You always hurt the one you love. A story divided between love at its first blush and love on its last legs, Blue Valentine is a fascinating study of a relationship in which the very things that draw its lovers together will undermine their bond like a structural rot. On one side of the relationship is Ryan Gosling's Dean, a man given to impulsive and dramatic displays of emotion that play out as grand gestures of love when he's happy and violence and self-harm when he's not; on the other side is Cindy, a woman who is tired of not being listened to and mistakes Dean's attention for understanding. As time marches on, she becomes restless and feels like she's been held back by the life she's made with Dean, while he has turned to alcohol to drown out his feelings of inadequacy and his fear that he's destined to be a failure. A portrait of disappointment and frustration, Blue Valentine is nevertheless also surprisingly funny, drawing humor from even its darkest passages. This emotional balancing act is made possible both by the performances of its stars and by how deeply realized it is as a character study.
Like Vertigo, Christian Petzold's Phoenix is about a man trying to turn the woman of his present into the woman of his past - except that, unbeknownst to him, the woman of his present actually is the woman of his past who has had facial reconstruction surgery that leaves her looking not quite like herself. Set in Berlin in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Phoenix begins as a story set in the dark corners of a society trying to rebuild itself - the back alleys and cabarets where violence and sex intermingle - and becomes a game of cat and mouse between a husband and a wife, the former trying to stage manage a "miracle" that will allow him to inherit his presumed dead wife's estate, the latter trying to understand why circumstances unfolded as they did and what remains for her in Berlin and in her marriage. A devastating story about identity, trauma, and the ways that people and nations deal with a shameful history, Phoenix is part pulpy noir, part rich human drama and a haunting work about the need to remember and never forget.
Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love is about a woman discovering that she is, in fact, a person. Tilda Swinton stars as the Russian-born wife of an Italian businessman whose life right down to her name, which is not the name she was born with but the one chosen for her by her husband, has been tailored to suit her husband's needs and the image that he and his family wish to project and traditions that they wish to uphold. She isn't necessarily unhappy with this life but she's not fulfilled either, but things begin to change for her after her daughter comes out, inspiring her to take back some control in her life, and after she meets her son's new business partner, with whom she begins an affair. As a world of possibilities begins to open up to her, she begins to reclaim her identity for herself (her husband's response? "You don't exist" - but, oh, she does). Resplendently photographed by Yorick Le Saux, I Am Love is a film whose surface perfectly matches the richness of its narrative and the grace and subtlety of its lead performance.
Ava DuVernay's documentary, which charts the history of the relationship between the US government and its black population since the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865. It's a film borne of anger and frustration, examining the ways that a historically disenfranchised population have continued to be subjected to campaigns of disenfranchisement by government institutions and the society that benefits from the maintenance of the status quo. Covering everything from Reconstruction to Jim Crow, from Civil Rights to the war on drugs, from the prison industrial complex to the ways that language has been weaponized against the black population, and doing so in a brisk 100 minutes, 13th is not a comprehensive study of its subject, but it's a passionate rabble rouser that makes for a good start for those looking to shake their complacency. An absolutely essential film for understanding our fractured time, 13th is a film that proves the point that if you aren't angry, you're not paying attention.
In Lars von Trier's film the end of the world hardly matters at all. It matters so little, in fact, that the whole apocalyptic scenario plays our in miniature before we even get to the opening credits. This is a tale of two sisters, one of whom falls into a deep depression from which she only emerges after coming to understand that the world is going to end (and coming to the conclusion that it probably should), the other of whom is so accustomed to having it all together (or, at least, the appearance of having it all together) that she can't bring herself to accept that the end of the world is not something that can be escaped. A much funnier film than this description might imply (it is, at times, laugh out loud hilarious in its depiction of family dysfunction), Melancholia is also a visual feast, at times achingly beautiful, and probably the best point of entry for anyone looking to take their first foray into the famously provocative filmmaker's work.
Ida is a beautiful gem from Pawel Pawlikowski which unfolds in a style that makes it feel less like a movie set during the 1960s and more like one from the 1960s. It concerns a young woman raised as an orphan in a convent who is preparing to become a nun herself and learns that she's actually Jewish and that she has an aunt, her only living family member. She goes to see her and learn about their family and what happened to them, which takes them back to the village where the family once lived and to the people who betrayed them to the Nazis. Thematically the film is a rich blend of drama and comedy, and artistically its stunning, filmed in stark black and white and in the Academy ratio so that the image is taller than it is wide, which has the effect of making it feel deeply personal whenever Pawlikowski films the actors in close up, and then making the characters seem smaller whenever Pawlikowski uses long shots, which functions to re-contextualize their story as one of many within the larger story of the Holocaust. Perfectly crafted and executed, Ida is a haunting, beautiful film.
Paul Thomas Anderson's epic is the ultimate American story of a man who comes from nothing and builds an empire with his ambition - all it costs him is his soul. Daniel Plainview, the instantly iconic protagonist played with grand ferocity by the great Daniel Day Lewis, is a man as relentless as a force of nature, tearing down everything in his path as he seeks to realize his goal of capitalistic conquest. At once an intimate story about the growing scale of one man's greed and an expansive story about an America in transition, changing from a place with a frontier still waiting to be mastered to a place transformed and dominated by industry, There Will Be Blood is the most ambitious, engrossing, and masterful of Paul Thomas Anderson's works so far. It's a towering achievement, meticulously crafted, and built around one of the greatest performances of the last ten years.
Part of what makes Julian Schnabel's adaptation of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly so remarkable is how easily it could have been a completely conventional and unremarkable film. Instead of approaching the subject from the outside in, putting focus on how the protagonist's physical limitations look to those around him, Schnabel approaches the subject from the inside out, embedding the camera in the protagonist's perspective, limiting its movement to how much he himself can move. In adopting these restrictions, Schanbel finds a way to free the narrative, going deep into the protagonist's psyche to turn this into a story driven by his memories, his fantasies, and his innermost thoughts. Mathieu Amalric, though often reduced to nothing more than a voice inside the main character's head, nevertheless delivers a thoughtful, complex, and quite moving performance. Though it could easily be classified as a "triumph over adversity" tale, it's more like a celebration of life and its messiness, heartbreak, complications and, ultimately, joy.
Cristian Mungui's film is a simple story told in a simple fashion. It follows two friends in Ceausescu's Romania, one of whom is trying to assist the other in obtaining an abortion. So much subterfuge is involved that the film could probably be transformed into a thriller without changing much, but Mungiu tells it as a straight forward drama about one woman so passive that she barely seemed to be involved in the plot at all (and she's the one who's pregnant!) and another who will move heaven and earth to get this done, perhaps because living under a regime this oppressive makes her desperate to claim at least one thing (her body) that she can have control over. Mungiu stages the proceedings in a stark way that brings that sense of oppression vividly to life (a lot of action takes place just out of sight of the camera, just as things take place just out of sight in a dictatorship) and Anamaria Marinca delivers what remains one of the best performances of the last decade.
The follow-up to The Act of Killing, this time examining the Indonesian purges of 1965-1966 from the perspective of the family of one of the victims, The Look of Silence is one of the most affecting films I've ever seen. The words "never again" often get invoked in the wake large-scale acts of violence, but those words are only meaningful if we truly never forget. The Look of Silence is a documentary about a man constantly coming face-to-face with the erasure and re-writing of the past and daring to challenge it, trying to force perpetrators and their families to acknowledge the crimes of the past even though doing so puts him at great personal risk. It's an unforgettable and haunting film, made all the more so by the fact that director Joshua Oppenheimer tells it in such an unadorned way. The story is so powerful that it needs no embellishment and Oppenheimer's great strength here is that he knows when to simply get out of the way of it. When it came to selecting my number one pick, it was really no contest.