The Best Films of 2010: 20-11

January 17, 2011

And so begins the preamble to the countdown of the best films of 2010, in which the biases, vagaries, and merit of such lists are briefly commented upon in an effort to apologize for the choices and divert attention from the fact that these things are compiled for no other reason than the fact that they are fun to do.  It also allows me to point out that these things are always Of The Moment and so, in a few years time when I look back and wonder “what the hell was I thinking?” I can save myself the embarrassment of (not-so) youthful folly.  Without further ado, here is a countdown of disclaimers:

VI). Eligibility: I’ve lived in two different countries this year, and because of differing release dates, I saw some films considered in the US to be from 2009 in 2010 and, in the case of Fish Tank, a film considered to be from 2010 in the US in 2009.  I have decided, in the interest of relevance, to only count films I saw for the first time in 2010 that had a 2010 release date in the US.  This excludes film festival premieres.  So Fish Tank would probably have been around number 11 but I excluded it.  Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans would also have made the cut as it premiered in the UK in 2010 and that’s when I saw it, but it already appeared on lists last year so I’ve excluded it as well.  It probably would have been around…17?

V). Multiple Films Counting as a Single Entry: A breakdown of the year in terms of trends is interesting but not as fun as a straight up list. The line between fantasy and reality, both in fiction and ostensibly non-fiction films was a big thing this year, and I’m sure I’ve read at least three other year-end roundups that discuss it. Still, I’m cheating a bit on two of the entries because I feel there are things about those films that fit together and are worthy of comment as some of the best things of the year.  Perhaps it’s best to think of each one as half a film deserving of recognition, so we’re still at an even twenty.

IV). The Privilege of the Recent: I’m afraid that I, like Academy voters, have fallen prey to short-term memory.  A good number of the list I have only seen in the past month or so.  It’s down to a combination of factors, including being broke for a good part of the year and accessibility.  So a note to filmmakers:  If you want your film to be considered for next year, make sure you get it up on Netflix Instant.  The chances of inclusion will increase considerably.

III.) The Issue of Longevity: I’ve always liked the notion of Pauline Kael’s “see a film only once” mantra, but unfortunately I’m not a tenth as intelligent and perceptive as she was.  Any film is worth watching once, and any good one deserves to be seen twice.  I have only seen three of the movies on this list more than once, and in the case of one of them, it shot up the ranking considerably because of that second viewing.  So this is the part I where cover my tracks as far as looking back on this list in a few years time.

II.) The Variable Criteria: I’ll cop to the fact that there is no real way I’m defining “best” here.  Some are important, some are really well made, some are classically appealing and others are just damn interesting.  It isn’t fair to compare a light-hearted Hollywood comedy to an abstract arthouse meditation on colonialism, but so what?  Lists are silly, pointless, and trivial anyway.

I.) The Human Element: I have not seen a vast majority of the films released this year, obviously, but I’ve also missed out on some of the end-of-the-year list heavy hitters like 127 Hours, Somewhere, Let Me In, Vincere, Sweetgrass, Another Year, Never Let Me Go, and Dogtooth. We work with what we can though, and I needed to draw a line under 2010 at some point.

20.  Easy A and Winter’s Bone

Easy A is an unremarkable on a number of levels.  It is visually uninteresting, virtually every teenage character is one-note and not particularly well acted, and the finale suggests that the screenwriters were absolutely bereft of ideas on how to bring its trifle of a story to a conclusion.  Thankfully, Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson, and Thomas Haden Church bring a welcome comedic sturdiness to shore up the edges and give Emma Stone all the room she needs to raise the film from the dustbin of mediocre comedies into the freshest, most enjoyable Hollywood teen comedy of te year.  It’s not easy to carry a film, and certainly not a comedy at that, but she makes it look effortless.

Winter’s Bone is a noirish American Indie about a girl looking for her father in the backwoods of the Ozarks.  It never has the full conviction of its premise, opting to be neither a straight-up thriller nor a sensitive portrait of a certain strata of society.  John Hawkes is great as Teardrop, but Jennifer Lawrence is particularly spectacular as Ree.  She is surrounded by a gallery of grotesques but never loses her resolve or her basic humanity.  Again, it is no mean feat to carry an entire film, but she single-handedly raises Winter’s Bone from its poor-porn, gawking tendencies to a highly watchable character portrait.

19.  Piranha 3D

A purer, sunnier example of campy trash fun you are not likely to see again until possibly the sequel, Piranha 3D (for it must always be in 3D) is as aggressively stupid as they come.  The relish with which everyone involved played their part in the absurd horror tale of an ancient species of man-eating fish being released into a Spring Break resort town is infectious.  As the fish tear away and the heroes are being heroic off screen, it’s the panicking crowds that get the most attention.  The glee with which director Alexandre Aja turns scantily clad party animals into chum is delightful until it isn’t.  For all the absurd fun, the central attack on the reveling hordes is lingered on just that much too long.  All of a sudden it isn’t as fun anymore, and the stomach begins churning and the wincing begins.  About the time the girl’s long blonde hear is caught in a propeller, pulling the skin of her face clean off, you’ve had enough.  You get what you pay for so how do you like it?

18.  Blue Valentine

One loathes using words like “raw” and “fearless” when it comes to describing an actor’s showcase that is essentially designed to allow performers to demonstrate exactly those qualities, but Blue Valentine earns those clichéd descriptors.  The visual style is hardly groundbreaking (close, claustrophobic, video for the present and 16mm for the flashbacks), but it is still effective.  Michelle Williams, not to take anything away from her costar Ryan Gosling, is astonishing in her range of frustration, pain, and despair.  Juxtaposed with the current breakdown, the early days of the relationship transcend their twee, indie meet-cute signifiers to become about the yearning for the past when the present is falling apart.  Both and neither are at fault at the same time, and as film goes to great pains never to take sides, each scene adds new facets to the characters and new clues to the reasons behind their troubles.  Of course, anybody who has been in this situation knows that there is no reason.  The fleeting nature of love is a mystery with no solution, and it’s rarely so painfully, honestly, and beautifully expressed in American cinema as it is here.

17.  The Ghost Writer

It’s been a rough year for Roman Polanski, but the off-camera action matters not a jot when considering the quality of The Ghost Writer.  Telling that a director that peaked in the 70s has made a film that belongs to that tradition, but not in a bad way.  Modern, flashy techniques are not always as effective as the seemingly outmoded classical effect.  Tight editing, stark framing and an eerie atmosphere are just as effective at portraying paranoia as they were in the heyday of Pakula. A bewitching performance by Oliva Williams (all calm, resigned and sexual), a dash of current affairs, and of course the note passing scene and That Ending give the modern thriller a much needed shot in the arm with old school skill.

16.  Toy Story 3

An enjoyable romp with old friends that’s also a meditation on death, Toy Story 3 is the perfect swansong to the franchise that started the greatest studio of the past fifteen years.  Never content to satisfy the fans with nostalgia, Pixar throws Woody, Buzz, and all the rest into a crisis of faith and being that culminates in a terrifying face-off with a furnace of hell-fire.  Jesse’s glance to Buzz and the holding of hands is one of the most beautiful images of the year as old friends prepare to face the inevitable with noble dignity.  It doesn’t work out that way, of course, but the moment is real.  The final grace note with the now grown-up Andy is more than earned:  it’s appreciated.

15.  True Grit

Any notions that the Coen Brothers are capable of a ‘minor work’ are quickly dispelled in True Grit.  Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn is almost mythical but never overwhelming thanks to the shift in focus to the little girl Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, deserving of awards contention in any other year).  Even Matt Damon’s goofy LaBoeuf is given uncharacteristic depth.  The action scenes are organized and exciting.  The ending fever-dream gallop is both jolting and fitting.  The film is so entertaining that you don’t even notice how much you’ve begun to care.  It’s also as funny as any straightforward comedy released this year.

14.  Four Lions

The television and radio work of Chris Morris never suggested he had any place in long-form filmmaking.  He was always best with short, contained sketches of biting satire, and dare I say he’s never had to develop a single character beyond their single, immediate purpose.  Sure, when word got out he was making a comedy about suicide bombers, everyone smirked and shook their heads.  “Oh, that Chris”, they thought.  He always had a remarkable ability to understand the insanity of the mass public psyche, so how that would translate to a very specific type of individual was anyone’s guess.  Indeed, the provocateur could hardly choose a better or more tasteless subject with which to make his feature directorial debut, and some of us braced for the worst.  What a surprise then to find his understanding of standard comedy tropes almost matches his satirical savvy.  Moronic caricatures surround a reasonably intelligent but still incompetent cell leader as they strive to kill themselves for their cause.  Remarkably effective slapstick ensues, all the while suggesting that gullibility and circumstance are sometimes all it is needed to create what politicians and the news like to dub “pure evil”.  As the absurd climax plays out, the joke isn’t funny anymore, and it shouldn’t be.  Those moronic characters are likeable enough that their tragedy is felt, despite the horrific nature of their crimes.  When a character marches, resigned, into a chain store pharmacy out of desperation and as a small tribute to his friend, it is sad and pathetic.  And he knows it.

13.  Greenberg

Greenberg is what the mumblecore genre should be, and I don’t say that just because Greta Gerwig is in it.  Films about listless indie 20 year-olds in Brooklyn or Austin are all well and good, but Greenberg is aiming to get underneath what many of those characters will be in 15 years time.  It’s a damning exploration of the dangers of the emerging adulthood trend that’s been developing since the Gen Xers of the early 90s.  Ben Stiller’s Greenberg has held onto his childish ideals and they have only made him bitter and alone.  He turned down a record contract in his younger days out for fear of being labeled a sell-out and he’s never moved past it.  Society doesn’t function the way he believes it ought to, and as a result he has refused to compromise and meet the rest of the world half way.  His constant digs and ironic asides might have seemed clever once, but they’re sad and pathetic now, pointing more towards his own failings then those of the people he mocks.  It’s honest and painful, and it would have been too much were it not for Gerwig’s performance as the sweet but broken love interest and, perhaps most important of all, Rhys Ifans as an understanding old friend.  He provides a heartbreaking emotional counterpoint to Greenberg’s endless self-important misery.  Greenberg is a fantastic, sadly relatable, and timely character study that moves beyond indie navel-gazing.  Oh, and the cinematography is wonderful.  Joe Swanberg could learn a thing or two.

12.  How To Train Your Dragon

The state of cinema, especially animated children’s entertainments, is such that a simple story well told is uncommon enough to warrant special praise, and How To Train Your Dragon is certainly worthy.  Toy Story 3 might be a more mature work in regards to larger themes and subtext, but it also has the benefit of being a franchise that is near and dear to many people’s hearts.  Dragon is a film that shouldn’t have been any good, coming from the studio it comes from and featuring the story that it does.  Sometimes, however, things work out better than expected, and the sheer joy of being surprised by something is enough to elevate the experience of movie watching to a level that an anticipated masterpiece has difficulty matching.  The lack of snark and the honesty of character are too often missing from modern animation, and because of that, something so traditional can seem utterly revolutionary in its own quiet way.  Add to that excellent voice acting by (another surprise) Jay Baruchel and, of course, those striking visuals aided by Roger Deakins’ consulting.  Simple and clean can go a long way, but throw in some epic visuals and a real feeling of freedom and wonder, and you’ve got something really special.

11.  Mother

Beginning with a bizarre shot of an older woman walking through a field and then bursting into a strange dance, Mother quickly establishes its heightened tone.  Such absurdities are interesting, but it is only in the final, glorious shot that the meaning of that particular dance resonates.  Everything in between is pretty wonderful in Joon-Ho Bong’s mystery about a mother (Hye-ja Kim) working tirelessly to clear her son (Bin Won) from the charge of murder.  That heightened tone means it can go anywhere, and as it deftly moves from comical interludes with a would-be lawyer to straightforward thriller tensions involving a knocked-over bottle of water (a motif that proves startlingly resonant), we never lose the feeling that we’re in the safe hands of a director who knows what he’s doing.  Anchoring all of this is Kim’s performance, who takes the cliché of the shrill, overprotective mother and imbues it with a lived-in humanity.  As the past as well as the present are revealed to be not quite what we expected, we’re treated to a memorable altercation at a funeral, suspenseful hijinks involving a mobile phone, and one of the finest interrogation scenes of recent years.  It all builds to a climax that is at turns tragic and ridiculous, and always sublime.

-M

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