In podcasting about my personal favorites for 2010, I asked my friend Peter Waldron, “When did ‘entertaining’ become a backhanded compliment?” I did–and do–see a schism on my list between heavier, more prestigious films and lighter but still well executed fare. A second theme emerged in talking about my choices. All of them, with one notable exception, focused heavily on human relationships.
I’ve always felt that these lists were as much an exercise in biographical revelation as critical analysis, so it’s not surprising that one of the first questions I ask about such lists is “What does it reveal about the person or people who made it?”
What the list and the films on it revealed to me about myself is that no matter how big special effects and spectacle get, the relationship between human beings fascinates me, indeed enthralls me, much more. It also tells me, perhaps, that as the Internet expands our social network (pun intended), it does fundamentally change those relationships in essence and not just in number. The buzz phrase of the hour is “weak ties,” and while I’m not enough of the sociologist to opine an opinion about the causes of weak ties in the social sphere, I do find it interesting that the films the appealed to me are ones that show human beings longing for strong(er) ties.
As always with such lists, your mileage may vary. Obviously no one person can see every film every year. Unlike in some past years, however, I am not aware of any titles that I would expect had a good chance of cracking this list but that I have not yet seen. (The only possible exception I might make to that non-disclaimer is that Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff only had one showing in Toronto while I was there and it was opposite Sophie Fiennes’s Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, so I haven’t seen Meek’s. Based on the responses I’ve heard from the people who saw it, I don’t think it would be on this list when I do, but I did love Wendy and Lucy, so you never know.) Disagree? Feel free to tell me why.
10) Marwencol — Jeff Malmberg
I will admit that I am a sucker for films, be they documentary or biographical drama, about visual artists. Sometimes, as with say Martin Provost’s Seraphine, these films can provide a context to make the viewer better appreciate the art itself. In other films, such as My Could Could Paint That, the art takes a back seat to a compelling story; one finds out that the person making the art is interesting and begins to care for the art because of caring for the artist.
In the best films about artists those categories overlap, of course. In Marwencol we get a compelling story of a man trying to rebound from a devastating, crippling, and vicious attack. Somehow, though, in a wonderful way, knowing the story makes the art, which is very, very good and shot very, very well, even more moving.
I am also a sucker for films about people who are often invisible in our society, people who we see every day but never suspect have a story that could hold our rapt attention. I love the fact that Malmberg became aware of this story by seeing Mark Hogankamp walking on the side of the road. A lot of us look. The artist, including the documentarian, sees.
Full review here.
9) Tangled — Nathan Greno and Byron Howard
Yes, I am surprised this made my list, too. As I stated in my full review, I had reservations about the film. Some of my response is, I will admit an aesthetic preference. I prefer traditional animation style to computer generated animation. None of those differences matter, though, if the story is no good. The music isn’t as good as that of The Little Mermaid. The gallery of supporting characters not as distinct as one might hope for. The love story isn’t as moving as that of Beauty and the Beast. In the final analysis, though, Disney animated features often fly or sink depending on whether or not you like (and can identify with) the hero or heroine…and I loved Rapunzel.
8) Made in Dagenham — Nigel Cole
At the question and answer period after the screening of Made in Dagenham at the Toronto International Film Festival, director Nigel Cole answered a question from an audience member claiming that the film’s celebration of a union victory was ironic because stronger unions helped usher in an era of outsourcing that economically depressed the whole nation and not merely components (i.e. women, minorities) of it.
I expected Cole to challenge the premise, but he surprised me by making a larger point. He called the victory of the union a strange sort of “progress.” It was a moral progress.
There will be a lot of people who don’t like the politics of this film (or, rather, the political implications of it). There may be others who find most of the men as stock cartoon villains. Listen closely to Rita O’Grady’s (Sally Hawkins) appeal to the male workers, though, and you will hear not a political argument but a moral one. The brilliance of this film is that it is not a political appeal about solidarity in unions, it is a moral appeal about the values we aspire to and claim to live by. It is a truth too often swept under the rug in this age of warring spin doctoring and polls that what is right is not always what is in the perceived best interest of the party or parties called on to do it. When an individual acts against self-interest in the service of a higher value–fairness, justice, equality–we call that heroism. When a group or collective does so, what do we call it? “Progress” doesn’t seem all that bad a label.
7) Easy A — Will Gluck
No, that isn’t a misprint, and it isn’t April Fool’s Day.
It’s a teen comedy, and that is a genre, like horror, that simply doesn’t get awards, critical esteem, or other honorifics. Will Gluck’s loose translation of The Scarlet Letter is as smart as the class valedictorian and has real heart. There is a reason teen comedies are treated as a film ghetto; the majority of them treat their subjects (teens) as sex-crazed, one-dimensional buffons. It is one of the real pleasures of Easy A that Olive (Emma Stone) grows and changes over the course of her experience. It is heartening to see a teen, not just a child, have a loving relationship with her parents. Above all, I enjoy a film that manages to suggest, in an era of political certainty basked in smugness, that maybe, possibly, having your heart in the right place is as important as having the pat, right answer.
Full review here.
6) Stonewall Uprising — Kate Davis and David Heilbroner
Last year, in writing about one of my favorite discoveries, I opined that one of the most powerful emotional moments in Trumbo came from the reflections of an aged Kirk Douglas taking moral stock of his life and career. If a man knows his death is imminent, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, it distills his thinking tremendously.
I mention this because there was no single scene or moment in 2010 that moved me quite as strongly as listening to an aged New York City police officer look back from the brink, not with the pride that Douglas had for defying conventional opinion, but with ambivalence and, perhaps, regret, for going along with it.
I’ve been a little surprised, but only a little, at the lack of esteem for this film. It doesn’t whitewash, lionize, nor idealize the rioters, neither does it demonize the police. Even where it disagrees with policy or actions, it strives to show the context in which people acted, not as an excuse but as a step towards comprehension.
As I mentioned in my full review, this is not Oscar Wilde’s Victorian England. This happened in my lifetime. The great American theologian Jonathan Edwards used to practice a spiritual discipline of imagining himself on his death bed looking back over his life. The purpose of the practice was in the hope that when that day came, as it will for us all, it wouldn’t be the first time he thought about the witness that would be left not just by his words but also by his life.
5) Blue Valentine — Derek Cianfrance
Growing up, Derek Cianfrance informed the audience at the Toronto International Film Festival, he had two fears: nuclear war and his parents divorcing.
I’ve seen Blue Valentine twice now, and both times I’ve walked away amazed at the film’s ability to engender empathy for both its protagonists. The film may ultimately be too dark and depressing to capture big awards, so it is being parsed as a vehicle for its lead actors. And make no mistake, Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are remarkable. Ultimately, however, there is a quality to the writing that elevates the film over many character studies of troubled individuals.
Marriage is a humbling relationship. Blue Valentine is the only film I can think of that really made me believe without qualification that its two characters genuinely loved one another and genuinely could not live with one another. Is it possible that love might not be enough? If so, is it possible that the something else is outside our control or, perhaps, our ability? Now there’s a thought that in its way is every bit as scary as nuclear war.
4) The Social Network — David Fincher
The prohibitive favorite to take the home the brass ring of awards, The Social Network is a surprisingly riveting film that is anchored in talk. For that reason, I wonder if in the years to come this will ultimately be looked at as a David Fincher film or an Aaron Sorkin film. In my review of the film I suggested that each of the two auteurs elevated the other, but if push comes to shove, I guess I’ll tip my hand by saying I already think of it as Sorkin’s film. They say the sexiest organ is the mind, and few things are as enthralling as a riveting idea. There is, admittedly, a chicken-egg shell game going on in the film’s portrayal of recent history. Did Facebook and the Internet make us all into churlish, narcissistic, superficial jerks or were we that already and the genius of Facebook was that it gave us a place to give free reign to our worst instincts?
Jesse Eisenberg, so good in The Squid and the Whale is even better here. Is it possible, though, that in a film full of self-absorbed male jerks that Rooney Mara steals the film by virtue of a single scene? (She’s actually in two, but much like Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love she makes her one moment at center stage reverberate so strongly that it ripples through the whole darn film.)
3) Inception — Christopher Nolan
This one is the exception.
It is spectacle. That’s it. I don’t care if the top stopped spinning. I don’t worry about why there was no falling in the arctic dream. I have no interest in reading the philosophy dissertations tying this one to Plato’s cave or Focault’s thoughts on surveillance. Think of this recommendation as from the guy who has seen Titanic a half dozen times and has never failed to be entertained by it.
I’m sympathetic to the claims that the best of Inception is all on the surface, that it is all art design and melodrama, that it’s power comes from overpowering rather than in seducing. To all these objections and others my responses are few. First, the great artists make it look easy. A lot of people have a summer movie budget and give us Transformers or G.I. Joe. I admire the film’s chutzpah. The intertwining sequences coming together reminded me of a giddy Mozart in Amadeus asking his patron, “how long do you suspect I could keep that up?” There is a pleasure, usually reserved for music appreciation but often seen or heard in literature or poetry, of simply being the audience for a virtuoso basking in his or her own talent.
Since I was in the minority about the depth or coherency of the whole Dark Knight franchise, I actually found Inception‘s ridiculousness to be a relief. Freed of any pretext of trying to be realistic of sociologically significant, the film succeeds that much more as entertainment.
2) The King’s Speech — Tom Hooper
Usually films that top my list are one’s I’ve seen at a film festival or late in the year, so I always worry if they will stand up to a second viewing. I was especially worried about that with this film because it is filled with humor and actorly moments. The writing, however, is so sharp, the unveiling of the characters so gradual, that there is plenty of space for picking up on new details, smaller moments.
One point I realized on a second viewing. Because Bertie is so smart, Lionel Logue has to tread very, very lightly around psychological explanations. The reluctance to blame others, even when they are so clearly at fault, inoculates the film from the self-congratulatory tone that infects so many “feel good” movies (like, say The Blind Side) about overcoming incredible difficulties.
1) The Way — Emilio Estevez
I’ve pretty much spoken my peace about this film in my write up from The Toronto International Film Festival, so I won’t try to expand on those comments here.
Instead I’ll just add that after watching this film I hunted up Estevez’s Bobby, a film I remember getting some buzz but which I largely ignored because of the name above the title credit. Like The Way, it is a surprisingly heartfelt and emotionally gripping film. Also, like The Way, it perhaps succumbs occasionally to the temptation to spotlight that which would be more powerful if allowed to be understated. Here’s my point, though. That tendency is less in The Way than in Bobby, and in the move towards more restraint we actually see more confidence and greater mastery. The Way is not going to win any Oscars–it is too overtly religious and doesn’t leave enough work for the audience to do on its own to make critics watching it feel clever for esteeming it. I think Estevez has an Oscar in him somewhere, and I totally wouldn’t be surprised if twenty years from now, much like Ron Howard or Clint Eastwood, we remember him as much for his second career iteration as his first. Bobby was almost like a more accessible Robert Altman film and The Way reminded me, in its carefully observant and emotionally quiet way, of a John Sayles film. (I don’t think his writing is as good as Sayles’s, but I also think Estevez is still developing that part of his craft.)
In looking over this entry, it almost feels like I’m apologizing for the film, so I’ll avoid repeating that this list is as much about my personal responses as it is an attempt to make an airtight argument that the degree of greatness of a film can be quantified with mathematical precision. That said, if anyone want’s to scoff, I’ll take the scorn. Pleasure is its own reward.