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The year wanes, and the working critic is obliged to ponder the mystery of personal taste, per the Roman rap artist Catullus, "I hate and I love, and you probably ask why?"
Last year, I reported my predilection for quasi-commercial independent productions that drew on avant-garde movie ideas; this year, I find a tendency to praise movies for being p.c., as in "pure cinema." The Flight of the Red Balloon, Paranoid Park, Silent Light, and Wendy and Lucy owe nothing to any art other than motion pictures. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days and honorable mention A Christmas Tale exemplify something related to pure cinema, namely terrific filmmaking; Che is terrific filmmaking that is, in some ways, about the nature of filmmaking. Razzle Dazzle and In the City of Sylvia are movies about the nature of movies. (Waltz With Bashir and WALL-E are, as Catullus might have said, sui generis.)
And speaking of p.c., I could have easily included—even headed my list with—Wong Kar-wai's Ashes of Time Redux, if the earlier version had not already appeared on my 10 Best list, back when it played Chinatown, in 1994.
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The great Chinese filmmaker goes to France. The Flight of the Red Balloon is explicitly an outsider's movie, full of odd perspectives and founded on dislocation. Typically, Hou's narrative rhythms allow for long periods in which not much happens, followed by a cascade of overlapping information. In its unexpected rhythms and visual surprises, its structural innovations and experimental performances, its creative misunderstandings and its outré syntheses, this is a movie of genius.
Once more into the breach, Ken Jacobs further explores the ground zero of cinematic representation. Razzle Dazzle takes its title and much of its imagery from a minute-long 1903 Edison actualité of a circular whip-like amusement-park ride. In a sense, Jacobs has created a continuous loop. The amusement park merges with the film machine as the artist ponders the infinite possibilities that photography (and re-photography) afford to reconstitute the moment.
3. Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant)
Another sort of circle: Lyrical yet gritty, Paranoid Park cashes the check that Van Sant wrote with his first feature, Mala Noche. In telling the tale of a Portland skater kid involved in the accidental death of a railroad bull, the filmmaker comes close to inventing his own film language. Chronology is shuffled, narrative gets dealt out as a succession of subjective impressions, and the world is made to shimmer with adolescent magic.
4. Che (Steven Soderbergh)
Soderbergh's project is to search for the inner technocrat in the original revolutionary rock star. Assuming responsibility for this ambitious, risk-taking, possibly pointless project enabled the filmmaker a means to identify with his legendary subject. Thus the emphasis is on process, with Soderbergh acting as his own director of photography. Che might be described as an anti-biopic that seeks to humanize its subject with a shocking absence of human interest.
5. Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman)
History may not be personalized in Che, but it is in Ari Folman's grim phantasmagoria, swirling around the traumatic 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Waltz With Bashir is a documentary that seems only possible, not to mention bearable, as an animated feature—the first, incidentally, in Israeli cinema.
6. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas)
The world's first talking picture shot in Plautdietsch is a behavioral experiment—set in northern Mexico's Mennonite community and cast almost entirely with Mennonite non-actors. Reygadas's tale of passion, betrayal, and redemption is a unique amalgam of ethnographic documentary and 16th-century psychodrama, but the most startling thing about the filmmaker's latest stunt is its bid for greatness.
7. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu)
The story of two college girls negotiating the treacherous currents of a drab police state in order to secure an illegal abortion is a movie one watches in a state of mounting dread. The Romanian director's brilliantly discomfiting second feature is a long premonition of disaster, discreetly—and then shockingly—graphic. It's both a visceral allegory and a virtuoso white-knuckle thriller.
8. In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerín)
Hitchcockian in another fashion (think Vertigo), Guerín sends a sensitive young romantic through an urban labyrinth in search of his lost soulmate. Did she ever exist? Sensuous and gently self-mocking, In the City of Sylvia is predicated on a love of cinematic process, including film theory.
9. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton)
10. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
More modest but no less cosmic: A sad pixie stumbles and slides into America's lower depths. Wendy and Lucy is essentially a solo turn for Michelle Williams that, were it not so resolutely undramatic, would be an aria of stoical misery. (And if the filmmaker weren't so unsentimentally prosaic, she might have called this prescient ballad of quotidian disaster Pictures of the Gone World.)
And . . .
Honorable mention to A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, France), followed by a nine-film tie for 12th place: Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov, Russia); The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Eric Rohmer, France); Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, U.S.); Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, UK); The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat, France); Momma's Man (Azazel Jacobs, U.S.); My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, Canada); Still Life (Jia Zhangke, China); and Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, U.S.).
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