Tuesday, February 15, 2011

2010: The Best Movies of the Year: Runners-Up #1

As always, I admired more films this year than I could possibly include on my list – even when I extend it to 35. The following films are ones that I didn’t have room for above, although I would gladly watch any of them again: Buried (Rodrigo Cortes), Cyrus (Jay & Mark Duplass), Despicable Me (Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud), Four Lions (Chris Morris), Greenberg (Noah Baumbach), How to Train Your Dragon (Dan Debois & Chris Sanders), I Love You Philip Morris (Glenn Ficcara & John Requa), Kick Ass (Matthew Vaughn), The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko), Mesrine: Killer Instinct/Public Enemy No. 1 (Jean-Francois Richet), 127 Hours (Danny Boyle), Please Give (Nicole Holofcener), The Square (Nash Edgerton), Stone (John Curran), Wild Grass (Alain Resnais).

Moving on, I was originally only going to do 30 films, but when it got near the end, I had such a hard time choosing between some films that I decided the hell with it, and went to 35. Yes, it is overkill, and the 15 films on this list are not ones that I would consider to be great films – there are no masterpieces here – and yet they are all really good – all worthy of your time. And as I get frustrated when people tell me there are no good films out there anymore, I wanted to show that there really are.

35. Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz)
The films of Todd Solondz are like intricate moral puzzles that are impossible to put together. He delights in setting us up to believe one thing, and then pulling the rug out from underneath us. He is inarguably the most misanthropic director I can think, but his films are always challenging, always engaging, always hilarious in ways that make us feel guilty as we are laughing – did I really just laugh at a joke about pedophiles? Life During Wartime isn’t quite as good as his other films – it is a notch below the daring he showed in his last film Palindromes, which was as underrated a film as there can be. And yet this film, a sequel of sorts to Happiness with different actors stepping into the roles, is still provocative, still challenging, and still hilarious in horribly inappropriate ways. Life may not be as horrid as it is in a Solondz film, but I don’t want him to stop exploring his twisted vision of the world.

34. The Town (Ben Affleck)
Ben Affleck’s The Town, like his previous film Gone Baby Gone, is an excellent crime film. Say what you want to about Affleck as an actor – and I have said plenty in the past, but have to admit that I think he has gotten much better in the past little while in that regard – the guy knows how to direct. He gets the right look and feel to his working class Boston neighborhood, gets great performances out of his actors – even Blake Lively. His films hum with intensity, and like all great genre films, makes everything seem fresh, when in actual fact, The Town really is a rather straight forward heist film. Affleck is still looking for that one great movie to truly make him a star director – but based on the evidence here and in Gone Baby Gone, he’ll get there soon.

33. The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet)
Sylvain Chomet is one of the best, most original voices in animated film right here. His masterful first feature, The Triplets of Belleville, remains one of the best animated films I have ever seen. His long awaited follow-up, The Illusionist, doesn’t quite capture the same magic, but it comes damn close. Based on an abandoned screenplay by the late, great Jacques Tati, Chomet’s film is about an aging magician in the late 1950s, who finds that his world is shrinking, and no one much cares for magic tricks anymore. He makes a friend with a young woman, and for a while they provide companionship to one another, before inevitably, they have to go their separate ways. Like Chomet’s previous, and the work of Tati for that matter, the film has almost no dialogue – yet remains a treat for its visuals, and its strange soundscapes. If you want to see a different kind of animated film, than The Illusionist is for you.

32. Heartbeats (Xavier Dolan)
I had to wait until early 2010 to see Dolan’s 2009 debut film, I Killed My Mother, and it became immediately apparent to me that Dolan was one of the best cinematic talents to emerge from Canada in years. He quickly followed up that film, with this one, a highly stylized, bi-sexual love triangle film which is funny, witty and expertly crafted. The film contains some great performances – especially by Monia Chokri, so good as the young woman caught between her gay best friend, and the man they are both infatuated with. Dolan’s ear of dialogue is excellent, his Godard-inspired visuals wonderfully well done, and his performance is excellent as well. A true triple threat – and one of the most promising directors working anywhere in the world right now.

31. Easy A (Will Gluck)
No one is more surprised than I am that this teen comedy – a throwback to the John Hughes films of the 1980s – made this list at all. But there is a reason for that – it not only matches those old Hughes films, but in my opinion far surpasses them. This is a clever, witty comedy from start to end – perhaps the most enjoyable pure comedy Hollywood made all year. Certainly most of the credit for that goes to Emma Stone, who gives one of the best performances of the year as a high school girl everyone ignores until she becomes a “slut” – but not really. She is only pretending to sleep with all the nerds in school to make them look cooler. Stone is a gifted comedic actress – better than anyone else of her generation I can think of – and she grabs hold of her first starring role and won’t let go. If you loved Juno a few years ago, then Easy A is a film you must see.

30. Biutiful (Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu)
Biutiful maybe a flawed film, but when it works, as it does for most of its running time, it is among the most powerful films of the year. Javier Bardem gives a great performances as a Spanish wheeler dealer, constantly on the hustle to make money so he can raise his kids – who has his world thrown into chaos when he is diagnosed with cancer. What follows is him trying to set his life straight, and at the same time, him denying that he will die at all. It is a film that is universal in its meaning and message – as we all share Bardem’s hopes and fears in this movie, as the film slowly winds down towards his end. Yes, Gonzalez Innaritu tries to cram too much into his movie, but it is a film I am not likely to forget any time soon.

29. The Red Riding Trilogy (Julian Jarrod & James Marsh & Annaud Tucker)
David Peace’s quartet of novels set in the Yorkshire region of England during the 1970s and 1980s – the time when the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe was stalking the area – was a literary tour de force of violence against women and police corruption. Three of those books – 1973, 1980 and 1983 made their way to the screen this year (the one missing was 1977) and the results were fascinating. Three different directors, with three distinct visions, brought these novels to the screen – the first being a dark and moody noir about a crusading reporter (Andrew Garfield) who gets over his head, the second being a film shot in the blinding track lighting on the police station where an honest cop (Paddy Considine) is driven over the edge and the third being the story of a corrupt cop (David Morrissey) trying to redeem himself. Separately, all three films are great little movies – together they form an epic crime drama containing dozens of characters and a decade in a dull, grey, violence place where no one is innocent.

28. The American (Anton Corbiijn)
People walking into The American expecting a typical thriller were most likely disappointed. The American, despite its title and the presence of George Clooney in the lead role, has a very European feel about it. Clooney stars as an assassin who is partially retired - he doesn’t want to kill anymore, but is not above creating weapons for others. That is what he does here - while hiding out in Italy posing as a painter. He meets a prostitute, and reluctantly starts a relationship. But, as we learn in the films first scenes, his job makes it impossible for him to ever truly be with anyone - their lives will always be at risk. The American is a tour de force for director Anton Corbijn, coming off the heels of his debut film, Control which was an unconventional biopic of Ian Curtis, who delivers an unconventional thriller. Not an audience pleaser, but if a film for serious film buffs that deserves to be more highly thought of than it is.

27. The Fighter (David O. Russell)
David O. Russell’s The Fighter is a straight ahead underdog sports movie - and yet it is one that is elevated by its direction and especially its performances. Mark Wahlberg is the calm center of the movie, which is good because there is so much craziness around him. Christian Bale is excellent as his crack addicted brother and trainer - talking a mile a minute, and full of nervous ticks - but he gets under this guys skin, and delivers one of his best performances. Melissa Leo is also very good as Wahlberg’s white trash mother - big hair, cigarette dangling from her lip; she is over the top and wonderful. Best of all though may just be Amy Adams, going against type as Wahlberg’s profanity spewing girlfriend. Russell gets the emotional core of the movie right - and delivers some devastatingly brutal fight scenes. This maybe a straight ahead movie - but few movies this year were more satisfying.

26. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski)
Roman Polanski is essentially the star of The Ghost Writer – his nifty little thriller about a ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) hired to fly out to Martha’s Vineyard and complete the memoirs of a Tony Blair like ex Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan). When he gets there though, he finds himself not only in the midst of a political scandal, but also a murder mystery. As he is won over by Brosnan’s charm, and later in a much more carnal sense by Brosnan’s wife (Olivia Williams), he is also drawn deeper and deeper into this maze. Polanski’s direction is the reason to see the film - age has dimmed Polanski’s cinematic eye in the least, and he has crafted a dark, mysterious thriller. Brosnan and Williams do perhaps the best work of their respective careers – although it must be said McGregor doesn’t really have a role here, and Kim Cattrall is horribly miscast. Yet, The Ghost Writer remains one of the best thrillers of the year – a mystery that keeps going deeper and deeper with each passing scene.

25. White Material (Claire Denis)
On the surface, Claire Denis’ White Material may seem like another movie that takes place in Africa where the main character is a white European. Yet, Denis’s filmography is full of stories about outsiders - and Isabelle Huppert’s character in this movie is an outsider, who does not believe she is an outsider. The country is on the brink of civil war, the French Army is leaving, and yet because she knows everyone in the area, and she runs the local plantation, she thinks she will be fine. This is really a study of repressed fear and rage that will eventually explode into violence. Denis’ film is stylistically opposite to her last film, 35 Shots of Rum, but both movies are really the flip side of the same coin. She continues to be one of the best filmmakers in the world right now.

24. Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell)
Before Rabbit Hole, John Cameron Mitchell made two startling original and honest films – Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus. While Rabbit Hole is a much more mainstream film than either of those, it contains the same honesty in its presentation of its characters. Nicole Kidman gives her best performance in quite some time as a mother grieving the loss of her young son by snapping at everyone in her bitterness. Aaron Eckhart is her husband, trying to put the pieces back together and failing. And Dianne Wiest proves she still has it giving a remarkable performance as Kidman’s somewhat spacey mother, who still does understand and care. Rabbit Hole is a tough movie to watch – there is so much pain on screen that at times you want to turn away. David-Lindsay Abaire adapted his own Pulitzer Prize winning play, opening it up more to explore these characters, the people who surround them. It is a touching, honest film.

23. Everyone Else (Maren Ade)
Everyone Else is a film that is almost painfully honest to watch at times. It is film that takes place in that awkward time in a relationship that comes after the honeymoon phase is over, but before they become an “old married couple” - that time period where they have to decide whether this relationship is something real, or has outlived it useful life. Writer-director Maren Ade has crafted a film that for the most part is between these two people - Germans in Sardina, who are not only dealing with whether to have a real relationship but also whether they want to have adult jobs, or whether they want to remain children (the fact that they are staying in their parents home only adds to that). This film didn’t get much attention this year, but it is one whose reputation is going to grow over the years.

22. The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper)
The King’s Speech is a classically structured costume drama with two pitch perfect performances that elevate it beyond its roots. Colin Firth is excellent as the future King George VI, the most intelligent and committed of his brothers, but also relieved that as second oldest, he’ll never become King. He has a stutter that humiliates him every time he tries to give a public statement. He has just about reached the end of his rope when his wife (a delightful Helena Bonham Carter) finds a failed Australian actor (Geoffrey Rush, hamming it up brilliantly) to take on her husbands case. The bulk of the movie is made up of the scenes between Firth and Rush and they have such a natural chemistry together that they elevate the entire film. The ending of the movie, while something we know is coming from the start, is still a stunner.

21. Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimois)
Dogtooth is a complex and disturbing movie about a man who treats his children like they were dogs. He has never allowed them to leave their spacious estate – telling them that it is dangerous to leave if they are not in the car. He has taught them utter obedience, and warped their minds with what he teaches them – with the seemingly willful help of their mother. But the children are getting older, and because of their limited contact with the outside world (through the father bringing home a woman to relieve his sons sexual desires), he may not be able to control them forever. Dogtooth is a disturbing film throughout – violent and thought provoking, disturbing in the extreme. But it is also intelligent – and will not leave your mind for days after seeing it. A difficult film to be sure but a worthwhile one.

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