I confess that I’ve experienced a very difficult few years—more hardships than joys; more losses than wins. That Age of Grief, as Jane Smiley once described one’s 30s, in which I shed the sort of illusions that our culture reinforces. Namely, that remaining young and pretty forever was a valid goal, that belonging to any kind of relationship was preferable to going it alone, that death wasn’t a regular part of life, and that things could get better without our actively making that so. Now, I’m clearer but possibly harder to bear; kinder and a hell of a lot less nice. I could say the same of the best films of this year.
For the first time in at least three years, the quality of new releases is on an upswing. In 2008 and 2009 I felt hard-pressed to identify ten films I liked well enough to include in such a list, and would have been patently screwed were it not for international fare. But something has shifted in 2010, and keeping this list to just ten proved a happy challenge. New and more established filmmakers produced thoughtful, far-ranging films that embraced the medium of film and also transcended our expectations of the form. Few of the films I liked best were comfortable but all of them offered insights both big and beautiful into the tenacity of spirit–human and otherwise.
So, without further ado, my 2010 Top Ten.
10. Blue Valentine. By focusing solely on the beginning and end of the relationship between nurse Cindy (Michelle Williams) and her housepainter husband Dean (Ryan Gosling), director Derek Cianfrance brilliantly launched a new kind of DIY, guerrilla anti-romance in which we were invited to tap into our own experiences and biases in order to supply its middle. It should surprise no one, then, that the film has been released in multiple variations amid a cloud of controversies, including one about its MPAA rating. At Sundance, reviewers decried its length and unfair treatment of Cindy; the film’s more recent, shorter iteration (the only one I saw) includes far more exploration into what rendered Cindy so world-weary than what made alcoholic man child Dean tick. The intimation was that such a cold-seeming woman required more defense than a mad, and maddeningly stuck man, but, hey, therein lie this lady reviewer’s bias. At any rate, for once both Williams and Gosling were so aptly cast that their neo-method acting worked in this blotchy, acutely observed, and commendably unfair blue swan song.
9. My Dog Tulip. For the record, I fell for this animated ode to the bond between J.R. Ackerley and his Alsatian, Tulip, months before I lost my cat of 15 years, Max—and viewing it again after his death only underscored the film’s strength. Indeed, only its small scale keeps it from living higher on this list. Hand-drawn in lush, Lucian Freudian detail that cleverly undercuts the memoirist’s wonderful knack for understatement, directors Paul and Sandra Fierlinger do justice to that rarest of things: entirely mutual, heartfelt love between two beings. Take that, Lassie. And RIP, dear Maxie.
8. Black Swan. Directors Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky share a predilection for heavily cerebral smoke and mirrors as well as an unfortunate, seemingly congenitally sense-of-humorectomized aesthetic. But whereas the former’s films are all smoke and no substance, Aronofsky has made the excavation of flesh and blood his business in each of his films, mostly to harrowing effect. This sort of sincerity shines best in a melodrama—a genre I’ll defend to the bitter end—so it goes to show that Black Swan is the director’s best work to date. I could rhapsodize for pages about its uncampy, pitch-perfect shrillness; its spot-on casting; its clammy, genuinely hot sensuality; its highly stylized palette and costuming; and its Russian, Rosemary’s Baby-built dread but instead will boil it down to this one fact: Natalie Portman actually acts—and thrillingly so—at the film’s climax. Given that this girl will phone it in for every other moment of her can-I-still-play-precocious-at-70? career, Aronfsky deserves all the praise he’s reaped. And then some.
7. The Fighter. It’s not just because I love all the work of evil genius David O. Russell (his divisive 2004 masterpiece I Heart Huckabees stands out as one of the last decade’s best offerings), and it’s not just because my family hails from the film’s locale of Lowell, Mass, and it’s not just because I love how much Russell can extract from his actors, even overrated Christian Bale, whose X-Treme Sports approach to acting actually works in this role as a bottomless junkie. It’s that, despite its name, The Fighter is not a traditional boxing movie so much as a keenly drawn treatise on the Shakespearean, unholy trauma that can be family—complete with a Greek chorus of slack-jawed, flat-assed Masshole sisters cruising en masse for a bruising. This film is so smart and so feeling that I’m inspired to give a pass to what’s proven the downfall of every working actor: those shitty New England accents.
6.Winter’s Bone. No doubt about it: the emerging category of alt-country indies, best exemplified by the works of David Gordon Greene and Jeff Nichols, is a like-it-or-lump-it venture. And though I admire the genre’s sure stillness, I hadn’t really surrendered to its grim stakes until director Debra Granik’s Ozark-set, sinewy neo-noir about 17-year-old Ree (the unflinching Jennifer Lawrence)’s quest to find her dead-beat dad. Boasting female screenwriters and producers as well as a female protagonist and director (maybe the missing element was a woman’s touch), it reduces rather than builds, so that just when you think you can’t take another minute of its cold-blooded tension, it yields something rich and complex and even a tad sweet. Rarely, if ever, has a film so effectively drawn on the quiet destructiveness of rural poverty as a mere starting point to a larger, more universal fable about blood loyalty.
5. Mother. In his story of on an apothecary owner’s efforts to absolve her mentally challenged son accused of murder, Bong Joon-ho (The Host) puts front and center the sort of older woman (extraordinary Hye-ja Kim ) who hovers nervously at most films’ peripheries. And from an early scene the pathological attentiveness of this Mother (she looms too large as an archetype to be granted a specific name) is clear. In it, while her son pisses against a wall, she edges over and peers down intently with a curiosity less prurient than proprietal: she produced him and so, by the transitive property, she also produced this urine. At first devastatingly funny and then plain devastating, this remarkable meditation on the fine line between need and love comes cloaked in the director’s trademark, maniacal whimsy.
4. Making Plans for Lena (Non ma fille, tu n’iras pas danser). Next to Arnaud Desplechin, Christophe Honoré is my favorite contemporary French film director. That’s saying quite a lot, since I only seemed to like French film for three of the last five years (and that’s saying even more, since I loathe the sound of the French language.) But I always felt that Honoré did better by the gents, especially the ones undone by grief. Not so with Lena, in which he tackles with his signature lyricism and hot-headedness all kinds of hard questions about the role of a woman inside the institution of family. Bristling and broken-hearted, Lena (the ever-more formidable Chiara Mastroianni) may shuttle herself and her children between their Parisian apartment and her parents’ country home, but she never feels at home, certainly not within herself. Within her casually brutal extended family, only she and her kids seem to really love each other, but she’s wound so tight that no one, not even her, believes she’s equipped to raise them. (Her ex husband seems greatly inconvenienced that she’s outlived his love for her.) With a conclusion that says much about the victory and defeat that is liberty in all forms, this film spares nothing, especially our feelings. It is glittering and tragic and resignedly radical. Oh, how I love it.
3. True Grit. I still can’t bring myself to watch the 1969 John Wayne vehicle, but this remake mines the Coen Brothers’ very best qualities—their unsentimental economy as well as their reverence for a good yarn and a Big, Big Sky—with none of their self-satisfied snark. Matt Damon, who’s become Hollywood’s only movie star who’s also a truly versatile actor, plays excellent second fiddle to Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year-old girl intent on avenging her dead father. In Steinfeld, the Coen Brothers have found perhaps the last adolescent girl in America who would turn her nose up at a term like tween or, god forbid, cute. In an ideal world, every young girl would be forced to lay aside her Barbie for the two hours it takes for Mattie to string up her dad’s killer by any means necessary. The unflinching epilogue, in which she’s become a steely, one-armed spinster who never forgot a good turn, comprises my favorite moments of film this year.
2.Carlos. Who knew Olivier Assayas had it in him? Before his 319-minute masterpiece about a terrorist whose greatest enemy is his own vanity, he was best known for the not-subversive-enough Summer Hours as well as Demonlover, which in one hollow swoop channeled nearly every cynical impulse that doomed early-aught art-house cinema. Which is to say I was not a fan. But Carlos is everything a film should be but rarely, if ever, is: epic, messy, passionate, politically astute, morally and intellectually complex, and ridiculously sexy. In Édgar Ramírez, Assayas has established a bona-fide matinee idol who can woo the hell out of a gun and, oh yeah, a woman. Even better, Assayas has established himself as a director who relishes the big screen but doesn’t rely on its proportions to tell his many rich stories. To misquote Eddy Murphy in Delirious, now that’s a movie.
1. Another Year. In a recent interview, Mike Leigh played the world’s teeniest-tiniest violin about how much goes unlauded in his films—namely his cinematography and writing. While it’s best to let others come to that party on their own, no matter how slowly, the bloke does have a point. Especially because Another Year may be his finest accomplishment in a long, storied career of many tones and even more colors (that were, yes, beautifully photographed). Much has been touted in Lesley Manville’s performance as a boozy singleton whose angry self-pity threatens to alienate her the kindly, contented couple Tom and Gerri; she deserves every kind note. But more than with most of his film’s, Leigh’s lovely bones –his clean, deliberate structure; his wandering eye that channels later Altman–stand out in every scene. Year pulls nary a punch as it scrutinizes the limitations of friendship and kin in a great wash of tea and wine and nervous laughter that will ring in your ears long after it’s died out. In so many ways, this is the writer-director’s crowning achievement, a searing distillation of his career-long themes: haves and have-nots, as well as the potential for misery and happiness that lurks in every minute of every day.