2010: MY YEAR IN FILM
As I write this up, I realize that 2010 was a pretty darn good year for film. Good work, cinema. Here's a few more favorites of mine from a vintage year - including a film I worried would be terrible, the final work of one of my all time favorite directors and a surprisingly lean and agile documentary from an octogenarian prone to making 6 hour epics.
A superhero deconstruction that actually kicks ass. Get it? Because Kick Ass blows. Just kidding. I never saw that one. But I'm sure it stinks. For sure, I never saw Kick Ass because who needs another "gritty" take on the superhero genre? A film that, holy cow can you believe it?!, imagines what superheroes would be like in the real world!!!!! (!) And if James Gunn hadn't been involved with SUPER, I highly doubt I would've given Rainn Wilson/Ellen Page team-up even half a chance. Staying honest, I had no hopes for this one even as I went into the theater at the Toronto Internation Film Festival, the deck was too stacked against it and, if I thought about it, what had Gunn done beyond co-writing the truly hilarious Troma history/how-to book and making the truly excellent Slither? The Dawn of the Dead remake was better than it had any right to be, but that's very different from being good. His resume was slim enough that I had my doubts. Well, never again. Two films directed, two new cult classics. SUPER, clearly working from a smaller budget with significant financial limitations, tops even the top-notch Slither in every category but studio-backed slickness. The story of schlub who dons a funny costume and takes to the streets is so unoriginal that if I just threw it out there twenty different films could spring to mind, even if I narrowed it down to just the comedic, deconstructionist takes on the plot. But Gunn is better than that. He's just great. It's decisive at this point. After seeing the film at the TIFF, I wrote the following and really can't see any way to expand upon it:
This is a Troma movie, through and through - director James Gunn got his start as a screenwriter on Tromeo and Juliet and has given Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman cameos in all his movies, so I'm not just pulling that comparison out of thin air: this is a Tromatic film to its very core. Or actually, it's a movie that fulfills the empty promise of Troma; a gory, perverted, funny genre-melting sucker-pucker to a played-out genre and conventional morality and movie-making. Heaping disturbing violence, silly comedy, sexual titillation and morally inquiry on top of each other within any given individual scene, it un-self-consciously mixes combustible, controversial elements into something truly potent. The story of a pathetic short order cook who decides to take the law into his own hands and do something about crime, I naturally worried that Super would suffer from working from such a played out premise. To my delight, it seems less concerned with engaging the concept of "how would superheroes function in the real world" and more with thinking about "how does the superhero mentality and mindset jive with reality?" It's very much to director James Gunn's credit that after seeing this film, I have no idea if he's a fan of comic books or not - the references it makes to comics certainly aren't obscure with people like Batman and Aquaman being just about the only figured referenced, and not even referenced in a reverential way. It's a film no desire to imitate the world of comic books, to have it both ways and build up a myth of Superheroism in recognizable reality - it doesn't want to be Kick Ass, in other words. Instead, it looks at the mindset of revenge and morality, of the thought process that divides the world into a black and white division of good and evil - and what it finds is hilarious, unpredictable and far more complicated than you would think. It's not content with conventional questions or conventional answers and seems to exist on its own planet of cinema: it's what Troma should have been but never really was.
I'm not sure why I ever doubted that Gunn would fulfill the promise of Slither. His newest film proves that he's headed directly towards admittance to the pantheon of great cult directors, in the future his name with be casually lined up alongside ones like Frank Hennenlotter and Dario Argento. He's that good. This film deserves that kind of praise.
Oh, Fred Wiseman, why did you do this to us? You made a movie that demands I write stupid crap like "It's a knockout that will leave you floored! The champ, the greatest (documentarian) of all time takes on all comers and bullies them out of the ring. Even at age 80, the has the quick feet, the sheer cinematic dexterity to dazzle us and the powerful brilliance to land hay-makers. Appropriately raw and muscular, the lean film clocks in at just under an hour and a half, a disciplined and focused contrast to a body of work recently tending towards films bloating over 3 hours. This movie will beat you in the face with its awesomeness and skip rope into your heart. It is not the nerdy white guy who will clearly never be much of a fighter. It is the ruddy blonde woman who you clearly don't want punching you in the stomach. Or maybe you do want the film punching you in the stomach? With its padded glove of brilliance?" See what you did, Wiseman? You forced morons and hack such as myself to write stupid things about your charming little movie. On the surface of things, what Wiseman does with Boxing Gym seems too easy: he just takes a camera into modest Austin gym and - employing an unadorned aesthetic devoid of stylistic tics, narration or interviews - follows the people that pass through, mainly focusing on the goatéed owner of the establishment - but kids, yuppies, fat guys, ladies: they're all welcome. The low-key vibe of the place itself refracts and combines with the intensity of its function in a way that offers an incredible variation of moods and rhythms. Simplicity has always been the hallmark of Wiseman's work, but his uncommon talent for working virtuoso sequences from commonplace elements indicates that maybe it takes a lot of work to make a film feel so easy. Certainly, if anybody could walk into a gym and make a film this brilliant, how come nobody does it? I have a feeling if they tried, Wiseman would still knock them the hell out.
The funny fact of Claude Chabrol's career is that when his films are good, he's very assiduously repeating himself and when he expands his approach beyond that narrow focus, the results are almost exclusively disastrous. Normally, a filmmaker loses their ability to capture an audience's attention when they settle into a comfortable caricature of themselves: once Fellini's films become Fellini-esque or David Lynch's work too Lynchian, all but the diehards are repulsed; it's the reason so many late-period works from artistic giants are historical footnotes. More of the same. Exactly what you'd expect. The filmmakers that thrive into old age, like Akira Kurosawa or Fritz Lang, are the ones who can constantly change up their style and approach, develop and deepen and enrich their legacy by treading down new paths, piloting their dimension-warping telephone boxes into new dimensions, so to speak. Somehow, Chabrol managed the opposite: his late-career hot-streak which includes essential works like Le Ceremony, The Bridesmaid, A Girl Cut in Two and now Inspector Bellamy, slavish repeats the basic structure and aesthetic of even his earliest work. The psychological themes and visual ideas of his debut feature Le Beau Serge are indistinguishable from his fitting finale, a Gerard Depardieu anti-procedural about (once again) a seemingly normal person ensnared in the web of an obviously unhinged comrade. Of course, the normal one proves to be even more unpredictable and difficult to fathom than the apparent nutjob. Pick any good movie from any period in his career and you will find this story over and over again, filmed with the same impeccable reserve and stylistic precision: Le Cousins, Les Biches, This Man Must Die, Madame Bovary, The Color of Lies. All the better if the story can take place in provincial France. What should be a flaw ends up being an essential asset - that Inspector Bellamy is more of the same could easily be a sign of creative bankruptcy; instead Chabrol uses offers one of his most quiet, thoughtful and complex takes on the theme, one that serves further purpose as a deconstruction of the mystery genre and the concept of "mystery" altogether.
As Depardieu's vacationing police inspector is drawn deeper into the mystery of a faked suicide and assembling the facts of the case, Chabrol deftly plays a sleight of hand trick on the audience, revealing the true mystery of life is domestic: mystery will always be found in our emotions, in our behaviors, in considering why the people we care about do the things they do. Is there any way to solve these puzzles? Understanding his alcoholic, self-destructive half-brother proves far more difficult than piecing together the genre-standard tale of a lovelorn criminal, a plastic surgery makeover, a suicidal homeless man (who happen to be exact the physical double for a scheming philanderer), a headless corpse on a beautiful beach, sex, crime and betrayal. At this point, Chabrol has such an effortless command of his style that he can pull off difficult tricks with the off-handed ease of an afterthought: revelatory late-film monologues, ambiguous twists and minor characters abruptly taking the main stage - things that sink other movies for being "too much" don't even register as radical in Inspector Bellamy. The film's low-key charm lies in its casual ability put a dozen delicate interlacing parts in fluid motion: Chabrol can do this in his sleep. Without breaking a sweat, it makes a convoluted plot so easy to understand that it borders on the obvious and then builds thematic layers on top of that story, diverting our attention from the real mystery developing beside the unraveling crime before it conjures an unexpected flourish for the climax. The final scenes suddenly snap everything into focus and we realize we've been looking in the wrong place all along and that we missed the true mysteries, the truly unsolvable puzzle of the dark depths of the human mind. It wouldn't have been a bad way for any filmmaker to go out. For Chabrol, it makes me suspicious: like the central crime in Inspector Bellamy, it's almost too perfect.
Keeping with John's description of this film as "like a submarine - it goes away for a while, you forget about it, then it pops back up majestically into mind and seems like the best thing you've ever seen," I initially forgot about this when compiling my list of favorites from 2010 - and then couldn't believe the oversight when John asked me why it wasn't on my list. I knew director Richard Ayoade mainly as the great Dean Learner on Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, so I was interested in seeing this film, but completely unprepared for how perfectly he nailed a precarious mix of dark comedy, genuine emotion and (yes) the dreaded "Indie tweeness." My natural impulse (as I suspect it will be for many critics) is to compare the film to Rushmore, another deadpan tale of teenage outsider who lives too much inside his own head and is just smart enough to really get himself into trouble - but that's not being fair to a movie distinct and original enough that it deserves to shed any comparisons to Wes Anderson's beloved sophomore work. The comparisons are inevitable and I'd love to kill them right now. For starters, the characters are less caricatured and more raggedly human than in Anderson's work, even in improbable cases like Paddy Considine's extravagantly mulleted New Age motivational speaker or Noah Taylor's bearded, sweater-adorned failed patriarch. And the comedy goes to some extremely dark places - Craig Roberts as the main character is both more warped and more recognizably normal than the cartoon-ish over-achiever and production-design smothered Max Fischer: the budding romance at the heart of the story is based on Roberts' character's sound idea that it is better to be on the side of bullies than their continued target. It would be tempting to describe him as amoral or even deranged, but he's really just a confused teenager trying to carve out a space for himself in the world and figure out how to achieve the happiness that seems to be eluding his troubled parents played by Taylor and the always lovable Sally Hawkins. Any time the film feels like it might veer into too broad or predictable an area, Ayoade re-grounds the emotional center and brings Roberts' character back to earth - he's not releasing bees into a hotel room or knocking down trees to best an opponent, but running away from difficult emotional situations and botching his attempts at making his loss of virginity more romantic - the film doesn't end with an improbable Vietnam epic on a high school stage, but an awkward and sweet conversation by the ocean on a cold winter's day. I will give you that both Rushmore and Submarine feature the word "handjob" prominently. So there's that.
Hey, you know what movie was terrible? Marmaduke. You know who needs to be told that? Literally no one. Even the people who enjoy the wacky adventures of a CGI-enhanced Great Dane know that you think that sort of thing is terrible. Congrats, list writers, you somehow managed to notice that a D.O.A. big-budget botch jobs like Jonah Hex and unnecessary sequels like Sex and the City 2 are not worth anybody's time. I can't wait to read your crackerjack contribution to the culture-wide pile-on.
The most effective desecration of any artwork is an unmourned burial. History will quickly forget these terrible movies soon enough... unless you keep bringing them up to make yourself feel clever.
I'd be hard pressed to rate any of these films as bona fide mind-blowers. But not every film needs to be masterpieces, sometimes it's more than enough to just be interesting. The following films certainly kept my interest and, sure as shit, I really loved a few as much as I loved any film this year.
When I saw this film at Toronto Film Festival, I compared it to a comic-book version of The Seven Samurai, but apparently it's based on a 1963 Japanese film that was more of a popular success in Japan than even the Kurosawa film which I referenced. From what I can gather, Takashi Miike's remake stays faithful to the original - in terms of structure, anyways: the first hour of both movies is an intense slow-burn set-up and the second hour is a hellacious battle sequence. It's a striking contrast between the two halves in Miike's film, the patience and quiet of the set-up set against the furious bloodshed of the extended climax. My instinct upon first seeing the film was to give him a load of credit for such a striking one-two punch, but even if he just recreated the concept, he deserves credit for having the good sense to import an effective idea. Remake of another film or not, the plot really is The Seven Samurai shaved of its ambiguous moral contours: instead of a group of struggling, aimless samurai assembling for a grueling battle at the behest of unpleasant, cowardly and frequently ungrateful peasants to take on faceless outlaws, here our thirteen samurai assassins are brought together of their own accord for a noble confrontation of true evil in the form of a sadistic warlord. The seven samurai with no country or tomorrow are replaced by thirteen noble patriots willing to sacrifice themselves for a better future. It all has the effect of turning the proceedings into an ass-kicking, invigorating, really completely fucking awesome action movie. That's not a knock against it: The Seven Samurai is in a league all it own, 13 Assassins jumps to the top of the class of pure samurai action flicks that includes Sword of Doom, Lone Wolf and Cub and 47 Ronin. It's hardly bad company. For the most part, the stereotypical Miike touches are at a minimum (one limbless living torso of woman being the most prominent exception), but any true Miike connoisseur knows that the man has a knack for drawing out odd flourishes and casually imaginative surprises beyond the sickening shocks for which he is notorious. Make no mistake about it: this film is too weird in its heart and too comfortable with that weirdness for it to be from any director but Miike. I think comparisons to Sword of Doom and Lone Wolf and Cub are apt not just for the ass-kicking samurai action, but the essential eccentricity of the material. Maybe all along, such casual idiosyncrasy has been a crucial element of a genre extremely resistant to the generic: if that's the case, we should have known Miike would be right at home.
YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER.
I'm not a Woody Allen fan. I don't like his early smart and "funny" movies like Bananas and Annie Hall. I don't like his late-career European excursion with Matchpoint and Cassandra's Dream. I don't like his experimental adventures like Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo. I certainly don't like his dour 80's dramas and I've never heard anyone defend his late-90's slapstick failures like Hollywood Ending and Curse of the Jade Scorpion. The only two Woody Allen films I have ever enjoyed are Bullets Over Broadway (which is just fine) and Deconstructing Harry (which is a gigantic fucking mess.) So, it stunned me that I really loved a film universally dismissed and derided by Allen fans willing to champion even his most steaming garbage like Anyone Else and Interiors. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is what everyone has been telling me Woody Allen films are all along: an expertly constructed, understated and emotionally perceptive comedy. It's not flailing, shtick-y, super-broad garbage akin to real shitbombs like Scoop and Sweet and Lowdown - nor is it of the unfunny comedy/inert-drama ilk of Crimes and Misdemeanors or Manhattan. Enough slapping his other work in the face: just understand that this film actually fulfills the dubious promises critics have been making about his work since the beginning. It's sweet and charming, rife with really funny bits and performances that never descend into caricature, even the thankless roles like duplicitous whores and Spiritualist cranks. Melancholy and romantic, the film is wise enough to let fate cruelly puncture its heroes' fantasies, but humane enough to drain the bathos and artistic smugness from the deflating twists and turns. Anthony Hopkins (another non-favorite of mine) gives the performance of the year as a new bachelor too doddering to find what he's searching for and too impatient to understand himself. He's a crushingly funny mess of improbable virility, well-earned self-confidence and the delusions of youth and happiness that it's impossible to imagine any of us ever giving up on. The performances are top notch all around and as much as I've heard about Allen's talent with performers, I've never seen turns as understated, deftly comedic and complex in any of his work as Hopkins, Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin are here. It's a modest enough film that I can understand why it didn't get amazing reviews, but if you've never much cared for Allen, give this one a chance: it's everything the critics say his films are.
THE GHOST WRITER.
Like any essentially amoral cinephile, closet pedophile or conflicted genre-enthusiast who believes the victim when she says she forgives him and we can all just move on, I am a gigantic Roman Polanski fan, so much so that I can even get into his more milquetoast, paperback thriller-esque films like Frantic, The Ninth Gate and his latest page-turning (frame-flipping?) mix of unsurprise twists, secrets begging not to be kept and sexy, sexy betrayals. It's formulaic by any standard, but of course it works: this if Roman fucking Polanski we're discussing. Even at his laziest (and it would be hard to imagine a film not starring Allen Covert being lazier than The Ghost Writer) he can still get a plot humming. It's engrossing fluff of the highest or lowest order, depending on what you're in the mood for. It's not like I'm always in the mood for the gut-punch of Knife in the Water or the exhausting hysteria of Repulsion: as improbable as it sounds, sometimes I like to kick back with something that wouldn't be best described as "noxious," "psychologically devastating" or "dark, twisted and upsetting." In those times, sex and deception will do. The Ghost Writer is constructed on a foundation of sex and deception. I can even forgive The Panic Room-reminiscent ending, if only because the film has the good sense to leave out things like Jared Leto in corn-rows, crying little girls and goddamned high concept bullshit like panic rooms. Shit, maybe I'm not giving this film enough credit: compared to the sorry state of crowd-pleasing adult-oriented thrillers today, Polanski's distinguishes itself from the pack by simply not being a piece of moronic garbage. I will now finish discussing this film with a serious and solemn sentence about the nature and meaning of Polanski's crime.
Twice isn't a fluke. If Affleck lobs one more stick of cinematic dynamite at audiences, even you doubters are going to have to accept that there's no current director doing better work in the crime genre. Because he's Affleck though, The Town's rightful laurels were bestowed on inept indie film that it's hard not to read as having benefitted from identity politics. If The Town had been directed by a Sundance-feted female director, it would be headed into Hurt Locker territory this awards season. Instead, the essentially incompetent Winter's Bone ends up topping "Best of 2010" lists while The Town is only begrudging acknowledged as "effective" and "surprisingly well-directed" if it is acknowledged at all. Thankfully expunged of the earnest Liberal misery tourism and gross miscasting of crucial roles that ruin Winter's Bone, The Town is a primer in how to makes audiences sink down into and spring up to the edge of their seats in equal measure. Take note, budding Deborah Graniks, you can have your authentic location detail, blue collar characters and shocking crime while still having a propulsive plot, engaging dialog and complex characters (that don't up cleanly divide into groups of "noble savages" and "generic evil poor people.") That Affleck is still having to overcome the unavoidable baggage of being Ben Affleck is an outrage: the action scenes in this film are better than anything Christopher Nolan or Michael Bay have ever directed with the added bonus of not being about costumed crusaders overcoming their fear of bats by dressing up in latex. It's a movie with characters allowed personalities and complexity, not paper-thin Hollywood concept-figures, which obviously can't be said for either films like The Dark Knight or Winter's Bone. Don't be one of those fools who mistakes one-note mumbly grunge for greater complexity: The Town demonstrates how a character can be both artificial (beholden to the rules of the genre) and authentic (containing a depth that allows for good and bad within one person, professionalism and fuck-up-itude in equal measure.) But enough about the competition which it effortlessly blows away, this is a film with virtues so obvious and effective elements so apparent, that's there's really almost nothing to be said about. Magnetic star performances by Affleck, Jeremy Renner and John Hamm, a rigorously assembled plot that zooms along at top speed, memorably unpredictable action set-pieces; what works about this film is apparent before you even step in the theater. What it gets right, it really gets right; unfortunately, as with his debut, Gone Baby Gone, what it gets wrong makes you want to cringe. Fortunately (also as with Gone Baby Gone!) the bad parts take up only a small fraction of the screentime: The Town's ridiculous love story has even been set mainly aside into its own self-contained scenes, almost as if the offending elements have been quarantined from the rest of the movie. In that sense, the bad stuff doesn't get in the way and it nevertheless serves its function in terms of the bigger picture just fine. Still, hopefully with film #3, Affleck will resolve this stumbling block: if he does, we'll be seeing one of the best films of the year.
DON'T LOOK BACK.
While the rest of the world was getting worked up over Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman having dreams about "lezzing out," a lifetime of cinematic obsession paid off for me with Monnica Bellucci (the hottest woman of all time. of all time.) and Sophie Marceau (another classy broad with whom I would hold hands and talk about poetry) getting inside of each other. Despite their shared enthusiasm for over-bearings mothers and reflections that don't match reality, I think the reason I was indifferent to Aronofsky's generic genre piece, but adored this portentous shocker is that director Marina de Van's neuroses are exactly the same as mine. I'm not worried about becoming so enraptured in my creative process THAT I ACTUALLY BECOME A SWAN, but rather I worry that no one wants to even read my novel and I should just go back to the modest, inconsequential pursuits at which I excel. Also: infectious disease. Wasted potential, raging neuroses: my problem isn't "I'm so fucking awesome at ballet I'm going bananas!" but rather "I'm so bad at what I think is essential, I'm possibly not even myself." Who the hell am I again? Well, if I'm Sophie Marceau, it turns out the answer is Monica Bellucci and while on the surface that might not sound so bad, there's still the small matter of your kids not being your kids and your husband not being your husband and your neat-freak mom actually being a total slob. If you haven't seen the film, probably none of that makes sense, but ironically the main problem with Don't Look Back is that it's a little too on the nose: when you see the film, everything I'm writing about is too clear and too thematically cogent - it all makes too much sense to be effectively creepy. The ideas are viable, the material's original (in that you can't imagine anyone but de Van having made this film) - but the flawless cogency and spit-shine polish work against a plot that could really stand to be a bit more jagged and unsteady: it feels like some producer or financier kept demanding more and more concrete answers to ambiguous questions. If this film met de Van's jittery and unsettling debut (In My Skin) halfway, it would be a masterpiece. As it stands, it's just an enjoyably lurid little psychological thriller that happens to aim its every element right up my alley. I seriously woke up a couple days before seeing this morning and became convinced that someone had moved my kitchen table overnight. True story. ***Let me just spoil the end of the film by writing about my appreciation of it: it takes real guts to imply that the plot of your movie is the same as the heroine's terrible novel that everyone thinks is stupid.***
I AM GENUINELY DISAPPOIINTED TO REPORT THAT I MISSED THESE FILMS:
TOY STORY 3 THE FIGHTER
HOW DO YOU KNOW
(continues on next page with a handful of films that were THE BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS of 2010)
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