The Five Best Films of Spring 2010

Five films that bucked the traditional January to April cinematic left-overture.

Tradition holds that, for Hollywood, the Spring represents the end of ballyhoo - and the business year. During the four month flatline between January and April, every unmarketable mess, every experimental excuse, every contractually obligated star vehicle, and otherwise underdone effort would get a mandatory release -- a few days of bewildering box office glory before fading into home video obscurity. It was always an aesthetic stop-gap, a means of making talent happy, critics cranky, and audiences wary. Summer would come soon enough, and with it, the far more palatable popcorn fare. Yet for over 16 weeks, we had to tolerate some pretty pathetic offerings. All of that changed a few years ago when Hollywood realized it could change the game plan, just a little, by providing a couple less than mediocre movies. The accompanying turnstile twists proved their approach correct.

Now, Spring is a battle between horrendous and highlights. There are still more stumbles than sonnets, but when you consider the crap that used to pour forth, literally nonstop, a few fine films is all one can ask for. Yet oddly enough, 2010 saw December holdover Avatar continue to cast a giant dollar sign shadow over the season. Thanks to its multi-dimensional facets (and the huge amount of money made from upping the per-screening ante) everyone started jumping on the 3D bandwagon. Sometimes, the results were wonderful (How to Train Your Dragon). Sometimes, they begged the need to use such a splashy if inconsistent effect (Clash of the Titans, anyone). Between the endless stream of sad RomComs and the desire to dress almost any story up with attempted depth perception, Spring 2010 did illustrate the huckster manipulation Tinseltown will be taking for the foreseeable future -- and it doesn't paint a pretty picture.

Before we get too cynical, there were a few fine runner's up that deserve their honorable mention: the freak/geek show finery of The Human Centipede; The Good, the Bad, The Weird, a surreal Korean spaghetti western with a wonderful cast; the uneven if still fun Runaways with Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley stealing the story of the seminal '70s all girl rock band; and the stylish if wholly unscary update to The Wolfman. And who could forget Tim Burton's imaginative take on Alice in Wonderland. In addition, the underserved demographic of Florida finally got to see two outstanding foreign films from 2009 - A Prophet and The Secret of Kells - movies that would have made this list had they not already had their moment of glory last year. So here is what SE&L thought were the best Spring flings of 2010, beginning with:

5. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010

This is destined to be the most controversial choice (amongst a couple) up for Spring Best-of consideration. After all, you can't choose a film that nearly three-quarters of the critical community hated outright and not feel a little heat. Still, for this dyed-in-the-wool fright fan, there was nothing more satisfying than seeing Freddy Krueger stripped of his stand-up comedian colors and turned back into the predatory murderous pedophile he always was. This is the version of the character Wes Craven couldn't expose, the taboo-busting horror that haunts his intended victims in ways an '80s audience could only imagine. The results are horrific in both a supernatural and social subtext, and the performance by Jackie Earle Haley proves that, in the right hands, Freddy can be one intense monster.

4. Hot Tub Time Machine

There is a fine line between smart/stupid and stupid/stupid and this throwback, tongue in butt cheek comedy crosses it time and time again. It's not just the easy camaraderie among the cast or the Greed decade as one big ball of mixed nostalgia conceit. No, what makes this film fly is an 'anything for a laugh' idea mixed with a recognizable, retro storyline. It's the kind of solid spoof that the ZAZ gang made before politics pulled them apart. Sure, Chevy Chases' unnecessary cameo was a cause for concern, and just when it looked like the movie would pay off in perversion, the script simply pulled back. Still, as an example of our post-Hangover desire for more hilarious non-erotic male bonding, this silly ski weekend was a blast.

3. The Book of Eli

Serious science fiction gets a bad wrap for substituting ideas for action. In this case, the Hughes Brothers overloaded their future shock allegory with both. Bringing Denzel Washington to the table as lead really helped solidify the significance factor. Adding Gary Oldman as a Wild West type villain also aided the ambience. But the directors didn't forget those fond of stunts and spectacle. Between Washington's kung-fu killing style and a desolate landscape that was part Mad Max, part The Day After, there was more than enough fisticuffs and dystopian drama. Was the "surprise" ending a bit of a letdown? Not if you have any familiarity with the genre or how the obvious can be tweaked toward the satisfying. While not a classic, it was one of the Spring's most thoughtful, and thought-provoking, experiences.

2. Shutter Island

For anyone who wondered if Martin Scorsese had lost his flair for old fashioned filmmaking, this evocative noir-esque thriller was proof of his continuing gifts. Sure, the performances were electrifying and the narrative a twisted knot of red herrings and last act surprises, but the real star here was the American auteur. He took his love for all things Hitchcock, married them to a post-modern idea of dread, and turned it all into a sinister stew pot of visual finesse and narrative terror. Even in today's contemptuous, couldn't care less world, Scorcese got audiences curious, and questioning, wondering if what they saw was reality or the unhinged images of a deranged mind. By the end, it was impossible to tell, which is why this movie remains one of the year's most compelling.

1. Kick-Ass

It should have been more popular. Instead of arguing over the controversial nature of a clearly fictional tween assassin, cults and online shrines should be speaking out about their love for Hit-Girl's heroism. As an attempt to both mimic and mock the superhero ethic, as a warm love letter to the genre and another noted installment in same, this more than meta geek out should have been the Spring's break out hit. Instead, its invention and excitement were moderated by a proto-PC desire to turn every aspect of the movie into a full blown debate. Three decades ago, kids could ninja their way through a lame family film experience and no one really cared. Add in a serious subtext and some curse words, and suddenly it's time to readjust one's moral compass. Too bad they missed the fantastic forest for the talking point trees.

'Psycho': The Mother of All Horrors

Psycho stands out not only for being one of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest films, it is also one of his most influential. It has been a template and source material for an almost endless succession of later horror films, making it appropriate to identify it as the mother of all horror films.

Francesc Quilis

The City Beneath: A Century of Los Angeles Graffiti (By the Book)

With discussions of characters like Leon Ray Livingston (a.k.a. "A-No. 1"), credited with consolidating the entire system of hobo communication in the 1910s, and Kathy Zuckerman, better known as the surf icon "Gidget", Susan A. Phillips' lavishly illustrated The City Beneath: A Century of Los Angeles Graffiti, excerpted here from Yale University Press, tells stories of small moments that collectively build into broad statements about power, memory, landscape, and history itself.

Susan A. Phillips

The 10 Best Indie Pop Albums of 2009

Indie pop in 2009 was about all young energy and autumnal melancholy, about the rush you feel when you first hear an exciting new band, and the bittersweet feeling you get when your favorite band calls it quits.

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