Friday, December 17, 2010

Hindsight Is 2010 (My Favorite Movies of the Year)

What, another top ten list?! I know, nobody wants this, and with the annual glut of top tens, why should they? But as with my list of the best movies of the decade one year ago, I was motivated by the thought (admittedly, a slightly arrogant one) that I could come up with a better list than most professional reviewers, who all seem to be shilling for a handful of well-promoted Oscar contenders (as usual), while lamenting what a bad year it was for the movies--which is only true if you don't look too far beyond what's showing at the multiplex. The usual rule is that only movies eligible for Academy Award consideration get included on these lists. But since I have nothing to do with that rigged horse race, I've broadened the scope of my list to include films that I saw at the Atlantic Film Festival or downloaded from the internet, but which haven't been released commercially in the US, as well as some slightly older ones that I belatedly caught up with in Montreal and on video.

1 Vincere (Marco Bellocchio) Giovanna Mezzogiorno gives the performance of the year in this wildly audacious biopic of Ida Dalser, who may have been the first wife of Benito Mussolini (played as a charismatic young socialist by Filippo Timi). When the latter switched from socialism to fascism and married Rachele Guidi, his relationship with Dalser (and their young son, Benito Albino) proved to be such an embarrassment that he had Dalser locked up in a mental hospital, and placed Benito Albino in an orphanage. In Bellocchio's hands, this shameful chapter in Italian history is given a mythic grandeur and operatic intensity. Boldly melodramatic and shamelessly manipulative, this is a political movie that can break your heart.

2 Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) Joe's best film yet is a rapturously beautiful magic realist fable about a man dying of kidney failure in a Thai farmhouse, where he's visited by the ghost of his dead wife, and his son who was transformed into a monkey with red eyes that glow in the dark. A visionary work encompassing the past, present, and future, the mythic and the everyday, the film also boasts the most impressive nighttime photography I've ever seen. (The cinematography is so dark that I seriously doubt the movie will work on video.) I've only seen it once, but it already feels like a classic.

3 The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel) The most audacious feature yet by the singularly talented Argentine filmmaker is a kind of reverse-amnesia movie about false memories, in which a middle-class dentist (María Onetto) comes to believe that she ran over a Gaucho boy with her car--not that anybody seems to care. Like Martel's earlier La Ciénaga (2001) and The Holy Girl (2004), this is a film that benefits from a second viewing as her method of withholding exposition and her off-centre framings often make the viewer feel as disoriented as the heroine. Given that most commercial features are meant to be understood and consumed immediately (time is money, as they say), Martel's insistence on making films that require close attention and multiple viewings is almost a political act.

4 Un prophète (Jacques Audiard) Following a French-Arabic inmate (Tahar Rahim) from his arrival in prison as a teenager through his ascension to underworld kingpin, this ambitious crime saga has a novelistic scope that's inspired some reviewers to liken it to The Godfather (1972). But I like it even better than that film, in part because Audiard doesn't romanticize crime through his style. The drab institutional settings and unlikeable characters of this movie are a world away from the classy trimmings of Coppola's film, in which the mob is run by wise patriarchs who dress in smart clothes and live by a moral code. It's a bit of a sausage-fest, but I suppose that comes with the territory.

5 The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski) The hero of this atmospheric thriller, based on a 2007 novel by Robert Harris (unread by me), is a nameless ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) hired to work on the memoirs of a former British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan) under investigation for war crimes. The latter is plainly a stand-in for Tony Blair, and the running gag about the writer having to go through constant security checks speaks to the times we live in. But above all, this is just a beautifully crafted movie. Paring down each shot and line of dialogue to only what's essential, Polanski is such a supremely confident storyteller that he makes it look effortless.

6 Greenberg (Noah Baumbach) A romantic comedy that you see alone, starring Ben Stiller in the title role as an abusive middle-aged crank, who agrees to take care of his brother's dog while he's away; Greta Gerwig as the brother's slatternly personal assistant, who has to take care of Greenberg; and Rhys Ifans as his best friend, a recovering alcoholic who still nurses a grudge against Greenberg for the breakup of their band twenty years ago. This is a quiet, sad, sometimes funny movie about three seriously screwed up people, and I loved every minute of it. I wasn't a fan of Baumbach's early work, but with Margot at the Wedding (2007) and now this film, he's emerged as one of the finest directors working anywhere, and one of the edgiest.

7 The White Ribbon: A German Children's Story (Michael Haneke) Set in a preindustrial German village on the eve of the first world war, this rare period film by the director of The Seventh Continent (1989) and Code inconnu (2000) is a chilling portrait of a repressive and puritanical society. Narrated by the local school teacher from a distance of several decades, the film centres on a series of unexplained crimes in the village, and Haneke uses the gaps in the narrator's knowledge to justify the gaps in the story, so don't go in expecting a conventional denouement. Characteristically spare and masterful as storytelling, this strikes me as Haneke's leanest and meanest effort since La Pianiste (2001).

8 Film socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard) I suspect that this three-part semi-narrative by my favorite filmmaker will look even better in a few years, once I've had time to better sort through it. Godard's films invariably grow in stature over time (unlike most Oscar winners), so the fact that I couldn't always follow what was happening in the story is more of a positive than a negative. In the meantime, what I can say for certain is that the film's opening segment (set on a cruise ship sailing around the Mediterranean) is a dizzying assault on the senses, boasting the worst sound I've ever heard in a commercial feature. And what follows, though more expected, is consistently singular and beautiful.

9 Carlos (Olivier Assayas) Even in the severely abridged 140 minute version that I saw at the Atlantic Film Festival (cut down from a five hour miniseries), this epic biopic of the international terrorist and media superstar, Carlos the Jackal (Édgar Ramírez), is still rather a full meal, covering a period of twenty years during which Carlos' waning influence is mirrored by the effects of aging on his body. Despite the film's anti-psychological docudrama style, which seems to be merely reporting the facts of the case, Assayas freely invents wherever there are gaps in the public record--as in the film's lengthy account of the OPEC Hostage Crisis in 1975, which as a piece of filmmaking is as suspenseful as anything I saw this year. I can't wait to see the longer cut.

10 Night Mayor (Guy Maddin) Western Canada's greatest auteur commemorates the 60th anniversary of the NFB (and the country's policy of multiculturalism) with this allegorical avant-garde short about a Bosnian tuba player's experiences in the new world. Only fourteen minutes long, this is the shortest item on my list, but every second of it is densely packed. The flickering, rapidly edited multiple exposures and layered soundtrack demand multiple viewings, making this Maddin's best short film since My Dad Is 100 Years Old (2005).

Some other movies that I liked:

Les Amours imaginaires (Xavier Dolan) Eastern Canada's youngest auteur follows up the success of J'ai tué ma mère (2009) with this funny and stylish homage to Godard and Wong Kar-wai, in which glam Francophone hipsters walk around Montreal in slow motion to an Italian language cover of Nancy Sinatra's "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)."

Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (Manoel de Oliveira) Adapted from a short story by the 19th century Portuguese novelist José Maria Eça de Queirós (which I haven't read) but set in the present, this singular and masterful film by the world's oldest living filmmaker is enhanced, rather than diminished, by its remoteness from the present. It's indicative of the film's endearingly old fashioned quality that when the hero (Ricardo Trêpa) moves to kiss the title character (Catarina Wallenstein), the film cuts away to their feet.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy) A multifaceted and very funny documentary about Thierry Guetta, who's better at playing the artist than he is at actually making art. In the late '90s, Guetta began documenting the work of several prominent street artists, including Banksy who inspired Guetta to become an artist himself. The film consists largely of Guetta's own footage, which Banksy has edited to make his former friend (and the art world in general) look as ridiculous as possible.

Les Herbes folles (Alain Resnais) Adapted from Christian Gailly's 1996 novel L'Incident (unread by me), this mind-boggling tale of l'amour fou is enhanced, rather than diminished, by its remoteness from sanity. It's indicative of how freakin' crazy this movie is that when the two leads (Sabine Azéma and André Dussollier) finally embrace, the 20th Century Fox fanfare rises on the soundtrack, and the word "Fin" blinks on the screen, even though the movie isn't over.

Hereafter (Clint Eastwood) I'm a devout atheist, but even I couldn't help being moved by this sombre afterlife drama which tells three separate stories, each set in a different country. The film opens with a harrowing recreation of the 2004 Asian Tsunami, but the most moving scenes are often the quietest--particularly those involving a solitary young boy from London's East End (Frankie and George McLaren) whose twin brother dies in a car accident, and between a former psychic who just wants a normal life (Matt Damon) and the nice girl he meets in his cooking class (Bryce Dallas Howard, playing Mary Jane to Damon's Spider-Man).

Home (Ursula Meier) Along with Exit Through the Gift Shop and I Love You Phillip Morris, the best first film I saw this year was this creepy French nuclear family freak out, which at times recalls Todd Haynes' Safe (1995). Meier shot the film on a remote stretch of highway in Bulgaria, and the landscape (which is as desolate as the surface of the moon) feels concrete and mythic at the same time.

I Love You Phillip Morris (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa) The first film by the writers of Bad Santa (2003) is a bold and uncompromising biopic of Steven Jay Russell (Jim Carrey), a Texas con man whose multiple escapes from prison were such an embarrassment to then-Governor George W. Bush that he was given a 144-year sentence, despite being a nonviolent offender. I'm generally a fan of Carrey's (I even liked Yes Man [2008]), but this movie is especially intriguing for the way it undermines easy identification with him at every turn.

Milyang (Secret Sunshine) (Lee Chang-dong) I'm cheating a bit by including this Cassavetes-like freak out by the wild man of South Korean cinema, since I actually first saw it a couple of years ago. However, I've decided to put it on my list anyway as it's only now getting a limited US release.

My Dear Enemy (Lee Yoon-ki) Perhaps the most overtly populist item on my list, this is an old fashioned crowd-pleaser about people sticking together in tough financial times. The two leads, Jeon Do-yeon (who was also in Milyang) and Ha Jung-woo, are both delightful, and although this is essentially a light comedy, the film nevertheless gets into some interesting ethical grey areas involving friendships and money.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (Woody Allen) Allen's best film since Match Point (2005) is a mostly lighthearted network narrative set in London about a group of people who are all in denial about various things. The movie has an unexpected ending that makes you look at the entire film in a different light, so that what seems to be a story about romance turns out to be about something else entirely. Allen is like a magician diverting us with misdirection while hiding his tricks in plain sight.

1 comment:

  1. I liked The Headless Woman by Lucrecia Martel most.Very intersecting & Night Mayor are know to me. Other will also be good.I am looking forward for other placed in list.I just found them when i was watching movies online