The Top 100 Films of the Decade So Far

The Tree of Life

As anyone who reads this site (or follows my Letterboxd account) knows, I love making film lists. While I recognize that it’s not very useful as an act of film criticism, there’s something about the exercise that I find satisfying and fun. Instead of reducing these films to an arbitrary ranking, I find that compiling lists gives me a chance to reevaluate and revisit my initial encounters. Am I still thinking about a film after a few years? Are there open questions, mysteries or contradictions to explore? Considering questions like these as I create a list proves that films aren’t finite objects, but experiences that grow and change over time. The best films don’t ever really end, but remain vibrant and alive in my mind long after I see them.

It’s with these thoughts in mind that I endeavored to create a list of my 100 favorite films at the halfway point of this decade. Of course, my list is entirely subjective, and my rankings probably wouldn’t hold up to much scrutiny, but these are some of the films of the last five years that I’m still thinking about today. Read more…

Closed Curtain (2014)

Closed Curtain / Jafar Panahi / 2014 / threestar

Active Ingredients: Artistic and political defiance; interior digital cinematography
Side Effects: Limited resonances from fictional/documentary divide

[Closed Curtain plays at the Boston MFA until August 24th.]

Closed Curtain is equal parts defiance and despair. Made by a persecuted filmmaker legally barred from making films, it’s the expression of a man banned from self-expression. Like many Iranian films since that country’s “new wave” in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Closed Curtain is full of contradictions, forcibly joining two opposing conditions to observe their strange alchemy. Yet unlike, say, Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up, Jafar Panahi’s new film isn’t a celebration of the limitless possibilities created by these juxtapositions. Rather, Closed Curtain becomes a sober exploration of the very limited aesthetic possibilities open to a silenced artist who nonetheless feels a deep human need to speak. Read more…

Under the Skin (2014)

Under the Skin / Jonathan Glazer / 2014 / twostar

Active Ingredients: Bold imagery; Unsettling score and sound design
Side Effects: Lack of thematic weight; Use of non-actors

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is a difficult film to assimilate after seeing only once. It doesn’t offer answers, but rather tasks its viewers with unpacking its many narrative and thematic mysteries. This is a challenge I embrace from any filmmaker who respects his audience enough to issue it, and one that rewards multiple viewings, and yet I can only say that seeing Under the Skin once felt frustrating, unsatisfying and incomplete. Read more…

The Top 20 Films of 2013 – Part 1

2013 was an incredibly rich year for cinema—certainly the richest since I’ve been writing—so there’s more excuse than ever to extend my year-end list to 20 titles. Hopefully this collection can shed some light on great films both foreign and domestic that you might not encounter on other critics’ lists. Stay tuned for my Top 10 later, but in the meantime consider catching up some of these titles, many of which are already available on Netflix Instant.

Something in the Air

20) Stories We TellSarah Polley

Exploring the deeply personal domestic drama of her own parentage, Sarah Polley turns her documentary Stories We Tell into a powerful and universal investigation into memory and narrative. She’s concerned not just with uncovering the identity of her biological father—a compelling narrative mystery in its own right—but with interrogating how individual perspectives and the march of time obfuscate any notion of “truth.” Polley may have pushed her use of contrasting documentary form even further, but as it stands the film gestures towards the notion that truth can only be found within a multiplicity of voices. Read more…

Modest Reception (2013)

Modest Reception / Mani Haghighi / 2013 / twostar

Active Ingredients: Slowly developing thematic implications
Side Effects: Handling of tones; Frustrating performances


[Modest Reception plays January 30th and 31st and The Boston Festival of Films from Iran at the MFA.]

Throughout the month of January, the MFA has been celebrating the diversity of Iranian film through its Boston Festival of Films from Iran. Here in America, we’re lucky if we’re able to see the films of festival regulars like Abbas Kiarostami or Jafar Panahi, but Iranian cinema outside the international art house mold is rarely, if ever, seen. Modest Reception is, I think, distinct from the formal characteristics of Kiarostami’s and Panahi’s films, yet it also operates outside the conventions of the Hollywood output we’re likely to see in January and February. It’s precisely this distance from our own cinematic traditions that makes a film series like the MFA’s so valuable, even if Modest Reception is largely unsuccessful. Read more…

Mourning (2012)

Mourning / Morteza Farshbaf / 2012 /

Active Ingredients: Control over sound and image; Revelation of information
Side Effects: Incomplete ending; Restrictive locations

A protegee of Abbas Kiarostami‘s, Moretza Farshbaf exhibits much of the Iranian master’s control and restraint in his debut film, Mourning. Don’t let the title fool you though, Mourning is a vital film, fully realizing the lives of its three central characters. Narratively, it feels neither sombre nor restrictive; on the contrary, the great success of Mourning is how deliberately and convincingly it expands, taking a simple story and opening it up to nuance and complexity, allowing the audience to enter into the world of the film where there are no easy answers. Read more…

Cannes 2012 Lineup Announced

Earlier today the Festival de Cannes, the most prestigious film festival in the world, announced the complete lineup of films vying for the coveted Palme d’Or, as well as those screening out of competition. After consecutive wins for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and The Tree of Life, two of my favorite films but both somewhat controversial choices, I’ll be very interested to see which film generates the most buzz along the Riviera. And, of course, to see which film gets greeted with the infamous Cannes boos. The early reaction around the Internet is that this lineup skews a bit heavily towards American filmmakers, but many big names in international cinema are also represented. Here’s a selection of a few projects I’m most interested in. Read more…

Ten (2002)

Ten / Abbas Kiarostami / 2002 /

Active Ingredients: Natural script; Keen, understated commentary
Side Effects: Flat, static style

Abbas Kiarostami’s brilliantly understated Ten derives an emotional impact from the simplicity of its conceit, without ever feeling maudlin or cheaply sentimental. The film is composed of ten segments, each documenting a car ride and a conversation between a young female driver and her passengers. Austerely shot, often in long, unbroken takes, each segment explores the complex psychology of women in modern-day Iran. Kiarostami’s minimalist, low-fi aesthetic allows the viewer to register small changes that flicker in and out of the characters’ faces and forces intimacy. While the tactic benefits the film, it does not feel an essential component to its power.

Miraculously, this very talky film never feels obviously scripted. Kiarostami has a remarkable ear for the ebbs and flows of natural conversations. He knows that people talk in circles not straight lines, just as the driver circles aimlessly and continually, much to the chagrin of her passengers. Consequently, the heart of each dialogue is uncovered only after false starts, preambles, tangents and diversions. The inner lives of the characters, their histories and relationships emerge so naturally that the sophistication of its construction passes unnoticed. It’s as if we know these characters and simply ride alongside them. Read more…