BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC 2010! What a confounding year politically-speaking, and a similarly confused, bleak and exciting year for film as well. I can never quite get into movie critic character, striding down from the mountaintop and proclaim “The Twelve Greatest Films of the Year!” But here’s a dozen films I’d like to remember from 2010, realizing that the market ubiquity of successes like David Fincher’s The Social Network and Aronofsky’s Black Swan (both of which I really liked) will make those films unavoidable for the next decade.
What could be more universal than a depiction of life after death? Enter the Void follows the path of the spectral soul of a young drug dealer as he floats through the events of his life after being shot down in the bathroom of a Toyko nightclub. Or is this all just his opium dream as he nods out reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead? A real live French “enfant terrible,” Gasper Noe’s meditation on death is part Kubrick 2001 light show and part domestic psychodrama, as we piece together the biography of this dealer and younger sister, as they carry a near-incestuous bond through their orphaned childhood and into the dark side of this neon-glow Tokyo club culture. A wonder to see in a packed theater, where the audience was pin-silent, finally leaving their seats in a muttering, disturbed chatter.
Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop was another mind-bender whose final twist I did not realize until days after I wrote my original review. While the film purports to be a profile of an obsessive Banksy fan who steals and commercializes Banksy “appropriated” and anti-commercial street style, it was only after long reflection that I recognized the prankster put-on at it’s heart. I mean, don’t impostors always hide behind over-sized mustaches, like the one that Banksy-stalker Thierry Gueta wears? Best visual-artist-turned-director since Julian Schnabel.
Four Lions is British humorist Chris Morris’ first feature and a real masterpiece of comic tone. How else do you turn the cultural boogeyman of our day, the suicide terrorist, into not just a funnyman but a poignant and recognizable human? The final scene of these bumblers laying siege on a city running marathon in amusement park-style animal suits is one of the great comic suspense scenes in film history, and if the audiences stunned silence made me stifle my giggles, it gave me hope that one day, even a scene this bleak will all seem as nostalgically amusing as The Russians Are Coming.
The French crime film A Prophet features another empathetic Muslim character. We never know much about Malik’s past, but when the prison guards first strip him down he has a thick maze of scars on his body, like a soul born in sin. We follow his formative years in prison, as a go-between for Sardinian and Muslim gangs. He learns to kill and learns to feel and we finally gain respect for him as he finally transforms into his own man.
The intense German relationship drama Everyone Else defies easy description. It is a Bergman-close look at a late twenty-something couple whose emotional baggage is spread out everywhere during a long vacation. But if the premise sounds familiar it is director Maren Ade’s deep understanding of what drives her hunky couple that gives the film such a punch. The insecurities and amorous gamesmanship that it revealed will make your body physically shrink with recognition.
Also recognizable are the good folks we meet in No One Knows About Persian Cats, the Iranian film that follows the band “Take It Easy Hospital” as they negotiate playing Western-style music in a totalitarian state. With all the demonization Iran withstands these days, it seems radical to meet smart young characters who, much like us, just want to enjoy themselves and ignore their government’s insanity. This film was scheduled to play Philly, but then sadly disappeared from the schedule without warning.
There is so much attention given to the office of the Presidency that our “Great Man” narrative neglects the crucial day-to-day governance that goes on in the Senate and The House. Although ostensibly a profile of convicted super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney’s Casino Jack and the United States of Money gives us the play-by-play on exactly the path money takes as it corrupts our political system. The film’s journalistic veracity is rock solid, but Gibney has a knack for storytelling that captures the everyday ludicrousness of his subject’s life, a movie-loving man who fancied himself as part Bogart/part Dolph Lundgren, and arguably had more power than any politician in Washington.
I doubt I had more fun in a theater this year than when I saw Gone With the Pope at the Danger After Dark festival this year. The film was shot in 1975, written, directed and starring the friends of Palm Springs Lounge singer Duke Mitchell, and his sense of humor and dare-I-say “dynamic” sense of style, dominates every second. Some of the fun comes from the cast’s incompetent performances yet other moments are truly funny, outrageous and engaging. The plot involves Duke as a hitman who takes his old prison buddies on a round-the-world cruise, climaxing with the kidnapping and ransom of The Pope. A labor of love, only recently assembled by Academy Award-winning editor Bob Murtowski (The Hurt Locker, Spider-Man).
I hadn’t seen anything like A Town Called Panic, which beautifully sustains its 75-minute animated story following a toy cowboy and Indian into an adventure that takes them from their farm to an adventure in middle earth. Watch a kid play with their action figures and you’re bound to get a flash of id-driven surrealistic madness. Director/animators Stéphane Aubier & Vincent Patar capture that spirit by the tail and like a Paul Reubens daydream, they don’t let go until they’ve transcended time and matter with a dizzying fervor. Ingenious enough to make children and adults laugh on exactly the same level.
Director Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard takes a child’s perspective on the gruesome romantic fairytale. The story is told by a red-headed little girl to her pre-adolescent sister. Intercut is an intimate period telling of the tale, imagining older versions of the sisters trapped in the web of the castle-dwelling Bluebeard. In others hands this would be a standard, pretty European “art film” but Briellat, as usual, makes it immediate and real, with Dominique Thomas making for a mournful and oddly-empathetic wife murderer. Breillat also takes her own twist on the ending, satisfying both the tragic and triumphant.
There is something uniquely unnerving about watching adults act like children (which might explain people discomfort with Jerry Lewis’ movies), making the Greek psychodrama Dogtooth a particularly difficult film the watch, despite its not being particularly graphic. A man keeps his twenty-something kids in isolation on their walled estate, feeding them a personally-warped vocabulary and keeping them as ignorant as children. When a visitor is hired by the father, his perverse domestic experiment quickly goes wrong. Director Yorgos Lanthimos keeps the direction as simple and disciplined as his subject’s lives, which makes it all the more shocking as things spiral out-of-control.
Just saying the title Trash Humpers seems to offend anyone with which I discuss the film, showing us that director Harmony Korine has not lost that special disturbing touch. Korine’s most recent film, 2008’s Mister Lonely, was downright elegant at points, making a real contrast to his latest, which is made to look like a found object, shot on a home VHS camcorder. As the screen occasionally distorts and flashes a message to adjust the tracking, Korine shows us a trio of his own brand suburban zombies, set free from the narcotic power of television and wearing creepy old age masks. Dancing, chanting and singing, the trio wander around late at night, vandalizing, smashing and humping everything in their industrialized netherworld. Deceptively well-shot and organized (there is a plot of sorts, and two telling monologues about the desperation of American life), Korine’s latest takes us to places contemporary film rarely dares, while building on his catalog of outsider communities.
Much pleasure was also to be found in André Génovès‘ two-part Mesrine saga, the rare biopic in which the trip down is as engaging as the ride up; Noboru Iguchi’s inspired mayhem in Robogeisha; Noan Baumbach’s ode to post-slacker angst, Greenberg; Alex Gibney’s other highly relevant political doc, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer; Debra Granik’s meth Western, Winter’s Bone; Bong Joon-ho’s unlikely detective tale, Mother; the Aussie modern noir, The Square; Kim Ji-woon’s rousing Korean blockbuster, The Good, the Bad and the Weird; and the completely indefensible mad scientist update, The Human Centipede. If I have one howling complaint, it is the rise of theaters use of digital projection, trading away the very richness of the medium for that unblinking look that is “just good enough” so most won’t notice its inferior image. Here’s to a 2011 that keeps fighting the era of diminished expectations…