Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Best Films of 2010

This was a rich year for films both new and old. All told I saw 97 films theatrically, some more than a few times. There was the restoration of Metropolis, and the repertory findings at Chicago's Doc Films. The great under-released American Independents, and The Chicago International Film Festival's offering of a variety of foreign and domestic discoveries. It even seemed that the multiplexes were offering an increasing percentage of films worthy mention. Because of this, it feels ridiculous to rank the films I loved the most this year. It always does, sure, but for some reason this year especially. I could, if forced, come up with some arbitrary order, but the thing that all of these films have in common with one another is that they've stayed in my memory since I saw them. They're all stylistically inventive and have an excitement in them about the possibilities of the form. They all provoke, they're all personal works, and as such they all have a lot at stake. I've continued to find new reasons praise them all, and like children I feel it's wrong to choose a favorite. And so, in alphabetical order, with minimal, repetitious comment, my favorite films of 2010.

Note: There are still a number of films I haven't been able to see yet that would possibly make it into this grouping. As such, there may be additions in the coming weeks. Long after anyone has looked at this.

The Best Films of 2010

A stunning psycho-sexual melodrama. The promise of a great visual filmmaker like Aronofsky making a ballet movie is met here and it joins the ranks as one of the finest of that genre.

Derek Cianfrance's long gestating portrait of the dissolution of a marriage. It's unsparing, scarily well acted and one of the most fascinating films of this young decade.

One of the more overlooked films of the year is also one of the best. Bradley Rust Gray's simple, engaging observation of a college break spent at home and the relationship between two old friends who could be more than that, it's one of the most accurate portraits of young adult life I've seen on screen. Beautifully shot in a style inspired by the work of Hou Hsiao-Hsien.

I've written about Noah Baumbach's work and his fifth film on this blog before, and my esteem for it has only grown. So filled with nuance and odd details and observations that make it very re-watchable and real.

A complete surprise of a film that bowled me over last summer. There's a line out that it's the "greatest Visconti film Visconti never made" and that holds some truth. It harkens back to European Art Cinema of the 1960s, and is Emersonian in its divide between the natural world and the cultured. Nevermind that Swinton produced and learned Italian and Russian for the role, her performance is lived, not acted. Easily the most beautiful film of the year, it's also the most emotional and moving. It's a big, ambitious risk of a film, and one that paid off immeasurably.

Mark Romanek's delicate, romantic, achingly sad adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's rumination on mortality. Uses a Sci-Fi conceit as a means to explore questions of existence. Beautifully done.

Edgar Wright's great, visually inventive love story/musical/comic book movie. Incredibly detailed, and very funny, the adaptation of Bryan Lee O'Malley's comic series expands on the world of the books and creates its own. It has a tremendous cast, it's filled with great music and it's unlike anything else out this year.

The finest horror film that's been made in decades, and Scorsese's finest since The Aviator. Wall-to-wall great performances, indelible, horrific images and a great use of music.

An extremely well written, fictionalized account of the creation of Facebook is really about the tear that can occur when friendship and ambition get in each other's way. Sorkin's screenplay frames it as a classical story and Fincher meets the material with a classical eye. A portrait of a very specific moment in time made universal.

Sofia Coppola's fourth feature film is radical, and maybe the finest motion picture of the year. It says great things within its silences, and her collaboration with Harris Savides (the second film of his on this list) brings about new aesthetic daring in her work.

Special Mention: Spike Jonze's I'm Here, one of a few short films this year that came into being through sponsorship. It's one of the best films of the year, and it has much in common with Never Let Me Go. The film is available to watch online for free here.

The following list of films are, again, in alphabetical order except where otherwise noted.

Secondary Subset of The Best:

The American - Anton Corbijn's foray into the lone assassin genre is quiet and suspenseful. Almost works as a slightly less arty remake of Jarmusch's The Limits of Control.

Carlos - Olivier Assayas' episodic portrait of a failed revolutionary that serves more as a look at identity in geopolitical terrorism than as a straight biopic.

Daddy Longlegs - The Brothers Safdie made a brutally honest, unrelenting film about a chaotic character played brilliantly by Ronald Bronstein. It has immense respect for the medium and it's gripping and interesting even as its lead does unspeakable things.

Exit Through The Gift Shop - Banksy's funny, thoughtful, inventive exploration of the street art world.

Hereafter - The best Eastwood since 2006's Letters From Iwo Jima, it's audacious, searching and ultimately very moving.

The Illusionist - The wonderful animated adaptation of an unproduced screenplay by Jacques Tati. Sylvain Chomet and his animators capture the physicality of Tati, but make the film their own. Gorgeous, unsentimental, and very funny.

Making Plans for Lena - A strong follow-up to last year's La Belle Personne (which I think is a masterpiece and is still unavailable on Region 1 DVD). It set the course for his challenging Man at Bath and features a great lead performance from Chiarra Mastroianni.

Mystery Team - A great self-produced comedy from internet sketch collective Derek Comedy. Funnier than 99% of studio releases.

Night Catches Us - A film that unfortunately got lost in the shuffle. It's a strong debut from Tanya Hamilton, and though it suffers slightly from over thought, it has more to say than most films that have come out this year. A film about politics that's actually political.

Ondine - A beautiful and flawed fairy tale from Niel Jordan, shot by Christopher Doyle.

Soul Kitchen - The maker of one of the more oppressively sad films in recent memory, The Edge of Heaven, made one of the funniest, lightest comedies of the year. Akin's formal strength elevates the film.

Wild Grass - An absolutely indescribable piece of insanity from Alain Resnais that some how stays pleasant without making the least bit of sense.

Festival Favorites (ordered by preference):

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
- Apitchatpong Weerasethakul's Palme d'Or winner is a brilliant last attempt to capture his disappearing homeland. More still than his previous work, it shares that works skill. It feels monumental even as it's unfolding.

Tuesday, After Christmas - Another leap forward for the Romanian New-Wave. Radu Muntean's adultery drama is intelligent and observant.

Man at Bath - A stylistic leap for Christophe Honore, though maybe a leap sideways. Divided between handy-cam footage shot in New York during the press for the US release of Making Plans For Lena, melding fiction and reality, and a sexual drama happening back home in France, it's a gutsy film though it feels like a transitional one.

Cold Weather - Aaron Katz's fine detective comedy, well shot on the RED, subdued and involving.

Worst films of the year (in order from most horrible to least contemptible):

Dinner for Schmucks - An excruciating misfire on every level, filmed in the most staid sitcom style. Everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves.

The Town - Riddled with sentimentality and cliche. Not even a handful of the best English-speaking actors in the world and one of the greatest living cinematographers can save it.

Winter's Bone - A muddled piece of Southern Gothic cliche, inexplicably embraced by critics and festivals around the world.

Kick-Ass - The polar opposite of Scott Pilgrim. Unfunny, poorly staged and deeply unpleasant.

How Do You Know - Makes It's Complicated look brilliant by comparison. Devoid of any connection to real people, or the world as it has ever existed.

Piranha 3-D - A blown opportunity for an exploitation classic. Has all the promise of a diverting piece of trash, and none of the fun.

Machete - Machete is mashitty.

Rabbit Hole - An immature tale of grief, uninteresting to look at and listen to. Belies the promise John Cameron Mitchell showed in Shortbus.

Other Films I Saw and Really Enjoyed Include: Antonio Campos' great debut feature Afterschool, Mike Leigh's study of the bourgeoisie Another Year, Andrew Bujalski's nicely paced story of sisterliness Beeswax, Frederick Wiseman's great Boxing Gym, the Duplass Brothers' mainstream debut Cyrus, Mia Hansen-Løve's haunting The Father of My Children, David O. Russel's imperfect The Fighter, Chris Morris' Jihadi romp Four Lions, Andre Techine's fine morality play The Girl On The Train, Roman Polanski's (unfinished?) thriller The Ghost Writer, the cock and bull story I Love You Phillip Morris, Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix's grand statement on celebrity that's much better than you'd think it would be I'm Still Here, Michael Winterbottom's creepy exploration of a sociopath The Killer Inside Me, the charming Let It Rain, the Beckettesque The Living Wake, the quietly stunning Lourdes, the very funny MacGruber, the also funny The Other Guys, Michel Gondry's funny and moving portrait of his grandmother The Thorn in the Heart, the fine French prison drama A Prophet, a deeply flawed but dazzling rock drama The Runaways, the fine adult comedy Tamara Drewe, the Coen Brothers' amiable Western True Grit, Claire Denis' gripping White Material, Woody Allen's fine morality play You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, and Miguel Arteta's flawed but smart and funny Youth in Revolt.