Sunday, 26 December 2010

Review of 2010: Cinema - 10 Favourite Films

Cinema memories, 2010.

A Taliban on the run. A pregnant woman dancing in a nightclub, accompanied then alone. Child soldiers sleep, clutching soft toys. An American flag is raised in the Philippines. Pioneers let an Indian lead them. Dirty Dancing gets re-created. A dentist slumbers in her Spitfire. Two strangers play at being lovers (or the other way around). A gangster and his girl sway to Doris Day. A father watches his daughter ice-skate. A last supper is scored to Swan Lake. Juliette Binoche’s red lipstick. Romain Duris’s amazing hair. In Sanremo, a Russian woman pursues her son’s friend – soon to be her lover - through the city streets. In California, an Englishman receives a phone-call. A French child tells his mother a story, and becomes part of it.

Great year to be a movie-goer. And impossible to restrict this list to just 10 films...

Le cinéma comme refuge. Too slight for some, Ozon’s intimate drama about a pregnant junkie connecting with her dead lover’s brother during one summer felt incredibly personal and resonant to me. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a perfectly wrought short story, and a film that gains from being placed in the wider context of the director’s body of work. Excellent performances from Isabelle Carré and Louis Ronan-Choisy as the odd couple working out their futures after loss (they’re both superb subjects for Ozon’s caressing camera), but what counts the most in Le Refuge is the attention to atmosphere, the focus on gazes and touches, and, especially, the director’s genius for capturing his characters in solitary, private moments. A beauty.

O pioneers! The big surprise of this year’s London Film Festival, Kelly Reichardt’s awesome film, set in 1845, focuses on three families being led by an unreliable guide off of the Oregon Trail. Reichardt brings to this historical drama the same considered, slow-burn approach that distinguished her contemporary-set films; she brings a healthy reappraisal of gender and racial politics too. With its brilliant, spare script, stunning cinematography and perfectly-pitched performances from Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano and Shirley Henderson, the visionary Meek deserves major attention on its theatrical release next year.

One of Claire Denis’s most sustained and affecting films, with a brilliant performance from Isabelle Huppert as the coffee plantation owner refusing to leave her African estate as civil war breaks out around her. Seductive and disturbing, direct and elliptical, you don’t shake White Material off easily. And to quote Blondie: “My dream is on the screen.”

An interesting companion piece to White Material in many ways, Xavier Beauvois’s drama about a group of Cistercian monks debating whether to leave their North African monastery in the wake of Islamic fundamentalist attacks is a masterful piece of work. And in the late sequence set to Swan Lake Beauvois provides one of the most emotionally overwhelming pieces of cinema that I’ve seen this year.

There didn’t seem to be a lot of sustained joy and happiness radiating from the films released this year, or at least not the ones that meant the most to me. But I recall smiling pretty much all the way through Alain Resnais’s brazenly barmy Wild Grass, a great comedy about, ahem, loneliness, fantasy, ageing and obsession. Aged 88, the director demonstrates more movie-struck glee here than most filmmakers half his age. The viewer shares the delight. (Year's best poster, too.)

The Fugitive for existentialists. Plopping his Taliban hero down in a snowy, rural Poland, where he’s hunted by both human and canine pursuers, Jerzy Skolimowski presents a marvellously idiosyncratic spin on the man-on-the-run movie here, distinguished by superb cinematography and a truly brilliant (wordless) performance from the great Vincent Gallo. The political dimensions of the story, though unavoidable, are ultimately downplayed; instead, Essential Killing takes on the primal intensity, clarity and mystery of an ancient folk ballad.

I love the ability that certain French filmmakers have to present family dramas on a scale that’s at once intimate and epic. Honoré’s latest achieves just that. And Léna's confounding protagonists were my favourite movie characters of the year. If you’re listening Artificial Eye, please give this one a proper UK release.

All the Sayles virtues - intelligence, perspective, humanity, insight, wit - are on display in the director’s compelling drama about the Philippines-American War. Again, if you're listening Artificial Eye...

The antidote to Four Lions. I wasn’t at all  prepared for the intense emotional impact of London River, Bouchareb’s film about two characters searching for their missing children in the wake of the 7/7 bombings, and its effect was no doubt accentuated by walking out of the cinema straight onto the London streets. Remarkable performances, and I admire the way that the film’s final moments complicate the healing and catharsis that’s achieved in the central relationship.

Before its unfortunate third-act stumble into hysteria, Guadagnino’s sumptuous melodrama - "Visconti on acid," in the words of its star - was a thing of absolute beauty, featuring a(nother) knock-out performance from Tilda Swinton as the adulterous matriarch. See it, and swoon.

In addition:

Heartbreaker (dir. Pascal Chaumeil)
Heartbreaker was quite delightful, a lively romantic comedy with edge. But a case could be made that the movie’s real subject is Romain Duris’s incredible (and envy-inducing) hair.

A Single Man (dir. Tom Ford)
You can quibble with the rather cosy, life-affirming message that Tom Ford’s adaptation imposes on Isherwood’s much more tart and cynical novella. But, despite awkward and unconvincing moments, overall A Single Man worked for me. Debate continues to rage about whether the movie’s sheer unabashed stylised gorgeousness is more suited to a commercial than a narrative film but I’d argue that Ford’s arsenal of stylistic tricks work effectively to convey the protagonist’s consciousness. Not so much style over substance, then, as style as substance. And even those unmoved by the visuals couldn’t deny the power of Colin Firth’s great performance.

Certified Copy (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)
A hymn to love or a hymn to Juliette Binoche? Well, both, perhaps. Less will-they-or-won’t-they? than are-they-or-aren’t-they?, Kiarostami’s memorable deconstruction of “the couple” is enigmatic and obvious, exasperating and beguiling, heavy-handed and understated, witty and poignant, all at once.

Lourdes (dir. Jessica Hausner)
Despite the fact that it’s one of the films that stayed with me the most throughout the year, somehow I never got around to writing about Lourdes, Hausner’s rich, wry film about a multiple sclerosis sufferer (Sylvie Testud) on a pilgrimage who experiences what may or may not be a miracle. The marvellous Michał Oleszczyk at Last Seat on the Right gives the best account of this film that I’ve read.

Father of my Children (dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)
"The beauty and cruelty of life," conveyed with equal perspicacity in Hansen-Løve's profoundly affecting film.

Somewhere (dir. Sofia Coppola)
Confirming Coppola as one of our foremost cinematic poets on the seductions - and the limitations - of ennui.

The Illusionist (dir. Sylvain Chomet)
Chomet’s delightful follow-up to the great Belleville Rendezvous: quieter, sadder, wiser.

The Limits of Control (dir. Jim Jarmusch)
Forget The American.

Two disappointments: Another Year and Happy Few.

Not seen and need to be seen: Black Swan, Dogtooth, Rabbit Hole, Carlos, The Kids Are All Right, and Enter The Void.

Agree? Disagree? Well, lemme know.


  1. Number 10 I AM LOVE
    gawd help us!
    I hated it with a passion!

    Loved LONDON RIVER but out of your top ten I have not seen 8! ( which is a very lax mistake!!!)
    THE SECRETS IN THEIR EYES.....Which must be the best and most moving love story I have seen

  2. Yes, I remember that you weren't at all keen on I AM LOVE! ("See it and vomit" indeed!:))

    MEEK, ESSENTIAL KILLING and (hopefully) AMIGO get a UK release next year so you'll get the chance to see them then. All highly recommended! And I still haven't seen THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES, which must be remedied very soon!

  3. I disagree with 2 things:

    1) A Single Man did not work for me at all. I found it more pretntious than anything and 2) Limits of Control doesn't even come close to how good The American was. Other than that a darn fine list.

  4. Nice list, Alex, with many interesting choices. I've seen three of your top ten (Le Refuge, White Material, and I Am Love), and I'll be excited to see Meek's Cutoff when it's released here. I enjoyed Ozon's film, slept through half of the Denis film, and the last quarter of I Am Love for me killed the movie, which had really engaged me up to that point.

    Tonight I went to see Black Swan, probably the most passive-aggressively constructed film I've sat through. (It's funny that nearly all the reviews use that phrase to describe Barbara Hershey's character.) A very uneven movie (I was rolling my eyes a lot), and despite the clear physical demands of Natalie Portman's performance, the acting often felt too directed, making me question all of the performances at various points. The actors shouldn't seem as if they're getting lost in the maze of the material. I'll look forward to reading your views of the film!

  5. Cheers, chaps.

    Mike - A SINGLE MAN is certainly a divisive one, but I enjoyed the style and really admired Firth's performance. I thought there was much more of interest (political, philosphical, what have you) going on in in THE LIMITS... than THE AMERICAN, which I enjoyed for about 20 minutes but ultimately found to be a bit of an empty experience - like flicking through a glossy coffee table book, as I think one critic put it. (But then again, that's just what alot of people thought of ASM...)

    Jason - Yes, agreed on the last quarter of I AM LOVE. But there were so many sequences that I adored up to that point that I felt it deserved its place on the list. Interesting comments on BLACK SWAN... I'm *really* looking forward to it!

  6. Thanks for the link to my top 10 film of 2010!

    A number of these films on your favourite list I'm looking forward to, some are on my blog's to-see-list.

    I did see Of Gods And Men , although I wasn't as impressed as you were. The subject matter just didn't interest me. The name of the rose(also w. Michael Lonsdale in a monastery setting) I liked more.

    I watched The Kids are alright. At least from my perspective, it has divided audiences. I, along with a blogging friend, thought, while the acting is to be applauded, the positive reviews may have snowballed, and the story was surprisingly mediocre and clichéd. Other people call it among the best films of 2010. I myself wouldn't recommend it, I need more than just acting to enjoy a film ( :

  7. Yes, I've heard very mixed responses to The Kids Are All Right, too. Looking forward to seeing it, though, and I'll be sure to write about it here once I do.