Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Top Ten Films of 2010
The financial crisis of 2008 is partly to blame for the mediocre year that was, 2010. From The Fighter to True Grit to Winter's Bone, 2010 was definitely a year filled with films that we, the audience, were "supposed to like" more than we actually did. Apart from documentaries (and there were many great ones this year--see a few lines below), the story-department seemed to run a bit dry. Nevertheless, I've narrowed it down to the best-and-my-favorite films of 2010. Although my number 10 spot could've gone to many (Catfish, She's Out Of My League, Inside Job, Exit Through The Gift Shop, or Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work), I decided to go with the one (I think) will be looked back on and regarded as a very special cultural text---a film about humans and where we now live. So here we go. Number 10.
10. The Social Network: "We lived in farms, then we lived in cities and now we're gonna live on the internet." This line uttered in the final minutes of David Fincher's The Social Network sums up why, in a sentence, critics are praising this 'film-for-our-times.' It couldn't have been made 10 years ago, and it couldn't be made (like this) 10 years from now. It's our generation's Network. It's entirely and utterly a-movie-of-and-for-the-moment. With a zippy, razor-sharp, feels-like-fists-are-swinging screenplay by Aaron Sorkin (the Oscar is his to lose), an ominous, chilling score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and a talented cast led by the always wonderful Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland, Adventureland and his best film, The Squid & The Whale), The Social Network isn't the best film from a (pretty) weak film year, but it is one that will go down in history, studied and remembered for being a film that sums up a generation. My generation. For this is where (and how) we now live. Friending. Tagging. Facebooking our way into life, as we now know it.
9. How To Train Your Dragon: The sleeper hit from early 2010 ('thank you' audience word-of-mouth buzz, which put the film at the number one box office spot weeks after its initial release--an unheard of feat) turns out to be one of the dreamiest, most giddily entertaining films of the year. What stood out to me most, while watching the film was its mature, sage perspective on 'what and who is evil' in this world. There's a fantastic theological conversation going on in How To Train Your Dragon, and one question that keeps haunting our protagonist Hiccup's mind: mainly, 'why is the dragon the enemy'? From the Vikings' perspective, it has to do with fire, death and destruction. But once Hiccup seeks to reach across the island waters and understand the dragons (and where they came from), something cinematically (and narratively) enlightening emerges. As a metaphor for our globalized, pluralistic and increasingly big/small complex world, How To Train Your Dragon reveals what it will take to understand one another today, tomorrow and in the future to come. Of course, as Madeleine L'Engle once wrote, this sort of message and movie can only come at us in the realm of fiction, and fantasy. And what a grand, provocative fantasy this is.
8. The King's Speech: The year's biggest surprise, The King's Speech sounds like typical made-for-TV-movie melodrama but it's not. It's a throwback to the golden age of cinema. It's as conventional as the very best mainstream movie can be yet, its heart (and script) are in a very good, very true place. The theme of finding one's voice is not new to contemporary cinema but here, it gets a colorful (literal) makeover thanks to solid performances from Colin Firth (his second knockout performance in two years, following last year's tragic A Single Man) and Geoffrey Rush (his best work since Quills). While watching the film, I couldn't help but think "How was this not made into a movie sooner?" For it feels--almost effortlessly--like the perfect piece of cinema: entertaining, enlightening and (in its own soft-spoken way) enthralling. Kudos to the perseverance of screenwriter David Seidler for a script that honors the incredible spirit (and providential humanity) of history. For a story he's been wanting to write since 1980, and someone who dealt with a stammer himself, it's not hard to see why The King's Speech leads in Oscar nominations this year.
7. Inception: Christopher Nolan's dream-within-a-dream film has been criticized on many levels. My wise film friend Eugene Suen said this to me after seeing Inception (we argued for over two hours about the film until 3:30 AM on a Friday night, after I saw it a second time): "There is so much damn exposition about the logics of its own universe." I agree. But I defended the film, saying, "The particular dream world that was constructed needed this type of exposition. It needed a setup that explained the inner working-world of Cobb's (Leonardo DiCaprio) dreams." Call it cheating. Call it bad screenwriting. Call it whatever. But for me (and millions of other people), it worked. It engaged me. I was entertained. It made me think and reflect on dreams I've longed to get stuck in (and forget about) since childhood. And I liked the un-reality of Inception. For dreams aren't supposed to be about reality, but they're about what reality can't reveal to us. In Inception we see a man so troubled and traumatized and tricked by his own love for dreams, his life (literally) disappears before our eyes.
6. Last Train Home (归途列车): Lixin Fan’s laborious documentary about a migrant workers’ family journey home once a year for the Chinese New Year festival celebration is not just an exploitation of China’s economic boom (and its back-breaking, painful side effects on the family at hand) but it’s a global snapshot of a world (and a people) just trying to keep up. The last half of the film is so emotionally taxing, you begin to sense what it must feel like to be one of the 130 million migrant workers (who make your jeans, your t-shirts, your shoes, your pretty-much-everything—e.g., “Made In China”), living in a world that’s forgotten them. Fan—who also served as cinematographer here—pays visual homage to Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence and Edward Burtynsky’s photography in the way he captures a people literally held captive by the world’s economic demands. Uncomfortable, disturbing yet wholly cinematic, Last Train Home is a portrait of a family being severed, slowly. In a year filled with wonderful documentaries--from Inside Job to Exit Through The Gift Shop to Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work--Last Train Home is, I think, the best of the best.
5. Another Year: On paper, Another Year looks like an impossibility; a film that just 'couldn't work.' Its central characters--a rock-of-calmness-and-goodness couple played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen--are flawed, but there's little gloating over their flaws, just gloating over their hospitable gentleness. They're that rare cinematic couple that seem to have learned (in their old age) how to love, accept and live in and with each others' brokenness, while never seeming to be fixated on them. A cinematic (and real life) rarity, indeed. Additionally, I think they're the kind of elderly couple so many of us aspire to be--youthful, playful, and in love with life, with this earth and with each other. So it's a surprise to see that the conflict arises not so much from within them but within the lonely people woven into the vocational and familial relationships they have. Director Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky) showcases an exactitude for the mundane and transforms it into the remarkable. By creating a cast of normal people who feel so real, their very idiosyncrasies reveal the inner world as physical world, Leigh's created his smallest and quietest great film in years. It's better and stronger than Happy-Go-Lucky, and stays with you longer than Vera Drake did (as it's not merely about an issue or social problem but a universally felt, common human experience). This is at the heart of Another Year's wisdom and drama. I loved eavesdropping in on this world. Perhaps because, minus the aged wisdom, it resembles my own.
4. Undertow (Contracorriente): The 2010 Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Audience Award) winner deserves all the praise it's been getting. Peru's Undertow (Contracorriente) is a ghost story like no other. It's about cultural and religious traditions, gender roles, masculinity, family, God, and being gay, yes, but it's much more than this. At its heart, it questions the very things in life that weigh us down and literally, drown us--day by day, night by night, tear by tear--til' the day we return to the ground from which we came. Writer/director Javier Fuentes-Leon's brilliant (yet small and quiet) first feature film is that rare piece of cinema that knows what it wants and goes for it. A parable like no other--and far better than Brokeback Mountain, a film it's often compared to--Undertow is one of the most moving films of the year, and one of my favorites. For a glimpse into a world many people rarely visit or experience, see the achingly beautiful Undertow.
3. Mother (마더): Mother is a movie that's brimming with cultural satire, family melodrama and swift suspense. There's not a wasted scene and the payoff at the end, is nothing short of (visual) brilliance. From the opening scene to the haunting final shot, we know what this film is about and yet, we're also completely lost with nearly every scene unfolding more unpredictably than the one before it. It makes sense but it doesn't, it's heartbreaking but maddening, melodramatic but mesmerizing. Mother is the year's best, genre-bending, cinema-as-paradox film. South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host) proves he's one of today's great directors as Mother is his grandest and greatest achievement to date. It's like his earlier nuanced, Seven-meets-Zodiac, Memories of Murder remade, 10 years later. Only better. In some sense, it's a film that gives us a glimpse of the future possibilities of cinema and narrative storytelling in a digital age. By tapping into themes of savvy adolescent techno-literacy, poverty, and a Korean mother's (a dazzling performance by Kim Hye-ja that makes Natalie Portman in Black Swan look like amateur acting, a shame she was snubbed in the Best Actress Oscar race) relationship to her one-and-only son, Bong Joon-ho has made a thriller like no other. If Alfred Hitchcock directed Memento, Mother would be its movie-child.
2. Toy Story 3: Jürgen Moltmann would be proud. This is, basically, his theological treatise book, "Theology of Play," translated onto the 21st century big screen. If that means nothing to you, then let me just say this: this movie is loads of fun, entertaining and giddily funny, and in the end, reminds us all never to lose that child-like sense of wonder and, well, play. Academy Award-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) has crafted another comic masterpiece, combining the light and dark sides of humanity into one, seemingly effortless cinematic story. It's the most surprising (and the most touching) of all the Toy Story films, as it comments not just about the loss of childhood, but the loss of play (and imagination) in today's society. For the most beautiful story-metaphors, look no further than to Pixar's Toy Story 3. To quote one of my favorite critics from Entertainment Weekly, the film is a "salute to the magic of making believe." By the film's end, we all do.
1. Blue Valentine: When I walked out of Blue Valentine, I didn't see it as the year's best film. It has its flaws, its story structure issues, its emotional holes here and there. But it's a film that lingers and stays with you, in the most uncomfortable (and surprising) way. Drawing slightly (stylistically/in editing) from Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless and in mood/story from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Blue Valentine is the kind of experimental, art-house film that breaks your heart, the way a Tom Waits song does. Yet, through its relentless, raw flashback-flashpresent narrative, there's a kind of romance presence here that is bursting with chemistry and full of life. There are moments--several scenes, in fact--that made me smile like I was watching the most romantic moment from my life played out right in front of me, courtesy of two of the year's most underrated performances (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams). This is what movies are supposed to do, and Blue Valentine does it well. At the same time, there are other moments that make you cringe, the inner felt aftershock of a blow to the stomach. Blue Valentine isn't so much a story as it is an experience. An experience into the past of a relationship (and every past/present-romantic relationship of its audience) juxtaposed against the future all tied together with a song that (although it is 'their song') quickly becomes our song, too. It's like a symbol standing for the hope that exists between any couple who are too battered and beat up and tired to find hope within their love again. Or perhaps, for the first time. Although it's an extremely difficult film to watch (and is for adults only, to be sure), it captures the spot as the best and my favorite film of the year because it's so paradoxically human. A film that will haunt me and stay with me, forever.