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.

The Strange Case of Angelica
courtesy of The Cinema Guild
The Strange Case of Angelica
Trash Humpers
courtesy of IFC Films
Trash Humpers
White Material
courtesy of IFC Films
White Material
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu
courtesy of Icon Production
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu

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).


By Karina Longworth

Every four years, the American people act en masse to send a message to the nation's power brokers, and every four years, this vote is interpreted as a sign of the decline in taste, intelligence, and moral rectitude of the populace. Every four years, a Jackass movie opens at number one.

I'm not too worried that the continued success of Jackass (which offered me the closest thing to pure escapist pleasure this year) is a sign that we're getting stupider. However, I do wonder if the massive success of Inception is a sign that we're getting stupider. Sold—and bought—as the year's most "intelligent" blockbuster while actually baldly insulting its audience's intelligence (to quote Andrew O'Hehir's Salon.com review, "every time the story gets puzzling the characters call a timeout and explain it"), Inception both conquered the 2010 zeitgeist and helped define it. It was merely the biggest rendition of the year's most prevalent movie theme: How do you know that what you think is real is actually, like, really real? How do you know that you're not being fucked with?

It's a theme that manifested itself across budgetary strata and genres, popping up overtly or as subtext in everything from camcorder quasi-docs such as Catfish, Exit Through the Gift Shop, and I'm Still Here to big-money entertainments like Salt and How Do You Know. Two of my top 10 choices, Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer and Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, directly deal with the "real real" question, and most of the other films on my list incorporate some variety of au currant skepticism, from the romantic questioning of Everyone Else (is what feels like love really love?) to Enter the Void's vision of afterlife as "the ultimate trip" to the full-on phantasmagoria of my number-one film of the year.

1. TRASH HUMPERS

Directed by Harmony Korine

Influenced by surveillance and prank videos, but hardly haphazard (in fact, its non-aesthetic is the result of intricate design and careful production), Korine's faked relic about a separatist group of drunken, garbage can-fetishizing, self-mythologizing miscreants is the ultimate twisted fairy-tale allegory for our decaying times. After vacillating on a number one, in the end I voted with my heart.

2. GREENBERG

Directed by Noah Baumbach

Through Ben Stiller's epic depresso Roger Greenberg, a 40-ish Bushwick refugee floundering around L.A. and anti-seducing the much younger and surprisingly receptive Florence (Greta Gerwig), Noah Baumbach and soon-to-be-ex-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh distilled a certain toxic stew of unearned snobbishness, generational entitlement, and self-defeating self-obsession and gave it a name. They also gave Stiller the best role of his career.

3. DADDY LONGLEGS

Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie

Ronald Bronstein, the director of the 2007 underground opera of awkwardness Frownland, is starting to attract awards attention for his go-for-broke performance as the desperate dad of two young sons in the Safdie brothers' manic, electric 16mm roman à clef. If only all awards-bait family dramas were as unflinching, honest, and funny-horrifying as this.

4. DOGTOOTH

Directed by Giorgos Lanthimos

Feted by Cannes in 2009, heralded by aging tastemakers (David Byrne, John Waters) upon its summer release in New York, the second film from Greek director Lanthimos is a matter-of-factly violent, blacker-than-black comic parable about sex, pop culture, and closed societies, set in a single suburban home.

5. SOMEWHERE

Directed by Sofia Coppola

The year's second masterful portrait of L.A. ennui as seen through the camera of Harris Savides (the other is Greenberg), Somewhere should be remembered as a game changer for Sofia Coppola, the point at which she shrugged off the crutches— music video language and decorative design—that defined her first three films, adopting an entirely new stylistic approach while remaining true to her key concerns. Don't think of it as a movie about the rich, famous, and beautiful from the perspective of a woman who has been all three since birth; think of it as a movie about what happens when you get everything you thought you wanted, and you're still miserable.

6. THE RED CHAPEL

Directed by Mads Brügger

The surprise winner of the World Cinema Documentary prize at Sundance in January, Brügger's hilarious document of his subversive journey into North Korea with two Danish-Korean comedians in tow is, like Dogtooth (see above), concerned with a closed system maintained through manipulation of reality. But Brügger and gang come armed with their own complicated series of manipulations: In the Year of Being Fucked With, the year's best doc offered a game plan for how to fuck with Them back.

7. EVERYONE ELSE

Directed by Maren Ade

Want your Blue Valentine-like dissection of marital strife but could do without the Academy-mugging montage wall-to-wall Grizzly Bear? Try Maren Ade's second feature, a grueling (but gorgeous) snapshot of a young couple whose vacation idyll is slowly eroded by the insecurities brought in from outside.

8. SHUTTER ISLAND

Directed by Martin Scorsese

The best Hollywood thriller Hollywood made this year.

9. THE GHOST WRITER

Directed by Roman Polanski

The best Hollywood thriller Hollywood didn't make this year.

10. ENTER THE VOID

Directed by Gaspar Noe

I can't fully condone Noe's trip—in my review, I called it a "mash-up of the sacred, the profane, and the brain-dead," and I stand by that. But I've come to appreciate its stoner stoopidness as part of its charm. And nothing else in 2010 set off my "What the fuck am I watching?" censor quite like it.

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