The year in cinema

2010 was a really full movie year for me – I believe the 63 new features I saw this year was probably the most in my lifetime. Clearly I have far too much
time on my hands.

Looking back at 2010 one sad truth I’ve discovered is that I missed out on a whole lot of non-English language films. I blame this largely on lack of distribution/screening in my area. And it seems that even when most foreign languague features are shown in Metro-Boston they get but a one-week limited release. By my count of the 63 films I saw in 2010 only 10 were foreign language. I sincerely regret missing many of these and having to wait for a long-delayed DVD release (Mother, Carlos) but I do want to credit Netflix for picking up on-demand many others that I missed during their short theatrical run (specifically the quiet relationship meltdown drama Everyone Else.

As has been said by many before me, 2010 was a wonderful year for the narrative, non-journalistic, non- verite documentary. A number of the best films of the year were films that split the difference between artful narrative film and documentary. Eschewing the constraints of truth and organic real-life events films like Exit Through the Gift Shop and I’m Not There were able to craft films that eclipse many less “truthful” stories for pure entertainment and compelling narrative arc. It’s good to see that the popular documentary format has survived beyond the preachy propaganda of Michael Moore and his brethren.

Top 10 films of 2010:

Please note that some of these films were released outside of my area in 2009 but with the lack of consistency in release dates across geographic areas these days it’s hard to have any such consistency with regard to what year some films should count as. Deal with it.

1. Greenberg

I’m a huge fan of the small character/relationship-based films that Noah Baumbach has been making for the last decade and Greenberg may be his best. Baumbach’s ear for the subtile humor in the lives of hip-ouisie is unparalelled. Ben Stiller’s almost perfect performance of a pathetic, angry, mean and cluelessly lost man casting about for explanations for why he’s so damn sad all the time is a career best. For this I give him a pass for 100 Night at the Museum and Meet the Parents sequels. This was also a break-out performance for Greta Gerwig (Matt Singer from sings her praises beautifully in this piece) who demonstrates some of the best naturalistic internal acting you’ll find. Big props to Rhys Ifans performance as the old friend who knows his buddy is a thoughtless douche and needs to grow up but loves him anyway. I must also mention the great Harris Savides and his camera – his work in this film and Somewhere create a blinding, sprawling, hazy and totally unique visual image of a Los Angeles – he puts his stamp on the city in the same way Gordon Willis did with Manhattan.

2. Exit Through the Gift Shop

A wonder of post-production filmmaking, Banksy (or whoemever made this film with permission to put Banksy’s name on it) creates and interweaves two enormously compelling dual narratives. The first documents, through thrilling first-person footage taken on rooftops, sidewalks and on the back of scooters from LA to The West Bank, the rise of street art in the new millenium. The second crafts an image of the character(?)/film maker/poseur street artist Thierry/Mr. Brainwash. The backbone of the story is the obscured talking-head
of Banksy himself who provides some of the most hillarious and insightful commentary about the nature of good art vs. imitation and a demonstration of how critical opinion in the art world can be manipulated by one quote and a big ego. I had pretty much zero interest in Banksy or street art going in to this film and yet it makes #2 on my year end list. Quite an achievement.

3. Fish Tank

Andrea Arnold’s second feature cements her as one of the most vital filmmakers working today. An incredibly sensitive portrait of a marginalized British teen (a magnificent performance from non-professional actor Katie Jarvis) with big dreams of being a hip-hop dancer and escaping the run-down council tower that is her prosaic prison. Another fantastic performance, as well, from Michael Fassbender as Jarvis’ mother’s boyfriend whose interactions with Jarvis’ teen become more complicated and intimate leading to an almost-tragic third act that lets nobody off the hook. Andrea Arnold is for Britain what the Dardennes are for Belgium.

4. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

Hands down most stunningly alive film of 2010. This micro-budget jazz musical/love story is able to transcend it’s flawed dialogue and sometimes stilted acting through the pure force of the unadulterated joy of it’s set-piece musical and dancing scenes. Some beautiful b&w cinematography that makes Boston look as romantic as Paris or Rome. Harvard film student Damien Chazelle dropped out to finish this Cassavettes meets MGM gem that shows just how artificial and soulless Hollywood musicals have become.

5. Winter’s Bone

An Ozarks noir fueled by breakout performances from Jennifer Lawrence and especially John Hawkes whose “Uncle Teardrop” is able to convey bucket-loads of menace through one gaze. I also have to shout out to Garret Dillahunt who is becoming one of the best and most understated character actors in cinema today.

6. The Secret of Kells

Fuck CGI animation. The beauty contained in this wonderful story of a young boy in a Celtic monastery working to protect an illuminated bible from the invading Viking armies brought me to tears.

7. Blue Valentine

My most anticipated movie of 2010. Slightly disappointing (something was missing from the narrative to really bring home the emotional impact of the turmoil of the main couple) but two stunning pieces of acting from Ryan Gosling and especially Michelle Williams. Williams’ Cindy holds a hurricane of frustration and loathing below the surface allowing it to arise only through looks and piercing sarcasm. The mutual disgust expressed in scene of the two eating dinner in the shabby Future/Sci-fi themed hotel room was spot on. Gosling and Williams imbue these characters with rich unspoken backstory of a relationship begun in haste and ended with both metaphorical and literal fireworks.

8. The Oath

Laura Poitras documentary about Abu Jandal, once a close associate and later betrayer of Osama bin Laden. An incredibly conflicted character, the film makes the mistake of trying to combine Jandal’s conflicted story and beliefs with a jeremiad about the American detention center in Guantanamo.

9. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

The most purely enjoyable movie experience of the year. Edgar Wright is able to combine cinema, video games and comics into something wholly new and always exciting.

10. Four Lions

Co-written by one of the writers of my favorite comedy of last year (In the Loop), Four Lions bravely puts a comedic spin on contemporary Islamo-terrorism. This film walks the line between hillarity and bad taste as well as the line between sympathy and pity for the bumbling wannabe terrorists. Some absolutely hillarious scenes – how to run while carrying volatile explosives, whether a wookie is a bear, and an explanation about how heaven for a martyr means getting to be first in line for the inflatible tube water park rides at a British theme park (rubber dinghy rapids bro!)

Honorable Mentions: Lebanon, Everyone Else, True Grit, Shutter Island, The Social Network, The Killer Inside Me, 127 Hours, White Material, Please Give

Most overrated movie of the year:

The Kids are Alright – a perfectly fine quirky little indie comedy with an impressive performance from Annette Benning. Far from transcendent and wildly over-praised.

Trailer of the Year

The American

Not because it’s a particularly excellent trailer from an artistic perspective. Rather because the trailer made this slow, Euro-style art house low-key “thriller” which, I swear, uses a full 1/3 of it’s running time focusing on George Clooney making a gun by hand, appear to be a Jason Bourne-esque action spy thriller. The film made $35 million domestically and I’d guess that $30 million of those ticket purchasers left the theater pissed off and bored.

Best lead and supporting acting of the year

Favorite lead performance goes to Ben Stiller in Greenberg and Hailee Steinfeld who just came out of nowhere in True Grit. I can’t believe Steinfeld was only 13 when this was filmed. Amazing.

Favorite supporting performance goes to John Hawkes in Winter’s Bone and Rooney Mara for the mind-blowingly perfect first scene from The Social Network. I’m really looking forward to her as the lead in the American versions of Steig Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy.

Favorite over the top crazy supporting performance of the year goes to Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley in The Runaways, who beats out Christian Bale’s eyes about to pop out of his head life of the crack party Dickie Ecklund in The Fighter.

Most impressive cinematic experience of the year: Enter the Void

Beginning with the most memorable opening credits (the jarring machine-gun cut speed and propulsive electronic-dance accompanyment let you know that you are in for something pretty damn exciting) Enter the Void is an experience designed specifically for the movie house. While many of the film’s concepts are stoner-laughable and the Freudian themes are clunky and obvious I could not help but be help rapt by the formal and technical aspects of this film. Noe is able to seamlessly combine traditional cinematography with cutting edge computer animation better than I’ve ever seen. Avatar, eat your heart out.

Biggest disappointments of the year:

Atom Egoyan’s movie-of-the-week psycho-girl melodrama Chloe, Sofia Coppolla’s wheel-spinning yet occasionally perfect Somewhere and Woody Allen’s dull and forgettable You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.

Full list of all 63 movies I’ve seen this year: Centurion, Predators, The Human Centipede: First Sequence, Buried, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Unstoppable, The Runaways, The Kids are All Right, The Fighter, The Extra Man, The Crazies, Somehwere, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, Never Let me Go, Lovers of Hate, Kick Ass, I’m Still Here, Hot Tub Time Machine, Green Zone, Frozen, Fair Game, Enter the Void, Cyrus, The Exploding Girl, Splice, Ondine, I Love You Phillip Morris, Colony, Chloe, Prodigal Sons, Drones, Shutter Island, Solitary Man, Please Give, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Four Lions, The Town, Animal Kingdom, Inception, The Killer Inside Me, The Social Network, 127 Hours, The Ghost Writer, The American, Black Swan, Restrepo, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Tiny Furniture, True Grit, Rabbit Hole, A Prophet, Lebanon, Micmacs, Everyone Else, White Material, The Oath, Winter’s Bone, Greenberg, Exit Thorough the Gift Shop, Blue Valentine, Fish Tank, The Secret of Kells, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Valhalla Rising, A Serbian Film

Some gaps in my 2010 viewing: Easy A, Catfish, Carlos, Toy Story 3, Inside Job, 45365, The King’s Speech, The Tillman Story, Hadewijch, Vincere, Secret Sunshine, Boxing Gym, Ajami, Marwencol, The Illusionist, Another Year, Mother, Let Me In, Waste Land, Alamar, The Square, Bluebeard, Dogtooth, Easy A, Life During Wartime, Looking for Eric, Wild Grass, Jack Goes Boating

Please respond to my thoughts in the comments. What’s your top 10 of the year? Was I a freaking idiot for not liking Black Swan enough? Do I have too much of a man crush on Michael Fassbender? Have at me!

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4 Comments on “The year in cinema”

  1. d brockman Says:

    completely agree about “greenberg”– it’s a tie for #1 for me, personally, between it and “agora”, an amazingly awesome movie that played at the kendall for, oh, a few days and that i was lucky enough to want to catch when it was actually in theaters. seriously, trying to catch new foreign movies this year in the theater was like trying to something-something-that-you-have-to-be-really-fast-to-be-able-to-do.

  2. Jeff Says:

    I have heard nothing about Agora since it was released – I think it was at the Kendall for one week only and no critics I’ve read have spoken of it. It’s directed by Amenabar who made one of my favs (The Others) so I’ll give it a shot.

  3. Jean Says:

    I’m not sure about my entire top 10 but A Single Man is definitely on the list. Colin Firth gives an amazing, understated performance.

  4. Jeff Says:

    A Single Man just slipped off my radar after last year’s Oscars – still haven’t seen it. Also your inclusion of it in a top 10 for 2011 demonstrates just how arbitrary plugging a movie into a certain year is. How is one to argue about lists with all this confusion?! 😛

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