A few months back, Web Nation was mocking an article by Joe Queenan in which he asserted, right around annual midpoint, that 2010 was destined to be the worst year in film ever. Before the onslaught of awards season fodder, before the full faith and credit of the cinematic circumstance could be fully gauged, he had already given up, declaring all a bust. One wonders what his opinion would be now that Tinseltown has ramped up its End Times talent scouting and publicity machine. A lot of powerful titles arrived in the last two months of 2010, works that reasserted the aesthetic quality of the artform overall - and yet, it’s hard to argue that anything here would stand the test of time, let alone a 2011/2009 comparison.
In defense of Mr. Queenan’s position, once you get past the Top 20, say, there’s not much to celebrate. Bubbling under the surface of this list were worthy entries such as Rabbit Hole, Winter’s Bone, Exit Through the Gift Shop, and Four Lions. There was also a smattering of interesting if not wholly classic possibilities like Shutter Island, Biutiful, The Town, and 127 Hours. After that, what’s left? Not much, or better yet, not much worth mentioning. There are some smitten with the dour divorce crash-coursing of Blue Valentine or the faux homosexual insights of The Kids Are All Right. Others will tout wholly questionable quirk like Cyrus or obtuse foreign documentaries about subjects important to those affected, if any. As the mainstream continues to buckle under product pressure performance, we get more and more of the mediocre and less and less artistic flights of fancy.
In that regard, here is what Short Ends and Leader came up with as 2010’s best. Argue the choices all you want, but within the context of over 300 viewings (film and DVD), these are the ones that stand out, starting with a showcase for sensational acting known as:
As entertaining as it is, as well made and proportioned as it is, The King’s Speech can’t help but suffer from some of the same source issues as many it its period piece pathway. Unlike The Queen, which carried a kind of deconstructionist post-modern demeanor to its narrative, we get the same old structures here, moviemaking mannerisms that launched a dozen Merchant Ivory epics. We can feel the implied weight of what’s going on here, how the characters’ struggles could actually lead to the end of the British empire as we know it. Even during an ironic moment when a newsreel of Hitler catches the royal eye, there is still a stateliness that the rest of The King’s Speech is eager to overcome. When it does, it’s magnificent. When it doesn’t, we still enjoy the voyeuristic nature of the premise.
Like stanzas in a gorgeous ballad, each lyrical line bringing the sentimental core of the musical theme into focus, Never Let Me Go is memorable and mesmerizing. Director Mark Romanek deserves more than praise for purposefully avoiding the splashy sturm and drang of the genre, never once taking the material into Island/Children of Men territory. Instead, everything outside of Hailsham (and later, the “Cottages” where the graduates await their eventual assignments) is treated as a mystery, a gigantic machine that manufactures the same wholesome product for an ethnically questionable purpose. Never Let Me Go never addresses the “right or wrong” of cloning, of creating people only to harvest them like crops when the time comes. Instead, Romanek goes for a much more complicated apprehension - what makes us human - inside the ever-present ‘playing God’ concerns.
Remember the last time you were really scared by a horror movie, when the premise, performances, and payoffs got under your skin in a way that disturbed your waking moments and totally destroyed your ability to sleep? No multiply that dread times two and you’ve got some idea of how absolutely perfect this sequel is. Picking up directly where the first film ended and playing like a combination of Aliens and The Exorcist, we have a flawless combination of narrative expansion and invention both working to make our trip through this infected apartment house even more unnerving. And the best thing about it all? The ending suggests an easy route to a third installment (which is already being planned - YEAH! ).
Based loosely on Ben Mezrich’s 2009 nonfiction novel The Accidental Billionaires and expertly assembled by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher, The Social Network is sensational. It also doesn’t pretend to be pure truth. This isn’t a docu-drama. Instead, what the duo has done, with the help of some spectacular performances and a narrative rife with inherent intrigue, is cast a light on the post-dot.com bubble, illustrating the drive and determination of those who would still try and milk the www-medium for all its available interactive potential. Sure, money was also a consideration, as was one’s wavering love life, but the biggest element in Mark Zuckerberg’s push toward popularity was the novelty and invention of where the technology was taking him.
It was the water cooler conversation starter of Summer 2010, and with good reason. It frustrated some, entranced others, and set off a series of debates about meaning, interpretation, storytelling, and the intelligence starved state of Hollywood. At the center stands Christopher Nolan, the man who turned Batman into a post-modern part of the crime drama. Working within a 3D chess game of ideas and possibilities, he draws career defining performances out of his cast while constantly challenging the audience to fall right along into his reality twisting rabbit hole. He then maneuvers and manipulates the various pieces, pulling significance and implication out of the emptiness of our own entertainment expectations. His success shine a light on how otherwise uninvolving the typical Tinseltown title really is.
Sequels rarely succeed. With that in mind, tre-quels are even more tentative. Few, if any, have found a way to keep up with their originals, let alone surpass them in endearing entertainment. So leave it to the still perfect Pixar to once again deliver a sunny Summer surprise among all the dismal faux Disney dreck. Few thought the animation experts could surpass the sentiment of Toy Story 2, but by focusing on how our attachment to childhood changes as we age, these geniuses created a masterpiece. For the single scene in the incinerator, by far the best movie moment of the season, they should be earning enough Year-End accolades to fill their already overrun awards cabinet.
It’s such a shame that mainstream moviegoers couldn’t embrace this visionary take on the RomCom. Perhaps its stylistic cousin - Marc Webb’s wonderful (500) Days of Summer - was more than enough reinvention for the masses. Whatever the case, Edgar Wright’s reputation as a director of infinite skill was confirmed (and then some) by this take on the popular graphic novel, a wistful indie look at love and interpersonal baggage in the form of variations on video game aesthetic. Few films have tapped into a particular zeitgeist as readily or reverently, with the imaginative use of all a medium has to offer. Perhaps it will see a second life on home video. It definitely deserves it.
While it definitely suffered from the geek buzz bullying of a web wired to hate any Americanized remake of the Swedish vampire classic Let the Right One In, Cloverfield director and FOA’s - friend of Abrams - Mark Reeves’ approach here was more Spielberg than spook show. Indeed, with its excellent cast and somber, settled tone, one couldn’t have asked for a better adaptation. But in a world inundated with ridiculous romanticized bloodsuckers, where vampires have been relegated to objects of affection, not fear, the aggressive mood of Reeves’ narrative might have caused concern. Even worse, Let Me In is a painful reminder of growing up alone and friendless, of that brief moment before peer pressure asserts itself when we feel like nothing really matters except our own personal isolation - and perhaps no one likes to be reminded of such stressful times. Not in their proposed entertainment.
The beauty of Black Swan doesn’t come solely from its subject or how director Darren Aronofsky puts it onscreen. Certainly, the grace of ballet and the skill set carried by its practitioners offers its own particular troubling beauty, and many of the social stigmas associated with such artisans - body issues, eating disorders - are hinted at here. But this is not a meandering movie-of-the-week, an attempt to show how the struggle for balance brings one girl to the brink of madness..if not over. No, what Black Swan accomplishes is staggering in its subtlety. It takes a typical scenario - a performer finally getting the chance they’ve always dreamed of - and then turns said career fantasy into a disturbing, deconstructive nightmare.
With a solid sense of humor and an eloquent way with words, True Grit is a joy on many levels. it’s adventurous and fun, yet isn’t afraid to deal in the deadliest aspects of its travails. The Coens continue to press the boundaries of art in entertainment, carving out a unique niche in cinema that, as of now, is yet to be matched. These men are marvels, looking at each new project as a chance to hone and expand their ample skill set. While no one would deny their ability to handle something like True Grit, what the Coens ultimately do with it is a revelation. Not only do they rip it from the well-earned celebrity attached to its formidable former star, they make us forget John Wayne all together. And when you consider the size of said legend, that’s quite an accomplishment.
// Notes from the Road
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