Countless film bloggers post their lists of best films of the year “so far” at the end of June, because it’s “halftime.” While the occasion may be convenient, it’s also arbitrary — the year being halfway over coincides with nothing relevant to the film industry. Thus, I’ve decided to buck the trend and do three more topical lists from now on: top five pre-summer movies, top five summer movies, and the customary end-of-the-year top 10 (which inevitably ends up primarily covering awards season releases). To those who don’t like lists in the first place, you’re welcome to avoid these, but I happen to think they are a useful tool for pointing out films that readers would have otherwise missed.
Being that the summer movie season starts today with the release of The Avengers (check back this evening for James Frazier’s review), it’s time for the first list. Without further ado, here are my five favorite films of the year so far:
5) The Grey – Joe Carnahan’s first substantive achievement in cinema takes a “guy movie” premise–oil rig workers get stranded in the Alaskan wilderness after their plane crashes, causing a showdown with the wolves–and turns it into a film about men. The difference between the two is that rather than simply posture to the audience with a sense of quasi-masculinity, Carnahan and co-writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers actually say something about what it means to live and die from the male POV. The film transcends its meat-and-potatoes premise at every turn, from Liam Neeson’s aching lead performance to Masanobu Takayanagi’s Oscar-worthy cinematography (you’re not human if one overhead shot of the cast traversing a cliff doesn’t give you the willies).
4) Project X – Misunderstood by most of the critical community, this Todd Phillips-produced mock-doc about a Pasadena high school party-turned-riot is a meta-heavy parody of its genre, not another sorry effort within it. In turning the volume up to 11 on every convention of this type of film–gratuitous nudity, crude humor, a reality-defying climax, et cetera–director Nima Nourizadeh smartly challenges audience fetishization of the teen pic’s prototypic off-the-rails party. Furthermore, Nourizadeh realizes what I have long pointed out — that the genre’s hyperbolic antics are frequently a product of filmmakers engaging in catharsis to revise their pathetic personal high school experiences. Much of Project X’s brilliance has been lost on its target audience–a bathroom conversation I overheard after the movie revealed that two fellow audience members believed this was a real documentary–but for those who connected with it, there has been no better Hollywood release all year.
3) This is Not a Film – Jafar Panahi’s “not film,” recorded from the confines of his apartment building during his house-arrest, then courageously smuggled out of Iran on a thumb drive hidden inside of a cake, is a simultaneously maddening and liberating viewing experience. Maddening for the obvious reasons — one of the world’s great auteurs has been banned from writing and directing for decades. Sequences in which Panhi acts out scenes from a movie he aspired to make, standing within a crudely taped blueprint on his living room floor, are painstaking. But it’s liberating to know that, even oppressed by the tyrannical legal system of his homeland, Panahi cannot be kept from his art. This is Not a Film, while not for those unfamiliar with the director’s work, is as vital as anything Panahi has ever made, with a closing shot for the ages.
2) The Kid with a Bike – The Dardenne Brothers’ most accessible, commercial film to date is also their best. The Kid with a Bike is as naturalistic as we’ve come to expect from the pair and is anchored by another dynamo lead performance – this one by first-time child actor Thomas Doret. He plays orphan Cyril Catoul, whose barely double-digit aged life is in crisis due to a father (Jérémie Renier) who doesn’t have the means or desire to care for him. When Cyril is taken in by a kind stranger (Cécile De France), we witness no less than a young life being saved — one of the great miracles of everyday existence. Much of the film consists of Cyril biking around the city, metaphorically searching for his place in the world, but such an ornate description of the Dardennes’ symbolism does its elegance a disservice. They are filmmakers who truly seek to understand humanity — its nuances, its fragility, its wonder.
1) The Deep Blue Sea – Just as Todd Haynes did with Far From Heaven nearly a decade ago, Terence Davies proves that classical melodrama is still a relevant way to tell a story with this aching, violin-scored masterpiece. Rachel Weisz, in the performance of her career, plays Hester Collyer, a woman who yearns for both protection and passion in a man. Unfortunately, the men who pursue Hester can only give her one of the other, thrusting her into a personal crisis of suicidal proportions. The film’s style is sumptuous–cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister shoots dark, smoky interiors like none other–but writer/director Davies’ attention to detail runs even deeper. The way that he creates a sense of time and place out of the postwar London setting is special: the ominous shots of structures ruined in the fire-bombings, a haunting flashback in which those seeking shelter from the air-raids sing “Molly Malone” in a subway tunnel, and more. For as flowery as the film’s aesthetic is–this is a melodrama after all–it’s a miracle that each scene retains the immediacy of theatre, doing justice to its famous Terence Rattigan source. While one effects-laden picture after another crowds the megaplex, it is this old-fashioned “small movie” that stands the first masterpiece of the year.
Special Mention: While I chose to exclude Luis Estrada’s El Infierno from this list because it has yet to receive a proper U.S. release–here’s hoping that this is rectified by the end of the year–it is unquestionably one of the best five movies I’ve seen so far, thanks to the San Diego Latino Film Festival. A Western-infused crime saga about Mexican drug-lords, it’s equally satisfying as an old-fashioned gangster epic, a topical treatise on South of the Border issues, and a piece of sex-and-violence-laden pulp fiction. If you speak Spanish, El Infierno is available without subtitles on a Mexican Blu-Ray release. If not, keep your eyes peeled for future activity.