Sunday, January 2, 2011

My Year End List

By my own count, I've only seen about half the movies necessary for me to feel comfortable about putting out a top ten list of the best films of 2010. So, I decided to write up a list of my ten favorite films I saw for the first time in the year 2010 that weren't made in the year 2010 or 2009. Not the best, but my favorites.

"Late Spring" (1949) - This was my second Ozu film after "Tokyo Story," and the one that left far more impact. Ozu does so much with such seemingly mundane, simple environments and domestic events. He's a master of composition, his films full of static shots that perfectly frame his characters. Here, his subjects are an elderly father and his grown daughter, who have always lived together but now must decide whether it is time to separate. Certain stories are more resonant at a certain age or a certain stage of life, and I found "Late Spring" at exactly the right time, in what turned out to be a year of major personal transitions.

"The Secret Life of Words" (2005) - My favorite viewing experiences are the ones where I have no idea what I'm in for, and discover something unexpected. In this case, it was director Isabel Coixet. Sarah Polley and Tim Robbins play a pair of damaged people who meet by chance in an unlikely setting - an offshore oil drilling platform. This is a film of long silences, where so little seems to happen on the surface, but offhand comments strike deep and simple conversations can be earth-shattering. I thought it was one of the most moving things I saw all year, and its status as a "message" movie didn't hurt it a bit.

"Jackie Brown" (1997) - I appreciated Quentin Tarantino, but didn't love him until this film. His adoration of these actors and this material is palpable, especially the way he places Pam Grier, the queen of blaxploitation cinema, front and center as his star. In Tarantino's subsequent attempts to resurrect and revitalize other film genres, he never quite succeeded in capturing the spirit of those bygone eras the way he does here. I think this has a lot to do with the presence of Grier and Robert Forster and Robert DeNiro, who never act for a second like they're past their prime or were ever absent from our movie screens.

"Memento" (2000) - I'd heard this film dismissed as a parlor trick by some critics, as a movie that is technically brilliant and innovative, but loses a lot of its impact upon subsequent viewings once you figure out the way it works. It's a valid point, but so much of the substance of Christopher Nolan's breakthrough film is the structure of it, the way it engages the audience and forces them to think and puzzle and take the narrative apart. It's like complaining a sudoku puzzle isn't a short story, though "Memento," with its tragic protagonist and melancholy themes, offers far more to chew on in the story department than most other films of its genre.

"City of God" (2002) – Film can transport audiences to places they would never go, and let them look in on lives that they would never have contact with otherwise. They can help to illuminate socials ills, humanizing the forgotten and ignored. The favelas of Brazil were all but invisible to the Western world before "City of God," and it's thanks to the amazing work of Fernando Meirelles and his cast and crew that the film made such an impact and brought so much attention. It's not hard to see why. I saw lots of crime films this year, but nothing like "City of God," a portrait of a community defined, driven, and perhaps doomed by its criminal culture.

"High Noon" (1952) – Arguably the most iconic Western ever made is a fairly simple morality play about an aging, small-town sheriff who must stand alone against overwhelming odds. With movies, however, it's never just about the story but the way it's told. The performances of Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly here are wonderful, the real-time direction by Fred Zinnemann is immaculate, and over fifty years removed from its original context as an anti-McCarthyism piece, the script still works splendidly as a meditation on the virtues of duty and honor. And the theme song is pretty catchy too.

"La Haine" (1995) – I'd only known of Matthieu Kassovitz as an actor before this year. His contributions to cinema as a director however, with only this single film, far outweigh his work onscreen. Growing up young and poor and surrounded by crime is a common subject in many films, but this, along with "City of God" are among my favorites because the frenzied energy and kinetic style of the filmmaking so beautifully capture the lives of its young protagonists. "La Haine" is often compared to "Boyz in the Hood," but the French film is more cynical, with more self-aware characters who are ultimately far more memorable.

"Play it Again, Sam" (1972) – I am a long-time admirer of Woody Allen, and have faithfully followed him through much of his long and bumpy filmmography. It was a happy surprise to discover that a film Allen wrote and starred in, but didn't direct himself, turned out to be one of his best. I think I like "Play it Again," so much because it has such a simple, crowd-pleasing concept that is executed perfectly: a film nut played by Allen imagines Humphrey Bogart's Rick from "Casablanca" giving him romantic advice as he tries to woo a married woman. It all culminates in a spot-on homage to one of the most famous scenes in cinema history.

"Cache" (2005) – Director Michael Haneke has some rather sadistic tendencies that make me nervous, but I have to admire him as a filmmaker. He can not only play tricks on the audience with film and narrative in unique and startling ways, but he uses them to benefit his storytelling. "Cache" is a psychological thriller that takes aim at both the culture of surveillance and the hypocrisies of its privileged characters. And its convoluted mysteries will leave you wondering what you saw – or thought you saw, long after the film is over.

"Funny Girl" (1968) - I'd seen some of Streisand's other films like "What's Up Doc" and "The Way We Were," and found her funny and charming, but I'd never really understood why she was considered such a superstar back in the 70s. And then I saw "Funny Girl," and it all made sense. Barbara Streisand's screen debut as celebrated showgirl Fanny Brice is one for the ages. She sings her heart out, she dances beautifully, her comic timing is perfect, her dramatic scenes are thrilling, and her charisma is undeniable. With a little help from Omar Sharif, she no doubt had audiences everywhere falling in love with her.

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