Monday, December 27, 2010

The Year In Film 2010
Foreign Language Film Took Flight In U.S. In 2010, With Domestic Efforts Mostly Grounded From Takeoff

Jorge Machado with his father Natan Machado, in a scene from the film "Alamar", directed by Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio.  The Mexican film was one of many films from outside the U.S. that made a great impact domestically among moviegoers in 2010.  
Film Movement

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Monday, December 27, 2010

*-correction, in italics

As the world continued to spiral through a harsh recession, the movie year that was 2010 featured a few great American films, some decent animated features, a slew of impressive foreign language movies and many incisive, highly entertaining documentaries. 

Of the above categories, foreign language films were (and have been for some time) a strong presence in American movie theaters in 2010, even if, in many instances, avid moviegoers had to scour the horizon for an art house theater miles from home to see one, or wait four months after larger media markets like New York and Los Angeles enjoyed some of the year's best films.  It may be contradictory to suggest that overseas films were abundant given their strategic placement in smaller theaters, but consider "The Human Centipede", a German horror film directed by Tom Six. 

"Centipede", a grotesque film about a sadistic, reprehensible doctor's twisted fantasy Frankenstein experiment involving a trio of relatively likable souls, was more an art house horror show than a multiplex movie, even as it played in about 300 such theaters.  Roundly booed by most of America's film critics, and saluted by this writer for its cinematic decor and Dieter Laser's performance (as the doctor), Mr. Six's film will surely gain a cult following now that it has arrived in the U.S. on Blu-Ray.

Yet "Enter The Void", from France's Gaspar Nöe, the master of shock, awe and controversy in early 21st century cinema, also repulsed some audiences (including at Sundance, where there were at least 40 walkouts among critics.)  That didn't stop "Void" from receiving critical praise from many including the New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis.  (The film was edited down from its two and a half-hour 2009 Cannes edition length.) While moviegoing audiences may not have taken to it like ducks to water, "Enter The Void" ended up on a number of prominent critics' ten best year-end lists.

Far East films like "Mother" and "The Housemaid" got plenty of deserved attention, as did "Vengeance" and "Secret Sunshine".  There were a few misses on the foreign language radar, like Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Biutiful", but even moderately good films like "Vincere" and "I Am Love" made deep inroads, featuring excellent performances.  Bruno Dumont's "Hadewijch" challenged and compelled.

Top, clockwise from left: Dieter Laser in "The Human Centipede", Filippo Timi in "Vincere", a scene from "Fish Tank" and a scene from "Enter The Void".  IFC Films

In any other year, Giovanna Mezzogiorno would undoubtedly be recognized for her work in "Vincere", as would Filippo Timi for his work in the same film.  The landscape however, was very good in 2010 on a domestic front for women (and a few men) on the big screen, so the great work in "Vincere" went largely unnoticed Stateside.  Conversely, Tilda Swinton was a widely (and deservedly) acknowledged virtuoso in Luca Guadagnino's Italian drama "I Am Love", and even though "Biutiful", the Mexican-made film (opening early next year) was sub-par, Javier Bardem was outstanding as a man on very shaky ground. 

The amazing "A Prophet" was released very late in 2009 but in 2010 America had a chance (at least some did anyway) to marvel at the phenomenal French film after it swept the Cesar Awards last March.  A revolutionary film in some respects with its metamorphosis of character and totally absorbing story, "A Prophet", directed by Jacques Audiard ("The Beat My Heart Skipped") was a thoroughly compelling and provoking prison drama with world-class acting by veteran Niels Arestup and relative newcomer Tahar Rahim.

"Alamar" was one of the best films this year, about a boy and his father bonding one last time before the boy went off to Milan to live with his mother.  Directed by Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio, this luminous, tranquil and warm-hearted feature film from Mexico starred real-life father and son Natan and Jorge Machado.  For a change of pace, there was the dynamic and Peckinpah-like Swedish mystery drama "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo", based on the late Stieg Larsson's trilogy of novels.  (The other two films, "The Girl Who Played With Fire" and "The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest", also opened this year in U.S. theaters.)

Ruth Nirere, a real-life survivor of the genocide in Rwanda and a singer, gave one of the year's most incredibly brave and impressive performances in the Belgian film "The Day God Walked Away", about survival amidst the genocidal war between the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda. 
San Francisco Film Society

"Carlos", Olivier Assayas's thoroughly engaging and evolving story of the real-life Carlos The Jackal was a near-masterpiece, a five and a half-hour made-for-television epic that featured Edgar Ramirez in the title role, in one of 2010's best performances, arguably the best acting of a decade that is to end in six days.  The time runs very quickly on a film that is instantly re-watchable.  "Carlos" is about political events he starred in, and not a standard biopic.  Argentina's "The Secret In Their Eyes", directed by Juan José Campanella, was an eye-opener as well as an Oscar winner.

There was "White Material" from France, featuring Isabelle Huppert.  From Belgium, there was the extraordinary film "The Day God Walked Away", about surviving and thriving in Rwanda in 1994 during the height of the genocidal war between the Hutus and the Tutsis.  This amazing film features African singer and Rwanda war survivor Ruth Nirere giving a performance as great as any you'll see this decade.  The film, the first ever from director Philippe van Leeuw had its U.S. debut in May at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival. 

And then there were some foreign language films remade into English ones, with mixed results on the big screen.  The Swedish horror film "Låt den rätte komma in" was made into Matt Reeves's indie horror drama "Let Me In", a gothic-feeling, visually appealing drama featuring good performances and a tragic love story.  Saluted by some critics, it never gained traction amongst the general public.

Open and confined: (clockwise, from top left) - A scene from "Exit Through The Gift Shop", Denzel Washington in "The Book Of Eli", Ryan Reynolds in "Buried", James Franco in "127 Hours".
  Paranoid Pictures, Warner Brothers, Fox Searchlight, Lionsgate 

"Nathalie", a 2003 French film with Gerard Depardieu, about a suspicious wife who hires a prostitute to seduce and entrap her husband, became "Chloe" this year, and in the hands of the normally capable Canadian director Atom Egoyan it was an utter misfire.  Julianne Moore, Amanda Seyfried and Liam Neeson starred.  (For that matter, the very funny 2007 British film "Death Of A Funeral" was remade as the 2010 train wreck starring Tracy Morgan and Chris Rock.)

Some English language films sounded foreign to some American ears but were irresistible cinema.  Australian films "The Square" and "Animal Kingdom" may have been difficult for audiences to understand dialogue-wise, but they were fine crime dramas.  Dialects may also have been an issue in films like "Down Terrace", "Fish Tank", "The Eclipse" and "Ondine", but these independents (from England, England and Ireland, Ireland respectively) made plenty of sense.  Each had some unforgettable or unforgivable characters, making a distinct impression.

So just why was it that 2010 represented an impressive calendar year for foreign language film?  The answers are quite simple.  For one, the quality of those films was hard to deny and easy to admire.  The festival circuit was a factor, as it often is.  Much of 2010 was also a year of Hollywood recycling and pushing out finished films long-delayed from release ("Daybreakers"*, "Green Zone", "I Love You Phillip Morris") and conserving money in order to promote specific types of big budget films.  Warner Brothers split the new "Harry Potter" in half for profit maximizing (part two arrives next June).  Disney announced that animated films were the only films it would continue to make. 

Succinctly put, the ongoing nightmarish recession forced Hollywood studios to tighten their belts even more, resisting most remake possibilities or big sequels.  "Spider-Man", however, got the reboot as a franchise from Sony, with Marc Webb directing.  The film will star Andrew Garfield ("Lions For Lambs", "Boy A", "Never Let Me Go", The Social Network").  Tom Cruise and Jeremy Renner got green-lighted for a fourth "Mission".

Clockwise from top left: Greta Gerwig in "Greenberg", Hailee Steinfeld in "True Grit", Giovanna Mezzogiorno in "Vincere" and Naomi Watts in "Fair Game" Focus Features, Paramount Pictures, IFC Films, Summit

With the severe financial downturn, films this year again reflected the class fissures and widening gulf between haves and have-nots, and featured the poor aspiring to climb out of their circumstances.  "Another Year", Mike Leigh's drama, showed the benign contempt of the lower strata by the upper; "Blue Valentine" illustrated subtle differences in class between lovers; "Rabbit Hole" did the same between sisters. 

"The Other Guys" deftly and comically revealed the economic disparity and daylight between superstar cop jocks and desk jockey cops.  Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg supplied the hilarity, until the memorable end credits delivered the cold harsh truth about where the viewing audience and the country stood.  In "The Fighter", Mr. Wahlberg convincingly played real-life boxer Micky Ward, chronicling his attempt to claim boxing glory, and perhaps a simultaneous escape from his working-class roots, or from his overbearing mother, played by Melissa Leo.

"The Fighter" however, unlike some films, didn't glorify or delight in the idea that making it by climbing from obscurity or humble roots to glitter and fame was the triumph or the story in and of itself, as so many films and news stories do.  David O. Russell's film was hardly about rags to riches; it was an emotional tug-of-war story, a motivational anthem featuring a troubled older sibling's dedication to encourage and drive his younger brother to achieve what he himself couldn't.

In domestic films many of the tales of woe were set in Boston, with, among them, "The Fighter" and "The Town", in which Jeremy Renner resented Ben Affleck's bid to leave Southie.  Mr. Affleck, a Massachusetts man, was also embroiled in setbacks as a character caught in the recession in "The Company Men", whose release was delayed to next month.  "Conviction", based on a real-life story of a waitress who becomes an attorney to free her wrongfully-convicted brother, was also set in Massachusetts.  And how can one forget "The Social Network", the year's most-lauded American film?
Its one weakness was its treatment of numerous women characters.  None of the men were likable, either.  Class politics were at play in Mr. Fincher's film too: the middle-class Zuckerberg character inventing a social tool superseding anything that the fictionalized and upper-class "Winklevi" twins believed was not only their own, but one that they owned by divine right.

Clockwise from top left: Don Cheadle and Wesley Snipes in "Brooklyn's Finest", Erika Alexander in "La Mission", Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddiq in "Cairo Time", Samuel L. Jackson and Naomi Watts in "Mother And Child".  Summit, 5 Stick Films, Sony Pictures Classics, IFC Films

Roman Polanski was embattled this year but it didn't stop him from getting his excellent "The Ghost Writer" to the big screen.  Mel Gibson self-destructed this year with reprehensible behavior.  His Boston-set film "Edge Of Darkness" stayed above board.

David Michôd debuted as a feature film director, making the year's best film, "Animal Kingdom".  California's Bay Area-raised Miller Brothers, twins Noah and Logan, had never made a film before.  Inspired by their late father, they brought "Touching Home" to the big screen.  Ed Harris was palpable in it as their troubled, alcoholic dad.

The 2010 year in film was many things.  Overall an unsatisfactory one compared other years in this closing decade.  (The last great film year was 2007.)  Many of the best films in 2010 opened before September.  This year at the movies appeared to be about being boxed in, being poor, and lies.  In a film that represented one of the year's biggest lies, "Going The Distance", a comedy about a long-distance romance between a New Yorker and a San Franciscan, was one of the year's most stylistically claustrophobic films, with no real sense of established camera shots of the two cities to give audiences an appreciation of the periphery.  Hollywood romantic comedies officially had their funeral in 2010.  ("Life As We Know It", "Valentine's Day", etc, etc: may you all go softly but ignominiously into the night, and rest in peace.)

Other cinematic whoppers included the atrocious "Little Fockers".  There was nothing little about it -- kids or otherwise -- except its humongous childishness and lack of funny.  The film "Killers" could have been renamed "Men Who Don't Ask For Directions", as it exploded into different genres on the turn of a dime, while "How Do You Know" had to be one of the year's most mystifying if not illogical titles.  (Especially its absent question mark.)  Each of these titles was among the very worst films of 2010, along with the aptly-named "Cop Out" and both the appalling anti-Muslim, anti-woman, anti-gay "Sex And The City 2" and the cringe-inducing, misogynist "The Bounty Hunter", the latter written by a woman.

Trios of family: clockwise from top left - The Miller Brothers flank Ed Harris in "Touching Home", a scene from "Our Family Wedding", a scene from "The Kids Are All Right", a scene from "The Father Of My Children". 
California Film Institute, Fox Searchlight, IFC Films, Focus Features

In the claustrophobia section of this year's cinema supermarket, "Buried" was restrictive for a different reason: an impossible situation.  Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) was a private contractor driving a truck for a U.S. corporation in Iraq.  The entire movie was spent in the dark, the main character trapped in a coffin, arguing on an expiring cell phone while red tape bureaucrats kept him boxed in.  Even in his situation and given this brutal economy Paul would have been better off being thankful he had a job, even though it was so disturbingly confining.  Another Paul -- Paul Greengrass -- needn't worry about the stability of his directing job, and he advocated a well-appreciated position via his lead man Matt Damon in the lukewarm "Green Zone", about a U.S. soldier who questions his own government's policy in Iraq.

In 2010, several disappointments hit the big screen: "Toy Story 3", whose first seven minutes and its last seven were its strongest, with a vacant, unspectacular middle; "Inception", a well-intentioned, ambitious but finally overblown theater of dreams and their stolen origins.  Mr. Nolan's film deserves plaudits for its wholly original premise facilitated within a gargantuan Hollywood budget -- a rare thinker's film within the studio summer rollout and a colossal box-office hit -- but the long, wearying drama fizzled out, exhausting and finally overstaying its welcome.  Worse yet, "Inception" marginalized the brilliant talents of Marion Cotillard, while Ellen Page was its lone bright spot. 

Another Leonardo DiCaprio film, "Shutter Island", underwhelmed, as did "Hereafter", which felt like prologue, a film that never truly got started at all.  "Due Date" and "Date Night" didn't deliver, neither did "Iron Man 2", "Paranormal Activity 2", "Robin Hood", "Alice In Wonderland" or the overrated faux-reality documentary "Catfish".

Clockwise from top left: A scene from "Inside Job", Joan Rivers in "Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work", Jackie Onassis and Ron Galella in "Smash His Camera", Pat Tillman in "The Tillman Story". 
Sony Pictures Classics, IFC Films, Magnolia, The Weinstein Company

Real documentaries however, did deliver in 2010.

"Smash His Camera", about the shenanigans of 50-year celebrity photographer Ron Galella, was a fascinating, laugh out-loud documentary by Leon Gast about one man's need to document the moves of every major celebrity you can name.

Speaking of celebrities, Joan Rivers, a source of derision for some, was revitalized on the big screen in "Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work" by documentarians Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg.  The film was a triumph for Ms. Rivers and the audiences who howled at her antics and onstage comedy.  "A Piece Of Work" represented an entertaining portrait of the showbiz world and one woman's battle to stay afloat in it.  It was less a documentary than a confident signature of resilience from Ms. Rivers.  "The Tillman Story" was a powerful story about a mystery wrapped in a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped up in one big, neat and tidy lie, and Amir Bar-Lev showed just how vital a documentarian he is, getting moviegoers to open and make up their minds.

"Inside Job" did a masterful job at fomenting cinemagoers' ire, clinically putting the pandemic heist of millions of ordinary persons' financial futures into devastating perspective.  In the process the film's cool, dispassionate and matter-of-fact retelling of the sordid truth was a reinforcing reminder of the destructive, life-altering landscape left behind.

All of these documentaries crystallized the locus of fame, infamy, show business and the idea that 90% of show business was neither show nor business but dirty politics.  Each was fresh.  Other documentaries reflected the anxiety and outrage of a country that had deep skepticism about the future.  Some of the documentaries, including "A Piece Of Work" and "Exit Through The Gift Shop", were ingenious statements about fame, its drawbacks and surviving as a person within the rigors of a life labeled "celebrity". 

There were so many more good documentaries including: "Restrepo", "Marwencol", "Waiting For Superman", "Client 9", "Countdown To Zero", "Casino Jack And The United States Of Money" (also a feature film by the late George Hickenlooper), "The Thorn In My Heart", "When You're Strange", "South Of The Border" and "Last Train Home", among others.

Clockwise, top from left: Edgar Ramirez in "Carlos", The Doors in "When You're Strange", Jesse Eisenberg and Michael Douglas in "Solitary Man", Iben Hjejle and Ciaran Hinds in "The Eclipse". 
IFC Films, The Doors, Millennium Films, Magnolia Pictures

Most of all though, 3D made its mark for better or worse in 2010.  Story floundered, and painfully -- mostly in animated films.  One of the few fine animated features (and non-3D) was "The Illusionist". 

Even more painful in 2010: the dearth of leading black performers on film -- Viola Davis, Denzel Washington, Tracy Morgan and Queen Latifah excluded -- and the lack of black films.  (The sidekick or lone black friend or assistant was still evident on the big screen: "Love And Other Drugs", "Life As We Know It", "Eat Pray Love" to name a few.)  Great filmmakers like Ava DuVernay and Barry Jenkins and many others, are out there, with Ms. DuVernay, an acquaintance, soon to release her film "I Will Follow". 

This year, you could count the number of black filmmaking efforts in Hollywood on two hands: the deplorable "Our Family Wedding", the forgettable "Faster", the gritty "Brooklyn's Finest", the impressive "The Book Of Eli", the romantic comedy "Just Wright" and the dually-disappointing Tyler Perry films "Why Did I Get Married Too" and "For Colored Girls".  (If there were others please let me know.  Tanya Hamilton's debut film "Night Catches Us" was made outside the Hollywood studio system.)  Except for Spike Lee, who made the four-hour Hurricane Katrina follow-up documentary "If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don't Rise" (for HBO) and the aforementioned movies, it was a heartbreakingly barren year for black films in Hollywood.

For everyone on the domestic front, things can only get better film-wise in 2011.  And here's hoping that foreign language films will continue to stay classy next year.  I have a strong feeling they'll be much classier than Ron Burgundy, and that documentary "I'm Still Here".

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