An Overture to Guest Writer Aaron Hollander's "In Favor of Horror" Article

   I have a fairly considerable aversion to the horror genre.  With the looming publication of a special guest article about the merits of that particular genre by Aaron Hollander, I thought I would address why I approached him to write it, so that his article will assume further meaning, purpose and context.  After all, the majority of you reading are not privy to the regular debates we have on these kinds of subjects.

  I'll just come out and say it.  I told him to write it as a "Prove me wrong...I dare ya.  I double-dog dare ya" gesture.

   I remember sitting and watching the answer-print of Babysitter Wanted (2008) at PhotoKem in L.A. with its makers present.  I was listening to them talk about how excited they were about the horror fan-base's enthusiasm for the not-yet-released project while witnessing a young woman get disemboweled by Medieval cattle-slaughtering gadgets up on the screen.  In my perception, there is an increasingly unsettling need for elaborate blood-letting and gore within the strange cabal of horror fans, and this is far-reaching when you consider the essence of the genre itself.  This answer-print screening might have permanently affected my thinking about horror.  It was a window for me into the motives concerning how and why such works get produced.

   My philosophy is that the best horror films morph into other kinds of genre films and can no longer be strictly classified as horror films by the time of the final fade-out.  Both thriller and horror film seek to unsettle and to scare.  How can you distinguish between the two, then?  The means.  In my eyes, horror is a genre built upon the foundation of wretched excess, with very few exceptions.  Its fundamental functionality is to show...sometimes way too much.  The thriller, on the other hand, needs not show, but is more often than not build around often profound levels of suggestion.  Hitchcock was, after all, the Master of Suspense -- not the Master of Horror.  This is all admittedly a simplified and general assertion, so allow me to elaborate.

   Modern-day horror films take all this to often absurd extremes, and could be indicted as being most guilty of these charges of wretched excess.   The dubiously "out-of-the-box" horror flick Cabin in the Woods (2011), which I saw involuntary while among a group of friends, does not "transcend" a damn thing within its limiting genre.  Rather, it exploits it.  The newest works at which horror fans make claims of enterprise and vision are, the grand majority of the time, just more inarticulate bloodletting laced with fashionable hipster irony and pseudo-Brechtian skullduggery.  Cabin in the Woods is a meta-film that attempts to lampoon itself while still retaining the identity of that which it is lampooning.  In every other genre, the concept of meta is something that ceased being considered clever when post-modern sensibilities were long considered passé.  One must then ask why horror fans in this age seem to be behind the times in this sense.  As far as I am concerned, I'm just calling a spade a spade.  We have come a long way since John Landis' brilliant An American Werewolf in London (1981), which cleverly turns the form on its head in fun and diverting ways.


   It seems rare to me that general genres have a fan-base.  Okay, perhaps you have "action fans" and "musical fans," who assume the label in a mostly loosy-goosey way, but most fandoms appear to be reserved for subgenres that are more specified.  Think "sports film" and "spy film".  Perhaps the most rabid general genre fan-base is that of the horror genre.  To use an earlier term, the horror fan-base is technically a cabal.  What does this cabal want the most?  Well, these days, it wants "splatter porn" the most.  I can tell you on no uncertain terms that subtle and classy execution does not get a self-proclaimed horror fan into the theater.

   Rosemary's Baby, a film that hints and suggests more than it shows, is largely classified as a horror film.  However, with a director like Polanski behind the camera, the film becomes something wholly other by the time it is complete.  Our imagination becomes our worst enemy as we weigh the possibility of a conspiracy against Rosemary and her unborn child.  Hence, I would classify a "horror film" like Rosemary's Baby as more of a suspense thriller.  My point again is that the best horror films cannot solely be classified as horror by the time a given "good" horror film ends.  This is because horror is a genre that pigeonholes its product...and the films worth anything cannot be pigeonholed in such a way.  I reiterate: both thriller and horror film seek to unsettle and to scare.  The only thing different?  The means.  It also takes someone like David Cronenberg to co-opt gore into a slightly more thoughtful pedigree which he patented, the more diplomatically named "body horror".

   A film like the original Paranormal Activity (2007) is bone-chilling.  I was truly scared at a few points, and there were many times that I audibly exclaimed fright.  As I was meditating on the film after it concluded, I realized that it was not much of a horror film.  The threat in the story is invisible, and all the more terrifying.  it's a home invasion by unseen entities.  The home is one's private space.  To never fully explain what is occurring and hereby keeping the villain ambiguous and unknown (even to the bitter end) is what makes it fly.  The Blair Witch Project (1999) uses the same paradigm and, in this way, it is similarly successful.  "Horror films" (the use of quotations there is certainly intentional) that intimate rather than show and that flip the switches effectively without resorting to empty and perfunctory revelation.

   I have a suspicion that the horror fan-base is turned on by the cutting-edge in gore make-up and bloody effects more than the actual horror stories and narrative models, which are generally standard-operation-fare.  That ain't my bag, to say the least, but it has its place, I suppose.

   I have saddled Aaron with the task of proving me wrong with his article.  In the meanwhile, I have briefly profiled a few horror films that I feel are unjustly neglected and made from the elemental stuff (the guts, if you will) that horror films should be made of.  This is not a best-of-horror list, mind you.  Just a list of buried treasures, some of which are buried deeper than others.

The Blood on Satan's Claw (1970, Piers Haggard) - I was pleased to see recently that, when director Joe Dante programmed an imaginary horror-movie marathon for The Onion last month, he chose Blood on Satan's Claw as one of his selections.  He wrote, "It’s not a very well known film, but it's a beautifully made film, almost an art film.  Its sense of location is remarkable, down to the speech patterns."  The setting to which he refers is the rural Northern England of the 1690's.  The Blood on Satan's Claw is one of the most unsettling films I have ever seen in any genre, and it possesses an episodic structure very unusual for a non-portmanteau horror picture.  As the story goes, the film was originally conceived as three separate stories that would play out individually in segments.  However, when the script was written it was decided to link the three threads into one central story.

Night After Night After Night (1969, Lindsay Shonteff) - This is yet another British entry into my list.  By the way, there's yet another Brit-born horror picture below this one.  This Swinging London-set horror effort about a cross-dressing Jack the Ripper-esque fiend on the loose in what is probably the most sordid and sleazy depiction of London's Soho ever committed to screen.  The film's killer, an ideological brother and counterpart to the later Travis Bickle, disapproves of swinging sixties permissiveness and "the filth and horror of the age," and feels compelled to dress up in leather and a Beatles wig to cut up prostitutes and anything else in a mini-skirt.  The film is a little rough around the edges, which only adds to its seedy mystique, but works on levels of irony (including a real hoot of an ending) that make it well worth investigating.  One caveat, however: the film has its share of unpleasant violence and I do not intend to apologize for certain excesses (allegedly inserted under the command of its original distributor, as to play better at Soho's grindhouses and, later, 42nd Street), but it attempts things that are memorably strange and occasionally wonderful.  There is more than a little ambition afoot in Night After Night After Night.  Shonteff would later helm Permissive (1970/72), a film that has been recently excavated by the British Film Institute.  He was also responsible for a wide range of James Bond parodies.

Straight On Till Morning (1972, Peter Collinson) - British New Wave "It girl" Rita Tushingham stars in this Hammer production about, yes, yet another serial killer.  While a horror film, Straight On Till Morning is also a de facto romance film, albeit with one member of the central couple a vicious killer.  Collinson was something of a low-level auteur around the time the film was produced, so the film is large on atmosphere.  To Hammer home (har har) a common theme in this article, the film becomes more of a thriller to me than it ever is a horror film, but the horror elements are well-executed and somewhat more tasteful than others of its ilk.  The plot summary on IMDb makes the story itself seem more immediately intriguing than the effective atmosphere of simultaneous whimsicality and unease it admirably creates: "Shy Brenda Thompson writes naive children's stories to amuse herself.  Stifled and desperate for a man of her own, she leaves Liverpool, telling her mom she's pregnant, and gets a job in a boutique in London.  She moves in with the promiscuous but good-hearted Caroline but the mod set shuns her for her plain looks.  Then she kidnaps a strange young man's dog, so as to perhaps get to know him while returning it.  The young man turns out to be Peter, a psychopath with a predilection for killing beautiful things.  He renames Brenda Wendy, and they start a hopeful, if strange, relationship.  It might have a chance, if it weren't for Peter's murderous secrets."

Blue Sunshine (1977, Jeff Lieberman) - Shot on an impressive $550,000 budget, Blue Sunshine is a justifiable cult item.  It intelligently exploits post-counterculture remorse and escalates the condition to full-scale movie horror.  For those of you who have never heard of Blue Sunshine, the title refers to a brand of LSD that makes one lose their hair and go homicidally insane ten years after ingestion.  Personally, it is one of my all-time favorite horror films and its audience steadily grows with each passing year.  It is a work that enjoys continued excavation from all manner of cineaste, and rightly so.

The Seventh Victim (1943, Mark Robson) - This now legendary Val Lewton production is most likely the beloved producer's finest hour.  The merging of horror and detective story would make any filmmaker pine to recreate its toweringly creepy tone.

The Pyx (1973, Harvey Hart) - Filmed and set in Montreal, this occult thriller stars Karen Black as a lady of the evening who is murdered in the film's first scene and Christopher Plummer as a police detective trying to get the bottom of her murder, in which a Satanist cult is complicit.  Told with a complex flashback structure, The Pyx wears its horror elements on its sleeve, but also dabbles in Big Ideas concerning grace and decadence.  The film is also very much a character study of Black's heroin-addicted prostitute.  In a second breath, it is a subjective character study through the eyes of Christopher Plummer's detective, who puts the puzzle pieces together and finds himself startled to discover the truth behind the hooker's final moments of life.

Spying Outside the Comfort Zones: In Favor and Defense of Hitchcock's Topaz


Coming soon:  An article about critics' most significant dissents with the critical tide (featuring Rex Reed and F.X. Feeney) -- hopefully in time for the re-release of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate -- and a special guest article by Aaron Hollander examining the merits of the horror genre.  Stay tuned!


Historically, I have not written terribly much about Alfred Hitchcock.  I have not neglected him out of either distaste or obstinacy.  My lack of interest in writing about Hitchcock might very well be because he is among the most written about directors in the pantheon of filmmaking legends, with no less than Truffaut himself having published a now-classic book on his impressive canon.  And by a long shot, that ain't the only book on the man.  To top off the extensiveness of his literary and academic coverage, most likely every Tom, Dick and Harry walking down the street probably has some kind of working knowledge concerning the rotund and orotund Master of Suspense with the trademark profile whose drolly laconic verbal inflection spoke volumes about his notoriously macabre sense of humor.

My so-called "niche" in the world of film-writing is in the realm of cinephemera and estoterica; in other words, I traditionally write about the films and film artists I feel have unjustly not received enough coverage (or sometimes, even any coverage at all).  In a sense, it is the sometimes strenuous act of spilling whatever spotlight I can onto that which has wallowed in the darkness of unfair non-exposure and cruel obscurity.  I will often openly begrudge film retrospectives in venues which showcase films and filmmakers that have been ostensibly over-covered.  In my mind, how many "restored prints" of certain canonical films have we seen pass through our favorite revival houses?  Yes, the films I refer to may very well be great ones -- but have they now taken to restoring other restorations?  I would much rather that venues give other more neglected films a chance to live again, versus re-screening ad nauseam those fortunate works that are vocally (and justly) regarded as classics.


That said, it is still here that I am writing about one of my favorite Hitchcock films -- one of his most unpopular, and one of his least commercially/critically successful.  Even he believed it was something of a failure, most likely because the project was rushed into production (with an only half-finished Samuel Taylor script) and also because he could never get what he felt was a handle on the film in post-production.  It is also often commonly dismissed among erudite Hitchcock scholars as a belabored and needlessly elaborate experiment, no more and no less.  I have the suspicion that this dissent stems from the film stubbornly not conforming at all neatly with the rest of Hitchcock's oeuvre.  It is the horse of a different color.  But what specifically do I like about Topaz?  For starters, I love seeing any director stepping out of his/her established comfort zones, let alone someone as admirably stiff-necked as Hitchcock was.  In Topaz, I see him stepping out of those zones at every turn.  It is like watching Cary Grant's Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest step out of his humdrum advertising-executive comforts and into newly invented personas, having to learn to carry himself in other ways that do not bespeak comfort.  Hitchcock assumes another breed of director, with his spirit residing assuredly in key scenes and sequences, enough so that we know in the moment that he is winking at us, patting us on the head and saying, "I'm still here."  For many, the latter point concerning his more anonymous reign over the material is a complaint.  For anyone who is drawn in by the filmmaking process, it should be cause for intrigue.  Topaz's relative narrative and stylistic obliqueness, its overarching elegance, its Byzantine sliding-door storytelling with subplot bleeding into subplot, its curious and intriguing starlessness (it turned out to be the first Hitchcock cast in decades without a marketable lead for the U.S. market) and the clear and apparent fact that the project was a playground for a great filmmaker's freedom of experimentation, are all elements that I find exciting in the picture, as both a filmmaker and cinephile.  Perhaps most of all, however, I appreciate that it is the type of film that almost gets made to be misunderstood.

I openly attest that I find Hitchcock's Topaz (1969) to be a far better film than what I feel is his vastly overrated The Birds (1963), which has aged poorly and is today more horribly and horrifically dated than many period films of its ilk (although it is usually the first of his films people seem to remember).  Don't blast me yet in response to my dislike of The Birds.  Hang in there.  I explain and rationalize this half-cocked statement below.  Everyone with whom I have spoken about Topaz seems to have a decidedly ambivalent, sheepish or outright negative view of the picture...except for that occasional rare individual I encounter who agrees with me in thinking that it is one of Hitchcock's best and most misunderstood pictures, and, yes, a masterpiece.  The director of one of my favorite film festivals is one such admirer.  On the occasions I have claimed Topaz to be better than The Birds, however, I have been disparaged and openly mocked; this has happened again just recently.  However, it is Topaz's brilliant and measured technique which lives and breathes for me, rather than the flagrancy and the ham-fisted technique of that other film which everyone seems to appreciate much more.  Many may think me just a contrarian and even a philistine.  That is fine, and I don't mind that because, for one, I would much rather watch two European film industry heavyweights like Topaz's Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret perform over the likes of The Birds' Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren hemming and hawing over creature-attacks and second-rate soap opera any day of the week.  If that makes me a philistine, so be it.  Hedren in The Birds is no Kim Novak, folks.  Sure, Topaz's Frederick Stafford is probably not even Tippi Hedren, but I intend to explain why this works in the film's favor.

In the same breath, I understand both why Topaz tanked and why The Birds was a hit.  After all, subtlety never was a big seller of movie tickets...at least in this hemisphere.  Watching a mob of hostile birds converge on a jungle gym behind a blonde damsel in distress (in an admittedly well executed scene) usually offers far more immediate thrills than untangling the ruefully tangled threads of international espionage and the inner workings of double-cross among spies.  Sure, Topaz is not perfect, nor is it truly 100% top-tier Hitchcock and nowhere near as good as his following film Frenzy (1972), yet it remains a favorite Hitchcock film that I would be drawn to watching over again more so than many of his others.

So, okay, we've got Alfred Hitchcock's Topaz.  Starring Frederick Stafford.  Uh, who?  Featuring Karen Dor, John Vernon and John Forsythe.  Um, who again?  And Roscoe Lee Browne.  Okay, him you might know.  Or maybe not.  In either case, one of the most hotly contested aspects of Topaz is its lack of a star, or a central actor with the charisma of a leading man or woman.  The biggest and most esteemed name actors in Topaz had impressive French film pedigree (namely Piccoli and Noiret), but this pedigree meant little or nothing to the American public in 1969.  The only thing they saw was Frederick Forsythe in a role that would normally be occupied by a Sean Connery or a Paul Newman.  Even the comparatively minor-league Anthony Perkins had scored a key success in William Wyler's Friendly Persuasion before stepping into the shoes of Norman Bates in Psycho.  Many critics have asserted that Forsythe is so bland in Topaz that he has, to quote Steve Martin in Bowfinger, the personality of a ZIP code in Kansas.  It it fitting perhaps that Stafford found his entrance into show business by simply being at the right place at the right time -- specifically, a hotel lobby in Thailand.  He was cast as Agent OSS 117 in an eponymous 1965 French espionage thriller in that hotel lobby.  Incidentally, another in a three-man line of markedly dry 1960's Hitchcock leading men, John Gavin, starred as the same Agent OSS 117 in 1968.  Other points of contention?  Well, you know, how about them process shots?  The process shots are, of course, par for the course when you consider that Hitch took many trips to the rear-projection stage for his end-of-career works, particularly his final film, Family Plot (1976), where the glaringly conspicuous nature of the process work is most unfortunate.  These particular shots, though, speak to a level of oddly affectionate artifice becoming of 1950's and early 60's studio-pressed genre products.

Addressing each "issue" respectively, Hitchcock made a profitable, prodigious and celebrated career of working with not just the best actors but the best stars.  James Stewart was never more the everyman than when he was given the opportunity to be in the Hitchcock films in which he is featured.  Topaz and Frenzy marked the first instances in his career where he was driven towards casting unknowns vs. stars.  A valid question would be "Why?"  I believe it boils down to how Hitchcock ends Topaz.  There exist three separate endings for the film, as Hitchcock was stumped as to how to draw the film to a close.  All three versions, however, are capped with a newspaper being flippantly discarded under Paris' Arc de Triomphe.  We see its headline just long enough before it is tossed aside indifferently, one might say dismissively.  I personally would use the word "dismissively".  Yesterday's news has been left idling as an errant, discarded item, and our characters have tortured themselves and each other over it, as intimated in the series of superimpositions over the headlines.  This ending amazingly is simultaneously cynical and anomalously humanist for Hitchcock.  How befitting it is then that Topaz is one of the extremely few entries in Hitchcock's canon to deal in a plot involving history and headline news, current or otherwise.  Topaz uses as its foundation the Cuban Missile Crisis, co-opting a near fatal international crisis from seven years before the film's production and using it as a story platform.  Granted, this "ripped from the headlines" aspect of Topaz is more novelist Leon Uris' doing than it is Hitchcock's, but it is nonetheless unusual for this director to tackle such topical historical material, the repercussions of the dramatic 1962 showdown between East and West still lingering and echoing at the time of the film's release.  Not since Notorious, of which Topaz is something of a direct narrative heir, did Hitchcock care to place any of his films within a specific historical context -- and Topaz is even more historically specific than Notorious.  Novelist Leon Uris' pedigree in epic material based in some manner of historical fact (think Exodus and Trinity) also opens Topaz up to being Hitchcock's lengthiest film at 143 minutes (at least in its current DVD version which, excluding a newly implemented ending, was his first exhibited cut).  The discarded newspaper headline at the very end of Topaz is a testament to Hitchcock's view of the constantly evolving nature of history itself as it relates to film and filmic incident.  Stafford, hence, becomes a guileless composite...a machine that enables history's small and moving parts to oscillate.  He is the Glorious Enabler who wishes to be a feeling entity (as exhibited in his love scenes with Karen Dor), but cannot really tear himself away from the mandatory moral compromise, which rears its ugly head with almost every character in Topaz.  The final tender billet doux from Stafford's murdered lover Karen Dor serves no real function other than to conceal some key incriminating pieces of microfilm.  An official top-secret item is shanghaied in a lover's parting gift, rendering the human sentiments presumably attached to the gift itself secondary, conditionally empty and, hence, pointless.  Also at this point, the unrequited affair to which we have just been privy is deliberately left on the side of the road, never to be heard of again in the film's multi-pronged narrative.  This is why Stafford's dry, blank, under-annunciated performance works in the film's favor, on a purely intellectual level.  Otto Preminger's final film, The Human Factor (1980), explores the very same notion of spy as second-class individual, with a protagonist who is similarly unrealized on a human level and deliberately another Glorious Enabler.

Before I continue, I wish to state that I do not mean the following simply as an excuse to trash The Birds.  I am, however, using my antipathy for that film's use of formal elements to juxtapose it with Topaz's formalist mastery, bearing in mind well-known Hitchcockian trademarks.  Granted, Topaz might consciously be a more "sophisticated" enterprise that, like the similarly underrated Marnie, works more on an intellectualized, overtly subconscious level than The Birds does, but I will nonetheless proceed along these lines.  I personally consider Hitchcock to be "slumming" with The Birds, but I can still analyze how the two films stack up against each other in terms of directorial voice.  I remember vividly watching a sequence from The Birds in a freshman introductory class at film school, many years ago now.  The instructor was illustrating what the term "eye-line" meant in the context of an actual film.  Specifically, he showed us the overstated sequence in which Tippi Hedren's comically frozen, terrified head and wide-open eyes follow a fire-line that travels along a stream of gasoline to the point where it finally explodes.  The class erupted in lion-like uproarious laughter and it took nearly a full two minutes to get everyone back on task.  Worst of all is that the sequence is so calculated and awkwardly self-conscious that it hits you over the head with the delicacy of a seagull ambush.  The utter camp of that scene did not stop the likes of Bordwell and Thompson lauding it as a sterling example of rhythmic cutting in their much-used textbook, despite the fact that its rigid metronomic rhythm is partly what makes it as laughable as it is.  In contrast to the stilted, posturing visuals of Hedren's terrified frozen mug, there is the exquisite opening sequence of Topaz, which involves a family in Copenhagen defecting to the West.  The kind of meticulous storyboarding Hitchcock adored all but undoes the above sequence in The Birds, but it works to build and establish delicate visual cues in Topaz.

 
Yes, the above sequence is indeed very apropos to use in teaching film students eye-line, in that it is perhaps the easiest to follow among any possible example.  But when I try to take it seriously as drama or as a suspense sequence, it's just painful.  To me, the greatest formal elements in cinema are somewhere in between invisible and appreciably conspicuous.  To me, this scene in The Birds borders on obnoxious.

The first shot of Topaz, following an opening title sequence set over footage of the Russian May Day Parade, is an elaborate crane and dolly track which packs in so much information, visual and otherwise, and sets up the story so well in one single shot that I am immediately left awed.  This is soon followed by a stunning sequence in a Danish glass factory/museum that knows just how delicate its level of tension should be.  It is here that Hitchcock's pronounced use of storyboarding formalism is brilliantly fine-tuned.  Hitchcock in pre-production and directing was famously like a military general like Patton or MacArthur, in that he painstakingly prepared for the nitty-gritty pyrotechnics of battle, leaving little to nothing to the winds of chance.  It is a visionary strategist's approach versus one of an artist who hedges bets concerning precision in favor of chaos theory.  With this in mind, Topaz is Hitchcock at his "military-precision best" since Psycho (1960) or at least Marnie (1964), because its plasticity lies in a comfortable place between invisible and conspicuous.  In the opening sequence, the daughter of the defectors, Tamara, is eluding the Russian agents on her family's tail.  It is simply how the screen-space is used, how silence is effectively exploited for impact, and how the subtle machinations of plot and story bespeak an ideology more than a great deal of his other films do.  In the way that Psycho is almost as fresh today as it was in 1960, Topaz is perhaps just as fresh.  It must me said that Topaz is a more markedly cerebral film than most of Hitchcock's other work.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the Cuban scenes.  Even Topaz's detractors admit to the strength of the second-act stretch set in Cuba.  The scene that everyone seems to remember from the film is the dramatic death of Juanita de Cordoba (Karen Dor), her purple dress splaying out onto the checkered floor like a pool of blood as she wilts and collapses with an eerie grace from her jilted lover's bullet.  The scene involving the tortured and starved informant whispering a deadly secret into John Vernon's ear also seems to elicit responses.  The greater crime in Topaz, however, is not cuckolding a lover, but cuckolding country, ideology and nationalism.  This, I am convinced, was at the heart of the film's disastrous test screenings, where audiences complained that it lacked character empathy and interest value.  This, to me, was the director's immediate objective.  The people in Topaz are instruments of institution, and of national and political credo, and their blood bleeds more for them than any human entanglements.  Critic and scholar Andrew Sarris implicitly alludes to this below when he mentions the "French lunch of doubt and suspicion."  No wonder audiences found it alienating.  But the film is much less mechanical and workmanlike than people give it credit for.  Certainly, it works more on an intellectual level than an emotional one, and is not out to entertain one's sympathies for the characters we are watching.  Even the infidelity of Dany Robin's character to her husband, Stafford, is dealt with in a cold, deliberately distancing way.

Willfully gone and out-of-sight are many of the Hithcockian earmarks, although the trademark Hitchcock cameo appearance remains one of my favorites among all the cameos.  In their place, you have a curious kind of irony.  Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris wrote upon the film's release in 1969, "If I prefer Topaz to Z, it is probably because I prefer irony to allegory, and paradoxes to polemics.  On the surface, Topaz would seem hopelessly old-fashioned, if not in bad taste.  But it is with [actors] Noiret and Piccoli that Hitchcock rises to his peak of passionate protocol as he captures, far beneath the surface of picayune Cold War politics, the cerebral irrationality of French manners and institutions.  To study Hitchcock's cutting and camera placement at a French lunch full of doubt and suspicion is to be instructed in the art of transcending a subject with a style.  Suddenly we are caught up short with mixed feelings in the grip of Hitchcock's irony.  Topaz is a haunting experience, both inspired and intelligent, convulsive and controlled, passionate and pessimistic.  At its best, it undercuts its own premises with unexpected glimpses of the most saving of all human graces: perversity and humor.  In an age when love is merchandised like soap, a little cultivated dislike seems refreshingly civilized."

The various plot threads in the film ricochet off of each other in Topaz, and Maurice Jarre's customarily idiosyncratic score accentuates this notion with his whimsically percussive music cues.  The release of Jarre's long unavailable score on disc is partly what sparked my action in putting this all down on paper, even though it had been a long time coming.  I received the soundtrack disc in the mail while working on another project up north, and a person with whom I was working casually and carelessly dismissed the film upon seeing I had received its music score.  I staunchly defended it and was thereafter lampooned.  To each their own, but I think the dismissal of Topaz is irresponsible and near-sighted.  A common complaint during the film's initial test screenings was, "Where is Hitchcock in this?"  Loading an espionage film with ornament and Hitchcockian stylistic flourishes in every scene and shot equally does not always a great film make, and Hitchcock was intelligent and masterly enough to know this.  The film's measured stylization is exquisite.  The general lack of chases and reportable incidents of the like is another complaint, but it is more than just about subtle human deceptions.  It is a biting portrait of the deceptions of the mechanical human(s), and succeeds in rendering Torn Curtain (1966) intellectually shallow in comparison, although most critics and scholars consider Torn Curtain in such a way anyway.  Along with Frenzy, I believe Topaz to be one of the Master's finest late-career pictures.  Give it another look if you've dismissed it, and stay focused.

My Belated Best (and Worst) Films of 2011 and 2010 Lists

So, as the title of this post suggests, this is admittedly kind of a late arrival.  This can be blamed on the fact that I was hard at work completing The Idiotmaker's Gravity Tour throughout 2010 and 2011, and missed more new films than I normally would have.  I have since made up a large portion of the difference and am now somewhat ready to present my lists of the best (and worst) films of both 2011 and 2010.

2011

2011 stands as an unusual year for me in that there was a great divide between the many ho-hum lacklusterpieces receiving acclaim and awards...and the films that were exponentially better and more worthy of the shower of praises that seemed to be inflexibly reserved for the more popular/populist work.  French import The Artist as Best Picture of 2011?  Mon Dieu!  What love potion was in the critics' and voters' cereal when they endorsed that film's check-off box?  Talk about a prescription for happy glasses!  The Artist, to me, was an admittedly charming and clever but also incredibly slight gimmick movie.  No more, no less.  Its finest and only true accomplishment: educating certain viewers as to the history of silent film.  So, with that said, I also found the rest of 2011 Academy Award nominations and winners to be a fantastic farce.  In a year that nominates Meryl Streep for the seventeenth time in her career and awards her for the third time for a functional and "workmanlike" but mediocre turn as Margaret Thatcher, but shamefully allows a star-making, gracefully tempered but emotionally naked no-holds-barred performance like Elizabeth Olsen's in Martha Marcy May Marlene squeak by with bupkus (not even a nomination), I am left with nothing but a bewildered and frustrated shrug.  Adding insult to injury is the fact that Oscar also honored the year's flat-out worst film, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a verifiable piece of excrement, with a Best Picture nomination.  Something's fishy here and it ain't the chickens in the Academy voting pool.  I can only believe there were bribes concerning that stink bomb's nomination.

In terms of my own choices for the year's best, I am almost compelled to dub 2011 as "The Year of the Cinematic Tone Poem."  Mood pieces seemed to far outweigh most other independent filmmaking efforts, and I cannot say that I mind.  Mood has become paramount for me in my own work these days, and I think my favorite films of 2011 had a great deal to do with that shift.  So, as it turns out, my 10-Best list might appear more "artsy-fartsy" and hoity-toity than usual.  Truth be told, however, 2011 is a year with which I was left mostly unimpressed with the mainstream output, although it should be noted that I do believe that 2012 is the best year in film since 1993.  So anyway, let's spark it.  Whereas looking at the year en toto left me slightly disillusioned, my choice for #1 left me exhilarated and filled with hope for the future of its young director and for filmmaking itself.

1. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin) - U.S.A.
Pound for pound, moment for moment, everything about this film is emblazoned with the feeling that it is the most exciting, unsettling and emotionally resonant film of the year (and maybe of the last few years), and it is certainly the creme de la creme of the year's wealth of cinematic tone poems.  When any director pushes buttons as easily as Durkin does, let alone a debut feature director, it is a truly rare feat.  Considering what I have seen in this film, I will be among the first in line to see what Durkin has in store for us next.  I have recommended this film to nearly everyone I know who has asked me what worthy films have been made in the past five years.  The images (especially the underexposed and underwater ones) were often so powerfully potent and tantalizing to me that, at one point, I flashed to what I believe to be a pre-cognitive memory...and I am not exaggerating or attempting to aggrandize the film's impact.  Martha Marcy May Marlene (otherwise known as Mx4 among friends of mine) is never coy and the audience is never left out of the act of figuring out a puzzle that gradually reveals itself via a careful flashback structure, justifying the main character's unsettled psyche.  The only complaint I had, and a minor one at that, was that the characters played by Hugh Dancy and Sarah Paulson might have fit too neatly into the categorization of self-satisfied, upwardly mobile petit bourgeois shelterbugs.  I felt sometimes that this was perhaps too easy and convenient.  But the film still worked like a charm better than any other film of 2011, and if this is a harbinger of things to come for Elizabeth Olsen, we may have just seen a star get itself all born and ready to shine.  I should also recommend Durkin's partner Antonio Campos' film Afterschool (2008), which Durkin produced.

2. The Tree of Life (Terence Malick) - U.S.A.
What can I say about this film that has not already been said, and better?  For sheer scope, size and ambition, no other film in 2011 can compare to Malick's millenia-expansive tableau of life, death, family, the creation of the universe and what lies beyond.  Can you imagine trying to elevator-pitch this film?  I shudder to think.  I certainly left the theater in a euphoric blur, with a profound sense of hope for the future of the film form.  I am, however, issuing a caveat involving Terence Malick's follow-up efforts, especially his upcoming To the Wonder, the release date of which is looming.  I am not going to be as easy or as accepting of Malick's post-Tree of Life work if he continues along the path of abusing his customary and increasingly enervating formula involving an arrangement of spellbinding (but too often frustratingly oblique) images traced with fussy verbal poetics often related via whispered voice-over narration.  I personally think Malick is too talented to continue leaning on this same stylistic formula film after film.  Reports of To the Wonder's premiere at the Toronto Film Festival lead me to believe that his new opus is just business as usual for Malick.  The greatest filmmakers always knew how to step out of their comfort zones...and I seriously doubt that Malick has ever considered doing so heretofore.  The Tree of Life is a package.  It is a beautiful and well-adorned package, complete with Emmanuel Lubezki's exquisite images, but it is designed specifically to get us mere mortals mentally and emotionally floating beatifically on "the better angels of our nature".  It is the best kind of manipulation perhaps ever in the annals of film, although I could have done without the dinosaurs in The Tree of Life, which seemed functional only to cloud and mystify the proceedings more than necessary.  But, at heart, it is still masterful manipulation and, inasmuch as I focus on this idea of manipulation, Malick proves himself to be the arthouse equivalent of Spielberg.  The Tree of Life is that rare thing: an extraordinary work of art that crosses over to the mainstream.  But as we all know, a movie ain't just images, and Malick has to know that too.  All this doesn't take away from the fact that the film is still outstanding and unique among films, and far and away the best of the films actually nominated for 2011 Oscars.  An apropos wrap-up story for my write-up: When my brother recommended that my parents see the film back in Pittsburgh, they pretty much dismissed it as a sleep-inducing load of bull, and found it to have zero appeal.  Does Malick corner himself with his "high-fallutin'" method of filmmaking?  Is a film like The Tree of Life's goal to bring humankind together into a collective transcendent movie-going experience?  Should it really be as alienating to people as it clearly has throughout the world?  Who is really his audience?  Can they be identified in any systematic way?  All, I believe, are worthy questions considering what seems like Malick's original objective in making it.

3. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan) - U.S.A.
I saw Margaret in its 187-minute extended cut and, throughout the length of a three-hour-plus character piece, I was glued to the screen.  Filmed in 2005 but not released until 2011, the film was caught up in a sticky post-production battle that echoed throughout the trades as well as the general film sphere.  Martin Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker ultimately had a hand in the cut released to theaters.  For what it's worth, Margaret was well worth the wait.  Oh yes, the film is a mess, but all messes should look this appealing and make this much sense.  "Mess" is a term that is supposed to be understood as having a negative connotation regarding the arts.  I find it an admirable descriptor that intimates that a work strives for more than most others do, biting off more than it can chew, leaving the unchewed parts worthy of being abstract expressionist sculptures.  Overwrought metaphor, perhaps, but it is still how I feel.  We may never want to spend the afternoon with Anna Paquin's character in real life, but Lonergan effectively frames her as a figure within an expansive (and expansively urban) canvas.  Those of you who have read much of my writings are no doubt aware that I have been in a life-long love affair with New York on film, and have written several articles on the subject.  My interest starts waning around the outset of the Giuliani era (when Times Square started turning into Disneyland), with only sporadic New York films of the 90's and aughts tickling my jaded but hopeful potential for fascination.  Margaret is one of those rare films that uses New York locales in such a way that characterizes it as a film that could not have been made or shot anywhere else, at least from my perspective.  Its milieu of teenagers in a progressive public school, their selfish and career-driven parents, their natural view of divorce as the patina of normalcy, their deceivingly adult-seeming romantic entanglements, their carefree view of Manhattan as a safe place to playfully hound and distract bus drivers while behind the wheel...and then pursue the same bus driver's ruination on an oddly independent basis -- this all bespeaks a landscape that sometimes the camera outwardly favors over the human specimens on display.  Either the landscape is favored or other unrelated people in the scenery.  In a key scene, the camera begins from a wide shot and inches ever so gradually towards a restaurant booth where Paquin's character is seated with a male friend.  The audio we hear is not their conversation, but rather that of the two older women seated in the next booth.  There are oddly tantalizing choices made all over the place in this picture.  It may not completely coalesce one-hundred percent, but in some ways it does better by not merging its elements, leaving its threads not just dangling but dancing.
 
4. I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You (Marcelo Gomes, Karim Ainouz) - Brazil
This is by far the most obscure on this list.  Point blank: This Brazilian "journey film" is overwhelming.  I saw it at a one-off screening at New York's Anthology Film Archives and was blown away, particularly since I had entered a foggy period of editing my own "journey film" at the time I saw it.  The person who accompanied me felt similarly positive about this small masterpiece.  Its beautiful poetic simplicity, its courage in experimentation and its haunting and alluringly melancholic mood left a definite residue behind after leaving the theater.  Find a way to see it, if you can.  Since this film is certainly the most esoteric selection on this list, I will recount some story details.  From the Anthology Film Archives program guide: The film tells the story of a geologist who is sent on a fieldtrip to an isolated region in Brazil. The goal of his survey is to assess possible routes for a water canal from the region's only major river.  For those living on the canal's direct course, it means requisitions, departure and loss.  Many of the properties through which he passes will be flooded and many of the people and families will be relocated.  As the fieldtrip progresses, it becomes clear that the lead character shares something in common with the places he visits: emptiness, a sense of abandonment, and isolation. His geological research is slowly pervaded by a sensation of groundlessness, an incessant pining for his ex-wife, and a yearning to return home. But he presses ahead, continuing the trip in the hope that the voyage can somehow transmute his feelings.

5. Green (Sophia Takal) - U.S.A.
Sophia Takal's debut feature is yet another entry in the 2011 stock of artful cinematic tone poems.  This leisurely and ominous meditation and reflection on the nature of jealousy is a film that, in the hands of another young director, could have been just another callow and stagnantly hip entree in the modest pantheon of slightly more elastic Mumblecore genre-benders that evince a certain higher degree of film literacy.  Green nobly and admirably pushes beyond (transcends?) the niche to which it would otherwise too neatly resign itself.  It achieves something rather more unique.  It is a character piece where the muted spaces and environs breathe perhaps more than its often emotionally constricted human inhabitants (especially the quietly repressed young woman well-played by Kate Lyn Sheil).  Green's few opponents have leveled the charge that Takal uses a "lazy shorthand" and thus never really gets to the bottom of the complex emotions relating to jealousy that she attempts to illustrate, depict and gently probe.  That seems to me a shortsighted response.  The film is nothing if not a snapshot, a sketch, a Polaroid, of these irrational feelings...not an x-ray.  In this much, Takal rightly refuses to impose by holding up the magnifying glass to jealousy, and not out of either fear or ease.  The film is too plaintive to be fearful, and too fluent to be easy -- and there are too many intriguing ambiguities to suggest that much of anything is "lazy".  One leaves the theater feeling edgy and, weirdly enough, almost violated.  Takal admitted with a laugh at her Q&A that a person in a previous audience suggested that the film should end with a thriller-esque murder.  While the latter suggestion is not really the least bit viable, it is almost a valid and natural reaction considering the unsettled and unsettling way the film leaves us off.  It has a deft handle on crafting audience emotional response; it is immediate without being visceral, and wisely avoids injecting the material with unnecessary dramatic vitriol.  Among other elements, a droning soundtrack turns some otherwise simple scenes on their head.  That rigid and uneasy fade-out emotion really does fester.  Overall, Green does has some minor faults, most notably the often flagrant overuse of bleached out cut-in bursts of Sheil's character's plaguing sex-fantasy, but it remains a striking and resonant study with a lion's share of organic and largely unedited long-take shots to match its naturalistic performances.  Incidentally, I also loved a character's description of Nolan's The Dark Knight as cryptofascist...because I couldn't have put it any better or more succinctly myself.  As a footnote, kudos also to Takal's and collaborator Lawrence Michael Levine's previous 2010 feature Gabi on the Roof in July, which didn't make 2010's Ten Best, but is still a work of some merit.

6. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen) - U.S.A. / France
Midnight in Paris is the damn nicest film since Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly hung up their dancing shoes.  And for my money, Owen Wilson is far and away the best "Woody avatar" in a not-so-illustrious line that includes Will Ferrell, Larry David, John Cusack and Jason Biggs.  As a quick aside, truth be told, I find Kenneth Branagh's Woody imitation in Celebrity kind of endearing in an enjoyably masochistic kind of way.  Midnight in Paris is ebullient and loaded with bonhomie, and you watch it somehow innately knowing that everyone working on the film, either as an actor or as a technician, is having a bona fide first-class time making the film -- even the notoriously anhedonic Woody would seem to us to be smiling behind the camera -- which only increases the enjoyment factor.  It is no doubt Woody would see this airy comic excursion as a light meal.  It certainly is one to savor.  In point of fact, it's a moveable feast.


7. Almayer's Folly (Chantal Akerman) - France / U.K. / Cambodia
Chantal Akerman is a class act in the international cinema scene.  Since her earliest essay films, especially her brilliant News from Home (1976), up to her most recent masterwork Almayer's Folly, she has continued to prove that she is one of the filmmakers still working who thinks the deepest about the medium of film, and adroitly considers how to render complex themes and ideas onscreen.  She is exceptional -- just no two ways about it.  "Liberally adapting" and updating Joseph Conrad's debut 1895 novel to the 1950's Malaysia, she has deliberately lensed the film in Cambodia.  In many ways, it reminds me of Noroit, a lesser known film by my favorite filmmaker Jacques Rivette, except that I admit Almayer's Folly is a more successful piece.  It just proves to me that my ongoing admiration for Akerman is well-founded, and I hope she keeps doing what she does.

8. Aurora (Cristi Piui) - Romania
This minimalist epic's U.S. premiere proved controversial.  Its most virulent Stateside critics argued that the 184-minute film is spartan and spare to the point of near non-existence.  They might have a point.  A few people I know who tried to watch it eventually lost their patience.  It is a simultaneously light and heavy text.  It is as if Cristi Piui was confronted with the challenge of making a narrative film as narratively minimalist as it could possibly be.  It may be minimalist, but it is never threadbare.  What makes this film sing is that its sober and deliberate camera is painstakingly subjective.  Its lack of ornament just becomes a fact of life as one gets fully immersed into the film as a result of it.  Aurora works on such a slow-burn aesthetic that you wonder not only what you have seen during the previous three hours, but also where you have been during all of it.

9. The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry) - U.S.A.
Ex video store clerk Alex Ross Perry is just my kind of artist.  Any filmmaker who can, as New York Times critic A.O. Scott aptly put it, "scramble my signals" is worthy of some form of praise.  In my book, a film scrambling signals is near gold-standard.  The Color Wheel, Perry's second feature, is the type of film that can take a description like "idiosyncratic" and make it seem like something to which to aspire.  Ostensibly, it is a road film (a subgenre that is admittedly a soft spot for me), but to categorize the film strictly in these terms would be to pigeonhole it.  Perry is the type of filmmaker who, on his first time out, says to himself, "I am going to make my own movie version of the notoriously unadaptable Pynchon novel Gravity's Rainbow" and winds up with a strange bird of a film like Impolex, which, sure, was not entirely successful but definitely had guts.  I am rewarding The Color Wheel for more than just guts.  Perry's sophomore effort is a marvel of ingenuity and originality, shot on 16mm black-and-white (another soft spot for me), slightly rough and ragged around the edges...making for solid nitty-gritty meat-and-potatoes down-and-dirty DIY filmmaking. 

10. Two Gates of Sleep (Alistair Banks Griffin) - U.S.A.
In the same tradition and mold as Aurora, this potent and powerful minimalist film is among the most artful "journey films" of the last few years.  First-time feature director Alistair Banks Griffin has cast Brady Corbet and David Call as two brothers who take a daring upstream trek to honor their mother's final request.  The widescreen images are gorgeous, the narrative is succinct and pointedly focused, and the performances are tempered and, eventually, quite powerful.

Runners-Up: Kinyarwanda (Alrick Brown), Shame (Steve McQueen), A Separation (Asghar Farhadi), Hugo (Martin Scorsese), Pina (Wim Wenders), Weekend (Andrew Haigh), Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul), We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynn Ramsey), The Interrupters (Steve James), Another Earth (Mike Cahill)

Still Need to See: The Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz)

Most Overrated Films: Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn), The Artist (Michael Hazanavicius)
I write more about Ryan Gosling and Drive below.  My main problem with The Artist is its terminal quaintness.  I appreciated what the film seemed to be saying about the perils of artistic principle, but then it eschewed its audience's intellectual engagement for forays into melodramatic manipulation, and gratuitous cute-dog shots.  Do I think The Artist deserves its major awards?  In some ways, sure, but I would stop after giving it a special prize for moxie and enterprise.  But honestly, the film is just too cute and self-conscious for me to really take it seriously as one of the year's best movies.  I do like the two lead actors though.  I mean, I definitely bought Jean Dujardin as a 1920's matinee idol all the way.  The best thing the film did was to introduce audiences to other better silent films from its native (i.e. pre-1927) era.  The film consists of pale imitations of so many silent filmmakers, and I do not see the joy in the homage that everyone else sees.  It is, in turns, a pastiche of Keaton, King Vidor, Chaplin, Lloyd and Dorothy Arzner.  But I cannot perceive the pleasure that Hazanavicius should feel when he is spotlighting these silent and early cinema icons.  The Artist also commits the unpardonable sin of lifting Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo score for almost its entire third act.  That was upsetting to me because it was a shameless steal and not a pastiche.

The Worst Films of 2011
1. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Stephen Daldry) - Ahh, one of the rare films to score an F rating at the Onion AV Club, we meet again.  There is some consolation in knowing that a precious few took this one seriously.  As one critic aptly put it, "The film should have been called Extremely Labored & Incredibly Crass."  I would add the following: offensive, schmaltzy, nauseatingly calculated, soft in the head, pandering, sometimes grossly far-fetched, tragedy-milking, conscience-less, emotionally cardboard stuff-and-nonsense.  It is rare that a movie pisses me off just because of how moronic it is.  This was such a movie, because it gets made only because it expects itself to be accepted as Oscar-bait (and sadly succeeds), and hams up manufactured Hollywood emotion that dances cutesy and goo-goo-eyed down the rows of thousands of graves.  Oh yes, and get this: they hired the gallingly awful child actor Thomas Horn after seeing him as a contestant on "Kids Jeopardy".  His dubious origins are all too apparent when you catch many of his embarrassing acting moments in the movie.  Shame on those who made the film, shame on those who greenlit a script of its like, and shame on those who got it nominated for Oscars.  As Ebert put it, "You will not discover why it was thought that this story needed to be told. There must be a more plausible story to be told about a boy who lost his father on 9/11. This plot is contrivance and folderol. The mysterious key, the silent old man and the magical tambourine are the stuff of fairy tales, and the notion of a boy walking all over New York is so preposterous we're constantly aware of it as a storytelling device. The events of 9/11 have left indelible scars. They cannot be healed in such a simplistic way."  I should note, however, that Max Von Sydow's presence outclasses everything about this singularly wretched and disgusting piece of dreck.  Direction in this is handed to Stephen Daldry, who really needs to do years of penance with all due dispatch before returning to the director's chair.  "Jeopardy" indeed! "The worst film of 2011."  "What is Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Alex?"  Pain from an event of mass hysteria and tragedy cannot be healed by the cinematic equivalent of a Hallmark card that doesn't rhyme or cannot string a sentence together.  My oh my, it felt good getting all that out of my system!  Did you get how much I hated it?  Did ya?
2. J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood) - Et tu, Clinté?  I could not wait for this film to end.  The assumedly "progressive" Manhattan audience with whom I saw the movie could not stop laughing at those ineptly staged love scenes.  I do not blame them a bit.
3. Your Highness (David Gordon Green) - I watched about half of this when I was invited over to a friend's house for a group movie night.  I was repulsed by it.  Imagine my shock when I discovered that it had been directed by David Gordon Green.  Oh, the pain of a talent squandered!
4. Restless (Gus Van Sant) - You expect more from someone like Gus Van Sant than a weak and painfully twee "odd romance" that offers more than just a passing wink to Harold and Maude (including the unforgivably derivative feature that its main male character attends funerals as a favorite pastime).  Yes, if you have to steal, steal from the best...but as Judge Judy is fond of saying, don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining.

The Pleasant Diversion Award: The Descendants (Alexander Payne)

Best Performances of the Year: Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Anna Paquin (Margaret), Jeannie Berlin (Margaret), Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia), Sarah Paulson (Martha Marcy May Marlene), John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Kate Lyn Sheil (Green), Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life), Brit Marling (Another Earth), Owen Wilson (Midnight in Paris), Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin), Stanlislas Merhar (Almayer's Folly)

Best Cinematography: Jody Lee Lipes (Martha Marcy May Marlene)

Best Screenwriting: Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene)

The Worst Serious Film I Didn't See: Albert Nobbs (Rodrigo Garcia) - The horror... The horror...  Did someone just one day say, "We should dress Glenn Close up as a dude and we'll sell tickets"?  Deluded.  I cannot even look at her in the film's trailer without cringing at how awkward and just plain creepy she looks.

A 2011 Fad That I Hope Dissipates: The casting of Ryan Gosling
I have had it in for Ryan Gosling's "style" for quite awhile now.  He spent most of Drive posing and looking pretty.  He spent the rest of his career posing and looking hard-boiled.  Gosling wants you to believe that he is tightly wound as an actor, with an intensity that he can only pray can equal the giants in the profession.  Everything about him, though, at least to me, is posing.  This extends beyond the way he plays roles in films, and to the role he plays off stage and screen.  Hailing from Canada, Gosling affects a faux Brooklyn accent.  When confronted on this front, he responded that it sounded cooler.  To me, this is what Gosling is largely about, especially when it comes to onscreen presence.  The man starred in four 2011 films.  One thing Oscar got right last year was not nominating him for any single one of them.  I hope casting him is a fancy that passes within the next few years.  Knowing Hollywood's perennial jones for a pretty face, I probably won't get my wish.

2010 

2010 is slightly more balanced and tempered with both independent and mainstream titles.  2011 was a great year for arthouse, but an awful one for the mainstream market.

1. Daddy Longlegs (a.k.a. Go Get Some Rosemary) (Joshua Safdie, Benny Safdie) - U.S.A.
This consummately emotional film feels so intensely personal and, I daresay, private that one cannot help but think that the filmmaker brothers behind it had no choice but to get it all out there by making it.  And yet, lo and behold, the Safdie Brothers' acclaimed roman-a-clef is not stigmatized by ever feeling like it is just a piece of therapy in film form.  Daddy Longlegs, which I first saw under its original title Go Get Some Rosemary, is richly felt filmmaking, the act of which is clearly guided by need and not by capriciousness.  You are virtually knocked back and bloody center by a fantastic blur of emotion.  After seeing it, one is left truly exhausted but undoubtedly better off for the experience.  This loud-and-proud handheld indie follows a reckless schlemeil of a divorced father (Ronald Bronstein of Frownland, named below as a runner-up) as he spends two weeks with his sons Sage and Frey.  At one point in the film, when Bronstein's two young sons awaken after being accidentally drugged, I felt myself choking up.  After more than an hour of almost shouting at the screen in protest over the onscreen father's ineptitude, I found myself celebrating with him, and developing interest and sympathy for his bracingly obnoxious character.  As the film's playfully tongue-in-cheek dedication states, "For our father, for fun as a responsibility, for the middle perspective, a lost past, lights on during the day time, lost love but still something there, excuses, the fridge full of games, small apartments and our mother."  You had me at "something there," guys.

2. The Social Network (David Fincher) - U.S.A.
Ahh, nothing like a good old-fashioned swashbuckler film!  Too much has been written about this film already and I am not going to add very much, largely because I have nothing all that new to say.  This literate follow-up to Sidney Lumet's 1976 scorcher Network could have been more timely or released at any better moment in history.  Yes, it is a lot of young dudes, all male, behind computer screens and/or phones.  Yes, the film operates in a bubble.  Yes, it has a very docudrama-esque center.  What Fincher does, however, to exercise his authorial voice is to wisely exploit these ostensible drawbacks to mold it into something like a swashbuckler film.  Not even a corporate swashbuckler film, but something even rarer: a nerd swashbuckler film.

3. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski) - France / U.K. / U.S.A.
First of all, no one crafts atmosphere and formal mood as well as Polanski.  Secondly, who knew Pierce Brosnan could really...act.  I mean, yeah, I always liked him as James Bond, and he always lends a solid presence in many of his other films, but The Ghost Writer marks the first time where I am actually seeing him clearly making choices as an actor and not holding himself as a movie star.  The Ghost Writer is one of the most skillful thrillers in many a year, loving detailed and packed with nuance in every scene and nearly every shot.  I originally caught the film on a 15-hour airplane ride to India and then wound up watching it again on the way home.  When I arrived home, I bought the DVD and watched it again.  Polanski's conscious decision to shoot the entirety of the film on overcast days establishes an extremely effective mood, and reminded me of how one of my favorite films of all time, Sidney J. Furie's The Ipcress File (1965), did the same.  I was joyfully intoxicated by this film, and it is certainly my favorite Polanski film to come alone in some time.  The ashen-gray beaches and the dulled, colorless skies make this film's visuals sing.  Cameo turns by Eli Wallach and Tom Wilkinson also grant welcome diversions as the onscreen mystery unfolds.

4. The King's Speech (Tom Hooper) - U.K.
As a person who grew up with a severe stutter (it used to take me over two minutes to get my name out as a kid) and retreated from the world during my teenage years as a result, The King's Speech was a watershed film for me and, yes, thousands of other people I know via organizations for people who stutter.  On that account alone, seeing this film was overpowering to me.  I cried at the climactic scene, out of sheer joy.  I too had been at such a culminating moment before regarding a speaking situation.  I may not be the most impartial judge when it comes to this film.  Colin Firth's acting awards and accolades for his role as King George VI are well-deserved.  He invested just the right amount of outward emotion, provided an ever-commanding screen presence and got the actual stutter just right.  It is a crowd-pleaser and a populist film, indeed...but a very, very smart one.

5. Greenberg (Noah Baumbach) - U.S.A.
It is hard to care very much about a fiercely misanthropic pariah like Ben Stiller's Greenberg, the type of guy who provides a biting and unforgiving running commentary on the unwitting guy in a neighboring restaurant booth whose flamboyant gestures are irking him.  It is hard to found an entire film or novel around an unlikable central figure, let alone one that is a character study.  But writer-director Noah Baumbach, writer-star Jennifer Jason Leigh and Stiller don't just make you care, but take you all the way inside such a character in a way that is never hackneyed nor even predictable.  We grow to understand and even, weirdly enough, like Greenberg, a character that most would initially find repellant and alienating.  Greenberg is the very portrait of constipation arising from youth gone to pot.  He is an unapologetic layabout who has not the foggiest clue that he definitely has an axe to grind.  To me, Greenberg proves uncontestably that Ben Stiller is a popular comic actor capable of tremendous pathos and is more capable of building character than someone like Adam Sandler, whose dramatic turn in Reign Over Me I found horribly forced and whose performance in Punch-Drunk Love was only almost-there.  Providing able support is Greta Gerwig, whose character is equally charting the waters without a compass.  Gerwig is excellent in the role of Florence, helping to make Greenberg one of the great films of 2010...and perhaps the year's best character piece.  The climactic party scene, in which the savvy Greenberg rebukes the feckless "ADD and carpal tunnel" stupor of Generation Y with a healthy slug of wicked sarcasm, is a gem.  Kudos also to Harris Savides (R.I.P.) for his arresting camerawork.

6. Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy) - U.S.A.
The nature of authorship is a difficult theme to make entertaining.  This (ersatz?) documentary takes more than a few unexpected turns and keeps you excited while traversing its crazy, winding road.  The Mr. Brainwash/Thierry character is both maddening and so absurdly entertaining that you find yourself pining for a six-pack, a joint and a copy of his misbegotten movie project Life Remote Control.

7. Our Beloved Month of August (Miguel Gomes) - Portugal 
The official release date of this film was 2008.  That was the Portuguese release, however.  It premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2009 and received general American theatrical release in 2010, so I am of course counting it as a 2010 film.

8. Buried (Rodrigo Cortés) - Spain / U.S.A.
Far-fetched elements aside (a cellphone that gets clear-as-a-bell reception six feet under, for one), this claustrophobic thriller kept me glued to the screen for its entire length.  It probably would have anyway, by sheer virtue of its curiosity value.  The film is filmed entirely within a buried coffin and never once leaves the confines of this constricted space.  Can such a thing sustain a 90-minute film running time?  This is most likely the first question that one asks upon first hearing this concept.  Despite the admittedly unimpressive Ryan Reynolds' occasionally labored north-of-hysteria performance and his general lack of gravitas, this remains a prodigious and impressive example of filmmaking ingenuity.  I was amazed that it kept me engaged without even once leaving the coffin space.  Something needs to be said to underscore just how impressive that is.  It gives claustrophobia a premium in entertainment value.

9. Catfish (Ariel Schulman, Yaniv Schulman, Henry Joost) - U.S.A.
Real or not real...who cares?  Honestly.  Catfish does not lean on its purported based-on-truth claim for the appraisal of its ultimate worth.  This is not the same kind of animal as the similar hoax film I'm Still HereI'm Still Here never addresses anything thematic or otherwise beyond its standard one-joke premise that is under the impression that it examines the nature of celebrity.  Catfish, on the other hand, most certainly does address a worthy theme...and also manages to entertain and compel more than I'm Still Here ever did.  It is a rich theme: Internet and identity...or rather plural, identities.  No film has tackled it as well as Catfish has.

10. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (Damien Chazelle) - U.S.A. (tie)
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is another film that affirms one's faith in the magic of cinema.  This DIY musical shot on 16mm black-and-white is a delight, and the songs are certainly catchy.

10. Barney's Version (Richard Lewis) - Canada (tie)
I have a soft spot for Canadian-Jewish author Mordecai Richler and found that the film version of Barney's Version lived up to Richler's unique literary voice.  The miniseries adaptation of Richler's St. Urbain's Horseman (2008) also lived up to this tall task, and was the first work since The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) to deliver Richler's original vision to the screen intact.  I wrote about Richler slightly more in-depth in my multi-part Canadian article, with a whole chapter devoted towards Jewish Canada.  Paul Giamatti carries the torch well in bringing another of Richler's vernisht male protagonists to life. 

Runners-Up: The Town (Ben Affleck), Frownland (Ronald Bronstein), Gabi on the Roof in July (Lawrence Michael Levine), Bobby Fischer Against the World (Liz Garbus), Please Give (Nicole Holofcener), Open Five (Kentucker Audley), Cold Weather (Aaron Katz), Audrey the Trainwreck (Frank V. Ross), Leaves of Grass (Tim Blake Nelson), The Exploding Girl (Bradley Rust Gray)

Still Need to See: Carlos (Olivier Assayas), Biutiful (Alejandro Gonzales Inaritu)

Most Overrated Films: Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham), The Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky), The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko)
Concerning Lena Dunham, I hardly know where to even begin.  In my estimation, she has risen to become a verifiable pop culture phenomenon and a household name based on...I'm sorry, but oh so very little.  I personally believe it to be a mix of nepotism and the fickleness of the popular taste of our times.  The vision of Tiny Furniture is so limited to its posh, rich-bitch environs as to trumpet the filmmaker's all too obviously sheltered and privileged upbringing.  This is old hack, and is not a new criticism of Dunham.  There are some very good things in Tiny Furniture, her sophomore feature following her nearly unwatchable debut Creative Nonfiction (2008).  I found her obituary piece on Nora Ephron equally insufferable.  Jody Lee Lipes' elegant and effectively precise cinematography gives the film an edge over the average low-budget outing.  It is a sleek package all the way around in the visual department.  I just had an extremely difficult time caring for Dunham's overbearingly precious life in terms of her character in this film, and all of the other folks on display were equally overbearing.  There were some charming insights.  Reference to the film Christiane F. made me laugh, among other things.  But this film is just empty, empty, empty. 

The Worst Films of 2010
1. The Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky) - I seem to be among the few who saw this film for what it was: an empty and overwrought bit of nonsense.  If Aronofsky's named had been taken off it, the film would have gotten the fanfare of a pair of tit-mice in a Belgian cheese factory.
2. Holy Rollers (Kevin Asch) - Poorly researched, predictably executed, full of laughable errors and egregious oversights.  Someone should have told the director or the set dressers that Jews do not pray out of tractates of the Talmud.
3. I'm Still Here (Casey Affleck) -A tired and boring one-joke premise that does not even know how to execute its limited ambitions.  My buddies and I turned it off after 45 minutes of it going nowhere. It's rare that I leave a film unfinished.
4. Miral (Julian Schnabel) -  If you are going to tackle something as weighty and momentous as the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, you are going to have to do better than this.  A lot better.

Disappointments: Get Low (Aaron Schneider), You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (Woody Allen)

Best Screenwriting: Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) - Sorkin's screenplay gives new meaning and cojones to the term "real crackerjack scripting."

Best Cinematography: Harris Savides (Greenberg)

The Worst Film I Didn't See: How Do You Know (James L. Brooks) - Do I need to see it?  I'm sure I can tell you everything about it without seeing a frame.  How do I know?  How do I not know?  James L. Brooks, you go from Terms of Endearment to this?

The Pleasant Diversion Award: The Trotsky (Jacob Tierney) - A fun and pleasant little Rushmore-esque coming-of-age comedy from Canada.

Best Performances of the Year: Colin Firth (The King's Speech), Ronald Bronstein (Daddy Longlegs), Ben Stiller (Greenberg), Pierce Brosnan (The Ghost Writer), Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), Greta Gerwig (Greenberg), Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)

A 2010 Fad That I Hope Dissipates: Dramas centered around the cyberworld
What more could a filmmaker say about the Holocaust after films like Schindler's List?  Likewise, how much more could one say about the cutthroat cyberworld beyond The Social Network and Catfish?  In other words, it has been done well, so why do it again just to do it, to pluck peoples' strings.