Last year, I threw some miscellaneous, mostly nonsense "awards" at the end of my Top 15 list, but this year's batch of recognitions is considerably larger, so I decided to give it its own separate post. In an attempt to beat the awards season (and anti-awards season) alternate lists, I'll go ahead and give lists for direction, acting, etc., and then get back to my old style of spotlighting some curious tidbits that caught my eye this year.
I tried to adhere to the usual four nominees and one winner format for the usual awards categories, and I mostly succeeded with some exceptions where I could not help myself. Otherwise, enjoy, and, as ever, feedback is welcome.
Olivier Assayas, Carlos
Coordinating multiple location shoots, various languages and a big cast who all have to handled specifically, Olivier Assayas managed to turn out a 330-minute epic in which the huge scale never becomes the focus over the smaller story of a man’s constantly warping idealism and commitment. How he managed to go all over the place and keep his budget at a lean $18 million is impressive enough, but the balance he attains between blockbuster spectacle and character-driven television drama puts Assayas well ahead of any challenger.
Edgar Wright, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
David Fincher, The Social Network
Gaspar Noé, Enter the Void
Miguel Gomes, Our Beloved Month of August
Édgar Ramírez, Carlos
Under almost as much pressure as Assayas, Ramírez commanded the role of Carlos, from his svelte, seductive early years to his end as a fat, vainglorious idiot upset that his arrest will prevent his liposuction instead of fearing incarceration. Ramírez is funny, repugnant, egonmaniacal yet charismatic to the nth degree. You’ll believe that Carlos is the rock star he thinks he is by the end, all thanks to Ramírez.
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island
Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Kim Hye-ja, Mother
Despite her age, Kim’s face still resembles that of a doll, and as mad as she proves herself through Bong Joon-ho’s Mother, the flashes of stunted youth when her face pulls tight and removes its few wrinkles are most disturbing of all. Like the film itself, she is darkly funny without being cruel toward her character or the addled son she’s meant to care for. This was a great year for intense female performances, but she stands head and shoulders above the rest, even Binoche’s tortured divorcée and Portman’s psychotic ingénue.
Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
Greta Gerwig, Greenberg
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Best Supporting Actor
Dominique Thomas, Bluebeard
Though he does not appear often in the film named for him, Bluebeard makes one hell of an impression. Next to the minuscule Lola Créton, the massive Thomas looks even larger, a stocky vision of brutish masculinity whose mere presence launches off half of the film’s sexual themes. But Thomas is not some raging tyrant, and the sadness he puts into his voice when he threatens violence suggests he feels as trapped by gender codes as the young wives he murdered for not completely conforming to socially acceptable behavior for women. That softness makes him believable and tragic, and when Créton undeniably falls for her new beau, the romance is not as absurd as you might think.
Jeremy Renner, The Town
Justin Timberlake, The Social Network
John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone
Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech
Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
Kieran Culkin, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Best Supporting Actress
Dale Dickey, Winter’s Bone
Looking as if she walked out of a Depression-era photograph and grabbed the nearest bag of meth, Dale Dickey is as terrifying in her outsized Greek terror as anything Odysseus faced on his journey home. No one symbolizes the close-knit yet individualistic and unforgiving Ozark community seen in the film like her, and when Dickey creeps her face against Lawrence’s own and croaks that the girl should go on home, one wonders how Ree Dolly could ever defy the order.
Nora von Waldstätten, Carlos
Olivia Williams, The Ghost Writer
Rooney Mara, The Social Network
Ellen Wong, Scott Pilgrim vs the World
Best Original Screenplay
Bong Joon-ho & Park Eun-kyo, Mother
Mother avoids so many pitfalls that it’s script alone is worthy of the effusive praise most reserve for Bong’s directorial side. Only his camera can pull off his mixture of comedy, drama, suspense and oddball humanism, but what's the problem with writing something no one could manage but its creator?
Olivier Assayas & Dan Franck, Carlos
Giorgios Lanthimos & Efthymis Filippou, Dogtooth
Claire Denis, Marie N’Diaye & Lucie Borleteau, White Material
Chris Morris, Jesse Armstrong & Sam Bain, Four Lions
Best Adapted Screenplay
Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network
I mean, no shit. Funny, insightful and moving in ways one would never suspect, Sorkin has delivered his tightest script. After his early film scripts came off as if they were made for television and his television writing displayed a scale that the medium couldn’t contain, he finally gets one of his cinematic works on the big screen, What resulted was the breeziest courtroom -- or at least deposition -- drama I’ve ever seen. Weaving in themes of loneliness, social programming, Ivy League entitlement and more into the deftly paced drama, Sorkin made an old-man rant into something far deeper.
Michael Arndt, Toy Story 3
Roman Polanski, The Ghost Writer
Edgar Wright & Michael Bacall, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini, Winter’s Bone
Benoît Debie, Enter the Void
Bolstered by overwhelming but subtly rendered digital effects, Debie’s kinetic, epileptic cinematography makes for an assault on the eyes, an explosion of taste maintained by the graceful fluidity of the camera and the formal daring of the ever-shifting compositions. Debie helped Noé out on his equally beautiful/disgusting Irreversible, and he enjoys the same boost from the less repellent subject matter as the director. It’s a pleasure to watch his work without peering through fingers.
Roger Deakins, True Grit
Yves Cape, White Material
Matthew Libatique, Black Swan
Éric Gautier, Wild Grass
Robert Richardson, Shutter Island
Jeff Cronenworth, The Social Network
Gaspar Noé, Marc Boucrot & Jérôme Pesnel, Enter the Void
Jonathan Amos & Paul Machliss, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Yann Dedet, White Material
Chris Lebenzon & Robert Duffy, Unstoppable
Kirk Baxter & Angus Wall, The Social Network
Best Visual Effects
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Enter the Void
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, The Social Network
How much more can I write about this score? It is a masterpiece until itself, a textured electronic score that does not simply hum and burp but displays a range of emotions that Fincher’s removed aesthetic prevents the characters from expressing. It mixes with the director’s inky blacks to make a near-thriller of Sorkin’s Kane-like intercrossing of narrative. Tense, snarling, somewhat mournful and -- in the case of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” -- uproarious, the Social Network score will go down as one of the great film accompaniments.
Clint Mansell, Black Swan
Alexandre Desplat, The Social Network
Hans Zimmer, Inception
Stuart Staples, White Material
Best Short Film
In a year that has seen the release of a new Don Hertzfeldt animation, it somewhat pains me not to spotlight the most brilliant animator working today, but Ramin Bahrani’s magical tale of a sentient plastic bag that floats aimlessly through the world searching for its purpose was just a superior achievement. The mise-en-scène of trash drifting through the air and sea raised environmental concerns the director did not stultify with overt preaching. And by casting Werner Herzog as the bag’s voice, its philosophical ramblings take on the importance and gravity of the deepest musing. By turns amusing, political, poetic and heartbreaking, Plastic Bag, like the best of short films, has as much to say as a movie 10 times its length.
Until the 3-D biopic of Lady Bathory comes to the big screen, I shall reserve use of the word “bloodbath” for Alexandre Aja’s hilarious glorification of exploitation cinema. Featuring, among other things, a Joe Francis stand-in castrated, Christopher Lloyd in pure exposition mode and endless breasts, my guilty pleasure this year may not be the sly cinematic deconstruction that last year’s pick (the transgressive, brilliant Crank: High Voltage) was, it’s still a riot. I felt the need to scrub my soul afterward, but as goofy sub-satire, I’ve seen a whole lot worse and not a lot better.
Fresh, youthful films by old directors
How amusing it was that, in a year of enjoyable, but often dry, movies, many of the most vibrant films came from directors well into the late stages of their careers. First, Martin Scorsese moved beyond his Oscar-baiting run of the ‘00s with one of his most effervescent stylistic exercises. Abbas Kiarostami continued to play with the idea of “returning” to cinema and with the notion of the director from the oppressive regime going mad in Europe by creating a film that simultaneously fit into the stereotypical Euroart genre and his own canon, and then proceeded to have a laugh with subverting both. Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass was a slight as Shutter Island from a different approach, and as invigorating an entry into the stale genre of romantic comedy as Marty’s movie was for the psychological thriller. Roman Polanski released one of his finest films with The Ghost Writer, while 102-year-old Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira put out the anachronistic yet immediate Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (and that’s last year’s film; his latest, The Strange Case of Angelica, is still on the festival circuit). They may not all be masterpieces, but they were all entertaining and proof that old dogs may not learn new tricks, but why would they need to when they’ve practiced enough that they blow the young pups out of the water?
The return of the ‘80s
To be fair, our culture's obsession with what may be the worst decade in human history -- if you could show footage of the '80s to 14th century European peasants, they would say thank you but if it's all the same I'll just die of plague, please -- extends far beyond the temporal boundaries of 2010; the '80s have seeped back into our pop culture vernacular throughout the decade. But it reached its nadir this year, with updates of the decade's emptiest bits of entertainment (The A-Team, The Karate Kid, Preadators), unimaginative throwbacks to that decade's wanton cinematic violence (The Losers), horrific appropriations of Reagan-era values of capitalist supremacy (Iron Man 2, Sex and the City 2), and inexplicable returns to Cold War-era Soviet foes (Salt, Iron Man 2 again). Even the movie that worked (Salt) excelled only by focusing on other areas than its tired Soviet fearmongering – in this case its subversive sexual imagery. And I never even did see The Expendables.
Let's consider for a moment what the 1980s really means to us right now: the 1980s means that BP could pass around blame for its oil spill without facing the punishment it should have because of deregulation. The 1980s means Afghanistan still posing a significant threat as insurgents once trained by U.S. agents to drive out the Soviets now use those tactics to drive us out, killing our soldiers and driving up the defense budget. The 1980s means crushing numbers of immigrants because of C.I.A. operations conducted in the '80s that destroyed the infrastructure of Central and South American nations just to prevent communism from taking root (or to protect the interests of American businesses with stakes in these countries), forcing them to accept unfavorable trade agreements and eventually driving now-destitute people to seek a new place to try to eke out some kind of life, that place being America. The 1980s means the current economic crisis, set in motion through the worship of Wall Street and the unchecked power given to those who control the money. The 1980s means the modern Republican Party, poisoned by the religious fundamentalists it courted to win Congress into a spiteful, disgusting body whose gifted and intelligent individuals have been squashed into a conformist nightmare that stymies every bill just to make the other party look bad. Oh, and if you're in my age group, the 1980s means your parents snorting coke, putting on a cassette of Toni Basil’s “Mickey” and conceiving you.
Between all that and the leg warmers, can we all please just shut up about the '80s and stop trying to revive a creatively, socially, politically and ethically barren time in our history? Now, if anyone needs me, I'll be listening to Prince.
Best “How Did They Get That Into a Kid’s Film?” Joke
The “breast hats” in How to Train Your Dragon
Best Deflation of Tension
The “Hey” near the end of Black Swan
Most Surprising Film Reference
The Ikiru nod in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Most Unexpected Bit of Visual Splendor
The “Three Bothers” segment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
One could expect gorgeous, mesmerizing aesthetics from Scorsese or Noé, but David Yates’ primary contribution to the Harry Potter franchise thus far has been to suck what minor visual invention had previously appeared in the film series. But lo, in the middle of what was already the best film of series, Yates makes the humble decision to cede the helm to animator Ben Hibon, who puts a remarkable three-minute sequence on the screen that contained more magic and allure than anything in the franchise to that point. Based on Lotte Reiniger’s silhouette animation, the computer-animated segment was advanced yet medieval, like woodcarvings come to life. My jaw hit the floor when this sequence started, and it stayed there for minutes after the film had moved on.
Though I have earned my share of snide remarks from some over my enjoyment of Danny Boyle’s frantic, overwhelming direction, I can finally understand their perspective fully with 127 Hours. Taking the emotional, harrowing mental process of a man coming to terms with the necessity of amputating his own arm, Boyle throws out any heart and settles for adolescent, cruel humor, constantly mocking his protagonist as he moves from calm and collected to hallucinating madman. But to phrase it like that would suggest a logically paced evolution of dread instead of a haphazard scramble between fleeting sincerity and editing trickery designed to keep the audience entertained. Not gripped or invested, mind you, just paying attention. At last, Boyle moves to tip his hand, and the aces up his sleeve spill out awkwardly on the table. I was thunderstruck by how bored I was, especially considering how desperately it tries to hook the audience.
Worst Part of a Great Film
Andy’s animation in Toy Story 3
The Pixar animators slyly used the uncanny valley to heighten the level of creepiness of the toddlers who abused our favorite toys, but they failed to make Andy the symbol of longing and unrequited love he was supposed to represent to Woody, Buzz et al. One look into that disturbingly real/unreal face and the magic the film otherwise attained shattered. But damn it all, somehow those Pixar people redeemed themselves at the end, managing to put the final, devastating words into Andy’s mouth and sell the finale beautifully.
Best Part of a Bad Film
Kevin Pollak & Adam Brody in Cop Out
Cop Out suffered from a pat script and a crippling lack of chemistry from its two lead players, but the second double act, between Kevin Pollak and Adam Brody, was fantastic. They commanded every second of time they got, the only people who looked as if they truly had fun the entire way through. By their second all-too-brief appearance, you’ll be wishing the film was about them instead.
The Social Network
Opening with a montage of eerie close-ups of Facebook surfing set to a choral version of Radiohead’s “Creep,” this perfectly paced short film unto itself builds in intensity until every snide dismissal of “the Facebook movie” is purged with fire. Saying everything and nothing about the film’s true aims, the trailer managed to explode the hype that had started to accumulate behind the derision and helped set the stage for the film’s global press takeover, for better or worse. Now that the dust has settled, I return to the trailer and am still amazed by how much it conveys through the most graceful of elisions and teases. I don’t generally like trailers, but this was as masterful as the full product.
Actually, The Social Network takes the cake for overall marketing. I tend to avoid press as much as possible before I see a movie, but with my favorite tagline in a decade, The Social Network hooked me long before I saw it. The people in charge of selling that film recognized the potential of that tagline, so they made a brilliant poster that worked solely by featuring it. (Even when it was later marred by the wholly unnecessary and absurdly long pullquote from Pete Travers, that poster was dynamite.)
Enter the Void
Psychedelic, intoxicating, slightly off-putting yet utterly engrossing, Enter the Void’s poster encapsulates the film perfectly. With the entire credits of the companies involved listed along the side, even the official stuff adds to the poster’s ability to say everything and nothing, and frankly I’m just writing things right now to hopefully say something more substantive than WHAT IS THIS I DON’T EVEN.
Sex and the City 2
Gauzy, airbrushed, digitally enhanced and then possibly airbrush again for good measure, it’s a wonder the posters didn’t come out looking like worn Egyptian papyrus from all the tampering that had to have been done to the image that adorned them. Proof positive that the Establishment consumed Lady Gaga’s ironic, sub-avant garde inversion of fashion before she even got off the ground, Carrie’s solid gold glasses reflect less her bright future than a once-burning star now collapsing in on itself in blinding nova. The poster somehow manages to convey the tackiness within while totally avoiding the film’s change of locale to Dubai, which suggests that, like me, even the marketing campaign couldn’t make it halfway through the movie before building their campaign.
The Last Airbender
I considered Sex and the City 2 for this, but thought it was only fair to mention a film I actually managed to finish, since it’s certainly possible that movie did something to redeem itself in the last half. Besides, I’m fascinated with M. Night Shyamalan: somehow, he has managed to make his fourth film in a row worse than his previous one. What's more, each of the other three stank so badly that, in all cases, we all allowed ourselves to think, "Well, he's got nowhere to go but up." Following the downright laughable execution of what was meant to be a commentary on man's relationship with the planet in the form of a thriller, Night appeared genuinely shaken by The Happening. The ego that had led him to ignore the whispers of dissent over the ending of Signs and write an even worse conclusion for The Village, the same self-absorption that even drove him to cast himself in his execrable Lady in the Water as a master storyteller whose work could save the world, dissipated. He took on a project that had "studio job" written all over it in an attempt to rebuild some of the reputation he enjoyed with his back-to-back hits a decade earlier.
That's what makes The Last Airbender's failure all the more overwhelming, even enraging, than his others. Having rid himself of the one trait that supporters pinpointed as a tragic flaw, Shyamalan reveals himself to be just as clueless, stilted and inept with someone else's established work as he is with his self-penned scripts. Catering to Hollywood's racial bias in casting, The Last Airbender's slights extend beyond all ethnic barriers. Every line describes what is happening in the frame, save for the few that come from outer space in the ill-fitting inanity. The story never stops for reflection, yet it drags mercilessly. And when the time comes for action scenes, Night takes shortcuts as if he ran out of money, which might explain why a $150 million film features such shoddy visual effects. The low-rent conversion to 3-D after production serves as the glue holding together the bad visuals, writing and acting, truly creating one of the unpleasant experiences I've suffered at the movies, rivaled only by Michael Bay's Transformers 2.
Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2010
Hi, Mom!; The Intruder; Platform; Red Desert
Best Film Just Now Getting a U.S. Release in 2010 But Came Out Years Ago
Secret Sunshine (full review forthcoming)
Films I’m Most Looking Forward to in 2011
Tree of Life, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Poetry, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Meek’s Cutoff, Paul, Take Shelter, The Grandmasters, A Dangerous Method, Red State, The Turin Horse, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn