25 December 2010

My best and worst films of 2010

As 2010 is just about over and I'm unlikely to see any more new releases between now and the New Year, it feels like an opportune moment to share my summary of the year in cinema.  Naturally, it's a fairly hit and miss affair given that I generally fail to see the vast majority of new releases, in part due to general lack of interest and also due to the ridiculous price of new-run movie tickets in London.  Most of my movie viewing is at the excellent Prince Charles just off Leicester Square, where I can see a mix of second-run box-office films and a small-c catholic range of older and more obscure films.  The BBC's Mark Kermode's early tips for his just-announced best film of 2010 include two that I didn't see at all - The Social Network (which I really will make the effort to watch at some point) and Toy Story 3 - so my selection is necessarily from a piecemeal sample of the year's cinematic releases.

Honourable mentions must go to numerous other films that just missed out on the top 10, including Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon), Restrepo, A Serious Man, Tamara Drewe, The Illusionist, Gainsbourg and I Am Love.  And in terms of classic pre-2010 films I've seen on the big screen this year, there's been some real crackers - Metropolis, Rashomon, His Girl Friday, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), Five Easy Pieces, Black Narcissus, Once Upon A Time In The West, It's A Wonderful Life, The Maltese Falcon, Duck Soup and The General.

The top 10 list starts at the top and works downwards.  At the last minute I decided to be mischievous and bump Avatar out of the number 10 spot for something completely different.  While I was very impressed with the visuals of Avatar, and it's great it was a highly successful film at the box-office, there's no disguising that stinker of a script.  But returning to here and now, I predict you won't be particularly surprised by my choice of the best film of 2010...




1. Inception (dir. Christopher Nolan)


That a film this audacious and ambitious should be so successful is a tribute to the vision of writer-director Nolan, but it's doubly impressive that Inception is a wilfully, almost perversely complex movie. It challenges audiences to keep up with its multiple layers of perceived reality and contains a scarcely believable amount of exposition that would sink nine out of ten other high-concept efforts. Its special effects are virtuoso but never gratuitous, reminding audiences of the time thought long gone when clever strings of effects made them think, 'how on earth did they do that?' The cast is excellent too, if a little over-powered (did they really need Michael Caine?)

Inception is this decade's The Matrix, but far more challenging of its audience. That it was so successful at the box-office is a ringing endorsement of the power of vibrant new material over the slew of remakes and sequels currently churned out by Hollywood. I'd just change one thing. (No spoilers!) The very last shot - the one that's led to so much speculation about the true meaning of the ending? (Google 'Inception ending' and you get 6.6 million hits). Lose the scene on the porch, then crash to black from the close-up just two seconds earlier. Now that would be my kind of ending.





2. Scott Pilgrim vs The World (dir. Edgar Wright)

In Scott Pilgrim vs The World, Edgar Wright (Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) brought a fizzing package of 20-something slacker wit and cyber-age geekage to the big screen, and it's great, great fun to watch - ironic tongue in cheek or not.  Scott must defeat the seven evil ex-boyfriends, oops, sorry, 'evil exes' of Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, surely the embodiment of Avatar's 'unobtainium' in human form), the girl he seeks to woo, which is tricky given that he's played by Michael Cera, who is about as martial as an ice-cream sundae.

My favourite moment is hard to choose. The flaccid post-loo hand flaps that signify Scott's 'now dry your hands' moment when he's, like, totally bummed with existential angst about the hot ex-girlfriend who wrenched his heart in twain? The pleasingly pathetic anxiety attack when Scott realises that Ramona is impulsive enough to change her hair colour every week or two, so how long would she realistically stay with a pasty-faced dweeb like him? The stentorian count-in by girl-drummer Kim to every song by Scott's band, Sex Bob-Omb? Kieran Culkin's arch gay flatmate Wallace, replete with curt wisdom and Puckish troublemaking? ('Look, I didn't write the gay handbook. If you got a problem with it, take it up with Liberace's ghost')  The last-minute raid by the Vegan Police? The bit when Scott's teenage girlfriend Knives Chau utters the immortal words, 'You stole my boyfriend. Taste my steel!' No, I think in honour of its knowing sense of whimsy it has to be the ending, when Scott must face his Greatest Enemy... Himself (duh duh DAA!!) Oh, and by the way, if it's not clear from the above: Scott Pilgrim rocks ultimate!!


3. Fish Tank (dir. Andrea Arnold)

If you've wondered what it's like to grow up on a modern British council estate these days this could be your chance to learn, and while you're at it you can also witness a top performance in this British film that shared the Jury Prize at this year's Cannes festival. Katie Jarvis, who was discovered arguing with her boyfriend at an Essex train station, is excellent as the unloved teen Mia, who finds that the unfamiliar praise and attention offered by her mother's new boyfriend is puncturing her hard-as-nails exterior. But is he just a friend, or is there something more?  A drama with plenty of rough humour, Fish Tank also contains two scenes brimming with tension and genuine uncertainty. Particularly affecting is a scene shot along the factory-flecked fields of the Essex coast east of London, which is almost unbearably tense as the viewer witnesses Mia about to make an awful mistake that could ruin her life and have fatal consequences for another. In another sequence there's a masterfully painterly shot of rare beauty amidst the urban grime, when Mia is framed in the gaping doorway of a massive Essex warehouse with a dozen lifter cranes arrayed carefully in the dusky sky behind her like a spindly alien candelabra. Throughout the film Rebecca Griffiths gets some good lines as Mia's younger sister, the foul-mouthed and hilariously rude Tyler, whose way of expressing affection for her mum's new boyfriend is to inform him, 'I like you - I'll kill you last'.




4. The Ghost (dir. Roman Polanski)

Roman Polanski wins plaudits here for making a film featuring Ewan McGregor that isn't as irritating as hell. McGregor is fine as the titular ghost writer who is brought in at the last minute and finds out more than he wants to about the mysterious death of his predecessor.  But part of the reason the film works is the casting of the usually overlooked but reliably excellent Olivia Williams as the wife of Pierce Brosnan's Blair-alike ex-PM, who is holed up in a New England beach house to write his autobiography with the aid of the titular ghost-writer. The Ghost is a pleasingly old-fashioned thriller, much of which is set on a gothic coastline garlanded with glowering stormclouds and steely grey winter surf (France had to double for the US due to Polanski's extradition issues).  And it concludes with a perfectly staged dramatic payoff that evokes something of the cynical spirit of Chinatown.



5. The Hurt Locker (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)

At times the tension is almost too much to bear in this unpredictable and unsentimental depiction of a US Army bomb disposal team in Iraq, with a great lead performance by Jeremy Renner as Sgt James, the fearless and perhaps slightly unhinged bomb tech. While some of the military decision-making seem a little contrived in order to advance the plot, The Hurt Locker generates enough surprises to overcome this. Director Kathryn Bigelow was the deserved Best Director winner at the Oscars, and special mention must go to two artfully crafted scenes: the Barrett rifle shootout in the desert, which evolves into a spirit-sapping long-range siege; and the petrol tanker bombing scene with its dense and clamorous wall of conflicting sounds assailing the dark Baghdad night.


6. Nowhere Boy (dir. Sam Taylor-Wood)

A treat for Beatle buffs, Nowhere Boy fails to be overshadowed by the later news that photographer turned director Sam Taylor-Wood later shacked up with and got pregnant with the baby of her very young lead actor. Tabloid prurience aside, this is a quality early days bi-pic of John Lennon that boasts plenty of strong acting performances, particularly from the ever-stellar Kristen Scott-Thomas as Aunt Mimi and Anne-Marie Duff as Lennon's mother Julia. While the family drama of secrets and lies is compelling, it's also a small joy to see the admittedly predictable Beatles prehistory set-pieces: the be-quiffed Quarrymen playing the Woolton village fete; John's too-cool-for-school pose momentarily punctured by 15-year-old Paul's strikingly proficient busking of 20 Flight Rock; and the studio session to record In Spite Of All The Danger. As the movie closes with a cocksure John setting off for Hamburg to become a rock star, Nowhere Boy makes the perfect companion to the Reeperbahn diary that is 1994's Backbeat - surely a cinema double-billing made in rock heaven.



7. The Brothers Bloom (dir. Rian Johnson)

After his debut film, the effortlessly cool highschool noir flick Brick, Rian Johnson's second feature was always going to be eagerly anticipated. And in The Brothers Bloom, Johnson brings together a perfectly-chosen cast (Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo and the ever-lovely Rachel Weisz), a Wes Anderson-alike quantity of exotic Eastern European filming locations, plenty of deft sight gags and a nimble story of two brothers (Brody and Ruffalo) pulling off the ultimate con on a lonely and slightly batty heiress (Weisz). Perhaps it's a trifle overlong, but I suspect that when you've made a low-budget film filled with this much onscreen spark and wry humour, you just don't want to call it a day. By the time the end came I certainly didn't.



8. Bright Star (dir. Jane Campion)

You don't have to like poetry to appreciate Bright Star.  The quality of the acting performances aside, the real star of Jane Campion's recounting of the doomed love of the poet Keats and Fanny Brawne, is the remarkable imagery. So many scenes beg for a pause button so you can sit back and admire this artfully constructed film. The heady bliss of young love in springtime is richly evoked by the beautiful Cornish in particular, but it is Campion's inventiveness that seals the deal with a flurry of memorable vignettes, from the perfect opening macro shot of a needle being threaded, to the riotous colours of the English woodlands in full bloom, to the inevitable sombre procession through the deserted streets of Rome. For those who found The Piano a touch too melodramatic or are reluctant to see a film featuring poetry, banish your fears, because this one's a real winner.


9. Four Lions (dir. Chris Morris)

For the most part Four Lions is brilliant slapstick comedy with a dark edge, as its foolish jihadist loons compete with each other in the idiocy stakes. The one cool customer, Omar, manages to hold things together despite the dangerously low IQs and the raging ego of his main rival for the group's leadership, the megalomaniacal Muslim convert Barry. Of course, the ending in a film like this is always going to be challenging, and I won't give it away. But it was certainly laugh-out-loud in parts, sometimes in an awful way.  And as the Guardian pointed out, Four Lions is ultimately 'brutally unimpressed with the moral idiocy of suicide bombing and suggests that the only sane response is derisive laughter'. Remember, this is a Chris Morris film, so you probably know not to expect cuddles, right?


10. Easy A (dir. Will Gluck)

While Easy A isn't quite in the league of the great teen comedies of the 80s that it lovingly references, it certainly stands head and shoulders above many other run-of-the-mill contemporary efforts. Emma Stone is consistently charming as the quick-witted and well-meaning Olive, the line-toeing high-school girl whose white lies about fictitious promiscuity (told in a good cause) snowball into a viral ostracism of epic proportions. Paralleling Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, which is the set text of her English class, she dons a red letter 'A' ('adulterer'), but in Olive's case it's to cock a snook at the ludicrous school moralists who gang up against her for the sins they believe she's committed. This catapults Olive to a momentary thrilling notoriety, but matters take a darker turn when she is accused of distinctly discreditable behaviour and has no way of refuting the lie, or, for that matter, of ever attracting the attention of the boy she really does like.

Stone carries the film with great aplomb, and never fails to light up a scene with her deft comic timing and wry, husky drawl. Amanda Bynes is often hilarious as the cartoonishly puritanical schoolyard god-squadder Marianne, who leads an obsessive bitch-hunt against Olive; one memorably over-the-top scene sees Marianne grinding a series of pencils into dust while Olive mercilessly eggs on her rival's impotent fury. (Sample dialogue - Marianne: "There's a higher power that will judge you for your indecency". Olive: "Tom Cruise?") H
onourable mention must also go to Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as Olive's open-minded and supportive parents, whose witty banter with their brainy daughter never descends into parody or cliche.

There are few quibbles in this solid work. Olive is supposed to be a social nobody with no boyfriend in sight, which is a little hard to swallow given how stunning Stone clearly is. In one scene Lisa Kudrow's school guidance counsellor character has to react to some terrible news and is given very slightly sweary dialogue to fit into the PG-13 guidelines, but the words simply don't ring true given the scale of the event she's reacting to. And for a film that harks back to the great teen films of the 80s, the carefully presaged big random musical number near the end doesn't come off as a show-stopper and lacks the believability of the rest of the film. These are tiny niggles though. All in all, Easy A is a thoroughly enjoyable film that can be savoured by anyone with an appreciation of strong comic performances and the continuing power of the high school rumour mill to make and break a young woman's reputation, even if the rumours aren't true.


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And now for the five films that failed to set my world alight in 2010.  They're not all bad, naturally - often it's just a case of missed opportunities leading to disappointing results.  So, in reverse order from the least worst to the epitome of actual badness, here's my bottom five films of 2010...


5. Alice In Wonderland (dir. Tim Burton)

Alice in Wonderland is quite a let-down after expectations were raised by Tim Burton taking the reins. Here's a film with a lot of potential: top director, great talent and a classic story. Yet it emerged a confused, scattershot mishmash, with a last-minute conversion to 3D not helping proceedings at all. (I saw the 2D version). Johnny Depp's all-over-the-place performance as the Mad Hatter is occasionally irritating, and even Helena Bonham Carter's revivification of Miranda Richardson's Queenie act from Blackadder, which surely was ripe for a winning performance, descends into cliche with one too many repetitions of 'off with their heads!' Oh well. At least Burton managed to feature a stretch-limbed George McFly (aka Crispin Glover) fulfilling his 'density' as the Red Queen's evil henchman Stayne.


4. Crazy Heart (dir. Scott Cooper)

While Crazy Heart boasts a good cast and contains some reasonable performances from Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal, the film's Walk The Line-meets-The Wrestler vibe is also obviously a calculated case of lazy Oscars-by-numbers thinking. It's a pity, then, that nothing much of note actually happens in this May to September romance to drag it above the level of telemovie fare. But probably its worst failing is that despite Jeff Bridges' strong singing voice, the songs he's given to perform aren't particularly memorable. From T-Bone Burnett, who gave us the excellent music of O Brother Where Art Thou and Walk The Line, this is a sub-par effort.



3. The Lovely Bones (dir. Peter Jackson)

Saoirse Ronan is very good in her role, but the reputation of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones as an almost unfilmable book seems intact. Despite the talent and experience of Peter Jackson & co. being brought to bear on this project, it fails to rise above its turgid voiceover (the dead apparently talk... REALLY... slowly...) and implausible plot. Most irritatingly, there are seemingly no real-world clues that lead Susie's family to her murderer, which is both sloppy and inexcusable for writers of such quality.  While there are occasional moments of impressive CGI inventiveness, they fail to compensate for an ill-thought-out and less than compelling narrative.



2. Greenberg (dir. Noah Baumbach)

Ben Stiller enjoys playing damaged goods - witness his quality performance in The Royal Tenenbaums. In Greenberg he aims for the wounded fragility that Steve Carell managed with aplomb in Little Miss Sunshine, but as the newly out of psychiatric care Roger Greenberg, all he can do is prove that the character he's playing is really quite unpleasant and relentlessly self-absorbed. Greta Gerwig's performance as the much younger love-interest is likeable although far-fetched, and it's pleasing to see the former Super Furry Animals singer Rhys Ifans in a decent supporting role as an old pal of Greenberg's. It's a black comedy, but I only laughed once: at a party full of college kids Greenberg puts Duran Duran on the stereo because 'it's great coke music', only to recoil in entirely justifiable horror when all they want to do is listen to Korn. Kids these days, what do they know?



1. I’m Still Here (dir. Casey Affleck)

On the plus side, the poster's not bad.  I'm not quite sure what Phoenix and Affleck were thinking when they planned this mockumentary. Maybe they'd been watching Extras and wanted to emulate its knowing insider take on show business. But whether it's meant to be spoof of self-obsessed superstar egos or the vicious overexposure of the celebrity universe that sees ghoulish attention devoted to famous people going through mental breakdowns, that's beside the point because I'm Still Here is often profoundly tedious viewing. Phoenix's pot-bellied, grimy-haired, drug-addled star caricature is such an obnoxious asshat that there can be little sympathy as his foolish dream of releasing a rap album goes down the toilet. The only scenes that raise a smirk are the presumably unscripted appearance on Letterman (for which Phoenix and Affleck later apologised) and Sean Combs' deadpan (scripted) interviews with Phoenix as he is forced to listen to the rubbish material he's come up with. As the film draws to a close Phoenix is reduced to starting spurious punch-ups at live performances in order to compound the idiocy of the character he's playing.  One of the few movies I've seriously considered walking out of.
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