Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Best Films of 2010

For my maiden voyage on this blog, I wanted to do a best-of list. I did it last year and found it sort of fun. I should first say, though, that there are many 2010 films I have not yet seen, but only a handful of these have been regularly appearing on other top ten lists, so my list is not radically out of step with other critics' lists. I include links to a few other best-of lists below.

My List
1. The Social Network. David Fincher’s film is topping most of the “best of” lists for a reason: it’s really good. Written by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), it’s funny, witty, and full of pathos. It’s also a brilliant commentary on the new socially-networked world in which we are living. The Social Network has it all: intelligent writing, great acting, and fine direction by Fincher (Fight Club and Zodiac). Some might find the greed, cynicism, obliviousness, and unadulterated arrogance of the Zuckerberg character off-putting, but I found him quintessentially human. He’s pretty despicable, at times, but I sympathized with his utterly sad and ultimately lonely character. The founder of Facebook has no friends…or shouldn’t if you believe this version of his story.

2. Red Riding Trilogy: In the Year of Our Lord 1974, 1980, 1983. Originally made in 2009 for British television and adapted from David Peace’s quartet of novels, this gripping and stylized neo-noir crime drama, inspired by the Yorkshire Ripper case, tells the complex story of police corruption and cover-up for one of Britain’s most heinous crimes. I thought the second film (Red Riding: In the Year of our Lord 1980), starring Paddy Considine, was a masterpiece. There’s nothing quite like the experience of a long series like this; it hooks you from the very beginning.

3. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg was a U.S. military consultant who, while working for the RAND Corporation, secretly photocopied what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers and distributed them to The New York Times and other national newspapers. The papers recorded the history of our involvement in the war in Vietnam, detailing lies told by the Johnson and Nixon administration to justify and extend our involvement in the war. These papers represented a major shift in American attitudes toward the government, and while Nixon vilified Ellsberg—Kissinger calling him “the most dangerous man in America”—the risks he took to expose the government for what it really was has earned him hero status among many on the left. Channeling Henry David Thoreau, Ellsberg committed his own act of civil disobedience, an act that technically may have been illegal but clearly served the greater good for our country. Along with his lovely wife, Ellsberg (now 80) has devoted himself to fighting for a more perfect union ever since.

4. Toy Story 3. The third Woody/Buzz venture has it all: humor, excitement, drama, a prison escape, a runaway train, a Ken and Barbie love story, Spanish with English subtitles, and a really evil pink teddy bear. My wife teases me for being so stoic (my word). It’s true; I don’t cry easily. And while I didn’t quite get to tears in the scene where Andy’s mom comes into her son’s empty room after he has left for college, I did get quite choked up. I couldn’t help it. Someday that will be my little Wyatt.

5. The Ghost Writer.  Roman Polanski’s political thriller easily ranks among his masterpieces, films like Repulsion, Chinatown, and The Pianist. It’s the story of a ghost writer played by Ewan McGregor, hired to revise the autobiography of a controversial former British Prime Minister, clearly inspired by Tony Blair and played by Pierce Brosnan. McGregor stumbles upon some information that fuels the plot of the film and creates some Hitchcockian suspense without the irony (unlike Mother, which is full of irony and humor). It’s a smart, steady, and spare film that builds the suspense and slowly sets the mood rather than the often abrupt or manipulative surprises of typical thrillers.

6. Mother. South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s 2007 film Host was one of my favorites that year. It blended comedy and family drama with a kind of Godzilla-monster genre.  In Mother, Bong does an homage to Hitchcock in telling the story of virginal and mildly mentally-challenged Do-Joon, a man who is suspected of murdering a teenage girl. Determined to free him, Do-Joon’s mother does everything she can to prove her son’s innocence, despite her newly acquired pariah status in her community. The film has some really powerful performances and a script with lots of surprising twists and turns.

7. A Prophet. A French film directed by Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips and The Beat That My Heart Skipped), Un Prophet follows Malik, a nineteen-year-old of North African descent who is imprisoned for fighting with police officers. Malik enters a racially divided prison where he begins to work for the Corsicans, a powerful gang with connections outside the prison walls. And it is there in this oppressive prison, where the Corsicans and not the guards rule, that Malik slowly rises to power. 

8. Vincere. Septuagenarian Italian director Marco Bellocchio’s film tells the story of Benito Mussolini’s lover and wife, and Il Duce’s rise to power. Ida Dasler sells all that she has to support the young and ambitious Mussolini and his socialist newspaper, but after marrying her and fathering a child, Il Duce abandons Ida without a second thought. Undeterred, Ida remains absolutely faithful to her husband, and her blind devotion lands her in a mental institution, where she falsely believes that if only she can speak to the right person, she will once again be placed beside her rightful husband. Vincere (which ironically means “to win”) is at once a biographical exploration of Mussolini’s early days and a kind of grand classical opera, stylized by the exhilarating aesthetics of Bellocchio. Two excellent performances by Giovanna Mezzogiorno (as Dasler) and Filippo Timi (who plays both the young Mussolini and Dasler’s son Albino) seal the deal.

9. Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. Directed by Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), this new documentary traces the rise and fall of the former governor of New York and presidential hopeful. Gibney, as he clearly indicates by the title, frames the story as a Greek tragedy, with Spitzer fighting against the cruel gods (aka Wallstreet, who cheered and opened champagne bottles when news was announced of Spitzer’s involvement in the sex scandal). While his behavior is, of course, inexcusable, the film forces us to consider whether his crime even comes close to measuring up to the crimes perpetuated by the gods of Wallstreet. The one slightly odd choice in the film was Gibney’s decision to hire an actor to play the role of “Angela,” one of Spitzer’s favorites. The acting is pretty forced and anything but natural, but what she says is fascinating. “Angela” quit her job after the scandal and now works as a securities broker on Wallstreet.

10. Exit through the Gift Shop. A documentary about Thierry Guetta, a d.i.y. “filmmaker” turned self-made street artist. By happenstance, Guetta meets major street artists like Shepard Fairey, who designed the Obama “Hope” image, and Banksy, the British artist probably most famous for painting tranquil images on the West Bank wall. Deciding on something of a whim to become a street artist himself, Guetta, who now goes by MBW or Mr. Brainwash, quickly puts together what surprisingly becomes a well-attended art show. But the documentary just might be (and probably is) a well-orchestrated Banksy hoax. That is, MBW—even though he continues to produce art and has now designed a Madonna album cover and has had shows in L.A., New York, and Miami—is probably Banksy’s satirical creation, a figure pretending to be an artist in order for Banksy to make a mockery of the commercialization of art and the gullible public. What’s amazing is that the film works on so many levels. As a straight documentary, it’s a fascinating and entertaining portrait of the world’s greatest street artists. As an allegory for our day, it’s a deep and meaningful exploration of lie and truth, fiction and reality. As a work of art created by Banksy himself, it serves as a profound commentary on the art world and asks big philosophical questions about economics, aesthetics, ethics, and metaphysics. What is art? Or what is the value of art? Or more broadly, what is reality and how do we know what is real? It’s like the Matrix without knowing for certain whether the Matrix actually exists.

11. Repo Men. I like movies with rich themes, and Repo Men is a film of ideas. It takes place in a futuristic world where a company has developed excellent artificial organ replacements. The organs save lives and make it possible for dying brothers, fathers, mothers, and grandparents to live long, healthy lives. But the organs come at an exorbitant cost. People purchase them on credit, but when they can’t pay that’s when the repo men come in. Jude Law and Forest Whitaker play men who collect the organs. They knock people out, perform surgeries on the living room floor, in the bathroom, in the back seat of a taxi cab, or wherever, and leave the recipients to die. The corporation gets its money; the repo men get paid. It’s a perfect allegory for our debt-ridden consumerist society and the greed of big business. Warning: The film is fairly bloody, so stay away if that bothers you.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order)

Defamation. Originally released in 2009, this documentary from a secular Israeli Jew explores the controversial issue of anti-Semitism and its role in U.S. foreign policy. The film’s underlying argument is that anti-Semitism may not be as widespread as the Anti Defamation League, the Israeli press, or the Israeli government make it out to be.  The ADL and the Israelis take the stance that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, and there are American scholars on the left who question this new definition of anti-Semitism, arguing that it serves only to provide justification for foreign aid to Israel. While the ADL visits powerful leaders across the world warning them of the growing threat of anti-Semitism, the film questions the legitimacy of these incidents. Racist attitudes are clearly still present—as demonstrated by interviews with black men on the streets in New York, but the film questions the value of what seems to be hyperbolic and trumped up incidents reported to the ADL. It also questions what seems to be indoctrination and propaganda instigated by the Israeli government in which Israeli high school kids are taught to believe that the world outside of Israel is full of anti-Semites that hate them.   

The Kids Are All Right.  It’s a mistake to pigeon-hole this film as merely a gay comedy because it’s much more than that. But it is pretty funny. It’s so refreshing to watch comedies that aren’t dependent on corny one-liners or bathroom humor. And performances by Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, and Mark Ruffalo are all spot-on.

Kick-Ass. I haven’t seen this film on any top-ten list. Bummer. It’s a funny and entertaining riff on the superhero genre that manages to do something very rare. It tells an effective superhero story while simultaneously making fun of superhero stories. I guess that’s a contradiction, but who cares? By the way, the trailer doesn't do it justice.

The Killer Inside Me. Warning: this is an incredibly violent and misogynistic story, and I’m not really sure if the director Michael Winterbottom is criticizing or commenting on the violence and misogyny. But despite the brutal violence (there is one scene in which a man beats a woman to death with his fists), I still found it to be a fascinating exploration into the mind of a psychopath. Not a place I want to stay long, mind you.

The King’s Speech. Collin Firth will probably win an Oscar for his performance in this film as stuttering King George VI. And he should; it’s an excellent and moving performance. The fact that he so nicely humanizes a king, something we Americans seem to disdain, is a feat in itself. It’s a feel-good movie that basically says, “If he can do this, you can do something important, too.”

The Secret in Their Eyes. Winner of the 2009 Best-Foreign-Film Academy Award, this Argentinean film tells the story of a lawyer haunted by the memory of a brutal rape and murder case. I found the first few minutes overly arty and self conscious, and it took probably twenty minutes to get into the story, but I became completely engaged after that. A gripping murder mystery and a beautiful love story, it’s also a film that asks some pretty profound questions about crime, betrayal, punishment, redemption, and what it means to be happy.

The Town. Some of the critics I read thought that this wasn’t as good as the almost universally praised Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck’s first film, but I thought The Town was better. It’s a strong genre film about a gang of expert bank robbers working in Boston. It’s a gripping, gritty, and well-paced heist film. And who doesn’t love one of those? Strong acting with Affleck and Jeremy Renner (from The Hurt Locker) and a smart script take it to the next level.

Wild Grass. A thoughtful, aesthetically gorgeous, and ambiguously philosophical rumination on aging, love, and truth. It’s a French film directed by Alain Resnais, who has been directing since the ‘50s.

Film Comment's List

The New York Times' List (go all the way below to see the list)

Sight & Sound's List

Brian Miller's List (from Seattle Weekly)

Roger Ebert's List

David Edelstein’s List (NPR’s Fresh Air and New York Magazine)