Film

Short Ends and Leader's 10 Best Films of 2010

#3 - Let Me In

Here they are... Short Ends and Leader's choices for 2010's Best, the cream rising to the top of an otherwise unexceptional year. Watch for our site-wide best film feature when we return to full publication next week.

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:

#10: The King's Speech (dir. Tom Hooper)
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.

 

#9: Never Let Me Go (dir. Mark Romanek)
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.

 

#8: [REC]2 (dir. Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza)
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! ).

 

#7: The Social Network (dir. David Fincher)
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.

 

#6: Inception (dir. Christopher Nolan)
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.

 

#5: Toy Story 3 (dir. Lee Unkrich)
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.

 

#4: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (dir. Edgar Wright)
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.

 

#3: Let Me In (dir. Matt Reeves)
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.

 

#2: Black Swan (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
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.

 

#1: True Grit (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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