Best of 2010 (Weekly Links)

Tahar Rahim, A Prophet

As always, a slow week for new openings; but I wrote these for the Herald:

Best movies of 2010. The link is dead; here’s the article, and list:

Ten Best of 2010

By Robert Horton

And so we bring down the curtain on Movie Year 2010, a real muddle of a year. 2010 was neither fish (as in “Catfish,” a film that refused to reveal whether it was documentary of fiction) nor fowl (as in “Black Swan” a crucially acclaimed but dumb movie about a ballerina who couldn’t tell black from white).

It says something when the defining films of the year were a dream-puzzle that nobody completely understood, and a story of the Ivy League jerk who re-arranged algorithms on the Internet. Both “Inception” and “The Social Network” delved into mystifying worlds, and both earned the right to be talked about. Neither film quite lived up to its ambitions: in the end, “Inception” was an adventure movie with mystical overtones, and “The Social Network” was a clever legal thriller that took stabs at telling us about the world we live in.

Elsewhere in Hollywood, the box office was considered flat—and it only kept pace with previous years because the studios charged a higher ticket price for 3-D films such as “Toy Story 3” and “Alice in Wonderland” (the #1 and #2 grossing pictures of 2010, as of mid-December). Animated films did very well, including pleasant surprises such as “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Megamind.” (Nobody was surprised by how good “Toy Story 3” was—the Pixar people have this stuff down.) Big sequels in the “Twilight” and “Harry Potter” series held their own—in fact, the top 11 highest-grossing movies of the year were sequels or remakes, except for “Inception.”

Critics are generally tepid on the quality of this year’s movies. I would agree that there were fewer instant classics out there than in previous years, but 2010 did have a batch of terrific small pictures and a great number of middle-range multiplex movies that provided a good time: “Kick-Ass,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” “The Other Guys” and “The Last Exorcism” all scored in that category. It was a heckuva year for Jeff Bridges, who won an Oscar for his 2009 performance in “Crazy Heart” and had a holiday-season double whammy with “Tron: Legacy” and “True Grit.” It was another incredible year for documentaries, whether political (“Inside Job,” “Client 9,” “Waiting for Superman”) or otherwise (“Last Train Home,” “Waste Land”).

To my occasional irritation, it was also a big year for fake documentaries—or at least, supposedly true stories that felt manufactured. By virtue of being a prank played on the serious art world, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” was the most enjoyable of these, but “I’m Still Here” (the Joaquin Phoenix masquerade that was only admitted to be a stunt after the movie was released) and “Catfish” (a hyped-up cautionary tale that the filmmakers swore was all true) were simply tiresome.

The losers of the year included the “Sex and the City” team, which saw its sequel become 2010’s most widely-mocked picture—though I will always be grateful to them for the surreal image of Carrie & the gang singing “I Am Woman” at a karaoke bar in an Arab nation. Jake Gyllenhaal had a bad year: the supposed young-adult franchise “Prince of Persia” and the grown-up “Love and Other Drugs” both flopped. And Mel Gibson had a pretty rough year. His first starring role in more than half a decade, “Edge of Darkness,” opened to credible returns—and then the old personal demons asserted themselves again. Maybe every year is rough for Mel Gibson.

But it’s all over now—2010, that is. And we must choose the best movies to open locally in the last 12 months. A slightly used Lots-o-Huggin’ Bear to the following titles, more or less in order.

A Prophet. A young man enters prison as a vacant nonentity, and emerges a few years (and 2 ½ hours of screentime) later as a deft game-player—a shark with pearly-white teeth. I had a feeling back when I reviewed Jacques Audiard’s movie in March that it might be the best film I saw all year; watching the final scene play out was like watching the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle fall into place from a height of a thousand feet.

Winter’s Bone. No film at the Seattle International Film Festival in May made a sharper, cleaner impression than this American indie set in the Ozarks. Jennifer Lawrence gave a superb performance as a teenager navigating the thorny thickets of poverty and family ties. In an interview published in the Herald, director Debra Granik told me the film is really a modern western, with “a western hero in a girl’s body.”

Four Lions. A shockingly funny black comedy about Muslim suicide bombers. Ahem! Yes, risky stuff, but British director Chris Morris thoroughly researched his subject (as Kubrick did with his nuclear-war laff-fest “Dr. Strangelove”) in order to do what satire does best: force us to look at the logical consequence of fanaticism, which is absurdity.

The Ghost Writer. It’s not one of the director’s masterpieces, and the plot has a few soft spots, but Roman Polanski’s film about an unnamed ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) to a retired politician (Pierce Brosnan) is an elegantly troubling piece of suspense.

Sweetgrass. A dreamy documentary about sheep, and the people who herd them. This is another kind of western, where the cowboys have cell phones and the sheep have the last bleat.

The Kids Are All Right. A very skillful troupe of actors (led by Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo) pace through this well-observed comedy about lesbian moms whose children find their biological father. Nothing p.c. about the script, thankfully.

Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl. Just a lovely little 60-minute daydream of a movie, directed by a 100-year-old filmmaker, Portugal’s Manoel de Oliviera.

Mid-August Lunch. Another model of brevity (75 minutes), about a middle-aged man (director Gianni di Gregorio) living with his mother in a small Rome apartment, and dealing with the sudden arrival of other boarders. This movie is pretty adorable.

Greenberg. This one’s not adorable. Ben Stiller plays a jerky guy house-sitting in L.A. for a few weeks. The cringes are well-earned by director Noah Baumbach.

Inception and The Social Network. I thought both these well-received pictures had their flaws, but there was no denying the intelligence behind them or the sheer pleasure in watching them.

And we could also throw in “True Grit,” the Coen brothers’ remake of a classic western. The second tier includes: “Carlos,” the 5 ½ hour saga of a true-life terrorist; “Soul Kitchen,” that rare thing, a delightful German comedy; “Toy Story 3,” which contained quite possibly the most upsetting yet philosophical five minutes of any movie this year; “Trash Humpers,” a creepy nightmare that I would never recommend to anybody but which had its own unpleasant integrity; “Alamar,” a wonderful Mexican movie about father and son; the taut Israeli film “Lebanon,” which takes place entirely inside a tank; “Marwencol,” a fascinating documentary about a brain-damaged man creating art; “Waste Lane,” a must-see about the rag-pickers of Rio creating art; and “A Town Called Panic,” a demented stop-motion animation thing with toys.

We celebrate these titles. But of course each year has its downside. You know what I’m getting at. Let’s not draw out the torture. Here are the ten worst of the year:

“Sex and the City 2.” And yet there was almost something intriguing about this enormously tasteless enterprise—but I’m not going to spend time thinking about what that might have been.

“The Virginity Hit.” Teen boys decide to “lose it,” a prospect conveyed in faux-documentary style with incredible crassness. If only these guys had met the “Sex and the City” ladies.

“The Last Airbender.” M. Night Shyamalan came a-cropper with this attempt at launching a “Narnia”-like franchise; it’s the only movie of his that isn’t distinctive in any way.

“Eclipse.” Sorry, “Twilight” fans, but this installment of the vampire saga brought the story to a complete standstill. It might work in a book, but in a movie, it’s nice when something happens.

“Vampires Suck.” Of course, this parody of “Twilight” was even worse. It was about as obvious as its title.

“Takers.” Terrible heist movie, with good actors, that played more like a very long advertisement for SUVs and fancy clothes and large automatic weapons.

“The Runaways.” There should be a good movie in the story of the 1970s female rock band, but this vague biopic, which wasted the talents of Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, argued otherwise.

“The Back-Up Plan.” An excruciating romantic comedy (one of many this year) in which Jennifer Lopez goes through the alleged hilarity of getting pregnant via artificial insemination at the moment she meets her dream man. This was J-Lo’s first movie in four years, which speaks badly of her career and the state of Hollywood screenwriting.

“Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky.” Yes, there are plenty of duds amongst the arthouse movies, too. This one made two famous (and presumably interesting) people into sleepwalkers.

“Jonah Hex.” Absolutely dead zombie western. Josh Brolin’s facial prosthetic was so impressive he could barely get any of his lines out—which might have been a blessing, given the quality of the script.

Made in Dagenham. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Sally Hawkins, who made a vivid impression in Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky” in 2008, has the look of a British actress who might have flourished in the 1960s: Twiggy-thin, with toothy features and a kooky personality. So it seems perfectly apt that she should star in “Made in Dagenham,” a movie based on a real incident that happened in 1968. Hawkins plays Rita O’Grady, a factory worker who became a leader of a strike of 187 machinists at the Ford automotive plant outside London.

These particular machinists were all women, and one of the movie’s main points is that the female factory workers were treated even less well than the male employees. They were especially shoved around because nobody expected them to answer back, and because their own union representatives were overly cozy with the Ford management.

Rita O’Grady and her colleagues struck a blow for women workers in Britain, even beyond the confines of their Ford factory. It’s a splendid true story, and therefore just the kind of thing that a well-meaning movie can mess up.

Alas, that’s what happens in “Made in Dagenham.” Artificially inflated by pop songs and cutesy mannerisms, this movie can’t leave a good story alone. The director, Nigel Cole, did a similar thing in “Calendar Girls,” one of the raft of feel-good British films that came along in the wake of “The Full Monty.” Everything’s just a little too packaged.

The nice cast includes Miranda Richardson (lately in “The Young Victoria”) as the British secretary of state for labor. While officially a hard-liner against the strikers, her character knows all too well the way the old boys’ club works. (I couldn’t help thinking that an excellent movie might have been made telling the same story from her perspective.)

Bob Hoskins plays a sympathetic Ford union man, with one marvelous speech about his own mother’s working life; needless to say, an old pro like Hoskins knocks that one out of the park. Richard Schiff does duty as the designated American corporate jerk in the mix.

Sally Hawkins, whose bouffant hair threatens to topple her tiny body, is a spirited heroine for this tale; Rita balances home life with an increasing sense of empowerment as a workers representative. Something this movie gets spot-on is showing that, when it comes right down to it, the strike isn’t fundamentally about such things as personal empowerment—but more about the right to be treated the same as anybody else.

And more best of 2010: On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about the list. Listen to the archived version here; the movie bit kicks in at the 14:00 point.

You can watch the abridged version of the Critics Wrap 2010, in which an esteemed panel sorts the movies of the year. It’s broadcast today on the Seattle Channel (channel 21 in Seattle) at 1 p.m. or 5 p.m., or New Year’s Day at 1 p.m.; or just watch the thing online.

Indiewire did their critics’ poll, with results here; my ballot, too.

Today’s movie at my other website, What a Feeling!: Drugstore Cowboy. Other postings this week at the ever-growing swamp of 1980s movie-ness include the Two Coreys in Dream a Little Dream and Charles Bronson in Messenger of Death.

Remember Prophet Zone (Weekly Links)

Tahar Rahim, A Prophet

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week:

A Prophet. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Imagine a jigsaw puzzle piece, dropped from a 20-foot-height, falling miraculously and perfectly into the last missing space in a 1,000-piece puzzle, and you’ll have some idea of the exhilarating effect of the final scene of Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet.”

This film was one of the nominees in the foreign-language Oscar category, although it lost to Argentina’s entry. That better be one great movie, because “A Prophet” is a triumph.

The film’s hero is a cousin to the protagonists of “The Godfather” or “Scarface,” but the movie writes its gangland saga without phony mob glamour. In fact, most of it takes place within a harsh prison. As “A Prophet” opens, Malik (played by Tahar Rahim) arrives in jail. A young man who knows absolutely nothing about anything, he is easily exploited by the Corsican gang that rules the yard. He can’t truly be one of them, because of his North African heritage, but the big boss, Cesar  (Niels Arestrup), uses him as a gofer and a go-between—and in one harrowing sequence, an assassin.

The story takes place over six years’ time, and after a while Malik earns enough points to qualify for furloughs. All the while, he learns. He does errands. He curries favor. And he watches. Because Jacques Audiard is not spelling anything out for us, we notice these developments ourselves. He took a similar approach in his two previous films, both superb, “Read My Lips” and “The Beat That My Heart Skipped.”

For a while, the virtually-unknown actor Tahar Rahim seems to fade into the wallpaper; yet by the time the intricate deals of the final hour begin to go down, he’s become defined, sharp, sharklike.

It’s something of a mystery–even after the movie is over–whether Malik’s instincts are nearly visionary (that might be why it’s called “A Prophet”) or whether he simply develops improvisatory skills to make the best out of any situations handed to him. Is he a genius or a savant? He’s a good chess player, that’s for sure. And watching him slowly navigate the shoals of the criminal anthill makes for fascinating viewing.

When the final scene comes on, we realize we’ve been guided in a very particular way to this exact spot—the camerawork, the performances, and the droll choice of music bring the curtain down in a very satisfying and sinister way.

Along with winning a major prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and getting the Oscar buzz, “A Prophet” revives a tired genre, the mob picture. Martin Scorsese, eat your heart out.

Green Zone. “Being right about history and making a good movie are two different things.”

Remember Me. “A gimmick or a tragic twist of fate.”

She’s Out of My League. “There are fantasies worked out all over the place.”

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Daniel Ellsberg’s trajectory through American life took a distinct path: as a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, he supported basic Cold War thinking and helped devise ways to expand the Vietnam War; but by the beginning of the 1970s, he was leaking a top-secret government document that revealed the truth about the war.

His shift in attitude is largely the subject of “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers,” a documentary that (not surprisingly, given Ellsberg’s full participation in it) treats him as the hero of this tale. Nominated for an Oscar in the documentary category this year, it lost to “The Cove.”

Why the change of mind? At one point in the mid-1960s, as the war escalated, Ellsberg went to Vietnam to see how things were going. A former Marine, he plunged into the action and was disturbed by the disparity between what he was seeing and what was appearing in official reports about the war’s progress.

In the documentary, he recalls standing in a rice paddy and turning to the soldier next to him and saying, “You ever feel like the Redcoats?”

After contributing to the top-secret document that would later be known as the Pentagon Papers, he came to the decision he would leak them—to congress, and to the press—even if it meant going to jail.

The resulting fight with the Nixon White House (which included an effort by some of the Watergate burglars to steal information from Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, in an effort to discredit him) makes up one of the strongest sections of the movie.

“The Most Dangerous Man” is not notably different from a good PBS documentary, and directors Judith Erlich and Rick Goldsmith keep it straightforward and simple in telling their story.

They have a good eye for compelling detail. When Ellsberg decided to photocopy the Papers, he enlisted the service of his 13-year-old son in the laborious process, after informing the boy of the historical significance. The idea of father and son feeding pages into the Xerox machine in the middle of the night (as Ellsberg’s daughter cuts off the “Top Secret” part of the copies) gives a surreal twist to the controversy.

Richard Nixon is a presence, too, in the secret tapes he kept in the Oval Office. It doesn’t matter if you’ve heard these before, it’s still amazing to hear the president go on about how to “get” his enemies. What a boon to historians, and to documentary filmmakers.

And a preview of the 15h Seattle Jewish Film Festival.

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Marcie Sillman about the Oscars and documentaries: here. The movie bit begins at the 14-minute mark.

Movie Diary 2/22/2010

A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009). A movie as patient and competent as its protagonist, in which all the pieces come gradually together to form a satisfying whole, right up to the final notes on the soundtrack. Sort of a companion piece to Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped, and like that film featuring a large supporting performance by the debauched Niels Arestrup. (full review 3/19)

Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009). Just when you think you’ve seen every possible variation on a movie set in a British housing project. Not as revelatory as Arnold’s Red Road, but more evidence of her talent. (full review 2/26)

Pitfall (Andre de Toth, 1948). Re-seeing after 25 years or so, and thus “new.” The lively dialogue and a classic noir situation carry this through, along with de Toth’s eye for startlingly just-there real locations.

Assassins (Richard Donner, 1995). Not quite the sleeper I remembered, but something’s going on in it. Antonio Banderas’s antic performance is a reminder of his promise at the time; one wants Stallone’s sincere attempt at intelligent underplaying to work – it doesn’t quite.

Kids of Survival (Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, 1996). Quite a powerful account of Tim Rollins and his South Bronx teen artists, from the makers of Ballets Russes. Also has some classic noodle-headed comments from academics. (It’ll be shown again soon: see “Upcoming Events” tab.)