Thursday, January 27, 2011

Faves of 2010

20. The American- Anton Corbjin’s lackadaisical hit man procedural felt so out of touch with modern films when it was released earlier this year, perhaps that ‘from-outer-space’ feel remains why its one of the best films of the year. As the elusive, monotone hit man in a foreign land trying to carry out the proverbial “one last job”, Clooney owns every scene of this film, his age and handsome good looks seething with honesty throughout the moody affair. I know it sounds cliché, but if Jean Pierre Melville were still making movies, this would be it.

19. Tron: Legacy-A post-punk electro design style mixed fashionably into a revolving world of neon colored suits, sterile Kubrickian sets and a multi-layered 3D world that continually fascinates. But all these dynamic visuals wouldn't be more than candy coloring if it weren't for the performances of Jeff Bridges, Olivia Wilde, Garrett Hedlund and (especially) Martin Sheen providing a beating heart underneath the technological effects. This is Disney yes, but "Tron: Legacy" maintains a perverse streak in the way the camera frames Wilde seductively posing on a couch or Martin Sheen hamming it up as some sort of carnival ringleader named Zeus. This is erotic and esoteric stuff for a modern blockbuster.

18. Winnebago Man- Beginning as a documentary on the history of the internet’s viral video craze, Ben Steinbauer’s film soon tumbles through a bevy of emotions as the actual Winnebago man is found and a unique relationship forms. At times uncomfortable and unnerving, Steinbauer doesn’t resort to faux/fiction tricks ala “Catfish”, training his camera on something more truthful and real. And the ending- as the Winnebago Man comes face to face with a packed theater house full of “fans”- strikes just the right balance of unease and raw emotion.

17. Morning Glory- Roger Michell is an interesting director, taking standard genre fare and tweaking them into little gems. “Morning Glory” is yet another wonderful surprise. Granted, a majority of the film’s success hinges on Rachel McAdams high-strung, perky performance as a TV producer grasping at straws at a basement-run early morning news show, and for me, she won me over. Even more amazing, though, are the supporting performances by Harrison Ford (as a gruff, been-there-done-that anchor who had me groaning at first, then joyously caught up in his role the next minute), John Pankow as McAdams’ suffering assistant, Jeff Goldblum who delivers every single line with precision and even Patrick Wilson as the love interest who steps outside the usual boundaries of the rom-com archetype. “Morning Glory” is witty, warm and very funny- just watch the background in certain scenes and see the weird extras milling around. I love it when a film totally exceeds my expectations like this.

16. I Am Love- Lush and elegant telling of one industrialist Italian family’s turbulent affairs in both capitalism and love. Greatly endowed to the works of Visconti, director Luca Guadagnino displays a rare talent for balancing both the mundane (cooking) and the manic (sexual temptation). Tilda Swinton as the matriarch gives another riveting performance in a film that boldly veers from picturesque topography to simmering emotions of guilt deftly.

15. Never Let Me Go- Despite the somewhat detached and cerebral critical reaction to Mark Romanek’s “Never Let Me Go”, I found it to be hugely moving experience. Adapted by the great (and under appreciated) Alex Garland from a much beloved novel, “Never Let Me Go” places a sensitive love triangle within an alternate history science fiction tale. Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield are tremendous as the group of young people facing a shaky future. When the film requires each one to wilt literally and figuratively, their eyes hold the screen. They give brave, heartbreaking performances. “Never Let Me Go” is a film about a distorted past and present day in Britain where medical science has prolonged human life to over 100 years and the school of Hailsham is born where children are cultivated for much darker purposes when they grow older. Just like our own youthful days, urban legends are born (such as idea that if a child wanders beyond the boundary, they will end up with their hands and feet cut off) and weird ideas for survival are propagated later in life. The scene where the adult Mulligan and Garfield approach a supposed “art dealer” to grant a wish is handled with delicate intelligence, as is the entire film.

14. A Prophet- Jacques Audiard’s epic prison tale deserves the lauds. Starring Tahar Rahim as Malik, “A Prophet” charts his ascension from lowly prison inmate to eventual drug kingpin with brutal exactitude. Each step in this progression is shown in increments, giving us a fully realized (and at times mystical) journey. Each shot seems destined to express an emotion and that final scene is as telling as the door slamming shut on Michael Corleone in “The Godfather”.

13. Winter’s Bone- Director Debra Granik’s second film is a slice of down-on-their-luck life that succeeds in presenting a young girl's scary waltz through a white trash netherworld of meth cookers and trouble-makers in the Missouri backwoods. Like her debut feature, "Down To the Bone", Granik seems completely in tune with a female versus the world attitude. In that film, relative newcomer Vera Farmiga gave an exhilarating performance as a single mother carrying on two lives... one of affection and dedication to her daughter and the other as a struggling drug addict. In "Winter's Bone", Jennifer Lawrence could be Farmiga 15 years earlier, posing a steely gaze and giving a riveting performance as a 17 year old desperately trying to track down her criminal father before his bond-hopping causes her to lose her home. But Lawrence delivers only half of the film's penetrating mood and atmosphere. As secondary characters, John Hawkes, Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey and Lauren Sweetster inhabit their roles with straight authenticity- right down to the black fingernails and bad teeth. One never knows just exactly where a scene is headed or where Lawrence's journey through backwoods purgatory will end. "Winter's Bone" defiantly bucks the expectation, expertly written and perfectly acted... none more so than in a quiet scene with Lawrence discussing the possibility of joining the army with a recruiter who reveals the naive child behind her otherwise worldly facade.

12 Please Give- Nicole Holofcener’s Robert Altman-esque story about several people floating around the lives of antiques dealers Oliver Platt and Katherine Keener was a huge surprise. Modest in scale and tone, it’s a lovely film that feels real in its characterizations while remaining intensely funny. Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet also give terrific performances as two sisters struggling to deal with the death of their mother and their own shortcomings when it comes to relationships. “Please Give” came and went without a blink, but one owes it to themselves to seek this one out.

11. The White Ribbon- Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” is uber European, and god I love it for that. Set in the German countryside in 1914, Haneke’s latest provocation settles on the quietness before the storm. A series of strange events begin to overtake the village. A wire is set up between two trees which causes the town doctor to take a painful spill off his horse. Children vanish and are then found hanging upside down and whipped. A bird is stabbed with a pair of scissors and left on the owner’s desk. Some of these actions have direct violators, but many don’t. The casual brutality, at first, manifests itself in the children, eventually spreading to the adults. Filmed in austere black and white and full of long takes that observe simple things such as a closed door (for what feels like an eternity at times), Haneke builds a sinister atmosphere around every frame. It’s only in the end, when the narrator reveals that Germany instigated World War 1 the next day, that Haneke’s genius premise snaps into focus. “The White Ribbon” is a film that concentrates on the subconscious malcontent boiling beneath the surface. The words “Nazi” are never uttered, but its there in the cold, soulless faces of the children that in 10-15 years, they’ll be propagating some of the same merciless acts on a global scale. See it with Ingmar Bergman’s “The Serpent’s Egg” for a terrifying double feature.

10. Cyrus- Mark and Jay Duplass' "Cyrus" extends the directing duo's range with an off-kilter romance that veers wildly into several genres without falling into disarray. Part black comedy, part psychological thriller, "Cyrus" proves that "Baghead" (their previous film) was no slouch effort and these guys can walk a tightrope with the best of them. Some have derided the relationship presented in the film between John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei as unrealistic, but as the film unfolds and we get beyond the meet-cute set up, "Cyrus" shows that both of them are potentially damaged souls who happened to intersect at the right moment. It all felt entirely plausible to me. Enter Tomei's 21 year old son played by Jonah Hill (featuring probably his best performance yet) who makes it his goal to usurp their relationship in quiet (but altogether devious) ways and "Cyrus" morphs into a shaggy dog comedy with a black heart.

9. Red Riding Trilogy- If only more studios would take a chance in producing such an ambitious, sprawling masterwork. This trilogy, ostensibly about the murders of several little girls in England during the 60’s and 70’s, soon evolves into something much more enigmatic and probing. The murder investigation is ditched and directors James Marsh, Anand Tucker and Julian Jarrold weave tragically poignant tales of deep police corruption and human redemption. Each film builds on the other resulting in a shattering examination of a country, time and place.

8. The Ghost Writer- Roman Polanski’s quiet thriller is a subtle thing of beauty. As the lead character, Ewan McGregor is yet another cipher for mystery, adding him to a string of protagonists like Jake Gittes and Dean Corso (Depp in “The Ninth gate”) serviced to walk through a series of deeply shattering lies and deception. This time it’s ratcheted up to a political level as McGregor is assigned to write the memoirs of an ex British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) and becomes enveloped in international intrigue. Pregnant with allegory- such as Brosnan leaning against his office window as if the whole world is between his arms- and filled with the precise point of view shots that parcel out hidden meaning, “The Ghost Writer” is a tour de force. It also features what is probably the first use of a GPS machine’s previous destinations function to put some pieces of the puzzle in place.

7. The Killer Inside Me- Michael Winterbottom's twisting Texas noir, "The Killer Inside Me", is a chilling and repugnant adaptation of the great Jim Thompson's pulp novel, sending waves into the pop culture universe for its unflinching violence towards two pretty starlets (Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson) and not really giving a damn about it. I use words like repugnant above in the best sense. This is a great film for the way it buries so many emotions, none more so than the quiet facade led by Texas sheriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) as he deviously sacrifices everything he loves to satisfy the demons within. "The Killer Inside Me" doesn't wink at the audience or service any post-modern demands for the neo-noir genre.... it's a film that simply observes it characters strutting around in the well manicured southern locations, quietly tracking the serial killer sheriff with a voice over that almost lulls one to sleep and making one's skin crawl when the inevitable violence does overtake the narrative. In the varied oeuvre of British director Michael Winterbottom, he upholds his chameleon streak with a stifling portrait of small town Texas life in the 50's as if he's always lived here.

6. The Square- Second film from the Aussie New Wave and the same group of creative artists, “The Square” is such a terrific slow-burn noir in the best sense of the word. No “neo” or post modern about it… just a good old fashioned tale of scandal, extramarital affairs and manslaughter that slides further and further down the rabbit hole of no return for its ordinary couple trying to get away.

5. Shutter Island- Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” is his ode to Sam Fuller. Or maybe it’s his ode to Hitchcock. Or wait… it’s most certainly his attempt to recreate those fetishistic images of the 50’s and 60’s old haunted house pictures he absorbed as a boy. Whatever one sees as the direct influence on “Shutter Island’s” visual scheme, the fact is it’s a genre picture of the highest order. Based on a Dennis Lehane novel, Scorsese amps up the proceedings with Lynchian dream sequences that rank as some of the most evocative images of his long career, piercing bits of music that range from classical to Bernard Hermann-like, and a seemingly reclaimed appreciation for the whip pan. Leonardo DiCaprio, in his fourth outing with Scorsese, tackles his most impressive role as the Boston cop trapped on the titular island trying to wrap his brain around the disappearance of a psychiatric patient. People will say they see the “twist” coming a mile away… and that’s all fine and dandy. The real hook of the film lies in the very dark paths it takes, revealing a flawed human being on the brink of madness and with Scorsese’s camera carefully tracking the breakdown. Music and image finally merge into a heartbreaking passion play that feels at once removed and very personal for the aging auteur. Scorsese is reaching for something beyond the twist here, and it got me right in the stomach.

4. Inception- The most bracing idea behind Christopher Nolan’s trippy dream heist epic is his hauntingly resonant motif about a man trying to make amends for past transgressions. In “Memento”, Guy Pearce was trying to piece together his life and resolve the (maybe?) murder of his wife. In “The Prestige”, perhaps the most complete yet overlooked film in Nolan’s career, Hugh Jackman reboots himself to maddening proportions in order to carry out the perfect allusion, triggered by revenge and obsessive compulsive memories of his wife. And in “Inception”, it’s easy to get caught up in the nonlinear dream states that fold in on themselves, or guess exactly what that final shot means, but the most invigorating concept for me is Leonardo Dicaprio’s silent stretch of the imagination just to go home to his wife and kids. Whether any of this has anything to do with Nolan’s own emotional capacity is up for debate, but it drives “Inception” into a near cathartic experience while maintaining an equal amount of ‘wowness’ in the supporting performances (Gordon Levitt and Tom Hardy especially) and complex heist that sometimes veers into the ludicrous. Bottom line, I bought the ludicrousness because its so expertly staged and edited. “Inception” held me in complete rapture from start to finish.

3. True Grit- Even though their latest is a straight-forward genre exercise, the Coen Brothers have manufactured a rousing, emotionally satisfying western that succeeds on every level. The moment young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) bolts her horse across the river to catch up to Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), I was hooked into the film‘s ebullient tone. The Coen Brothers penchant for snappy dialogue and humor in the most absurd of places (the scream of a man getting his fingers cut off etc) remains and it’s probably their most emotional film to date.

2. Black Swan- Like “The Red Shoes” on acid, Aronofsky’s latest is a terror psychodrama that plays like a propulsive fever dream. Natalie Portman is terrific as the dancer who succumbs to the pressures of being a leading lady and Aronofsky (much like he did with Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler”) never falters from having his camera perched just over the shoulders of his star as she marches through reality and unreality. Sound design has always been a staple of Aronofsky films, but he takes it to a new level here in “Black Swan”, echoing laughter in odd places and firmly subverting our own perceptions of what is real and what is not. I keep thinking that Aronofosky can’t possibly match his previous film, and then he goes and does just that.

1. Animal Kingdom- David Michod’s epic tale of crime and punishment down under is a startling debut that portrays both sides of the law with frightening characteristics. From the opening black and white grainy images of a bank robbery, Michod is in firm control of character, place and mood. As the leading film in the so called Aussie New Wave, “Animal Kingdom” doesn’t break new ground- as its “Aussie Goodfellas“ tag proves, but its arrival marks the announcement of an exciting new talent pool.

Honorable mentions: Unstoppable, Valhalla Rising, The Book of Eli, Father of My Children, Spring Fever, Fish Tank, The King’s Speech

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