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The Film Issue

Looking back on the year in movies, and what's coming in 2012.

Computer Chess

American indie film's most stalwart advocate for celluloid (he cut each of his previous, 16mm-shot features, Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax, on an outdated flatbed machine), Andrew Bujalski is pulling a 180 with his next film. Computer Chess, a period piece set in 1980, was shot in Austin in September on modified video cameras from that era. Having partially crowd-sourced his financing through unitedstatesartists.org, Bujalski has been editing Chess this fall (yes, on a computer) with an eye toward a festival premiere in 2012.

10+
J. Hoberman's favorites of 2011

Take Shelter: tough to sit through, but worth it.
© 2011 - Sony Pictures Classics
Take Shelter: tough to sit through, but worth it.
Anna Paquin gives the performance of the year in Margaret.
© 2011 - Fox Searchlight
Anna Paquin gives the performance of the year in Margaret.

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's 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-naive, 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.

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