10 – Mother and Child (Rodrigo Garcia)
In a film that contains what has to be Naomi Watts’ 193856th underappreciated performance of the past 10 years, Rodrigo Garcia paints an emotionally-charged (and altogether disheartening) outlook on motherhood with Mother and Child. Garcia’s de-emphasis on feminine objectivity that usually plagues his films goes to show how much his style is changing for the better. Here he takes a step back, treats his subjects with emotional precision, and finally lets his audience envelop themselves in his intricate vision for once.
9 – Catfish (Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman)
If I’m going to be completely honest (and those of you who’ve seen this one undoubtedly will agree) I still haven’t been able to convince myself that Catfish is either a brilliant (and altogether shot with heapings of luck) documentation of reality or a scripted farse into societal criticism. One thing’s for sure, the film’s ambiguity completely adds to the depth and complexity of Joost and Schulman’s is-it-or-isn’t-it-real “documentary”, that is at once mesmerizing because of its careful narrative handling that plays into conventions of fictional genres yet retains without a doubt a “real” depiction of a disturbing portrait of one of an extremely grim side of human nature. Because we’re told the film is “real”, just as in a fiction, our disbelief is suspended due to the sheer ludicrosity of the entire thing once we understand what’s actually going on; regardless, the film contains one of the most moving conclusions you’re likely to experience this side of pre-90’s Streep material.
8 – Animal Kingdom (David Michôd)
Foreign entries into the US market were surprisingly strong last year, an no film better exemplifies the increasingly brutal foreign worldview than Australia’s Animal Kingdom. Gorgeous cinematography contrasts beautifully with an intensely gritty (and altogether grim) narrative that puts even the darkest American crime dramas of the 80s to shame. At once hinting at such nostalgic genre conventions with its clever interplay of gangsters vs. good guys, the film never ostentatiously demonizes its subjects; smack dab in the middle of the action lies an extremely poignant coming-of-age tale that plays the dysfunctional family note to dazzling dischord, creating a fabulous intentionally conflicted (and expertly so) atmosphere. Jacki Weaver takes a masterful turn as the matriarch of a closely-knit family of viscious criminals, playing saccharinely aloof for the film’s bulk yet employing a genius shift of character towards the film’s conclusion that truly drives the whole home.
7 – The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko)
If only AMPAS agendas could have been placed on hold for just another year, because if ever there was a year to commemorate female directors, 2010 was it. But since the Academy is notorious for having issues with keeping its agendized member zipped in its pants, most of the films helmed by female hands have gone largely unrecognized at least from a behind-the-scenes standpoint. Lisa Cholodenko’s largely progressive drama centers around a family that has issues with, well, being a family. Yes, the film is about two lesbians striving to keep their family together, but the beauty of Cholodenko’s (co-written by Stuart Blumberg) script lies within its de-emphasis on a would-be message of social acceptance, choosing to instead hone in on universal familial ideals versus romanticizing (and altogether exploiting) the fact that the protagonists happen to be lesbians. Their sexuality almost becomes an afterthought, seeing as we are heavily engrossed with what they’re doing versus who they, well, prefer to do. Yes, the film undoubtedly is as progressive as they come (at least for a mainstream audience), but that’s only at the hands of us consumers who choose to propel it forward and adopt it as a vehicle for change. But the fact that the picture has had success simply as a genuinely good film in the eyes of a mass public is where its success lies; its very non-boastful, plain existence in itself is its social triumph.
6 – Mother (Bong Joon-ho)
Having an intense affinity for Asian cinema might make me a sucker for anything quintessentially minimal, but Bong Joon-ho’s epic entry into the largely-underappreciated Korean film scene is anything but subdued. Mother stands apart from its Korean brethren thanks to risky cinematography and an emphasis on some of the most wondrously quirky imagery I’ve ever seen; opening the film is a shot of the title character ceremoniously dancing amidst a bleak backdrop of the Korean wilderness, arguing an almost anti-feminist point that a mother’s love for her son is all-consuming, almost elevating her from her bleak, mundane surroundings (that everyone else can clearly see) and giving way to such an outlandish public (yet ultimately secluded) display. The offbeat handling of the film’s narrative (which involves a woman desperately seeking to prove her mentally-challenged son’s innocence in the face of accusations of murder) switches between dark, brooding melodrama and elements of campy maternal excess, yet one portion of the narrative never once feels out of place or disjointed from another. The zaniness of the film works to mimic the, well, “different” (and by different, I mean slightly odd by societally-conditioned standards) lives its central characters choose to lead. Kim Hye-ja is pitch-perfect in a role that demanded less than what she gives, but her excess and commitment to such an odd character elevates the film’s message about self-assurance in the face of adversity to an entirely new level.
5 – I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino)
As much as I’d prefer to never literally see Tilda Swinton’s face ever again (countless nightmares in which it’s chasing me have occurred), I can’t deny her true talent as an actress. But more important is her willingness to support the little guys of the industry. Here, Swinton lends her acting prowess to little-known Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, who crafts an intricate maternal portrait that utilizes Swinton’s alienesque persona to marvelous effect, crafting a role that’s at once swimming with emotional depth yet calls for an offsetting stony poise that only someone of Swinton’s caliber can pull off.
4 – Another Year (Mike Leigh)
British filmmaker Mike Leigh departs from his typical single-focus features and broadens his artistry to include a gaggle of aging commoners; A husband, wife, and their 30-something son are presented as typical London suburbanites going through their daily motions. We’re not inclined to think there’s anything inherently boring about their lives (as suburban portraits usually lead us to believe), there’s just a hint of grounding complacency that gives the entire picture a somber, refined quality. The shocker here comes in the form of Mary, a family friend who’s living far beyond her means (and her years). Mary is obviously over 50 (it’s never specified how old she is), and forms a strong attraction to her long-time friends’ aforementioned son who’s assumingly nearly half her age. The film doesn’t demonize her attractions because of her age, it rather criticizes Mary for not being a woman as strong in her convictions as her narrative counterpart. The film depicts Mary as a victim of a cruel society who only sees her age, and as a result has ostracized her from not only it but herself as a result. Lesley Manville gives what is hands-down the performance of the year in Mary’s role, maintaining a childlike innocence throughout, balancing it perfectly with hints of the trodden life Mary leads.
3 – Somewhere (Sofia Coppola)
My most anticipated feature of the year comes from my absolute favorite director, Sofia Coppola. In similar fashion to her previous two features, Coppola focuses on nothingness within an extremely happening locale; the densely-populated celebrity hotbed of Los Angeles provides the same alienating entrapment as Tokyo did in Lost in Translation. Coppola paints one of the most populated spaces in the entire world like a vapid, empty graveyard of the human soul, honing in on an actor’s struggle to reconnect with his daughter and ultimately with himself, or at least some semblance of a normal life he can barely remember having. Despite going around in circles for the majority of his life, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is grounded by the presence of his daughter, who’s played pitch-perfectly by Elle Fanning, a girl who’s looks suggest a young woman much older than the character’s age would suggest and too good effect; having a younger actress who, say, actually looked like she was 12 years old would set Johnny and her on two completely separate planes, therefore romanticizing any attempt to connect with his daughter in a cutesy, clichéd fashion. The relationship she builds between the two is constructed out of empty happenings; none of which glamorize their relationship into being something it isn’t. Coppola, in true Coppola fashion, frames her subjects in a sarcophagus amidst a teeming metropolis, this time instead of the Palace of Versailles or a Tokyo highrise we’re placed within the walls of the Chateau Marmont, LA’s premiere celebrity home-away-from-home. But Coppola’s intent here seems to be essentially telling a story that emphasizes its own nothingness; not only a way to compliment the way her subjects are feeling, but also conveying Coppola’s deep-seated feelings towards an industry she’s known for the better part of her life. The film could register as a self-reflexive hate-love letter to her father, who undoubtedly led a far more productive life than Mr. Marco. But the film’s simple, almost stagnant quality takes the bite out of any criticisms Coppola might have towards the realm of stardom. Beautiful in its uniquely-Sofia way, Somewhere is an epic example of progressive filmmaking and that should undoubtedly become a gravitational entity for other filmmakers to draw inspiration from. This is how you do it different from the rest, kids.
2 – Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance)
What could have been a simple examination of the marital vitality preceding a bitter end essentially becomes a beautifully juxtaposed presentation of the deaths of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) before their marriage ever had a chance to live. Physical death of the two protagonists is not the focus here, seeing as both Dean and Cindy technically exist throughout the entire narrative, but even the opening sequence is heavily laced with death as its most prominent subject; the search for the family’s lost dog ends with a grim discovery, one that prompts Cindy’s realization that, at least internally, she died long ago. Cianfrance expertly chooses to drop us into a point in their lives that reeks of domestic decay, a family (that now includes a young daughter) with a backstory we assume to be as rocky and troubling as the morose, stagnant existence we’re initially introduced to. But what really drives the film’s emotional impact is what we’re shown next, and how Cianfrance chooses to show it to us.
Scenes of the couple’s innocent courtship proceed what we’ve already come to know as a lifeless union, making the whole thing entirely more depressing; shots of innocent courtship, smitten glances, harmless flirtation (you know…the works of young love) all resonate with a beautiful simplicity and shocking poignancy that legitimizes this relationship as one that we would believe to be entirely perfect if we weren’t already shown what it would lead to, yet the burden of what we already know weighs such charming scenes down like a ton of bricks. Such reverse sequential positioning allows the disturbing emotional pain of this damaged relationshp to manifest itself not when we are observing scenes of marital dysfunction, but rather when we are presented with an uncorrupt, budding relationship as new, pure, and wholesomely innocent. Scenes of happiness are expertly recontextualized to represent something bitter, becoming harbingers of doom in themselves aside from what’s literally presented as melancholic, reminding us that the disturbing bit of what we’ve seen before stemmed from genuine purity and goodness; of coupled bliss tarnished by what we can only assume as marital indifference and personal distraction. The most devastating scene of the film comes towards the middle, when we see Dean sweetly courting Cindy with his talents as a singer and ukulele player; the innocent quirkiness of it all could have registered as saccharine overload in a different film, but here we’re treated to a devastating look at a moment when awkward chemistry turns into a moment of genuine passion, bearing the bad news of what’s to come with its mere implication as a pure foundation for what we already understand to be a dark future. Cianfrance, along with the help of the gloriously perfect performances by Gosling and Williams, has created a disturbingly beautiful and altogether poignant portrait of one of the messiest situations one can only hope they’ll never experience…outside of this cinematic masterpiece, that is.
1 – Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)
It’s hard to recall a film that’s as assaulting as Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. The film is a true testament to the medium itself, pushing boundaries of simply being a film a transcending into the deepest burrows of our minds. A full embodiment of a cinematic experience, Black Swan is a masterful barrage of filmic elements in a symphonic fashion; visually arresting, emotionally assaulting, challenging, and altogether disturbing in its depiction of one woman’s struggle to maintain sanity in a stifling world she has (or at least feels she has) little influence over. Black Swan undoubtedly contains Natalie Portman’s crowning performance in a role that demanded exuberant outward projection yet is delicately refined by Portman’s ability to switch between cold hard emotion and deep-seated character subtlety. Black Swan ultimately becomes a comment on the increasing lack of individual control that seems to be invading each of us as we become entangled in the excessive selfishness of the society around us; what we project or hope to become is in essence consuming us at the same time, and Aronofsky’s filmic representation is as brilliant as they come. Never attempting to draw on “realistic” elements, the film draws on its own excessive, exaggerated nature to create a fantastical externalization of its characters’ internalized states of being; at once adding to the authenticity of the emotional rollercoaster we’re riding, yet at the same time reminding us of what movies are supposed to do; take us to places we can only fathom in the deepest parts of our mind that perhaps we have not even explored yet. Black Swan prompts, probes, and reveals those places to dazzling effect, and altogether reminds us of why we love movies in the first place.