Best Films of 2010: 10-1

January 24, 2011

For numbers 20-11, go here.

 

10.  Everyone Else

I was briefly tempted to combine Everyone Else with Blue Valentine as their subject matter was so similar, but the reality is I favour one over the other, and neither is so deeply flawed that they don’t deserve their own spot.  Where as Blue Valentine opts for a more brazenly emotional, familiar experience, Everyone Else looks closely – though at something of a distance – at the specific dynamics of a couple.  Valentine is about the two big moments (the beginning and the break-up), whereas Everyone Else examines a relationship over the course of several days.  Instead of looking at the universality of a breakdown, it puts the difficulties of its characters in a very specific time and place.  Modernity is the issue, and to what extent cultural pressures define self-esteem and confidence.  There’s a healthy chunk of a gender studies thesis just waiting to be written about this film, and the ways in which Western culture and its definitions of success and happiness play a role in the gender politics of a relationship.  The setting is a summer holiday on the island of Sardinia; a location exploited both for its bourgeois vacation spots as well as its rough, rocky wilderness.  Both in the villa with friends and out in nature, the male is expected to be the dominant presence.  When self-doubt over his career comes into play, he believes the key to success might be to assert himself and emulate what everyone else is doing.  The drama is occasionally tense but very subtle.  It’s beautifully observed and wonderfully played by Birgit Minichmayr and Lars Eidinger, and though the overarching message might be “don’t change who you are because that’s what is expected of you”, there are enough shades of grey cast about to suggest that it is never as simple as that.

9.  Leo Dreams:  Shutter Island and Inception

The blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy was a big part in cinema – both fiction and ‘documentary’- this year, and two of the most interesting and significant entries helpfully starred Leonardo DiCaprio and also happened to complement each other’s failings and successes.

Shutter Island is Martin Scorsese’s best work in over a decade not because everything is working (it isn’t) but rather he’s using his not inconsiderable talents to explore the most baldly emotional territory he’s attempted in a long time.  The plot is pure hogwash, but the film is the better for it as it frees us up to take in the overwhelming sensory experience of a man crippled by grief and suffering.  The sound and the visuals are mid-century B-movie grabs that thunder and (literally, in some cases) rip apart Teddy’s world.  It’s the dream sequences where the method really shines.  A memory of his wife in his apartment turns to slowly falling ash recalling the flurry of papers doing much the same from his days raiding a concentration camp.  Horrific images are burned into his memory.  The B-movie homage might go a little too far when we’re treated to a superfluous, mood-killing explanation of his psychotic break a la the end of Psycho, but it isn’t enough to ruin the imagery that has come before.

On the flipside of the dream coin, Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Inception is almost the exact opposite.  The story and plot work like a well-oiled machine; gears within gears and boxes within boxes make for one of the most inventive and exciting major Hollywood tentpoles in years.  It is also a little too long, too heavy on exposition, and in contrast to Shutter Island, its emotional arc of grief and loss barely resonates at all.  Still, it’s significant for what it represents, and that’s Hollywood’s ability to occasionally put a lot of trust in a creative personality and, more crucially, the audience’s intelligence.  It’s not a great film (I still see Nolan more of an ideas man than an action director), but it is very good, and as it is an original idea as opposed to a known property or franchise, it is a gamble that paid off.  I’m not naïve enough to believe that this will signal a new boldness in Hollywood executives, but it won’t hurt.

8. Exit Through The Gift Shop

I do not particularly care for Banksy or the entire street art scene, but that doesn’t really matter when it comes to Exit Through The Gift Shop.  Another example of a film veering (possibly) between fact and fiction, it perfectly captures the ridiculous, idiotic mania of a trendy vein of culture in turns amusing, lunk-headed, and annoying.  The real coup here is that it seems to be totally aware of the fact, and though the actual artists (if Mr. Brainwash isn’t real, that is) are treated with some degree of veneration – not least Banksy himself, for this is an exercise is perception control – it has no issues skewering the fans of the work.  The utter absurdity that some of these works are sold for vast sums of money is also a great irony.   If there is any power or meaning to street art, it is the ephemeral nature of it.  Rebellious and illegal, it is symptomatic of the shallowest examples of punk from 1977 London, but it is also designed to disappear.  The moment a work is sold and maintained for posterity it loses its greatest meaning.  It doesn’t hurt that the film is also very entertaining (Mr. Brainwash’s cut of the film is something to behold, and the line about Warhol’s technique of rendering an image meaningless is great).  Whether the events that take place are real or a hoax, the film stands as the perfect document of a movement in art, no matter how loathed it might be.  You can’t ask more of a documentary than that.

7.  I Am Love

Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love owes more than a little to the work of Visconti, but homage (or even blatant lifting) is justified if the end product works as well as this does.  A sumptuous melodrama about a wealthy Milanese family, it takes the matriarchal figure of Emma (Tilda Swinton, playing a Russian speaking Italian that she apparently spoke phonetically), mother of several children to a local captain of industry.  Her outsider status is anathema to the Old World ways of family, and she more or less functions as a dinner party host and family administrator.  The cold, grey opening is starkly contrasted with the later scenes when Emma begins her tryst with the young caterer and inspiring gourmet chef that often works at the family parties.  Often taking place in the small hillside villa her young lover plans to turn into a restaurant, the sun-drenched Garden of Eden idyll is lovingly filmed for all the beauty it has to offer.  It is rarely subtle, and as I said, there is melodrama galore, including succession issues, the future of the family and the company, and a secretly lesbian daughter.  All the while the sad exclusion is emphasized, and one of the greatest and most reliable actresses working today handles every new development and feeling with a rush of excitement or sadness.  It’s a performance that takes hold and never lets go.

6.  Carlos

I do not traditionally care for biopics, especially when they are about a criminal.  They can be interesting and even entertaining at times, but the tendency for the running time to bloat and the general arc of a sexy and thrilling rise to the top and the sad, pathetic descent back down can be tedious.  Faced with a five and a half hour epic about the life of the famed terrorist Carlos, I wasn’t feeling too enthusiastic despite the reviews and the pedigree.  Add to that the recent disappointment of The Baader Meinhof Complex, a film that did not make me too terribly enthusiastic to return to the era of students-turned-Marxist terrorists.  Those baseless fears were dispelled with quickly, as Edgar Ramirez takes control of the screen and New Order’s “Dreams Never End” fills the soundtrack.  Olivier Assayas is less interested exciting the audience with the glamour and excitement of the age of the celebrity terrorist than he is in getting across the glamour and excitement in the mind of Carlos.  A small but extraordinary moment in front of a mirror speaks volumes about who he is and where he’s coming from, and these quick character brushes colour the rest of the not inconsiderable running time.  What’s truly impressive, however, is what it actually says about the era and the politics behind the violence without ever really stopping to lecture.  The revolutionary spirit slowly falls away as the film moves on, with the once anti-Western countries in the Middle East and Africa becoming more and more inclined to get in bed with capitalists.  Carlos and his ego are not immune, and by the time he’s becoming a troublesome pariah to governments that continue to pass the buck his own hedonism and narcissism have long since pushed all of his political zeal out of his system.  Carlos doesn’t reinvent the wheel as far as the genre goes, but it fine-tunes and perfects it.  It’s visually vibrant, the (period-inaccurate) music brilliantly adds depth in a way pop soundtracks rarely do, and it is never for one minute boring.  I should add that I’ve only seen the long version, and though I can’t comment on the quality of the cut down theatrical cut, I honestly can’t understand why anyone would bother with it if they had the option.

 

5.  White Material

Early in Claire Denis’ White Material, Marie (Isabelle Huppert) attempts to hitch a ride on a crowded bus, but must settle for holding onto the ladder on the back.  In the next scene, she is riding a bicycle down a dirt road that we will soon find out is on her coffee plantation.  On the bicycle, she lets her arms wave free and she shuts her eyes.  The wind is blowing her hair and the sun is caressing her hands and face.  The camera holds with this but it begins to shake, struggling to maintain its framing of Marie.  This is the only moment in the film where she’ll be truly happy, but it is an unstable happiness.  We know from the framing device at the start of the film that disaster looms, and that informs every scene.  It is inevitable that disaster will strike, though we do not yet understand the particulars.  As revolution sweeps the unnamed African nation where she and her estranged husband and his new family as well as her layabout son reside, she finds it increasingly difficult to maintain the daily operations of her normal life, though she sure does try.  She willfully ignores all warning signs out of sheer bloody-mindedness.  The brilliance of Huppert’s performance is in the deep ambiguity behind her actions.  Is she blinded by decades of colonial power?  Does she feel innately protected because of the colour of her skin?  Is she just desperate to hold onto the tattered remains of her family and her middling coffee?  She’s sympathetic and frustrating at the same time.  She moves between strong nobility and utter stupidity.  The emphasis on the material things is haunting: a gold lighter, a motorcycle, her dress, and her shoes.  The film plays up the fear of The Other as two kids threaten her son with a makeshift spear and then violate her sanctum by rummaging through her possessions.  As it is a Claire Denis film, it is difficult to describe anything that would do it justice.  She’s a sensualist, and the lighting and the right inserts and close-ups create a feeling of tactile engagement that is both beautiful and unsettling.  There is very little in the way of on-screen violence, but a particular disturbing scene involves the military slaughtering would-be rebel children as they sleep.  We don’t actually see a blade touch skin, but the cold, hard sheen of the knives contrast with the soft warmth of the skin is infinitely more effective.  It’s a complex film, dealing on questions of civilization and civility, entitlement and the relationship between colonial remnants and the people they once subjected.  It isn’t an easy watch, but it is beautiful, tense, and harrowing.

4.  Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Edgar Wright more than proved himself a talent with his previous features, but nothing really prepared me for just how successful he can be given the right budget.  To no small degree the success of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz can be attributed to his collaboration with co-writer and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.  Scott Pilgrim vs. The World lacks the comedic talent in the cast to make up for their absence, and in certain respects this has allowed him to flourish.  Adapting a series of indie-hipster graphic novels by Bryan O’Malley (who also co-wrote the screenplay), he had more visual references to guide him, but the sheer energy, colour, and timing of the film is, I believe, largely down to Wright’s zesty skills and imagination.  It’s an ADD Pop Art extravaganza that somehow manages to maintain a cool sensibility when it comes to pacing, cutting, and set-ups.  He’s always had a knack for visual gags (he rivals Wes Anderson in this area), but the way he energizes the action scenes with frantic excitement whilst never losing the clarity of the sequence sets him apart from most proper action directors working today.  The film itself is giddy and thrilling in its devotion to the world it has created.  Irony-dripping indie kids who like to reference old NES video games are something of a nightmare to me, and yet Scott Pilgrim manages to get the ethos of the world just right.  This isn’t a film for 20 year olds to smirk at the video game noises, though I suppose they could, because all the references are the world of these characters.  They rarely comment upon any actual video games or make snarky references to pop culture because they live and breathe them and don’t even really notice them anymore.  When the first of the evil exes crashes through the ceiling, it isn’t treated like a fantasy sequence, and yet after a brief gasp every character in the dingy venue just treats it as though it wasn’t much of a surprise.  Its version of Toronto is so lived-in and familiar yet heightened and off-kilter, it is as though we are seeing every coffee shop, bar, and venue through the perspective of these specific characters.  The story about the shy boy and the pixie girl and finding yourself and the metaphor for exes as dangerous insecurities well-trod territory, and it’s a testament to the filmmaking craft at work here that none of that really matters.  We’re taken into a vibrant, exciting world that’s so thrilling and funny that it transcends its minor problems.  If Hollywood made two films a year as entertaining as this, I would have to find something new to complain about.

3.  The Social Network

In a lot of ways, The Social Network feels like the cinematic equivalent of Kanye West’s My Dark, Twisted Fantasy in 2010.  Not at all in tone or content, but rather as it concerns hype and the zeitgeist.  I originally felt that both, though great on their own merits, were over-praised because they felt so timely.  Perhaps they are looked at more widely because of those reasons, but that shouldn’t obscure the simple fact that both are immaculate productions that I believe will stand the test of time long after the controversies and nit-picking have finished.  The simple and obvious place to start with The Social Network is that, despite being about recent events and an idea and invention that is emblematic of its time and, in some ways, reshaped the modern, Western world, it is such a classic story.  Beyond the notions of betrayal and the drive for success, you have an incredible character study about a defensive kid with low self-esteem who has a knack for over-compensating.  He just also happens to have the know-how and skills to deliver on his declared intelligence.  The film’s approach can seem incredibly concise (Fincher’s precision has become his hallmark) but in reality it is a presentation of perspectives and character motivations that can be interpreted in a number of ways.  At the center is an astonishing performance by Jesse Eisenberg, one which I am afraid will go largely unrecognized come Oscar time.  It’s reactive, aloof, and almost blank at times, but it is stuffed with just enough subtle movement and tiny expressions to convey the inner workings of a brilliant mind and a bruised ego that plays everything pretty close to the chest.  Aaron Sorkin’s script is arguably the best thing he’s ever done.  It’s straightforward but colourful and witty.  Most importantly of all it is streamlined and incredibly disciplined, which is not something Sorkin has managed with any great consistency in the past.  Even greater is Fincher’s interpretation of the material, again toning down the flourishes while still exuding his extraordinary technical prowess and subtle understanding of emotion.  What he and Sorkin and the cast have managed to do is create an incredibly rich and (surprisingly) moving film that has depth far beyond the central irony that the creator of the largest social network in the world has no social skills.  Class, capitalism, ego, masculinity, and ingenuity mix and mash and inform the story and the characters at every turn.  It really is quite an achievement, hype be damned.

2.  Wild Grass

Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass is about as cliché a French Art Film as you are likely to find this side of Godard.  It features a meaningless plot, endless digressions that seem to have nothing to do with anything else, characters seemingly changing personas from one scene to the next, unnatural lighting and colours, and an old man suddenly and for no apparent reason lunging in and kissing a young woman he has never met (an incident that is not commented upon or reference again).  There is a narrative to grab onto, at first, involving an aging man finding the wallet of a dentist and pilot with whom he becomes fascinated.  Roles are reversed and circumstances change until all narrative logic finally dissipates at an airfield, if not well before then.  There are some through lines, however, and I prefer to think of it as the almost stream-of-consciousness fantasies of an aging man as he experiences this particular situation.  He’s fond of the planes of his youth and the pilot reminds him of that.  At one point he sees a WWII airplane film from his youth and critically reassesses it (straight to camera, for Resnais is a New Wave filmmaker after all), and then suddenly his relationship with the pilot changes.  Of course, that’s just one small facet of a very rich film.  I can point to the bright colour scheme or discuss the incredible acting talent on hand (Desplechin almumni Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Devos, and Anne Consigny all feature in supporting roles) but it won’t get anyone closer to understanding the film.  I suppose the crucial aspect that ties it all together is that feeling of loose freedom that characterized so much of the New Wave in the 60s.  The innovations of that age are not dead and gone in modern filmmaking, but it rarely features in such an overt, carefree style.  Disregarding standard notions of narrative and consistent character for a specific effect still feels fresh in Wild Grass, and as the film ends with its glorious coda, that sense of freedom is exhilarating.

1.  Black Swan

The Black Swan backlash began quickly and fiercely, and it almost seems like an inevitability upon reflection.  Darren Aronofsky is an easy target for critics, especially when his new work is being lauded from a good number of outlets and buzzing with talk of awards.  He came out with low-budget but intense and flashy indies in the late 90s and early 00s, then spectacularly failed with his long-burning passion project The Fountain.  His return to the good graces of the Hollywood community came in the form of The Wrestler; the decent character study that played a little too obvious for the cynics with its heartwarming redemption arc for Mickey Rourke and its indie-by-the-numbers feels.  It felt like awards bait and it was awards bait, and nobody likes to feel manipulated.   Black Swan itself is a pretty easy target for dismissive abuse, and I’ll be the first to admit that.  It’s melodramatic and that’s something that can very quickly be written off as camp.  Its themes are simplistic and lying there so close to the surface they might as well be written out in big, flashing subtitles.  It’s also crass and exploitative, not merely in tawdry content but in its shameless audience manipulation tactics.  I think there is truth to all of these things, and there’s even an argument that it is misogynistic, a position that even if I don’t agree with, I can certainly see where it comes from.  For myself, however, most of these limitations are its greatest strengths.  It works because it is simple, not in spite of that fact, and I even believe that given the subject matter is the rather broad (storywise, at least) art of ballet, it is perfectly fitting.  Its Lacanian mirrors are undergraduate level sophisticated at best, but again, the film is going for simple, broad strokes.  I believe its derivative nature is its most thrilling facet.  By drawing on every backstage performing arts cliché in the world, it’s creating an expectation for the audience that it can play around with.  Tossing in standard horror tropes (musical stabs, absurd reveals) with more complicated body horror effects sends the film gleefully into the absurd insanity it so desires to create.  The point is that it wants to create these effects, and it achieves them brilliantly.  The real coup of the film is how well the actors, especially Portman, Kunis, and Hershey, sell everything about it so effectively.  Portman has an incredibly difficult role despite it only existing on a few notes (and hitting them over and over and over again), and it is a testament to her that no matter how many chuckles there are along the way, the finale is genuinely emotional.  In a way, the whole film beautifully builds and builds to get to that one, great moment of catharsis that we all wanted.  The fact that it might be the only ambiguous point (that great relief in achieving the mastery of her art has also destroyed her) in the whole movie adds a wonderful touch to the proceedings.  It is ridiculous and simplistic but also gloriously cinematic.  I do not believe Aronofsky will ever be the kind of director he wants to be, but by lowering his standards and working within his limitations he does himself a great service.  This is probably the best work he’s capable of doing, and that’s fine, because he does it extraordinarily well.  It regurgitates the themes about what an artist sacrifices for their art that have been going around for decades, but it does it brilliantly.  Of course, the simplicity works for the first-time, sensory experience; I’m not at all convinced there is much longevity here.  Films that posterity looks upon fondly tend to have a rich complexity that allows for multiple interpretations after multiple viewings.  I don’t believe that will happen here, but I might be wrong.  Either way it doesn’t matter, for a Best Of The Year list is about exactly one thing:  what was great in that year.  And in 2010, in that moment, Black Swan was great.

-M

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