January 15, 2011

The Mindful Critic’s 10 Best Films of 2010.

OK, folks, here they are:  my own personal picks for the top ten films of 2010…

Enjoy!  And, please, let us know in the comments what your favorites/picks for the best last year are.


10. The Ghost Writer by Roman Polanski

Though Roman Polanski was sweating imprisonment for statutory rape in the 1970s last year, it turns out that we’ll have him to kick around for a while to come.  Whether justice has been served remains an open question, but the release of The Ghost Writer in the midst of the controversy served as a reminder of what the film world would have missed with Polanski behind bars:  typical of his work, this adaptation of Robert Harris’s political thriller is classy, stylish, impeccably directed, generous to its wonderful actors (including Ewan MacGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Tom Wilkinson, Eli Wallach, Timothy Hutton, James Belushi, Kim Cattrall, and the astounding Olivia Williams), and extremely relevant.  In the hands of another director, The Ghost Writer might have barely registered a “meh.”  What we get here, though, sticks, and is undoubtedly the work of a master filmmaker.


9. Everyone Else by Maren Ade

Maren Ade’s Everyone Else has that verisimilitude that is so trendy these days in both big-budget films (like the Bourne franchise) and arthouse selections (like critics’ darling The Black Swan), but it also has something most other films end up straining for but rarely achieving:  it actually feels real, as though it’s reflecting something that is true.  Birgit Minichmayr and Lars Eidinger star as two young lovers in what Scott Tobias has accurately dubbed “the quintessential breakup movie”—a wrenching, unsentimental, honest, and direct study of what goes into the decline of a relationship.  It’s not often that a film resonates like this or feels like it hasn’t cheated or deceived the audience in any way.  Mike D’Angelo has used the word “compassionate” to describe Ade’s directorial perspective, and, yes, that’s the perfect word for it.


8. Shutter Island by Martin Scorsese

Based on Dennis Lehane’s gothic horror/mystery, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island reunites the U.S.’s filmmaker laureate with his twenty-first century muse Leonardo DiCaprio for a fascinating film about good, evil, sanity, insanity, self, other, and the role the human mind plays in discerning these things.  The creepiness in tone, psychological elements, and operatic emotions give Scorsese wonderfully ample opportunity to revel in and explore noir-chiller stylistics, and his extraordinary supporting players uniformly shine like diamonds throughout—including Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, John Carroll Lynch, Ted Levine, Jackie Earle Haley, Emily Mortimer, and a very scary Elias Koteas.  What can I say?  Martin Scorsese made a film this year — are you surprised it’s on this list? Viva Marty!



7. True Grit by Joel and Ethan Coen

In the best performance of the year, Jeff Bridges breathes new, more faithful life into the character of Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn for Joel and Ethan Coen’s magnificent new adaptation of Charles Portis’s beloved novel.  The stunningly natural newcomer Hailee Steinfeld and Matt Damon (in hilarious, excellent form) match him wonderfully, and the Coens give us a striking new take on the western by telling the story solely through the eyes of a pious fourteen-year-old girl.  As many have previously noted, True Grit is also one of the directors’ least cynical and most spiritually minded works. It’s a film that asks us to human beings in all their fullness and complexity; an important entry in the Coen canon that reminds us, just as the Book of Proverbs does, “only fools refuse to be taught” (1:7).


6. Mother by Bong Joon-ho

In the wake of the terrible shooting attack in Tucson, the question raised by Bong Joon-ho’s Mother seem more pertinent than ever:  what responsibility do those in the immediate orbit of a mentally unstable killer, especially those who have raised and loved them, have for their heinous acts?  In a performance that should be earning every “Best Actress” accolade around, leading lady Kim Hye-ja plays the mother of a unbalanced young man accused of murder, who goes in search of the truth.  She’s a brilliant cipher for all of us as we struggle to make sense of terrible things, and come to grips with our own culpability, however small or great it may be.  This one is not to be missed.



5. Exit Through the Gift Shop by Banksy

If the celebrated street artist Banksy’s study of de facto colleague Thierry Guetta is the hoax that many suspect it is, then it’s the one of the most successful, splendidly executed in history.  (It ends with the subject becoming the toast of the LA art world almost overnight and doing album cover work for Madonna.  No, really.)  If it’s not, Banksy announces himself as one of our most interesting working documentarians, one with an impressive sense of cinema.  Either way you slice it, this is really something.  After Guetta’s almost comprehensive attempts to document street artists like the director and Shepard Fairey results in a truly terrible avant garde video, Bansky takes over and turns the tables on Guetta.  By doing this, we get a fascinating look at new media, activism, the “me” generation, art and artists, and fame.  David Fincher’s solid but overrated The Social Network has been getting a lot of credit for capturing the zeitgeist of the culture in the early twenty-first century, but I think it’s Banksy who’s nailed it.  After making his mark on television guest-directing The Simpsons’s all-time best and most controversial opening credit sequence, he rounds-out 2010 by leaving a similarly indelible impression on film.


4. The American by Anton Corbijn

Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman focuses on three old archetypes:  the assassin, the saint, and the hooker with the heart of gold.  In the hands of the director and his three wonderful actors—George Clooney (in a career-best performance), Paolo Bonacelli (who beautifully plays aged-with-regrets), and Violante Placido (whose incredible beauty is well-matched by her unassuming, sweet, and extremely effective performance)—we really feel like we’re seeing these old classics for the first time.  A minimalist thriller, told in a thoroughly visual way (Corbijn uses his background as a photographer to exceptional affect) with richly physical performances (wordless sex and violence here communicate worlds, as do Clooney’s slight facial modulations and hunched shoulders throughout), The American’s title also tells us something about the subtext here:  suspicious, destructive, loaded down with some heavy karma, and thirsty for redemption, the title character (played by America’s favorite movie star at the moment) is a pretty interesting metaphor for his country in 2010.


3. Greenberg by Noah Baumbach

There are few filmmakers who choose to make things as hard for themselves as filmmakers or their audience right up front as Noah Baumbach.  Ever since his 2005 masterpiece The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach has specialized in emotionally resonant films about really awful people—or, at least, people with really awful habits—who can be next to impossible to root for.  If 2007’s Margot at the Wedding pushed this a wee bit too far, Greenberg gets it just right.  It helps that this hugely talented writer-director—the one young filmmaker who most deserves to mentioned in the same breath as Woody Allen—has two of the very best performances of the year front-and-center:  a never-better Ben Stiller as the titular, formerly institutionalized isolate and the brilliant Greta Gerwing as a nanny who is similarly lost, but more open-hearted.  Co-written with his now-ex-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach’s Greenberg is another uncomfortably real study of malcontents, missed connections, and that all-too-human desire to find at least one other person who “gets” you.



2. Inception by Christopher Nolan

It’s difficult to imagine a harder act for a big-time writer-director to follow than The Dark Knight.  Most filmmakers would have thought to start again with something small.  Not Christopher Nolan, whose specialty seems to be setting the bar impossibly high…only to clear it and then some.  He returned this year with Inception, the movie event of 2010—a film perfectly described by Nathan Rabin as “insanely ambitious and ambitiously insane.”  Using the rich visual vocabulary of genre filmmaking (specifically action-adventures and crime thrillers, but others as well) to think about our interior lives, Nolan creates a sprawling, richly complex, uniquely cinematic meditation on dreams, desire, emotion, and memory.  By working in the specific language of popular flicks this way, the auteur also manages to say a lot about the cathartic experiences of film-making and film-going, and the “shared dreaming” that movies provide us all; indeed, as many other critics have noted, on a meta-level alone, this is dynamite stuff.  But it’s certainly more than that: buoyed by tremendously good and deeply felt central performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard, Inception not only entertains like crazy, but gets inside your head and heart.  Here’s hoping Nolan’s career-long hot-streak continues with 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises—Hollywood desperately needs all the vision and majesty he can muster.


1. Sweetgrass by Illisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor

So it turns out cultural anthropologists need to make feature films more often.  Well, at least these cultural anthropologists do: Illisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor‘s Sweetgrass is, to my mind, far and away the best film of 2010.  It’s definitely one the richest as a work of cinema: the film is all at once a documentary, a western, a very droll comedy of sorts, a contemplative study, and—as the production notes define it—an elegy above all else.  Sweetgrass follows Montana cowboys as they lead their flock of sheep into Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountains for summer pasture, and its beautiful, beautiful images along the way offer so much to ponder about chaos and harmony in the natural world.  Not a frame of the film isn’t stunning to behold, and in a year of relentlessly talky movies, the splendor and emotional impact of the narration-less Sweetgrass remind us of the sheer power of the movies as a singular art form. And lest you think I’m leaving you with an overly highbrow or painfully arty picture as my number one pick, let me remind you that Inception was my number two pick:  I like lively entertainment as much as the next guy, and I was completely surprised to discover that one of the most vibrant films and certainly the most enchanting of 2011 was a little documentary about sheep called Sweetgrass. You will be too—trust me.

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