Saturday, January 1, 2011

Emporium Feature: The 25 Best Films of 2010 (25-11)

2010 has been an interesting year for film, with some exceptional films emerging from The Sydney Film Festival around the middle of the year to make up for a dire beginning to the year. Starting the year with Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, we then had the years best blockbuster (Inception) and animated film (Pixar's Toy Story 3) before the Festival films began to receive a wider release, bringing us The Kids Are All Right, Exit Through the Gift Shop, I Am Love, The Ghost Writer, Four Lions and The Killer Inside Me. Throw in the best Aussie film of the year in Animal Kingdom and this was looking like a solid year. The Social Network was an instant classic, and Let Me In was a very effective remake of 2008's Let the Right One In. Unfortunately the year was plagued with terrible films as well. None were more disappointing than Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, the awful Clash of the Titans remake, the Kevin Smith directed Cop Out, The Book of Eli and the Ridley Scott re-envisioning of Robin Hood.
I still have not seen a number of the projected Oscar contenders for 2010, due to their delayed release here in Australia. These include: The King's Speech, Black Swan, The Fighter, True Grit, 127 Hours, Conviction, Never Let Me Go, Rabbit Hole and Somewhere. I will compile this list with these notable exclusions in mind.

25. Kick Ass (Matthew Vaughn) - Kick Ass was one of the most intensely marketed films of the year, with heavy internet circulation leading up to the release. While it was often-hilarious, and featured a guilty dose of ultra-violence, I couldn't help but feel disappointed that it didn't complement the moments of brilliance with an engaging plot (that was full cloudy motives and brilliant conveniences), leaving me underwhelmed overall. Kick Ass, certainly one of the years coolest films, is visually stylish, has an awesome soundtrack and a scene-stealing performance from Chloe Moretz. *** 

24. The Last Exorcism (Daniel Stamm) - One of the more chilling horror-thrillers of the year. Adopting the single camera mockumentary style, Stamm's film is supported by an intelligent and original premise, some well developed characters and a pair of excellent performances. I thought of it as a collaboration between The Blair Witch Project, The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby. The film centers on a disillusioned priest (Patrick Fabian) who has decided to reveal the fraudulent practice of Exorcism by allowing a documentary crew to film him perform one on a young girl (Ashley Bell), whose father believes is possessed. It's all conveyed with such confidence that I genuinely felt that I was watching real events unfold. It's disappointing that it is undermined in the latter half of the film. Still, The Last Exorcism is a pretty good horror film, with some chilling moments and an ending that will leave you reeling in shock. ***1/2

23. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev) - The film adaptation of the first novel in Stieg Larsson's popular Millenium Trilogy is an intelligent, engaging and complex murder mystery that conforms well to the whodunit genre with some refreshing elements of the Cosy School detective mystery. The central characters, investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist) and expert hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) unlock the disturbing past of the wealthy Vanger family with ties to the Nazi regime and a series of grizzly murders of young women. While the plot takes a long time to come together and the direction lacked some imagination, it's fueled by the fine performances of the leads. It was a pity the sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, couldn't match the suspense of this one. ***1/2

22. Greenberg (Noah Baumbach) - The awkward comedy of the year from Noah Naumbach (The Squid and the Whale) with a really surprising performance from Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg, a New York man who moves to Los Angeles to housesit for his brother. He is at a crossroads in his life and seeks to figure himself out. While there he romantically connects with brother's assistant (Greta Gerwig), catches up with his old friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans) and tries to make amends with his old band members. It treads a fine line between being hilarious and heartbreaking, but Stiller and Gerwig are excellent. ***1/2

21. Four Lions (Chris Morris) - Chris Morris' debut feature is exactly as the promotional poster suggests. It is FUNNY and outrageously so. Set in Sheffield, this Jihad satire tells the story of four disillusioned Muslim men with dreams of becoming radicalized suicide bombers. They decide to strap explosives to themselves and bomb four sites along the route of the London marathon. The script is riddled with witty, sharp comedy while most of the exchanges of dialogue between the group involves volatile verbal bickering and a series of inventive insults. The physical comedy too, is hilarious and the dynamic hand-held camera and the documentary-style captures are a brilliant innovation. The funniest film of the year! ****

20. Boy (Taika Waititi) - Boy is a startlingly honest dual coming-of-age film about two brothers, Boy (James Rolleston) and Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu) trying to understand and deal with the death of their mother and their estrangement from their unstable and irresponsible father, who's surprise visit home wildly alters their young lives and threatens their innocence.Writer/director Taika Waititi gives a strong performance as the boys' incompetent father, but it is the young performers who really shine.Winner of the audience award at the Syndey Film Festival, Boy is reserved, quirky, unflinchingly honest and full of memorable moments. ****

19. Monsters (Gareth Edwards) - Made with a shoestring budget, Monsters writer/director/cinematographer Gareth Edwards should be commended on his excellent work here in constructing a genuinely intriguing and visually impressive sci-fi adventure drama. When a NASA space probe searching for Extraterrestrial life in the Solar System crashes on re-entry in Central America, giant creatures start roaming the earth forcing the U.S and Mexican governments to protect themselves from infiltration quarantining the creatures in the 'infected zone. The plot centers on a young photographer who needs to escort his bosses' daughter through the infected zone and back to the United States. This is not your typical alien invasion film, and it is much more thoughtful than most of the end-of-the-world blockbusters. Both lead characters feel real and grounded, and each deliver quality performances. Forget all you think you know about alien invasion films, Monsters is not at all like you imagine. It is well paced, engaging and has a heart and sense of humanity so often absent in the genre. ****

18. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski) - This is a taut thriller from Roman Polanski based on the novel by Thomas Harris. It follows an unnamed British ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) hired to complete the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Lang has recently been publicly disgraced by a former colleague who has accused Lang of severe war crimes. The screenplay is a collaboration between Harris and Polanski, and is well constructed. Engulfing McGregor's character with controversy on all sides, it's early sequences are slow but purposeful. Throughout the second half of the film the pace and tension increases and it becomes a very absorbing thriller with some surprising twists. The chilling conclusion is a scathing assessment of political scandal, with all of the truths just blowing away to be forever forgotten. The Ghost Writer has all the conventions of a typical thriller, but blessed with the skilled wand of a man who really knows how to direct one. Alexandre Desplat's odd score is a mixture of ominous suspense-laden orchestral pieces with an undercurrent of electronic pop that i thought worked quite well too. ****

17. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) - This is one of the most bizarre films I have ever felt myself completely captivated by. Uncle Boonmee is a beautifully captured, laboriously paced meditation on life, death and relationships. Winner of the Palme d' Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has created an original and  mesmerizing film that warrants and rewards multiple viewings. The film centers on the final days of its central character, Boonmee, a villager who has been diagnosed with acute kidney failure. He has retired to a forest retreat with his closest family. The meandering plot, which will be mind-numbingly boring for a lot of people, I found to be strangely entrancing, observing the beauty and tranquility of the natural environment and lingering for minutes on the characters as they complete mundane tasks. Purposely incomprehensible, the director finds magic in almost every single shot. I really can't explain what happens, it is baffling to say the least, but it is certainly an enthralling study of reincarnation, that asks us to question how we truly value our lives. ****

16. How to Train Your Dragon (Chris Sander, Dean DeBlois) - How to Train Your Dragon, the computer-animated fantasy adventure from Dreamworks Animation stands as one of the most memorable family film experiences of the year, and is the greatest film I have seen released by the Dreamworks studio. It is a rousing emotional comedy/drama set upon a mythical Viking island called Berk where a young and bumbling viking teenager, Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) wishes to follow in his tribes' tradition of being a vicious dragon slayer. He manages to capture one of the dragons, the elusive Night Fury, and instead of killing it he befriends it and trains it to carry him in free flight. The personal story, while the central theme is the typical coming-of-age anecdote, has some surprising emotional depth and the script is intelligent and touching. The conclusion has an emotional kick in the guts that leaves you overwhelmed for a few moments, much like the film's major competitor for Best Animated Feature, Toy Story 3. The sweeping cinematography and the animated visuals were stimulating and complex. The spatial depth captured throughout is astonishing, made even more incredible in 3D I would assume. One of the best recent examples of the genre. ****

15. The Town (Ben Affleck) - Ben Affleck's second feature film about the crime in South Boston is an absorbing and genuinely exciting journey. Having first exposed the corruption within the Boston Police Force (in Gone Baby Gone) and the seedy underbelly of the city's socially underprivileged, Affleck this time turns his attention to Charlestown, the armed robberies capital of America. While it doesn't break any new ground, conforming to the typical conventions of the heist film and resembling Michael Mann's classic cops-and-robbers film, Heat (1995), The Town offers up the years most intense action sequences. It was unfortunate that the heart of the film; notably MacRay's relationship with Claire and his father, doesn't make more of an impact. But the scenes with Affleck and Jeremy Renner (who is excellent) are great. Affleck's direction was assured and again quite impressive. But he certainly owes a lot to his cinematographer, Robert Elswitt (who won an Oscar for his work on There Will be Blood, and is a frequent collaborator with Paul Thomas Anderson) and his editor, Dylan Tichenor (who has worked numerous times alongside Elswitt), for making the action scenes so visually stimulating. ****

14. Animal Kingdom (David Michod) - Animal Kingdom is one of the best National releases in years, receiving worldwide acclaim, and winning the World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. I was suitably impressed by this urban crime drama that lacks the Hollywood sugar coating that many dramas are drenched with nowadays and it is a gritty personal portrayal of the downfall of a powerful crime family in Melbourne. Following the death of his mother from a heroin overdose, Josh Cody (James Frecheville) moves in with his grandmother Smurf (Jackie Weaver) and his uncles. Josh soon finds himself as a driver and an assistant to his uncles' criminal dealings, which culminate in the shooting deaths of two police officers. The performances are all outstanding, especially Ben Mendelsohn and Jackie Weaver. The final half of the film is extremely tense, and brilliantly constructed, with each character pushed to the limit to survive. While the conclusion isn't difficult to predict, it remains no less powerful and shattering. There were some genuinely shocking moments that left most of the audience stunned, and some brilliant subtleties in the development of the characters that effortlessly added depth and allowed you to relate or distance yourself from them. ****  

13. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright) - Scott Pilgrim is wild, hyperactive and pure entertainment. The newest film by Edgar Wright (dir. of Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), is an inventive visual feast. This is a 'get-the-girl' teen comedy/drama set within the world of Street Fighter. When he meets the girl of his dreams, Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) must face and defeat seven of her exes to win her love. Emotionally it hits all the right buttons, it's awkward humor is subtle and amusing, and the fight sequences visceral and brilliant. The film begins to lose it's direction following the fourth ex, with the rock battle against the twins a convenient way of eliminating two more but following this setback, the conclusion is quite clever. Wright's adaptation of Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novels is a hodgepodge of dynamics and genre, but no one has proven to be more successful. Some of the sequences actually look like they are filmed comic illustrations. This is great fun and worthy of many repeat viewings. ****

12. The American (Anton Corbijn) - The American follows a hit man, Jack (George Clooney), who is sent by an associate to lay low in a small Italian town. While there he forms a relationship with a local prostitute and takes on one final job. It is intricately constructed, and quietly observant of its characters and is beautifully timed. There is an undercurrent of tension to almost every sequence, as Jack is never really sure who to trust. The films' minimalism is one of its most appealing traits. It could be described as frustrating, and has been by many, but Corbijn's attention to the mundane details of Jack's methodical routine and his idle activity is firstly interesting but also one of the hypnotic charms of the film. Quintessentially Italian and quaint, Castel del Monte is often macabre by nightfall, thudding footsteps on the cobblestone streets and consistent tolling of Church bells frequent throughout. Fueled by some stunning cinematography and diverse, inventive camera work, the town becomes a character in itself. While the pace is laborious and slow, my interest was held by the diversity of intriguing shots and our suspicions of tension at every corner. Few films this year have better utilized temporality and space than The American. Clooney, as usual, is excellent, and the two women are stunning. ****

11. I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino) - Tilda Swinton is exceptional in this portrait of an Italian Bourgeoisie family at the turn of the Millenium in Milan. The wealthy Recchi family are textile manufacturers and during a dinner party to celebrate the birthday of the founder he passes the business onto his son and grandson. Restless is his wife Emma (Swinton) who is left out-of-place within the family because of her Russian heritage. She meets Antonio one night, a chef friend and business partner of one of her sons and having felt an attraction, she books a trip to San Remo where she knows she might see him. They start a secret affair which breaks apart the entire family. This sensual film is beautiful directed by Luca Guadagnino, with homages to Hitchcock's Vertigo. The score is also exceptional. But it is Tilda Swinton's performance (she learned Italian with a Russian accent for the role) that is the highlight. I saw this at the Sydney Film Festival and was captivated throughout. I loved it. ****1/2  

Continue through to: My Top 10 Films of 2010

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