Monday, December 20, 2010

Top Ten 2010

Films I loved, 2010.

1. Everyone Else (dir. Maren Ade)

We’re given so many shitty movies about couplehood every year that we can easily forget what we’re missing, and what we’re missing is sublime, soul-shaking treasures like Everyone Else. The twin poles of comedy and drama strangle couple films (a term I deliberately choose over “romance”). The former’s become too mean, and as a result, hopelessly disingenuous, while the latter never rings true because it gives the ending away. The ending: Everyone Else cuts to black on a near-silent image so piercingly beautiful I won’t describe it, a perfect cut-to-black, viscerally unexpected, but it couldn’t hope to end any other way.

Before that, Maren Ade explores every possible way a camera can explain two people: meeting them together, drawing them apart before accidentally running them back into each other, breaking them against another couple, watching one finally let loose and dance while the other shrieks with embarrassment, watching one ramble passionately but hurtfully while the other goes cold inside. I haven’t seen a couple-film this tuned in to the momentousness of shared time since Linklater’s epochal Before Sunset, which is absolutely not a comparison I make lightly. “Nothing happens?” The yearning tragedy at the core of Everyone Else is that nothing can happen, and yet it can still all go to tearful hell: such is the dance of two people.

Two people: Birgit Minichmayr as the whirling, seizing, momentary Gitti, and Lars Eidenger as the turning, sketching, concluding Chris, performances unthinkable without the other even as they necessarily cut each other apart. Authorship is inevitably blurred. Is Ade pulling and pushing as she must to find the proper rhythm? Or would this hurtful symbiosis simply not play itself out any other way, appropriately finding the heart of its dancing language in two cheesy songs?

You know how a song can unearth an element of tension in a couple simply by being about romantic tension, even if that idea in fact has no bearing in the couple’s reality? But, of course, the tension bears out that idea, proves it was there all along, even if it seemed silly and surmountable. There, in that space between what shouldn’t happen and what’s about to happen, is Everyone Else. Go there, and this will make you tremble; but unlike almost every other great movie about couples, I can only suggest that you watch this alone.

2. Mother (dir. Bong Joon-ho)

When Korean cinema is still most readily associated on these shores with shrieking provocateurs like Park Chan-wook and Kim Ji-woon, it’s heartening to see Bong Joon-ho’s feverishly brilliant The Host sitting atop the all-time South Korean box office record. For all that it ably hit the obligatory monster-movie genre beats, The Host dazzles first and foremost with its Spielbergian shifts in mood. A collective funeral tips gradually into cacophonous farce; a superficial satire of American hegemony becomes a cutting critique of Korean acquiescence; a family’s desperate wish to find its lost child is given visual life before being (almost too) brutally torn away.

This same delicate mastery of craft bubbles over even more beautifully in his latest picture. Mother finds Bong working in the same territory as his overlooked Memories of Murder, using crime genre mechanics to starkly outline petty injustice in small towns. While that previous film, however, was appropriately somber and developed into an unabashed epic, Mother is dizzying and overripe, overflowing with saturated color and flashbacks-within-flashbacks and some hypnotizing, off-kilter dance routines. Bong’s corresponding shifts in tone, from screwball comedy to grim police procedural to painfully desperate family drama, are again jarring, and again the director never strains to tie his strands together. He sifts these sands not to shell-game us into seeing auterist profundity where there is none, but to allow the resigned melancholy at the core of all of his films room to reach the surface organically.

It’s a precarious art, and Mother would be unthinkable without Kim Hye-ja at the center. As the titular Mother, she gives the performance of the year: hunched and quivering, but only to slyly deflect blame at the human obstacles between her and her troubled son, whom she defends with equal parts righteous anger and slightly icky protectiveness. As the movie cheerfully loses itself down cannibalistic plot-rabbit-holes, it becomes less a mystery than a half-loving, half-fearful character study. Indeed, when she finally explodes, it’s the most terrifying thing I’ve seen on screen all year. Yet when she grimly celebrates her meaningless victory at film’s end, it’s oddly moving, a blow for tiny old women in cinema, and the latest in a string of triumphs for the greatest Korean director working.

3. White Material (dir. Claire Denis)

Many among the Claire Denis faithful were spooked upon hearing that her latest sensuous gift to cinephilia was her most explicitly postcolonial work since her autobiographical debut Chocolat. Me, I was just worried about a Denis film sans cinematographer Agnès Godard, whose feral lens always took the director’s (purposefully) vague conceptual headings as starting points, transforming films as superficially divergent as the vampiric horrorshow Trouble Every Day and the Joycean epic L’Intrus into equally enigmatic studies of bodies in motion.

But I’m digressing: fanbase prejudices aside, White Material spins and jumps beautifully before Yves Cape’s camera, and is certainly not diminished by its political trappings. Denis has a masterful knack for addressing issues such as global diaspora (L’Intrus) and decaying imperialism (Beau travail) through the physical actions of her unknowable protagonists, making her arguably the subtlest political filmmaker of her generation. Her lush ellipticism is in full force in White Material, appropriately enough for a film about a profitable family’s refusal to recognize its order collapsing all around. If she’s more honed in than in previous works, perhaps it’s because that order was so hermetic and its destruction so enveloping.

That “order” being French colonialism in Africa; crucially, Denis never specifies the country in question. Indeed, she never fully elucidates the cause of the civil strife that slowly overtakes the Vial family’s coffee plantation. All we’re left with is her usual peerless examination of identities in flux. Isabelle Huppert’s Maria (a perfectly restrained performance) might’ve paid more attention to her son’s bizarre and heartbreaking attempts to assimilate last-minute with the African locals if she weren’t so stubbornly focused on preserving her everyday routines. Routines, of course, exist to be broken in Denis films, and the director only gradually lets on that there’s more at stake in White Material than, say, a woman’s last one-night stand before moving in with her boyfriend (Friday Night). It’s that tipping point, and finding ever more revelatory ways of conveying it, that fascinates Denis most. When Maria’s breaking point comes, it steps into the movie from the side (like a velociraptor), overwhelmingly unexpected, breathtaking in its naturalism, and casual in its ability to completely alter the film. There’s really no point in worrying; nothing can stop Claire Denis, or even slow her down.

4. Another Year (dir. Mike Leigh)

Like Richard Linklater, his closest American analogue, Mike Leigh continues to make widely beloved movies even as his name itself gradually fades from public discourse. It would be too easy to argue that Leigh’s generous humanism naturally diminishes him as an overt auteur, and it would also be wrong: his politically strident, distinctly British oeuvre speaks to a singular and vital sensibility. Leigh allows his actors to teeter on the brink of disintegration, and while they wobble, he hints at entire lives with his unblinking framing and graceful pans, cutting across years (or, in this case, seasons) with a whispery touch.

Another Year is among his least conceptually ambitious films, but perhaps his most strikingly arranged, continually seeking fresh perspectives on that most universal of topics: aging. Like any worthwhile study of the years between middle age and inescapable dotage, Another Year positions itself somewhere between gloomy fatalism and crack-of-dawn optimism. Death is getting closer, but it’s not the only thing worth talking about. Leigh’s greatest trick is anchoring this examination outside his ostensible protagonists, a content couple (Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent, gradual and graceful and wonderful) whose occasional flare-ups never produce the expected treacly dissolution. Why should they?

Instead, Leigh leans in closer and closer to Lesley Manville’s Mary, whose smiley-faced disintegration registers sad and true as she, in turn, leans on the central couple for salvation from age. Still, neither Leigh nor his other characters ever condescend to her, as she isn’t yearning for companionship or even youth, really, as much as independence. Her blow-ups and crawls-back, her desperate flirtations and cutting dismissals would all have been used as so much cruel ammunition by a lazier filmmaker. Instead of framing her struggle as a fatalist end in itself, pointed inexorably towards death, Leigh witnesses it as a new beginning for a woman in transition: a truly subversive perspective on old age in film. All this wouldn’t be as exceptional without Another Year’s structural conceit: we watch these characters waltz through all four seasons in the turn of, yes, just another year, understanding these events as vital and often terrible, but as natural and acceptable as sun and rain and snow. Thus does Leigh continue to assert his voice while letting his painfully lovely fuckups find theirs.

5. Bluebeard (dir. Catherine Breillat)

It’s a confused-perspective, unabashedly staged recasting of one of the most infamous of fairy tales, delivered by France’s most daring feminist filmmaker. So, critic’s delight, unquestionably! But what a delight: the most intricate and absorbing cine-essay of the year.

You know the story, and if you think it about for the first time in years, you’ll realize how ripe it’s always been for feminist subversion: a wife done in not only by her curiosity but by her desire to understand her new husband, and a husband who cloaks wife-butchery in the sanctity of patriarchal ritual. It’s that sense of suffocating tradition that Breillat simultaneously preserves and undercuts, locking her young women into a desperate maze: driven from the nunnery to forced marriage by their father’s death and penned up in a cartoonishly narrow, empty castle. Breillat, however, is never content to pity Lola Creton’s Marie-Catherine, who pragmatically accepts her dire straits and insists on making of them what she can. In the film’s most powerful addition to the sparse original text, she demands of Bluebeard her own private room that he may not enter, so that she can live out from under his enormous shadow. He agrees; as portrayed by Dominique Thomas, Bluebeard is an astonishingly gentle giant. It’s believable that this Bluebeard wouldn’t want to kill, which underscores the absurdity of the narrative rites that “demand” he does so.

Yet this Bluebeard is a story-within-a-story, being read aloud by two modern-day sisters, who use the tale as a springboard for their own nascent musings about marriage and sexuality. Here, Breillat’s update is wry and telling, but ambiguous. She understands acutely how easily repressive traditions are handed down, but acknowledges the blurry filters inherent to cultural fiction. Bluebeard is nothing so simple as a polemical condemnation. Instead it earns that most abused of cinematic qualifiers: it’s a worthy meditation.

Given its superficially fussy period trappings, Bluebeard already threatens to recede as a minor Breillat project in comparison with her longer and more visually bold works. This is as it should be: Bluebeard is a one-off, an 80-minute tap on the shoulder, a reminder of the remarkable wells of thought yet to be plumbed in our mustiest of classics.

6. Alamar (dir. Pedro González-Rubio)

Credit to the brilliant folks at Reverse Shot for pointing me in this direction. Given its tactile, luminous photography of Mexico’s sun-scorched Banco Chinchorro reef, one could imagine Alamar functioning wonderfully as a region documentary (or an episode of Planet Earth). But Alamar is a narrative film, albeit one that follows real lives amidst the coral. Its lasting brilliance comes from director González-Rubio’s graceful triangulation among the gorgeous reef, an enraptured audience, and a fisherman and his son, who live for their surroundings but are never reducible to audience surrogates.

While González-Rubio’s focus remains squarely on the Banco Chinchorro and the life teeming around it, he’s a wise enough filmmaker to remove himself, rather than his human subjects, from the thematic equation. Alamar envelops Jorge Machado and his radiant son Natan into the cycles of the reef, not as exoticized objects, but as devotees to a life of beauty. The film hints at Natan’s parents’ divorce not as a divergent, shoehorned-in subplot, but as a revelation on Natan’s role in the film: he’s a gift, a reminder to his parents of their once-love, just as the reef stands as an implicit locus of environmental protection. Certainly, Alamar indulges in some expected narrative twists, most notably Natan finding a baby egret he must inevitably return to the wild. Thankfully, both González-Rubio and his (non)actors treat the episode quietly, in passing, not so much as a rite of passage (Natan starts young and stays young) as a simple fact of life for humans literally diving into nature.

In one of my most recent drunken ramblings, I concluded that there are only two nouns with which one can accurately describe a great film’s relationship to its audience. One is “pilgrimage,” and the other is “gift.” Alamar begins as the former, and reveals itself as an undeniable exemplar of the latter. This movie glows with generosity at every level, from character to environment and back, from camera to subjects and objects, from filmmaker to life, from screen to audience. The last missing link is from the audience back, and believe you me, you’ll be ecstatic to give it.

7. Wild Grass (dir. Alain Resnais)

So, to get this out of the way: Nearly fifty years after Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais is still making movies, they’re still better than anything you’ve ever done, and the state is still paying for them. Suck on it.

Indeed, Wild Grass pulses with the bratty joy of an intermittently brilliant artist that ought to be well past his prime. Godard’s still throwing himself against the Nouvelle Vague’s prison walls, and his latest (yep, it’s called Socialisme) is blank-facedly didactic enough to derail his late-career revival. Resnais, to continue the metaphor, is better suited to tricking the guards out of their keys. And then replacing their guns with rubber duckies. I’m getting off track, which is probably his point.

Wild Grass dances through as many delirious monologues and cacophonous sound bridges and saturated slo-mos and visualized thought bubbles as possible, and each sets up and justifies the next. Although the film begins in the well-worn territory of a chance meeting, Resnais never defines the (increasingly perverse) relationship between the (increasingly perverse) central characters. Instead, he's interested in the sensorial ripples such a random occurrence can have on those affected, so that much of the film takes place nestled inside giddy expectation and wild fantasy. Wild Grass is unapologetically histrionic, stretching each scene well beyond the breaking point, but (crucially) never allowing its bubbling actors to break character or indulge in cheap irony. Is it a farce? Never. It’s a gift. The film subverts cliché for the sheer anarchic kick of it: Sabine Azéma’s strikingly masculine beauty overwhelms any of the traditionally seductive faces on screen, familial subplots begin as screwball distraction and then stay right there, and instead of knitting every dangling thread into place, that goddamn beautiful ending trips off like a terrarium take on 2001’s Journey Beyond the Infinite, closing on a girl curious about cat food.

I’m not doing a particularly coherent job of describing this movie, which wouldn’t worry me except that Wild Grass may sound snarky or masturbatory in the retelling, and it’s so, so not. It’s joyous and messy and vibrant, straining off the screen even as it gets more surreal. It does things with the color purple I’d never imagined possible. Watch it, watch it, watch it.

8/9. Eccentricities of a Blond Haired Girl & The Strange Case of Angelica (both dir. Manoel de Oliveira)

Speaking of the old guard, Manoel de Oliveira’s Wikipedia page takes as its second sentence: “He is currently the oldest active film director in the world.” Unlike Resnais, who seems bent on scattering his talent in as many directions as possible before death comes for him, Oliveira has only grown more in control of his aesthetic in recent years. His two latest features, however, when taken together, demonstrate how generous and inquisitive that aesthetic remains.

He’s sharp enough to cap Eccentricities at 64 minutes, allowing the gently surrealist romance to drift in and out like a crucial but passing episode. (I’m reminded of Eno’s “Another Green World,” a 102-second gem that places its emphasis firmly on fade-in and fade-out.) Angelica, by comparison, is left enough room to loop all the way back on itself, tying both the technical and divine threads of cinema together by bringing a dead woman to life before a photographer’s lens. Along the way, Angelica opens up further and further to the ineffable and unknowable, siding unashamedly with the madmen in pursuit of the universe, even as it continually reminds us of the weight of its post-WWII setting (Ricardo Trêpa’s protagonist Isaac is never allowed to forget his status as a Sephardic Jew). Eccentricities is less explicitly fantastic, but is equally elevated above the banal, filtering romance through windows and preserving an air of misty anonymity that threatens to send the film headlong into the ether. Both are thematically weighty, genre-bending works, but are both essentially humble, exploring the medium through slow pans and silent revelations, letting conversation dictate pace.

2010 was a film year like any other, complete with overstuffed librettos from occasionally-too-ambitious European filmmakers. Olivier Assayas’ Carlos and Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love were simply too big too digest their pleasures comfortably (and, less charitably, too big to not include some gaping flaws). I’d never term Oliveira a minimalist filmmaker, so devoted is he to the little magical-realist riffs that characterize non-political Portuguese film. Yet by burrowing instead of painstakingly building, he creates films that glow in corners and angles, born to age as well as their 102-year-old maker. This cinema is life, and Manoel de Oliveira knows he’s still alive.

10. The Social Network (dir. David Fincher)

It would’ve been enough for The Social Network to have been acceptable, to not have been yet another example of old money failing utterly to come to terms with new money and wasting everyone’s money in the process. The movie passed that test, and more. But you know that already. So what’s left to say?

Yes, it’s very, very funny, but more importantly, it’s impossibly fleet. What separates worthwhile (or, occasionally, wonderful) Hollywood product from awards-bait bilge isn’t writing or acting; it’s editing. Banal shot-reverse-shot setups and plodding, linear cutting killed the studio drama. The Social Network succeeds—brilliantly—by staying constantly on the move, kinetically shifting between Facebook’s origin story and the agonizing fallout for its various creators. David Fincher follows up his decades-decaying masterpiece Zodiac by again destabilizing time, reflecting not only the phenomenal speed of Facebook’s genesis, but the earthshaking impact Mark Zuckerberg (et al) had on the social fabric of millions of lives. He was, indeed, an asshole, but he made a world. A world of assholes? Maybe, but…

But, again, you know what The Social Network is, and there are plenty of films that are those things that aren’t nearly as good. What makes The Social Network so (dare I say) important is what it isn’t. What it isn’t is an answer, and everyone involved deserves an Oscar just for that. Facebook and its creators don’t represent a question, they represent a phenomenon, one that the filmmakers are careful to present neither as a changer of Everything nor as just another progression of the zeitgeist. It’s something in between the wholly new and the Homeric-level old, a mixture of private and public and brilliant and scary and banal and awesome and, as the film emphasizes, more than a little sad. To paraphrase Isle of Flowers, it’s something that no one, including Zuckerberg himself, could fully explain, but also something that no one could fail to understand. If The Social Network carries a lesson, it’s not for Facebook, but for film: this is how to fill theaters while talking intelligently about the world. The only essential American movie of the year.

Best Director: Claire Denis for White Material

Best Cinematographer: Eric Gautiér for Wild Grass

Best Editor: Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall (what names!) for The Social Network

Best Writer: Maren Ade for Everyone Else

Best Actor: Kim Hye-ja for Mother

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