These are the 12 best films I saw in 2010. They aren’t ranked in any particular order. Or maybe they are.

I didn’t get to see everything I wanted to see. These happen to be the films that came into my life and that I loved.

 

Honey

(Semih Kaplanoğlu, Turkey/Germany)

The third installment (following Egg and Milk) in Turkish auteur Semih Kaplanğlu’s “reverse trilogy” about the life of a poet won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, inspiring lots of headlines about, you guessed it, bears and honey. In its evocative Black Sea forest setting, Honey recreates the fragmented, dreamlike world inhabited by all children better than any film I’ve seen. Kaplanğlu employs stillness, ambient sound and painterly technique to make shots of everyday things like a toy wooden boat or a boiling kettle seem thrilling. Though there’s not much dialogue, the relationship of the boy Yusuf with his father is depicted with fine perception and compassion. Melancholy, exquisite, slow as honey pouring out of a jar, but just as satisfying.

 

 

OK, Enough, Goodbye

(Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia, Lebanon)

A loopy and meandering tale of a selfish, clueless 40-something bachelor’s attempt to live on his own after his mother walks out on him, and a smart and vivid snapshot of life in the Lebanese port city of Tripoli. The debut feature from Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia is a manifesto of sorts for the rights of Middle Eastern films to be weird and funny and personal in a highly politicized world. Its scenes of urban alienation, its long takes of difficult conversations between lonely people, could take place anywhere. But the story’s Jarmuschian quirkiness belies its poignant human insight and subtle commentary on globalism. “OK, Enough, Goodbye” was also year’s funniest and most universally translatable catchphrase.

 

 

Gesher

(Vahid Vakilifar, Iran)

The quietly stunning debut feature from director Vahid Vakilifar tells a loose, naturalistic story of migrant workers at the world’s largest gas field – where they pathetically live in abandoned concrete pipes facing out to the Persian Gulf. Using documentary techniques, Vakilifar captures the field’s vast infrastructure with the transcendent detachment of photographers like Edward Burtynsky, while on the other hand getting right into the pipes with the men to portray the toil and camaraderie in their daily lives with restraint, dry humor and great empathy.

 

 

Space Tourists

(Christian Frei, Switzerland)

Impressionistic, slyly ironic documentary about the different ways civilians are involved in space travel, from the spoiled Iranian-American heiress who buys her way onto a space station, to the scavengers in remote Kazakhstan who collect the scrap-metal debris of rocket flights. Jonas Bendiksen’s eerie photos of abandoned cosmonaut training centers set the tone – it’s a beautifully-made film. Weaving different strands together, director Christian Frei avoids conclusions, simply showing us people and things that are very interesting, and often funny. But in revealing the business of space and musing on how we conceive the future, Space Tourists achieves as much impact as any of the heavy-handed docs that litter the market.

 

 

Exit Through the Gift Shop

(Banksy, USA/UK)

If Banksy’s much-anticipated debut film had been a boring talking-head doc about his own iconic and incendiary street art, it would’ve been a lot easier for the Twitterverse to digest, and might have sold more tickets to boot. But Banksy doesn’t do anything cheap or easy; this diabolically twisted study of an eccentric scene-hound and would-be artist named Mr Brainwash gleefully trashed expectations, exposing the hypocrisy and stupidity of the contemporary arts scene and causing dumbfounded speculation that it was all a vast hoax. It’s one of the year’s most thought-provoking films, as disturbing as it is freaking hilarious, and establishes Banksy as a filmmaking force to be reckoned with.

 

 

Red Hill

(Patrick Hughes, Australia)

My favorite Australian film of the year rides the trendy resurgence of Ozploitation, but is more ambitious and emotionally engaging than the run of the mill. Debut writer/director Patrick Hughes effectively mashes up horror, western and crime thriller in this tale of an escaped convict gunning for revenge in rural Victoria, drawing on myriad influences from Eastwood to Tarantino to No Country for Old Men. It’s a gritty and violent film, but refreshingly low on pointless blood and gore; Hughes builds suspense with old-fashioned restraint and a flair for Aussie mythmaking, and with help from a good turn by True Blood‘s Ryan Kwanten, we end up caring about the characters.

 

 

Zephyr

(Belma Baş, Turkey)

“Slow cinema is for fascination and magic,” says director Belma Baş. Her entrancing debut feature illustrates this ethos perfectly – even literally, illuminated as it is with beautiful macro shots of snails along with other fauna and flora of the lush Black Sea region. The sad, slow-burning tale of the troubled relationship between a boyish adolescent and her vagabond mother is set against an elegiac ode to the simple pace and rugged beauty of life in the mountains. As the story unfolds like a fable and the girl’s state of mind unravels, Baş’ transcendentalist touch makes even the disturbing and traumatic seem part of the fabric of nature.

 

 

Inception

(Christopher Nolan, USA/UK)

Away from the restrictions of the Batman franchise, Christopher Nolan went another level down, constructing a sprawling masterwork of action, suspense and twisted dream logic worthy of comparison to Blade Runner and The Matrix. It’s not a sequel, is not based on a TV show, features no babyfaced stars (unless you count Ellen Page, whom I adore), contains no sex scenes or vampires; it has no R&B on the soundtrack, no song and dance. Furthermore it actually dares to challenge and puzzle the audience. Yet it made truckloads of cash. To me it didn’t so much raise the bar as put it back in place; we’ve always deserved blockbusters this good. Hollywood, get back to work.

 

 

Orion

(Zamani Esmati, Iran)

This harrowing drama, about a hapless college student who ends up in legal trouble after ending an affair with a shallow older professor, is worth watching for the extended opening sequence alone: director Zamani Esmati brilliantly utilizes the narrow streets and enclosed spaces of the ancient city of Yazd to create tension and claustrophobia, as the girl pays a secret visit to a shady surgeon. Soon she is pulled into a vortex of judgment and mortification in a chillingly existential commentary on contemporary Iran. I don’t favor films based only on their social relevance; but like many other Iranian directors working today, Esmati is able to reflect his nation’s troubles with crucial cinema. And it’s hard to shake the thought of Esmati’s mentor (and uncredited supervising editor) Jafar Panahi, who now languishes as a political prisoner.

 

 

The Oath

(Laura Poitras, USA)

An astonishingly intimate portrait of a former Al Qaeda operative named Abu Jandal, who was once a personal bodyguard to Bin Laden. He quit the cause and renounced violence, and now drives a taxi and raises a family in Yemen. Meanwhile his old comrade and brother-in-law is held prisoner at Guantánamo Bay. Director Laura Poitras lets the intrinsic drama unfold organically, with an unobtrusive but steady gaze that also provides a valuable portrait of daily life in an Arab backwater. There are no quick cuts, no voice-overs, no easy conclusions. Much of the film is simply the charismatic Jandal talking to whomever will listen – the Arab media, his customers, Poitras and, presumably, us. He’s adamant and articulate in his beliefs, but also friendly and down-to-earth, and it’s amazing how much he reveals to the camera. Jandal’s chilling war stories draw the viewer in, but his candid guilt about his brother-in-law and his ambivalence about his own extremist past are what make this film so memorable.

 

 

Certified Copy

(Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy)

In his first film made outside of Iran, starring smoking-hot Cannes poster girl Juliette Binoche, beloved auteur Abbas Kiarostami utilizes his cool, über-naturalistic style to deconstruct a vaguely romantic story about an art collector and a writer who meet, flirt and spontaneously take a road trip in the Tuscan countryside. The screenplay revolves around ideas of art, authorship and authenticity; and on the surface, it’s meant to be a pisstake, Kiarostami toying with narrative convention. But what begins as a cerebral, talky exercise grows more compelling and eerily enigmatic as the journey continues, and becomes wrenchingly emotional in the end. As lean and original as the best kind of indie, but it resonates like a classic; I couldn’t get it off my mind for days.

 

 

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

(Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)

The Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival is often bestowed on films that are accessible to large audiences (Pulp Fiction, The Piano). But not this year: “Joe” Weerasethakul’s meditation on death, memory and regret in rural Thailand is oblique and ponderous and weird as it wanna be. But I was never bored. (Well, give or take a couple of extended shots of people doing nothing.) I just sat back and let myself be pulled into the exquisitely composed vision  – greatly enhanced by some really cool, Miyazaki-esque ghosts and fantasy sequences. I compare this kind of work to the deceptively “ambient” music of Brian Eno or Kompakt Records: abstract, slow and quiet, yes. But also powerful, dreamlike, switched on, creating space for many emotions from dread to euphoria.

 

 

Honorable mentions:

The Tree

The Life of Fish

Toy Story 3

Police, Adjective

GasLand

Somewhere

Road, Movie

I Am Love

Nostalgia for the Light

True Grit

Last Train Home

Cirkus Columbia

The Furious Force of Rhymes

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