It should be admitted up front: 2010 was not a great year for film. It was quite a good year (as is wont to happen nowadays with the sheer bulk of annual releases), but not a great one. The far-and-away front-runner and shoe-in for best film -- Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, completed and set for a November release date -- ended up being delayed six months. American film in particular was hampered by a branding frenzy that resulted in a slack-jawed merry-go-round of sequels, superheroes, and remakes. (And even as I complain, note that each of my top two films belongs to one of these categories.)
Unlike much of the year-end list-making that takes place at the titular year's end, my annual habit is to devote January and February to waiting for critical darlings and international films to arrive on DVD, and then to devour as much as I can in a span that doesn't make another list too damningly distant. In any case, here it is for all to see; as always I welcome feedback in the form of back slaps, proffered replacements, and outraged protestations alike.
(Also: feel free to peruse my Top 10 lists from the last two years. To give you a sense of my leanings, the final tallies for 2009 and 2008 were, respectively: 1. Inglourious Basterds 2. Hunger 3. Up 4. In the Loop 5. Two Lovers 6. 35 Shots of Rum 7. Avatar 8. Fantastic Mr. Fox 9. Julia 10. Coraline; and: 1. Rachel Getting Married 2. The Dark Knight 3. WALL-E 4. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button 5. The Wrestler 6. Man on Wire 7. Let the Right One In 8. Slumdog Millionaire 9. Redbelt 10. Encounters at the End of the World. The placement of a few in the latter list now causes me to wonder what I was thinking, but I'll leave them be.)
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Sight unseen: Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance); Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos); Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé); Everyone Else (Maren Ade) The Father of My Children (Mia Hansen-Løve); Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg); Please Give (Nicole Holofcener); Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell); Somewhere (Sofia Coppola); Waiting for Superman (Davis Guggenheim)
Honorable mention: 127 Hours (Danny Boyle); Black Swan (Darren Aranofsky); The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski); Greenberg (Noah Baumbach); I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino); October Country (Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri); A Prophet (Jacques Audiard); Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese); Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor); Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Winding Refn)
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10. Vengeance (Johnny To)
About two thirds of the way through Vengeance, the three hitmen who are trying to help a French man with short-term amnesia exact -- as you might expect -- vengeance for the death of his daughter share a thematically revealing conversation. It goes like this:
"What does revenge mean, when you have forgotten everything?"
"If Costello had a choice, you think he'd choose to forget?"
"He may not remember, but I do."
In Johnny To's expectedly operatic but surprisingly patient film, memory is not merely personal, but communal; injustice perpetrated and unavenged is a lasting scar on one's fellows even as the self slips away. Death itself will not let the unhealed go unaddressed forever. Vengeance thus proves to be much more than a Hong Kong shoot-'em-up: namely, a disciplined meditation on family and loss, injustice and retribution, memory and community, violence and redemption, communicated across boundaries of culture and language. Just so it would make for potent viewing alongside Christopher Nolan's Memento, which explores similar issues in an entirely different idiom.
9. Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy)
Truth and untruth are unsortable in elusive graffiti artist Banksy's controversial documentary. Nor does that question ultimately matter all that much, at least as the story is told. Ostensibly begun by obsessive videographer, one-time clothing dealer, and family man Thierry Guetta about street art and, eventually, the legendary Banksy, the film turns back upon Guetta as he gets into the game himself and, in the process, becomes an overnight sensation as Mr. Brainwash.
Apart from sheer entertainment value -- these are fascinating characters in an unexplored underground scene filled with shadowy identities and unspoken motivations -- what we come to see, whether manipulated or filtered or utterly spontaneous, is an illuminating gaze shone on the meaning of art, media, personality, and populism in the 21st century. Or, as the film might equally lead us to conclude, a disquieting lack thereof.
8. Winter's Bone (Debra Granik)
A simple story, Winter's Bone is carefully told with sensitivity and detail to character and place. From the start, we are made to understand that not everyone is as they seem in this rural Ozark meth noir, nor is our protagonist the insignificance that she is taken to be by those wanting her to quit prying into the details of her father's (rumored) death. In the film's one unbreakable moral code, however, familial loyalty trumps whatever threats others make or represent, and newcomer Jennifer Lawrence ably embodies the kind of believably sturdy resolve that refuses to let these dissuade her from discovering the truth.
The wrenching climactic scene epitomizes all that comes before: led to impenetrably dark waters that may or may not hold her father's remains, that indeed may or be awaiting her own, what she finds, what she learns, and what she earns thereby for her family is at this point beside the point. What matters, in Debra Granik's steady telling, is that she has made it here at all.
7. Inception (Christopher Nolan)
Let us propose the following: When a film does not make claims for itself, whether by its creator or its narrative or its form, we will accordingly not impose our own expectations on said film and walk away disappointed when it does not meet them. Fair?
Christopher Nolan's shrewd head game Inception is no attempt at psychological meditation, no philosophical statement on the unconscious, no exploration of the nature of dreams. It is a heist film, pure and simple. A con, a thriller. And when viewed within its proper genre, one quickly realizes that it is a singularly thrilling and impressively executed entry in a long line of standout predecessors. Perhaps it is something more, but it is certainly nothing less.
6. Carlos (Olivier Assayas)
A nearly six-hour charting of the seductive rise and ambiguous celebrity and ignominious fall of Venezuelan socialist revolutionary and international terrorist Carlos the Jackal, Olivier Assayas' film would seem to have an unfair advantage over others, what with its running time and headline-ripping protagonist. At the same time, these and other aspects pose enormous temptations that have befallen similar tellings: uncritical hagiography (Walter Salles' The Motorcycle Diaries), distant neutrality (Steven Soderbergh's Che), and sprawling incoherence (Oliver Stone's Alexander), to name a few.
Somehow, Assayas manages to walk the perilous biopic tightrope in a story that spans two and a half decades of womanizing, geopolitics, militarism, Marxist ideology, media savvy, and terrorism, never losing sight of his central subject or of the plot. From the full hour devoted to the storming of the OPEC meeting, to the bold cross-cut between Carlos' first bombing and his emboldened virile strutting, to the many flights to and from lands unwilling to host an international celebrity-terrorist, to the final scene of emasculated comeuppance -- the man, the legend, and the headlines are newly remythologized just as they are soundly demythologized, taken and remade in Assayas' confident narrative hands.
5. The Social Network (David Fincher)
Need a film be perfect for it to be great? Fincher's twisted take on Aaron Sorkin's hopped-up A.D.D. dialogue is the reason why films get made: no one could have imagined in advance the alchemy produced by this unlikely combination of talents. Furthermore, rather than some stale commentary on a static moment in technological time, Fincher and Sorkin have something richer and more lasting to say something about the state of human connection, communal relations, and gendered power in the age of the internet. It is no flawless masterpiece, but it also does not need to be. It is only itself: smart, riveting, brutal, timely. I doubt that we should ask for more.
4. Vincere (Marco Bellocchio)
A tale lit by moonlight, shadows, and celluloid, Vincere makes for telling comparison with other historical epics from recent years, such as 2010's celebrated (and now Oscar winner) The King's Speech. The latter is undeniably watchable, well told, well acted, and an interesting story, particularly for those of us with little knowledge of the history. It is also fundamentally and immediately forgettable, almost as if by design.
Marco Bellocchio's remarkable film, on the other hand, is not merely compelling -- to take only the opening scenes, the brilliantly staged introduction of Mussolini (in a theological debate, no less!) and the temporally intercut meetings between Ida and Benito in the midst of the socialist uprising boldly set the thematic stage for all that follows -- it is a tirelessly inventive and irreducibly theatrical presentation of obsession, power, politics, war, love, loyalty, sex, and a nation's descent into madness, as embodied by a single woman bent on the truth but confined to the madhouse. This -- to put it less breathlessly -- is history and cinema done right, precisely because Bellocchio does not avoid but instead appropriates the fact that history and cinema are themselves no more disentangleable today than they were then.
3. Mother (Bong Joon-ho)
After the goofy fun of 2006's The Host, I wasn't sure what to expect from Mother. But Bong Joon-ho, buoyed by Kim Hye-ja's astonishing performance, quickly upended my qualified expectations in this devastating tale of misplaced memory, filial sacrifice, society and disability, and the violence of disordered love. Like other films on this list, Bong asks us to answer honestly how far would we go for the sake of family and truth -- or, as it happens, with which would we side if we had to choose between the two. And given either choice, how would we find a way to live with ourselves?
The furious release and awful sadness of Mother's final, masterful scene encapsulates what Bong suggests to be the unavoidable consequences. Beautiful and tragic in each cascading moment spiraling out to the end, Bong Joon-ho's Shakespearean tale lingers and discomfits even as its gentleness endures in an ambling, staggering, upsetting sunset drive.
2. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)
Chuck Klosterman recently complained about adults critically lauding Toy Story 3 (which, as it happens, he has not seen) as one more sign of an already hyper-infantilized culture: kids' movies are for kids, and that's all there is to it. I of course beg to differ, but there are prior questions to be asked.
Why, for example, assume that Toy Story 3 is a kids' movie at all? Because it's animated? But animation is a medium, not content. Or is it because it "stars" children (or childish stuff)? But subject matter isn't a correlate of age or viewership; children and childhood are fine subjects for serious film. Or perhaps because it's made by Disney, and so is marketed to children? But I see no reason to allow the identity of a production company, much less the mindset of a faceless marketing team, to determine in advance the potential of a film's quality or audience.
In short, and more broadly speaking, the only reason Toy Story 3 wasn't on more year-end lists is because it is a sequel and an animated film. What its popularity and marketing resulted in masking is the fact that Toy Story 3 is one of only a handful of wholly satisfying and artistically integral conclusions to a traditional cinematic trilogy ever. (The one other of equal caliber is The Return of the King; on a different level, The Bourne Ultimatum, and in a different realm, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.) There is little else to add, except that the prejudices will wane, Pixar remains historically and unaccountably consistent, and Toy Story 3's status as a classic will solidify sooner rather than later.
1. Let Me In (Matt Reeves)
Who would have thought that an American remake of an internationally acclaimed Swedish horror film from just two years earlier, directed by the (ahem) less-than-acclaimed auteur of the found-doc monster flick Cloverfield, would not only avoid being an immediate DVD dustbin disaster, but would somehow result in an accomplished and impressive improvement on the original?
But that is just what happened with Let Me In, Matt Reeves' extraordinary adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist's 2004 novel Let the Right One In and creative remake of Tomas Alfredson's first adaptation of the same name in 2008. A poignant and affecting exploration of the brutalities of youthful belonging and the power of unconditional loyalty -- consequences be damned -- Let Me In somehow manages to cut the fat from Alfredson's already superlative original and add even further psychological depth and visceral terror. The film announces two notable arrivals: that of Chloe Moretz -- whose work here and in Kick-Ass, (500) Days of Summer, and now 30 Rock marks her as one of the most talented and diverse actresses working today period -- and that of Reeves, who has now proved himself unquestionably worthy of whatever material he decides to take up next.