Smile Politely

2010: The year in movies

To speak about the movies this mournful morning, flags half-mast, seems trivial. But neither can I bear to read or hear any more commentary about the partisanship, the base selfishness that has yet again exploded in our faces.

Violence is as American as cherry pie, as black militant H. Rap Brown stated in 1967. Why aren’t we rushing out to provide health care to the needy instead of killing each other in conflict over it? Does this really make any sense? What would Jesus do?

So, to the movies. In retrospect, 2010 was a year of surprise, hopefulness, insight and creativity. The eleven movies listed here (and aspects of the ten bonus movies) were films that captured my interest and attention and respect. Most of them were fun to watch as well. Call them escape, if you must. Today, I’m calling them essential.


1. Wild Grass
Eighty-eight year-old French director Alain Renais upset the apple cart with Last Year at Marienbad in 1961, changing film language forever. Decades later, Wild Grass shows him still at his game. At first glance, this domestic romantic comedy seems almost routine. Then, things seem slightly odd. Is the character really only 50 years old? Do police so quickly shrug off slashed tires and stalkers? Ultimately, the film is even more dream-like than Inception (or Marienbad) in that the ground of reality is simply pulled out from under the viewer before he knows it. Seen in the right perspective, it’s a hilarious joke about the French idea of love, deftly told. Or maybe it’s something else entirely.

2. I Am Love
Director Luca Guadagnino orchestrates this gorgeous project developed with actor Tilda Swinton over an eleven-year period. Swinton plays the wife of a wealthy textile manufacturer in Milan who falls hopelessly in love with the much younger working class chef, a friend of her son. Romantic, operatic, swoony with emotion, daring, with beautiful landscapes and a dish of prawns that brings out a female response usually associated with sex. Despite the trappings of culture and class conflict, “I Am Love” is a film of the most primal urge, with end credits imagery that haunts.

3. The Kids Are All Right
Pitch-perfect family life, with all the love, bickering, affection, faults, and confusion intact. Oscars all around. Cool soundtrack, too. Directed by Lisa Cholodenko.

4. Inception
Some quibbled that certain aspects of the dreams did not make sense. Say what? I sometimes need movies like this, with so much going on, on so many levels, absorption takes over. I re-watched director Christopher Nolan’s previous films and found them also dealing in great part with the illusion of identity, and sleeping versus waking — Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, with the Joker in The Dark Knight being the prototypical Nolan character: a mind working in the realm of the unimaginable.

5. The Social Network
Director David Fincher’s previous movie, Zodiac, is a masterwork that also documented a true life drama, with obsessive attention given to detail and nuance. But it was a period piece, whereas The Social Network is happening right now, which makes the telling of the Facebook story that much more impressive, as is the way the movie propels breathlessly, motives and mysteries and menace in every turn. Great script.

6. The Ghost Writer
When a ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) is hired for a smarmy former Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan), sinister turns result at each intersection. Roman Polanski revives the suspense of the best Hitchcock style, adding modern day politics related to war crimes. Old fashioned? Only in the very best sense.

7. A Prophet
Jacques Audiard’s prison film tracks an illiterate 19-year-old, French of North African descent, as he manipulates his way for survival in a racially divided prison, moving between the Corsican mafia group and Muslims. Jarring, at times truly shocking, the film keeps the viewer on edge, questioning the young prisoner’s motives and intentions. Is he a hero, an opportunist, a climber, a prophet? And whose side is he on?

8. Winter’s Bone
Stark Americana in the methamphetamine world of rural poverty in the Ozarks. Written and directed by Debra Granik, and starring Jennifer Lawrence as the daughter determined to find her missing father in order to save her house from being confiscated, this is a movie about the true grit necessary for survival (similar to that depicted in A Prophet), and remindful of the poverty and self-sufficiency that marks a greater part of our country than we generally admit.

9. The Secret in Their Eyes
Juan Jose Campanella has given us a great murder mystery and a great love story wrapped up in one, and received the Oscar for best foreign film for his effort, with more than a few chilling moments — and one thrilling extended take as the camera soars from a helicopter over a filled soccer stadium, zeros in on the detective, and winds its way into the bowels of the stadium in the chase. It’s CGI, but still… And there are two startling ending points, the ultimate fate of the killer and the culmination of the love story.

10. Mother
With The Host, Korean director Bong Joon-ho gave us the best political big monster movie since Godzilla. With Mother, a different kind of monster is presented, the most fierce maternal instinct embodied in a widow who performs unlicensed acupuncture and strives to save her mentally challenged son from the accusation of murder by any means necessary. Tragic, askew, comic, florid, and with a numbingly good performance from Kim Hye-ja, a veteran Korean actress.

11. Exit Through the Gift Shop
A film about the brilliant, subversive, deceptive street art of British prankster Banksy. A film that may itself be a brilliant, subversive, and deceptive work, that may or may not even star Banksy, or may have been directed by Banksy. Only one thing is certain about this film. It’s fun, unlike other attempts this past year to create documentaries that may or may not be real.


Che (listen to the commentary on the DVD for Soderbergh’s careful historical accuracy)
Colossal Youth (Portuguese poverty filmed with great darkness)
A Serious Man (Coens’ overlooked gem)
The Eclipse (supernatural drama from playwright Conor McPherson)
Gigantic (most quirky and warm of independent films; Ed Asner as mushroom head)
The Extra Man (underrated NYC comedy with brilliant Kevin Kline and Paul Dano)
Mother and Child (heartbreaking adoption drama from Rodrigo Garcia)
Backyard (best look at Juarez murders in Mexico)
Trash Humpers (it is hard to make a movie this ugly and experimental…)
The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (…unless you are making a documentary about real life meth head hillbillies)


Kick Ass
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
The Killer Inside Me
I’m Still Here

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