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.

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Review- Waiting for ‘Superman’

Geoffrey Canada in Waiting for 'Superman'

Waiting for ‘Superman’ comes out on video today

When I was about 14 years old the film Hoop Dreams came out. At the end of that year Roger Ebert cited it as one of, if not the best movies of the year. This is not an Ebert rant but a point shall be made. At the time being young, naive and having not seen it I didn’t know how that could be possible for a documentary to earn that kind of praise. I have become enlightened since then and this film is proof that it can indeed happen and is likely to stand amongst the best films of the year.

Another reason that anecdote was relayed is that this is a personal film. It is personal in many ways not only in that it focuses on individual children while examining the system as a whole but also because as you watch it you’d be hard pressed not to think back to your public schooling experience and either remember something very reminiscent from your own past or come to some greater understanding of the monstrous machine in which you were raised.

Which brings me to my next point: this film is not propagandist. There are several statistics illustrated and cited (if you look close you can see sources). So there is support for the film’s claim that the system is broken and what a bulk of the information is trying to discover factors that lead to that and what possible solutions are.

It is most jarring especially if you were public schooled but were perhaps not well-versed in the politics of the system and some of the terminology. By highlighting a nauseating systemic issue with the individual struggles of children today in our educational system it does become a very emotional experience indeed.

Not to give much away but there are many issues that will be examined like Tracking, The Lemon Dance, The Rubber Room, Tenure and Union Dysfunction. Hearkening back to an earlier point, aside from humorous and creative use of archival footage there is nothing done in the edit to paint anyone in a worse light than they are painting themselves.

Documentaries are a tough business. You have to go where the facts and the footage take you despite what you set out believing. What Guggenheim does well is not only personalize his subject matter but pick topics for which there is overwhelming statistical data to support his hypothesis.

The film shows you the odds these kids are facing as they are trying to get into a school that will give them a better chance, one that won’t allow them to get lost in the shuffle. They are odds that seem insurmountable and surely the results aren’t always great but the film does allow for a glimmer of hope.

First, it is creating a dialogue much like his previous film An Inconvenient Truth did for global climate change. However, in another great piece of marketing from the folks at Paramount it is allowing people to make a difference, even more than the Pledge to see this film which is similar to the Demand to see Paranormal Activity campaign. Everyone who purchases a ticket gets a $15 voucher to donate to their favorite educational program. Details are available here.

Davis Guggenheim was last in the news for backing out of the Justin Bieber 3D film due to the need to promote this film. It was the right choice. John Chu is more than capable of handling that and this film needs its director supporting and publicizing it much as we need it seen and it needed being made.

10/10

Why “Never Say Never” Makes Sense

This is a re-post from when Never Say Never was first announced. It makes sense to post it again on the verge of the film’s release.

Never Say Never (Paramount)

So recently both on his Twitter feed and on several media sources it was reported that Justin Bieber was to be the subject of an upcoming film release. The film would follow his world tour, intercut live performances be part doc, part biopic and be in 3D. Academy-award winning director Davis Guggenheim was attached to direct it, that has changed but those were the facts.
 
I find it a little humorous some of the reactions this announcement has been met with. Surprise should not be among the reactions though, derision though not necessarily deserved, was expected.
 
Taking some of these facts into consideration: Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus (as if they’re really two different people), The Jonas Brothers and even Celine Dion, of all people, recently had concert films so announcement this should be no surprise at all. Not to mention the record-breaking Michael Jackson doc This is It.
 
Not only is he talented but he’s out-earning all those acts at this point so of course a studio is going to want to put out a film. Being one who is familiar with him from his days of being pre-viral on YouTube it shocks even me that his rise to near pop immortality has been so meteoric and persistent.
 
And in 3D? Of course. Even though 3D fatigue is setting in, regardless of what scoffing studio execs say, there will still be those projects that will do it, and succeed, especially since a little more than a year has passed since Avatar smashed box office records just because it was shot in 3D. The overcharge, I mean surcharge, made it its money.
 
However, with him being a lightning rod anything Bieber-related is immediately fodder for conversation both positive and negative. It would seem this film is being overly-characterized as as a biopic, in the traditional sense of the word, much the way the photo book of his tour was being referred to as a memoir, where it is truly more of a chronicle, even if you don’t buy his assertion of it being a photo book.
 
Even more recently it was reported that Davis Guggenheim was dropping out. He is citing commitment issues as he will be plugging Waiting for Superman, his latest documentary about public education in the US, obviously there is speculation that he dropped it because his name was being dragged through the mud and the money wasn’t worth it.
 
I won’t comment on a personal/business decision but it most definitely would’ve been very time consuming. However, I don’t view this film as littering the cinematic landscape as it’s not a narrative film. It’s disposable (if you want it to be) entertainment that you can use once and destroy if you so wish and has no bearing on the overall aesthetic landscape of cinema as a whole.
 
This film will come and go and cinema will go on, so jokes or actual fears about the end times are greatly exaggerated.