by Sam Juliano
The prevailing opinion expressed by a fair number of bloggers is that the just-expired year was not particularly memorable in the world of movies. Some compiled lists in the spirit of ‘the best of the least’ and seemed to have little to be excited about. Still, while just about as many were far more favorable in their summary assessment, it appears that most of the lingering euphoria surrounds a plethora of foreign-language releases, which arrived on these shores steadily over the twelve month period, with some carry-overs from 2009, when they opened in their respective countries. Any ten-best list that fails to acknowledge cinema from board, though still artistically valid, can be seen as lazy in construction and predicated on a paucity of available contenders. The most dedicated and enthusiastic bloggers can be relied on to seek out as much of the newer crop as is physically negotiable, this invariably leads to the most informed and interesting year-end wrap. 2010 was no better or no worse than the years immediately preceeding it, and in all probability won’t be eclipsed by the coming years. For those adventurous souls with the hankering and the wherewithal to put in the needed investments, there are always between 30 and 40 films each and every year that will reward cineastes with a bevy of accomplished works by world-class directors, and some notable independents and documentaries, in large measure by artists trying to make their marks. Hence, for those throwing up their hands, I pose that they must seek out and not wait for the films to come to them.
After examining past diary entries, I discovered I managed close to 200 new releases over the past twelve months, and additionally approximately 75 big-screen showings of classic films offered up at retrospective houses (mostly the Film Forum and the IFC Film Center). Complicating the allocation of time, I also attended 36 stage plays, 8 concerts and 9 at-house operas and 6 others movie-theatre simulcasts. That all adds up to about 334 cultural out-of-home “events” over a 352 day period, enough to substantiate a serious mental unbalance that far outstrips any tame admissions of obsessive-compulsive disorder. This does not include a sporadic domestic regimentation of DVDs, blu-rays and CDs from what has developed into a massive collection, that can’t ever receive full justice from appraising eyes. Yet, I’m far from alone. A new blogger from Canada named “Sachin” admits in his own extraordinary blogsite wrap that he viewed 400 films over the past year, while old reliables like John Greco, Bobby Josson, Just Another Film Buff, Craig Kennedy, Jon Lanthier, Judy Geater, Drew McIntosh, Jake Cole, our two friends at Ferdy-on-Films, David Schleicher, the Olson brothers, and some others are active on the theatrical and home front each and every week as per their “diary” submissions and/or full reviews at their own sites. Of course any discussion of prolific movie viewing can be incomplete with the mention of Allan Fish, who all things considered has led the way for years, and the congenial staff at WitD, especially Jamie Ulher, Dee Dee, Jaime Grijalba, Bob Clark and the unassailable Joel Bocko.
Without further ado, I present to the film community my choices for the ten best films of 2010, with two caveats: 1) I continue to stand behind long-adhered to stipulations regarding release dates. The scope of eligibility is govered by USA theatrical appearance. Festival screenings do not count, only legitimate openings available to the public. Mind you, I have in the past made appearances at the New York Film Festival, and regularly attend Tribeca, but the best films at those venues must subsequently win theatre release before being considered. Otherwise, this year’s brilliant Dog Pound, (apparently scheduled for 2011 release) would certainly finish in my list. 2) I reserve the right to choose an extra film, thus creating a tie for the number 10 spot, a practice I’ve followed each and every year since I began compling lists. My “runners-up” list will include a dozen films, listed in no particular order. Films that made that sub-group are films I liked quite a bit, and are features that competed for the top ten right up until the last moment. Listings such as these are often arbitrary and are subject to second though days, even hours later. As always they reflect the taste of the composer, and in no way attempt to suggest that these are the films others will find equally as venerable. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Numerical order is perhaps the most arbitrary of all, and is the conceit of the drama queen.
1 Lourdes (France) directed by Jessica Hausner
Bressonian in its tone (with a satirical nod to Bunuel) Jessica Hausner’s film is often as aesthetically beautiful as it is religiously touching, intoxicating to the eyes and ears with painterly compositions and Schubert and Bach on the soundtrack, but the question remains as to what the director is really trying to imply here. No doubt it is esasentially a satiric strike against the fanaticism that annually informs a visit to this sacred site, while still offering up reverence for those adherents who maintain the ritual and belief. At the film’s center is a petite wheelchair-bound woman, played superbly by Sylvie Testud, who doesn’t seem at all caught up in all the religious euphoria, until an event later on changes her life, but still doesn’t mitigate pertinent issues raised by a specialist on multiple sclerosis. While it seems obvious that the film doesn’t buy into blind adulation, it’s also clear that Hausner is willing to broach the contradictions inherent in Catholic doctrine, where some unfortunates are shot down indiscriminately, while devotion is often ‘rewarded’ with terminal disease. Perhaps the most facile aspect of Catholicism, (and for any religion for that matter) is the belief that things are there for a reason, and don’t need to be explained. This is film that haunts you months after the first viewing, and one that in its beauty and unbiased insights stands as one of the most accomplished in years.
2 Blue Valentine (USA) directed by Derek Cianfrance
Both Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams deliver explosive performances in Derek Gianfrance’s film, which the director admitted in a post-screening discussion was nearly ten years. The achingly realistic observational “day in the life” styled film may indeed have been a long time in planning mode, but you’d never know it from it’s seemingly improvisational execution, nor in its dearth of events that could be characterized as anything out of the ordinary. There’s more than a hint of Cassavettes here, and the raw and naturistic urgency of the work validates the cinematic use of a magnifying glass to document marriage fallout by way of an aching idiosyncratic portrait. Rarely has movie intimacy achieved such harrowing results. And even rarer still is the remarkable navigation of a narrative balancing act by Cianfrance that has the viewer wondering well after the screen turns black who is really the blame for the painful deterioration of such a supreme example of unconditional love. Gianfrance never takes the side of either protagonist, and as a viewer it’s hard to solve the source of the fallout. Hand-held camerwork and a superb flashback structure seem to consort to imply there is no difference from “then” and “now.” It’s quite a downer, but it rings with naked truth.
3 Carlos (France) directed by Oliver Assayas
The five-and-a-half hour epic Carlos by one of the best of all contemporary filmmakers, Olivier Assayas, is the story of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, who for two decades was one of the most wanted terrorists on the planet. Between 1974, in London, where he tried to assassinate a British businessman, and 1994 where he was arrested in Khartoum, he lives several lives under various pseudonyms, weaving his way through the complexities of the international politics of the period. The riveting drama (there wasn’t a boring minute) is built around questions like ‘Who is Carlos? and what instigated him on his never-ending body and soul war against various groups in the political and social stratosphere? Assayas may well have crafted his masterpiece here, and by any barometer of measurement it’s one of the very best films of 2010. Edgar Ramirez is remarkable as are a plethora of supporting players, and the use of music and pulsating rhythms propel this film with an electrifying undercurrent. A number of showcase scenes stand out like the raid on OPEC headquarters. It’s been compared with Goodfellas, and like that Scorsese gem, the final segment (when Ramirez goes through a stage of hedonistic corpulence) may lag a bit, but it’s a tiny blemish on a film that’s as entertaining as any one is likely to see these days. Assayas was as successful with his marathon film as Steven Soderbergh was not a few years back. Where Carlos was rich, vivid and diverse, Che was redundant, tedious and one-note. In any case Carlos vies with Summer Hours as the director’s finest work.
4 Another Year (UK) directed by Mike Leigh
In the opening scene of Mike Leigh’s great and astonishingly perceptive Another Year Imelda Staunton visits her gynecologist, and asks for sleeping pills without discussing the real causes of her depression. This sets in motion a film of shared difficulties by other characters whose behavior and interactions broach issues of life, death, marriage and unhappiness all presented in typical improvosational Leigh style, with characters eschewing preachy speeches in favor of the small moments that inform the much larger human condition. It may well have eclipsed Vera Drake and Life is Sweet as Leigh’s finest film ever, but it’s bittersweet underpinnings show the director in a more contemplative and elegiac mood. Broadbent (one of the finest actors in the world), Manville and Sheen give performances of great depth and aching resonance, and several show piece scenes like the one where Manville smokes a cigarette with a spooky character outside are classics.
5 Rabbit Hole (USA) directed by John Cameron Mitchell
Rabbit Hole is a painfully real-life situational chamber drama that examines a faltering marriage and the callousness that may result from a failure to process grief and do the kind of things that might facilitate the healing process. At the center of the drama are Becca and Howie, played by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart. No blame is implied or asserted in Rabbit Hole, which in mainly concerned with how people interact and how the most unlikely of developments may actually allow the healing process to accelerate through mutual understanding and even kindness. to procreate again. Lindsay-Abair’s script insightfully opines that sorrow is isolating, and within these claustrophobic verbal parameters everything that is said is wrong, jokes and ‘cute’ anecdotes only serve to wound and family conversations are shaped by spastic pattern of recriminations and apologies. The film rightly asserts that dialogue in and of itself is a healer, and that the most unlikely of meetings can lead to some kind of begruding acceptance. Beautifully lensed in sedate hues and scored with autumnal tones, the film is one of the best of American chamber dramas about the process of grief, that includes Robert Redford’s Ordinary People.
6 Un Prophete (France) directed by Jacques Audiard
Jacques Audiard’s film, which first appeared on USA screens back in March, is one of the great prison dramas, one whose long running time yields to sustained tension and a fascinating character metamorphosis. The raw and realistic story of murder, redemption and role-reversal contains hucinatory florishes and a no-holds-barred view of the despair behind the walls, that invariable leads to murder, mob control and a survival-of-the-fittest pecking order. Both Tahar Rahim, who plays Malik, and Nils Arestrup, who plays the corpulent Luciani, are electrifying in their portrayals, and in the end there’s audience sympathy fro Malik, whose stamina, charisma and independence show inner strength that was forged over a period of times in this thankless setting, where danger lurks at every turn. Audiard’s greatets film is a worthy successor to Bresson and Becker.
7 Toy Story 3 (USA) directed by Lee Unkrich
The final saga in the Toy Story saga is the one with the most lasting emotional resonance, a film that sacrifices much of the zippy homor for a pervading sense of melancholy enconsed in issues of abandonment, abuse and close calls. One of the most deeply felt moments in Pixar’s entire arsenal is the one where Andy says goodbye to his toys. It’s a wenching moment that defies logic but was built on a long and loving relationship with characters made famous in the commercial channels. Newbie director Lee Unkrish, a longtime associate of Lassetter spent years refining the arc of the story to reflective a mature perspective and the entire inner story of teh toys being on their own. This is technologically the most advanced animation, and proof parcel that the most accomplished craftsmen can collaborate to produce the best product. Square can be beautiful too folks!
8 The King’s Speech (UK) directed by Tom Hooper
All it really takes is two great actors (Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush), astory about a speech impediment in the English monarchy, some plaintive if repetitious music from ace composer Alexander Desplat, a generous dose of Ludwig Van’s Seventh, the period of Britain’s “finest hour” and a striking visual period replication. Nothing more, nothing less. There’s areason why nearly every critic is smitten with this film, and I’ll be damned if I jump off the wagon.
9 My Dog Tulip (USA) directed by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger
Near the beginning of the charming and wistful animated feature My Dog Tulip, Christopher Plummer intones “Unable to love each other, the English turned to dogs.” Based on a 1956 memoir by British author J.R. Ackerly, and patterned after the dog drawings of James Thurber, the delightful and wryly humorous work loosely chronicles the travails of the dog tulip, who is moved from one owner to the next. The film has a breezy charm while broaching universal themes, and it’s clear that directors Paul and Sandra Fierlinger are fans of both Ackerley and Thurber, as their own style here is infectious. Plummer, Lynn Redgrave, Isabella Rossellini and Brian Murray contribute wonderful voice support.
10 The Strange Case of Angelica (Brazil) dir. by. M. de Oliveira (tie)
102 year-old Portugese director Manoel de Oliveira is more than a legend, he’s a near-aberation of what people consider as normal or even possible. Yet, his miraculous achievement is far more that he is even working at that age, but that he can craft films of this kind of quality. The Strange Case of Angelica combines mystery, obssession and satiric humor, while telling a story with surrealist underpinnings, visualized in ravishing art house compositions that in and of themselves are impossible to divert from. There’s a touch of Bergman and Bunuel here, yet Oliveira is a unique talent whose hybrid approach is most original. This is his best film in years, and one that appeal equally to a number of genre fans.
10. Waste Land (USA/Brazil) directed by Lucy Walker (tie)
Lucy Walker’s inspiring documentary Wasteland shows just how much impoverished people can do with so little. It’s kind of classical with with it’s art-from-refuse underpinning, but there so many human interest stories, and many examples of how creativity and perseverence can bring forth finished products that would make professionals proud. It’s a story of hope and teamwork, and submerged talent. So many portraits, like the man who finds a book on Machiavelli and reads it, and the woman who makes soup in the refuse, add to a story of lives changed by their surroundings. There’s a soaring lyricism packed in so many frames and an indominability of the human spirit on display.
Runners-Up: 12 Films in no particular order:
White Material (France)
Shutter Island (USA)
Winter’s Bone (USA)
Samson and Delilah (Australia)
Jean-Michele Basquiat: The Radiant Child (USA)
Inside Job (USA)
Mademoiselle Chambon (France)
The Kids are All Right (USA)
Fish Tank (UK)
Never Let Me Go (USA)
How To Train Your Dragon (USA)
Best Director: Oliver Assayas (Carlos)
Best Actor in a Leading Role: Edgar Ramirez (Carlos)
Best Actress in a Leading Role: Giovanna Mezzogiorno (Vincere)
I am still pondering many of the other categories and am unable and/or unwilling to post final choices at this time.