Friday, December 31, 2010

Top Films of 2010: It Was Not a Very Good Year

2010 will likely go down as one of the very worst years ever in film, at least, in the twenty plus years I’ve been reviewing movies in Toronto. And while I like doing Best of the Year lists, compiling this one only served to remind me of how bad things were at the cinemas, both on the commercial end of things (Get Him To the Greek, Kick-Ass) and art house environs (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, The Tempest); those movies were equally painful to sit through. It was a strong year for documentaries, though (La danse, Inside Job, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Marwencol and others) and French films (Carlos, Un prophète, Micmacs). But American feature films were especially weak and negligible (The Social Network and Black Swan were about the only ones that stood out.) More to the point, once I factor in the films mentioned on my year end list below, there were only a few others (Another Year, The King’s Speech, Mother, Splice, Get Low, Trigger) that were worth my time. Usually there are three times that many good features to consider. But enough gloom and doom, without further ado here are my twelve top films of 2010, most of them reviewed on Critics at Large, the ones that excited, provoked, entertained and engrossed me in equal measure.

1) The Social Network (USA)
Director David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) join forces to tell (loosely) the thrilling story of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg  (Jesse Eisenberg) and the lawsuit that followed when he was accused of cutting the site’s co-founders out of the lucrative action. Part law drama, part comedy and part satire – the founder of the site for ‘friends’ has none of his own – and superbly acted by all concerned, The Social Network captured the zeitgeist in a way few American movies ever have. This is one for the ages. (See our review here.)

2) Carlos (France/Germany)
Originally made for French TV, but shot in 35mm, this five and a half hour epic compellingly chronicles – in three parts – the life of notorious terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, aka Carlos, who made headlines in the 70s for such notorious acts as the kidnapping, on mass, of the OPEC oil ministers, but soon faded into irrelevancy in the 90s when the Cold War ended. Directed at breakneck pace by French director Olivier Assayas – the movie moves faster then films a third of its length – and superbly incarnated by Edgar Ramirez in the lead role, Carlos comments intelligently and grippingly on geo-politics, terrorism, the media and the ego/ruthlessness that went into fashioning Carlos, a self creation of the age of celebrity if ever there was one. Don’t rent/watch the shortened two and half hour version of the film, but go for the full cut. It’s a masterpiece. (See our review here along with our interview with director Olivier Assayas there.)

3) Un prophète/A Prophet (France/Italy)
Malik, a nineteen year old French-Arab man (Tahar Rahim) enters the French prison system and soon becomes embroiled in the internecine conflicts between his fellow Arab prisoners and the Corsicans who run the jail. At first a seeming innocent, he gradually morphs into someone utterly in control of the situation. Not since The Godfather have we seen such a smart, disturbing portrait of the gradual revelation of deep corruption. And rarely, if ever, has a prison drama bent and broken so many clichés of the genre. In the skilled hands of writer/director Jacques Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) lies the future of French cinema. (See our review here.)

4) Vincere (Italy/France)
Giovanna Mezzogiorno is luminous as Ida Dalser, Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s mistress, who was discarded by her lover when he took power and then locked up in a mental hospital so as to expunge any traces of her existence. Italian director Marco Bellocchio orchestrates the film as cinematic Grand Opera, complete with tragic elements and passionate intensity. In the second half, Mussolini is only depicted through the bulbous busts and statues strewn across the country, yet his malevolent presence is still evident. Vincere is the living, breathing embodiment of Hannah Arendt’s label of the banality of evil. A disturbing, and haunting film.

5) La danse: Le ballet de l’Opera de Paris (France/USA) and Black Swan (USA)
First the facts. In La danse, by noted documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies) goes behind the scenes of a famous French ballet troupe to offer an incisive, penetrating account of the hard work, temperaments and sheer exuberance and love of the art that goes into performing a ballet. Never intruding into the proceedings, Wiseman’s camera observes and records the goings-on, with a compassionate eye and deep understanding of the power and difficulty of making great art. It’s one of his best films. (See our review here.)

Then the fiction. Darren Aronofsky’s fever dream of a movie trusts Natalie  Portman who is superb as a fragile ballerina tapped to star in a radical new production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. But first she must embrace her dark side if she is to essay the role, a process which brings out disturbing elements of her personality that threatens to push her into madness. With a dollop of psychosexual Polanski, but spun through Aronofsky’s unique world view, Black Swan is visceral, erotic, enticing and unforgettable, with a filmmaker working at the peak of his considerable cinematic powers.  Likely the most audacious film of the year. (See our review here.)

6) I Am Love (Italy)
Tilda Swinton is riveting as an Italian matriarch who suddenly embarks on a passionate affair with a man half her age, throwing her life into turmoil and her family for a loop. Directed by Luca Guadagnino, as if Italian neo-realism never happened, I Am Love embodies the country’s sensuality and love of life, as well as love of movie-making, in a film so deeply felt that it practically bursts the boundaries of the screen. Tactile doesn’t begin to describe this film’s many pleasures. (See our review here.)
7) Micmacs (France)
A group of misfits attempts to help an odd young man get revenge on the arms manufacturers whose faulty weaponry killed his father and left him with a bullet in his head. A wacky, sweet and unique cross between Jacques Tati (Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday) and a caper movie a la Ocean’s Eleven, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s comedic enterprise is a Rube Goldberg invention come to delightful cinematic life. (See our review here.)

8) Lebanon (Israel)
Samuel Maoz’s powerful Israeli anti-war drama takes place entirely, and uniquely, within the confines of a tank. The diverse crew who are embarking on their country’s devastating war in Lebanon navigate hostile terrain, terrified citizens caught in the middle and the limitations of their vehicle amid the uncertainties of an ill-defined mission. With everything they see viewed through the tank’s gun turrets, the audience is thrust into their dilemma, feeling what they feel, the fear, anger and helplessness faced by all soldiers in all wars. Claustrophobic as hell – how could it not be? – Lebanon is also suffused with a deep humanity given us by a filmmaker who, like Ari Folman in the brilliant Israeli film Waltz With Bashir, personally lived through the events depicted on screen. This is one you won’t soon forget though Critics at Large’s Kevin Courrier disagrees (see his review here).

9) Exit through the Gift Shop (UK/USA) and Marwencol (USA)
Two strikingly original documentary films about art and those who create it. Exit Through the Gift Shop explores what happens when Frenchman Thierry Guetta, an L.A. based vintage clothes shop owner and budding videographer decides to start filming the eccentric street artists in his town. When Thierry decides that he must include famously reclusive British graffiti street artist Banksy in his project and then, amazingly, gets him to cooperate in the shoot, things take a decided turn into, well, something unexpected. Is Thierry on the up and up? Is the film really what it seems to be or is there something else going on behind the scenes? Hint: check the opening credits. This remarkable, off kilter doc is as provocative as the genre ever gets.

When Mark Hogancamp is brutally beaten by a group of five men in upstate New York and sustains severe brain damage, he retreats into a world of his own making: a World War Two-era Belgian village, named Marwencol, brought entirely to life, at 1/6 scale, through the placement of painted and costumed dolls, which he then photographs. As he works through some sort of unusual art therapy, with SS villains representing his assailants, his talents come to the attention of an art magazine editor and a photographer who help arrange his first art exhibition in Manhattan. But there’s more to Mark then meets the eye and eventually, teased out slowly by director Jeff Malmberg, his secrets come to the fore. Sensitive, poignant and always respectful, the fascinating Marwencol proves yet again, that the truth is always stranger than fiction.

10) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (UK/USA)
Harry, Hermione and Ron and their friends prepare for the penultimate battle with the evil Lord Voldemort in the first part of the final installment of the Harry Potter franchise. Director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves have fashioned a deeply introspective, foreboding and menacing tale that showcases its young leads – Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint – at their maturing best, and sets the stage for the gripping conclusion to Harry’s adventures. The Potter series has been maddeningly uneven but on the basis of this first-rate entry, I have no doubt it will end on a strong, memorable note when Part 2 of Deathly Hallows comes out next July. (See our review here.)

Happy New Year and let’s hope for better movies in 2011!

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He will be teaching a course on film genre this winter at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.

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