|by Jay Seaver
Making year-end lists is tough; if you're capable of making one worth reading, you've got to go through a lot of movies, and if you're not writing reviews on every movie you see (or just keeping notes), it can be difficult to pinpoint what you thought of each film at the end of the year, especially since December and early January can amount to a cram session. So, a couple of years ago, I started a "This Week in Tickets" feature on my blog, to keep track of what I was watching. And after a year, found I still had no enthusiasm for putting things in best-to-worst order with an arbitrary cut-off. So, instead, let's just look at the year as it played out - the good, the bad, the weird.
Fair warning: There will be stuff from 2009 on this list, and festival and repertory screenings as well. The holidays are busy and I don't get to many advance screenings, so a number of 2010 award contenders had to wait for 2011. Some of my favorites (and least favorites) may be left off, and sometimes the environment will be just as prominent as the film itself. So, expect digressions into what is great and occasionally not-so-great about seeing movies in the Boston area (with occasional field trips to New York and Montreal).
1 January: Broken Embraces
The first of 336 movies seen outside the living room was Pedro Almodovar's Broken Embraces. I said on my blog at the time that it is "almost kind of refreshing to see a director as respected, even lionized, as Almodovar not feeling he has to prove himself or make each new film be a bold, new event." It's a good, enjoyable movie; not a bad way to start the year.
10 January: The Young Victoria
In and of itself, The Young Victoria is not terribly remarkable - it's a good-looking costume drama with a decent central performance by Emily Blunt, a too-short appearance by Jim Broadbent as the previous monarch, and a fine villain in the person of Mark Strong. What is interesting is that the ticket comes from that rarest of beasts - a new single-screen theater.
Well, sort of new - what is now the Stuart Street Playhouse was once the Sack 57, before being split, converted to a live theater, and then taken up by the owners of a couple suburban cinemas. It's a very nice place, with a beautiful lobby, good projection, and a decent concession stand. I don't find myself going there very often, though, as it's something of a second-run boutique house, showing independent and foreign films that have already played at other local venues but only charging a dollar or two less than the multiplex down the street. After a year, it's still there, so it's apparently doing well enough as a neighborhood theater for now.
5 - 15 February: The 35th Annual Boston Science Fiction Film Festival
Though a veritable institution for sci-fi fans in the Boston area, the Boston Science Fiction Film Festival was a festival more in name than format, a 24-hour marathon of new and old sci-fi flicks. This year, they added a nine-day event before the traditional marathon, and while it still has a bit of a starting-from scratch feeling, the programmers showed a good eye for films, even if what was available to a festival effectively on its first year wasn't always fantastic.
(Believe me, I know - I was invited to be part of the group screening films that year, and let me tell you, festivals have to sort through a lot of crap to find the good stuff!)
27 February: The Man with the Movie Camera
Whenever you've got a chance to see the Alloy Orchestra accompany a silent movie, take it. They tend to travel with excellent prints of terrific films, and there are few groups out there with more expertise at scoring these films. They have pretty impressive range, as well - though best known for the percussive scores that use the junk rack set up next to the more conventional instruments, they are just as good at accompanying emotional dramas as thrill rides.
The Man with the Movie Camera is a great film for their particular skills; it's all about fast motion from one scene to another. It's an amazing artifact from the early days of filmmaking, rapidly cutting between amazing shots and how the filmmakers got those amazing shots, and a nifty survey of life in the early Soviet Union.
28 February: Mother
Bong Joon-ho's newest film is just as good as everything else he's done in his career, and features a riveting performance by Kim Hye-ja in the title role. It's the best kind of mystery thriller, one which combines a clever whodunit story with a sleuth (in this case, the protective mother of a mentally handicapped man accused of murder) who has her own journey to go through.
As a bonus, I was lucky enough to see this preview at the Harvard Film Archive with Director Bong in attendance, and despite the language barrier, it was one of the most interesting filmmaker Q&As I've ever seen - aside from the man being genial and funny, he was also unusually willing to dissect characters' motivations and on-screen symbolism.
11 March: Terribly Happy
While on the subject of fantastic import thrillers, Terribly Happy is an exceptional entry from Denmark. Henrik Ruben Genz takes a movie that's 50% western, 50% film noir, and drops it into a murky swamp town. Jakob Cedergren is absolutely excellent as a man who may be the sheriff who cleans up the dirty town and may be the patsy used by a femme fatale to get rid of her troublesome husband.
21 March: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Though the later films were disappointments to different extents, there's no denying that the first Swedish adaptation of Stieg Larsson's novels is a crisp mystery that explains why the novels have been a worldwide multimedia sensation: Both Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist are given good material as sleuths trying to solve a disappearance forty-years cold. This is the rare film that makes the research part of an investigation seem dynamic and exciting, although there are several more viscerally exciting moments.
The Millennium trilogy is also one of the more successful American releases of foreign-language films in recent memory, playing not just in small boutique houses, but at major multiplexes for weeks at a time.
25 -31 March: The Boston Underground Film Festival
Though the festival was, like many, feeling a bit of a pinch from the economy, it had the best line-up I've seen in the years I've been attending, from Sion Sono's 4-hour opus (that never, ever drags) Love Exposure to pitch-black SXSW favorite Red White & Blue to gorgeous horror movie with a thousand parts atmosphere to one part words Amer to surprisingly clever romantic comedy Friends with Benefits. So although there were far fewer free sex toys thrown to the audience this year (it's that kind of event), the films were top-notch, and that's a trade I, personally, will make every time.
3 April: How to Train your Dragon
For better or worse, 3D was one of the most talked-about topics of 2010, and I found it disappointing how often folks I like and respect would either dismiss its worth out of hand, or giddily jump on any sign that the public was tiring it to declare victory. Very few films used the technology as well as How to Train Your Dragon - it makes the most of its flying scenes, and also uses the depth to great effect in constructing the film's Viking-town setting.
It's also one of the best animated films in a year filled with unusually strong animation, building an interesting fantasy world rather than just presenting a wacky reflection of our own, populated by likable characters, and giving kids a worthwhile message without ever talking down to them. It's a funny adventure that deservedly became a sleeper hit.
11 April: The Black Waters of Echo's Pond, Ca$h!, and The Hidden Fortress
I can't remember whether I had intended to see Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece, one of the greatest adventure movies of all time, when the day started, but when you subject yourself to a double feature as terrible as Echo's Pond (an utterly inept horror movie which takes forever to start seriously killing its annoying characters) and Ca$h! (a bland, slow-moving would-be thriller that wastes Sean Bean and Chris Hemsworth), it's good to be able to partake of a series of screenings commemorating the centennial of a great filmmaker to remind yourself just why you love movies so much.
21 - 28 April: The Independent Film Festival Boston
Another Boston festival that just gets stronger with age, IFFBoston demonstrated not only a commitment to high quality but uncommon agility by not stumbling when their closing film backed out and adding the delightful Micmacs in its place ("Verdict: Upgrade!", read a much re-tweeted reaction). Also playing and worth note were Winter's Bone (an atmospheric Ozark noir with a couple very fine performances), The Parking Lot Movie (proof that documentaries can be entertaining even with the slightest subjects), Hipsters (a Russian musical about Soviet-era kids who just wanted to rock and roll), and the surprising documentary Marwencol (perhaps the best of the year).
It also featured perhaps my favorite double feature of the year, when on 24 April I followed Italian melodrama I Am Love with "kimchee western" The Good, The Bad, The Weird. After spending what feels like seven hours (but was actually just over two) with the insufferable I Am Love, which starts out with an intriguing Upstairs, Downstairs-style hook but becomes mind-numbingly clichéd and outright idiotic by the end, a person desperately needs to see some shit blow up, and I submit that the much-delayed The Good, The Bad, The Weird is the best action movie to play American screens in 2010. It's got a fantastic cast, and Kim Ji-woon is one of the best popcorn filmmakers not just in South Korea, but the world.
20 May: No One Knows About Persian Cats
There's little more frustrating for a film fan than seeing a movie on the last day of its run, loving it, and then having to temper one's recommendations to friends with "unfortunately, you'll have to wait until it hits video in a couple of months". That's what happened to me with Persian Cats, a nifty movie about kids wanting to succeed as musicians that would be pretty good even if it wasn't shot guerrilla-style in Tehran.
11 June: The A-Team and Splice
Two films that make for a quality double feature, both a bit off from expectations with endings that could have been just a bit better. The A-Team is better than expected, which is only natural, since the natural tendency is to expect a disaster when adapting an already-kitschy television program; instead a funny action/adventure that updates and upgrades the TV series as a twenty-first century feature. Splice, meanwhile, is a more-clever-than-expected sci-fi flick that makes rock-star scientists work but has a bit of an issue with the finale - even those who don't mind the gross-out nature of the last act might grumble over how it becomes a fairly generic horror movie.
20 June and 4 July: Toy Story 3
If any movie was worth seeing twice in the theater, it was Pixar's latest - once to catch in IMAX, and a second time to see with my brother and his fiancée. On the way up, she mentioned the surprising emotional reactions Pixar films could get, and I assured her, there would be crying. Granted, it came at different points based on the age of the people in the audience - the very young kids in attendance did not like the monkey at all, while it was toward the end that the grownups were glad for their 3D glasses, because it got awful dusty, awful fast.
It's amazing, though, just how good Pixar is: A lot of people can call back to a gag from previous flicks for an easy laugh. A somewhat smaller set can do it for a really clever one. These guys can do it for a huge moment of emotional relief.
27 June: The New York Asian Film Festival
I generally only get out to New York for one day of Subway Cinema's excellent celebration of movies from the other side of the Pacific each year, but it's an event I highly recommend. Grady Hendrix and company put together a program that balances highbrow and high-action, and brings in some big-name guests as well.
This year, the guests dictated my line-up would be an all-Chinese one, as Simon Yam was in four films - Storm Warriors, Bodyguards & Assassins, Echoes of the Rainbow, and Ip Man 2 - and you schedule around the guests. The weekend's other guest was martial arts legend Sammo Hung, although out of this line-up, he only appears in Ip Man 2 (where he also choreographs the action). Of the films I saw, Bodyguards & Assassins was the favorite, with its slow build to a massive action scene, although Ip Man 2 deserves attention just for having a fight between Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung about as good as when they clashed in Sha Po Lang (aka Killzone).
8 - 27 July: Fantasia International Film Festival
I've been attending Fantasia for five years or so, and I can't recommend it highly enough. This year, I got to see genre movies from twenty-three different countries (Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Serbia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Thailand, UK, USA, and Vietnam), with the usual sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and martial-arts films augmented by selections from the new subversive Serbian cinema, Korean cinema, lifetime achievement awards for Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and Ken Russell, and a series of "Documentaries from the Edge". Though the festival has been quietly growing ever since I've gone, it got even bigger this year, with a few premieres of major studio pictures (though not nearly enough to dominate the three-week festival), a live theater presentation, and a gala finale.
Some of the films I loved there will likely be too odd to make much of a dent in mainstream theaters: Rubber and Symbol are terrific midnight movies, and hopefully places that program such things will find them. Hong Kong's Gallants is a great tribute to old-school martial arts, while Chile's Mandrill adds deadpan humor, Indonesia's Merantau shows little apparent concern for stuntperson safety, Thailand's Raging Phoenix is madness even beyond its drunken-muay-thai-breakdancing fighting style, and China's Little Big Soldier reminds us why we loved Jackie Chan. Though I chickened out of A Serbian Film, I was impressed by other Serbian features like the animated Technotise: Edit & I (already optioned for a live-action American remake) and the amazing Tears for Sale (already cut outside its home country). Director Yoshihiro Nakamura scored twice, with Fish Story and Golden Slumber, while Pang Ho-Cheung was a little uneven, with Love in a Puff better than Dream Home. Great thrillers abounded, too, with Deliver Us From Evil and the Disappearance of Alice Creed. There was also some truly riveting horror with Black Death, The Loved Ones, and The Last Exorcism (all the more so because they potentially kept the supernatural in reserve).
28 July and 8 August: The Complete Metropolis
I saw the newly-restored cut of Metropolis a second time at the Brattle Theatre because I could - miraculous reconstructions of seminal 80-year-old movies don't show up every day, and so you should appreciate them when they do come around. Besides, one of the joys of watching silent films is seeing the extent to which the experience changes with new soundtracks. I'll be going to see this one again in March, when the Alloy Orchestra returns to Boston with their score.
As much as I enjoyed seeing it a second time through, the experience that sticks out is the Gala finale at Fantasia, where a new score was commissioned and a 14-piece orchestra played it in front of thousands of attendees at Place des Arts. I've got pictures on my blog, and it underscored more about what I love about Fantasia - for all that they're arguably the biggest festival in one of the world's great cities, the organizers remain delightfully down to earth. They were almost giddy when looking at the crowd, and they made sure that the front row crowd got premium front-row seats.
The only negative? Apparently very few 35mm prints of the new cut were struck; every screening that I've heard of in America has been off a digital source, and as many strides as digital projection is making, when you're playing a screen as large as some of the classic and/or massive venues where Metropolis is being booked, film makes a difference.
20 August: Vengeance
Sadly, Johnnie To's latest film, like most of his movies, had only the smallest of releases in the United States, mostly video on demand with a few bookings at repertory houses in major cities. It's a crying shame, because To combines being a workhorse with being perhaps the best crime-movie director in Hong Kong, if not the world. Here, he works with Johnny Hallyday, the French Elvis, on a tale of revenge that is alternately thrilling and surreal, with some of the best shootouts you'll see on-screen.
24 August: Murder, My Sweet and The Big Sleep
There are very few things in the world as pleasurable as reading Raymond Chandler, but a double feature of Dick Powell and Humphrey Bogart playing his signature detective, Philip Marlowe, is right up there. The Big Sleep is justifiably famous, but Murder, My Sweet is nothing to sneeze at.
(Amusingly, I only got this particular double feature because the Brattle was sent the wrong film - instead of The Big Sleep, the schedule originally showed Key Largo. All those Bogie & Bacall film cans must look alike!)
30 August: Louis
Louis is a new silent movie, about Louis Armstrong getting involved in New Orleans scandals as a kid. It had a one-night engagement at the Apollo Theater with live accompaniment by pianist Cecile Licad, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and his band. Even if it wasn't a fun slapstick romp, it is totally worth taking a day off work, making a four-hour trip each way on the bus, and moving through the next day like a zombie because you just aren't going to see a movie in a cooler environment than that.
1 October: Tucker & Dale vs. Evil
I'm actually somewhat mystified that Tucker & Dale has apparently not been picked up for U.S. distribution yet. It's a thoroughly entertaining horror-comedy that spoofs the killer-redneck genre without smirking at the audience, stars two very likable character actors in the title roles and a leading lady who is lovely and charming. I suspect the producers must be holding out for a theatrical run despite "horror-spoof" (and, worse, smart horror-spoof) being too much of a niche to get more than VOD these days.
9 October: Endhiran
You only think you know enthusiastic fans, but you don't, not really, until you've seen a movie featuring SUPER STAR RAJINI. That's how Rajinikanth, the most popular actor in India's Tamil region, is billed - with a pre-title animated logo bigger than the one of either the production company or the studio. When he first shows up, the packed audience applauds like crazy. Same when he says his first line, or points his finger (with attendant sound effect!). The house was just about sold out, despite the movie having opened a couple weeks earlier, and it was a bizarre experience for someone not particularly versed in Indian cinema, especially considering the relatively sedate reaction to co-star Aiswarya Rai, who is famous even outside of India and Indian communities.
The movie itself is actually a lot of fun. Like a lot of Indian films, it enthusiastically tries to be everything to everybody, so it's a very long sci-fi-musical-romantic-action-comedy, and the appeal of its star may be lost on outsiders, it's a zany romp with catchy songs and some surprisingly good effects work and action (Yuen Woo-ping handles martial arts choreography). Not quite great, per se, but energetic and more polished than you might expect.
13 October: Buried
127 Hours was the high-profile film about one guy trapped underground in 2010, and it's a pretty good movie, but there's an argument to be made that Rodrigo Cortes's Buried is the better film. It's a tight thriller with a fine performance by Ryan Reynolds, and excellent cinematography by Eduward Grau. "Excellent cinematography" isn't necessarily the first phrase you'd associate with a movie about a man trapped in a box, but they do a fantastic job of getting us in the coffin with Reynolds' Paul Conroy.
29 October: Never Let Me Go
Best science-fiction film of the year, hands-down, with excellent performances by Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield, and Carey Mulligan. It's a thoughtful, but chilling drama rather than a spectacle.
25 November: Tangled
It has maybe not been a truly fantastic year for animation, but where it has been good, it has been excellent. While Tangled was produced with CGI and exhibited in 3D, it's the closest thing to Disney's great run of early-nineties animated features that their "classic" feature animation division has produced in years. It's amazing, really, just how much they've managed to recapture the feel of those great films with the new tools.
And, of course, because The Princess and the Frog didn't do as well as they might have hoped last year, they pull back form more fairy-tale/princess projects - only to have this do well. Indeed, I wonder if there are those inside Disney that wish they had made this their big holiday push rather than Tron: Legacy.
23 & 26 December: Rare Exports and If You Are the One 2
Neither of these movies is perfect - Rare Exports could have used a boss battle rather than an extended epilogue, and If You Are the One 2 is a rather maudlin romantic comedy - but they're both pretty good, and examples of of foreign films arriving in the English-speaking world almost simultaneously with their releases in their native land. There's different reasons - Rare Exports because its Christmas setting gives it a very short shelf life, If You Are the One 2 because you've got to act fast to get movies in and out of China before the pirates - but it's very exciting that in some cases, folks who like foreign-but-mainstream movies may not have to wait until their initial buzz dies down to see them.
29 December: Rabbit Hole
Not quite the last movie I saw in 2010, but we'll let the New Year's Eve oddity The Phantom of the Paradise pass and say I went out on a high note, this film about a couple that, having lost their young son, must try and figure out how to live with such a gaping hole in their lives. It's sad and angry, but nuanced, and not only has Nicole Kidman never been better than she is as the grieving mother, but she's surrounded by other great performances from Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, and especially newcomer Miles Teller.
... and that's 2010, or at least a representative sample. My 2011 is already off to a busy start, with True Grit and The King's Speech. I expect the new calendar/scrapbook pages posted on my blog to be just as full to bursting as the ones for 2009 and 2010.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3143
originally posted: 01/12/11 15:05:42
last updated: 01/13/11 12:09:16