Is Seeing Believing?

BY STEVE ERICKSON | When a top 10 list gets made, a lot usually gets left out. Many critics restrict their lists to films that played for at least a week in New York. Due to the delays in foreign film releases in the US, half the films on my list were actually made in 2009 or earlier, while I've left off several that will be released here in 2011.

As critic/ filmmaker Dan Sallitt wrote, “It's comforting to think that the critical community sorts through the world's art and brings the really good stuff to international attention, but that process looks more authoritative than it is.”

One particularly striking example of the lag between creation and American viewing was Jean Eustache's 1971 “Numéro Zéro, which received its New York premiere at Anthology Film Archives only in November of this past year. To be fair, the director himself disliked the film. During his lifetime, it was shown only in an edited version.

Some of 2010's best captured what we've lost; others, what never was

A starkly minimalist interview with his grandmother, it showcases Eustache's ability to make fascinating cinema out of little more than conversation. It also addresses the crushing impact of 20th century French history. I wonder if there are any films this good being made now, destined to premiere here in 39 years.

Casey Affleck's “I'm Still Here” doesn't seem to have been taken seriously by anyone — possibly including its director and cast. I would never make any great claims for its vision of stardom as hell. However, the emotions behind its rejection of celebrity ring true, even if they're badly expressed. The film was revealed as a fraud a few days into its release, but close attention to the end credits (as well as Joaquin Phoenix's purported willingness to have himself filmed doing lines of coke and having sex with prostitutes) makes that obvious.

In a different form, its somewhat clunky synthesis of fiction and documentary also powered some of the year's best films. Many people think that “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” directed (with much use of other people's material) by the mysterious British artist Banksy, is a hoax. Clio Barnard's “The Arbor,” which played Tribeca in April and will be released next spring at Film Forum, places the words of real interview subjects into the mouths of actors, reinventing the British tradition of kitchen-sink realism in the process.

Vincenzo Natali's “Splice” was one of the year's queerest films, in every sense of the word. Few people noticed — though academic blogger and film theorist Steven Shaviro wrote about it at length — but I think it's bound for cult fandom. A Canadian-French co-production designed to pass as a Hollywood extravaganza, it bombed in the US, possibly because it's as much about “weird sex and snow shoes,” to lift the name of one book on Canadian cinema, as any Guy Maddin film.

Offering a bisexual, transgender half-human mutant named Dren, brilliantly played by Delphine Chaneac and a ton of CGI, as an anti-hero, it's not exactly LGBT-positive. Like some of David Cronenberg's work, it often seems radical and conservative simultaneously. Yet it's not quite homo- or transphobic. Dren commits some awful acts but emerges more sympathetic than his human parents, a pair of arrested-adolescent scientists with inflated senses of their own coolness who have no business raising a child of any kind, much less creating medical history.

My top picks and those just out of the running follow:

1. ENTER THE VOID (Gaspar Noé): “Enter the Void” isn't without its flaws, particularly its acting and screenwriting, but I'm comfortable calling this French film about the aftermath of a police killing of a young American drug dealer in Tokyo a masterpiece. Few narrative films have pushed so hard at the boundaries of the medium and tried to express the ineffable. Like “Splice,” I suspect it's another cult film in the making.

2. SWEETGRASS (Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor): Bridging the gap between Clint Eastwood and Frederick Wiseman, “Sweetgrass” is the latest elegy for the vanished West. The directors offer up natural beauty alongside a look at the cost of maintaining that wonder, expressed most disturbingly in a profane cell phone rant about a flock of sheep.

3. EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP (Banksy): Documentary, fiction, or somewhere in between, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” looks at the way a street-level, politically charged culture in this case, graffiti art becomes co-opted. Ignorant accusations that modern art is a fraud come a dime a dozen; “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is a rare critique of the art world from a smart insider.

4. WILD GRASS (Alain Resnais): A formalist's delight, “Wild Grass” has been accused of sexism. However, it only indulges its male protagonist's stalker fantasies up to a point and ultimately takes aim at the deadly consequences of male vanity.

5. TOY STORY 3 (Lee Unkrich): Leave it to a children's film to evoke the pathos of aging and growing apart from one's friends.

6. WHITE MATERIAL (Claire Denis): Returning to her birthplace in Africa, Claire Denis provides another look at the fading days of French colonialism. “White Material” works as an allegory about its decadence, yet its characters' pathology also seems individual enough to be real.

7. CARLOS (Olivier Assayas): In his closest approximation of a straightforward genre film yet, Assayas films idealism curdling into cynicism and opportunism in the epic story of an international terrorist. In this five-hour mini-series, made for French TV but distributed theatrically in the US, he manages to find both positive and negative examples of his pet theme, globalization.

8. THE FATHER OF MY CHILDREN (Mia Hansen-Løve): If “Sweetgrass” implicitly laments the decline of the Western, “The Father of My Children” mourns the possible death of the European art film and the producers who made it work, even as its existence and that of the other French films on this list proves that the cinema's still full of possibilities.

9. SPLICE

10. UN LAC (Philippe Grandrieux): Made in 2008, “Un lac” played once at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's “Film Comment Selects” series last February and has no US distributor. Grandrieux's first two films combined seductive experimentation a dense soundtrack, extremes of light and darkness with an off-putting fascination with sexual violence and a sense of morality out of a bad slasher film. Without compromising, “Un lac” is far more approachable.

RUNNERS-UP: “Animal Kingdom” (David Michod); “Boxing Gym” (Frederick Wiseman); “Carmel” (Amos Gitai); “Lourdes” (Jessica Hausner); “Polytechnique” (Denis Villeneuve); “Red Riding: 1980” (James Marsh); “Shutter Island” (Martin Scorsese).

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