Sunday, 19 December 2010

Top 10 Of 2010: The Year In Review

Well, it's that time of year again. 2010 has been my most active film-watching year ever, as I have made my first stride into the world of professional film journalism, attending and reporting on the London Film Festival, an eye-opening voyage into world art cinema. Some of the films from this years diverse festival appear on this list, so you may not have seen them yet - but you should. This list is compiled of 2010 releases only - not 2009 releases that arrived on our shores this year. They have been added to last years list, which now looks drastically different. I already know at least one person who will have stern things to say about two films appearing here, but that's part of the beauty of lists. You'll love some and hate some. Whatever you feel, enjoy...

10. The King's Speech (Tom Hooper)
The King's Speech was, far and away, the best mainstream film of the London Film Festival. It's been nominated for seven Golden Globes and you can bet your life it'll sweep the BAFTA's and Oscar's too. Not that these awards mean anything, but it would be a rare example of the establishment getting it right. The King's Speech may seem familiar on paper - and yes, we've been here before. Period British dramas have taken off in the past couple of years but Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007) is little more than window dressing and The Young Victoria (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2009) hit familiar notes with no particular distinction or flair. Hooper's riveting film is steeped in fascinating historical detail and has one of the sharpest scripts of the year, which is wonderfully played out by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. Their therapeutic sessions are the backbone of the film and they are played out under Hooper's controlled eye, and seamlessly shift between sly wit, laugh-out-loud one liners, subtle character development and outright emotion. Some have already labeled it as Oscar bait, but such underhanded attacks are unfair. Perfectly paced and beautifully performed, The King's Speech also has wonderful set and costume design. Despite his spot-on accent, the only weak point is perhaps Guy Pearce, miscast as King Edward VIII.

9. Restrepo (Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger)
Last year The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008) was celebrated as the most realistic war film of all time. Tense and emotional, it put you into the shoes of a soldier - specifically bomb disposal expert William James (Jeremy Renner), who found it hard to readjust to life after the warzone. Everyone will remember the heartbreaking scene in the grocery store - blankly staring down the cereal aisle, his family life fails to engage him. Restrepo follows a year in the life of one platoon in Afghanistan's deadliest valley. The difference? It's all real. American journalist Sebastian Junger and British photographer Tim Hetherington spent a year in the Korengal Valley, a terrifying wasteland where the enemy always has the upper hand. They document the platoon taking hold of an outpost that they name Resptrepo, after the platoon medic who was killed earlier in the mission. The footage has an incredible rawness and the battles an intensity that no work of fiction could hope to match. One solider declares that a firefight occurs "at least once a day." This is a film that presents the horrors and realities of war unedited and uncompromised - and they turn out to be one and the same. Never before have I held such respect for the fighters holding their own, feeling deserted and isolated. Never before has the edge of my seat been so unwelcome - the action is nail biting because real lives are on the line every time. In Restrepo when somebody gets shot, a family loses a son, husband or father. And the to-camera confessions of the men, talking of their experiences, their losses - their inability to readjust. That's what makes this a truly important work. Astonishing.

8.) L'illusionniste (The Illusionist) (Sylvain Chomet)
The spirit of Jacques Tati lives on in this gorgeously heartfelt animation, a UK/France production, that captured me on limited release earlier in the year. A magician named Tatischeff is struggling to compete with 60s swing and the birth of rock 'n' roll music - specifically Presley/Bowie combo Billy Boy And The Britoons, who seem to follow him to every venue, but draw twice the crowd. While performing in coastal Scotland Tatischeff draws the attention of young Alice, who falls under the spell of his magic. It is utterly charming, but also drawn with an underlying sadness. For all its pastel colours and beautiful nostalgia, L'illusionniste is ultimately a depressing work. An alcoholic ventriloquist provides a sub-plot suggesting the fate of the entertainer - a fate that draws pity from Alice, but a terrifying realization for Tatischeff. Alice believes that magic is real and for the duration of the film, Tatischeff indulges in her whimsy - as does his grumpy white rabbit, who resents being pulled from a hat. The films theme is of time, and the message of place. Time, sadly, is ticking away, and by the end Alice, Tatischeff, and the ventriloquist must find their place in the world. A message left on paper proves a devastating conclusion, and I was wiping away tears for the final ten minutes. There are moments of astounding beauty, such as windswept feathers giving the illusion of delicate snow, but this mature, sensitive masterwork has much more to offer than pretty visuals. I can't wait to see it again.

7. Somewhere (Sofia Coppola)
It's come under a fair amount of scrutiny but Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (2006) follow up is much more than a Lost In Translation (2003) clone. For one, it's Coppola's most personal film to date. Even from the age of 17 she showed an attachment to hotel rooms - a place where one suspects she spent most of her childhood - when she wrote her father's segment of the flawed portmanteau film New York Stories (1989). She understands that they are a place of isolation and loneliness - so what better place to set her latest feature than the Chateau Marmont? Even fans of the film have called lead character Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff, career best) unlikable, claiming him to be cold. Unable to attach to him, many critics have noted an unease in eliciting sympathy for a man who has it all. But as stated in my initial review, just because you have a mansion in the hills, doesn't mean you're happy. Johnny's despair comes from a deeper, more personal place - he's clearly unsatisfied with the glamours movie star life, which is portrayed as empty and shallow. Enter daughter Cleo, perfectly played by Elle Fanning, who comes into her own with one of the strongest child performances I can remember seeing. Her delicate portrayal of Cleo is the beating heart of the film and every scene she and Johnny spend together is a pleasure to watch. Some of the metaphor may be a little hammered home, but with a soundtrack by French pop-rockers Phoenix, the ending was note-perfect for me. Shame this one didn't get a wider release, I was eager for a re-watch.

6. Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
The one thing better than a much-hyped movie living up to its promise is a film you know nothing about absolutely blowing you away. I went into Meek's Cutoff elated (I'd just seen my #2 of the year) - but having seen no advance material on this minimalist Western, I didn't really know what to expect. The first ten minutes didn't capture me, and I admittedly felt myself nodding off. But then, out of nowhere, it captured me. The vast, open landscape of Reichardt's mostly silent feature is a place of uncertainty and distrust. A guide named Meek is taking travelers to their destination - where he has come from and where they are going we don't know. But we get the impression that he is as lost as they are, and has a darker intent of his own. Struggling for food and water, the danger of the situation escalates when the group diplomatically decide to keep alive a Cayuse man, who Meek would rather execute. Andrew O'Hehir at Salon described the film as "a thriller or horror movie in extreme slow motion" and that's about as accurate a description as you're going to get in words. For all the analysis I could write about this Malick-like fable there's really nothing like sitting in a silent theatre and just experiencing it. A wagon accident and genre-styled face-off ramp up the action a little but the films ends on an ambiguous note that absolutely leveled me. It's one of the best endings I've ever seen, accompanied by one of the greatest closing lines of all time. Next time, I'll be paying attention from minute one.

5. Greenberg (Noah Baumbach)
Noah Baumbach is rapidly growing in my estimations as one of the finest filmmakers working today. His honest, intimate, literate dramas recall the 70s work of Eric Rohmer, one of my favorite directors who is a cited influence for this New Yorker. With a washed out style of cinematography and a dreamy yet anxious score by James Murphy, of LCD Soundsystem fame, this is his most accomplished work yet. Ben Stiller is astonishing as Roger Greenberg, turning in a career best performance that turns down the volume and slows down the tempo on his normal squeakily gurning comic stylings. He uncovers a troubled depth and brings it to the surface, finally embracing his age and maturing as a performer. Watching comic actors in dramatic roles is always interesting as Robin Williams and Adam Sandler have proven before, and Stiller makes a more than worthy edition to that canon and, for my money, deserves an Oscar nomination. Greta Gerwig is the real revelation here though - utterly lovely, you never feel like she's acting, such is the naturalness and complexity of her performance. She sinks into the skin of Florence, and makes every smirk, scowl and frown count. Like Cleo in Somewhere, she lends heart to a film that could have got a little lost in the selfish plight of its central character. For all those who say that Roger is unlikable however, I argue simply, so what? He's not meant to be likable. But Baumbach is an observational filmmaker who, by providing a detached lens through which to view his characters, allows us - not him - to judge them. And we're allowed to because, given the chance to look back through the lens, Roger would judge us too.

4. The Social Network (David Fincher)
When David Fincher announced that he was making a film based around invention of Facebook the Internet community had a collective chortle at the possibility of the filmmaker torching his career with an idea so bland, so unnecessary, so... boring. But The Social Network, a film that defines our times like no other, has gone on to become one of the best reviewed films of the year, a front-runner for Best Picture and currently at the centre of comparisons to Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). Only the test of time will reveal how fruitful those comparisons are but this furiously intelligent, darkly emotional and dryly funny motor-mouth of a movie is really unlike anything else you'll see this year. Jesse Eisenberg turns in the performance of his career so far, Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake are hugely impressive and Fincher shows a masterful handling of the material. Dank greys, cold interiors, brooding atmosphere - the photography and music of The Social Network mark us into typical Fincher territory, as well as the central theme of male mechanics and aggression - this is Fight Club (1999) Part Deux. Best of all though is the screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, spoken at lightning speed by the actors, which is not only steeped in character and insightful in its observation, but is also endlessly quotable. At least two viewings of this bleak masterpiece are in order, and when the DVD arrives on February 14th, I'll be the first in line.

3. Loong boonmee raleuk chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Equally intimate and epic, Loong boonmee raleuk chat is something of an existential art installation - but one that you can step into, and bathe in. In my LFF review I stated that the film "exists in a place most other filmmakers dare not touch - a place of furious intelligence, exasperating ambiguity, dazzling imagination, artistic ambition and quietly affecting honesty." In a way I have nothing else to add - like Meek's Cutoff, Loong boonmee is a film to be experienced and debated, rather than lectured about. But a final word must be given for how utterly immersive and unique an experience it is. There are shots of breaking dawn and closing dusk, each taking place over a mystical forest of monkey spirits - red eyed creatures that evoke horror, but transcend in their actual beauty. There are shots of ghosts emerging; lives lost inviting themselves back into the land of the living. There is the much-talked-about scene between a princess and a catfish - a moment of arresting power and confusion, that has an almost religiously hypnotic quality. There's no score to Loong boonmee raleuk chat, but the sound design is haunting. Weerasethakul's understanding of mise-en-scène has allowed him to create not so much a film as an invitation to a place between life and death - a world where the viewer may ask questions, but not necessarily receive answers. Questions arisen through symbols that propel you through universes, it may be a sometimes frustrating place, but it's a truly unforgettable one. The following two films are in the top spots for personal reasons but for artistic integrity, bravery, imagination and fascination, this is the film of the year.

2. Waste Land (Lucy Walker)
Like Loong boonmee, this uplifting documentary was also in my LFF round-up in early October, but is still sadly in need of distribution. The film follows Brazilian born artist Vik Muniz, who travels to Jardim Gramacho, the biggest landfill site in the world, which receives 7000 tonnes of waste per day, principally from the city of Rio De Janeiro. The people hired to work on the site live in squalor - they deserve to be the unhappiest people in the world. But Waste Land is an extraordinary testament to the human spirit because these people - poor and mistreated - greet every day with a smile. They each have dreams and fantasies - wishes of a different life for their kids. But until Muniz - a man caring enough to allow them to help themselves - came along, they were gracious enough to accept circumstance and work to support their families. Artists have a reputation for being snobbish and pretentious, and some modern art (toilets? really?) leaves me cold, but Muniz is a true heart of gold who wants to help the world with his art. Rather than throwing money at the people of Jardim Gramacho, and foolishly thinking that it could solve their plight, he proposes that he make portraits of the workers, sell them, and give the money back to the people. Documentarian filmmaker Walker is smart enough to spend time with the people of the site rather than Muniz, so that the payoff has a greater emotional weight. Any sentiment that does exist in the film is unedited and non-manipulative - Waste Land comes from a place of genuine truth. I cried three times in the last half hour of this life-affirming film. An extraordinary achievement, lets hope it gets distributed soon.

1. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)
It was #1 from the second I saw it, and three viewings later this masterpiece has lost none of its charm and power. It's rare that a sequel betters its predecessor, but Toy Story 3 makes the 1994 original look like child's play (pardon the pun). Easily Pixar's most technically accomplished work, the slick animation is met by the most detailed environments from the studio yet, and some beautiful lighting. The scene where Woody is catapulted through the air into a ray of light, from the soft blanket of a young girl, is heart-melting. But what's really special, aside from another excellent contribution from Randy Newman, is how much heart these characters retain after so long. The script is spot-on in its character observations, something the second entry significantly lacked. That was more of an extended action sequence and while Toy Story 3 starts on an equally exciting note , it has much more humour and heart than the last installment. It's utterly perfect in every regard. I wish I could write more, but I'd just be here forever, gushing over the smallest detail that, at this point, nobody reading cares about. So I point you back to my initial review, and assure you that if I were to write it again now, every word would be the same...

Honourable Mention
Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn)
One of the most pleasantly surprising films of the year, Kick-Ass was almost one of the most controversial, largely due to the instantly iconic Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz), a 4ft whirlwind of death - foul mouthed and with a penchant for ice cream, she's handy with a knife, pistol, grenades and four-letter C words. She's the comic book equivalent of Mathilda (Natalie Portman) form Luc Besson's 1994 masterpiece Léon (also a controversial work which remained cut until earlier this year). Also to be commended is Nic Cage doing his best Adam West impression as Big Daddy, and Mark Strong hamming it up as central villain Frank D'Amico. Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn created a spiky, sarcastic screenplay which not only deconstructs the superhero movie, but also has a whip-smart sense of humour and blistering pace. The colour scheme and exuberant score give the film a vibrant, edgy flavour and the raw violence is never more powerful than in the breathtaking scene where Hit-Girl attempts to rescue Big Daddy. Truly an astonishing work.

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