I saw 70 movies last year, and these were the best.
10. When You’re Strange
Everyone knows number ten is a fun pick, right? Yes, I do love the Doors, but I think you’ll find this to be a pretty good documentary in a year surprisingly full of them. All the best Doors footage is here, including “HWY”, which has been restored to look so good and is used so cleverly that you’ll believe they resurrected Jim’s corpse just to shoot it. Of course, Morrison’s the star of this picture. Most of his highs and lows are covered, including Jim’s indecent exposure conviction, which, coincidentally, he was pardoned for shortly after this film was released. Movies can improve the world! Although Jim’s the star of the picture, the biggest revelation I had during the film was deep empathy for Ray, Robby and John. Would you want to be in a band with Jim Morrison? That guy who can barely sing, is constantly getting drunk, and stealing all the spotlight? Hell no! And yet, those three men are trapped beneath his posthumous shadow for the rest of their lives. Even today, they’re still trying to tour as “The Doors”, but without Jim, they might as well be called “The Hinges”.
Marco Bellocchio’s been writing and directing films since the early 60’s, yet this is probably the first one you’ve ever heard of, and how much do you really know about Mussolini? He’s since been shadowed by more vile dictators of his day, even being merely thought of as Hitler’s pawn. Vincere isn’t an Italian film. It’s CINEMA ITALIANO, screechingly belched by Pavorotti from beyond the grave. The film opens with Mussolini screaming at God to strike him down, disproving his existence in a way that would make Nietzsche smile. Periodically, words like “WAR” will flash on your screen. This could’ve been a disaster, but for the material and in the old, masterful hands of Bellocchio, it all works in its odd way. Filippo Timi and Giovanna Mezzogiorno give dazzling performances, and Carlo Crivelli’s roaring score sets the perfect tone. The movie revels in carnal insanity, and by the end you’ll come away with a good, cracked portrait of Mussolini.
8. The Ghost Writer
Political ire being what it is, it’s only natural that films harness that energy last commonly seen in the 70s. Talk about the hands of an old master, this political thriller is consummate with Polanski at the helm. That trademark claustrophobia and paranoia work wonders in this genre. Besides being Polanski’s best film in years, when was the last time Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, James Belushi, and Ewan McGregor were in anything this well made? It’s particularly a shame that Brosnan was completely overlooked this award season. The performance wasn’t perfect, but not nearly as undeserved as some nominated. I’m looking at you, Colin Firth! Tom Wilkinson and Olivia Williams are always top talents, and it’s a pleasure to see Eli Wallach working with guys like Polanski and Stone again. I just wish he’d get better roles. If you’re looking for a great, contemporary political thriller that’s damn entertaining, look no further.
7. 127 Hours
Scope. I had a cinematic epiphany about the scope of films. I had recently watched “Citizen Kane” for the millionth time, and that chronicles the rise, fall, and posthumous influence of an entire life. Similarly, the film that’d be at the top of my “Best of the 00’s” list, which will probably never get published, is always etched in my brain. That being “There Will Be Blood”, and how Daniel Plainview broke his leg getting that silver, and he then had to painfully crawl across the desert towards civilization to make his fortune. That’s “127 Hours” right there, but we don’t actually see that in Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece. Anderson smartly glosses over that phenomenon in order to get to grander things. Danny Boyle’s film is terrific, arguably the movie with the fewest flaws this year. It’s leagues better than “Slumdog Millionaire”. Could James Franco be any more charming? We couldn’t spend an hour and a half trapped in a hole with just anybody. He’s another one who’s being overlooked. With all this justified praise, why, then, is “127 Hours” not the best film of the year? Its scope. It’s too damn small.
6. Winter’s Bone
It takes a lot of talent to genuinely establish a realistic setting, but Debra Granik’s film pulls it off. The harsh Ozark Mountains are a perfect backdrop for a story. Some of the subject matter involves meth production, and “Winter’s Bone” makes “Breaking Bad” look glamorously devine. Granik handles the material she co-wrote consummately, with her delicate attention to detail, folk sensibilities, and acting direction. Granik even manages to get some Super 8 footage in there! As always, the performances help immensely. 2010 was a woman’s year. “Vincere” was feminine-centric, but Jennifer Lawrence’s character is ten times the woman Ida Dalser was. True Grit’s a film you’ve probably already seen, and I assure you, as good as Hailee Steinfeld is, it’s Jennifer Lawrence who should win the Tatum O’Neal award this year. John Hawkes is also getting some deserved attention, and, speaking of “Breaking Bad”, Dale Dickey’s in here giving a great performance, too. As I said, with all the talent involved, this is one of the most genuine dramas you’ll see.
5. Shutter Island
Dennis Lehane’s novel is essentially an homage to B-movies, gothic, and noir. Who better to direct that than Martin Scorsese? This movie is a filmophile’s banquet. Scorsese screened dozens of films for the cast and crew, including “Laura”, “Out of the Past”, and “Crossfire”, with even more films being permanently tattooed onto their minds, like “Vertigo” and “Shock Corridor”. Scorsese assembled some of the scariest people imaginable, including John Carroll Lynch, who played the Zodiac killer, Jackie Earle Haley, who played Freddy Krueger, Ben Kingsley, take a look at “Sexy Beast”, Max von Sydow, playing a damn Nazi doctor, and Ted Levine, who played Buffalo Bill, as a prison warden talking about biting into Leonardo DiCaprio’s eyeball in order to conquer his violence. It’s like the Legion of Cinematic Serial Killers. Scorsese’s love for all these films and actors just pours all over the screen. It’s amazing to me that this film was released in the same year as “Inception”, with “Shutter Island” vilified while “Inception” breaks all the records at IMDB and gets nominated for best picture. The two films are so similar, with DiCaprio playing nearly the same character. Both films are cerebral thrillers that play with reality, while paying homage to classic genres, chiefly noir. While “Shutter Island” openly admits its hokeyness, even embracing it, “Inception” tries a little too hard, and overindulges in its flaws. “Shutter Island” is worth watching another five times, while “Inception” is going to get awfully tedious after two.
4. Black Swan
Anyone still here after my “bashing” of the precious “Inception”? It’ll get worse, kiddies. Like my write up for “127 Hours”, I’m unfortunately going to spend some time talking about why “Black Swan” doesn’t place higher, even though I love it to death. Hell, I love “Inception”, too. Friends? Anyway, some good pre-game homework for “Black Swan” is “The Red Shoes”, “Perfect Blue”, and “Swan Lake”. If you put those three influences, Darren Aronofsky, and Natalie Portman into a blender, you’ll get “Black Swan”. Sure, I just lavished praise upon “Shutter Island” for its influences, but I used the word “homage” because it applies. “Black Swan”, unfortunately, doesn’t pay homage as much as it owes debt. This isn’t the first time Aronofsky’s admiration for Satoshi Kon’s “Perfect Blue” has gotten in the way of his craft. Aronofsky even bought the damn rights so he could remake a scene for “Requiem for a Dream”. “Black Swan”, unfortunately, steals even more details. “The Red Shoes” is an influence because, well, it’s the ultimate ballet movie, not to mention the plot being nearly identical. And the “Swan Lake” influence is so obvious, even the great Clint Mansell’s score is basically a Tchaikovsky mix tape. Why, then, is “Black Swan” on this list at all? Those two other ingredients in the blender. Besides training for about ten months for the role and enduring the iron fist of Aronofsky, Portman excels at this role for the same reason Mickey Rourke excelled at his: personal investment. Like her character, Natalie Portman has been performing for audiences her whole life, always striving for that perfect performance. Is it a coincidence that she met her husband on this particular film, with her soul stripped bare like that? Lastly, “Black Swan” still has Aronosky’s strong, auteur presence. “Black Swan” shares all the common themes throughout Aronosky’s career, including a leading brunette who looks like Rachel Weisz, and while we’re blending the personal with the performance, “Black Swan” must’ve been made while Aronofsky’s relationship with Rachel was crumbling. That genuine feeling I talked about “Winter’s Bone” having? “Black Swan” has that too, with infinitely more cinematic flare and authorial voice.
3. I Am Love
From the more formal side of cinema italiano comes “I Am Love”. Not that it isn’t painfully passionate, because it is, but next to “Vincere”, you’d think “I Am Love” was more subtle than Bernardo Bertolucci. Actually, I’d say it’s safe to say there’s a little Bernardo Bertolucci in Luca Guadagnino’s “I Am Love”, along with other Italian greats. The film has Antonioni’s attention to color, for sure. The story of a prestigious Italian family will no doubt remind you of certain Coppola and Visconti films. All these Italians, and yet, there’s an outsider, Tilda Swinton. Sure, Natalie Portman trained for ten months, but Swinton learned how to speak another language, and apparently has been involved with the film for eleven years! In an interview, Swinton paraphrased Hitchcock about how the camera tells the story and the dialogue is just atmosphere, and then claimed that nobody really says anything of importance in “I Am Love”. That’s quite true in films. If you want to say something, write a book, but actions speak louder than words in the movies. That’s especially true of foreign films, sadly, because most of the language gets lost in translation. Could you imagine subtitles being able to accurately express the language in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”? “I Am Love” is focused on the language of cinema. It looks absolutely breathtaking. It even sounds that way, with the great contemporary composer, John Adams, providing the score. Swinton does more than just learn a new language, creating possibly the best multifaceted performance in a terrific year for them.
2. The American
I’m tempted to just bump this to #1, flipping the bird to all the misguided souls, but I won’t, content with this being the best feature film of the year. “The American” was pushed into the Jason Bourne schema by a few idiotic advertisers. That got people to the seats, but when confronted with true art, rather than some cookie cutter bastardization, they freaked. That’s part of the magic, though, as you could easily view “The American” as the anti-American blockbuster. It takes its time to breathe, confident enough to establish itself as something beyond a cash-grab. “The American” would be more in line with today’s blockbusters if Jean Melville was still alive, and the populace knew who he was. It’s easy to be reminded of the great “Le Samurai”, and samurais in general. This film could also remind you of a Bergman film, with its somber tale of a man losing his religion. Whichever influence you wish to see, it’s clear that “The American” transcends its influences, with international merits, despite its title. Anton Corbijn is at the helm, and it’s amazing to see how fitting a transition from photography to directing can be. You could hang every frame of this film on your wall. A well-crafted film, putting a unique spin on common film tropes, while paying homage to the greats. That’s the name of the game, and “The American” won it this year.
Like a great film, we come full circle with a documentary. I’m calling it now: “Restrepo” is the “Platoon” of this war. Oliver Stone served in Nam. He wrote, directed, and even played a part in “Platoon”, trying to recapture his experience. Supposedly, he even put his actors through a boot camp of sorts and gave them C-rations. That’s all well and good, but it’s still, ultimately, a fabrication. This film is real, captured by journalists who risked their lives to get this footage. It’s easy for journalists to get lumped in with the political discourse, but there are still good ones out there, putting their lives on the line as we’ve just seen in Egypt. Like “Platoon”, this film is apolitical, though it’ll probably help you get a clearer vision of how you see the war. There may be a better narrative film that uses the war as a backdrop, but for the clearest depiction of what it was like to be there, and to serve your country during these times, I can’t fathom a film being made that’s better than this one.