The Internet is full of lists; end-of-year, top 10s, top 20s and 25s, often just a collection of line items laid bare, sometimes hyperlinked, sometimes not, and it's often left to the reader to do their own research. The Internet is also full of opinions (and we know what gets said about those), and it's made it way too easy to surf in, say your bit, and beat a hasty retreat, without laying down any sufficient backup data.
With music, I get it, a list is a list is a list—you have the artist name, the release title, and if you like what I like in general, you may already know about it and agree, if not, you'll look it up when time allows. But with film, there's way too many "authorities" out there, who do little more than hand out a bare-bones plot description, call it a review, call it "writing," and I think it's a big part of the reason people say, "Another film list, great. Haven't seen one of those in 5 minutes!" There's a lot of crappy, tossed-off film commentary online, and in some cases it completely sidesteps what I think is the very critical element of WHY this writer liked this film. Film criticism is the place for opinion, a more-than-apropos venue to make it personal; but here in the USA, where we're used to getting a heavy slant in our news media, with maybe, if we're lucky, a side dish of factual information, it's all ass-backwards. I'll continue to work against this tide, with gratitude to those whose pay attention, read instead of skim, and have looked forward to these film lists of mine for however many years I've been doing them.
When I looked at my notes for this year, one common element became abruptly apparent—women. Almost all the films on my list featured a female protagonist, in many cases also an antagonist, and I found this striking, both for the indicated shift in cinematic storytelling (especially in genre and horror stories), as well as the impossible-to-ignore lack of a significant other in my own life, a void that becomes more gaping with time, which may have led me to "favorite" these excellent tales of the female—in power, in conflict, in subjugation and in madness.
King Kelly (2012) - This movie gets billed as a drama, but to me it's a thriller, as horrific as any genre film, and maybe that's because I remember a time before the online world filtered, dictated, and straight-up controlled our daily existence. It's an ultimate indictment of the look-at-me generation, where more than ever, women are worshipped solely for their appearance, for "hot pics," where Instragram likes matter infinitely more than the ability to make good conversation. Whether women are more, or less empowered by these circumstances is arguable, and a topic for a whole other post. King Kelly is a webcam girl—the focus of modern, straight-male idolatry—and in her self-crafted universe, which extends into the physical world almost immediately in this harrowing piece of hand-cam cinema, she's for sure empowered, if not in control; like a steamroller with no driver, Kelly creates havoc and destruction for all who hover near her flame. She's just trying to be the hot girl, get some shit done, while engaging in some moderate-to-severe manipulation, and it all flies horribly and tragically out of control. Some may laugh as this movie; I found it to be anxiety-inducing entertainment, loaded with a mounting paranoia. In the Cold War era, we had The Manchurian Candidate, in the Internet age, standards duly lowered, we have King Kelly, and her potential for casual, callous trampling on human life; for me, more frightening, and less comprehensible, than Frank Sinatra's hypnotized assassin. King Kelly is all too real, and just a click away.
All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006) - A bit older, but new to Netflix, this is going to seem at first like a very standard, teens-on-holiday-getting-picked-off-one-by-one B movie, but don't be fooled. The plot thickens rapidly, like social tar, and I'm perhaps giving away a minor spoiler to say that there is no outside killer, no masked, machete-wielding antagonist preying on innocents, but that's a change for the better. Mandy Lane and her "friends" are far from blameless cannon fodder, and again we find ourselves in the midst of a bitter, no-punches-pulled indictment of American youth, twisting and perverting their entitlement into scheming, murderous intent. What seems at first like some light competition over the girl voted most crushworthy, spins rapidly into a classic tragedy, with a body count to rival Hamlet. My own son is now just entering his teenage years, making this more-than-it-appears tale of twisty teen murder all the more palpable and provocative to me personally.
Alyce Kills (2011) - Get ready to leap forward a near-generation, as Alyce is Mandy Lane and King Kelly's big sister, a New York City girl of opportunity, who gets a taste for homicide. The city is unnerving, shaking to the core, even (or especially) for a pretty white girl—it's competitive, and riddled with constant temptation to bad behavior. In NYC, there are more reasons to spin deliciously and unrepentantly out of control than to maintain even the appearance of doing the right thing, and Alyce's fall is as grandiose and fascinating to watch as it is inspirational. Having not lived in the city since 1998, I'm now what film writer Thom Andersen would call a "low tourist," in that I delight in depictions of my former home's flaws and hypocrisies. Alyce kills, indeed she does, but she's also a heroine, a "fuck it" icon, for those who know firsthand how NYC can hammer any semblance of a moral code out of a person. One of my favorites on this list.
Nymph()maniac (2013) - Lars Von Trier has once again made a film I can sink my teeth into, after a few films where, as a fan of his work generally, he lost me, with stories too figurative, symbolic and esoteric to have much impact. I like Von Trier at his most gritty, critical and mean-spirited, and to call his films "sexist" is an oversimplification that entirely misses the point; the men come off no better, often worse, and Von Trier at his best is holding up an unflinching mirror, saying "this is how shitty we are, look at how we treat each other." In my view, the director must worship women, because he can't keep himself from telling obsessive stories about them. Charlotte Gainsbourg absolutely shines, as does Uma Thurman (in one brief but intense scene), while the male characters in Nymph()maniac, though crucial to the story flow, are scummy, transparent wallpaper, not worthy of the complexity and gut-wrenching humanity of Von Trier's women. If anything, the director hates MEN, and I felt shame, even horror, at my own fellows, while watching this epic of human degradation. And is Gainsbourg's sex maniac a victim by chance or a victim by choice? A bit of both, provocative enough to have the film scholars flapping about what this film "means" for decades.
Escape (Flukt) (2012) - The literal translation of this film's Norwegian title is Flight, and fly it does, an action / adventure depiction of the struggle between two women; one a teenage girl, grappling for survival after witnessing the barbaric slaughter of her parents and younger brother, the other a Norse warrior woman, brutal and possessed by forward movement and survival in its rawest form, with a tragic, dark past of her own. Capturing the teen, the warrior, fiercest in her band (comprised otherwise of formidable males), intends to use the girl as breeding stock, and as one might imagine, the girl does anything and everything to escape her fate as the tribe baby maker. Such ensues a ragged pursuit through pre-industrial Norway, over land and water, arrows and rocks flying, bodies falling, and that's the movie. Simple, but not predictable, and raucously engaging.
The Machine (2013) - All films, genre / sci-fi stories especially, should inhabit their own, idiosyncratic world of production design, and The Machine does this with stunning accomplishment—the computers, comm systems, labs, and the titular android itself—all impressive, and quite second nature to the film's character inhabitants. I think of The Machine as a sister film to Beyond the Black Rainbow, if only for their shared moody framing, and roots in 70s sci-fi classics, all achieved with a comparatively small budget to the CGI-dominated blockbusters. In brief, a team of talented AI scientists is broken apart when the woman, a new hire, is assassinated by higher ups for spying; the man, in his grief and frustration with their cruel, crooked bosses at the MOD, designs a powerful AI android, The Machine, with the likeness and basic personality profile of his dead colleague. (He hadn't time to fall in love with her, though he almost certainly would have.) A struggle between the altruistic scientist, his machine, and the evil government ensues, a familiar theme for sure, but this story is done with incredibly meticulous camera work, script, and design; not a single shot is wasted, and the film is engrossing from scene one, and never stops to breathe. A remarkable accomplishment for a first-Internationally-distributed feature, and I can't wait to see what director Caradog James does next.