Tuesday, 21 December 2010

My Top 30 Films of 2010: 30-21

Yesterday I posted that I would soon be making a top 30 list for 2010. I was going to wait until I'd seen the new Peter Weir film, 'The Way Back', before making my final selections, but owing to the fact that I'm not certain I'll even get to see it I've decided to jump the gun and start writing it now. I say "start" writing it because I am going to publish it in three chunks. This is the countdown from 30 to 21 and the rest will follow in the week.

However, before I get that underway I wanted to give a mention to films from the last year that I haven't seen so as to account for their absence. Notable omissions might be the apparently excellent documentary 'Catfish', the Oscar-winning Argentine film 'The Secret in Their Eyes' and the terrorist biopic-epic 'Carlos'. With that caveat, here are numbers 30-21:

30) I'm Still Here, dir Casey Affleck, USA

What I said: "Whether it’s down to a genuine absurdity or to a dedicated genius performer (he’s kept this act up for two years now), I’m Still Here is really funny. I was in stitches for long spells of it and had the best time I’ve had in any film here [at the Venice Film Festival]."

'I'm Still Here' really appealed to me when I saw it at it's preview at this Summer's Venice Film Festival. Then the principle discussion surrounded whether or not it was a "hoax" or a genuine documentary. Subsequently director Casey Affleck has admitted to what many (including myself) had suspected: that it wasn't really the record of actor Joaquin Phoenix meltdown. But full credit to Phoenix, who kept up this act for a really long time and who was seemingly willing to do permanent damage to his public reputation to make this film - on both counts an even more impressive feat than even the characterisations of Sacha Baron Cohen. To my mind, the film works as a look at the savagery of media reporting on celebrity and the callousness of almost everyone when it comes to pointing and laughing at a public breakdown. The real targets of this film are bloggers and gossip columnists who feed off this sort of thing, and in some way I suppose that includes many of the film's audience who came hoping to see a crazy actor becoming a public spectacle.

The film eventually tanked at the box office - and I know more than one person who thought it was utter garbage - but it made me laugh and it had some good things to say about celebrity and the ruthless way we consume celebrity.

29) Barney's Version, dir Richard J. Lewis, USA

What I said: "I don’t know if anybody [at the Venice Film Festival] expected it to be as charming, as funny or as moving as it was. The central reason for this emotional ride is Giamatti, who is transformed to look much younger and much older than he is using make-up, but it’s his posture, voice and mannerisms that make each stage convincing. He underplays things too. There isn’t anything hammy, there’s no scenery chewing here... as far as acting goes, Paul Giamatti’s wonderful and complete performance in Barney’s Version is at the head of the pack."

Still awaiting a January 28th release here in the UK, 'Barney's Version' was another of the films that left an impression on me in Venice. The story follows an irascible - and to many I suspect unlikeable - man as he experiences a life full of loves and losses and missed opportunities. What makes it so compelling is the central performance of Paul Giamatti who left me in tears by the film's end. It's a rich and humanistic story that follows someone who really isn't anyone's idea of perfect with great tenderness. It's also quite funny and it has Dustin Hoffman in it. In the words of today's alternative youth: "win".

28) Kick-Ass, dir Matthew Vaughn, USA/UK

What I said: "‘Kick-Ass’ was terrifically good fun and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes to go to the movies, sit back and get entertained. It is equal parts funny and exciting and (if it performs at the box-office) may provoke a new wave of independent movie blockbusters."

I had (and have) major reservations about 'Kick-Ass'. It is pretty much a right-wing wish fulfillment fantasy in the same vein as 'Harry Brown' (also produced by Matthew Vaughn) and it's representation of society, crime and the criminal leaves a lot to be desired. It is the opposite of 'Barney's Version' in terms of its view of the human condition. As a film it is also shamelessly derivative of Quentin Tarantino and 'Kill Bill' in particular.

Yet I'd be a great big phony if I didn't admit to loving it. I saw it twice, enjoyed it both times and found the action scenes every bit as exciting as I was supposed to. Chloë Moretz and Nicolas Cage were especially funny as father and daughter vigilantes, with Cage doing his best Adam West impression to great effect. I'm still not a fan of comic book author Mark Millar's cruel and hate-filled sensibilities, but 'Kick-Ass' was one of the year's best blockbusters by a mile (even if it didn't end up catching the popular imagination on release).

27) Cemetery Junction, dir Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant, UK

What I said: "‘Cemetery Junction’ is a moving and often funny film which serves as a tight and accomplished filmmaking debut from the Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant partnership. Unlike anything in recent British cinema, it is certainly one of the most exciting films I’ve seen this year so far... there is some ironic humour (“Why are you playing this gay music? Stick some Elton John on!”), but ironic distance isn’t the film’s default position and it is more than happy to earnestly explore themes of friendship, love and happiness without smirking... ‘Cemetery Junction’ may just be the finest thing to have come from the partnership so far. It will be exciting to see what they do next, though they have now set the bar pretty high for themselves. We will have to wait and see whether it heralds a new New Wave of British filmmaking or not, but either way this is a special film."

Wow. What a fall from grace and so very undeserved. 'Cemetery Junction' not only bombed at the UK box office, but then suffered the ignominy of being released straight-to-DVD in the US. It is a shame too as it really is a sincere and tender film with its heart in the right place. It is funny, but not really a laugh-a-minute riot as a comedy. Instead it is a coming of age drama with a few genuinely tear-jerking moments (Emily Watson is, as always, superb). The film's young cast is also really decent. Especially the luminescent Felicity Jones, who I hope is an up and coming star for the future.

26) Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, dir Werner Herzog, USA

What I said: "writer, William Finkelstein, is a veteran of [the police procedural] on television... But what stops this film from sinking into the mediocrity that writing pedigree would suggest is the collaboration between the film’s two insane geniuses: Herzog and Cage... Cage gives a great physical performance as he carries himself with a slight hunch due to his back injury and looks and sounds increasingly on the edge of full-on, drug-induced breakdown... Herzog is an equally pivotal part of what makes this film, largely, successful. It is hard to imagine that anybody other than the German director wrote the film’s closing lines, in which Cage asks “Do fish dream?” It is equally hard to imagine that the shooting script contained [reference to] ultra close-up shots of iguanas and alligators or the scene in which a dead man’s soul starts break dancing. All these elements must be things which Herzog brought to the party and it is these sorts of touches that elevate the material."

In a busy year which has seen Herzog (depending on where you live) release three feature-length films (this, 'My Son, My Son...' and documentary 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams'), 'Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans' is unquestionably the most commercial of the bunch. After all, the film stars Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer, Eva Mendes and Xzibit in a slickly made cop thriller which combines sex, drugs and gangland shootouts. The difference though is Herzog's taste for all things odd: all things which subvert and challenge the structured, sanitised way that we are encouraged to make sense of our world. Then add Nicolas Cage to the mix, in the form of his life, acting every bit as unhinged as Klaus Kinski ever was. The result is something that is at once fresh and conventional, a genre piece and an art film.

25) Noi credevamo, dir Mario Martone, ITA

What I said: "Probably the best thing about the film is that, despite the fact that its release is close to the 150th anniversary of unification, it is not celebratory or patriotic. The men we follow see their lives marked by hardship and tragedy thanks to their dedication to a life of violent struggle. At one point the actions of the nationalists are seemingly likened to those of the IRA or ETA, as a plot to blow up Napoleon III in Paris fails to kill the monarch, instead it brings about the massacre of a number of ordinary French citizens. And once the country is unified, the surviving revolutionaries find themselves irrelevant in the new Italy, which doesn’t live up to their original egalitarian ideal (“Italy is petty, hauty, murderous” bemoans one man)."

Long historical epics are more often than not ponderous bores, though when they are done well there is almost nothing as grand and truly "cinematic". Mario Martone's 'Noi credevamo' is one such film that tells a big story on a big scale over a 204 minute running-time. And it is a rare film that needs that running length, yet this one does as it traces the decades running up to eventual unification of Italy as a nation state in 1861, following three revolutionaries through their lives and looking at different philosophies of revolution and resistence, as well as at the events themselves. It is a film of stunning quality which will probably never find a theatrical release in the UK at all. Though anyone with an interest in historical epics or the effect of nationalism on nineteenth century European history should seek it out on DVD when it becomes available.

24) Lourdes, dir Jessica Hausner, FRA

What I said: "To say that ‘Lourdes’ is a slow moving film of subtle observations and small moments would be an understatement, as to many it would probably fit the description that “nothing happens”. There is a story here, but it is slight. It is in the interactions of the characters and specifically their treatment of Christine that the film is strongest. It is odd perhaps that a film that accepts the possibility of miracles could be so matter of fact and naturalistic, but maybe that is the point: in a world where miracles exist (and are indeed scrutinized and recorded by the Church) are miracles simply as banal as everything else?"

'Lourdes' is a subtle and quietly effecting film about a disabled woman named Christine who is on a Catholic pilgrimage seeking a miracle to mend her legs. There is a respectful tone over the whole thing which never overtly criticises the church, yet there is lots of low-key satire directed at some of those within the church and their attitudes towards each other. The film also revels in the banality of the Catholic church as an institution, with rules and bureaucracy to rival any government (as I suppose it ultimately is). The film is also formally beautiful and boasts an eye-catching central performance from Sylvie Testud.

23) Essential Killing, dir Jerzy Skolimowski, POL

What I said: "this film doesn’t talk in platitudes in order to solicit empathy. It doesn’t need to soften the edges and make excuses in order for us to understand its characters’ basic humanity. Instead, like the Chris Morris comedy Four Lions, it asks you to accept more complicated truths about our nature."

'Essential Killing' played in Venice last summer, where it picked up a couple of prizes - the biggest being for Vincent Gallo as the festival's best actor. He certainly deserved it - and that's coming from someone who isn't a huge fan of the pretentious former model. In 'Essential Killing' he is at his intense best, carrying the film with a wordless performance as a Muslim insurgent on the run from his American captors after escaping an Eastern European detention centre where he is tortured. The film brilliantly (and brutally) subverts the Middle Eastern war movie of the last ten years, as we follow the "terrorist" and see his murderous actions through his eyes as acts of survival. The first half an hour is an adrenaline ride which would rival any action film, though for the most part it is a slow and introspective film following a confused and increasingly desperate man in an unfamiliar landscape.

22) The Father of My Children, dir Mia Hansen-Løve, FRA

What I said: "‘The Father of My Children’ is certainly an accomplished piece of work. The performance of Louis-Do de Lencquesaing as Grégoire is everything it must be. Afterall, it is said (more than once) within the film that his character is charming and charismatic, which he certainly manages to be. He is also warm and funny in the scenes with his children (the eldest of which is played superbly and with real intensity and intelligence by his real life daughter Alice), and this is perhaps the most crucial part of the film. But he is also equally adept at getting across the sense of depression and desperation crucial to understanding the character's eventual suicide... [the film] takes a mature and considered look at the roots of suicidal depression as well as its ultimate selfishness and futility, and without being judgemental."

A film about a movie producer who is hit by the threat of bankrupcy and is driven to take his own life, 'The Father of My Children' is an empathetic and unsentimental look at the causes and aftermath of one man's suicide. The first half of the film follows the man and his gradual mental decline and the second half takes the perspective of his family and friends. It is a haunting and moving portrait of a harrowing situation made in an unembelished style which gives the act itself all the more poignance for its being so fleeting and lacking all romance.

21) The Princess and the Frog, dir Ron Clements/John Musker, USA

What I said: "There are some awkward moments, as I felt uncomfortable hearing Tiana’s father sermonise about the value of effort and hard work in achieving success (especially as we are told he works triple shifts whilst never achieving his dream), but whilst the film is a little too “American Dreamy” for my tastes, it is ultimately hard to fault the moral: that you have to work hard if you want to fulfil your dreams. In live-action, maybe I would dismiss this movie the way I have dismissed the last few Will Smith vehicles, about upwardly mobile, hardworking believers in the American way of life. But as a handsome 2D animation, with a fantastic score and a delightful cast of characters - who exist on just the right side of “wacky” – ‘The Princess and the Frog’ is a charming and essential new Disney film, and the studios best since ‘Lilo & Stitch’."

One of my favourites of the year, without doubt. I have since seen this delightful return to Disney hand-drawn animation a number of times on Blu-ray and it continues to thrill me. The animation is fluid and detailed and the Randy Newman songs are brilliant, revealling a lot of hidden depth that rewards repeat viewing. 'The Princess and the Frog' also has one of the best "Prince" characters in Disney history, as he isn't a dull pretty-boy, but an amusing character in his own right. Not only is this one of the best Disney animations of the last ten years, but I am increasingly starting to think it is better than most of the films of the Disney renaissance, including Ron Clements and John Musker's own 'Aladdin' and 'Hercules'. Hopefully, this proves that the last decade has been - like the 1980s - a temporary blip for the studio's in-house animation wing. One that looks set to come to an end.

Next up: numbers 20-11.

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