By Don Simpson | January 15, 2011
This year I decided to do something a little bit different with my year-end list — I have altered the title from “Top 10” to “Favorite 10%”. Personally, I find it very difficult to rank films, especially when there is no feasible way to compare a film such as Exit Through the Gift Shop with Black Swan or A Town Called Panic (Panique au village) with An Ordinary Couple, they are completely different pieces of work and I like them for completely different reasons. So, this list merely serves as a compilation of the theatrically released films that I enjoyed the most in 2010.
As far as the “10%” goes…Well, I saw over 300 new films in 2010 and to pick only 10 films for this list was sheer torture. Previously, I averaged seeing approximately 125 new films per year; so, as I see it, I have been writing “Favorite 10%” lists at the end of every year. And despite seeing so many films in 2010, there are four films that I really regret not having a chance to see: Biutiful, Carlos, Enter the Void and Dogtooth.
Stay tuned for my “Favorite Films of the 2010 Film Festivals” and “Favorite Performances of 2010” lists…
More so than any other film of 2010, Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop has stuck with me ever since my initial viewing. It also seems quite appropriate to dedicate my #1 position to one of the “documentaries” from 2010 that really got audiences contemplating the reality of the images, as well as the amount of disclosure that “documentary” filmmakers should be required to offer. I would be very surprised if Banksy reveals the truth behind Exit Through the Gift Shop any time soon, so you will just have to make that judgment on your own.
The emotionally tumultuous Blue Valentine is guaranteed to rip the insides out of even the most romantically ambivalent. So why see it? First of all, because it features two of the best acting performances of 2010: Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. Secondly, because writer-director Derek Cianfrance is able to portray the relationship of Cindy (Williams) and Dean (Gosling) so frankly that it hurts to watch.
3) Fish Tank
And now for emotional downer number two… As an heir apparent to the British social realist tradition of Ken Loach’s working class dramas, director Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank is a painfully bleak portrait of modern life on an Essex estate. First-timer Katie Jarvis gives a bitterly honest lead performance as Mia, one that is schizophrenic mix of tenacity, meanness and fragility.
And now for emotional downer number three (I am beginning to sense a theme here)… The naturalness of Blanca Engström’s acting debut — a primarily facial one at that — is what really makes The Girl a fantastic film. Her interpretation of the purity, freedom and solitude of childhood is a transcending experience to say the least. Engström is a transfixing presence, and we the audience are left as helpless observers, stuck on the other side of the screen wanting to extend a kind and caring hand to assist her.
5) Black Swan
I think I am the only film critic who picked up on the strange attraction to Nina’s crotch throughout Black Swan. I am not sure what that says about me, but I just wanted to throw that out there. Black Swan has received a fairly rough reception by some film critics, and as a long-time hater of Darren Aronofsky’s films I can definitely understand their perspectives. From my perspective, Black Swan is the least pretentious and most playful of Aronofsky’s oeuvre. I read Black Swan as an over-the-top horror flick that is not supposed to be taken seriously at all. Above all, Black Swan made my favorites list this year because of its unrivaled ability to enrapture and transport me into the fantastical black and white and red world which Aronofsky created with cinematographer Matthew Libatique.
Based on Kimberly Theidon’s book Entre Prójimos, Peruvian director Claudia Llosa’s allegorical film details the long-lasting effects from the Sendero Luminoso’s shameless raping of Peruvian women. Llosa’s magic realism sensibilities allow her to walk the fine line between the grim natures of the content and visually lyrical yet absurdly comedic moments.
Functioning as a hypertextualized mash-up of pop culture references from the 1990s and 2000s (thus lending the film a certain timeless quality), Scott Pilgrim vs. the World does well to push the boundaries of reality in all kinds of directions. As long as your good senses are not insulted by some shameless stereotypes and a splattering of hyper-violence (though very little blood is shed), Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is an entertaining flick with a fantastic soundtrack.
Neither sense nor logic exists in the world of A Town Called Panic, this is essentially a cinematic representation of the playtime fantasies of a dangerously imaginative and hyperactive five-year old child (it makes the Toy Story films seem like snooze-fests written by stodgy and stuffy Hollywood studio hacks). The sets are constructed with papier-mâché and cardboard; the characters are plastic toy figurines — most of which stand upright with the aid of a flat base to which their feet are attached — of mismatching dimensions, as if the aforementioned child was let loose in a vintage toy shop for 10 minutes and given enough funds to buy a bucketful of toys. Coherency and cohesion be damned, A Town Called Panic is pure unadulterated anarchy en Francais!
Directed by Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (a.k.a. the Yes Men), and co-directed by Kurt Engfehr (editor-producer Bowling for Columbine; Fahrenheit 9/11), this humor-injected political documentary makes Michael Moore’s most recent effort (Capitalism: A Love Story) seem grossly uninspired. Posing as high-ranking representatives of evil corporations, the Yes Men con their way into business conferences and television interviews in order to wake up their audiences to the dangers of passively allowing greed to rule the world. The results are more than just silly activist pranks; the actions of the Yes Men are thoughtfully conceived acts of protest designed to reach the largest possible audiences, inciting discussion, debate and action — this is exactly what all great political documentaries should do.
10) The Ghost Writer
The Ghost Writer is the only film on this list that I did not review. There is no real reason for that, except I would have wound up saying “ditto” to most of what Dirk Sonniksen had already written on the subject. I will add, however, that in my opinion Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer is the best political thriller that I have seen in a long time.
You know what? I am somewhat disappointed that Catfish has found its way down to number 11 on this list. I was blown away by the initial press screening and I still think of Catfish quite often; and as far as I am concerned, Catfish had some tough competition this year. Catfish is an extremely potent critical analysis and philosophical diatribe on modern communication and the necessary rewriting of social rules and morals associated with 21st century relationships. I have said it before but I will say it again: It is all enough to give Marshall McLuhan a virtual post-mortem orgasm! The truthfulness and authenticity of Catfish is still up for debate, but my opinion is if it is true that this entire documentary is essentially a mockumentary, well, Henry Joost and the Schulman brothers deserve even greater kudos for pulling off such a wonderfully transfixing prank.
The Duplass brothers’ first two features — The Puffy Chair and Baghead — made my Top 10 lists of 2005 and 2008 respectively; so I entered the screening of Cyrus with unbelievably high expectations. Armed with a significantly more robust budget than their first two features and a marquee cast (Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, John C. Reilly and Catherine Keener) to boot, Cyrus could have easily been a sell-out — but thankfully it is not. Cyrus intelligently comments on and works in radical opposition to the traditional rom-com genre; yet Cyrus never goes as far as making fun of or satirizing rom-coms (this is by no means an anti-rom-com). Instead, Cyrus is a re-fashioning of the rom-com genre with a Duplassian twist.
Any country that refuses to afford its fellow citizens the right to marriage, solely because of conservative religious ideologies, is much too backwards and prohibitive for me. Gay marriage does not hurt anyone and I will never understand why some people (read: the conservative Christian right) in the United States are able to force their moral and religious agenda on others and get away with it. OK, I’ll hop off my soapbox now… But what really makes An Ordinary Couple a unique documentary is its ability to prove that gay couples can really be just like other more “ordinary” (read: straight) couples.
A Prophet is thoughtful film that examines literal and metaphoric prisons and how literacy and language can provide freedom and hope in even the most grave of circumstances. The structure and pacing might be a bit too meandering for the prison genre, but Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup’s outstanding performances warrant the patience to sit through the entire 149 minutes.
Will the people who need to be convinced of the merits of nuclear disarmament (the deciders, if you will) even give Countdown to Zero the time of day? And, assuming that they do watch Countdown to Zero, will they choose to believe it or will they dismiss it as yet another liberal conspiracy theory (you know, like climate change)? There are many people who argue that nuclear weapons are integral to the national security of the United States — and unfortunately many of these knuckleheads are in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives (the deciders, if you will). How do we convince them to change their minds?
Under the minimalist direction of J Blakeson, The Disappearance of Alice Creed is told from a single perspective and the script is limited to three characters. There are brilliantly realized plot twists and shocking reveals, some coming from so far out of left field that its difficult to hold back a few laughs or exclaim “touche!”; but no matter how outrageous, each and every frame of the narrative has a purpose and as a whole the plot makes pitch perfect sense. For those of you who enjoy well written caper films, The Disappearance of Alice Creed should not be missed; it is quite rare to experience a fictional caper film with facts that remain so firmly grounded in reality.
17) Winnebago Man
Winnebago Man is a charming documentary that speaks quite eloquently about Internet “stardom,” the mass desire to laugh at the mistakes and misfortunes of others, and the freedom of speaking one’s mind. I actually didn’t approach Winnebago Man as one of Rebney’s “fans”. I first saw the Rebney footage on The Show With No Name, but I never found the footage to be very funny. Steinbauer’s documentary did not change my opinion of the original footage, though I do have a lot more respect for Jack Rebney after watching Winnebago Man.
18) Nothing Personal
An Irish-Dutch co-production, Nothing Personal relishes in its own placidity as a quiet (practically unspoken) existential diatribe on individual freedoms and the need for solitude to collect one’s thoughts. Writer-director Urszula Antoniak’s feature film debut takes an incredibly staunch position on not revealing any personal information about its characters. Anne (Lotte Verbeek) and Martin (Stephen Rea), stubborn as they are, refuse to divulge anything about themselves; we are relegated to experiencing these characters as their relationship organically unfolds in the present. An incredibly intimate and personal story (gorgeously realized by cinematographer Daniël Bouquet), Nothing Personal purposefully handcuffs the audience by not having the traditional cinematic pieces of the formulaic puzzle to help us connect with the characters.
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, Inception is all about its mind-blowing tapestry in which reality and dreams are lucidly intertwined, the multi-level chess game involving a dream within a dream within a dream. The strange and disorienting dream-logic of the individual scenes is cleverly bound together by an overarching traditional heist film narrative structure; without that logical restraint, the film would float aimlessly adrift in time and place…as if only a dream with no reality to which to awaken. I had hoped for so much more from Inception, but I enjoyed the unique cinematic experience nonetheless.
Winner of the South by Southwest 2010 Competition Award for Documentary Feature, Marwencol is an intriguing story featuring a very eccentric subject (Mark Hogancamp) and the fictional one-sixth scale World War II-era Belgium town he constructed in his Kingston, NY backyard. The visualizations of that town — named Marwencol — share a stunningly surreal kinship with Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, except that there is not a single wink of irony to be found within Hogancamp’s scenarios. Now I am just holding out hope for a film comprised solely of the serial narratives that Hogancamp has created for Marwencol.
21) The American
From the pacing to the mise-en-scene, Anton Corbijn’s The American is by no means a product of this cinematic era. The plot may sound like a spy thriller but Corbijn shows very little interest in suspense or drama; Corbijn only cares about Jack’s (George Clooney) current psychology and the environment in which he presently exists. There is very little plot and very little action; The American is all about mood and metaphor.
22) Let Me In
If you (like me) are a fan of Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in), you more than likely welcomed the news of Matt Reeve’s remake with one word: WHY?! I cannot think of any instance that Reeves is able to improve upon the near perfect Let The Right One In (except for Michael Giacchino’s score, which is pretty damn close to brilliant). Instead, Reeves abandons the most unique qualities of Let The Right One In: the romance between Eli and Oskar; the relationship between Eli and her “father”; the ambiguity between good and evil (for one, Eli never morphs into a monster); and the poetic neo-realism. But at least Reeves did not screw it up. Let Me In is a very traditional American horror film (and police procedural) — and is the best American horror film in many years; it is also a well constructed and beautifully acted film.
The incomparable Vincent Cassel (who is also quite impressive in Black Swan) owns the screen, chomping away at each and every frame of celluloid. Cassel’s Mesrine is egotistical and arrogant, yet psychologically flawed. He murders people and steals with little or no remorse, as if lacking a conscience or soul. Yet no matter how evil of a man he is, Mesrine is able to sweep any woman off her feet — you might even say he has a similar effect on the audience. Cassel toys with us, woos us, and pleads for our sympathy. It is a masterful performance in an all too long film (which was broken into two distinct films for U.S. distribution: Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy #1). A different edit of this film could have very well made the top of this list.
24) Never Let Me Go
I did not truly appreciate Never Let Me Go until I read the source novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. Though I would never dare claim that the film is better than the novel, I consider them quite equal but different. Director Mark Romanek makes quite a few changes, but the tone and message of his film remains the same as the novel. The moral, ethical, theological and philosophical conversations spawned from Never Let Me Go — which offers unique analogies to abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia, death penalty, immigration, affordable health care and LGBT rights — promise to be indefinitely perplexing to modern society.
25) Youth in Revolt
Well, maybe I like Michael Cera more than I thought? Two of his films made my Favorite Films of 2010! (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is listed at #7.) Youth in Revolt — no matter how exaggerated and fictionalized — essentially tells nice pubescent boys that it is ok to be bad (rebellious, violent and destructive) in order to attract girls. So there are some troubles there…but otherwise, Youth in Revolt deserves to be ordained the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off of 2010.
26) Tiny Furniture
It is the very little (tiny) things that make Tiny Furniture something very special: Jed riding the rocking horse; Aura in the fountain; the white cabinets; the pipe scene (which is simultaneously humorous, depressing and pathetic); the communication (or lack there of) between the characters. Tiny Furniture could be superficially interpreted as a film about a bunch of privileged white people complaining about how difficult their lives are; but in true ethnographic style director Lena Dunham cleverly withholds any judgments of her own, allowing the viewer to examine the characters’ motives and make their own decisions. Dunham’s Tiny Furniture won the SXSW 2010 Narrative Feature Film Jury Award and SXSW 2010 Chicken & Egg Emergent Narrative Woman Director Award.
27) You Wont Miss Me
Director Ry Russo-Young utilizes two cinematographers (Kitao Sakurai and Ku-Ling Siegel) and mixes together multiple visual formats (16 mm, HD, Super 8mm and video) to convey the multifaceted nature of Shelly’s (Stella Schnabel — daughter of Julian Schnabel) consciousness; while the non-linear construction of the narrative forces us to experience life as unconventionally as Shelly does. Some scenes play out fully and organically, while others seem to exist solely as the remaining fragments of a deteriorating memory. For those of you who prefer your protagonists to be soft and lovable — take heed, Shelly is definitely not one of those. You Wont Miss Me may leave Shelly’s persona ingrained in your mind long afterwards, but you probably will not miss her.
Every year that Sofia Coppola releases a new film, I just automatically assume that it will be one of my three favorite films of the year. Somewhere changed that for me. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Somewhere but it just didn’t blow me away like her other three features (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, and Marie Antoinette) did. Part of my disappointment was with the cinematography and soundtrack of Somewhere, but I also have some concerns about the message Coppola is attempting to convey. Does Coppola really want the audience to have sympathy for Johnny (Stephen Dorff), if so, why?
Vincenzo Natali directed and co-wrote this cerebrally entrancing and disturbing mind-fuck of a film. Splice is prime fodder for engrossing moral and ethical debates on topics (some more taboo than others) such as: genetic inheritance, cloning, incest, bestiality, abortion, and parenthood (specifically control and punishment of children). Natali splices the genes of Ridley Scott’s Alien with those of several David Cronenberg films all-the-while utilizing the story of Frankenstein as a narrative guide. Sure, parts of the story are highly derivative, but the resulting creation as a whole is fairly original; and, lusciously lensed by one of my favorite cinematographers of late, Tetsuo Nagata (Micmacs, La vie en rose), Splice is a modestly produced marvel to behold.
Director Michael Winterbottom’s stylish retro-noir film adaptation is brilliantly atmospheric, I might even say technically flawless. Many critics believe that The Killer Inside Me is mere pornographic wish-fulfillment for the male audience; but I retort that anyone who finds the violence in this movie to be sexually arousing is in dire need of some serious psychiatric assistance. There is nothing glamorous or gratuitous about this violence; if anything, the violent scenes seem incredibly real. In making the violence so real, Winterbottom confronts the audience head-on with the abusive power relations between males and females — something that cinema often chooses to glamorize.