Before we begin, new readers take note: This is but the beginning of The Film Experience year-in-review kudos. It goes on for some time because we're giddy and OCD like that when it comes to recognizing great work. The "Film Bitch Awards" title is misleading and an old joke from college. We don't look down at the movies through our noses, but look up at the silver screen in reverie.
Here's a quick overview of well-loved films outside of the top ten (make that a top thirteen, coming tomorrow). Don't we all ♥ more than ten films a year?
I don't include documentaries in my top ten -- a personal quirk since they're a different artform with wildly different goals -- but if I did include them, please note that the Kimberly Reed's trans identity essay Prodigal Sons [Netflix Instant Watch] and the Chinese migration family drama Last Train Home, both released theatrically in 2010, would be in the mix. They might be the two best docs I've seen since Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man which you'll understand is the highest compliment I can pay them. I was also intrigued by Catfish, but then I saw it long before it was possible to have it "spoiled." It's arguably exploitative take on online relationship and virtual identity works whether it's staged or real. And the scene that gives the film its name? Wow.
Quite by accident I saw more documentaries this year than I ever have. The two other true keepers among the batch were laugh-out-loud goodies: Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop and Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work which both stare straight at the lunacy of celebrity and artistic success, one with twinkling eyes and amused disbelief, the other with trembling lip and defiant survival.
Movie I Feel Bad About Missing
I shan't bore you with the details but please know that I did try to see Dogtooth -- most people I trust have urged me to see it -- but was thwarted in my attempts. One for the future. For what it's worth I also missed: For Colored Girls, Robin Hood, and the French romantic comedy Heartbreaker which was an international hit, finishing in the top 100 globally. How did I miss that one? Grrrr.
The Movies I Can't Count
There is an argument out there that in this new millenium, theatrical release is more or less meaningless and shouldn't be a factor in year-end honors. But, without some sort of structure, how can there be community in movie discussions?
Aren't movies a communal experience? Though you may hear me despair at the global bad taste evidenced in the weekly box office charts, I am actually a populist at heart and prefer to recommend, discuss and reward movies that other people can actually see. In other words, I like a crowded theater. I stick to theatrical release.
Secret Sunshine, which I've been talking about for years as a must-see Actress Experience finally opened in the US (or at least NYC) for Christmas, right at the time of year that people were least likely to notice it! But since it's already three years old and I named Jeon Do-yeon's leading turn one of the 50 Best Performances of the Aughts, I'm not considering it for this year's awards; It can't be straddling two decades, you know? Another completely confusing situation in terms of timing, release and kudos is Québécois filmmaker Xavier Dolan. His first film I Killed My Mother was a hit at festivals and won a prize at Cannes and was submitted for the foreign language film Oscar and his second Heartbeat (aka Imaginary Lovers) prompted debates about appropriation vs original vision and still neither of them have yet seen release in the States. And Dolan is dreamy-cute which is, you protest, a shallow point, but consider this: The media loves the beautiful people. Seriously, what the hell do you have to do to get a US release if international awards, critical acclaim, Oscar selection and personal gorgeousity aren't enough?
Two newer films: Abbas Kiaoratrami's intellectually playful and very moving Certified Copy and Lee Chang-dong's gorgeous heartbreaker Poetry [my review] both might have made my top ten list this year. They'll have to wait for 2011 since both are currently scheduled for release. Cross your fingers.
I've never gone this crazy with the countdown countup before -- I'm name-checking 24 films as Best (#13-1 are coming tomorrow) but I think we need to recognize how delicious the big screen treats were in 2010. What a kick-off for a new cinematic decade, eh? Put the following yummies on your future Netflix / DVD service queues if they're not playing near you. They're listed in very rough ascending order, though time will surely shift their order.
I've grouped Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Jan Hrebek's Kawasaki's Rose together only to mash-up their colorful girlish coiffs (left). Scott Pilgrim puts me in a flip mood. It's too much of a surface dweller, emotionally speaking, but what a surface. The film is overflowing with great gags and successfully coopts the language and moods of both comic books and video games without losing a cinematic identity (which is more than one can say about 90% of movies derived from either). The cinema is overstuffed with movies that feel weighted down by duty to their source material. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World has no such problem. It knows itself fully as a movie but wears the unique sensibility of its source material like a badge of honor... or maybe a favorite vintage tee.
Kawasaki's Rose is pretty enough on the outside itself, but it's more concerned with the fault lines underneath. A famous psychiatrist is about to receive a lifetime achievement award when questions about his past begin to emerge. This novelistic examination of guilt, family and long buried political secrets deserves a shot at Oscar's Foreign Language Film shortlist (it's the Czech Republic submission).
Winter's Bone (Debra Granik) is in grave danger of the dread "overrated" tag but better that than to be ignored. Any American indie this sparse of familiar hooks and this full of grotty inspiration (god, those poor squirrels!) is worth the nation's eyeballs. Chief among its strengths is a cast of characters that can't be reduced to friend or foe maybe because they're always both simultaneously... and kin, too. John Hawkes and Dale Dickey chill but this entire movie seizes you with bone cold hands.
Rebecca: Did you lay out today?
Rebecca: Mary, that's so bad for you. You of all people should know that.
Mary: I'm very careful, it's better than natural rays. You could use some color.
Rebecca: I don't want to get cancer.
Mary: Blush doesn't give you cancer.
Can we talk about Nicole Holofcener? This writer/director is the definition of underappreciated. Her films are to a one full of great dialogue and intriguing characters that you don't see every day in the movies (i.e. three dimensional women of all shapes, ages and sizes). Please Give, about a guilt ridden couple (Catherine Keener & Oliver Platt) waiting for their neighbor to die so they can have her apartment is the year's most underseen comic delight. It's funnier than all of the Golden Globe nominees for Comedy this year. It's extra funny for New Yorkers because real estate is everything.
It's hard to imagine that Disney's Tangled and Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist sprang from the same inky womb. Oh the things animation can do. While the new Disney princess musical looks much like her older siblings, she doesn't have their confidence. Part of the problem is that her vehicle Tangled is totally schizo with peaks (the lanterns! Pascal! Donna Murphy!) and valleys (modern snarkiness, mediocre songs, conceptual hair problems) and indecision about what it wants to be. The latter is, I think, the reason why the joke about Rapunzel's guilt when striking out on her own feels so inspired. Her bipolar breakdown is meta commentary on the movie which is both awesome and frustrating. But once you fall in love, even flaws can be endearing. And I'm totally in love. It's so rewatchable. Meanwhile, Chomet's melancholy ode to vanishing beauty is closer to the "living painting" beauty that Tangled initially promised us it would have. The movie drifts and stalls on occassion but the beauty never falters and it all builds to a world class heartbreaker of a finale with one of the best exit lines of any movie ever.
Remember that 'Actress Experience' tag given to Secret Sunshine a few paragraphs back? The last three honorable mentions can also share the tag.
The Danish film Applause did one of those annoying "qualifier" releases last month (it opens properly this month) but it's easy to understand the delusional enthusiasm about Paprika Steen's Oscar chances in Best Actress. (You may remember the Scandinavian great from the international hit Celebration in 1998.) Basically this film is her very own Opening Night and she more than delivers as Thea, a recovering alcoholic actress trying to regain her footing as a mother. Intercut with her dingy walking wounded stabs at real life are vivid scenes detailing her theatrical career as she performs Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Steen is so good as "Thea," she makes you want to watch her entire "Martha."
Gerri: He was a good looking man when he was young.
Mary: Was he?
Gerri: Life's not always kind, is it?
Question: Is it getting boring that Mike Leigh movies are so predictably great?
May the writer/director live to 120 years of age and stay this prolific the whole way there. What Another Year lacks in the firecracker spark that powered Happy-Go-Lucky or the devastating history that elevated Vera Drake, it makes up for by wrapping its arms around several vivid characterizations instead of one: Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent are wonderful as the slightly smug but warm married couple at the film's center; Lesley Manville steals her every scene with beautiful details about a woman who wants to think of herself as a frisky youthful cat but is definitely a frightened mouse; Oliver Maltman and Karina Fernandez (the flamenco teacher in Happy-Go-Lucky), provide youthful ballast as a young couple at the start of the journey that the older characters have been living for ages. Mike Leigh doesn't make sequels but I'd gladly spend another year with any or all of these wonderful characters.
Further east in South Korea, Kim Hye-ja stars as the title character in Bong Joon-ho's Mother. It's even more clever than the director's previous hit The Host. Hye-ja plays an old woman whose mentally handicapped son is imprisoned for the murder of a local schoolgirl. This murder mystery comes complete with the genre's requisite red herrings and scary details but it's blessed with a heightened reality and inspired twists. The best one is that the film is as eccentric and eyeball-grabbing as its celebrated lead performance.