“Best of” lists are always a source of worthy, if slightly overblown, negative sentiment from film people. The typical attitude ranges from anxiety at the state of the industry to full-blown revulsion at having to state definitively what is the “best”.
In order to clear my cinephilic conscience, I offer the following disclaimer: these are my favourite films of the year. They are not necessarily “the best” films of the year.
1. Clouds of Sils Maria
It’s easy to dismiss Clouds of Sils Maria, to take on face value its ostensibly staid art house trappings (a Swiss Alps setting, upper middle class characters, Juliette Binoche).
Yet doing so ignores the reflexivity at work in Olivier Assayas’ film. Binoche plays a variation of herself, an actress whose star shines especially brightly among the over 55s. A sort of existential meltdown is triggered when she is cast in a revival of the play that made her famous. This time around, she plays the older woman who is seduced by a young ingénue. Kristen Stewart plays Valentine, her personal assistant/designated millennial stand-in, running her lines and acting as the catalyst for her slow-burn meltdown.
There is real chemistry between Binoche and Stewart, an actress who continues to struggle against the bizarre animosity of people who think they should hate her for Twilight. A sequence where they both watch a 3D blockbuster, then argue amicably about it afterwards, was one of the cinematic highlights of the year.
Because of this chemistry, you could be mistaken for thinking Clouds of Sils Maria is a two-handed intergenerational drama. It’s hard to discuss why it’s more interesting than that without giving away the third act plot turn.
A key moment shoves Assayas’ film off the intelligent, well made art house film cliff and makes it far more interesting. About two-thirds of the way through, Valentine walks off the screen, never to return or be mentioned again.
Instead of asking whether Valentine is alive or dead, it’s far more interesting to ask why Assayas decided to maker her vanish.
The answer, I think, is that this film is really all about Binoche’s character, Maria Enders.
In the film’s final act, Enders swaps the Swiss Alps for the paparazzi fuelled chaos of London.
They’re not interested in her.
Enders stops steering Clouds of Sils Maria’s narrative and becomes an almost entirely passive character, memorably almost forgotten by her own limousine as it flees paparazzi chasing her young, troubled co-star.
Clouds of Sils Maria is not about two women but one, and the form of cinema, art and life that she represents. In the world of the film, it’s a form that is rapidly facing obsolescence.
Outside of Enders’ loyal, grey-haired audience in the Swiss Alps, identical to the audience that constitutes the art house cinema circuit, nobody really cares.
This is why Clouds of Sils Maria is so interesting. It’s an intelligent, well-made drama for adults, and it invites us to consider whether that’s enough any more.
2. Arabian Nights
Arabian Nights is a messy haze of stories, all vaguely conforming to the notion of looking at post-GFC Portugal through the lens of 1001 Tales.
Due to its sheer length (three volumes each of two hours-plus running time), not everything is of the same quality. You’ll fall asleep halfway through, have no idea whether you’re watching fiction, fantasy or documentary, and wonder if you really just spent 45 minutes watching a competitive bird song competition (this is a recommendation.)
Few things excite me more at the cinema than a well-executed gimmick. Mommy relies on an attention-grabbing conceit (using a 1:1 square aspect ratio, expanded only on key occasions) and deploys it for full melodramatic effect. Like the Lana Del Rey and Celine Dion littered soundtrack, it’s bombastic, highly emotional and slightly claustrophobic. On a big screen with good speakers, that’s quite a heady mix.
4. The Tribe
It’s hard to properly articulate the edge-of-your-seat despair that saturates The Tribe. This is a traumatic vision of Ukraine, achieved through a violent synthesis of sound and imagery.
Partisan, Melbourne-born filmmaker Ariel Kleiman’s first feature, is an unsettlingly dreamy portrait of a cult leader and his child soldiers in a vaguely mythical eastern European town. The soundtrack, which blends electronica and fake karaoke songs, is particularly compelling.
6. Mistress America
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig continue their fruitful collaboration with this follow-up to the slightly superior Frances Ha.
Mistress America’s portrait of early 20s versus early 30-something life on the east coast really shines when Baumbach abandons New York City for a Connecticut McMansion. In an extended sequence the house becomes a microcosm for the absurdities of upper middle class American life.
7. The Assassin
The Assassin is a perplexing yet precisely composed interweaving of movement, space and time. For best results, ignore the opaque plot and focus on how each frame beautifully juxtaposes movement and stasis. The Wikipedia summary will take care of the rest.
8. Goodnight Mommy
The horror of Goodnight Mommy resides in both its expert use of sound and its ending. There is a lot of almost unbearably tense clomping taking place around the severely minimalist house at the centre of this Austrian film. Like all good horror films there is a final twist that refuses us the opportunity to safely distance ourselves from what we have seen. Be warned: this is not the happiest vision of motherhood.
9. Knight of Cups
Blink and you’d have missed Terrence Malick’s latest film. Which is a shame, because it’s an almost lucid dreamlike meditation on stardom and identity.
10. Inside Out
Is this a movie for children? The kids looked bored at the screening I attended, but the adults were altogether more enthralled. Inside Out is smart, funny and sad. It is the best animation Hollywood has produced in years.
And the best of what’s ahead . . .
Director Todd Haynes’ melodrama about two women falling in love in 1950s America is exceptional.
Haynes understands something it’s easy to forget about Hollywood stars: they’re not just human beings but human beings mediated through editing, sound, costume design and every other directorial choice that goes into beaming their image to an audience.
He focuses so many of these tools directly onto leading lady Cate Blanchett that she radiates almost all other elements out of every frame she appears in. Rooney Mara, too, is as compelling as she has ever been. I’m dying to re-watch it.
* Carol releases January 14
On paper, Tom McCarthy’s film following the Boston Globe investigative team that uncovered sexual abuse in the city’s Catholic Archdiocese could easily fall into the very-well-made-Oscar-bait-movie trap. Performances are good if showy, the screenplay does an effective job of meting out exposition, and it’s based on that all-important true story. But by concentrating on not just the investigation but the newspaper itself, McCarthy rescues Spotlight from well-made mediocrity. This is an enthralling account of what happens when America’s great institutions collide.
* From January 28
3. 45 Years
Charlotte Rampling gives a remarkable performance opposite Tom Courtenay in a drama that follows a quietly dramatic week in the life of a middle-class British couple gearing up to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. It’s extraordinarily compelling to watch Rampling’s slowly dawning recognition of just how momentous this anniversary actually is. The final scene is quietly horrific.
* From February 18.
4. A Very Murray Christmas
This one is a genuine oddity. Sofia Coppola directs Bill Murray and Co in a self-indulgent, kind of funny, kind of sad Christmas variety show. There are worse things to spend your Netflix time on.
* A Very Murray Christmas is currently streaming on Netflix.
5. Steve Jobs
Danny Boyle not so much directs as records Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue in this admirable failure of a biopic. This being Sorkin, the characters talk and talk, and talk. Though I admire the attempt to do something different with the stale biopic genre (Steve Jobs takes place over the course of three separate product launches), an insufferable level of self-importance oozes out of every second gesture, camera movement and line delivery.
* From February 4.