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Still from "The White Ribbon," courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
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Cinephiles who aspired to discover the best films arriving in St. Louis in 2010 were obliged to expand their horizons beyond the multiplexes and art houses, seemingly to a greater degree than in preceding years. Many of this year’s most outstanding works of cinema appeared only fleetingly in limited engagements or at festival screenings. For those fortunate filmgoers who were able to glimpse them, this year’s best films demanded an unusual degree of study and contemplation. The past twelve months offered copious riches to those viewers willing to let a film smolder and work its spell, regardless of the work’s genre, language, or running time.
10. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)
Undeniably perplexing, visually mesmerizing, and reverberating with frank emotion, Uncle Boonmee evades the customary opacity of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul’s works, and the result is splendid, but still gratifyingly mysterious. The film’s diverse and often bizarre elements—failing kidneys and ghost-monkeys, beekeeping and out-of-body experiences—all lead to the same hallowed place, where Joe half-earnestly and half-playfully probes at the nature of mortality and the perseverance of human connections across time and space. In limited release in early 2011.
9. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)
The wry, addictive sensibility of Corneliu Porumboiu takes a brilliant turn for the aridly absurd with Police, Adjective, a painstaking meditation on justice, morality, and semantics. Be warned: Nothing happens for long stretches of this “anti-procedural” about a frustrated, ambivalent narcotics detective. The cunning of Porumboiu’s film rests on its fearsome depiction of institutional banalities, such that a mere dictionary can seem as confining and doom-laden as any dungeon cell. On DVD in 2011.
8. The Milk of Sorrow (Claudia Llosa, Peru / Spain)
Replete with striking visuals and a steadfast mindfulness of human frailty, The Milk of Sorrow proffers the sort of unadulterated cinematic bliss that elates the senses and the spirit. For the tale of a woman’s uncertain steps into a wider world she has every reason to dread, Peruvian writer-director Claudia Llosa wields a captivating style that savors both the melodious and mordant elements of everyday life, all while exhibiting a virtuoso’s superb command of the frame. Now on DVD.
7. October Country (Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, USA)
The documentary film of the year, Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s mournful, restless portrait of a careworn and hardened American family unravels the deep weave of the national fabric with little more than a deferential regard for its subjects and an enviable photographer’s eye. By excavating with uncommon grace and sensitivity into the heartbreaking particulars of one clan’s travails, October Country uncovers the whispered vexations at the root of the American experience. Now on DVD.
6. The Social Network (David Fincher, USA)
The work that affirms David Fincher’s position as America’s most adroit auteur and rigorous engineer of cinematic finery is a devilishly watchable film, but also one that roils with unexpected queries and ruminations. The Social Network is not just a scrumptiously nasty slice of zeitgeist-tapping collegiate and corporate drama, but a startlingly expansive study of codes and systems of all types, as well as a simple tale (intricately told) of the elemental human craving for acceptance and validation. On DVD and Blu-ray January 11.
5. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, USA)
The concluding chapter in Pixar’s enchanting and richly layered suburban saga also proves to be the greatest, solidifying the animation studio’s status as the leading purveyor of mainstream American film, animated or otherwise. Were Toy Story 3 merely a rousing, mirthful, often frightening adventure yarn executed with Pixar’s characteristic vitality and exactitude, it would still dazzle. However, Woody and Buzz’s epic three-part tale continually reveals itself as a resounding and penetrating rendering of the whole human experience. Accordingly, Toy Story 3’s treatment of our diverse responses to leave-takings and endings offers the series’ most intense moments of dread, sorrow, and serenity. That such poignancy can be achieved within a kiddie flick about plastic playthings is nothing short of miraculous. Now on DVD and Blu-ray.
4. The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, United Kingdom / France)
Working from an unproduced script by Jacques Tati, Sylvain Chomet weaves an aesthetically exhilarating and unabashedly sentimental fairy tale in the spirit of the legendary French filmmaker. However, while The Illusionist is drenched in Tati’s persona and style, Chomet delivers a film that works so splendidly on myriad planes that it seems unkind to regard it as a mere homage. Spangled with endearments to the faded traditions of vaudeville and the landscape of 1950s Edinburgh, the film offers a surfeit of delights. Unexpected moments of whimsy, absurdity, and black humor jostle with a profuse wonderment at the sheer loveliness of the film’s visuals. Ultimately, The Illusionist provides a stage for Chomet to uncover and foreground the somber, bittersweet motes within Tati’s sensibility, and the result is exquisitely tenderhearted. In limited release in early 2011.
3. Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos, Greece)
Enthralling for every frame down to its disconcerting final shot, Giorgos Lanthimos’ vicious parable offers abundant avenues for exploration, all of them fascinating. Chilling and unexpectedly cheeky, Dogtooth is a film that defies pigeonholing: Is it a thriller, allegory, or pitch-black comedy of the absurd? No matter. The subject of Dogtooth’s criticisms is fiendishly ambiguous, permitting the viewer to focus on the bitter-sour pleasures of Lanthimos’ masterful visuals and the film’s nearly unbearable aura of menace. Indeed, Dogtooth works stunningly well if approached strictly as a gut-wrenching tale of middle-class family life gone repulsively awry, but its artistic significance emerges from its profound incitements for deeper readings. On DVD January 26.
2. Red Riding (Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, and Arnand Tucker, United Kingdom)
Directed by three British filmmakers but united by the unrelentingly bleak vision of novelist David Peace, Channel 4’s harrowing noir epic of 1970s and 1980s Yorkshire is a work that rattles and scours. Over 295 minutes, five men wander blindly through a labyrinth of corruption and bloodshed set against the dank flats and windswept moorlands of the North. The often confounding story, however, is secondary to the film’s overpowering mood. The black magic of Red Riding lies in its compelling atmosphere of desolation, which paints a portrait of a benighted Britain so sinister and vigorous that it haunts long after the credits have rolled. This film’s remorseless gloom is, frankly, not for the faint of heart. However, no other work of cinema in recent years has presented so resonant a vision of a fallen world, and none achieves it with anything approaching Red Riding’s sustained and credible attentiveness to time and place. Now on DVD and Blu-ray.
1. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, Austria / Germany)
No other film this year comes close to replicating the verve and import of The White Ribbon. With singular discipline and sly ruthlessness, Michael Haneke leads a cinematic assault on the sacrosanct myths of twentieth-century Western history, and on our most deeply entrenched convictions regarding the nature of Evil. In luminous, achingly gorgeous black-and-white photography, The White Ribbon conjures a puritanical German village at the threshold of the Great War, an austere and misshapen Eden where starched simplicity and cold-hearted paternalism conceal all manner of serpents. The absolute assurance and seamlessness of Haneke’s vision astonishes: the film depicts with uncommon gravity and robustness seemingly every contour of the human emotional experience, from chaste devotion to vicious resentment, from touching kindness to curdled lust. Beneath everything murmurs a vague, gnawing unease, a sense that something is dreadfully wrong with the world, and that that this shapeless menace emanates from a human heart. While maintaining an unfalteringly censorious stance towards noxious social and religious structures, the film is everywhere knotted with contradictions, acknowledging glints of grace within the deepest shadows. Intellectually daunting and yet overflowing with affecting pleasures,The White Ribbon stands as a work of genuine cinematic art that deserves to be assessed, savored, and marveled over for years to come. Now on DVD and Blu-ray.
Honorable Mentions: Any Everything Is Going Fine, Animal Kingdom, The Ghost Writer, Home, How to Train Your Dragon, Inception, My Dog Tulip, A Prophet, A Screaming Man, True Grit, Winter’s Bone.
Underrated: Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, The Killer Inside Me.
Worth Another Look: Black Swan, Buried, Marwencol, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Shutter Island, Sweetgrass.
Overrated, Slightly or Highly: 127 Hours, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Hideaway, Kick-Ass, A Room and a Half, Splice, The Town.
Notable Films I Missed: Exit Through the Gift Shop, Fish Tank, Greenberg, I Am Love, Last Train Home, Let Me In, Restrepo, Vincere.
Films We’re Still Waiting For in St. Louis: Carlos, Rabbit Hole, Somewhere, White Material.
St. Louis native Andrew Wyatt is the founder of the film aficionado website Gateway Cinephiles, where he has been an editor and contributor since 2007, authoring reviews, essays, and coverage of the St. Louis International Film Festival and Webster Film Series. Wyatt has worked as a freelance writer and game designer since 2000. When not watching, thinking about, and writing about cinema, he assumes the mild-mannered secret identity of an environmental scientist. He completed a bachelor’s degree in biology at Hope College in Holland, Mich., but returned to St. Louis to attain a master’s degree in environmental science from Washington University. He has been happily married since 2001.