2010 turned out to be a remarkable year for cinema, owing in no small part to the fact that, in a decade that boasted some of the most awe-inspiring technological advances in movie-making history, several films with little-to-no production value stood out as some of the year’s most amazing pieces of work. With his groundbreaking Trash Humpers, Harmony Korine helped to illustrate a point that Zachary Oberzan succinctly drove home in Flooding With Love for the Kid, namely, that technical excellence and budget size don’t necessarily have anything to do with how good a movie turned out to be.
This year heralded the return of enshrined auteurs like Todd Solondz, Gaspar Noé, and Darren Aronofsky, the latter’s Black Swan a nearly flawless exegesis on the nature of artistic endeavor. Social commentary figured heavily into some of the most interesting films of 2010, timely meditations on the idea of privacy (The Social Network) and public image (I’m Still Here) serving as of-the-moment reminders that, in the wake of WikiLeaks and Facebook’s privacy-settings fiasco, pretty much all of us live in public now.
However, our very favorite movies of 2010 held in common a very basic preoccupation with character. The most daring filmmakers of this year were more interested in offering us an honest-to-goodness experience of the actions and emotions of their characters than in moralizing to us about all the horrible shit those characters were doing. With the year reaching its end, we’re left with the feeling that we very well might be entering a new period of exploration in studio-backed cinema, with more and more huge entertainment companies cautiously giving filmmakers the wherewithal to carry out their visions. Let’s all hope this keeps up. —Paul Bower
Dir. Noah Baumbach
Greenberg, if not wholly original, was certainly a welcome addition to the Noah Baumbach canon. Funny, charming, and pleasingly awkward, the film starred Ben Stiller as the hot-tempered Roger Greenberg and Greta Gerwig as the sweet, though slightly unstable, Florence Marr. Typical of what might now be considered the Bambauch oeuvre, Greenberg meditated on what happens when men act like boys and choose to chase after girls. Feeling directionless, Roger temporarily relocated to L.A. from New York to housesit for his brother and promptly became interested in his brother’s housekeeper Florence. The two become involved in a tempestuous on-again-off-again romance that left each of them feeling variously tormented, with Florence head over heels for a man who by all accounts was not equipped to love her. Serving as Gerwig’s breakthrough ‘mainstream’ role and James Murphy’s first film score, the film maintained Baumbach’s indie aesthetic while simultaneously appealing to a wider audience. Ben Stiller will always be Ben Stiller and Noah Baumbach will always be Noah Baumbach, and to that extent the film perfectly met expectations.
• Greenberg: http://filminfocus.com/focusfeatures/film/greenberg
• Focus Features: http://www.filminfocus.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/film/greenberg
Dir. Christopher Nolan
In a year practically devoid of memorable live-action summer blockbusters, Inception was a monumental sensation. Aiming for cinematic immortality, director Christopher Nolan called on the industry’s golden boy (Leonardo DiCaprio), assembled a distinguished supporting cast, and crafted a universe that was nothing short of titanic. Inception appeased the masses and stoked the blogosphere with an ambiguous ending ripe for dinner conversation and message board micro-debates. Nolan’s maximalist vision risked being overblown and was decidedly imperfect, but it was a tremendous effort, managing to be simultaneously cerebral and innovative and a head-tripping thrill ride. Detractors may say that, as a heist film, Inception was conventional or that the concept of dream infiltration seemed like it was plucked from a William Gibson or Philip K. Dick story, but the folding cityscapes and gravity-pulled environments were all Nolan. And beneath the glossy surface was a sharp analysis of the desire to relive the past and recreate memories as they become parcels of a shape-shifting puzzle. What is most often lost in the discussion is where the film stands in the pantheon of science fiction cinema. If it’s measured on those terms, then Inception was an unequivocal success.
23. The Ghost Writer
Dir. Roman Polanski
In the year leading up to the release of The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski was in the news, once again, more than he wished. With the media swirl around his hot-button sexual assault case from 1977 and current imposed house arrest in Switzerland, the big question became: can we separate life from art? Will our damning of Polanski equal the damning of his new film? With all this fresh in our brains, it was easy to see the echoes and resonances within each frame. Billed, repeatedly, as a “return to form” by lazy critics who found it easy to construct the oft familiar narrative, The Ghost Writer instead presented itself as the work of a confident artist, exploring themes that have penetrated most of the director’s previous work. The political murmurs that whispered around the edges of The Ghost Writer — which could have easily sidetracked a lesser film — worked as a destabilizing fracture, providing the slowly building cracks in the clean lines of the modernist prison that formed the stage for Polanski to render his unusual brand of anxiety-ridden human drama. There was hardly a thriller this year that fired on all cylinders, emotionally and intellectually, as well as The Ghost Writer. It’s the work of a true craftsmen who, no matter which side you land on in the debate over past discrepancies, deserves to be recognized as such.
22. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Dir. Edgar Wright
How director Edgar Wright tricked Universal into shelling out $60 million for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World I have no idea. And when it went belly up at the box office, I doubt he gave a shit. I’ve never rooted for a movie the way I rooted for Scott Pilgrim. Like Scott himself, the movie was erratic, easily distracted, and didn’t really care what you thought of it. And because of that, it was hopelessly lovable. I wanted scenes to make the right choices; I wanted them to stay on track. When they didn’t, I accepted them all the same. That’s the L-word right there (“lesbians,” according to Scott). The same comedic spirit that made Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz instant cult classics — dry wit bursting with juvenile energy — fired on all cylinders here, providing a singular voice among the carnival of talented young actors. Ellen Wong, Kieren Culkin, and Kim Pine stole every scene they were in, and Aubrey Plaza solidified her status as a National Treasure. But this was Wright’s show. Like a modern John Hughes, he delivered a synopsis of our generation in bold colors, loud sounds, and unabashed realness. And if you were patient, you just might have fallen in lesbians with Scott Pilgrim.
• Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: http://www.scottpilgrimthemovie.com
• Universal Pictures: http://www.universalpictures.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/film/scott-pilgrim-vs-world
21. True Grit
Dir. Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
This archetypal tale of revenge wore all the trappings of a slick Hollywood Western — complete with an orchestral, watered-down Americana soundtrack — so convincingly, you might have forgotten that the directors were two of our best-known auteurs. At least when nobody was talking. Like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, their other film set in early 20th-century America, True Grit reveled in the comedic beauty of the American tongue. Its young protagonist Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) shot out turns of phrase quicker and with more precision than any of the film’s gunslingers, none of whom were exactly taciturn. These verbal fireworks made True Grit one of the funniest films of the year, and, in the absence of a compelling storyline or characters with emotional depth, they’re also what provided its momentum. In the end, we didn’t care so much who died and who lived, as long as there was someone still yapping. It might have been a commentary on the inherent immorality of the Western genre. But in True Grit, the Coen Brothers didn’t so much reinvent the Western as they did reanimate its corpse. What use do we have for a gallows comedy shoved into a hollowed-out Hollywood Western? We’re not quite sure. But it’s as uniquely American as a turducken, and just as entertaining.
Dir. Danny Perez
Among 2010’s examples of films with nontraditional narrative structures (see Enter the Void and Trash Humpers), Animal Collective’s ODDSAC stood out as the starter kit for moviegoers ready to embrace film’s capacity to have impact in the absence of a “normal” storyline. It was marketed as a “visual album” of 13 tracks, not as a film. Was this a hint that we should absorb it as an experience, closer to the way we’re willing to take in music on its own? Probably. The music was beautiful and satisfying, but not a triumph in itself — that was achieved through its seamlessness with the album’s visual splendor. ODDSAC was directed by Danny Perez, AC’s guru of trippy music videos, so it wasn’t surprising that this film was jam-packed with abstract visual-kinetic frenzy, color-saturated pattern pulsation, and brilliantly fragmented layering and manipulation that left you wondering how the hell they did that. But the key to ODDSAC’s genius wasn’t the absence of narrative, it was knowing exactly how much narrative we’d need and when to blend it in: a girl frantic to keep petroleum from filling her house, a marshmallow cookout gone horribly wrong, a vampire who likes to go canoeing in the moonlight. It was distortion that melded these narratives with the solely abstract, creating something pure in its own right.
• ODDSAC: http://http://www.oddsac.com
• Plexifilm: http://http://www.plexifilm.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/music-review/animal-collective-danny-perez-oddsac
19. Life During Wartime
Dir. Todd Solondz
Finally, a 2010 sequel that was better than the original. Okay, Toy Story 3 wasn’t terrible, but Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime provided as much insight into the state of the contemporary American family without a talking dinosaur. Looking back, both Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness feel like relics of a forgotten past, the plague of suburban alienation in 1990s independent film. Rather than continuing to unmask the superficiality of upper-middle class life in his native New Jersey, Solondz instead embraced the artificiality of Florida and California. And like a theater director reviving an outdated play, he also recast every role from his previous films to give the characters new interpretations. The opening scene, in fact, rehashed the beginning of Happiness, creating a subtle interplay of similarities and differences between the works. This self-conscious approach to change was no accident: the film was an assault on the cultural cliché of a “post-9/11” society. Despite being a country embroiled in two wars, we have gone about our lives in exactly the same ways. With Life During Wartime, Solondz provided the figurative and literal ghosts to remind us of this, but he also ended on an optimistic note, with fractured families forging a new bond. Maybe it’s a false hope? We’ll have to wait for his next film to find out.
• Life During Wartime: http://wercwerkworks.com/projects/lifeduringwartime
• IFC: http://www.ifcfilms.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/film/life-during-wartime
Dir. Pedro González-Rubio
In a year when, arguably, the fickle divide between cinematic fiction and non-fiction finally cracked, resulting in what writer Robert Koehler called “the cinema-of-in-between-ness,” there was no film that solidified the notion more significantly than Pedro González-Rubio’s Alamar. The idyllic Banco Chinchorro coral reef provided the backdrop for the father-and-son bonding session, which served as the organizing principle of the film; the creation of a relationship out of the ruins of another, beautifully rendered through a series of small, fleeting moments that teetered between the sublime and the ephemerally poetic. The accumulation may have seemed of minor moments, but the film was greater than the sum of its parts and truly rewarded repeat viewings. Alamar achieved its startling effect, often loose and dream-like, through tone and rhythm; the style was so unobtrusive that it felt wrong to say the film was rejecting the symmetry of traditional narrative. Rather, it encouraged the viewer to simply look in a different way. Frankly, is there anything more important we can ask of cinema?
• Alamar: http://filmmovement.com/filmcatalog/index.asp?MerchandiseID=225
• Film Movement: http://www.filmmovement.com
• TMT Review: http://tinymixtapes.com/film/alamar
17. The Father of My Children
Dir. Mia Hansen-Løve
The Father of My Children served as a reminder that exposition is not always important, or relevant, to the success of a film. Carefully camouflaged with a pristine sense of restraint, writer and director Mia Hansen-Løve’s film was quiet and simplistic in the best sense. The narrative — a story about a mother and three daughters recovering from the unexpected suicide of the family patriarch while trying to salvage the company he founded — thrived in stillness because its impact didn’t rely on transparent motives or overwhelmingly gratuitous action. In fact, the film’s lead characters retained more mystery and charm with their psychological processes somewhat veiled. Coexisting but never competing throughout, the facets of life portrayed in the film instead underscored the difficulties of maintaining artistic integrity, professional viability, and personal strength. The family managed their loss with grace and solemnity, letting the residue of the father’s death resonate within their actions and routines. It was during these moments when the film pointedly illuminated the family’s uncertainties, reflections, and ultimately questions of inheritance and legacy while they continued to account for and accommodate such a vast absence.
16. Everyone Else
Dir. Maren Ade
[The Cinema Guild]
With Everyone Else, Maren Ade succeeded at the difficult task of making a relationship film that was not only unique, realistic, and carefully observant, but actually funny. It sounds simple and, really, Ade made it look easy with the help of brilliant performances by both Birgit Minichmayr and Lars Eidinger, whose chemistry perfectly replicated a relationship slowly shifting into its first major crossroad. Ade created a believable, lived-in environment, capturing the minutia of everyday life — at best, glossed over in most films — and made it the film’s focus. When the film’s subtle transition occurred midway through, it came off as a remarkably natural progression that, at a whisper, spoke volumes, not only of the couples’ relationship, but of the gender politics and social conformity that invariably shape who we are and how we relate to one another. That Everyone Else managed to successfully integrate these larger, universal concerns into an otherwise small, intimate film was a minor miracle unto itself. At only 34, Ade announced herself as a major voice, whose perceptive and attuned vision suggest that she has nowhere to go from here but up.