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By Roderick Heath
“We’re going to need more holy water!” – Ron Perlman, Season of the Witch (2011)
It’s been a hell of a year. One of rage and anarchy, sloth and pathos, calamity and continuity. Our world reminds us every day now of both how close we are and yet also how far apart.
And our cinema—is our cinema keeping pace and reflecting our interesting times? Not if you’re looking for Godardian agitprop aesthetics, obviously. But perhaps, on another level, a psychological level, a mythopoeic level?
Regular readers of my end-of-year confessions will know I usually finish up feeling disappointed, cheated, frustrated, and generally bewildered by my cinema going, especially once awards season is in full swing. So many Oscar-hungry puff pieces, so many overstuffed fanboy epics, so much faux-auteurist pap clad in the new imperial clothes! Usually my frustration tends to stem from being denied a chance to see important movies, and this year there are, as ever, a few real nagging gaps in my viewing, and also quite a few that I refuse to care about. Amongst the year’s biggest movies are some I’ll probably never see, including Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, desperate franchise-wringers from people who barely know how to make movies, but know all about getting bums on seats.
Film itself, the actual physical medium, is dying, or at least bound to be valued only by niche obsessives, retronauts, and historians. Like many things, this stirs a debate between my practical yin and my romantic yang: for filmmakers it means both a liberation from the cost of the medium, helping level the playing fields a little more in the always-expensive world of movie production, and yet it threatens also a potential loss of craft, of care in shooting and assembling those fragments of arranged reality which we call films. Major, well-proven filmmakers like Spielberg and Scorsese have this year made large-budget films with personal themes that are intended for the broadest audiences possible, yet these have been characterised, and to a certain extent received, as some kind of retrograde, risky perversity. Does such fretting count as evidence of how deeply we have been brainwashed by the carefully niche-marketed, incessantly hip zeitgeist?
Yet there’s little doubt in my mind that this has been the best year for cinema since at least 2007, and possibly since 1999. Of course, “year” is always a problematic categorisation, given the channels of distribution that many films, particularly indie films and movies from non-English-speaking markets, have to flow though. In any event, any time frame that brings us cinema on the level of The Tree of Life, Uncle Boonmee, and Mysteries of Lisbon on their own would be a memorable window in movie history. Even some of this year’s outright disasters had at least a perverse ambition going for them. Whatever else you can say about the likes of Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet and David Gordon Green’s Your Highness, both ramshackle attempts to crossbreed geeky genre satire with slacker-stoner humour (with Greg Mottola’s Paul as a third, though far superior, entry), they had an eccentricity and, occasionally, a sheer sense of anarchy that made them far more engaging than such bathwater-flavoured square-deal fare as Captain America: The First Avenger or Contagion, if not, in the end, any better.
Yet I’m surprised at how much bitching I’ve encountered about the year’s low quality of movies amongst mainstream moviegoers. Even there I’m at odds: the multiplexes have seen such lively fare as X-Men: First Class, Thor, Fast Five, Scream 4, Hanna, Super 8 (not a sequel!), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two, and Sucker Punch flitter across the screens in sprawls of pixels and pummelling. I’ve certainly had some powerful disappointments, many of which weren’t even bad, and yet which are bundled together in my mind for seeming to offer far more than they really give: the sophomoric insights of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, the aggressively, turgidly oddball angst of Richard Ayoade’s Submarine; the overwrought mustiness of Rowan Joffe’s Brighton Rock; the hollow, New Age parent-baiting of Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk About Kevin; the shrill conscience-movies clichés of Robert Redford’s The Conspirator; the clogged and dreary Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; the blundering wastage of Cowboys & Aliens and Captain America: The First Avenger, etc., etc. But even in such disappointments, good moments hold the memory, like the scene in Submarine where the young hero is left alone at the dinner table whilst his girlfriend’s family have a crisis hug, a penetrating and all too tangible moment.
So, I’m really still impressed with the breadth of energy evident in cinema, both mainstream and tributary. I’m left with a patina of sensations and textures, visual and emotional and intellectual: the symphonic natural landscapes and macro- and microcosmic attentiveness of The Tree of Life, the dense jungle populated by id-welling monkey men, black caves, easeful waters, and starlight of Uncle Boonmee, the alien, rectilinear universe perforated by proofs of jagged humanity in Drive. The soaring visions of an alien Asgard where matter and dream hang on the edge of eternity in Thor. Hugo’s Belle Époque neverland. The Moses-as-sociopath vision of X-Men: First Class’s Erik Lensherr hauling a submarine from deep in the sea and hurling a sky full of rockets back at Pharaoh’s army for the sake of liberating his people from bondage. The dreamy thickets of nocturnal suburbia where protean teens venture out and evolve into new beings in The Myth of the American Sleepover and Super 8, the globe-trotting of Hanna, the snowy mountain fringes where the monks of Of Gods and Men are marched to meet their fate, already touched with the otherworldly and the purified.
The sombre desert limbo and the nocturnal jazz of Passion Play and the stygian, drug-fuelled nightclub rampage of the anti-hero in Oren Moverman’s Rampart. The bleak forest halls and the eerie, totemic wind farms that guard the edge of the darkly enchanted village in Wake Wood, littered with corpses as nature is thrown fatally out of balance by human arrogance. The wistful chamber music of Mysteries of Lisbon where time and tales’ edges blur and congeal and reverse upon themselves. The wonder of the perfectly formed small baby’s limbs in The Tree of Life and Womb; the foggy, bleary oedipal plains of that second film. The ethereal, noir-soaked frames of Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere, where murder and muse coalesce into a fabric of both eroticised yearning and alienation. Rivers of gore spilled by the heroes of 13 Assassins and Drive in their divergent quests to defend the weak. The anticipated nightmarish blood-tide of the future permeating the uptight adventurers of A Dangerous Method. Endless armies of the psychic war in Sucker Punch warded off by its singular warrior amazons in landscapes that suggest a nerd’s busted hard drive in hell. Harry Potter and friends standing before the blazing ruins of their alma mater, releasing quietly relieved breaths of victory and survival.
Last year, I waxed excessive about some linking themes I had noticed preoccupying the minds of filmmakers, as they offered a raft of variations on the theme of the maladapted survivor searching desperately for their humanity. This year, many films expanded upon such a motif to ask almost cosmic-scaled questions: What makes us what we are? Do the events that shape us truly make us, or do such things only give us tools and vices that enable our expression? Where are we going and what things we have learnt help us when trials come? Such questions permeate movies as seemingly different as The Tree of Life, X-Men: First Class, Hugo, A Dangerous Method, Womb, Sucker Punch, Hanna, Mysteries of Lisbon, Attenberg, Drive, The Ward, and Jane Eyre. I was fascinated by the powerful images of parents with children, and those of the hazy fringes of civilisation where there is a kind of spirituality even in the act of corporeal extermination, repeating throughout many. Several films evoked the trappings of psychotherapy and depicted adventures in the inner space. One of the more conscious, recurrent themes was that of generational torch passing, messy and fraught as it always is. Sex and violence are eternal presences in movieland, of course, but imbued so often of late with aspects of the genuinely primal, parsed through dream states, myth, and frantic hunger, from the Freudian fever-dreams of Womb, to the masochistic heroines of Leap Year and A Dangerous Method, needing physical shock to suture together sex and spirit. Heroes have come sometimes beaten, commonly bloodied, often falling with feet of shattered clay. Villains have often been hard to discern from heroes, with characters who bundle together what we love most and fear most within their frames. Hell, even the mysterious alien beast of Super 8 is both a terrible monster and a desperate, forlorn prisoner.
Children and adolescents have been peculiarly powerful protagonists throughout the year, fighting off alien invasions, saving cinema history from the rubbish heap, battling off superpowers and secret armies, even committing mass murder with admirable focus. Simultaneously, the older men are older and more tired, beaten about by life and watching hopes fade, from Ben Kingsley’s tragic Georges Méliès in Hugo to Kevin Spacey’s and Stanley Tucci’s bruised company men in Margin Call, Antonio Luz’s swashbuckling but haunted Father Dinis in Mysteries of Lisbon, Vangelis Mourikis’s dying idealist in Attenberg, and even the collapsing dignity of Kristen Wiig’s oddly tragicomic heroines in Paul and Bridesmaids. All perhaps could hope for an ounce of the dignity, even nobility, which the monks of Of Gods and Men and Uncle Boonmee himself can take to their respective graves. By contrast, many heroines have been frantically trying to hold together the shape of their world and give it meaning by sheer will, from the fantasy monster slayings by the girls of Sucker Punch to the atavistic rituals of Attenberg’s Marina, Keira Knightley’s Sabina Spielrein knitting neurosis into theory, and Jane Eyre’s rectitude in the face of degradation.
Is there a keynote to any of this? Certainly not one that encompasses so many films, with their manifold aims and qualities. And yet, throughout such experiences as those of the adventuring youths of Hugo and Super 8, their more thoughtful kin across town in The Tree of Life, and their (spiritual) older siblings in The Myth of the American Sleepover and the survivalist fantasias of Hanna, Sucker Punch, 13 Assassins and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two, the old men on their final pilgrimages in Of Gods and Men, Attenberg, and Uncle Boonmee, and the Driver giving his lady one life-encompassing kiss just before stamping out another man’s life entirely: all see their protagonists unable to escape their limited selves, and yet all finding a kind of perfection in fellowship and moments of strange serenity remaking an often dull, sometimes cruel world into a place of raptures. Perhaps the figure who could encompass them all is the hapless filmmaker of Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere, the end product of evolution up from the magician Méliès is presented as in Hugo, hurrying his naïve dreams past the camera lens, where Hellman’s protagonist is constantly reaching towards the past, the present, to other people, to a story to be told, and always seeing them retreat into amorphous unknowns and unanswerable longings.
PS: I only saw two current Australian films this year. One was Snowtown, which started off well, with a compelling portrait of seedy hate mongers in a poverty-stricken environment, but devolved into “droning psychopath browbeats fearful youngster” shtick well-exhausted by The Boys (1997) and Animal Kingdom (2010). The second was A Heartbeat Away, a film that filled me with incoherent rage and made me turn it off less than 20 minutes in. This may be an unfair sample of the year’s local cinema.
Some Favourite Performances
Whilst I found it wore out its welcome pretty quickly, I will give Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip this: it captures something convincingly, even affectingly insufferable and doleful about actors thanks to Steve Coogan’s and Rob Brydon’s deft performances. They offered, in between Michael Caine impressions, authentic portraiture of the second-tier male celebrity as show-off, restless consumer, feckless egotist, and occasionally, very familiar figures of middle-aged pathos, angry and bewildered at the sometimes tiny quirks and infinitesimal vagaries of luck that can rule a career. Many actors and other creative people can, I suspect, discover of shiver of self-recognition. Similarly, although the film actively pissed me off, it’s hard to ignore how Tilda Swinton sustains We Need to Talk About Kevin purely and literally by the sweat of her brow. Other famous actors lose and gain weight and slap on the prosthetics to gain awards, but Swinton belongs to a small breed who really does seem to use her own strangely textured flesh as a palate for her artistry, even if directors keep casting her in the same part over and over. Indeed for me it’s been mostly a year of actresses. One of my favourite performances, Shannyn Sossamon’s in Road to Nowhere, was a meditation on the idea of the actress, mutable, inaccessible yet exposed, duplicitous yet laid bare, multitudinous and yet tethered to a single constant image. Sossamon, like Megan Fox, whose low-key, well-textured performance as the angel so bruised by the male gaze in Passion Play that she can barely meet anyone’s eyes, also represents the former It-girl as case study, foiled in the attempt to walk the line between teen-boy masturbation fodder and capital-A actress, diffused through a prism of punch-drunk fantasy.
Perhaps a claim for future It-girl status was Claire Sloma’s magical performance in The Myth of the American Sleepover, the pixie-haired, nose-studded individualist feeling her way through a night of epic debauchery, coming into focus for a jazz ballet routine which, like the film itself, manages to capture something glorious yet painfully transient about the changeling age. Elle Fanning, following up her performance in last year’s Somewhere, made a marvellous contribution to Super 8, standing out amongst a strong cast of youngsters as she shocks her young male friends with real acting talent, and in the scene of the young hero falling in love with her as she’s slathered in zombie make-up, a moment alive with layers of adolescent Eros and transformational strangeness. A couple of years older but no less protean, Saoirse Ronan’s star turn in Hanna possessed a singular grace in playing a character who’s both a casual killer and an utterly bewildered innocent. Polar opposite in temperament, if not homicidal capacity, was Emma Roberts’ delicious psychopathic teen narcissist in Scream 4, avatar of everything suspect about Gen Y, managing to be both hilarious and alarming as she shreds her own body to convincingly inhabit the role of media hero, and later walloping David Arquette to jelly with a bedpan. I’m not sure if I enjoyed a moment in 2011 cinema more. Similarly, memorably ballsy and occasionally unhinged, Amber Heard strode through her two-for-one trashterpiece year of Drive Angry and The Ward with the feral pride of a lioness who considers the cinema screen her private patch of veldt.
Words of praise for some Aussie girls who seem to move from strength to strength: Mia Wasikowska, who inhabits her role in Jane Eyre as if no one else has ever played the part before. Emily Browning, whose supple emotional register gave Sucker Punch both its grit and its emotional intensity. Rose Byrne, who made trying to spy in her underwear seem just another day on the job in X-Men: First Class and managed to make her bitch role in Bridesmaids convincing in her chichi pathos. Speaking of which, Kristen Wiig’s excellence in her self-penned vehicle was most apparent when the film kept to its true brief—portraying a woman in a flailing midlife crisis, riddled with class rage and emotional resentment—rather than the limp attempts to match the frat boy hijinks of Judd Apatow. Wiig was also a gas playing the lazy-eyed, foul-mouthed, new-minted atheist in Paul. Eva Green’s reptilian cool was beautifully exploited in Womb, as was Matt Smith’s rubbery intensity and Lesley Manville’s wizened brilliance. Brighton Rock at least had Andrea Riseborough’s engaging portrait of dim but dogged rebellion against the fetid drear of post-austerity England. Jodie Whittaker left Venus well behind with her similarly sleek impersonation of a put-upon yet heroic nurse in Attack the Block. Kathy Burke was almost my lone salvaging grace for the train wreck of a film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in playing her aged, exhausted she-geek with a still-bubbling edge of randy gaucheness. Robin Wright’s retention of dignity buoyed The Conspirator. Keira Knightley and Monica del Carmen shared, if little else, a taste for masochistic extremes in A Dangerous Method and Leap Year, and both lived up to playing difficult, intransigent, inchoate personalities whose very pain and fragmentation made them more powerful than anyone close to them. The year’s most genuine breakout star, insofar as a year ago no one had even heard of her, was Jessica Chastain, in her ethereal impersonation of Terrence Malick’s idea of earthbound grace, and her gutsy, emotionally well-shaded semi-lead role in The Debt.
Amongst the male of the species, Christoph Waltz might have been disappointed with his first follow-up to Inglourious Basterds, but, considering that he provided most of the few actual laughs in The Green Hornet (“I am ungassable!”), we can’t be disappointed in him. Attack the Block was similarly given some saving zest by the flip wigger cynicism of Alex Esmail, the drolly stoned college boy filled out by Luke Treadaway, and the posturing yet actually befuddled masculinity of Joe Boyega. Ryan Gosling’s thousand-yard-stare-of-the-sensitive-hunk acting has generated a wealth of amusing internet memes, but it’s a great part of the power of Drive, enticing and yet puzzling in his silent, seemingly open demeanour that hides a soul filled with great and terrible wrath. Similarly cunning was Albert Brooks’ justly acclaimed casting as the unlikely force of evil Gosling is fated to meet. Oscar Isaac contributed to the film’s peculiar textures with his evasive performance as Gosling’s foil, but his major part of the year was his alluring, villainous ham in Sucker Punch, shooting hapless ladies in the head and crooning Roxy Music with equal aplomb.
James McAvoy had an excellent year after a spell of eddying post-Atonement, playing conscientious, whip-smart young heroes in The Conspirator and X-Men: First Class: anyone who can make the line “I can’t feel my legs” sound halfway convincing deserves some sort of award. That film was also given some genuinely relishable villainy by unexpectedly dashing, sublimely sadistic Kevin Bacon, and, of course, the man who was everywhere this year, Michael Fassbender, slinked through his role as the proto-Magneto with dark wit and charm. Fassbender might get awards props for the one major role of his I haven’t caught yet, but considering that Fassbender also gave fine physical form to Rochester in Jane Eyre and inhabited Carl Jung with a smouldering brilliance in A Dangerous Method, he certainly has earned his pay. Viggo Mortensen was similarly stellar in Cronenberg’s film, wielding a crafty, authoritative intelligence in portraying Sigmund Freud that far transcended the usual look-at-me celebrity impersonations. Woody Harrelson’s excellence in Rampart sustains a meandering but occasionally ferocious journey into the dark heart of American manhood. Amongst the undoubtedly awe-endowing cast of the final Harry Potter chapter, Alan Rickman’s hyped grace note as the hapless Snape was fine indeed, but oddly enough, I came out having enjoyed Ralph Fiennes’ invocation of something pathetic in the monstrous Voldemort; in a year in which we’ve seen genuine fawned-over-but-actually-detested tyrants depart the earth, he summarised something about them, in his cringeworthy attempt to play the loving despot, not easily appended to news stories.
I’ll spare a kind word for two good actors in movies I hated, Tom Hardy, whose sullen aggression blended with irreducible pain in Warrior was genuinely rousing, and Matt Damon’s frazzled everyman mucking through disaster in Contagion. Along with costar Emily Blunt, Damon’s class also gave some solidity to the stupefyingly silly The Adjustment Bureau. Kevin Spacey, after a long spell of strange and hammy roles, finally snapped back into A-game mode in the generally well-acted Margin Call, and gave his best performance in a decade. Seasoned Hollywood leading men Sean Penn and Brad Pitt were similarly, uncannily immersed in the texture of The Tree of Life, though the film’s real star was young Hunter McCracken, voluble in his incarnation of nascent pubescent emotion and receptivity. Christopher Plummer’s lauded role as the dying gay father in Beginners is obviously an emeritus Oscar in the making, but he was also very good, giving one of his most intimate and convincing film performances in many years. But perhaps the real gem of that film was Goran Visnijc’s role as his peculiar, emotionally bewildered lover. Paul Giamatti, everyone’s pet thespian, sustained the schmaltzy duo of Win/Win and Barney’s Version, imbuing them with life their screenplays probably didn’t deserve, and meanwhile his despicable King John in the rowdy Ironclad was a nice change of pace: nobody has or ever will catapult Brian Cox into a brick wall with as much bravura. Eric Bana was incredibly good and rather underused in Hanna, which is pretty well the story of his career. Young Asa Butterfield in Hugo offered a peculiarly restrained and subtle adolescent performance, keeping pace with the ever-luminous Chloe Moretz playing perhaps her most normal character ever; standing over them literally, if not figuratively, were Ben Kingsley in a characteristically electric turn as the haunted Georges Méliès, Helen McCrory as his sadly ebullient wife, and Sacha Baron-Cohen lobbying hard to be the heir to Peter Sellers as Hugo’s tragicomic foil.
Jean Dujardin has snagged himself an almost certain Oscar nomination this year with his part in The Artist, a role that neatly sidesteps any language difficulties for a French actor in a French movie, an interesting corollary to a year filled with excellent performances in non-English-language films that will, by and large, be entirely ignored. These ranked from the entire cast of Of Gods and Men, including familiar old hands Michael Lonsdale and Lambert Wilson, to the daring of Monica del Carmen in Leap Year, and the hypnotic work of Adriano Luz, Maria João Bastos, and Clotilde Hesme in Mysteries of Lisbon, and Kseniya Rappoport as the antiheroine with a splintered psyche in the uneven The Double Hour. Sergey Puskepolis’ hulking, abusive, scary, yet strangely fatherly characterisation in How I Ended the Summer did a lot to give the film its sense of latent threat and grizzled, vodka-scented heartbreak. Ariane Labed in Attenberg provided a deliciously deadpan portrait of millennial angst and perversity and, finally, almost subliminal grief. Luis Tosar, in Even the Rain, gave a solid core to a thumpingly unsubtle piece of proselytising with his intelligent portrait of a professional jerk obeying humanitarian impulses within himself he wishes he could wish away. Kôji Yakusho gave 13 Assassins its unshakeable moral and physical core, opposite the most memorable villain of the year, the dead-eyed psychopathic princeling embodied by Gorô Inagaki.
Favourites Movies of 2011
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
Cronenberg’s cool, intelligent dissection of not merely the human foibles of the great and brilliant, but of an era and different ways of conceiving the world is his best film in 20 years, and a refreshingly sober study of the trial and error demanded by both scientific method and rebelling against the world that cocoons and frustrates us.
Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari)
Far deeper and more genuinely affecting than its English-language equivalents, The Descendants and Beginners, and a worthy follow-up for the Dogtooth team, Attenberg was a notably astringent, yet penetrating study of an inchoate, quietly grief-stricken era where certainties slip away along with loved ones, and humans become strangers to themselves.
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Refn’s second appearance on my best-of list in two years was a superficial departure from 2010’s Valhalla Rising, and yet maintained deep ties with the earlier film, as a portrait of the human capacity for psychotic rage and benevolent care cohabiting uneasily in one body, and repainting the world according to a mysterious and sometimes frightening moral and aesthetic force. A triumph for cinema craft and directorial vision.
Hanna (Joe Wright)
Joe Wright’s succinctly shaped, yet reflexively epic fairytale-cum-action flick skipped nimbly through genres and continents, evoking everyone from Orson Welles to Terry Southern to the Brothers Grimm on the way. Plus, love that Chemical Brothers score.
Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
A touch distended and ungainly, there is nonetheless a genuine sense of cinematic wonder and emotional iridescence in Martin Scorsese’s first tilt at making a film for all ages, as he finds a way to pull everyone closer to his life obsession and entertain at the same time. Hugo both celebrates the communal dream of cinema and embodies it, and evokes the painful joy of leaving behind childhood even in the midst of a neo-Technicolor fantasia.
Jane Eyre (Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa)
Brusquely handsome and flushed with real feeling, this surprising little gem manages to quietly ransack the settled conventions of the costumed literary adaptation and find a bleary realism in an old and settled template, without stooping to Lit Theory class gimmicks or chocolate box romanticism.
Leap Year (Michael Rowe)
A searing nugget of excellence revolving around cryptic suggestions of familial trauma and Latin American dislocation, vast realms of history and discourse channelled into the body of Laura (Monica del Carmen), trying to exculpate loneliness and crisis through inviting abuse to her body from the one guy who likes her enough to do it. Falls down right at the end, but a vital trumpet blast all the same.
Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz)
The lamented Ruiz’s swan song had all the qualities one expects of both great cinema and also great literature, narratives and images flowing with perfervid beauty and rich melancholia in currents and cross-currents of cause and effect, personality, and sexuality, finally adding up to prove that history is a joke played on all of us.
The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell)
So restrained and limpid in its rewriting of American Graffiti as a Prozac-infused odyssey through the mating rituals of contemporary teenagers that it begins to feel like a fever dream, this film turns its quietly poetic realism into one of the most unobtrusively authentic, yet also artistic and beguiling, portraits of being at that cusp of final adulthood I’ve ever seen.
Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman)
Hellman’s first film in 22 years has its share of longeurs, as if negotiating the strange new textures of modern digital indie cinema, and yet it carefully compounds into a deceptively skillful contemplation of the directorial craft itself and a genuinely clever deconstruction of the noir film and the femme fatale/muse figure. Fittingly for one of the true fathers of independent cinema, Road to Nowhere, like Hellman’s works did 40 or more years ago, impresses with the sense of sovereign artistry wrung from a low budget.
Scream 4 (Wes Craven)
Call it the year of the horror comeback: John Carpenter and John Landis both returned to movie screens after a decade’s absence with erratic films, the resurgence of Hammer Studios continued with the interesting, almost really good Wake Wood and the terrible The Resident, and Wes Craven returned to his famous postmodern slasher series. With original cast members obviously feeling their age and a slew of newbies of variable charm, nonetheless this, when it found its groove, became one of the most purely entertaining and refreshingly nasty mainstream films of the year, with Emma Roberts’ narcissistic psycho proving a far wittier, equally relevant rejoinder to the dolorous art-house exploitation of We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder)
The year’s most mistreated mainstream film (amongst several) that revealed a general cluelessness and neopuritanical streak underlying much critical mentality about the possible fusion of cinema with internet and gaming culture, as well as attempts to expand the lexicon of American blockbuster cinema, Sucker Punch is a wild, crazy, irresponsible ride through the id, and a celebration and deconstruction of the 20th century’s fantasy canon, a bleak satire on institutionalised, outsider-crushing “care”, and the relationship of both with the slow but irreversible liberation from many forms of psychic tyranny. There’s hot chicks with machine guns killing dragons, too.
Super 8 (J.J. Abrams)
J.J. Abrams’ nimble-bodied attempt to recreate the early Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment aesthetic also inspired a lot of surprising hostility, to the extent of crowding any serious contemplation of not only how well he recreates that aesthetic, but also how he offers a self-reflexive meditation on nostalgia, childhood awakenings, and the techniques of cinema. He considers again his recurring fascination with not only themes of familial longing and damage, but also with the act of mediating life through visual recording, and makes it work as its own piece of filmmaking to an extent very few such pieces of retro-cinema tribute ever manage. It also takes its young protagonists far more seriously and on their level than the patronising hipster snark of Attack the Block. Plus, that train wreck was the set-piece of the year.
The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
Whilst, on balance, I didn’t think it quite lived up to the more integral, if also more prosaic, greatness of Malick’s The New World, The Tree of Life earned all its gobsmacked plaudits through sheer nerve and vision: physically ravishing, spiritually probing, and genuinely complex and observationally acute beneath the potentially dizzying pretences, it’s the sort of film that gives ambitious art movies a good name.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) and Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois)
I’ll count these two together because they are, in a way, “last year,” and they each represent fascinating, moody meditations on how we approach a sense of the infinite in both human terms and through the natural world’s benign, embracing indifference: the explicit religious-cultural war in Of Gods and Men and the cryptic militarist repression in Uncle Boonmee each lend a background of human cruelty and irrationalism, whilst the foreground drama concentrates on the values, experiences, and binding ties of family and comrades that leaven the journey into the undiscovered country.
Womb (Benedek Fleigauf)
A caustic little Euro-sleeper with a powerhouse cast and a thorny plot, Womb is a Kubrickian scifi chamber piece with a streak of Polanski-esque psychological gamesmanship, that actually manages to investigate its singular basic idea through with nerveless logic and emotional depth, thus succeeding where many similar films pretend to try and still fail.
X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn) and Thor (Kenneth Branagh)
There were too many comic book superhero movies released this year, or at least so I’m told. But these two movies manage to take that dreary job description and do joyously different things with their respective material, pushed into different realms of Hollywood genre lore by two perpetually energetic British directors. In the case of Vaughn’s film, that meant offering a sleek, swashbuckling reinvention of the well-worn franchise that paid honourable tribute to ’60s Bond flicks and the broad neo-pulp pantheon, whereas Branagh turned the Umpteenth Avenger into the protagonist of a rousing Shakespearean power ballad, with a smart lead performance as a fairly thick hero by Chris Hemsworth and some genuinely soaring fantasy imagery. If you wanted colour and light this year—and god knows I did—then these were the ticket.
Would Have Been On This List If I Had Seen Them In Time:
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar)
War Horse (Steven Spielberg)
13 Assassins (Takashi Miike)
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (Steven Spielberg)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two (David Yates)
How I Ended This Summer (Aleksey Popogrebskiy)
Rampart (Oren Moverman)
Wake Wood (David Keating)
X (Jon Hewitt)
I Liked, With Reservations
Another Earth (Mike Cahill)
Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes)
The Double Hour (Giuseppe Capotondi)
Fast Five (Justin Lin)
The Hunter (Daniel Nettheim)
Margin Call (J.C. Chandor)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
Paul (Greg Mottola)
Source Code (Duncan Jones)
Super (James Gunn)
Passion Play (Mitch Glazer)
Point Blank (Fred Cavayé)
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
The Ward (John Carpenter)
Attack the Block (Joe Cornish)
Burke and Hare (John Landis)
Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston)
Eye of the Storm (Fred Schepisi)
The Conspirator (Robert Redford)
The Green Hornet (Michel Gondry)
Submarine (Richard Ayoade)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
Your Highness (David Gordon Green)
Brighton Rock (Rowan Joffe)
Conan the Barbarian (Marcus Nispel)
Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
The First Grader (Justin Chadwick)
A Heartbeat Away (Gale Edwards)
The Help (Tate Taylor)
Immortals (Tarsem Singh)
The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd)
Red Riding Hood (Catherine Hardwicke)
The Resident (Antti Jokinen)
Warrior (Gavin O’Connor)
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)
As Yet Unseen
50/50, Amigo, Bellflower, Margaret, My Week With Marilyn, Red Dog, Shame, The Sleeping Beauty, Weekend
My Year of Retro Wonders: The Best Older Films I First Encountered in 2011
Arashi Ga Oka (Kiju Yoshida)
The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko)
Back Door to Hell / Ride the Whirlwind / Cockfighter (Monte Hellman)
The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh)
The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra)
Blast of Silence (Alan Baron)
The Bride with White Hair (Ronnie Yu) / The Bride with White Hair II (David Wu)
Castle Keep (Sydney Pollack)
Chungking Express (Wong Kar-Wai)
Contraband / A Matter of Life and Death / Gone to Earth (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Dark of the Sun (Jack Cardiff)
El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky)
The Embryo Hunts in Secret (Koji Wakamatsu)
Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges)
Freud (John Huston)
A Generation (Andrzej Wajda)
The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino)
It’s a Gift (Norman Z. McLeod)
Ivan the Terrible, Parts I & II (Sergei Eisenstein)
Land of the Pharaohs / El Dorado (Howard Hawks)
Letter from an Unknown Woman / Lola Montes (Max Ophüls)
The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman)
Mahler (Ken Russell)
Murder by Contract (Irving Lerner)
The Nanny (Seth Holt)
Night Train (Jerzy Kawalerowicz)
Paprika (Satoshi Kon)
The Quatermass Xperiment / Quatermass II / The Day The Earth Caught Fire (Val Guest)
Sebastiane (Derek Jarman and Paul Humfress)
Shivers (David Cronenberg)
The Sniper (Edward Dmytryk)
Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)
Tess (Roman Polanski)
Voyage to Italy (Roberto Rossellini)
The Wedding Party / Sisters (Brian de Palma)
Went the Day Well? (Alberto Cavalcanti)
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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.
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By Roderick Heath
I did resolve to do a more thorough and serious “confession” this year than those of previous years, in part because this piece will look at several of my favourite films for the year that, for various reasons, I’ve been unable to write up in the more traditional Ferdy on Films template. I doubt what follows lives up my lofty ambitions. It’s been a year, in terms of general quality of movies, both better than it seemed at first and yet also riddled with crushing disappointments. I doubt too many will argue with the proposition that there have been precious few great works, or ones that even tried for greatness. Greatness requires flashes of rebellion against what’s already been proven as reliable and sturdy, whereas today’s cultural centrifuges work to assert a pulverising sameness. That any art form can, and should, offer up many different paradigms of style and story at once has, oddly, never been a popular notion, and even those who claim to want something different often merely settle for repeated versions of something different. A film like The King’s Speech is no less formulaic than the average dim-witted action flick or rom com, and I’m surprised so few seem to notice.
As I’ve said in years past, I’m usually happier raking the debris of cinema culture rather than admiring its shiny new bastions. And at a time when contemporary Hollywood’s directors would benefit from relearning some rigorous classicism in their approach to storytelling and cinematic technique, I’m also finding more than ever that there’s a depressing homogeneity and surface-level pseudo-insight that’s infected the screenwriters in Tinseltown, and elsewhere, too. They’re all so reliant on the most predictable, by-rote, class-taught story structures, and producers have rarely been so fond of the notion that all you have to do is assemble certain disparate pieces in the correct order, and you’ll have a colossal hit. That sort of thing made itself particularly apparent in obscene chimeras throughout the year, in blockbuster fare like Clash of the Titans, The Wolfman, Iron Man 2, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and Robin Hood, as well as would-be serious dramas like The King’s Speech and Hereafter. On the other hand, easily illustrated by the likes of Splice and Black Swan, self-appointed auteurs often think it’s enough that they came up with a pile of provocative ideas, and leave most of the actual work to the audience in a patent search for cult status: if you didn’t “get” the movie, then you simply weren’t the right audience for it. If Christopher Nolan’s Inception was admirable for anything, it was that it was plainly the product of a singular aesthetic and artistic sensibility that wasn’t afraid to think big; and yet it, too, belonged in all aspects to this second category, except in terms of its budget and box office. One obvious reason for the giddy reception of Black Swan in some quarters is that whilst its story basics are hackneyed and characters numbingly clichéd, as filmmaking, it’s something far beyond the everyday.
In any event, I achieved a personal record in terms of the number of films released in the U.S. or Australia in the 2010 calendar year that I’ve managed to catch, but still not all that many by the standards of a professional critic. In the past few weeks I’ve had repeated conversations with esteemed colleague Marilyn Ferdinand about the year’s well-thought-of films which we’ve been working our way through at a time when we’ve had sharply diverging tastes and expectations about them. 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. Movies seem to be channelling the repressed rage that many have felt in the past years of mismanaged wars and economies, the impatience with officialdom and low-burning unrest in our info-bombarded zeitgeist. Occasionally, the zeitgeist even provides its own revealingly mangled rhymes. One of the major screen heroes of the year was a bisexual Swedish female nerd fond of exposing malfeasance on the internet and brutally punishing rapists; one of the most controversial real-life figures of the year was an ambisexual Aussie nerd fond of exposing malfeasance on the internet and accused of rape in Sweden. One of the most “fun” films of 2010 featured a prepubescent girl butchering adults in a calculated but slyly passionate jab at the ever-more cloying, hermetic middle classes whose anxieties are usually the bread and butter of all big commerce, Hollywood included. Prime award-bait piece Rabbit Hole presented a great long wallow in the fallout of when the cult of suburban cocooning fails.
At the heart of that misanthropic streak, perhaps of the most interesting, continually recurring figure in this year’s more prominent works has been the antihero who, variously treacherous, criminal, reprehensible, even downright psychopathic in their war with the world, who find themselves finally, painfully, destructively tethered to their remaining human affections and emotions. Such a description roughly fits John Hawkes’ Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, Mads Mikkelsen’s One-Eye in Valhalla Rising, Eddie Marsan’s Vic in The Disappearence of Alice Creed, Casey Affleck’s Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me, George Clooney’s Man with Many Names in The American, Olga Kurylenko’s Etain in Centurion, Ben Mendelsohn’s Pope in Animal Kingdom, Nicholas Cage’s Big Daddy in Kick-Ass, and even, in their less flashy fashions, Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and Pierce Brosnan’s Adam Lang in The Ghost Writer. In contrast, the need and will to escape, whether it be from literal captivity, oppressive lives and crushing weights, in defiance of whole social hierarchies or merely of a daily grind or tragic memory, saw hapless but determined Everymen and women rise in counterpoint to the general run of bastards on screen. Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island and Cobb in Inception, Jim Carrey’s Steven Russell in I Love You Phillip Morris, Katie Jarvis’ Mia Williams in Fish Tank, Aggeliki Papoulia’s Older Daughter in Dogtooth, Gemma Arterton’s Alice Creed, Keir Gilhcrist’s Craig in It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Angelina Jolie’s Evelyn Salt in Salt, the hapless heroes of Predators and The Town and Centurion and even, in their way, Stephen Dorff’s Johnny Marco in Somewhere and the unfortunate couple in Rabbit Hole—all were fighting against things as seemingly benign as the suffocating sponginess of consumerism or an inability to find their true selves, or very real, very dangerous corporeal enemies, and dread existential abysses. Even Serge Gainsbourg, as portrayed in Johann Sfar’s Gainsbourg: vie heroique, is chased around by the literalised ogre image of the anti-Semitism that terrorises and inspires him to the end of his days.
Some of these characters fit into both categories: does not One-Eye, in his wordless way, flee the lingering ghosts of the men he’s killed in search of a transcendence he finds in the most unlikely of places? Is not Teddy Daniels both killer and victim, quarry and pursuer? Doesn’t Mia nearly kill a small girl in her anguished attempt to protest her betrayal and limited life options? The American even trundles slowly to a dead halt, painted in his own blood, in a final effort to escape a life in which he is advised not to make friends—to be, therefore, dead whilst still alive. The young walking organ bags of Never Let Me Go did not try to escape physically, but they did try to establish their own identities and make their own pathetic protests against the inevitable. Their rebellion is to be much more human than the film’s imagined alternate society expects them to be. Steven Russell flees lives, sexual identities, and law enforcement with the panicked speed of a man desperately trying to keep hold of the one thing that gives his self-destructively consumerist lifestyle some specific gravity.
Many of those cinematic monsters, walking wounded, and wayward warriors had been raised virtually since birth to be the creatures they are, sometimes obeying their ingrained purposes to the letter, others rebelling and seeking out their own raison d’être. There’s a certain irony in this theme, insofar as there’s probably never been such a time in human history in which people are less required to master certain survival arts than today. But perhaps there is both the reaction to and commentary on the growing panic in which children are shoved into the rites of growing up and preparation for an ever more paranoiacally competitive world. Mindy “Hit-Girl” Macready, Evelyn Salt, and Etain are brought up as creatures of dynamic savagery to avenge murdered family members. Teddy Daniels and the Bostonian heavies of The Town are steeped in regulation American machismo and class warfare, struggling against all ingrained presumptions to think of another way out of their jams. Ree Dolly, as a backwoods, squirrel-shootin’, back-talkin’ Lady Liberty, advises her young siblings, “There’s a lot of things you’re gonna have to learn to stop being afraid of.” Nina Sayers of Black Swan is the product of a lifetime regimen of training and preparation for a great future that may never come unless she learns to rebel against precisely what has pushed her so far. The children of Dogtooth enact a perverted version of arch patriarchal, bourgeois fantasies of keeping children socially sterilised against pernicious, uncontrolled forces. Future king Bertie (Colin Firth) in The King’s Speech has been twisted into incoherent knots by the firm upbringing designed to make him strong and resolute, yet it turns out that’s exactly what was needed to fight the dirty Hun. Harry Potter lurched ever closer to the fate awaiting him since infanthood. Even the original gangster himself, Robin Hood, made a cursory outing, passing rapidly through alternate social ranks to finally discover he is the common ancestor of Winston Churchill and Glenn Beck.
If Hit Girl’s rampaging violence represented a kind of giddy fantasy of unleashed anarchy, Never Let Me Go examined the exact opposite world of existential entrapment, and Dogtooth remained balanced precariously and thrillingly between the two, all three nonetheless presented variations on this same theme of who we were are raised to be and why. The notion that, in the end, all behaviours and actions are both futile and infinite, resounds. The notion that the mind is its own deep well that contains entrapping depths and stygian nightmares, whilst hardly novel, again rose up to swamp many of these heroes and heroines. Shutter Island and Black Swan offered up male and female archetypes—the über-macho film noir hero and the innocent, fragile maiden—who take long trips through their own psyches, becoming their own enemies, soothsayers, and spirit-guides. Teddy and Nina are both disintegrating psychos who destroy themselves for a principle, and that principle is love in differing forms. Love also vibrates beneath the harsh, violent, taciturn surface of Valhalla Rising, where One-Eye’s affection for the child he adopts leads him to sacrifice himself to a tribe of Native Americans his mind has reconfigured into avenging demons, on the edge of all human existence.
A couple of more random notes:
—It was a good year for British directors, whether overseas or at home.
—If films like Inception, Black Swan, and The Social Network, in their differing fashions, tried to choke the audience with exhibitions of their own glib brilliance, The American, Dogtooth, Valhalla Rising, and The Disappearance of Alice Creed proved how little you need to compel an audience.
—Will someone buy Leonardo DiCaprio a decent razor?
2010 in Fragments
Even if films aren’t great or even that memorable as a whole, so many offer up glorious little bits that are worthy and make being a cinephile the fun business it really is. One of the great scenes in 2010 featured former boy wonder Harry Potter having the bleakest of Christmas Eve homecomings. He finds the graves of his parents and grotesque monsters wearing the guises of helpful humans whilst locked on the frozen exterior of a cozy world, the yuletide songs of that world emerging muffled from within the warmth of civilised security and all its stable assumptions. Our heroes are enacting some dark duties indeed these days to satisfy our sense of truth.
Another great scene, in Dogtooth, presented a dialectical opposite: in the nominal balm of her family living room on a celebratory eve, a young woman brought up on a scant diet of seemingly randomly absorbed pop culture moments amidst a sea of context-warping disinformation, attempts madly to please her parents with a grotesque aping of Flashdance’s iconic dance routines.
Teddy Daniels, in one of his psychotic dreams, imagines a smiling beauty covered in blood, cheerfully asking for and receiving his help in bundling away her murdered children’s bodies. In another, he stands amidst a shower of papers, denying a hideously wounded Nazi a quick coup de grace by pushing away his gun.
Wonder warrior Hit Girl finishes up beaten to a pulp by her arch nemesis and murderer of her parents, mobster Frank D’Amico, only for the baddie to be fired out the window on the end of a rocket by Hit Girl’s adoptive brother, with the advice, “Pick on someone your own size” trailing him. Truly, love expresses itself in some strange ways.
In Somewhere, Johnny Marco and his daughter Cleo bond over Guitar Hero, competing to see who can play the worse fake rock god. In Gainsbourg: vie heroique, a genuine rock god and momentary amour Brigitte Bardot celebrate sex and life with a joyous impromptu performance of their pop-art hit “Comic Strip” in a scene straight out of an old-school musical.
In Detective Dee and The Mystery of the Phantom Flame, the titular hero and his gang of oddball aides battle their nemesis in an underground city, huge spars of wood spearing a sunless sea as our heroes enact a ballet of superhuman motion, wire-fu dynamism, and lysergic imagery in the most intricate synchronisation. In Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Scott defeats an army of henchmen after he earns the Power of Love, sees a samurai sword spring from his body, his enemies’ bodies disintegrate into piles of arcade game-feeding quarters, leaving him standing on a field of victory decorated by piles of glittering silver. In Green Zone, Matt Damon’s all-American hero seems to defy the efforts of heaven and hell to stop the truth getting out, chasing down the Iraqi general who holds the key to Pandora’s Box and battling soldiers from both sides on the way in an astounding marathon for both actor and filmmakers.
In The Killer Inside Me, Lou Ford beats a woman’s face to a shattered pulp even as she moans, “I love you.” In Winter’s Bone, Ree’s quest to find her father leads her to the emotional and physical abyss, where she has to hold his rotting corpse’s hands out of the water so that they can be cut off with a chainsaw. The American commences with the ultimate act for a star looking to change his image: George Clooney shoots the woman he just made love to in the back of the head.
In Centurion, after killing another Roman in her unceasing quest to avenge atrocities, Etaine releases a scream of frustrated rage that echoes only with the unfillable void that endless slaughter provokes. In Never Let Me Go, Tommy (Andrew Garfield) releases a similar scream when he realises how hopeless his dream of escaping a slow death of being hacked up to keep other people alive has been. In Valhalla Rising, the lost Celtic would-be holy warriors devolve into hysterical mutual battery and desperate prayer, appealing to a God that doesn’t answer, squirming in the mud and howling at the wind. In I Love You Phillip Morris, Phillip, believing his lover Steven has died, receives a visit from his lawyer, who proves to be Steven. Faking your death from AIDS, he informs us, is quite a tricky feat.
Scott Pilgrim follows Ramona Flowers into her mystic abode, seeming to skate upon thin air. The American goes down on his favourite prostitute, to her utter surprise and swiftly captured affection. Black Swan‘s Nina, deep in a dug-addled fantasy, grasps her rival-cum-friend Lily (Mila Kunis) for the most ecstatic of erotic revels: the moment of seeing Nina give into lust with real joy made a refreshing contrast (even if it’s just a wet dream) to a spectacle like that of Greenberg’s Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) and Florence (Greta Gerwig) fucking in so pathetically uninspired a fashion that even they can’t be bothered sticking it out to the end. Perhaps better than Black Swan’s Sapphic onanism was the moment, both hallucinogenic and tender, when The Runaways’ Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) kisses Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) when pumped full of drugs in an infernal nightclub, the fetishist drone of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” blaring. Rarely has young lust seemed at once so innocent and so dangerous.
Some things that are remarkable about movies aren’t even so specific. The moody, hazy, blasted Beckettesque sands of coastal New England in The Ghost Writer infuses the drama of that film with an almost existential angst that almost convinces you you’re not watching a great filmmaker wasting his time on go-nowhere pulp. The equally devastated landscape of Winter’s Bone is dotted with the refuse of a civilisation that reached a high water mark and then retreated, leaving only stains and debris. The wondrous landscapes of Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame burned with exactly the right kind of fantastic beauty, in the sort of film that the people who made the likes of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the Clash of the Titans remake, and Iron Man 2 should be forced to watch on a constant loop until they forget their names and start speaking Cantonese.
When one talks about award-worthy performances these days, it’s hard not to take for granted that such acting usually come wrapped in crappy films. Two of this year’s best feats of acting, Natalie Portman’s in the cheesy if giddily entertaining Black Swan and Colin Firth in the stolid The King’s Speech are both elegant testimonials to both actors’ rise through wayward careers to the peak of their craft. Portman’s advance from the fetchingly sassy young outcast of Leon, The Professional to Black Swan’s anguished, ardent Nina caps off a fascinating trip, and if any human element gives material force to the trippy, dippy rush of that film, it’s her splendidly heady, overwrought presentation of a repressed girl who ruptures at the seams and learns to revel in it. Costar Mila Kunis wasn’t so far behind her, either. Firth comes across like he put himself in real physical and psychological pain to present King George VI as anything but the honourable cipher he’s always seemed to be. Just as dynamic and physically convincing was Eric Elmosnino in Gainsbourg: vie heroique, a sustained incarnation of one of pop culture’s most protean figures, even if the film around him finally proved unable to take its reinvention of the biopic quite far enough. The late Lucy Gordon’s hypnotically beautiful contribution to that film only reinforced the tragedy of her death. After years of trying to establish his credibility as a serious actor, Jim Carrey finally achieved a near-brilliant synthesis of his comic talents with a meaty role in I Love You Phillip Morris: it’s as close as he’ll ever come to his Monsieur Verdoux.
Jennifer Lawrence’s incarnation of Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone, on the other hand, is the sort of performance that sends a fledgling career into the stratosphere. Lawrence got to speak several of 2010’s most memorable tough-guy lines, sometimes with a bloody lip. Just as important, if not more so, were John Hawkes’ and Dale Dickey’s respective contributions: both long-seasoned actors, it seemed hard nonetheless not to believe they’d been born the people they played. This year’s Hot Brit Miss, Gemma Arterton, who seemed to be in every other movie released in 2010, spent much of The Disappearance of Alice Creed tied to a bed, and yet her performance, riddled with an equal mixture of immediately engrossing fear, survivalist cunning, and spoilt party girl learning a few harsh truths, was my pick of them. Even better was Eddie Marsan’s incarnation in the same film as a gay ex-convict trying to project ferocity but ending up crucified by the one thing he loves: tossing Alice the keys that set her free was one of the most humane moments of the year. Miranda Otto’s turn in South Solitary presented a woman of advancing years and amazingly little good sense with the kind of utterly guileless quality that only the shrewdest actors can radiate. Ditto Greta Gerwig in Greenberg, whose fuzzy-headed distraction proved a defence system so resilient nuclear weapons would deflect off it. From the exact opposite end of the aggressive scale, Katie Jarvis’s excellent debut in Fish Tank provided exactly the right kind of shaded progression from jumped-up brat to newly wise existential wanderer; the clear indication that she’s older at the end of the film than her character’s mother ever will be is thanks entirely to Price’s elegant evolution. Michael Fassbender, her costar, continued moving from strength to strength, both in Fish Tank and Centurion. Mark Ruffalo likewise had a great one-two punch with Shutter Island, with his policeman’s act learnt from bad TV shows, and his unexpectedly affecting hipster douchebag in The Kids Are All Right.
Thekla Reuten’s contribution to The American as the liquid-nitrogen-cold assassin with whom the title character does business and then battle, is one of those innately convincing, utterly poised bits of acting that can make or break movies and yet rarely get noticed. George Clooney’s performance was just about as good a piece of star acting as I ever hope to see, revealing the weight of the film’s buried emotionalism almost entirely through his eyes. Similarly, Mads Mikkelsen, an intelligent actor of the highest calibre, embodied the ferocious One-Eye of Valhalla Rising with a primal grit by never speaking a word. Olga Kurylenko somehow compelled the eye with her equally wordless female equivalent in Centurion. Max Von Sydow, at age 80, actually managed to steal two huge movies this year (Shutter Island and Robin Hood) with finely pitched emeritus performances. In Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Ramona Flowers was unique for a Dream Girl in a youth flick—she emerged as a credible, even haunted young woman with a nice line in martial arts moves. 2010 was also the year of the preternaturally mature adolescent girl: Elle Fanning’s gossamer presence in Somewhere and Chloe Moretz’s galvanising enthusiasm in Kick-Ass gave my favourite performances of the year as basically the same person in wildly different guises. Older in body, if not in mind, Aggeliki Papoulia delivered an epic performance in Dogtooth as a young woman who learns in the course of the narrative, how to bully and bribe, please and perturb, give and get orgasms, and finally, how to manipulate everything she’s been told about the world.
So, lists (stop sighing!) in alphabetical order:
My Ten Favourite Films of 2010
The American (Anton Corbijn)
Corbijn’s film version of Martin Booth’s novel “A Very Private Gentleman” was never going to win awards for originality, but it’s the film’s restrained, taciturn evocations, full of both sensuality and despair under the surfaces of the crisply described Italian setting, that made it pack a deceptive emotional punch. The American lived up to the legacy of great assassin films like Le Samourai and The Day of the Jackal it so patently wished to join.
Centurion (Neil Marshall)
There’s a lot of things wrong with Centurion—too much drive-in gore and a script awkwardly poised between providing a minimalist thrill-ride and something more meditative—but few films this year have stuck as firmly in my head. It’s a gamy, vicious, high-tensile riposte to the sloppiness of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood as far as historical action films go, and the compelling vision of warring societies on the frontier of history actually bore the weight of parable, whilst the eccentric rhythm manages to be simultaneously cynical and yet riddled with a curious spirituality. It kicked large quantities of ass, too.
The Disappearance of Alice Creed (J. Blakeson)
I watched Alice Creed just before The Ghost Writer, and there was no mystery for me which was the superior film. In spite of Polanski’s efforts, the hints of sexual satire and emotional gamesmanship in that otherwise timid thriller remained mere hints, whereas Alice Creed, whilst losing its grip at a couple of points, constructs a fraught situation that plays out with exhilaratingly nasty, yet strange, emotionally telling twists. If, as I saw it described, The Ghost Writer is “Nabokovian”, Alice Creed would only take a few slight tweaks to become a Harold Pinter play.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui Hark)
Tsui Hark hasn’t made a good film in a long time, so his resurgence with this inspired action-adventure movie, apparently made after bathing in LSD and watching a bunch of his old movies, could be the pinnacle of the modern Hong Kong wu xia genre with a dash of steampunk, as the titular hero and his team of weirdo assistants battles secret supervillains and state-sponsored terrorism. It isn’t just Hark’s aesthetic riposte to Zhang Yimou’s Hero; it’s also a political one, insisting that loyalty to a society’s rulers must have its moral dimension.
Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos)
Safer ground for me here, as most serious critics loved Dogtooth. I’ll point out a couple of hesitations: the basic idea, far from being unique, seems rather influenced by Australian director Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby, if essayed in a completely different fashion. Also, there’s getting to be a bit too many of these arthouse movies that make a gag out of pathetic characters’ stilted attempts to reenact scenes out of iconic Hollywood movies. But that’s pretty minor in the face of a film that manages to be exactly grotesque, queasily funny, interpretatively ambiguous, and finally bizarrely beautiful.
Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughan)
Another film with a lot of things wrong with it, Kick-Ass nonetheless claims its place on this list for excellent filmmaking, and for being provocative and blissfully entertaining all at the same time.
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Edgar Wright)
In years to come, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World might, I hope, look like one of the few films our era has offered that can rank with the likes of A Hard Day’s Night and Singin’ In The Rain as a film that seems perpetually, giddily in love with the possibilities of youth, art, and cinema. Edgar Wright’s third film transcends his brilliant, but comparatively familiar niche of satires that blend genre tropes and humdrum truths, to present a film high on the notion that anything might happen.
Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese)
A minor film by Scorsese’s standards, nonetheless, the drenched Technicolor nightmares and the incipient hysteria that cranks up with no good place to release itself except in tortured self-realisation proved be the kind of minor film that only a great filmmaker can produce. Unfortunate enough to come out at the year’s start, 11 months later, it looks better than ever.
Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Winding Refn)
This film perhaps might also be subtitled “Where’s Werner?” But I forgive Danish-American cult director Refn’s obvious emulation of Herzog and Tarkovsky if only because that’s at least a road less travelled when it comes to homage, and because this film’s deeply weird, yet remarkably lucid final vision of the very dawn of the modern world is quite original. When a Viking killing machine and a gang of Scottish religious warriors find themselves stranded on the shores of North America, the question is not will they get home again, but, how does a human react to being confronted by their own insignificance. Stylistically vivid and thematically obscure, it nonetheless grows green in the memory.
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)
I weighed up whether to put this or The Killer Inside Me on this list: Michael Winterbottom’s film is less uneven than Granik’s, but it’s also a more purposefully remote one. Granik’s, on the other hand, remembers the cardinal rule of the westerns and film noirs it channels: it excites.
Agora (Alejandro Amenábar)
Another Year (Mike Leigh)
The Eclipse (Conor MacPherson)
Carlos (Olivier Assayas)
Easy A (Will Gluck)
Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold)
Gainsbourg: vie heroique (Johann Sfar)
The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One (David Yates)
I Love You Phillip Morris (Glenn Ficarra, John Requa)
The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom)
The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi)
Somewhere (Sofia Coppola)
Tamara Drewe (Stephen Frears)
Better Than Expected
Alice In Wonderland (Tim Burton)
Green Zone (Paul Greengrass)
Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek)
Predators (Nimrod Antal)
South Solitary (Shirley Barrett)
The Town (Ben Affleck)
Worse Than Expected
Aftershock (Xiaogang Feng)
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)
Casino Jack (George Hickenlooper)
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev)
Inception (Christopher Nolan)
The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko)
The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper)
Nowhere Boy (Sam Taylor-Wood)
The Social Network (David Fincher)
Splice (Vincenzo Natali)
Animal Kingdom (David Michod)
Hereafter (Clint Eastwood)
Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau)
Robin Hood (Ridley Scott)
Biutiful; Certified Copy; Toy Story 3; Vincere; White Material; etc.
My Year of Retro Wonders: The Best Older Films First Seen in 2010
Abismos de pasión (Luis Bunuel)
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
Burn, Witch, Burn! aka Night of the Eagle (Sidney Hayers)
Celine and Julie Go Boating / Duelle – une quarantaine (Jacques Rivette)
Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes (Walerian Borowczyk)
Election (Johnny To)
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! / Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer)
Intimacy (Patrice Chéreau)
La graine et le mullet (Abdellatif Kechiche)
Lady Snowblood (Toshiyo Fujita)
Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin)
Night Tide (Curtis Harrington)
Red Psalm (Miklós Jancsó)
Osaka Story / Sisters of Gion / Women of the Night / Sanshô the Bailiff / Street of Shame (Kenji Mizoguchi)
The Saragossa Manuscript (Wojciech Has)
Sex and Fury (Norifumi Suzuki)
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors / Sayat Nova / The Legend of Suram Fortress (Sergei Paradjanov)
Shock Corridor / Verboten! / The Crimson Kimono (Samuel Fuller)
Spirits of the Dead (Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini)
The Tales of Hoffmann (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
The Trip (Roger Corman)
The Trojan Women (Michael Cacoyannis)
Trouble Every Day / 35 Rhums (Claire Denis)
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Jaromil Jirês)
Vampyres aka Daughters of Darkness (José Larraz)