279 Cents: The 5 (and a bit) Best Films of 2010

279 Cents is where we share our thoughts, views and reviews about this and that, and give you the good public our 279 Cents worth about it (currently worth about £1.80 at the current exchange rate if that helps)

2010 is all but dead. He wheezes, coughs, splutters, and needs a bit of a sit down and a rich tea biscuit. He is not long for this world. Unless the labour is protracted, 2011 should be along soon enough however, so with that in mind we’ll commemorate the last ever day of MMX by shining a light on the films that rocked our kasbah, cinematically speaking. Now, this list will be considerably shorter than our 5 Worst Films of 2010 feature. This is for a number of reasons: 1) I always find it easier to talk at length about stuff I hated than loved, 2) that feature went on longer than some Salman Rushdie novels, 3) I left two days to write the “Worst” feature and have less time for this, and 4) in the event anyone does read this they may be hung over and/or drunk with New Year cheer, so best to be briefer. So, please welcome the most rewarding films of ’10. NB: As it was very difficult to whittle it down to 5, there are some special mentions too. Enjoy!

5. Scott Pilgrim vs the World d: Edgar Wright

It doesn’t sound like much of a compliment, but Scott Pilgrim is a laugh. When your laughing at the studio logo (because it has been given an interesting tweak: I’m not totally deranged) you know you’re in for a good time, and Edgar Wright carries on the sterling work of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. To say this is his weakest proper film is only because his previous two are practically perfect, and Fuzz is officially the funniest film I’ve seen in the cinema. Pilgrim though is deliriously good fun. Energetic without seeming hyperactive, howlingly funny but with a great ability to flip to more serious relationship stuff, and all round brilliant. The cast is without any weak link whatsoever. Michael Cera is great as Scott, the best character he has played on film (and the best he has played it), Mary Elizabeth Winstead underplays her role as the object of his (and the Seven Evil Exes’) desires really well and adds a fine amount of self-doubt that makes her relationship with Pilgrim much deeper than you’d expect. Rory Culkin as Scott’s gay roommate Wallace pretty much steals the film, but there is also grand larceny from Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Anna Kendrick (more on her later), Alison Pill…the whole cast basically. In the criticism department the piece seems a bit overlong, mainly because having to fight seven exes means seven battles, and that structure is the tiniest repetitive. But the main thing wrong with it is you, the viewer! Or, to explain, those of you who didn’t see it. With only £5m in tickets sold in the UK for a $60m budget (and only $31m sales in the US) means this was badly overlooked. Out on DVD now, no excuses, people!

4. The Illusionist d: Sylvain Chomet

For an animated film of the year, many would pick Toy Story 3. Tempting, but as it is fractionally weaker than its predecessors and with 3D that was quite angering due to its pointlessness, I’m afraid I had to decline. How to Train Your Dragon, meanwhile, was a genuine surprise. A really warm, witty Dreamworks film without the lazily reliance on celebrity voice artists and pop culture ‘jokes’ that have served them so poorly in recent years. It even had the best use of 3D I’ve seen since the rebirth of stereoscopic movies (take that, James Cameron!) But while great, it wouldn’t place that high on an end of year list such as this. And there was also Ponyo, Hayao Miyazaki’s sweet retelling of The Little Mermaid with a beautifully drawn relationship between a young boy and a young fish who wants to be a girl. But lovely though it was, it is not as strong as the great master’s inspired earlier works (in a non animated capacity, a similar reason precluded Mike Leigh’s Another Year from the list, simply because he’s a genius and so it’s not quite up there with his very best). So step forward then Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist. This beats its more establish counterparts for many, many reasons. Firstly, shallow though it is, it’s gorgeous. A lovingly crafted traditional animation, with superbly painted backdrops and fantastic character design, the film looks at once realistic (particularly in its stunning recreation of Edinburgh) and cartoonish (the lead character based on French silent comedian Jacques Tati). The piece is also practically silent, devoid of almost all dialogue altogether. I’m a sucker for that sort of thing (for instance, the wordless openings of the peerless Their Will Be Blood and possibly Pixar’s magnum opus WALL-E) and it elevates the film high above its more yak happy contemporaries in modern animation. The story is simple but exquisitely told. The Great Tatischeff is a stage conjuror whose best days are behind him. No one wants to see his act anymore, but clamour for the new musical acts of the late 1950s. He heads on tour to Scotland and strikes up a paternal relationship with a young girl. To recap the events of the story would do it a disservice, both by making it sound boring (which it assuredly isn’t) but also as there would be no way therein of conveying how heartbreaking the film is. Based on an unproduced screenplay by Tati, he reportedly shelved the script as it was far too personal and would be too painful to play himself. The final acts are achingly sad, but there is a streak of melancholy running through the whole piece that make it one of the most affecting films of the year. Many cried during Toy Story 3. This would likely tip them over the edge. But give it a watch. You owe it to yourself.

Honourable Mention

Mother d:Bong Joon-ho

What, pray tell, does a French/British hand drawn animated film about a washed up magician have anything to do with a South Korean drama about a woman’s attempts to prove her mentally disabled son is innocent of murder? Absolutely nothing. In story terms, and in pretty much everything else terms, they’re worlds apart. But I saw them both in the same place: the recently reopened MAC Cinema in Birmingham, where more specialty films are nurtured in a fine fashion. It would have been a shame to overlook this gem, but as it didn’t quite make the strict 5 cut it seemed only fair to give it a shout out anyway. As with the rest of the director’s work, such as The Host and his stellar Memories of Murder (the best DVD I’ve seen all year, so he can’t complain too much) this is a wonderful film. A fantastic central performance from Kim Hye-ja as a widow whose world is turned upside down when police arrest her only son for a vicious murder, one who will do anything to keep him from harm, holds the whole piece together brilliantly. The plot is broadly a murder mystery, where the eponymous Mother must investigate the death of a young girl in their village to save her son from jail, but this isn’t Miss Marple. It is a dramatic, hilarious, affecting and all round expert piece of filmmaking. Its only flaw is that it cannot quite live up to Memories of Murder, about South Korea’s first serial killer and the police who try to solve is wicked crimes. Find both, rent/b
uy both, and watch. Now. I mean it.

3. Animal Kingdom d: David Michôd

The most recent entry on the list, viewed way back in November, this powered its way to the top. It is a shockingly great film, not least as it is David Michôd’s feature film debut, one most directors would give their left eye to have made. Eagle eyed readers may remember we have raved about this film before when we first saw it, and there’s not much more to add to that fairly exhaustive ode to the Australian future classic. What should be mentioned is that Jacki Weaver, the indelible Cody family matriarch, is currently receiving some well deserved awards buzz for her performance, and could even feature in the Oscar race in early 2011. It doesn’t open in the UK until 25th February, but book your tickets now. If you won’t I will.

2. Up In The Air d: Jason Reitman

From the 3rd February to the 5th February 2010 I watched three movies at the cinema in three days, after having not attended the cinehouse throughout the whole of January. All of those films could easily have remained on the “Best of” list right till the end: the brilliantly harrowing and redemptive Jacque Audiard film, Une Prophete, John Hillcoat’s film version of Cormac McCarthy’s post apocalyptic masterpiece The Road, and this George Clooney starrer. So why did the others slip away? As with Mother, regrettably, the cut off has to come somewhere. Une Prophete didn’t quite make the grade for two reasons: the opening is as scary as any horror film, with Tahar Rahim’s excellently played lead forced to try and kill a cell mate in the nastiest way possible. This isn’t a complaint, the whole film couldn’t be better and the sequence is masterfully handled by Audiard, but it does make for uncomfortable viewing. Basically, not one for your Nan. Plus, the director’s superficially similar in many respects Sur mes lèvres (Read My Lips) is my personal favourite of his, so bad luck, Jacques! The Road then? Well, like Une Prophete, its opening is one of its downfalls RE this list, but whereas Audiard’s is screevy but excellent The Road gets off to a rocky start. The ham-fisted narration jars badly, with Viggo Mortensen sounding like he’s reading his shopping list. Nick Cave, whom I adore, has presumably had a presumably great score rejected and has been forced to turn in a heavy-handed schmaltz aid instead. As well as this, Charlize Theron’s scenes have been clumsily edited into the narrative, making the whole exercise of watching at first a chore. When it picks up though, it flies, nailing McCarthy perfectly in the second half, right down to its moving finale. That the film could have made this list solely on its second hour shows how great it is, and how much one hopes for a director’s cut in years to come to give parity to the rest. But ladies and gentlemen, now boarding at gate 2: Up in the Air.

Why? Firstly, I was grinning from ear to ear for about a day after watching it. Rarely does a film have such a positive impact as a viewer, but this did it for me in spades. It’s funny, heartwarming, endearing, sad, topical, and naturally, great. Being a big Clooney fan as I am due to his ability to play with his public persona (here he is a carefree bachelor who refuses to be tied down in marriage. Just like…) it is still a pleasure to see him explore areas he hasn’t as a performer. Here, the sadness of his existence becomes clear despite his initial insistence he loves his transient lifestyle. This filters through to the portrayal of how he earns his bread. Clooney’s Ryan Bingham is a “corporate downsizer”, brought in by companies to sack their staff when they don’t have the guts to do it. Initially humorous scenes (including a laugh out loud cameo from The Hangover’s Zach Galifianakis) devolve into emotional confrontations (most of the fired employees are not actors, but recently laid off from their own jobs) when Bingham’s firm promotes Natalie Keener (a brilliant Anna Kendrick; good year!) and her scheme to sack workers using internet video feeds rather than pay for his expensive trips. But that makes it sound depressing, and it is the opposite. Just with Jason Reitman’s previous film Juno, it treads the line between humour and pathos and switches deftly between both. This may be more accessible than the Diablo Cody scripted joint, as there is no talk of ‘food babies’ or ‘honest to blog’ to potentially alienate audiences. Props too to Vera Farmiga as Clooney’s love interest Alex, crafting one of the most nuanced portrayals of a successful women on film in the past few years. The film was an early front-runner in the Best Picture race but lost steam to The Hurt Locker. Though I appreciated the Bigelow movie it would not have been my pick for the top prize, and while neither would Up in the Air, it would soar higher than the bomb disposal pic. Check in with Cloon et al and see if you agree.

And finally, the main attraction…

1. Inception d: Christopher Nolan

It couldn’t really be anything else, could it? But this certainty twas not always so. Being a massive Christopher Nolan fan, one of my favourite directors and purveyor of exceptional film entertainments without one being rubbish, when Inception was announced as having a colossal budget (estimated $160million) and with a story encompassing “a sci-fi action thriller set within the architecture of the mind”, I was a bit nervous. Would Nolan’s meteoric rise be stopped by an Armageddon style drill and explode job? After all, many directors come a cropper with expensive follies that they (and their studio paymasters) will be wild about, but audiences couldn’t give a thruppenny bit about. Maybe he’d bite of more than he could chew. Maybe modern film’s Caped Crusader would be unmasked as a Clown Prince…

Not on your life. With all the debate that has twisted and turned like the film’s narrative itself, there is little I can add that others haven’t said better. But it is truly gratifying that Nolan refuses to treat his audience like idiots, even when conventional logic dictates big budget fare has to cater to the lowest common denominator. Instead, he credits the viewer with the intelligence to work out what is going on to whom when. Those who mock the exposition heavy sequences miss the point; after setting up the rules the world operates in, Nolan lets go, and the audience is on its own. For all the talk of it being confusing, it is actually one of Nolan’s most narratively straightforward pictures. Aside from the opening ten minutes where we are thrown in the deep end, everything is remarkably easy to follow, and consequently much easier to see what a damn fine film it is. With an ambitious story told through several layers of dream time, it is fiendishly clever and delightfully exciting, taking in science fiction, relationship drama, Bond style action thriller and the visual artistry of a cult film, there is nothing to not like.

The cast, for instance, is absolutely flawless, starting with a well anchored turn from Leonardo DiCaprio, who has risen above his early career to become a genuinely good actor, and one, who, like Clooney, isn’t afraid to mix things up. Here, for instance, he plays a little with his good guy image by showing us a character who is not to be fully trusted, whether he is breaking into your dreams to steal your secrets or whether it is in holding back the
secrets of his own. Marion Cotillard as his apparently villainous wife shows a range not previously exploited in her English language movies, and her and DiCaprio give the film its emotional heft, particularly in the hotel room scene. It’s always nice to see Ken Watanabe, and as the shady but charming Saito this is certainly no exception. Joseph Gordon Levitt must be kicking himself. He gives a brilliant performance as Arthur, from great one liners to stolen kisses and justly lauded acrobatics in the bravura gravity free corridor scene, and what happens? That Tom Hardy walks away with the whole movie! Hardy’s Eames is one of the best characters of this, or any other, year. Debonair, hilarious and packing a nice line in grenade launching weaponry, every time he is onscreen he puts a smile on your face. But then, most of the film was spent with a smile on my face, as I couldn’t believe my luck someone had made a film on this scale this good, when so many others stick to cheap 3D gimmicks or CGI fads. For with all the films professed smarts, it has some of the best action sequences seen in an age. The previously mentioned gravity defying fight scene, the ski bound fortress assault, a plunge into an icy river. There is a view expressed on the internet that Nolan can’t do action. Before I would have respectfully disagreed. After Inception I would less respectfully tell those persons to put it in their pipes and smoke it.

Having seen it twice, on second viewing it remains a masterpiece. However, there is less replay value than in many of Nolan’s other films. This is not a criticism, as films like Memento and The Prestige become entirely different films on repeated viewing as the audience’s perceptions are shifted in a way the Inception does not try to do. If you haven’t seen Inception yet, where have you been? If you have seen it, and haven’t already, check out Nolan’s other work. To paraphrase his excellent script for Inception: when you do, you will possessed by an idea, just one simple idea that changed everything. Christopher Nolan rocks!

So, which of these, if any, is your Best Film of 2010?

And, in the words of the late, great Leslie Nielsen in The Poseidon Adventure, “Oh, and by the way, Happy New Year!”

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