Two posts in one week! Somebody slow down the car!
Every year, I plan to start adding capsule reviews of recent movies to the content here, but I never manage it. I almost never see a film on its opening weekend, so by the time I would maybe get around to reviewing something, the rest of the world has formed an opinion and moved on.
Aha, but this is a blog devoted to lists, so every year I take advantage of that critical cliché to sneak in a few reviews of some truly great and truly awful movies that I happened to see in the last calendar year. As I usually wait until February to post it, I call this the Last List of the year.
Standard warning: this is a personal list of my favorite movies of the year, not the best. So put that in your pocket.
Today, I’m starting with the bottom half of my top ten, which is where I usually put a few weird and wacky movies you won’t see on Oscar night.
The Not-Quite “Top Ten” Material List
15. The Kids are All Right
14. The Ghost Writer
13. 127 Hours
12. The Town
11. True Grit
The Top Ten (part 1)
10. Exit through the Gift Shop
If everything we see is exactly as it appears, then Exit through the Gift Shop is already one of the most unique documentaries in the genre. Banksy, the Lone Ranger of the street art world (who was that masked man who just defaced my wall?), agrees to be filmed for a documentary on the movement, but steals the footage and the movie as his filmmaker, LA store owner Thierry Guetta, transforms into an even more compelling subject. It’s a great doc.
That is, if it’s a doc at all. Questions about Gift Shop’s veracity suggest that the film leads a kind of double life. In a year that saw the complete failure of the hip, celebrity crowd to put one over on the sheeple (I’m Still Here), here’s a film that may have fleeced Los Angeles and the entire pop art world for years, and is still getting away with it every day.
Gift Shop is a brilliant public skewering of the monetization of art and the power of the media. Unless it’s for real, that is. And if it isn’t, I’ll be rooting for Banksy to pull the ultimate prank and to steal a documentary Oscar from the Academy for a completely fictional film.
9. The American
Anton Corbijn’s still-life masterpiece died such a quick and ugly death in theatres that some people may have already forgotten that it existed at all. That would suit “Jack”, the conflicted assassin and weapons specialist played by George Clooney, as he prefers to do his ugly job from our peripheral vision. He hates crowds.
The film failed at the box office in 2010 because it belongs to another time all together—specifically the 1970s, where character studies of quiet men could get crowds lining up around the block. But we live in a go-go-go culture and if a movie is about an assassin, he’d better be assassinating, dammit. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that thinking; Inception proved that a movie thick with activity can still be deep. The American, on the other hand, is much more concerned with the quiet spaces between the action, the kinds of places where Dom Cobb drinks alone in a bar day after day waiting for his mark to move. The American explores this isolation and the paranoia that goes with living as an island, and rewards patient viewers who find the uncertainty before a gun fight to be just as interesting as the ducking and weaving. Clooney has quietly made a career of dressing down and wrapping himself in sad, complicated characters who regret their talents. The American is one of his best.
What a weird, disturbing miracle. You can tell that Splice ain’t from around these parts—the film is Canadian—not just because Sarah Polley is in it, but because it takes chances. Wait, takes chances? Hell, it wheels around mountain passes with two tires off the edge, and the hood on fire. Even if it crashes, and it sometimes does, you have to raise a glass because they tried.
Splice also died at the box office as one of the year’s true flops, but I think that’s the best thing that could have happened to it in the short term. If more people had seen it, it would have only pissed them off (like the also-awesome The Last Exorcism, the new reigning king of found footage movies, but a film that scored something like “negative F” with audiences). Splice does away with the familiar “he tampered in God’s domain” trope of Frankenstein-horror, and instead asks an ethical question for the atheism age: if humanity can create new life, does it really deserve us as a parent? Splice’s third act kind of falls apart, dropping in a deus ex machina that puts mankind right back onto the moral high ground, but the scenes leading to that point are so fresh and new and fucked that you’ll hardly notice you’ve slipped back into formula. If only more horror had this film’s DNA.
7. Get Low
Otherwise known as “the film that got totally Oscar-fucked in 2010.” Get Low didn’t receive even a single nomination, a result so inconceivable that the producers had booked a nationwide re-release of the film in theatres to take advantage of all of that Oscar hype. Whoops.
If you’re interested in actors at the top of their craft, then I highly recommend seeking out this small, bittersweet folk tale about a mountain hermit who comes to town seeking to host, and attend, his own funeral. Sometimes it seems as if all of the best actors are British silverbacks, but Robert Duvall is our national treasure and he brings great humanity and depth to what could have been a grunting, one-note part. If he wasn’t enough (and he is), he’s surrounded by great character actors like Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, and Bill Cobbs, all trying to bring the house down with their performances. Unfortunately, it looks like they were playing to an empty room.
Get Low is funny, touching, well-written, well-acted, and beautifully shot. Usually that’s enough for people to notice, but, I guess, not always.
6. The King’s Speech
If The King’s Speech wins the Best Picture Oscar, as currently expected, it’ll be a mistake. There are simply better and more important films on the list of nominees. If it wins, Speech will end up on the same list as Crash, Shakespeare in Love, and How Green Was My Valley: the Rogue’s Gallery of Oscar’s boneheaded moves.
That’s a shame, because even though Speech is not the best film of the year, it’s still one hell of a good movie, and doesn’t belong anywhere near tripe like that. Some people, and especially internet critics, like to come down hard on “crowd-pleasing” films, as if making its audience happy is in itself a form of pandering. These people seem to have forgotten that film is a medium for telling stories, and there’s nothing wrong with a happy story as long as it’s told well. Yes, Speech is pleasant and (yes) happy, but it’s marvelously acted by a British all-star team (Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, and Geoffrey Rush just for starters), and it’s also well-written, and perfectly shot. Notice the low angles that show the ceilings boxing Bertie, the man who doesn’t want to be king, into his royal cage. Notice how London changes its brightness in time with the moods of its king, as any good kingdom should. Notice how you’re gripping your chair, rooting for a man, not to shoot someone or to escape death, but simply to speak. Tom Hooper has made a marvelous film. It’s unfortunate that he may be punished for it.
(Coming up next, my Top Five of the year, wherein you will probably find a lot of films on everybody else’s Top Five, although with one big exception.)