The Ten Best Films of 2010
Toward the closing months of 2010, I knew that I would be returning to Juneau and therefore had a pretty good idea that reactivating Film as Art would be too tantalizing to turn down. I therefore decided to take some notes when I went to the movies, just in case I needed to compile a list like this one, so putting together my selections for 2010 was a little less hair-pulling of an experience than my 2009 picks. As with that year, I was living in the Seattle area and thus got to see plenty of kick-ass films, particularly in cool little art theaters around the city. And as it turned out, 2010 was a pretty damn good year for the movies—if the below ten films had not been released, there would have been plenty of perfectly acceptable candidates from which to choose (which I'll post below as “on the bench” candidates). All this to say: The newest decade of cinema is off to a promising start.
Looking back at both this list and the one from 2009, I feel like they are such accurate reflections of my favorite films from these two years that I honestly wonder how I'm going to be able to compile a 2011 list that is as airtight, now that I'm no longer living in an area that can get the great films to me as fast as I'd prefer. That said, I can't praise Juneau's two art-house cinemas enough, and the local chain's autumn line-up also thankfully includes some smaller pictures that are less commercially oriented; these theaters collectively do everything in their power to make my job a little easier. But I'll cross that bridge when I have to; for now, here are my ten favorite films of 2010.
1. White Material, directed by Claire Denis.
Many critics instantly drew comparisons between Claire Denis's most recent film, which marked her return to the African continent, with her stunning 1988 debut Chocolat, which was also set there and featured some of the same cast. But I'd like to suggest that White Material is truly the heir-apparent to hallucinatory, Conrad-inspired masterpieces like Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Herzog's Aguirre—darker, feverish visions of tormented lands and the obsessive insanity that they bring out of their would-be human conquerors. Certainly the haunted leads, played stunningly by Isabelle Huppert and Christopher Lambert, are channeling the mad fury of Kurtz and Kinski more than the tender, romantically-conflicted characters of Denis's earlier African drama. Denis uses her absorbing visual poetry to tell the story of a French family of coffee farmers living in a civil war-torn African country, and how each member seeks liberation from this violent country through different extremes—a wife through fight, a husband through flight, and a troubled son through sublimation; in the end, all are forced to realize that this land's natural chaos is indifferent to their attempts to better it. “The horror, the horror” indeed. Nobody casts a surreal, beautiful spell like Claire Denis: Haunting imagery, heartbreaking tone, and elegant acting by the cast—who are able to create an entire history of these characters through simple gestures and weary glances that betray long-unhealed despair. I particularly appreciate the ebb and flow to the picture, the way it weaves back and forth to different points in the story's time-line, eschewing traditional narrative in favor of building up the emotional obsessions of its inhabitants. This is not only the best film of the year, but one of the very best films that I have ever seen; with it, Denis only continues to strengthen her status as one of cinema's greatest treasures. Watch this movie.
2. Winter's Bone, directed by Debra Granik.
I love the character created by Jennifer Lawrence in the picture, a young woman of such resolve and determination that there's not a single moment when we don't find ourselves completely invested in her emotionally and rooting for her to succeed. Debra Granik's Southern Gothic about this young woman who is in search of her father to save her family from homelessness plays like the best film adaptation of a novel that Cormac McCarthy never wrote; like so many of his beloved novels, it is a merciless journey into the heart of the American South's darkest corners that makes its depiction in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre almost seem kind—and surprisingly, less horrifying. As a presentation of a particular sub-culture, Winter's Bone is certainly brutal, but as an account of the best of human determination and sympathy emerging from the wreckage of its deepest depravity, the film becomes one of the most inspiring human dramas of recent years. Jennifer Lawrence's motion picture debut here is an utterly flawless performance that it will be surely studied in acting classes for years, but the whole cast is brilliant (both she and John Hawkes should have won Oscars), in a film so raw in its visual setting that it sometimes literally makes your own bones ache. A drama of the highest quality.
3. True Grit, directed by the Cohen Brothers.
For the Cohen Brothers' latest tour-de-force, they update the 1969 western classic with their own visual and narrative style, turning the Wild West into a sort of Shakespearean comedy in which dirty, slimy characters are just as interested in the lightning-speed of their clever line delivery as they are their ability to outdraw their opponents. My first three selections for this list, I see now, all feature strong female leads surrounded by a masculine culture that is feeding off its own warlike ego. In the case of this film, much has been made of Jeff Bridges’ crotchety old mercenary, and make no mistake—he's as good as you've heard, effectively interpreting the role first made famous by John Wayne as a sort of idiot savant who is socially and mentally awkward in just about everything else but killing people. But this picture ultimately belongs to Hailee Steinfield as a prepubescent girl who hires Bridges and the slippery Matt Damon to find her father's killer. She's so feisty in this role, so unflinchingly cunning, that I think I'd rather take my chances with Bridges than have to face off with her. Meanwhile, this is an expertly-made, traditional western of the first degree, with exciting gunfights, philosophical banter about good and evil, gorgeous locations, and loaded with the quirky touches that you expect from the Cohen Brothers. Not their deepest work, but superb storytelling that's entertaining as hell.
4. The Social Network, directed by David Fincher.
And now we come to David Fincher's magnum opus—his best film to date, in a portfolio that already includes Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Those films all resonate with furious depictions of troubled protagonists staring defiantly at the repercussions of their near-Promethean ambition, and Fincher channels that same fierce spirit toward the digital age in a way that re-imagines the creation of Facebook as a Tower of Babel-like parable for our technical evolution. He directs the rise, near-fall, and resurrection of Mark Zuckerberg with the pace of the world's leanest action picture, and his portrait is ultimately far more forgiving and tender than the Facebook creator's PR people have suggested. Yes, Zuckerberg is cut-throat and almost criminally savvy in his business dealings, but he is ultimately correct in his understanding of our society's obsession with creating conveniences for ourselves that we quickly adjust to become social necessities. It takes the sort of schemer like Zuckerberg to create such conveniences, and the film paints an often heartbreaking portrait of the sort of entrepreneur capable of delivering these services to the public at the cost of his own personal sacrifices—friends, true love, and, yes, a social life. The result is a depiction of a modern-day Faust, if we can accept Fincher's not-so-outlandish suggestion that the internet is probably the Devil.
5. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, directed by Terry Gilliam.
Speaking of Faust, here's a new variation of that tale loaded with fantastically over-the-top images and flamboyant imagination. Terry Gilliam's uneven filmography reveals a director whose visual sense comes often at the loss of narrative footing, but with Dr. Parnassus, Gilliam finally restores that balance and creates one of the most fascinating variations of Goethe's Dr. Faustus and John Milton's Paradise Lost that I've ever seen. This film's chief historical legacy will probably be that it was Heath Ledger's final performance; he died mid-filming, and Gilliam had to figure out some visual and narrative ingenuity to keep the picture going. Ironically, this patchwork-approach becomes the film's salvation, skillfully blending a fantasy world that Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) uses to lure real-world victims under his control and thus snatch their souls before the Devil can beat him to it. The film that emerges is not only visually stimulating, but also philosophically insightful in the way that it plays fiendishly with images depicting unlikely temptations of the flesh. Plus, it features Tom Waits as the Devil, who plays the part like a businessman so lonely that he makes soul-stealing wagers because he thinks it's the only way he can find friends; he's terrific enough to beg the question why no one else ever thought of this casting before.
6. Inception, directed by Christopher Nolan.
Film after film, Christopher Nolan has chipped away at establishing himself as the greatest director of action thrillers to emerge out of contemporary Hollywood. His films are always as cerebral as they are exciting, and with Inception, he outdoes himself with a complex narrative about dreamscapes and the creation of fantasy. By now, all sorts of essays have been written about this film's philosophy and fully-realized science fiction scenario, and I can only confirm that Nolan indeed creates an entirely new approach to the way that cinema plays with our nightmares. But you know what? I want to suggest that before it is anything else, Inception at its simplest form is as a superior example of the adventure genre, and it is on that level that it is most appealing to me. The action scenes are absolutely cutting-edge, and even as they are increasingly layered, there is never a point in Nolan's superb editing that made me feel lost or confused about what was going on. Whether the fights and shoot-outs take place on a rain-soaked bridge, in a claustrophobic hotel elevator, or on a snow-smothered mountain (and it often does at the same time), Nolan masterfully keeps his grip on our throats, setting the scene and maintaining momentum in a way that holds us absolutely spellbound. The decade's The Matrix, to be sure—except twice as fulfilling in its more capably-managed blend of artistry and scholarship.
7. A Prophet, directed by Jacques Audiard.
“Misery made me a fiend,” the Frankenstein Monster insisted to his creator, and this lamentation serves as the central thesis for Audiard's stirring prison drama, which was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. But unlike that famous villain, what makes Audiard's protagonist so compelling is that he becomes an impossible man to read—we can but observe his descent into depravity and violence, without ever really getting a clear gauge on what brings him to this choice. As played by Tahar Rahim, he is an impenetrable enigma who begins his prison life as an undistinguished loser and ultimately becomes a dangerous crime lord through trial, error, and assassination. The now-famous murder sequence in the film is unnerving in its passivity—Rahim simply commits it, and we are helpless to do anything but interpret his body language to figure out how he feels and, as a result, how we are supposed to feel. This passive approach plays as the reverse of great crime dramas like Goodfellas and City of God, which immerse themselves in the emotions and conflicts of their characters. I can't help but think that A Prophet represents a more accurate depiction of the nature of the mobster, who seems so often to switch off human sentiment like some sort of light when it suits his profession. A powerful portrait, indeed one of the best I've seen, about the utter banality of true evil.
8. The Illusionist, directed by Sylvain Chomet.
Pure joy—that's how I would describe Chomet's follow-up to his remarkable The Triplets of Belleville. With both films, Chomet marks himself one of the most important animators today, with an often macabre but always playful style that positions itself as a refined variation of Terry Gilliam's surreal shorts for Monty Python. The Illusionist has a more penetrable narrative than Triplets, about a French magician who travels to Scotland and embarks on a series of imaginative adventures with a young woman who worships him, and the animation is simpler and less maniacal, but the results are just as stimulating and inspiring to the imagination. The original script was written by the legendary Jacques Tati, one of cinema's greatest visionaries and himself a famous illusionist; Chomet animates with a simplicity that never overwhelms the story's charm, with a style that reminds me of Studio Ghibli's quieter pictures. And while the narrative may indeed be quiet, the picture is not—it is filled with vibrant colors and images that blend seamlessly with the source material, which is surely a compliment to the way that the illusionist Tati must have viewed the world around him. Chomet's film ultimately works as a vibrant spiritual biography of sorts, an interpretation of the life story that a great artist never lived to tell.
9. Never Let Me Go, directed by Mark Romanek /
Womb, directed by Benedek Fliegauf. (tie)
I'm ranking these two films together, because they are thematically and emotionally joined at the hip. Both films are science fiction parables about the ramifications of human cloning, but they also successfully avoid the clichés of “fantasy epic” and instead tell deeply personal stories that place these questions into real-world scenarios. Romanek directs Never Let Me Go with the gentle spirit of a Merchant-Ivory film (the producers are also responsible for the recent Atonement), accounting the lives of clones raised for purposes of organ transplant who long for a connection to the real world. Fliegauf's Womb is an even quieter affair, about a woman who gives birth to a clone of her deceased lover in an attempt to rekindle the romance as an older woman. These pictures edge dangerously into disquieting, uncomfortable realms that make such premises chillingly realistic by scaling down what is often a vehicle for action films (The 6th Day, anyone?) and providing a glimpse of how such technology would affect our next-door neighbors. To these people, human cloning is as commonplace as cell phones and Twitter, and the way that these films incorporate the fantasy so that it simply exists without being sensational instantly and masterfully makes the issue naturally familiar to the audience. And the casts—headed by Keira Knightly and Eva Green respectively—always treat their premises with the utmost seriousness, never allowing their performances to steer into the camp that usually informs these types of films. The results are utterly moving human dramas, and effectively smart sci-fi to boot.
10. The King's Speech, directed by Tom Hooper.
The Academy always goes for films like this for their Best Picture winners—period pieces with gifted thespians trying to out-act one another. Adding to its chances at the ballot are that this picture takes place during World War II and also centers around a protagonist with a physical handicap; such heart-tugging surely always works to sway Academy voters into the belief that they're casting their lot for an Important Film. That The King's Speech actually beat out The Social Network, Inception, and, so help me God, Winter's Bone for the Best Picture spot is another reason why I sincerely wish I could hate it. But against all odds, against even all its quote-whore accolade from its cheesy promotional hype, I found myself easily persuaded to join the ranks of those utterly quotable critics who loved this film. That's because, despite playing all the right award-season notes with its emphasis on nostalgia, war, and handicaps, this film is effectively about these clichés, presenting them with grace and intelligence so that they seem authentic instead of the Oscar bait it was probably intended as. Colin Firth is remarkable as King George VI, who struggles with a vocal therapist (Geoffrey Rush) to overcome a speech impediment in order to deliver the rousing communication to his country about the necessity of fighting the war. The film wisely centers on their witty and well-written relationship instead of the Big Ideas that surround them, which act like taunting phantasms and otherwise stay out of the way. The “speech” in question is so flawlessly orchestrated that it will send you to YouTube to listen to the actual address to the nation, and that's a compliment. I therefore begrudgingly take the same bait that snagged the Oscar—Academy, you win this round. Damn it all.
The Ten on the Bench, in alphabetical order:
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky): Natalie Portman is as good as you’ve heard in this bizarre blend of horror film and ballet drama, but the greatest delight for me was the grand Barbara Hershey as her obsessed and overbearing mother, as she effectively channels Piper Laurie from Carrie. So different in tone and style from Aronofsky’s previous film, The Wrestler, which was as equally different from every other film he’s ever made. This guy just keeps me guessing, and that’s a good thing.
Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance): I’m beginning to think that Ryan Gosling is this generation’s William Hurt; he is an actor nearly unrivaled at revealing the weathering of the human soul through the simplest and barest of dialogue and gestures. This film gives him a scenario that allows him to showcase his power as an actor, and it’s a pleasure to behold (though the film is heartbreaking). Great acting from Michelle Williams too.
Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski): A gripping political thriller from Roman Polanski, who remains on the top of his game. This is probably my favorite picture from the master filmmaker since Frantic.
I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino): Milan has never looked so beautiful as it does in this film, and neither has Tilda Swinton, who continues to establish herself as one of our cinematic treasures. A modern day variation of forbidden love in a bourgeois setting that successfully sounds the same notes as period masterpieces like Howard’s End and Wings of the Dove.
The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko): A unique comedy-drama about artificial insemination—not exactly the funniest of topics. A wonderful cast in a film that could have been pretty routine in its delivery, but the script is filled with fresh interactions and plenty of witty insight.
Lebanon (Samuel Maoz): This Golden Palm-winner was promoted as this year’s Hurt Locker, but this Israeli war drama has its own unique take on the ongoing Middle Eastern conflict that is far more claustrophobic, with an entirely different set of rules and interactions that uniquely define its agenda. A mesmerizing anti-war parable.
Monsters (Gareth Edwards): Positions itself as a “giant monster” movie, but it’s so much more than that—a haunting road trip through the Mexican jungle that deeply values the sanctity of its characters’ lives and the steps they take toward both revelation and salvation. The best film of its kind since Bong Joon-ho’s The Host; tell you the truth, I might have liked Edwards’ picture a little more.
Mother (Bong Joon- ho): This Hitchcockian-styled thriller works a number on our nerves from the first frame forward. A top-drawer murder mystery with a great character in its center—an obsessed, middle-aged mother who will stop at nothing to prove her accused son’s innocence. True to the Master’s form, we are played like a piano, and we don’t mind.
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (Werner Herzog): Herzog’s other urban crime drama from the 2009 Venice Film Festival (Bad Lieutenant being the first; this one got later distribution) throws all conventions out the window in the way that you’d expect it to, in a film complete with flamingos, llamas, and the most horrifying depiction of Jell-O that I could ever imagine. How refreshingly weird is this film? It features Willem Defoe and Udo Kier as its most normal characters. That weird.
The Tempest (Julie Taymor): Taymor’s surreal follow-up to 1999’s Titus, which remains the best film adaptation of Shakespeare that I’ve ever seen. The Tempest isn’t as good—it’s wildly uneven in tone, but Helen Mirren and Djimon Hounsou as Prospero and Caliban, respectively, transcend the madcap visuals to ground the film as a fascinating, always absorbing adaptation.
The Town (Ben Affleck): Affleck continues to establish himself as an important American director here, with another crime drama that effectively plays with the audiences’ perception of right and wrong. The way we sympathize with the criminals is a brilliant narrative contradiction that prevents us from realizing just how well Affleck has manipulated us until after the film is finished.