This is my list of favorite films that I had the chance to see from 2010. There are many I did not see (but I still probably saw more movies than you did). With the exception of Inception and The Social Network (which I have seen twice), all of these words are based on first impressions.
Feel free to leave a comment, if you approve, disapprove, or otherwise have something to say. Thanks.
The ubiquitous “Top Ten”:
The American (US)
George Clooney brings his Michael Clayton face (crossed with a little Alain Delon) to this European styled character study. Those anticipating a Hollywood-type action movie were sorely misled by the previews I saw. Knowing this is Anton Corbijn, I knew to expect something else entirely – like a slow pace and focus on atmosphere. The beauty of this film is in the visuals and in the things left unsaid. Everything about Clooney’s character is conveyed without dialogue. Everything he is thinking in the last act of the picture is spoken with his face. Enjoy the cinematography and the tension not forced on you by music. While the relationship with the priest is severely undeveloped and there is room for other minor quibbles with the intentionally vague backstory, I enjoyed this much more than I expected. And within the confines of this film, Violante Placido is (made to be) one of the most beautiful women alive.
Black Swan (US)
This film is as awesome as the craziness you allow yourself to enjoy. I personally thought it was decently serious (though obviously trashy on purpose), though apparently it’s supposed to be borderline camp for people who can’t handle it. I keep saying It’s like if David Cronenberg or Satoshi Kon directed a mashup of Persona and The Red Shoes. That’s the only way I know how to describe it. I know zero about ballet, but the film is, in a way, trying to restage the story of Swan Lake with the characters in the film while also being about those characters acting in the same story. That is an impressive meta-task, even if you think it a failure. For me, the movie is about the emotional process of an artist (over)committing to their work. Which is why I think it is resonating with a lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily admit to “liking” the movie. If the ending doesn’t work for you, in the moment, then you will disagree with me and that’s fine.
This is Philip Ridley‘s third film; his first since 1995 (he has been busy writing plays and children’s books). This movie has so much wrong with it from an objective standpoint, but it is ambitious. I choose to embrace the latter. Yes, it may seem disjointed at times, but on the whole, its uniqueness is, well, unique. I am a biased fan of Ridley’s over-absurdities and his penchant for particular obsessions creeping back into his work (The Devil, crocodiles, morally ambiguous children, etc.). This is a fable of sorts, so it is broad and recognizably derivative. But the way in which it is told is the impressive part. Flailing back and forth between horror thriller, sappy family drama, and coming-of-age story, most of what I have to say about it makes it sound daft (it probably is on the face of things). Too bad; I loved it. Jim Sturgess gives an amazing performance. I had no idea what was going to happen the entire time I was watching it AND I wanted to see what happened next. That is a rare thing these days.
Too much has been written about this film elsewhere and I have had conversations about it that I’d rather not have to summarize here. Suffice to say, whether you think this is merely “Michael Mann on steroids” with clunky expositional dialogue and horribly written (female) characters or the greatest cinematic Penrose staircase ever committed to celluloid (well, since Primer at least), you have to admit that this being the highest grossing non-sequel/remake of the year is a much better sign for the future of Cinema than, well, take your pick. Regardless, the film stands as a pinnacle of thinking spectacle for, at least, this past year. Even if it doesn’t lead anywhere, I like a movie that wants me to think. Even if it repeatedly screams at me in nearly every scene to do so.
Io sono l’amore / I Am Love (Italy)
A grand, hyperbolical gesture of emotion sweeping magnificently across the psyche. Family, food, architecture, sex, music, and lush Italian landscapes. Escape from all the trappings of the bourgeoisie and find freedom freely felt.
Tilda Swinton + John Adams + Italy = Love
Kynodontas / Dogtooth (Greece)
I’ve written about this film on the site already. It is a truly unique feature about the perversions of isolationism, the trappings of family, and the unstoppable force of individual curiosity. It would be misleading, like a lot of its promotional material, to label this film as “hilarious”. It is a satire of sorts with black comedy elements, but to not take it seriously would be a mistake. This is clearly the work of a filmmaker who is not intent on making a normally conventional story. Rewarding for those that have the patience, I suppose.
Shi / Poetry (South Korea)
Lee Chang-Dong has made some amazing films (Oasis is a personal favorite). This one has a lot to say without being very loud about it. It is a great commentary on aging, family dynamics, and male-dominated culture in South Korea. It is also argues for the place of poetry in everyday life, while being in itself an emotional poem about life in general. Coincidentally, like last year’s Mother (also from Korea), the film contains perhaps the best (elder) female performance of the year. It is a film about wandering, forgetting, remembering, and seeing familiar things again for the first time. Simply amazing and crushingly heartfelt.
The Social Network (US)
This is not supposed to be a “big” movie. I feel that, with all the hype about its focus on Facebook, people will miss out on the point of the film. It has as its subject, as it attests, the chronicling of the creation of a tool that may have the biggest generational social impact of our time. It is a rather distanced reenactment of what allegedly transpired, based on the surely biased recollection of those consulted. What makes this movie both better than the average non-fic bio-pic and not quite a great film is that it really isn’t about the real people involved at all. The film has plenty to say about (the lack of) relationships between people. This is, as they say, the crux of the film: no one involved in creating the online social network really has all that much use for it. The Social Network is not just about Facebook as an entity, it is about the function of something like Facebook as it compares to the reality of actual human social networks (whether it be an elite university, the music industry, or the realm of Law). The quality of this film is judged on whether or not this depth comes across satisfactorily to the viewer while Mark Zuckerberg (and by extension Jesse Eisenberg‘s deceptively nuanced performance) remains a cipher throughout. In the end, the film may just simply (yet successfully) be about living with the consequences of what it means to be an asshole (real or perceived or possibly both).
I wrote a little bit about this film on the site already, though even in trying to stay spoiler-free I think I probably gave away too much. If you thought the structure of Inception was the most awesomely complex thing you’ve ever seen, you might want to cheek out this horror flick. Bad stuff happens on a boat. And then it happens again. And then, well, that’s all I’m going to say about it.
Winter’s Bone (US)
This film could have turned out all sorts of ways. Especially after reading the novel (an accomplished, short, lyrical MFA styled exercise on atmosphere and cadence shrouded in some sort of hybrid backwoods-noir structure), the outcome is that much more impressive. The film takes a simple story and brings it to life in a way that is at once both immediate and a bit anthropological. I’ve never been to the Ozarks, so I have no way of even attempting to judge this movie based on authenticity. I responded to the emotional authenticity of the acting (Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes stand out among a superb ensemble of actors). And, of course, the film says a lot about (our current) America in ways that many contemporary films fail to acknowledge: there are entire communities in these so-called United States that live outside the world created and supported by “Us”. In a way, this film is the antithesis of what is being lauded about The Social Network. Winter’s Bone is, in a way, about the flipside of this so called “digital age”, where the options people may have once had no longer remain and family is the only currency left to provide for one’s survival.
….And another ten because there are too many to choose from:
Animal Kingdom (Australia)
This is a film about a family of bank robbers where bank robberies are not the focus; this is a study of what it means to be trapped by one’s own environment. It might be worth mentioning that a good portion of modern Australia is historically decedent from displaced criminals who have, in terms of natural selection, evolved through a battle between intelligence and brute force. The metaphor used here is Cops and Robbers as a cycle of human ecology; the strong survive and the weak latch on to the strong.
Burning Bright (US)
A woman and her autistic younger brother are trapped in a boarded up house during a hurricane with Bengal tiger (Garret Dillahunt buys the tiger from an uncredited Meatloaf for what he calls a Safari Park). Yes, this is probably the most ridiculous sounding premise for a feature film, but it holds up. A pure exercise in effects and editing. I am putting this on the list, because, as a thriller, it overcomes the low expectation one would assume going into it.
City Island (US)
I don’t really like Andy Garcia as an actor, so making me forget this is a feat in and of itself. This is a quirky family dramedy that seems to effortlessly build to one of the most hilariously cathartic screwball-like endings of the year. It is specific to the writer-director’s specific childhood locale in The Bronx, NY. It is a light hearted family film for families that already acknowledge their R-rated craziness.
Surprisingly meditative pseudo bio-pic of Charles Darwin‘s health and family problems around his creation of On The Origin of Species. The film tackles some big ideas about religion, faith, science, obsession, and guilt without being too heady or polemical. It is a solidly well-made film that is not really about the historical figure, but rather about exploring the possible mindset involved in creating the ideas responsible for our modern scientific view of, well, everything.
The King’s Speech (UK/Australia/US)
Ignoring the problematic historical revisionism of the film (like its alleged whitewashing of the so-called Nazi sympathies within the Germanic Royal Family at the time), I think part of the reason The King’s Speech is getting so much praise (aside from it being supported by the Weinstein Company‘s hugely influential marketing machinations), is that it is a film that reinforces its performances with (sometimes not-so-subtle) visual cues that big Hollywood could only ever hope to get out of its 3-D spectacles. It finds the right balance between being too transparent and too oppressive in the ways it, say, frames the screen space when Colin Firth is playing feelings of powerlessness or isolation. Or the way the edit hovers around Geoffery Rush in times of self-doubt. The combination of its underdog triumph over adversity theme with our curiosity with the grandiosity of the Royal Family makes this an interesting character study. It effectively tries to humanize greatness (inherited or otherwise) and insinuates that we all are better off because even the voice of a repressed stutterer can change the world for the better. So, yes, intellectually it is a bit condescending, but the film belongs on a list like this one because it successfully manipulates us into believing what it wants us to believe. And I’m fine with that.
Mr. Nobody (Canada/Belgium/France/Germany)
This film could easily be labeled as a failure. It is way too long and made next to nothing of its huge budget back (by independent feature standards). That’s too bad, because there is so much amazingness within this film that I can overlook its (many) problems. I like to think that ambitious failures are still often better than mediocre successes.
The film revolves around a man named Nemo Nobody (played by Jared Leto) and his completely unreliable recollections of his life as a 118 year old man in the year 2092. The storylines follow three (?) distinct paths that diverge from particular decisions or actions made at certain points in his life with three different woman. We follow all of these different possibilities as if they all happened, all the while being bombarded with the idea that he could see some of these possible futures from a young age ahead of time. And there’s a lot of overly detailed special-effects assisted visualizations, including some short physics lectures (in character) that explain the ideas behind the possibilities of temporal dimensions in space and such. This is simply one of the most unique movies I have seen in a long time, by a clearly gifted filmmaker. It’s almost as if the lack of coherency in the film is whimsically intentional. To quote a central line in the film: “As long as you don’t choose, everything remains possible.”
Paper Man (US)
This one might seem too “cute” for some people. It certainly displays some of the Sundance type indie-film cliches. However, at its core, it is a very earnest film about what it means to be consumed by childhood ideals and the benefits of the platonic relationships (imaginary and otherwise) that can help in coming to terms with the real world disappointment of their having to eventually die out. Jeff Daniels plays a clearly troubled, yet naively cooky, unsuccessful writer in a way that other actors could have disregarded the complexity of. Though she is more well known for this year’s Easy A, this is the movie that clearly defines Emma Stone as a young actress worth taking note of. The film maintains a balance between quirky (perhaps sometimes unlaughable) comedy and nearly too dark emotionalism. I was not expecting such honest characterizations. Maybe if I see it again it won’t hold up as well, but it’s on the list now…
Red Riding: In The Year Of Our Lord 1974 (UK)
This trilogy is amazing work (three interconnected television films from three distinct directors based on four novels by David Peace), but I chose the first installment as to not cheat the numbers. I actually quite like this film as a standalone, as the second seems a bit too controlled and the third a bit too insular for my liking. For the sake of descriptive comparison, this is a bit like Britain’s answer to David Fincher’s Zodiac (at least in tone and palette). Though this has much more to do with the internal police corruption of the time than the actual murder(s) involved. Set around the real-life Yorkshire Ripper phenomenon and adjacent cases of missing children during this near decade of time spanned by the films, this particular installment focuses on a journalist (Andrew Garfield) beginning the investigation and his involvement with the mother of one of the missing girls (Rebecca Hall). The level of detail here is intricate, but it is displayed in such obscurity that there is no conventional plotline or thriller aspect to the structure of the story. The pacing is slow and the connections made are not easily spelled out for the audience. Much of what happens is displayed without indications as to where we are going or what is actually important to follow. This can be frustrating, but it is meant to be so as we are propelled through the madness.
Shutter Island (US)
I’ve written about this elsewhere on the site, it having been one of the first movies I saw in the theater in 2010. Martin Scorsese elevates this material in a way that makes it both great cinema and about great cinema. He puts the horror thriller genre on display as a freak of nature to be dissected and awed upon. This is the work of a master filmmaker that begs to be applauded. It just so happens to deserve every bit of that applause.
Both perversely horrific and parodic, this film rides the line between serious scientific social commentary and playful genre-bending camp. It kind of seems like a remake of an unmade Cronenberg movie from the 80’s (though maybe this is just because it’s Canadian). Given a wide enough release to disturb people into dismissing it, it is clearly only for meant for fans of the sci-fi horror. Count me in.
And a special confoundedness award for movies that I enjoyed thinking about more than actually watching:
I have already written about Somewhere on the site here. I will have to see the film again before making any kind of coherent personal judgment on it. Hadewijch is a frustrating piece of work that has no concern for linear narrative, consequence of characterization, or clear stance on its religiosity, but it seems to contain something worth contemplating. Trash Humpers may not be worth contemplating at all, but it begs you to do something with it, even if that means immediately walking out/turning it off.
If you have any thoughts, please feel free to comment.
Thanks for reading.