'Bright Star,' 'The Hurt Locker,' 'Thirst'... The Year of the Woman? Isn’t every year allegedly the Year of the Woman? Nonetheless, my essentially interchangeable top two films are both from female directors – Kathryn Bigelow and Jane Campion – who have established reputations for talent and inconsistency. It is wonderful to see them both hit the top of their games at the same time.
1. Bright Star – Jane Campion’s love story of the poet John Keats told through the eyes of his fiancé Fanny Brawne, Bright Star is a film that works emotionally on the surface level and intellectually on deeper levels. In the old days, we used to call that a masterpiece. Set in 19th Century England, the film’s restrained love story is unusually moving. However, Bright Star is more a contemplation on the force of beauty in the world. Aided by stunning cinematography and production design, as well as head-turning performances from Abbie Cornish and Paul Schneider, Campion’s direction is gently assured; you wonder if other directors watch this film and wonder if they’re working hard enough.
2. The Hurt Locker –It’s rare that you find a film that takes a spent genre and rewires it for modernity. Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq War film eliminates decades of “Army of Victims” assumptions and rewires the war film for a modern professional military. The Hurt Locker confounds the accepted liberal post-Vietnam wisdom by presenting a demolition expert – simultaneously professionally focused and divinely insane - who lives for war and couldn’t live without it (a great Jeremy Renner). While the film is one tense wartime set piece after another, it’s that quietly shocking five minutes on the home-front that seems to stick out in everyone’s mind.
3. Thirst - Vampire films are tales of male predation upon women. Films noirs are stories of female predation upon men. Put them together, and apparently you get a fantastic vampire screwball finale in Chan Wook-Park’s mucho bloody, darkly funny morality tale.
4. The Road – I don’t understand the critical hesitation to accept The Road. There seems to be a thought that it is too bleak or that the book does not translate well to screen. What I saw was a tender father-son story in a post-apocalyptic imaginative space that reinforces the timelessness of love and morality. Even in humanity’s worst moments, we have the choice to love and to do the right thing. Fantastic performances from Viggo Mortensen and the youngster Kodi Smit-McPhee, as well as Charlize Theron’s great five minutes.
5. A Serious Man - The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man is the most intellectually challenging major American release of the year. It's too bad it's only half-enjoyable to watch. Nonetheless, the brothers re-imagine 2001: A Space Odyssey as a Jewish-American domestic black comedy. The film contemplates the ways that both fables and rationalism fall short in understanding the mind of God.
6. Inglourious Basterds - All the endless discussion of Quentin Tarantino The Director misses his true great contribution to film history -- liberating screen dialogue. In the Pulp Fiction era, Tarantino was superb at writing lines primarily in that one familiar Tarantino voice. The World War II dazzler Inglourious Basterds finds him writing great lines in multiple voices, multiple styles, and multiple languages.
7. Fantastic Mr. Fox - Some view Wes Anderson's animated outing as a return to form. I never thought he ever lost form. I just think of it as another terrific outing. Glad to hear nice things being said about him again, though.
8. The Brothers Bloom - One wag memorably described Rian Johnson's quirky con-man film as "The Sting directed by Hal Ashby." Actually, this mix of con-man picture and anachronistic screwball comedy is better described as The Lady Eve directed by Hal Ashby. Rachel Weisz dominates as the reclusive innocent Penelope Stamp, a cross between a Katharine Hepburn screwball heiress and Being There's childlike hero Chauncey Gardiner. A smart, post-modern sensibility permeates, giving us the brilliant bit of wisdom: “The ultimate con is to tell a lie so well that it becomes the truth.”
9. Adventureland - Greg Mottola upped the ante on the Apatow comedy with this late '80s summertime memoir set in an amusement park in the last rung of Hell. Nostalgic and tender where others are coarse and cynical. Too bad everyone’s forgotten Ryan Reynolds in this.
10. Public Enemies - Michael Mann's take on the short, brilliant bank-robbing life of John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), bathed with a death wish and a taste for fame. A throwback crime film in which the crook is a one-man last stand of romantic American individualism, as both law and crime advance to a more corporate and technological condition. A film that starts slow and gets better and better as it goes along.