And here, at long last, is the ridiculously late Part 2 of my favourite films of 2010. Arriving just in time for the Oscars, no less! (Having seen only 4 of the Best Picture nominees – two of those in 2011 – I’m not going to be judging my choices against the Academy’s decisision, but thought it was a nice coincidence.) Anyway, on with the show.
5. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Dir. Edgar Wright (USA/UK/Canada, 2010)
Edgar Wright was one of my favourite people in pop culture during the 2000s, first creating the wonderful and witty Spaced, then expanding his TV success onto the big screen with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Now he’s staked a claim to the same level of achievement during the 2010s, adapting Bryan Lee O’Malley comic-book series about a lovelorn slacker battling his way through seven evil exes to win the girl of his dreams.
It’s a ridiculously fast-paced movie, cramming in visual gags and little asides every chance it gets. This is what I enjoy about Wright’s movies: he loves the audience, and he has enough respect for them that he trusts them to catch all the details. His films are made for watching again and again, and the amount of care he puts into them is obvious.
I’m an unapologetic Michael Cera fan, and he offers up some interesting variations on his usual “sensitive nerd” persona, bringing the more unpleasant aspects of Pilgrim’s personality to the fore without having the audience lose sympathy for him. Able support from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Alison Pill, Ellen Wong, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Evans, Mae Whitman, Jason Schwartzman, and a hilarious turn from Keiran Culkin as Scott’s roommate help to round out the cast.
While Scott Pilgrim may not have set the box office alight, its obvious enthusiasm and dedication to entertainment shines through in every whip-fast bit of comic banter and deliriously flashy action set-piece. It’s a film for a generation raised on indie music and video games, who still need to learn how to love.
Standout scene: The battle of the bands competition – and the first fight.
Ramona Flowers: You have a band?
Scott Pilgrim: Yeah, we’re terrible. Please come.
Dir. Noah Baumbach (USA, 2010)
Let’s talk about likeability. To what extent must the audience like and admire a character to be able to identify with him? Well, obviously the anti-hero tradition has been established in fiction for a long time, but those guys usually have plenty of charisma to keep us on-side. What’s braver: playing a cocky, swaggering rogue, or a complete douchebag?
Having given us an uncomfortably close view of family breakdown in The Squid and The Whale, Baumbach concerns himself in Greenberg with a curmudgeon’s efforts to throw away the comfort blanket of glib, self-absorbed cynicism and just grow up. Ben Stiller gives a surprisingly restrained and adept performance as Roger Greenberg, a grouchy NYC resident who flies out to LA to house-sit for his wealthier brother and forms an awkward sort-of relationship with Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig), the family’s live-in help.
There are some hilariously uncomfortable moments as Greenberg’s self-absorption and unpleasantness test our empathy with him to the extreme, even as Gerwig’s performance as a sensitive but directionless twentysomething engages our sympathies. This is a story of two people who are damaged in their own ways, trying to make something better out of a world they can’t quite figure out.
While the antisocial-male-meets-gorgeous-and-understanding-female film is a genre that’s way too overexposed, Greenberg gives it an emotional dimension that belies the scornful nature of its protagonist.
Standout scene: Greenberg’s birthday party.
Ivan: Youth is wasted on the young.
Greenberg: I’d go further. I’d go: ‘Life is wasted on people.’
Florence: [to Greenberg] You like me so much better than you think you do.
Dir. Christopher Nolan (USA/UK, 2010)
In a summer season that was generally a pale imitation of last year, Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending sci-fi/heist/psychological thriller stood head and shoulders above the competition. As a team of operatives in a dystopian future break into their target’s subconscious, they remain unaware that the crippling psychological baggage carried by one of them threatens the entire mission.
The great thing about Nolan’s intricate puzzle of a script is that while it literalises an internal conflict by presenting it as a daring mission to plant an idea in the target’s mind, the traditional hero’s-journey arc that is so often shoved to the forefront in much mediocre Hollywood product is here subtly buried within the narrative. The characters’ background informs their actions, but how much of said backstory we can trust remains a mystery.
Nolan’s action chops have also been steadily improving from film to film, and here he confidentially stages a series of thrilling set pieces that get the adrenaline flowing as the rest of the film exercises the mind.
Cobb: An idea can grow to define us, or destroy us.
2. Winter’s Bone
Dir. Debra Granik (USA, 2010)
The standout film of this year’s Cambridge Film Festival, Debra Granik’s mix of crime drama, modern-day Western and examination of rural desperation packs a devastating emotional punch, pitting an innocent yet steely teenage girl against the malevolent forces preying on her community.
Newcomer Jennifer Lawrence delivers an outstanding performance as Ree Dolly, full-time carer for her younger siblings and disabled mother. When the local sheriff announces that her criminal father has skipped his court appearance after putting their house up for his bond, Ree sets off to find him before the house is forfeited.
Granik expertly conjures an air of menace from the bitterly cold, devastated landscape of the Ozarks, punctuated by lonely farmhouses and burnt-out meth labs. There is excellent support from John Hawkes as Ree’s tortured and terrifying uncle Teardrop, Garrett Dillahunt as the sheriff, and Dale Dickey as the matriarch of the local meth ring.
Winter’s Bone is a feminist text, simply by dint of filming a traditionally masculine adventure story with a female protagonist, but builds the audience’s admiration for her without stacking the deck. Ree is brave, resourceful and determined simply because she has had to be to live in this situation and provide for her family.
There’s a startling clarity throughout the film; of form, performance, visuals and story, informed by the sheer toughness of life in that location. It’s a singular and gripping film that tells a great story of nobility in the face of deprivation.
Standout scene: The confrontation between Teardop (Hawkes) and Sheriff Baskin (Dillahunt).
Ree: Never ask for what oughta be offered.
1. A Prophet
Dir. Jacques Audiard (France/Italy, 2009)
Jacques Audiard’s crime drama made a few people’s best of 2009 lists, but only came to my local art cinema early last year. No matter; I’m giving it its dues right now. Following the progress of Arab teenager Malik (Tahar Rahim) from clueless newcomer to a brutal French prison into a ruthless criminal boss, Audiard thrusts us into a nightmarish world where violence and power rule. Yet beyond the Scorcese-ish flourishes of explicit violence, Audiard finds room to examine the immigrant immigrant experience in French society. In prison, Malik is caught between his fellow Arabs and the ruling gang of Corsican separatists, led by the terrifying Cesar (Niels Arestrup) – neither group is accepted within the outside world, and Malik feels at home with neither. Yet, armed with nothing but a certain low cunning, he manages to claw out a position for himself within this world, and to flourish within it.
Audiard tells this epic story without casting judgement on the protagonist, but without endorsing his crimes either. Malik may be a wide-eyed innocent at the beginning, but he leaves a trail of bodies along his rise to power. Rahim’s face alternates between blank canvas and devastatingly effective portrayal of a young man scarred by every killing he commits.
At the same time, Audiard alternates the true-crime grit with a strangely abstract and lyrical visual sensibility, including the on-screen appearance of ghosts of the dead and a visual motif of deer running through the woods. It elevates the film to something more than just an exceptional gritty crime drama, but it’s the shocking violence, the well-choreographed action sequences, the witty script and the fine performances from all the central players that make this a truly great film.
Standout scene: Malik’s mission to assassinate a fellow inmate using a concealed razor.