Friday, January 31, 2014

Film Atlas (Antarctica): Crossing the Ice

Country: Antarctica
Title: Crossing the Ice (2012)
Australian endurance explorers James Castrission (“Cas”) and Justin Jones (“Jonesy”) first garnered international attention in 2008 for “Crossing the Ditch.” The phrase refers to kayaking across the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand, a 2-month, 3318-kilometer, never-before-completed journey. Flushed with success, they looked about for another challenge and hit upon Antarctica. Though there had been several attempts to walk from the coast to the pole and back (2200+ kilometers), unsupported by dogs, wind sails, motors, etc., none had ever made it. Cas and Jonesy decided to give it a shot… but first they must learn how to ski. The documentary Crossing the Ice covers their preparation and journey, filming themselves as they drag sleds loaded down with food, supplies, camera equipment and a tent across endless vistas of frozen emptiness.

The duo set out almost exactly 100 years after the famous race to South Pole between British explorer Robert F. Scott and Norwegian Roald Amundsen. That one ended badly. Scott lost to Amundsen and his entire team died on the return trip. As Cas and Jonesy approach their starting point they learn that, as though history is ominously repeating itself, a better-trained lone Norwegian, Aleks Gamme, has already set out ahead of them. Cas and Jonesy immediately run into trouble. They are delayed for weeks by a raging gale-force white-out. They suffer doubt, sickness, frostbite and a festering rash from the laborious and repetitive motion. But they push on and eventually encounter Gamme already on his return trip. He is the first human they have seen in months and their highly anticipated meet-up is the film’s most hilarious moment and one of its most terrifying. They finally make it to South Pole Station weeks behind schedule and must face the temptation of quitting (hot showers, fresh food, rest!), but they stoically circle the pole and trudge onward, now severely rationing and dangerously losing weight. They can only accept that Gamme will handily secure the historical honor of being first and, much worse, they must face the prospect of death as they search unsuccessfully for waypoints (now obscured by snow) where they buried food for the return trip.

Crossing the Ice is a short, truly heart-pounding adventure documentary that would be interesting enough for its footage of such a desolate corner of the globe, but it’s made compulsively watchable through our instant sympathy with its real-life protagonists. You can’t help cheering on the good-humored, risk-taking best friends and their thoroughly insane scheme, yet the even crazier Aleks (who it turns out is also documenting the trip, too, along with a ‘friend’) steals several unforgettable scenes. He’s also responsible for the story’s most emotional twist, which actually left me teary-eyed! 

To get the footage Cas and Jonesy desired they often had to set up the camera, backtrack, and then pass in front of it, slowing themselves down and increasing their travel distance in the name of pioneering filmmaking. Their discerning editing has a thriller sensibility; rapidly paced yet keeping the viewer in constant suspense. We feel the danger, the tension, the psychological strain. We shiver in reaction to their cold. And we realize that we can only just barely fathom the loneliness, monotony and marathon endurance involved. Crossing the Ice ultimately invokes two forms of awe: one for the inhuman indifference of nature so vividly manifest on Antarctica’s inhospitable surface and one for the inspirational power of human endeavor and the untapped potential that lies within us.

My Favorites:
The Great White Silence
Crossing the Ice
Encounters at the End of the World

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Film Atlas (Angola): Sambizanga

Country: Angola
Title: Sambizanga (1972)
After the arrest of Domingos Xavier, a loving family man, hard-working construction worker and secret insurgency leader, Sambizanga splits up and follows two paths. Along one dusty, arduous route treks Maria, Xavier’s wife, as she tries to find the prison where her man is kept, hoping to plead with the Portuguese authorities for his freedom. Along the other route, a haphazard deer track of loosely-linked resistance members, word is spread that an unknown man has been taken into custody. After Xavier refuses to give the names of his collaborators he is beaten to death sparking, as the last line tells us before the credits abruptly scroll over a spinning shot of crashing waves, the coming revolution.

Sarah Maldoror, after assisting on The Battle of Algiers (yesterday's film!), which shares similar anti-colonialists sentiments, became a director in her own right, and one of the first women to do so in Africa. Sambizanga was shot with almost no budget in the early 1970’s while the Angolan War of Independence was still raging and depicts the events, semi-extrapolated, leading up to its 1961 genesis in Luanda’s titular municipality. Though the film is relatively simple and propaganda-motivated, its focus on the plight of individuals spans a cross-section interesting enough to remain relevant and thought-provoking: Maria with her apolitical but courageous single-mindedness, a passive collaborator in the police force, a child who serves as go-between, a militant but soft-spoken organizer, a self-important bureaucrat, a power-mad pair of good-cop-bad-cop interrogators, etc. Perhaps with more resources Sambizanga could have shouldered a larger scope and further fleshed out the context of the days before the war for the benefit of international audiences, but despite its limitations it is an important revolutionary work deserving of a DVD release.

Major Directors:
Sarah Maldoror

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Film Atlas (Algeria): The Battle of Algiers

Country: Algiers
Film: The Battle of Algiers / La Battaglia di Algeri (1966)
An early example of the faux-documentary that was convincing enough to have me second guessing on my first viewing, The Battle of Algiers is an intense, realistic and brutal look into atrocities on both sides of the French-Algerian War. The film opens with a raid on a resistance cell and jumps back and forth between operations conducted by the National Liberation Front and French occupying forces, both of which race to the bottom in accusing each other of being unadulterated evil in order to justify ever-escalating war crimes. Neither side pays much heed to mounting loss of innocent lives though in The Battle of Algiers ‘innocent lives’ is, perhaps, a contradiction in terms. The NLF use child assassins and suicide bombings to press for an independence they can’t achieve short of violence. The French use torture and violent oppression, because fighting against terrorism requires special measures. Propaganda and platitudes are poured forth. The camera tries tirelessly to parse the truth. Both sides are fervent, fearless, certain that they are fighting for right. Through a cross-section of characters on trajectories of violence and death we see the widening spiral of suffering engendered by the contradictions of colonialism.

The Battle of Algiers was highly controversial, even banned for five years in France, but its unpopular politics, refusing to justify either the left or the right (or in the eyes of some, justifying both), and its bold aesthetics, reproducing the rawness and immediacy of a newsreel, have remained influential ever since. Although this is one of the earliest and best films about asymmetrical combat, insurgency and counterinsurgency and the genesis of modern terrorism, it's most profound message may be in its timeless acknowledgement of the impossibility of a moral high ground during war.

Director Gillo Pontecorvo is an Italian, but he spent his career spotlighting oppression everywhere from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean and became a standard-bearer of the budding Third Cinema movement. For an Algerian-directed film, I recommend Chronicle of the Years of Fire (1975), a grandly-staged historical epic which covers the radicalization of a drought-stricken farmer in the decades leading up to Algerian independence, effectively serving as a prequel to The Battle of Algiers that frames the conflict in a wider historical context.

My Favorites:
The Battle of Algiers
Chronicle of the Years of Fire

Major Directors:
Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Film Atlas (Albania): Slogans

Country: Albania
Title: Slogans / Parullat (2001)
Andrea, a biology teacher, is sent to a secluded schoolhouse only accessible by a series of winding mountain roads during the waning throes of Hoxhaism (an extremist flavor of Marxism named after Albania’s long-serving dictator Enver Hoxha). Upon arrival he is mystified by the strange significance that everyone places on his choice of slogans. Diana, the school’s French teacher, angrily explodes after his selection, but his classroom of children, unwilling to begin their first lesson until Andrea shares his answer, are overjoyed by its brevity. It turns out that each class must spell out the slogans by arranging whitewashed rocks into giant letter on the neighboring mountain slopes for the benefit of the infrequently passing drivers. The task is tedious, laborious and pointless (the phrases, for example “American Imperialism is a Paper Tiger,” mean nothing to the villagers, many of whom are illiterate anyway), but since it is the town’s sole mark of distinction within the regional communist party, it has become the central fixation of the school and a tool for the principal’s petty manipulations and private grudges. 

Andrea, keeping his wry disdain to himself, submits to the empty ritual while making friends with Diana, the children and their parents, including a simple-minded goatherd. The latter man’s animals accidentally trample a slogan and he is jailed by a vindictive crank. The most far-flung of the local farmers gets in trouble for a slogan cheering Vietnam to victory which, unbeknownst to him, is ten years obsolete. Andrea and Diana enter into a romantic relationship but they are exposed by jealous rivals. Andrea is sentenced to hard labor for, among other crimes, failing to clap enthusiastically enough when a party official drives by, a much anticipated and loudly heralded event that provides the film’s mordant anti-climax.

If you’ve ever been forced to endure ideological drudgery, whether it’s reciting or rewriting a school rule, a religious catechism or a corporate mission statement, you’ll appreciate what Slogans is about. But Slogans is, fortunately, a much more extreme example than most of us will ever encounter. It’s somewhat reminiscent of other normal-person-arrives-in-deranged-town movies (The Wicker Man, Wake to Fright, Who Can Kill a Child?), but with the focus placed on the tyranny of the small-minded and use of repetitive, menial labor as a mechanism for brainwashing. It understands that the terror of life under a corrupt government isn’t always the direct threat of violence so much as the insinuating passive-aggressive exercise of authority, the combination of strict rules with arbitrary enforcement and the soul-destroying reiteration of your own powerlessness. In this way, the stone mottos aren’t effective propaganda because of what they say or even because of their overbearing size, but because making someone spend time and energy constructing them tricks the person into taking the idea of slogans seriously. It introduces that first token act of obedience, even if it’s just to avoid unnecessary conflict, which allows a person to begin accepting their own oppression. Andrea is ultimately a victim of this dehumanizing process. He is an interesting character because, though he is handsome and likable and we root for his romance and his positive influence on the students, he’s no rebel and no hero. His knowing smile and good intentions aren’t enough to fight the system. Ultimately he finds it easier to submit. While this makes Slogans a rather depressing, down-tempo, anti-inspirational film, it’s probably one of the more honest portrayals of the average person’s experience under dictatorship.

My Favorites:
The Forgiveness of Blood

Monday, January 27, 2014

Film Atlas (Afghanistan): Osama

Country: Afghanistan
Film: Osama (2003)
Osama, despite the unfortunate title, has little to do with Afghanistan's notorious Taliban leader. Instead, it is the story of girl living in Afghanistan whose mother, a war-widowed nurse, disguises her as a boy so that she can earn an income for the family. Under the fundamentalist regime women are not allowed to work and this desperate measure is their last resort. While initially successful, the ruse becomes unsustainable when Osama is forcibly enlisted into a training camp where she must learn the Koran, military basics and ablutions. The latter, which requires her to remove her clothes, threatens to reveal her to the boys and men, a crime punishable with the death penalty.

Osama was the first film to come out of Afghanistan since the Taliban's 1996 ban on filmmaking, and it emerges fully-formed, both technically and stylistically mature. The story is tense without letting the potentially sensational premise overwhelm the dire realities of the situation and the movie draws us into sympathy with its lead despite little dialog and little hope of a happy ending. And while Osama's experience is rightly center stage, the political and gender themes are woven inextricably into her fate and would make the film worth watching in their own. Perhaps most surprisingly, for a film that could easily have gotten away with being merely topical, is the craftsmanship involved. There are moments of disconcerting beauty: trucks driving by seen through a figure drawn in the condensation of a glass pane, a blue burqa dragged through mud under the force of a riot hose, the excitement and fear of children scrambling up a lifeless tree.

Introduction to the Film Atlas

Welcome to the Film Atlas!

In brief:

I am going to review a favorite film from 100+ countries.
There will be a new post with a new country and a new film every day.

Countries whose films will be featured, color-coded by decade.
In detail:

Films, for me, have always been a form of exploration. I don’t just mean that they ‘transport us to worlds of the imagination’ (although that too), but that they introduce us to new places, personalities, situations, historical moments and moral dilemmas that can be both fascinating in their novelty and yet startlingly close to home. Movies allow us to virtually travel and vicarious experience, giving us a chance to consider how we would react under other conditions and providing a window into how others think, feel, work, play, express themselves, live and die.

This project, The Film Atlas, is just an extension of my love for exploring through movies. I’ve always been interested in the vastness and variety of international cinema. Perhaps it's partly because, though there is no real substitute for actually travelling abroad, movies are a lot more affordable!

I live smack in the middle of the U.S., which has a passionate, progressive, omnivorous film culture that coexists, paradoxically, with a tendency towards insularity. For a variety of historical, commercial, technological and cultural reasons, the U.S. has played such a dominant role in the development of cinema that many moviegoers, especially domestically, consider Hollywood to be the gold standard, somehow more valuable, important or real than movies made anywhere else. Films made in other countries or by independent studios and individual artists often get labeled as special interest and are written off by popular culture.

It probably goes without saying that I think these films have more to offer!

I started working on this project about two years ago. The idea came to me when I was attending the St. Louis International Film Festival near my home. Each year I try to see at least one film in the festival from a country whose cinema I am totally unfamiliar with. It was getting hard to keep track of so I did what I normally do and compiled a list. It turned out that I’d already seen films from almost 60 countries! The thought occurred to me that I should set a goal of 100. Even better, instead of just seeing the movies, what if I wrote about them?

It sounded like a great idea for one of those highly successful/annoyingly-trendy blogs where someone spends a year eating only foods that begin with B or vows to hug 100 species of cacti. Not that a lot of those projects aren’t fun, but I hope to steer the Film Atlas away from their frequent pitfalls: being too zeitgeisty, arbitrary or self-absorbed. Shoot me a comment or email if you feel I stray. I’ve even, after much vacillation, rejected the seductive roundness of the number 100. I’m now seen at least one movie from upwards of 140 countries, but since I'm only writing about films I can genuinely recommend (there will be very few exceptions), the final count will likely land around 120.

I'll continue to grow the list over time, even after my initial run, so I'd love it if readers chimed in with advice on films from countries I miss.

So how does one pick a single film to represent a whole nation’s cinema? For some countries, like Suriname, Liberia or Samoa, the film I’ve chosen is simply the only one I could find (perhaps even the only one made). For countries with thriving film industries it was harder. I initially set out to identify the “best” movie from each country, but I balked at the idea of writing about so many already well-documented greats like Citizen Kane, The Rules of Engagement or Seven Samurai. Finally acknowledging the inevitability of subjectivity, I instead opted for a more flexible approach: sometimes I wrote about the most critically well-regarded, other times I went with my favorite, or a highly representative film or the most interesting or the most underrated.

For most countries I was not just content to find a movie, I wanted to watch as many candidates as reasonably possible to make a moderately informed selection and to provide a hefty chunk of runners-up. But keep in mind that I didn’t have time to become an expert on anywhere, so don't be outraged if you think I've shortchanged your favorite country. A bit of argument over some selections is to be expected and is part of the fun. I’m curious to hear what you consider to be the best film from A or B or C, so don’t hold back when you disagree.

I'm excited to say that even though I came into this project already loving international cinema and being reasonably fluent in it, I was surprised by how many absolute masterpieces I hadn't yet seen, languishing in under-appreciated corners of the globe. This is easily my most ambitious project to date and my focus on it has probably driven a few of my friends a little nuts. But it has also been my most rewarding writing effort and I hope you enjoy it too!

Here’s a breakdown of the number of films I saw from various countries, which also serves as a very, very rough estimate of cinematic prominence, if you are curious about that type of thing:

1000+: US
300+: France, UK, Japan
100+: Italy, Germany
75+: Russia, Hong Kong, Czech Republic, Canada
50+: South Korea, Australia, Sweden, Spain, China, India
40+: Poland, Iran
30+: Hungary, Denmark, Mexico
20+: Brazil, Belgium, Taiwan, Argentina, Turkey, Ireland, New Zealand, Greece
10+: Serbia, Norway, Austria, Israel, Thailand, Finland, Slovakia, Croatia, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania
6+: Chile, Cuba, Kazakhstan, Switzerland, Ukraine, Colombia, Egypt, Georgia, Indonesia, Peru, Senegal, South Africa, Vietnam
3+: Macedonia, Uruguay, Burkina Faso, Iceland, Ivory Coast, Mali, Singapore, Antarctica, Bangladesh, Ecuador, Lebanon, Lithuania, Mauritania, Mongolia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Slovenia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Tunisia, Venezuela
2: Albania, Algeria, Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Chad, Cyprus, Democratic Republic of Congo, Estonia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Haiti, Honduras, Iraq, Jamaica, Jordan, Latvia, Libya, Malaysia, North Korea, Paraguay, Zimbabwe
1: Afghanistan, Angola, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bhutan, Bolivia, Burundi, Cambodia, Fiji, Greenland, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Madagascar, Moldova, Montenegro, Morocco, Nepal, Nicaragua, Niger, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Suriname, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirate, Uzbekistan, Yemen

Some countries are under-represented relative to their real output for various reasons, like having highly productive and popular cinemas that focus primarily on domestic audiences (India, Nigeria), experiencing a golden age that pre-dated home media (Egypt, Lebanon), suffering from a lack of international distribution/translation (the Baltic states) or some combination of the above. Plus there are my own limitations in terms of tracking things down and managing time and money.

I should also point out that I am using an inclusive definition of nationhood that is not intended to have any particular political significance. For instance, I chose to represent Antarctica, Greenland, Palestine and Hong Kong in the Film Atlas. For older films made when countries had different names or borders, I have "given the credit," so to speak, to what I think is the most accurate modern-day equivalent.

I struggled a lot with the question of how to deal with co-productions, since so many films involve the cooperation of multiple nations. Boiling the complexities of such films down so that I could classify them under a single heading was an expedient I'd rather have avoided, but couldn't. In classifying these films I gave preeminence to the language, setting and subject matter in addition to the nationalities of the director, writer and cast as well as, to a lesser extent, the financing of the film.

For example, I consider films like Hotel Rwanda, The Kite Runner and Memoirs of a Geisha to be American films instead of, respectively, Rwandan, Afghan or Japanese. Likewise, I would classify Waking Ned Divine and Slumdog Millionaire as British instead of Irish or Indian. Not that I would have selected any of these examples for either their ostensible or actual country of origin, but I mention them as the type of things I didn't consider representative indigenous productions. I’d rather highlight films in which the creative voice was of the people who actually live there. That said, a few of my selections (Algeria, Nepal, Venezuela) walk a fine line and are open to debate.

To keep the Film Atlas as interesting as possible I've also striven for variety in other senses beyond nationality. I quickly found certain patterns emerging in researching the great films of various nations. For instance, most countries have their epic national-identity-affirming patriotic war film (either an against-the-odds victory over an invader or a tragic story of martyred heroism), their oft-quoted but notoriously untranslatable low-budget comedy that you simply have to live there to appreciate, and their semi-autobiographical coming-of-age-during-a-time-of-political-change drama. All of these will generally feature a romantic subplot. While each of these genres is represented on this list, I will also be including documentaries, musicals, action movies, science fiction and horror, animation, experimental films and unclassifiable oddities.

I’ve chosen films from every decade from the 1920s onward, although there is a definite bias towards the last two decades (since many countries did not have the means of production and distribution before then) and the 1970s (my admitted favorite decade).

My format will be to include a plot summary and review of one film from each country, along with a list of other recommended films and of prominent directors.

The Film Atlas has two goals:
1) Creating a starting point for anyone interested in international cinema or seeking out landmark movies from a particular country, many of which aren’t widely discussed in English-language resources.

2) I want to get you (yes, you!) interested and excited about at least a couple of these movies. Some of them are rather obscure, so if something sounds good but you have trouble finding it, email me and I’ll try to help!

Lastly, I want to thank all the people who helped with this project whether they knew it or not, especially the many others cinephiles who’ve conducted polls, posted lists or shared their opinions with me, ensuring that I never run out of recommendations to pursue!

The Film Atlas begins today with Afghanistan. Enjoy! I’ll update this table of contents from time to time:

Afghanistan: Osama
Albania: Slogans
Angola: Sambizanga
Antarctica: Crossing the Ice
Argentina: The Swamp
Bahamas: Rain
Belarus: In the Fog
Belgium: All Night Long
Bosnia-Herzegovina: No Man's Land
Bulgaria: The Goat's Horn
Burkina Faso: Yaaba
Cambodia: Rice People
Canada: My Winnipeg
Chile: The Maid
Colombia: Embrace of the Serpent (A Man of Principle)
Croatia: H-8
Cyprus: Akamas
Czech Republic: Case for a Rookie Hangman
Denmark: The Celebration
Georgia: Repentance
Germany: Metropolis
Ghana: The Burial of Kojo (Heritage Africa)
Greenland: Nuummioq
Hong Kong: The Boxer's Omen
Hungary: The Round-Up
Iceland: Jar City
Indonesia: Tiger from Tjampa
Ireland: The Butcher Boy
Ivory Coast: In the Name of Christ
Jamaica: Rockers
Japan: Akira
Liberia: Johnny Mad Dog
Luxembourg: Little Secrets
Macedonia: Before the Rain
Madagascar: Souli
Malaysia: My Mother-in-Law
Mali: Brightness
Mauritania: Timbuktu
Nepal: Himalaya
Netherlands: Turkish Delight
New Zealand: Utu
Nicaragua: Alsino and the Condor
Nigeria: Sitanda
North Korea: Flower Girl
Pakistan: Silent Waters
Palestine: Paradise Now
Philippines: Three Godless Years
Portugal: Tabu
Samoa: The Orator
Saudi Arabia: Wadjda
Senegal: Hyenas
Serbia: Underground
Singapore: Ilo Ilo
Slovakia: The Sun in a Net
South Africa: District 9
South Korea: Mandala
Spain: Raise Ravens
Sri Lanka: The Treasure
Sudan: Tajouj
Suriname: One People
Sweden: The Magician
Switzerland: Alpine Fire
Syria: The Dupes
Tajikistan: Moon Father
Turkey: The Herd
United Arab Emirates: City of Life
United Kingdom: Monty Python and the Holy Grail
United States: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Uzbekistan: Man Follows Birds
Venezuela: Araya
Zimbabwe: The Legend of the Sky Kingdom

Monday, January 13, 2014

Best Films of 2013

2013 was another great year for movies! Although the usual qualifier, that you wouldn't necessarily know it based on the films that received heavy marketing, remains as true as ever. There were only a handful of big-budget blockbuster entertainments that really stood out for me (Gravity, American Hustle), but this was a great year for American independent films (comedies that I actually thought were funny!) and foreign character studies.

Last year I kept holding off on a top films of 2012 post until I'd seen more, resulting in the list never getting done. I'm not going to make the same mistake this year, so expect there to be a few gaps. I did see about 50 2013 releases, but I haven't yet gotten to Her, The Past, The Act of Killing, Beyond the Hills, Dallas Buyer's Club, Captain Phillips, The Wind Rises, The Wolf of Wallstreet, At Berkley and many others.

Anyway, here is my list for 2013:

Runners Up: Wadjda, Side Effects, The World's End, Drug War, All Is Lost, Much Ado About Nothing, Michael Kohlhaas, Blackfish, Europa Report, Ernest & Celestine, Philomena, Frozen, The Place Beyond the Pines, Mud, Death of a Man in the Balkans
20. Room 237 - Sometimes thought-provoking, sometimes hilarious documentary in which five obsessive fans of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining air their opinions, interpretations and conspiracy theories accompanied by film clips, maps and highlighted stills.

19. Neighboring Sounds - Brooding Brazilian mood-piece in which a private security group offers their services to an upscale apartment building. A slow-burning but incredibly tense examination of privacy, security, trust and the psychology of modern (non)communal living.

18. The Hunt - Thomas Vinterberg revisits the theme of child abuse that he first examined in the breakout dogma 95 film Celebration, this time studying the opposite case: a kindergarten teacher accused of improper contact with a young girl. Less angry than his early films, and more nuanced and mature in terms of modulation and theme, this is an issues film that largely dodges the obvious pitfalls and finds its interest factor in both personal and sociological arenas.

17. Inside Llewyn Davis - A melancholy performance-driven Coen brothers snack about a talented but uncharismatic folk singer in the days before Dylan made it cool who finds himself emotionally and occupationally flailing due to a mix of his principles and pettiness. It costars my girlfriend's orange cat.

16. Computer Chess - A latter day mumblecore film covering an artificial intelligence chess competition in the 1980s. Perfectly captures the look, feel and attitude of the era and mines gentle, carefully-observed and increasingly surreal comedy from its socially-awkward milieu.

15. American Hustle  - A goofy heist film in love with the trappings of early 80s and having no end of fun with a top-notch cast (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper) that gains a lot from their mutual chemistry and a sassy script.

14. To the Wonder - Terrence Malick's little-loved follow-up to Tree of Life, tackles smaller-scale themes of love, depression, displacement, alienation and the ebb and flow of relationships, but does so with the same grace and beauty.

13. Before Midnight - The third part in a reliably smart and increasingly mature romantic trilogy that follows an American writer (Ethan Hawke) and a French activist (Julie Delpy). Each installment checks in on the relationship at 9 year intervals (both in real life and in film time). Now middle-aged, they deal with child-rearing, simmering disappointments  and the acceptance of each other's flaws.

12.  Ilo Ilo - Singaporean drama about a crumbling urban family, an unemployed husband, over-stressed wife and trouble-making son who finally begins to bloom after connecting with their newly employed Filipino maid during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Humble and bittersweet. Dark horse winner of the Golden Horse (best Asian film).

11. A Touch of Sin - China's most interesting director, Jia Zhangke, was shockingly not banned by his home government despite making this controversial ripped-from-the-headlines anthology of four contemporary crimes each tied to corruption and the dubious new morality of the China's selectively-booming economy.

10. Frances Ha - A scarcely-employed dancer bouncing between cheap apartments and charming friends in Brooklyn tries to get her life together after her roommate and best friend 'breaks up' with her. The energy, wit and personality of Frances Ha, not to mention Greta Gerwig's lead performance, elevates it far above the mosh pit of indistinguishably quirky aimless twenty-something dramedies that frequently try my patience.

9. The Broken Circle Breakdown - Belgium romantic tragedy about a bluegrass hippy couple that must learn to deal with their love child's cancer diagnosis. Unabashedly emotional and melodramatic in all the right ways, while also featuring great music and cinematography.

8. The Great Beauty  - 65-year-old ex-writer and self-proclaimed king of Rome's nightlife has staked his life on the outside world, the index of "beauties" that includes the natural and the artistic, the sexual and the architectural, the sacred and the grotesque. Succumbing to disappointment, not least with himself, he reflects on a memory from when beauty still stirred him inside.

7. Blue Is the Warmest Color - A long, substantive look at a lesbian teenager's first love, sexual awakening and hard-wrought search for identity. Effortlessly dives into both the shallow and deep end of love's whirlpool of emotions, pleasures and pains without simplifying or trivializing the youth and relative innocence of its characters.

6. Stories We Tell - Canadian actor/director Sarah Polley sets out to learn about her late mother by interviewing her family members and her parent's friends and associates, on one level creating a work on memory, storytelling the inevitable contradictions of multiple narrators, but also suspecting that her mother had an affair and that her real biological father is not the one who raised her.

5. Museum Hours - This virtually unsellable premise, an elderly guard at the Austrian Kunsthistorisches Museum forms a platonic friendship with a Canadian woman visiting a comatose relative, forms the surprisingly satisfying core of this peaceful, heartfelt and rather unassuming meditation on art and life.

4. Wolf Children - A rare anime that takes as its central theme the challenges of raising children, dealing first with their stressful dependence and later with their frightening independence. For Hana, a city-raised college student, it is even harder than most: she must raise her children without a husband or job, living alone in the Japanese backwoods. And also her children are werewolves.

3. 12 Years a Slave - A free African American is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South, where he struggles to survive under the ownership of a variety of men and ultimately to return home to his family. Tough viewing, but the director and his cast (including a star-making performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor) are perfectly in sync. Based on a true story.

2. Gravity - Astronauts Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are making repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope when a cloud of debris from a detonated satellite sweeps past and strands them in EVA suits adrift in orbit. They make a desperate dash between space stations, trying to find a way to land on Earth before their air runs out or their few escape options are shredded to smithereens. The long takes, nonstop tension and awe-inspiring visuals had me almost choking during my first viewing (but in a good way).

1. Upstream Color - Shane Carruth's long-awaited follow-up to 2004's Primer is a visual and auditory masterpiece and an invigoratingly inventive narrative, though it's also a bewildering headtrip that demands an abundance of attention and thought. The story involves orchids, roundworms, pigs, Walden, a hypnotist thief, a sound engineer and a couple whose moods, and perhaps even their entire relationship, is manipulated by an ecosystem of connections they will never fully grasp.  For sheer originality, ambition and near-endless debatability, Upstream Color will stay in my mind for a long time to come.