A strange thing happened to me this year: I finally became a committed “writer”. Sure, I’ve run this blog for close to five years and have been writing my entire life, but it was always a hobby and never something I wanted to stake my very existence on. 2010 was the year writing became my unbridled passion, a key to unlocking the mysteries of whatever ails and haunts me. As those who closely follow my blog know, this transition occurred on the pages of other websites rather than here at Match/Cuts, but it had to happen at some point. Expanding one’s gaze is the only way to evolve in this crazy business called film criticism, and taking on more ambitious assignments forced me to contemplate the scope and magnitude of publishing beyond the friendly confines of my personal blogosphere. I must thank the estimable Ed Gonzalez and Keith Uhlich at Slant, the always engaging Sam C. Mac at In Review Online, and the prolific Rumsey Taylor at Not Coming to a Theater Near You for the opportunity and privilege to grace their pages. I’m grateful to call each one of your websites home.
2010 was also a particularly productive year for movies, but only if you looked past Hollywood’s towering pile of DOA’s. On my “Best List”, you’ll see a few familiar titles and a number of fringe choices, even a few films released around the world years ago that finally found distribution stateside this year. Thankfully, this was the first year I got to see pretty much every movie under the sun (attending film festivals, press screenings, etc.) so this list should be more comprehensive than year’s past. Only a few glaring omissions that I narrowly missed, namely Chomet’s The Illusionist, Ferguson’s Inside Job, Liman’s Fair Game, Wells’ The Company Men, Scott’s Robin Hood, Korine’s Trash Humpers, Weir’s The Way Back, and Garcia’s Mother and Child. I’m sure there’s a few more I’m forgetting. But you can’t see everything, unless you’re the unstoppable viewing machine Matt Lynch of Seattle.
For a more polished take on the trends and patterns of the year in film, I’ve contributed the Introduction for InRO’s Staff Wide Poll and capsules on Claire Denis’ eviscerating White Material and Bong Joon-ho’s intoxicating Mother. The below capsules are all fresh material, unless I’ve already covered a specific film previously at length elsewhere. If that’s the case, I’ve provided a link to the necessary review, with a few complimentary words of adoration.The qualifications for inclusion on my list are simple: A movie had to get a theatrical run for at least a week in the USA to be considered, hence the absence of such 2011 masterpieces Uncle Boonmee, Certified Copy, and Heartbeats. The new year looks fantastic already.
Lastly, I see film critics the world over publish their “Best Films List”, but rarely do I see them cite the professionals/writers/editors/new friends that made their year at the movies worthwhile and engaging. I’d like to change that and start a tradition of thanking those faces and voices of film criticism that positively shaped my year at the movies, if only to let each know how important they are to me and my development as a writer. In alphabetical order: Simon Abrams, Rowena Aquino, Henry Baugh, Steve Carlson, Fernando Croce, Jordan Cronk, Adrian Curry, Alex Fung, Ed Gonzalez, David Hudson, Daniel Kasman, Matt Lynch, Chazz Lyons, Sam C. Mac, James van Maanen, Ranylt Richildis, Chris Scotten, Kathie Smith, Rumsey Taylor, and Keith Uhlich. Thanks Ladies and Gents. It’s wouldn’t be the same without you. And of course I couldn’t do any of this without my family, friends, and loved ones.
As always, thanks for reading and feel free to publish your own lists of favorite films or people in the comments threads. Now onto the business at hand…
1. White Material / Claire Denis
Claire Denis’ White Material is a seminal examination of European colonialism in modern Africa, a film that dissects the impending trauma’s and ramifications plaguing all ends of a specific social spectrum. Set in an unnamed country during a relentless rebel uprising, Denis’ film intricately follows white coffee plantation owner Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) as she attempts to salvage her crop and homestead despite the growing violence and unrest. While flocks of whites and blacks flee the burnt-out countryside, Maria holds steadfast, watching the chaos engulf what was once considered her home. But this is not a character study, or even an allegory, but a primal story of a physical place experiencing a violent moment of transition, and all the hidden instinctual layers hiding beneath the surface.
Denis takes what could have been a concise trajectory and deconstructs it with a serpentine narrative path of disjointed flashbacks, breathtaking tangents, and hypnotic set pieces that weave every character into an incomplete national timeline. She connects the melodrama of Vial’s crumbling family unit with the textures of wealth, focusing on the objects of power and the sudden disavowal of their impact on social standing and safety. The film instills a deep sense of menace in every scene, thanks in large part to Yves Cape’s incredibly crisp cinematography and Stuart Staples’ foreboding score that sweeps through the trees like a mighty wind.
By the end of White Material, a storm of immersive sound cues and tracking shots wash away all political posturing and stereotypes, leaving only the remnants of flawed colonial traditions. Poverty, guilt, and ignorance chart this country’s dying soul, a map without clear borders or reference points. Denis’ film is a staggering cinematic achievement, but more importantly, it’s a crucial document on the diverging interpretations and gaps of a revolution that will not be televised.
2. Eccentricities of a Blond-haired Girl / Manoel de Oliveira
Longing, desire, texture, and finally disavowal, all brilliantly packaged in a span of 60+ minutes. Director de Oliveira was my discovery of the year. My review at InRO.
3. Mugabe and the White African / Lucy Baily and Andrew Thompson
Unapologetically biased, probing, angry, and human. This is the most devastating and lasting documentary since Allan King’s Dying At Grace. My review at Slant.
4. Amer / Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani
A dizzying, horrific force of nature thrusting headfirst into three singular moments of transformation for a women under constant attack from the male gaze. First comes the dangerous tangents of childhood and the destruction of innocence with heavy volleys of trauma, shades of color, and pulse-pounding audible bursts. Then comes heightened puberty, a sun drenched palette, and a swooning sensual walk into a coastal town. Dominance and subversion hide around every corner, and reside in every glance and lick of the lips. Finally fractured adulthood, marked by panic, isolation, memory, and desire in a brilliant set piece that condenses the aesthetics of all three segments into one bravura arcade game of sweat, blood, and tears. Throughout Amer, the camera is the stalker, the close-up its glimmering blade waiting to slice, the audience the helpless onlooker gasping for breath. Polanski and Argento certainly come to mind, but this feels like some altogether new, maniacal, and incendiary.
5. Another Year / Mike Leigh
People go about living, while others wallow in the stranglehold of doubt. The seasons change, only reinforcing the patterns of inaction, rationalization, compromise, and happiness framing every interaction. Why do some people find contentment while others so effortlessly fail? Mike Leigh’s moving film finds no easy answers, just the subtle shifts, decisions, and regrets of its characters, leaving it all up to the viewer’s impressions of Ruth Sheen’s masterful poker face mum and Lesley Manville’s transparent mess. The details of life are everything.
6. The Father of My Children / Mia Hansen-Løve
Compassion, evolution, forward momentum, and grace. The trajectory of one family’s languishing happiness abruptly turned into heartbreaking tragedy, and back again. My review at InRO.
7. True Grit / Joel and Ethan Coen
Part Anthony Mann, part Budd Boetticher, the Coen’s “straightforward” western is a vivacious young girl’s half-remembered memory of trauma, longing, and joy. It’s also an ode to the importance of family and lineage in a genre so entirely dependent on it. For me, the best American film of the year. My review at InRO.
8. Lourdes / Jessica Hausner
Miracles, even the smallest and most innocuous ones, are destined to be questioned and maimed in our modern world. The most shocking element of Jessica Hausner’s fascinating film is the collective doubt comes from the most devout pilgrims constantly seeking God’s will. Slow tracking shots glide through interior spaces following wheel-chair bound Christine (Sylvie Testud) experience the highs and lows of religious awakening, becoming a human bill board for all that is hierarchical and limiting about religion. The final dance sequence, where a simple decision to sit back down takes on immeasurable weight, is the best and most damning scene of 2010.
9. The Social Network / David Fincher
The backlash started before the film even came out. I’m sure it will continue. But for me, this Sirkian melodrama about male passive aggression in the modern age is rapturous and enthralling, and another indication Fincher is one of the most important American directors working today. My review at InRO.
10. Secret Sunshine / Lee Chang-dong
Technically this played at Cannes in 2007, but IFC just got around to releasing it in NYC this Dec. I wasn’t prepared for Lee’s sprawling, enigmatic, and crisp look at the fluctuating modes of ideology in one tormented women’s (Do-yeon Jeon) life. Every frame resonates with pressure, be it from social institutions, community gossip, or self-imposed guilt. Who knew sunlight could be so evocative of darkness.
The unnerving Everyone Else, The hopeful The New Year, The sublime Around a Small Mountain, The timely Prodigal Sons, The heart-wrenching Last Train Home, The feverish Shutter Island, The kind Alamar , The feisty Exit Through the Gift Shop, The brutal Valhalla Rising, The slithering Mother