2010: ANOTHER YEAR IN REVIEW
I'm going to change things up a little bit this time. Looking over my previous Year in Review entries, it didn't really mean anything for me to alternately focus on the positive before dwelling on the negative of the movies released in any given year. A memorable character from one of last decade's best movies said it best: "We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read." One can't really make jokes while discussing favorite movies, and it's always been a relief to skip from really thinking hard about what I liked in certain director's work to having a field day over the lack of quality in something as unfathomably canonized and revered as Paul Haggis' Crash or as obviously terrible as...Paul Haggis' Crash. But at the end of the day it just makes me sound like another internet writer hurling a pebble at the Goliath that is popular culture. So this year, I'm putting it all in one basket: after talking briefly about why I loved the films I loved, I'm going to compare each one to a different movie from this year. That second movie will represent any of my typical "bad news" entries - it could be a flat-out bad film, or one that I didn't feel deserved its seemingly universal rave reviews, or a film that I found disappointing despite my initial excitement, or a combination of any of those three categories. It's an experiment to see if the direction of cinema that I admired this year could be directly related to the things I didn't think worked very well. It may fall on its ass, but at least I'm trying something new.
I open with my favorite movie of the year - an arbitrary choice, not necessarily the BEST movie of the year but the one that meant the most to me personally - and the rest of my favorites are listed alphabetically. Although I don't think anything I saw in 2010 were as important as the three titles I liked best in 2009, it felt like an all-out better and more exciting year for movies in general. I feel a greater sense of devotion towards and willingness to defend my favorites this year than I have in quite a while: they seem more like films that I will admire for a long time as opposed to "movies I saw this year that were pretty good" like, say, Drag Me to Hell or The Informant!
Also I'm obligated to warn anyone who hasn't seen some of these movies that I don't go out of my way to avoid plot spoilers, and in several of the write-ups focus on the ending of the movie.
"With great power comes great responsibility" is the credo that motivated a certain popular superhero. But what kind of responsibility does that leave those of us with no powers, the ones who aren't even responsible enough to manage our own lives? To the incredibly smart and tirelessly funny James Gunn, a man doesn't need to experience anything as life-alteringly dramatic as the murder of his parents or falling into a vat of toxic waste to prompt him to a life of vigilantism and spandex: all it really takes is something as soul-crushing as to make a man feel like his life means nothing in an callous, uncaring world. So although the Crimson Bolt's mission to rid the world of crime is no less justified than the actions of a Daredevil or a Blue Beetle, it plays out in SUPER as what it really is for any of these masked avengers: a psychotic breakdown in response to the individually perceived unfairness of everyday life. It's a rationalizing that Gunn beautifully portrays as perversely moral and devoutly religious to its hero as opposed to a glamorized form of extreme role playing (if there's been a better portrait of rampant fanboy fetishism than Ellen Page's Boltie in a movie before I haven't seen it.) It's the age old fantasy of any loser to gain some form of power to hold over those who oppose them, whether it's winning a girl or climbing to the top of a tower with a sniper rifle, and the specifics of said righteousness become blurred in the 'Bolt's quest to do something that makes him feel important, which is so extensively relatable it could only come from a real place within the filmmaker: the need to create a controllable identity and truly feel "SUPER." Which isn't to say that Gunn doesn't see the obvious absurdity and madness in his hero's situation. His script is as wildly hilarious as it is unexpectedly poignant, a mixture of puerile love for the grotesque and genuine sympathy for its characters that owes more to Frank Henenlotter or Charles Willeford than anything else. It's a movie that says "the world is a scumbag and I have to find a way to deal with it." While that's what I took from Gunn's excellent second film, I completely believe the narration at the end of the movie: "I know you think you know what this is about, but maybe you don't." The movie is personal enough that I may never know exactly where it came from, and like the Crimson Bolt might have a delusional sense of my relationship to it, but at this moment it feels like nothing less than the most important film I saw all year.
Much better than...IRON MAN 2
The obvious comparison would have been Kick-Ass, another "what if superheroes existed in the real world" post-modern whathaveyou, or Scott Pilgrim vs the World, in which trying to obtain a girl is equated to fighting supervillains. But I found it interesting how much more I sympathized with a dork in a patchwork costume beating people who cut movie lines with a wrench than with billionaire supergenius rock star Tony Stark. The first one did a good job portraying Tony as a self-made man who reinvents himself and finds purpose in his shallow life of fast cars and flashy technology, in this one he reverts to being the most intolerable smartass rich douchebag - an in-demand celebrity who uses crime fighting as a way to impress supermodels. Which would be fine if there was a point to the portrayal, but there really isn't. The movie opens promisingly enough, when we're given a little part 1 recap/montage of Tony Stark's bloated luxury and universal popularity only to be introduced to Mickey Rourke in some horrible little Russian basement apartment and realize how Stark's success has ruined lives. Little people have fallen so the big people can prosper. It's such an unpredictably effective place to start the movie, focusing on the man who will become the bad guy and where he's coming from, that it is hugely disappointing when nothing in the rest of the film follows up on it. Basically it just becomes the first movie all over again: Robert Downey Jr as charming multi-millionaire man-child, bad guys using his technology against him, pew-pew-pew big explosion, post-credits clip setting up new Marvel Comics film project. It's almost like it was made in an alternate universe where the first one never existed, the way Stark's ignorance of his own actions has once again created misery and suffering around the globe except this time he doesn't really learn anything other than how to save his own life. If the filmmakers could have at least killed off Pepper Potts to set up a dark third entry to the series that would've been somewhat redeeming, but instead it's more of the same without the payoff and the worst use of Don Cheadle since his appearance on "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air." There are no consequences to Tony's power and his entitlement to use it however he wants, and the movie never seems to realize that his smug yuckster sitting atop a giant donut has gone from charming rogue to the least likable superhero of the year.
AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE
"I like telling the story of my life better than I do living it" is one of many candid if not shocking pronouncements from the late Spalding Gray in a project former collaborator Steven Soderbergh compiled from the monologist's 30-year career. Neither a sappy tribute or greatest hits regurgitation, the miracle of this movie is that it finds the moments in between, catching Gray at his most unrehearsed and contemplative while never betraying the unique timing and orchestration that made him such a captivating speaker. Soderbergh does his subject a favor by staying largely out of the film and letting borrowed fragments of Gray's narration tell the story. He approaches the material like an enrapt fan leafing through a giant book to discover affecting reflections on family life, a subject that Gray approaches as reluctantly and guarded as any of his other intellectual deconstructions that nevertheless find him at his most defenseless and uncertain of his feelings. His mother's suicide, his relationship with his father and brother, and anxiety over becoming a dad himself have turned up in his past performances but never felt as honest in the pieces of his recorded life that Soderbergh has unearthed. Not that the film ever misses an opportunity to cut to a quaint observation or hilarious anecdote about a sexual experience from his trenchant stream of manic storytelling; it just makes them fit in to the rest of the portrait like pieces of a deceptively amusing WASP puzzle. At the beginning of 2010, I went on a big Spalding Gray kick, finally tracked down a copy of The Terrors of Pleasure and read his novel, and found that he is the best medicine in getting through a cold and depressing football-less beginning of the year. The fact that his writing and performances are therapeutic as much as they are vulnerable railings against the impenetrable meaning of existence will always make Gray something of a conundrum himself, which Soderbergh's deeply moving portrait acknowledges yet somehow clarifies. A lot of my favorite movies from this year are about the acceptance of death, but And Everything is Going Fine is, against all odds, a testament to life.
Much better than...I'M STILL HERE
Spalding Gray opened up his life to the world, warts and all: his relationships, his infidelity, his neurosis and problems with his family were subjects he deconstructed on the page, the stage, and on camera. He became a personality everybody recognized. When Joaquin Phoenix decided to make a phony documentary about his own supposed demons, he had nothing to offer except yet another underwhelming performance. The "Joaquin" presented in Casey Affleck's hipster mixture of what they think Andy Kaufman and Spinal Tap were all about is fat, takes drugs, bangs hookers and mumbles incoherently on a shitty rap album. It sets out to make a comment on the way people see movie stars, but all it does is reveal what so many movie stars are like: self-involved, uncreative and disrespectful to fans and co-workers alike. Phoenix tries to do with a beard what Gray did over a lifetime, but whereas the monologist's "me me me!" meltdowns were endearing, the spoiled brat actor's are as convincing as the end of The Village. Oh yeah...I went there (and I'm...still there?) Frankly I'm annoyed that I even convinced myself to write about this movie a second time: let's all agree never to bring it again, ok?
Two years ago, I said Happy-Go-Lucky was seemingly the movie that Mike Leigh's entire career had been leading up to. How naive that seems now in comparison to this, not only a collaboration with so many of his greatest actors and crew but a reflection and response to so many of the themes he's tackled from the beginning. As a filmmaker, his intentions are always clear but they've never felt as thoroughly explored as they are in Another Year. If all we really want out of life is to be happy, and somehow things have just worked out for someone that they are able to piece together a completely enriching and satisfying - even enviable - existence, then what does that person owe to the people around them who are still hopelessly searching? At what point is said happy individual, who is by all means a good and decent human being, not only failing to help others enjoy some form of contentment in their own lives but actually lording their own prosperity over them: how hard can it to be for you to be happy like I am? Leigh knows as well as anyone that those who are fortunate owe nothing to those who are less so. It's when the fortunate ones present themselves and their lives as the alternate to a miserable existence that they're revealed as horrible people who can't distinguish the difference between being charitable and being compassionate; people who make it their job to help people, and are sympathetic to some, but can't relate to real human misery, even in those closest to them. They keep them around, amused by their incompetence and alcoholism, and create a level of contentment that their despondent friends believe to be intangible and covet out of unmitagable admiration. It's a shame - but then that's how Jim Broadbent's Tom summarizes the desperate neediness of one of the emotionally impoverished Mary. Leigh doesn't judge his happy people any more than he judges his wretched ones, but if his work up until now has pleaded for any one recognizable quality in everybody it's empathy. His characters' response to the universe's impartial distribution of happiness and misery, whether it's kindness (Shirley, Poppy) or cruelty (Nicola, Johnny), are what define them. Having no awareness of it whatsoever is inhuman and makes you want to respond like angry nephew Carl: what's more infuriating than the injustice of righteousness coming from those whose behavior is perfectly, socially acceptable? Of course because this is a movie from the finest narrative filmmaker of his time, and because every "season" of the movie reveals something different about the characters and their relationship to one another, we don't recognize the severity of all this until the final crushing scene just as the characters are facing another year: one of equanimity for some and of seemingly interminable loneliness and desperation for others.
Much better than...GREENBERG and CYRUS
In these two "mumblecore goes mainstream" installments, happiness is not so much something that needs to be discovered as furiously, tenaciously avoided at the expense of other people's good fortunes. Basically quieter and therefore more arty versions of Hollywood slapstick comedies - Greenberg an intellectualized riff on Ben Stiller's humiliation-based "wince factor" Focker franchise, Cyrus a "protective man-child" romp in the style of Step Brothers with John C Reilly recast as the straight man - the films focus on characters so needy they make Another Year's Mary look self-reliant. Misanthropic to the extent of being nearly pointless, Noah Baumbach's story of a deluded, self-important loser amiably squatting at his rich brother's house focuses on Ben Stiller's title character, an insufferable pontificator who does nothing but sap the self confidence of those around him until they're all as miserable as he is. It never establishes a reason to focus on Greenberg, and every scene milks his douchey-ness for scant comedic effect. In Cyrus (both movies point out exactly who the one we should hate/mock in their titles), Reilly is cock-blocked from enjoying a blissful union with a criminally underdeveloped Marisa Tomei by her clingy, obese son. It's a movie with no idea what it wants to say beyond the obvious SNL sketch approach that it doesn't do much to nurture either; the Duplass brothers set up ideas about family structure and what people need to be happy but don't go anywhere with it. It's as if the kind of astute characterization Mike Leigh and his actors created in their film is too overt for "smart" writer-directors like Baumbach and the Duplasses to be bothered with, but it also needs to be said that the comedy falls flat. Leigh's movies are as hilarious as they are mortifying. The subjects of humor in these films include a dead dog, ironic 80's band t-shirts, implied incest, Jonah Hill staring - that's it, just staring! Where do they come up with this stuff? The Cyrus guys can't even muster a sequence worthy of the unawkward stay at the motel from The Puffy Chair. Without a Tom and Gerri these people are just pathetic - they don't actually want anything and their ambivalence makes it obvious that their writer/directors think it's stupid to make a movie about real characters.
What Frederick Wiseman's movies have in common is confinement, be it physical (Titicut Follies, High School, Zoo), biological (Deaf, Blind, Near Death) or circumstantial (Basic Training, Meat, The Store.) I'm not sure if old age has mellowed him, or if he finally found a place where he sensed real human contact, but the tiny Texas training gym where his new film is set feels so much more liberated than any other building, neighborhood or organization he's set his cameras to document in the past. Most of the institutions where Wiseman and longtime cameraman John Davey have trained their anthropological eye are repressive dead ends, the people who find themselves there through whatever form of obligation spiritually crippled. With those they share their internment they suffer an unbearable intimacy, yet here Wiseman has discovered an arena where the people are forced into closeness proximity - specifically to physically harm and train to physically harm - but are never anything less than supportive of each other. After chronicling families, co-workers and artists, the filmmaker has discovered a congregation of very different people who want to be together. Of course that means Boxing Gym doesn't require the traces of hope he finds in his human subjects that serve as Wiseman's dramatic structure; the individuality wrested from the conformity of social conditions. Turns out he doesn't need it: the movie, moreso than anything of his I've seen, effortlessly follows its own story through the characters, ordinary people from all walks of life. There isn't one of them who isn't interesting to watch in the simple act of running drills and exerting their bodies, or communicating with other members, and Wiseman finds an attractive rhythm to their collective sounds and languages (lots of talk and instruction giving trainers and fresh trainees, mere grunts and nods between the more seasoned fighters) while noting the gym's implied commeasure through shared equipment. The first shots introduce us to these tools of the members' disciplined exercise and easy socializing: medicine balls, jump rope, speed bags, a sledgehammer and a tire. While the focus on serious training (and inclusion of female members) eliminates the kind of male posturing synonymous with the sport, the cadence of the exercises feels like Riefenstahlian appreciation of form and fitness. But overall is a sense of community, with proprietor and head trainer Richard Lord serving as friendly advocate of self improvement - he may be the most likable character from any film this year. He's the kind of guy you could see people following, like on that early morning run around the stadium, not out of a sense of obligation or conformity but because he's a good example of a physically and mentally healthy human being. His relaxed attitude, whether teaching a kid how to step or negotiating a membership fee, lends the gym and the film an extra sense of tranquility that emphasizes the absence of violence despite the intensity of the work outs and sparring. It's especially felt during a conversation about the Virginia Tech massacre that seems absolutely chilling even as it's being shared in a place where people are pummeling each other daily. These are real people, plain and simple: the ancient posters of champions on the walls look down on them, but like Wiseman they are balanced, unambiguous, content.
Much better than...THE FIGHTER
Sitting through David O Russell's new film was like watching a boxing match for me: I wanted desperately to back my boy and cheer for every good punch he got in there, but it was mostly wincing and frustration at the countless mistimed shots and pummelings the movie took as a consequence of poor judgment. The story is nothing new: set in Lowell, MA (standing in for Palookaville), it follows an underdog fighter rising to the ranks of the respected despite personal hangups and people who want to bring him down. I just thought a director of Russell's talent would bring more to the ring than the amount of rote, road map "Wallace Beery, wrestling picture" cliches and expected more than "average Martin Scorsese" direction on display (to be fair, I mean average prime Scorsese: not as good as Casino but masterful compared to anything from the last decade.) At the end of the day the blame rests on three performances, the kind that make it seem like the actors have never met an actual person before in their life. Although the project was his baby over its years in development, Mark Wahlberg spends most of the movie watching Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo try to out-screech, out-flail and out-accent each other on the road to Oscar gold. Which would be fine if any of the people they were portraying actually resonated - instead, even though we never learn the names of almost any of the trainers or trainees in Boxing Gym, I'd much rather sit through another round of them than one featuring any of the characters in The Fighter. It's not entirely the actors' fault, considering their characters are such thinly-sketched self-important small town yahoos that it turns out to be not a movie about boxing, but a movie about hairdos. What the screenwriters have done is taken the intolerable white trash family that so detracted from the good points of Million Dollar Baby and given them lead roles, populating the screen with characters so off-putting, stupid and obnoxious on purpose that when they actually have a nuanced scene later in the film it's not so much a relief as an attempt to salvage some sort of audience identification at the last minute. It's a shame, and it makes it hard to appreciate all the work Russell and Wahlberg did in preparing the boxing scenes. The artificiality involved kills any kind of truth, especially when you consider the sequence during the end credits where we meet the real Mickey and Dickie and see how much more interesting the real life people are, and how much more interesting David O Russell obviously thinks they are (not to mention trainer Mickey O'Keefe playing himself in the movie and being by far the best character.)
THE GHOST WRITER
A near-miss, but so very close. It's the story of Dean Corso told in reverse: instead of the brash young dealer whose arrogant demeanor is meant to make him visible on the outskirts of the world of opulent book collectors being humbled into obscurity within this realm, the unnamed protagonist of Polanski's latest is by the definition invisible; by the end of the film he'll have disappeared completely, both from the screen and the world of the film. As in Ninth Gate, he rubs elbows with the powerful and elite only to find that what we know about people, about the lives of celebrities and politicians, which in The Ghost Writer becomes the ultimate treatment of foreknowledge vs experience (something the director, who had a trying year where people took sides for and against his extradition to the United States, certainly knows something about), is as unreliable as an autobiography penned by a complete stranger. And doesn't that make you feel wholly insignificant? The reaction is to not trust strangers (Cul-de-sac), our neighbors (Rosemary's Baby, The Tenant), our relationships (Frantic, Bitter Moon), our leaders (Macbeth) until we try to force their identity to the surface (Death and the Maiden.) What I'm alluding to parenthetically is that it ranks among Polanski's best work, and like his best work it's deceptively uncomplicated - to call it a simple political potboiler is like labeling Chinatown a standard murder mystery. Because like Jake Gittes, Ewen McGregor's unnamed writer begins the movie feeling like someone with an understanding of how the world works, and ends it more cynical and jaded right up to the point that he literally disappears from the film. And Pierce Brosnan's Adam Lang, a more debonair Noah Cross, is as enigmatic as the fictionalized details of his life. The illusion of Adam Lang bleeds into Polanski's aesthetic: simple backgrounds like the overcast beach outside Lang's office are green-screened, as if the characters are living in the Matrix. I hate to say it, but I read several of the film's strange choices - which could be considered flaws - as complimentary to this theme: Kim Catrall's horrendous British accent, Germany’s North Sea Coast standing in for Martha's Vineyard, the genre trappings of one man who puts his life at risk while seeking the truth. The truth itself is so vague, the director suggests, and buried under years bullshit that who knows if it still exists. The only world we know is real is the one we're in, and we're all just visitors to that unreliable reality.
Much better than...GREEN ZONE
I don't know what's more disappointing: that the edgy auteur of United 93 would exploit recent geopolitical events that made many people in America ashamed of their country into a subpar Bourne movie, or that his Bourne star Matt Damon feels such a sense of obligation to his famous directors that he would concede to be a part of Clint Eastwood's Hereafter and this tepid thriller that quickly devolves into an unexciting action movie. Even more guilty of simplifying the situation in the Middle East than Brian DePalma's Redacted, the movie approaches the WMD polemic as if it were all the concoction of supervillain genius Greg Kinnear and his evil men in black whose only function is to show up in time to threaten Damon before he uncovers the whole "conspiracy." These guys would rather assassinate Ba'thist officers than meet with them to discuss defection because...uh...his plan is to disband the Iraqi army? The movie actually ends with Damon pushing Kinnear against a wall and yelling "The reason we go to war always matters!" Serious political insight is not something any of us should expect from Brian Helgeland, but considering its geographic title the movie could have at least provided a hint of Greengrass' camerawork and its unique sense of space and timing. But this isn't kinetic, it's generic - it might as well have been made by Ridley Scott. For his part, Damon is just going through the motions like a parody of the anmesiac assassin he played for Greengrass, and although we know his character's name he is nowhere near as interesting as Ewen MacGregor's ghost writer, another character trying to learn the truth after getting way over his head in a political situation vaguely reminiscent of real life events.
(continues on next page with a few more of THE BEST and movies that were not as good)
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