2010: My Favorites Year

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In the last blog entry, my partner Rod Heath gave his year in review and 10 favorite films of 2010. He also mentioned the ongoing dialogue we’ve had about the films we’ve seen and what has worked and not worked for each of us. Here’s what he said:

Marilyn’s been hungry for films with positive and expansively humanistic sensibilities, which have, sadly, been pretty thin on the ground. I’ve found myself, on the other hand, responding enthusiastically, or, at least, with a certain empathetic recognition, to the oft-brutal and misanthropic mood exhibited in so many films.

Rod, of course, is essentially correct about the kinds of films we’ve each pursued and how we have scored our respective reactions. I have not been impervious to the misanthropy afloat in the zeitgeist—indeed, I have found myself haunted by the dead-on critique of the current state of our culture by the mockumentary I’m Still Here—the mud-wallow that is reality TV, the rise of the dilettante to meteoric heights, self-obsession projected for mass consumption by enabling home and surveillance technologies, and the sanctification of the word “fuck” as the dominant term for emotion and emphasis. Do I want to escape all that? You bet! Art has the ability to ennoble, but it seems that most filmmakers are content these days to fish in wading pools and shoot into barrels. A paucity of films with ideas or any motivation to really wrestle with them has film audiences and critics falling all over themselves to try to find some nourishment for their minds and souls—hence, the declaration that Inception is the thinking man’s blockbuster, never mind that there’s nothing to think about but the plot twists.

I find myself in the grip of a very strong desire to find a lot more that’s real in my everyday experiences. The world has gotten too virtual for me, and even the movies, whose fictional stories have always helped put real life, once lived largely face to face and in real time, into much-needed perspective, are, as Rod put it, “thin on the ground.” For example, the gay and lesbian experience, so long banished from or opaquely referenced in movies, is now everywhere, with many a straight actor looking for a same-sex tongue kiss to keep up with the times. Ironically, lesbian director Lisa Cholodenko, given the chance to show how the other half really lives in The Kids Are All Right, chose to create a sitcom highly palatable to straight audiences, putting her characters in an upper-middle-class California milieu and offering a lesbian who is made invisible under a bulky blanket while failing to arouse her lesbian partner during a silly sex scene and who is then rushed into a straight sexual relationship for the duration of the movie.

Leave it to documentaries to provide a snapshot of where we are today—ironically, still remote from the world or in despair. Marwencol shows how a hideous assault on a cross-dresser in upstate New York sent the victim, exceedingly lucky to be alive, into a fantasy world populated by dolls whose names and stories stand in for a world the man is too frightened to face. Restrepo recalls the televised Vietnam War, but unlike with Vietnam, who has really connected their own fates with the men and women sent to the other side of the world to fight yet another war? And Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work continues a trend of documenting aging celebrities (Valentino: The Last Emperor, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster); watching Rivers’ desperate bid to keep working—and surely that’s why she agreed to do this documentary—seems to continue the freak show aspects of her current celebrity, but I’m not sure what it means on a cosmic level. Waiting for Superman is union-busting propaganda and fear mongering. And documentaries like Casino Jack and the United States of Money and Countdown to Zero (“convincingly argued and extremely polished, it has theatrical potential for auds whose reservoir of worry about humanity’s future hasn’t already run dry” says the Hollywood Reporter) provide too little too late for most of us.

As distribution for films made outside the United States or official channels continues to dwindle, it is harder for fresh, world-expanding visions to be seen. And yet they are there, and I’ve been lucky enough to see them. Recognizing films officially with awards based on whether they have played theatrically during a given year is a hegemonic and, given internet distribution, archaic practice that assures these films will not join in the publicity bonanza a show like the Oscars can provide. So I’m simply going to ignore this kind of nonsense and make a list of favorite films I’ve seen this year through any means at all.

In alphabetical order:

Asleep in the Sun (Alejandro Chomski)

Literary adaptations don’t have to be Oscar-baiting films on a grand scale. Alejandro Chomski’s sly and winning Asleep in the Sun reinvigorates the scifi horror film with humor and wisdom. It’s a smallish film with a big heart and charm to burn.

Bluebeard (Catherine Breillat)

Leave it to the brilliant Catherine Breillat to take the oft-told tale of Bluebeard and weave a grisly story of wish fulfillment that gives patriarchy its comeuppance.

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)

Recalling the multinational, polylingual sex farces of Luis Buñuel, Abbas Kiarostami turns out a philosophical love story unlike anything I’ve ever seen—as puzzling and beautiful as love itself.

Lourdes (Jessica Hausner)

A perfectly modulated comedy, Lourdes also makes rueful comment on the desperate need and search for personal miracles that keep religion and its many brokers in business.

Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg)

Regarding Henry made poignantly real when Mark Hogancamp is beaten nearly to death, awakens from a 9-day coma with the task of relearning everything from walking to writing, and gives up his old best friend—booze—to build himself a new, safe world of doll friends in his fictional Belgian town of Marwencol. The will to survive and create art rich with sincerity and imagination is Hogancamp’s gift to everyone who sees his town and this film.

No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (Steve James)

If documentarian Steve James has ever made a less-than-compelling, beautifully crafted film, I’ve yet to see it. James turns a beam on his own home town of Hampton, Virginia, where a criminal assault case against rising basketball star Allen Iverson showed the depth of the community’s racial divide, long buried, but never dead.

On Tour (Mathieu Amalric)

A bit of a rambling, loose film, but the wonderful sense of family and shared fates reminiscent of the films of Mike Leigh inform this look at an American New Burlesque troupe on tour in France.

Problema (Ralf Schmerberg)

Imagine you are at a dinner party with 112 of the most interesting, informed, out-of-the-box thinkers on the planet and they all respond to 100 pressing questions asked by people from all walks of life all over the world. Imagine, too, that you could see their answers any time you wanted by clicking on this link and that you could make your own movie out of what you found there. Open-source films are a totally new form, and I feel incredibly fortunate to be around at the moment of their birth.

The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court (Pamela Yates)

The United States lost all credibility as the world’s white-hatted savior when it failed to join the International Criminal Court. The ICC truly does divine work, bringing criminals to justice and ending their reigns of terror. How the court works, what it has accomplished, and what still needs to be done form the basis for this eye-opening, compassionate documentary focusing on the real good guys in the world today.

Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean)

An ordinary tale of adultery given an extraordinary treatment by master filmmaker Radu Muntean, Tuesday, After Christmas provides an allegory for Romania in a newly prosperous era.

Waste Land (Lucy Walker)

The art of found objects advances exponentially when photographer Vik Muniz travels back to his native country of Brazil to make art with garbage from the country’s largest landfill and the people who make a subsistence living recycling some of it. Uplifting, ingenious, and a subtle critique of the social divide that keeps black Brazilians down and white Brazilians throwing away perfectly good objects and people.

  • Colin spoke:
    5th/01/2011 to 12:27 pm

    Sheesh, and I thought *my* list was eclectic. Of your showstoppers I’ve seen precisely one. Off to a bit of digging afterwards, methinks.

    I’m more and more interested in documentaries these days, and so I note your words on Joan Rivers and Restrepo. I enjoyed the first – and yes, she’s blatantly hawking for business – the second one was bettered, IMO, by the Danish movie Armadillo. I suspect they may both be trumped by The Tillman Story, of which I’ve read great things but have not seen.
    Countdown to Zero, too, is impressive for us worryheads, and alow me to draw your attention to GasLand, which may have even closer relevance to you.

    Anyway, a deep, challenging read as always.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/01/2011 to 12:39 pm

    Colin – I was pretty sure the paucity of comments here was because none of the readers has seen most of these films. But that’s what FonF is for – showing off the films that deserve, but don’t get, much of an audience.

    Joan Rivers was a decent documentary, and it certainly does explain why she put herself through so much plastic surgery–her obsession with working would make her want to be able to compete with younger, more attractive performers. The business is very tough on women, of course.

    I mention the economic collapse movies more because I saw this coming 20 years ago, so this is kind of ho-hum to me. I am, however, very interested in seeing The Tillman Story, because military abuses and cover-ups are very current and ongoing, and this story somehow connects with people at home, where some of the other war documentaries might as well be filmed on Mars for all the connection they form.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    5th/01/2011 to 4:14 pm

    I understood from the outset what you plan was here with this list and I commend you for it in view of your general apathy towards lists and rating one film over another. I on the other hand am a bonafide drama queen, and I love compiling lists and of agonizing for days over what films ultimately have earned a berth under intense scrutiny. When one sees a few hundred films as you and many others in the inner circle have, it is an annual ritual to ascertain and glorify in what choses few have stood the tallest. Your noble intention -consistent with your aims here- is to bring attention to films that most have not seen; indeed I haven’t seen several here myself, as there was never to this point a release date. I would have myself as added the Tribeca gem DOG POUND, which is yet to open, but I tool my rules differently.

    I yelped when I saw LOURDES here as that is my #1 film of the year. And yesterday I finally got to see WASTE LAND, which had vaulted into my ten best list. Riveting and deeply moving interest stories about those who make so much out of so little.

    Anyway, wonderful choices, top to bottom. I liked BLUEBEARD, but perhaps not quite as much as THE LAST MISTRESS. I’d like to see it again though.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/01/2011 to 4:59 pm

    I thank you, Sam, for your understanding, and I must say that I’m a bit surprised that I actually did a list. I didn’t know that’s what would happen when I started this article, and that’s the truth. I had something a little different in mind initially. But I guess looking at all the nominees and winners from all the awarding organizations I’m aware of kind of upset me. So many unworthies among those I had seen, so many films I haven’t seen. So I guess this is my perversity in building a list of films most people haven’t seen that I think are great. I’m glad a voice I trust – you – agrees with some of my choices.

  • Rod spoke:
    7th/01/2011 to 3:06 am

    I would have seen Certified Copy and Bluebeard if they had come near me like a shot. I even tried to hunt them down via certain litigated websites without luck.

  • Jamie spoke:
    7th/01/2011 to 12:58 pm

    Great list here Marilyn, I’m sitting here nodding in agreement to many of these. ‘Bluebeard’ I liked quite a bit, but for some reason I thought I saw it in 2009 and included it in my list then. Not saying you can’t that’s just why I haven’t included it in my thoughts for this year… your small capsule makes we want to see it again, as initially I said I liked it but preferred many of her earlier films. Either way her and Denis are probably my favorite 2 filmmakers working today, or at least in my 5 that I have to see their films as soon as I can.

    I’m going to see ‘Lourdes’ as soon as I can (thanks Sam, wink) and your capsule does nothing but wet my appetite even more.

    But of all the films you list, I’m most pleased with the IVERSON, or the simple fact that you thought to include anything from the ESPN 30 for 30 series. I hadn’t thought too, but of course they are 2010 films! I’ve seen the IVERSON one, am a fan of his, and thought it more or less did a great job of handling the events in question. My favorite of the series (that has been incredibly home run or total wiff strike out) is the TALE OR TWO ESCOBARS, the story of a Colombian soccer AND drug trafficing of the late 1980′s early 1990′s. It’s a real fantastic, riveting film.

    I now start a pilgrimage to find CERTIFIED COPY and ASLEEP IN THE SUN.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    7th/01/2011 to 2:06 pm

    If I had seen Bluebeard or Certified Copy via a screener, I would have shared. Alas.

    Jamie, you might have seen Bluebeard in 2009 if you were in France. I saw it at the EU Festival at the Siskel Center. As for Iverson, I was fortunate to see that at a screening at the Landmark Century, and it did play theatrically here and there. Of course, however, it is an ESPN film, and a great series they commissioned. Good on them.

    As for Asleep in the Sun, good luck. I’m friendly with the director, so if you fail, I can contact him about a DVD.

  • Jamie spoke:
    7th/01/2011 to 2:18 pm

    Yeah, after a quick initial search over lunch, I can’t find a thing about ASLEEP, but your mention of its Horror elements has this genre fan excited.

    I did get a screener of BLUEBIRD, but maybe it was still 2010, just pre-March so my memory had faded. Either way, it’s great.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    7th/01/2011 to 3:07 pm

    Bluebird or Bluebeard?

  • Jamie spoke:
    7th/01/2011 to 3:33 pm

    opps, ‘BEARD. so if Rod wants a copy just say ‘it’.

  • Rod spoke:
    7th/01/2011 to 6:54 pm

    Oh, no, I’ll live Jamie. It’ll be out on video soon if it’s not already, I would have just liked to see it before the end of the calendar year. But thanks for the offer.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    10th/01/2011 to 9:31 am

    Perhaps the most resonant aspect of this remarkable testament to the cinema of 2010 was the appearance of Lucy Walker’s WASTELAND, which was first covered here during that tireless CIFF run. That celebratory review made such an impression on me, that I couldn’t fathom any complete discussion of the year without seeing it. Your call was a revelation I must say.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/01/2011 to 9:36 am

    Sam – It does my heart good that my heads up on Waste Land moved you so much and that you waited to see it before making your list. I know how seriously you take your list-making, and I’m glad you trusted my judgment so much – and agreed with it!

  • Maren spoke:
    10th/01/2011 to 1:44 pm

    Thanks for your list ….and your reasons to make it.
    Without Ferdyonfilms i`d never heard of Bluebeard and i still want to see it.Breillats latest film La belle endormie /Sleeping Beauty/Die schlafende Schöne was shown on Arte Tv(“french-german culture channel”) this Saturday and next days it can be seen for free on their website.This is called arte+7 and their website is http://videos.arte.tv.de//videos but the most simple way is to google ” schlafende Schöne” and you will find it.
    ( in french with french and german subtitles)

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/01/2011 to 3:36 pm

    Maren – Thank you for the kind words you shared on Wonders in the Dark. I wish I could understand French better; I might have to wait for Sleeping Beauty to show up stateside.

    Thanks for commenting here at last!

  • Maren spoke:
    12th/01/2011 to 9:13 am

    Sleeping Beauty:
    Sorry, I didn´t know that.Yet I promise that it will be quite easy to understand for someone who speaks french.
    My own sort of language difficulties were my main reason not to comment but I like to change this.Storytelling was a kind of “safe ground” for me. I was always attracted by fairytales and the possibility to look behind their surface .So Breillats Films seemto be very interesting for me and it was the reason to watch
    Sleeping Beauty

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