25 Marwencol [Director: Jeff Malmberg]
“My memories that I do get,” says Mark Hogancamp, “They come back in stills, just a single shot, but no context.” Jeff Malmberg’s extraordinary documentary traces Mark’s journey, as he recalls it. The victim of a horrific attack on 8 April 2008, he woke nine days later in a hospital with his face smashed beyond recognition. Five men, he learned later, had beaten him almost to death outside a bar in his hometown of Kingston, New York. Mark’s recovery included learning basic functions all over again. As the documentary shows the show, it suggests that Mark’s capacity to share his experience through photos of Marwencol, through such precisely ordered and reordered forms, helps him to rediscover himself.
Marwencol the movie is another opportunity for rediscovery, for Mark certainly, but also for the rest of us. As Mark describes it, he sorts through a past and builds a present on the “memories I do get”, memories he absorbs and transforms. This process, of self-imagining and storytelling, reflects the intricate, ever-shifting ways that we all understand ourselves, the worlds inside and around us. – Cynthia Fuchs
24. REC] 2 [Director: Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza]
How do you make a sequel to a horror movie with a reputation for being extremely frightening without shooting yourself in the foot? Especially when the main characters from the first movie largely end up dead? For [REC] franchise creators Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza, you pick up right after the first movie ended, but from a different point of view. [REC] 2 follows a helmet camera-equipped SWAT team into the same quarantined building, preserving its found-footage perspective.
The team is accompanying a medical officer who actually knows what’s going on inside, giving the audience the explanation we never received in the first movie. This explanation skillfully expands the world of the franchise while fundamentally changing the nature of the scares in the film. It may not be quite as terrifying as the original, but [REC]2 still packs plenty of punch from a horror movie standpoint. And it’s a step above the original in terms of storytelling, making it a near-perfect sequel. – Chris Conaton
23. Fish Tank [Director: Andrea Arnold]
Plenty of films have presented us with the Angry Young Man but not so many with the Angry Young Woman, an odd state of affairs when you consider that young women have at least as much to be upset about as their male counterparts. Andrea Arnold does her bit to help correct this imbalance with Fish Tank starring newcomer Katie Jarvis as Mia Williams, a 15-year-old living in tough London estate. Mia has plenty of reasons to be angry and the attention she receives from the adult world ranges from indifferent (her mother) to clueless (the school system) to predatory (her mother’s new boyfriend). So she makes lots of mistakes on her journey to adulthood but also displays a tenacity and sense of self which gives you hope she will become more than just another victim of her environment. – Sarah Boslaugh
22. Enemies of the People [Director: Rob Lemkin, Thet Sambath]
Thet Sambath begins his story over images of peace and beauty, of rice paddies and trees and sunlight. He remembers his father’s murder. “They arrested him and took him to the rice field. They killed him by thrashing by knives,” Sambath says. “He did not die immediate. He very, very suffer. My brother, he watch.” Sambath was just a boy, his father a farmer, a “country person,” reportedly killed because he would not give up a cow to the Khmer Rouge. Now a senior reporter with the Phnom Penh Post, Sambath has spent years seeking answers to the question that has shaped his life: “Why the killing happened.”
His efforts are assembled in the astonishing documentary Enemies of the People, which he co-directed with Ron Lemkin. Combining Sambath’s self-reflections and his interviews some of the killers, gently probing their memories, the film is focused through his evolving relationship with one subject in particular, Nuon Chea, also known as Brother Number Two. “I wasn’t the right man to lead the party,” he says now, by way of explaining how he appointed Pol Pot Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in 1962. The film considers the tragic, horrific results of that appointment — and the still unclear nature of the leaders’ alliance and decision-making process. – Cynthia Fuchs
21. Animal Kingdom [Director: David Michôd]
Finally, a true crime ‘family’ in every sense of the word. This appealing Downunder world thriller has all the makings of a post-modern classic. We’ve got the unusual setting (Australia’s outlaw aura circa the late ’80s), a felonious clan loaded with craven characterization (including a brilliant turn from mad matriarch Jacki Weaver), a police squad both sworn to protect the law but using any and all means, legal or not, to get the job down, and an orphaned teenager who is introduced to the seedier slice of Ozzy life. Taken together, we’ve got the Melbourne version of Mean Streets, a true life look at how cops and robbers played out in a land far away from the usual Tinseltown take. – Bill Gibron
20. I Love You, Phillip Morris [Director: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa]
It’s 2010. Should this really be a topic anymore? For the last two years, Hollywood has fretted over what to do with this subversive Jim Carrey comedy. Wary of the film’s frank depiction of love and sex between two consenting men (one who just happens to be a borderline psychotic con artist) the movie has been shuffled around, looking for a potential distributor. Luckily, a studio stepped up to take the genial effort’s cause, giving it a high profile push… and for that, they should be applauded. For how this winning farce meets tender love story has been treated otherwise, all others deserve to be ashamed. The only offensive thing here is how a wonderful, witty dark comedy was mistreated by a narrow-minded industry. – Bill Gibron
19. Family Affair [Director: Chico Colvard]
In general, home videos record the present, as it becomes the past, to create a document for the future. What we see in family films, and how we see it, transforms with time and experience. Chico Colvard’s Family Affair is not the product of a fondly remembered youth or a time capsule of any sort. The film is instead an attempt to understand how time and perspective can absorb and shape the impact of unthinkable trauma. The film is a fact-finding mission concerning the personal history of a family and the complexity of forgiveness.
Made for, and about Colvard’s sisters, Family Affair confronts the women’s memories of abuse by their father, who is also in the film. There is a villain, but no confession, no satisfying comeuppance. There are open wounds, but no prescription for healing. No film could totally resolve the troubles lived and discussed here. Colvard knows this, and he finds within his sisters’ voices the means to investigate the nature and necessity of remembrance and moving onward. – Thomas Britt
18. The Oath [Director: Laura Poitras]
The intelligence failures of America’s so-called War on Terror are nicely encapsulated in Laura Poitras’ documentary The Oath which contrasts the fates of two brothers-in-law, Salim Hamdan and Abu Jandal. Both worked for Osama bin Laden but while one was a true believer in the cause who became bin Laden’s personal bodyguard and helped train new recruits, the other simply took a job as bin Laden’s driver because he needed the salary. After 9/11 Salim Hamdan (the driver) is arrested, imprisoned, and ultimately becomes the first man to face trial under the military tribunal established by the U.S., while Abu Jandal (the bodyguard and true believer) is a free man driving a cab in Yemen and appearing on Al Jazeera. Oops, I think we arrested the wrong brother-in-law. – Sarah Boslaugh
17. White Material [Director: Claire Denis]
Claire Denis’s newest stunner is an expatriate kind of horror film where the unspoken privileges of the post-colonial classes are ruthlessly stripped away and all their lazy hypocrisies exposed. Isabelle Huppert plays Maria, the boss of a coffee plantation in an unnamed African country that was once a French colony. For unknown reasons, the countryside is falling into chaos, with rebels on the move and Maria’s workers melting away. The last remaining French troops are pulling out, and chaos is closing in, though Maria – dangerously secure in her notion that she’s a thoughtful and open-minded white person, and so will be safe from the collapse – persists in avoiding the obvious. The bright, hard-edged cinematography dazzles the eye with its sun-baked fields and haunted woods, while Huppert’s performance is like that of a walking ghost who doesn’t yet know she’s dead. – Chris Barsanti
16. The Trotsky [Director: Jacob Tierney]
The Trotsky is an unsubtle broadside to educational systems, an attempt at rehabilitating revolutionary thinking, and a cinematic love letter to bohemian academic Montreal. Jay Baruchel is Leon Bronstein, a high-schooler who believes that he shares not only a name with the Bolshevik revolutionary who called himself Trotsky, but a reincarnated self as well. Not content (or just not hard-wired) to let destiny unspool its own gossamer thread, Leon has studied his Marxist avatar at length and imitates the original Trotsky’s ideology, dress, mannerisms, and rhetorical flourishes obsessively, all while training an eagle-eye on prospective revolutionary circumstances and comrades. That Leon wins over most of the doubters and defeats the stubborn remainder should come as little surprise, but the resulting film’s ideas are as plentiful as its laughs, which is rare enough in comedies of any type, and worth a nod of recognition at least. – Ross Langager
15. The Thorn in the Heart (L’épine dans le coeur) [Director: Michel Gondry]
“We have some memories!” says Madame Boyer. “Oh, many memories!” confirms Suzette Gondry. They laugh, two former school teachers who worked together in Revens some 40 years ago. They are also off screen. As they recall organizing parties for their students, the camera remains on one side of a blue door, waiting for the women to enter. They murmur and coo. And then Michel Gondry scoots into the frame, opening the door a crack to reveal a bright whoosh of light. “Come on, Suzette,” he encourages, then carefully closes the door again, so she can open it and the ladies can enter, reminiscing.
Like so many moments in The Thorn in the Heart is at once weird and delightful, exposing both the process of remembering and the process of recreating memories. In this, it’s typical of this wonderful documentary, seemingly simple and sweet, while also staging that simplicity and sweetness. Memories, the film proposes, shape experience and relationships, but they are ever mutable, a life’s accumulation of images and effects that never quite cohere or stop. As Gondry’s aunt looks back on her life — as a teacher, wife, and mother — the movie illustrates, with home movies and snapshots, interviews and reenactments. None of these versions of the past is absolute, and all help to produce the present. – Cynthia Fuchs
14. Four Lions [Director: Chris Morris]
I usually respond negatively to overhype on “socially topical” (a term I just made up) movies: when a story deals with certain hot-button issues of the day I’m immediately skeptical of the filmmakers’ intentions, since an audience-baiting awards grab of a picture can lose its authenticity or integrity pretty quickly. If anything, though, this film about bumbling British Al-Qaida suicide bombers has been underhyped. Even though it was easy to guess what would happen to them in the end, I cared deeply about each of these characters almost instantly, charmed by their foibles and their uneasy relationships to one another, their deity and the world around them. I often found myself openly weeping while all churned up inside, because I truly wanted to be laughing hysterically at the same time. – Jenn Misko
13. Mesrine [Director: Jean-François Richet]
A film in two parts chronicling the life of the titular French criminal, Jean-Francois Richet’s epic provides Vincent Cassel with a vehicle to go all out, performance-wise, in the grand tradition of James Dean, Marlon Brando and Heath Ledger. As the morally reprehensible Jacques Mesrine, Cassel not only makes the audience care about his eventual end, but, with his sheer magnetic charisma, he makes them care about Mesrine as a person, too. Richet’s deft and able direction aids the films’ fairly disjointed, jumpy narrative in such a way that the sudden jumps in time don’t seem jarring at all, but as natural as the early seasons of Lost. With the story’s depictions of entirely insane true events, including a daring prison break-out, Mesrine makes audiences really root for the cinematic gangster for the first time since GoodFellas. – Kevin Brettauer
12. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [Director: Niels Arden Oplev]
Imagine Hannibal Lector sponsored by the Free Masons and you’ve got some idea of how brilliant the basic premise of this foreign thriller really is. Combining Nazis, secret societies, eccentric wealthy families (and their isolated estates) and the unlikely duo of a disgraced investigative journalist and his angry Goth gal computer hacker sidekick as our “heroes”, this Swedish Silence of the Lambs is just amazing. It’s taut, terrifying, and when it needs to be, tough to endure. With the absolutely stunning Noomi Rapace as the title character and a narrative that plays out over three incredible novels, this introduction to the late Stieg Larsson’s take on the thriller is very special indeed. – Bill Gibron
11. Best Worst Movie [Director: Michael Stephenson]
Best Worst Movie is a wonderful film about the joy of moviemaking, the disappointment of making a bad movie, and the cult audience that develops around certain bad movies. That it manages to do all three of these things is precisely because of the conflict of interest of its creator, Michael Stephenson. Stephenson was the child star of Troll 2, a notoriously awful movie filmed in then-remote Park City, Utah, by an Italian director, producer, and crew, and with a cast of mostly-local amateur actors.
Stephenson recruits George Hardy, who played the father in the movie but is now a dentist, to revisit it. They travel the world talking to fans, attending midnight screenings, and tracking down the rest of the cast and crew to discuss their reactions to Troll 2, then and now. The result is Best Worst Movie, a hilarious documentary that’s also unexpectedly poignant in places. – Chris Conaton
10. A Film Unfinished [Director: Yael Hersonski]
Again and again in A Film Unfinished, faces turn to the camera. Most belong to residents of the Warsaw ghetto, looking back at the Nazis filming them in May 1942. Preserved in a 62-minute project titled Das Ghetto, today they’re both haunted and haunting, their cheeks caved in, their skin stretched tight, and their eyes unavoidable. Like so many faces that look back in so many documentaries, these indicate the subjects’ awareness of their status as such. Their expressions are curious, They are also silent, like all of Das Ghetto, an unfinished Nazi propaganda film discovered in an East German vault during the 1950s. Yael Hersonski has reassembled much of that footage for her film — some of it observational and some staged by the German film crew — along with readings from diaries and transcripts, as well as shots of ghetto survivors watching that footage.
Comprised of more faces, shadowed in a theater, these shots serve as vivid reflections of your own experience, horrified at what they see. What they see exemplifies one of the most chilling aspects of the Third Reich, “an empire infatuated with the camera,” narrates Rona Kenan, “that knew so well to document its own evil, passionately, systematically, like no other nation before it.” Das Ghetto has been used as a trustworthy document for any filmmaker or museum seeking to show what really happened, to tell the untellable. – Cynthia Fuchs
9. Micmacs [Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet]
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s latest hyper-Gallic opus of overwhelming whimsy is bursting with his trademarked manic visual invention. Like the various contraptions and schemes that drive its screwball plot, Micmacs is an exquisite Rube Goldberg device of a movie that impresses with its frightfully clever clockwork construction. Dany Boon (a sort of French Adam Sandler with oodles more talent) plays a Chaplinesque sad-sack adopted by an eccentric junkyard pseudo-family that helps him extract an elaborate measure of revenge from two arms contractors (and their suave chief executives) whose products have cost him both his father and his dream job at a video store. Bursting with frenzied amusements and visual wit, the latest product of Jeunet’s feverish mind is hardly his most accomplished film, but it has ample delights to offer nonetheless. – Ross Langager
8. Double Take [Director: Johan Gimonprez]
“The word ‘MacGuffin’ comes from a conversation between two men in a railway train,” says Alfred Hitchcock‘s voice. When one asks the other about “the package you have above your head on the luggage rack”, the second answers that it’s a device “for trapping lions in the Adirondacks of New York”. Informed that there are no lions in the Adirondacks, the second man answers again, “Well then, it’s not a MacGuffin.”
A version of this story opens Double Take, Johan Gimonprez’s brilliant meditation on the vagaries of Hitchcock, history, and nuclear weapons. It’s possible that every story that follows is a sort of MacGuffin, from Hitchcock’s encounter with his future self to the making of The Birds, from the Kitchen Debate in 1959 to the first televised presidential debate in 1960. As each of these stories (and others) weave in and out of one another, providing layers of context, commentary, and pointed comedy. Picking at myths and truisms, spoken and not, the film makes all of them grist for questioning. You think that John Kennedy and Richard Nixon are only opposites? That commercial capitalism is the reverse of communism? That Hitchcock was singular?
Think again. It’s not just that the film reflects on political motivations for inspiring dread and promising annihilation, it also ponders a kind of collective resilience, however unlikely or pathological. Both are premised on reiteration and recollection, and both are only possible by forgetting. – Cynthia Fuchs
7. Mother [Director: Bong Joon-ho]
In the latest by Korean director Bong Joon-Ho, a mother sets out to clear her mentally challenged son’s name of a murder. Even though we as an audience were afforded the privileged position of seeing what happens very early on in the film, suspense in the narrative is crafted well enough that it’s still possible to have some doubt about the truth. Starting its run at 2009 film festivals but only seeing its limited USA release in 2010, this is the kind of film I put off watching for a while because I expected it to be “difficult” in some way, but ended up regretting the wait when I took in the truly exciting cinematographic and narrative choices as well as the deeply empathetic portrayal of the mother-in-crisis by Kim Hye-ja. – Jenn Misko
6. Never Let Me Go [Director: Mark Romanek]
Mark Romanek’s adaptation of the acclaimed novel Never Let Me Go tugs at the heartstrings in a genuine, non-manipulative way, guiding us through the lives of three special, fragile individuals (including the phenomenal Andrew Garfield) with such grace and tranquility that it seems like a memory we can’t quite pinpoint, and so must decide was a dream of some sort. A film about so many things, including emotional maturation, Never Let Me Go never lets up, nor does it ever let the viewer go, even long after they’ve left the theatre.
Each shot is almost like a painting, and Alex Garland’s script is filled with such heartbreak it’s nearly impossible to believe that this isn’t actually happening. Like King Lear, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Brian K. Vaughan’s Ex Machina or Ronald Moore’s reboot of Battlestar Galactica, it begs us to be good to one another. And we should. – Kevin Brettauer
5. I Am Love [Director: Luca Guadagnino]
Snow falls over the sprawling mansion of a Milanese family whose clothing factories provide the sumptuous material framing for Luca Guadagnino’s stately, elemental tale of emotional entropy. Tilda Swinton plays the Russian-reared matriarch, beautiful and graciously courtly but increasingly uncertain of herself in these baronial surroundings. The film captures the little details of family dinners and gatherings with the rigor of a sociologist, luxuriating in the old-money grandeur and beautifully recorded passing of the seasons.
Guadagnino’s luscious, seasonal filming and the ululating soundtrack by John Adams have all the hallmarks of a stillborn arthouse bit of pretense. But Swinton’s unearthly presence and the Madame Bovary-like potency of her sudden fling into an uncontrollable affair — not to mention the film’s ability to spotlight (literally, in one bravura dinner scene) the story’s grace notes — brings everything to an operatic climax that is little short of annihilatory. – Chris Barsanti
4. Exit Through the Gift Shop [Director: Banksy]
Is it real? Fake? A clever artistic combination of the two? No matter the final conclusion, UK graffiti artist Banksy has altered the 2010 cinematic landscape with his take on the underground documentary. Spinning the story of French immigrant Thierry Guetta and his transformation from wannabe filmmaker into street art impresario “Mr. Brainwash”, the reclusive, enigmatic figure has fostered a dialogue that’s kept his creation in the Awards Season news since early March. While some can’t get over the “is it or isn’t it” ideal, there’s no denying what it truly illustrates: a slick social commentary that takes the piss out of the entire genre while reinventing its form to facilitate… a window into an unknown world?… an elaborate ruse? As with the best kind of entertainment, you end up being the best judge. – Bill Gibron
3. The Kids Are All Right [Director: Lisa Cholodenko]
The Kids Are All Right feels progressive at first because it features a well-adjusted family that just happens to have a lesbian couple as the parents. What makes Lisa Cholodenko’s film feel real, though, are the domestic issues that Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) have to sort through. Jules is the domestic artist-type who always has a not-quite-realized dream on the horizon, while doctor Nic is the family breadwinner who eases her stress by drinking too much. When their two teenage kids contact their sperm-donor father (Mark Ruffalo), and the family gets to know him, his destabilizing presence pulls the family’s issues into the open. This film could easily have descended into too-precious melodrama, but the strong cast makes it all seem very honest and believable. It’s a small story well-told. – Chris Conaton
2. The Last Train Home [Director: Lixin Fan]
You think you’ve got it tough? Imagine being a factory worker in China who only gets to visit your family once a year, during the Lunar New Year holidays. Your children will grow up apart from you and the trip home to see them requires taking part in the world’s largest internal migration as you and 130 million other Chinese workers hit the road the same time every year. Director Lixin Fan focuses on a single family amid this human tide and captures the hardships of factory life, the insanity of the annual trip home, and the very real possibility that it might all be for nothing. – Sarah Boslaugh
1. Winter’s Bone [Director: Debra Granik]
Calling it “hillbilly noir” is just not good enough. Sure, the main narrative drags us through the seedier side of impoverished life in the meth lab laden mountains of the Ozark, a missing person’s mystery fueling our journey. But there is more to Debra Granik’s brilliant coming of age tale than a simple story of a teenager taking control of her troubled family. There’s the concept of survival, the horrific drug-laden destruction of the people and the place, and the amazing acting turns that take what could have been a series of strident archetypes and turned them into memorable, meaningful characters. As thrilling to look at as it is to dissect and decipher, this represents the best of the independent movement, a film following its own course, and doing so definitively. – Bill Gibron
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This article was originally published on 2 January 2011.