After two years of constant bitching, I found 2010 to be an excellent start to a new decade of film. Also, I'm pretty sure this post will mention several films that actually came out in 2009 but didn't open here until 2010, which makes the list even stronger. I haven't seen Certified Copy and Of Gods and Men and Toy Story 3 and much else but I like to think that nothing major released in Seattle has eluded me. (You'll note that I tried to link my earlier reviews where possible below.)
It's a good year when Ryan Gosling is in two movies--even though All Good Things got bad reviews I don't doubt he's excellent in it--and he blows Michelle Williams right off the screen in Blue Valentine. I'm continually impressed by Jesse Eisenberg's uncanny ability to pick roles in good films and loved him in Holy Rollers and The Social Network. He'll probably be passed over for Colin Firth (who should have won last year for A Single Man) in the awards season but his Mark Zuckerberg will be remembered longer. I can't get over Michael Fassbender in Fish Tank, one of the few times I see an actor for the first time and immediately think this guy is gonna be a star. Go get it Mr. Fassbender. And the man of the year is Edgar Ramirez. Carlos is Raging Bull 30 years later--a once in a lifetime showcase for an actor. And I think Mr. Ramirez might even exceed DeNiro in the physical transformation(s) category. The film is five and half hours long but I'd have watched it for ten because Ramirez is that transfixing.
It seems Ms. Portman's cuticle-abusing dancer will beat out Jennifer Lawrence's Ozark Odysseus for the big prize this year but we know better. Ree Dolly is the center of indelible film and Lawrence has opened a lot doors with this debut. We also had the re-arrival of sorts for Tilda Swinton, who swoops through I Am Love using the Russian-accented Italian she learned for the film (not to mention the most her most fabulous hair performance ever). As usual, Isabelle Huppert was the best thing about White Material, dragging the film along by the scruff of its neck. Sure, her dogged belief that harvesting a coffee crop could bring order to a country at war is insane, but Huppert commits to the character of Maria so thoroughly that we're strapped in the whole crazy way.
Marwencol - I'm always a sucker for a good documentary about fucked up artists trying to get work done. Mark Hogancamp's miniature world is a revelation, as is this film's gentle reminder that some people have to overcome a lot more than a boring day job to make their art.
Restrepo - A no-frills take straight from the soldiers on the ground examining the untenable situation in Afghanistan with all the attendant loss of life and national dignity. Somehow it manages to be only the second most depressing 2010 film on the war...
The Tillman Story - ...because this came out too. It's a great investigation of Pat Tillman's fratricidal murder but so infuriating I keep recommending that friends not watch it. I found myself in knots of rage wishing that Bush Jr., Cheney and the lot of congressman who presided over the farcical inquest on Tillman's death were parachuted into the Korengal Valley and left to fend for themselves.
Sweetgrass - Here's a patient, straightforward doc on taking sheep to pasture that leaves you pondering the future of the "frontier" and the capitalized West. The timeless spell of cowboys going to work is undercut with the reality of an exhausted shepherd struggling to find cell phone reception on the high ridges of Montana wilderness.
This Way of Life - As some counterbalance to all the well-executed downers this year, we have a film about triumph. Peter Karena does not triumph in money or comfort but in the refusal to let his family be constrained by ridiculous cultural mores. I'll never have his will to live life his own way but I can at least visit New Zealand, breathtakingly varied and beautiful throughout the film.
Best Pictures (so many good films I couldn't limit myself to just ten)
12. Blue Valentine - I find this one more admirable than great but, since I abhorred Greenberg, I wanted to applaud at least one of 2010 films willing to explore failed cunnilingus, surely an underseen onscreen phenomenon. Ryan Gosling is predictably great as Dean, able to be sexy as hell as young mover and shaker and devastating as a prematurely dissipated housepainter (this decline is best symbolized by the fitted leather jacket he wears in flashbacks that's replaced by a paint-spattered white tank top in the present). As always, Michelle Williams just looks sad (why must she always try so hard to project despair?--she's naturally sorrowful, even "fun-loving" Jen Lindley looked sad all the time). Still Derek Cianfrance pushes hard with lacerating closeups that give the film a Scenes from a Marriage-style relentlessness.
11. Red Riding Trilogy Part 1: 1974 - I'm pretty sure that James Ellroy had nothing to do with the production but this is the most Ellroy picture I've seen. Hollywood films, from the excellent L.A. Confidential to the unwatchable Black Dahlia, have glossed over the true pulpiness of his work. But the three segments of Red Riding, particularly Julian Jarrold's Part 1, are deliciously trashy. There's an American Tabloid-level of gratuitous sex and violence with all the showy rack focusing you could want. Andrew Garfield is bell-bottomod journalist at the center of the mess in Yorkshire (town motto: "where we do what we want"), Rebecca Hall is shockingly plausible as a Veronica Lake femme fatale and of all the great British character actor heavies in the film, Sean Bean is the heaviest--pure terror.
10. Everyone Else - In this German gem, I watched Chris unravel his relationship with Gitti and kept saying to myself, "I'd never be that cruelly condescending in conversation," then realizing I have been, repeatedly. This horror show of passive-aggression is not a good movie to see if you're in a rocky relationship (or perhaps a good movie to see if you want to break up with some one). Great, natural performances from the principal actors and skillfully shot by Maren Ade in sunny Sardinia with no superfluous "we're on vacation in the Mediterranean" panoramas. It's a sad story that approaches the second act of Contempt before surprising once more at the very end.
9. Somewhere - The value of art is not determined by its subject matter; it's determined by how good the art is. Sofia Coppola does not need to concern herself with "branching out"--she needs to concern herself with making excellent films, which she's done again here. I found the cinematography in Somewhere much less glamorous than in her previous films and the portraits more harrowing. Perhaps because I tend towards silence, I got enough sustenance out of every significant look between Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning (and, for the record, it was absolutely necessary for her to scissor garnish onto the eggs benedict).
8. I Am Love - I don't get the criticism that this film is "too melodramatic." We love the melodrama! We love Douglas Sick and Max Ophuls and lamented that we couldn't see all their films in HD until Criterion saved us! I will admit that this picture strays in certain scenes (especially the bees in the flowers) but watching the first sequence in snowy Milan I thought I might be in for one of the best films of all time. It makes the top 10 just for that.
7. True Grit - If it weren't for all the gunplay and corpses, this would be the perfect film to show your kids. I'd want my daughter to be exactly like Mattie Ross. I predict a big Oscar nom comeback for the film, with the Coens, Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld all in line for recognition.
6. Fish Tank - Andrea Arnold and her lead actress Katie Jarvis just don't flinch in a movie that you keep expecting to flinch. The last scene tears your heart out because it's so sad, inevitable and true. I'm ecstatic for 2011's Wuthering Heights.
5. Our Beloved Month of August - I've never seen a film quite like it, with Miguel Gomes just letting the camera record and then arranging documentary and scripted scenes into a big circle. It's like the way I prefer browsing a "literature" section instead of "fiction" and "nonfiction." Full of love, rural scenery and music so godawful I can't wait to hear it again.
4. White Material - Claire Denis is on a hell of a roll. Here she employs the best actress alive to dramatize an unnamed, inexplicable African country at civil war. That sounds like the setup for a loud, bombastic film but Denis keeps the volume low and the camera moving. It's confusing, clear-eyed and original.
3. The Social Network - The unlikeliest film in the WTT top 12 because I doubted mainstream Hollywood could pull it off. I thought this one had to be overhyped but it won me over scene by scene. I defend it against the absurd allegations of misogyny, I defend the dreamlike regatta sequence, I defend Justin Timberlake down to his last slimy tentacle of hair. And, you know, it actually has something to say about our culture now (I hear my father, who's barely able to check his AOL email, might be joining Facebook soon).
2. Winter's Bone - I've already written a bunch about it and my prediction from May has come true: there's no better domestic film this year (WTT loves a good self-fulfilling prophecy).
1. Carlos - It just wouldn't be WTT if I didn't overlook all the best domestic offerings and give the biggest prize to a film directed by a Frenchman (Olivier Assayas, coming a long way from Boarding Gate). I need to do a more extensive review when Carlos is released on DVD bit it just feels like the biggest achievement of the year. Thinking back on the dizzying six hours in the theater watching, I was struck by the way Carlos was really about a promising young man who doesn't pan out the way anyone wanted (not his far left teachers, not his terrorist handlers, not himself). As he ages, the failures, both physical and ideological, mount and his downward trend proves inescapable. He's Carlos the Jackal with the attendant fame and female company but he keeps going to the same party, and it is depressing in every way.
For 2011 prospects, what more needs to be said? There will be a new film by Terrence Malick.