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Looking at film years from a high level always interests me and 2010 provided an interesting contrast to 2009. The latter had a good number of movies I loved but was light in quality beyond the very top films. By November I was talking about how 2010 was already better than 2009. I actually pondered making this a top 15 list since the quality was so high in my mind… until it came time to actually make the list. It turns out there was a lot I liked but not an especially large amount that I was passionate about. So kind of the exact opposite of 2009.

In the end, there are two films I loved and a good number I really liked.

1. Inception. Clever, entertaining, and bad-ass. I suppose I sound like every other internet nerd when I slobber all over this film, but Christopher Nolan is the master at mixing traditional blockbuster elements with thought-provoking topics. Part of what’s so great about Inception is how brashly original it is. It’s pretty much like nothing that’s been done, which makes it all the more astonishing. A year later, it still feels so complete. How is a plot so clever, original, and complex so airtight? I feel like we’ll be talking about this one for years.

2. The Social Network. This has just about everything you could ask for in a film. It has a compelling plot, it’s technically brilliant from the camerawork and score to the acting, and it’s wonderfully atmospheric and thematically resonant. The second time I saw it the ending snuck up on me and I was very sad that it was over. I think too many people want it to be a movie about a generation since it’s about a technology that defines a generation. But it’s not. It’s about relationships and ambition and how they can be at odds – and it’s damn good at it.

3. Get Low. This is just a delightful film. To some extent it’s hard to explain the joy I felt watching this. It’s a mix of an interesting premise, terrific characters, and some wonderful acting. Robert Duvall stars as a hermit in the 1940s who decides to return to public life by throwing himself his own funeral. Bill Murray is fantastic as the funeral director that Duvall hires. Sissy Spacek plays an old flame of Duvall’s. It’s a film about regret, but doesn’t overtly dwell on it. Its lack of awards season traction is the disappointment of the year for me.

4. Carlos. Here is a film that can succeed because of its length. At about six hours long – it has also been released as a TV miniseries – it really has time to make a deep dive into its subject. Carlos is “The Jackal,” the famed terrorist from the 1960 and 70s. At the beginning of the film, Carlos is a fit, idealistic young man that turns to violence for his conception of revolution. By the end, he’s a chubby has-been living off the generosity of unsavory friends. The journey from one to the other is all the fun. And, best of all, we spend enough time with Carlos that we understand the whys behind it all. Despite its six hour runtime it almost never drags and includes some long, involved action scenes of Carlos’s plots.

5. Exit Through the Gift Shop. This is the second documentary on my top ten lists about the natures of art and nonfiction film (see 2007’s My Kid Could Paint That). These are certainly themes that resonate with me. This is a film about the anarchic world of street art, just to have the camera turned back on the original director to question his role and what makes something “art” and not mere derivative. While leaving you with plenty to ponder (including “what just happened??”), it’s also terrifically entertaining.

6. Restrepo. Co-director Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya this year. This guy was the real deal and the film he shot is as well. He and collaborator Sebastian Junger have incredible access while embedded with an infantry unit stationed at an isolated outpost in Afghanistan. If there’s any film that shows you what it’s like to be in the war in Afghanistan, this is it. The battle scenes are chaotic and immersive, but it also gives insight to the human experience of fighting this war: the emotional toll, the adrenaline rush, the camaraderie, the grief of losing a friend. It also gives a sense of the futility of the mission and the mistakes made earlier in the war that we’re still paying for.

7. Green Zone. To me, this is a great mix of action and political thriller. I like my shootout sequences balanced with compelling intrigue. While it’s certainly preaching to the choir with me, the politics got me appropriately angered and I liked that it included real-life events from the occupation of Iraq, such as the disastrous debaathification of the Iraqi government. I don’t deny it has a few issues (see my earlier post for more) but I found this a thrilling ride.

8. Catfish. Forget The Social Network. This is the film that takes a microscope to what it means to be alive in today’s electronically connected world. Two friends turn their cameras on another friend as he embarks on a relationship with a girl he met online. Things don’t develop according to plan. It’s interesting to me that a story ostensibly about online romance reveals so much about true human emotion and imperfection. If you caught the marketing campaign for it and came away thinking it was some sort of horror documentary, forget you ever saw that. It has several taut moments but it’s more likely to leave you heartbroken than saddened.

9. The House of Branching Love. I’m not sure this Finnish film really counts because it never got a U.S. release. I saw it at the 2010 Film Fest DC and it’s managed to hang around in my head. It’s too bad I can’t figure out how to watch it again as it never got a DVD release here in the U.S.

The madcap plot is centered around a middle aged couple who decides to break up but remain living in the same house. They agree not to bring dates home, but that rule is quickly broken. Plus there are gangsters, goofy cops, misunderstandings galore, and plenty of hijinks. It’s just very funny and a lot of fun with a few delightfully dark touches.

9.1. Fair Game. This is my replacement number nine while considering only films released  in the U.S. in 2010. A telling of the Valerie Plame affair, Fair Game is a nice mix of political and domestic dramas. Naomi Watts and particularly Sean Penn give very good performances. It’s an engrossing film that really does a good job bringing home the outrage of the whole situation without getting too preachy.

10. Kick-Ass. I saw this appear on several year-end top ten lists… and a lot of worst ten lists. I can understand how some people found a film featuring a foul-mouthed pre-teen girl massacring dozens of people morally reprehensible. But to me it’s a stylish and original film that was quite enjoyable to watch. It doesn’t have anything special to say, but it feels fresh and entertained me greatly.

As for some other films that were in contention for this list: The Secret in Their Eyes is an entertaining police melodrama where Argentina and its recent history is a central character. The Foreign Language Oscar winner has interesting characters and a stylish look… A film it beat out for the Oscar, France’s A Prophet, is an intense crime drama with the ability to leave a lasting, if sometimes disturbing, impression… The intensity of Black Swan is quite the head trip.

I think this site is the world’s biggest proponent of She’s Out of My League, a comedy with good jokes and entertaining characters… Daddy Longlegs was the Independent Spirit surprise of the year for me. It’s a very small budget drama about a father who means well, but is really not a good father. Ronald Bornstein is great in the lead role. To his – and the film’s – credit, it is quite watchable despite its stable of unlikeable characters… Unstoppable is simply a great time as Denzel does his thing. It’s also interesting to see an action film without any real bad guys (except physics).

Four Lions is the terrorism comedy of the year, following four inept Brits as they attempt to wage jihad. The climax as they try to put their plan into action is hilarious and memorable… The Special Relationship takes what could be a dry topic (the friendship between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton) and turns it into an enjoyable romp through recent history, skipping around to important events.

Some other prizes:

Worst Film of the Year: Life During Wartime. I kind of can’t believe this movie exists. If you feel like your movie experiences have been lacking in boring and ridiculous ruminations on molestation and suicide, then this is the film for you. My runners-up are also Independent Spirit nominees: Greenberg and Jack Goes Boating. What was the deal with the Spirits?

Shots of the Year: I choose two similar shots as my shots of the year, one starting wide and zooming into its subject and the other doing the opposite. In The Secret in Their Eyes, a shot begins from above a soccer stadium. It swoops into the stadium, over the field, and into the stands where the two policemen are looking for a suspect. As they push their way through the crowd, their suspect runs and the police and camera follow. The shot continues for five and a half unbroken minutes and its audacity is a delight. Check out the scene here (caution: auto-play) along with the techniques behind how they pulled it off.

In The Illusionist, our shot begins tight on the magician and his rabbit on a hill. The shot swirls upwards, first revealing a hill covered with rabbits before panning through and over the cityscape of Edinburgh. It’s already an incredibly gorgeous film and that shot literally made me flinch. Its effect was better than anything I’ve seen in a 3D animated film.

Surprises of the Year (Good): Tron: Legacy is bad ass. Sort of incoherent, sure, but a bit better treatment of the terrific Tron premise than the original and with an awesome look. The score is also wonderful… I couldn’t have been less excited about Conviction but it’s surprisingly effective featuring a very good performance from Hillary Swank… I mocked The King’s Speech in our first season preview for what seemed to be a boring premise, but hell if it isn’t entertaining and moving.

Whoops

Surprises of the Year (Bad): I thought a political comedy featuring the talents of Kevin Spacey would appeal to me if no one else, but Casino Jack turned out to be a complete mess tonally… Megamind had been on my radar for ages as a premise of a supervillain looking for meaning in his life after vanquishing his superhero foe. Too bad it doesn’t live up to that clever premise and it has a serious lack of humor.

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Fighting for the liberation of blog posts from awful pun headlines

The past few months I’ve included Carlos on my top five lists. “What is Carlos?” some of my fellow Grouches asked me.

When I told them, they then tried to disqualify it from our lists.

I clearly do not work with serious people.

Carlos is the latest from Olivier Assayas, the director of one of my favorite 2009 films, Summer Hours. It showed at Cannes to wonderful reviews.

Also it’s 5.5 hours long not including intermissions.

The length has made has made it something of a curiosity. It was commissioned as a French miniseries and IFC took the full-length version on a US roadshow. A condensed version got a larger release while Sundance aired it as a miniseries.

The film tells the story of Carlos “The Jackal,” the terrorist and revolutionary. In the early 70s he is a idealistic young man fighting for Palestinian liberation. He attempts some assassinations, kills police officers who try to arrest him, and leads a daring raid on the OPEC headquarters. By the 90s, he’s a pudgy mercenary relying on unsavory friends and exiled in Sudan, barely giving lip service to his former ideals.

Édgar Ramírez is remarkable as Carlos and undergoes a striking physical transformation. Young Carlos is strong and sure, full of conviction and a Cassanova. Old Carlos is desperate, paranoid, delusional, and haggard. Thankfully, Ramírez has received some awards season attention, albeit often in the miniseries category.

The film itself flies by despite its length. The action comes and goes and is mostly concentrated earlier in the film, but it succeeds as an in-depth and engrossing character study. Carlos is in every scene and is a thrill to watch. By taking its time developing the character and charting his rise and fall, the audience really understands him.

That said, you don’t necessarily need to watch it all in one sitting. It works great in its long form, but I doubt it would lose anything if watched in its three miniseries chunks.

I am curious about the abridged version. I feel like it wouldn’t work just by chopping half the scenes since its greatness is derived by its deep dive into the character. It would require a whole new edit to maintain its power, I would think, re-editing scenes instead of cutting out plots.

It’s not eligible for the Oscars, I think because its commercial debut was on French television. If not, I think Edgar Ramirez may well have been a player for Best Actor.

Anyway, well worth seeking out.

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