At first glance, 2010 seems to have been a year of diminishing returns. The numbers don't lie. Unemployment climbed to a sobering 9.9%. The national debt rose to a record 13.9 trillion. And, thanks to 2009's mega-haul from Avatar, Hollywood found a way to further gouge the financially wounded theatergoer by releasing all their remakes and sequels in 3-D and charging $25 a pop.
Emboldened by the imminent demise of Blockbuster, the usually benevolent Netflix even got in on the price-gouging game. They jacked their rental rates and struck backroom deals with most of the major studios to keep all their new DVD releases off people's queues for the first month of release in an effort to boost flagging DVD sales and force viewers to buy instead of rent. It's hard out there for a film buff, even when "out there" is in your own home.
As a result, I saw even less movies out on the town than last year. Of the 79 new movie releases I viewed in 2010, only 19 of them were viewed in a proper movie theater (the term "proper" even up for debate). That's--what--just under 25%? And of that 25%, it seems like 50% of the time I found myself crabbing about the sub-home theater projection in the venue when I wasn't, in some manner, stuck inside Leonardo DiCaprio's head.
Yet, there were bright spots. As always, when I finally get around to compiling this year-end least, I realize how many good flicks there were, original films that flew under the radar if not surprisingly ruled the summer blockbuster months. As usual, I couldn't side-step all of the bad stuff, falling sucker to some nifty trailers and all-star action hero casts. But, this year, I managed to make almost all of those missteps at home for free on Blu-ray or DVD.
With the help of this list, hopefully you will too. Onto the results...
10. The American
It's a given now that people all over the world hate Americans, but, judging from U.S. box office and user reviews, Americans hated The American more than anyone else. Why? I'm guessing because it was too French. They went in for a Jason Bourne movie and walked out with a Jean-Pierre Melville head-scratcher instead. Being a fan of slow, cerebral French crime movies in general though, I had a grand time soaking in the empty frames, cold as ice tone and moody Euro-scenery. Sure, the most dangerous thing Clooney did in this film is dare to go down on an Italian prostitute (and who can blame him when her name is Violante Placido?), but if you want a black op blowing up churches, jumping out of helicopters and onto the roofs of moving buses then Angelina Jolie in Salt is probably your game. Me, I prefer my sodium intake lower and my action schmaltz more grounded in reality. Call me Eurotrash, if you will. I like pepper.
9. Black Swan
Take away the strange doppelganger sightings, the hoidy-toidy ballet moves, the mysterious rashes that soon sprout black swan wings and what have you got? Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls. I mean this in the best possible way. The elements are all there. Two ridiculously competitive female dancers. Undertones of violence. Overtones of lipstick-lesbianism. The out-of-date primadonna who refuses to exit gracefully from the stage (Winona Ryder here, Gina Gershon there). Plus, a completely over-the-top handling of all of the above. Bravissimo, Mr. Aronofsky! You have successfully channeled Verhoeven for the Lincoln Center crowd. Now, let's see what you can do with Wolverine...
8. I Am Love
Speaking of over-the-top, do you think the simple, elegant plate of prawns pictured above could lead you to spontaneous orgasm in the middle of a fine restaurant? Well, that's pretty much what happens to Tilda Swinton when she falls for her son's chef pal and dares to break ties with her old-money Italian family and follow her passion. I've had good shrimp before and usually don't dig on flicks about extremely rich people, but, man, this movie is a sensual feast in every sense of the word "sensual." Like last year's Julia, Tilda Swinton continues to amaze in another fearless role. This is a movie about big appetites quietly suppressed by class, ones which eventually can't help but burst to the surface in one big beautiful Italian belch. Buon appetito!
There are repressed children, and then there are REPRESSED CHILDREN. In Dogtooth's suburban Greek family, the children in question (an adult son and two adult daughters) are never allowed to leave the confines of the backyard, told by Mom and Dad the word "cunt" means a large lamp and "zombie" a small, yellow flower and that they can't drive an automobile until the day their "dogtooth" falls out. Oh yes, Pop also brings home a blindfolded girl from the factory every week for Son to have sex with. But when she starts bringing contraband VHS tapes of Jaws, Flashdance and Rocky IV with her in her purse, watch out! One of these sheltered adult rug rats is going to go loco with "cultural overload." Dogtooth is a truly strange and original film. Not for everyone's taste surely though. There was a family like this (or one I suspected was like this) in a subdivision I lived in as kid. I'm glad I never went over there to swim in their pool. I probably wouldn't be here today.
6. The Ghost Writer
You can put a genre master on house arrest in Switzerland, but you can't hold him down. Roman Polanski delivers one of his best films and THE best thrillers in about a decade. The Ghost Writer is an extremely watchable and well-played piece of entertainment, regardless of one's opinion of the man. The predicament Pierce Brosnon's character finds himself in has so many subtle and not so subtle echoes to Polanski's own, you're surprised the film is not called The Polish Director. He manages to ride the fine line between the popcorn and the personal with equal panache.
You know what? I couldn't care less if it was all a dream or not. I'm just glad Hollywood made beaucoup dollars on an intelligent and inventive summer blockbuster, an original piece of work that dared to try new things within a well-established action movie template. Maybe it will start a trend. Chris Nolan, let that top keep spinning. At least until the powers-that-be wake you to take your money and your CGI toys away.
I never thought a five and a half hour French TV miniseries could leave me breathless and speechless by its end credits. I just thought it would leave my ass more than a little bit numb. But this unconventional three-part biopic of Carlos "the Jackal" by director Olivier Assayas is without a doubt one of the most inspiring experiences I had in a movie theater this year (ahem, watching TV). It wasn't inspiring because of the subject matter--basically, terrorism as a rock and roll ego trip--but because of its delivery. Assayas's handling of the '75 OPEC raid is a brilliant feature-length suspense movie in itself. And Edgar Ramirez's portrayal of Carlos is bold enough to fill twenty lesser movies. Definitely see it if you have the time...and the cajones.
3. The Social Network
I'm not on Facebook. I've never "Liked" something on it before, much less "Friended" someone. But, if I was, I would "Like" The Social Network several times, plaster my "Wall" with a plethora of smileys and emoticons and agree that it was the modern day digital-world Citizen Kane that everyone says it is. And I would "Friend" David Fincher, who I've always "Liked" as a director. And I would "Poke" Aaron Sorkin, who I've never much cared for before. I would do all the cool social networking things you're supposed to do when a movie nails it and gets it just right. I might even share my "Status Update" with the Winklevoss Twins. The thing is, I'm not on Facebook and never will be. Especially now that I've seen the movie.
Whoever sang "Your Mama Can't Dance" never met Hye-ja Kim. Not only does this middle-aged mama bust weird ethereal dance moves in grassy fields, she will also do whatever it takes to prove the innocence of her mentally-challenged son convicted of killing local girl in a small Korean town. This may involve breaking and entering, getting into slap-fights with other town women, kidnapping local teens for their cell phone histories or even bludgeoning kindly old men in the head with a rock. Whatever it takes, Hye-ja is game. So is Bong Joon-ho, director of this and the great monster movie The Host from a few years ago. With Mother, he's made yet another monster movie but this one grounded in reality and the more frightening aspects of a mother's undying love. He also produced some of the freshest screen images and Hitchcock-worthy moments I saw all year.
1. A Prophet
That's a razor blade clenched between prisoner Malik El Djebena's teeth. Soon he will use to slash another prisoner's throat, a fellow Arab who the Corsicans inside want out of the picture. Sometimes that's what it takes to climb to the top of the prison heap-- selling out your race, selling out your religion, selling out your identity. Or maybe just using it to your quiet advantage in the long run. It's hard to tell exactly what Malik is up to through much of A Prophet. Is he just an opportunist doing what it takes to survive, whether that means siding with the Corsicans or the Muslims? Or is he anointed with some kind of master plan, a prophet of sorts? I'm not sure, but when I walked out of this movie I felt as if I had just seen the closest thing to a modern-day Godfather I was going to get. I immediately wanted to watch it again.
Enter the Void
At the screening of ETV I attended, director Gaspar Noe said he wanted to use his entirely first person POV camera to make the ultimate drug trip movie, to make the viewer experience what happened to a person on extreme hallucinogens before and after they died. The good news is he succeeded. The bad news is he succeeded. Like a drug trip, what starts out breathtaking and euphoric and groundbreaking soon becomes tedious and nauseating and ponderous after a while. You just want the trip to end. This movie is an endurance test, a punishment of sorts but, at times, an interesting one.
Noah Baumbach's character study of a mid-40s NYC grouch and failed musician dropped smack-dab into the sunny, flaky optimism of Los Angeles struck some tender chords with yours truly. Not enough chords to lift it into the Top Ten but just enough to know for sure that Baumbach was getting it all right with heavy nods to Saul Bellow. It's a great, Oscar-baiting role for Stiller, but, for my money, Greta Gerwig really is the one who really did all the heavy lifting. I guess Greenberg sounded catchier than Florence Marr.
I'm not sure why I avoided this movie for as long as I did. Just kept pushing it further and further back on my Netflix queue after other new releases. Was I burnt by director Nicole Hofcener in the past? Perhaps Friends with Money? Had I just grown weary of indie films starring Catherine Keener? Whatever the case, it finally came in the mail, I got over my blockage and was pleasantly surprised. This is a very witty, acerbic flick about just how screwed up living in modern New York can be. Looking for a new apartment? Perhaps you will get lucky and the old pink haired lady across the hall will have a heart attack. How about a new mistress? Perhaps the same old dying lady has two hot daughters.
Word on the street (i.e., Netflix automated recommendations) was that this little piece of Danish neo-noir was terribly "Coenesque." So I gave it an instant stream and found that to be the case, strong hints of Blood Simple sprinkled all throughout. Just check out the trailer here and tell me you don't see it. But apart from that Terribly Happy stands on its own as a very nifty little deadpan thriller. I'm normally a dog person, but if you don't want a cat that says "Moim" by the end credits you simply are not human.
While we're talking about the Coen Bros, might as place them here in the last Honorable spot. Their True Grit take was about as fine a western remake as you're going to get. But I guess it didn't impress me enough to give it a more coveted spot. Not their best film, certainly not their worst (that honor still goes to Burn After Reading). But a fine way to spend your Christmas Day all the same.
10. Bitch Slap
See the above picture. You would think from this image and the name of the movie this throwback '70s exploitation flick might have a healthy sense of humor, maybe even be a little bit of racy fun. The problem is the director feels the need to bitch slap his own movie to death with rapid-fire cutting, a surfeit of "style" and about eight different plots, nine of which you care nothing about. I only made it through a half hour of Bitch Slap before turning it off, secure in the knowledge that nudie auteur Russ Meyer still rests peacefully in his grave.
9. The Human Centipede: First Sequence
Again, look at the title. Now, look at the picture. Human beings sutured together from mouth to anus by a mad doctor in one long human centipede-like chain. Sounds like a great premise for a horror movie, right? Yes, if that horror movie were directed by David Cronenberg or David Lynch, not some dude named Tom Six. Don't think I'll be sticking around for the "Second Sequence" in 2011.
8. Edge of Darkness
I wish somebody would have warned me that every time Mel Gibson is about to take revenge in this movie that his crucifix necklace would not-so-subtly drop into plain view from his shirt. I wish someone would have told me that the only bastion of truth in this conspiracy thriller was going to be some Fox News-like outfit Gibson goes to for help. I wish someone would have tased ME like they do Gibson above as I was sliding the Edge of Darkness disc into my Blu-ray tray. Rolling on the floor in a puddle of my own pee instead of Gibson's ham-fisted Christian conservative comeback attempt might have been a preferable way to spend the two hours.
7. 44 Inch Chest
Four of British cinema's best actors-- John Hurt, Ian McShane, Tom Wilkinson and Ray Winstone (seen here hanging his head in shame). The same writer as the fantastic Sexy Beast. "What could go wrong?" I thought. Oh, just about everything.
When you've reached the point of randomly throwing samurais in to fight aliens on distant planets and just adding an "S" on the first movie's name, I think it's safe to say your franchise is completely out of ideas. Nimrod Antal made a really interesting movie called Kontroll once. After Armored and now this, I fear he will never be interesting again.
5. Jonah Hex
Why did I put this well-known turkey in my Netflix queue? I'm not a gamer and am probably one of a few males in the world not nursing a crush on the vacant Megan Fox. Why? Because Jonah Hex looked like Django in the ads. He carried a Gatling gun like Django and dragged a coffin behind him. I've learned my lesson now-- Jonah Hex is not Django. He is Jonah Hex.
4. The A-Team
I promise I'm not going to go off on one of those "they raped my childhood" rants with this exceptionally lame TV series remake. Because I'm pretty sure when I was ten years old and watching the show every Friday night and playing with my Mr. T doll I was still savvy enough to know even then just how silly it was. I'm not so sure director Joe Carnahan knew anything of the sort when he was directing this assembly-line action stinkbomb. I think he just thought he was making a Tony Scott film and cashed the check.
3. The Expendables
I'm a little ashamed to admit how much I was looking forward to this movie. All the '80s action greats in one film! With Mickey Rourke thrown in for good measure! It was supposed to be the "fried chicken and beer movie" of the summer (i.e., one during which you drink much beer and eat much fried chicken and enjoy yourself with abandon to a ridiculous degree). The Expendables turned out to be just a big downer, though. Not over-the-top in any good way like I had hoped, but strictly by-the-numbers. What a waste of perfectly good testosterone. I advise you to skip the feature film and proceed directly to the "making of" documentary, "Inferno." So much more enjoyable to watch Sly injure himself repeatedly to make this lame-brained movie than to watch the movie itself.
2. The Book of Eli
This steaming crap of an action film felt like little more than one long advertisement for the Holy Bible. Really, at this point, does the Bible need anymore press? I mean, Hughes Brothers, have you ever visited the South? Just take a look above at one of the last images of the film. The scene is one where Denzel Washington returns the only existing copy to a post-apocalyptic library bunker to be stored for safe-keeping with the other Good Books. But look how tall the King James towers over the others (the Torah, the Qur'an, etc.). Look how it's lit. I think it's safe to say which book the makers believe is the star of the show. This is what Hollywood calls cultural diversity. It's what I call another bad Denzel Washington flick. The guy used to make good choices...years and years ago.
1. From Paris With Love
At this point, it hurts me physically to watch John Travolta acting. Every one of his showboat "hey, I was in Pulp Fiction fifteen years ago" line readings feels like a punch to the solar plexus. It's even worse when he's acting with a bald cap and an earring. It's worse than that when we're supposed to believe his lumbering, chubby frame punching or kicking someone in any kind of action scene. Worse than that is when he's supposed to be some sort of embodiment of American bravado. I watched this movie only because director Pierre Morel's District B-13 was kind of fun. Only a French director and John Travolta could make me so ashamed to be an American.
Clash of the Titans
Remember what I said earlier about not going off on a movie for "raping my childhood"? Yeah, well, I hadn't gotten to the Titans remake yet. A black Pegasus? A whack Kracken? And just look at the Medusa! Gorgons are not meant to model for American Apparel. They are supposed to be hideous--not have a supermodel's face! Rape me once, Hollywood. Rape me twice. But dare not rape me in three dimensions!
Really, doesn't the picture and the movie title say it all?
I get the whole awkward comedy thing, but this movie was just plain awkward without the comedy. After becoming a fan of the Duplass Brothers' mumblecore efforts earlier this year (The Puffy Chair and Baghead), I was at a loss by the end of this film to figure out how they could make something so bland. Then I saw another set of brothers' names in the producer credits. "Tony and Ridley." Ah, now it all makes sense.
The second horror/sci-fi movie of the year that attempted to wander into David Cronenberg territory and failed. On the whole, Splice succeeded more than Human Centipede. And the scene with Adrien Brody schtupping his own laboratory-born genetic experiment, Dren, is indeed a howler. But sorry, Vincenzo, sometimes you can't clone a fellow director's finer points and expect the same results. The flesh may be weak, but the New Flesh is oh-so-strong.
THE MOST OVER-HYPED MOVIE ABOUT HYPE (I.E., MOST OVERRATED)
Exit Through the Gift Shop - the makers of this much-lauded documentary (Banksy, presumably) seem surprised that a talentless art world hanger-on (Thierry Guetta) could come along and make a lot of money off a passing trend and his art world associations. Have they not been to a New York art gallery recently and seen the stuff hanging on the walls? Perhaps feigning surprise is just another one of Banksy's guerilla street art tricks. Or maybe just another way to assure you he is more the genuine article than Guetta. If that's the case, then isn't the whole doc just a cry for his own legitimacy, the exact type of move street art is supposed to disavow. Either way, this movie, hoax or not, felt like a missed opportunity. A better prank Banksy could have pulled would be signing his own name on a Guetta work, then filming the fat cat art collectors and rich celebrities as they lined up to buy it just for that.
THE BADDEST MOTHER AWARD (AND BY THAT I DON'T MEAN THE WORST MOTHER)
Three way tie - Hye-ja Kim in Mother, Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom and Melissa Leo in The Fighter.
BEST MOVIE AS TEEN CHAT SESSION / SENSORY OVERLOAD
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
BEST GERIATRIC SMACKDOWN
Michael Caine as a London penshioner putting it to the thugs in Harry Brown
BEST SPORTS MOVIE LEAST INTERESTED IN THE SPORT IN QUESTION
The Fighter - the only fist-fights director David O. Russell seemed interested in here were all the ones outside the ring. And then, more so the ones involving the ladies. When it came to the squared circle, he couldn't give a hoot, making for one of the more interesting boxing flicks in recent years.
FUNNIEST MOVIE ABOUT JIHAD
BEST BODY-RELATED SOUND F/X
127 Hours - James Franco cutting through the nerves in his arm with a penknife. Zing!
MOST THANKLESS FEMALE ROLE OF THE YEAR
Rebecca Hall in The Town - her character has absolutely zero incentive to be with with downwardly mobile Southie criminal Ben Affleck, especially after he tells her he's a thief. I guess we're just supposed to buy it because she's a good actor in other movies and he's Ben Affleck?
MOST THANKLESS MALE ROLE OF THE YEAR
Chiwetel Ejiofor in Salt - poor Chiwetel, a fine actor stuck mumbling exposition to vamping CIA double agent Angelina Jolie. A waste of talent if there ever was one. Get this guy his own franchise quick!
MOST ANTICIPATED MOVIE OF 2011
No, not The Thing remake. Certainly not the fiasco that will be Rod Lurie's Straw Dogs. It's a little movie called Drive based on a fine James Sallis novel I read a few years ago. Ryan Gosling plays a Hollywood stunt driver caught up in a real world heist gone wrong. More importantly, Albert Brooks plays a bad guy, Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad is somehow involved, saucy Christina Hendricks from Mad Men factors in and Nicholas Winding Refn (of Bronson and Pusher Trilogy pedigree) is in the director's chair. Sounds like it could be a winner. Then again, I watched From Paris With Love, didn't I? Take my predictions with a healthy dose of skepticism.
And, now that we're done, a little Danny Trejo head-on-a-turtle action to ring in the new year...