Top 15 Films of 2010

This like my 2009 List is a repost and has been added here virtually without change from its original appearance elsewhere.

15. Entre Nos

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With an election and events that would steal headlines towards the latter part of the year it is no wonder that the illegal immigration debate has hit the back-burner in the socio-political landscape of the country as we saunter into 2011. However, as a nation that once permanently etched that it sought the world’s “tired, your poor…huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” it is a persistently relevant debate whether it is treated as such or not after all we are a land where “all men are created equal” but certain “men” have always had to fight to prove it.

It is taking such grandiose and abstract ideas and incarnating them in narrative where you will find great fiction. This is what triple-threat Paola Mendoza does so deftly in this film wherein a mother and her children come to the US after their husband/father only to be abandoned in a strange land and needing to struggle just to survive.

14. Secretariat

Secretariat (2010, Disney)

I have my very own personal bugaboo with horse racing movies. Typically, there comes a point where in an imaginary but definite line is crossed and the purity of just riding and the wild beauty therein takes a back seat to the grueling nature of the competition. The sport is dangerous, as are most, and creates a moral gray area as it is hard to know whether a horse really wants to run or not. However, by all accounts the story of Secretariat is a different one. The horse was one of a kind: part animal, part machine. So that stumbling block is cleared. More impressive is that as a spots fanatic I am seeing a movie in which I already know a majority of the story, and of course those who have seen enough movies can surmise, but this film still manages to suspenseful- what an amazing trick.

Lastly, of course, the story really makes a connection due to its characters. We learn their circumstances and see their journey more so than the horse’s meteoric rise, we become fully invested in them and their plots as much as the Triple Crown pursuit.

13. Easy A

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Wit is a rare commodity in film these days, wit in combination with an actual point being made is even more rare. If you combine that with a film that both pushes narrative forward with 21st century storytelling devices like webcasts but is also reverential of classic films like those of John Hughes and the original, not the Demi Moore, Scarlet Letter then you really have something.

Combine that with the star-making, dead on performance of Emma Stone and you’ve got something special that is one of the best films of the year and without question the best straight-up comedy.

12. Le Petit Nicolas

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This, for you my dear reader, will likely be the one of the most unnerving selections on this list because it is likely you have not heard of it and gaining access to it will prove rather difficult.  To the best of my knowledge this film didn’t see US release in either 2009, the year it was released in France, or in 2010.

I only managed to nab a copy off Amazon from a re-seller in Canada where it had already hit DVD. This film does a number of things quite well: it tells a tale of childhood whimsy without being insipid or condescending. It manages to tell a tale of naive misunderstanding without getting ridiculous and all the while remaining funny and clever throughout.

It also seems to be an adaptation in the proper spirit, while I am unfamiliar with the books upon which this story is based judging by the Pierre Goscinny I am familiar with, Asterix, it seems very much in keeping with his tone. It is a film that is absolutely delightful, a word I rarely use, from start to finish.

11. The Red Riding Trilogy

Red Riding: In The Year of Our Lord (2009, IFC Films)

OK, so here’s were scoffers can have more fun while I know this makes it technically a Top 17 list bear with me: The Red Riding Trilogy was a project released on British television in 2009, however, it hit US theaters in Spring 2010 and Netflix later on. So that and the way it’s told and shot qualifies it as cinema and its release date in the US makes it eligible for this year. As for the three films? Well, part three set in 1983 is the best of the installments, however, devoid of having seen the other two it is likely to be highly unintelligible. The films are highly co-dependent of one another, therefore to separate them is next to impossible. As a unit they stand as one work, they are sold as such therefore I evaluate them as such and give them one and not three spots on this list.

It is a tale of murder and intrigue of the highest artistry that requires you to stick with it and begs you to follow it through to its harrowing and artistic conclusion.

10. My Soul to Take

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Being a fan of the horror genre is a bit like going back to a well too often. You visit it repeatedly in hopes of finding refreshment but you usually come up empty. I consider myself fortunate then to have in the last few years have found films I have deemed worthy to place in my list.

My Soul to Take is a bit of a throwback by director Wes Craven but what it does do is tell a story that is deceptively involved, not dumbed down and an unpretentious whodunit. Furthermore you get within this film a teaser beginning that is rather than the highlight of the film a tone-setter for the ever-increasing tension level of the tale.

9. Machete

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Here we are again with the same theme, illegal immigration but a vastly different variation. Robert Rodriguez absolutely delivers on the promise that was teased at in the Grindhouse double-feature a few years ago. Not only is Machete as portrayed by Danny Trejo every bit the cinematic badass you want him to be, on par with Eastwood and Bronson in their most iconic works but it is also deliciously funny both because of the writing and intentionally cheesy production values.

You get in this film hilarious one-liners, insane plot devices and extraordinarily didactic dialogue which all suits the tale perfectly. It was likely the most enjoyable film-watching experience from start to finish that I had last year.

8. Waiting for ‘Superman’

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George W. Bush once asked the very important question “Is our children learning?” After watching Waiting for ‘Superman’ it’ll become quite clear that no, our children is not learning. However, this film is not propagandist. It has quite a few citations to back up its claims that the educational system in America is fundamentally broken. However, even more important than that in my estimation is that it also becomes a very involving emotional experience. While your intellect is often stimulated as you learn ugly, inconvenient truths you never heard before you are involved in the story as you learn the plight of educators who fight for change, children caught in the system and parents who are seeking and hoping for the best for their child.

7. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

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This is without question the best and most artful mash-up style film that you will likely see for quite some time. As I cited earlier if you’ve ever wondered what mixing comics, video games and film would be like the answer can be found within this film and therein lies the rub: you’ll either love it and walk away enraptured like I was or your eyes will hurt and your brain will boil over in your head and you’ll die- or something like that.

It’s the epitome of a go-with-the-flow type movie: it has either sold you on its strange universe within the first 10 minutes or you’re never buying. It’s a film that’s unafraid and many times that is the absolute best kind to watch whether you like it or not.

6. Kick-Ass

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The superhero movie may be on its way, if its not already there, to supplanting the vampire film as the cinematic dead horse that just keeps getting beaten. It is at the very least impending if you’ve looked at the Summer 2011 slate. With that in mind it makes this last gasp even more wonderful and marvelous.

I have seen it again since its initial release and I still liken this film to the original Batman, meaning it absolutely earned its closing line and lest we forget that Batman was made back when everything Tim Burton turned a camera towards turned to gold so it is high praise indeed.

While much less ballyhooed than Emma Stone, Aaron Johnson no doubt had a breakout kind of role here, his buoyed by the fact that he had quite a few 2010 releases to follow.

This is a film more so than most that deftly and fluidly moves between emotional notes with tremendous ease and propels it to this spot on the list.

5. City Island

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I like my independent films to be un-convoluted. It seems as if sometimes independent filmmakers take that mantle to mean that they need to tell a certain kind of story and not just their story how they want it told, which is supposed to be the idea. City Island most definitely has the right idea and from start to finish just consistently makes decisions that are true and accurate and not merely for shock value.

It is a personal and personable tale which is also a somewhat comedic twist on a Greek tragedy in parts. Even with some of the plot devices employed there is always a humanity and understanding behind all the actions the characters take.

It is proof there is room for real people, real acting and great narrative all at the same time in the same film.

4. The Ghost Writer

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To elaborate on a point I made in my initial review students of film, whether they seek to critique or make films, or just generally like films, should watch this so that they might better understand the true meaning of the term ‘Hitchockian.’ This is a word you hear far too much. It’s almost akin to saying that anyone who drives a car in the fast lane is like (insert favorite race car driver here). Just because you are attempting something in the same vein doesn’t make it the same or as good as. Few and far between are those who can try to impersonate Hitch and come anywhere close.

This comes very close, dangerously close and note that it’s Roman Polanski who does it and not some anonymous who has a a resume littered with straight-to-video releases. The intrigue, tension and at times surreal atmosphere of this film are hard to match and this truly stands as one of the best of the year and if its the last we see of Mr. Polanski, what a way to go.

3. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Review- The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

The first word that came to mind when I completed viewing the latest Narnia was “glorious.” Which I stand by but perhaps triumphant would be more astute as the film lived up to my hopes and not my expectations, and there was a wide gulf between the two.

Sometimes going through a Top Films list can be a bit like going through a new land with a very crudely drawn map and it can be difficult to judge through various similar compliments what the lay of the land is until you hit a signpost (read number) the way the list breaks down, for this year anyway, is: 15-11 is the third stratification, amongst the best of the year but not quite up to getting a BAM Best Picture nomination, which is reserved for the top 10. Then from 10-4 is the second tier, the elite films. From this point forward you have the crème de la crème.

What may also be interesting to note is that Narnia once again had to overcome the Potter hurdle. This installment was released just after the Potter series did about as much as you can with a truncated tale. Yet Narnia trumps it again, which I likely would not say for 2 of the 3 books but would for the movies and therein lies the beauty of adaptation.
 


2. The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon (2009, Sony Pictures Classics)

Had I not already taken a few leaps of faith I may have been tempted to label The White Ribbon #1A, however, that does not seem fitting. Secondly, since I am already in disclaimer mode: Yes, I am aware that this film was up for Oscars last year, much to my befuddlement it walked away empty-handed.  It qualifies for 2010 to my mind because I, being but a voracious moviegoer do not get the free, advanced screening treatment that many a critic/blogger do, so unless I owned stock in Amtrak I can’t be on a train up to New York every weekend for every limited release. Thus, The White Ribbon only hit Philadelphia, where I first saw it, in January of 2010.

With all its BAM Nominations how is this film #2? Partially the nomination process is a bit mysterious to myself I try not to consciously keep a running tab of what film has what number of nominations and just decide category-by-category. The acting without question is virtually unparalleled by anything I’ve seen in a long, long time such that it was a contributing factor to the birth of new categories. It is also one of the best examples of how chilling and effective a film can be and also how much foreshadowing can be done (paradoxically to things we never see) without answering questions but instead leaving doubts.

It’s not that The White Ribbon does anything wrong per se, in fact, I’ve seen it three times and only saw my top film the once. They’re two very different films and each has their place and their point to make. Both are a tribute to this class of film and both will have a resonance cinematically and otherwise it’s just a matter of picking your poison so without much further ado the best film of 2010 is…

1. Inception

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You will rarely if ever see such an audacious combination of high concept and highbrow. Typically, a film dealing in dreams is too busy being aloof to tell a coherent much less have an intelligent storyline. Nolan’s film is not, in my mind, overly-concerned with trying to confound quite on the contrary one of the few negatives you could say about it is that it is very concerned with making sure the audience is still holding on tight almost as if the subtext of certain lines of dialogue is “Are you still with me here?”

Yet it manages to impart its information in a way that is not overly-expository, we never learn what’s eating at Cobb all at once. In fact, we don’t know there is anything for some time. An important point is danced around in one scene and cleverly revealed later. A character unaccustomed to the world of dream espionage is the vessel through which we learn.

Inception takes a wild vision of the future and makes it seem mundane and doesn’t make a spectacle of itself but slowly builds a world and a narrative. It’s a blur slowly coming into focus and with each ratchet towards clarity more and more meaning can be inferred. It is a grandiose tale told in the intimacy of the psyche of its characters. It’s a tale that reduces large concepts into characters that dresses as a heist film only to shed that skin and reveal something even more appealing.

Yet through all its brashness, pomp and circumstance there is a deft hand at the controls of this tale too. It is a film that does hint at larger meanings that travels through the catacombs of the mind and makes you consider if you are reminded of someone… a man you met in a half-remembered dream.

Honorable Mentions

Best Short Film



Day & Night

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While people were all distractedly getting in touch with their inner-child as they watched Toy Story 3, a film that is eerily similar to the first two yet supposedly much better somehow, they also forgot that they had just witnessed another work of true Pixar genius in Day & Night. So impressed was I by this short that I wrote it its own review and honestly believe it was worth the price of admission 3D and all and that Toy Story 3 was just icing on the cake.

Jury Prize

The Complete Metropolis

Metropolis (1927, Kino)

Some critics will have Jury Prizes in their lists and some festivals award them as well. They’re basically a way of saying “I couldn’t really give you anything but I wish I had so here’s something for being just so friggin’ awesome.” My Jury Prize for this year goes to a film that was miraculously found and restored to more closely match the cut screened at its premiere in 1927 than had been seen in many years. In some ways it was brand new but having a silent with a reputation competing against new films is unfair to both parties. So my Jury Prize is proudly awarded to Jeff Matakovich, Benjamin Speed, Bernd Heller, Robert Gray and Kino for the wonderful reconstruction of The Complete Metropolis.

March to Disney: Secretariat and the Sports Films of Disney

This is a series of posts this month wherein I will focus on Disney films. For more on my background with Disney films and about the timing of this focus please read the introductory post here.

It’s almost as unoriginal to say all sports films are essentially the same as sports films are, at least on the surface. What tends to separate the better ones is that they are usually on a very specific incident or figure, and more commonly, what else the film has going for it.

For example, one of the more acclaimed documentaries in recent years is Undefeated. It’s about a high school football team. What made it critically acclaimed and an Oscar winner was not the football aspect, but rather, and high school sports can do this better than most, the off-the-field life lessons involved. So there, even in documentary form, it’s about “What else do you have going for you?”

Disney, in both shorts and feature films, has a long history of dealing with sports as the focus of a film. The earliest, most notable forays, were the Goofy shorts wherein he’d engage in a number of sports with his usual haphazard results. The shorts, aside from being funny, are fairly good caricatures of the sports in question. Meaning it’s more about impression than accuracy of rendition and also about placing a character in a context so whether skiing, basketball, boxing, football (American), ice hockey, aquatic sports, or any other they served as short hilarious sketches and/or introductions to the sport.

The short form animated sports film has its own template of exaggeration, while the feature film usually deals in underdog stories. Which is what usually brings me back to Secretariat. Now, what the real world themes that are being brought to the fore are rather obvious. Due to the the setting and plot the film is a feminist comment. Ms. Tweedy, played marvelously by Diane Lane, is smart, tough, a risk-taker and ultimately successful. She’s the underdog of the tale, whereas the horse, who even if you only know a slight bit about horse racing, you know is the overdog. He, like many a thoroughbred, shot out of the blue into national consciousness, but is unquestionably the most dominant horse the sport has ever known.

Secretariat (2010, Disney)

Aside from the feminism, which the film plays through both mother and activist daughter, there is also the gently folded in family element. You see her sacrifice and work on two fronts due to what she feels is her responsibility to her father, the farm and the horse, and as much as she can she travels back across country to be with her husband and four kids.

That’d be more than enough, but Secretariat, being a film about horse racing, also plants the seeds of doubt about health of the horse, and addresses the concern of those ambivalent to negative on the nature of the sport. Needless to say there’s likely poetic license taken all over the place, it’s a film after all, but the impressive thing is that the film works on many fronts and levels, which is why it was one of my top films of 2010, and didn’t diminish upon re-view.

Now, as much as I do like other Disney sports films of a more traditional nature, like The Mighty Ducks, which I saw at a sneak preview with a friend and it got us so pumped that we laced up our rollerblades and had a near midnight practice session, or Cool Runnings. They do fall into the more typical mold. Secretariat stretches it on a few fronts. Now there is a recent rash of other Disney sports films that I am behind on, however, based on what I know of them Secretariat still upped the ante a great deal. Usually, there’s a theme or two tackled and few possible end games.

In a purely sporting sense, Secretariat paints a portrait that even a blowout can be a thing of beauty due to the prowess of the athlete and the dramatic stakes placed upon the race. Whereas in other films there’s one “brass ring,” here our protagonist has staked her livelihood on the fact that the horse will win the Triple Crown, something that hadn’t happened in 25 years at the time, and has only happened once since.

Now, all this is not to say Disney’s record is flawless in the genre, there’s far too many Most Valuable Primate and Air Bud films for that to be the case, but in the past decade or so, even with as many as I’m missing, on the dramatic end of the spectrum; they have found stories in the subgenre that can push the envelope ever so slightly in this kind of film.

Review- Secretariat

Diane Lane in Secretariat (Disney)

Secretariat is now available to stream from Netflix

Perhaps what impresses most about Secretariat isn’t necessarily that it might be Disney’s strongest sports-themed effort since 1992 and The Mighty Ducks but the fact that it’s a overdog story in the guise of an underdog story. Meaning that if the film was really only dealing with the horse itself it would’ve been chronicling one of the most dominant performers and biggest champions in all of sports. That’s great when you’re watching horse racing on Saturday afternoon but it’s hardly the stuff of great drama.

The underdog element comes in the the form of the horse’s owner Penny Tweedy played by Diane Lane. She was new to the sport and not as knowledgeable as some but she knew her horse and trusted her gut. In the film we see her try to balance her family in Colorado and the farm and her horse in Virginia- in making it about her the dramatic element is added in skillfully.

When if you think about it makes this ludicrously good filmmaking at times because it makes a foregone conclusion riveting. A blowout no less. It’s quite something and furthermore last year (2009 as of this writing) in the Triple Crown races there were a rash of injuries which put the sport under some fire, being a less-than-casual fan found that reasonable, yet this film shows the beauty of the sport itself as few could. In essence it does something that The Black Stallion failed to do in that regard.

Much of the talk surrounding this film is centered around Diane Lane. She does do a wonderful job in this film and is convincing every step of the way and having heard the buzz as I was watching it I spotted what I think is her Oscar clip. While I think it might be superficially too similar a part for her to win, her nomination if it comes and is the only one may overshadow what is a much better film than The Blind Side.

A fact I was reminded of almost immediately as both films start with their protagonist speaking in voice over about the sport it is that obsesses them. I complained of the Bullock dialogue’s didacticism, there are no complaints about how Secretariat opens. It is a poetic opening which doesn’t teach the uninitiated about the Sport of Kings, that comes in due time when necessary.

It’s treatment of all the races is different in each case and appropriate. What is most crucial in sports films is the handling of in-game scenes because while there aren’t usually that many they are some of the most lasting ones there are. The Kentucky Derby gets it seems the longest and most complete uninterrupted start to finish coverage which eases the audience into it, and the stakes are very high as it is the first triple crown race that her investors need her to win. The Preakness meanwhile gets played all in one shot on a TV in the Colorado home while her family watches, it forms a wonderful completely visual bridge in the family. The kids are finally realizing what it is mom’s doing and its an unspoken apology between husband and wife.

The film’s supporting cast also buoys it tremendously. Most notably the horses team: John Malkovich as Lucien Loren the horses trainer, Nelsan Ellis as Eddie Sweat and Margo Martindale as Miss Ham and Penny’s family: Dylan Walsh, Amanda Michalka, Carissa Capobianco, Sean Michael Cunningham and Jacob Rhodes.

Secretariat is a great sports film that the whole family can enjoy and is usually the case with the really good ones it is more about the people involved rather than the sport itself.

10/10