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Tuesday, 1 February 2011

2010's Top Pictures

Wherein the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Film Critic Names...
My Top 10 Favourite Films of 2010

By Michael Mconigle
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]

Many apologies for the tardiness of this list, but there were some late releases that I had to see and evaluate before I could write this list up and there were so many good films this year, selecting only ten was a challenge. All of these films played theatrically in Philadelphia within the calendar year of 2010. So, here are the ten films that I liked best; in alphabetical order:

1. All Good Things
I don’t know why this film didn’t get a better critical or box office reception than it did. It has one of Ryan Gosling’s best performances, a labyrinthine plot (based on a true story) that deals with familial conflict, illegal real estate dealings in New York City and the possible murder of a society wife and the definite murder of several other people. Just when I thought I had All Good Things figured out, it changed up and my jaw dropped to the floor. With Kirsten Dunst as the society wife and good old Philip Baker Hall in one of the best roles of his career, toss in three Steely Dan songs in the score and I was totally happy. The real mystery is why this film didn’t get more attention.

2. Animal Kingdom
This astounding Australian crime film takes the notorious revenge/execution murder of two young Melbourne policemen in 1988 as its base and then writer/director David Michod delivers us a film for the ages. By focusing on character and the inter-relations of this creepy family responsible for the cop-killings, Michod and cast show us a truly demented crime family, but like other mythically dysfunctional families, we can’t help watching. Animal Kingdom is moody, stylized, full of visual and sonic surprises and contains some of the most sudden and shocking violence this side of a Martin Scorsese film. With Joel Edgerton as the only sane family member whose murder by the police sets the whole revenge assassination dominoes falling and Ben Mendelsohn as the really crazy brother who does more with simple stillness to terrify you than most actors can do with exaggerated movements. James Frecheville is our guide, a wide eyed innocent thrust into this lions den, Guy Pearce is one of the detectives, but not necessarily one of the good guys and Australian stage actress and current Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver nearly steals the film as the most disarmingly brutal Mom you’ve ever met. But, like any good mother, she loves her boys to death. . .yours I mean. Available on DVD.

3. Babies
This film was widely hated by critics and the pithiest put-down came from a local colleague of mine who said (I paraphrase) “Babies is a screensaver, not a movie”. I disagree. For me, Babies was the biggest surprise of the year. Folks who know me, know that a baby held up to my face is more likely to get bitten than kissed. That said, watching Babies was enthralling. I admired the tough choices made by French filmmaker Thomas Balmes who eschewed all voice over narration and explanations of baby development to simply show us four babies (Hattie, Ponijao, Mari, Bayarjagal) in four parts of the world (San Francisco, Namibia, Tokyo, Mongolia) as they lived through their first year of life. The epiphanies were amazing. Watching Ponijao discover her foot, wow, what’s that? Can I get it into my mouth? Mari trying to put a plastic ring on a round pole and upon failing ending up in a complete crying jag of frustration and anger at the technical world. Hey Mari, just wait till you get to computers! But it is when Bayarjagal at age one, who has been struggling to walk, finally steps up to the top of a small hill in the wind swept plains of Mongolia and stands against the bracing wind on his own two feet and smiles brightly, at that moment, I never felt so proud to be a human being! There is no special effect in Inception nor imaginary vista in Avatar more intoxicating than this moment from Babies. And this is real. Available on DVD.

4. Catfish
A lot of people were confused by Catfish. Was it a documentary or a hoax? Did the events depicted really happen? I believe they did and that the filmmakers took various liberties with the truth to make their story more effective dramatically, which is exactly what every filmmaker does with every film, so why the critics were so parsimonious with credit towards directors Henry Joost, Yaniv and Ariel Schulman is beyond me. Maybe because most people missed the real story of Catfish. Without giving too much away, New York filmmaker Yaniv Schulman (Nev) develops a long distance relationship with a young woman in Michigan on-line and in a stupid move, drives out to see her only to discover she was not at all how she represented herself on Facebook. Then, when Catfish could have turned angry and resentful, it became powerfully human and turned into one of the most positive and uplifting films of 2010, but positive in the good way, not the Ron Howard/Steven Spielberg mushy way. Ideally, it’s best to see Catfish without knowing too much about it to retain the genuine surprises; many films promise surprises, Catfish delivers. Available on DVD.

5. I Am Love
Director Luca Guadagnino has created a film as sensual as any I have seen. The lighting, the camerawork, the costumes, the sets, the music all work to create a mood of restrained opulence for the members of this wealthy industrial family from Milan. But the cool placid exteriors cannot hide the passions burring within various members of this tribe and when outsiders breech the chateau walls, well hold on. The great Tilda Swinton leads a cast of Italian actors and every performance is delightful. Swinton plays a Russian émigré to Italy by way of marriage and yet there is something about her aloofness that is alluring. So much so, she finds herself engaging in a completely inappropriate relationship with a chef friend of her son’s that turns I Am Love from a cool film about adult relationships into a passionate film about adult relationships. Available on DVD.

6. Lebanon
On the first day of the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, we find ourselves in an Israeli tank with a young crew and here is where we stay. Writer/director Samuel Moaz served in a tank during this conflict and Lebanon has the ring of truth to it although, to be honest, I have never been inside a tank. The film makes us believe that everything the tank crew knows about the outside world is gotten through the radio, viewed through their gun sights and portholes or told to them by the surprising number of visitors who literally drop into their space from above. Are they safe in the tank? Can they trust what they are hearing about the outside world? This film has been called Das Boot in a tank, but that is unimaginative and incorrect. Assi the tank commander is indecisive, Hertzel, the ordnance loader never heard an order he wouldn’t argue with, Shmulik, the gunner has never fired at anything other than stationary barrels and Yigal the driver is more prone to call for his Mom in a tense situation than respond to commands from Assi. Das Boot this ain’t. But it is one of the most frightening, terrifying depictions of war ever put on screen. Considering we only see what the tank crew sees, the visual variety is astounding and the sound design of this film is knockout! Believe me, you need to know nothing about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon to understand this film. Lebanon is very powerful and I have seen people leave the theatre genuinely shaken. Available on DVD.

7. Mid-August Lunch
Gianni, a middle aged man who lives with his demanding mother in Rome and drinks way too much white wine is in a bind. His funds are drying up and he owes his landlord money. A solution appears when the landlord is willing to forgive the debt if Gianni will watch his disagreeable mother for a mid-August vacation when everyone leaves Rome. Before Gianni knows it, he is saddled with several other old ladies dumped on him by their families so they can go on vacation. From this unpromising idea springs one of the most delightful and funniest films of the year. Not a laugh out loud comedy, but a film of gentle observations on aging and life and good Italian food. I was thoroughly charmed from beginning to end and I remember more impressive visuals from Mid-August Lunch than anything from Inception. Available on DVD.

8. Patrik, Age 1.5
A gay couple in Sweden want to adopt an infant child. Goran is a mild mannered doctor at a public health clinic and Sven is a former hard partying night owl, settled down to an advertising job. After many interviews and much paperwork, they are approved and the orphaned infant named Patrik, age 1.5 years will soon have two daddies. However, due to a misplaced decimal point, what Goran and Sven get is sullen a 15 year old Patrik, who has a criminal record, is definitely homophobic and is decidedly not a baby. This film could go wrong in so many ways and the miracle is that it doesn’t. Directed by Ella Lenhagen, Patrik, Age 1.5 is a well-written drama with humor, but the humor is not at the expense of the characters. Foster care and orphan placement are difficult issues and not even the Swedes blithely toss infants to gay couples without strict guidelines. This is partly why Patrik has remained in foster care for so long and escapes custody whenever he has a chance. Yet, as we slowly break through Patrik’s shell, we see the years of neglect and parental abuse he endured and the long stretches he spent homeless sleeping in doorways, so we come to understand his wariness about getting close to anyone. Likewise, the Goran and Sven are not a perfect couple either and this adoption really tests their relationship. I was surprised by how serious and moving this story was and thoroughly impressed by the entire cast. But if your expecting wacky hijinx like on a bad sit-com, you will be disappointed, otherwise, see Patrik, Age 1.5 as soon as you can. Available on DVD.

9. Twilight: Eclipse
I like the Twilight films. When people hear me say this, they laugh. But people also laughed at Columbus and Einstein, albeit for different reasons. As much as I enjoyed the first Twilight film, I think three times the charm and Twilight: Eclipse is the one. The actors are more comfortable in their roles, the filmmakers have codified the style of the films, much the same way that Goldfinger, the third James Bond film is often cited as the best in that series, all the stylistic elements that make up the Twilight films have reached a unified level of perfection that is perfect for the stories these films tell. And what stories they are! Exciting, romantic, dramatic, surprising, everything the Lord Of The Rings movies weren’t and everybody praised them. Robert Pattinson continues to amaze me with his portrayal of Edward Cullen, a role that could so easily defeat a less talented actor. I do admit, there are times when Taylor Lautner as the wolfish Jacob sometimes looks like a harmless puppy-dog, but then a hardness falls over his eyes and you can easily believe he’s a killer. Twilight: Eclipse has one of the most emotional and inventive marriage proposal scenes in film history and the freezing night in the tent on the mountaintop with Jacob, Bella and Edward is a robust and arousing scene of lust, yearning and downright funny double entendres, it should become a classic. On top of it all, you have Howard Shore providing one of the best music scores of the year. What can I say, I love this movie and I am not even remotely embarrassed to say so. Available on DVD.

10. Winter’s Bone
Oscar nominated for Best Actress, young Jennifer Lawrence stars in Winter’s Bone as Ree, a young girl trying to find her Daddy so the family won’t forfeit their house which has been put up as a guarantee of his showing up in court for drug charges. But Ree’s search takes her through the most unsavory of back-woods meth dealers and cookers and their wives and families and danger is everywhere. Winter’s Bone has taken a “Film Noir” style plot and transplanted it deep into tarnation country and the result is a hybrid film that knocked my socks off. Along with Lawrence, there is the Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominated John Hawkes as Teardrop, one of the scariest characters you’ll ever met. Director/Co-Writer Deborah Granik has made a crime film with one of the best young heroines I have ever seen in a movie. This film is a must see. Available on DVD.

Honorable Mentions:
A Prophet*, Casino Jack And The United States Of Money*, Exit Through The Gift Shop*, Farewell*, Get Low*, Ghost Writer*, The Girl On The Train*, Harry Brown*, I’m Still Here*, Inside Job*, It’s A Kind Of Funny Story, The Kids Are All Right, The Killer Inside Me*, The King’s Speech, North Face*, Nora’s Will*, Nowhere Boy*, Red Riding Trilogy*, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World*, Terribly Happy*, True Grit, Unstoppable, The White Ribbon*, Winnebago Man*
* Means available on DVD.