Fuchs' picks for the year's best movies reveal the difficulty of the quest, uncovering in their seeming failures more remarkable potentials.
In looking for a way through the year's many movies and hours lost to them, I've come on a theme to match my need. Many of the year's releases, I'm thinking, evoke a similar desire -- to find order, morality, something like quality. And yet the best reveal the difficulty and even the futility of the quest, uncovering in their seeming failures more remarkable potentials. These are named below, in no special order.
Anderson's film, based on Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!, lays out an ostensibly basic structure: the opposition of commerce and religion as these forces shaped the U.S. in 1898, the self-proclaimed oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) finds his first well, then parlays his talent-cum-expertise into an empire of exploitation and profits. Embodying the most visible challenges to his self-delusions are his son, H.W. (played as a boy by the extraordinary Dillon Freasier) and the preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). The film's schematic framework shape is complicated at every step by stunning oilfield visuals (brilliantly shot by Robert Elswit and designed by Jack Fisk) and Day-Lewis' enthralling performance. Plainview is locked into a lifelong conflict with Eli, whose professed interest in saving souls is no more real or less American than his own interest in making money.
The impossibility of attaining conventional truth is crucial in three excellent documentaries. My Kid Could Paint That, by Amir Bar-Lev, begins as one story and becomes another, At first investigating definitions of art -- in the gallery world, in the minds of critics like Michael Kimmelman, even in the ways that artists might imagine themselves -- the film eventually becomes an investigation of documentary as a genre and the limits of documentation. As much as the film grants parents Laura and Mark Olmstead opportunities to show the truth of their four-year-old daughter Marla's brilliants, the less convincing their story becomes.
Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker's extraordinary The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair, begins with a decision to follow up on an Iraqi prisoner spotted first in their film about U.S. troops in Baghdad, 2004's Gunner Palace. Journalist Yunis Khatayer Abbas, detained with his brothers in Abu Ghraib for years, here recounts his ordeal with wit and profound cultural insight, the film illustrating his experiences with graphic novelish art (at once too real and never real enough) as well as interviews and archival footage.
Visions of oppression are more systemic but no less personal in three foreign-language films. Cristian Mungiu's astonishing 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days charts the ordeal of two college students as they procure an illegal abortion during Ceausescu’s reign in 1980s' Romania. Jafar Panahi's Offside follows a group of young women soccer fans, as they are arrested attempting to attend a World Cup qualifying match at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. Even as they are stymied and contained, the girls find strength in one another, as the film celebrates their ingenuity, passion, and resilience.