Every year, roundabout mid January I make a habit of writing about my favorite movies from the previous year. This is basically an excuse to make a list and foist my opinions on the handful of friends who like to argue about cinema. This year, most of my passion for argument has been channeled into debates around the culture war, foreign policy, feminism and Wikileaks. Not surprisingly, even in making a list of my favorite movies from 2010, I’m struck by how political my tastes have become. Or at least how much my criteria for measuring a film’s subjective value has been shaped by my own political values.
I still watch a lot of movies, and I’ve had a small hand in festival programming over the last few years. A small part of me wants to be in Park City right now. (Anyone wanna buy me a plane ticket?) So, I still feel driven to make this damn list, even while I feel a certain drift in my passion for cinema.
This past month, I’ve been catching up with many of the titles on the Indiewire year-end poll. Luckily, many of these can be found on Netflix or on your finer torrent sites. Here’s my list of my ten favorites from last year and some other observations.
Ten Favorites from 2010
The Oath- Laura Poitras’s fascinating portrait of Abu Jindal, former bodyguard to Osama bin Laden dares to explore the psychological and ideological complexities of a man most of us would dismiss as a terrorist. In doing so, Poitras suggests a way out of our own simplistic “war on terror” mentality. The Oath is also one of the most beautifully shot films in any genre. I strongly suggest seeing this one before reading further about Jindal.
One of Mark Hogancamp's scenes from Marwencol.
Marwencol- Jeff Malmberg’s poignant documentary about Mark Hogancamp’s WW2-inspired dioramas ranks with Crumb and The Devil & Daniel Johnston as one of the few sensitive investigations of “outsider art” and its therapeutic value. Who knew that a film about a man playing with dolls could reveal so much about the human condition and the artistic temperament?
Everyone Else- Maren Ade’s fly-on-the-wall drama about a doomed relationship is the kind of movie that leaves audiences squirming with self-recognition. That said, Everyone Else is subtler, more generous and more feminist than many of its war of the sexes/Theater of Cruelty precedents– the schematic, misanthropic relationship dramas of Nichols & LaBute for instance. Still, it’s probably the worst date movie of the year.
Four Lions- British national treasure Chris Morris brings an unexpectedly sweet touch to his tale of bumbling would-be jihadists. What could have been a mean-spirited culture war caricature is instead a perversely empathetic, though still savage dark comedy. Four Lions seems inspired by the Ealing Studio classics– it’s like The Ladykillers meets Al Qaeda. And it’s pretty damned funny too.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World- Edgar Wright’s exuberant, over-the-top comic book adaptation does a better job of capturing the excitement and ADD allure of video games than Tron and Inception (video game movies, both) combined. If you can look past Cera’s too cool for school character, and the juvenile sexism of the premise, there’s a lot of fun to be had.
Lebanon- Told entirely from the perspective of Israeli grunts in a tank lost in Lebanon, this nerve-wracking drama earns its place with other war is hell ordeals. Comparisons to Das Boot are warranted. It’s also one of the most blunt and effective movies to connect the cinematic gaze to actual violence. In this case, the tank gunner’s site is quite literally the lens through which the characters (and the audience) view the battlefield and the enemy. Talk about yr crosshairs.
A typical domestic scene in Dogtooth.
Dogtooth- Of all the movies I loved last year, this one made me an evangelist. It’s that good. Yorgos Lanthimos’s bold and bizarre fascist allegory presents a Greek patriarch who raises his adult children in total isolation from the outside world. Dogtooth‘s cinematic universe is so strange that the film could pass as science fiction. Formally and thematically, it’s like a marriage between Michael Haneke and Stanley Kubrick, but with more wit and eroticism than either of those misanthropic masters. No comparison really makes sense. Dogtooth literally has its own language.
Carlos- There’s not a dull moment in all 5 1/2 hours of this miniseries about legendary terrorist Carlos the Jackal. One critic has already noted that director Olivier Assayas must be a fan of The Wire, because Carlos concerns itself with the political complexities of terrorism, not action movie thrills or phony psychological insight. Assayas keeps a cool distance from Carlos, revealing his character through his actions, rather than through speechifying. His evolution from righteous radical to mercenary is set against an almost dizzying backdrop of international political gamesmanship. Oh, and the soundtrack is awesome.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale- The Christmas movie was due for an overhaul, but who knew it would look like this? On Christmas Eve, in a snowbound mountainous region of Finland, an all-male community of reindeer hunters are besieged by a monstrous Santa Claus and his army of naked murderous elves. If that doesn’t sound like the premise for a sentimental, Spielbergian kids movie, you need to queue this one and witness it for yourself. Miraculously, Rare Exports is scary, thrilling, perverse and touching. I’m hoping it replaces A Christmas Story as the holiday counter-programming of choice for the next generation.
Jackass 3D- Sadomasochistic, homoerotic, scatalogical, 3D. (They had me at sadomasochistic.)
Easy A- Though not without its flaws, this comedic adaptation of The Scarlet Letter was still the most feminist Hollywood movie of 2010. (Well, maybe along with True Grit.) The madonna/whore complex and slut shaming get properly skewered in this surprisingly smart high school movie.
Mother- Bong Joon-ho’s darkly funny Oedipal mystery has kinda faded from my memory. But the central performance hasn’t. Hye-ja Kim is one mean mother.
With a name like "Trash Humpers," what did you expect?
Trash Humpers- Harmony Korine’s VHS faux “found film” is about a half hour longer than I wanted it to be. Still, you’ve never seen anything like it, at least not in a movie theatre. Beneath all the provocation, Korine seems to be confronting the tensions of living on the edge while growing up and trying to raise a family. Or maybe I’m just projecting?
Exit Through the Gift Shop- Banksy is a genius, and Exit Through the Gift Shop is as clever as they come. Back when I was convinced that this movie was an elaborate con (it’s not), I liked it a bit more. Now, I feel a little bad for Thierry that his friend and idol has gone to such great length to depict him as an artistic fraud. Especially when his art isn’t much worse, by this film’s criteria (mass production, borrowed ideas, pop culture shallowness), than another famous street artist the film venerates.
Toy Story 3- Well, I didn’t cry. But I don’t really mourn the passing of my childhood. And it was always hard for me to grok the emotional aspects of this series. I simply don’t care about what toys feel. It’s the feeling we put into them that moves me (see Marwencol.) Now that I’ve revealed my cold, cold heart, I’ll say that I love the Toy Story movies for how damned entertaining and inventive they are. The third and final chapter had the most action of the bunch.
Never Let Me Go- This was frustrating to watch, but it has grown on me, and I suppose that frustration is part of what it’s going for. Mark Romanek’s adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel is a sci-fi allegory that would play perfectly on a bummer double bill with Dogtooth. Like that film, it’s about adult children, raised in social isolation, without the tools to survive in the outside world, or really, to even believe in the concept of freedom. Never Let Me Go is a drag to watch, because it’s told from the stunted perspective of doomed innocents. Our horror grows, as we recognize how wrong the situation is, and discover that there’s no one onscreen acting as our proxy. But of course, the point is also that the characters could be stand-ins for anyone who is doomed from birth to poverty, slavery or low social status. So in this case, as in the best sci-fi, we simply have a creative way of looking at a real problem. Bummer.
Hausu- Pack the bong and rent this immediately. Here’s a peek.
Most Overrated (Hollywood)
Inception- Watching Inception is like playing a game with a child. He spends a long time explaining the rules, then he breaks them. You ask him why, and he complicates the rules further. After a while, you just sorta surrender because you have no choice, and pretty soon he’ll need graham crackers and a nap anyways.
My real beef with Inception isn’t its narrative complexity or its convoluted expository dialogue, but its frustrating literal mindedness. Some filmmakers use the dreamworld or virtual reality scenario as an opportunity to reveal the uncanny or to add emotional texture. Mulholland Drive and Synecdoche, NY are two examples. These movies use their alternate reality premises to explode the aesthetic and narrative possibilities of the medium. By contrast, Inception feels like a video game, in which the director and character are fixated on the rules, and quite literally on completing the levels. The various dreams within dreams of Nolan’s film don’t feel like layers of consciousness, they feel like levels in Super Mario Brothers. The reason that Inception‘s Oedipal ending feels so hollow is that the film is about solving problems, not exploring mysteries.
Most Overrated (Arthouse)
Enter the Void- Enter the Void is like a hipster Avatar. Once you get past the innovative technical achievement, you’re left with a very dumb story, and a visual design that’s actually pretty cheap. The colorful digital sparks emitting from genitalia during an orgy scene and the psychedelic designs during a DMT trip have the same generically trippy quality as many of the effects in Avatar. Cameron called his film’s look “fantasy van art.” Gaspar Noe’s looks like rave flyer art.
Noe’s thematic obviousness also mirrors James Cameron’s. In this case, a character literally explains the premise of the Tibetan Book of the Dead so that we don’t have to do any work of interpreting the following two hours. The camera swoops and soars over Tokyo rooftops, into ashtrays and orifices, but the movie doesn’t actually take us anywhere we haven’t been before. At one point, using the first person POV, Noe puts the audience inside a vagina during sex and then fucks us in our vagina eyes with a big penis. Subtle. In interviews, Noe has expressed surprise that people laugh at this. That should tell you something about how badly he misjudges the value of his visual ideas. (Also, it suggests he really oughta see Jackass 3D.)
Best Opening Credits
Enter the Void- OK, speaking of Noe’s visual ideas. The opening credits for the film were amazing.
Revenge of the Nerds
As you probably know, the year’s most critically acclaimed film was about an egomaniacal, tyrannical computer geek who betrayed his partner, and built a virtual utopia, which he quickly populated with millions of digital serfs. Of course, I’m talking about The Social Network, but it’s funny how easily this synopsis could suffice for Tron Legacy, with Flynn/Clu standing in for Zuck.
This year, the nerds got their revenge and took over the popular narrative, both in cinema and in the real world. If there’s one thread that loosely ties some popular films together this year, it’s that they were all set in virtual worlds designed by tech-savvy, but emotionally stunted male imaginations. That describes the setting of Facebook in The Social Network, The Grid in Tron:Legacy and Dom Cobb’s dreamworld in Inception.
These films are set in a boys world, devoted to corporate logic and values. The struggles are for intellectual property and the battles are literally bloodless. In The Social Network, Zuckerberg wages legal warfare to keep the bragging rights and corporate profits of Facebook. In Tron, the struggle for the future of Encom is waged both inside and outside of the corporate matrix, with the CEO hero Wikileaking his own company’s software to the world. Inception‘s dream thieves are hired for corporate espionage, to steal (literal) intellectual property from one tycoon to benefit a rival. The emotional stakes in all of these films are very low. They are more like video games, where a problem must be solved, a task completed, to advance to the next level. There are no physical stakes either. In Tron, the only casualties are virtual. In Inception, you literally cannot die. In all three films, women have little agency. Their primary role is to validate or facilitate the men’s struggles.
Terrorists have also seized the popular imagination, but they’re mostly stereotypical villains in Hollywood cinema. Three of my favorite films this year explored the character of the terrorist, but these movies came from the documentary genre and foreign cinema.
Abu Jindal, the subject of The Oath.
The Oath is an enigmatic documentary portrait of Abu Jindal, a former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, who now drives a cab in Yemen. Director Poitras withholds critical information, choosing instead to slowly peel the layers of Jindal’s personality. The film doesn’t ask us to sympathize with its prickly subject, but it does confront us with his complexity and his humanity. This is no small achievement in the age of the War on Terror.
Carlos takes the opposite approach. It resists any attempt to probe the psychology of the storied terrorist at its center. Instead it portrays the terrorist as tactician. Sure he has some human traits. Carlos is a narcissist prone to self-mythologizing, and a womanizer, but otherwise we don’t learn much about his personal motives. When Carlos makes the character-defining decision to choose money and self-preservation over principle, he becomes predictable– just another player on a crowded chess board. At the dawn of the New World Order, he’s like so many other players, with dwindling political capital, scarce resources and no flag to march under. Neither hero nor villain, Carlos is simply useful, until he isn’t.
It would be hard to imagine an American film, especially a comedy, portraying Arab Muslim terrorists, without resorting to racism or Islamophobia. Four Lions threads the needle. The film uses farce and slapstick to leaven the darkness of its subject matter. It also dares us to care about its dimwitted characters, without ignoring the fact that they are moral monsters. The most subversive moments in the movie are the domestic scenes depicting the cell’s mastermind as a loving father and husband, even while he plans a massive suicide bombing. The film is tragic, savagely funny and unexpectedly sweet. It shows its cockeyed characters on their own terms. The tragedy of the film is not that the mastermind proceeds with the bombing, but that he violates his own moral code in doing so. Murderers, bumblers and jihadists, but still recognizably human.