Monday, January 3, 2011

2010: the year in movies

The classified ad version might go something like this:


Does the fact that the majority of my favourite films of 2010 concern families parting, reuniting, expanding or contracting reflect some renewed tribal impulse brewing deep in our collective cinematic unconscious, or am I just getting sentimental with age?

Truth is I have my reservations about a few of these, particularly with regards to those tricky final acts, you'll spot them when you get to them. But in every case there was something at the heart of the film sufficiently charged with real vivacity, audacity or fascination to merit their inclusion.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
The latest from what’s arguably the most playful and provocative new voice to emerge within the last decade opens with fecund visions of errant livestock and fleeting sightings of mysterious jungle-dwelling beasts before crafting a gentle, funny, funky portrait of Thai country life, interrupted one evening by apparitions of loved ones who have either died or been transformed into exactly what you’d get if you crossed a wookiee with a jawa. Using the simplest of screen tricks, this sequence is the most magical thing I saw at the movies last year, though it was nearly matched by some even more oneiric episodes that follow, which include nocturnal spelunking, a slide show about an oppressive future-world without movies, and a catfish hip to cunnilingus. The author’s name is Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but he says we can just call him Joe.

The Social Network
You tired yet of discussions about whether or not David Fincher’s bio-pic about Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg “says something about the times we live in”? Me too! I’m still itching for a second viewing to confirm how well it all works once the initial rush has washed off, but in the meantime I’m confident declaring The Social Network an awfully smart, at times exhilarating piece of entertainment, with rich characters, pithy exchanges, and a central performance so shot through with boyish smugness and wildly articulate spite it makes your nerves ache. To call it the 21st century’s Citizen Kane isn’t to equate Fincher with Orson Welles but rather to acknowledge that this film knows something about enterprise, opportunity, ambition, and buckets of money, all wrapped up in an elegant achronological structure.

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ very memorable, very strange, and finally very resonant sophomore feature concerns a father and mother who have sequestered their children within the family compound and controlled their education right down to their most basic uses of language—new meanings are invented for common words—their notion of how they’re related to icons of popular culture—the kids believe Frank Sinatra’s their grandpa—and their understanding of perspective and depth—they see planes flying overhead and wish one would fall so they could catch it in their hands. So it’s a comedy, kind of. There’s a stunning interpretive dance sequence improvised to Irene Cara’s ‘Flashdance… What a Feeling.’

Tony Manero
Speaking of dancing... It’s Santiago, Chile, 1978, and there’s blood on the dance floor. Literally. The terrors of life under Pinochet prompt some toward resignation and despair, others toward resistance, and a select few toward the recognition that destiny has granted them tacit permission to act out fantasies both heinous and tawdry-glamorous. Pablo Larraín’s deadpan character study, about a middle-aged guy who lives in a commune yet is chillingly antisocial, who just wants to transform himself into the hero of
Saturday Night Fever on local television—at any costs—is also a study in vast, consuming darkness, in how evil proliferates, and in the secret perils of Hollywood disco fantasy.

A Prophet
Jacques Audiard’s
The Beat My Heart Skipped remade, of all things, James Toback’s seethingly creepy cult classic Fingers, so you know we’re dealing with an artist ready to follow the most morally fraught criminal figures to the very end of the line. The rough but basically innocent Arab youth imprisoned at the start of A Prophet kills another, seemingly benevolent Arab convict more or less by force. He thereafter spends the rest of this bracingly violent, quietly polemical, often surprising, not un-Scorsese-like crime drama figuring out what that makes him now. The power of Audiard’s vision derives in part from its leaving viewers with the same question, and no simple answer in sight.

Shutter Island
Still more ambiguous is the nature of Leonardo DiCaprio’s troubled visit to the Aschecliff Hospital for the Criminally Insane, located on an island in Boston Harbour almost perpetually cloaked in many kinds of fog. He’s ostensibly there to investigate a disappearance, yet he’s increasingly disinclined to trust any of his designated aids. The fabric of reality in Martin Scorsese’s heavily stylized adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel seems as potentially unstable as those DiCaprio encountered just a few months later in Inception, but I have a feeling that time will prove
Shutter Island to possess the more enduring mysteries. It already seems more genuinely dreamlike.

The Kids Are All Right
Mark Ruffalo, Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson each gave one of my favourite performances of 2010, and the fact that all these performances occur within the same movie must say something about its director and co-writer, Lisa Cholodenko. Yet this warm, witty, sexy story of a family trying to sort out whose roles are whose and when it’s time to let go is so supple and complicated as it sets up expectations and demolishes presumptions—about parenting, about desire, about gender, about lifestyle choices—that you can’t help but feel like the film falls a little short of it’s goals with what’s finally an oddly conservative, overly tidy finale.

I Am Love
I don’t know that you’d deem the finale of Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s
I Am Love tidy exactly, unless you call sweeping an unholy mountain of dirty dishes off the table to fall crashing ever so operatically onto the floor a method of tidying. A dual-homage to the films of Luchino Visconti and Douglas Sirk, with a little Lady Chatterley thrown in for extra spice, this is nonetheless an exemplary high style melodrama about fleeing wealth and duty for haute cuisine and hot love amongst the birds and bees. Playing the universally admired but under-loved matriarch, Tilda Swinton’s iconic visage seems designed for such total transformation, and John Adams’ thundering music gloriously ushers us through the protracted climax, even after a fairly dopey crisis point.

“Weapons,” our titular terrorist seductively tells us, “are an extension of my body.” Revolution turns this guy on—or is it simply the promise of spectacular violence undertaken with whatever sort of justification? Oliver Assayas’ wildly ambitious, action-oriented, 333-minute bio-pic, made for French television, starring the tireless and valiant Venezuelan-born actor Édgar Ramírez, was 2010's marathon matinee, and a fascinating double-study of the abstraction of criminal celebrity and the palpability of a human body trying to merge with a mythical idea of itself.

The Fighter
David O. Russell’s latest may be his most conventional picture, but it’s a knock-out, featuring an unforgettable coven of big-haired sisters, a shrewd understanding of boxing technique, Amy Adams in short-shorts, and yet another sublimely entertaining, ultra-committed performance from Mark Wahlberg, who, in his way, may just be America’s most underappreciated movie star. Yes, Christian Bale’s also very good as the crazy, drug-addled brother to Wahlberg’s aspiring fighter, but I’m a little more drawn to the less technically polished fiery spunk of Wahlberg, Adams, and of course Melissa Leo as the mother you wouldn’t want to face in the ring.

Exit Through the Gift Shop
Legendary mysterious street artist Banksy made a movie about a goofy French guy trying to make a movie about him, and it is the fucking funniest thing I’ve seen in ages. This documentary presumably takes a few liberties with facts on its way to a breezy but sly analysis of how art is commodified and everything gets domesticated sooner or later. But you could do worse than simply watching it for the unfathomably enthusiastic, sublimely inarticulate Thierry Guetta, aka Mr. Brainwash, whose particular artistic limitations will refresh your notion of what “so bad it’s good” means.

Tokyo Sonata
Has cinema ever experienced an about-face quite as successful as Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s? He’s helmed some of Japan’s finest horror films of the last 15 years—
Séance is especially creepy—but they started to get a little stale, so he tried on a poignant comedy about the strains of contemporary middleclass family life, and it might just be the best thing he’s done. Dad gets downsized, Mom’s taken hostage, one kid joins the US military and the other has to save his lunch money to fund secret piano lessons. As with Kurosawa’s Cure, there’s a contagious disease driving the narrative, but in this case it causes those afflicted to want to start their lives over. Wonderful.


Paul Matwychuk said...

Great list, JB! I'm especially pleased by your inclusion of TOKYO SONATA and THE FIGHTER (which feels like exactly the movie Wahlberg, Bale, Adams, and Russell all needed to make at exactly this point in their careers). Bale's possibly ad-libbed "What kind of dog is that? A cocker spaniel?" might be my favourite line of dialogue from the past year.

I have to admit, UNCLE BOONMEE didn't really speak to me (and I liked SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY and TROPICAL MALADY), but I'm pleased to see it turning up on so many year-end lists. It's the kind of singular, personal film that needs to be encouraged.

As does your kind of film writing! I'm looking forward to reading you throughout 2011 and comparing notes on the year's cinematic output. Thanks to your blog, I feel as though I'm still in touch with you even though we now live so far away from each other.

JB said...

Paul, thanks so much for your comment. You warmed my cockles--which I especially appreciate this morning since I'll be trudging through the snowy crunch of morning very soon to see SEASON OF THE WITCH.

Having not seen it since it was first hitting festivals, I actually probably would have forgotten about TOKYO SONATA if it weren't for it's appearance on your own mighty best of 2010 list, so thanks for that. (And for reminding me to check out MARY AND MAX.)

In the long run, I'll probably agree that UNCLE BOONMEE isn't quite the equal of SYNDROMES or TROPICAL MALADY, but I love seeing Apichatpong play with genre(s) the way he does here, and I still can't think of many other moviegoing experiences like it. Both times I saw it in the theatre it was great to hear everyone hold their breath when the monkey ghost climbs the stairs...

Anyway, I'm off to climb a few stairs myself right now. But I also look forward to your movie missives in 2011. Happy new year!

Torrent Download said...
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ZF said...

Solid, solid list. If you want to get 2011 off to a serious bang, you need to see 2010 holdover "Enter The Void". It's why I will support any nomination to permanently include the term "brain rape" in the Oxford English Dictionary next year.

JB said...

ZF, perhaps I will soon be ready to enter the void. Or do I already live there? And how literal should one take the term "brain rape"? Are you familiar with "face rape"? (See My Heavily Edited Index.)