Saturday, February 26, 2011

Best of 2010

Hey all. Mike here with a list of my favorite films of 2010. A respectable year in film. It reminds me a little of 2006: fairly good in overall quality. It was a slog for the first half of last summer. Bad enough that Iron Man 2 was a disappointment, but even trailers for stuff like The A-Team, Jonah Hex, Killers and Sex and the City 2 all looked terrible. I really had to rely on indie films and revivals for the bulk of my cinematic entertainment.

Luckily, film quality picked up as the weather got colder. In the end, i came away feeling glad that my taste and Oscar choices veered so close together. Putting a list together, I realized I needed very little push from nominations or critics awards to see films that interested me. I had my top Seven decided by New Years weekend, the last 3 slots were the tough positions. Therefore, here are the three that didn't make the cut. All three had good to great acting, so I'll stick with the flaw that kept me from pushing it higher:

BLUE VALENTINE: Felt like the writers had a great feeling and connection to Ryan Gosling's character, but I question the writing of Michelle Williams' character. Not a small thing. Glad to see her nominated, and a very good debut for director Derek Cianfrance.

THE KING'S SPEECH: A good script, and an above average episode of Masterpiece Theater. But I feel there was 8 screenplays that were better, all on my top ten. At least seven of them feel like pieces of Cinema, not a filmed play. I feel that they can only be truly embraced on the big screen, so there's no room for The King's Speech.

THE FIGHTER: And if I'm going to nit pick The King's Speech as being an above average filmed play, a film with a somewhat weaker, more predictable script like The Fighter certainly won't get in. Plus, while I had no issues with Christian Bale's performance. I mean he's playing a crackhead, extreme subtlety doesn't cut. It's Melissa Leo's performance that I felt was too over the top and too jarring to deal with. But I'm not likely to forget that coven that comprised Mickey Ward's sisters. Scarred the living shit out of me . . . .

Now as for my top 10, the only studio films I feel bad about not catching in time, are animated ones. Specifically, How To Train Your Dragon, Despicable Me, and Tangled. No time for Barney's Version as well. The only other aspect that I consider to be a hole in the list, is my not catching as many foreign films as I normally do. No time to catch up with say, Dogtooth, Carlos, Enter The Void, The Illusionist and The Secret In Their Eyes. Now on with the list. I'll try to keep the comments as brief as possible:

10) - GASLAND- A Facebook friend wrote this a while back:

Maybe it is time for all of us to peacefully relieve the power of our "elected" regulators and truly put our own government back in the hands of the people. After all, with all the ways people can communicate today and spread news, I believe We the People can regulate and be responsible for ourselves. We can be our own oversight.

A nice sentiment, but a sentiment that sounds ineffectual in the face of the world depicted in the documentary Gasland. We see areas effected by by the process of extracting natural gas called hydraulic fracturing, or Frakking. Or perhaps to be more accurate, the chemicals used in the Frakking process. No plant life or grass worth a damn. Brown water that someone might declare safe, but would never dare to drink. Natural gas coming through the water pipes, giving you flammable tap water. Wildlife unable to survive. Town after town, state after state, from Wyoming to Texas to most of the South (from Texas to a portion of Florida). You see so much of the same footage, you almost have to remind yourself that it's happening in a lot of different areas. The mass quantities of powerless individuals against what's happening to them made me angry.

And as for them getting help? Ha! A pittance of a settlement with non-disclosure all over it, while their kids and/or pets and/or themselves keep getting sicker. An EPA that can respond to government complaints, NOT civilian complaints. And that's assuming that the agency hasn't received further cuts of manpower, and that the area to be examined hasn't been blocked based on 2005 legislation. And now the Frakking method is waiting to be used in an area that effects, among other things and areas, a large portion of New York City's water supply?

A grassroots method against this seems to be going underway, so maybe that Facebook sentiment might fit after all. But is there enough time, and enough members in state and Federal government will to help? Gasland asks us to decide and then do something now. There are other high quality films out there, but few that got to me so viscerally. Currently on HBO On Demand, should be on DVD eventually.

9) KAWASAKI'S ROSE- A pleasant surprise for me. From director Jan Hrebejk and screenwriter Petr Jarchovsky, this Czech film made to the short list for consideration by the Academy for Best Foreign Film, but didn't make the final cut. A drama, but not a dark, depressing one, and it could easily have gone down that ponderous road. A morally upright doctor, famous for speaking out against the Communists, is about to receive an important award. But on the eve of the ceremony, the man's bitter, jealous, son-in-law, reveals to all that the good doctor might have worked with the secret police decades earlier, to hurt a radical who's too close to the doctor's future wife. The revelation hits the family, and makes the dissident kicked out known again. But does it truly rip the family apart, or has the decades in-between allowed for the chance for forgiveness to occur? A little film that's practically unknown here and not on DVD as of this writing. But do try to keep an eye out for it on Netflix, IFC or Sundance channel.

8) ANOTHER YEAR- Again, another Mike Leigh film for me to enjoy. The simple story of a very happily married couple near retirement age, who seem to be surrounded by friend, who are crushed and devastated by age and life's disappointments. But is the couple really nice, or are they the living embodiment of passive aggression? It's as though they made sure to help their son be decent and dull (like them?), but they seem the type to see an alcoholic, figure out their problem, make fun of him (and her), and then pour the person more drinks. And don't forget, this is England, so you have the chance to see a lower class person looked down upon by a middle class person. Another ingredient to stir in this mess. Some may disagree with me, but I don't see this couple, played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, to be the nicest people in the film. Patient probably, human definetly, but nice? I don't know, but I don't see it as a detriment either.

A film that will only get better as one ages, or even more painful to watch, depending on one's direction in life. Uniformly good cast, with Lesley Manville straddling herself perfectly from one extreme emotional state to another. Her character may have a hot little spitfire in her day. But age, alcohol abuse, unfilled dreams, and no hope for love on her unsteady terms leaves her falling apart, and leaves us with a quiet, devastating ending. The best ending of all the films on this list.

7) TRUE GRIT- I read an article a little while back where Bill O'Reilly said that True Grit was a favorite of his. The original John Wayne version, not this, though O'Reilly didn't beat up the Coen bros. film by any means. And I won't attack his preference at all. There was obvious sentiment in his words which I would never attack, and it is a good film. But it was a little anachronistic then (jammed in-between The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy), and definitely by the time Unforgiven came along. This version of True Grit veers closer to the Unforgiven style of gritty/realistic with little sentiment, and the Coen Bros. pull off a successful western from start to finish. A finish that No country for Old Men failed to accomplish, but I'm griping again . . . .

I won't get into a Jeff Bridges/Wayne comparison, but Bridges pulls off his Rooster Cogburn with aplomb. but I am willing to compare Matt Damon's performance with Glen Campbell. Damon is an actor and he did his job well, did it spectacularly compared to non-actor Campbell. But newcomer Hailee Steinfeld carries the film, and this would have been a pale imitation of the Wayne version if she hadn't pulled it off. I just hope she beats Mellisa Leo's overrated performance in decent The Fighter. Plus Josh Brolin makes a great coward. Overall, it's nice to know that I don't have to borderline plead to catch up on a Western, the moviegoing public has done a fine job of that on their own.

6) TOY STORY 3- Someone I know was very pleasantly surprised to find out that that this film was nominated for both Best Picture and Best Animated Feature, and if the Academy had any guts, Toy Story 3 would win in both categories. My response: yes, a Pixar film should win both categories, but the Academy already had their chance with Wall-E and blew it. They should not do that with Toy Story 3.

That said, one of the best studio films of the summer of 2010, and the best of the series. Almost like a cinematic McDLT. They kept the comedy side funny, and the humanistic side emotional heartfelt and true. Though I suspect this film will last a lot longer than the McDonald's McDLT relic, call it a hunch. We don't a fourth film. Now that the toys are with a new family, the story of one boy's end of childhood, has both a satisfying conclusion, and hope for new generations to enjoy, that will probably play out better in our heads rather than in a fourth installment. Different children's film, but the sentiment is the same: Well done pig, well done.

But like I said in the previous paragraph, not the best studio film from last summer. To me, that title goes to . . .

5) INCEPTION- Sorry if this required massive usage of brain power to follow. Multi layers, different strands whose connections take a while to come together, with a bit of regret about of life not that different from what's brought up Another Year. All jumbled together and put through the filters of sci-fi and heist films. I won't pretend to have understood everything perfectly. The ending was one, where I thought one thing, and Christopher Nolan, Michael Caine and Inception's DP said something different. No matter, I won't pretend i get everything in say, Solaris or 2001, but that doesn't keep me from coming back for more. A less stilted performance from Ellen Page might have raised it a little higher, and I'm not sure how well this will play on tv. But keep it going Mr. Nolan, you're doing just fine. But try not to lose editor Lee Smith. His work and/or assistance (however the two of you work together) seem invaluable, based on how the last 40 minutes play.

4) THE AGONY AND ECSTASY OF PHIL SPECTOR- The best documentary to be released in the U.S. this year and it couldn't get very far with Oscar voters for Best Doc? It was nice to see the good Exit Through The Gift Shop get acknowledged, but that slog of a Rorschach test called Restrepo gets through and Agony and Ecstasy doesn't?!?!? Unfortunate. Also the only film I saw twice in a theater if that means anything.

Consider this as a documentary musical. Interviewed at his home near the end of his first murder trial. Spector is given a wide berth and open forum, to discuss his past, his infamous wig (doing a tribute to Einstein and Ben Wallace at a murder trial? What the fuck . . . .), air his grievances (with Tony Bennett and Paul McCartney among others), and place himself among the greats, alongside Bach and Michelangelo.

Plus we get the glorious music. Songs that include Imagine, The Long and Winding Road, My Sweet Lord, And Then He Kissed Me, and television/concert performances of To Know Him Is To Love Him, Da Doo Ron Ron, You've Lost That Lovin Feeling and (my favorite) Ike & Tina Turner's River Deep Mountain High. All played in their entirety to get full appreciation of the work.

Most of the time however, the songs are used in a way that we get an idea of Spector's famous Wall of Sound. Edited in with portions of the news coverage of the first murder trial, and the actual trial itself. Forensic demonstrations, testimony, shots of the preening ADA and the judge with a little bit of Judge Ito in him, opening and closing arguments. No one gets names. The Judge. The District Attorney. The Girlfriends, who all inevitably testified how Spector would at some point, put a gun to their heads. The victim however, does get a name, Lana Clarkson. Spector never talks about her, but we see and hear her. We see pictures, and clips of her work, including her heartbreakingly mediocre audition reel. Plus shots of her from security cameras when she meets then leaves with Spector, as well as crime scene photos and post-mordem shots.

But its Spector's show. He gets the chance to explain himself as much as he wants. I came away fascinated at this musically talented, bitter, funny, damaged beyond hope, man. It's possible and I feel its ok to come away from this picture, exhilarated by the music, and stunned by this person. If it ever makes its way on to DVD, or to say, BBC-America, IFC, or Sundance, stop everything and watch it or record it for later viewing. You won't regret it.

3) A PROPHET- One of last year's Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. One of the best fictional crime films in quite a while. French film that fans of the HBO series Oz might find a little familiar, and hopefully that makes it accessible for them. An 18 year old Arabic-French boy, with no obvious family and useless legal aid, is moved on his birthday, to a maximum security prison to serve several more years there. Like Carey Mulligan's character for which she received an Oscar nomination, Tahar Rahim's character gets an education, though this education he must accept or else it's likely death. But unlike Patrick McGoohan's line in Escape From Alcatraz "we don't make good citizens, but we make good prisoners", Rahim's character is in a prison where he learns to become a master criminal, in part from a Corsican mentor (the excellent Niels Arestrup). We don't know what he did to get in the prison system, but it probably wasn't as bad or as brutal as he'll be capable of doing once he gets out.

You don't have to look at director/co-writer Jacques Audiard well done film strictly as a prison film. It doesn't spend all its screen time inside prison walls after all. When it goes outside, as our anti-hero receives more tasks and responsibility to carry out during his day passes, it expands his horizons, his wants, and his capacity to engage in more dangerous liaisons. You can almost view this akin to a superheros origin story. Except here, we're talking about the development of a young, Arabic-French, Michael Corleone-type.

Supposedly, this is part of a kind of French film phenomenon known as "New French Extremity". In a handheld, quasi-documentary style with sharp editing, we the viewer will feel what it's like in prison. How in its way, it's about as corrupt as anywhere else in French society. We almost feel like we're there when the young man gets his beatings, makes his first kill (not easy and not without cost), and when this young man is ready to get out of prison, and take whatever he wants. 6 years of his life in 2 and a half hours, and you barely even notice the time. Not subtle, but its cinema, and that's good enough for me.

2) THE SOCIAL NETWORK- Boy could this film have been pretty damn dull. Luckily, this potential snoozer of a talkfest moves at lightning speed. I get the feeling director David Fincher studied, or at least knew like the back of his hand, Sidney Lumet films like 12 Angry Men and (especially) Network. With a brilliant script, like the one he has from Aaron Sorkin (NICE re-working of Rashomon!), tight editing (I'm stunned if this loses Best Editing to King's Speech), and a good cast (no more goofing on Justin Timberlake until further notice!), I've got my new favorite Fincher film, surpassing Zodiac. And sorry Mr. Zuckerberg, I don't believe you. While there is some notable changes from fact to fiction, like some particular female names or the amount of Asian girlfriends around, I'm not buying your line about the only thing they got right was the shoes. Ok, so you probably don't have Arsberger Syndrome, based on the way Jesse Eisenberg plays you. But too many scenes with lawyers and statements being taken down for me to believe otherwise. But that doesn't mean you have to stay this person forever. The Social Network doesn't have to be your Citizen Kane. Let's see what happens as you get older. You just might age as well as this probable classic will.

1) BLACK SWAN- There's only one film like The Turning Point. A film where a ballerina can have neuroses, yet not have them hinder her career or personal life to the point of permanent damage. A film where the dancer doesn't have to go bat-shit nuts. The only other notable ballet film before this year was the Red Shoes, and well, throwing yourself onto train tracks doesn't exactly scream sane. But now we have Black Swan, the first horror ballet film, though the horror veers more to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane territory than say, Saw. I couldn't help but think of Fight Club on occasion, but I'm grateful Darren Aronofsky's film-making skill allowed me to forget that after a while.

Two sayings I've heard from the past came to mind while watching this. One, about how girls are generally more mature than boys, and mature at a faster rate. Two, about the old Jesuit statement, about how you give the Jesuits your child for the first seven years of his/her life, and you can have them for the rest. Meaning a strong value system will be there and will never be broken. Well in the world of Black Swan, put that girl in dance class, and you can grind the maturation process to a complete halt. And any Jesuit-type moral installation can be pushed aside, when you can have a dance master with complete control over young girls careers.

Having been around ballet a little bit gave me a positive bias toward Black Swan going in. Had a feeling of authenticity to it. A world not dissimilar to the real world; where if a dancer's tutu has fungus on it, a knife will be used to scrape it off and dancer receives said tutu that very night. A world where some troll from the New York Times can basically call the Sugar Plum Fairy fat, just because she has the audacity to weigh more than 115 lbs. The world felt real enough to support the dark fantasy (or not?) world that Black Swan throws us in. The world feels even more real with Vincent Cassel almost embodying a manipulative George Balanchine- genius/bastard type. Flawless acting, just enough credible dancing, and a script that forced you to think and pay very close attention to. Three great components to the best film of 2010.

Curious about any feedback. Later all.

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