2011 stands as an unusual year for me in that there was a great divide between the many ho-hum lacklusterpieces receiving acclaim and awards...and the films that were exponentially better and more worthy of the shower of praises that seemed to be inflexibly reserved for the more popular/populist work. French import The Artist as Best Picture of 2011? Mon Dieu! What love potion was in the critics' and voters' cereal when they endorsed that film's check-off box? Talk about a prescription for happy glasses! The Artist, to me, was an admittedly charming and clever but also incredibly slight gimmick movie. No more, no less. Its finest and only true accomplishment: educating certain viewers as to the history of silent film. So, with that said, I also found the rest of 2011 Academy Award nominations and winners to be a fantastic farce. In a year that nominates Meryl Streep for the seventeenth time in her career and awards her for the third time for a functional and "workmanlike" but mediocre turn as Margaret Thatcher, but shamefully allows a star-making, gracefully tempered but emotionally naked no-holds-barred performance like Elizabeth Olsen's in Martha Marcy May Marlene squeak by with bupkus (not even a nomination), I am left with nothing but a bewildered and frustrated shrug. Adding insult to injury is the fact that Oscar also honored the year's flat-out worst film, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a verifiable piece of excrement, with a Best Picture nomination. Something's fishy here and it ain't the chickens in the Academy voting pool. I can only believe there were bribes concerning that stink bomb's nomination.
In terms of my own choices for the year's best, I am almost compelled to dub 2011 as "The Year of the Cinematic Tone Poem." Mood pieces seemed to far outweigh most other independent filmmaking efforts, and I cannot say that I mind. Mood has become paramount for me in my own work these days, and I think my favorite films of 2011 had a great deal to do with that shift. So, as it turns out, my 10-Best list might appear more "artsy-fartsy" and hoity-toity than usual. Truth be told, however, 2011 is a year with which I was left mostly unimpressed with the mainstream output, although it should be noted that I do believe that 2012 is the best year in film since 1993. So anyway, let's spark it. Whereas looking at the year en toto left me slightly disillusioned, my choice for #1 left me exhilarated and filled with hope for the future of its young director and for filmmaking itself.
Pound for pound, moment for moment, everything about this film is emblazoned with the feeling that it is the most exciting, unsettling and emotionally resonant film of the year (and maybe of the last few years), and it is certainly the creme de la creme of the year's wealth of cinematic tone poems. When any director pushes buttons as easily as Durkin does, let alone a debut feature director, it is a truly rare feat. Considering what I have seen in this film, I will be among the first in line to see what Durkin has in store for us next. I have recommended this film to nearly everyone I know who has asked me what worthy films have been made in the past five years. The images (especially the underexposed and underwater ones) were often so powerfully potent and tantalizing to me that, at one point, I flashed to what I believe to be a pre-cognitive memory...and I am not exaggerating or attempting to aggrandize the film's impact. Martha Marcy May Marlene (otherwise known as Mx4 among friends of mine) is never coy and the audience is never left out of the act of figuring out a puzzle that gradually reveals itself via a careful flashback structure, justifying the main character's unsettled psyche. The only complaint I had, and a minor one at that, was that the characters played by Hugh Dancy and Sarah Paulson might have fit too neatly into the categorization of self-satisfied, upwardly mobile petit bourgeois shelterbugs. I felt sometimes that this was perhaps too easy and convenient. But the film still worked like a charm better than any other film of 2011, and if this is a harbinger of things to come for Elizabeth Olsen, we may have just seen a star get itself all born and ready to shine. I should also recommend Durkin's partner Antonio Campos' film Afterschool (2008), which Durkin produced.
What can I say about this film that has not already been said, and better? For sheer scope, size and ambition, no other film in 2011 can compare to Malick's millenia-expansive tableau of life, death, family, the creation of the universe and what lies beyond. Can you imagine trying to elevator-pitch this film? I shudder to think. I certainly left the theater in a euphoric blur, with a profound sense of hope for the future of the film form. I am, however, issuing a caveat involving Terence Malick's follow-up efforts, especially his upcoming To the Wonder, the release date of which is looming. I am not going to be as easy or as accepting of Malick's post-Tree of Life work if he continues along the path of abusing his customary and increasingly enervating formula involving an arrangement of spellbinding (but too often frustratingly oblique) images traced with fussy verbal poetics often related via whispered voice-over narration. I personally think Malick is too talented to continue leaning on this same stylistic formula film after film. Reports of To the Wonder's premiere at the Toronto Film Festival lead me to believe that his new opus is just business as usual for Malick. The greatest filmmakers always knew how to step out of their comfort zones...and I seriously doubt that Malick has ever considered doing so heretofore. The Tree of Life is a package. It is a beautiful and well-adorned package, complete with Emmanuel Lubezki's exquisite images, but it is designed specifically to get us mere mortals mentally and emotionally floating beatifically on "the better angels of our nature". It is the best kind of manipulation perhaps ever in the annals of film, although I could have done without the dinosaurs in The Tree of Life, which seemed functional only to cloud and mystify the proceedings more than necessary. But, at heart, it is still masterful manipulation and, inasmuch as I focus on this idea of manipulation, Malick proves himself to be the arthouse equivalent of Spielberg. The Tree of Life is that rare thing: an extraordinary work of art that crosses over to the mainstream. But as we all know, a movie ain't just images, and Malick has to know that too. All this doesn't take away from the fact that the film is still outstanding and unique among films, and far and away the best of the films actually nominated for 2011 Oscars. An apropos wrap-up story for my write-up: When my brother recommended that my parents see the film back in Pittsburgh, they pretty much dismissed it as a sleep-inducing load of bull, and found it to have zero appeal. Does Malick corner himself with his "high-fallutin'" method of filmmaking? Is a film like The Tree of Life's goal to bring humankind together into a collective transcendent movie-going experience? Should it really be as alienating to people as it clearly has throughout the world? Who is really his audience? Can they be identified in any systematic way? All, I believe, are worthy questions considering what seems like Malick's original objective in making it.
I saw Margaret in its 187-minute extended cut and, throughout the length of a three-hour-plus character piece, I was glued to the screen. Filmed in 2005 but not released until 2011, the film was caught up in a sticky post-production battle that echoed throughout the trades as well as the general film sphere. Martin Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker ultimately had a hand in the cut released to theaters. For what it's worth, Margaret was well worth the wait. Oh yes, the film is a mess, but all messes should look this appealing and make this much sense. "Mess" is a term that is supposed to be understood as having a negative connotation regarding the arts. I find it an admirable descriptor that intimates that a work strives for more than most others do, biting off more than it can chew, leaving the unchewed parts worthy of being abstract expressionist sculptures. Overwrought metaphor, perhaps, but it is still how I feel. We may never want to spend the afternoon with Anna Paquin's character in real life, but Lonergan effectively frames her as a figure within an expansive (and expansively urban) canvas. Those of you who have read much of my writings are no doubt aware that I have been in a life-long love affair with New York on film, and have written several articles on the subject. My interest starts waning around the outset of the Giuliani era (when Times Square started turning into Disneyland), with only sporadic New York films of the 90's and aughts tickling my jaded but hopeful potential for fascination. Margaret is one of those rare films that uses New York locales in such a way that characterizes it as a film that could not have been made or shot anywhere else, at least from my perspective. Its milieu of teenagers in a progressive public school, their selfish and career-driven parents, their natural view of divorce as the patina of normalcy, their deceivingly adult-seeming romantic entanglements, their carefree view of Manhattan as a safe place to playfully hound and distract bus drivers while behind the wheel...and then pursue the same bus driver's ruination on an oddly independent basis -- this all bespeaks a landscape that sometimes the camera outwardly favors over the human specimens on display. Either the landscape is favored or other unrelated people in the scenery. In a key scene, the camera begins from a wide shot and inches ever so gradually towards a restaurant booth where Paquin's character is seated with a male friend. The audio we hear is not their conversation, but rather that of the two older women seated in the next booth. There are oddly tantalizing choices made all over the place in this picture. It may not completely coalesce one-hundred percent, but in some ways it does better by not merging its elements, leaving its threads not just dangling but dancing.
This is by far the most obscure on this list. Point blank: This Brazilian "journey film" is overwhelming. I saw it at a one-off screening at New York's Anthology Film Archives and was blown away, particularly since I had entered a foggy period of editing my own "journey film" at the time I saw it. The person who accompanied me felt similarly positive about this small masterpiece. Its beautiful poetic simplicity, its courage in experimentation and its haunting and alluringly melancholic mood left a definite residue behind after leaving the theater. Find a way to see it, if you can. Since this film is certainly the most esoteric selection on this list, I will recount some story details. From the Anthology Film Archives program guide: The film tells the story of a geologist who is sent on a fieldtrip to an isolated region in Brazil. The goal of his survey is to assess possible routes for a water canal from the region's only major river. For those living on the canal's direct course, it means requisitions, departure and loss. Many of the properties through which he passes will be flooded and many of the people and families will be relocated. As the fieldtrip progresses, it becomes clear that the lead character shares something in common with the places he visits: emptiness, a sense of abandonment, and isolation. His geological research is slowly pervaded by a sensation of groundlessness, an incessant pining for his ex-wife, and a yearning to return home. But he presses ahead, continuing the trip in the hope that the voyage can somehow transmute his feelings.
Sophia Takal's debut feature is yet another entry in the 2011 stock of artful cinematic tone poems. This leisurely and ominous meditation and reflection on the nature of jealousy is a film that, in the hands of another young director, could have been just another callow and stagnantly hip entree in the modest pantheon of slightly more elastic Mumblecore genre-benders that evince a certain higher degree of film literacy. Green nobly and admirably pushes beyond (transcends?) the niche to which it would otherwise too neatly resign itself. It achieves something rather more unique. It is a character piece where the muted spaces and environs breathe perhaps more than its often emotionally constricted human inhabitants (especially the quietly repressed young woman well-played by Kate Lyn Sheil). Green's few opponents have leveled the charge that Takal uses a "lazy shorthand" and thus never really gets to the bottom of the complex emotions relating to jealousy that she attempts to illustrate, depict and gently probe. That seems to me a shortsighted response. The film is nothing if not a snapshot, a sketch, a Polaroid, of these irrational feelings...not an x-ray. In this much, Takal rightly refuses to impose by holding up the magnifying glass to jealousy, and not out of either fear or ease. The film is too plaintive to be fearful, and too fluent to be easy -- and there are too many intriguing ambiguities to suggest that much of anything is "lazy". One leaves the theater feeling edgy and, weirdly enough, almost violated. Takal admitted with a laugh at her Q&A that a person in a previous audience suggested that the film should end with a thriller-esque murder. While the latter suggestion is not really the least bit viable, it is almost a valid and natural reaction considering the unsettled and unsettling way the film leaves us off. It has a deft handle on crafting audience emotional response; it is immediate without being visceral, and wisely avoids injecting the material with unnecessary dramatic vitriol. Among other elements, a droning soundtrack turns some otherwise simple scenes on their head. That rigid and uneasy fade-out emotion really does fester. Overall, Green does has some minor faults, most notably the often flagrant overuse of bleached out cut-in bursts of Sheil's character's plaguing sex-fantasy, but it remains a striking and resonant study with a lion's share of organic and largely unedited long-take shots to match its naturalistic performances. Incidentally, I also loved a character's description of Nolan's The Dark Knight as cryptofascist...because I couldn't have put it any better or more succinctly myself. As a footnote, kudos also to Takal's and collaborator Lawrence Michael Levine's previous 2010 feature Gabi on the Roof in July, which didn't make 2010's Ten Best, but is still a work of some merit.
Midnight in Paris is the damn nicest film since Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly hung up their dancing shoes. And for my money, Owen Wilson is far and away the best "Woody avatar" in a not-so-illustrious line that includes Will Ferrell, Larry David, John Cusack and Jason Biggs. As a quick aside, truth be told, I find Kenneth Branagh's Woody imitation in Celebrity kind of endearing in an enjoyably masochistic kind of way. Midnight in Paris is ebullient and loaded with bonhomie, and you watch it somehow innately knowing that everyone working on the film, either as an actor or as a technician, is having a bona fide first-class time making the film -- even the notoriously anhedonic Woody would seem to us to be smiling behind the camera -- which only increases the enjoyment factor. It is no doubt Woody would see this airy comic excursion as a light meal. It certainly is one to savor. In point of fact, it's a moveable feast.
Chantal Akerman is a class act in the international cinema scene. Since her earliest essay films, especially her brilliant News from Home (1976), up to her most recent masterwork Almayer's Folly, she has continued to prove that she is one of the filmmakers still working who thinks the deepest about the medium of film, and adroitly considers how to render complex themes and ideas onscreen. She is exceptional -- just no two ways about it. "Liberally adapting" and updating Joseph Conrad's debut 1895 novel to the 1950's Malaysia, she has deliberately lensed the film in Cambodia. In many ways, it reminds me of Noroit, a lesser known film by my favorite filmmaker Jacques Rivette, except that I admit Almayer's Folly is a more successful piece. It just proves to me that my ongoing admiration for Akerman is well-founded, and I hope she keeps doing what she does.
This minimalist epic's U.S. premiere proved controversial. Its most virulent Stateside critics argued that the 184-minute film is spartan and spare to the point of near non-existence. They might have a point. A few people I know who tried to watch it eventually lost their patience. It is a simultaneously light and heavy text. It is as if Cristi Piui was confronted with the challenge of making a narrative film as narratively minimalist as it could possibly be. It may be minimalist, but it is never threadbare. What makes this film sing is that its sober and deliberate camera is painstakingly subjective. Its lack of ornament just becomes a fact of life as one gets fully immersed into the film as a result of it. Aurora works on such a slow-burn aesthetic that you wonder not only what you have seen during the previous three hours, but also where you have been during all of it.
Ex video store clerk Alex Ross Perry is just my kind of artist. Any filmmaker who can, as New York Times critic A.O. Scott aptly put it, "scramble my signals" is worthy of some form of praise. In my book, a film scrambling signals is near gold-standard. The Color Wheel, Perry's second feature, is the type of film that can take a description like "idiosyncratic" and make it seem like something to which to aspire. Ostensibly, it is a road film (a subgenre that is admittedly a soft spot for me), but to categorize the film strictly in these terms would be to pigeonhole it. Perry is the type of filmmaker who, on his first time out, says to himself, "I am going to make my own movie version of the notoriously unadaptable Pynchon novel Gravity's Rainbow" and winds up with a strange bird of a film like Impolex, which, sure, was not entirely successful but definitely had guts. I am rewarding The Color Wheel for more than just guts. Perry's sophomore effort is a marvel of ingenuity and originality, shot on 16mm black-and-white (another soft spot for me), slightly rough and ragged around the edges...making for solid nitty-gritty meat-and-potatoes down-and-dirty DIY filmmaking.
In the same tradition and mold as Aurora, this potent and powerful minimalist film is among the most artful "journey films" of the last few years. First-time feature director Alistair Banks Griffin has cast Brady Corbet and David Call as two brothers who take a daring upstream trek to honor their mother's final request. The widescreen images are gorgeous, the narrative is succinct and pointedly focused, and the performances are tempered and, eventually, quite powerful.
Runners-Up: Kinyarwanda (Alrick Brown), Shame (Steve McQueen), A Separation (Asghar Farhadi), Hugo (Martin Scorsese), Pina (Wim Wenders), Weekend (Andrew Haigh), Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul), We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynn Ramsey), The Interrupters (Steve James), Another Earth (Mike Cahill)
Still Need to See: The Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz)
Most Overrated Films: Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn), The Artist (Michael Hazanavicius)
I write more about Ryan Gosling and Drive below. My main problem with The Artist is its terminal quaintness. I appreciated what the film seemed to be saying about the perils of artistic principle, but then it eschewed its audience's intellectual engagement for forays into melodramatic manipulation, and gratuitous cute-dog shots. Do I think The Artist deserves its major awards? In some ways, sure, but I would stop after giving it a special prize for moxie and enterprise. But honestly, the film is just too cute and self-conscious for me to really take it seriously as one of the year's best movies. I do like the two lead actors though. I mean, I definitely bought Jean Dujardin as a 1920's matinee idol all the way. The best thing the film did was to introduce audiences to other better silent films from its native (i.e. pre-1927) era. The film consists of pale imitations of so many silent filmmakers, and I do not see the joy in the homage that everyone else sees. It is, in turns, a pastiche of Keaton, King Vidor, Chaplin, Lloyd and Dorothy Arzner. But I cannot perceive the pleasure that Hazanavicius should feel when he is spotlighting these silent and early cinema icons. The Artist also commits the unpardonable sin of lifting Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo score for almost its entire third act. That was upsetting to me because it was a shameless steal and not a pastiche.
The Worst Films of 2011
1. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Stephen Daldry) - Ahh, one of the rare films to score an F rating at the Onion AV Club, we meet again. There is some consolation in knowing that a precious few took this one seriously. As one critic aptly put it, "The film should have been called Extremely Labored & Incredibly Crass." I would add the following: offensive, schmaltzy, nauseatingly calculated, soft in the head, pandering, sometimes grossly far-fetched, tragedy-milking, conscience-less, emotionally cardboard stuff-and-nonsense. It is rare that a movie pisses me off just because of how moronic it is. This was such a movie, because it gets made only because it expects itself to be accepted as Oscar-bait (and sadly succeeds), and hams up manufactured Hollywood emotion that dances cutesy and goo-goo-eyed down the rows of thousands of graves. Oh yes, and get this: they hired the gallingly awful child actor Thomas Horn after seeing him as a contestant on "Kids Jeopardy". His dubious origins are all too apparent when you catch many of his embarrassing acting moments in the movie. Shame on those who made the film, shame on those who greenlit a script of its like, and shame on those who got it nominated for Oscars. As Ebert put it, "You will not discover why it was thought that this story needed to be told. There must be a more plausible story to be told about a boy who lost his father on 9/11. This plot is contrivance and folderol. The mysterious key, the silent old man and the magical tambourine are the stuff of fairy tales, and the notion of a boy walking all over New York is so preposterous we're constantly aware of it as a storytelling device. The events of 9/11 have left indelible scars. They cannot be healed in such a simplistic way." I should note, however, that Max Von Sydow's presence outclasses everything about this singularly wretched and disgusting piece of dreck. Direction in this is handed to Stephen Daldry, who really needs to do years of penance with all due dispatch before returning to the director's chair. "Jeopardy" indeed! "The worst film of 2011." "What is Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Alex?" Pain from an event of mass hysteria and tragedy cannot be healed by the cinematic equivalent of a Hallmark card that doesn't rhyme or cannot string a sentence together. My oh my, it felt good getting all that out of my system! Did you get how much I hated it? Did ya?
2. J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood) - Et tu, Clinté? I could not wait for this film to end. The assumedly "progressive" Manhattan audience with whom I saw the movie could not stop laughing at those ineptly staged love scenes. I do not blame them a bit.
3. Your Highness (David Gordon Green) - I watched about half of this when I was invited over to a friend's house for a group movie night. I was repulsed by it. Imagine my shock when I discovered that it had been directed by David Gordon Green. Oh, the pain of a talent squandered!
4. Restless (Gus Van Sant) - You expect more from someone like Gus Van Sant than a weak and painfully twee "odd romance" that offers more than just a passing wink to Harold and Maude (including the unforgivably derivative feature that its main male character attends funerals as a favorite pastime). Yes, if you have to steal, steal from the best...but as Judge Judy is fond of saying, don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining.
The Pleasant Diversion Award: The Descendants (Alexander Payne)
Best Performances of the Year: Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Anna Paquin (Margaret), Jeannie Berlin (Margaret), Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia), Sarah Paulson (Martha Marcy May Marlene), John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Kate Lyn Sheil (Green), Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life), Brit Marling (Another Earth), Owen Wilson (Midnight in Paris), Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin), Stanlislas Merhar (Almayer's Folly)
Best Cinematography: Jody Lee Lipes (Martha Marcy May Marlene)
Best Screenwriting: Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene)
The Worst Serious Film I Didn't See: Albert Nobbs (Rodrigo Garcia) - The horror... The horror... Did someone just one day say, "We should dress Glenn Close up as a dude and we'll sell tickets"? Deluded. I cannot even look at her in the film's trailer without cringing at how awkward and just plain creepy she looks.
A 2011 Fad That I Hope Dissipates: The casting of Ryan Gosling
I have had it in for Ryan Gosling's "style" for quite awhile now. He spent most of Drive posing and looking pretty. He spent the rest of his career posing and looking hard-boiled. Gosling wants you to believe that he is tightly wound as an actor, with an intensity that he can only pray can equal the giants in the profession. Everything about him, though, at least to me, is posing. This extends beyond the way he plays roles in films, and to the role he plays off stage and screen. Hailing from Canada, Gosling affects a faux Brooklyn accent. When confronted on this front, he responded that it sounded cooler. To me, this is what Gosling is largely about, especially when it comes to onscreen presence. The man starred in four 2011 films. One thing Oscar got right last year was not nominating him for any single one of them. I hope casting him is a fancy that passes within the next few years. Knowing Hollywood's perennial jones for a pretty face, I probably won't get my wish.
2010 is slightly more balanced and tempered with both independent and mainstream titles. 2011 was a great year for arthouse, but an awful one for the mainstream market.
This consummately emotional film feels so intensely personal and, I daresay, private that one cannot help but think that the filmmaker brothers behind it had no choice but to get it all out there by making it. And yet, lo and behold, the Safdie Brothers' acclaimed roman-a-clef is not stigmatized by ever feeling like it is just a piece of therapy in film form. Daddy Longlegs, which I first saw under its original title Go Get Some Rosemary, is richly felt filmmaking, the act of which is clearly guided by need and not by capriciousness. You are virtually knocked back and bloody center by a fantastic blur of emotion. After seeing it, one is left truly exhausted but undoubtedly better off for the experience. This loud-and-proud handheld indie follows a reckless schlemeil of a divorced father (Ronald Bronstein of Frownland, named below as a runner-up) as he spends two weeks with his sons Sage and Frey. At one point in the film, when Bronstein's two young sons awaken after being accidentally drugged, I felt myself choking up. After more than an hour of almost shouting at the screen in protest over the onscreen father's ineptitude, I found myself celebrating with him, and developing interest and sympathy for his bracingly obnoxious character. As the film's playfully tongue-in-cheek dedication states, "For our father, for fun as a responsibility, for the middle perspective, a lost past, lights on during the day time, lost love but still something there, excuses, the fridge full of games, small apartments and our mother." You had me at "something there," guys.
Ahh, nothing like a good old-fashioned swashbuckler film! Too much has been written about this film already and I am not going to add very much, largely because I have nothing all that new to say. This literate follow-up to Sidney Lumet's 1976 scorcher Network could have been more timely or released at any better moment in history. Yes, it is a lot of young dudes, all male, behind computer screens and/or phones. Yes, the film operates in a bubble. Yes, it has a very docudrama-esque center. What Fincher does, however, to exercise his authorial voice is to wisely exploit these ostensible drawbacks to mold it into something like a swashbuckler film. Not even a corporate swashbuckler film, but something even rarer: a nerd swashbuckler film.
First of all, no one crafts atmosphere and formal mood as well as Polanski. Secondly, who knew Pierce Brosnan could really...act. I mean, yeah, I always liked him as James Bond, and he always lends a solid presence in many of his other films, but The Ghost Writer marks the first time where I am actually seeing him clearly making choices as an actor and not holding himself as a movie star. The Ghost Writer is one of the most skillful thrillers in many a year, loving detailed and packed with nuance in every scene and nearly every shot. I originally caught the film on a 15-hour airplane ride to India and then wound up watching it again on the way home. When I arrived home, I bought the DVD and watched it again. Polanski's conscious decision to shoot the entirety of the film on overcast days establishes an extremely effective mood, and reminded me of how one of my favorite films of all time, Sidney J. Furie's The Ipcress File (1965), did the same. I was joyfully intoxicated by this film, and it is certainly my favorite Polanski film to come alone in some time. The ashen-gray beaches and the dulled, colorless skies make this film's visuals sing. Cameo turns by Eli Wallach and Tom Wilkinson also grant welcome diversions as the onscreen mystery unfolds.
As a person who grew up with a severe stutter (it used to take me over two minutes to get my name out as a kid) and retreated from the world during my teenage years as a result, The King's Speech was a watershed film for me and, yes, thousands of other people I know via organizations for people who stutter. On that account alone, seeing this film was overpowering to me. I cried at the climactic scene, out of sheer joy. I too had been at such a culminating moment before regarding a speaking situation. I may not be the most impartial judge when it comes to this film. Colin Firth's acting awards and accolades for his role as King George VI are well-deserved. He invested just the right amount of outward emotion, provided an ever-commanding screen presence and got the actual stutter just right. It is a crowd-pleaser and a populist film, indeed...but a very, very smart one.
It is hard to care very much about a fiercely misanthropic pariah like Ben Stiller's Greenberg, the type of guy who provides a biting and unforgiving running commentary on the unwitting guy in a neighboring restaurant booth whose flamboyant gestures are irking him. It is hard to found an entire film or novel around an unlikable central figure, let alone one that is a character study. But writer-director Noah Baumbach, writer-star Jennifer Jason Leigh and Stiller don't just make you care, but take you all the way inside such a character in a way that is never hackneyed nor even predictable. We grow to understand and even, weirdly enough, like Greenberg, a character that most would initially find repellant and alienating. Greenberg is the very portrait of constipation arising from youth gone to pot. He is an unapologetic layabout who has not the foggiest clue that he definitely has an axe to grind. To me, Greenberg proves uncontestably that Ben Stiller is a popular comic actor capable of tremendous pathos and is more capable of building character than someone like Adam Sandler, whose dramatic turn in Reign Over Me I found horribly forced and whose performance in Punch-Drunk Love was only almost-there. Providing able support is Greta Gerwig, whose character is equally charting the waters without a compass. Gerwig is excellent in the role of Florence, helping to make Greenberg one of the great films of 2010...and perhaps the year's best character piece. The climactic party scene, in which the savvy Greenberg rebukes the feckless "ADD and carpal tunnel" stupor of Generation Y with a healthy slug of wicked sarcasm, is a gem. Kudos also to Harris Savides (R.I.P.) for his arresting camerawork.
The nature of authorship is a difficult theme to make entertaining. This (ersatz?) documentary takes more than a few unexpected turns and keeps you excited while traversing its crazy, winding road. The Mr. Brainwash/Thierry character is both maddening and so absurdly entertaining that you find yourself pining for a six-pack, a joint and a copy of his misbegotten movie project Life Remote Control.
The official release date of this film was 2008. That was the Portuguese release, however. It premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2009 and received general American theatrical release in 2010, so I am of course counting it as a 2010 film.
Far-fetched elements aside (a cellphone that gets clear-as-a-bell reception six feet under, for one), this claustrophobic thriller kept me glued to the screen for its entire length. It probably would have anyway, by sheer virtue of its curiosity value. The film is filmed entirely within a buried coffin and never once leaves the confines of this constricted space. Can such a thing sustain a 90-minute film running time? This is most likely the first question that one asks upon first hearing this concept. Despite the admittedly unimpressive Ryan Reynolds' occasionally labored north-of-hysteria performance and his general lack of gravitas, this remains a prodigious and impressive example of filmmaking ingenuity. I was amazed that it kept me engaged without even once leaving the coffin space. Something needs to be said to underscore just how impressive that is. It gives claustrophobia a premium in entertainment value.
Real or not real...who cares? Honestly. Catfish does not lean on its purported based-on-truth claim for the appraisal of its ultimate worth. This is not the same kind of animal as the similar hoax film I'm Still Here. I'm Still Here never addresses anything thematic or otherwise beyond its standard one-joke premise that is under the impression that it examines the nature of celebrity. Catfish, on the other hand, most certainly does address a worthy theme...and also manages to entertain and compel more than I'm Still Here ever did. It is a rich theme: Internet and identity...or rather plural, identities. No film has tackled it as well as Catfish has.
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is another film that affirms one's faith in the magic of cinema. This DIY musical shot on 16mm black-and-white is a delight, and the songs are certainly catchy.
I have a soft spot for Canadian-Jewish author Mordecai Richler and found that the film version of Barney's Version lived up to Richler's unique literary voice. The miniseries adaptation of Richler's St. Urbain's Horseman (2008) also lived up to this tall task, and was the first work since The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) to deliver Richler's original vision to the screen intact. I wrote about Richler slightly more in-depth in my multi-part Canadian article, with a whole chapter devoted towards Jewish Canada. Paul Giamatti carries the torch well in bringing another of Richler's vernisht male protagonists to life.
Runners-Up: The Town (Ben Affleck), Frownland (Ronald Bronstein), Gabi on the Roof in July (Lawrence Michael Levine), Bobby Fischer Against the World (Liz Garbus), Please Give (Nicole Holofcener), Open Five (Kentucker Audley), Cold Weather (Aaron Katz), Audrey the Trainwreck (Frank V. Ross), Leaves of Grass (Tim Blake Nelson), The Exploding Girl (Bradley Rust Gray)
Still Need to See: Carlos (Olivier Assayas), Biutiful (Alejandro Gonzales Inaritu)
Most Overrated Films: Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham), The Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky), The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko)
Concerning Lena Dunham, I hardly know where to even begin. In my estimation, she has risen to become a verifiable pop culture phenomenon and a household name based on...I'm sorry, but oh so very little. I personally believe it to be a mix of nepotism and the fickleness of the popular taste of our times. The vision of Tiny Furniture is so limited to its posh, rich-bitch environs as to trumpet the filmmaker's all too obviously sheltered and privileged upbringing. This is old hack, and is not a new criticism of Dunham. There are some very good things in Tiny Furniture, her sophomore feature following her nearly unwatchable debut Creative Nonfiction (2008). I found her obituary piece on Nora Ephron equally insufferable. Jody Lee Lipes' elegant and effectively precise cinematography gives the film an edge over the average low-budget outing. It is a sleek package all the way around in the visual department. I just had an extremely difficult time caring for Dunham's overbearingly precious life in terms of her character in this film, and all of the other folks on display were equally overbearing. There were some charming insights. Reference to the film Christiane F. made me laugh, among other things. But this film is just empty, empty, empty.
The Worst Films of 2010
1. The Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky) - I seem to be among the few who saw this film for what it was: an empty and overwrought bit of nonsense. If Aronofsky's named had been taken off it, the film would have gotten the fanfare of a pair of tit-mice in a Belgian cheese factory.
2. Holy Rollers (Kevin Asch) - Poorly researched, predictably executed, full of laughable errors and egregious oversights. Someone should have told the director or the set dressers that Jews do not pray out of tractates of the Talmud.
3. I'm Still Here (Casey Affleck) -A tired and boring one-joke premise that does not even know how to execute its limited ambitions. My buddies and I turned it off after 45 minutes of it going nowhere. It's rare that I leave a film unfinished.
4. Miral (Julian Schnabel) - If you are going to tackle something as weighty and momentous as the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, you are going to have to do better than this. A lot better.
Disappointments: Get Low (Aaron Schneider), You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (Woody Allen)
Best Screenwriting: Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) - Sorkin's screenplay gives new meaning and cojones to the term "real crackerjack scripting."
Best Cinematography: Harris Savides (Greenberg)
The Worst Film I Didn't See: How Do You Know (James L. Brooks) - Do I need to see it? I'm sure I can tell you everything about it without seeing a frame. How do I know? How do I not know? James L. Brooks, you go from Terms of Endearment to this?
The Pleasant Diversion Award: The Trotsky (Jacob Tierney) - A fun and pleasant little Rushmore-esque coming-of-age comedy from Canada.
Best Performances of the Year: Colin Firth (The King's Speech), Ronald Bronstein (Daddy Longlegs), Ben Stiller (Greenberg), Pierce Brosnan (The Ghost Writer), Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), Greta Gerwig (Greenberg), Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)
A 2010 Fad That I Hope Dissipates: Dramas centered around the cyberworld
What more could a filmmaker say about the Holocaust after films like Schindler's List? Likewise, how much more could one say about the cutthroat cyberworld beyond The Social Network and Catfish? In other words, it has been done well, so why do it again just to do it, to pluck peoples' strings.