Bong Joon-ho has once again made a crime film that defies the genre it thrives in. It’s nothing short of a monumental achievement. I come away from this movie thinking about the curious sense of humor in the first half, indelible drama in the last and all the brilliant touches in between. When a young girl in a small town is found dead, lazy authorities (are there any other kind in Bong’s films?) pin the crime on Do-joon, the village idiot. Normally that would be the end of the matter but this idiot (don’t call him a “retard” or he’ll freak) happens to have a mother that will not quit until her son is free and back at home sleeping in the same bed with her.
Do-joon’s mother has no name beyond “mother” and possesses a fierce sense of loyalty that is equal only to her eccentricities. As Oedipal movie Moms go she manages to outdo Eleanor Shaw from “Manchurian Candidate.” Her warm and motherly advice to her imprisoned son: “Even if you did do it you have to deny it.” “Mother” is about a woman’s journey to uncover the truth and simultaneous unwillingness to face the truth or for that matter deal with her own actions past and present. She is haunted but tirelessly marches forward with the drive of a hunting shark. Mama wants her son back and that’s all there is too it. Except it’s not all. There’s so much going on beneath the surface. The film, aided by such a unique character and performance by Hye-ja Kim, is not on a moral crusade and never goes soft on us. In fact as I continued to watch this quasi-thriller/quasi-drama/quasi-comedy unfold I realized, with a wicked sense of amusement, that this cuddly old mother figure is more fierce than any cop or killer in town.
Not one scene in this movie ends without something inspired or unexpected happening. Its uniqueness is a marvel. “Mother” also has an uncanny eye for detail, pacing and beautiful shot compositions (see picture above) and easily ranks as the best directed released of 2010. I was on the fence as to what movie to select as my #1 (basically it’s a four-way tie this year) but that gave it the edge… as it should. Oh but the writing (also by Bong) is also flawless! Fantastic story twists and aesthetic quirks give this film so much personality that don’t even know where to begin when attempting to describing what it does. I’ve watched “Mother” three times and catch something new every time–the way viscous blood settles on the floor, the movement of tiny figures across huge landscapes, Edward Yang-level shots that capture character actions through windows and doorways, mother’s shadow as it is cast over mourners, artfully captured candid close-ups that are held for an unnaturally long time, spilled water cascading towards a finger and threatening to give away mother’s position as she sneaks around a sleeping man’s house (one of many great Hitchcock touches), mother dancing at the beginning and end of the film (the film’s defining scene) and of course a “Rashomon”-effect that kicks in when we find out who killed the young girl. The’ll even be shots that depict a dead serious situations (like a key moment with mother on a bus) that are hard to focus exclusively on because something crazy will be going on in the same shot. Moments like those (and countless more) are enveloped by a story that is masterfully straightforward and elegant. Strange how a film this idiosyncratic can also have so much classic film sense.
How did “Mother” not make more #1s? Why wasn’t it screened in-competition at Cannes? Why didn’t the Academy see its brilliance after South Korea submitted it as its official entry? Why didn’t Hye-ja Kim win more acting awards? Most of all, why isn’t Bong Joon-ho every movie a worldwide event? There is only a handful of “new” filmmakers from the last ten or so years that I would consider truly worthy of note. In no particular order they would be Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy”), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (“Syndromes and a Century”), Chan-wook Park (“Vengeance” trilogy, “Thirst”), Joe Wright (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Hanna”), Edgar Wright (see the #3 film below), Richard Kelly (“Donnie Darko,” ‘Southland Tales”) and for kicks I would also throw Zach Snyder into the mix (the fact that we know his name, can spot his style and have an opinion on why or why not we should consider him “important” only proves his cultural relevancy). At the very top of my list however would be South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho and it’s “Mother” that seals his status as a modern auteur. While “Mother” is more on “Memories of Murder’s” wavelength than that of his eco-monster movie “The Host” and “Barking Dogs Never Bite,” it is every bit as good as those titles and for that matter every bit as good as anything anyone has made in years. Most directors would kill to have made three films as good as Joon-ho Bong has in their entire career but he’s just getting started.
“A shrink said to me once that I have trouble living in the present, so I linger on the past because I felt like I never really lived it in the first place, you know?” I sure do. “Greenberg” is the best Woody Allen film that Woody Allen never made. While set in L.A. and edgier than most of Allen’s work save for perhaps “Deconstructing Harry,” the (now) legendary writer/director Noah Baumbach taps into the same outsider’s rage with his new film. “Greenberg” is not only Baumbach’s best film to date best his best made film–for once his filmmaking and sense of style is able to go toe-to-toe with his fascinating script and characters.
About a loathsome man house sitting for his rich brother, Roger Greenberg makes everyone’s life he encounters just a little worse; Greenberg is nasty and selfish, yes, but the anger that emits from his toxic core is true to the character and not included without some considerable thought or insight. Unlike many similar angry-man-child films out there “Greenberg” is not aimless in its cynicism and does not take its iconoclastic character’s seething, silver tongued slacker attitude for granted. Thankfully it also does not coyly offer him up to us as some miserable buffoon that we are meant to laugh at. If anything, Baumbach is brave in his attempt to deal with such a prickly figure. In true post-“Squid and the Whale” fashion, you’re not asked to sympathize with this highly intellectual mess of a character, only to spend a few hours with him and develop your own impressions. For most people I know (especially women) that means hatingthe ever loving crap out of Greenberg(and the movie that’s named after him) but from my point of view, and for better or worse, I don’t think I related to a movie or character more in 2010. When an enlightened L.A. soul gave me advice one day to be a “fountain and not a drain” I was thrilled and instantly thought “that’s something that someone would have also said to Greenberg!”
Unlike a lot of characters in the mostly uninspired fish-out-of-water genre, Greenberg is stubborn, unchanging and, in a lot of ways, not nearly as horrible as all the “normal” L.A. bores who think they have it all figured. I like how his stink wafts though the pretentious streets of L.A. like an aimless plague of nebbish anxiety. The film has a strange affection for L.A. that’s hard to put into words but easy to understand. I’ve also lived in L.A. all my life and also love it despite it not loving me. The underrated (when he’s not overrated) Ben Stiller plays Greenberg in his most complex performance to date. Even something as simple as his him struggling to fill out a grocery list (all he can think of is whiskey and ice cream sandwiches) or constant application of ChapStick (OCD?) is memorably handled and a smart way of explaining who this character is by simply observing his myriad idiosyncrasies.
The film belongs to Stiller while it’s heart belongs to Greta Gerwig’s Florence, the exasperated “love interest” that is revolted and charmed by this troubled man. She’s not the only one. She even finds time to sum the character up with more of that condescending L.A. self-help advice that I just love: “hurt people hurt people.” The dialogue is just about perfect in this movie. Never straining to be too clever but smart, funny and believable which is not something I often see in independent movies. “I’m weirdly ‘on’ tonight” Rodger chirps to his friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans who manages to be funny without doing anything funny) as he steamrolls through yet another one-sided/self-centered conversation. Like Ifans and Stiller’s characters, the film is dramatic primarily but, within that dramatic realm, happens to be hilarious. As for that “hurt people hurt people” line, well Greenberg thinks it’s “kind of trite but it stuck with me.” Well said.
I’ve watched “Greenberg” four times since it was released early last year. It gets better every time I see it.
3. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
In a year when film once again manages to hit a new artistic lows, surpasses yet again by television and video games, I am thankful to “Pilgrim” for reminding me that the cinema can be enjoyable and well made in equal proportions.
Edgar Wright, the most inspired comic movie maker since the days of Chaplin, has crafted something truly unique to the superhero genre. While only his first comic book adaption (he chose wisely) you would think Wright has been making films like this for years. So much story and visual information is covered in such an enjoyably madcap manner that, upon further viewings, I constantly found myself pausing just to look at mise-en-scène or take in one of the many layers of cleverness.
Like his brilliant zombie comedy “Shaun of the Dead” and somehow even more brilliant cop themed “Hot Fuzz,” “Scott Pilgrim” is, in a word, dense. Drawing upon a surreal concoction of “Looney Tunes” meets, uhh, Jean Luc Godard, every second yields pleasures, some hidden and some smacking you right in the face. Could be a split second sight gag (Lucas Lee’s movie posters), a funny line (“bread makes you fat?”), a funny flash-back, a funny action (the inner knee tap that orgasmicly disables Roxy), funny blocking, funny reoccurring motifs (the letter X=ex, each evil ex wearingtheir respective numbers into battle etc.), clever if not always funny play on words (“you were a VEGON, now you will BE GONE”), funny expressions (the characters react hilariously to Knives Chow getting the highlights knocked out of her hair), funny reactions to funny expressions (“what, I’m not afraid to hit a girl” the guy who punched Knives says), funny text scribbled across the screen (the game ending “Continue?” prompt pops upon death–I hate when that happens) , funny editing cuts (LOTS), funny actual cuts (made, in one scene, by pixilated light sabers–COOL!!!) funny references to the original comic (at a party Comeau implies the movie we’re watchingis “not as good as the comic”), the myriad video game references (1ups and such) and of course special effects straight out of a cartoon (Scott getting thrown into a buildingcomes to mind). “Pilgrim,” like its eponymous character, tries so hard that even when it (and he) says something stupid or falls on its face you root for it to get back up and continue doing what it’s doing.
This is a movie that was made to be enjoyed but can also practically be studied for all the technique on display. It makes sense that it’s a cult movie but could have just as easily been enjoyed by so many more if only they were more open-minded. It’s not just about a nerd, but a nerd who loves video games. And music. And isn’t very ambitious. Or smart. And is a jerk. Ah, I can see how that doesn’t appeal to a lot of people outside of the white-male-raised-by-Super-Nintendo demo. For those in it, though, this is a fairy tale for the digital age. Not only is Wright’s film well made (it’s editing, adapted screenplay and cinematography are all the best of the year) but the casting is right on the money. Michael Cera may be hit or miss (still tryingto forget that other 2010 movie featuring Cera and his evil doppelgänger, “Youth in Revolt”) but, daym, he IS Scott. Every stammer, grin and (literally) empty headed blurb is vintage Cera and vintage Scott.
This is a living breathing cartoon that only lets up when it’s being awkwardly romantic. His love interest, Ramona Flowers, is played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (whom I’ve had a crush on well before Scott!!!). Of course in this world Scott must battle Ramona’s seven evil exes and as a bonus two of the seven are played by the Capt America of the future (Chris Evans, bro-ing it up with great pleasure) and Superman of the past (the underrated Brandon Routh steals scenes as a Super Vegan). I could continue blabbing about how much I appreciate this movie and how much it has grown on me in a few short months since its disappointing release (surpassing even the comic in a lot of ways) and, most of all, how much it disturbs me to say that Armand White’s pick for the #1 movie of the year is actually quite wise and progressive. I’ll cut my effusive ramblings short because, the way I figure, the less time I spend talking about “Scott Pilgrim” only translates into more time I can be watching it.
4. Ghost Writer
New Hollywood titans Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese opened their respective films on the same day in 2010. Both films were thrillers and both happened to open with the glum image of a boat traversing chilly water before docking on an ominous island. Oh, and both were… really good! But where as “Shutter Island” plunges into the murky depths of psycho-fantasy, “Ghost Writer” sticks with it and doggedly attempts to unearth the dark mystery at hand. With a story about politicians that lie, governments that kill and writers that, well, write, this is “Chinatown” for the 21st Century only with GPS car navigators and cell phones instead of chatty cab drivers and shadowy phone booths. “Ghost” is a very clean and efficient movie that, like it’s workhorse writer, has a job to do and does it as efficiently as possible. Roman Polanski understands that more and different is not necessary better –especially with regards to the neo-noir– so he wrote and directed “Ghost Writer” exactly as it should be and as good as it can be. This perfectly crafted film is methodical (others might call it slow but screw them) in the way it depicts the riveting transition of a ghost writer with literally no-name (apt) to a glorified journalistic gumshoe in over his head. What begins as a in-and-out writing assignment (“you name it, he ghosts it”) turns into a murder mystery and unfolds with a worldwide government conspiracy.
Ewan McGregor plays the “ghost” with a great and wily deadpan approach and is apart of a trio of truly memorable movie characters. The other two are the subjects of his writing assignment, Pierce Brosnan and Olivia Williams as Tony Blair, er, a fictional former British Prime Minister and his wife. The film’s seemingly ordinary appearance within the detective/mystery genre makes it hard at first to process how flawless it actually is. Because it’s so good at its job the film itself is unnoticeable in the sense that you watch it without a second thought of how it was made. That’s classic moviemaking and proof, if you needed any (I did), that Roman Polanski is one of the greatest directors of our/any time.
In terms of plot and narrative structure “Ghost Writer” shares strikingly resemblance both to Polanski’s own brilliantly underrated horror fflm “The Ninth Gate” starring the then-underrated/now insufferable Johnny Depp. Books are central plot devices in both stories and the text itself acts as a desirable means to arriving at some sort of central truth about the world we live in. In “Ninth Gate” it is the forces of Satan and in “Ghost Writer” it is figurehead politicians, furtive spies and sinister government interests. There is hardly a difference. True to the filmmaker’s dependably weary world view, any attempt to uncover or attain this illusive and possibly non existent notion of the “truth” is foolish and will meet with one’s own undoing. The system won’t let the truth win. It can’t. That, my friends, is noir at its best!
5. Another Year
For what it is, it’s perfect. As if it wasn’t painfully obvious before, nobody observes the average person better or with more subtle depth than Mike Leigh. As characters sit, eat and talk about nothing particularly important or life shattering, Leigh is a master of the mundane and, through that, the human condition. Who else could make everyday matters so riveting and so relevant? Centered around the impossibly understanding and supportive couple and their ancillary relationships with various longtime friends/family/co-workers and set over the course of just another year, this movie has the ability to be quietly sad and oddly funny in it’s depiction of all these characters. That almost every scene is set and centered around the happy couple’s always-open home and domestic life makes “Another Year” a great Bizarro world companion piece to “Dogtooth.”
The most amazing thing about this picture as I see it is the skillful misdirection on Leigh’s part. What Leigh does in this movie I will admire to my grave. Most will never realize how unique this movie truly is. This well adjusted couple, played wonderfully (and in a very believable, lived-in way) by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, are the center of the film but at the same time not the focus of it. While deep and well rounded in their own right they are ultimately just straight men to a revolving door of acquaintances, most notably the tragic yet entertainingly loopy and self involved figure played by Lesley Manville who, by the way, was also very good in the wife roles of Leigh’s past greats “All or Nothing” and “Topsy-Turvy.” Manville plays the character of Mary as a manic, desperate and ultimately very lonely middle age secretary fully of the kind of anger of someone who has let her life slip by. A female Greenberg in other words. Despite serving the functions of both a central character and a supporting character, Manville’s chain smoking alcoholic spinster is, in the end, just one of the many shades to this film and this content couple’s colorful life. And that’s what’s so unusually tragic about her and this movie. She exists in a very real way yet is totally invisible and the last scene is crushing to a degree that I find hard to put into words. In one sense, then, this a positive and life affirming film about the power of love, community and how the people in our lives can change us while also serve to remind us of who we are. In another, darker sense it’s about how scary it is for those who have not found happiness.
6. Kick Ass
I can’t say I had a more purely enjoyable theater experience in 2010. Consideringhow many uninspiring big films were released last year that should count for something, right? It does. A lot in fact, because in what other year could a movie where a dude gets microwaved and a pre-teen girl gets shot by her dad for fun land a spot in my top five?! I wish more agreed with me but, as with “Scott Pilgrim,” “Kick Ass” is being relegated to the fringes of nerdy big budget cult status. Fine, a film like this deserves to be underrated. After wisely passing on the third “X-Men” movie (only to be hired back for “X-Men: First Class”) Matthew Vaughn (maker of two other great cult titles “Layer Cake” and “Stardust”) was wise to select “Kick Ass” as his first superhero movie. It bears his bloody stamp. It also does nothing less than expand my notion of what this genre was capable of. This postmodern superhero film is “Fight Club” for the “Spider-Man” generation.
7. Enter the Void
What has Gaspar Noé been up to since he pissed everyone off with the incendiary “Irreversible?” Probably trying to figure out how the hell to make “Enter the Void.” And a shit load of drugs from the looks of it. “Void” is not only Noé’s best film but a turning point in the filmmaker’s career and the cinema of the subjective. Noé actually figured out the whole style/substance paradigm that eluded him in the past and thus was able to artistically back up the bravado he’s known for. The result is “Enter the Void,” a monumentally trippy story of chaos, death, spiritual (as well as literal) rebirth, the translucent/transient nature of beingness, watching, and of course Paz De La Huerta’s vagina. It is one of the best crafted first person point-of-view movies I’ve ever seen (not that there’s many of them), the most technically successful ghost movie ever made and surely one of the most originally executed concepts of the year, maybe decade. And that’s just the first thirty minutes!
In the early stages I was instantly drawn to the faceless character as we both embarked upon what ends up being the final moments of his life. The viewer gets to pull a Being John Malkovich by hanging out in his cloudy head as he gets high, hangs out with his sister (their affection for each other boarders on incest by the way), gets high again, meets a shaggy French friend and walks with him through streets of Tokyo before busted by cops in a bar and coming up with a brilliant way of buyinghimself some time as he flushes his drugs down the toilet, screaming “I have a gun!”–sounds ordinary up until that last part but, trust me, there may not be a more transfixing sequence in all of 2011 movie making.
Once in spirit form the rest is solid but not brilliant. The character’s journey tends to be rambling (understandably), transgressive and a bit too obsessed with the sister character played by (the overrated) actress Huerta. The film seems unable to sustain the transcendent sensory overdrive experience that the riveting opening chapter offered. Still, the “Void” is well worth entering. It is not only eye-opening but mind altering; the warped David Lynch touches and flurry of trippy psychedelic synaptic spasms blend nicely with the floating camera realism while the influence from Kathryn Bigelow’s classic techno-noir “Strange Days” opening (one of my all time favorite sequences in cinema) offers a great point of departure for this film. In the end, the title “Enter the Void” may refer to death, the act of sex or perhaps the act of entering into the “void” of humanity (i.e. birth). Probably all. It’s total madness! If this movie doesn’t make you want to go to Japan, do drugs, die and lead a existence as a junkie ghost (which mostly entails watchingyour sister dance and blow Japanese dudes at a strip club) than nothing will.
Set in the present, “Dogtooth” is about three children who, for reasons never explained, are raised in a deceptively ordinary house believingthat the outside world has gone to hell. Everything they are told is not only a lie but a devious and cruel deception. Imagine if the world’s most twisted psychological experiment were performed by your parents. In this topsy-turvy film world, cats are killer predators that will tear you apart, imaginary siblings exist outside of the fenced-off garden, the world is an dangerous and evil place that will eat you up if you take even one step beyond your house’s property line and, oh yeah, there are no movies beyond what you shoot in your own house. At almost every turn this film questions domestic normalcy, notions of isolationism (both personal and national) and even the arbitrary function of everyday language signifiers. “What is a zombie?” one of the grown “children” asks her mother. “A zombie is a small yellow flower,” she is told. Amazingly, there’s a lot of subversive humor to be found in “Dogtooth” until it creeps into to this unsettling, post-structuralist horror film mode where you feel like anything could happen.
Like a dog, the children are, in one character’s words, “molded” into creatures of unquestioning obedience and servitude. The tyranny of the patriarchy haunts and eventually eats away at the spotless artifice of the home. With the introduction of an outsider that the sadistic (or perhaps just crazy) father brings into the compound to alleviate his son’s, well, urges, things start to really break apart. Especially after she sneaks in the “Jaws” in exchange for oral sex. Feelings of stagnation, claustrophobia and fear of the ever present menace that is “outside” hint at broader messages of European nationalism, the complex construction of personal identities and probably a bunch of other stuff like immigration, but the film never gets carried away with forcing any clear message or, indeed, of even implicitly making a message at all. The film, in the end, is made or broken by our reading of it. For a story so confined, the narrative openness is refreshing and even revolutionary.
In addition the all heady metaphors and deranged story details Lanthimos turns out to be a capable filmmaker as well! Appropriately (and perhaps even wickedly) Lanthimos frames “Dogtooth” with low to the ground Ozu-like camera angels and applies (also like Ozu) an obsessed modern focus upon a single nuclear family. This a one of a kind vision that would be copied if anyone knew how the hell to copy it! It’s subtle and slow moving turns, punctuated by shocking moments of sexuality and violence, are all effectively used in ways that I have never seen before. The lives of these willfully imprisoned children may have no basis in reality until you realize that our own customs and traditions in the prison-like cells we call houses and apartments are just as arbitrary. In the end the real horror of “Dogtooth” is not the dreary routine and domestic illusion the children find themselves unwittingly trapped in but the one we are all trapped in right now in real life.
9. Shutter Island
On a dark and stormy night… yes, Scorsese made that kind of movie. The inclusion of “Shutter Island” is noteworthy because I rarely enjoy Martin Scorsese movies as much as other people seem to. Two in the last decade made my list… of the WORST movies of the year (I can’t say enough bad things about the overrated “Gangs of New York” and “Departed”–they are are unwatchable messes) while “Aviator” laded a spot on my top ten best a few years back but that was hardly a film I would still maintain is still great or worthy of being included on a revised top-ten. But… by not being the filmmaker people expect him to be Scorsese was able to disappear behind his cumbersome legendary status to make an enjoyable movie with no strings attached. This is a most refreshing departure for the filmmaker, the sort of unabashed b-movie that “Departed” wanted to be but couldn’t because it was so full of its own clever devices. “Island” is filled with mystery, a beautifully exaggerated atmosphere and a clearly visible (but not ironic) joy for pulpy genre storytelling. Even DiCaprio’s usual bad/over acting (there, I said it) didn’t affect the movie adversely. In fact, Leo’s sophomoric brooding as he finds himself trapped on an island of crazy people only helps the story achieve a necessary aura of unnatural unease. It’s also a better haunted-by-my-dead-wife DiCaprio movie than “Inception” because, well, this film has an actual story nestled in its dark core. In the end the film works as a thriller and even ends up working as a character driven piece. I’ve said it before and will probably say it again but Scorsese is always a better director when he’s not trying so hard to be a better director.
Weather or not you think it’s one of the year’s best you have to agree that “Carlos” is one of the most important and relevant films of the year, second only to “Social Network.” And it’s not even a film-film! It’s a miniseries but one of the highest order. Aside from the breathtaking, flawlessly paced and thankfully penis free middle chapter concerning the now famous hostage-taking incident by Carlos and his terrorist group at the 1975 OPEC conference, it’s not even that “Carlos” is the most groundbreaking achievement of the 2010. What’s great is more in the way everything is brought together under Oliver Assayas’ pluralistic umbrella. From razor sharp jump cuts to heated cultural interactions to disjointed location sprees to a fragmented sense of history and moral causes and of course the ironic usage of new wave music, “Carlos” is an explosion in all senses of the word.
The film is wise to borrow from the best parts of “Traffic,” “Che” and “Munich.” It actually surpasses them in a lot of ways. What “Carlos” does it does so well and with such unbridled conviction that it does not need to innovate the crime genre it is playing in. This is a staggering epic that must be experienced in all it’s glory so no settling for the anemic feature length version. The weight of it all is overwhelming and even hard to grasp at first because I was so busy attempting to take in and absorb all the information being casually thrown at me. But once I realize it’s not about the specific facts and details but about the attitude and sweeping gestures then the film worked its complex magic on me. And not to take away from all the beautiful small and innocuous but no less important moments such as the sight of a naked woman on white bed in the afternoon, the way two people look at each other while drinking or even just the way smoke dances through the air. This may be the sexiest looking terrorist movie ever made.
Olivier Assayas has made a lot of cool films (last year’s “Summer Hours” also ranked high with me last year) but none quite like “Carlos.” I never quite knew where the filmmaker was comingfrom and that kept me as on edge as anything in the film proper. Is Assayas advocating Carlos’ terrorist behavior? Sympathizing with his cause? Mocking him? Demystifying a legend? It is not spelled out for us thankfully but perhaps elements from all four. I just can’t get a fix on things. The same goes for the figure of Carlos himself played so well and with such conviction by Édgar Ramírez. This is not a a film that attempts to explore and psychologically pick apart the man underneath the so called legend of Carlos the Jackal. A wall is always up on Carlos’s true feelings and his “cause” and perhaps the only cause that ever really mattered to him with was his own via self aggrandizement. Unlike a lot of famous movie gangsters (with terrorists being the modern version of them) this film is about the rise and… not fall but sloooooowdecline of a “historical curiosity.” Carlos talks a good talk but never quite seems to care about anything and so his gradual and unspectacular undoingis fitting. You get the sense that he would rather gaze at his naked body in a mirror, got to a swinging party, romance some commie groupies and of course profit from his professional terrorist activity than to make the world a “better place to live in.” All that and so much more is what makes this such an interesting character study.
11. Blue Valentine
Ohhhh, damn, I wish this one could have squeaked into my top ten. Normally I’m skeptical of movies that jumble their chronology. Far too often, as in the case of Iñárritu’s insufferable “Babel”/”21 Grams” and a slew of other post-“Memento” films (and perhaps “Memento” itself!), it serves no other purpose other than to show off and ultimately conceal the flaws of a movie that would not be as interesting if it were told from A to B. “Blue Valentine”… is not one of those films. It’s dually fragmented timeline is handled perfectly by director Derek Cianfrance and makes total sense given the theme of the movie: the life and death of a romance. It’s hard to find any faults with how this film was made. The happy-times/sad-times contrapuntal editing in particular keeps the story alive and emotionally effective every step of the way. Thrilling even but in a very grounded and terse manner. The impact of all this would have been significantly lessened if not totally destroyed if the two central performances were not up to par with the film’s unique style and approach to the romance genre. The couple played by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are two of the best actors of their generation and if you don’t believe me then this film will show you why. The passion comes through as much as the sense of loss and decay without ever (ever!) feeling gimmicky, overly sentimental or mawkish. Despite a nomination for Williams I almost feel as if “Blue Valentine” didn’t get enough credit. It achieves so much that it’s a shame people let the fact that it made them feel awful get in the way of the impressive work at hand. This film engages the heart and mind in a way very few loves stories have done in the past.
12. Wild Grass
A crazy old man (André Dussollier) finds a wallet in Alain Resnais new film. His attempt to make contact with the wallet’s owner makes for one of the more interesting stories told in 2010. It’s a special kind of film oddity that fits well into Resnais’ towering works (spanning almost 70 years!) but also feels like a fresh step forward for him. Even after watching it’s hard to get a fix on the style and tone of this movie. It’s fanciful and at times as drifts into dream-like passages yet serious at other times in its approach to character and plot. This is a deeply personal story relying on subjective point-of-views yet also relyingon a multi-character tapestry and the element of chance. Nothing is quite right in this movie and that’s why it’s so effective. A great mystery surrounds it and that mystery never really leaves it either. That it’s intention. Parts reminded me of Krzysztof Kieslowski’sworks in the way it observes unique personalities and how they attract, push away and bounce off each other. Other parts seem to be influenced by “Eyes Wide Shut” in terms of visuals, color pallet, and the strange sense of reality the characters exist in. And yet more elements are highly self-aware and postmodern. Oh, and strange–like, stalker love story strange. But funny all throughout in it’s extremes. As with “Everything Else,” I didn’t know if the film would end with joyful tears or blood curdling screams. I won’t say what happens but I will say that the final line “When I’m a cat, will I be able to eat cat munchies?” makes about as much sense when you first hear it than to someone who hasn’t seen the movie at all. Point being, the story takes you where it takes you so just be grateful that it even exists. “Grass” is elegant, colorful, thoughtful and incredibly imaginative. In other words, an Alan Resnais story. I can’t wait to see it again.
13. Of Gods and Men
The anti-“Carlos” as French movies go. As someone who has never gotten into that organized religion thing it says lot coming from me that the message and meaning of the faith-based “Of Gods and Men” spoke to me. Lead by the great Lambert Wilson and the Samurai dude from “Ronin” (Michael Lonsdale) the film follows the real life story of Catholic Missionaries who live out (the remainder of) their humble lives in a hostile war zone. And this is before 9-11! They told they are unwanted. They are told to leave or die. They stick around. The film thus becomes a modern retelling “High Noon” except with 100% more Muslims and no Gary Cooper in sight. I guess that also makes it similar to “Zulu” but with a lot more bibles than guns.
“Gods” contains a message of peace and hope but, unlike like many films with a “message” (especially those rooted in Christian ideology), does not push its dogmatic world view, only its humanism. There is a beauty to the naturalism of the performances, locations and narrative drive. With many scenes of prayer, table setting and farming the film captures the serene rhythms of these holy men and their way of life and becomes increasingly more captivating (and horrifying) when the sanctity of this peaceful existence becomes disrupted with spurts of dramatic intensity within the brotherhood, violence outside of it and, worst of all, the feeling that the worst to come is just around the corner and holding an automatic rifle. This group of men whom we get to know and love quite well over the course of the story believe they have found their calling in the Earthly equivalent to hell and yet, despite mounting fears and anxiety, they resist flight and cling to love and understanding. God, after all, must has a reason for all of this madness (or, uhhhh, not). All they want to do his help the local village and coexist with their Muslim “neighbors.” Do I buy into the Christian religion or, for that matter, the opposing religion? No I do not. Do I feel the West should be in a country that doesn’t want them there? NO, that’s an asshole move. Would I have gotten the hell out of Dodge if I were them. Hell yeah! But I am not them; even so, the dilemma that is presented to the viewer is universally understood and accepted. It’s rare to find a film made in the modern era as morally honest and agreeable as “Gods.” No film I can recall at the moment explores the religious and cultural divide between the East and West more delicately or with more insight as “Of Gods and Men.”
14. Everyone Else
This is one of those cases where it pays to never read film criticism (anymore) or listen to Internet posters. I fired this bad boy up because I heard it was good. That’s all I need anymore. The film opens on an insecure German man-boy and his slightly bored but uber-passionate girlfriend. The two are hanging on in Spain (I think… maybe Italy or Greece) with very little to do but very lot a lot on the mind if you’ll pardon my grammar. Things just sort of exist and linger in this movie. The film’s tempo is strange to say the least. One scene has a way of flowing into the other, carrying with it a undercurrent of nervous energy. The pacing and editing is able to match the Mediterranean breeziness of the region. By the half-way point I was hooked and wondering where this film is going. Will it morph into thriller? A drama? SOMETHING has to happen! At this point was reminded of the early moments of “Sexy Beast” but of course there was no psycho Ben Kingsley to spice up the proceedings. Or is there? Not to spoil things but little actually happens in the second hour as well and that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s a wonderfully observed slice of life but a bitter and somewhat soggy slice that I’m glad I don’t have to actually eat. Sample dialogue: “I love you so much…” Gitti, the woman, says to Chris. His response?: “…” nothing. Full of awkward silences and indifferent glances, “Everyone Else” about a once happy, now unlikable couple told in the vein of, say, a modern Cassavetes film. Like his films, it focuses on the selfish traits of men and the infuriating nature of the women that love them. In the end, what “Everyone Else” does best is capture the little moments in a relationship. Not the big fights or the infinite sadness but the innocuous moments such as reading a book on a lazy afternoon. Watch it alongside “Blue Valentine” and you’ll never want to be in another relationship again.
15. The Fighter
David O Russell
While many gravitated towards the boxing and melodrama this is a movie made (in my eyes) by it’s smaller and more intimate details. Funny considering its director, David O Russell has historically been more of a bigger-is-better kind of guy within the indie world. “Three Kings,” “Flirting with Disaster” and “I Heart Huckabees” were not exactly subtle. Still, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a period movie so keyed into the era it was set in. Considering that era is the 90s it’s easy to overlook what this film does. From the tattered clothes characters wear to the musky sweat stains on said clothes to the way the boxing matches are shot to look like a 1993 HBO broadcast, the film is oozingwith authentic texture. And I haven’t even mentioned the actors because, really, “The Fighter” is nothing if not an actor’s movie and it has two Oscars to show for it (last time that happened was, what, “Million Dollar Baby” and who knows what before that). The sense of place and character is uncanny here.
Mark Whalberg plays real-life underdog Mickie Ward (a boxers name if ever there was one), a stepping-stone fighter which is basically the guy you beat up to move up the ranks. On this surface this is the kind of character we’ve seen before in this genre. He’s the gentle straight man throughout the entire movie and I give Wahlberg so much credit for not only producing and keeping this movie alive but not attempting to steal the spotlight. He remains a passive character that is not a Saint so much as a slightly dopey dude tryingto get by and do right. Lead by an amazing performance by the showy Melissa Leo (in a crazy mother performance that joins the ranks of Angelica Huston in “The Grifters” and Fay Dunaway in “Mommy Dearest”), an underrated Amy Adams in her best role so far (as good as Leo is I would argue Adams is better) and, in a out-of-left-field performance character-actor Jack McGee (you’d know him if you saw him) as the resistant father. Lead by the fierce mother, the family surrounds and smothers Mickie, harnessing his talent for profit at the expense of his health and humanity. But I never disliked them because they added so much to the story.
Of course it’s old news by now to sate that Christian Bale, pardon OSCAR WINNER Christian Bale as Mickie’s crack addicted brother/trainer steals the show. If Whalberg is the heart of the movie than Bale is its voice and twitchy energy source. And it’s loud! In fact, Bale steals the show so hard and with such authority that his greatness spills over into Wahlberg/Russells other films. He’s now officially the best thing about “I Heart Huckabees” and “Three Kings!” Never has a boxing movie had such a vibrant human component. Russell is finally getting the credit he deserves.
16. I Am Love
Tilda Swintoncando just about anything! Speak Italian, sure why not? Russian? Yup, she does that too. How about Hungarian? Not in this film but she did that in Béla Tarr little seen “The Man From London.” So why, with all her options after winning an Oscar (how cool is that by the way?), would Swinton make a movie in which she plays the repressed matriarch of a bustling Italian family who have made their money off industry and now just sit around worrying about throwing parties? Because she’s like no other actress on earth. Here, Swinton effortlessly transforms her Anglo ice queen persona to fully inhabit a, uh, Italian ice queen. This woman can make the simple act of eating shrimpoff a plate in slow motion look cool. I bet she could play Harriet Tubman and totally pull that shit off. I’m getting sucked into the vortex of Swinton’s awesomeness so… okay, the film: “I Am Love” is a refreshing kind of story that we don’t get much of these days outside of a Todd Haynes film.
“Love’s” qualities actually takes you off guard. It took me back to the Vittorio De Sica days of unabashed Italian romances and melodramas while at the same time transcending its genre. This is a movie full of great looking food, better looking(retro) cinematography, detailed sets, a lush music composition, beautiful people and one impossibly gorgeous/well chosen close-up after another. Of course, as things start to unravel in the story (I won’t spoil the details) the beauty wilts and turns into a complicated but no less fascinating mess. The upside to that is the intensity the film takes on in its latter, darker half. When the uptight Swintonfinally lets loose and gets a little su’in-su’inon the side, the film pops with the best and most creatively shot outdoor sex scene since that amazing adaptation of “Lady Chatterley,” or perhaps just ever. The film also contains the best use of soup as plot twist ever. EVER! And, while it’s at it, one of the very best codas of the year. The emotions in the wordless final sequence gave me chills. “I Am Love” is like a lost classic Italian film had Italy not gone through its cinematic renaissance after World War 2 yet retained the magical qualities of the filmmaking from that period. It’s a real treasure.
17. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
Woody Allen made another underrated movie in 2010. What else is new? When “Stranger” opens with one of Allen’s signature old time tunes it occurred to me that whatever happens in the world –and a lot happens– I can always count on Woody Allen to be Woody Allen. You can’t put a price –or rating– on that. This is an artist that will not change or be influenced past his usual inspirations and this is also one of those rare instances where one’s inability to change is a good thing. The film takes me back to the days of “Hanna and Her Sisters” where a group of people loosely connected go about their lives in a way that can not quite be called realism and not quite be called un-realism. More like Woodyness. Observations are made, arguments are animated, trusts are broken, friendships are sparked, drinks are had, love is lost, and then found again somewhere else. Any fan of Allen knows what to expect. Woody is a master at heavy drama/Greek tragedies (“Match Point” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors” are classics in their own right) and perhaps more well known for his comedies but what’s more interesting is how good he is at the in-betweens. And I don’t just mean “Melinda and Melinda,” a film that is literally, and by design, in between drama and comedy. This is a cheerfully modest and of course underrated effort full of everyday people that we are not asked to like or hate. There is a lot to chew on here. The title in question is used very ironically–who is this “tall dark stranger” we always hear about, anyhow? Beyond the exaggerated depiction of “him” on the film’s poster (looks like Zach Ephron with a pompadour) the tall dark man is not in this film and that’s its point. He’s never existed but he will always be brought up because we want to live in a world where he might.
Sometimes a movie, once seen, has a way of creeping up on you even if you don’t like it. Like a… monster. A human-based sci-fi story in the truest sense, “Monsters” is what Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” would have been had it not ODed on indulgent effects and sophomoric (soph-moronic) family melodrama and happy endings. Other indirect influences on this indie movie seem to be “The Host,” “District 9” and “Cloverfield” so goes without saying that this film is in good company. That being said it’s nice to see the influences exist without getting the overwhelming sense that the film itself is not original.
Its not the whiny characters or rudimentary “get out of the ‘infected zone, ARGH!” plot that captured my imagination so vividly but the authentic atmosphere and overarching back-story/backdrop that got its hooks in me. “Monsters” is easy a avoid given it’s poor reception and hostile viewer reactions and just as easy to dismiss on the off-off-OFF chance you actually end up seeing it. No less than a day passed for me and I could not stop thinking about it. Over a month later and this beast is STILL on my mind! I just can’t shake it. It now stands as a cult B-movie on par with the great (to me at least) 90s hard sci-fi horror masterpieces “Screamers” and “Event Horizon.”
Speaking of cult, I can’t resist evoking the great H.P. Lovecraft here (and above, in the particularly inspired Cthulhu Photoshop creation that I made) for the ways the film bases itself on unspeakable and oft-unseen horrors being thrust upon insignificant and ineffective individuals. That and of course the towering betenticled monstrosities that have fallen from the black depths cosmos (well, Jupiter’s moon at least) and engage in behavior unknowable to us humans. As with Lovecraft (and this is the last instance the grand old one’s holy name will be mentioned) it’s the mystery that makes the monster.
In the science-fiction genre sometimes less is better and, in this film’s case, less makes a lot more sense. Basically, this is an alien invasion movie told from the ground and from the point-of-view of people who are rarely in the middle of the action. If you were as unfortunate as me to have watched the thematically similar “Skyline” you may find yourself thankful to “Monsters” for treating it’s premise with respect. With strange rumblings and eerie sounds that are always somewhere off in the distance, the menace is felt even when it is not seen. When the characters do intersect with the invaders that glow menacingly, however briefly those encounters may be, the experience makes as much if not more of an impression than any non-stop ID4ish action approach. There is a scene where the main character, a douchey freelance photographer named Andrew, catches a glimpse of the “evil” aliens only to realize that they are not evil at all but perhaps just creatures who, like us, are simply trying to exist (though not coexist). There is another scene where the protagonists charter a boat which of course gets stuck in the water. Suddenly something can be heard in the distance and whatever it is, it plops in the water and slowly drifts towards them. I thought to my self, first, “I’m glad I’m not in that boat” and second “there will be blood!!!” What I got instead was not blood but 100x more rewarding. Anxiety and ambiguously are this film’s strong points.
Again, it’s just too bad the dialogue and character interactions fail to achieve the same level of success. Full of bad chemistry and even worst decision making skills, the two shallow leads often don’t often seem to be aware (or care) that they are in a world where aliens exist (don’t count on any Bill Paxton-esq “game over, man!” reactions), much less have taken over a large chunk of Mexico which America has conveniently fenced off. Yeah, fenced off–ah, but fear not, the film does not get too carried away with Mexicans=aliens metaphors though it does make for some claver allegorical fodder.
It may not be for everybody but “Monsters” goes down as a haunting and unforgettable science fiction movie.
19. Never Let Me Go
A last minute addition to this list. I’m still letting this powerful movie sink in so I’m not sure if will rise or fall with time. Probably the later. What I can say for sure is that filmmaker Mark Romanek is a visionary that, if anything, should really get out and make more films. He’s the Jonathan Glazer of brilliant underachievers. “Never Let Me Go” is staggering work of dramatic speculative fiction and, as this genre goes, in the same league as “GATTACA” and not too far off from “Children of Men.” As clone harvesting movies go, it also beats the hell out of “The Island.” This drama raises powerful questions and does so with grace and beauty.
20. The King’s Speech
To be honest, after the Oscars I’m kind of burned out on this film. It’s a solid story full of great moments and memorable performances. I loved it… as much as you can love a mainstream biopic that wins Best Picture. It’s witty, dramatic, solidly paced, perhaps the best ensemble films of the year (Colin Firth as the man who would be King and Geoffery Rush as his glorified shrink give career defining performances) and that rare kind of biopic that feels genuinely original rather than cribbed from other movies or some grandiose book. On the other hand it’s not groundbreaking or even particularly well directed (Tom Hooper’s Oscar will go down as a mistake of Danny Boyle proportions). That’s not such a big issue in the end because the material speaks for itself, stuttering along only occasionally. Disgruntled “Social Network” fans are whining that, as Best Picture winners go, the film is not terribly relevant and will not hold up well over the years. I couldn’t disagree more. The film is a lightweight at times (more in the vein of a 90s Miramax movie than a big historical epic) but timelessly good, surprisingly engaging and will be accessible for as long as movies are (which is about 10 years by my watch). And can anyone really say that “King’s Speech” is less relevant or enduring than, say, “Crash” or “Slumdog Millionaire,” films that, as I predicted, nobody cares about only a few short years later? No. End of story. Nuff said. Moving on…
If it bleeds, you can enjoy it. I totally defend this pick. Why are people so afraid to embrace b-movies like this? The same people that enjoyed the first “Predator” or even a film like “Avatar” passed over this movie with jaded disgust. Whatever, dude. Unlike a lot of popular genre movies from last year, “Predators” does exactly what the franchise requires it to do. It respects the original story, maintaining the sensibilities of John McTiernan’s film while also tweaking the formula ever so slightly into something enjoyably new. This is hardcore sci-fi action with as little story as possible. What story is there is pure potboiler adventure where a group of bad-asses led by Adrian Brody of all people are stuck in a prison… the size of a planet! As they try to piece together how they got there and who they can trust (hint: nobody) the armed humans soon realize that this is the kind of hunting reserve where the humans are the hunted. No doubt that’s a huge cliche by now but there’s a reason why it’s one that has endured for so long. With “Predators” you get all that plus you get to see what happens when a Predator alien faces off against a Japanese samurai! Coolest. Thing. Ever.
22. Valhalla Rising
Nicolas Winding Refn
“A man once told me… they eat their own god. Eat his flesh, drink his blood… abominable. We have many gods, they only get the one.” Is this film “about” Christians? Not really. It’s a visual poem about The End. All sorts of ends, too. The end of eras (Vikings for one), the end of religions, the end if God, the (beginning of the) end of civilization and perhaps even the end of individuals. The film takes place everywhere and nowhere. “Valhalla Rising” is a beautiful and haunting experience that has a way of staying with you despite its lack of clarity. Can’t say it makes sense in the typical storytelling, uh, sense but it’s more of a poetic mood piece that sweeps you away for a brisk ride through the darkness of man and of nature. It’s more Joseph Conrad on psychedelic drugs than Kirk Douglass with a big horned hat. Instead of literal depictions of action and location the viewer is meant to feel their way through this amazing story like the one-eyed protagonist with no name played by an actor with a really cool name, Mads Mikkelson. He plays a force rather than a specific character. In the movie, his silent warrior character (aren’t they all) escapes bondage, travels the land, adopts a child, meets Christians and embarks with them on a three hour tour to the “promise land” that gets detoured directly to what they consider hell. Or maybe just North America. Same thing. This film is a cooler version of Terrence Malick’s “New World.” Except it has cooler swords. And Vikings. And Mads in full on survival, Danish samurai “Die Hard” mode.
23. Please Give
Some of the best writing of 2010 came out of this movie. Not saying much as it was a particularly fallow year for screenplays. Not here. Nicole Holofcener (“Walking and Talking,” “Lovely and Amazing”) is like a younger and obviously more female Woody Allen. Featuring two families that live next door to each other in New York, the film is not “about” anything specific. Well, perhaps life-and-death-in-the-big-city if I had to pinpoint an overarching theme (and that’s kind of a big one) but it’s the subtle approach that makes all the difference in this incredibly candid, funny, and, by the end, heartfelt film. This is as close as America may ever get to every having their own version of “Yi Yi.” Yay?
24. Exit Through The Gift Shop
A crazy real movie about a crazy Frenchmen making a fake movie about street art. Oh, and the documentary might not even be real in the first place. Got to hand it to this film for restoring my like (not love anymore) of the documentary art form. Having burned out on the oft-smug “realism” of mainstream documentary filmmaking, I put off watching “Exit” and of course was surprised by a documentary that was not only enjoyable but the spiritual successor to “Man on Wire” in the unique way it approaches people who make art. The film is lively, well shot and topical in the most unusual of ways. It’s energy is all its own. True, it’s at its more interesting when exploring illegal street artists, an underground movement that, as the doc progresses, begins to take on all blandishments of an established art form. By doing so “Exit” makes a quirky case for street art being more important and practical than real art because it is seen and enjoyed by many instead of the rich few. Of course this doc takes an abrupt turn in direction and tone when its main subject becomes popular and puts on a show for hipsters. The film, then, goes on to show how the street art movement is just as empty and full of shit as regular modern art. I love the edgy approach. What starts off a raw depiction of renegade counter culture artists turns into a demasking of a pre-fab hype magician. This quality not only captures the art world and those who blindly follow its trends but modern “artists” in general (including film, art, music etc.) whose need to be hip and famous trumps the desire to make good art.
25. Black Swan
“Black Swan” is one great and giant metaphor for art, method acting and the impossible search of perfection. Of transformation in other words. Once that is understood it all has a way of falling into place. Here is a movie so good that many are not even aware that it’s a hardcore cult movie at its core. How could it not be?! The truth is that I’m not the biggest Darren Aronofsky fan (“Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream” are overrated) but, second only to “The Fountain,” “Black Swan” is one of his best movies because it eschews inept and shallow forms of experimentation in favor of a solid storytelling supported by truly skilled filmmaking. With this film it is now implicitly clear that Aronofsky has grown tremendously as botha filmmaker and a storyteller. About an artist who literally bleeds for her work, this is the movie he was trying to make with “The Wrestler” but failed. Everything is stunning and elegant but with a gritty edge. The black and white production design, the nimble cinematography, and the story about the trouble surrounding a Black Swan ballet revival, is simple yet elegantly told. And a set of performances from Natalie Portman, Barbra Hershey and Vincent Cassell recall some of the best moments of “All About Eve” yet also manages to blend in a fantastic twist in the form of its now infamous Kafka-esq metamorphosis. As Natalie Portman literally finds herself transforminginto a giant bird (wha???!!!) “Black Swan” does not get enough credit as beinga really good horror film. As Portman peels off her skin, cuts her nails, breaks her foot and clips feathers it’s more visceral than any “Saw” movie. It’s also the best ballet thriller ever made. Okay, it’s the only one ever made but at least it’s a good start. Natalie Portman takes command of her performance to create something… unforgettable and that’s something she has not done since “The Professional.” In retrospect “Black Swan” is not “perfect” (to borrow a great line from the move) but like its character its total and unyielding conviction makes all the difference in the world.
26. Social Network
Directed by David Fincher
When did director David Fincher become everyone’s favorite uncle? The man is was the best filmmaker in America. He solidified that status when he made “Zodiac,” one of the best and deepest films of the decade, perhaps ever. Then… something happened. The real David Fincher must have been kidnapped (or killed) and his evil/well-adjusted doppelganger stepped into his shoes to made a movie called “The Curious Case Benjamin Button” and it was shit. Not only did that movie emphatically end his reign of greatness but felt like a slap in the face to anyone who followed his nihilistic visions with such adoring wonder (i.e.: me). Now, the quickly made (by his standards) “Social Network,” a film about Facebook (ugh), has emerged to become his best received film ever and the single most acclaimed films in years. It is considered to be the best picture of 2010 by so many people that there’s no use in even arguing why it might not be the best film ever made. Is it? No, not really. But I will say that it is very good and a definite improvement over “The Curious Case of Forrest Gump.” I just find it funny that now that people finally agree with me about how good Fincher is, I begin to disagree. Where were all you people when “Fight Club” came out? Unlike “Button” though, Papa Fincher’s new film is more measured and exceedingly more well made because it never compromises its vision for the sake of sentimentality or narrative closure.
To its credit “Social Network” is a vast, difficult and probing look into not only how a cultural boom and “game changing” (I hate that word) business model got started but about where we are as a society because of this website (for better or worse). Fincher is wise not to glorify the lead character played so well by Jessie Eisenberg, the Harvard institution or Facebook itself. He even called his film (written by Aaron Sorkin) “glib” at one point which really endeared me to him because I feel deep down that he too feels that his last two films are not who he is as a filmmaker despite both of them being his most successful. At times the film almost seems to be mocking these preppy doouchebags scrambling for credit, fame and fortune (and even the notion of Facebook itself) but does the more interesting thing by sticking with them as the gripping story unfolds. The last shot of Eisenberg futilely attempting to make contact with a person through his own website by clicking, and clicking and clicking, in a desperate attempt to make human contact, is vintage Fincher. The movie-saving bleak and ambiguous ending offers a modern glimpse of what Charles Foster Kane would be if he existed in this era. Both financially and critically “Social Network” is an unqualified success to be sure and while there’s nothing wrong with that (or the film for that matter), well, I just want the old David Fincher back.
27. Final Flesh
Directed by Vernon Chatman
“Clearly the most disturbing piece of pornography since? The Passion Of The Christ.”
-Some guy on the Internet
In 2010 Sean Comes may have popularized the term “mind fuck” in the overrated “Get Him to the Greek” but this film actually does it! The surreal sorta-comedy “Final Flesh” is exactly what you would expect from the Vernon Chatman, the guy behind “Xavier: Renegade Angel” and “Wonder Showzen.” And if you don’t know what those are you also probably don’t know what weed is. “Final Flesh” is one huge goof. Literally. Supposedly the filmmaker hired porn actors who didn’t know (or care) what the movie was about. Which is fine because neither do those who watch it. It’s horrible (but not in a bad way) and fascinating (but not in a good way). I don’t know if it’s the best fetish movie ever made or the worst. The “story” is divided into four parts and involves a family surviving the apocalypse in their house. Along the way they get naked and bath in the tears of neglected children. This film is a a great argument for why the term Brechtian should not be derogatory. The film is so obscure that there’s not even a Wikipedia entry for it. I hope “Flesh” becomes the new must-see late-night cult movie because, really, how many times can you watch “The Room” before it gets old.
28. True Grit
Joel and Ethan Coen
Another year, another Coen Brothers film makes my list. “True Grit” does not resurrect the Western. It does not reinvent the Western either. And finally it does not deconstruct the Western. It does however settle into the Western like it’s a nice and comfy if a bit smelly old shoe. On their last film, “A Serious Man,” the Coens were at their most emotionally honest while on this one they are at their least ironic. I was expecting a film in which no other directors living (or dead) could pull off except the Coens but this is not that film. It’s strangely… ordinary. The dialogue and sense of humor stand out to be sure but the story proper is far from groundbreaking. Their last “Western,” “No Country for Old Men” approached the genre with a revitalizing energy and uncompromisingly bleak philosophy. It’s not a Western so much as an atonal hymn to the corruptible nature of man and the moral void we are constantly at risk of falling into. It is a film that will no doubt go on to help define the time it was made in. “True Grit” on the other hand says nothing and defines little other than its own tenacious gumption. Instead of standing back at a distance to observe the genre (as they usually do) the directors locate themselves and their oddly thin characters smack dab in the middle of it all and draw upon all the tropes and conventions we expect while at the same time bringing their singular voice to the mix. The film is about a young but wise girl’s quest for revenge (yawning now) and the men that help her bring those responsible to justice (Zzzzz). That’s it! The film is did not engage me emotionally but it didn’t need to and I will not hold the director’s pedigree against them. It’s just a well told story that happens to be a Western and since I’m a whore for this most pure and consistent of genres so here it is on the list. As J Peterman from “Seinfeld” would say: Congratulations on a job… done.
29. The American
George Clooney is often at his best when he’s not saying anything. He doesn’t talk much in “The American.” And he doesn’t need to. The film speaks for him thanks to the enormously talented new filmmaker Anton Corbijn at the helm. Being famous for his album cover photography and music videos, Corbijn clearly has a eye for stunning compositions. Working in long form seems to be no obstacle and “The American” even improves upon the already impressive “Control,” his first film. After this film and Tom Ford’s “A Single Man” I’m starting to think it’s more exciting to see a film from a new director who is a fashion designer or photographer rather than someone who actually went to film school. This underrated, thinking man’s assassin movie was hated by audiences and critics when it came out (I blame the advertising… and stupid people) but I feel it has all the stuff to become a cult thriller. When a film looks as good as “The American” does, big shoot-outs are not only unnecessary but unappealing. If people wanted that then they should have just watched some horrible Angelina Jolie movie like “Wanted” or “Salt.” As an aside I would love to see his character from “Burn After Reading” meet the one he plays in this film. I don’t know if they’d hit it off or kill each other.
30. The Kids Are All Right
Really enjoyed “Kids.” I have nothing but good things to say about it beyond the non-ending for Ruffallo which is a bit limp. Great story, great dialogue, (probably) the best ensemble cast of the year and unlike so many similar independent-ish movies about quirky families (“Little Miss Sunshine” and “Rachael Getting Married” come to mind) it’s not shallow, smug or self satisfied. I think back on that movie and smile. Then I want to eat a tomato like it’s an apple. I have no idea why I can’t bring myself to get it higher on the list.
One of the best close room scenarios ever. Except it’s a closed coffin, underground, dark and full of sand and even a snake. As movies about people who are buried in a coffin go, it’s near the top of the list right below Kill Bill vol. 2. and right above “The Vanishing” and that “CSI” episode directed by Tarentino. This movie is so effective that I never, ever want to watch it again. Director Rodrigo Cortés and writer Chris Sparling find so many inventive ways to use the space of the 2×8 set that it’s above all a great film to study. Each camera angle offers a fresh perspective and all the changing light sources (flash light, cigarette lighter, glow sticks, cell phone etc.) are way more fascinating then they should be. The film is not boring for even a second. Hitchcock would be proud of that. Speaking Hitch, the “story,” what little there is, is equally resourceful as it throws new and very creative curve balls every few minutes in the telling this doomed man’s story for survival. It’s like “127 Hours” in that respect but unlike that film Buried does not get carried away with formalistic excess. It also avoids narrative tricks and twist endings. Instead, the film sticks with the character and the grim reality of his situation and it’s all the better for it. Finally, Ryan Reynolds gives a performance nobody knew Ryan Reynolds was capable of… including Ryan Reynolds.
Let Me In
“You’re not a girl?”
“What are you?”
Let Me In proves that…
(a) Matt Reeves is a talented filmmaker that, after Cloverfield, somehow acquired a keen eye for atmosphere, action and humanity.
(b) The film, while totally unnecessary, is wise to steal as much as it can from the original/better European version.
(c) The original story, written by John Ajvide Lindqvist, is so timelessly good that anyone who ever adapts is almost guaranteed a decent film as long they follow the core story/themes.
The answer: all of the above. The film is one of those rare adaptations that upholds the quality of the previous incarnations. I mean, how often is is that we root for the monster as much as we fear it? Okay, a lot these days but with respect to the horror genre, where all the good ideas are coming out of either Europe or Asia, that almost never happens. The original version is one of the best horror films ever made and the single best vampire story ever adapted for the screen. This version is… good. Everything I said about Tomas Alfredson’s film (link) applies here give or take.
Under “take” I would say that the screenplay’s dialogue is more straightforward and less enigmatic. That’s not entirely a bad thing but I personally prefer quirky mystery of the original because it heightens the horror aspects and makes for a more engaging experience since nothing is spelled out to the viewer. I also didn’t love the laughably bad crazy monkey girl CGI effects depicted every time our young little vamp springs to action. Looks unnatural and robs the film of being effectively spooky. Another strike against it is the undeniable feeling that this version is and will always be superfluous even though it’s one of the rare remakes that is watchable. Under “give,” however, I would say that the film is drop dead beautiful; the dark shadows, the stunning street light orange and the shimmering red of blood etc. Along with the original it is also one of the most improbably romantic films ever made.
The pre-teen vamp/human puppy love is juxtaposed withthe inevitable sick and twisted conclusion that answers what happens when an immortal girl spends her life witha nerdy mortal boy. As for the horror, it’s downright brutal and handled very well by Reeves. The pool scene is, once again, one of the best shot horror moments of all time (up there with Ripley’s silent showdown at the end of Alien). The solemn performances by Kodi Smit-McPhee (kid from The Road and that rare good child actor) and Chloe Grace Moretz (ARGH, STOP WITH THE THREE NAME NAMES!!!) who is bit girl instead of hit girl this time around (yes, I think I’m clever). Boththe kids along with performances by Richard Jenkins and Elias Koteas do justice to the original actors. After this film and “Kick Ass,” Moretz claimed more lives in 2010 than Cancer. While it’s not even close to the original this version seems to respect both the novel and original film and that’s why it’s works as well as it does. Um, that’s also why it probably make any money in America.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows
Very few series get better with age. Harry Potter has.
You know you love it!
While “Splice” is not content with being a common, late night horror film, make no mistake, it is a monster movie. One that, like the failed experiment turned poison-tailed monster, fails to maintain its structural integrity (in the last act) but still succeeds on the strength of the idea that created it. The film stars Sarah Polly and Adrian Brody as the world’s smartest, hippest and stubborn rock star scientists who, out of sheer cocky defiance, create a hybrid creature. As the blob grows bigger and stronger the two grow more and more… stupid. There may be a narrative flaw in their inability (or unwillingness) to “deal” with the creature but at the same time it almost makes sense why they would allow their experiment to get out of hand (and tail). First and foremost I like is how the film’s horror elements are rooted in something deeply tragic and human. The gender issues are also compelling without feeling forced. The “monster,” named Dren (Nerd backwards–ha!) is a memorable creation. A being that would be pitiable if she, it, weren’t so eerie in the way it reflects humanity back upon us original sinners. Wide eyes, bald as a baby, pin sharp tale of death and possessing a penis shaped head, to look upon Dren is to look upon the sinister nature of creation. As she grows the film does to but, on the other hand, as she flames out so too does the story. It almost had to be that way. While a noble failure the film has a way of making science thrilling again and that almost never happens in modern science fiction/horror. “Splice” begins with the wonder and the euphoric glee of discovery, briskly moves to “wait a minute, what’s going on here?” uneasiness (a staple for good horror) and finally settles on the disappointing application of some really good ideas.
The Book of Eli
I still don’t know if “Book of Eli” is one of the best films of the year or one of the worst.