Wednesday, 22 December 2010

My Top 30 Films of 2010: 20-11

This is the second part of my 2010 top 30 films list. If you haven't already read through entries 30-21 then do so here.

The final top 10 is available here.

20) Capitalism: A Love Story, dir Michael Moore, USA

What I said: "‘Capitalism’ is a fiery essay, delivered by a master propagandist and manipulator, but it is never less than compelling and exciting, and is a skillful piece of documentary filmmaking. Even if you come away unconvinced or even angered by Moore’s opinions, I for one am very glad he is airing them in this way. Especially on this subject which usually goes un-discussed, yet has such total and invisible control over our everyday lives. The fact that Moore can turn this discussion into populist entertainment is his unique gift and I for one applaud him for it."

Nothing this year has left me feeling as enraged or as energised as Michael Moore's documentary on world capitalism. Moore's critics point to a lack of "balance" or "objectivity" in his films, but for me they work for this reason. They take a view and argue that point. I don't particularly like the wacky stunts he pulls, such as closing off Wall Street with crime scene tape, as these moments have the effect of trivialising the other more serious points he is making, of which there are many. What I really liked was the sequence that linked the rise of Reagan to the rise of capitalism and advertising, and the bit where he talks about FDR's siding with striking workers over the police, sending the army to protect them (a moment that actually made me punch the air with joy). It is populist and manipulative in the extreme, but "the left" needs a voice like this in a world where shamelessly biased, right-wing media organisations like Fox News dominate the ratings on American cable news.

19) Ponyo, dir Hayao Miyazaki, JAP

What I said: "I loved ‘Ponyo’. It was purely and immensely joyful and if my fandom of Miyazaki has in any way compromised my judgement and rendered me unable to find any negatives in this film, then I am entirely happy with that outcome. In an age where most children's films have a post-modern, knowing cynicism about them, it is really refreshing to find something so sincere in its unabashed enthusiasm and childish naivety."

Miyazaki's most childish film since 'My Neighbour Totoro', 'Ponyo' is a little undiluted capsule of raw fun. It takes place in that recognisable world of his where the sky is the brightest blue and the grass is the lushest green and where there is no such thing as "evil" or "bad guys". As in all Miyazaki films - with the exception of one - the villain of the piece is redeemed rather than killed and everyone is more or less decent. He also continues to be one of the keenest observers of the behaviour of young children in all of cinema. His last film 'Howl's Moving Castle' is richer and more detailed in terms of storytelling, but it is great to see a film aimed a really young children that is so respectful of that audience and brimming with imagination.

18) Lebanon, dir Samuel Maoz, ISR

What I said: "Of course, the film is anti-war, but without seeming like a polemic. Maoz doesn’t stand on a soapbox: he simply presents the events to us as he saw them and in doing so we come to share his viewpoint. You could not sit through that experience and come to any other conclusion than war being a terrible exercise... But the strength of Maoz’s picture is that, confined to the men in the tank and bereft of any political context or discussion, we just see the humanist plight of people in a nonsensical situation asked to wreak violence upon their fellow man."

Sam Maoz documented his personal experiences, during his compulsory time in the Israeli army during the first Lebanon war, in this film which takes place entirely within the confines of a tank. All we see of the world outside is what we are permitted to see by the vehicles viewfinder. As you'd expect the result is tight and claustrophobic. It's a film about the horrible things men do to each other and the immense pressure put on young people to do them - usually for reasons they don't understand.

17) Submarine, dir Richard Ayoade, UK

What I said: "Rarely in a debut feature do you find a director so in command of the form, as you sense that everything in 'Submarine' has been carefully played out in its director's head and translated exactly that way onto the screen... 'Submarine' is as sweet and at times unsettling as it is beautifully made and wonderfully acted. It is funny - but not too funny - and also melancholic and above all truthful, in spite of that fact that it takes place in a reality heightened by its narrator's ego."

Richard Ayoade's debut feature film reminded me equally of Wes Anderson and Stanley Kubrick. It has all the detail and French New Wave inspired mise-en-scène of the former, but with the narrator - a Welsh teenage boy with delusions of grandeur - sharing dark thoughts in a cheerful and amoral way that channels Alex from 'A Clockwork Orange'. It is witty and at times bizarre, yet at its core it's a very sincere family drama and a heartfelt coming of age story.

16) Tangled, dir Byron Howard/Nathan Greno, USA

What I said: "For years I've been a hand-drawn snob who felt that by going over to computer animation Disney had lost their way - along with all of their charm. 'Tangled' has won me over wholeheartedly, putting a recognisably Disney style into computer animation for the first time. If they keep this up, the studios identity crisis might finally be over and the problem of differentiating Walt Disney Animation Studios from their more lauded cousins PIXAR might finally be solved."

My favourite animated film of the year, which is no small feat when you consider 2010 saw the UK releases of superb return to hand-drawn animation 'The Princess and the Frog', as well as Miyazaki's 'Ponyo'. Not to mention the charming likes of 'Chico & Rita' and 'The Illusionist'. (I didn't care much for Pixar's slide into sequel excess, 'Toy Story 3'.) Walt Disney Animation Studios has finally made a decent computer animated film, something I thought would never happen. The secret seems to be that they have moved forward with the technology (the best hair, water, light and fabric effects I've ever seen), but looked backwards with the storytelling. Like all classic Disney it is a fairy tale (based on Rapunzel). It is also a Broadway-style musical to rival the best of the Disney renaissance from the 90s. The whole thing feels like a hand-drawn Disney movie pulled out into 3D, rather than the sort of charmless, personality-free stuff that came to typify their output of the last decade.

15) Four Lions, dir Chris Morris, UK

What I said: "Whilst nobody in the audience is encouraged to agree with the measures Omar takes to try and register his political dissatisfaction as a British Muslim, in ‘Four Lions’ we are given a humanistic picture which demythologises the bogeyman of the evil suicide bomber. This is arguably a laudable aim if, like me, you see empathy and understanding as crucial to finding a future peace... ‘Four Lions’ will certainly not be to everybody’s taste, with some scenes destined to make audiences uneasy, but long term fans of Morris will find it to be a satisfying and devastatingly funny experience."

"If they're about to blow themselves up in wrong place, you've got to make sure they blow themselves up in the right place" counsels the wife of a disillusioned British suicide bomber on the verge of giving up. The couple's young son is equally encouraging in a scene that reminded me of something from director Chris Morris' unsettling sketch show 'Jam'. I love the way that scene plays on movie convention, as Morris' film picks apart the recognised formula of a Hollywood narrative (here the "hero" has a crisis and is helped by his family) by transposing it onto a group of would-be terrorists. I expected 'Four Lions' to be clever and funny, being from the maker of 'Brass Eye' and 'Nathan Barley', but I never expected it to be so tender and moving as it was in the final minutes.

It is also a deeply humanistic film that looks at the different reasons people go along with Omar's plans: one is brainless, another younger man wants to be seen as a radical and thinks it'll be cool, another guy (Barry) is just homicidal and wants to blow people up and is using his shaking grasp of Islam as an excuse. Omar himself is motivated by sincere conviction, but even then he is not shown to be a dedicated Muslim, but is instead driven by a misguided sense that terrorism is some kind of ultimate form of anti-consumerism. Characteristically, Morris doesn't pander to anyone or sanctify anything, so the practicing Muslims are also satirised, keeping their wives in a cupboard ("it's not a cupboard, it's a small room") and playing football in impractical clothes. The police are equally nonsensical, with a sniper shooting the wrong man during the London marathon ("is a wookie a bear?") Like his frequent collaborator Armando Iannucci (who directed 'In the Loop'), Morris plays up basic human absurdity with a straight face. To both men incompetence and ignorance can be found at the root of all "evil".

14) No One Knows About Persian Cats, dir Bahman Ghobadi, IRN

What I said: "Aesthetically, the film sometimes looks a little amateurish and the music video sequences (whilst clever) can seem a little cheesy. But that said, ‘No One Knows About Persian Cats’ is an enjoyable and at times poignant look at a modern Tehran, which provides a really good insight into the social and cultural life of that city. The film tantalisingly blurs the line between fact and fiction in many ways. For example, the lead actors boast the same first names as their characters and the bands they encounter are real bands playing themselves. But more relevant and interesting is the movie’s opening scene in which a character talks of a great movie that will be made about the underground music scene in Iran. After seeing ‘Persian Cats’ I was left in no doubt that this is that great movie."

An interesting look at the hidden artistic life of a secretive and fascinating country, 'No One Knows About Persian Cats' looks at the great variety and vibrancy of the music on offer in Tehran for those who know where to look. It is a film that shows young people in Iran referencing Western movies and 60s rock music, which reveals something both wonderful and tragic: there is vibrant, modern youth culture here, but it is being stamped on by an authoritarian regime. As you'd expect for a film made on location in Iran which features real footage of underground musicians performing banned music, 'Persian Cats' at times feels amateurish and cheap - with the extended musical sequences looking laughably unsophisticated as they try to ape Western music videos without the glamour or the technology. Yet as a film it is ultimately every bit as hopeful and heart-breaking as the modern Tehran it presents so vividly.

13) Dogtooth, dir Giorgos Lanthimos, GRE

What I said: "For something so thoughtful and demanding of close analysis, ‘Dogtooth’ is also more purely entertaining than it has any right to be: equal parts harrowing family drama and subtly amusing black comedy. The film is sometimes tense, occasionally funny and often disturbing. The performances are perfect across the cast, with Mary Tsoni and Aggeliki Papoulia particularly effective as the two daughters. They imbue their young-adult characters with childlike mannerisms, particularly in one scene where they perform an excruciatingly bad dance for their parents. All the actors transmit a certain coldness and convey that the characters have no real understanding of how to be affectionate."

An incredibly rich film that you could probably read as being "about" three thousand different things. For me it was about the arbitrary nature of language and meaning, as it looked at three "children" (now adults but still treated as infants by their parents) who have never left their high-walled family home and whose socialisation has been left entirely to their strange parents. They are taught different meanings for any words that imply an outside world. It is explained to them that cats who enter the garden are dangerous and evil creatures and that passing airplanes are made of paper and thrown into the air by their parents as a game. It all goes "wrong" however, when the father invites an outsider into the house to teach his son about sex. Soon the siblings are consumed with a curiosity to discover more about sexuality and this mysterious outsider. 'Dogtooth' is unsettling, darkly funny beautifully shot.

12) Micmacs, dir Jean-Pierre Jeunet, FRA

What I said: "[If] you are one of those who didn’t get swept up in the whimsical charms of ‘Amélie’, then I would suggest you will not find much more to enjoy in ‘Micmacs’. If you hated that film's sensibilities (as a great many seem to do) then I don’t think this is the film for you. Conversely, I think fans of that film will find much to recommend about ‘Micmacs’, as it has the same oddball sensibility, along with many of Jeunet’s familiar visual motifs and thematic preoccupations."

Like ever other Jeunet film before it (including 'Alien 4'), 'Micmacs' follows a set of quirky oddballs - social misfits who find strength in banding together. It feels like exactly the sort of film Terry Gilliam would be making if he was French and if he was given money and control. It's a highly visual modern fairy tale about a group of homeless people fighting to destroy two major arms corporations - a sort of slapstick, silly 'Mr Smith Goes to Washington' for the modern age. It's sweet, warm and sentimental (just as Capra was), and its heart is so definitely in the right place, that it is just such good, uplifting fun from beginning to end. Along with del Toro, Gilliam and Burton, Jeunet is a modern auteur who fully embraces imagination and the possibilities of cinema as a visual medium. Also, French comic star Danny Boon is brilliant in the lead role, especially during one pantomime scene of which any of the great silent clowns would be proud.

11) Life During Wartime, dir Todd Solondz, USA

What I said: "By far the best reason to see ‘Life During Wartime’ (aside from the performances, the drama and the directorial precision) is for the riotous black comedy. As with Chris Morris’ ‘Four Lions’, some may squirm uncomfortably in their chairs, but I personally found it struck the right note throughout. Solondz never pulls back, never flinches. We are always taken right to the dark core of his chosen subject matter and we laugh along the way. It is often said that if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry – that laughter is the best medicine. In Solondz case this is true, as he examines difficult social problems which, without his wonderfully comic writing, might prove too much to bear."

Chris Morris and 'Four Lions' is perhaps the best point of comparison for Todd Solondz 'Happiness' sequel. Both directors take a knee-jerk social issue and run at it head-on, seemingly without fear. For Solondz that subject is arguably even more controversial than a comedy about Islamic terrorism: he is looking at sex in suburban America and even paedophilia. And just as Morris aimed to understand the terrorist by looking at him as just another flawed, complex human being, Solondz give a matter of fact representation of a paedophile as a man driven by desires that have ruined his life (time in prison, break down of all his family relationships and shattering of his reputation). Again, as in 'Four Lions', we are not asked to sympathise with or support the vice itself, but to feel some empathy for the man who (for whatever mental reason) commits that act. Finally, both men use razor-sharp comedy to look at these issues, to get to the core of the absurdity at work in the human psyche and to avoid the despair that would otherwise accompany such an honest look at what lies within all of us. In Morris' film that takes the form of more obvious jokes and wordplay, whilst Solondz gets laughs from social awkwardness and a very real desperation which operates at the heart of all his very sad characters.

It's not an out and out comedy, but rather it's funny because people are funny, even in their blackest moments. The film is equally a visceral punch in the guts, especially in a key scene in which the paedophile attempts to reconcile with his now adult son.

The final part of this list, detailing my top 10 films of 2010, will be online tomorrow. If you haven't read the first part (films 30-21) then you can do that here.

If you want to see the top ten, then that is now available here.

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