What better way to kick off a new movie blog than a look back at the best films from the last 12 months? I remember compiling my best of 2009 list, and feeling that there really hadn’t been that many great films in the preceding 12 months. This was reflected in the fact that i struggled to come up with ten that deserved to be on such a list. This past year has been an improvement at least, as i found myself having to whittle downwards from a list of 15.
Just to be clear, my criteria for eligibility in this list is a 2010 UK theatre release date, meaning that Oscar hopefuls such as Black Swan, 127 Hours and The Fighter are not eligible even if i had seen them. I haven’t of course seen every film released this year, so if some of your favourites are missing it doesn’t necessarily mean that they didn’t make the cut, i may just not have caught them yet.
It has been a year of ‘confined location’ movies. From Lebanon to Buried, with such diverse movies as Paranormal Activity 2 and Skyline also arguably employing the same gimmick. For me, Frozen got the pitch, pace and plot just right. The characters are not immediately likeable, giving the journey an extra dimension as you get to know them, and theoretically sympathise with them as the story progresses. The acting of the three leads lacks polish, which actually works really well, giving the film a more realistic feel. There are some genuine surprises along the way. Going into a film where you know the action takes place almost solely on a ski lift makes it difficult to see what could possibly happen to stretch out the plot, but some gory shock moments catch you when you don’t expect them, and come just when the story is in danger of slowing down. These moments are perfectly measured however. They are not over the top, and are done with a welcome mix of edge of the seat excitement and genuinely emotional acting. It is the poignant moments that, for me, make Frozen a stand out. You expect them to come across as hokey and trite but they are instead truly touching and engaging. It may be that Frozen took me by surprise, that i wasn’t expecting much of it, but i thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it, fully buying into this tragic story without so much as a nagging doubt.
As mentioned above, another of this year’s trend for confined storytelling, though Lebanon is very different to Frozen. A ‘simple’ story of four men in a tank, it could almost be labelled Das Boot in a tank. The men have already been put through the ringer, and claustrophobia has reached its peak. More than the action outside the tank, it is the relationships amongst the protagonists inside the armour that blisters. Pent up frustrations, fear and discomfort cause them to run the full range of human emotions, from camaraderie through hatred and back again. As their circumstances become even more extreme, the personalities of the soldiers also skewer. They watch as the horrors of war take their toll on the people around them, which begins to affect their own humanity. The story may not be perfectly paced, or fantastically written, but the atmosphere is captured perfectly by the direction and editing. Believable performances from all involved make Lebanon an emotionally draining film to watch, and by the end you finish up just as battered as the tank in which the protagonists are confined.
8. Exit Through The Giftshop
A documentary on street artists would be interesting enough of itself, but Banksy’s remarkable discovery of the story of an enigmatic Frenchman catching a ride amongst the world’s elite urban artists manages to add a fantastic extra dimension. Whether you view French ‘filmmaker’ Thierry Gueta as an opportunistic fraudster or an eccentric enthusiast depends greatly on your own point of view. Certainly Banksy himself, though not exactly overjoyed by Mr Brain Wash’s ultimate success, manages to remain magnanimous and good-humoured about a man who has arguably made a mockery of the street art that has made Banksy a household name. Mr Brain Wash could be a satirical reflection of a consumerist society, copying and almost mass producing his own ‘original art’ by employing a staff of dozens. He may alternatively be the natural extension of the art form, moving it on to the next evolutionary phase – the acceptable face of ‘graffiti’. A fascinating documentary, and further proof that Banksy is capable of producing a masterpiece out of anything he stumbles upon.
7. The Road
I have a fondness for dark, bleak movies, and The Road is certainly one of the best examples of this type of film. As The Man and The Boy journey through a desolate landscape, you can’t help but marvel at how beautiful it is at the same time, thanks to some fantastic cinematography. The world building is amazing. We are told very little about what has actually occurred to send the whole world to Hell, but we can’t help but buy into it completely. The way the denizens are forced to live, the uncompromising way in which they strive to survive, is gripping and compelling. The performance of Viggo Mortensen is wonderfully understated, and the love he feels for his son feels very real. You can’t help but ask yourself how you would behave under the same circumstances, and whether you too would be able to summon will to carry on. You feel the pains of hunger, the bite of the cold, and every heavy step of the protagonists’ journey. The Road is that rare example of a story that is an experience rather than a movie. The pace is slow and deliberate, and is as much about the calm as it is the subsequent storm, but it never drags, your attention never wavers. What should be a hard film to watch is instead frighteningly easy. The conclusion packs an emotional wallop that would take the hardest heart by surprise, and The Road is a film, an image, that will stay with me for some time to come.
Several months ago i started to draft out an article on the futility of trying to produce a feature length comedy based on a one note parody sketch, itself based on a TV show with a pretty flimsy conceit – an action hero who can make everyday household objects into the tools of his trade. I never finished the article. It didn’t seem right to mollify a movie i hadn’t seen, and i never got round to catching it in theatres. Boy, was i glad that article was never published. It is hard to quantify exactly why MacGruber does actually work. and for many, it doesn’t. For me, however, it is one of the funniest films of the last few years. Sure, the humour is juvenile, but it is also very sophisticated at the same time. MacGruber keeps it simple. It steers clear of cheap sight gags, and doesn’t spend an undue length of time setting up big punch lines. It is actually the timing, and variation of this timing that works so well. Following the conventions of the genre very smartly, with every set-up paying off in a timely fashion. This makes the few long running jokes, the through lines of the movie, that much funnier. It helps greatly that the lead is so likeable. Arrogant, obnoxious, vain and selfish, MacGruber is so pathetic that these negative attributes are somehow cancelled out. The performance of Will Forte is almost masterful. A complete unknown on the big screen, it makes that character so much more believable. He IS MacGruber. The story starts to stifle the humour a little in the final third, but the film just about avoids outstaying its welcome. A surprise inclusion even for me on my top ten list, but it is one of the few films from the past year that i have chosen to watch more than once, and i’ve enjoyed it greatly each time.
Around 18 months ago a relatively low budget sci-fi action movie became the surprise hit of the summer. Mixing political allegory with thrilling action and a refreshing amount of comedy, District 9 made a massive impact. So massive, in fact, that just over a year later we have seen a couple of films with alien visitors and even lower budgets appear to try to emulate its success. Skyline got it all wrong, concentrating on spectacular effects at the expense of storyline and acting. Monsters, on the other hand, is an altogether different beast. There are alien intruders, and they have had a massive effect on the native populace. But whilst District 9 wore its political message on its sleeve, Monsters, much like Never Let Me Go a few months ago, uses its sci-fi premise as merely a backdrop to explore a much more personal, human drama story. The constant journey of the two main characters keeps everything moving along nicely, and the implied threat of the alien presence lends a genuine sense of threat to the proceedings. It is perhaps this threat that is the most effective part of the film. For two-thirds of the film, we are shown very little of the beings themselves, instead reminded of their presence by the constant reminders of the destruction they have left in their wake. As a result, when they finally do turn up, it is to a much bigger effect, provoking a truly visceral reaction. The climax of the film uses the simplicity of the aliens existence to point out how needlessly complex we make our own lives, and all at once we are bombarded with overt messages about tolerance, preconception, and the value of lives and the relationships we forge throughout our own. For me, however, it works. Monsters is a beautifully crafted film. The direction is carefully restrained, allowing the characters and surroundings to tell the story, and forcing very little exposition into the narrative. The pace is somehow both leisurely and rapid at the same time, and long scenes seem to fly by in an instant. There are some very tender and emotionally satisfying moments, and the whole experience can be considered just that – an experience.
4. Up In The Air
Maybe it is that Up In The Air came along at the right time emotionally for me, the story of a man charged with ending the employment of others coinciding with a time when i was being made redundant myself. It is not, however, a film about loss of employment, but more of loss in general. Time flying by, opportunity passing by at great speed, questioning your own lifestyle choices. Up In The Air does not take a sledgehammer view of these things, but gently asks the questions that we are afraid to ask ourselves. Is moving truly living as Ryan Bingham believes? Are we really tied down by our possessions and relationships? Or is he a lost sheep, desperately treading water whilst the rest of us make a legacy for ourselves? The protagonist is clearly lonely, and when offered a deeper, more fulfilling relationship, chooses to make the jump. Is getting burnt once enough to scare him away from the fire? We never find out, and his true feelings remain somewhat ambiguous. Jason Reitman was criticised for not making his opinion clear with the movies’ conclusion. I think he was brave. Life is full of unanswered questions, and like all the greatest films, Up In The Air leaves its audience to answer the questions instead, and hopefully learn something about themselves in the process.
3. The Social Network
The idea of a Facebook movie was hard to visualise, but with David Fincher as director and Aaron Sorkin on screenplay duties, it was always going to be highly watchable whatever form it took. As an internet film blogger, the story of friends who started up a website was bound to strike some sort of chord. Sorkin’s dialogue is back to its West Wing best, with searing exchanges admirable brought to life by a talented young cast. Fincher’s career has come a long way since Alien 3, and he has finally reached his full potential with The Social Network. A fascinating story, with the perfect level of intrigue and emotional punch, the biggest problem facing the film was that it was based on a true story. It is very difficult to construct a three act play from real events, as they don’t necessarily adhere to this structure. Indeed, the ending is probably the weakest part of The Social Network, as we experience the ending of the story throughout its runtime, with events told in flashback from the various depositions. This could have had a disastrous effect, but Fincher shows an assured hand by using it to never let the action slow. A long period of time is condensed to the important scenes with the legal wranglings the perfect glue to pull them together. Fincher can often get distracted by his focus on the visual elements of a movie, but he keeps this in check perfectly, crafting one of the best all round films of the year.
2. Toy Story 3
What more can be said about the Toy Story franchise? The series that made it acceptable for an adult to go to an animated family movie alone, there was some speculation over whether Toy Story 3 could match up to Pixar’s interim masterpieces, Wall*E and Up. The outcome was the best of both worlds. An exciting tale of the further adventures of the iconic Cowboy and Spaceman, packing a powerful emotional punch throughout. On the surface, Toy Story 3 does not tell a much different story to the second installment, but Pixar’s experiences since then have allowed them to take the poignant drama contained within to a higher plane. Toy Story 3 made me cry, a claim no other film released this year can make. Its message has value on several levels, effectively exploring abandonment, separation, progress and growing up better than any more ‘adult’ movie could hope to.This year as much as any has been the year of the family film, and for me Toy Story 3 has easily been the best of them. Pixels created on a computer managed to displays as much emotion and humanity as any real actor has shown this year, and the events of Toy Story 3 echo memories and fears we can all relate to. Toy Story 3 may well be the pinnacle of animated storytelling
There was a heavy weight of expectation on Nolan’s mind-bending exploration of nightmares and dreamscapes. There has been a big backlash against it too, with many of the complaints well justified. The emotional elements of the story do not ring true, some of the action is not as well shot as it could have done with being, and as with any complex sci-fi movie there is a long book to be written about plotholes and logistical inconsistencies. The strength of Inception, at least for me, is that whilst i watch it, i care nothing about these problems. The rules of the world and intricacies of the plot are laid out in the first third, allowing nothing but blistering action and breathless excitement to carry the rest of the movie. All the elements of a great action movie, the inventive set pieces, the likeable action heroes, and the rousing music are all present. The plot is intelligent enough to keep you interested, but not complicated enough to distract or confuse you. Some scenes, like the rotating hallway, and the slow motion fall of the van and its passengers are destined to be iconic images for many years, and the climax ties all that has come before it perfectly. Timing is everything, and for all you can say about Nolan’s filmmaking, his strength is in the clockwork nature in which his visions unfold. Despite the weakness of the underlying emotional core of the film, the conclusion still manages to tug at the heartstrings. A stellar cast, some great ideas and the now trademark grandiosity of Nolan’s action make Inception my favourite film of 2010.
So that’s it. Not a bad year at all really. Here’s hoping that 2011 is even better. January is certainly shaping up to be a good start, with The Fighter, Black Swan, 127 Hours, The King’s Speech and True Grit all set for release here in the UK. I’m looking forward to it.
Bazmann – You can follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/baz_mann