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Top Ten Films 2010

2011.02.11

And now, again, the gold-standard for movie viewing.  The best films of 2010, no debate.  Well, if there is debate, feel free to leave a comment; I’m always up for debating films.

This is a list of my favorite films of 2010.  Not the most popular, discussed, or profitable.  Hopefully, with this list, I can lead you to a few gems you may have missed, or shine a new light on something you have already seen.  It was actually a pretty good year for films, if you look beyond the fairly sad and wearying Hollywood fare.  Too much of the big studios’ efforts were wasted on trying to convince us that 3D is a good idea.  Audiences were having none of it, though, and attendance for 3D films continued its steady decline.  The most profitable film of the year, Toy Story 3, made the vast majority of its revenue on 2D screens.  It’s the content that matters, yo.  No 3D films made my top ten.

And, full disclosure, Inception is not on this list.  So, if you were waiting for it, get your disappointment out now.  I give props to Christopher Nolan for trying to make an intelligent blockbuster, but I found his depiction of dreams pedestrian and the endless exposition of his characters exhausting.  (I guess you could call a screenplay that is nothing but exposition some kind of achievement.)

But, now, on to the films that passed the cut:

10. Mother (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 128 minutes)

Kim Hye-ja plays a simple acupuncturist in a small Korean town, whose mentally disabled son is accused of murder after a local cheerleader is found dead.  Kim Hye-ja’s incredible, Oscar-worthy performance anchors this gem, not so much about a mother’s love and devotion to her son as much as it is an examination of a mother’s devotion to her own image of her son.

9. Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé, France, 161 minutes)

After playing at Cannes, a reporter approached director Gaspar Noé and said, “I loved your film.”  The director replied, “Just wait till you see it on drugs!”

I understand what he meant.  Noé’s intention with this film was to make the most hypnotic and trippy experience one can have in a theater.  I would say he definitely succeeded.  (He counts among his influences the stargate sequence in 2001.)

The plot, such as there is one, involves American Oscar, living in Tokyo, supporting himself in this most expensive of cities by selling drugs.  The opening act of the film features only point-of-view shots from Oscar–we see exactly what he sees, which can make for a confused and disorienting (and, if seen on a big screen, nauseating) experience.  But Noé is just getting started.  It’s not too long before Oscar is the victim of a sting operation by the Tokyo police and shot dead.

And that’s where the film really begins.  The rest of the film follows Oscar’s spirit as it floats about Tokyo, checking up on his sister, flashing back to his childhood, reliving his death, flying around ineffable celestial realms, and pondering the concepts of death and rebirth.  Noé’s striking use of lights and sounds can literally hypnotize the viewer, to the point that when the film ends (with just a title card, as all the credits were seen at the opening), you’ll feel as if you’ve just been startled awake by a dream.  A disturbing dream, that is–the ending is pretty out there even for Noé.

Timid viewers may wish to try the North American version, which has been made 18 minutes shorter by simply excising the entire seventh reel of the film (I’ll leave it to you to determine what it says about a film that can lose an entire reel and not suffer any continuity issues).  Generally, there is little difference between the two versions, save 18 minutes of psychedelia and a pretty graphic abortion scene.  Which leads me to this warning: though the film has very little in the way of graphic violence (unlike Noé’s last film, Irreversible, which featured a nine-minute unbroken shot of a rape), the international version does have the abortion scene, and both versions have numerous disturbing scenes of children in grave peril, and some graphic sex scenes at the end.  The distributor is releasing the film unrated to avoid dealing with the complications an NC-17 rating would attract.

This film is unlike anything you’ve ever seen and will likely ever see, so it’s probably worth seeing just for the experience.  Though I suspect, it’s a ride many people will want to take only once.  As for seeing it on drugs… I don’t think that’s necessary.  When the film is over, you’ll feel like you’re on them anyway.

After the jump, the remaining eight, and runners-up.

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8. I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino, Italy, 114 minutes)

The film involves a wealthy Milanese family with troubles and tribulations, et cetera, et cetera…  The plot is not what is important here, but rather the mood Guadagnino evokes.  Not since David Lean’s Summertime has Italy looked this gorgeous.  Yorick La Saux’s oneiric compositions, as blended by Walter Fasano, placed me in a gentle and lulling reverie.  The emotional center of the film is provided by Tilda Swinton, in another astonishing performance.  (Her lack of an Oscar nomination is criminal.  The woman can indicate with a shift of her eyes what another actress would take monologues to convey.  One would think the Academy at least would recognize the technical proficiency of this British actress speaking entirely in Italian with a Russian accent.  The second year in a row Ms Swinton was snubbed for a great performance, after last year’s Julia.)  John Adams’s lush score is also a highlight.

7. Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece, 96 minutes)

What the HELL is wrong with this family?

Unfortunately, it is impossible to discuss this film in any sort of meaningful way without giving up all of its surprises, but I’ll try to give you a taste of the experience that awaits before you watch this Oscar-nominated film.

It begins slowly–almost too slowly, really.  I found myself looking at the time wondering exactly how long this 96 minute film was going to feel.  But after about twenty minutes, a strange feeling began creeping up on me, as I began to realize what was going on with the characters.  It is to Lanthimos’s credit that he builds this feeling throughout the rest of the film; by the end, you’re glued to the screen with an almost morbid fascination.  It was enough to wash away the impatience I felt at the start, and to guarantee a much-coveted spot for the film on this list of best of the year.  I am definitely rooting for this sleeper on Oscar night.  Give it a shot–the film offers many rewards if you stick with it.

6. Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz, USA, 96 minutes)

A sequel to Solondz’s 1998 breakout film Happiness, Life During Wartime follows the same characters twelve years later.  You do not need to have seen Happiness to appreciate this film; it is entirely self-contained.  In fact, Solondz made a point to cast the film with entirely new actors, representing the changes and growth of the characters in the twelve years since we’ve seen them.  (Allison Janney is a standout as frazzled mother Trish, and Charlotte Rampling almost steals the entire movie with her performance.)

Life During Wartime is a more poetic, emotional, and episodic film that its predecessor.  The series of vignettes ranges from dark pathos to, well, dark comedy, and every actor delivers solidly.  A real treat.

5. Carlos (Olivier Assayas, France/Germany, 330 minutes)

Don’t be scared off by the running time–Carlos is likely the most action-packed and exciting 5 1/2 hours you could spend with a movie in 2010.  This epic-length biopic of terrorist Carlos the Jackal is directed with all the assurance of a great action film; comparisons with Michael Mann’s Heat are not unwarranted.  I watched all 330 minutes of this film right in a row–and for not one of them was I ever bored.  Though, for those who find such a marathon viewing session too daunting, the film is cleanly divided into three acts of fairly equal running time.

4. The American (Anton Corbijn, USA, 105 minutes)

That George Clooney has used his star power to make smaller, personal films has earned him my complete respect.  Instead of indulging in high-profile but lifeless Hollywood dreck (I’m looking at you, Ms Aniston), Mr Clooney has continually sought more distinctive and demanding fare, as in this film from director Anton Corbijn.

The American trailers for this film seemed to advertise Clooney as a hit man in a taut and suspenseful action thriller, and that’s what I was expecting from Mr Corbijn, a prolific music video director who has leant his talents to artists like Metallica, Depeche Mode, Coldplay, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  But this is decidedly not an action film, as millions of North American moviegoers discovered with disappointment.  This is a slow-moving mood piece with a heavy 1970s influence–I was reminded of Coppola’s brilliant The Conversation.

The reality of killing people for money is a lonely, exhausting one, and Clooney and Corbijn bring that reality to the center of their film.  We see Clooney’s daily routine, the desperation for human contact, the exasperating secrecy, the spiritually corrosive nature of it all.  Not that there aren’t exciting action sequences, but the film is, at heart, a simple character study, peering relentlessly into the soul of this man, wearied by his profession.  Clooney’s performance is so subdued as to be missed by the Academy, which is unfortunate.  But not distressing.  Clooney’s name still carries much cache in the film world, and I hope on video this superlative achievement will find a proper audience.

3. Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, USA, 108 minutes)

You’ve heard of this film.  You’ve probably seen it.  You know it’s not a Red Shoes-style backstage drama, but rather an intense, psychological, expressionistic roller coaster ride inside the psyche of a mentally unstable young woman.  Aronofsky has refined his skills nicely; this film is the perfect fusion of the grittiness of Pi and Requiem for a Dream with the depth and poetry of The Fountain and The Wrestler.  Yes, Polanski would be proud.

And Natalie Portman is soon to be an Oscar-winner, don’t you think?  She does Act in this film, emphatically and energetically.  Some critics (I’m looking at you, Jim Emerson) have taken issue with Ms Portman’s lack of subtlety here, but that seems beside the point when considering a film that takes place largely within the character’s mind.  Aronofsky is obviously not going for realism here, rather something archetypal.  It’s like criticizing Jack Nicholson for going over-the-top in the Shining.  Or very nearly so.  Portman’s performance stands as the centerpiece to an exciting and unique horror film.

2. Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, USA, 112 minutes)

Certainly the most devastating film of the year, an intense and overwhelming emotional experience anchored by two of the most raw, authentic performances I can recall.  Ryan Gosling and Oscar-nominee Michelle Williams play Dean and Cindy, a couple with a marriage perilously close to disintegrating.  Caught in the maelstrom is their daughter, Frankie, though they work well to shield her from the less palatable aspects of their relationship.

The film intercuts the excitement and intoxication of their courtship with the weekend that (one assumes) marks the end of their marriage.  This back and forth gives the film a bittersweet tone and makes the final image that much more powerful.

The main rift between Dean and Cindy, in my estimation, is that Cindy views marriage as the beginning of her life’s true journey, and for Dean it is the destination.  He is happy to define himself completely within the confines of the marriage: husband, father.  But Cindy sees herself as a part of something larger; those two labels are not enough for her, or her image of her place in the world.

It’s common enough for actors to play characters at two points in their lives.  Usually it’s 1) young, where the actor gets to look as good as possible, and 2) old, where the makeup artist tries his best to make the actor look like a turtle.*  But it’s enormously difficult for an actor to play two points of a character’s life when they are so close together.  Who you were at 20 is vastly different than who you’ve become at 28, though most of the change is on the inside.  On the outside you could be pretty much the same, blinding people to your internal evolution.  Gosling and Williams handle these psychic changes subtly but palpably; performances like these put me into a state of awe.  The film, at the very least, is worth admission just for the lead actors, who both deserve the Spirit awards for which they are nominated.

The film has been viewed with disfavor by a few critics, such as Leonard Maltin and A.O. Scott (two I highly admire), for lacking a point.  But Cianfrance has much to say on the true nature of love and marriage, and the institution’s place in society.  Note Cianfrance’s use of the American flag in the final scenes.  Like the best directors, he codes his film’s theme so that it arises subconsciously, instead of having characters beat the viewer over the head with it via obvious and hollow dialogue.

This little film, made for only a million dollars, deserves to be seen.  I’ve been very upfront about its power and tone, but don’t think it’s all dour pessimism; there is much hope and illumination to be found there as well.  What a debut: a brilliant and singular work of art.

*Thanks, Gene Siskel.

Note: The MPAA originally gave the film an NC-17 rating.  How ludicrous.  The ignoramuses in charge of the Classification and Ratings Administration, for some reason, see puerile, bawdy, juvenilized sexual content as more appropriate for teenagers than straightforward, realistic depictions.  Why this is so is beyond me.  As near as I can tell, the filmed earned the box-office killing certification for a brief scene of not-very-graphic cunnilingus.  The scene in Black Swan between Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman seemed far more graphic to me, but then again, I’m not on the board.  In any case, the distributor wisely appealed the decision, and the film was awarded an R rating with no edits or cuts.  The R rating is entirely appropriate for this material.

And, the best film of the year?

Wait for it…

 

 

1. The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, United Kingdom, 118 minutes)

What can I say about this film?  It excels on every level.  David Seidler’s screenplay is flawless, providing the film with a perfect dramatic and emotional arc.  But it also does what the best screenplays do: gives great actors great scenes to perform.

And what great actors Hooper has chosen: Colin Firth gives by far his best performance, not just conquering the technical difficulties inherent in portraying a character with so severe a speech impediment, but also showing the man behind the stutter yearning to express himself.  A precarious balancing act that Firth handles with delicacy and grace, he deserves the Oscar for this performance.  Geoffrey Rush is his equal as the speech therapist for the king, providing not only some well-timed comic relief, but also conveying volumes of empathy and compassion with barely a glance.  Helena Bonham Carter plays Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon with such presence and elegance as to rank this among her finest performances.

Hooper’s direction is similarly flawless for the material, fusing Danny Cohen’s cinematography and Tariq Anwar’s editing in such a way as to subconsciously enhance George VI’s isolation from his family and constituents.  Alexandre Desplat’s score subtly punctuates the emotions in the film, without being too obtrusive or bland.

A grand achievement on every level, and the most satisfying cinematic experience of the year.

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Runners-up, in alphabetical order:

Everyone Else

Kind of a German Blue Valentine, this film about a rocky relationship also gets under the skin.

 

Get Low

No Oscar nomination for Robert Duvall?  WTF?  With Bill Murray, Lucas Black, and Sissy Spacek rounding out the cast, you think this sleeper would have Oscar written all over it.  If you can, seek out this little film about an aging recluse (Duvall) who tries to throw himself a large funeral–while he’s still alive.

 

Jackass 3-D

In 3D, it’s like the poop is flying right at your face!

 

No One Knows About Persian Cats

This Iranian film about a group of young musicians dodging police and red tape in order to throw a rock show in Tehran is a heartrending cry for freedom of expression and revolutionary change in the face of a sclerotic rule of law.  We should be grateful that a film like this can even exist, considering its origins.

 

Of Gods and Men

Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes.

 

A Prophet

This sadly overlooked French film follows North African Malik through a dangerous and harrowing six-year stint in prison, surviving by performing dangerous tasks for mobsters to survive.  Suspenseful and graphically violent, Jacques Audiards’s film showcases what should be a star-making performance from Algerian Tahar Rahim.

 

The Secret in Their Eyes

Last year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film.

 

The Social Network

A snapshot of a particular time and place, TSN does a great job of capturing the excitement around the development of the force that is Facebook.  David Fincher definitely deserves the Oscar for directing–his mise-en-scene is impeccable–but I still feel that Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, clever and symbolic though the dialogue is, lacks a satisfying ending.  (Note: Andrew Garfield gives the best performance in the film, and the Academy’s failure to recognize him is their most egregious omission this year.)

 

True Grit

The Coen brothers working with Jeff Bridges and cinematographer Roger Deakins?  Do I really have to say anything else to you?  See it now!

 

Winter’s Bone

Man, poor people are really depressing.  We should do something about that.

And to round things off nicely, my picks for:

Best Director

  1. David Fincher, The Social Network
  2. Gaspar Noé, Enter the Void
  3. Yorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth
  4. Todd Solondz, Life During Wartime
  5. Luca Guadagnino, I Am Love

Best Actor

  1. Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
  2. Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine
  3. Christian Bale, The Fighter
  4. Robert Duvall, Get Low
  5. Tahir Rahim, A Prophet

Best Actress

  1. Natalie Portman, Black Swan
  2. Kim Hye-ja, The Mother
  3. Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine
  4. Tilda Swinton, I Am Love
  5. Michelle Leo, The Fighter

Well, there you go.  If I missed any of your favorites, or you think I’m insane for inclusion of some film or another, let me know.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. eHansWB permalink
    2011.02.14 21:33

    Why aren’t there any action films on this list?

    • 2011.02.15 09:29

      Carlos is very much an action film. A great one at that. Its action sequences can stand with the train chase from The French Connection, the car chase from Bullit, and the gold standard of action films, Die Hard.

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