Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Duke Altum's Best Films of the Year - 2010 (with one cheat)

Here are the best movies I saw this past year, along with one cheat (a TV show) because it truly deserves to be listed among any accounting of my favorite viewing experiences of 2010. In fact, if I had to choose the single most valuable viewing experience that I had this year, it would definitely be watching through the entire series of The Wire. Hands down.

But now, on to the list, which is written out here in no particular order:


Mother, directed by Bong-Joon Ho (2009)

What it’s about: A mother who lives alone with her mentally disabled adult son goes to great extreme lengths to defend his innocence when he is charged with the murder of a local teenage girl. The police take the path of least resistance by pinning the crime on him, as he was witnessed with the girl earlier in the evening – but his mother, whose relationship with her boy is complicated (to put it mildly), is fanatically determined to take justice into her own hands.

Why it made the list: Bong Joon-Ho (The Host, Memories of Murder) makes films of impeccable artistry and is a master of mixing moods – in most of his movies you will be horrified or tense in one scene, and then laughing at the slapstick-style comedy in the next. All of that applies here, but what really makes this one memorable is its portrayal of fierce, bordering on unhealthy, maternal love and loyalty, brought to life with gut-wrenching power in the superb and unsettling lead performance by the popular Korean TV actress Hye-Ja Kim. She owns every frame of this movie, including the brilliant and unforgettable bookend scenes. It’s probably my performance of the year (for the ones I’ve seen).

What surprised/stayed with me: The aforementioned ‘bookend’ – first and last – scenes of this movie, which I shouldn’t describe for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but are baffling, beautiful and boldly enigmatic all at the same time. Wide open to interpretation, but presented with Bong Joon-Ho’s inimitable technical skills and visual inventiveness.

Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik (2010)

What it’s about: A harsh, gripping thriller set in the rural Ozarks, in which a teenage girl is determined to find her missing father (deeply in debt and involved in dealing and cooking meth) and bring him to court in order to keep her family’s home from being confiscated. She must contend with both the local law, looking for her runaway Dad, and her even more menacing and insular family who will stop at nothing to keep his activities secret – even from a blood relative.

Why it made the list: For a relatively young and obscure director, it’s amazing how well made, atmospheric and tense this movie is from start to finish. Filmed on location using many local residents without formal acting training, this movie reeks of authenticity and sustains a slow-boiling sense of danger throughout. It also boasts superb acting, especially from relative unknown Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role and the magnificent character actor John Hawkes, who embodies intimidation and menace as her strung-out, dangerously volatile (and yet weirdly empathetic) uncle Teardrop.

What surprised/stayed with me: The dark beauty of the setting, combined with the unshakable sense of bad, bad things lurking just underneath the surface in every shot of this film. We’re not talking light comedy here, but if you appreciate natural cinematography and sustained atmosphere in a movie, and enjoy noir-type thrillers, add Winter’s Bone to your list as soon as you can.

Monsters, directed by Gareth Edwards (2010)

What it’s about: A satellite that was sent out by the U.S. to investigate possible life forms in a distant corner of space has crashed back to Earth, “infecting” a huge portion of Central America with large, tentacled aliens that no one knows quite how to handle. But that’s just the backdrop to a surprisingly intimate and realistic (given the sci-fi trappings, and marketing, of the film!?) love story between a young woman stranded in the infected zone, and the freelance photographer who has been hired by her wealthy father to find and bring her back home.

Why it made the list: It ain’t for the title, which is spectacularly misleading – although there are some impressive digital effects on display here and there, and a stunning climactic sequence involving two of the alien creatures communicating on some level with one another. What I admire most about this movie is its originality and the boldness of its (first-time!) director to flout convention and make what is in essence a quiet, meditative relationship movie with inventive science fiction elements thrown into the mix. It’s an unusual combination that some would find off-putting, but that I found fresh and interesting.

What surprised/stayed with me: The ending is beautiful to look at but incredibly enigmatic and open to various interpretations – the kind of ending you’re thinking and debating about for a long time afterwards, which I always find impressive in a film. Also, you have to give Gareth Edwards a lot of credit for not only directing, but also writing the story and creating all of the special effects on his own laptop – none of which he had ever done before. It’s a hugely impressive achievement for this DIY filmmaker.

Inglourious Basterds, directed by Quentin Tarantino (2009)

What it’s about: Basically, the assassination of Adolf Hitler as imagined by the sui generis, film-saturated mind of Quentin Tarantino. A group of Jewish-American soldiers, using Apache warrior techniques and led by a blood-crazed Tennessee redneck, go “hunting Nazis” in Germany, while Hitler’s personally assigned “Jew Hunter” SS officer pursues his own grisly mandate. Meanwhile, a young woman whose family was murdered by said SS officer concocts an ingenious revenge plot of her own, involving the movie theater she owns and operates.

Why it made the list: There’s a TON to admire about this film, not the least of which are its stunning cinematic flair, totally original combination of genres and plot elements (which could only come from one human being alive right now) and a superb performance from Christoph Waltz as the “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa (believe the hype – this guy is incredible from the moment he steps on screen). But what I love most about it is the uninhibited imaginative brio and love of cinema that permeates every single frame of this wild, exuberant, overstuffed film. Tarantino ain’t subtle (though his dialog and camera movements can be surprisingly sophisticated – the first scene is a graduate course in slowly building tension to an almost unbearable level), but his films are full of raucous energy and spilling over with invention – and in that regard, I found myself tipping my hat despite myself at his hilariously cheeky last line: “This might just be my masterpiece.” Sounds ridiculously arrogant, but when you see it in context, you can’t help but laugh… and, I have to say, marvel.

What surprised/stayed with me: The incredibly skillful filmmaking throughout (especially in key scenes, such as the justly famous beginning in the farmhouse or the “bar scene”) and the emotion of the girl Shosanna’s subplot, both of which can be easily overshadowed by the wild gunplay, cinematic verve and towering figure of Hans Landa. Also, Brad Pitt’s purposely cartoonish performance as Lt. Aldo Rayne, which drew fire from some critics but I found to be pitch-perfect in its absurd comedy and exaggeration.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird, directed by Kim Ji-woon (2008)

What it’s about: Take the plot of Sergio Leone’s classic The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and transplant it to Manchuria somewhere around the 1930’s (vaguely), and you’ve got Kim Ji-Woon’s rip-roaring take on spaghetti westerns. Involves Koreans, Chinese and Japanese goons all in a chase to find a lost treasure and eliminate those who might aspire to find it first.

Why it made the list: It seemed impossible for any movie I saw this year to be even more over-the-top, ambitious and visually insane than Tarantino’s, but this one might just be the one! Some of the action sequences in this movie are among the craziest (in a good way) I have ever seen, and how people and/or animals weren’t seriously maimed in the making I really have no idea. The camera literally swoops (at times) through scenes in this movie like a panicked bird, trying to find a way to safety amidst the utter and explosive chaos. In short, this is the movie to show to the most seasoned action movie fan you can think of, and exclaim, “See if you can find anything that tops this!!”

What surprised/stayed with me: Besides the jaw-dropping, “I can’t believe I just saw that” quality of virtually every action sequence in this film, what surprises is that many of the actors, especially those playing “The Bad” and “The Weird,” deliver memorable and hilariously over-the-top performances that really add to the movie. They look like they are having a blast, which is just another layer of fun heaped on to this thoroughly enjoyable, immensely entertaining “kimchee Western.”

Hunger, directed by Steve McQueen (2008)

What it’s about: The final days of the imprisonment of Bobby Sands and his fellow Irish patriots, including their infamous hunger strike, are depicted in this totally uncompromising, brutal and yet beautifully shot film made by the British visual artist Steve McQueen.

Why it made the list: I’ll say right off that this one is a really tough watch. It does not flinch – ever – in its depiction of human violence and cruelty, whether it be that of the British prison guards towards the Irish rebels they see as no better than vermin, or that of an Irish terrorist gunning down a British official in the middle of a flowered parlor in a nursing home. But if you can make it through the beatings and feces smearing of the first third, you should – because the second act, a long scene of dialog between Sands (a stunning Michael Fassbender) and his priest (Liam Cunningham, holding his own) shot all in one take, is an amazing tour de force of acting. And the last third, in which Sands slowly starves to death, is the visual equivalent of a dream-like trance, filmed with great beauty and almost no dialog at all. If you appreciate the craft of moviemaking, you will find plenty to admire in Hunger.

What surprised/stayed with me: Everyone who’s seen this comments on it, but it’s that second act – the long scene of dialog back and forth that feels like you’re watching a stage play. It’s a fascinating verbal sparring match between Sands and his priest about the morality of dying for a cause, and whether it will ultimately mean anything. It sounds boring when written about on paper but you are glued to the screen when it plays out. It’s a brilliant one-act play sandwiched between a searing prison drama and a visual poem about dying. Bring the popcorn!!

A Serious Man, directed by Joel & Ethan Coen (2009)

What it’s about: A modern retelling of the Job story (in a way), in which a mild-mannered Jewish physics professor and family man in 1960’s suburban Minnesota searches for meaning and significance in his life, while various personal calamities (his wife leaving him for another, more “Able man”; a student trying to bribe him; his brother living out of his family room) tempt him to despair and hopelessness.

Why it made the list: One of two Coen Brothers films that made the list, actually… I suppose it goes without saying that their films are always flawlessly made. Now whether you like the stories they tell is something else, but technically and artistically their movies are always fabulous. No exception here. For me this movie is a fascinating, and in some ways surprisingly personal, expression of some very deep and poignant philosophical theme… what makes a life valuable? What is the point of suffering? Is there any meaning to anything that happens to us, or are we just supposed to simply do our best with whatever comes our way? Yes, the main character suffers a lot and the ending is furiously enigmatic. But it’s also hilarious throughout – and you didn’t expect pat answers or tidy endings from the Coens, did you?

What surprised/stayed with me: This one’s easy for anyone who’s seen the movie – how about that opening scene? The way the Jewish folk tale (incredibly, one born of their own imaginations and not simply lifted from Yiddish lore!) perfectly presents and mirrors the themes of the film that follows it, and yet exists in a completely different time and context, is pure genius. Gives the entire film a metaphysical layer that you’re reminded of again in the final, baffling shot… these bookend scenes left me scratching my head for days.

House (Hausu), directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi (1977)

What it’s about: Wow… how to describe this one. A gaggle of schoolgirls go to visit one of their aunts, who lives alone in the country in a strange, old house. To say that the house is possessed, and that weird things ensue, would be an understatement of staggering proportions.

Why it made the list: Easy – it’s in a class entirely by itself. There is no way to describe or prepare anyone for what this movie throws at you, which is everything (and it goes without saying that none of it makes a shred of sense). A surreal experimental horror-comedy with splashes of Italian giallo, Sam Raimi-style effects and pure Japanese weirdness thrown into the stew, this movie is probably for die-hard genre film fans only… but if you enjoy crazy, slap-sticky horror and relish the challenge to watch something totally indescribable, you will get a real kick out of house. Pianos that eat their players and disembodied heads flying around on their own (oh, and biting characters on the arse) are just some of whacked-out visuals you will be treated to in the delightful family film House!

What surprised/stayed with me: The visual style, which is totally wild and a hell of a lot of fun. You’re not watching a movie like this to be intellectually challenged or deeply moved – you want to see what kind of weird imagery Obayashi is able to stir up. And on that score, trust me, the director of TV commercials delivers in truckloads. You’re not going to forget a lot of the images in this film, and it all looks glorious in saturated color and bizarre animation. Criterion restored it for a reason – has to be seen to be appreciated!

True Grit, directed by Joel & Ethan Coen (2010)

What it’s about: A 13-year-old girl hires a crusty, drink-sodden U.S. Marshall rumored to have “true grit” to help her hunt down the man who shot and killed her father in 19th-century Arkansas. Along the way they enlist the help of a young, brash “Texas Ranger” who has been tracking the same varmint (“ineffectually,” as our heroine points out) and get entangled with a ruthless band of thieves.

Why it made the list: The last film I saw on this list (chronologically) is also one of the best. The Coen Brothers bring their usual sure and detail-oriented directorial acumen to this faithful, pitch-perfect adaptation of the underappreciated Western thriller (with a deeply moral heart) by Charles Portis. The screenplay beautifully preserves the strange, entertaining mix of austerity and humor in Portis’ original language, and also manages to add moments of wit and physical comedy that make it feel like a Coens film. Part adventure, part revenge story and part coming of age tale, this exciting and heartfelt paean to the great Westerns of the past feels both nostalgic and wholly original at the same time. (It’s also superbly acted across the board, from large parts to small – but one can’t help but single out newcomer Hailee Steinfeld for more than holding her own among the likes of Bridges, Damon and Brolin.)

What surprised/stayed with me: One could say, as many critics unfairly have, that what surprises about this movie is that it has heart… but I’ve seen Fargo and O Brother Where Art Thou, and I already know they can bring a lot of feeling to their films (though when I see their occasional misfire like Burn After Reading, I can certainly appreciate the charge). What really surprised me in this movie was Matt Damon’s funny, refreshingly against-type performance. He brings a LOT of humor, and some poignant humanity, into a film that could have been pretty grim without it. Many people, myself included, wondered about how he would play in a movie like this, but I am happy to report that he elevates the film with his charm and ability to find the nuances of a character.

The Wire (entire series), created by David Simon (2002-2008)

What it’s about: The drug trade in the city of Baltimore, and how it affects every layer and substrata of the once-proud city’s broken and bedraggled institutions… from the street, to the ports, the schools, law enforcement, and the hallowed halls (and shady dealings) of City Hall.

Why it made the list: Man, I literally do not know how to praise this magnificent, superbly-written TV series. To start, I’ll just say it’s easily the best show and best writing I’ve ever seen on TV, by about a hundred miles. It’s got a HUGE ensemble cast and – I KNOW I’ve never been able to say this before – there is literally not one weak link in it, no matter how small the part. It’s no accident this series has spawned full-length courses at universities like Tufts and Harvard and been compared not to other TV shows, but to the novels of Dickens and Zola. It is intellectually stimulating, emotionally devastating and morally challenging. It will stay with you long after you’ve finished the final episode.

What surprised/stayed with me: What truly surprised me about The Wire is how far its characters, from so many diverse professions and backgrounds, got under my skin. Whether they’re “freelance” thieves and drug-lord killers or cops compromised by politics and the crushing demands of their low-paying jobs on their family lives, you really live with these characters and want to see them better themselves somehow… though the rock they are trying to move is of truly Sysiphusian proportions. Last word: FIND A WAY TO WATCH THIS SERIES NOW, if you haven’t!!

Honorable Mentions:

Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos; Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer; Simon Pegg/Jessica Hynes/Edgar Wright’s Spaced (TV series); Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity; Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale; Chan-wook Park’s Thirst; Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century; Lee Unkrich (Pixar)’s Toy Story 3; Christopher Nolan’s Inception

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