Monthly Archives: December 2010

THE BEST FILMS OF 2010

Every year, it is any critic’s “duty” to put together a list of the “ten best” films of the year. I find year after year that this is a time-consuming and difficult task. How is one who truly loves film supposed to narrow down a list to a mere “top 10″? I’ve tried every way I know how to list, number, and/or categorize my favorite films of the year – a lengthy list, indeed – and it never feels as though I’m doing true justice to those films that don’t fit in a list of ten. To further complicate matters, I won’t see everything that would’ve made this list in 2012 as some things open in my hometown in early 2011.

So: I have listed my “top 10″ alphabetically below, preceded only by my two favorite films of the year, then my “Eleventh Place tie” for the films every bit as good that don’t quite fit in those 10 slots. There are categories after that. Still, this is all pretty arbitrary in the grand scheme of things. However, as a top ten is some kind of sacred thing for critics, here goes…

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ANOTHER YEAR

Mike Leigh’s film career has been an improvisation, from stage to screen, always first conceiving of a basic plot/theme and then casting and working with actors to craft characters and scenes, molding dialogue from their collaborations, and finally turning out a work of art from the process. His eleventh feature film (not including his many televised stage productions and TV movies) is no different, and becomes one of his most vital, lovely works in the bargain. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen play Tom and Gerri, a long happy and rather Bohemian London couple with a grown son who moved away from home quite some time ago. Never losing their sense of humor, they watch the seasons change, bringing challenges for which they’re fully equipped. However, their close friend Mary (Lesley Manville) sees no joy in life. Bumbling, a mess, lonely and depressed, Mary is their (bi-)polar opposite. Her outward tone is hopeful with more than a tinge of melancholy peeking through the facade. As lonely as she is, she finds herself holding out for a Prince Charming, certainly not Tom’s exceedingly unhealthy golf partner Ken (Peter Wight). She has her sights set instead on Tom and Gerri’s son Joe (Oliver Maltman), who sees her more like an aunt or sister than a girlfriend, and certainly brings about bad feelings when he comes home one night with his own girlfriend Katie (Karina Fernandez), the cheery opposite of Mary. As with his many overlooked masterpieces, Leigh looks at these people with brutal honesty, and a good deal of humor. Consider these titles: High Hopes, Naked, Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy, All or Nothing, Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky. One can only hope the list will go on and on through the years.

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BLUE VALENTINE

Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine chronicles the wretched descent of a loving, unplanned marriage into the ninth circle of domestic Hell. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are, respectively, Dean, a working-class stiff, and Cindy, his doctor wife. The film opens with a sense of playfulness undercut by deep, dark tension. The film then precariously balances these two unique tones for just under two hours. Observing in almost painful detail as this ordinary Pennsylvania couple attempts to cling to some semblance of the love they once shared while enduring its very death rattle, co-writer/director Cianfrance, making the leap from TV, short and feature documentaries creates, with his first foray into dramatic narrative since his 1998 debut Brother Tied, an indelible portrait of the disintegration of love and respect between two people whose improbable connection started out so promisingly. Beginning first with their union in the middle of a long, painful downward spiral, Cianfrance intercuts the present with key moments from the couple’s past; paradoxically, the past is grainy and ugly-looking even as it is relatively happy-seeming, while the present appears in bold, beautiful cinematography even as the content is, at times, borderline repulsive. Thematically and stylistically, one could be reminded a bit of Francois Ozon’s 5×2 (2005), without the Memento-esque backwards narrative progression. Between the two lead performances and the story they inhabit, this is one of the year’s most surprisingly powerful films.

Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine chronicles the wretched descent of a loving, unplanned marriage into the ninth circle of domestic Hell. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are, respectively, Dean, a working-class stiff, and Cindy, his doctor wife. The film opens with a sense of playfulness undercut by deep, dark tension. The film then precariously balances these two unique tones for just under two hours. Observing in almost painful detail as this ordinary Pennsylvania couple attempts to cling to some semblance of the love they once shared while enduring its very death rattle, co-writer/director Cianfrance, making the leap from TV, short and feature documentaries creates, with his first foray into dramatic narrative since his 1998 debut Brother Tied, an indelible portrait of the disintegration of love and respect between two people whose improbable connection started out so promisingly. Beginning first with their union in the middle of a long, painful downward spiral, Cianfrance intercuts the present with key moments from the couple’s past; paradoxically, the past is grainy and ugly-looking even as it is relatively happy-seeming, while the present appears in bold, beautiful cinematography even as the content is, at times, borderline repulsive. Thematically and stylistically, one could be reminded a bit of Francois Ozon’s 5×2 (2005), without the Memento-esque backwards narrative progression. Between the two lead performances and the story they inhabit, this is one of the year’s most surprisingly powerful films.

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THE FIGHTER

David O. Russell’s The Fighter follows the tumultuous half-rise and not-quite-fall of “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a “stepping stone” of a pro-boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts, in the early-1990s. Ward is hampered at every turn by his crackhead/trainer/half-brother Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale in a stunning supporting turn that steals every scene), his loving but overbearing mother/manager Alice (Melissa Leo, in another scene-stealing role), and rooted on by his bartender girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams, who holds her own). Russell (Three Kings, Flirting with Disaster) somehow manages to precariously balance the film’s dramatic narrative arc with a meandering pace and some laugh-out-loud humor (as is indicative of his best work), while deploying deft camera touches and some great music instincts (a training montage early on is set to The Breeders’ “Saints” – a new favorite!). The film could’ve been a retread of the familiar ground in films as diverse as Rocky (1976) and Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), but it is unique in that it is a boxing movie not about boxing. Rather, it’s about how a young man gets his last shot at “making a real run” at a professional boxing career, and how his family, friends and significant other lift him up – and how he lifts them up in return.

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BLACK SWAN

With Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s follow-up to his award-worthy, gritty but inspiring take on the world of athletic entertainment in The Wrestler (2008), he has concocted a powerful mixture of the in-depth and observant (ala’ that film) and the dark and disturbing (which marked his beloved debut efforts Pi and Requiem for a Dream). Natalie Portman hypnotizes as Nina Sayers, a freakishly obsessive perfectionist in a New York City ballet company who aspires to be cast as both the Swan Queen, as well as her dark doppelganger the Black Swan in a “reimagined” version of the classic Swan Lake. Faced with the devastating and graceless exit of her beloved predecessor (Winona Ryder, great in just a few scenes), sexually pursued by her lascivious ballet director (Vincent Cassel, appropriately smarmy and perverse) and brutally psychologically, emotionally and physically stifled by her similarly obsessive mother (Barbara Hershey, giving a rare but welcome and memorable performance), Nina’s problems go from bad to worse with the arrival of the young alternate/understudy Lily (Mila Kunis), who may be more threatening than she even first appears to be. The horror is aided and abetted by Matthew Libatique, whose grainy 16mm (occasionally mixed with opposite side of the spectrum HD Digital) camera darts, swoops, jostles along behind and sometimes simply watches as we at first observe Nina and then are, basically unwittingly, plunged deep inside her troubled mind. Aronofsky (who almost directed The Fighter instead) is well within his element, starting at about the pitch of a nightmare in the opening shots and escalating for virtually two hours to a horrific shriek of psychological collapse and emotional despair. So how much of the film is a nightmare and how much, if any, can be taken literally? It’s up to you to decide.

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