It is always hard to put together an end of the year list when one does not have reasonable access to films from around the world. In previous years, I was fortunate to see many worthy cinematic gems thanks to film festivals such as CIFF, VIFF and Rotterdam. Of course, depending on single screenings at film festivals as a primary source for foreign cinema is never a viable option because of the cost and effort involved in attending multiple film festivals. So when the number of film festival offerings dropped in 2011, so did my access to foreign cinema. Thankfully, the year was not a complete washout and I still managed to catch a decent number of worthwhile films. As usual, the list features older titles that I could only see this year theatrically or on DVD.
Favorites roughly in order of preference
1) Le Quattro Volte (2010, Italy co-production, Michelangelo Frammartino)
Michelangelo Frammartino’s remarkable film uses an unnamed town in Calabria as an observatory to examine the metaphysical circle of life. Depicting such metaphysical topics is not an easy task, but Frammartino pulls this off with considerable ease, plenty of humour, tender emotions and a pinch of mystery.
2) Do Dooni Chaar (2010, India, Habib Faisal)
Habib Faisal’s directorial debut astutely depicts the struggles of a middle class family in Delhi. The Duggals may be fictional characters but one can easily find reflections of their characters in virtually every Delhi colony. Filmed entirely on location, Do Dooni Chaar is absolutely charming and features two excellent performances from Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh. The film only got a limited release in 2010 but thankfully a DVD release in 2011 means the film can be seen by a larger audience.
3) Drive (USA, Nicolas Winding Refn)
Drive perfectly adapts James Sallis’ book while carving out a distinct identity of its own. Like Driver's car, the film is easily able to shift gears and speed up when needed and slow down in a few sequences. On top of that, the film is enhanced with a visual and musical style that evokes the cinema of Michael Mann with a pinch of David Lynch.
4) A Separation (Iran, Asghar Farhadi)
In discussing a conflict in his actuality film A Married Couple, the late Allan King remarked that viewers often projected their feelings on the screen and took sides with one of the characters. King’s words come to mind when watching the conflict in A Separation, a film that refuses to take sides with either of the characters. Some calculated editing and the distance maintained by the camera in a few scenes means that viewers are forced to believe everything they see on face value whereas in reality, the truth is hidden in between the cuts. A truly remarkable film that starts off with a divorce hearing but then moves in a much richer direction by observing humans in their moments of fear, stress and anxiety.
5) Dhobi Ghat (India, Kiran Rao)
Dhobi Ghat pays a beautiful and poetic tribute to Mumbai by exploring the emotional state of four characters. The script shrinks the vast and chaotic city down to the microscopic level of these four characters so that they can be observed in tight quarters. Each character has their own set of complex problems and Kiran Rao lets the actors brilliant expressions and body language form a guide to their inner feelings. Throughout the film, the four actors appear to be living their parts as opposed to acting out scripted lines.
6) Another Year (2010, UK, Mike Leigh)
A happily married couple serve as a sponge to absorb the misery of their friends. The film shows that some people are predisposed to always emit a negative energy while there are a few who are strong enough to withstand all the unhappiness around them.
7) Nostalgia for the Light (2010, Chile co-production, Patricio Guzmán)
Just as rays of light are delayed in their arrival to our planet, horrors of the past sometimes take a long time before they are unearthed. Patricio Guzmán’s emotional and meditative film manages to connect exploration of the stars with truths buried in the ground.
8) Aurora (2010, Romania co-production, Cristi Puiu)
Viorel’s (Cristi Puiu) disenchantment and frustration with society around him continues to build until he acts out in a burst of violence. However, the film is not concerned with the consequences of his actions but is more interested in his behavior prior to and after his violent act. Aurora is a fascinating character study that is packed with plenty of dark humor and features a remarkable climax that dives into the same rabbit hole that consumed Mr. Lazarescu (The Death of Mister Lazarescu) and Cristi (Police, Adjective).
9) The Kid With a Bike (Belgium co-production, Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne)
The film’s non-stop energy is personified by the young lead character who is able to take all the kicks and roll with the punches. A truly magnificent film but then again one would not expect any less from the Dardennes.
10) Melancholia (Denmark co-production, Lars von Trier)
The end of the world sequence naturally grabs all the attention but the film’s dramatic core lies in the wedding dinner where sharp jabs are traded. These honest verbal punches echo The Celebration and Rachel Getting Married but the words in Melancholia pack more venom and are meant to break the other person down. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) desperately tries to make things work but deep down she knows that some celestial bodies are meant to collide and destroy each other.
11) The Tree of Life (USA, Terrence Malick)
A perfect symphony of camera movements and background score elevates one family’s tale into a much grander scale. The camera continuously zips around the characters, hovers over them, dives down low or swings from a corner in the room. The camera even moves back in time where it patiently captures the big bang and peers into the future as well.
12) Flowers of Evil (2010, France, David Dusa)
David Dusa’s remarkable debut feature is one of the most relevant films to have emerged in recent years. It is a rare film that depicts the revolutions of change taking place around the world by smartly incorporating social media such as facebook, twitter and youtube within the film’s framework. The film also features a groovy background score and makes great use of Shantel’s Disko Boy song.
Note: I was part of the three person jury that awarded this best film in the Mavericks category at the Calgary International Film Festival.
13) The Whisperer in the Darkness (USA, Sean Branney)
Sean Branney’s perfect adaptation of H.P Lovecraft’s short story remarkably recreates the look and feel of 1930’s cinema. The entirely black and white film uses the background score to maintain tension and suspense throughout. In fact, the tension does not let up until the 90th minute when a few moments of rest are allowed before the film heads towards a pulsating finale.
This film was also in the Mavericks Competition at CIFF.
14) Alamar (2009, Mexico, Pedro González-Rubio)
A tranquil and beautiful film about a father’s journey with his son. This is a perfect example of a film that proves that one does not need 3D to have an immersive cinematic experience.
15) Meek’s Cutoff (2010, USA, Kelly Reichardt)
The setting may be 1845 but at its core Meek’s Cutoff is a contemporary film about a journey through an unknown and potentially dangerous landscape. How much faith should be placed on a stranger? If this was such an easy question to answer, then the world would indeed have been a better place.
16) Attenberg (2010, Greece, Athina Rachel Tsangari)
A warm and tender film that puts a spin on a conventional coming-of-age tale by featuring honest communication between a father and daughter.
17) Kill List (UK, Ben Wheatley)
Ben Wheatley’s film packs quite a powerful punch and increases the tension and violence as it races along at a riveting pace. One remarkable aspect of the film is that it keeps quite a few pieces off the screen thereby allowing the audience to fill in their own version of events related to the characters background and even to origins of the cult group. It is tempting to talk about the hunchback but it is best viewers are left to encounter him on their own terms.
18) The Turin Horse (Hungary co-production, Béla Tarr/Ágnes Hranitzky)
Béla Tarr crafts his unique end of the world scenario with a few bare essentials -- an old man, obedient daughter, rebel horse, untrustworthy visitors, an angry wind, potato, bucket, well, table, chair and a window. The film features an array of reverse and sideway shots that manage to open up space in a confined house setting.
19) Buried (2010, Spain/USA/France, Rodrigo Cortés)
Buried proves that in the hands of a talented director a bare bones scenario of a man buried in a coffin can make for an engaging film.
20) The Desert of Forbidden Art (2010, Russia/USA/Uzbekistan, Tchavdar Georgiev/Amanda Pope)
The Desert of Forbidden Art is a living breathing digital work of art that gives new life to paintings that are tucked away from the world. The two directors continue the work of the documentary’s subject Igor Savitsky in showcasing art to the modern world via the medium of cinema.
Honorable Mentions, in no particular order
Undertow (2009, Peru co-production, Javier Fuentes-León)
Senna (2010, UK, Asif Kapadia)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (USA, Sean Durkin)
Of Gods and Men (2010, France, Xavier Beauvois)
We Have to Talk About Kevin (UK, Lynne Ramsay)
The Ides of March (USA, George Clooney)
Shor in the City (India, Krishna D.K, Raj Nidimoru)
Blue Valentine (2010, USA, Derek Cianfrance)
Red Riding Trilogy (2009, UK, Julian Jarrold/James Marsh/Anand Tucker)
Some other notable performances/moments
The entire cast of Margin Call are fascinating to watch although Jeremy Irons steals the show with a character that oozes evil and power.
Jimmy Shergill does a commendable job of portraying a prince who is striving to hold onto power despite having no money in Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster.
Just like in last year’s Ishqiya, Vidya Balan once again upstages her male counterparts in The Dirty Picture.
The opening moments of Hugo prove that in the hands of an auteur 3D can be a breathtaking experience rather than a loud explosive mess.