Many of my favorite films of the year are still awaiting wider release, so although this top 10 list wraps up my 2010, it can also serve as a guide to your 2011. My number one film, in fact, sneaks into New York just three days before the year ends: The Strange Case of Angelica is a strange case to be sure. Manoel de Oliveira's latest film, which includes the 101-year-old director's first use of CGI (in a dream sequence), is as funny and peculiar as its title promises. Putting his own eccentric spin on the myth of Orpheus, the last working filmmaker to have been born during the age of the nickelodeon offers a modest, ultimately sublime meditation on the photographic essence of the motion picture medium, as glimpsed in the half-light of eternity.
As seen through the glass darkly of the present moment, I'd say the past 12 months were notable for directorial comebacks: Veteran filmmakers Olivier Assayas, Roman Polanski, Claire Denis, and even the late Henri-George Clouzot provided first-rate returns to form.
And now, back to the future . . .
1. The Strange Case of Angelica (directed by Manoel de Oliveira)
2. Carlos (directed by Olivier Assayas): Assayas puts it all together — historical reconstruction and globalizing enterprise, terror and terroir, plus sex, death, and rock 'n' roll. Carlos is a total you-are-there immersion in the bizarre career of a '70s terrorist and, as the equivalent of three feature-length movies, it arguably deserves three slots.
3. The Ghost Writer (directed by Roman Polanski): The Pianist had its moments, but Polanski hasn't made a movie so sustained in the decades since The Tenant or even 1966's Cul de Sac. In a way, this seemingly modest political thriller is almost their sequel. Shot in Germany (standing in for the wintry New England beach), impeccably directed, and edited under house arrest — with a beleaguered British prime minister played by a former James Bond, Pierce Brosnan — The Ghost Writer is rich with subtext.
4. Lebanon (directed by Samuel Maoz): As classic in its way as The Ghost Writer and even more overtly formalist, writer-director Maoz's first feature is at once existential combat movie and political allegory. (It's about this tank . . .) The personal investment is evident. Lebanon, which could just as easily be called "Israel," is based on the writer-director's experience of the 1982 war, as replayed in his head for nearly 30 years.
5. White Material (directed by Claire Denis): As a child of Africa, Denis also brings it back home with this convulsive, beautiful, terrifying work — Heart of Darkness by way of Apocalypse Now. The filmmaking is terrific, impressionist yet tactile, with the girlish figure of Isabelle Huppert caught up in the maelstrom of a post-colonial civil war, fiercely clinging to the remnants of her past.
6. Henri-George Clouzot's Inferno (directed by Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea): Clouzot's Inferno is another sort of wreck — that of a movie or, perhaps, a psyche. The title has a double meaning: The celebrated, wildly obsessive Clouzot attempted to make the ultimate '60s flick, Inferno, and came unhinged in the process. It's hard to imagine that Clouzot's finished film would be more evocative than this explication of its shards — or that Romy Schneider could ever give a more seductive performance than in these screen tests and out-takes.
7. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (directed by Andrei Ujic): Here is megalomania-made material. Romanian film-artist Ujic's archival assemblage is a three-hour immersion in a totalitarian leader's official reality. It's a modern day Ubu Roi, with dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's public image as fabricated by (and for) the tyrant himself.
8. The Juche Idea (directed by Jim Finn): American film artist Jim Finn's deadpan faux documentary account of image-making in North Korea complements The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu's show-stopping Pyongyang sequence — a stadium filled with thousands of precision-drilled North Korean dancers creating an elaborate Romanian folk pageant for an audience of two (and the camera). Something other than ironic, the year's prize whatzit is steeped in the pathos of political kitsch as well as the juche — North Korea's ideology of self-reliance — that DIY independent filmmaking requires.
9. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (directed by Damien Chazelle): Another example of juche cinema, this mumblecore musical mashes up Shadows with A Woman Is a Woman (and a bit of Pickup on South Street) to create a no-budget, neo-New Wave musical love story, shot off the cuff on the streets of Boston. At once clumsy and deft, annoying and ecstatic, Chazelle's debut feature is amateurish in the word's original sense, suffused with the love of movies.
10. The last 40 minutes of Inception (directed by Christopher Nolan): Pure cinema is where you find it. I caught this much-maligned behemoth as a civilian, about a month into its run. The first 90-something minutes were so nonsensical as to be unbearable, but then something kicked in — the special effect called "editing"! Since 70 minutes has always seemed the ideal length for a B movie, take in Inception's finale with one or two of the equally sensational 3D action sequences from Tron: Legacy.
And here are a dozen runners-up, any of which, on another day, might have wound up in the bottom half of my list: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector (Vikram Jayantri); Boxing Gym (Frederick Wiseman); Green Zone (Paul Greengrass); Greenberg (Noah Baumbach); Bluebeard (Catherine Breillat); Inside Job (Charles Ferguson); The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet); Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz); Machete (Robert Rodriguez); Ne change rien (Pedro Costa); The Portuguese Nun (Eugene Green); Trash Humpers (Harmony Korine).