With 2010 over, it’s time to look back at the best films I saw this year. Due to circumstances in my life, I’ve had not had the money to go out to the cinema with any great regularity, so the amount of films I’ve seen this year has taken a big drop from last year’s figure. Still, I managed to see some great films, and want to give them their due. Here’s my top ten, in ascending order.
10. I Am Love
Dir. Luca Guadagnino (Italy, 2009)
Tilda Swinton’s years-in-the-making collaboration with Guadagnino is a clear throwback to filmmaking styles of yesteryear. It’s an old-fashioned melodrama, with gorgeous interiors, extended wealthy families, forbidden love, and capital-A acting. On first viewing it earlier this year I wasn’t too impressed, but since then, memories of the wonderful cinematography and Swinton’s towering performance have only grown in my mind. Sirk-meets-Visconti may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s a pleasure seeing a film this beautiful, confident, and assured.
9. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Dir. Werner Herzog (USA, 2009)
From an initial lukewarm reaction to the trailers, I was won over by the go-for-broke exuberance of Herzog and Nicolas Cage’s remake-in-name-only of Abel Ferrera’s grim cop drama. It’s an inspired fusion of run-of-the-mill procedural and off-the-wall Herzogian insanity, all held together by Cage’s unhinged performance as a drug-addicted detective cracking under the strain of keeping a million plates spinning at once. Val Kilmer and Xzibit try to keep up, but really, it’s Cage’s show, and that’s what makes it such a wild ride.
Standout scene: Cage pays a visit to an old lady and her live-in nurse, looking for information. Unorthodox interrogation techniques ensue.
Standout line: “Who put these fuckin’ iguanas on my coffee table?”
Dir. Gareth Edwards (UK, 2010)
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this low-budget debut from Edwards. There were comparisons to Cloverfield, but also talk of it as an indie film. The result is closer to a free-form road movie, but one that happens to take place across alien-infested territory.
Scoot McNairy plays Kaulder, a photographer charged with escorting his boss’ daughter Sam (Whitney Able) home to the US. But when conventional routes are shut for the season, the two must undertake a hazardous trek through the “quarantine zone” in Mexico.
Monsters is an excellent-looking film. Shot on the fly during the filmmakers’ travels in Mexico, the footage was then manipulated in the editing suite to insert the scenes of destroyed settlements and brief glimpses of the aliens. The shots of abandoned villages and gigantic concrete barriers are devastatingly familiar in our world of natural disasters, post-Katrina urban breakdown and fortress-like borders between the First and Third Worlds. The improvised dialogue feels natural and unforced, and McNairy and Able give a touching and convincing performance as a young couple slowly growing close to each other.
The narrative surrounding Monsters is one of how small crews and commercial cameras, editing and computing equipment can beat the studios at their own game. But independent projects like this can also foreground elements that big Hollywood wouldn’t touch. Here’s to more like it.
Standout scene: Kaulder and Sam’s first glimpse of the US border wall, from the outside.
7. Enter The Void
Dir. Gaspar Noe (France/Germany/Italy, 2009)
Gaspar Noe’s hallucinatory exploration of death and afterlife as the ultimate drug trip features more pure cinematic innovation than almost any film I’ve seen this year. Taking the POV of Oscar, a young drug dealer in the last few minutes of his life, Noe never releaxes this exacting technique even after his protagonist is shot dead by the police. We see through his consciousness as it flits over Tokyo, visiting the people he leaves behind and travelling back into his past.
Is it a hallucination caused by the last neurons firing before brain death? Is it a genuine afterlife? A nightmarish purgatory? A chance to take stock of his life before reincarnation? Whichever interpretation you pick, there’s no disagreeing with the visceral power of Noe’s images, whether recreating Tokyo as a neon-lit playground, diving inside the human body or the darkest recesses of memory.
As I said in my review, it’s a true cinematic experience; one that aims to create images and sensations that have rarely ever been experienced via the medium. It may be sleazy, perverted and self-indulgent, but it’s also wildly inventive and ambitious.
Standout scene: The car crash in Oscar’s childhood, as seen from his POV. Or, Vagina-cam. (If you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I’m talking about.)
6. Four Lions
Dir. Chris Morris (UK, 2010)
(Earlier review by me here.)
Chris Morris is famed for his scabrous humour and contempt for the euphemisms and distortions of official language. But in his debut feature film, he settles for a classic buddy-comedy setup, following a bumbling gang of would-be terrorists as their bickering and general incompetence threaten to derail their murderous plans. Amid some laugh-out-loud hilarious scenes, Riz Ahmed provides the heart of the ensemble, as a loving and devoted family man prepared to give up his life for the cause (his conversation on the subject with his young son is particularly chilling).
Morris and his scriptwriting collaborators, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong of Peep Show fame, truly get the dynamics between young men egging each other on to do bigger and dumber things. The arguments and shifting personal dynamics will be familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a group of young male friends, or even watched a sitcom.
In the end, what stands out from Four Lions is compassion. The platitudes of religion and politics are idiotic, and our humanity (and ability to laugh) is the only thing worth valuing above all others.
Standout scene: The conversation between two police snipers over whether they’ve shot an innocent man (revolving around whether or not the Honey Monster is a bear).
Standout line: “Fuck Mini Baby Bels!”
Coming soon: the Top Five…