By Craig Phillips
An interesting year for film, to be sure -- even if there were few out and out indisputable classics, there were a great number of remarkably interesting films, both American independent and documentary, and from abroad. And even Hollywood gave us a few groundbreaking, if flawed, blockbusters. All in all a hard year to pin down, but cinema was full of life. As always, I'm attracted to the films that were consistent in presenting their vision from start to finish, and whether or not the general concept was unique, gave us a work that stayed with you long after the lights went back up. These films all did that for me.
Note: As no one film stood out to me as clearly the "best" this year, these are all listed In ALPHABETICAL ORDER:
Alamar: A moment in "s film where they cut off part of a barracuda's head and toss it to the water and a waiting croc snatches it, that made me gasp--but with pleasure. And an egret that follows them around is a bit of a miracle, as is this beautiful little film set in Mexico. The bond between father and son is beautifully portrayed. It may seem slight on the surface but I found it enormously moving and lovely.
Animal Kingdom: David Michôd's knockout crime drama from Down Under that, like A Prophet (see below) has its share of familiar elements -- an innocent brought into a corrupt crime family -- but with its own slow-burning stamp remains utterly gripping. The whole cast is excellent -- anchored around Jacki Weaver's disturbingly sickly-sweet (and hopefully Oscar-nominated) grandmother-slash-crime boss.
Another Year: The films of Mike Leigh very rarely fail to move me, and for whatever reason this one in particularly struck a nerve. As usual, a Leigh film benefits from the alchemy of actor and director script collaboration, and here I found myself connecting to different aspects of each character - the unforgettably manic-melancholy Mary (played so movingly by Lesley Manville), the rock solid couple (even if they're not always the best of communicators either) played by Leigh regulars Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent, their cheerful if clueless son, their pathetically drunken friend, the mourning older brother, and so on -- each character so indellibly three-dimensional and relatable.
Black Swan: It's not exactly unusual for a Darren Aronofsky film to have its protagonist lose their grip on reality, but Black Swan has one batshit crazy third act. I also wonder how women feel-is this male's fantasy about female's nightmare? But Swan absolutely succeeds in what it tries to do from start-it's Aronofsky's most consistent realized vision. Seems like some viewers haven't been sure how to react; it's a psychological horror film, with black comedy elements.
Exit Through The Gift Shop: Film by/about/from guerrilla artist Banksy is more fun than any documentary about art typically ends up, -- and for that matter, artier than any fun doc has a right to be -- with as many layers and mirrors to it as Inception has dream levels and just as much deception. How much is true and how much is a prankish con? Who is a real artist and who is a real poser? The joke may be on us, but that only adds to the film's deceptive pleasure. And even more so, the film succeeds in still making one want to create art--and redefine it.
The Ghost Writer: Loved this enthralling neo noir -- about a writer hired to help pen a politician's memoirs who finds himself in deep -- and Roman Polanski's way with mood and actors....liked it all the way up to its "fuck you" ending, though some feel it reflects the (existential/nihilist) viewpoint seen throughout the film. Regardless, the film got better the more I thought about it. Smart and engaging and perhaps a more realistic variation on Tony Blair than some of the recent Michael Sheen portrayals.
Mother: Joon-ho Bong (The Host) further solidifies himself as one of the most interesting directors working anywhere, and in any genre -- usually mixing genres for that matter -- and here he goes Sirk-meets-Fincher in this strange, darkly funny melodramatic mystery about an uh overprotective mother-as-detective (Kim Hye-ja, a wonder) and her uh immature, simple son son accused of murder. A good companion piece to Bong's earlier police procedural Memories of Murder, and once again, not a pretty picture of Korean policework or of male-female relationships.
A Prophet: Almost lost in the shuffle with its early 2010 stateside release despite getting an Oscar nomination for Foreign Film, Jacques Audiard's dynamic, violent prison drama is basically a gangster's rise-and-fall picture, but with enough behind it to keep it unique (the Arabic prisoner played by Tahar Rahim works for a racist French gangster, for one). Niels Arestrup is terrific as the crime boss who both builds Malik up and tries to keep him down. Doesn't show off, doesn't romanticize the life of crime, nor does it judge -- just packs a wallop.
The Social Network: I've heard the arguments against it -- glib, cold, manipulates the facts, misogonystic (no, it depicts guys who are) -- and none of that erases for me what a superb film this is, the results of a rarified marriage between clever wordsmith (Sorkin) and master cinematic craftsman (Fincher). What I feared would be a dull behind the scenes rise and fall story turned into something much more, a character study of a loner-genius, and of capitalism at its best and worst.
True Grit: The Coens doing a Western isn't as new as many have suggested - wasn't No Country For Old Men a Western in a sense? - but this is more straightforward in storytelling and style than usual for them, and I loved that. It's also (sorry if this is sacreligious) a far cry better than the original, and Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld make quite a memorable trio of determined but lost souls.
Winter's Bone: Debra Granik's Ozark noir works as both an acute, chilling mystery and a coming of age story. Like True Grit, it features an assertive, smart young heroine driving it and Jennifer Lawrence gives on the of the breakout performances of the year. Atmospheric as hell, a very cold, blue-tinged hell.
- An animation 3-pack: Toy Story 3; Secret of Kells; How To Train Your Dragon: All three are pretty special, terrific animation and involving story lines, and frankly each gave me at least one teary-eyed moment. Winners.
- Carlos - Hard for me to officially place this one since I missed the longer TV cut of Olivier Assayas' epic crime film, and have heard that one is superior to the shorter but still epic 2.5 hour version. The one I saw has its slow stretches but still coherent as a piece, exciting, gripping as hell, but choppy in parts, rushed as it hits the end. But either way, it's an arresting work. It starts with a brazen man looking at his naked self in the mirror, in full glory, and ends with him lying prostrate and with a wounded prostate, emasculated, helpless. In between, fireworks.
- Scott Pilgrim vs the World
- Monsters: Very effective low-budget film (even more effective in comparison if you also suffered through Skyline) set in Mexico isn't for those expecting a non-stop thrill ride but works chillingly well.
- Four Lions: Look forward to watching this one again on DVD with subtitle option (the slang and accents are tough at times) but this dark satire by Chris Morris is pretty spot on hilarious, full of memorable set pieces shot with cinema verite verve. Ballsy and (unlike its protagonists) quick-witted, if still basically a one-joke film.
- The Two Escobars
- The Tillman Story: Everyone needs to see this documentary, both moving and enervating, to honor the memory of a true American hero and to feel really, really ticked off at the Armed Forces (as if we need another reason)
- Shutter Island: Scorsese stays on target with this oft-audacious, noir mind-bender that is worth watching a 2nd time through for a different appreciation.
- Best Worst Movie
- Easy A
- Get Low: Nice period comedy with fine performances from Duvall and Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek.
Best Blockbuster Which Isn't Saying Much But I Still Appreciated the Attempt Award:
To Still Be Seen: Inside Job; Dogtooth; The Father of My Children; White Material; Blue Valentine; Last Train Home; I Am Love; The Oath; 45365; Catfish.
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