Thursday, January 13, 2011

Best Movies of 2010

1. Carlos (Olivier Assayas)

This sprawling, sexy, violent, globe-trotting thriller based on the life infamous terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez ('Carlos the Jackal') mimics William Friedkin's stylish, gritty 70s international thrillers (with a little John Schlesinger here, a little Michael Winner there), but punches that up with some terrific exploitation bloodletting & even gratuitous sex ala Uli Edel's misunderstood Baader Meinhof Complex (2008). But where Edel wallowed in excess, Assayas keeps reining us back into politics & often confusing minutiae so that each time this 5 1/2 hour opus explodes into violence or outlaw sex feels like the first. Assayas is an expert at cinematic punctuation & he knows how to make his ellipses & semi-colons pay off in bravura stream-of-consciousness set pieces. Also off-setting time considerations -- Edgar Ramirez's coiled cobra poise & physical endurance (he's aptly being compared to Brando), a phalanx of equally intense international actors (Nora von Waldstatten & Julia Hummer in particular) & a jet-set new wave soundtrack featuring Wire, New Order, Lightning Seeds & The Feelies. This pole position does not apply to the condensed versions of Carlos that have been making the rounds.

2. Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos)

Though released in Europe in 2009, Lanthimos' mordantly peculiar Kynodontas only made it to these shores in 2010. A grotesque parable of familial protectionism (and perhaps, by proximity, nationalism) this bloodthirsty Greek one-of-a-kind is a hyper-stylized wonder of New Surrealism. Dogtooth is the story of a mother & father who've convinced their three children that there is a big hostile nothing outside the somewhat opulent grounds of their estate & that that it's not safe to leave the home until their canine teeth have fallen out. Unfortunately the real world begins to seep into this nest (via the help, of course) of off-the-cuff parental mythology & ominous proclamations & brutal microcosmic endtimes ensue. There are images & situations here that are impossible to shake no matter what the film's satiric intent. I prefer to think Lanthimos is not operating from the point of view of a satirist but, like tales from the Brothers Grimm, that this story is what it is, a series of familiar domestic situations in extremis. Ionesco, David Lynch & more than a little Joseph Beuys come to mind, but only if I'm just being needy for comparisons, because Dogtooth is too singular in its mannerisms & too determined in its narrative trajectory to mimic or pay homage to any other artist. Unlike many filmmakers who pursue a dream-like universe, Lanthimos' style is remarkably clean & composed (Think Todd Haynes' Safe with a wilder premise), making the mounting horrors completely riveting. Viewing Dogtooth is a little like walking through an Ikea store & stumbling upon a torture chamber between the Danish Modern kitchenette & the corridor of bright blue bunkbeds.

3. The Fighter (David O. Russell)

Russell finally lives up to the promise of 1999's brilliant Three Kings with this based-on-fact tale of a working class Massachusetts family's squalor & bittersweet triumph. One-upping the Afflecks by creating an unforgettable army of East Coast gargoyles (many of them dead ringers for Daniel Clowes characters), Russell leaves no doubt in the audience's hive mind that boxing is the only goddamn thing that could possibly save these people from themselves (well, aside from education & first-class dental care). If you drew the plot out as a graph, you'd never see any reason to watch this movie having seen it dozens of times before, but the performances are so vivid, the direction so sure-footed & the writing so judiciously tangled, it's easy to think you're watching your very first boxing picture. Russell's gift for integrating a certain cartoonishness into torn-from-the-headlines plots reminds me of the great Michael Ritchie (Smile, Bad News Bears, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom). He leads with the jokes about these characters so you generally absolve them as caricatures & then keeps adding layers until they're not jokes anymore. Here he turns what could have been a marginal plot point about the film we see being made of Christian Bale & Mark Wahlberg's family at the outset into a major revelation halfway through & Voila, the whole gallery of misanthropes are suddenly transformed into human beings. While the entire cast weaves ably back & forth between the Lowell, Mass. shtick & often devastating human vulnerability, Christian Bale -- as Wahlberg's crackhead brother/boxing trainer -- burns white-hot at the core of every scene and, surrounded with this much raving humanity, the performance doesn't feel like showboating at all. It's almost a relief that the boxing scenes in the movie are filmed, for the most part, the way we'd see them watching HBO or closed-circuit major events at an auditorium. Russell doesn't try for high style in the ring because he's shown us what's at stake & we don't need a Dolby hook to the jaw or a flashbulb white-out to know the score. 

4. True Grit (Joel & Ethan Coen)

The Coen Brothers have no facility whatsoever for protracted scenes of violence or for the kind of grand cinematic gestures -- usually a confluence of majestic, imposing landscapes & the empowered or defeated human form -- that make for great Westerns. So it's strange that this subdued, literate second look at Charles Portis' Great American Novel won me over the way it did. Even great anti-Westerns like Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Robert Benton's Bad Company (also featuring a young Jeff Bridges) & William Graham's Cry for Me Billy knew how to exalt every mountain & place man in nature with bold strokes, but the Coens keep their characters locked into these birch & cedar stages as they journey to find Tom Chaney, the man who killed the precocious waif Mattie Ross' father. There's rarely an open vista. Even the great Rooster Cogburn charge during the movie's climax is played out in a confined wash basin instead of on a great plain. While having the characters boxed in this way does suggest literary inevitability it doesn't exactly "sing" as cinema. However, what True Grit lacks in, well, grit, it compensates for with wonderfully outsized characters & gristly monologues (a lot of them yanked whole-cloth from Portis' exhilarating book) that serve as boisterous landscapes of their own. Part Shakespeare, part the Holy Bible, part untethered profanity & lashed together by tumbling drunken digressions, these monologues, mostly delivered by Rooster Cogburn/Jeff Bridges, provide what the camera seems timid to show us. It's rare when a movie floors me with talk & acting chops, but True Grit managed it. It's not as if the movie is completely devoid of larger-than-life set pieces however (hell, Bridges' Cogburn is a set piece unto himself). There are fine, even great filmic moments scattered throughout (a well-attended public hanging, the situation surrounding a hanged man in the woods, a cabin-bound shoot-out) & the Coen Brothers' gift for shocking bursts of violence is certainly on display here. But really the reason True Grit makes this list is because Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld & Matt Damon wrench all the mythic life they can out of these book-bound characters and, by sheer force of will, talk them into existence.

5. Winter's Bone (Debra Granik)

A Deep woods southern Gothic with the kind of quest story that inspires dread from the get-go. Jennifer Lawrence as the laconic, headstrong daughter of a hillbilly crime lord goes off in search of a daddy she pretty much knows is dead, warily abetted by John Hawkes doing a fine Levon Helm impression & shifting from affability to hair-trigger violence without so much as lifting an eyebrow. The movie is so finely textured it seems whittled patiently from decaying porch pillars & lightning-blasted shagbark trees. Please let someone in Hollywood hand Debra Granik a script for Pinckney Benedict's novel Dogs of God.

6. Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)

Black Swan is that rare film that becomes more hypnotic & watchable the more it swerves off the rails. Aronofsky read just enough in Harvard to be dangerous behind a camera & I don't mean dangerous in a good way. If given a choice between being cerebral & being visceral he almost always chooses cerebral & in his movies cerebral always leads to monumental silliness (remember the tree creatures from The Fountain?). And no matter what anyone says, his one manageable "little" film, The Wrestler, is unrelentingly silly. In Black Swan, at least, he lets his freak flag fly. Imagine if Alfred Hitchcock had second-guessed the Dali dream sequence in Spellbound, or if Michael Powell had thought too long about the wisdom of making a film based on Tales of Hoffmann, an unfinished, monstrously florid 19th Century opera, or if Douglas Sirk had stewed too long over the plot of Magnificent Obsession...Well, Black Swan is nowhere near as good as any of those movies but those movies aren't really "good" in the traditional sense either. They're movies steeped in feverish anti-logic, movies which constantly try to explain themselves while burrowing ever more deeply into artifice & psychosis (whether it be the psychosis of the director or the psychosis of a character becomes a mute point). Talking yourself out of movies like this is like trying to talk yourself out of a dream while you're dreaming. Eventually your argument becomes fuzzy & the front & back pieces of a worm emerge from each ear & laugh in your face. Black Swan tells what story it has in swift, illogical epee-strokes & drops the curtain, forcing you to wonder what the fuck you even saw. How much was real? How much hallucination & delirium? At an hour & forty minutes though, it doesn't drag on. It plays out its starkly symbolic passion play & its sexy, glamorous psychological tropes quickly & easily & with a minimum of fuss really. And, for a movie by such a pretentious little geek, it's kind of a blast. Questions of acting don't seem at all pertinent to me in this context but everyone (Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman, Barbara Hershey) does their duty in service to the collective dream.

7. Exit Through the Gift Shop/Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (Banksy/Ricki Stern, Anne Sundberg)

Two documentaries that find interesting new ways to make us care about things we really don't care that much about. Exit Through the Gift Shop cuts away the infinite bullshit from the modern art world by playing a series of head games, not unlike Orson Welles' under-viewed little masterpiece F is for Fake, which trowels on the hooey as documentary evidence & then starts letting the cracks in the narrative show until we have no idea what to believe. And this is what you get for letting hucksters & con men tell their story. So there.

The Joan Rivers documentary assumes we think Joan Rivers is a shrieking, irrelevant Borscht Belt Noh mask, because what the hell else are we to think? I mean, look at her! Though we're told by every Hollywood moralist that success in show business is primarily based on luck & perseverance, we rarely see it acted out like this. Rivers is a dervish, a wounded pioneer who can still drive people to their knees with laughter during her stand-up routines by saying the unsayable. We give tacit permission to comedians to say what no one else dares to say, things we'd punch a man senseless for saying on the subway, horrible things about our festering ids which reveal our fragile egos, our latent racism & homosexuality, our obesity, our horrific narcissism. We're horrible, horrible people & we let comedians tell us so. Unless we're truly horrible people, then we say, "That's not funny." Unfortunately Rivers wants to be more than that. She wants one-woman shows on Broadway, movie roles, TV sitcoms. Her ambition is unrivaled & she's it's not always pleasant watching this kind of raw ambition. In the end though, you will leave this documentary giving a shit about Joan Rivers, which is amazing.

A Piece of Work also contains one of the year's best lines: "This is my apartment & it's very grand. This is how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she'd had money."

8. I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino)

While watching Guadagnino's first proper directorial outing, I Am Love, It's very difficult not to think of the psychological & class warfare that would be broiling under these cool, elegant Milanese surfaces in the hands of Visconti or Bertolucci. I'm still not sure whether the director simply assumed -- in the fashion of a proper Post-Modernist luxuriating in Modernist forms -- that the more sinister, sublimated layers of I Am Love would simply constitute in our movie-addled minds with a knowing visual prod or through the furtive glances of relatives over a luxuriously appointed banquet table & therefore didn't merit showing or discussing, or whether Guadagnino was just too enamored with his ravishing surfaces to pay attention to such base affairs. Well, it worked on me. I still believe the relatively poor cook slept with the mother of his wealthy best friend simply because he needed to adjust the balance of power in the relationship, though it's never stated or really even implied. Not that the mother (Tilda Swinton) isn't other-worldly as all hell & a perfect sensual feast with her designer frocks & deer-in-headlights eyes, but there's a richer film packed inside this one & I'm honestly not sure if I've unpacked it correctly. If I have, it's a splendid arthouse diversion, the kind the don't make anymore & whatnot. If I haven't, it's still the most visually haunting movie of the year, with the kind of cinematography (by Yorick Le Saux) one gasps over slightly & spends weeks in the library, pouring over books of travel photography, trying to relive.

9. Four Lions (Christopher Morris)

This year's In the Loop, Four Lions is a profane, wildly funny exercise in crossing the line. Following a bewildered terrorist cell as they prepare for a suicide bombing,  Morris' film manages to satirically skewer everything in its path but draws its characters so finely that it's never like watching a political cartoon come to life. Once we've become privy to their personal twitches, it becomes considerably less shocking that these addled souls would lock themselves into an  inexorable fate from which they'd all love to extricate themselves & from there on the movie is all about watching them attempt to wriggle out from under religion, politics, nihilism & personal obligation, so they can think & breathe clearly for a moment. Four Lions is daringly specific, detailed, politically astute & funnier than any other movie this year.

Red Hill

10. Animal Kingdom/Red Hill (David Michod/Patrick Hughes)

Animal Kingdom is the gritty masterpiece here, a brutal fist-tight familial crime drama that takes on the legacy of Brit great Mike Hodges (Get Carter, Croupier) from an Australian redneck perspective & matches the master bruise for bruise. Meanwhile, Australia's Red Hill is a spur-rattling, melodramatic neo-Western that takes everything lacking in True Grit & amplifies it to eleven. Starring True Blood's Ryan Kwaten, Red Hill gratifies by being so blazingly cinematic that you either forget or forgive how much it trades in cliche & parody, depending on your temperament. It doesn't hurt that Australians seem to have a gift for crafting B-movie conventions into sharp sticks with which to gouge out your eyes. Like the great exploitation filmmakers of yore, these new Australian mavericks will do any damn thing to keep you nailed to your seat. If you're not ashamed of your heart thumping so hard it rattles the popcorn around in your Good Times bucket every time the moon turns blood red while heroic silhouettes pass along a hill or a jukebox in a deserted tavern blasts out Stevie Wright's stomper "Black-Eyed Bruiser" while a wronged Murrungun tribesman bloodies up main street, you'll love Red Hill. If you like your spatter & vengeance a little meaner & more nuanced, rev up Animal Kingdom.

11. Down Terrace (Ben Wheatley)

Another film that hit some festivals in 2009 but didn't get much attention in the U.S. until 2010, Down Terrace's treacherous crime family is as middle class as can be. The patriarch of the decrepit rowhouse is a spineless, but deadly old hippie who plays Fairport Convention-style folk music on a thousand dollar Gibson with his mates & bemoans the demise a drug culture based on mind expansion & higher consciousness. He babbles on about tea & yoga, but drinks whiskey whenever it's offered & seems exhausted if he has to budge from his tattered Victorian chair. These are the people from Nicholas Roeg's Performance as not-so-respectable mid-lifers. The son is a fairly likable hair-trigger manic-depressive who sells esoteric books on e-bay & trusts that his routine of getting high & drinking with pops will go on forever, despite a mysterious informant who may pull the whole ramshackle charade to its knees at any moment. Oh, and he seems to have a congenital deformation of the penis, though the specifics are never revealed. It would be easy to paint mum as the snake in the grass here, the real killer, the genuine psychopath, if she weren't the only one with any clear, practical idea how a criminal enterprise should be run. In the end, the rest of the gang are just fidgety maladjusted clowns. Slowly the rather byzantine big picture begins to crush in on their naive, grubby little Walter Sickert hearth painting & to say they handle it badly would be a grave understatement. With its soundtrack of old blues & folk songs (Karen Dalton's gorgeous "Are You Leaving for the Country?" adds chilling indigo to a few scenes) & the script's ingenious way of talking about something on this side of the room but indicating something dark & decidedly more venal in the hall closet, Down Terrace is like no other crime film.

12. Somewhere (Sofia Coppola)

After the double whammy of Virgin Suicides & Lost in Translation, it looked as though Coppola might get lost in her own carnival of privilege with Marie Antoinette (one of those films where everyone on screen seems to be having such a good time you actually become angry that you're not, which is strangely apt for a movie about the French Revolution), but she's budgeted her palette for Somewhere & it definitely pays off. This portrait of a failing -- but not failed -- actor (played well enough by Stephen Dorff) who's tucked himself away in the Chateau Marmont -- that fabled Hollywood Gothic fairyland few of us will ever see more intimately  than we do here -- to drift into whatever projects his agent can dig up for him, limns a Hollywood where the crazy has long ago been internalized. Dorff plays an actor without theory or pretension who's skated by on good looks, effortless charm & a natural way with the camera. The movie drifts as well, but Coppola's knows this world top & bottom & this makes the actor's drifting so tactile & of its time & place that you start to feel little undertows of sadness & waste without Coppola having to resort to any larger-than-life gestures. There are no big emotions playing out here. The movie won't break your heart or make you hate Hollywood or even comprehend it. It isn't the definitive statement on broken homes or how a surfeit of money can allow you to float in & out of focus in your own life. Agents aren't parasites or friends, assistants aren't envious lackeys or efficient dullards. As filmed short stories go this is a small marvel of detail & understatement. And because every film has to have a beating heart, Somewhere provides us with Elle Fanning as Dorff's lovely daughter. Fanning could, quite obviously, start up your waterworks with a sideways glance, but she chooses instead to be a girl wondering whether or not she's sad & wondering what it is exactly that constitutes neglect. This choice makes all the difference & gives this beautiful drifting tone poem a very warm afterglow.

13. Cyrus (Jay & Mark Duplass)

Sabotaged by a misleading ad campaign that portrayed it as another in a long line of overgrown manchild comedies of excruciation, Cyrus never received its due. In fact, it works as an antidote to movies like Step Brothers, Role Models & I Love You, Man. The opening scene in which John C. Reilly's ex-wife (Catherine Keener) accidentally walks in on him masturbating isn't terribly encouraging but the movie rights itself from then on & becomes the rare kind where characters actually try to speak reasonably to one another when situations become embarrassing or intolerable & say intelligent things that sway the other person into acting like a human being. Events in Cyrus boil up to that point where -- as a modern American movie-goer -- you just assume the characters will resort to mindless slapstick violence in order to escalate the hijinx. When they actually behave the way a real person might, it's downright shocking. Which is not to say Cyrus isn't funny. How can a battle of wills between Reilly & Jonah Hill not be funny? But it also draws a line between edgy comedy & guffawing, nut-racking, anvil-on-the-head pathology. Seeing John C. Reilly taking a respite from his Goofus No. 2 role is an absolute pleasure. He's a talented actor & while the world certainly needs clowns too, it would be a shame if we all forgot his unique range.

Honorable Mentions: 

Monsters (Gareth Edwards), White Material (Claire Denis), Inside Job (Charles Ferguson), The Crazies (Breck Eisner), The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski), Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold), Greenberg (Noah Baumbach), The Woodmans (Scott Willis), The Town (Ben Affleck), Piranha 3D (Alexandre Aja), The Red Riding Trilogy, Justified (FX TV), Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Edgar Wright) Jack Huston's Richard Harrow on Boardwalk Empire (HBO TV) and, in keeping with J. Hoberman's theory that you should take your pure cinema where you find it, the last half-hour of Repo Men (Miguel Sapochnik) & the incredibly rousing Rite of Spring concert at the beginning of Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (Jan Kounen)

Major Disappointments: 

David Fincher's listless & square The Social Network, Lisa Cholodenko's offensive The Kids Are All Right & the seemingly endless Plutonian pinball game of Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void

The Best of the Older Films I Watched for the First Time in 2010:

L'Argent (Marcel L'Herbier, 1928), The Locket (John Brahm, 1946), 99 River Street, Gunman's Walk, Five Against the House (Phil Karlson), The Outside Man (Jacques Deray, 1972), No Name on the Bullet (Jack Arnold, 1959), The Scar, AKA Hollow Triumph (Steve Sekely, 1948), An American Dream (Robert Gist, 1966), Warning Shot (Buzz Kulik, 1967), Dillinger is Dead (Marco Ferreri, 1969), Genuine (Robert Wiene, 1920), That Uncertain Feeling (Ernst Lubitsch, 1941), Taking Off (Milos Foreman, 1971), Too Late for Tears (Byron Haskin, 1949), Madam Satan (Cecil B. DeMille, 1930), Perfect Friday (Peter Hall, 1970), El (Luis Bunuel, 1953), Something For Everyone (Harold Prince, 1970), Gone to Earth (Powell/Pressburger, 1950), Mr. Klein (Joseph Losey, 1976), Night Must Fall (Karel Reisz, 1964), Death in the Garden (Luis Bunuel, 1956), Welcome Home, Soldier Boys (Richard Crompton, 1972), Night People (Nunnally Johnson, 1954), All the Colors of the Dark (Sergio Martino, 1972), Sitting Target (Douglas Hickox, 1972), The Thief (Russell Rouse, 1952), Corridor of Mirrors (Terence Young, 1948), The Moonshine War (Richard Quine, 1970), The Telephone Book (Nelson Lyon, 1971), Goodbye Gemini (Alan Gibson, 1970), It Always Rains on Sunday (Robert Hamer, 1947), Rich and Strange (Alfred Hitchcock, 1932), The Sound of Fury (Cy Endfield, 1950), The Pumpkin Eater (Jack Clayton, 1964), The Queen of Spades (Thorold Dickinson, 1949), The Cheat (Cecil B. DeMille, 1915), The Burgler (Paul Wendkos, 1957), Employees' Entrance (Roy Del Ruth, 1933), Nora Helmer (Rainer Fassbinder, 1974), Murder by Contract (Irving Lerner, 1958), Desperate (Anthony Mann, 1947), Pushover (Richard Quine, 1954), The Savage Eye (Haskell Wexler, 1960),  The Great Flamarion (Anthony Mann, 1945), The Split (Gordon Flemyng, 1968), Thieves' Highway (Jules Dassin, 1949), Sleep, My Love (Douglas Sirk, 1948), Greaser's Palace (Robert Downey Sr., 1972), Woman on the Run (Norman Foster, 1950)

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