Friday, July 2, 2010

Half Time Top 10: The Best Films of the Year So Far

We are now half way through 2010, so just as I did last year, I thought I’d look at the 10 best films of the year so far. I have to admit that I missed some titles that could have made this list – something I will correct most likely by DVD by the time of the year end list. Among those missed are Winter’s Bone, Cyrus, Micmacs, Mother and Child, Solitary Man, The Eclipse (not Twilight), Father of My Children, Terribly Happy, Ondine, Agora, The Square and Ajami. I have been thinking that this year has been fairly bad – and to be honest, it sure hasn’t been great if you limit your self to the multiplex screenings – only two wide release films made my top 10 list. The rest have been smaller films or foreign films. But there have been a number of good films this year to see. In addition to the ones on my list there was: How to Train Your Dragon, Kick Ass, Get Him to the Greek, Green Zone, Greenberg, The Runaways, Harry Brown, Vincere, Please Give and The Most Dangerous Man in America. However, it just so happens that I saw many of “this” years best films at last year’s Toronto Film Festival – meaning that pleasures have sometimes seemed few and far between this year. I have confidence (or perhaps wishful thinking) that the second half of the year will offer better films – starting in 2 weeks with Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Having said that however, I would be surprised if the top three films on this list do not make my final 2010 top 10 – and wouldn’t be all that displeased if all the top 5 did. Anyway, enough of this – onto the list!

10. Wild Grass (Alain Resnais)
Years after all of his other French New Wave compatriots have either died or been lost in a maze of their own pretensions (cough, Godard, cough), Alain Resnais is still making wonderful films. Wild Grass is a dazzling cinematic achievement for the 88 year old filmmaker. The cinematography in this movie is wonderful – as the camera seems to literally glide through the air at points, and the colors are rich and full. The movie is about the irrationality of its characters, who do strange things and we can never quite figure out why. This makes the film both fascinating, and admittedly infuriating at times. I feel I really do need to see this one again – I only saw it once at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, and that was at 9 in the morning. Seeing it again, I think I would admire the film even more. But even with just that one viewing, I know that this is one of Resnais best films in years.

9. The Secret in Their Eyes (Juan Jose Campanella)
To many observers, it was a shock when Juan Jose Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes won the foreign language film Oscar in February over the much more highly touted films A Prophet and The White Ribbon. While I would agree that both of those films were better than this one, that doesn’t detract from how wonderful this film really was. The film takes place in Argentina over a 25 year span. Ricardo Darin delivers a great performance as a former cop haunted by a murder that took place in 1974. The film flashes back and forth in time from that time to 1999, when he returns to Buenos Aires for the first time in years, now retired and decides to write a novel based on the case. He starts remembering what happened, and rekindles an old almost romance, but cannot quite get all the pieces of the puzzle to fit together. Campanella’s film is a thriller not unlike David Fincher’s Seven (although less violent) in the way it twists and turns, and makes the audience question its own sense of morality and justice. It is an excitingly made film (that chase sequence through the soccer stadium about half way through is absolutely masterful) and the film slowly draws us into its web. No, it didn’t really deserve to win the foreign language film Oscar this year – but you shouldn’t hold that against it. It is a great film in its own right.

8. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski)
Roman Polanski has been in the news almost the entire year so far – but you would be forgiven for not knowing he actually had a film come out this year. It seemed to get buried under all the talk about his legal problems (I am going to say this for the last time here: Roman Polanski is a genius, one of the best filmmakers in history. But that doesn’t change the facts – he drugged and raped a 14 year old and then ran away before he was sentenced. Whatever he gets in terms of punishment when they finally return him to America is okay with me). Polanski’s latest (last?) film is a masterfully directed movie about a ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) who comes to Martha’s Vineyard to finish the autobiography of a former British PM (Pierce Brosnan), who is obviously modeled on Tony Blair, just as a scandal involving rendition hits him hard. McGregor spends his time on the island writing, and also trying to get to the bottom of what is really going on. Polanski’s film overcomes the obvious miscasting of McGregor and Kim Cattral (as the PM’s aid/mistress) in part because of Brosnan and Olivia Williams (as his wife) are so brilliant, and partly because Polanski’s direction of the film is so damned good. He creates a paranoid atmosphere and then keeps turning the screws, twisting the plot in unexpected ways. No, The Ghost Writer isn’t one of Polanski’s best films – but it is an excellent paranoid thriller.

7. Red Riding Trilogy (Julian Jarrod/James Marsh/Anand Tucker)
The Red Riding Trilogy is easily the longest film to be released so far this year. It is actually three different movies, running a grand total of about 5 hours, based on four novels by British writer David Peace. Each movie is done by a different director, and features a different protagonist, as it follows two separate criminal investigations in the Yorkshire region of England from 1974 to 1983. One is the Yorkshire Ripper case, where a man killed almost 20 prostitutes over the span of years. Another involves a little girl who is found dead with wings stitched into her back. But the movie isn’t really about those two cases – it is about a corruption so deep in the area that it has infected everything. It is about a culture of sexism and racism, about violence that simply perpetuates itself. The three films have different directors, and all of them have a different visual look for the others – and although some characters overlap, each is in its own way its own story (the last film is the only one you have to watch in order – as it ties everything together). Made for British TV but released theatrically here, The Red Riding Trilogy has the type of ambition that is rare to see in films these days. Ridley Scott has plans to remake this one for America (no word yet on who Russell Crowe will play)– setting it in Philadelphia of all places – so make sure you check these films out before Scott ruins them, which I can all but guarantee he will.

6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev)
Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy has become one of the biggest literary events of the decade – so it was only a matter of time before they turned them into movies. This first installment is everything you would want an adaptation to be – dark and violent yes, but also thoughtful and intelligent. Lizabeth Salander has become one of the best known characters of recent years, and in Noomi Rapace, they found the perfect actress for the role of the antisocial, goth computer hacker. The movie tells its story well – the direction is a little workmanlike at times, but Oplev finds the right tone, and hits all the right notes throughout the narrative. The film is a mystery that gets gradually deeper as it progresses, but it never loses focus on its characters, who seem real even when they are investigating the crime. The film kicks off the trilogy with style and intelligence. I hope the other two films are just as good – and that David Fincher’s planned American remake can match it.

5. Mother (Bong Joon-ho)
Bong Joon-ho has become one of the best directors in the world in the past few years – and certainly the best of the new generation of Korean filmmakers (yes, even better than the more highly praised Chan-wook Park). His Memories of Murder was an excellent, almost darkly comic police procedural and his The Host was the best giant monster movie in decades. He changes pace yet again to make this dark thriller – almost akin to a Hitchcock film. In the film, a young mentally challenged man is charged with the murder of a young girl for the neighborhood – and his mother (the brilliant Kim Hye-ja) starts to investigate the crime herself when it appears her son maybe railroaded. Gradually, she becomes a little more unhinged as she discovers the truth – and will go to any lengths to cover it up. The film is a thriller – and a fine one at that, full of great camera work and intricate plotting – but it really is a character study of this lonely woman who has nothing in her life but her son, and her secrets.

4. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold)
British filmmakers made two films in 2009 about a teenage girl falling for an older man. An Education went on to garner Oscar nominations and become one of the more critically acclaimed films of the year (and it is a wonderful one), but I think Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank – which got little more than a cursory release early this year – was the better film. Katie Jarvis gives a remarkable debut performance as a poor teenage girl, with a mother who bounces from one boyfriend to another. The latest is Michael Fassbender (brilliant as always), and at first he seems like he could be an ally for Jarvis – he is kind and supportive of his dreams of becoming a dancer. But when they look at each other, we can tell they both have something more on their minds – their gazes last just a little too long. This is not really a film about a lecherous older man taking advantage of an innocent teenager – for one thing, Fassbender isn’t quite that old, and Jarvis isn’t quite that innocent – but a film that looks at the situation with its eyes wide open, and doesn’t pull any punches, nor try to make everything seem romantic. It is an acutely observed movie anchored by two of the very best performances of the year.

3. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)
Toy Story 3 is the best movie in the series, and one of the best film that Pixar has ever made. The first two films were excellent as well, but I think this film pushes the story further, takes on a darker tone, and makes you truly, deeply care about the fate of these toys. It is a reminder of our childhoods when we all had beloved toys, but it is more than that. It is also funny, smart, brilliantly well animated and exciting, and features the best villain perhaps in any Pixar movie in the form of the giant, purple teddy bear Lotso Hugs, wonderfully voiced by Ned Beatty. The rest of the cast we know – Tom Hanks continues to make Woody one of his most endearing characters, Tim Allen is once again gloriously clueless as Buzz and the rest of them fill out their roles nicely. Toy Story 3 is brilliant because it works on one level for kids – who will undoubtedly be excited by all the chase sequences – but on another, deeper, more melancholy note for adults. Pixar has continued to push animation further and further, and become the most consistently great creative force in American movies for the past 15 years – and Toy Story 3 is one of their best.

2. Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese)
Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island seemed to divide critics deeper than any other film this year. I heard one critic call it Scorsese’s best since GoodFellas, and another call it the worst film the master filmmaker ever made. While I don’t agree that it’s his best since GoodFellas, I am certainly much closer to that camp than the other. Scorsese has always been an admirer of film noir, and this is the most noir of all of his films. Set in the early 1950s, Leonardo DiCaprio gives another stellar performance as an US Marshall, haunted by his wartime experience, sent to a mental hospital with his partner (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate a missing patient. But not only is this Scorsese’s film noir, it’s also his version of Kubrick’s The Shining – with its huge, haunting estate, and the sense that main character is not quite who he appears to be. I know some critics didn’t like the film – or its twist ending – and that’s fine. But to me, this is Scorsese at its best.

1. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard)
There are some films that make you see a filmmaker in an entirely different light. It’s not that Jacques Audiard’s previous films – the tense thriller Read My Lips and the wonderful crime film The Beat My Heart Skipped – weren’t quite good, but I never guessed that he had a film as masterful as A Prophet inside him. The film stars Tahar Rahim, in what has to be the performance of the year so far, as Malik, a young Arab Frenchmen sent to prison for seven years for punching a cop during a riot. When he arrives at the prison he is full of youthful arrogance, but that quickly goes away, first when the other Arabs beat him up for his shoes, and then when he is approached by the Corsicans (think the IRA mixed with the Mafia) with a command – he needs to kill an informant who is passing through the prison, or they will kill him. Thus starts Malik’s downward (or perhaps upward depending on how you look at it) trajectory through the criminal ranks of the prison. Soon, he isn’t just the Corsicans pet, but is doing more important jobs for them – and then he gets even bigger. Malik’s story is a tragedy in a way, because when he arrives at the prison, he is just a confused, lonely, mixed up kid – and when he leaves all those years later his path is set for life. A Prophet is a great prison movie, an epic crime movie with a feeling not unlike The Godfather, and also a character study. It is quite simply a stunning film – and if it ends up being the year’s best, I will have no problem with that.

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