Conventional wisdom tells us that this has been a fairly weak year for American cinema; and I’m not about to tell conventional wisdom that it’s wrong. Following a summer of rare ineptitude – I hope it’s not just my increasing age that leads me to call it the worst summer movie season in my memory – we received a fall and winter of many perfectly good movies and almost none that are completely stunning; though I’m kind of pleased that this will be the first Oscar ceremony of my life in which I haven’t particularly disliked a single one of the Best Picture nominees, I’m nonetheless a bit put out that not even my dog in that fight (that being Toy Story 3, naturally) is a film that I think particularly deserves to win that kind of award.
And yet, when the time came to whittle the year’s offerings down to a top 10, and 10 honorable mentions, I found it harder to do than it has been in years; I could happily have added another set of ten without feeling like I was reaching even a little (some of the titles that came closest but just missed the cut include the operatic biopic Vincere, the vast character study Carlos, and Catherine Breillat’s strange and marvelous modernist fairy tale Bluebeard). For of course, American cinema’s only part of the game; and this year witnessed an exceptionally rich selection of films from around the world (though since I use the eligibility rule of, “first non-festival release in the U.S. between 1 January and 31 December”, a lot of these are, strictly speaking, 2009 films. My apologies to non-U.S. readers if this list is old news).
At any rate, the net result is a list that is, beyond question, the most obnoxious, pretentious, and obscure in all my days of assembling a year-end Top 10; for this I apologise, though perhaps I can defend it on the grounds of being my tiny way of praising the diversity of cinema, in this year when there seems to be such heavy-footed consensus on the 8 or 10 films that are the only ones anybody got to enjoy, all year long.
1. Day & Night
(Teddy Newton, USA)
It clocks in at a regal five minutes and fifty-seven seconds; but every one of those seconds is basically perfect. There is not a feature film that I saw this year which did so much to challenge my preconceptions of how a story can be told through sound and image; nothing since the dawn of RealD in the last decade has used 3-D technology to such profound narrative and thematic effect; and no film I saw this year bore such an elegantly simple and heartfelt message. And all of it wrapped inside a absolutely funny and perfectly sweet slapstick comedy.
2. Last Train Home
(Lixin Fan, Canada / UK)
From the fate of a planet wracked by financial meltdown to the conflicts tearing apart one single family, Fan’s incredible directorial debut seemingly contains a little bit of everything that has to do with humanity in the first years of the 21st Century: yet it never feels sprawling, but always focus tighter, ever tighter on the tragedy of the Zhang family, broken into pieces by the march of globalisation. Political and personal in turns, the film tells its story with a clarity of purpose admirable and sadly rare in any movie, leaving us with a perfect gem of close observation.
3. The Illusionist
(Sylvain Chomet, France / UK)
Deceptively bitter, Chomet’s tribute to the work of Jacques Tati doubles, or maybe triples, as a meditation on aging, and a heartbreaking consideration of how regret comes to color our present. Nothing that takes its comic cues from Tati can be rightfully considered unfunny, but as the movie lingers in my memory it’s the autumnal moments, and not the brilliantly-executed gags, that stand out; that, and the exquisite animation, capturing a romantic vision of a bygone Edinburgh with scratchy lines and watercolor textures. It’s easily one of the year’s most beautiful films: both pictorially, and in its thick, tear-jerking emotionality.
(Ilisa Barbash & Lucien Castaing-Taylor, USA)
The year’s biggest paradox: how can one film be both a terrifically, even exhaustively detailed at the nuts-and-bolts of a certain way of life, and at the same time (and for mostly the same reasons) be such an abstract, conceptual look at the interplay between man and nature? I don’t know, which is part of the reason I look forward to having many long nights in the future with Barbash and Castaing-Taylor’s otherworldly documentary, a sensory immersion in landscapes and sounds and human behavior contrasted with sheep filmed with a casual intimacy like no sheep have ever been filmed before.
5. Fish Tank
(Andrew Arnold, UK / Netherlands)
Realist dramas about the agonising life of lower-class British people are a genre just as hidebound as any other; still, there’s nothing exactly like Arnold’s luminous second feature, anchored by two abnormally gifted performances by Michael Fassbender and first-timer Katie Jarvis. Assembled with a remarkable degree of care belying its ratty appearance, the film presents such a deep and fascinating look at life, just slightly off-kilter enough so it doesn’t feel like medicine, that I’m willing to forgive Arnold her sometimes transparent symbolism (that horse!), instead choosing to be grateful for the psychological excellence of this deceptively complex coming-of-age story.
6. White Material
(Claire Denis, France / Cameroon)
A tone poem concerning violence and insanity masquerading as strength of will, and directed by one of modern cinema’s most unapologetically demanding filmmakers: nothing about White Material is even vaguely easy, but that’s what makes it so very rewarding. Isabelle Huppert is incendiary as the main character, a stubborn white woman defiantly trapping herself in the middle of an African revolution, but the real stars of the movie are Denis’s fragmentary, intuitive re-ordering of events to suit a driving sense of fatalism, and Yves Cape’s ghostly cinematography, turning the beautiful landscape into an expression of the main characters’ fluctuating moods.
7. A Prophet
(Jacques Audiard, France / Italy)
An epic-scale crime drama that turns its familiarity into an asset, I don’t know that I saw another film so thrilling crafted all year: frantic but perfectly sane editing, grimily beautiful cinematography, clashing sound, and directed with wicked energy. This could be nothing but a genre film, and it would still be a great one; but Audiard smuggles into his standard-issue tale of a young man’s fall from innocence in the face of a satanic old mentor a surprisingly un-contrived metaphor for France’s difficult culture clash between old and new ethnic groups. It’s a smart film, and a thrilling movie.
8. Toy Story 3
(Lee Unkrich, USA)
If I admitted how many times I’ve seen TS3 at this point, it would make me seem like even more of a worn-out whore for Pixar than I expect I already do. So let me suffice to say that it’s no mean feat that after all those viewings, the magnificent closing sequence still reduces me to a bubbling wreck of tears. Revisiting the seemingly complete Toy Story universe couldn’t have been easy, and it’s a flat-out miracle that the result was so self-contained and yet such a flawless continuation of the first two that it seems, in retrospect, absolutely essential.
9. Blue Valentine
(Derek Cianfrance, USA)
The pseudo-explicit sex scenes that almost got the film a dreaded NC-17 are only the most obvious nakedness in this gutwrenching depiction of a marriage on the rocks, acted with fearless commitment by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in a matched pair of performances as pure and raw as anything onscreen all year. Hopeless and savage, the film is almost too honest: I desperately needed some catharsis it wasn’t interested in providing. But as a depiction of emotion at its most elemental, Blue Valentine is beyond reproach, an unblinking and lacerating depiction of a depressing, but very real, human experience.
10. Another Year
(Mike Leigh, UK)
Leigh’s characteristically acute visit with a collection of everyday people feeling the things that everyday people feel might not be up to the very heights of his powers, but imperfect Leigh still means a hell of a lot more precise analysis and psychological insight than most other filmmakers would know what to do with. His study of social codes, routines, and the need for companionship is always bracing and acute, right up to its sorrowful coda; but then, finding the tragedy in everyday life has long been one of the director’s specialties, and in that respect, he’s in top form.
Extra-Special Secret Double-Probationary Honorable Mentions
Two short pieces that I adored but which would have required me to go further even than I was prepared in re-defining “cinema”: Steven Klein’s video for Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” would have been even better if the song weren’t crappy technopop, but the content of the piece, enthusiastically mashing-up Bob Fosse, gay and straight pornography, and Madonna, among other influences, is further proof for those who still aren’t convinced that nobody presently living has a keener sense than Gaga for how to manipulate pop culture imagery for whatever ends please her. About as far away from that as you can go, Jean-Luc Godard’s Hommage à Éric Rohmer is a monumentally difficult montage of spoken words and text, and while it takes an answer key to even begin peeling away the layers of meaning in just 3.5 minutes, there’s no mistaking how impressive is the film’s reduction of memories to fragments grasped desperately and at random.
Somewhere equally far from both those shorts, I was tempted to include The Secret of Kells in my Top 20, and to hell with my rules, and to hell with these one-shot qualifying runs; except that if the film hadn’t been nominated for an Oscar, I would likely have never heard of it or had the chance to see it. And in honor of that frustrating situation, I have elected to leave it a 2009 film.
The flipside of finding very little to love in American cinema this year, I found it extra-hard to limit myself on the number of things I hated. Hence I doubled my ordinary Bottom 5; and I still wouldn’t have a problem coming up with the same number, again.
10. Little Fockers
Cruelly anti-funny and lazy, repeating situations from its predecessors without any care to how much sense they make; but the worst part is how easily you can tell that everybody in the cast was having the most miserable time of their lives, except for maybe a seemingly doped-up Laura Dern.
9. The Wolfman
Universal’s outstandingly aggressive exercise in pissing on its own legacy has some ace make-up, but that’s not much in the face of a hellishly convoluted script and comically gloomy cinematography, furthered marred by giving Anthony Hopkins a plum chance to overact, which he unconscionably refuses to take.
8. Saw 3D
Meanspirited, far too complicated for absolutely no reason, and there’s barely a minute’s worth of good acting in the whole damned thing. But honestly, what bothered me the most was that this allegedly-final Saw movie couldn’t be bothered to do anything but lamely rework the exact same ground as the last few films in the series.
7. Gulliver’s Travels
Because dammit, Star Wars jokes make everything better. Wait, did I say “jokes”? Because I meant, “references that take the functional place of jokes”.
A movie about a renegade angel fighting God’s army of zombies with a machine gun, to protect a Southwestern diner and the woman inside bearing the new Messiah, and it’s completely fucking boring? How the hell do you manage that?
5. Yogi Bear
Remember how much you loved the “Yogi Bear” shorts? No, you don’t, because they sucked even by the standards of Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Increasing the running time by a factor of ten and adding the world’s mustiest plot about a venal land developer doesn’t turn out to help.
4. Remember Me
You can be lulled into thinking it’s just a more pointless than usual riff on the “young hipster kids in New York falling in love and trying to make sense of the world” tune, made worse than it has to be thanks to a terrible Robert Pattinson performance. Then comes the twist ending, and the most offensive grab at gravitas ever made.
2. The Last Airbender
There’s good story hiding inside there somewhere, but M. Night Shyamalan’s impossible dialogue and archly serious tone and wild mishandling of some deeply untalented child actors makes sure that we cannot find it, no matter how hard we try. Also: worst post-process 3-D of the year.
Marmaduke is an asshole.
A bit too stylistically akin to director Paul Greengrass’s Jason Bourne movies to entirely stand proud as it’s own thing, but any time a movie can marry crackling action work of such consistently excellent caliber with such fiery message-movie rhetoric, and have every element of the whole work in such wonderful harmony, it deserves more respect than the generally pleasant shrug it got from just about everyplace. So much for the liberal media.
Most Overrated by the Critics
The Social Network
I like it plenty: it made my top 20, I bought the Blu-Ray the day it came out, and it entertains me to no end, though I do agree with all the people who made it that there’s nothing generation-defining about it, that it’s just a well-told tale of one man who can’t stand having friends dealing with the full meaning of that fact. But good or bad, there is not any conceivable reason for any movie to run the boards with every damn critics’ group in existence; it’s even worse than when The Dark Knight did its thing with the fanboys in 2008, since theoretically critics are more thoughtful than that. I was actually delighted when 127 Hours, a movie I didn’t really like at all, split the Utah critics’ award, just for the novelty of it.
Most Overrated at the Box Office
Alice in Wonderland
Even though nobody in the world appears to have actively enjoyed it, it became the sixth movie in history to break $1 billion internationally. If that’s not the most cosmically unjust, stomach-turning fact in the world, I don’t know what is.
Ramona & Beezus
Expecting a manic kiddie-flick with no redeeming value, I was staggered to instead find a fairly loving adaptation of Beverly Cleary’s books with a nice low-key sensibility that has the temerity to assume that the children in the audience are thoughtful, clever people who can appreciate meaningful storytelling. It’s tremendously gratifying to stumble across a family film that isn’t all fart jokes and pop songs, one with an actual brain in its head.
If any other filmmakers than Joel & Ethan Coen had signed their name to this elegantly classic Western, I’d be over the moon. But since Joel & Ethan Coen did sign their names to it, I am instead simply crushed that it’s only a really fun genre exercise and not a triumph of top-drawer formalist excellence like their last three features. But I suppose without the Coens, there’d be no Roger Deakins Western cinematography to be head-over-heels in love with, so that’s at least something.
Biggest Disappointment That Wasn’t Actually Surprising
Hot Tub Time Machine
That title! It’s so good! Why is this the movie they made out of it? Cowboys & Aliens had best be better than this shit, that’s all I have to say.
Best Popcorn Movie
Tony Scott’s best film in years is all contrivance and stupidity and lines of dialogue that nobody would ever say. It’s also a lot of fun, so quick-moving that you simply don’t have time to notice all the holes throughout the fabric of the movie. Denzel Washington hits exactly the right notes, Ben Seresin’s photography is attractively gritty, the disaster hook is just absurd enough to be more fun than unnerving, and all told it’s one of the best distractions I had in a theater all year.
Take your immersive illusion of reality and shove it; your proscenium-deep attempt to draw the audience in and subtly indicate things. I want garish, ghastly 3-D, with things bobbling at the camera with sub-moronic abandon. I want Step Up 3D and Piranha 3D, trash that knows it’s trashy and delights in it.
Least Guilty Pleasure
You ever notice how the people who really like Burlesque are kind of smug about it? That’s because our brains are operating on a level you cannot possibly comprehend, you awful little middlebrow sheep. Seriously, though, by the time Cher finishes the most inorganically shoved-in musical number in the history of the musical, I couldn’t have loved the movie more if it was paying my taxes for me.
Film That Will Least Deserve My Positive Review a Decade Hence
Because it kind of doesn’t even deserve it now: I know exactly why I responded so strongly to it the first time, but I’ve been remarkably eager to avoid revisiting it for any reason. It was a rough summer, okay? You grabbed onto whatever lifeline you got, when you could.
Film That Will Least Deserve My Negative Review a Decade Hence
Even having seen it a second time, months later, I still don’t think it works: but there’s a something about it that won’t leave my mind, it’s stylish (if a bit over-the-top in the set design department), and it never does to assume you’ve outsmarted Martin Scorsese.
Film I’m Most Eager to Re-Visit
The wild spread of opinions, even among people who all liked it, has convinced me that even though I was disposed towards the movie, it has undercurrents that I barely noticed. Definitely a film to let linger and come back to when I’m starting to forget the details, though as much as the film still feels fresh in my mind, that might take awhile.
It bothered me a lot when I realised that I was between two scenes that were a) both from animated films b) released by Disney. Since it would be typical of me to go with the incinerator scene from Toy Story 3, I will instead name the lantern scene from Tangled, only slightly hamstrung by the limp song “I See the Light”, which is a minuscule flaw in the face of how otherworldly gorgeous it is, a perfect example of what computer animation can do that nothing else can, and the only moment in the film where the extra cost of 3-D seemed like a really good idea.
In Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver ends the Lilliput-Blefuscu War by leading a sing-along of, naturally enough, “War” by Edwin Starr. At one point, he sings, “War! Huh! Good God, y’all! What is it good for?”, the way one does when one is covering “War”, and he points to Emily Blunt’s Princess Thanklessrole, who replies in Rex Harrison speak-singing, “Absolutely naught!”
I cannot die soon enough to forget that two seconds.
Best Worst Moment
In Step Up 3D, Pretty Boy takes Pretty Girl to a subway exhaust vent to show her something cool. It turns out that this consists of dripping his neon green slurpee over the vent as the train goes underneath, with the updraft sending the slurpee drops flying into the air. And since this is a 3-D movie, those drops are hugely unconvincing CGI that flies RIGHT AT YOUR GODDAMN FACE. And it is for this reason that my 2011 resolution is to own a 3-D television by Thanksgiving.
“I was drunk, and angry, and stupid.”
-Aaron Sorkin, via Jesse Eisenberg and Rashida Jones, The Social Network
Most Ineffable Piece of Wisdom Delivered by Jerry O’Connell in Piranha 3D
“If fish looked like that, I would fuck fish. I would only fuck fish!”
The “THIS! IS! SPARTA!” Award for 2010’s Most Awful Line of Dialogue That Works Best in Casual Conversation
“Release the Kraken!”
-A visibly sad Liam Neeson, Clash of the Titans
There’s another design that’s almost as great, but what I love about this is the double purpose served by the pullquotes: stress in the clearest way possible that this is about a man in a tight rectangular space underground, while also pointing out oh-so-casually that for all its trashy overtones, Buried got some really damn strong reviews. And great touch having the title be the only splash of color.
Best Poster Series
Any one of these four gorgeous, classic designs – the closest I can think of to an American poster designer appropriating the legendary style of Polish poster art – would be a strong contender for poster of the year; all four just makes it a hugely unfair fight. I’ve placed them in my very uncertain order of preference.
Best Teaser Poster
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
Nice clip art, jackass.
The King’s Speech
I’d have called this the worst overall, but it got disappeared so quickly that I half-wonder if it wasn’t just a bit of a punking, especially after the director made a showy point of distancing himself from it about 24 hours after it was released. That was at least 21 hours too many.
Most Unforgivable Photoshopping in a Poster
Sex and the City 2
WHO ARE YOU AND WHERE IS KIM CATTRALL?
The Tree of Life (Trailer)
A friend and I were joking about how, with its impossibly beautiful cinematography, evocative but cryptic editing, and beautiful music, this ad was the best movie of 2010. Except we kind of weren’t joking.
Trailer Most Superior to its Attendant Move
The film is perfectly fine, a well-timed action movie with an appealingly dense plot. But the trailer promised a much more atmospheric, dare I say Impressionistic study of the life of the mind that the ultimately straightforward thriller simply couldn’t measure up to,
Most Confused Trailers
Root for the bad guy! Root for the not-so-bad-guy-after-all! It’s a parody of Bond tropes! It’s about sweet little girls warming a misanthrope’s heart! It’s about these squishy yellow dudes! It looks suspiciously like a movie version of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego! Every time a new ad for the film came out, I felt like I knew less of the movie’s content, which turned out to be much more simple and sleepy than the chaos of its marketing campaign promised.
Worst Marketing Campaign
Let’s refresh: here’s the trailer:
And here’s the poster:
And the film itself is such a winsome old-school throwback to the Disney Renaissance that it practically has moss on it. Hence the shocked whisper campaign amongst the Disney faithful in the weeks before the film opened: It’s not that bad! It’s actually pretty good! I don’t ordinarily hope for people to get fired, but for whoever okayed this campaign, that would honestly be a mercy.
The Kids Are All Right
Best Titular Pun
Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore
Worst Titular Pun
Title that Most Made Me Expect a Completely Different Movie, Possibly One About Sewing
Title Best Designed to Piss Off Video Store Clerks
Little Fockers, the third part of the Meet the… trilogy.
Best Film I Saw for the First Time in 2010
I kind of addressed this not so long ago in a post, but of all the great films listed there, it’s perhaps stupidly The Beyond that I expect to revisit the most times with the most enthusiastic pleasure. Horror fans, folks. We’re not well people.