Here’s a fast list of the most remarkable movies I have seen this year. There is no particular order here, though I put my two or three faves at the top of the list. These movies come from several decades and I saw almost every film on Netflix Streaming.
- Travelers and Magicians is a movie coming from Bhutan with beautiful landscapes, mythical plots and memorable characters. A young official yearns to leave his homeland for the U.S. and must confront what keeps him home. The director Khyentse Norbu is a Buddhist lama who once worked with Bertolucci and now uses the landscape of his homeland to illustrate the inner conflicts between spirituality and the modern industrialized life. Compare to Kobayashi’s classic film, Kwaidan.(Here’s an interview with the writer/director)
- Monsters is a haunting and beautiful sci fi movie about space aliens who have landed in Mexico and the American government’s attempt to fight these aliens and prevent them from encroaching the U.S. Border. Both a thrilling monster movie and political allegory, the plot followed an unexpected path and maintained the ambiguous aura until the very end. I enjoyed this tremendously the first time, but watched it months later just to make sure the movie was as good as it seemed the first time. It was. (Now Streaming)
- Encore (Movies inspired by Somerset Maugham). Also Quartet. Two films adapting Somerset Maugham short stories. These are lovely and delightful movies about short stories of Maugham. The film version of Gigolo and Gigolette (a husband and wife acrobatic team) is just amazing all the way to the end. (Now Streaming)
- Downfall & Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. (2 separate movies) I never thought a film about the clueless administrative staff of Hitler could be so compelling. Ironically, by depicting Hitler as a lovable but temper-prone boss, the film conveys how easy and powerful groupthink can be. At the start, the real person upon whom the movie is based admits that at 22 she was naïve, but that other people her age (like political martyr Sophie Scholl) had already figured things out; why hadn’t she? Indeed, that’s a good reason to watch both movies back to back. Sophie Scholl is a true biopic about a young college student jailed and put to death for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets. In a way both movies are about youthful dedication – the good kind and the bad kind. (Honorable mention: Valkyrie, an unusually well-made film starring Tom Cruise about a futile assassination attempt).
- Blue State is a charming indie road trip romantic comedy about a leftie blogger who foolhardily promises to move to Canada if Bush beats Kerry in 2004. When he discovers that others expect him to act on his promise, he takes a trip there with a female acquaintance and has misadventures along the way. Lots of funny lines — it’s not that political a movie — but it kept me guessing and it raised some unusual questions about loyalty to your values and to your country. I thoroughly enjoyed it. (Now Streaming)
- Love Film. Szabo’s early film about love, communism and desire. I loved the film’s unpredictability and the way it jumped backwards and forwards in time (which was justified by the subject matter). The film had tragic and warm moments, and the arty style helped too.
- Muriel’s Wedding is a 90s Australian comedy about a misfit young woman who will stop at nothing to give up her dreams. When considering plausibility, morality and social messages, this film is simply bananas. But thank goodness the character and the story is unafraid to try all kinds of crazy things to get what you want. (Now Streaming)
- Bolivia. This gritty film by Adrián Caetano depicts the precarious existence of illegal immigrants: the poverty, vilification and scapegoating. Not an easy watch, but the movie stands up for the hordes whose tragedies remain hidden out of sight. (Now Streaming)
- The Dead Zone (TV Series) I was vaguely aware of the original Stephen King novel and knew what I was getting into: supernatural whiffs, crime-fighting and political intrigue. TV shows about superpowers often fall flat because they manipulate the viewer too much. But Dead Zone made the story not about the superpower of omniscience but individual stories of people who need help. First two seasons were dynamite. By Season 3 or 4 I saw repetition and credibility-stretching plots, but in the last season it recaptured some of its original magic. This show was basically a detective show, and the revelation of the clairvoyance seemed to obey no rules other than to produce good TV. (This show might have been perfect if it only lasted for 2 seasons, but what I saw was still provocative and visually-interesting). Other TV series I watched and enjoyed over the year included: Wings (droll retread of Cheers by some of the same producers and writers), Farscape (mind-bending Australian sci fi TV series which had original plots, unusual characters and a tad too much violence) and IT Crowd (nutty sitcom about a dysfunctional IT department).
- Last Train Home is a poignant documentary about Chinese families who travel home for the holidays. The problem is that many work at factories hundreds of kilometers away, and the mad rush to use the train system results in delay, aggravation and dismay. The movie focuses on one family in particular being torn apart by working away from home. (Now streaming)
- My Year without Sex is a nutty feel-good family comedy about a woman who has a sudden & urgent medical condition and has to chill out while she recovers. It’s not a particularly deep movie – it merely depicts the mundane craziness of living – and how hard it can be to take a break from it. What I love about this film (and Muriel’s wedding) is that the narrative rhythm is so different from U.S. films. Lackadaisical, jarring, quickly changing from comic to dramatic and back again. (Now streaming)
- Wish Upon a Star . 90s Disney teen comedy about two sisters who change bodies. (Great for age group 10 and up). It’s a cross between Clueless and the Parent Trap. Formulaic & feel good comedy which is a lot smarter than it appears to be at first glance. I enjoyed it a lot.
- Ritchie Boys. Great mainstream documentary about German Jews who emigrated to America and then enlisted to perform top secret intelligence work for the Allies. Each person interviewed describes the work they did, plus that bittersweet feeling of returning to the homeland they formerly loved. (Now streaming)
- Lady Killers. Silly British comedy about an ill-advised bank heist planned by bumbling robbers such as Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. The thing is, the woman running the boarding house for one of the robbers is duped into thinking they are classical musicians. I was laughing the whole time.
- Winter’s Bone is populated with Ozark misfits and tough people who protect their own and punish outsiders. The main character – a struggling girl taking care of her siblings because of her mother’s mental illness – is on a mission to find out what happened to her father who had disappeared. The people (and the story itself) live on the edge of society where different rules apply (if there are any!).
- Hey Ram. Great self-consciously arty film about political engagement. Overdone, but the material and themes were utterly original. You really have to admire the cojones of an Indian who plots another assassination plot of Gandhi.
- Something like Happiness. An extraordinary slice of life movie from Czech Republic about two friends who become involved in taking care of the woman’s mentally ill sister. Some might call this movie (and this setting) to be dreary, but I found the characters to be authentic and complex and interesting. This part of Europe has a certain ugliness (there were multiple shots of the power plant in the background, and I can’t tell how much many times I’ve seen the grimy inside walls of that apartment’s elevator). The main character has to decide how much she wants to get involved with her sister, knowing full well it might cause heartbreak at the end.
- Manito. Story of 2 Puerto Rican brothers in New York City, one of which is an ex-con trying to earn a living, the other is a “good kid” about to graduate from high school. But it really is about the milieu, the extended family, the neighbors, the coworkers, the students. The movie cuts quickly between scenes, conveying a sense of disorder and the complexities of relationships in this small ethnic neighborhood. The movie hurries through their lives so randomly that I began to wonder whether the movie was going to be simply another slice-of-life movie or whether it actually was hurling to something. But by the end I realize the movie has raised some unsettling questions about victimizing and forgiveness.
Also: my favorite movie which I haven’t seen is “56 Up” the latest installment in Michael Apted’s epic documentary charting the lives of a dozen-plus British youngsters every 7 years. 56 Up came out last spring in UK, but the movie distribution system, in their infinite wisdom, has decided not to release it in the US. The good news is that there are now plans for limited distribution at select movie theatres (including the Houston Museum of Fine Arts on March 15, 2013)