Tag Archives: year in review

2017: Rebirths and Afterlives

Person to Person, Colossal, Lady Bird, The Ornithologist

I adore this time of year. It’s the time when we write out short lists to memorialize the past twelve months. The selections don’t matter, nor does the order; the point is simply to remember. “#10 was the first new movie I saw this year, at the multiplex, with a coworker who’s since moved out of state. I ran to a screening of #2 right after scarfing down some pita and hummus.” Each entry represents a pocket of time I lingered in. The year’s ten best pockets of time.

I enjoyed the following ten movies almost as much as the ones I’ve listed below: Call Me by Your NameColossalGirls TripGood TimeLady BirdLogan LuckyThe OrnithologistPerson to PersonSong to Song, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The new Twin Peaks, on the other hand, I enjoyed even more than the titles below. It may have aired in weekly installments on Showtime, but it’s still essential to any conversation about the state of filmmaking in 2017. May as well call it my real #1! It moved and thrilled and shook me unlike anything else in recent memory.

Here’s a supplementary list of ten performances: Betty Buckley, articulate as a psychotherapist, and the protean James McAvoy playing against her in Split; Harris Dickinson, implosive with self-loathing in Beach Rats; two turns by Michael Fassbender, as the smarmy villains of Song to Song and Alien: Covenant; Milla Jovovich’s valedictory sprint through Resident Evil: The Final Chapter; Barry Keoghan as a teenage sprite barely veiling his hostility in The Killing of a Sacred Deer; Keanu Reeves, put through his paces again in John Wick: Chapter 2; Lady Bird’s callous, precocious, and heartbreaking Saoirse Ronan; newcomer Millicent Simmonds and her silent movie acting in Wonderstruck; octagenarian Lois Smith playing her age as Marjorie of Marjorie Prime; and Adrian Titieni, slouching and gloomy as a bad dad in Graduation.

Now onto the list:

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50 Best New-to-Me Viewings of 2017

Heaven’s Gate

I love making these lists. They’re tokens from the past year of moviegoing. I can skim the titles below and remember all these occasions of realizing, “Oh, this movie’s good.” I can recall the power of performances by Toni Collette and Johnny Depp, Christine Lahti and little Stephen Dorff, Anna Magnani and José Mojica Marins, Sylvia Sidney and Keanu Reeves, Googie Withers and Dean Stockwell. As a fun addition this year, I’ve bolded a loose top ten—the cream of an already creamy crop.

About Elly (2009) · Antonia’s Line (1995) · Ariel (1988) · Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965) · Bellissima (1951) · By the Law (1926) · Canon City (1948) · Compulsion (1959) · Contact (1997) · Cry-Baby (1990) · The Exiles (1961) · Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) · The Gate (1987) · Gates of Heaven (1978) · Giants and Toys (1958) · Girl with Green Eyes (1964) · Heaven’s Gate (1980) · Housekeeping (1987) · John Wick (2014) · The Keep (1983) · Lake Mungo (2008) · Limite (1931) · Lives of Performers (1972) · The Man I Love (1947) · The Marquise of O (1976) · Married to the Mob (1988) · Miami Vice (2006) · Miss Lulu Bett (1921) · Model Shop (1969) · Mr. Thank You (1936) · Muriel’s Wedding (1994) · Paranoid Park (2007) · Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945) · A Portrait of Ga (1952) · Reign of Terror (1949) · Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991) · Salem’s Lot (1979) · Saturday Night at the Baths (1975) · Shooting Stars (1928) · Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919) · Speed Racer (2008) · Ten (2002) · There It Is (1928) · This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967) · Trouble Every Day (2001) · Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) · The White Reindeer (1952) · The Thief of Bagdad (1924) · Working Girl (1988) · You and Me (1938)

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2016: Proximity and Distance

The Edge of Seventeen, Chevalier, Fort Buchanan, The Fits

I like neat bookshelves. I like it when photos are labeled with the date they were taken. And I like to make lists of movies. A year or a decade from now, I won’t remember my favorite films from this year off the top of my head, but I’ll still have this list, illustrated if not annotated. I can skim it, maybe thinking, “That’s right: my girlfriend and I saw #1 and #5 as a double feature. We had a spare half-hour in between so we went out for burgers.” My future self can use this list to hold onto all the joys and bullshit and movies she experienced back in 2016.

Before I really get going, here are 15 other movies I liked, ordered alphabetically: The BFG, Cameraperson, Chevalier, The Edge of Seventeen, Elle, Everybody Wants Some!!, The Fits, Fort Buchanan, The Lobster, Love & Friendship, Manchester by the Sea, Midnight Special, The Shallows, The Thoughts That Once We Had, and The Treasure. Here as well are a trio of special cases that technically aren’t 2016 theatrical releases: Lewis Klahr’s Sixty Six, which apparently screened at MoMA in late 2015; Lemonade by Beyoncé et al, which debuted on HBO this past April; and Looking: The Movie, directed by Andrew Haigh, which HBO aired in July. An animated anthology, a visual album, a TV show’s series finale—and some of the finest new filmmaking I saw this year.

Ten performances that each merit an honorable mention: Krisha Fairchild as the gray-maned namesake of the indie drama Krisha; John Goodman as the post-apocalyptic patriarch in 10 Cloverfield Lane; The Fits’ pint-sized dynamo Royalty Hightower; Stephen Lang as Don’t Breathe’s croaking, undershirt-clad phantom; Jena Malone, who enlivens The Neon Demon by playing her every look and line for maximum innuendo; Trevante Rhodes, whose sidelong glances in the final stretch of Moonlight are suffused with longing; Johnny Simmons, trembling beneath the burden of fame in The Phenom; Little Sister’s bashful Addison Timlin, her heart full of love for both Christ and GWAR; Hailee Steinfeld as an imploding ball of adolescent angst in The Edge of Seventeen; and finally, the late Anton Yelchin, for his work in Star Trek Beyond’s ensemble and as a terrified punk rocker in Green Room. In the parlance of the MTV Movie Awards, he gave this year’s “Best Scared-As-Shit Performance.”

Now here’s my list:

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50 Best New-to-Me Viewings of 2016

Portrait of Jason

I’ve put together one of these lists for each of the past four years, and now it’s late December so I’m at it again. Below lies an alphabetical overview of the older movies that jolted me out of my jaded cinephile stupor in 2016. It includes some film noir, a few silents, and several exquisite oddities from around the world. These films contained performances that moved me to tears and laughter, courtesy of actors like Jean Seberg and Charles Lane; Reese Witherspoon and Ray Milland; Laura Dern and Anton Walbrook. (Along with Judy Davis, Tony Curtis, Jennifer Jones, Richard Farnsworth, Arta Dobroshi, and Jason Holliday.) I’m eager to revisit each of them in the years to come.

The Boat (1921) · Bonjour Tristesse (1958) · The Boston Strangler (1968) · Breakdown (1997) · A Bronx Morning (1931) · Deadline at Dawn (1946) · Death Is a Caress (1949) · From Beyond the Grave (1974) · From Morn to Midnight (1920) · Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) · Germany Year Zero (1948) · Gerry (2002) · Gone to Earth (1950) · Good Morning (1959) · Happy End (1966) · Harlan County, USA (1976) · Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence (1939) · High Tide (1987) · How Do You Know (2010) · Inherent Vice (2014) · Innocence (2004) · Jewel Robbery (1932) · Ladies They Talk About (1933) · Letter Never Sent (1959) · The Lickerish Quartet (1970) · The Line, the Cross and the Curve (1993) · Lorna’s Silence (2008) · Messiah of Evil (1973) · Mildred Pierce (2011) · Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) · News from Home (1977) · Over the Garden Wall (2014) · Parting Glances (1986) · Penda’s Fen (1974) · Polyester (1981) · Portrait of Jason (1967) · Præsidenten (1919) · The Queen of Spades (1949) · Safety Last! (1923) · Sidewalk Stories (1989) · Smooth Talk (1985) · The Straight Story (1999) · Street Scene (1931) · El Sur (1983) · A Taste of Honey (1961) · The Thief (1952) · The Trust (1911) · The War of the Roses (1989) · What Happened Was… (1994) · Wings (1927)

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2015: Color and Form

The Forbidden Room, Approaching the Elephant, Hard to Be a God, L for Leisure

Year-end lists are arbitrary, reductive, and tedious. This one’s mine! I’ll start by rattling off my loose, alphabetical #25-11: Approaching the Elephant, Brooklyn, Buzzard, Crimson Peak, The Forbidden Room, Hard to Be a God, L for Leisure, The Look of Silence, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Mend, Mistress America, Queen of Earth, Shaun the Sheep, Tangerine, and Timbuktu.

The following movies didn’t receive theatrical distribution this year, but (1) Adam Curtis’s documentary Bitter Lake was released online by the BBC in January; (2) the neo-noir music video Bitch Better Have My Money, co-directed by Rihanna and the filmmaking team Megaforce, premiered on YouTube in July; and (3) Alexandre Larose’s Brouillard-Passage #14 may have played at festivals in 2013 and ’14, but I caught it at the Ann Arbor Film Festival this past March. All three stretch the definition of “2015 cinema,” but all three also struck me as abrasive, essential experiences.

Ten runner-up performances: Jason Bateman, inverting his “nice guy” persona in The Gift; Mamie Gummer in Ricki and the Flash, playing another of the unkempt women who define Diablo Cody’s patchy oeuvre; Blackhat’s Chris Hemsworth, using the whole of his Norse god bulk for brooding and grief; Rinko Kikuchi, holding Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter together with sheer conviction; Sidse Babett Knudsen, playing submissive in The Duke of Burgundy with both emotional delicacy and sexual vim; Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, bouncing off one another through the thick and thin of a friendship in Tangerine; Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies, so inviting even as he gives away so little; Michael Stuhlbarg, showing once again what character acting is all about as an Apple second banana in Steve Jobs; and lastly Taika Waititi: goofy and benign even as he leads a ring of bloodthirsty vampires in What We Do in the Shadows.

Every year I name a Best Performance in a Documentary. The past winners have been Thierry Guetta (Exit Through the Gift Shop), Joyce McKinney (Tabloid), Frédéric Bourdin (The Imposter), Anwar Congo (The Act of Killing), and Actress star Brandy Burre. This year, the award goes the pseudonymous Adi Rukun in another Joshua Oppenheimer movie, The Look of Silence. Just behind him, though, is 11-year-old hellraiser Jiovanni in Approaching the Elephant.

If, for some reason, you want to read more of my opinions on the year in film, I voted in the Village Voice and #12FilmsaFlickering polls. I also provided a couple of suggestions for MUBI Notebook’s annual collection of “fantasy double features.” And now, with all that preamble out of the way, onto my list proper:

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50 Best New-to-Me Viewings of 2015

The Cranes Are Flying

This is my fourth consecutive year assembling such a list. It’s a mere roll call of titles, not necessarily a work of actual film criticism, yet for me the viewer it’s an exceptionally gratifying exercise. It reminds me of countless hours spent lounging around on my couch and wondering, “What will this movie be like?” then giggling in delight when it turns out to be a masterpiece. I discovered three great films of 2007, delved further into international art house cinema, and turned up some new favorites that I’d never really heard much about. And oh, the performances! Kathleen Byron and John Gielgud; Kinuyo Tanaka and Ivan Mosjoukine; Sheryl Lee and John Travolta! (Molly Shannon and Aldo Ray; Ruan Lingyu and Olivier Gourmet…) In a couple weeks I’ll start on 2016, but for now I’d just like to scan this list, remember, and smile.

All I Desire (1953) · Bed and Sofa (1927) · Black Narcissus (1947) · Blood and Black Lace (1964) · Le bonheur (1965) · Borderline (1930) · Le brasier ardent (1923) · The Cranes Are Flying (1957) · David Holzman’s Diary (1967) · Dishonored (1931) · The Dying Swan (1917) · Edvard Munch (1974) · Face/Off (1997) · Favorites of the Moon (1984) · Fear (1954) · Le fils (2002) · Flowers of Shanghai (1998) · The Goddess (1934) · Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) · Heaven and Earth Magic (1962) · Home of the Brave (1986) · The House of Mirth (2000) · Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989) · I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) · In the City of Sylvia (2007) · Je, tu, il, elle (1976) · The Ladies Man (1961) · Leave Her to Heaven (1945) · The Life of Oharu (1952) · The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) · The Man Who Sleeps (1974) · The Marriage Circle (1924) · Memories (1995) · Men in War (1957) · My Brilliant Career (1979) · Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) · A Page of Madness (1926) · Poetry (2010) · The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) · Providence (1977) · Rocks in My Pockets (2014) · Smiley Face (2007) · Tiger Tail in Blue (2012) · Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) · Touki bouki (1973) · Twelve Monkeys (1995) · Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) · Two for the Road (1967) · War of the Worlds (2005) · Year of the Dog (2007)

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2014: Darkness and Light

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Snowpiercer, The Double, It Felt Like Love

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Snowpiercer, The Double, It Felt Like Love

The act of making an end-of-year top 10 list is an exercise in futile vanity. It’s reductive, repetitive, more in keeping with the behavior of a butterfly collector than that of an aesthete. (I wonder: do butterfly collectors ever get sick of being used in stale metaphors?) But, as with so many critical bad habits, the fact is that it’s also perversely fun. So here’s my end-of-year top 10 list.

I’ll preface it with a trio of “honorable mentions” which I couldn’t include on my list proper due to byzantine, self-imposed eligibility guidelines: (1) the first season of Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick, which straddles the increasingly permeable TV/movie border and contains some incredible “filmmaking” (or whatever you want to call it); (2) YouTube user Mia Munselle’s minute-long found footage opus “Camera falls from airplane and lands in pig pen–MUST WATCH END!!” which to my knowledge has never screened theatrically yet which is still an accidental gonzo work of substantial artistic import; and (3) Hong Sang-soo’s heartbreaking comedies Nobody’s Daughter Haewon and Our Sunhi, both of which have been consigned to an inter-year limbo (as far as American critics are concerned) by the vagaries of distribution. Whether any of these items falls into the category of “2014 movie” is up for debate, but all are nonetheless relevant to any discussion of film form as this particular year winds to its close.

And now, about that “list proper”… well, first I have more honorable mentions; 15 of them, in fact, in alphabetical order. I just can’t help myself. They are ActressBlue Ruin, CitizenfourThe DoubleDouble Play: James Benning and Richard LinklaterErnest & CelestineGone GirlThe Grand Budapest HotelIt Felt Like LoveJealousyA Most Wanted ManObvious ChildOnly Lovers Left AliveSnowpiercer, and Stranger by the Lake. If you were to gently nudge my top 10, it’s possible that one of those could fall into a slot of its own, because listmaking is (enjoyable) bullshit.

I have 10 “runner-up” performances to cite, too! Patricia Arquette, for her maternal weariness in Boyhood; Emily Browning, dancing and lip-synching her way through God Help the Girl; Macon Blair, a hangdog sad sack out for blood in Blue Ruin; Zac Efron’s comic Adonis in Neighbors, especially impressive given the incoherent writing of his part; Charlotte Gainsbourg, agonizing to watch as the title character of Nymphomaniac; Liam Neeson as a brick-hewn embodiment of human duality in The Lego Movie; Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl as the year’s definitive femme fatale; Tilda Swinton as a Yorkshire-accented burlesque of bureaucracy in Snowpiercer; Paul Rudd as They Came Together’s archetypal romcom leading man (“handsome, but in a nonthreatening way”); Christoph Waltz further proving his versatility while (like Efron) making bad writing sound better in The Zero Theorem; and lastly Robin Wright, acting with body and voice as a sci-fi-skewed iteration of herself in The Congress. Whew! (Oh, and if for some sick reason you want a fuller picture of my year-end activities, I voted in both the Indiewire and 12 Films a Flickering polls.)

These past few years, I’ve handed out awards for Best Performance in a Documentary. Recipients have included Thierry Guetta in Exit Through the Gift Shop, Joyce McKinney in Tabloid, Frédéric Bourdin in The Imposter, and Anwar Congo in The Act of Killing. This year’s addition to that informal hall of fame is Brandy Burre in Robert Greene’s Actress.

And now, the list proper.

Night Moves, directed by Kelly Reichardt

10) Night Moves, directed by Kelly Reichardt

Although its frames are heavy with the ethical weight of 21st century living, this is still a crackerjack thriller: formally exact, noose-tight, never the slightest bit didactic. Bank heists have been pulled off with less precision than Reichardt brings to her camera angles and shot durations, which over time make even the Oregon wilderness feel as restrictive as a jail cell. Though its point (you can run, you can hide, but somebody’s always watching) has been reiterated by generations of paranoid thrillers, seldom has it been expressed with such rigor.

Kim Dickens plays Gone Girl’s hard-ass policewoman with screwball agility, her performance divvying up sympathy between the misled law and Ben Affleck’s patsy.

Though loosely inspired by Philip Roth, the aging literary giant played by Jonathan Pryce in Listen Up Philip functions broadly as a stand-in for a whole generation of successful assholes, their book sales counterbalanced by impotent rage.

9) We Are the Best!, directed by Lukas Moodysson

The mere fact that this is a positive, realistic movie about teenage girls’ friendships is refreshing enough, even if that alone may not a great movie make. (“You know,” I tweeted recently, “between Whiplash, Birdman, & Listen Up Philip, I really appreciate Vi ar bäst! depicting art as not strictly a macho pursuit.”) What does a great movie make, however, is ensemble energy yoked to episodic coming-of-age plotting and sharp-eared dialogue. We Are the Best! nails both the pains of growing up and the giddy pleasures of artistic collaboration.

Amy Seimetz’s role in The Sacrament could’ve been a throwaway “horror tour guide” part. Instead, she invests it with sisterly affection and evangelical zeal, drawing a straight line from friendly “hello”s to mass carnage.

Unlike many of my cinephile friends, I don’t follow wrestling, but I am consistently impressed by wrestlers onscreen: The Rock was my #1 supporting actor last year, and Dave Bautista is the best part of Guardians of Galaxy, as endearing with his deadpan line readings as he is lethal with a blade.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, directed by Ben Rivers and Ben Russell

8) A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, directed by Ben Rivers and Ben Russell

This tripartite avant-garde/doc whatzit is like an invitation to a trance state. Its audio plumbs the extremes of black metal and forest-shrouded silence, mostly forsaking dialogue; its ambulatory camera pushes on through open-air baths, firelit nights, and lakes whose waves lap against a lonely rowboat. It’s maybe baffling, definitely abrasive, yet still tantalizing as it weaves that wondrous spell.

I don’t expect Emily Blunt’s work in The Edge of Tomorrow to receive any awards attention; as far as Academy voting is concerned, acting rarely happens within action movies. But she’s the real deal (here, in Looper, in Your Sister’s Sister, in The Five-Year Engagement), providing the battlefield bravado that makes Tom Cruise’s death-by-death redemption possible.

I keep imagining Birdman as a mediocre remake of His Girl Friday, and maybe that’s in part because Edward Norton has such an old-fashioned charm to him. (See also: his “Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith” riff in Death to Smoochy.) I could see his strut, ego, dick, and all transplanted into the 1930s with minimal fuss.

Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater

7) Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater

By now, I’ve seen innumerable 2014 “best of” lists that foreground Boyhood, whether by naming it an ecstatic #1 or by crowing about its conspicuous absence. But I want to get away from all that, away from the “for or against” atmosphere fostered by a movie’s status as consensus favorite, and back to my feelings when I walked out of the theater this past August. I was gobsmacked, not merely by the unorthodox longevity of the film’s production, but by its dialogue and its complex ideas about family and the self, as well as its frequent grasps at the sublime from within the quotidian. It speaks to cinema’s possibilities, but also to its limitations, like the tragedy that a movie can only run from its beginning to its end.

With her bloodlust and blond mane, Mia Wasikowska injects a necessary dose of goofy id right into the middle of Only Lovers Left Alive. (She’s not half bad as the flawlessly coiffed object of “nice guy” desire in The Double, either.)

J.K. Simmons’ performance in Whiplash is admittedly blunt and showy, alternating between a couple of vicious notes for the whole of his screentime. But sometimes a movie needs an actor to be like a wrench to the rear of the skull, and Simmons is exactly, fatally that.

Listen Up Philip, directed by Alex Ross Perry

6) Listen Up Philip, directed by Alex Ross Perry

Watching this acrid comedy is like having a vial of misanthropy splashed in my face, yet counterintuitively it remains a pleasurable experience. The film zigzags through novel-emulating arcs of asshole behavior with no real comeuppance to be found at the end, yet still I relish its sour aftertaste. That’s because Listen Up Philip is satire that doesn’t resort to caricature, instead frankly replicating the headspace of a very intelligent young man (i.e. the worst type of human being) then dismantles its subject from the inside out.

Typically with a movie like Listen Up Philip I’d expect the antihero to have a “woman who holds him back”; instead, Elisabeth Moss plays “the woman he held back,” and her face (caught in close-up over the span of their break-up) says as much as Philip’s reams of smartass dialogue.

Although Boyhood’s most ballyhooed spectacle is that of a child aging from 6-18, it also depicts Ethan Hawke’s progress through his thirties into early middle age, accompanied by his character’s steady evolution: from songwriting “cool dad” to the uncool dad who drives a minivan and accepts his responsibilities.

The Babadook, directed by Jennifer Kent

5) The Babadook, directed by Jennifer Kent

I think of myself as pretty inured to horror movies’ scares at this point. I still watch them and love them, but—well, it’s like that bit in Kill Bill Vol. 2 where Uma Thurman punches a plank of wood until her fist is numb. And watching The Babadook is like someone chopping that fist off at the wrist. Not only does the film boast immaculate craftsmanship (metronomic editing, monochrome production design) but it also makes motherhood—this fundamental fact of human existence—scarier than any bogeyman you could conjure up. “You can’t get rid of the Babadook,” indeed.

In Night Moves, all of Jesse Eisenberg’s usual mannerisms are tamped down, everything shoved below a stolid surface, with his interiorized fear and despair only bubbling up through his quavering voice and forced half-smiles.

As the author surrogate in Catherine Breillat’s autobio-drama Abuse of Weakness, Isabelle Huppert provokes sympathy and terror, her body put graphically through simulacra of strokes, PT, and a halting recovery.

Manakamana, directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez

4) Manakamana, directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez

You can break this experimental doc’s conceptual simplicity down into numbers: 11 shots, 2-3 people (plus occasional animals) per shot, 1 angle from which a static camera captures it all. Yet even forgoing most conventionally “cinematic” embellishments, the film still supplies a myriad of sights to see and miniature dramas to experience. It’s simultaneously a retreat back toward the basics of filmmaking and a leap forward via the primal power of the frame.

Even saddled with a phony German accent, Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in a fitting farewell performance in A Most Wanted Man. The nexus of the film’s anti-terrorist web, he visibly bears the weight of its moral compromises on his wide, world-weary shoulders.

What impresses me most about Jenny Slate in Obvious Child isn’t her motor-mouthed joke delivery, nor the way she subtly shades her sardonic reactions with pathos, but instead her fully demonstrated capacity for joy—a trait too often undervalued among performers.

3) Goodbye to Language, directed by Jean-Luc Godard

If Manakamana can be both a retreat and a leap forward, then the same is true of Godard’s foray into 3D, albeit in a more berserk fashion. It’s as if this old film-historical trickster god had invented a time machine that could carry him simultaneously into the future and back toward a pre-Lumière past. Breaking old rules, inventing new ones, taunting the viewer with unsolvable visual riddles: this is Godard all right, crafting (with the aid of stereoscopy and a curious pup named Roxy) a movie as fun, beautiful, and mind-bending as it is inscrutable.

Joaquin Phoenix may play a villainous pimp in The Immigrant, but his performance also disrupts such easy labels; though he may radiate wickedness and abjure audience sympathy, he’s still playing a human being first.

Scarlett Johansson’s anti-star turn in Under the Skin is a testament to her wealth of thespian imagination. It awes me that she even attempted to play an incomprehensible alien being, let alone that she succeeds to a terrifying degree.

The Immigrant, directed by James Gray

2) The Immigrant, directed by James Gray

Even though this rich melodrama only squeaked into theaters in 2014, it already feels as if it’s been around for decades. As if it’s an artifact from a bygone era, perhaps carved by Gray from a chunk of solid history, as one might make an amulet out of an elephant’s tusk. Walking into a new release this year, I never expected to see anything so pure, full, emotionally direct, and morally thorny. But then, The Immigrant has zero interest in playing to expectations.

The same applies to Marion Cotillard, who takes on a timeworn character type (“Gish-esque waif”) as the star of The Immigrant and makes the part hers. You can add her close-ups (like Elisabeth Moss’s) to the annals of great screen acting, right alongside Bergman and Garbo.

The aspect of Jason Schwartzman’s performance in Listen Up Philip that cuts me the deepest is the obvious sadness that will never be met by another human being’s compassion, because he lacks even a shred of the requisite humility.

Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer

1) Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer

I hate to hyperbolize, but this is probably a new landmark in science fiction history.  Here, let me put that in hacky pull-quote form: “First came Metropolis, then 2001Star Wars, and now… Under the Skin.” To be terse: it’s just not like other movies.

No actor this year got to me quite like Essie Davis in The Babadook, whose performance incorporates notes of depression, abject terror, and homicidal resentment. She melds uncomfortable realism with outsize metaphor in the way she moves and screams.

And finally, Davis’s total inverse: Ralph Fiennes as the cosmopolitan Gustave H. in The Grand Budapest Hotel. He handles the role’s ornate dialogue, physical comedy, and latent melancholy with the same foppish grace.

[Movies I have yet to see include Beyond the Lights, Force Majeure, Inherent Vice, Love Is Strange, National Gallery, Selma, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and Two Days, One Night.]

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