of an oddity than a strange and ambitious take on the horror genre. The score, provided by the Tindersticks, carries the film along with a slow, menacing, edgy sense of unease, building up to a gruesome, bloody and unforgettable finale. Trouble Every Day is cinematically astonishing.
The Virgin Suicides
Directed by Sofia Coppola
The Lisbon sisters, all beautiful, are the object of obsession by the boys in their small town. Their repressive parents lock them away from the dark world that’s surly going to ruin their lives after the youngest commits suicide. By the end of the movie each sister is dead at their own hands and the parents move away devastated. Not exactly uplifting material, but director Sofia Coppola created a film as eerily beautiful as the five sisters the movie focuses on.
All these years later what stands out about The Virgin Suicides isn’t the desperately sad story but the frothy and dreamy imagery that Coppola’s now known for. By the time the time the movie ends, as a new family moves rather effortlessly into the Lisbon home and lives your left as hollow as the Lisbon parents. Life might go on, the surroundings may stay the same, but The Virgin Suicides and Coppola reminds us that pain is the same everywhere and too easily swept under the rug.
Wendy and Lucy
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
A young woman named Caroll (Michelle Williams) is on a personal journey to Alaska with her dog Lucy. The drive up takes them through Oregon where her situation, already precarious considering she has but 500 dollars left as a total budget, worsens. Not only is she accused of shoplifting but Lucy vanishes without a trace during her time in police custody. Her desperate search for her one true friend begins.
It seems as though, so far as Kelly Reichardt’s place in independent American cinema is concerned, there is the pre-2008 phase and the post-2008 phase. The funny thing about that sort of assessment is that she had only made two films prior to ’08, Old Joy and River of Grass, and only one film since, Meek’s Cutoff. Nevertheless, with Wendy and Lucy, the utterance of her name produces tremendous admiration amongst film nerds and for good reason. Wendy and Lucy was undoubtedly one of the best films of 2008. Michelle Williams is front and centre, giving arguably her greatest and most accomplished performance, but above all the film is touching, even heartbreaking, without ever feeling forced. Director Reichardt demonstrates her knack for opening windows for audiences into the worlds of very ‘off the grid’ characters, people whom nobody really pays attention to on an everyday basis and when they do, it is often for the wrong reasons (the shoplifting incident exemplifies this).Despite it all, Wendy and Lucy is never sappy, far from it in fact. The emotions, the characters, the tone, everything about the film is palpably real and thus accessible. Reichardt excels at that sort of storytelling, when the emotional stakes are incredibly high yet the entire films feels completely realistic, even in the depiction of said emotional turmoil. Wendy and Lucy is not only her best film, it is a great film in its own right.
We Need To Talk About Kevin
Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Meticulously realised, Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s best-selling book of the same name alters the novel’s non-committal approach to its title character, instead offering a narrative rooted in subjectivity and emotion-fuelled recollections of the past. As such, the film’s past-set sections offer what is perhaps the most gut-wrenchingly effective, slow-building horror cinema of recent memory, alongside a strong examination of trauma and a mother whose very waking moment is now defined by a son’s single act. With exemplary sound design, scoring (by Jonny Greenwood), colour palettes, cinematography (by Seamus McGarvey), and editing, We Need to Talk About Kevin is an admittedly repetitive work on occasion but no less haunting. The anchoring, complex performance of Tilda Swinton, meanwhile, is nothing sort of superb.
Directed by Debra Granik
Debra Granik’s adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel of the same name belongs in the modern tradition of the anti-western, along with Meek’s Cutoff and Martha Marcy May Marlene. The story of Ree (Jennifer Lawrence in her breakout role) trying to find her vacant father to keep her home is one that is tied to the land and the poverty of the small Ozark community with an atmosphere that is barely on the right side of suffocating. Just like the mysterious outsider is belittled in the western so too is Ree when she ventures to find answers. Thematically Winter’s Bone is fantastically interesting and multi-layered, covering the futility of poverty, good transcending evil, generational hate, drug culture’s influence on the social fabric and teenagers replacing parents. Likewise the genre’s it bounces between are as varied as the messages Granik is trying to communicate, darting between mystery, noir, gangster, thriller and the mistrust and paranoia of horror. In the hands of a male director, chances are this would be more focused on the anger of the Ozark community. In the hands of Granik, Winter’s Bone is a film about the small victories and the importance of family in nothing less than a sympathetic light, which in a film with such an oppressive and bleak atmosphere is nothing short of miraculous. Just as was the case with Kelly Reichardt’s Meek Cutoff, Winter’s Bone takes tropes and genre style that have been suffocated with machismo for decades and presents them with a feminine insight, such perspectives keeps the unfashionable fresh.
Directed by Andrea Arnold
Andrea Arnold created a sensory marvel in Wuthering Heights. Her attention to the minutiae of life—the textures, sounds, and feel of the Victorian moorland—is astonishing and beautiful. Films have two senses at their disposal, but Arnold’s rural northern England is so richly drawn and lush a depiction it manages to evoke senses that film can’t possibly entertain—we can nearly feel the damp in the fabric, nearly smell the game birds hanging from the rafters, and nearly taste the blood on Heathcliff’s back. Arnold has rescued the best book of the Brontë sisters from the sentimentality of those who misread Romanticism as romance. Wuthering Heights is an unflinching portrayal of intimate cruelty, exactly as it should be.
Directed by Lucía Puenzo
A shining light out of South America, Lucía Puenzo’s directorial debut XXY is a quiet and affecting portrait of an intersex teenager faced with the decision of which sex to embrace to show to the world and perhaps escape the stigma that has forced their family to move from Argentina to Uruguay. Inés Efron delivers an effortlessly androgynous physical performance as Alex alongside a strong ensemble that brings the film’s themes out with sensitivity and grace.
While the title is a misnomer, medically, the film has an application beyond the specifics of Alex’s condition to the broader idea of gender and sexual identity and performance, or even just the establishment of identity that takes place during adolescence. As is often the case for
intersex and transgender individuals, puberty is a looming presence that makes a decision necessary even before one’s identity is fully formed.
Other Mentions: Wayne’s World, Titus, Chained, Europa-Europa, Waitress, Connection, Half Nelson, Fat Girl, Monsoon Wedding, Boy’s Don’t Cry, Persepolis, Big, To Take a Wife, Salt White, Women Without Men, Caramel, Orlando, She-Devil, Little Miss Sunshine, Italian For Beginners, Anatomy of Hell, Mickey and Nicky, The Heartbreak Kid, The Woodsman, After The Wedding, Real Genius, Lost In Yonkers, Romance, Or, In Darkness, Microcosmos, Beyond Silence, My Life Without Me, A Simple Life, Away From Her, Nowhere in Africa, Something’s Gotta Give, Harlan County, 2 Days In Paris, Je, Tu, Il, Elle, La Point Courte, The Kids Are Alright, American Splendour, Thirteen, Oscar and Wendy, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, Can Go Through Skin, Somersault, White Material, Innocence, Pet Semetary, Where Are My Children?, A Time For Burning, Ravenous, Marie Antoinette, Scarlet Diva, The Asthenic Syndrome, Daisies, Sweetie