The past 12 months brought a number of powerful, introspective, big-theme cine-statements, many of them by old masters (see below). Some pondered history — as well as its end. A few upended the old-fashioned movie-house paradigm. In recognition of the medium's ongoing mutation, my annual list is bookended by two such extra-theatrical projections.
The Clock (Christian Marclay, U.K.): One of the most radical film-objects of the 21st century, Marclay's 24-hour found-footage assemblage — which screened in Boston, Los Angeles, and New York this year — was not only a surprise art-world blockbuster but also, by making an overt spectacle out of time passing, reiterated Andrei Tarkovsky's assertion that cinema is essentially a form of temporal sculpture.
1. A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, Canada): Cronenberg's viscerally cerebral, historically scrupulous science-fiction romance teleports the viewer back to the birth of psychoanalysis. Europe's 20th century is the subject, given form by Sabina Spielrein (and Keira Knightley's electric performance). Consummate classical filmmaking, A Dangerous Method has an exaggerated Masterpiece Theatre patina that is regularly fissured by geysers of desire (as well as dreams and ideas) and ultimately blown away as Spielrein, Freud, and Jung meet their respective fates.
2. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, Denmark): On any other day, this might have ranked first. Melancholia's first five minutes are like a formal invitation to the end of the world; the next two hours allow you to live through the run-up. We are all ultimately alone, and yet this thrillingly sad, beautiful movie dares to imagine (and insists we do as well) the one event that might bring us all together.
3. Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz, Portugal): Ruiz, who died this summer after a nearly 50-year career, dramatizes every outrageous plot twist in a classic 19th-century novel with serene equanimity — treating the hopelessly old-fashioned as the new avant-garde. After some four hours, Mysteries cuts its own Gordian knot to wrap with a magnificent, looping closer that metaphorically conflates the end of literature, theater, and cinema. The nothingness is Olympian.
4. Aurora (Cristi Puiu, Romania): Ionesco meets Jim Thompson: This murder mystery, shot vérité-style, is less a psychological case study than a philosophical treatise — or better, it's a case study as philosophical treatise in which the killer's identity is known, but his motives are not. Aurora dramatizes the Sartrean notion "shame of self," rooted in the recognition that we are "the object which the Other is looking at and judging." With Puiu playing the killer, the audience ponders the filmmaker looking at the protagonist who just happens to be himself.
5. Seeking the Monkey King (Ken Jacobs, U.S.): Shown twice as part of the New York Film Festival (and again at Zuccotti Park the night before the mayor and police broke the occupation), Jacobs' incantatory, hallucinated, apocalyptic screed is a deeply troubling combination of stunning abstract imagery and enraged political analysis.
6. To Die Like a Man (João Pedro Rodrigues, Portugal): Fado music makes something wistfully jaunty out of inconsolable loss, and so does this mysterious, fabulously sad fable about the final months of a fado-singing, pooch-pampering drag diva. Such a surplus of melodrama might have prompted an Almodóvarian frenzy, but Rodrigues is neither hysterical nor maudlin. To Die Like a Man is playful, unpredictable, and incongruously verdant.
7. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand): The acme of no-budget, Buddhist-animist, faux-naïve, avant-pop magic neorealism is a movie in which conversing with the materialized spirits of the dead and watching the so-called living on TV exist on the same astral plane.
8. Hugo (Martin Scorsese, U.S.): After decades in the business, Scorsese finally makes a kid's film, and it turns out to be the best Spielberg movie that Spielberg never made. Hugo is distinguished first of all by its genuinely dramatic use of 3-D and second by a cinephilia that has nothing to do with a belief in Hollywood happy endings.
9. J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood, U.S.): Like most Eastwood productions, this densely woven historical tapestry is frugal and underlit; like his better films, it has an undercurrent of nuttiness. Just as Leo DiCaprio's Hoover is regularly accused of fabricating media stories and posing as a fictional hero, J. Edgar is a self-aware production, filled with its own textual signposts. (At a kidnapping trial, the word "nelly" leaps out of a courtroom display.) Dirty Harry turns himself inside out: The film even provides a near-credible theory on Hoover's sexuality. It too might have been called "To Die Like a Man."
10. United Red Army (Koji Wakamatsu, Japan): The veteran Japanese pulp artist makes a new sort of horror movie — a grueling, engrossing three-hour account of Japan's insanely ideological New Left that faces the void with the prolonged, increasingly violent, ever more self-critical group sessions, staged in near-darkness and shown in close-up, wherein the clandestine Red Army tore itself apart.
Mildred Pierce (Todd Haynes, U.S.): The most academic yet mass-culture-minded of U.S. indie directors, Haynes made a characteristically sidelong move toward the mainstream by treating James M. Cain's novel as epic domestic drama with intimations of historical tragedy. Haynes's HBO miniseries saga of unrequited star worship, terminal class envy, failed self-empowerment, and self-immolating smother love is less a narrative than a fastidiously designed, endlessly resonant world that, harking back to Hollywood's last golden age, might have appeared in the days of The Godfather or Chinatown.
A dozen runners-up: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Certified Copy, Film Socialisme, Le Havre, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Meek's Cutoff , Le Quattro Volte, Octubre, Super 8, Terri, Tuesday, After Christmas, and Young Adult.