It was another transitional year at the movies, one in which curious, sometimes frustrating trends emerged or were confirmed: the rise of conceptually complex films that question the nature of “reality” and “truth”; the return of 3-D as a savior; the death of the romantic comedy; the continued fracturing of indie cinema; and the further evolution of distribution methods/philosophies via the rise of pay-per-view/video-on-demand and cable TV exclusives.
I’ll be among the many to echo that it was a trying year at the multiplex, as very few of 2010’s big studio offerings even met our already diminished expectations. Yet, as usual, a bevy of smaller films picked up the slack, a trend that makes critical consensus an increasingly fleeting endeavor — only The Social Network and, somewhat surprisingly given that it didn’t even appear on Steven Rosen’s list of top docs, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer appeared on both my and tt stern-enzi’s lists.
Then there are the many films that weren’t considered for inclusion — whether because they’ve yet to open here (Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere and Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine); because the ideal version wasn’t available in our market (Olivier Assayas’ widely acclaimed Carlos was only offered in the three-hour version on local pay-per-view); or because they bypassed Cincinnati altogether (Giorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth and Maren Ade’s Everyone Else).
But let’s celebrate those films we did get to see, a collection that features everything from crafty documentaries — it was yet another strong year for that ever-evolving genre — to a few high-profile Hollywood productions to less visible offerings from across the cinematic landscape. (Jason Gargano)
My 10 (make that 11) favorite films in alphabetical order:
Exit Through the Gift Shop
British artist/prankster Banksy’s “documentary” is a funny, metalicious look how at the established art world (aka consumer culture) coops underground ideas/movements for its own, often capricious purposes. It’s also an endlessly entertaining subversion of both film and art conventions that raises far more questions than it answers.
Writer/director Noah Baumbach offers up another lo-fi, emotionally awkward ode to the Mumblecore movement, this one featuring the ever-intriguing presence of that genre’s actress du jour, Greta Gerwig. It seems her naturalistic approach rubbed off on co-star Ben Stiller, who gives his best performance in at least a decade (if not ever) as a self-absorbed asshole struggling to become a fully functioning adult.
I Am Love
Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino uses Tilda Swinton’s unique talents (and singular visage) to maximum effect in I Am Love, an elegant, Renoir-esque family drama that touches on everything from issues of globalism and social class to sexuality and the pleasures of good food.
Inside Job and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Charles Ferguson’s latest blood-boiling documentary tackles the most important topic of our time — the Wall Street meltdown of 2008 — via an accessible, long-lensed view of a complex topic and its 30-year trajectory. Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney’s latest looks at the same topic via the largely self-induced demise of Eliot Spitzer, one of the few high-profile figures to question our financial system’s boundless greed and the nefarious tactics it employs to stay fat and happy. Taken together, the two films are a distressing portrait of a nation struggling to regain its moral standing.
I wrote this when I first saw Mother at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival: “The endlessly imaginative narrative and technical hijinks of Bong Joon-ho’s Mother might be the mark of a cinematic wunderkind, but the film’s annoying mother and son centerpieces, the former ably played by Kim Hye-ja, kept me from caring one lick about the duo’s unfortunate fates.” Upon a second viewing I had no such problem.
An intimate epic that burrows under your skin, refusing to leave long after exposure. French director Jacque Audiard’s nuanced character study follows the rise of Malik (played by the thoroughly convincing Tahar Rahim), a young Arab who goes from reluctant, easily spooked errand boy to crafty criminal mastermind. And, unlike films of likeminded ilk, there’s nary a cliché in sight.
The Social Network
David Fincher’s deftly crafted, surprisingly suspenseful look at the rise of Facebook and its nerdy head-honcho Mark Zuckerberg (played by a never-better Jesse Eisenberg) perfectly encapsulates our uncertain times, touching on everything from the perplexing state of capitalism in the 21st century to our ever-more-complicated ability to truly “connect” in a contemporary culture that pimps the illusion of intimacy and authenticity via less concrete and/or tactile means.
Toy Story 3
Pixar’s latest triumph offers what the year’s big-budget extravaganzas did not (or at least didn’t do as well): multifaceted characters, adventurous filmmaking and an emotionally involving story that is surprisingly dark and intense.
What does it say that the Coens’ two best films of the last 20 years were adaptations of someone else’s source material? This tough, terse tale of revenge is propelled by the find of the year — young actress Hailee Steinfeld — and a faithful rendering of Charles Portis’ humor-laden novel. One complaint: The post-script was unnecessary and disorienting, nearly sabotaging everything that preceded it.
Debra Granik’s taut, atmospheric adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s modern-gothic novel follows a steely 17-year-old girl (Jennifer Lawrence) who is left to care for her ailing mother and younger brother and sister in the unforgiving Ozark woods of southern Missouri. Taking in its spare, elemental pleasures one feels as though they’re entering a parallel cinematic universe in which the simple inflection of a character’s voice or the crack of a tree branch have the ability to impart more tension than a dozen CGI-driven multiplex thrillers put together.
The golden age of documentaries continued in 2010, with filmmakers tackling all sorts of subjects with stylistically innovative approaches. But you had to work hard to keep up with them. Our local independent theaters didn’t book everything. Some played first-run on cable-television’s video-on-demand platform; others on HBO. And thank goodness for our great Public Library system, which seems to buy every documentary available as soon as it’s released on DVD. Here are my 10 favorite docs:
1. Inside Job
Charles Ferguson’s masterful look at the unchecked greed that caused our economy to almost collapse in 2008, and at the close ties between those charged with monitoring Wall Street excess and those getting rich from it. It unfolds like a great thriller, filling you with outrage while at the same time making a complex subject accessible.
2. Exit Through the Gift Shop
Count me among those who believe this Banksy-“directed” look at the world of street art and its cooptation by consumer culture isn’t really a straightforward documentary. But if the movie itself is a prank, it’s a deeply layered, clever one that makes you love it — and art itself — all the more.
3. A Film Unfinished
This disturbing, mournful meditation by Yael Hersonski on the meaning of 60 minutes of forgotten raw footage that the Nazis shot in the Warsaw Ghetto is an important addition to Holocaust studies. It shows the cavalier, inhuman way the Germans tried to exploit as Jewish-caused the horrors of ghetto life — starvation, corpses in the streets, improper sanitation — that their own genocidal policies caused.
4. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child
Director Tamra Davis had interviewed the doomed young artist in the 1980s, right as he was becoming an art star, and uses that footage as a starting point to build this perceptive study of his life. Among her important points is that he wasn’t a naf — he was well-informed on art and culture and smart about his intentions.
5. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Directors Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern treat Rivers with respect, not as the desperate, aging celebrity that pop culture likes to present her as. She rewards them by revealing the tough, sensitive, shrewd, outraged and outrageous comedian-philosopher that she has always been.
6. Casino Jack and the United States of Money
Alex Gibney intricately lays out the way Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, working with the Republican House Majority leader Tom DeLay and others (including former Ohio Rep. Bob Ney) put the interests of the country (and, in some cases, Abramoff’s own clients) second to their own financial interests. It’s a strong, penetrating indictment of Republican politics in the George W. Bush era.
7. Who Is Harry Nilsson (and Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?
In the year’s best music documentary, director John Scheinfeld reminds Boomers (and educates younger viewers) about how gifted a singer-songwriter the late Nilsson was. While he doesn’t shy away from depicting the artist’s self-destructive, substance-abusing side, he also shows that Nilsson never stopped trying to be a productive, caring human being.
8. The Tillman Story
With the cooperation of Pat Tillman’s family, director Amir Bar-Lev methodically unravels the government cover-up about how the football-player-turned Army Ranger was killed in Afghanistan, and the attempt to turn the atheist, intellectual athletic star into a clichéd stereotype of a God-fearing, unquestioning soldier. After the movie, I felt I knew him much better.
Thanks to HBO for presenting this provocative, artfully made film by Josh Fox about the environmental dangers of a form of natural-gas drilling called “fracking” and the role Vice President Dick Cheney played in making it easier to do. It’s a useful, unexpected addition to the debate on energy policies.
10. The Art of the Steal
Don Argott’s look at the history of Philadelphia’s Barnes Collection of priceless Impressionist art portrays the imperious Dr. Albert Barnes as a rebel against Philadelphia blue-blood society who fought to keep his art out of their greedy hands. I don’t completely buy it — Barnes seems to have confused the collecting art with the making of it in terms of importance — but this is a lively, opinionated slice of American art-collecting and museum history.
1. Black Swan
Darren Aronofsky orchestrates a vivid dance of creepy psychosexual tensions and fragmented reflections that dives into the blackest hole but somehow still is able to take flight. As fever-dream-inducing as Pi and Requiem for a Dream might have been, Black Swan is the one you can’t shake. And Natalie Portman is the queen of this dark adult ball.
2. The Social Network
Genius is prickly and unwilling to suffer fools. Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is the least social person you’re likely to see gracing screens this year, but David Fincher’s film walks audiences through a fictional account of the creation of Facebook, the No. 1 social network in the world. Eisenberg’s portrayal is genius personified.
3. 127 Hours
Why would anyone want to sit through Danny Boyle’s retelling of the five days Aron Ralston spent trapped in a Colorado canyon before he finally decided to amputate his arm? Who wants to see the actual deed in such graphic detail? How about anyone inspired by this purest expression of what it means to be human. James Franco helps us to see how Ralston stared at death fast approaching on the horizon and struggled valiantly to slow its inevitable progress.
Alejandro González Iñárritu forgoes his usual triptych format for a focus on one character’s arc, although he infuses it with three of four complications. Fortunately, Javier Bardem plays that character and he quite simply is acting on a completely different plane than any other performer this year (the closest comparison might be Daniel Day-Lewis who inhabits that creative space as if it were a deserted island).
5. The King’s Speech
King George VI (Colin Firth) must overcome a powerfully debilitating stammer to inspire England to persevere during the dark days of World War II against Hitler. Unaccredited (and highly unorthodox) speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) helps him find his voice. Firth and Rush lock into step together to transform a historic event into one of the most personally affecting stories of the year.
6. The Fighter
All of the early performance buzz surrounding David O. Russell’s film noisily centers on Christian Bale’s dramatically intense weight loss, how Melissa Leo owns the low-class end of the character spectrum and the welcome change of pace that the movie affords Amy Adams. Yet the real power punch of The Fighter is the sneaky hook from unassuming long-suffering producer and star Mark Wahlberg.
7. Mother and Child
Annette Bening deserves her share of praise for The Kids Are All Right, but her best work might have been in Rodrigo Garcia’s novelistic exploration into the many facets of (and longings for) motherhood. On top of that, the film presents the most complex and diverse post-Obama world onscreen this year or likely for years to come.
How was Christopher Nolan supposed to top the near landmark highs of The Dark Knight? That’s the wrong question to ask because he obviously never considered that to be a problem. Nolan just stuck to making the same kind of film he makes best — twisty puzzles full of big ideas and ever-expanding visual landscapes that occupy the rare air above our heads, but remain engaging.
9. The Tillman Story
I could argue (and I did, mostly with myself) that this wasn’t even close to being the best documentary of the year (granted this was a year for the ages with the likes of Inside Job, Waiting for Superman, Exit Through the Gift Shop and even A Piece of Work on Joan Rivers), but the timing of The Tillman Story (coinciding with the Wikileaks scandal) makes the film’s release certainly one of the most relevant examinations of governmental corruption to emerge this year.
10. Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
What makes this Spitzer documentary so fascinating is not the idea that there was a conspiracy against the New York’s crusading attorney general and governor but that ultimately he was the main instrument of his own destruction. Watching him attempt to explain himself is the epitome of human drama.