Thursday, December 30, 2010

Year in Film: 2010

NOTE:  Each film on this list had to have had at least one theatrical screening in Milwaukee (though I only saw about a third of these films in a theatre), and they have to have premiered here in 2010.  I realize that some of these films were released in other parts of the world in 2009, and some won't be released until 2011, and some won't be released in certain areas at all.  For example, Carlos has not screened in Milwaukee so far, which means that it is not eligible.  As far as movies that did actually screen here that I didn't see, Restrepo is probably my biggest blindspot (it's in my Netflix Instant queue, but I haven't gotten around to watching it), but I did manage to see most of the things that I was interested in.  I wasn't keeping track of all of the short films I saw, and honestly none of them have particularly stuck with me, so this is simply a ranked list of the feature films that I saw this year, with brief comments on a number of them.

A   Masterpiece
1)  Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, USA, 108 min.)
I expected Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan to be to ballet as his The Wrestler was to pro wrestling.  And while that is partially the case, Black Swan is also a hyper-stylized and intense psychodrama that utilizes every filmmaking technique you've ever seen, and a few you haven't, to get viewers deep inside the head of its prima ballerina (Natalie Portman, in the role of a lifetime).  The most vital combination of sheer audacity, technical brilliance, and intense method acting since There Will Be Blood, and the best film of the year.

A-   Excellent
2)  Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 113 min.)
For once the eccentricities of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's oeuvre seem purposeful and tied to a specific mood, so that the proceedings can be appreciated on more than a scene-by-scene basis.  The film follows the titular character during the last days of his life, as he encounters ghosts from his past (some of whom look like a cross between Chewbacca and a Jawa) who help him remember his past incarnations (though it's never entirely clear who Boonmee is in these flashbacks).  As the film goes on, the distinction between the living and the dead, and the spiritual and the everyday, evaporates completely, and the effect is overpowering even for someone who knows nothing about the Thai culture that the film is playing off of.  This is the kind of film where inexplicable moments – such as a scene involving a catfish seducing a princess, or a memory of a violent act told entirely through still photographs – rattle around in your brain for months afterward.
3)  Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos, Greece, 94 min.)
This story of three young adults who have spent their entire lives isolated in their family's estate, and taught an insane, incorrect view of the world by their fascist parents, not only calls to mind Bunuel films like The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but is the equal of those films in satiric power and vivid surrealism.

B+   Special
4)  Collapse (Chris Smith, USA, 82 min.)
I can't think of a film timelier than Chris Smith's documentary about Michael Ruppert, an independent reporter who predicted the current financial crisis in his newsletter.  Ruppert's predictions about peak oil are terrifying, since he clearly knows what he's talking about and seems to have an answer for every possible objection to his arguments, but the film also subtly suggests the ways that his outlook has been influenced and biased by personal hardships.  Smith is basically copying the Errol Morris model of documentary filmmaking, but it's hard to fault him, because it's clearly the right fit for this fascinating story.
5)  The Red Chapel (Mads Brugger, Denmark, 87 min.)
A Danish theatre troupe infiltrates North Korea, entering their subversively ridiculous vaudeville act into a national cultural festival.  The premise of this documentary makes it sound like a Sacha Baron Cohen stunt, but what the filmmakers are after is less a full-frontal assault on North Korean fascism than an inside look at the psychology of a fascist society.  The troupe is assisted by a group of Korean handlers whose job is to make sure that the Danes don’t do anything inflammatory in their act (or their day-to-day activities), and the way that the handlers attempt to modify their charges actions is often as illuminating as it is funny.  And while the troupe does get a few laughs in at the expense of their North Korean hosts, the film offers a surprisingly multi-faceted – at times even sympathetic – portrayal of the people who are doomed to spend their lives propagating the insane doctrine of Kim Jong-Il.  This is by far the finest and most insightful films I've seen about North Korea, as well as one of the most entertaining films of the year.
6)  Winter's Bone (Debra Granik, USA, 100 min.)
This intense film is as smart and resourceful as its heroine (mesmerizing newcomer Jennifer Lawrence), a teenager struggling to hold onto the home she shares with her younger siblings.  The backwoods atmosphere feels authentic, and even the most minor characters are vivid, unforgettable character sketches.
7)  Katalin Varga (Peter Strickland, Hungary/Romania/UK, 84 min.)
British ex-pat Peter Strickland's debut feature isn't necessarily original – the story has a bit of The Virgin Spring in its DNA, and the audio and visual aesthetic bring to mind the work of Andrei Tarkovsky or Bela Tarr.  Yet this menacing fairy tale couldn't stand further apart from anything in theatres today.  The economy of the storytelling, the painterly beauty of the cinematography, and the consistently unnerving sound work give this tale of a raped woman's revenge the feel of a folk tale that has been with us for a very long time.
8)  Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg, USA, 82 min.)
After being beaten into a brain-damaging coma outside a bar, amateur artist Mark Hogencamp returned to consciousness with substantial memory loss.  He retreated from the world at large and began to focus his energies on Marwencol:  a one-sixth scale, WWII-era Belgian town populated entirely by dolls representing Hogencamp's friends and family.  This documentary is at its best when it simply allows Hogencamp to explain the elaborate, intensely pulpy mythology of Marwencol and its inhabitants.  The all-American weirdness recalls Terry Zwigoff's Crumb.
9)  Bad Lieutenant:  Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog, USA, 122 min.)
Almost everything in this film's credits suggests a direct-to-DVD piece of trash, from the fact that it is trading off of the title of Abel Ferrera's popular '90s crime saga despite being unrelated to it, to the appearances of Val Kilmer and Xzibit in the cast.  But the (talented) lunatics have taken over the asylum.  Werner Herzog frequently cuts away from the lurid story of police corruption to focus on random animals, and he gives Nicolas Cage more room than he's ever had to mesmerize audiences with his sheer craziness.
10)  A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, France, 155 min.)
We probably don't need any more stories about drug kingpins rising to power, but Jacques Audiard's A Prophet is intense, gritty, and detailed enough to make the crusty crime genre feel vital again.  The first half of the film, detailing the rough prison stay of a young Arab (newcomer Tahar Rahim, in one of the year's best performances) is absolutely riveting, a nailbiting suspense story that reveals how the law can sometimes create criminals.  The second half of the film, which finds the young man becoming a powerful drug dealer, is a little more familiar, but the combination of Rahim's nervy performance and Audiard's technically assured direction keeps the story compelling.
11)  True Grit  (The Coen Brothers, USA, 110 min.)
This second adaptation of Charles Portis' western novel – the first earned John Wayne his only Academy Award – is an uncharacteristically warm and humanist film from the usually cynical Coens.  The surprisingly tender, good-natured tale of retribution is punctuated by brief, shocking moments of brutal violence, and the Coens handle both modes well.  Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld more than holds her own amongst the likes of Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Barry Pepper, and Josh Brolin, even though all are working at the top of their game.  The same could be said for ace cinematographer Roger Deakins, who delivers some of the most beautiful images seen on screen all year.
12)  Last Train Home (Lixin Fan, Canada, 85 min.)
This documentary is ostensibly about the world's largest human migration – as 130 million Chinese migrant workers return to their homes for New Year's – and the strain that it places on one family.  But part of what makes Lixin Fan's debut so special is that it manages to use its seemingly limited focus to give a broad and multi-faceted look at what life is like in China today.  What emerges is an epic yet focused depiction of the distance between the working class and the wealthy, between the older and younger generations, and between rural and city life.

B   Very Good
13)  Mother (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 128 min.)
Bong Joon-ho's murder mystery is a huge improvement over his overrated monster movie The Host.  After her mentally handicapped son is arrested for a murder that he didn't commit, an elderly woman (the riveting Kim Hye-ja) sets out to find the real killer herself.  Initially, this film seems as tonally scattershot as many Asian suspense movies, but the mind-bending twists of the story actually wind up justifying some of the awkward humor of the early scenes, and the film's conclusion is as achingly sad as it is strange. 
14)  Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, USA, 120 min.)
This simultaneous telling of the beginning and end of a long-term relationship isn't entirely original – in some respects it feels like a less raw, more slickly-directed version of Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence – but it isn't hard to see why it earned so much advance praise at Cannes and Sundance.  The storytelling device of cutting back and forth between the relationship's tender early days and bitter end is very well handled, and the incredible performances of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as the couple prevent several moments from feeling as false or clichéd as they probably should.
15)  The Social Network (David Fincher, USA, 120 min.)
The most talked-about movie of the year enlivens biopic clichés rather than transcending them.  Which is especially dubious given that the film's history of the founding of Facebook is largely invented.  But the film is very lively, with dynamic performances by its entire ensemble (particularly Jesse Eisenberg, who's never been better), screwball comedy dialogue from Aaron Sorkin, a creepy score by Trent Reznor, and immaculate direction by David Fincher.
16)  Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, USA, 103 min.)
I'm not convinced that Toy Story 3 needs to exist – it repeats a lot of the thematic ground already covered by the series' second installment, and it’s a little depressing to see the always-reliable Pixar trading in the masterful innovations of Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up for an uninspired sequel.  But for the most part the film successfully distracts from its redundancy by being the fastest paced and most exciting action film of the year, and one with real heart and a great sense of humor to boot.
17)  Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, USA, 138 min.)
18)  Inception (Christopher Nolan, UK/USA, 148 min.)
No one is marrying big ideas to blockbuster budgets like Christopher Nolan.  Inception is ultimately more complicated than deep, and its multi-layered plot requires a high amount of clunky exposition.  So much exposition, in fact, that the insanely talented ensemble cast (including Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, and Cillian Murphy) doesn't have room to do much beyond explaining the plot.  But when the film really connects, as in its awesome shifting gravity action sequences, it is overwhelming and exciting in the way that huge-budget movies ought to be but rarely are.
19)  Splice (Vincenzo Natali, Canada/USA, 104 min.)
This horror film's craziness seems almost quaint in light of Black Swan, but it is still the best monster movie of the year.  Some of the plot points are a bit muddled, and the chase scene ending only seems to exist because the film needed a climax, but the creature effects are stunning and disquieting, and the story goes in much riskier directions than most of this year's multiplex entertainments.
20)  Buried (Rodrigo Cortes, Spain, 95 min.)
A lot of the fun of this exploitation film comes from the simplicity of its outrageous premise:  a truck driver working in Iraq (Ryan Reynolds, in the performance of his career) wakes up inside a coffin, with only a cellphone and a lighter, and spends 95 minutes trying to get back above ground before he runs out of oxygen.  Considering the sheer amount of suspension of disbelief required to accept the film's plot, the only way to make this material work is to turn it into a dark comedy.  Fortunately the script is essentially a morbid parody of the horrors of modern bureaucracy, with its call centers and contracts designed to limit a company's responsibilities to its employees.
21)  Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, UK, 87 min.)
An obsessive home movie maker attempts to capture notorious British street artist Banksy on film, but winds up having the camera turned on him as he decides to become a street artist himself.  The film is clearly designed to make viewers question what is real and what's being staged, which are appropriate topics for an interrogation into the appreciation of art.  But those issues were dealt with in a more sophisticated and interesting way 35 years ago in Orson Welles' F for Fake.  The real value of Exit Through the Gift Shop is in its footage of infamous street artists at work.
22)  The Art of the Steal (Don Argott, USA, 101 min.)
A surprisingly engaging documentary about the struggle for the control of the Barnes Foundation, a priceless private art collection that its now-deceased founder intended as an educational institution but that a number of his personal and political enemies want to turn into a tourist trap.  Director Don Argott keeps the pace lively and gives this potentially dry story the feel of a tense conspiracy thriller.
23)  My Perestroika (Robin Hessman, Russia/UK/USA, 87 min.)
I'm not sure that this documentary about the social and political changes that took place over the last 30-odd years in Russia tells us anything we don't know, but it does do an excellent job of personalizing those changes.  Director Robin Hessman follows several Russians in their 30s as they explain how seismic events such as the collapse of the Soviet Union have affected them personally and professionally.  The subjects are lively and interesting, and their interview footage is melded seamlessly with propaganda films, old news footage, and home movies.
24)  About Elly (Asghar Farhadi, Iran, 119 min.)
The winner of the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival's Award for Best Narrative Feature begins as a lighthearted chronicle of a weekend getaway to the Caspian Sea, develops into a tense thriller when one member of the party goes missing, and finally settles in as an intense dissection of gender relations in contemporary Iran.  There are a few notable flaws here – the film backs itself into a corner and just kind of stops instead of coming to a conclusion – but the cast has great chemistry, and director Asghar Farhadi handles the shift in pacing and tone very well.
25)  Beeswax (Andrew Bujalski, USA, 100 min.)
26)  Black Dynamite (Scott Sanders, USA, 87 min.)
27)  Best Worst Movie (Michael Paul Stephenson, USA, 93 min.)
28)  Winnebago Man (Ben Steinbauer, USA, 85 min.)
29)  The Other Guys (Adam McKay, USA, 107 min.)
30)  Jean-Michel Basquiat:  The Radiant Child (Tamra Davis, USA, 88 min.)

B-   Good but flawed or insubstantial
31)  It is Fine.  Everything is Fine! (David Brothers/Crispin Glover, USA, 74 min.)
You have to admire the bravery of Steven C. Stewart, the star and screenwriter of Crispin Glover's second directorial effort.  The film is essentially an outlet for Stewart, a lifelong sufferer of cerebral palsy, to share his darkest obsessions with the world, largely through a series of (mostly) unsimulated sex scenes that fully display the ways that his body didn't work (he died shortly after the film's completion).  The film's willingness to follow Stewarts' fetishes to their most repellant extremes (he strangles several of his partners to death) is admirable and mesmerizing, albeit in a highly unpleasant way.  Not an easy film to forget, though you wouldn't want to watch it more than once.
32)  The Expendables (Sylvester Stallone, USA, 103 min.)
Out of this year's glut of '80s action movie tributes, this was the only one that felt like the real thing.  You can't separate the fun of this all-star film from its utter stupidity, but its complete lack of ironic distance is refreshing, and Sylvester Stallone has a genuine talent for filming ridiculously violent action scenes.
33)  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows:  Part 1 (David Yates, UK, 147 min.)
34)  Night Catches Us (Tanya Hamilton, USA, 90 min.)
First-time filmmaker Tanya Hamilton displays a nice feel for period, place, and community in this Bicentennial-set exploration of the Black Panther's conflicted legacy.  The story involves an ex-Panther (Anthony Mackie) who returns to Philadelphia for his father's funeral, only to discover that many of his old associates (including several cast members of The Wire) are adrift in a haze of directionless anger, without the direction of the Party to guide them.  There are a few problems with the script – some of the dialogue is a bit on the nose, and a few important characters simply disappear, but the atypical subject matter and the excellent cast mostly make up for it.
35)  Enemies of the People (Thet Sambath, Cambodia, 93 min.)
36)  His & Hers (Ken Wardrop, Ireland, 80 min.)
70 Irish females, ranging in age from very young children to very elderly women, discuss the most important men in their lives, whether they be their fathers, husbands, or sons.  Each woman is only on screen for a minute or two, they never mention the men's names, they appear in similar domestic settings, and they appear in order from youngest to oldest, which gives the viewer the impression of one coherent story rather than 70 different ones.  Veteran short filmmaker Ken Wardrop's formal experiment yields mixed results – it sometimes feels like a pre-feminist tribute to the "traditional woman," but there are also a number of genuinely touching and amusing moments, and the gimmick doesn't have time to overstay its welcome at only 80 minutes.
37)  Date Night (Shawn Levy, USA, 88 min.)
38)  Lemmy (Greg Olliver/Wes Orshoski, USA, 122 min.)
39)  The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, USA, 106 min.)
40)  Megamind (Tom McGrath, USA, 95 min.)

C+  Decent
41)  Machete (Robert Rodriguez, USA, 105 min.)
Any isolated scene in this overheated parody/homage to trashy action films is hysterically funny.  But the relentless sarcasm and juvenilia isn't enough to hold together an entire feature film.
42)  Greenberg (Noah Baumbach, USA, 107 min.)
43)  Cell 211 (Daniel Monzon, Spain, 113 min.)
44)  Perrier's Bounty (Ian Fitzgibbon, Ireland, 88 min.)
45)  Mid-August Lunch (Gianni di Gregorio, Italy, 75 min.)
46)  Vengeance (Johnnie To, China/France, 108 min.)
Johnnie To's bizarre, highly mannered version of a violent Hong Kong shoot-'em-up suggests a simultaneous deconstruction of Jean-Pierre Melville and John Woo, though it isn't clear what point To thinks he's making. The film works best when To lets his fantastic visual sense take over, as in a fantastic park shootout timed to the flickering light of the moon.  But too often the film returns pointlessly to awkward quasi-parodies of action movie conventions, which isn't enough to sustain a two-hour film.
47)  Rejoice and Shout (Don McGlynn, USA, 115 min.)

C   Mediocre

48)  The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam, UK, 123 min.)
Some of the flaws of Terry Gilliam's latest film can be blamed on the untimely death of star Heath Ledger, which occured while the film was halfway through production.  But it is telling that Gilliam's solution - to have Ledger's character (a charlatan clearly meant to represent Tony Blair) replaced in various fantasy scenes by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell - is actually one of the less sloppy elements of this extremely uneven and muddled film.  The confusing, awkwardly paced story and the shrill, tone-deaf comedy make this a hard film to recommend even for fans of Gilliam, though there are moments of visual brilliance.
49)  Antichrist (Lars von Trier, Denmark, 108 min.)
Provocation is inherently interesting, but it isn't always edifying.  Lars von Trier's chest-beating existentialism and Medieval conception of femininity get a real workout in this horror film about a troubled couple seeking therapy in the woods.  There are a handful of vibrant images (unusual for von Trier), and Willem Dafoe and (especially) Charlotte Gainsbourg give great performances under the circumstances.  But the film simply isn't deep enough to earn the atrocities (including genital mutilation) depicted in its last half hour.  The aura of self satisfaction is more offensive than anything von Trier puts on screen.
50)  The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, Austria/Germany, 144 min.)
Michael Haneke has been one of world cinema's most intriguing and vital voices of the past two decades.  Too bad he settled for second rate Ingmar Bergman existentialism in this dull look at pre-WWII Germany.
51)  Looking for Eric (Ken Loach, UK, 116 min.)
52)  Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, USA, 117 min.)
53)  The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, France/Germany/UK, 128 min.)
54)  Mesrine (Jean-Francois Richet, France, 246 min.)
55)  Police, Adjective (Cornelieu Porumboiu, Romania, 115 min.)
56)  Soundtrack for a Revolution (Dan Sturman/William Guttentag, USA, 82 min.)
57)  Freedom Riders (Stanley Nelson, USA, 113 min.)
58)  Sons of Cuba (Andrew Lang, UK, 88 min.)
59)  Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Winding Refn, Denmark, 93 min.)
60)  The Human Centipede (Tom Six, Netherlands, 92 min.)
For a movie with such a seductively insane plot – a mad scientist kidnaps three young people and stitches their mouths to each other's anuses, essentially creating one superbeing – The Human Centipede is a surprisingly dull film.  Tom Six knows how to make a low-budget film look professional, and thankfully uses suggestion more than graphic imagery for his gross-out effects, but he has no sense of pacing.  Dieter Laser, the Udo Kier-style ham actor who plays the scientist, supplies most of the entertainment after the initial shock value wares off.
61)  The Twilight Saga:  Eclipse (David Slade, USA, 124 min.)
The Twilight series' nonsensical storylines and bizarre sense of morality remain equally baffling and popular.  The third installment is a modest improvement over the first two, if only because the war between vampires and wolfpeople allows for more action and less brooding.
62)  Clash of the Titans (Louis Letterier, USA, 106 min.)
63)  Robin Hood (Ridley Scott, UK/USA, 140 min.)
64)  Budrus (Julia Bacha, Israel, 70 min.)
65)  Nora's Will (Mariana Chenillo, Mexico, 92 min.)
66)  A Film Unfinished (Yael Hersonski, Israel, 88 min.)

C-   Below Average
67)  A Screaming Man (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Chad, 92 min.)
68)  No One Knows About Persian Cats (Bahman Ghobadi, Iran, 106 min.)
69)  Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton, USA, 108 min.)
Imagine how great a Tim Burton-directed Alice in Wonderland would've been in 1990, with Winona Ryder as Alice, a less kid-friendly Johnny Depp still playing the Mad Hatter, and imaginative pre-CGI set designs.  The actual Burton-directed Alice from 2010 isn't a total waste of time – some of the performances are entertaining (especially Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen), even if they sometimes don't seem like they belong in the same movie – but it is still Burton's worst film since Planet of the Apes, and a sad reminder of his declining talent.

D   Awful
70)  Tron Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, USA, 127 min.)

D-   Nearly Worthless
71)  Baraboo (Mary Sweeney, USA, 99 min.)
You would think that Mary Sweeney, frequent editor for David Lynch, would be able to at least put together a technically competent feature of her own.  Yet the only thing that sets Baraboo apart from the average home movie are its painfully unrealistic characters.

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