Saturday, January 1, 2011

Top 20 Films of 2010 (The Bru)

There was laughter, there were tears. There was blood, there were goosebumps. Minds were blown, shoulders were shrugged in indifference. Films were loved, films were loathed. There were great comebacks, some burned out, some rusted. We fell in love with a new face, had enough of someone else. We lost some great faces, welcomed new faces whose names we had to memorise ... all in all it was just like any other year.

How to celebrate the end of another cinematic year and anticipate the new one? By a retrospective list, of course.

What follows is the Top 20 Films by one half of Cinewise, The Bru. Having to adhere to the idiotic release dates on the Left Side of the Pond, some of the following films may have already been released where you are in the last couple of years. So, if we go by the imdb release dates, this will look like a celebration of the last few years. It's not - these are the films that were released to the general public in the UK within the last 12 months (barring a few that had limited festival releases prior to that). 

Some will agree, most will not. Bear this in mind: this is just an opinion piece, not the last word. This is a conversation-starter - a testament of 20 films that I thoroughly enjoyed within the last 12 months in a dark room with an alternating group of strangers. 

Enough of this, let's get right to it. Here are the Top 20 Films of 2010 according to The Bru (click on the titles to read our reviews).

20- Four Lions

Chris Morris's jihadist comedy was never going to break box-office records. Surprisingly, though, it did not receive as much ire as it probably would have received from the right-wing media, or from those with very strong opinions about the subject either. Let's not pussy-foot our way around it - these blithering oafs, as funny as they may be, are despicable excuses for human beings.

Yet, we need a film like Four Lions, not only for is sheer comic genius, but also for the fact that despite how they are portrayed elsewhere, the whole philosophy behind their "cause" is as idiotic an endeavour as can be.

If you are looking for a film that is consistently funny and is not afraid of pushing the boundaries of what we may define as appropriate material for comedy, Four Lions is up there on a pedestal that future films should aim to emulate.

19- The Social Network

A director whose body of work is consistently good (occasionally brilliant), a writer whose rapid-fire dialogue is second-to-none, and a communications tool that has revolutionised pretty much everything: surely combining these three elements was going to be a juggernaut of a film. With The Social Network, that is exactly what we got.

Celebrating the geek generation and idolising the epitome of what it has achieved, The Social Network is a fascinating study of one of the most important eras of the evolution of a phenomena that is still continuing to this day. Charting the beginnings and the meteoric rise of Facebook (framed and told through the two lawsuits that ensued after it crash-landed into our lives), The Social Network is a a funny, poignant and, at points, a quite disturbing film. It is a little tame compared to what we may expect from Sorkin and Fincher, and it doesn't really go into detail of what Facebook really means for our society (that wasn't the point anyway, so it's OK), but it is a formidable film nonetheless.

18- The Maid (aka La Nana)

Boasting one of the best performances this year in Catalina Saavedra as the titular "family member", The Maid is a black comedy blacker than a black hole. It is mean, twisted and a little perverted. Yet, when it decides to pluck the heartstrings it does with pathos and wit.

Written and directed by the Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Silva, Saavedra's Raquel has been the maid of a wealthy family for a very, very long time. She is dedicated to her job to the point where she won't accept any outside help. As the family hire new maids of different styles / ages / backgrounds, Raquel does her utmost best to keep the monopoly of looking after this family herself. Whether they like it or not, she is part of the family.

Beyond the obvious subtext (if that makes any sense), this is one of the most original (and best) adaptations of Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Raquel channels Scrooge's monetary thriftness in her abundant and obsessive-compulsive need to belong. Genius.

17- Buried

As Hitchcockian as Hitch himself, Buried is a film that really could have been terrible, banal and tedious. We are expected to remain inside a coffin for the duration of a feature. And the only "action" would be our unfortunate protagonist talking frantically over the phone. You can even imagine what the dialogue would be like.

Yet, Rodrigo Cortés's film feels fresh, tense and utterly terrifying from start to finish. Kicking things off with a Saul Bass-inspired opening credits, the "action" kicks off and never lets up until the end credits. When things seem to get a bit repetitive, Cortés introduces new elements throughout - the scene with an unexpected guest in the coffin was one of my favourite scenes of the year.

Claustrophobic (well, d'uh!), tense, dark and simply mesmerising, Buried is as good a high-concept film as you'll get.

16- Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

If you didn't lesbian this film, then there is some serious issues with your life-supporting system. The Year the Geeks Won (aka 2010) brought us many heroes, but none more geeky and out-and-out loser as Scott Pilgrim.

Helmed by Edgar Wright (three great films and counting), this bizarro is probably the most faithful comic-book adaptation - not only it is faithful to the storyline, but to the style as well. It would be an utter disaster if other films adopt the same formula, because this is a one-off and will only work as such.

With a game-style narrative with 7 chapters, tracing Scott's attempts at defeating the geek-godess par excellence Romona Flowers's exes, this is mad, chaotic, and high on sugar.

You should break out the l-word and embrace this film, because we will not see the likes of this for a very, very long time.

15- The Killer Inside Me

With a heart as cold as ice and a stare as malicious as a politician, Casey Affleck's portrayal of Jim Thompson's killer Lou Ford will chill you to the bones. The younger Affleck's performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was insane. Here he takes that chilly malevolence to a higher level.

In order to embezzle a local businessman, Affleck's small-town deputy ends up killing the two women he loved the most in the world in brutal, agonising ways. The fact that beatings and subsequent killings were shown without irony or bravura (this is Michael Winterbottom after all) makes those scenes even more horrific than what they actually are.

Yet the film is more than just a violence-against-women for violence-against-women's sake - yes, the victims are women and yes they are both helpless, but Winterbottom's direction does not glorify or aestheticise the killings. Rather, he is portraying a cold-blooded killer with a heart beyond rescue.

14- Dogtooth (aka Kynodontas)

Not for the faint-hearted, this dysfunctional family drama will make you sick to your stomach - not for any gory or excessively sexual imagery, but for its sheer audacity and themes. Remember Josef Fritzl? This is in the same neighbourhood.

A middle-aged couple imprison their three teenage children in a large house in a suburban Greek town. The children have never left the house (they were told that children can only leave once the dogtooth falls). Convinced that there are killer beasts (like pussycats, for instance) outside the walls, the children are brought up in an idyllic utopia created by their parents. Their only outside contact is the woman the father brings home to "relieve" the boy.

This is dark and often quite hilarious - a unique film in both style, theme and execution. If it weren't so cynical, it could have easily gone up the standings here. Either way, if you are looking for a real original, look no further.

13- White Material

Claire Denis's latest is a thought-provoking, beautifully shot and acted thriller set amidst an armed uprising in an unnamed Francophone country. It is framed with a subtle and dreamy flashback, with moments of blissful scenery that hide grotesque secrets.

Isabelle Huppert is (as always) brilliant as Mme Vidal - she is the matriarch of a coffee plantation, whose workers are fleeing from the rebel forces. The French army has been begging her family to leave, but Mme Vidal will not budge. Soon her intransigence leads to bloodshed within her family and people around her. Her inability to control the events that are unfolding is the driving force behind a taut narrative, told in a very economical way from one of the most original directors working today. A truly classy film.

12- Winter's Bone

This indie introduced us to a talent that we will be seeing a lot on our screens. Jennifer Lawrence is Ree Dolly, whose father skips bail after failing to pay his debts. Unless Ree finds him, they will take their home away. It is up to Ree to save her two young siblings and catatonic mother from homelessness.

Her quest to find her absent father leads to a loosely-woven net of family scattered around the rough Ozark Mountains where the film is set. Only her uncle Teardrop (another stellar performance from John Hawkes) seems to understand the gravity of the situation, but he is a box of chocolates himself - you don't know what you're going to get.

Despite some on-the-nose dialogue here and there, this is a fantastic little film with a finale that will increase your blood pressure to dangerous limits. Chilling (pardon the pun), affecting and wholly satisfying.

11- The Town

Ben Affleck's sophomore film proved that 2007's brilliant Gone Baby Gone wasn't just a fluke, but the emergence of a surprisingly good film director. Just like Baby, The Town is as much about a group of characters as it is about a city, a community. Going overly-symbolic with the Fenway Park finale, Affleck's love letter to his town is masterfully crafted, action-packed and with a heart as wide as the Charles.

After reluctantly taking her hostage at a bank robbery, Doug MacRay (Affleck) is given the task for ensuring that Rebecca Hall's Claire has no idea who her captors were. As it happens, they both fall for each other - Claire is oblivious to Doug's involvement in her trauma.

What could have been a very straight-up, formulaic thriller ends up being emotionally satisfying and very cinematic. There are some cracking supporting roles for Jon Hamm's FBI agent on the prowl and Jeremy Renner's hot-tempered best friend. 

Now, how about having both Casey and Ben reprising their roles for a third film and turning this thing into a trilogy?

10- My Son My Son, What Have Ye Done?

In a year when David Lynch has decided to go techno on us, Werner Herzog was asked to fill in his weird shoes. And fill he did - My Son My Son, What Have Ye Done? is as Lynchian as the man himself ever got (well, he executive produced it).

San Diego Police Department is called to a homicide case and promptly realise that the perpetrator is in the pink house right across the street from the murder scene. Michael Shannon (who should be in every film) plays Brad McCallum, the matricidal failed actor, who is holding two hostages at gunpoint. It's up to Willem Dafoe's wily old detective to find out why he may have resorted to kill his mother and he gets his answers in dreamy flashbacks from ex-fiance Chloë Sevigny and Udo Kier, who was to direct Brad as Orestes in a stage adaptation of Electra.

Offbeat comes about this close to describe it, but it is still not enough - this is a as bizarro as you would expect from a film in which Lynch was involved. Yet, the kudos go to Herzog - he has been on a ridiculously good form lately (and quite scarily prolific) and My Son My Son  is a worthy addition to an ouevre that is brimming with quality films. Shannon's Brad is as close to Woyzeck as a character and there is a nod to Fitzcarraldo in a flashback in the Peruvian Amazon.

Insanely funny, but utterly dark and bleak, this based-on-real-life comedy / thriller is a fantastic little gem.

9- The Headless Woman (aka La mujer sin cabeza)

Officially released in 2008, this never made it to the Left Side of the Pond until this year. It may have been late, but it was certainly more than welcome. Lucrecia Martel's latest mind-fuck realy lived up to her reputation.

Not since Michael Haneke's Caché has there been a film that deals with guilt with this much pain and maturity. Unsure whether she has run over a child or a dog on a country road, a middle-aged woman tries her best to continue her quaint life as if nothing has happened. Soon the nagging guilt haunts her already-isolated existence, where sounds and images merge into one another. Her hold on life becomes more suspect with every second.

Maria Onetto is fantastic as the titular woman without head, Veronica. It is her performance and Martel's incredibly mature direction that drives this brilliant film.

8- Bad Lieutentant: Port of Call - New Orleans

What, a remake? Yes. Also, another Herzog? Yes.

This year belonged to Herzog and it should also have belonged to Nicolas Cage, because he is back to his H.I. McDonnough best here.

Cage's Terrence Mc Donnough (coincidence, I think not) is a drug-addict detective in post-Katrina New Orleans. He has a gambling problem and his girlfriend is a high-class prostitute. He has issues. Seeing non-existing iguanas in crime scenes clearly tampers with his decision-making process too. Unable to free himself from his ills, he digs himself further into a mess that only he can manage to climb out of.

Herzog's second entry on this list is funnier than your average comedy, but with also shedding Abel Ferrara's senselessly bleak original from Catholic guilt and Harvey Keitel's schlong, he comes up with a film that is incredibly well-done and acted. There isn't a beat missed, a scene wasted ... pure economical film-making. And also a pure mind-fuck.

7- Inception

Enough has been written about what it all means. At the end of the day, all that matters is that Inception made us all think a little bit once credits started to roll - not about a moral dilemma or a specific cinematic trick, but about what we just saw. Regardless of your own personal interpretation of what the film represented, Inception achieved few films can these days.

We should be grateful for Christopher Nolan for making films that constantly push the boundaries in originality and entertainment - can you name a concept that is as independent from what has come before it as Inception from the last decade?

Despite my misgivings of The Matrix, there was no denying its impact on film in general and Inception follows the same path. It reminds us all why we fell in love with films in the first place - to see stories we will never experience, told in ways we will never experience.

6- Monsters

Shot for about the cost of one frame of Avatar (yes, we're still bashing Avatar), Monsters is the real feel-good film of the year ... perhaps not in theme, but in execution.

Inifnitely more exciting than both Cloverfield and District 9 (definitely more apt comparisons), Monsters hits you where it hurts the most - in the gut. It is a gutsy film, with gutsy performances and a gutsy finale that dares to emulate the greatest cinematic storyteller of our times, Steven Spielberg. There is even a sneaky little reference to Fitzcarraldo with a boat stranded on a hill.

When a NASA mission to bring extraterrstrial life-forms fail, giant squid-like creatures run amok in Northern Mexico. Designated as the "infected zone", a photographer and his boss's daughter have to traverse the monster-infested land to reach home.

This is a tense, beautifully shot film with two actors with bagful of chemistry. Worth the admission price for just the last 5 minutes alone.

5- A Prophet (aka Un Prophète)

The winner of 2009 Grand Prix at Cannes made it to cinemas earlier this year and it throroughly deserved all the accolades that was bestowed upon it. This was a film talked up as the next best gangster film this side of Goodfellas or even The Godfather.

Misleading as these comparisons are in terms of what A Prophet is, they are a testament to a film that feels as accomplished as any of the greats that came before it. Boasting a bravura performance by Tahar Rahim as the young convict Malik, this rags-to-riches story feels fresh and original in an industry that is full of them. As Malik's rise within the Corsican mob (who refused the young Arab-descendant protagonist at first) has moments of lucid dreams that emphasises the bleak conditions he has to survive.

Tough-as-nails, epic and endlessly watchable despite a lengthy running time, A Prophet is a fantastic achievement from a consistently good Jacques Audiard.

4- Kick-Ass

Outrageously funny and hip, Kick Ass still remains the best comic-book adaptation I have ever seen. It is funny, over-the-top, and refreshingly un-PC - just what your Friday night movie should be like.

With Aaron Johnson, Matthew Vaughn found the best nerd-turned-super hero the world has ever seen. As iconic as Spider-Man is and as well-received as the Spider-Man movies were, Peter Parker has nothing on Dave Lizewski. Why? Because Dave is a loser even with the costume.

Curious as to why nobody really dons a cape and fight crime (and fed up with being ridiculed and bullied at every turn), Dave orders a scuba-diving suit and goes to town (literally). After a few missteps (such as being stabbed in the gut) and with the help of the killer father-daughter combo Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz), he vanquishes the baddies to oblivion and gets the girl.

Endlessly quotable and just pure fun, Kick Ass is, as your humble reviwer once put it, your new favourite film. And it also has your new favourite character in Hit-Girl.

3- Another Year

Every Mike Leigh film is awash with anticipation of another well-crafted, beautifully-acted and minutely-observed page in regular folks' lives. Adhering to the same format and themes that have served him for nearly 3 decades now, Another Year is another one of his films that is hard to find a fault with.

As cozy as a nice cup of tea (sorry, I couldn't help it), it warms your heart to a blissful glee. It is life-affirming, as always. Even the bleakest element are brought down to a subtle smile or a little hug by a group of actors that are at the top of their game. Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent's too-content couple may depend on the misery of strangers, but even after the film ends you want to go back to their kitchen and have a cup of tea (again).

Warm and fuzzy, Another Year may even be the zenith of Leigh's illustrious career. Just wonderful.

2- Enter the Void

Unless you like strobe-lights, a neon-infested and decadent city, a first person point-of-view camera angle throughout, buzzing industrial soundtrack, explicit sex from every imaginable angle, and genitalia that emit strong lights, then there is a good chance that you will not appreciate this 3+ hours epic.

Gaspar Noé's third film does not hold back any punches and it is by and large one of the most audacious films I have yet seen - and I am fairly confident that I will not see another one in the near future.

After being killed by the police in a drug bust, Oscar's soul observes his sister and the few people that surrounded him in a perpetually dark Tokyo. Coming to terms is never easy and these people are finding it especially hard. Unable to do anything, Oscar (and we) are forced to make sense of all that has gone wrong.

This is what every filmmaker should strive for - to push the boundaries of your craft and still manage to convey images and stories that will stay with the viewer long after watching it.

1- The Secret in Their Eyes (aka El secreto de sus ojos)

And here's a mea culpa: it was a toss up between Enter the Void and this one. My heart won.

Not many films leave my jaw open only to be forcibly shut anymore. Not that I have seen everything (of course not), but I have seen enough to anticipate plots, twists, snippets of dialogue, character arcs etc. Yet, The Secret in Their Eyes had so many moments that eluded me, it was obvious that I was seeing something that spoke to me more than many films.

The simple story of a retired judge writing a book about a past case and taking a journey through memory lane is nothing new - in fact, it wouldn't be out of place in a movie-of-the-week. Yet, with brilliant performances and a story that got more interesting by every beat, The Secret in Their Eyes is undoubtedly my film of the year.

As far removed from Enter the Void, this is the classical storytelling of the highest order. Director Juan José Campanella lets the story and characters carry the film to a blistering finale. This is not just talking heads, though. With that scene in the bowels of the stadium, it has (apologies to Orson Welles) the best no-cut, single-shot sequence. Ever.

And those that didn't quite make the cut (in alphabetical order):
Ghost Writer
The Kids Are All Right
Police, Adjective (aka Politist, adjectiv)
Shutter Island
We Are What We Are (aka Somos lo que hay)
Youth in Revolt

Until next year ...


? said...

Bru, you realise the brillance of many of those films were in their scripts. The directors didn't surprise you, the writers did and the only one you mentioned was celebrity writer Aaron Sorkin.

Buried for instance, every single moment was on the page and it was a fantastic read. Tut tut. :)

Anyway, great list. I'm adding Enter the Void and The Secret in their Eyes to my queue right now!

The Bru said...

I do realise that.

Though, film is a visual medium and in most cases even though what is on the page is what makes these (and other) films surprising, jaw-dropping etc, in the end it's the guy that points the camera that tells that story in the medium that we all love.

In the case of Buried, everything was on the page but it was up to the director to actually turn the events on the script into what it became.

Otherwise, I would resign myself to reading scripts only. ;)

And don't get me wrong, I appreciate and respect the writer as much as you (I hope you know that).

Glad you enjoyed the list, though.

"Enter the Void", by the way, is definitely not a writer's film. But, I'm curious what you'll think of it.

? said...

Film is fiction. Fiction is authored. A director interprets.

Just like in TV, and in theater.


? said...

Blockbuster UK doesn't stock Enter the Void.


The Bru said...

Blockbuster deserves to go bankrupt.

The Bru said...

Also, "fiction" film is fiction. Documentary film isn't.



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