Tuesday, February 15, 2011

2010: The Best Films of the Year: Runners-Up#2

Any one of these films could have easily had made my top 10 list. It was a great year for movies though, so unfortunately, they just didn’t make the cut.

20. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
There are not too many people who I think I would actually recommend seeing Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s wonderfully strange Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. That’s because, this film doesn’t play like most movies – doesn’t give us the typical payoffs. And yet, for adventuresome filmgoers, there were few films this year that required your attention more than this surprise winner of the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes film festival. The film is essentially an elaborate fantasy about Boonmee, a farmer, who is dying and looking back into his past – seeing his dead wife, his missing son come back as a ape-man hybrid – and then looking perhaps into a past life in a mesmerizing sequence involving a fish. I’m not going to sit here and try to explain this film – it would be a rather fruitless endeavor, since I cannot say I fully understand the film (which is a film like this, may actually decrease your pleasure in watching it). Instead, I just let this wonderful, unique vision play out in front of me and was never less than enthralled by it. It is completely unique – a work unto itself – and one that if you want to experience something completely different, needs to be seen.

19. The Millennium Trilogy (Niels Arden Oplev & Daniel Alfredson)
Stieg Larsson’s Millennium books, about crusading journalist Blomvkist and hacker Lisbeth Salander have become one of the bestselling books in recent memory. These three films – which oddly we got to see during the course of one year (take that Harry Potter and your needless dragging of release dates) does an excellent job of bringing those books to the screen. The first installment, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was the best – the most self contained of the three stories, as Blomkvist and Salander have to work together on a case involving missing women. As the series progresses, into The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – they became increasing fixated on Salander’s troubled past, and fleshed out her character. To me, Noomi Rapace is one of the breakout stars of the year – playing a nearly impossible role (Salander does not like to betray any of her emotions) near perfectly. Her face is the reason to watch this trilogy of movies – making up over 8 hours of running time. And yet, not a second of it drags. Yes, I still think they can be made better – and hope David Fincher pulls it off (as good as the movies are, Larsson remains their auteur – you can barely notice a blip in the visual style when Alfredson took over for Oplev after the first installment) – but these three movies are individually fascinating, and when taken together adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

18. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold)
Andrea Arnold made a stellar debut film a few years ago called Red Road – that no one much saw, but was an excellent thriller for most of its running time, until, like many thrillers, it had to reveal its mysteries, and became a little less effective. Her follow-up film though is good from start to finish – and features one of my breakout stars of the year in Katie Jarvis. Jarvis plays a teenage girl, being raised by a single mother who is a party girl past her prime. She has watched boyfriends come and go from her mother’s life, but her new one (Michael Fassbender) seems different. He’s cool; he understands her and is nice. We realize before she does that something isn’t quite right here – he holds his glances at her a little too long and stands a little too close. Set in poverty ridden area of London, Fish Tank shows Jarvis as a resilient, smart, capable young woman – yet one still perhaps doomed to make the same mistakes as her mother did. It is a stellar movie, and an excellent performance by Jarvis – who deserves consideration in this year’s Oscar race.

17. Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)
Anyone who saw the deeply flawed film The Burning Plain knew that young Jennifer Lawrence was a talented actress – but even I didn’t guess how talented she was. In Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, Lawrence is at the heart of every scene and she completely carries the film. Her father has abandoned the family, her mother lost in her own world on mental disease, so it falls on Lawrence of raise her two brothers. Things go from bad to worst in her small Ozark town when it appears her father has skipped bail – and since he put up the farm as collateral, they could all be thrown out. And that’s where her journey really begins. The film is very well made, in a neorealist style, and Granik cast amazing, largely unknown actors – with the types of faces we don’t see in the movies very often – who fill their roles out brilliantly. Even though Lawrence is gorgeous, she fits right in alongside the rest of them. This is dark film, a disturbing one and one I think some may find too slow – and yet if you pay attention, so much is going on in this movie that it is as gripping as any Hollywood thriller.

16. I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino)
Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love is an Italian film in the tradition of Luchino Visconti, with its sweeping camera work, and its look at an upper class family. Although set in the modern day, the film concerns itself just as much as Visconti’s films did with fascism. It only gradually becomes apparent in the film that its focus will be on Tilda Swinton – a Russian immigrant who has married into a wealthy Italian industrial family. She is surrounded by everything she could want, and yet it all remains stuff. She is being smothered by it all – until she meets a younger man. Normally, I hate movies where an older woman finds herself because of her relationship with a younger man (with the gender’s reversed, it has become such a tired, hackneyed story that no one ever does it anymore), but I Am Love managed to win me over with its operatic scope, right down to its final, haunting screen images.

15. Mother (Bong Joon-ho)
Bong Joon-ho is one of the most interesting filmmakers in the world right now. From his dark, police procedural Memories of Murder (think Zodiac in Korea) to his smash hit monster movie The Host (the best of its kind since Jaws) he has established himself as a director who crosses genres, yet always makes intelligent, well made films. His latest, Mother, may be his best yet. It stars Kim Hye-ja in a phenomenal performance (seriously, if this was an American film starring Meryl Streep, there wouldn’t even be an Oscar race this year, they’d just give it her) as a mother of a developmentally disabled son – now in his 20s. She dotes him, babies him and feels guilt about who he is. When he is accused of murder, and then gets tricked into confessing by aggressive cops, she delves into the case herself – not willing to stop at anything until she frees her boy. The movie is a study in guilt that has a presence that hangs over the movie, although we do not know why until the films closing. This is a moody, atmospheric thriller – something Hitchcock would be proud of – but it’s more than that. A great film by one of the best filmmakers in the world.

14. Never Let Me Go (Mark Romenek)
I know a lot of film critics hated Never Let Me Go – with its sense of doom and death hanging over every frame, and because the characters in it seem resigned to their fate, and refuse to really fight against it. Well, those are the reasons I love the film. Director Mark Romanek takes a huge step forward from his previous film, One Hour Photo, and has crafted the ultimate British Boarding School Drama. We know from the beginning that something is not quite right with this school – the kids act prim and proper, but then they always do in these movies, but it’s something deeper and more troubling than that. Once we find out the secret it makes complete sense. For me, I loved the attention to detail on the film – the wonderful cinematography, costume design, art direction, editing and score – that helps the film get its very precise mood down. The performances, especially by Carey Mulligan who cries better than practically anyone I can think of – are all brilliant, and give the movie a feel of inevitability. Hate it if you want to – I know why people do – but for me Never Let Me Go is a haunting, brilliant film.

13. Let Me In (Matt Reeves)
Audiences seemed to ignore Let Me In – I guess because they prefer their vampires a little older, hotter and a hell of a lot hornier – but to me Let Me In is clearly one of the best vampire movies in recent memory – and at the risk of blasphemy, perhaps even a little bit better than the original Swedish version of this film from 2008. Kodi Smit McPhee, excellent in The Road last year, is quietly great as the lonely, bullied 12 year old boy in snow covered New Mexico. He has no friends – until he meets Chloe Grace Moretz (having a breakout year). There is something definitely odd about her – but hell, he needs a friend, and she is there for him. I didn’t think director Matt Reeves, whose previous film was the hyper active Cloverfield, had it in him to deliver this dark, moody, scary horror film – but he does it justice, never amping up the scares, and instead settling for an overall tone of unease. The actors – especially Mortez who makes her vampire more childlike in the original and Richard Jenkins as her “father”, with a creepy, sexual stare at his “daughter” are better than in the original, and make the film a little deeper, a little spookier. A great horror film – in fact I cannot think of an American horror film in recent years.

12. Somewhere (Sofia Coppola)
Had Somewhere been made by a European filmmaker, it would have been hailed as the brilliant film it is by the critics, instead of being dismissed as slow and pretentious. Writer/director Sofia Coppola rebounds from the misfire that was Marie Antoinette, and makes a brilliant film about a movie star (Stephen Dorff) and his fractured relationship with his tween daughter - Elle Fanning. Coppola draws comparisons between the two - the similarities between a movie star and a tween girl, craving attention, yet shunning it, wanting to be the center of the universe, but shying away from it. The film is slow, but it is never boring, because it is so well observed. Dorff gives his best performance ever, and Fanning proves that she is ever bit as good as her older sister, Dakota. The film continues Coppola’s examination of celebrity, and fragile young women, and it is easily one of her best films. It deserves a lot more attention than it has received.

11. Incendies (Denis Villeneuve)
With Incendies, Denis Villenueve will most likely join the ranks of the great filmmakers working today - something observant film goers in Canada have known for a number of years already. His dark film about family secrets and the conflict in the Middle East is one of the best, most shocking films of the year. Lubna Azabal delivers a great performance as a woman who has hide her dark past from her children, until she dies, and leaves a request for her kids to find their father and their brother, who they didn’t know existed. As the stories of the mother and daughter are told parallel to each other, the secrets start to surface, and the movie enters some truly shocking territory. This is a magnificently structured film and a huge step forward for Villeneuve. I cannot wait to see what this filmmaker does next.

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