Being a self-proclaimed film critic is not an easy occupation, although it sounds like one. Unlike your average established film scribe whose words are scrawled across newspapers and movie magazines, I am unpaid, hence often undervalued and perhaps even undermined by many other folks that thrive on this pursuit. And yet, I carry on – as this is not just about flicks, popcorns, money and movie blather, but so much more than that. This is fucking passion, man. This is about swimming the underground currents of liberal, freethinking film criticism, trudging over the mainstream wasteland and traversing the less-travelled road of arthouse terrain. This is about scouring the vast, multifarious landscapes of cinema, seeking the hidden gems amongst blockbuster spunk and well-worn releases. If anybody in cinema of 2010 gave the best exemplification of what moviegoing is about, it’s Julianne Moore. “It’s a fucking marathon,” she spits, denouncing marriage life in the sleeper-hit The Kids Are All Right.
Film criticism is a marathon. It’s like a marriage of sorts, a lifetime commitment. When you fall in love with cinema, you fall in love with life, and everything that comes along with it. You just take everything. Yes, even the shit. But that’s part of the picture. 2010 had been a rollercoaster ride. Life has thrown me into a deep end, and my passion for cinema has somehow played second fiddle despite all my best efforts. Aside from juggling too many things at once, I play catch-up with film releases whilst keeping this blog’s lifeline steady. This is too important for me to be eternally eviscerated into a mere “hobby” old-man’s wasteland. And I’m not even old yet, dammit. Come the awards season, the need to cover a long list of films started nagging like a furious bitch. Turns up this passion is inextinguishable, really. So to shut this bitch up, here I am rolling the not-so-red carpet for my Top 10 Films of 2010.
It’s a year of genuinely compelling female performances, quite spectacular in recent memory – wherever you look, across continents, there are bravura women giving top-drawer acting (that would make Christian Bale look like overplaying it in The Fighter) – Natalie Portman, Isabelle Huppert, Tilda Swinton, Hye-ja Kim, Noomi Rapace, Do-yeon Jeon, Jennifer Lawrence, Anette Bening, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Nicole Kidman, all overshadowing the male performer. Perhaps only Colin Firth, Jeff Bridges and Jesse Eisenberg gave truly multi-layered male performances.
HONOURABLE MENTIONS (in no particular order): The Ghost Writer, The Kids Are All Right, Blue Valentine, The Secret In Their Eyes, Winter’s Bone, True Grit, L’illusioniste (The Illusionist), The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Secret Sunshine, White Material, Alamar (To The Sea), A Single Man, Toy Story 3, Never Let Me Go, A Town Called Panic, Exit Through The Gift Shop, Inside Job
(Note: There’s a caveat: I haven’t seen Mike Leigh’s Another Year, which has recently garnered compelling acclaims. Which is a total bummer, as I love Leigh and completely missed its theatre runs. So this list isn’t finished, until I see it.)
Colin Firth has played all sorts of upper-class toffs throughout the years, hence ostensibly perfecting that Mr. Darcy prototype with impeccable stiff upper-lip smugness. But how in the hell he manages to pass, in flying colours, as a stuttering monarch without that showboating Method ostentatiousness is beyond belief. And how the hell Tom Hooper transforms this could-have-been another stuffy Sunday tea-time costume drama about privileged royals with some sort of dilemma (propaganda, anyone?) into a latter-day Rocky set in Buckingham Palace is a still-to-be-pontificated miracle. And despite of its utter Britishness, The King’s Speech is surprisingly no pompous, flag-waving parade of empty jingoistic extravaganza – it’s a wonderfully awe-inspiring reworking of a rather familiar underdog narrative, albeit with a blue-blood as its protagonist with a very recognisable human flaw. What makes “Bertie” truly sympathetic is his undying spirit of finding his voice, despite being eternally bullied by his domineering father and his taunting twat of a brother. Here is a dysfunctional family drama wrapped in sublime velvet, with a buddy movie at its core, an unorthodox Australian speech therapist and a King with low self-esteem. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush makes an magnetic onscreen duo, all with brilliantly written verbal wordplays and sparring, but it’s Firth who takes the shining beacon home. His is a timeless, exquisitely performed piece of silver screen acting that deserves all gold. The pain you see in Firth’s eyes as he struggles to find words is transcendent, and his joyous first-time ejaculation of swearwords is just priceless classic cinema.
John Cameron Mitchell, he of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus fame, could have made a shameless grief-porn out of David Lindsay-Abaire’s stageplay in a Lars von Trier provocative mould. But in a subtle and graceful move, he’s crafted a surprisingly tender, humane and sensitive film that deftly observes parental grief. And this is from an agent provocateur whose canon is composed of sexually deviant cinema. Rabbit Hole isn’t so much wailing-over-a-dead-child screenplay workshop as road-to-healing actors’ ensemble, allowing the actors to fully flesh out their characters’ barely concealed inner turmoils without histrionics, portraying the humans involved here with such unflinching emotional honesty. Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart create a genuinely convincing couple licking their wounds, but this is really Kidman’s show, making a career resuscitation with an astonishingly no-nonsense performance. Her Becca is a raw, open wound – vulnerable, yet fiercely and brutally straightforward – a woman whose grief has cast a long shadow on her existence, and yet desperately tries to find hope amid despair. Its sombre beauty will haunt you for quite a while.
Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine may have gained acclaim as the relationship drama of the year in the Stateside, but that film looks contrived and too self-conscious for its own good when placed beside this Scandinavian gem. Arguably the superior, more restrained yet never less compelling cinematic cousin, Maren Ade eschews auteur conceits and even actorly self-puffing Method egotism to focus on this intelligent cine-essay about the eternal war between social respectability and intimate individuality. Where most American break-up movies of late tries to map out the boy-meets-girl convention by incorporating timeline rejig as if trying to decipher where affairs went wrong, Everyone Else remains defiantly European, even Berman-esque in its approach, turning this ironically sun-kissed holiday-from-hell episode into a gruellingly authentic, rigorously structured, introspective portrait of a relationship on the rocks that provides no easy answers, justifications nor tidy conclusions. This is a quiet, slow-burning film that rarely launch fireworks – but when you open up your heart and mind, its excruciating truth will hit you. That heart-wrenching last line “Look at me” just makes it very clear that individuality, aside from communication and compromise, fuels the fires of the best of relationships and that love, no matter how indefinite, uncertain or elusive, must not be dictated by the outside world or by ‘everyone else’.
Screw Toy Story 3. This is the must-watch animated film of 2010. Mary & Max takes stop-motion animation into higher, more ambitious grounds, tackling dauntingly dark themes that could make your Pixar wizards run for their lives and retreat into their rainbow-coloured pixel dreamland. Sure, Toy Story 3 portrayed the demise of childhood and even Up tantalisingly danced with ageing and death itself, but never has an animated film that boldly confronts issues of depression, Asperger’s syndrome, suicide, social isolation, loneliness, alcoholism, and everything else that makes your average Tim Burton film look like Care Bears fluff. But this is no bleak-ploitation – it’s a heartwarming, hilarious and touchingly realistic story of intercontinental pen-pals whose isolated existences brought these two lonely souls together for a lifetime friendship despite the distance that separates them. We laugh, we cry, we feel pity – but never at the expense of the characters, and in a remarkably compassionate turn, it allows us to see beauty and love in the most grotesque, most incomprehensible types of human existence. And that, in itself, is a goddamn achievement in the world of animated films.
Of all films listed here, this Greek import is perhaps the most blazingly unconventional. Dogtooth may be easily seen as another exercise in provocative shock-cinema, belonging to those types that mutilate and literally rape audience’s eyeballs and morality such as Noé’s Irreversible and von Trier’s Antichrist, but at closer inspection, there’s an entirely profound beast lurking beneath its surface. Yes, this exploration of a closed-off middle-class isolationism is bizarre, almost absurd, and shockingly violent, but director Lanthimos superbly uses these very elements to comment on the more absurd and shockingly violent and inhumane nature of social conditioning, parental fascism and disrespect of the human liberty to knowledge. This bravely essays that ignorance, misinformation and misguidance of tyrannical parents (read: authority) are the sole creator to a chaotic, savage worldview. Here, three child-adolescents are forced to live in a fenced-ring Grecian villa (actually a fortress) and were forcibly taught that a zombie is a cute flower, a pussy is not a vagina but a lamp and that Frank Sinatra is their Uncle. Any sign of disagreement to this instigated “norm” means homegrown DIY capital punishment. It’s a horrific, harrowing and ultimately unsettling viewing experience, not for its violence but for the context wherein violence is applied. Above all, Dogtooth is a towering political and social indictment of the madcap culture of fascism, may it be fomented at home or an entire nation, showing us a fearless glimpse into one of humanity’s bleakest moral cruelties – social control.
On paper, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan reads like a ludicrous, head-smacking equivalent of a cinematic blender, throwing in Rosemary‘s Baby, Suspiria and The Red Shoes into the mix with a dash of All About Eve, a backstage psychodrama about psychotic ballerinas in tutus going apeshit about prima rivalry, professional obsession and en pointe perfection. It’s psychotically deranged, no doubt, but also gloriously, flamboyantly cinematic, turning the airy-fairy, hoity-toity ballet world around its head, making for a dark, delirious, brooding and harrowing viewing experience in signature Aronofsky style, capturing complex ballet sequences with some superbly choreographed camerawork, sending cameras pirouetting around dancers. Clearly inspired by The Red Shoes, this makes Powell and Pressburger’s grim fairy-tale ballet masterpiece look like Barbie and the Nutcracker. Here, we witness perhaps one of cinema history’s most compellingly distressing nervous breakdowns (alongside Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby and Björk in Dancer in the Dark), magnificently performed by one Natalie Portman, whose sheer commitment to go through this diabolical ordeal is a testament to this actor’s range. It’s an emotionally taxing and physically demanding role, and yet Portman captures every moment of Nina’s emotional and psychological turmoil without reducing the character into merely a deluded, melodramatic lunatic in ballet shoes. Her progressive descent into madness is breathtakingly precise, commanding sympathy out of her disillusioned subjectivity in this fucking tour-de-force of a movie.
If anything, Inception is a formidable, towering monolith amongst clunky, weightless pretenders borne from the Hollywood stink-machine, throwing up whatever cinematic sputum onscreen – whether it be blowing some shit up, recycling ideas after another, spewing out remakes upon sequels upon formulas upon plot conventions upon infinite boredom – all designed to cash in some multi-million mega-bucks revenues in exchange for your brain. Inception does blow some shit up, but never at the expense of that sexy think-tank organ. Sure, Christopher Nolan’s brainfucking all of us – but at least he’s acknowledging his audience’s intelligence without ever insulting it, and that is remarkable enough even for your average commercial fodder. It’s anything but average – it flips, fries, tosses and turns your brain around seven ways to Sunday, an experience that will have you emerging out of a cinema odeon staggering. At its core is a corporate espionage tale that works like a heist thriller, as if The Thomas Crown Affair meets Memento, albeit using the power and logic of dreams and memory as framework to this dazzlingly inventive thrill-extraordinaire. Nolan fabricates an ambitious central conceit, nodding from Kubrick to Lynch, with a “dream-wrapped-up-in-a-dream-within-a-dream” narrative that impressively showcases Nolan’s consummate skill as a filmmaker and screenwriter (and showman), with complex sequences handled with technical authority and cut-throat blockbuster precision. Anyone who hasn’t seen this is greatly missing an enthralling ride. This might not be Great Art, but it’s one hell of a jaw-dropper.
Out of the razzle-dazzle of 2010’s cinematic whippersnappers, here’s a miniature, unassuming film all the way from South Korea that excellently manipulates and celebrates the legacy of Hollywood genre moviemaking, rivalling Aronofsky’s Black Swan as the year’s best made genre piece. Director Bong (who gave us the giddily entertaining sci-fi political satire The Host) fuses an eclectic mix of neo-noir elements, murder-mystery whodunnit, crime procedural movie, black comedy and melodrama, boldly swathing several genres at once, yet curiously, defiantly remains unique and singular. It uses this heady mix to peel layers upon layers of social mores and complex family dysfunctions and finally revealing a truly heart-wrenching tragedy beneath. The titular Mother (Kim gives a complex, multi-layered, expressionistic work of powerhouse acting) may command comparisons with Mildred Pierce, matriarchs crusading to protect their youngling, but this Mother is a more intricate, morally complex force-of-nature. She’s not only a doting mother looking after a mentally-challenged son, but also a sleuth, an anti-heroine, a femme fatale who goes against the police force and society with such astonishingly fearless fortitude to prove her son’s innocence of a local murder. Bong employs a self-conscious portrait of a maternal love in turmoil, forcing us to ask ourselves the limits in which mothers can sacrifice their selves for the sake of their cubs, powerfully summarising Mother‘s thesis in its final tragic shot: an act of selfless love comes with a price – mothers who sacrifice their selves end up quietly suffering for the sins of their sons. It’s a heartbreaking lamentation on motherhood.
Let’s get this one out of the way first – The Social Network, as perhaps millions of people would attest, isn’t a film about Facebook. If it is, it would’ve turned into a globe-zapping lecture about media ethics, corporate proprietorship, and the pros-and-cons of modern communication, preachifying whether it has diminished/enhanced the way we, earthlings, socialise with each other. This is not a documentary mapping out Facebook’s effects on the hip, technocratic generation, but rather an exceptional human drama of the ramifications of Facebook on its progenitor Mark Zuckerberg and his socially deteriorating life. As all cinephiles would know very well, cinema is more compelling when the personal becomes political. Now uber-hailed as a “generation movie”, subtitled as “Citizen Zuckerberg”, there is no denying this film’s zeitgeist-nailing resonance – that this phenomenal, culture shaping online platform has connected the otherwise disconnect world, to which the great cultural irony of it all lies on Zuckerberg – a socially dysfunctional man, who operates like a misunderstood genius crossed with a corporate arsehole, treating people around him like properties, business enterprise, digits, numbers, and not as human beings. And it says so much about how this world live right now. It’s a cultural portrait so vividly, exuberantly drawn through Aron Sorkin’s fiercely erudite screenplay and David Fincher’s pitch-perfect direction that shows us what good American cinema is about. And like good, even great, American narrative, all the Kanes and Gatsbys mirror themselves up to their latter- day reincarnation in Zuckerberg, essentially a modern Prometheus who brought an advancement to mankind, yet ends up in a tragedy of his own making. Money has no match for that Rosebud.
Until now, perhaps only a very few would have seen this sumptuous Italian melodrama where Tilda Swinton, an actor of avante-garde proportions, shows off her dynamos by playing a Russian matriarch who married into a family of Italian aristocrats. That probably sounds a bit rich for most Oscar voters, who all criminally snubbed I Am Love out of this year’s Best Foreign Film race. It’s neither an issue film nor a generational movie (Fincher’s The Social Network is currently sitting on that throne), and neither showboating histrionics nor mere awards-bait. Instead, Guadagnino, whose film palpably possess a supreme understanding of cinema as an artform, operating visuals, tone and story to spellbinding precision, pays homage to the old masters – Douglas Sirk, Luchino Visconti, Alfred Hitchcock, and Michelangelo Antonioni, fusing grand old Hollywood with a distinctly European aesthetic. In the name of High Art, this nails number one in my list. It’s a gloriously opulent, exquisite filmmaking rarely made today, unhurried, carefully mounted and fluidly shot. Anyone with a cineaste’s eye would see beauty in every frame and poetry in its operatic grace. At its core is an eternally-fought war between tradition and modernity, between class respectability and personal liberty to happiness, in which the grand, ancient tapestry of the Recchi clan, a bunch of uber-rich, well-groomed bourgeois who owns a swathe of the Milanese textile industry, is swept by the winds of change. Think Visconti’s The Leopard with the emotional undertow of a Sirk melodrama. The result is a stylish, heart-rending journey into a woman’s self-awakening, with Swinton’s Emma transforming from an impeccably-dressed yet pale wallflower to an earthy, liberated woman claiming her long-held carnal passion for love and life. Swinton, arguably the most fascinating actor working in the industry today, makes Emma a force-of-nature to reckoned with. We get a sense that her Emma, a wife and a mother, remains an outsider despite her position in the clan, and her evocation of emotional freedom is unravelled through Hitchcockian moments of an illicit affair, through which Guadagnino mounts a superb sense of pacing, taking this film into a tragic, heart-wrenching crescendo, a full-blown orchestra of misunderstandings, alienation and subsequent liberation. This refined piece of human artefact in the Recchi gallery of solid traditions learns to free herself from repression, a Russian tempest that was laid dormant from marriage, responsibilities and total subservience. It’s gorgeously sublime, liberating stuff – a film whose message is an antithesis of The Social Network‘s, beautifully demonstrating an individual’s pursuit of personal happiness over social conventions and capital wealth. I Am Love is what this world needs right now.