2010: IN REVIEW

eric pfriender

I realize that the year-end list season has been over for awhile, but I spent a good part of January trying to catch up on a few things that I missed, and I thought I'd at least get this on record before the Oscar winners are announced (although I don't think the Academy and I are going to have a lot of overlap.)

Here come the usual caveats: this isn't a "best" list, really, and the "overrated" section isn't a "worst" list. For me, I saw three films this year that immediately entered my personal cannon, meaning there's already a space reserved on the ol' DVD shelves for them. There were another seven films that I thought were pretty great. Then there were a few films that range from "bad" to "whatever," but for some reason the critical establishment and/or the public came all over themselves while watching them, tried to convince me of their genius, and I wasn't buying it.

Full disclosure: movies I haven't seen that seem like they might have qualified for one of the three categories delineated above include The Fighter, Exit Through the Gift Shop, The Illusionist and The Kingís Speech.

I also limited myself to movies that got a domestic theatrical release in 2010.

  THE CANON

CARLOS

At one of the intermissions for the plus-five hour screening at IFC, before I had even finished watching Assayas' entire opus, I posted on Facebook that the race for movie of the decade begins here. Six months on, I stand by my assessment. It feels like the culmination of the fluid visual style Assayas has been working towards his entire career, it features easily the year's most charismatic lead performance (Edgar Ramirez as Carlos, ineligible for an Oscar because the film debuted on French television) and features a central set piece that is so brazen, tense, and perfectly executed that I literally can not understand why I didn't spend the rest of the year reading about it on all the film nerd websites.

Minute for minute, this was the most exciting film I saw this year, and the most entertaining. Its action sequences are more thrilling than anything that Hollywood delivered, and Carlos' tangled personal relationships are fascinating to watch unfold in a film that spans two decades of his life. It's one of those rare movies that feels like its about something deeply, intimately human, while also somehow being about something massive, like fighting the tide of history with nothing but your fists.

ANOTHER YEAR

I walk away from every Mike Leigh film with the same thought: "Why does anyone else even bother trying to make movies?" A lot has been written about his unique working style, improvising and workshopping with the actors to develop their characters before he writes the script, and his critics will claim that his movies are dry and that he's preoccupied with working-class grotesques, but the fact is this: Mike Leigh makes movies about grand ideas like happiness and disappointment, but tackles those themes on an intimate level. Which is to say, he makes movies about the human condition. Another Year is a movie about people locked inside of themselves, a movie about what it means to be a "good person" (and whether or not being one matters at all), a movie about futile pursuits of happiness, and above all a movie about the ways in which we lie to ourselves about who and what we truly are.  

If Edgar Ramirez didn't so completely dominate every frame of Carlos, I would hand out awards not just to the much-praised Lesley Manville, but to Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as well. These performances are lived-in, nuanced and complex, and lead us to both despise and love each of the film's three central characters. The film's final shot lingering on Mary is devastating, but it's also thrilling, because Manville lets us into Mary, and in her eyes we can feel her flirting with the comprehension that she is the source of her own misery, and the terrible understanding that there is no cure for yourself.

Nothing I saw in 2010 was as heartbreaking as Another Year.

TRUE GRIT

I came into the Coen Brothers' True Grit clean, which is to say that I have neither seen the original film that won John Wayne an Oscar, nor have I read the Charles Portis novel on which both films are based. That approach worked for me: I think that True Grit is a near-perfect piece of filmed entertainment, the kind that Hollywood makes all too infrequently considering it's what the movie-making machine is designed to do. I only mention it because I'm judging this film on its own merits; I have no way of comparing it to its sources.

I often find the Coen Brothers to be condescending to their characters, and they are frequently too goofy or idiosyncratic for my taste. I've also never loved a Coen film on first viewing. Their comedy usually emerges for me after multiple viewings (I left the theater after seeing The Big Lebowski knowing I wanted to see it again, and soon, but not having laughed once). There are Coen films that I've grown to love a great deal (Lebowski, Fargo, and to a slightly lesser degree, Fink and Arizona), but my affection for the Coens is usually tempered with a "Yeah, but..."

True Grit is the first Coen Brothers film I left loving immediately.  The script is tight, at turns smart, funny, and scary, with well-drawn characters that feel unique yet recognizably human, while still being large enough to fill the film's canvas. It has a handful of great set pieces (the classic reigns-in-the-teeth climactic showdown, but also Rooster's ambush from the high ground above the cabin. Roger Deakins is quickly cornering the market on shooting suspense/action sequences at night.) Every frame is gorgeous without distracting from the story being told. It's simply a classic Hollywood-style entertainment, made by a creative team working at the peak of their powers. It's easily my favorite movie to come out of Hollywood in 2010.

 

  PRETTY GREAT

THE GHOST WRITER

Nobody frames a shot like Polanski. In fact, there might not be anyone who understands cinematic space - how to establish the geography of a location to maximize suspense - the way Roman does. Look at the sequence where The Ghost has to escape from the ferry before it pulls away from the dock, lest he be trapped with his shadowy pursuers. In any other filmmaker's hands, this sequence would have been a muddled mess, instead it's the most understatedly effective suspense sequence of the year.

I'd actually rank this as one of Polanski's best films. It doesn't have the elemental simplicity and first feature wunderkind audacity of Knife in the Water. It doesn't quite have the killer premise of Rosemary's Baby, the utter weirdness of The Tenant, or the, um, perfection of Chinatown, but in its own way it's kind of great. It suffers from a bit of acrostic word-play silliness at the end, but the film's central mystery still works without that bit, and it's last shot is awesome (nobody understands off-screen space like Polanski.) It features the year's best set (house porn!), one of the year's best shocks, a handful of super-tight performances (including a great non-Michael Sheen Tony Blair impression), and an amazing scene between between Ewan McGregor and Tom Wilkinson simply sitting in the study talking that nevertheless manages to be genuinely terrifying, which somehow manages to sum up Polanski's genius. It's impossible to pinpoint exactly how he creates that sense of dread, but it's unmistakably there, and it's undeniably his.

TOY STORY 3

It's getting a little boring to talk about, but those fuckers at Pixar make entertainment into art and art into entertainment. They make kids' movies that speak to adults and stir complex emotions in ways kids can understand. They consistently make the most entertaining films coming out of America, year-in and year-out: films that are exciting, funny, scary, sad, and beautiful.  And for anyone who still hasn't gotten onboard because they think that there's no way a corporate cartoon is tough enough to be on a list with movies about unrepentant killers from America's west, left-wing terrorists, and a Polanski political thriller, Toy Story 3 features a scene where half of its cast, characters children have come to love not just over the course of the film but over the course of the entire trilogy, are facing a particularly painful death and share a moment where they collectively accept the fact that they may have indeed outlived their usefulness, and agree to give up, resigning themselves to a grisly demise. Pulling that moment off takes the skill of an expert storyteller; attempting it at all in a movie designed to entertain five-year-olds takes the kind of balls I havenít seen on an American filmmaker since, well...ever.

Toy Story 3 also features the least cartoonish villain of 2010.

WHITE MATERIAL

I wish every movie could look and feel like White Material, which is another way of saying I wish every movie was shot by Agnes Godard, directed by Claire Denis, and featured frequent close-ups of Isabelle Huppert.

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