Here it is, finally, my list of the ten best films of 2010. It was a mediocre year overall, with few films released that made me genuinely excited to see them. There were nevertheless some gems that told us some very hard truths about our time. I should note that I composed this list without seeing The Fighter, Winter’s Bone or Biuitiful, but I think I’ve recapped the great ones here. They’re listed in descending order of preference.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
The film begins, seemingly, as a documentary about an eccentric French retailer who films everything wherever he goes. He stumbles upon a subculture of street artists and films them doing their work and befriends Banksy, a reclusive English artist (or artists) who turns the camera back on him. Banksy encourages his subject to become an artist all his own – and then becomes disillusioned that his pathetic projects become overnight sensations.
I embellish nothing when I say that this film heralds an end to postmodernism. But that, of course, depends on you accepting the premise that the subject, Mr. Brainwash, is merely part of an experiment to show the inherent meaninglessness of contemporary art. The film depicts the end of postmodernism because it presents the era at its worst extremes, allowing art that merely smushes together previously-established works to become successful. If the film wins Best Documentary at the Oscars it will probably mean that its audience simply didn’t get it.
The King’s Speech
The best performance by an actor is when they submerge themselves entirely in a role. You no longer feel you’re watching someone pretend to be someone else. Knowing nothing of King George VI, I can’t imagine Colin Firth going any further to approximate him. He twists his posture, his walk, even his lips to portray a man whose insecurities keep him from expressing his soul through his speech. But Firth isn’t alone in making this a great film. Also effective is its very simple cinematography, which constantly views its characters askance to suggest a fragmentary persona that will be resolved by film’s end. Geoffrey Rush, brilliant as always, is both friend and foe for a hero who must find his voice to unite a country in its darkest hour.
The Social Network
Rare is the film that hits the ground running and never stops. After The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, you’d never think David Fincher would be capable of that. He proves that theory wrong in this film’s very first scene, an awkward exchange between Mark Zuckerberg and a former girlfriend that tells you everything you need to know about the Facebook founder. Jesse Eisenberg, a seasoned actor, is simply a revelation in this role, maintaining a creepy, ironic smile for the entirety of the film that’s a window into the brilliant, vindictive, ambitious mind of an ambivalent innovator who has literally changed the way we communicate with each other. Fincher, working with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, keeps his film humming along with brilliant banter that captures authentically the day-to-day of college life in a film that tells us so much about our time and how we connect with each other.
“A Man Apart” might have been a better title for this one, and not because the lead has any particular emotional attachment to his right arm. Danny Boyle’s film is less about a man’s ingenious solution for getting out from under a rock than it is about a recluse’s regrets for severing all his ties to the civilized world, emotional and otherwise. James Franco’s Aron Ralston is an adventurer with whom many Whistlerites can identify – uncomfortable with a competitive, consumptive society, he takes solace in the wild, finding his place among the trails, the hills and the crags that nature offers him until his sanctuary forces him to confront the hurt his reclusiveness has caused before it’s too late. Viewers worried that the film is simply a man trapped in a tight place have no reason for concern. Boyle has plenty of tricks to ensure a rather mundane situation becomes one of the most exciting stationary thrillers ever made.
As close to a two-minute hate as has ever been made, this documentary elicited more than its share of groans and hisses when it screened at the 2010 Vancouver International Film Festival. Charles Ferguson, director of Iraq documentary No End in Sight, here fashions an incendiary chronicle of the financial crisis, providing masterly explanations of the situation and describing in very simple terms how screwed we really are. Matt Damon narrates but you can hear the director pressing his subjects with very probing questions of the kind that journalists should have been asking a long time ago. If you’re anything like me, you’ll walk out of this film wanting to throw a Molotov cocktail through the window of Goldman Sachs headquarters.
(Image: Dick Fuld, CEO of the defunct Lehman Brothers)
Question: how do you make a five-hour-plus film that’s worth sitting through? The answer is simple. You find a subject as compelling as Ilich “Carlos” Ramirez Sanchez and just let his exploits do the talking. That seems to be the approach here, in what is actually a two-part biography that was intended for French television, as suggested by its episodic structure, but that does nothing to diminish its quality as an explosive film about a man done in by his vanity. Edgar Ramirez, heretofore a disposable presence in action films such as Domino and The Bourne Ultimatum, is magnetic here as a terrorist leader who uses the Palestinian struggle as justification for useless, deadly attacks on civilians in several countries. Of particular note is an extended sequence depicting Carlos’s raid on the OPEC headquarters, ultimately an unsuccessful one as it resulted in no assassinations and distanced him from other leaders in his cause. Also worth mentioning is Ramirez’s incredible physical transformations for the role. He goes from beefcake to simply beefy as Carlos becomes hypnotized by his own persona.
Again, a film intended as a television serial that works just as effectively as a cinematic experience. This three-parter tells a story of police corruption in the north of England that spans a decade, beginning with a cub reporter who lands on a story of cops in cahoots with a child abuse ring. Edward Dunford, played by Andrew Garfield, keeps on the story as long as he can remain alive as he’s pursued by a sadistic band of officers who will do anything to stay off the record. Pic boasts moody photography that enhances an atmosphere of suspicion. The only consolation in this material is that it’s difficult to find the source events for the story here, but similar situations have involved in places such as Cornwall, Ontario, where a sexual assault ring has been kept quiet despite a major provincial police investigation and a public inquiry.
In the bottom half of this list we get to films that are good, but not near perfect. That’s more the case with this one than any others. Darren Aronofsky’s latest study in obsession is a paltry film for much of its length, employing tired cliches to provide a picture of the oppressive world that is ballet dancing. The dialogue is poor and its characterizations unrealistic… and all of that is blown away when you see Natalie Portman emerge on stage as Odile, the seductive villainness of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The film is, in many ways, a parable for Portman’s acting career. She has played in many films as a whiny, waifish innocent, desired by unwholesome characters like Anakin Skywalker. Her performance here is an apotheosis of sorts, proving, like her character Nina Sayers, that she can play as bad as she can do good. Even more remarkable is that ten months passed between her learning Swan Lake and performing it in the film. Barbara Hershey is terrifying as a helicopter mother and Mila Kunis proves she can do serious work as her competitor, able to effortlessly embody every trait that takes Nina an entire film to capture.
Like with most Coen brothers movies, I was left cold. I know these directors produce great cinema, but I constantly feel like I’m missing something. That, of course, should do nothing to denigrate the quality of their work, but on first viewing I can’t honestly say that I’ve picked up on their subleties. What I can say is I enjoyed the film as an old-fashioned western, with Hailee Steinfeld delivering a performance beyond her years as Mattie Ross, a sharp young girl who wants revenge on the man who killed her father. Jeff Bridges garners much of the attention as Rooster Cogburn, the crusty, alcoholic ranger she hires as a hitman but Steinfeld is the star here, convincingly facing off with adults who dismiss her as a vengeful idealist. Photography by Roger Deakins tries to emulate the sun-drenched landscape of the old west we saw in John Ford films and the script is authentically Coen, with lines constantly repeated for dramatic and humourous effect. A second viewing of the film might bump it up a notch or two on this list but time does not yet afford me that pleasure.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Who would have thought that cinema’s most astute detective this year only used antiquated programs like Microsoft Word and DOS? Pure investigative skill drives Lisbeth Salander in this, the first of a trilogy of film adaptations that has washed over the world. Together the films tell of a culture racked by institutional sexism, a point hammered home in the books more effectively than the films, and a victim with the will and the wherewithal to fight back. She enlists a principled journalist to help her in solving the murder of a young girl that happened decades before, using only the simplest of methods to get at the truth. Noomi Rapace is positively frightening as the titular girl, and the scenes of sexual assault are among the most disturbing I have ever seen on film. They are necessary evils in a work that sets out to convey a sincere disgust that such assaults have become so prevalent in a society better known for its hockey players and fjords.
Admirable, touching adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s book. Has barely seen the light of day in Canadian theatres and that’s a shame, because Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman deliver Oscar-calibre performances.
Enter the Void
By no means a pleasurable experience, this film, Gaspar Noe’s follow-up to his unwatchable Irreversible, doesn’t just accurately portray the experience of being on drugs. The act of watching it makes you feel like you’ve really been on drugs. It’s a credit to Noe’s skill that he can make a film so hypnotic and that hardly seems to have a cut in its transitions.