Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Top 10 Films of 2010

2010 has been a year in which the indies, arties, foreign and prestige films overpromised and underdelivered, while the best genre and mainstream films delivered and then some. Hooray for Hollywood!

10. The Social Network - David Fincher’s Facebook origin story is like the NFL team that wins the Super Bowl with the ninth-best player at every position. You have to respect that level of quality and consistency. But at some point, shouldn't football fans and moviegoers want something more than extreme competence? Shouldn't they want to root for brilliance? Even if you admire its stoic precision, you’re left begging for a scene that wouldn’t get lost in the middle of Fincher’s Zodiac.

9. The American - Do you ennui? We ennui! So does George Clooney, as the aging criminal gunsmith stashed in an Italian village waiting for… something. That rare thing – the quietly sexy existential film.

8. Never Let Me Go - Who says all the English can make are literary adaptations and royalty porn? Oh wait. It’s been that kind of year. Nevertheless, Mark Romanek does an admirable job adapting author Kazuo Ishiguro’s Harry Potter story, where all the students are the thematic cousins of Blade Runner's replicants. It's a shame she won't live, but then again, who does?

7. The Town - "I'm proud to be from Charlestown. It ruined my life, but I'm proud." So begins Ben Affleck's Boston crime drama about a neighborhood where bank robbery provides for the family and destroys it. What follows is a dazzling breakneck opener, oats of sentimental characters with considerable fictional depth, a mature love story, and working class ambition, survival and pride. It doesn't have the thematic dots and loops of the film it loves - Michael Mann's Heat. But its clever set piece in the bowels of Fenway Park comes closer than most to Mann's epic bank heist gone awry.

6. Waiting for Superman – Is our kids learning? The answer are no, and David Guggenheim’s quietly angry call to arms for education reform proves its case intellectually and emotionally. The only hesitation for placing it on a top 10 list is that it’s hard to imagine people watching it 30 years from now.

5. Winter’s Bone – The best traditional indie of the year, two hours of backwood bravery and low-budget magic. Debra Granik’s methhead parable gives us a great heroine in Ree Dolly, searching for her father in order to save the family home. Of all the lead roles of emerging stars this year, Jennifer Lawrence’s performance may be the keeper.

4. Unstoppable – Could I have asked for a better week to make the case for Unstoppable? A week with New York knocked out by a blizzard, the roads frozen, the unions scheming, ambulances slamming into parked cars, and the city’s zillionaire mayor standing in front of his mansion telling New Yorkers to chill out and go see a Broadway show? A portrait of institutional failure and industrial decline in the face of disaster, who would have thought Tony Scott’s silly little runaway train flick would be the harrowing zeitgeist movie of the year?

3. The Ghost Writer – Roman Polanski’s on-target thriller crackles with hard-boiled dialogue, claustrophobic isolation, and black humor. A simple plot transformed by style and panache, with one of the most memorable final scenes in a long time. And we heart Olivia Williams.

2. True Grit – Amid Black Swan, The Kids Are All Right, and Winter’s Bone, 2010 has given us a number of types of women to know and care for. The last and seemingly most successful is the smart-beyond-her-14-years Hailee Steinfeld searching for her father’s killer in True Grit. By turns as funny as The Big Lebowski, as foreboding as No Country, and as gentle as a Disney movie, True Grit is in part a coming-of-age movie and a meditation on justice.

1. Inception – Inception is middling deep and cinematically spectacular. Dazzling as it defies arthouse cookie cutters and studio idiocy, Christopher Nolan’s dreamscape mindbender pushes deeper and deeper into the most vibrant genre of our times – the thinking man’s blockbuster. When I call Inception a “popcorn Tarkovsky,” I say it with admiration on both ends of the phrase. We’re living in the Christopher Nolan Moment.

True Grit

True Grit
Grade: A
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Free Access Granted

She arrived in Fort Smith with two long braids, her father dead in the street, bent on revenge and calling it justice.

All of 14 years, she carried the aura of a professional. She would quote the law. She would spook old men. She would hire the marshal least likely to take the man alive. She would look like Judy Garland and act with the iron, or the “sand,” or the “True Grit” of Cate Blanchett.

And Mattie Ross would be torn between two men. The one-eyed marshal would begin as the avenger, turn to the brute, then end as the father. The Texas Ranger would turn from a menace to a mystery to the first breeze of a lover. For this is the moment in a girl’s life when men transform from the myths of mother’s stories into the angels and beasts of reality.

It would be as if the tornado tore Dorothy’s house off of the Kansas prairie and dropped her in the middle of Terrence Malick’s Badlands. And she would share with Sissy Spacek’s Holly a basic reality: two adolescent women piecing together manhood after wandering into violent and unforgiving circumstances.

And like Holly she would enter a world of masculine excess as a child play-acting maturity. She would shake down a stable owner. And ford rivers deep into Injun Country. And cut down corpses hanging from trees without a tear. Yet when the time came to buy a pony, she would names it “Little Blackie” and ride it like a child. For a moment we would leave a dark Western and enter a Disney pony movie. She might as well name it Flicka.

And the days that a teenage girl spent deep in the Choctaw wilderness with a one-eyed man would be an innocent adventure. And a trip into the violent heart. And a lesson that no matter how smart you are, things don’t always go as you expect.

And the Western always bears the psychological landscape of a man’s world – all fatalism and desperation and a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. And the women of Westerns have always been seen as forces of civilization, viewed with suspicion and inevitability. And how does the Western change when shot through the gaze of a female and an innocent? And how does it change with that lasting female illusion – that through wits, and stubbornness, and playful campfire stories, she can tame a man?

With so much contradiction to play, with so much to embody, the newcomer Hailie Stanfield has been the object of deserving praise. A standout performance from a young performer leads inevitably to questions of how far she can go, what she will do next. Perhaps that’s not the way to look at such a performance. Perhaps True Grit – like the children of Malick films – is the one film she was born to make. (And if I don’t mention Jeff Bridges much – or Roger Deakins, or whoever – it doesn’t mean I think any less.)

And what has gotten into The Coen Brothers? Where are the filmmakers who gave us the world’s most passive sheriff? Who tossed us a tornado and told us not to read the mind of God? After making a string of cynical films, how do a pair of snowy Minnesotans turn around and make a story this overtly sentimental? Did they give up Nihilism for Lent? I suspect not. They’re Jewish.

Here is what I suspect. At the movies, we’re watching a movement away from cynicism toward sentimentality. You see it in Inception. You see it in Unstoppable. You see it in The Town. You see out your window each morning that cynicism is getting us nowhere. That we need to meet the world with resourcefulness rather than resignation. That we are in need of an age of heroism to solve the times in which we live.

The Fighter

The Fighter
Grade: B
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, Amy Adams
Director: David O. Russell

I once referred to Christian Bale as The Actor Most Likely To Tick Off His Wife By Staying In Character Over Dinner.

Shortly thereafter, to my amusement, I read an article in which Bale admitted this was true, that his method actor’s commitment sometimes got on his wife’s nerves. With that in mind, Bale’s role as a crack-addicted ex-boxer in The Fighter must have been a rough few months for Mrs. Bale.

For the mainstream audiences that equate Bale with the stoic anti-hero of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, Bale’s smoking-fuse performance in The Fighter could open eyes. This is the first film with popular aspirations in which Bale completely submerges into an edgy character. He lost weight to create a gaunt and wasting appearance, and I’m not sure how any normal human being could voluntarily make his eyes bulge like that. One wonders if he took a pair of pliers and plucked out his own real teeth just to heighten the authenticity.

While The Fighter centers on the struggles of boxer Mickey Ward, played with an odd mix of masculinity and sensitivity by Mark Wahlberg, it’s dominated by the method performances of Bale and Melissa Leo. A local legend in Lowell, Massachusetts, Bale’s Dickey Eklund once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. He has since been knocked out by crack addiction. He trains his brother on the rare passing occasions of his sobriety. Leo is a piece of work, a drunk but dominating mother mismanaging her son’s boxing career.

While his parents and siblings (nine brother and sisters) drink themselves numb on his earnings, it’s Wahlberg’s Ward who must drink the family acid. He tries to stay loyal to family as family loyalty ruins his personal dreams. What better way to redeem yourself than to fall in love with Amy Adams? She plays wisely to her redeemer role, albeit a redeemer with a right cross, a foul mouth, and a chowder accent.

What is it about blue-collar Boston that inspires this rash of similar films – The Fighter, Conviction, and The Town? Are there any males in Boston who don’t go to jail? Do all the women have damaged hair and dress themselves in the clothes that the Salvation Army left in the dumpster? For whatever reason, Boston lends itself to themes of loyalty, of the tribal instincts versus modern reality. A veteran of dysfunctional family comedy (see Flirting with Disaster), director David O. Russell captures it with sad intensity and humor, even if the film’s multiple screenwriters wrap up the story a little too neatly.

A boxing movie always builds up to one big fight. A good one needs a knockout final round. This is one weakness of The Fighter – its culminating fight is rather lightweight, compared to the great fights of film history. It lacks the palpable blood, sweat, and exhaustion of the original Rocky. Nor does it have the cinematic vision of Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Frankly, at some point some enterprising director needs to re-examine how to make a boxing movie in order to break the structural dead end.

The Tourist

The Tourist
Grade: D
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany, Timothy Dalton
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
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I suppose it’s at least a small accomplishment that The Tourist ends in the exact place that it’s been going all along – with its two mega-stars, Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, in white tux and evening gown, dashing and bejeweled on a sailboat in Venice.

For two hours, The Tourist ignores all logic, reason, and possibly pleas of relief from multiple Nobel Peace Prize winners to relentlessly pursue this moment. Two stars. Looking for a port of call strong enough to hold their wattage. Deigning to allow us to peek in on their fabulous adventure.

The Tourist has in mind the big-star heist films of the sixties like Charade that made it on charisma and splash, with characters who seem to live on champagne. (A latter-day example would be the George Clooney-Jennifer Lopez pairing in Out of Sight.) Depp plays a college math teacher mistaken for a jet-set white-collar criminal. Jolie plays the hyper-elegant woman of mystery who seems like she was born in a luxury hotel, prancing about Paris and Venice deciding if they deserve her.

Except that The Tourist wants to be a quirky satire of those films, as well. That’s the shake. There are giant tone shifts between suspense and comedy that suggest the film’s three writers each had a different movie in mind. If the overt attempts at humor aren’t good for a guffaw, there’s always the accidentally silly action sequences, such as Depp jumping roof to roof in jammies.

The Tourist is somehow the follow-up for director Florian von Donnensmarck, he of The Lives of Others. Such a subject shift makes for career whiplash. Only one scene, a night on the town, delivers the glamour he seeks. The rest of the film is a waste.

Oh, well. At least everyone enjoyed a nice trip to Venice.