Reports of cinema's demise, as it turns out, have been greatly exaggerated. Granted, celluloid is about as dead as the dodo, and delivery systems are in flux (pretty soon, audiences will be as likely to catch the latest Hollywood tent pole streaming on their wristwatches as in a multiplex), but the century-old urge to dream another life within the four edges of a frame, to transmute image and sound into something more potent than either alone, remained refreshingly untrammeled. Given the precarious position of the medium, beholden to the ever-shifting tectonics of finance, it's perhaps unsurprising that many films took the constituent building blocks of their own construction as their theme.
Consider this "The Year of the Image." At the bleeding edge were films that tested the boundaries of the current technology. Making the most of its in-your-face IMAX 3D format, Gravity dazzled with formalist pyrotechnics (even if its narrative beats had whiskers back in D. W. Griffith's day), while other films reserved their fireworks for the funhouse-mirror complexity of their narrative conceits. You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, The We and the I, and Viola all discovered wildly disparate ways to blur lines between performer and performance. Terrence Malick continued his ongoing project of stockpiling miscellaneous imagery for metaphysical recycling in a manner that recalls T. S. Eliot's line: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins."
The commonplace (and altogether understandable) anxiety about imagery's influence cropped up in nonfiction films as well, under the aegis of giving voice to compulsive cinephilia in the age of on-demand ubiquity, where every cine-artifact can be gone over with all the obsessive rigor of the Zapruder film. It also crept into attempts at historical truth and reconciliation, where clearing a space for cold-blooded killers to reenact their crimes could be considered a radical enough sort of performance therapy. At the far horizon where discomfort can degrade into distrust, The World's End crankily suggested that a Dark Ages do-over might be the soundest cure for the viral onslaught of multimedia technologies. No matter how individual films parsed the always mutable relations between image and existence, the undeniable richness and diversity on display demonstrates that the medium still has legs. Budd Wilkins
[Editor's Note: Click here for individual ballots and list of the films that came in 26—50.]
25. Gravity. A key moment early in Gravity solidifies its allegorical underpinnings with guileless ease. Having just revealed the loss of her daughter to lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) gazes across the Earth above which her life hangs by a thread, and in this single shot, Alfonso Cuarón devastatingly contrasts micro and macro visions of human life (and loss) against the emptiness of space from which our protagonists seek refuge. A miraculous fusion of populist spectacle and avant-garde audacity, the film's technical achievements are secondary to its spiritual longing, an implicit layer of this survivor's tale, and one fittingly underscored by the echoes of Maria Falconetti in Bullock's commanding close-ups. The psychological hellfire of her struggle is bolstered by Steven Price's electronic score, which suggests an exploding nebula of emotion, but it's ultimately Bullock's Stone who grounds the film, speaking to our collective fears and comforts with unyielding candor. Gravity's vision of human endurance is simplified, but it's far from simplistic, and those who think otherwise might do well to remember: Dying is easy; it's living that's hard. Rob Humanick
24. You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet. Barely slowing down to celebrate his ninth decade, Alain Resnais follows the sublime derangement of Wild Grass with another extraordinary balancing act of twilight introspection and youthful inspiration. A sense of mortality suffuses You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet from the start, as news of a playwright's demise summon a group of performers—including Michel Piccoli, Sabine Azéma, and Mathieu Amalric, all playing "themselves"—to the late artist's mansion. Yet it's not long before the doleful mood turns vibrant and the actors, faced with their friend's testament (a video recording of the rehearsal for one of his works), find themselves slipping in and out of the characters they've played over the years and the memories they've gathered over their lives. The spaces between past and present and performance and remembrance are familiar ones for the director of Last Year at Marienbad, but they've rarely been contemplated with such playfulness and heartfelt fluidity. Fusing the cinematic and the theatrical into a masterly meta-séance, You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet finds a serenely mischievous Resnais celebrating an art form that can connect us past even the limits of death itself. Fernando Croce
23. The We and the I. A gifted fantasist, Michel Gondry has been most successful when he's grounded his surrealist reveries in a recognizable social reality, which is to say when he's been able to at least partially step outside his own head. While previous efforts like Be Kind Rewind were as much about the coming together of community amid depressed urban circumstances as they were the power of whimsical invention, the director's latest triumph is even more invested in its believably real-world dynamic, even as it largely unfolds in a single, theatricalized space. The product of two years of intense association between the director and a group of Bronx high school students who here play versions of themselves, The We and the I takes place during a long bus ride home from school in which the kids argue, flirt, goof around, and Gondry explores the specifics of a complex social dynamic. As the bus continues on and the numbers of students thin out, artificial barriers drop and the film cannily, movingly reveals the need for human connection that undergirds the restrictive, if necessary donning of public masks. Andrew Schenker
22. To the Wonder. "I'd hoped to never love again," says Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a French single mother who relocates to Oklahoma in order to live with her American boyfriend, Neil (Ben Affleck), in Terrence Malick's To the Wonder. It's a haunted confession of doubt—telling words that imply that there will be a painful expiration date to their whimsical romance. And the film progress along this fated trajectory. Early on, Marina and Neil are lost in each other's presence, as if nothing in this universe could come between their deeply felt connection. But as cinematographer Emmanuel Luzbeki's fluid camera continues to spin around them with the utmost grace, the relationship grows stagnant, like the Midwest landscapes poisoned by pollution that Malick highlights through Neil's occupation as an environmental scientist. Uncertainty is a constant throughout, and yet the film articulates a dizzying sense of reinvention via Marina's final dance on the beach. Here, Malick personifies the idea that happiness is possible when we find peace in the right place, at the right time, and with the right frame of mind. Hers is the transcendence that only happens when one learns to let go. Glenn Heath
21. The Grandmaster. Ip Man may have been the starting point for The Grandmaster, but the legendary martial-arts instructor—himself the subject of a recent cottage industry of Hong Kong films devoted to his life—turns out to be more of an icon standing in for Wong Kar-Wai's thematic fascinations than the main character of his own biopic. The real central figure, in fact, is Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of a rival martial-arts master who, upon her father's murder, devotes her life to the single-minded pursuit of revenge—a quest that not only leads her to a kind of spiritual ruin, but also exposes the futility of the old-fashioned code of honor she had been following, far less fulfilling than Ip Man's more flexible philosophy of living. With its dazzling action sequences and even more impressive emotional and philosophical depth, The Grandmaster is the Hong Kong filmmaker's most vital, dazzling, and profound movie in about a decade, one whose slow-burn pleasures not even the Weinsteins' meddling for its U.S. release could entirely dim. Kenji Fujishima