Topping this year’s list of the best films (as chosen by international critics and curators), The Act of Killing is unique for being a documentary on the prestigious roster (as well as the rare documentary to chime in at number one), but its selection isn’t all that surprising given the flavor S&S’s lists usually take on. Decidedly international without a comedy in sight (or, you know, sound), it’s much stranger to see a Hollywood blockbuster amongst its ranks. But Gravity has pulled it off — grossing beyond $600M worldwide and earning the S&S street cred.
Not to say that it’s an impossible feat, but within the past few years only a few mainstream/Hollywood studio films have made it to the top ten. If an American picture breaks through, it’s typically from Focus Features or Wes Anderson or both. For a hint of recent context, the last studio project on the year-end list was The Social Network (2010). Before that, Up and Inglourious Basterds (2009) shared the space as did There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage counts, right?) and Wall-E (2008). In fact, Pixar retreating into sequels and prequels seems to have had a direct effect on how many studio movies are featured.
- The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/U.K./Norway/Germany/Finland/Sweden/Netherlands/Poland
- Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron, Mexico/U.S.
- Blue Is the Warmest Color, Abdellatif Kechiche, Belgium/Spain/France
- The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino, France/Italy
- Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach, Brazil/U.S.
- A Touch of Sin, Jia Zhangke, China (tied for 6th)
- Upstream Color, Shane Carruth, U.S. (tied for 6th)
- The Selfish Giant, Clio Barnard, U.K.
- Norte, the End of History, Lav Diaz, Philippines (tied for 9th)
- Stranger by the Lake, Alain Guiraudie, France (tied for 9th)
The thing is, the Sight & Sound voters tend to follow specific names — like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Clio Barnard and Mike Leigh — while celebrating newer voices like Shane Carruth and Peter Strickland. It’s one list with a very particular point of view, but it’s still easy to feel the rise of international niche cinema through its lens. The typical entrant has at least two countries of origin (Killing boasts Denmark, UK. Norway, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Netherlands and Poland).
It’s either an oasis win for studio filmmaking, a reminder that there are plenty of other places to find moving cinema or both. Probably both, but at the very least it’s amusing (if not at all surprising) that even Alfonso Cuaron’s big budget mega-blockbuster lists both the US and Mexico for its origin. Thank Alan Smithee for increased access and the proliferation of streaming, right? Because the largest lesson here is one that stems from a simple fact about the incredibly diverse field comprising the list: we’ve heard of them all. The lesbian romance drama from France, the violent anthology from China, the pig-loving indie from the US. Gravity may be the only Hollywood movie on the list, but it’s nowhere near the only broadly visible one. Nor the only one we can find on a digital shelf. That’s a beautiful thing.