My Top 10 Movies of 2010 – The List
Okay, here’s the deal. I had a perfectly formed, wonderfully tight Top 10, and a self-imposed ban on seeing any more 2010 movies until this list was up, so as not to upset the balance. But I am a weak, weak man, and I just couldn’t resist the lure of, well, you’ll see. Things got complicated. So, like a Mormon bigamist with too many wives, this Top 10 actually contains eleven films. Stick your conformity, man! My love for movies can’t be controlled!
In the spirit of openness, there are a few movies I haven’t seen yet that I’m presuming I’d probably dig, so the likes of Jackass 3, which would undoubtedly have gotten a placing, just aren’t here because I haven’t seen them yet. Okay – onward!
Like when dudes fancy women who subconsciously remind them of the one that got away, The Town is intuitively reminiscent of movies you already love. It has the heist-buddies in wacky masks of Point Break, the tense cops vs. crooks shoot-outs of Heat, and the Bah-stan accents of, well, not Good Will Hunting – because “It’s not your fault.” – but let’s say…The Departed. I’m a sucker for groups of blokes that have a hair-trigger psycho, as overdone as that is, and Jeremy Renner, who I wasn’t sold on in the wildly overrated Hurt Locker, elicits a fabulous amount of unpredictable terror with his brooding ways. In what is usually a problem for me watching movies, there’s a love story in The Town. In fact, that’s really what the movie was sold on, but it’s surprisingly understated, and not the Romeo and Juliet “our eyes met through a ski-mask across a bank counter” tragi-love I feared. For what is; a pretty ridiculous romantic premise, it’s somehow kept mostly in the realms of believability. This may be down to some stellar work from Rebecca Hall, who is always great; in fact, the whole cast is pretty sweet, with Chris Cooper, prettyboy Affleck himself, Pete Postlethwaite, and the awesome Titus Welliver from Lost – sorry, Lah-st.
There’s one particular scene – involving a tattoo – that really shocked me with how tense I was. It’s no basement scene from Inglourious Basterds, but my knuckles were popping nonetheless. And for what’s essentially a character-piece, The Town has some great action sequences, most notably with a lengthy shoot-out, and, in a scene that harked back to the one in the aforementioned Point Break, the best car chase of the year. I should point out that I watched the extended director’s cut, so maybe the theatrical version had, like, a Matt Damon-voiced CGI grizzly bear that tended a bar and gave sage advice that killed the movie for everyone else.
I have to admit that going into this, I wasn’t sold on Omid Djalili as a performer. He’s been doing that “speaking in an Iranian accent, then hilariously revealing himself as a well spoken middle-class Englishman” joke for twelve years. He got his own BBC1 series after being a known face for a full decade and still wheeled out that same old opener. In the first two episodes. Add in the Money Supermarket ad campaign, and truth be told, I found him to be quite irritating. In The Infidel, Djalili won me over immediately. There’s a real deft comic touch to his performance, which perfectly straddles that dangerous line of being so broad that the underlying themes lose their impact, or too far in the other direction, sapping the laughs. Djalili is one of the most typecast performers there is, and The Infidel gave him an opportunity to display sides to his ability which really haven’t been utilised up until now, At one point, there’s some really great physical business with a desk, which lifted my wig up like an old factory whistle with how abruptly funny it was.
Ideas of religion and cultural identity are tricky, with too many artists either pandering their work to worries that they’re going to offend someone, or tiresomely going out of their way to deliberately do just that. It’s a hugely difficult set of issues to tackle without being crass or cloying, which The Infidel never is. They’re also such well-trodden and crumbly old paths that there’s not a lot left to say. Muslims have been the topic of choice for a decade now, and tales of Jewish identity are hardly new either, so to tackle those ideas and tie them together in a fresh way is quite a challenge.
Writer of The Infidel and old playground hero of mine, David Baddiel – who must have done an insane amount of research – bypasses the hoary old chestnuts and takes everything in an interesting direction. While there are bearded Muslim extremists, a Bar Mitzvah, and even David Schneider as an outraged Jewish father, The Infidel consistently steers away from the obvious in favour of some cracking gags and classic British pathos, and while the final act is a tiny bit out-there, in no way does it feel out of place in what is at heart, a very funny comedy. There’s also the most unexpected reference of the year, bizarrely, to investigator of the 1970s Enfield poltergeist case, Maurice Grosse. The Infidel would make a nice companion piece to something which will be cropping up later in this list, Four Lions.
I guess you could call it a road movie, in the most wrong of senses. I mean, there are people, and they are trapped together in a vehicle going on a journey, but nobody’s confusing a buttock crevice for pillows in Lebanon. With the audience never leaving the confines of the tank, and only ever glimpsing the outside world through the gun-sight of the turret, Lebanon is incredibly claustrophobic, and yet, not gimmicky. Don’t mistake “It’s an entire movie inside a tank!” as a high-concept pitch, it’s more that; as the audience, we’re trapped in there with them, and the longer the movie goes on, the more we’re climbing the walls. It’s not an exercise in finding ways to keep the restrictive space interesting, because the the journey itself, literal and emotional, is compelling enough.
Lebanon is a story about real emotions, and terror that’s way more human and genuine than the plastic titted screamers in a slasher. Among the slew of war movies in the last few years, the portrayal of fear in young men in front-line combat often gives way to Call of Duty-cool posturing, or “I CAN’T DO THIS, MAN!” “Get a hold of yourself, kid!” awfulness. Not so in Lebanon. One character is doing the whole “This is my last tour, I’m going home tomorrow!” deal, which in a lesser movie is just a reason to tune out because you know where it’s going, but Lebanon has such a heightened sense of realism and empathy that there’s an urgency to his situation you’ll never feel in those regular Danny-Glover-is-retiring-tomorrow situations.
The heelish Commander is one of the most despicable yet frighteningly real characters of the year, sporadically dropping in from the outside world like an invading force to remind them, and us, that they’re way more trapped by circumstance than they are the walls of the tank. That magnificent bastard is at the centre of the most powerful scene, where, in the aftermath of a pitched battle that destroys a town, he covers the naked body of screaming woman whose clothes have literally been exploded away. There’s a glimmer of humanity as he wraps her in a blanket, but the sheer futility of such kindness during conflict is acknowledged by his cold helplessness as the cries for her missing baby wash over him like she doesn’t even exist. Lebanon is a brutal, brutal film, both emotionally and viscerally, and when the credits roll, it’s like coming up for air, but you’ll be enriched for having survived through it all.
This text feels pretty redundant, as it’s hard to find anything new to say about what was probably the most discussed movie of the year. I considered purely having this entry be a 1,000 word piece of erotic fiction involving me and Ellen Page, aka my future wife, as in this excerpt:
“Millard, you’re so great,” she said, huffing a strand of soft, brown hair out of her eyes with the side of her mouth, “but why do you always cry after we do it?”
But I should probably say something about the film instead. At the time, I was in no real rush to watch it again, and the final act bordered on starting to drag, with the ‘kicks’ seeming to go on for so long, I felt like I was fifteen dream levels deep, but overall, quite awesome. Oh, God. Do you see what I’m doing? I’ve fallen into that trap when talking about things that were hugely popular that I also liked, of back-peddling and hunting for reasons why it wasn’t the greatest movie ever, rather than why it was my eighth best movie of the year. I can’t allow myself to be one of those pricks who disowns a band once other people have heard of them, so I’d better find positive things to say. I loved how unabashedly big it was. Inception wasn’t afraid to throw itself straight into grand ideas, and a scale that was epic both in terms of visual design and the inner logic that governed its world. Concepts which could easily have become jumbled, were so perfectly executed as to escape IMDB messageboard hell – ambiguous ending aside – where nobody could unravel what was going on. There are some stunningly imaginative set-pieces, in particular, the scenes where Leo and Ellen bend Paris down onto itself like a rolled up newspaper, which I think will stand out as one of the cinema-defining shots in the decades to come. Although, as innovative as it was, I did have to ditch something I’d written myself when a stack of suspiciously identical ideas cropped up. Stay out of my head, Nolan! Incidentally, if The Dark Knight Rises features an evil janitor who’s fallen into a vat of radioactive urinal cakes, you know he’s been rooting around in my mind again. I really need a totem. Anyway, back to the important stuff.
“I’ll never leave you,” said Ellen, “As the skies crack, the sun burns black and falls into the boiling oceans, and the universe folds into a silent scream, I will remain at your side. We shall always be as one. But that’s mostly because you have stitched us together like some awful conjoined twin. Oh, are you crying again?”
I’d been hyped about this for a long time, written and directed as it was by Sandy Collora, who blew the stale-jizz stinking, Hentai-addled minds of nerds everywhere in 2003 with his fabulous Batman: Dead End fan-film. Hunter Prey has a really stripped down 70’s vibe, with a washed out desert locale and scuffed up armour, and even make-up effects that hark back to Sci Fi in the days before George Lucas went coo-coo for CGI and ruined it for everyone, and all without looking dated.
At its core, Hunter Prey is a cat and mouse chase movie, but with an expectation-fucking twist and some nice reversals of the usual genre clichés. It’s clearly been strongly influenced by Enemy Mine, which is no bad thing, although the plot machinations perhaps go a little too far in the final act. Unfortunately it seems like Hunter Prey got buried, going straight to DVD with a silent level of fanfare that seems more appropriate for the surprise birthday party of a serial sex offender. The cover looks like some awful SyFy original, so it’s hard to see the smarter audience that would most likely appreciate it ever discovering it. Go seek it out.
Somewhat of a spiritual kin to Herzog’s Aguirre, Valhalla Rising is a metaphorical Styx ferry journey through increasingly desolate landscapes, both external and internal. Swathed in rolling fog, and with huge stretches of creaking silence, these are men who, at points, aren’t even sure if they’ve died, and if they’re not just lost, but drifting through the netherworld, waiting to be judged. Even if they’re not actually in limbo, they might as well be. Stark and super-minimalist, with a droning, atonal score, Valhalla Rising is an abstract take on existential woe, filtered through the mud, mist and blood-soaked steel of a Viking movie. The film is broken into chapters with titles like “Men of God,” and “Hell,” which add to the Old Testament quality, and are in fitting with the theme of men seeking spiritual salvation, but finding themselves in hostile, empty lands where prayers fall upon deaf ears, driving them to madness.
Mads Mikkelsen is mute, in a film that’s already littered with long, dialogue-free scenes, and although his character may come across as an apathetic virtual bystander, he still holds an extremely commanding presence. The lone emotional ray of light amid the constant howling loneliness is the relationship between Mickelson’s One-Eye and an orphan boy, which is the sort of movie friendship that could easily degenerate into something awful. But don’t sweat it; this is no wise-mouthed sassy young sidekick who teaches him how to smile again, nor a mawkish substitute son.
There’s a final act that reveals One-Eye’s purpose, giving meaning and hope to what had seemed entirely hopeless, while the sparse, despondent atmosphere of the movie causes the moments of incredible and sudden violence to hit you like a firework during a funeral prayer. The tonal contrast between this film, and director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson, which placed on last year’s Top 10, is astounding. Understandably, Valhalla Rising is a very divisive film, and you’ll either adore it like I did, or find it a ponderous waste of two hours. I’ve seen it on a few end of year lists, but so far, they’ve all been Worst Of’s, however for me, it was awesome.
Rather than the Cloverfield style invasion-vérité it appears from the posters, Monsters is closer in spirit to Sin Nombre, with the strangers in a strange land vibe of a (neither shit nor racist) Lost in Translation. The obvious romance angle of guy and girl travelling together is kept at arms length, and feels very unintrusive, with the relationship between the two characters more realistic than the usual furtive looks and knowledge that two characters are obviously going to hook up, just because it’s a movie. I can’t think of a film where that’s been played so fingertip-light, and considering it’s basically a two-hander, it’s definitely better for it.
Monsters is minimalist, although not on a Valhalla Rising scale, with dialogue played for realism and long treks through quiet jungle scenery and and abandoned population centres. I imagine most people figured they were going in to an alien invasion flick, but the alien stuff is just a backdrop to a total character piece. Although, speaking of the aliens, the final reveal is, well, it’s tear-squeezingly beautiful. With the ad-libs, everyone barring the two leads improvising their scenes, and the single camera cinematography, Monsters has all the empathic being-there feel of a Blair Witch found footage movie, but with none of the the shaky camera work or required gimmicks. I’m trying not to give too much away, because I was completely blind-sided by Monsters, but you really should see it. It has most churning ending of the year, too, once you realise, well…just watch it.
The weird thing about the entire Grindhouse project was that Robert Rodriguez didn’t seem to get it at all, at least not with Planet Terror, which played more like a 1980’s straight to VHS flick, fake-scratches or not. The contribution of his that did fit the vision was the fake trailer for Machete, and thankfully, that carries over to the feature length version, which absolutely nails the exploitation vibe. To a tree. With an axe. Through the tits. Machete may be the most fun I’ve ever had watching a film. If you happen to sneeze, you’ll probably miss an awesome decapitation, a super-hot chick shooting a massive gun into someone’s face, or something blowing the fuck up. There are so many great moments of action, that I’m kinda loathe to be specific, in fear of ruining the surprise for anyone who’s yet to see it, but the best part? The abseil. Holy shit.
For a movie of this type, it absolutely has the perfect cast. Trejo, Di Niro, Segal, Jeff Fahey from Lost, Tom Savini; even the usually laughable Lindsey Lohan is played to her strengths, as a permanently naked, stumbling crackwhore who makes out with her own mom. Trejo totally handles his business here, and proves himself thoroughly worthy of carrying a movie. I mean, he’s not crazy versatile, but his weathered body and retired-rapist features are made for a movie like this, and it was a joy to see such a perfect marriage of actor and material. The highlight of the cast, Trejo aside, was one of my absolute favourites, the terribly underrated (and really hot) Michelle Rodriguez. M-Rod is the most criminally typecast actress in Hollywood, and yes, she’s playing yet another firey Latina badass, but she’s never been more badass, and there are subtler shades than in a lot of her other roles. Plus, how amazing did she look in that whole eyepatch and leather bra get-up?
I think Robert Rodriguez has talked about a possible franchise, but let’s be honest, he always has about fifty different “definitely happening real soon!” movies on the go (Still waiting for Sin City 2), however I’d be totally down with a Machete franchise. A lot of people moaned about the political overtones, which struck me as odd, like “What’s all this plot stuff doing in my movie?!” While all the violence, skin and imaginative deaths gave me some kind of weird, full-body erection, take out that pesky story, and you’d definitely have a lesser movie.
It’s been a great year to be a fan of Chris Morris, the man who single-handedly inspired me to write, and whose work had such a monumental influence on my life. Lucian Randall’s fantastic biography revealed the man behind the curtain for the first time, while Morris himself has routinely been stepping out of the shadows, to do the press for his awesome debut feature. Most of the media attention on Four Lions focussed on the audacity of making a comedy about a cell of suicide bombers, and discussions of what should or shouldn’t be on of off-limits for comedy. I won’t get into that debate here, other than to say, if you’ve got a point, and more importantly, what you’re saying is funny, then there should be no sacred eggs. Nothing should be given so much power that it’s above satire.
And that’s the crux of why Four Lions is such an important film, it dispels that “Ooh, we mustn’t talk about that” power that’s made terrorism within comedy so forbidden in the last decade, beyond tedious jokes about hook-handed figure of fun, Abu Hamza. The would-be terrorists in Four Lions are not evil geniuses, they’re a bunch of bumbling fuckwits, and Morris has told an awful lot of anecdotes gleaned from his extensive years of impeccable research, that push the clowning behaviour from the realm of silly satire into the ludicrously real. To give one example, he tells a story about the surveillance tapes of a terror cell who were heard giggling and mocking their leader for the loudness of his pissing when he went to the bathroom, with the leader furiously blaming the loudness of his urinating on “Jewish doors.” This is pretty far from the Evil Islam Terminators stuff we’re fed by the media.
There’s a definite Ealing feel to the buffoonery, which isn’t afraid to get very silly indeed, but it’s infused with that classic Chris Morris dialogue and timing that makes it the most quotable movie of the year by far. There’s also a real heart to the story, and you might find yourself surprised at shedding the odd tear over such a bunch of morally questionable spazzes. The performances are incredibly strong all round, but Nigel Lindsay’s convert, Barry, stands out as the most memorable lunatic in a really long time. As an aside that’s mostly just bragging, I have a signed Four Lions film cell. That’s right, look impressed. Ladies. *Doffs hat*
Above all else, Four Lions is just very, very funny. I’m guessing this film passed by any American readers of this list, who’ve (sadly) probably not heard of Chris Morris either, as it got a pretty limited release, but I’d really urge you to check it out when it hits DVD or Netflix. If you’re British, and you still haven’t seen it, you should be ashamed of yourself, and I hope someone flies a plane into your face.
This is the late entrant that threw my Top 10 into chaos. As I’m still reeling from Black Swan, and seeing as it’s still out there in theatres, waiting for people to see it unspoiled, I’m not going to say a huge amount about it right now. For sure, it’s the most visually stunning movie of the year, with long-take ballet sequences, and a vividly unsettling use of mirrors, and stark blacks and whites (and reds). Portman’s performance is absolutely incredible, and instantly one of the classic depictions of physical and mental decay-slash-transformation.
I’d hope this would be the one that swept the Oscars, but I fear it might be a little too crazy for voters, plus there’s still that one movie about Colin Firth having speech therapy, which sounds like a wild ride indeed. Is that one coming out in 3D?! Anyway, Black Swan, wow.
It’s been mentioned that Black Swan might make a nice companion piece to The Wrestler, which is a valid comparison, as far as getting lost within a persona, and at what point artists or performers find the line between art and life starting to blur. Also, as suggested in this podcast, artists may well take something differently from Black Swan than those who’ve never allowed the creative process to tip them over the edge into self destruction. I flagellated myself with a discarded fire-hose in the process of compiling this list, so I totally got it.
Ooh, Millard, a Greek movie we ain’t heard of, aren’t you pretentious? Yes, I probably am, but long after watching it, Dogtooth clung to me like the thick layer of sweat perspired while doing a very bad thing. It stuck with me for weeks, I just couldn’t shake it. It’s a pretty simple idea; two parents control the lives of their three adult children by imprisoning them inside the house, and shaping their entire concepts of the world through the manipulation of language. Theirs is a world where a telephone is a salt shaker, and ‘the sea’ is another word for a chair. Beyond the borders of their fenced-off garden lies a terrifying, dangerous place they must never venture into, and there’s talk of a brother who lives beyond the fence after being banished for disobeying, but it’s unclear if this was a real brother managed to escape, or was only ever another story to keep them under the thumb.
Dogtooth is a strong comment on the influence of those who control the flow of knowledge, and the power of language itself. If the sea is a chair, what would that do to your perception of the world? There are no ideas about escape, because such concepts don’t exist. Even the planes that fly overhead are passed off as low-flying living creatures, an idea reinforced by the small model planes the parents occasionally toss onto the lawn. Anything that doesn’t fit the narrow view of the domain they’ve created is explained away, making a universe that’s smaller and smaller, a prison in all but name. When an outside influence manages to sneak in, that’s when the façade of their constructed-world starts to unravel.
This movie raised a lot of questions in me about what is or isn’t real, as far as the worlds that we create for ourselves, or that others create for us; how we just assign meaning to things, and how easy it is to strip all that away. One person’s ‘love’ may be another’s ‘misery.’ I guess it could also be equated to religion, and people who raise their children as having a particular faith, instilling in them ideas which may be hard to shake off once they reach adulthood. My junior school had morning prayers and hymns, and we were told that God made everything in seven days, which we accepted without question. God is generally an easy way of simplifying a lot of the “Why?” questions that small children have. Why is my goldfish floating on top of the tank? Why does it rain? Why does that talentless, yammering turd Kevin Smith continue to get away with making movies? There’s a definite parallel for me with Dogtooth, in those ideas having to actively be shaken off in later life as you discover for yourself that you no longer accept them to be true. In life, we encounter this constantly, such as that person who gives you the lay of the land on the first day of a new job. “Stay away from him, he’s a bit weird. Her over there; she’s a slag…”, Dogtooth just takes this notion to the absolute extreme.
Of course, it’s not just a bunch of mediation on how power affects reality, but a great movie too. Dogtooth builds masterfully, and the second half is real edge of the seat stuff. There’s a lot of dark humour, like the sudden appearance of a cute ‘iddle cat, which throws the children for a total loop, but is used by the father, via shredded clothes and fake blood, to underpin the dangers of what lay beyond the fence. My habit for seeing weird European art films and totally fancying the female characters didn’t stop with Dogtooth, either. What is it that makes them so appealing? It seems like I can’t get five minutes into a flick about suicidal Germans or French chicks who hug their brothers and go a bit too far without becoming entranced by a doe-eyed Euro-girl.
From a spectacle standpoint, Dogtooth is at the opposite end of Black Swan, taking place as it does almost entirely inside the family’s property (not that it’s not well-shot), but from a head-fuck, crawling under your skin perspective, it’s up there with anything I’ve ever seen. And as a movie, it’s the best of the year.
As a reward for making it to the end of what turned out to be a monstrously oversized article, please enjoy this clip of Werner Herzog being weirded-out by a question asked by me.