Eyes & Ears 2010: Part II

It is a hard thing to take risks in the film industry.  When one model begins to make money, that model is all we see for quite sometime.  So I was delighted that the best films I saw in 2010 usually took big risks.  Whether the story was convoluted or the visual style was iconoclastic, 2010 marked the making of movies with unusual grit.

Here are some of the best movies from 2010:

Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell cope with the destruction of their small town in "The Crazies".

The Crazies – It’s hard for even me to believe how thoroughly entertained I was by “The Crazies”.  This is a well-acted and deceptively well-directed horror film.  Director Breck Eisner (that’s Michael Eisner’s son) makes almost every decision correctly and displays a firm grasp on an unforgiving genre.  This version of “The Crazies” is a far cry superior to George Romero’s original, and here’s one major reason why: it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Eisner is working with exhausted material, but he elevates it with expert timing.  There are several great suspense sequences here (the pitchfork, the buzz-saw, the knife) and moments of perfectly timed comedic irony.  So often, this kind of material never rises above B-movie schlock.  “The Crazies” is an updated B-movie, to be sure, but it’s a stylish and lovingly made B-movie.  And it’s definitely not schlock.

The Ghost Writer – There are few directors currently working in film who can construct a scene with the prowess of Roman Polanski.  He works on a level foreign to most modern filmmakers.  This is on clear display in “The Ghost Writer”, a political thriller bursting with the atmosphere of a taut noir and the expert handling of Alfred Hitchcock (that’s very high praise).  I treasured “The Ghost Writer” for the craftsmanship on display, for its conniving and devious characters, and for a final scene so perfectly executed it almost took my breath away.

Exit Through the Gift Shop – This hilarious and insightful documentary was thought to be a hoax – and why shouldn’t it have been confused as a big joke?  The story is so unlikely and absurd that it seems impossible that it could be authentic.  The director and star, an enigmatic street artist named Banksy, brings us the story of Thierry Guetta, one of the great mysteries of modern film.  He’s an over-zealous amateur filmmaker obsessed with documenting the work of street artists like Banksy.  His experiences bring him into the art world – not as a filmmaker, but as a street artist himself.  His methods and motivations are maniacal at best.  “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is a provocative and delightfully self-aware discussion of art and dares to ask the tough questions this subject sometimes requires.  You’ll leave this movie satisfied by its humor and intrigued by its thoughtfulness.

Jennifer Lawrence in "Winter's Bone"

 

Winter’s Bone – My original comments on “Winter’s Bone” included this statement: “…rural depravity is much more interesting than its urban counterpart and ‘Winter’s Bone’ is neck-deep in it.”  The setting of “Winter’s Bone” is the barren, frigid Ozarks; the depravity seems to seep from the ground.  There is quiet menace permeating this story and, what’s more surprising, a quiet heroine who dwarfs that menace with an iron-will love for her family.  Jennifer Lawrence is the actress behind the character Ree Dolly, who is forced to find her meth-dealer father before the authorities seize her house.  (He used the family house as collateral to post bail.)  Ree wears multiple hats – sister, mother, and detective – as she looks after her unstable mother and younger siblings and descends into the subversive culture of dealers and junkies.  This is a small and powerful film, directed with respect by Debra Granik.

The Book of Eli – To my great surprise, “The Book of Eli” is a movie with a bold vision.  Aesthetically, the film is brilliantly composed.  The Hughes Brothers, the film’s directors, know how to block a scene with great style.  The action is often contemplative and nuanced; sometimes we are barely involved, merely spectators.  Thematically, the movie makes claims that most mainstream movies wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole – namely that the Bible is more than a book.  “The Book of Eli” implies that the Bible has divine staying power, that it is a tenable document, and that it is not simply a document, but a force.  Christians will appreciate how seriously the movie approaches the Bible and the reverence the movie ascribes to it.  I was surely surprised by that and equally surprised that this movie is a superlative post-apocalyptic tale.  Denzel Washington is a good fit for a role that, in the hands of a younger actor, would come off crass and unconvincing.  Also noteworthy are the technical achievements of the music, cinematography, and editing.  Unlike most modern action films, these strands weave together seamlessly and with purpose.  “The Book of Eli” is a visually exciting picture, a bold sci-fi epic, and something more.

Inception – Here’s another visually exciting picture.  Christopher Nolan’s film frustrates audiences.  On one hand, many people have complained the movie is too confusing to follow.  On the other hand, many others have claimed it is so locked into its own systematic rules that it takes few creative leaps and spells out too much.  I’m convinced that “Inception” is a risky mainstream release.  I cannot think of too many other big-budget action dramas that require a general audience to pay so close attention.  Yes, there’s rigidity to the narrative’s rules, but there are also big ideas here.  I cherish the film for taking risks in a large public venue.  Nolan’s scope is impressive and his plotting is thrilling, and “Inception” boasts some of the great visual wonders of the last generation of film.

Toy Story 3 – What Disney and Pixar have achieved in the “Toy Story” franchise is very nearly a cinematic miracle.  To think that a children’s franchise could continue 15 years after its original installment was released and still somehow have an audience who cares is borderline ludicrous.  But “Toy Story 3” proves that good storytelling can bridge even the biggest gaps in years and, here, the bridge is built by weaving that very dilemma into the film’s storyline itself.  In the movie, Andy is about to leave for college and his departure could mean for Woody, Buzz, and all their friends that Andy’s affection was only as good as their usefulness to him.  On one level, “Toy Story 3” is a sophisticated look at relationships.  It seems to insist that showing affection for another is a choice and not solely based on emotions, which is contrary to the messages of mainstream entertainment.  The toys serve as a great device for this aspect of the story – we see them relate to Andy and to each other.  There are multiple moments of true emotional intensity and scenes depicting hope in the final moments of despair.  I commend the filmmakers for exercising boldness in a medium that so often talks down to its audience.

Michael Douglas coaches Jesse Eisenberg in "Solitary Man"

Solitary Man – “Solitary Man” boasts probably the most underrated script of 2010.  The script, by Brian Koppelman (who also co-directed the film), is wickedly perceptive.  It tells the story of Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas) an aging and possibly dying man.  Where, at one point, Ben was a well-liked and successful car salesman, he is now an embarrassment to his family and a stain in his social circles.  Ben is a bad man and the movie is a fascinating study of what makes him so bad.  Ben is bad because he’s mortal, and he perpetuates his badness by acting like that’s untrue.  “Solitary Man” is about a man who surrounds himself with people and pleasure and finds at the end of each escapade that he is still very much alone.  He’s a man seemingly incapable of a suppliant attitude towards anyone; even in his most needy moments, he dons his façade with arrogant pride.  When Ben chaperones a college visit to his alma mater with his girlfriend’s daughter, his sins are amplified as he passes on his hedonistic expertise onto university students.  “Solitary Man” is also about the cycle of sin, and on its most basic level (whether the filmmakers intended it or not) the movie speaks volumes on the divorcing power of our transgressions.  Sin separates us.  This movie warns us to steer clear of the behavior of Ben Kalmen, lest we all remain solitary men.

The Social Network – And now here’s a script just as striking and important as “Solitary Man” that actually has been noticed.  I think Aaron Sorkin’s script for “The Social Network” is a milestone.  So much of the dialogue seems to be nothing more than verbiage, but most of those words belong to the film’s principle, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg).  Indeed Zuckerberg is portrayed as a man whose confidence is built on verbiage.  As long as he can confuse or defeat his listeners with his words, then he remains in control.  And therein lie grand themes of communication and coherence in “The Social Network” – or rather, the breakdown of communication and coherence.  The tragic irony of Facebook, according to the film, is that its creator is essentially only friends with a series of 1’s and 0’s.  Zuckerberg cannot communicate unless he is “winning”.  We don’t like this about him, but Facebook gives us the same option – to win every conversation, to dominate and manage our friendships, to present to the world only what we love best about ourselves.  David Fincher directed “The Social Network” and his visual hallmarks are a perfect fit for Sorkin’s script.  He digs deep into the motivations of these characters – from Zuckerberg to his estranged friend, Eduardo Saverin, to the Winklevoss twins – and, if we’re honest, maybe we’ll conclude that all of them are nefarious.  They just communicate it differently…

Colin Firth in a career-high performance as King George VI in "The King's Speech".

 

The King’s Speech – When “The King’s Speech” was over, I felt my body relenting in a way similar to the moments after seeing an action film.  And yet, there’s not an ounce of “movie action” in it.  It’s simply the effect of the movie.  Tom Hooper, the film’s director, shoots with harsh compositions.  In this way, he makes conflict a central ingredient to the film’s very texture.  This approach makes for probably the most involving movie I saw in 2010.  I remember it in terms of emotions more than I do individual moments, which is so often how I remember real life.  It’s the story of the man who became King George VI (Colin Firth).  He’s a hopelessly unconfident man and he speaks with a stammer, which, of course, poses a dilemma for the leader of a monarchy.  Bertie, as his family knows him, is a slave, not so much to his stammer, but to deep-seated fear.  He finds a speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) who knows the stammer itself is not the problem.  What unfolds is one cinema’s great onscreen friendships, marked by a slew of amazing performances led by Firth and Rush.  “The King’s Speech” is a masterful period piece; it beautifully throws into the brink of World War II.  It is an endlessly insightful look into the disparities between royalty and laymen.  It is a movie executed with technical command.  It’s funny and intense and, at times, heart-breaking.  But, more than anything, this is a very moving and inspiring story about two close friends.

What were your favorites from 2010?

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About Collin Damon Welch
Collin worked in the film/TV industry for a while. Now he's pursuing ministry. He and his incomparably beautiful wife Nicole live in Chicago.

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