I realize that it’s nearly February 2011, and we should be looking forward. In fact, I’m working on another entry about the editing process. But in the meantime, I figured this would be my last chance to talk about movies I saw in 2010. Rather than do a "best of" article I figured I’d just talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly, and maybe even dig out some general themes.
(NOTE that I said MOVIES I SAW, not necessarily movies that CAME OUT in 2010. This gives me quite a bit of latitude. Hey, it’s my blog.)
It seems like 2009 was the year of the armored body. From Avatar to Surrogates to Terminator: Salvation to District 9, our heroes found themselves inside of various tougher, more agile bodies. By contrast, regular bodies began to look weaker, more fragile, like big bags of blood just waiting to be microwaved, ripped and riddled full of bullets. The year just past continues that trend: Repo Men Jude Law and Forest Whittaker hack, slash, and cut their way through flesh to repo the artificial organs that their clients have defaulted on payments for. In Daybreakers vampires are variously burnt, decapitated, exploded, and torn apart as they turn human. Centurion takes the sword-and-sandals genre to new heights of gore. Kick Ass features some very disturbing violence. And so on.
What is going on? I don’t know, but I’ll take a stab at it. Images of ourselves in media have always oscillated between all-powerful (see the cave paintings in Lescaux) to fragile (much of DaVinci’s work). The current emphasis on the fragility of the body may reflect our own aging (at least in the U.S.), our anxiety over the fate of the species, and the feeling of helplessness many of us have in the face of political, economic and social disasters.
It’s no coincidence that three of the movies I just cited are very political. In Repo Men, the dominant force is The Union, who are like an insurance company, hospital, bank, and drug co. rolled into one. Can’t afford an organ transplant? No problem, just sign up for a payment plan – with 20 percent interest. Can’t make the payments? Don’t worry. One of our repo men will take it back. You might die in the process, but that’s life, right? In Daybreakers (a really, really good film, by the way), vampires are the dominant species – except that in their greed, they’ve pretty much wiped out their food supply, and so are now tottering on the brink of starvation. Starve a vampire and he turns into a cannibal bat. Over-dependence on scarce resources coupled with short-term greed… sound familiar? Centurion (perhaps the oddest of the three) is set against the backdrop of a long, drawn-out war between the Picts and Romans in Britain, with backstabbing and extremism on both sides.
RESIST ADULTHOOD AT ALL COSTS
Many of the men I saw onscreen had opted out of growing up. Greenberg, Cyrus, Enter the Void, Due Date, Kick-Ass, Blue Valentine, Splice, Iron Man 2 feature men acting like petulant children or refusing to grow up. Even Inception and Shutter Island, it could be argued, are centered around adult men who are still, on some level, playing games rather than facing up to painful loss. I’m not sure what this means either. It’s possible that Gen X men are finally growing up, or that we see that growing up doesn’t mean the same thing it used to. It could be that maturity, as defined by our parents and grandparents, is a rather defeatist and ultimately fruitless way to look at life. Growing up often means giving up.
OVER-COOKED AND UNDERRATED
So here’s a quick look at the most overrated and underrated films of the year (IMHO). This doesn’t mean that the films were good or bad; in some cases, the overrated films were excellent. It’s simply that they don’t live up to their hype or aren’t nearly as clever as they’d like to think they are.
The King’s Speech: I liked this film a LOT. I thought it was a humane, engaging portrait about someone who I normally could care less about (the royal family has problems? boo hoo). The performances were wonderful, the chemistry between Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush was great, and the struggle it represents is one we can all relate to. But in humanizing the King, it fails to politicize him. Apart from the obvious class differences between Rush and Firth (played for laughs, mostly), an opportunity to investigate the deeper complexities is left on the table.
Enter The Void: this is a case of brilliant technique married to a juvenile sensibility. Gaspard Noe is the kid in class who can draw amazing, life-like penises. The craft of the film is amazing – the overhead travelling shots, the mix of sophisticated effects and handheld camerawork, the removal of the subject from the screen altogether in the last third of the film. But it’s empty of ideas, save for a rather junior and over-literal understanding of karma and reincarnation that, in turns, masks a very traditional, conservative mindset. It revels in its juvenile qualities – ooh, look, full-on sex! Drug use! Gore! A microscope-level view of a penis! It’s also misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, and, worst of all, boring. But the camerawork, editing, soundwork, and effects deserve some real study and appreciation – the mechanism of how the story is told is something that opens new doors.
Inception: This is a wonderful heist film, that just happens to take place in someone’s head. It has a solid cast, some wonderful (and very organic) effects, it doesn’t waste a second of time, and it builds the tension in a way that should be studied by filmmakers everywhere. But, it’s not as complex as everyone’s making it out to be. It’s overly structured, with thin characterizations, and the dream world is in some ways exceptionally dull. Its conception of gender is rather old-fashioned (the dark heart of the main character is a woman). I really enjoyed this film and feel it deserves more attention at the Oscars than it will get, but in some ways it’s a big-budget b-movie.
Shutter Island: I found this film gripping, and the performances, setting, and use of dream imagery really, really well done. But again, where is the ambiguity? Where is the breakdown of structure? In Goodfellas, Mean Streets, Kundun and even Bring Out the Dead, Scorcese made me care about distant, unsavory or otherwise normally unreachable characters. In Shutter Island, I failed to connect with DiCaprio’s character, even after spending much of the film in his head.
Black Swan: As with Enter The Void, you have great technique married to a juvenile sensibility. If you want a meditation on the intersection between dance, identity, and madness, see the remastered The Red Shoes, which Swan cribs liberally from. If you want to see the disintegration of identity in the face of sexuality, see Fight Club. If you want to go beyond duality altogether, see Paprika. It was a fun film to watch, and had some great touches, a fantastic sound design, and featured a really good use of effects.
Daybreakers: A vampire film that manages to cram about three movies’-worth of ideas into a crisp, lean 90-minute ride. Good performances, some sly political commentary, and complex characterizations (no one in the film is completely good or bad). What’s not to like?
Cyrus: I’m NOT a mumblecore fan. I applaud their DIY attitude, their willingness to experiment and just ‘shoot their damn movie,’ but I could never relate to the results of their efforts. But perhaps because of the cast, or the story, I rather liked Cyrus. It also has something to say about gender roles, and about men of all ages who are still negotiating the process of growing up.
Splice: A gene-splicing film that’s really about the horrors of parenting, a monster movie where the monsters aren’t the obvious ones, and a creepy movie where the creepiness is psychological rather than physical. An examination of gender roles, parental responsibility, and the commodification of the flesh are all on the table here, but not in any kind of boring, polemical way. It falls short in many ways (some of the characters are a little too stock) and it could have been longer, but it’s definitely worth looking at.
Broken Embraces: At first glance, these film seems like a bit of a mess; part memoir, part mystery, part director-drag statement (the main character is a blind director). But on another level, it’s about much more – the blind spots we all have in our hearts, the things we hide from each other, the small things we only notice later. The theme of watching, hiding, touch, and how what we don’t see shapes our identity as much as what we do, make this a more interesting film on second viewing.
Kick-Ass: I’m not really sure why I like this film. Perhaps because it never does exactly what I expect it to do. I often found myself laughing and recoiling at the same time. It rather confronts us with superhero fantasy in a way that’s refreshing, exciting, and somewhat revolting. And it features some winning performances and well-shot and well-edited action scenes.
It’s a Wonderful Life: I saw this at its annual screening at the IFC Film Center, just a few days after seeing Enter the Void. Capra touches on many of the same themes – the imagined life, karma, the web of interconnection between people – but does so in a much more sophisticated and involving way. It doesn’t flinch away from showing the cost of heroism, nor does it short-shrift the miracles that are possible in everyday life (something it shares with both Ikiru and The Bicycle Thief). It’s a more adult, and less-square, work than it’s generally thought of.
In Understanding Comics, Scott Mcloud talks a lot about the process of making art. Often the ‘new kid on the block’ is just putting a new spin or glossy coat over deeper, older territories and structures that were explored by the previous ‘masters.’ I have to agree. Many of this past years’ films were clearly built upon (and in good cases, expand) the territory mapped out by Hitchcock, Ozu, Kurosawa, Hawks, Capra, Carpenter, Sturges, Tarkovsky… the list goes on and on. If the old studio system had flaws (and it certainly did), it also had its virtues, and it established within a very short span of time most of the major genres, syntactic elements, and styles that we still work with today. So in 2011, go see some old films! Many can be streamed on Netflix, so now you have no excuse.