The year is a little more than half over. The last of the really highly anticipated summer films, Christopher Nolan’s Inception, has arrived. (OK, there’s some interesting small scale stuff slated to filter in through the rest of the summer, but the theoretically exciting part is winding down to wait for award season.) So I guess it’s time to look at the year to date and see where I’d be if I had to come up with a Ten Best list right now—and if such a thing is even possible. (I haven’t gone through the year’s reviews yet to see—in an effort to build suspense.) I’m not going to try to rank the my picks, but just take them in the order they appeared.
Some of this is tricky because of our relatively provincial status. A couple of titles leap out at me—Pedro Almodovar’s Broken Embraces and Tom Ford’s A Single Man. They would be on the list—and so might Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station—but they actually belong to last year, so they’re in that limbo that’s one of the penalties of rustication. However, there’s a good bit that’s left.
Shutter Island One of the more perplexing decisions of 2009 was bumping Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island from awards season and throwing into the traditionally slack dead of winter. The fact that it did well at the box office might serve to clue the studios in on the fact that the reason people tend stay away from movies at that of year is because the movies traditionally, well, are in the moose felation category. If you give them something they want to see they actually will come out of hiding. Scorsese’s film gave them ample reason to do so, being one of those truly rare thrillers that’s both more than a thriller and one that pays dividends on subsequent viewings. Every time I’ve watched the film, I’ve caught little nuances that escaped my notice on previous screenings. It’s also intriguing to watch the performances around DiCaprio once you know rather than merely suspect the film’s secret. It was the first winner of the year for me and it stands a good shot at ending up in first place come year’s end.
The Ghost Writer Roman Polanski returns after a considerable absence with the best movie he’s made in 31 years—and I like a lot of the films he made between Tess (1979) and this one. The film works as a political thriller in its own right, but is the sort of work that becomes far more meaningful if you’re familiar with Polanski’s other films. It’s not simply that catching allusions to movies like Cul-de-Sac (1966) or Chinatown (1974) or The Tenant (1976) are bound to bring a smile to fans of the director’s body of work. No, there’s more to it than that. The atmosphere remembered from the chilly Cul-de-Sac (finally being released on DVD—in the UK at least—this month) helps set the tone here and makes what happens between the Ewan McGregor and Olivia Williams characters seem almost inevitable in the world of Polanski. The small-scale corruption of Chinatown has gone global in this film. And the theme of loss of identity that permeates The Tenant returns with a lead character so vague in his own existence that he doesn’t even have a name this round. It’s a rich film that, like Shutter Island, only gets better on subsequent viewings. If this doesn’t come in in the top five at the end of the year, it will mean that awards season was very rich indeed.
Mother Put me down as someone who hasn’t been all that impressed by Bong Joon-ho’s films—as well as someone who has been fairly resistant to Korean cinema in general until the past year. That means that Mother came as a complete surprise to me. As with so many of the best films this year—seven of the films on this preliminary list qualify in terms of basic genre—Mother falls into the category of crime/mystery thriller. But, like all the others, it’s more than that. The crimes are unusual to say the least, the thrills are in unexpected places, and there’s a great deal more at work. In many ways, it’s a mother love story (even that is deceptive as a description) and it’s a mother and son story of a kind that ought to be really creepy and somehow isn’t. (The Duplass Brothers think they’re being edgy with Cyrus, but they should watch this film and see that they’re strictly amateur night in mumblecore-land by comparision.) The film works brilliantly by managing to be almost constantly surprising and not simply thwarting our expectations, but coming up with something better than those expectations. But perhaps its greatest achievement stems from its ability to make the viewer like characters who aren’t really likable by making them understandably human.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is another in the parade of mystery thrillers. This one is drawn from a series of popular novels by the late Stieg Larson. In fact, the next in the series, The Girl Who Played with Fire, is slated to open here fairly soon—though it should be noted that it and a third film have a different director and screenwriter, and have been less enthusiastically received by critics in Europe. (This will make little difference—at least at first—to the apparent legion of fans of the books, who helped keep Tattoo on local screens for over two months.) This one is perhaps the thriller on my list that is nearest to being mostly successful by virtue of its mystery—an incredibly and compellingly complex one. I don’t mean that it has no deeper side, however, because as dark and disturbing character studies go, this one is hard to beat.
The Secret in Their Eyes Here’s a film that’s in a curious position. Yes, it snagged (deservedly so) the Best Foreign Language Oscar for 2009, but it nonetheless qualifies as a 2010 release, because it got no general release—this wasn’t just a case of working its way into the hinterlands—until this year. And once again we find ourselves in the realm of the mystery thriller in Juan Jose Campanella’s Argentinian film. It’s also a whole lot more than that, since it’s a love story, a tale of revenge, and a reflection of the corrupt Argentinian government of 25 years ago—and the long shadows cast by that era. It’s also fascinating cinema in the way it shifts back and forth between not only the past and the present, but between the real past and the novelized past that’s being written by the film’s main character. The reality of the characters is one of its strongest qualities. The big revelation near its ending may not be quite the surprise the film would like it to be, but it’s still remarkably chilling. And this is one of the films—as are the ones listed below—on this last that’s still playing locally (it moved from the Fine Arts to the Carolina this week).
Micmacs Though it has certain thriller aspects, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs is in a very different key than the other films on this list that fall into that genre. It’s more of a caper comedy built around an incredibly elaborate revenge scheme. Also, it’s a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film, which means that it crosses the line on more than one occasion into the realm of fantasy—or at least fantastication—and is obsessed with being playfully creative and creatively playful. There are few artists working today who are as completely drunk on the pure joy of cinema for its own sake as Jeunet—and even fewer who are so effortlessly quirky. The key, I think, to this is that the films truly reflect the way Jeunet sees the world. I’d go so far as to call him an obsessive on this score—in the best possible sense. Though this seems to have more in common with his earlier films made with Marc Caro—Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1995)—in stylistic terms, it has the sweeter tone found in his solo efforts like Amelie (2001) and A Very Long Engagement (2004). Also, where the earlier films created their particular separate worlds, this one merely places Jeunet’s world in our own. It’s as if this almost alterante reality exists within the real world, but we don’t know how to see it. In terms of pure enjoyment, this is at the top of my list for the year. And while it’s still playing (at the Carolina), it’s not a title I expect to hold on for weeks on end—I take it you catch my drift.
Winter’s Bone Here we have a movie—again one that qualifies as a mystery thriller—that I was expecting to dislike. Nothing about it sounded appealing to me and all its glowing reviews only served to make me think that this was almost certain to be one of those indies (there are usually two a year) that “everybody” loves and leave me wondering what movie they saw. Add in its reported $2 million budget and I was fully prepared for a grim and physically unappealing film. Well, I was wrong. Instead, I found a rich film on every level—one with deep colors and strong visuals that looked like it cost a lot more than its price tag. The film is compelling on every level. Its mystery works. Its payoff (one that might do service in a horror film) works. The characters and the performances are all first rate. They feel real and director Debra Granik manages to view even the most menacing of her backwoods characters with a degree of sympathy and without a trace of condescension. Beyond that, she manages to end the film on such a note of positive humanity that Winter’s Bone packs an emotional wallop of surprising power.
I Am Love Here we have a film that is in no way a mystery thriller, though it is certainly thrilling as filmmaking. Since this operatic work from Luca Guadagnino starring Tilda Swinton doesn’t open (apart from the this Wednesday’s Asheville Film Society members-only screening) till Friday at the Carolina, and since my review of it won’t appear till the Wednesday edition of the Xpress, I’m not about to go into great detail here. I will say that it’s glorious in its visuals and sensual in a way we rarely see in movies these days. It also boasts the most fascinating musical score—taken from the works of American composer John Adams—I’ve heard all year, with the possible exception of Scorsese’s use of the works of (mostly) modern composers on Shutter Island.
Inception It’s back to the mystery thriller—with a variant on the heist movie mixed in—with Christopher Nolan’s Inception. This is another film where my review won’t be out till Wednesday and about which I don’t want to say much here. Let me say that this may well be Nolan’s masterpiece. I usually find Nolan to be on the overrated side (unless, of course, it involves fanboys slugging it out over Nolan vs. James Cameron, in which case I’ll always take Nolan’s side). I like his two Batman pictures less and less as time goes by, but I like his The Prestige more every time I see it. I suspect Inception will come under that heading. Time will tell. This is the reverse scenario of the “what movie were they watching?” feeling I referred to above in connection with overrated movies. Here I find myself looking at reviews—often by people I respect—complaining about the film’s lack of emotional connection and find myself wondering what movie they saw, but for very different reasons.
So there we have nine preliminary—and subject to change (after all, Friedberg and Seltzer’s Vampires Suck isn’t out yet)—choices for my Ten Best list for 2010. I could have fudged a little and come up with a tenth by adding The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans, Vincere, Solitary Man, Mother and Child or possibly Harry Brown, but I don’t quite feel it. Maybe a late-in-the-year reassessmet of those would change that on at least one of the titles (I’ll keep the most likely one to myself for now). Anyway, nine titles is one up from last year at this time—and the fact that I found five more to seriously consider tells me that 2010 hasn’t at all been a bad year, and that awards season has a lot to live up to.