Dogtooth, The Ghost Writer, and more: Top 10 Films of 2010

Critics' picks for the year

By J. Hoberman

Many of my favorite films of the year are still awaiting wider release, so although this top 10 list wraps up my 2010, it can also serve as a guide to your 2011. My number one film, in fact, sneaks into New York just three days before the year ends. The Strange Case of Angelica is a strange case to be sure. Manoel de Oliveira's latest last film, which includes the 101-year-old director's first use of CGI in his debut dream sequence, is as funny and peculiar as its title promises. Putting his own eccentric spin on the myth of Orpheus, the last working filmmaker to have been born during the age of the nickelodeon offers a modest, ultimately sublime meditation on the photographic essence of the motion picture medium, as glimpsed in the half-light of eternity.

As seen through the glass darkly of the present moment, I'd say the last 12 months were notable for directorial comebacks: Veteran filmmakers Olivier Assayas, Roman Polanski, Claire Denis, and even the late Henri-George Clouzot provided first-rate returns to form.

And now, back to the future....

1. THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA

Directed by Manoel de Oliveira

2. CARLOS

Directed by Olivier Assayas

Assayas puts it all together—historical reconstruction and globalizing enterprise, terror and terroir, plus sex, death, and rock 'n' roll. Carlos is a total you-are-there immersion in the bizarre career of a '70s terrorist and, as the equivalent of three feature-length movies, it arguably deserves three slots.

3. THE GHOST WRITER

Directed by Roman Polanski

The Pianist had its moments, but Polanski hasn't made a movie so sustained in the decades since The Tenant or even 1966's Cul de Sac. In a way, this seemingly modest political thriller is almost their sequel. Shot in Germany (standing in for the wintry New England beach), impeccably directed, and edited under house arrest—with a beleaguered British prime minister played by ex-James Bond Pierce BrosnanThe Ghost Writer is rich with subtext.

4. LEBANON

Directed by Samuel Maoz

As classic in its way as The Ghost Writer and even more overtly formalist, writer-director Maoz's first feature is at once existential combat movie and political allegory. (It's about this tank....) The personal investment is evident. Lebanon, which could just as easily be called Israel, is based on the writer-director's experience of the 1982 war, as replayed in his head for nearly 30 years.

5. WHITE MATERIAL

Directed by Claire Denis

As a child of Africa, Denis also brings it back home with this convulsive, beautiful, terrifying work—Heart of Darkness by way of Apocalypse Now. The filmmaking is terrific, impressionist yet tactile, with the girlish figure of Isabelle Huppert caught up in the maelstrom of a post-colonial civil war, fiercely clinging to the remnants of her past.

6. HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT'S INFERNO

Directed by Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea

Clouzot's Inferno is another sort of wreck—of a movie and perhaps a psyche. The title has a double meaning: The celebrated, wildly obsessive Clouzot attempted to make the ultimate '60s flick, Inferno, and came unhinged in the process. It's hard to imagine that Clouzot's finished film would be more evocative than this explication of its shards—or that Romy Schneider could ever give a more seductive performance than in these screen tests and outtakes.

7. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF NICOLAE CEAUESCU

Directed by Andrei Ujic

Here is megalomania made material. Romanian film-artist Ujic's archival assemblage is a three-hour immersion in a totalitarian leader's official reality. It's a modern-day Ubu Roi, with dictator Nicolae Ceauescu's public image as fabricated by the tyrant himself.

8. THE JUCHE IDEA

Directed by Jim Finn

American film artist Jim Finn's deadpan faux documentary account of image-making in North Korea complements The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauescu's show-stopping Pyongyang sequence—a stadium filled with thousands of precision-drilled North Korean dancers creating an elaborate Romanian folk pageant for an audience of two (and the camera). Something other than ironic, the year's prize whatzit is steeped in the pathos of political kitsch as well as the "Juche"—North Korea's ideology of self-reliance—that DIY independent filmmaking requires.

9. GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH

Directed by Damien Chazelle

Another example of Juche cinema, this mumblecore musical mashes up Shadows with A Woman Is a Woman to create a no-budget, neo-new-wave musical love story, shot off the cuff on the streets of Boston. At once clumsy and deft, annoying and ecstatic, Chazelle's debut feature is amateurish in the word's original sense, suffused with the love of movies.

10. The last 40 minutes of INCEPTION

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Pure cinema is where you find it. I caught this much-maligned behemoth as a civilian, about a month into its run. The first 90-something minutes were so nonsensical as to be unbearable, but then something kicked in—the special effect called "editing"! Since 70 minutes has always seemed the ideal length for a B movie, take in Inception's finale with one or two of the equally sensational 3-D action sequences from Tron: Legacy.

And here are a dozen runners-up, any of which on another day might have wound up in the bottom half of my list: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector (Vikram Jayantri), Boxing Gym (Frederick Wiseman), Green Zone (Paul Greengrass), Greenberg (Noah Baumbach), Bluebeard (Catherine Breillat), Inside Job (Charles Ferguson), The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet), Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz), Machete (Robert Rodriguez), Ne Change Rien (Pedro Costa), The Portuguese Nun (Eugene Green), Trash Humpers (Harmony Korine).


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