The story is almost too crazy to be true: In 1974 a man not only managed to sneak into the World Trade Center, but managed to string a wire between the towers and walk across - going back and forth for 45 minutes. Using a combination of news and home video footage, recreations, and talking head interviews, director James Marsh creates a documentary that plays like a heist movie: it's got a scheme that's impossible, means that are improbable, and a ringleader so charismatic that it's no wonder he managed to rope several other people into it. Man on Wire is a movie that's entertaining as hell to watch, but more than that it's a movie that really resonates. Approaching the subject in a deceptively lighthearted way, Marsh captures Philippe Petit's astonishing feat in all its majesty and wonder and when you see the footage of his walk, you feel not unlike the security guard who appears in news footage, awestruck at having witnessed something incredible.
Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France... few filmmakers are so audacious that they can take one of the defining events of the 20th century and twist it to their own ends without even breaking a sweat. Instead of letting his story be trapped by historical fact, Quentin Tarantino remakes the conclusion of World War II in a way that suits the story he wants to tell, one in which a handful of Jewish soldiers and a Jewish woman hiding in plain sight unfold separate plans to eliminate the Nazi hierarchy - and actually pull it off. It's a film that only Tarantino could make: flawless in its cinematic grammar, perfectly balanced between comedy and drama, populated by memorable characters, and echoing the cinema of the past while rocking a sensibility that is thoroughly and absolutely modern. Beneath the flash of its most entertaining elements lies a film that functions as an act of reclamation, taking back the medium from a real life evil that built itself on cinematic propaganda. "I think this just might be my masterpiece," one of the characters remarks - it's certainly one of them.
One of the signs of a great movie is how it sticks with you after the fact. Wendy and Lucy is a film that I saw in 2009 and didn't watch again until recently, but there are scenes in it that I never forgot, I found them so powerful and so sharply, authentically drawn. The most memorable for me was a scene in which Michelle Williams' Wendy, a young woman with nothing to her name except her car and a few hundred dollars in cash, shoplifts some food for her dog, Lucy. Caught by an overzealous teenage clerk who sees the world in nothing but black and white and thus displays zero compassion as he snottily informs her that someone who can't afford dog food shouldn't have a dog, Wendy finds herself on the verge of losing everything. A keen and compassionate study of a person living on the financial brink with no safety net to catch her and little more than her dignity to see her through to the next day, Wendy and Lucy is a great achievement by writer/director Kelly Reichardt.
Bitter, self-centered, and just downright mean, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is an unlikely hero for any story. She's a bad person and you don't want her to win - and yet there's something weirdly endearing about her, something which makes the ending, in which she's tacitly given permission to continue being the worst version of herself, so damn brilliant. This comes down to the vulnerability that Theron laces into the character's inherent nastiness, a thread so genuine and human, tied so thoroughly to her need to be accepted, to be seen, and to be validated, that you can't write her off completely; and it comes down to writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman's ability to observe her without indulging her. The film that understands that you can have sympathy for the protagonist without excusing her, and makes it clear that you don't have to root for her just because it's her story. It's a great black comedy and Theron's performance is one of the best and most bizarrely unheralded of the last ten years.
The premise really couldn’t be simpler. For the vast majority of its running time, Gravity is about one woman, all alone in the vastness of space. She’s been stranded after her shuttle is destroyed by a chain reaction of space debris and now she must figure out a way to get home, one step at a time and with little more than her will to live driving her on. A technical marvel (this is the kind of movie that Imax and 3D technology were made for, and which won cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki a well deserved Oscar), it’s also a meditation on the process of grief. Sunk deep in a state of mourning after the loss of her daughter, the setting stands in for the seemingly endless despair of its protagonist, one she must find a way to extricate herself from if she’s going to live. While some of the imagery may be a little on the nose, Sandra Bullock’s strong performance anchors the character and the film in something very human and quite poignant.
Set in the 1960s and based on the memoir by Lynn Barber, An Education is about a teenage girl whose formal and informal educations collide as she comes of age. Informally she gets an education in life as a result of her relationship with an older man who isn't exactly as he presents himself to her. Formally her education comes from an elite girls school which she and her parents hope will help her get into Oxford, though when her relationship becomes serious to the point of being all-consuming and her school work begins to suffer because of it, she learns that her parents considered her education as more of a backup plan until she could find a suitable man to turn her into a housewife. The film that launched the career of Carey Mulligan, An Education is sharply written story about a young woman negotiating what society and other people expect of her and deciding that she doesn't need to be limited by those expectations. It's funny and heartbreaking in turn and home to several great performances.
Rarely has a film ever looked so playful (filmmaker Wes Anderson’s dollhouse aesthetic has never seemed more completely realized than it does here) but been so mournful. A story within a story within a story, each granted its own aspect ratio to denote the nesting doll structure of the piece, it tells of the once great Grand Budapest Hotel. As presided over by the refined M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, as marvelous as he has ever been), it is a place of elegance and romance, a place lost forever with the coming of Fascism. Though Gustave’s protégé Zero (Tony Revolori in one part of the story, F. Murray Abraham in another) tries later to recapture it, the essence of the place has been lost, existing only in memory. The Grand Budapest Hotel is an elegy for a way of life that can't be recovered, for a love that has been lost, and for a man who loomed larger than life in the mind of one of the story's tellers. It’s a visually splendid movie and an emotionally rich one that stands as one of Anderson’s best.
Before he crossed over and became one of Hollywood's next big directors, Denis Villeneuve was one of Canada's best kept secrets. The film that triggered his cross-over was Incendies, a Greek tragedy that tells a devastating story about the circularity and irrationality of violence. It's a film that has the elements for a conventional thriller, but it instead functions as a meditation on hatred and the religious, political, and social divisions that can lead to violence. Focusing on a mother and the children who, in the wake of her death, try to unravel the history she has kept secret from them, Incendies tells a story that dramatizes the cycle of atrocities and reprisals and reprisals of reprisals as a fundamentally self-defeating effort in which the violence one inflicts on someone else will be inflicted on themselves to some degree, too. Brutal but powerful, Incendies is an absolutely engrossing masterpiece.
"I'm twelve. But I've been twelve for a long time." Though it could be described as a horror movie (it is about a vampire and the movie isn't shy about blood and nasty deaths), Let the Right One In would be better described as a film about profound loneliness. Its main character is an outcast, rejected by his peers and neglected by his parents, who finds himself drawn to a mysterious girl who appears one night outside of his apartment building. She's not like anyone else and she's capable of things he could never have imagined, but he accepts her for who and what she is. She becomes the only good thing in his life and the story, told from his point of view, looks at first blush like the story of a boy learning to triumph over his tormentors. Pull back the veil, however, and it's a story of his seduction by evil, the future of this friendship predicted by the film's subplot and the grown man the protagonist is going to replace in the life of his vampire friend. Melancholy, gracefully rendered, and creepy as hell, Let the Right One In is an utterly transfixing film.
Wadjda is a notable movie simply for being the first of its kind, as the first feature not only made by Saudi woman but filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia. It's a great movie because of the way that it deals with its subject, which is a spirited 11 year old girl growing up and learning how to negotiate (and how to undercut) the social rules designed to keep her hemmed in. Coming to an age where the divide between the genders is only going to grow sharper, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is forced to reckon with a growing awareness of the limits of what society will allow her to do, as well as a growing awareness of how much society values her as result of the pressure her father is under to take a second wife in order to produce a son. Defiant in a gentle way, exploring its subject in a way well-calibrated to play to the strengths of its child lead, Wadjda tells a simple story that is profoundly meaningful.