Dec 30, 2010

2010 in Review: Part 5 - The 10 Best Films of 2010

And so we’re there, the top of the tree. Here are the ten best new films I saw this year. Many of them you won’t have yet had the chance to see, I hope you get that chance, and if some distributor won’t release these films for you to see, hunt them down. Trust me, it’ll be worth your while.

10: MEEK’S CUTOFF
Dir: Kelly Reichardt
Reichardt's third movie retains the spare style that has defined her career so far, but works on a much bigger canvas. It's the possibly true, possibly apocryphal story of three families crossing the vast deserts of 1840's Wyoming, and heading west, whose guide - one Joseph Meek - appears to have got them lost. Reichardt and DP Chris Blauvelt give Meek's Cutoff the feel of a Terence Malick film. Blauvelt appears to be using only natural light, and he uses it strikingly, producing, even in darkness, stunning and artistic imagery. For her part Reichardt makes the landscape as much a character as the people who are lost in it, in fact she makes it the closest thing the film has to a consistent antagonist.

This is minimalist cinema, even in the most action heavy section (in which, in quick succession, a wagon rolls down a ravine and there is a mexican standoff) the film is very quiet, and conflict and character are defined through the use of space. Happily Reichardt has a great cast, all of whom are able to say a lot with only a little dialogue, and just on a personal note I'm always happy to see the exceptional Scottish actress Shirley Henderson, even in a small role as she has here. As a western, Meek's Cutoff is unusual. It has many of the expected elements (pioneers coming unstuck on the trail, conflict between native and immigrant Americans, the aforementioned mexican standoff) but it uses all of them in an unusual way in what becomes a tale of man's thwarting by nature (in one of the film's finest, and most beautifully shot, scenes the parched group find a vast expanse of water, which they discover that they can't drink).

This film marks Kelly Reichardt out as a filmmaker with an individual and compelling voice, who is doing interesting and different things with even an iconic genre. It will be interesting to see where she turns next.


9: BLUEBEARD
Dir: Catherine Breillat
My history with Catherine Breillat's films was, prior to seeing this one and her sadly somewhat less impressive but equally visually arresting follow up; Sleeping Beauty, both limited and uninspiring of confidence. I'd sat through and hated hated her bludgeoningly pretentious Romance and I don't think I even finished Fat Girl, but this film really is a total change of style and focus for her and it seems that, by mellowing and putting the focus on telling a story rather than trying to impart an arty message she's at last found her strength as a filmmaker.

As befits a film based on a classic fairytale (and related by an eight year old girl reading aloud to her younger sister), Bluebeard looks like a gorgeously illustrated storybook come to life. Breillat makes a conscious effort to tell the story in as few separate images as possible; often presenting scenes as intricately detailed tableaux, giving the whole film a crisp beauty. There is a certain stylisation in the performances, which, again suits both the source and the manner of the telling of this story, but Lola Creton is exceptional as the 14 year old who marries the enormous, ugly, Bluebeard, legendary for murdering his young brides. This is the one place where Bluebeard ties into Breillat's other film, as it carries on her fascination with on the cusp of childhood and adulthood. Creton straddles this divide brilliantly; she's convincing as both naive waif and as scheming wife.

What really allows Bluebeard to stand out though is the imagery, which is intricate but also precise, and fills what is in many ways a rather direct telling of the story with with beautiful, and occasionally baffling (such as the glimpse of the narrating girl within the story she's telling) images. I'd never have guessed that Catherine Breillat had a film this interesting, this beautiful and this easily watchable in her, but I'm really pleased I took a chance on it.


8: WHAT I LOVE THE MOST
Dir: Delfina Castagnino
Some of the longest lasting, and most interesting, arguments I've had about movies in 2010 have been about this film (in fact one such argument was how I met my MultiMediaMouth colleague Eoin). I'll admit that it's not for everyone, that its long static scenes, most of which simply record what are rather mundane, everyday, conversations may seem banal and boring to some viewers. Not for me. I found myself completely engaged by Delfina Castagnino's film, which explores a friendship between two young women with great insight and sensitivity, and without succumbing to melodrama.

A former editor, it's interesting to see how Castagnino almost never cuts her scenes, there are likely fewer than 20 cuts in the whole 73 minutes that What I Love The Most runs, and fewer than five within individual scenes (all of those predicated on action). By forcing us to dwell in each moment of the film, Castagnino puts our focus on the girls, and on the way they interact with each other, the few other people around them, and the space they are inhabiting. It also helps that her images are beautiful; this isn't just somebody plonking the camera down in the first place she thinks of, and then letting it roll, there's an artist's eye at work.

The acting is exceptional, with Maria Villar and Pilar Gamboa, who improvised all their dialogue from short scene synopses written by Castagnino, giving completely natural and unaffected performances. Never is the film better than in its 13 minute centrepiece in which Villar sits on a car with a guy she's met at a party, and they just talk, verbally dancing around each other, flirting a little bit. It's a completely familiar scene, one that every audience member has been on one side of, and the film is packed with scenes like this. Not much happens, but I was never bored, never less than taken with the imagery, and I warmed to both the characters. I can't wait to see what Castagnino does next.


7: LE REFUGE
Dir: Francois Ozon
Francois Ozon is one of cinema's few legitimate geniuses, and Le Refuge is his best film in some time (which is saying more than a little). Always a brilliant director of women here he casts Isabelle Carre as a drug addict named Mousse who discovers that she's pregnant just after she has lost her boyfriend to an overdose that also put her in a coma. The film was born out of Ozon's apparently long held desire to make a film with a leading character who was pregnant, and to have a genuinely pregnant actress play her. The timing really couldn't have worked better, because Isabelle Carre, surely one of France's best actresses, was in the right condition at the right moment.

Under Ozon's typically sensitive, but also typically exposing, direction Carre does perhaps her best work yet. Mousse is far more complex than your regular pregnant or your regular junkie character, and neither the script nor Carre's performance indulge in any of the innumerable cliches of the depiction of either character type. Carre makes Mousse' ambivalence about her condition sad and moving, and does some truly brilliant work without dialogue; a simple step away from a boy she dances with at a club, just as he puts his hands on her belly, or the way she runs her hands across her bump in the bath, these things say as much as ten minutes of dialogue could have.

There's much more to love than Carre's performance though. Newcomer Louis-Ronan Choisy gives an excellent performance as the brother of Mousse' deceased boyfriend, and wrote the film's lovely score and Ozon's visuals are as brilliant as ever; harsh and cold in the early scenes when Mousse is living in a dirty flat, getting by between fixes, then dreamlike when she escapes to the coast to kick drugs and go through her pregnancy. Le Refuge is yet another distinctive and brilliant statement from the most consistently interesting director working.


6: ARMADILLO
Dir: Janus Metz
For my money, Armadillo is likely to go down as the definitive film about the war in Afghanistan. Director Janus Metz follows a group of young Danish recruits to the eponymous base, and out on assignment during their tour, which takes them to the front lines on a regular basis. What's really notable and commendable about Armadillo are the pains it takes to be even handed; this is by no means a recruiting film for the danish army, nor is it an indictment of what the coalition are engaged in in Afghanistan. Instead what Janus Metz and his skeleton crew (one operator, one sound man) have produced is an illuminating close up view of the experience of war.

The soldiers are fairly portrayed, they are neither saints nor bloodthirsty, unthinking, machines, in fact most of them come across as very normal young men; some a little naive, others very smart, all dedicated to what they do. Whatever your politics, it's hard not to respect them, especially when you see the combat scenes. Metz doesn't bring the first gunshot forward in the narrative, and at a certain point both the recruits and the audience will be impatiently awaiting some action, but when it comes it's still a shock. The combat is visceral and terrifying. One of my younger brother's defenses of 3D cinema is that it puts you in the moment - he says he ducked when, in the Jonas Brothers concert film, a plectrum flew towards him - well, Armadillo may be in 2D, but I defy you not to be caught up in the thick of the combat scenes as you hear the pop of bullets all around you, and not to be fearful when the sound stops, and you're not sure if another burst is coming. For sheer nailbiting intensity, nothing comes close.

Armadillo is more than a good film, it's an insightful and important one, one that challenges perceptions of the current Afghan conflict from all sides and one that brings home the realities of it, and of the experience of the people engaged in it, in a harder hitting way than ever before.


5: NOTHING’S ALL BAD
Dir: Mikkel Munch-Fals
This debut from a Danish filmmaker who used to be a critic was the great surprise of the London Film Festival 2010. It follows four initially disparate characters, drawing them together as the film runs on, and culminating by uniting them in one the year's most impactful final scenes.

The great strength of Nothing's All Bad is in its performances. The entire cast is exceptional, with each of the four leads failing to strike a false note between them. Henrik Prip is notable for making his initially loathsome character Anders (a convicted sex offender with a propensity for exposing himself to women) ultimately sympathetic, as is Bodil Jørgensen, whose newly widowed Ingeborg is a wonderful study of a woman completely at a loss as to how to interact with the world without her husband. That said, there just aren't enough superlatives for Mille Lehfeldt's performance. It's so difficult to write about what's so great about this film, because anything I say might give away the intricacies of the connections at work, and those are best discovered just as Mikkel Munch-Fals' script slowly layers them in. What it recalled, for me, was Magnolia, except that this film lacks the tendency that that one had to melodrama. Nothing's All Bad is a much more down to earth film; the emotion is searingly believeable, the characters realistically flawed and the whole thing lands like a punch to the gut. I've seen it listed on Lovefilm already, so though it doesn't have a confirmed date it seems likely that there is a UK release in this film's future. Seek it out.


4: KICK ASS
Dir: Matthew Vaughn
I like to go to the cinema and be encouraged to think. I like to go to the cinema and be challenged, but I also like to go to the cinema and simply have fun, and in terms of pure fun, few films in the last five years have delivered so solidly as Kick Ass. It's safe to say that I went in not expecting much; one more heavily hyped, geek endorsed, movie to be let down by... ah well, I'll probably get a fun review out of it. Happily I got a great deal more than that. Right from the off I was taken in by the gleeful irreverence of the movie and by its immense sense of fun.

Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn's screenplay was written more or less in tandem with Mark Millar's comic, and it seems to have benefited from the close collaboration, capturing the tone of Millar's work better than Timur Beckmambetov's Wanted ever manged (or perhaps even aspired to). It's not the most thematically rich film, but the characters are well drawn within their comic book parameters, and the performances all hit the mark be it Aaron Johnson's convincingly dweeby Dave 'Kick Ass' Lizewski, Mark Strong in his now default villain role or the film heisting double act of Nicolas Cage and Chloe Moretz as father and daughter crime fighters Big Daddy and Hit Girl. It's with those characters that Goldman and Vaughn's writing is sharpest, be it Hit Girl's witheringly critical discussions with Kick Ass or the odd, but actually oddly affecting, relationship between father and daughter, first seen in a training sequence in which Mindy (Hit Girl) is shot in the chest by her father as part of her training (she's wearing a vest).

It was also refreshing to see a comic book film treat violence as something that is painful, and has serious consequences. The action scenes walk a fine line; the choreography is often cartoony (and, it must be said, awesomely cool) but this isn't Tom and Jerry; people bleed, bones break, people die. I can analyse it all you like. I can break it down as a comment on the superhero movie, I can discuss it as a subversive example of the genre it is commenting on, but I won't, because that's not why it's here. The plain truth about Kick Ass, the reason that it makes this list, is that I quite simply hadn't enjoyed watching a new film so much in years, and isn't that ultimately what we're always looking for?


3: THE SOCIAL NETWORK
Dir: David Fincher
I wasn't going to see The Social Network, and frankly usually when I look at a film and decide that I don't need to see it it's a solid decision (I refer you to the case of Avatar, which I suffered purely because you guys demanded it). Plenty of things suggested that I wasn't going to get anything out of this movie. First of all I'd hated director David Fincher's snooze inducing last; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and then there was the fact that I'm one of the approximately seven twentysomethings in the Western world who isn't on Facebook, because I just don't get the appeal of it, at all. Then I saw the trailer.

The thing is, The Social Network isn't really about Facebook, in the same way that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's TV series The West Wing wasn't actually about politics. Facebook is the world in which this story is set, but it's about Mark Zuckerberg (brilliantly played by Jesse Eisenberg, finally delivering on the promise he showed in Roger Dodger) and why he created what he created. In typical Hollywood fashion the basic tale is true, but many of the specifics are not. Who cares? You don't hire Aaron Sorkin to transcribe the way people actually talk, you hire him so that the characters end up sounding how we'd all like to sound, and here he delivers in spades. The dialogue all has the familiar ring of its writers hand, but crucially Sorkin also manages to give each character their own voice, all while piling up a selection of the year's greatest lines in quick succession.

It's not entirely Sorkin's show though. Fincher pulls back a bit, not stamping his directorial presence on this film so hard as on his others, and this lighter touch is evident in the performances and in the camera style, both of which feel less formal and heavy than they did in Button. It's also well worth mentioning the contributions of composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, whose mix of piano themes and foreboding electronics give the film a distinctive sound. The Social Network is likely to figure heavily in the upcoming awards season, hopefully it will end up with honours for more than just Sorkin. It's not just a good film either, The Social Network will likely become one of the defining films for this current tech savvy generation.


2: TOY STORY 3
Dir:Lee Unkrich
Most sequels are just the same film again, repackaged with a 2 or a 3 on the end. The Toy Story films are not most sequels. Watching Toy Story 3 was, for me, like being reunited with old friends, and I cried at the end because I was pretty sure that I wouldn't be seeing them again. I can't quite say I grew up with Woody and Buzz (I was 15 when the first film came out), but the Toy Story films mean a lot to me, and seeing the trilogy capped off in such a satisfying and such an emotional way was an unalloyed joy.

One of the stupidest things said about movies, certainly this year if not in the medium's history, was Armond White's accusation that Toy Story 3 was little more than a long form advert. The great irony of that statement is that this is one of the most layered, one of the richest, films of 2010. This film is about many things; it's about friendship, it's about aging and retirement, most significantly for me it's about our relationship to the stuff of our lives, our emotional connection to even the things we've left behind, and that's why it got to me so deeply.

This isn't to say that Toy Story 3 is an arty meditation on these themes, rather they are expertly weaved into a film that is both hilariously funny (with highlights including Michael Keaton's performance as Ken, and the sequence in which Buzz gets reset into Spanish mode) and extremely exciting (see, among others, the spectacular incinerator sequence). In another year jam packed with action films, not a one managed to engage us in the action as much, to make it seem so important, as Toy Story 3 did.

Though the technology has moved on immensely in 15 years, and the world inhabited by Woody, Buzz and the gang looks better than ever, the look cleaves close to that of the first two films, but that doesn't mean that Lee Unkrich and his crew rest on their laurels, every scene boasts such a wealth of detail that multiple viewings are pretty well a requirement, and more than ever this film feels like it takes place in a recognisable reality. Okay, so 3D adds nothing, but it's also not a big enough distraction (being all but flawlessly implemented) that it takes nothing away from the film either. Some will argue for the Lord of the Rings film, others for the original Star Wars Movies, others still for Indiana Jones, but for my money, thanks to this brilliant film, the Toy Story series has to go down as the finest trilogy in film history.


1: LOURDES
Dir: Jessica Hausner
I became fascinated by the prospect of seeing Lourdes when I heard that, at its Venice Film Festival premiere, Jessica Hausner's film about a young woman (Sylvie Testud) who goes to Lourdes and experiences what may be a miraculous healing won both a Catholic and a secular prize.

I liked the film a lot when I first saw it, and gave it a very positive review, but it was only on my second viewing that it really hit me just how special this film is. First of all it is achingly beautiful. Hausner used to work for Michael Haneke, and you can see that in this film. Much of it unfolds in very long static takes but, like Haneke, Hausner shuns obvious images. Often she'll have Sylvie Testud well off centre, though she's always the focus of the film and of almost every frame Lourdes itself is also a character, and it is often allowed to dwarf Testud's Christine. The images are all beautifully composed, with Hausner finding visually arresting patterns in even the most mundane things (the film opens with a shot of Christine's tour group arriving to breakfast, and even this is comelling).

Along with this understated, but spectacular, look Lourdes benefits immensely from its leading performance. Sylvie Testud is never going to become a huge star, her beauty is too far from traditional for that, but she's a quietly spectacular, chameleonic, character actress. She's utterly convincing as Christine, embracing and rising to the physical challenges of the role, which restrict her movement and thus the tools she's got to play the many complex emotions of this character. Testud's skill is that she can communicate a huge amount with just a tiny change of expression. The half smile she gives whenever a handsome male helper (Bruno Todeschini) shows an interest in her is particularly effective, communicating everything to the audience, but still allowing Christine to credibly keep her emotions close to the chest.

Jessica Hausner exhibits similar restraint as writer and director. There's no melodramatic moment for Christine to either bemoan her disability or celebrate her cure. Much more affecting than any hypothetical scene like that is the one in which Christine wakes up the morning after the 'miracle' and for a long heart in mouth moment we don't know whether she's going to be able to move. Lourdes deals in moments like that brilliantly, and cleverly ends on an ambiguous one rather than wrapping the story up in a neat bow.

Lourdes is an endlessly fascinating film whatever your beliefs, and it will inspire much debate. I urge you to go out and buy the DVD so that you can engage friends and family in a great film and a fascinating conversation.

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