If you find that you are not familiar with all of the top ten films I cite each year, don't panic. Don't curse. Don't accuse me of being elitist and I won't accuse you of being ignorant. A top ten film list should reflect exciting and unexpected developments in world cinema. Yes, world cinema, not just the same old studio stuff. So, please consider renting or buying what you have not seen. Happy New Year and Happy Viewing.
1. Blancanieves (dir. Pablo Berger/Cohen Media Group)
Writer-director-producer Pablo Berger's stunningly shot, romantically gothic retelling of the Snow White fable, but with bullfighting, in 1920s Seville. It is the kind of film that at times makes you hold your breath in wonder. Rarely has the cinema had a more sinister and sexy and amusing antagonist that Maribel Verdu as the evil stepmother. Berger's Torremolinos 73 made this list in 2005. Someone please get Berger to make films more often.
2. The Past (Asghar Farhadi/Sony Pictures Classics)
Farhadi, who brought us the impressive A Separation, has bettered himself with a brilliant jigsaw puzzle of a story. Nominated for a Golden Globe for Foreign Film and winner from the National Board of Review, The Past explores an Iranian husband returning to France to finalize a divorce, only to become enmeshed with a complex web of family dynamics and a mystery in his beloved stepdaugher's past. Berenice Bejo (The Artist) won for Best Actress at Cannes in this fascinating gem.
3. Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? (Michel Gondry/IFC Films/Sundance Selects)
If you thought director Gondry blew your mind with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, how about a psychedelically colored, animated documentary conversation with MIT linguist and renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky? Their discussion touches on language acquisition in the young, cultural differences, political power and carefully chosen insights into Chomsky's history and Gondry's work habits. This profound work is ideally suited to animation over live action.
4. Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh/Open Road Films)
Soderbergh can direct anything and writer Scott Z. Burns (Contagion) has fashioned a twisty, marvelous psychological thriller that has one of the most satisfying endings one can imagine for this genre. Sexual politics play a major role in this tale of a woman (Rooney Mara) who claims she was sleepwalking when she murdered her husband.
5. Europa Report (Sebastian Cordero/Magnet Releasing/Magnolia Pictures)
Gravity is flashy looking, especially in 3-D, but this little known masterpiece, shot entirely on a sound stage in Brooklyn, is terrifyingly real. A NASA investigation reveals that a disastrous space mission has resulted in crew fatalities due to a potential life form that is unlike anything we have seen on film. Europa Report, with no stars and a tiny budget, makes us deeply ponder the dangers and possible futility of space exploration.
6. Broken Circle Breakdown (Felix van Groeningen/Tribeca Film)
An absolutely heartbreaking, lyrical story of a Belgian couple who make a living performing American bluegrass music, which is wondrously done. But the cancer that weakens their daughter also destroys their marriage. The Oscar submission from Belgium boasts strong performances throughout, especially female lead Veerle Baetens, winner at Berlin, Tribeca and the European Film Awards.
7. We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (Alex Gibney/Focus World)
Oscar-winner Gibney has a roster of impeccable docs (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room). His examination of Julian Assange and Wikileaks equally studies the eradication of civil rights, the need for whistleblowers, attempts to discredit Wikileaks and the mercurial and inevitably self-destructive behavior that ruined Assange. One of the most important docs in recent history.
8. Rush (Ron Howard/Universal Pictures)
Playwright-screenwriter Peter Morgan captures the glitz, glory and horror of the competition between 1970s Formula One racers James Hunt of the UK and Austria's Niki Lauda. Daniel Bruhl is particularly terrific as the obsessive, relentless Lauda but Anthony Dod Mantle's tremendous cinematography and great editing also make this the American studio movie of the year, albeit one shot around the world.
9. Renoir (Gilles Bourdos/Samuel Goldwyn Films)
Along with Blancanieves, the most beautifully shot film on this list, Renoir is set on the French Riviera in 1915. Injured in the First World War, Jean Renoir comes home to convalesce at the home of his Impressionist painter father, Pierre Auguste. Their mutual attraction to a painter's model, along with the sumptuous landscape and immersion into the creative process makes this a dreamily notable film.
10. The Invisible Woman (Ralph Fiennes/Sony Pictures Classics)
Actor Ralph Fiennes's directorial debut is an expertly composed biographical study of Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and the woman with whom he had a secret extramarital love affair until his death (Felicity Jones). It is as rewarding to the eye as it is moving to the heart, and the limitations of societal behavior create highly dramatic moments that director Fiennes fully exploits.
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley/Roadside Attractions)
Hannah Arendt (Margarethe von Trotta/Zeitgeist Films)
The East (Zal Batmanglij/Fox Searchlight)