The Best Films of 2010

2010 has been one of the most amazing years of my life.  After presenting the lecture Lady Terminator and the Golden Age of Indonesian Exploitation in February, I was contacted by the lovely star of the film, Barbara Anne Constable, a truly class act lady who granted me her first ever interview regarding the cult movie.

A few months after that I appeared on the large screen for the first time ever in Dorian Knight’s Piranha Man vs. Wolf Man: Howl of the Piranha. The reception it received at Facets was wonderful, and re-sparked an interest in being involved in the making of movies again. That movie as of this writing will soon be online on demand.

Enter the guy who changed my life, Joseph Richard Lewis, director of Scumbabies and the upcoming Sci-Fi SOL.  With a pressing deadline of just a few weeks, he–along with the help of some truly fantastic people–came up with the film trailer “Sisters of No Mercy,” prompting an offer to have the feature-length film made!  With no stage experience since high school, Joe entrusted me with the task of hosting the premiere of Scumbabies at Martyrs last fall. Once again, I was surrounded by an enormous array of talent.

After nearly two decades of avoiding spotlights, I’ve been in front of the camera, behind it, lecturing before an audience and on stage hosting an evening’s entertainment.  How’s that for checking off the “to-do” list?

With all of these wonderful events occurring in my life, there was bound to be a down side–my movie viewing. I’ve definitely watched less films in 2010 than the previous year. However, that doesn’t mean I did not watch enough to give me great pleasure. With the help of a listing of 2010 releases, it actually wasn’t that tough for me to come up with 10 solid choices.

10.  The Living Wake

The Living Wake is a great example of what you can do with the limitations of a low budget.  Writers Peter Kline and Mike O’Connell along with director Sol Tryon create a world of characters that are simultaneously of this world and outside it.  O’Connell plays K. Roth Binew,  a man whose Victorian-era romanticized style of speaking helps create a mythology for himself, despite the fact that he’s never really accomplished much in his life.  His only friend Mills (wonderfully played by Jesse Eisenberg) is struggling equally as a poet who looks up to him.  The entire film centers around a final send-off Binew plans for himself as he feels death approaching.  It took a couple of viewings but I really found myself quite attached to this duo. It’s a movie that celebrates the ultimate Don Quixotes, the dreamers who may, under unusual circumstances, realize greatness.

9.  Inside Job

I know you hipsters out there are fans of the ironic (possible) con of the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, but this movie, explaining the real con job that was our economic policy post-1980 is the documentary you all should be watching. In fact, I predict Charles Ferguson’s superb work of cinematic journalism will be the ultimate go-to piece to clearly explain how we reached the Bush Depression of 2008.  This movie is Exhibit A of how awful and lacking most TV journalism is by comparison. And I don’t give a shit that this is an “angry” documentary.  “Angry” documentaries get a bad rap for depressing people.  Bad ones depress me. Good ones urge you to take action, even if it’s just to urge others (in this case) to view the movie and understand exactly where your money went. In fact, Inside Job, along with most of the other movies on this list, is one of the movies I know you haven’t seen this year but should have. If you did, the rich would not only have been denied tax breaks, but would have been majorly bled for tax monies they should be owing the government.

8.  I Love You, Phillip Morris

After three postponements, this movie made it to big screens after first appearing in some gay/lesbian film festivals (as I had suggested).  It’s too bad it hasn’t done as well as it should have, because this movie was one of the biggest pleasant surprises of the year.  Jim Carrey plays Steven Russell, a real-life con artist whose exploits became legendary in the annals of crime, and Ewan McGregor as the lover he meets in prison. Floods of gay-themed movies are made with the intention of showing how gays are “just like us,” but I love that this film took the subversive way and remembered these guys were outlaws. Carrey was tailor-made for a role like this, and McGregor gives a great performance. He becomes the soul of the movie, bringing some unusual poignancy to what could have become just another gay-themed farce.  Now if Hollywood could work a big-budget gay-themed movie starring out gay actors, that would be the next truly daring step.

7.  Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

I’ve heard and read about some true hating of this movie and I can’t for the life of me really understand why.  Edgar Wright brings a comic to the screen that’s truly vibrant and the one of the best examples of melding live-action with a graphic novel sense that I’ve ever seen (up to now).  Say all you want about how sick you are of seeing Michael Cera in movies, his title role is tailor-made for his soft-spoken, shy persona. Pilgrim is an unemployed musician in an up-and-coming garage punk band who falls in love with a girl whose past dating history is littered with extremely jealous boyfriends. He decides to win her heart by taking on each of the exes in ever-increasingly dangerous battles.  Much of the credit of this movie goes to the director and writer/actor Michael Bacall for coming up with a very funny and clever script.  Also kudos to the visual effects and animation departments for coming up with the great unique look. This is already becoming a well-deserved cult movie favorite at midnight showings.

6.  Four Lions

Another film destined for cult status is Christopher Morris’ great film debut about four would-be terrorists bumbling their way towards a suicide mission.  This film garnered controversy over its supposed leniency towards radical Islam–a point that is quite untrue.  Morris, along with writers Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, are quite critical of radical and orthodox Islam in several scenes in the movie. However, what truly makes the film work in a very funny manner is the approach to the killers-in-training (the “four lions” referred to in the title) as regular guys with a very unusual task. They have petty complaints, arguments, inflated egos and moments of incredible hypocrisy that show the insane buffoonery that goes on in any group dynamic of cultists out to prove themselves.  Four Lions earns the apt comparison to great dark, sick comedies like Dr. Strangelove.

5.  The Chaser

Hong-jin Na’s fantastic edge-of-your-seat thriller plays like a classic Hollywood film and, perhaps (not) ironically, was tagged for a Hollywood remake production slated for a possible release in 2013.  Talk about a full-circle influence.  A sleazy, scumbag of a police detective–keeping one hand in law enforcement and the other arranging client meetings as a pimp–is on the chase to find the serial killer who’s offing his prostitutes. It’s a classic cat-and-mouse game with red herrings, charismatic acting by Yun-seok Kim as the detective and great editing.  One more example of what you’ve been missing by attending only the bland suburban mall boxes for your entertainment.

4.  Cell 211

Just like The Chaser, Daniel Monzon’s lavishly Goya-awarded crime drama has attracted Hollywood’s eyes for an American production also slated for 2013.  The story centers around a guard’s first day on the job in a maximum security prison. As a curse from the fates, it just so happens to be the very day a massive prison riot occurs, forcing the rookie to use his intuitive quick thinking to save himself from immediate death. The strength of the film comes (as with a great deal of the others) from the great screenplay, concentrating on the dynamic between the rookie and the leader of the riot as each try to gauge the other’s trust, level of empathy and limits of expectations. It’s yet another example of how foreign filmmakers are, in many cases, making better American genre films than many American directors.

3.  The Secret in Their Eyes

I thoroughly expected The White Ribbon to win the Best Foreign Language Feature Oscar last year, but, of course, when this film was announced, I was left wondering what the hell it was, because it hadn’t screened widely in Chicago until 2010.  Director Juan Jose Campanella and co-writer Eduardo Sacheri join Pedro Almodovar in re-imagining and reinvigorating the film noir genre with this fantastic moody piece about an unresolved murder case.  A retired legal counselor  writes a novel about the murder in hopes of discovering some answers and giving resolution to an unrequited love.  Campanella has a great sense of pacing, evolving the story like an enticing novel and uses CGI to great exciting effect, such as in the scene where the counselor tracks down the suspected killer during a crowded soccer match. And I do have to say, the uncovered secret near the very end of the film stunned and truly disturbed me.  Whatever you might think of Oscar’s bad choices last year, this wasn’t one of them.

2.  Winter’s Bone

You’ve seen plenty of movies where a protagonist has to wade through the muck of a seedy drug world, but never one like this. This is only director Debra Granik’s second feature, but I’m just in awe of how masterful a hand she has.  Jennifer Lawrence (in a star-making performance)  stars as a high-school senior in poor rural Arkansas with the weight of the world on her shoulders. Her father was arrested and then missing from a court date, threatening her home with foreclosure in the process. Her mother is incapacitated mentally, and she tries her best to keep her younger brother and sister together with her in the process. On the search for her father, she travels from distant neighbor to distant neighbor in a landscape that looks like Norman Rockwell’s world turned upside-down and thrust into hell.  What evolves from this film is a view of a different drug world where the desperate poor are just as exploited in this country cartel, but just as ruthless, cunning and deadly to keep the system going as any Miami-based drug movies.

1.  The Kids are All Right

Writer/Director Lisa Cholodenko achieves the near impossible with this movie. She makes a family unit–illegal in most states–not only “ordinary” in Hollywood mainstream sense, but actually extraordinary in truly unexpected ways.  Julianne Moore and Annette Bening star as the lesbian couple. (Annette Bening, please, please appear in more movies. We need you!)  Their kids are pretty much well-adjusted, but one of them goes on her own to meet the sperm donor who helped make them happen. The birth father makes his way into their lives, but with unexpected consequences.  The brilliance of this screenplay is to make the sensational portion of the movie (because a lot of you out there want to know how lesbians make love, admit it) over in the first third. Done. From there, the film becomes a brilliant examination of the constant push-and-pull in a family dynamic to keep it solid. I kept thinking of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance in how every change in the family, no matter how subtle, meant a great deal to everyone in the unit.  That’s why the final sequence, an ordinary and sometimes mundane event happening every year in this country, held such incredible power.  It’s quite simply one of the best comedy-dramas about a family ever made.

Runners Up: (in alphabetical order)

127 Hours;  Black Swan;  Chloe;  Exit Through the Gift Shop;  Fair Game;  Get Low;  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo;  Inception;  It’s Kind of a Funny Story;  The King’s Speech;  Mother;  A Prophet;  The Town

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One Response to The Best Films of 2010

  1. Richard Olinger says:

    I’m only saying this because I respect your opinion and because my hatred for El secreto de sus ojos is limitless. I find it really hard to believe that the big “twist ending” “stunned” you. Maybe I watch too many of these movies but I saw it coming a mile away. I thought this movie was put together with the sophistication of a mud pie.

    I’m intrigued at how many people put I Love You Phillip Morris on their lists. It’s a movie I enjoyed but didn’t think succeeded all the way. I’m inclined to watch it again though, given its appearance on many of the better of these year end lists.

    Also, kudos for you subtle diss vis-a-vis the emptiness of Exit Through the Gift Shop. As to the authenticity of the thing, all I can think is, “Why should I care?”

    I loved most of The Chaser. I had actually forgotten about that movie. I felt that the ending was a little sadistic but I loved just about everything that came before it. Cell 211 is another good choice I haven’t seen on many lists. I’m terrified to see what the proposed American remake will look like.

    Thank you for leaving Toy Story 3 and The Social Network off the list. Also, I’d been meaning to watch The Kids Are All Right again and the bit about A Delicate Balance perked up my ears, so to speak, because I love that play but I’m n0t sure I ever looked at it that way before. I shall have to let this thought inform my second viewing of The Kids Are All Right.

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