Hello and welcome to 2011. Time to make a list of what I liked and didn’t like in 2010. A word though first: I don’t consider the following definitive; I’m not trying to pronounce some final judgment on each of the following films. In ten year’s time, I might feel very differently about these movies; who knows? But I think it’s worthwhile to document one’s critical impressions, and I’d encourage you to check out the films I liked (if you value my opinion).
For comparison’s sake, here’s my 2009 list [and 2011 is here]. One correction I’d make now: I saw Jane Campion’s Bright Star a second time, and it’s become one of my favorite films of 2009 (alongside Beaches of Agnes and Face).
Like last year’s list, the following is divided into three parts: my absolute favorite new films, other films that I liked, and the ones that did little or nothing for me. Without further ado…
I. MY FAVORITE NEW FILMS THIS YEAR:
1. 36 vues du Pic Saint Loup (Around a Small Mountain) (2009, Jacques Rivette, 84 min)
This isn’t one of Rivette’s best films, and it isn’t the best place to start watching him. But it’s still marvelous, gaining much power from the impression that it’s unfinished, and presumably Rivette’s last. (It proved to be the final film for his long-time cinematographer, William Lubtchansky.)
2. Hausu (House) (1977, Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, 88 min)
This isn’t a new film, but I hadn’t even heard of it until the Siskel Film Center gave it a week-long run. I made the mistake of not going until the last day of that, so I got to see it only once. (It’s since been released on DVD by Criterion.) Ôbayashi probably didn’t know how to make a proper feature-length horror film, and thank God for that; instead he and his young daughter gave us a barrage of psychadelic commercials purporting to be a horror film (much more fun). As with Wild Grass (below), Hausu is a testament to the joy that follows the revelation that anything can happen.
3. Le Monde Vivant (The Living World) (2003, Eugène Green, 70 min)
This also isn’t a new film, but I saw it only after a cinephile friend handed me a DVD-R copy in the last days of 2009. Green’s film never got a US theatrical release, and has had to rely on word of mouth and bootleg distribution. (His subsequent films have gotten more attention, but no real releases.) This simple, brilliant movie has more new things to say about fantasy than anything else out there: whereas Godard made a science fiction film by photographing contemporary Paris, Green makes a medieval fantasy by photographing the French countryside. Every scene is a beguiling mixture of absurd linguistic comedy and unabashed sentimentality. This is silly, sweet, serious stuff, as achingly familiar as a good, long cry.
4. Les herbes folles (Wild Grass) (2009, Alain Resnais, 104 min)
Only Alain Resnais could have made this film, a seemingly effortless masterpiece spun out by a brilliant director with nothing left to prove—except that the cinema is still capable of absolutely anything. It’s easily the strangest new movie I’ve seen this year (sorry, Hausu—you’re deliriously good, but still of a type; Resnais’s film is utterly unpredictable, and far more destabilizing). Resnais, you great master, you have never stopped amazing us.
5. Runaway (2010, Kanye West, 35 min)
As you might guess from my love for Scott Pilgrim and The Ghost Writer (and my dislike of films like Inception), I’m a big fan of strong, formally unified storytelling. And Runaway‘s a total mess, narratively. And yet…
I don’t have a single criterion when it comes to appraising films. I like what I like, and I like many things. Runaway belongs, I’d argue, to a certain subgenre of films, “dream cinema”; it might be better understood alongside Impressionist works by Kenneth Anger, Matthew Barney, Jane Campion, Terrence Malick, Hans Richter, and Jack Smith, among others. Strong narrative unity matters less here than the movie’s moment-to-moment quality: How captivating are the images? How surprising is it? How big are the ideas? How cinematic is it?
Kanye West’s film debut suits his music very well. Both his images and songs are broad, simple, clean, and passionate. The central ballet scene, set to the title song, is so much more compelling and exciting than anything in Black Swan! (For one thing, West lets you see, and take pleasure in, the dancing.) I found myself watching Runaway over and over again (and I listened to it on repeat while writing this post), and I never once tired of it: it’s striking, catchy, fun, erotic, and constantly charming in its exuberance. I wish it were more developed and coherent, sure, but I also wish it were longer…and I hope West makes many more films.
6. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010, Edgar Wright, 112 min)
Flawed in parts and crushingly disappointing in its final 20 minutes, this is still a masterpiece, and I can’t help myself from loving it. It would be my guilty pleasure of the year if it weren’t so damn well made. I’ve watched it a half dozen times already, and would watch it again tomorrow without hesitation, so I must really like it (even though it really should have been called Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life).
7. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones Review (2010, Mike Stoklasa)
Without losing anything that made his Phantom Menace review so entertaining, Stoklasa deepened his critique of not only Lucas’s lackluster prequel trilogy, but contemporary Hollywood cinema at large. He also rather deftly put Clones‘s insipid love story to shame by outclassing it with his own superior romance, a storyline whose conclusion I found myself eagerly awaiting. Bravo!
8. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith Review (2010, Mike Stoklasa)
I thought this one weaker than parts one and two—overly nitpicky, and lacking any satisfying development or conclusion of the Mr. Plinkett/Nadine side-story he’d managed so nicely in the previous installment—but it’s still all sorts of excellent. Stoklasa focuses his critique on Lucas, but his lengthy take-down of that director’s dependence on monotonous close-ups and compulsive computer-doodling is the best articulation I’ve seen yet of what’s wrong with so many new American movies (see Black Swan, below).
9. The Fall (2006, Tarsem Singh, 117 min)
Why can’t all the people who liked Inception like this film instead? It’s infinitely more entertaining and visually arresting—indelible, really. It’s also ultimately rather moving and mysterious: nothing in the frothy first hour prepared me for the darker turns the story would take, or for the inspired and transcendent ending. I was impressed.
10. The Ghost (The Ghost Writer) (2010, Roman Polanski, 128 min)
This is the film I saw the most number of times in the theater (four). I’d rank it below Rosemary’s Baby (the greatest!), but it finds a place amidst Polanski’s other top tier films (The Fearless Vampire Killers, Chinatown, The Tenant, Bitter Moon).
11. White Material (2009, Claire Denis, 106 min):
Not my favorite Denis film, this is nevertheless an engrossing group portrait of bankrupt relationships ruined by grim irrationality, years of suppression, and, above all, pointless death. You know from the opening scenes that this will end horribly (Denis front-loads the ending), but the specifics of each character’s personal tragedy remain mysterious—no less so after the movie has ended.
II. OTHER MOVIES THAT I LIKED:
1. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (2009, Werner Herzog, 122 min)
I’m not Herzog’s biggest fan these days, and I didn’t like this film as much as many others did—I just didn’t find it all that crazy, sad to say, and thought its incessant, lackadaisical irony shallow in contrast with Abel Ferrara’s bizarre and far superior original—but I still liked it. It’s especially neat how Herzog bookends his film with scenes involving two characters sitting “underwater,” talking, surrounded by cages:
That final image might prove one of the best representations of the madness and destruction that was the 2000s. (Along these lines, check out this detailed analysis of Bad Lieutenant and Southland Tales as films primarily concerned with grappling with that very subject.)
2. Kynodontas (Dogtooth) (2009, Giorgos Lanthimos, 94 min)
I wrote about this film here, right after I saw it. I haven’t thought too much about it since, but it hasn’t declined any in my estimation. I’d like to see it again!
3. Moon (2009, Duncan Jones, 97 min)
I knew the entire plot before I saw this (I read the Sight & Sound synopsis), so I was pleased to discover that this one depends less on plot twists than on generating genuine sympathy for the tragic plight of its central character, Sam Bell. A small, sad film with its fair share of problems (its storytelling could be stronger, and the ending could be much more subversive), this is nonetheless good filmmaking, and a nice debut for Jones.
4. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010, Woody Allen, 98 min):
For most this will be a throwaway Allen, and I can’t really disagree, but I’ve always liked W.A. far more than I should; this one’s no exception. I read it as a companion piece to Whatever Works (2009) and Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008)—a bleak pseudo-trilogy of sorts (although this would be the weakest in that set). Allen initially made his name alongside other young comedic artists who debased shallow romantic ideals, by portraying adult relationships as obscene: Elaine May, Mike Nichols, Lenny Bruce, Donald Barthelme, Philip Roth. Today, really only Allen’s still standing, willing and able to make romantic comedies that aren’t afraid to end tragically; Tall Dark Stranger directly states that the only way to find romantic happiness is to be deluded. Woody Allen’s a long way away from his best work (Deconstructing
Henry Harry, 1997, might be his last truly great film), but his undying cynicism is something we need right now, and should be cherished.
And now, finally:
III. NEW MOVIES I SAW THAT DID LITTLE OR NOTHING FOR ME:
1. Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky, 108 min):
A truly terrific performance by a great American actress—too bad Barbara Hershey isn’t onscreen more! Otherwise, it’s mighty thin material, with one silly scare after another, as Aronofsky makes his own J-horror film, raiding that worn-out genre for Spooky Shocks and loud, sudden bangs—and compulsively cramming every corner of every frame with CGI trickery. Young directors of today, look upon George Lucas’s failings, and despair! Turn off your computers! Go outside! Relearn how to compose a shot, block a scene! And stop using so many damned closeups!
2. Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan, 148 delicious min):
This was the DVD I hoped most to find in my Christmas stocking.
(I didn’t; I must have been bad.)
3. Iron Man 2 (2010, Jon Favreau, 124 min):
I’d already completely forgotten I’d seen this! The best part by far was the opening scene, which Favreau &co. inexplicably cut from the final film:
They don’t even know when they have something mildly good.
4. Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In) (2008, Tomas Alfredson, 115 min):
I finally caught this, and I was underwhelmed. I can see why people like it (although I think even then it’s vastly overrated), and it’s nice enough in some ways—I agree with a friend who said he wished more Hollywood genre films were even this good. If all you see is what’s at the local cineplex, I agree this would really stand out.
But we live in a time when cinema from any time and place is more available than ever before. While visiting my parents in Scranton, PA, I could use Netflix Instant to stream dozens and dozens of films to their TV—that’s how I finally got around to watching The Fall and Moon. Let the Right One In looks good when pitted against, say, Sherlock Holmes (discussed below), but it doesn’t measure up against much else. And it hasn’t really stuck with me (and I saw it barely two months ago). It’s pretty poorly directed, being way too slow, and taking too much delight in fairly nonsensical bits of action. (How much time did the director spend planning the CGI cat attack? It was a total waste of energy, as is the whole subplot regarding those characters.) I also found the movie fairly amoral. The penultimate scene, while well-executed (ha ha), left a pretty bad taste in my mouth: the film finds catharsis in the mass murder of young children. (They’re thugs, sure, but I don’t delight in seeing pre-teens get dismembered, especially when I’m supposed to be rooting for the serial killer who’s slaughtering them. Imagine if we had to actually watch Eli rip their arms off while they screamed and begged for mercy! That’s precisely why the film doesn’t show you that, and why that scene is ultimately a cop-out.)
In my reading, Eli is centuries old, a monstrous little beast who survives by virtue of looking young and innocent, and Oskar is simply the latest in a long line of little boys she’s corrupted. And that reading’s obviously present in the film, but it’s too subtle/uncritical/something to suit my fancy.
5. Sherlock Holmes (2009, Guy Ritchie, 128 extremely necessary minutes):
A friend of mine wanted to see Avatar, but that was sold out, so we saw this instead. And it was truly wretched!
6. Shutter Island (2010, Martin Scorsese, 138 min):
This has the best soundtrack of any Hollywood horror film since The Shining. (It’s amusing that society has decided that the best use for Serialist music is to score scary movies.) You think I’d be jumping for joy that a movie used pieces by John Cage and Morton Feldman, but Scorsese has always used music very well. Other than that, I don’t remember much about this one, other than that while watching it I kept asking myself, “How would Samuel Fuller have shot it?” (Answer: lean and demented, well under 90 minutes, and without ever leaving the island. Why on earth do we open on that boat?)
Meanwhile, if anyone can explain Leonardo DiCapiro’s appeal, please email me; I’m truly at a loss. The best I can think of is that he’s the modern Glenn Ford…?
7. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009, Terry Gilliam, 123 minutes):
Oh, god, this one. Gilliam should be forced to shoot his next film with a single fixed lens, preferably not a fish-eye. Everything about this film is terrible, from the limpid pace, the muddled dialogue, the relentless mugging (nothing’s too big in a Gilliam film!), and the garish, garish, garish CGI (it was like the second coming of MirrorMask, one of the least enjoyable films I’ve ever seen, and which Imaginarium reminded me far too much of). Gilliam has never been much in command of his narrative skills, but his best films (Time Bandits, Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) are spectacular enough to make one forgive his shortcomings, possibly even revel in them. Doctor Parnassus is, alas, yet another Tideland: an ugly noise that lumbers on (for over two hours!) until it finally stops. I’d so much rather rewatch Runaway…
8. Where the Wild Things Are (2009, Spike Jonze, 101 min):
Insipid, maudlin, and devoid of every one of Sendak’s charms. (How does one drain that marvelous book of all its energy?) I didn’t know until I saw this that the Wild Things were so mopey. But the whole point, Mssrs. Eggers & Jonze, is to hear THE WILD RUMPUS ROAR!
…And that’s it! Those were all the new movies I saw in 2010! I watched a lot of old movies, too, but I’ll talk about them later…maybe… Until then, happy viewing…