Thursday, 23 December 2010

My Top 30 Films of 2010: 10-1

The earlier parts of this top 30 can be found here:

10) Of Gods and Men, dir Xavier Beauvois, FRA

What I said: "Any good film is a film of ideas, even if those ideas are transmitted through seemingly disposable entertainment. But rarely are films so consciously about ideas whilst remaining so unpretentious... 'Of Gods and Men' lives up to its billing as one of the year's strongest films, with its sombre, contemplative mood as captivating as it is a profoundly moving experience."

The most recent entry into my top ten, I saw (and reviewed) 'Of Gods and Men' very recently after it's UK release earlier this month. 'Of Gods and Men' is a sober and thoughtful film based on the true story of a group of French monks who lived in an Algerian monastery until they were apparently beheaded by Islamic militants (though their actual killers are disputed). The film doesn't detail their deaths, but rather spends its time observing the conversations the men have as they ponder whether to stay or leave. It's a film about ideology and the idea of morality. It is also full of beautifully composed images and the use of the monks' Gregorian chanting (actually performed by the terrific ensemble cast) is haunting and powerful.

9) Ovsyanki (Silent Souls), dir Aleksei Fedorchenko, RUS

What I said: "It never out-stays its welcome and always has something new and interesting to show you, in its slow, deliberate and beautifully banal way, sometimes with an odd and unsettling atmosphere. Silent Souls also has plenty to say about culture, tradition, belief and love. Many films today say far less over 3 hours than this film manages in 75 minutes. Which isn’t bad going."

A strange Russian film about ritual and tradition, set in a remote part of the country and following a forgotten people with a distinct set of cultural practices. It's a film of long, still takes in which we are left to observe these curious ceremonies in real-time. One such scene sees a bereaved husband and one of his co-workers cleaning the dead body of his young wife. How the lady died is never mentioned (was she sick? Did she commit suicide? Was she murdered?) with the film just focusing on the final journey of her body as the two men embark on a sort of macabre road movie - and we are invited along on a sort of sedate, malancholic cultural safari. All the while there is the sense that it is about more than the passing of one man's wife, but about the death of an entire culture - which we are almost lead to believe is only being practised by these two stern and quiet men. For such a slow and simple film, 'Ovsyanki' is also full of surprisingly bravura shot choices. For instance, director Aleksei Fedorchenko executes a amazing panning shot which takes us 180 degrees around the inside of a moving car. 'Ovsyanki' was one of the major highlights of this year's Venice Film Festival and a film that I sadly can't see receiving any sort of UK theatrical release.

8) Police, Adjective, Corneliu Porumboiu, ROM

What I said: "[Police, Adjective] quietly paints a picture of urban decay, bureaucracy, and even seems to have fun satirising the conventions of the police procedural genre. There is no action or excitement here: no gun wielding, no interrogations, and [the protagonist] doesn’t even have a partner to accompany him on his long, eventless stake-outs, following a child suspected of a petty crime. There is also a great awareness of the hypocrisy of his task, as he offers one child (an informant) cigarettes and alcohol – arbitrarily deemed socially acceptable drugs... As the title suggests, the film is also concerned with the nature of language, specifically as a route to meaning. The final exchange between [the cop] and his superior is magnificent, ending a mostly silent film with a terrific scene of funny dialogue and top-class acting."

The 'Un Certain Regard' section of the Cannes Film Festival was especially good in 2009. All four of the chosen films found limited releases in the UK this year and all four of those films have been in this top 30 ('The Father of My Children' #22, 'No One Knows About Persian Cats' #14 and 'Dogtooth' #13). But for me the pick of the bunch has to be the Romanian police procedural 'Police, Adjective'. Never has the "procedural" part of that genre been so heavily emphasised - not even in brilliant TV shows like 'The Wire'. In this film there is no action, no major crime bust in operation. There is just one Romanian cop doing seemingly endless paperwork in the pursuit of the most juvenile of offenders at the insistence of his pedantic superiors. Like 'Ovsyanki', this is a patient film of long, slow takes and the most exciting scene is one sustained shot as three men defer to a Romanian dictionary in a discussion of ethics and the social purpose behind policing. Totally absorbing and entirely brilliant, with a wicked, dry sense of humour that seems to characterise the New Romanian cinema.

7) Greenberg, Noah Baumbach, USA

What I said: "The most breathtakingly beautiful moments of the film are those that follow [Greta] Gerwig as she sings along to Paul McCartney’s “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” in her modest studio flat or gets dressed after a one-night stand. When she impulsively asks Greenberg “could you ever love me?” the moment is profoundly moving and totally honest, never becoming saccharin... Greenberg is also impressive in the way that it depicts anxiety, ageing and social awkwardness (by now a sub-genre in itself), in a way which is just as precise and heartfelt as The Squid and the Whale."

Many will just flat-out hate Ben Stiller's title character, a self-obsessed, delusional and whiny loser, but I found 'Greenberg' immensely moving and poignant - never more so than when Rhys Ifans' character (whose music career was curtailed by Greenberg's selfishness) tells his friend that "It’s huge to finally embrace the life you never planned on." 'Greenberg' is a film about damaged people who haven't necessarily gotten what they expected from life. As a screenwriter and director, Noah Baumbach has come to specialise in this sort of sympathetic portrayal of these sorts of fully-developed and deeply flawed characters. Ultimately, I love these kinds of films that are honest about human frailties yet never resign themselves to ever-fashionable apathy or hopelessness.

6) Mother, Joon-ho Bong, ROK

What I said: "The film is suspenseful and tense, but also darkly funny throughout... Joon-ho is supremely skilled at mixing genuine tension with humour in this way. Maybe Sam Raimi and the Coen Brothers strike the same delicate balance when working at the peak of their powers, with these filmmakers able to inject absurd, black comedy into horrific events without detracting from their impact. Like those American directors, Joon-ho is also to make his scenes of graphic violence extremely visceral without verging anywhere near the "torture porn" end of the spectrum."

In retrospect I don't know that I think 'Mother' is as good as his last film 'The Host', but Joon-ho Bong has now established himself as one of the directors to watch in "world cinema". His films are so witty, so packed with satire and so very mad whilst always somehow just clinging to credibility. 'Mother' is a sort of detective thriller, where a lone middle-aged woman embarks on a fight against the odds to prove that her mentally handicapped son is not guilty of the murder he has been imprisoned for. It is at times quite jumpy, but the stand-out aspect of the film is the overriding creepiness Bong creates as we see the disturbingly close relationship between the mother and her son. As well as featuring many of the director's ongoing preoccupations (including the portrayal of South Korea as a seedy and corrupt place with a mobile phone fetish and overzealous media), the film works as a powerful meditation on the idea that a mother's unconditional love can work as a force for evil as much as good.

5) Another Year, Mike Leigh, UK

What I said: "[Another Year] moved me close to tears with Leigh's customary blend of well observed, wonderfully acted human drama. As always, even the smallest roles in Leigh's film feel imbued with real depth."

'Another Year' has a stunning cast, which includes Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville, who bring to life another banal, slice of life story from Mike Leigh - without doubt my favourite living British director. It's a film of wonderfully observed moments and rich, three dimensional characters that resonate with you on a gut level. One of the film's great strengths is that its characters are fully formed people who can be taken in many different ways. I have spoken to several different people about it and hear contrasting reactions to each of the characters. Some see the central couple (Broadbent and Sheen's comfortably middle-class Tom and Gerri) as being judgemental and even hateful, whilst I saw them as being tender and quite accommodating (trying their best to help their friends but finally accepting that there is nothing they can do to help people who aren't open to the idea of happiness). Lesley Manville's overbearing Mary was someone I felt was tragic and very real, whereas I have heard people say that her character is too extreme and too unlikeable.

As with a number of other film's on this list, such as 'Greenberg', 'Life During Wartime' and 'Submarine', enjoyment of it is subject to how much you can tolerate the idea that the life you lead owes a lot to luck and that almost everyone is a fuck up in one way or another. It also depends on how accepting you are of those people when you can see their many, obvious character defects. If you're the sort of person that just wants to slap them or tell them to "get over it", then you'll find this film (and many others on my list) infuriating. However, I found 'Another Year' to be deeply humbling and incredibly sad, with Leigh's bittersweet, gentle brand of humour (which hones in on small character moments and speech patterns) as effecting as ever.

4) 13 Assassins, Takeshi Miike, JAP

What I said: "Miike is less enamoured with the ancient traditions and the bushido warrior code than Kurosawa was. It is true that Seven Samurai does express – through Mifune’s peasant – a critical view of the samurai class, comparing them to bandits (something this film also does in its own way). But the tone and resolution of 13 Assassins, make it quite clear where Miike’s sensibilities lie. At one point, the most typically formally beautiful character – the bad guy and a Lord – comments on the great “elegance in fighting one on one” during a climactic duel. Miike then cuts to the warriors feet, shuffling through the mud. He continually employs touches like this to undermine Japanese traditions of formal beauty and a culture that finds nobility in violent death."

'13 Assassins' is prolific Japanese director Takeshi Miike's insane take on the central idea behind Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai': that one noble, old samurai must protect the weak by forming an elite gang and staging an epic all-or-nothing battle against an overwhelming adversary. There are three major differences though that set this film apart from that old classic. Firstly, it is graphically violent in the extreme. Secondly, the set pieces are much more high-octane, exaggerated and cartoonish (but in a way which thrilled me immensely). And thirdly - and most crucially - this film is far more critical of the samurai class and Japanese tradition than even Kurosawa was. In fact the film could be seen as the sort of direct challenge against the old guard that was typified by the Japanese New Wave of the 70s. This film has no respect for tradition and ceremony - or in the bushido code of the warrior - although it depicts all of that stuff in meticulous detail even as it sneers at it.

There is a lot going on in Miike's playful film (in terms of commentary on class, violence, beauty and on movies themselves), but its single best feature is that it is so very entertaining and inventive from start to finish. As soon as the credits rolled I wanted to see it all over again and I am more excited about re-watching this one than any other film I've seen this year.

3) The Happiest Girl in the World, Radu Jude, ROM

What I said: "[The Happiest Girl in the World] provoked an incredibly visceral response from me whilst I sat watching it. I felt like I wanted to shout at the girl for being so selfish and giving her folks such a hard time. I wanted her dad to be able to get her signature and sell the car before the day’s conclusion. At times I was gripped with suspense uncommon in this sort of quiet, low-key film as I genuinely worried about what decision the girl would make. But the biggest strength of all is that I wasn’t led to feel that way particularly (or at least I don’t feel as though I was, which is just as good). I can just as easily imagine people wanting the girl to keep her car and I can see people thinking badly of her parents for pushing her into selling it for them."

A brilliant little Romanian film about a small town girl who journeys into Bucharest with her parents to collect a brand new car that she has won after entering a competition on a soft drink label. Her pragmatic mother and father, who have lived through the more frugal communist years, want to sell the car and use the money to invest in a business that will see them through retirement. However, the girl just wants to ride around in her car with her friends. It's another excellent piece of slow cinema, with long takes and little action. Most of the film takes place on the set of a soft drink commercial the girl must complete before she can collect her prize. In the advert she must repeatedly say that she is "the happiest and luckiest girl in the world", with increasing irony as she argues with her parents about the prize between takes and becomes quite sulky and miserable. There is a lot of fun to be had from watching the filming of the commercial itself, as the director battles with the girl's incompetence and bad attitude, combined with the pushy, interfering executives of the soft drink company, who keep insisting on changes which slow down the shoot.

There are so many dynamics at work in 'The Happiest Girl in the World', which can be seen as a tale about young Romania versus old Romania, the small town versus big city, communism versus capitalism and also about filmmaking, and this is what makes it is such a rich and enjoyable film.

2) The Social Network, David Fincher, USA

What I said: "I have some sympathy with business writer Andrew Clark at The Guardian when he asks: "does a 26-year-old businessman really deserve to have his name dragged through the mud in a murky mixture of fact and imagination for the general entertainment of the movie-viewing public?" Probably not. But whatever the "truth", and whatever the moral implications of this type of dramatised treatment of very recent history, 'The Social Network' is a quite brilliant piece of entertainment and a wonderful example of American cinema at its very best."

I saw this film twice within twenty-four hours and it was even better a second time, mainly thanks to the joy of listening to Aaron Sorkin's famously quick and clever dialogue. Everyone speaks like they are a genius, which given that most of this film's characters are Harvard students and top lawyers is probably not too much of a stretch. This writing is coupled with Fincher's restrained and tight directing which has the effect of making a film about nerds suing each other feel like an intense thriller. Everyone is superb in it too, from Jesse Eisenberg - as Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook - to Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake. My favourite exchange of dialogue is this one:

Lawyer: Mr. Zuckerberg, do I have your full attention?
Mark Zuckerberg: [stares out the window] No.
Lawyer: Do you think I deserve it?
Mark Zuckerberg: [looks at the lawyer] What?
Lawyer: Do you think I deserve your full attention?
Mark Zuckerberg: I had to swear an oath before we began this deposition, and I don't want to perjure myself, so I have a legal obligation to say no.
Lawyer: Okay - no. You don't think I deserve your attention.
Mark Zuckerberg: I think if your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have the right to give it a try - but there's no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention - you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing.
Mark Zuckerberg: Did I adequately answer your condescending question?

After saying those words there are shots of everyone in the room, including Zuckerberg's own lawyers, looking embarrassed (presumably as much for him in his arrogance as for themselves at being outwitted by him) accompanied by an ominous note on the soundtrack, which itself deserves a mention. Along with Hans Zimmer's resonating tones from 'Inception' and Robbie Robertson's innovative work on 'Shutter Island', the film features one of the year's best scores, written by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

'The Social Network' is not that "film about Facebook" everyone wrote off a year or so ago. It's a powerful document of the world we live in (where huge wealth and power rests in the hands of the likes of Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs), yet also a timeless Shakespearean tale of friendships broken by betrayal and ambition, where the protagonist - in trying to become so popular - in fact becomes even more lonely: ironically a symptom of the kind of social isolation brought about by the same Facebook Zuckerberg helped to invent.

1) Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky, USA

What I said: "Aronofsky said, at the post-film press conference, that he always likened Black Swan to The Wrestler in his own mind... But that he felt it properly combined his earlier, perhaps more experimental and less literal style, with that later film’s more realist documentary aesthetic. I think that maybe a key ingredient behind this film’s success. It is the perfect marriage of those two styles and the real beginning to Aronofsky’s claim to true greatness. Time will tell if he can do it again. But regardless, Black Swan is a towering achievement. Both as cinema and as an unadulterated emotional ride."

'Black Swan' is my favourite film of 2010, narrowly defeating 'The Social Network', but way ahead of everything else. I was absolutely stunned by it, and at times gripped by intense fear, when I saw it on the opening day of this year's Venice Film Festival. It comes out in the UK in the new year and I suspect it will at least be nominated for every major category at next year's Academy Awards, though I predict it will lose out on the big prizes to 'The Social Network' (with its mighty "95" rating on metacritic) and 'The King's Speech'.

Natalie Portman is simply amazing in a physically demanding role which required her to spend the last few years learning ballet to a high standard. This central performance is complemented by a film that is a perfect blend of sound and image. Not overly literal or dialogue heavy, 'Black Swan' pushes at the boundaries of what cinema can be as a sensory experience. It feels as though there isn't a flabby, unnecessary shot (let alone scene) in the whole piece, which is about as meticulously crafted and tightly directed as it's possible for a film to be. Like the title character, it goes sublimely from being as delicate and beautiful as bone china, to being horrifying and bone-crunchingly brutal - a fitting analogue for ballet itself, with its mannered public face hiding years of disfiguring, back-breaking effort within a world of jealousy and intense rivalry.

So that's 2010. In an outstanding cinematic year I couldn't even find a place in the top 30 for films as strong as 'Shutter Island', 'The Kids Are All Right', 'Sons of Cuba' and 'Post Mortem'! I hope 2011 provides the same problem with as many really excellent films. If you didn't read the first two sections of this top 30 list, then they are available here:

1 comment:

  1. I liked your list. We share some of the same picks, but I've got a couple unconventional favorites of my own. They are here: in case you're interested.