Tuesday, December 28, 2010

2010: A (Film) Year In Review (with links!)

So, here we are. On Friday night, we'll count down the minutes until the year of 2010 is finished and 2011 is upon us. Depending on how you look at it, 2010 was either the beginning of a new decade, fresh with its own new personality and cadence; or it was the tag end of the millennium's first decade, rounding out the Aughts with its own brand of wisdom unique to the other nine years. I've always been the kind of person who counts the "zero" year as the beginning of a decade, and not the end (it's hard for me to wrap my head around the concept that some people still consider the year 2000 as the end of the 90's; I imagine that's what Sports Illustrated was doing when they called this year's The Fighter the greatest sports movie of the decade), so for the sake of this post, we will count 2010 as the beginning of its own decade, but that does not mean that this year doesn't owe some credit to years previous for the creation of one of the better film years in quite a long time.

Earlier this year, The Hurt Locker won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and its director, Kathryn Bigelow, became the first female filmmaker to win the Best Director award. Sure, Bigelow's win was historical, considering the male-dominated world that film tends to be (not only was she the first one to ever win, but she was only the fourth one to even get a nomination. For those counting, that's 4 out of a total 410 slots - a whopping 1% ... barely). But The Hurt Locker's February haul (6 Oscars altogether) meant a whole lot more than breaking down gender walls. This was an action film, and more specifically, a war film - a genre that is almost always ignored no matter what the quality of the film may be (remember how many Oscar noms 1999's Three Kings got? 0). Watching it walk away with a bundle of awards felt like a changing of the guard in prestige Hollywood films, but I still wasn't totally sure if it was only going to be a one-year trend. 2010 has shown that it wasn't.

Guy Lodge of the website 'In Contention' wrote a nice little piece about how 2010 was a continuation of the 'Year of the Woman'. Considering the high Oscar chances for Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right and Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, it's obvious that Lodge has an excellent point (Lodge's article does a good job of bringing attention to more female-helmed films than just those two). But I think if 2010 stands out for anything, it should be declared as the 'Year of the Actress'. I hate to judge a collection of films and performances in terms of Oscar, but this is true: seldom are the women's acting categories overflowing with choices, while the men are finding trouble, trying to scrap together a handful of performances worthy enough of a nomination (I mean, Christ, I've heard that Robert Duvall is still in contention for Get Low). Led by Natalie Portman's virtuoso performance in Black Swan, there were upward of ten wonderful performances from our leading movie stars, including both Annette Bening and Julianne Moore in The Kids Are All Right, Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine, Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit, Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone, Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole, amongst others. This wonderful collection of talent will have to be widdled down to five, and I'm not sure how you can make a case against any of these women getting in (though SAG has made it a bit simpler by referring to Hailee Steinfeld as a "supporting" performance - she's the film's protagonist, mind you).

This is the face that Bening and Moore make when someone asks them, "What are the chances of BOTH of you getting nominated?"

And 2010 was also a great year from auteur filmmakers being able to find critical and commercial success. Two years ago, both Danny Boyle and David Fincher were getting showered with awards for two watered-down films that were not at all indicative of those filmmakers' bravura - Slumdog Millionaire and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, respectively. In 2010, they returned with sharper, better films; more challenging and less crowd-pleasing. And alas, they find themselves in good position again. For Fincher, he's probably made the most talked about film of the year with the "Facebook Movie", The Social Network, which was a wondrous display of spitfire dialogue and American vanity. It was smart and funny, but was a steady return to Fincher's slick sarcasm which was unfortunately mellowed out in Benjamin Button. For Boyle, 127 Hours was a return to the fast, abrasive style that gained him recognition for films like 28 Days Later... and Trainspotting. Far from the Cinderella storyline of Slumdog, he made a film filled with such unstoppable energy that it makes up for spending almost the entire film in a mountain crevice in Utah.

Sure, 2010 was also delivered the terrible news of the disaster that became of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, which crumbled just before the beginning of production. With every death, though, there is a resurrection, which is what we got in Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer. His best film in years, Polanski showed that even in the face controversy, he's still skilled enough to make a smart thriller and one of the best Film Noirs in decades. Not to be outdone by his 70's filmmaking brethren, Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island was a beautifully shot, well-tempered suspense that had some of DiCaprio's finest acting. Darren Aronofsky's highly-anticipated Black Swan was another big auteur moment, as he released his first movie since 2008's brilliant The Wrestler. These were brave filmmakers getting recognition for the kinds of films that made them unique to begin with. Too often, these guys don't get recognized until they make a film that conforms to broad, Academy standards (case in point: Scorsese, The Departed; Roman Polanski, The Pianist), but not in 2010.

The one unfortunate part of 2010 was the still growing disparity between moviegoing audiences and the true quality moviegoing experiences. As Nathaniel Rogers of The Film Experience hilariously put, it seems like general audiences only really go to see four types of movies. Great movies like Toy Story 3 and Inception cracked the Top 5, but the rest of the Top 10 is a tightly woven collection of broad, effects driven films - often in connection with some type of forthcoming franchise (while the latest Harry Potter was certainly a well-executed picture, it's hard to ignore just how much of a gluttonous action it was to split the seventh film into two parts). While The Social Network and Black Swan have both performed well in their box office runs, their returns are graded on curves. Expectations for character-driven, auteur-produced films will always be low in terms of box office.

Why are bad movies made? Because people go to see them. Thus explaining that there will be a THIRD Transformers movie.

In independent film, there was the return of a couple guys who've been quiet for a few years. John Cameron Mitchell made Rabbit Hole, his first attempt at a mature, narrative-driven drama. While Noah Baumbach, seemingly hiding out since he made the atrocious 2007 film Margot at the Wedding, came out with the Ben Stiller vehicle, Greenberg, early in the year. Tim Blake Nelson, who hadn't directed a feature film since 2001's O, came out with the trippy Leaves of Grass which was one of the more under-appreciated movies of the year. Then, we had new arrivals on the indie scene, with filmmakers like Rodrigo Cortes making his first American film with the excellent Buried (or as some have gone on to call it, "The Coffin Movie"). Of course, we cannot forget Derek Cianfrance, who made his first feature length narrative film in Blue Valentine, filling it with such gritty brilliance that it ranks amongst some of the best love stories of the young 2000's.

I spoke with a friend earlier this month who explained to me why he thought 2010 was not a very good year in cinema. I guess it's a subjective matter. Sure, there was no movie this year that was as good as 2007's No Country For Old Men or 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The kind of movie that is so good that you know once you've finished it, that it is a masterpiece. I think it's unfair to judge a year by how many "masterpieces" it produces, because how often do "masterpieces" come around anyway? I know this: seldom can I say that I was able to see a quality film every month of the year. In a film industry that unfairly scales all the greatness toward the Fall season, it's rare that you can go to the movies in February and see something exceptional (Shutter Island), and the same in March (The Ghost Writer, Greenberg), and the same in April (Leaves of Grass), etc. Even the Summer, so often derided for it's pandering toward box office favorites, had some quality stuff. Think of this, three likely Best Picture nominations (Inception, The Kids Are All Right, Toy Story 3) will have come out before Labor Day. We still have the usual December-heavy releases, but with such a great balance throughout, how can you deny 2010 its awesomeness?

I know I won't.

My Ten (Kinda) Best Films of the Year

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