(This blog entry was originally published on Paul's old blog, Pulp Friction Australia, on January 1st, 2011.)
2010 has been an interesting year for me, personally. I became a full-time student for the first time, studying filmmaking at RMIT, and made my third short film... the first that really felt like me. I also struggled epically with finances, which meant that I saw a few less films than usual. However, my friend Lee Zachariah and I started a monthly movie podcast, called HELL IS FOR HYPHENATES, and I was kindly enlisted by Thomas Caldwell to appear on 3RRR FM's FILM BUFF'S FORECAST on a couple of occasions, all of which means I officially hung my shingle as a film reviewer for the first time. So now I'm getting media passes to see films, which gave my tally a welcome year-end jolt.
Looking back at my yearly viewing tally, I watched exactly 200 films -- 87 films at cinemas (38 of them at MIFF) and 113 films on DVD (89 of them for the first time) -- beginning with the very English DVD double of 1948's LONDON BELONGS TO ME and 1963's SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON and ending with Darren Aronofsky's BLACK SWAN. But... once you round them down to films first released to general, non-festival screenings in cinemas or DVD in Australia in 2010, that tally shrinks to a positively anaemic 63! So, when you read these charts, please keep in mind I'm not drawing from some endless well of 200+ new movies, nor am I some schmo regurgitating the two films a month he saw this year. I'm somewhere very much in between, but I like to think I've seen a fair cross-section of films for my judgement to be somewhat valid.
So, enough with the waffling: here are my highlights of the films of 2010:
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UNDERRATED OF 2010 PART 2...
THE GREATEST EXPERIENCES I HAD IN A CINEMA IN 2010
Being a film buff/fan/nut, I'm still intensely connected to the cinema experience. As much as I hate people who have long and animated conversations during a film, let their phone ring out before answering it and having conversations in the theatre or just generally act like boneheads watching a DVD at home, I still enjoy seeing a film on the big screen with a bunch of like-minded people, and suspect I always will. For all the arguments toward home cinema and staying out of your local, there were two occasions this year that emerge powerfully in my mind as a spirited defence of the communal cinematic experience...
2. THE ROOM
Thanks so much to Carlton's Cinema Nova for instituting their excellent Cult Cravings screenings (Friday and Saturday night late shows) and for kicking it off with Tommy Wiseau's utterly bizarre, hack-handed work of bizarro genius, THE ROOM. The film alone would be hilarious enough, with its pornography-level acting, hilarious propensity to bring up seemingly pertinent plot points only to never mention them again, replacing a character entirely with someone else halfway through the film, endless shots of the Golden Gate Bridge, unfortunate framing, horrendously casual misogyny... I could go on. And I haven't yet mentioned Wiseau himself -- the writer/producer/director/star of this glorious clusterfuck -- a singularly odd man who sports an '80s hair metal hairstyle, a face resembling Arnold Schwarzenegger after years with Mickey Rourke's plastic surgeon and the physique of an aging bodybuilder, all topped off with the most indeterminable Eastern-European-via-Los-Angeles accent and what seems to be a fundamental lack of understanding of how human beings behave. But what makes THE ROOM truly magnificent is seeing it in a packed theatre, particularly with people who have done this before. A genuine cult film with an enthusiastic following, there are rules for watching the film (get to the flick early to study up on the mini-guide provided by the cinema)... Phrases one needs to shout at the screen at certain moments. Plastic spoons to throw at the screen whenever a picture of a spoon appears in the film (this happens more than any reasonable person would think). Moments in the film where it's okay to run up to the screen and pretend the characters are talking to you. It's a rocking, riotous, hilarious good time, and one that provides some inkling as to what those great midnight movie screenings of the 1970s must have felt like. Nova are still screening it, so if you haven't been yet, GO. It's amazing.
1. THE MOVIE ORGY
A Frankenstein's monster of a film assembled by director Joe Dante (the GREMLINS movies, THE 'BURBS) from odd scenes and off-cuts from obscure films and television shows from the 1960s and 70s, Dante personally toured it around college campuses from 1968 to the mid-70s, continually adding footage whenever he saw fit, to the point where it eventually ended up running for seven-and-a-half hours! It remained unseen for decades, until Dante transferred it to video -- at a positively svelte 270 minutes! -- for a screening at LA's New Beverly theatre in 2008. It is this version that the Melbourne International Film Festival, who devoted a sidebar to Dante's work and brought the great man out here, very kindly screened at the halfway point of their festival this year. While many cinematic experiences bill themselves as being "one of a kind" or "once in a lifetime" experiences, very few actually are. I mean, they'll end up on DVD someday or revived again in other theatres... but there's only ONE COPY of THE MOVIE ORGY, and it goes where Joe Dante goes. And, as this was the 64-year-old Dante's first Australian visit, chances are, he won't likely make it out here again. So this IS a bona fide, once in a lifetime screening. Starting at the (ill-advised?) time of 11:30pm, it was a pleasure to witness Dante introduce the film himself, pretty much apologising for it the whole time, what with its shoddy look and massive running time, saying it was an experience designed to be walked out on and returned to. His intro was funny and affectionate, and it was a pleasure to have him there. For such a singular experience, it was slightly disappointing to see only about 50 or 60 determined souls in attendance, but it made the club a little more exclusive and special. I guess the thought of stumbling out of a city cinema at 4:15 on a winter's morning was a little too daunting for most film festival fans to consider. I sat in the back row with a couple of friends, all of us with only an inkling of a clue of what we were about to see. Within minutes, we were bewitched. Imagine flipping channels through the weirdest, funniest, most anachronistic film & TV cable television library ever assembled, yet it all fell in a way that made for startling sociopolitical commentary and perfect comic timing. THE MOVIE ORGY is hilarious, angry, satirical, fun, political, silly, caustic and utterly engrossing. As some people faded away to the clutches of sleep, my friends and I remained completely awake throughout the duration. How could you not? Between highlights from the deranged 50s delinquent drama SPEED CRAZY (whose lead is always losing his shit because people are "crowding" him) or sci-fi bomb THE GIANT CLAW (where a giant papier mache turkey monster headbutts model buildings until they explode) or the kid's morning show ANDY'S GANG (where a seemingly brain-damaged host treats us to a horrifying dirge of "Jesus Loves You" accompanied by a mini-piano played by a doped-up cat and dead-looking rat -- both real!) or jaw-droppingly racist clips from films and TV or some amazing TV musical performances from The Beatles or The Animals or... there really is too much awesomeness to mention. And sharing it with a small and bleary group of like-minded individuals made it all the more special. I laughed my arse off and was generally stunned at how brilliantly it both evokes nostalgia for a lost age and skewers the ugly face of the American persona. THE MOVIE ORGY was my absolute favourite film experience of 2010 -- possibly ever -- but the most disappointing thing is, no matter how effusively I recommend it, you'll never see it. And to Joe Dante: no apologies were necessary. As a comic sociopolitical collage, it's a fucking masterpiece.
THE MOST UNDERRATED FILMS OF 2010
I always enjoy directing people to the hidden, underseen cinematic gems -- or even just plain old good movies -- that get washed aside by the blockbuster culture that pervades our cinemas and home entertainment stores these days. And there were plenty of films this year that deserve the attention.
Miguel Arteta's YOUTH IN REVOLT proves before PILGRIM that there IS life for Michael Cera after George Michael Bluth, and every scene where he plays his character's delinquent alter-ego is hilarious. It's got a killer supporting cast, an involving script and some laugh-out-loud funny, almost surrealistic gags (not to mention some ace claymation, too).
WORLD'S GREATEST DAD gives Robin Williams his best role since his "Year of the Psycho" in 2002 (where he shone in ONE HOUR PHOTO, DEATH TO SMOOCHY and INSOMNIA). He's a single dad forced to put up with an odious son who treats him with the worst kind of contempt, until an event changes his life dramatically, and how he deals with it is nothing short of inspired. Written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, it's also a pretty keen satire on the modern-day phenomenon of the "human interest story" and how we're all too quick to canonise heroes.
CITY ISLAND was a goregous little New York indie comedy, the kind they don't really make anymore, starring Andy Garcia, in a return to form as a security guard who secretly takes acting classes, and Julianna Margulies, as his suspicious wife, who thinks he's off having an affair. In fact, everyone in this family has a secret of their own, and watching these facades unravel is hilarious fun and often genuinely affecting, thanks to a wonderful cast and Raymond De Felitta's warm yet sharp script and direction.
Australian writer/directors Sean Byrne and Richard Gray made strong debuts at different ends of the genre scale with THE LOVED ONES and SUMMER CODA, respectively. THE LOVED ONES is a deliriously entertaining slasher/torture horror, featuring Xavier Samuel (TWILIGHT: ECLIPSE) as a troubled, self-abusing young man who turns down an invitation to the school prom from misfit Lola (the amazing Robin McLeavy), who then, with the help of her equally deranged father, kidnaps him and proceeds to hold her own bloody prom night... and things just get weirder from there. Imagine that Molly Ringwald and Harry Dean Stanton from PRETTY IN PINK were utterly psychopathic and raised alongside WOLF CREEK's Mick Taylor, and you get the idea. SUMMER CODA, on the other hand, is as lovely and sun-kissed as a film can be. Heidi (a luminous, star-making performance from Rachael Taylor) and Michael (Alex Dimitriades) meet outside of Mildura, where Michael runs an orange grove and Heidi has returned from the US for a family funeral. They're both suffering emotional bruises but they quickly form a bond, and their tentative courtship is both sweetly and smartly unfolded. Michael's orange picking crew form something of a colourful Greek Chorus to the proceedings and, as played by Angus Sampson, Nathan Phillips, Cassandra Magrath, Daniel Frederiksen and Pacharo Mzembe -- are wonderful. And Greg De Marigny's cinematography on the Red is flat-out luscious. As languid and laid-back as LOVED ONES is frenzied and punchy, these Aussie efforts may be polar opposites but equally worth catching.
RED HILL is another Australian genre flick that's a must-see, a modern Australian western -- and make no mistake, this is as much a Western as anything directed by John Ford -- set in rural Victoria, concerning a young city cop (Ryan Kwanten) who's transferred with his wife to a country precinct with less excitement... which turns out to be dead wrong. Writer/director/editor Patrick Hughes honours every trope of the genre and makes a stunning debut, a vision every bit as strong and assured as the much more celebrated ANIMAL KINGDOM.
I'm as surprised as anyone that TRON: LEGACY is the first movie I've ever seen that I felt really understands the 3D format. For once, all the buzz about the film's world being "immersive" were true. What it may lack in terms of plot and character development, it more than makes up for as a definitive audiovisual big-screen experience, particularly when seen its natural habitat in IMAX 3D. It ticks off the hero's journey tropes of the modern blockbuster, and tips its visual hat to its many references, but also builds a world that is visually enrapturing, beautiful and incredibly tactile. Garrett Hedlund is not nearly as uncharismatic as you've heard, and does a pretty nice job, Olivia Wilde is incredibly lovely and likeable and Jeff Bridges revisits Kevin Flynn with a warmth and affability that's instant. While it does touch on some intriguing ideas regarding our relationship to technology, it's the sound, light and music (thanks to Daft Punk) show that will really blow your hair back, much, much more than other movies that allegedly did the same (coughAVATARcough). But please, please see it in (true, not mini) IMAX 3D.
(Before I move on: My picks for the two most underrated films of 2010 are actually in my top 10 for the year. I'll let you know when I'll get to 'em... which brings us to...)
MY TOP 10 FAVOURITE FILMS OF 2010
2010 gave us quite a few good films and an equal share of bad films, but very few were utterly great or outright terrible. Which, lucky for me, made making a top 10 best incredibly simple. A handful of films stood far above the rest, a couple of which crashed the party very late in the year. Now... I know you may be wondering where certain films are. If that film you expected to be on the list isn't here, it's probably because a) I thought it was really good, but it didn't hit me all that hard (eg. THE KING'S SPEECH, ANIMAL KINGDOM), b) in fewer cases, I haven't seen it (eg. BURIED, THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT), or c) I haven't seen it AND it didn't screen publicly in 2010 (eg. 127 HOURS). All the films in my top 10 hit me squarely in the head, heart and -- most importanly for me -- gut.
The envelope, please...
Very few films succeed at once as an action, thriller and anti-war film, but LEBANON scores high on all levels. Much has been made of its claustrophobia-inducing location (the film is set entirely inside an Israeli tank during the 1982 Lebanon war), but the terrified, inexperienced tank crew, their immovable commanding officer and the various challenges that are thrown their way, and their narrow but terrifying view of the world outside all turn the screws to make LEBANON a masterclass in cinematic tension. Writer/director Samuel Maoz based the film upon his own experience as a tank soldier in the Lebanon War, which is undoubtedly the reason why it feels so fraught, so inescapably real. The crew are all in their early twenties, and none seem all that ready for the realities of armed warfare. They're scared kids who have been conscripted into their national army and sent out to confront a very dangerous unknown. What's more, when we meet them, they've yet to fire a shot in combat. The thing that grips you at once is, despite how powerful it looks from the outside, how utterly vulnerable their tank is. The thing is leaking, steaming and falling to bits: a perfect metaphor for its increasingly unstable occupants. Their communications are shot, their CO tells them only what he feels they need to know, and even then, he seems to be leaving information out. The crew's only view into the outside world is through the scope of their cannon and, while the images are powerful, this is the one and only element that occasionally pulls you out and reminds us we're watching a film. The scope images are always so perfectly pertinent (a child's face, a man's despair) and composed, when the reality would surely be more chaotic. But it's a minor complaint, as they're a small part of the film's duration and the collective experience of the film is worth so much more. "War is hell" may be a tired sentiment, but as we keep on sending our fellow humans to the slaughter, someone needs to continue expressing it. And, when it's expressed as powerfully and thrillingly as this, all the better.
BRRRAAAAAAHHHHHHHHMMMM! BRRRAAAAAAHHHHHHHHMMMM! If any sound defined cinema in 2010, it was the giant horn refrain of INCEPTION's score. Christopher Nolan's epic psychic heist picture is a puzzle within a riddle, a riddle within an enigma. It's one of those films that rewards a rewatch; it can be engaged with purely upon the level of its complex plotline and psychological struggle of its lead character, or pored through time and again for hidden and deeper meaning. It's a film about ideas, creativity, intellectual property, letting go and vanquishing emotional demons, and so much more. (There's a theory going around that it's about filmmaking!) It's a breathtakingly shot and composed film, that truly embraces an epic visual style. It's BIG and, with its impeccable wardrobe, expansive production design, percussive musical score, stunning visual effects and big-time cast, it has no qualms with letting you know. But it's big and clever, which is a duo rarely seen together in Hollywood films today. The main distraction of this film is the undeniable shit-tonnage of exposition, which fills about 70% of the film's length. Although it is beautifully delivered by its starry cast and often most helpful to orient us in its multi-layered world, there were moments where I felt a particular point could have been displayed visually, rather than spelled out to us (particularly in regard to DiCaprio's relationship to his wife). But, like LEBANON's cannon-scope artifice, this is a small complaint, as the film itself works so strongly on so many levels and creates a world so compelling that it's hard to be bored -- and what heist flick ISN'T filled with exposition, anyway? (Personally, I liked that Nolan introduced rules to stop the dream worlds from spiralling out of control -- this is RIFIFI OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, not DREAMSCAPE -- and the fact the dream levels were relatively grounded only adds to the viewer's compelling doubt over what in the film is and isn't a dream.) I also have to mention that the cast are excellent, and single out Tom Hardy in a rare dapper, urbane role as the charming Eames and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who, as well as being generally terrific, distinguishes himself in the coolest fight scene to emerge from a Hollywood blockbuster since THE MATRIX. Nolan loves to puzzle his audience and deliver big-time thrills and, in this regard, INCEPTION seems to be the perfect synthesis of his work to date.
The year's second-most underrated film for me actually first screened in Melbourne in 2009, when it travelled the festival circuit and won rave reviews. It says something about the current film climate when rave reviews -- for such commercial qualities as being "hilarious" and "likeable" -- can't even get a film released to the arthouse circuit. Unbelievably, HUMPDAY was dumped direct-to-DVD. It's one of the smartest, funniest and emotionally astute comedies not only of the last year, but the last decade. It's also the film that near-singlehandedly saves the American independent "Mumblecore" movement from oblivion, as it was made by, and stars, many of the movement's key practitioners and falls under the umbrella, despite not being filled with passive-aggressive characters you want to strangle. No, the lead characters in this intriguing spin on the popular "bromance" sub-genre of comedy are likeable and flawed in wonderfully human -- and funny -- ways. Ben (popular "mumblecore" comedy filmmaker Mark Duplass) is married to Anna (Alycia Delmore) and, while reasonably happy, is feeling his youth pass him by... Never more acutely than when his old college roomate, wannabe hipster Andrew (Joshua Leonard of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT) returns to drop in, stay over and take Ben out on a big night or two. On one of their drinking sessions, they hear about Humpfest, a DIY porno festival and decide (as one does) that it would be an ace idea -- an artistic statement, if you will -- if they did one together. The rest of the film deals with the consequences of this decision, leading up to the event. Writer/director Lynn Shelton could've played the premise for cheap & easy puerile laughs, but really sidesteps this in favour of finding the awkward human comedy within the two men's inherent sadness, no matter how pathetic they often seem. It's as sharp, mocking and sweet a depiction of modern male masculinity I've seen, and it really is massively funny. Get thee to a DVD store and seek this out, you won't be disappointed. It's a smart indie film even your family or beer-'n-pizza friends might enjoy!
Robert Rodriguez always promised to adapt his fake trailer contribution to GRINDHOUSE into a feature, but what I didn't expect is that he would extend and flesh it out so successfully. As punchy, fun, explosive, violent and nostalgic as anything he's done, and yet more personally revealing than anything in his oeuvre, Rodriguez and his longtime editorial collaborator-turned-debut director Ethan Maniquis have delivered a shotgun blast of a flick that is equally the year's most vibrant action film, most pitch-perfect film geek homage and most underrated picture. With its sledgehammer social commentary, gleefully racist villains and globs of casual sex and violence, it perfectly updates the archetypes and tropes of 1970s black action "blaxploitation" cinema to a pertinent 2010s context facing Mexicans, the southern US states and the issue of immigration. It sends a message loaded with gunpowder, C4 and outrageous characters, as the best action genre cinema does. It also gives Danny Trejo his first lead role, and this weatherbeaten, tattooed, highly affable cult hero does his damndest to honour it. Whether scowling at villains, spitting out one-liners or swinging on a henchman's intestines, he commands every frame he's in. (He also, more awkwardly, beds both female leads!) He anchors the nuttiest, most eclectic cast of the year, who are all having a great time swallowing the scenery, including Robert De Niro in his best role in over a decade (is it because he's finally made the transition to B-actor and thus fits in perfectly?) and Steven Seagal in the kind of role he should have been playing from day one: a villain. I won't lie: it's a kick to see 64-year-old Trejo go mano-a-mano with 59-year-old Seagal in the final battle. For an action flick with cojones of steel and its heart in the right place, you won't find a better time at the cinema than MACHETE.
6. THE SOCIAL NETWORK
I always had faith in the "Facebook movie". As much as it was mocked and dismissed before release, my heart held true. Not because I was particularly interested in the genesis of the social networking behemoth, but because of two names: Fincher and Sorkin. Sorkin and Fincher. I mean, the pessimistic, genius, visual stylist director behind SE7EN, FIGHT CLUB and ZODIAC and the idealistic, genius, maestro of dialogue screenwriter of THE WEST WING, STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP and THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT teaming up?? These guys could be doing SEX IN THE CITY 3 and I'd be there on opening day. But they far surpassed even my lofty expectations with their work here. THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a story of modern-day monarchs, of aspirants to the throne, engaged in betrayal over an empire. Through the prism of Sorkin's preternatural grasp upon the medium of film dialogue, it is quite literally the kind of story Shakespeare would have written were he born last century and alive and working today. But it's Fincher's dark view of human nature, which shines through with every foreboding, beautifully composed shot, with every note of Trent Reznor's delicious score, that perfectly compliments the caustic lines these characters fire at one another, and adds an extra dose of acid to Sorkin's entitled little Harvard boys. It's been a while since I've seen a talkfest so thrillingly staged and blackly performed, and the actors are just right and then some: from Jesse Eisenberg playing Zuckerberg like a wounded animal, unable to trust or even truly understand how the rest of us humans act, to Andrew Garfield's sweet but naive Eduardo Saverin, whose lack of boardroom street smarts sees him pushed aside, to Justin Timberlake's rendering of Sean Parker as a wonderfully sleazy 21st century snake oil salesman, to -- my personal favourite -- the towering Armie Hammer as the charismatic, righteously scorned Winklevoss twins. In a world where words are bullets, contracts are time bombs, information is power and a geek is God, the emotional shrapnel flies thick and fast, and ultimately wounds us all in some way or another. While I don't believe THE SOCIAL NETWORK defines a generation entire, I feel it does define a very modern, very Generation-Y phenomenon: the technocrat, whose social awkwardness and apparent technical omniscience brings with it an entitlement to instant fortune. Of this particular type of person, one could not possibly find a more expressive or fitting avatar than Mark Zuckerberg. THE SOCIAL NETWORK is as perceptive and important a look at a modern powerbroker as CITIZEN KANE was in the 1940s. KANE may have satirised and criticised William Randolph Hearst but, most crucially, it attempted to understand him, and I firmly believe that THE SOCIAL NETWORK does this for a new kind of powerbroker, a variety of animal we're still grasping to truly understand.
5. BLACK SWAN
[Okay, before I begin: I saw this film at a public, ticketed, advance screening on New Years Eve, which played at many theatres around Melbourne -- and possibly Australia-wide -- so, even though it isn't officially released until January 20, 2011, it has screened publicly at a non-media, non-festival capacity. So I'm counting it. HA!]
Darren Aronofsky is undeniably a filmmaker of prodigious talent, but not one whose films I immediately flock to. PI's circumstances impressed me more than the film itself, I thought REQUIEM FOR A DREAM was excellent but apparently not as heart-wrenchingly moving as everyone else, and was severely underwhelmed by the visually stunning but surprisingly flat THE FOUNTAIN. The first Aronofsky film I genuinely loved was THE WRESTLER, but much of that was tied up in the heart-blood-guts-soul performance he elicited from Mickey Rourke. There's genius present in all four films, but BLACK SWAN is the one where the promise finally comes to fruition, and stamps Aronofsky as one of the boldest, most individual, most thrilling filmmakers working today. It's a bewitching blend of the Archers, Polanski, Fosse and Cronenberg, but somehow uniquely Aronofsky, and makes for a strangely fitting companion piece to THE WRESTLER. It's both as sensitive a character study and scary a horror picture as any this year. (In fact, I haven't seen a 2010 horror film playing anywhere near its league.) And Aronofsky proves his talent for pushing great actors to another level (as he did with Ellen Burstyn in REQUIEM, and Rourke) is no fluke. Natalie Portman is pure dynamite as Nina, a perfectionist ballet dancer whose repression is blocking her from getting the best out of her dancing: she's the embodiment of SWAN LAKE's White Swan, but can't get her handle on the Black Swan. Which is where two very provocative figures come in: driven, manipulative company director Thomas LeRoy (the excellent Vincent Cassel) and rival dancer Lily (Mila Kunis, who is perfect playing on the dark side of Portman). From there, the alternately artful and lurid screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J McLaughlin takes us into delectably unexpected directions. It's a concoction of behind-the-scenes melodrama, psychological horror and tribute to artistry that smashes us with its audacity and thrills us with its visceral power. It's the kind of hard-hitting genre picture with deeper, personal resonance that distinguished the American cinema of the 1970s, and is most welcome (but all too rare) today.
4. SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD
Edgar Wright is the kind of uber-geek-filmmaker I can get on board with in a big, bad way. His output of the last decade and change -- the TV sitcom SPACED, feature films SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ -- are fast, funny, endlessly energetic products of pure love. Wright is known as a friendly, gregarious character whose love of film, television and music is effusive and infectious, and one gets that from his films. He's a true auteur in the fact that not only is he a writer/director/producer, but his DNA seems to be present upon every frame of his celluloid output. This aesthetic of cinematic joy is present and most accounted for in SCOTT PILGRIM, which (if I may adopt the film's syntax for a moment) levels Wright's directorial game up to a new platform. His work has always been visually rich, filled with in-jokes, quick cuts and expressive angles, but PILGRIM is exploding with invention. It's breathlessly edited, inventively shot and many of the action scenes are downright exhilarating, but it never becomes overly self-conscious or feels like showboating, as every transition is completely and utterly logical. As footloose and free as it feels, it's actually as formalist as anything from Hitchcock or Ford. Wright is doing exciting things with cinematic language here, things that I'm sure will be abused by less talented or knowledgeable practitioners in future. Aside from this, it's also a breathlessly exciting, hilariously clever action-comedy adaptation of Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novel series, and brilliantly cast. Michael Cera is subtly developing a star persona, and the character of Scott Pilgrim provides enough opportunities for him to build upon this without completely deserting it. Pilgrim is NOT George-Michael Bluth, nor is he the bumbling, sexually awkward teen of SUPERBAD and YEAR ONE. There's a confidence and nonchalance to Cera in this that we've rarely seen, not to mention the fight scenes, in which Cera does a surprising amount of physical work. Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes a gorgeously laconic leading lady, Ellen Wong leaps off the screen as Scott's "high school girlfriend" Knives Chau, Kieran Culkin is wonderfully sardonic as Pilgrim's roommate and the Seven Evil Exes are all perfectly horrid. The plot may be an amusing metaphor for rising above your own emotional baggage and anxiety over your partner's past, but I believe that SCOTT PILGRIM has something deeper going on: it's this film, not THE SOCIAL NETWORK, that provides the strongest definition of Generation Y to date. A generation weaned on video games, conditioned to believe they're all the hero of their own story by childhoods dominated by film and TV narratives, bombarded by pop culture images, sounds and influences, effortlessly referential yet rarely reverential, the characters and world of SCOTT PILGRIM are as definitive a look at the post-X generation as anything yet seen. This kind of insight, teamed with its audiovisual audacity and blissfully fun narrative, makes for a deceptively powerful pop cultural blast indeed.
3. FOUR LIONS
I'm just going to state this up front: FOUR LIONS is, for me, hands down, the funniest film of the year. Perhaps, the funniest film of the last five years. I can't remember going to see a film comedy and laughing so much I barely paused for breath. After 15 years in British TV, Chris Morris makes a startling feature directorial debut, nailing every single target he aims at, making a mockery of the macabre yet, incredibly, finding the very human side of Islamic extremist terrorism. Some have said he didn't go far enough, that Morris and his co-writers (Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain and Simon Blackwell) pitched it too broad, but I respectfully disagree. From DUCK SOUP taking on Fascism to THE GREAT DICTATOR taking on Hitler, FOUR LIONS continues a strong tradition of using broad yet clever slapstick humour to take on a fearsome, almost unmentionable ideological enemy. In all these cases, the very act of making the film is defiant, subversive and politically charged. But the film itself is also deceptively deft. Sure, our lead characters are ridiculously bumbling, but what is more human than our failings? (Morris' research also led him to discover that most terrorist plots fail due to pure stupid human error. It's the media that want us to believe they're all masterminds. I wonder why that is?) It also paints a comical yet more truthful demographic of your average terrorist: it's not the most devout London Islamics who want to wage a Jihad -- they're out playing football in the park on a weekend -- our would-be terrorists are all fairly working-class and relatively liberal. While the four jihadists are clearly angry at western "imperialist" society, they're very much a part of it, from the Nerf guns Omar (Riz Ahmed) plays with with his son, to explaining their fateful mission to him via THE LION KING. Morris has said that the film was born out of serious research he was doing on Islamic extremist suicide bombers -- not for a film, just to personally understand the phenomenon -- where he kept running into increasingly bizarre anecdotes sourced from MI5/FBI evidence recordings, where budding terrorists would mock other cell members for being too hardline, or ask each other questions like, "Who's cooler: Osama Bin Laden or Johnny Depp?" It's these qualities that bring a hilarious humanity to those we've been conditioned to believe are pure ungodly evil -- a force that we must subjugate our entire way of life to defeat -- when, really, they're just criminally misguided human beings who are manifesting this anger to combat a greater psychological malady: whether that be racial prejudice, socioeconomic marginalisation or lack of tolerance for their religion and customs. FOUR LIONS, in and of itself, isn't overly concerned with finding these answers, but after we've all had a laugh, perhaps -- perhaps -- it can prove a catalyst to ask questions, and may eventually lead to some inkling of an understanding.
2. EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP
This film really snuck up on me. Going in, I had no idea about street art, not really. I knew it had something to do with graffiti and stencils and repeated pictures and motifs. To quote Jack Woltz in THE GODFATHER, let me be even more frank: I had no idea who Banksy was. But I'd heard it was a great documentary, some were even calling it a "prankumentary", so I had to see what this was all about. We're treated to the story of Thierry Guetta, a Los Angeles man who obsessively records every waking moment of his life and everyone he meets. His cousin, a well-known street artist, comes to visit and asks Thierry to film him and his friends in the act. We soon meet his friends, who include Shepard Fairey (he of the "OBEY" faces once plastered around Melbourne and the Barack Obama "HOPE" piece), who Thierry becomes increasingly interested in, and this friendship eventually leads him to the most famed of street artists, the notoriously secretive Banksy. From here, things get really wacky. (No, I'm not telling you any more.) Now, once the film was over, I felt thoroughly entertained and thought it was a fun, satirical little flick that may or may not be complete fact or occasional fiction. It's only in the hours after leaving the film did its thematic tentacles begin weaving its way through my mind: It's a complete potted history of street art. It's a rare chance to see Banksy at work. It's a damning critique on the art world's commercial appropriation of street art, and artists' willingness to sell out. It's Banksy turning on those who have criticised him for selling out. It's a critique on how the dominant art form of the 21st century has become advertising, and that hype is the greatest trick of all. Upon further examination, EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP is revealed to be -- and I say this, honestly, without a shred of hyperbole -- a living, breathing work of absolute genius. There's definitely some documentation of fact here, whether it's 100% fact is the question (Banksy claims it is... but he would, wouldn't he?), but this doesn't concern me so much as the myriad interesting points it makes. I came out of the film much more informed about the evolution (and possible devolution) of street art, thinking about the nature of art in a world dominated by marketing... AND thoroughly entertained. Banksy's film is to documentary what Charlie Kaufman's screenplays are to feature films: it will make you think, question reality, explore your own point of view and laugh like hell. EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP is a depth-charge explosive of a cinematic masterwork, and a documentary to push the form into the 21st century.
1. BLUE VALENTINE
This film hurts my heart. Whether I'm connected to it on some fundamental, cellular level as a child of divorce, or whether I just brought my life thus far of relationships good and bad, thriving and dead, to it, I'm not sure. The triumph of Derek Cianfrance's film -- his second narrative feature, after 1998's little-known BROTHER TIED, as well as a career of documentary filmmaking -- is to seem so achingly intimate, so effortlessly real, that anyone who's been in a relationship will be powerfully affected by some aspect of the story. Everything in this stunning portrait of a dying marriage is geared toward creating a tangible reality, with what seems to be a stunning grasp on human psychology, echoed by Andrij Parekh's stunning, often hand-held cinematography that powerfully evokes family photos (present-day scenes on the RED digital camera, scenes from the past on Super 16mm film), by the mostly subtle musical score from indie band Grizzly Bear and, most of all, by the heartbreakingly human performances of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. As professionally crafted as everything in BLUE VALENTINE is, it rarely feels like a film; it's so intensely relatable, half the time it's like you're watching your friends fall apart, and the other half of the time, you feel you're watching yourself. The couple's happier moments are appropriately lovely, affectionate, funny... but never too much so. Again, nothing feels exaggerated, or sentimental, or poured on, or wilfully depressing; Cianfrance's direction (and he and his co-writers' screenplay) gets everything so right. It's an engrossing, ultimately devastating look at the ways we fall out of love with each other, that refuses to pass judgement or lay blame. Both characters elicit your sympathies, and who you'll relate to more is purely predicated upon your own personal life experiences. It's this kind of emotional truth, unflinching observation and non-judgmental outlook that makes you want to hug the filmmakers for treating the subject matter with such respect, and ultimately reminds us that, sadly, this is how our universal dream of love with another turns out, more often than not. BLUE VALENTINE will cut you in half.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is the punchiest, most viscerally satisfying thriller I saw this year, and introduces the world to a (much needed) international female star in the making in Noomi Rapace. Much more cinematic than the second film in the series.
TOY STORY 3 was yet another example of Pixar's enviable gift for perfect storytelling, provided a fond farewell for our favourite characters and boasted the best scene in any movie in 2010 (the furnace scene, of course)... and if it hadn't leaned so hard upon drawn-out sentimentality in the last 15 minutes, it would have made my Top 5.
THE ROAD's massively effective, inescapably bleak picture of a post-apocalyptic world seems to have been forgotten by many Australian critics at this time of year, considering it released here in February. Viggo Mortensen seems to get better each time he's challenged, and it's an uneasy testament to the effectiveness of this film when you wish death on the lead characters, because you love them and want to spare them another second in this horrible place.
FANTASTIC MR FOX was the first time I'd really enjoyed anything from Wes Anderson since THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. The mannered retro aesthetic and giant daddy issues were once again present, but the stop-motion animation was so charmingly designed and winningly voiced, and the film's spirit so genuinely sweet and unironic, that I'd recommend Anderson take up the form full-time... if I didn't think he'd fall into the same patterns of repetition there.
WINTER'S BONE was a tight, tough, chilling story of a criminal clan that, for me, was a spiritual companion to ANIMAL KINGDOM in many ways, and bested it in most. Jennifer Lawrence is terrific in a breakout lead performance, but it's John Hawkes and Dale Dickey, as her fearsome yet caring uncle and a terrifying Ozark matriarch, that really continue to stick in my head.
And that's my take on film in 2010. Hope you didn't find it too punishing! Feel free to comment and agree/disagree/praise me wildly.
Have a fabulous 2011, as this blog waves goodbye for the final time.
What fresh hell is this?
A semi-regular blog exploring films, popular culture, current or future projects and (more often) year-end wrap-up and opinions from CINEMA VISCERA's co-chief, Paul Anthony Nelson.