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Posted January 16, 2011 by William Dunmyer in Uncategorized
 
 

Top 15 Films of 2010

Two thousand ten was not a great year at the movies, but it wasn’t terrible. Below are the 15 best films I saw in the year, plus a handful of honorable mentions.

  1. Winter’s Bone
  2. Blue Valentine
  3. Agora
  4. Please Give
  5. The Kids Are All Right
  6. Kick-Ass
  7. Brotherhood (from Denmark)
  8. Inception
  9. Fair Game
  10. The King’s Speech (from England)
  11. Mother and Child
  12. Daybreakers
  13. Rabbit Hole
  14. White Material (from France)
  15. The Ghost Writer (from England)

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):
A Prophet (from France)
Somewhere
Jack Goes Boating
City Island
The Town
Solitary Man
Mademoiselle Chambon (from France)
Exit Through the Gift Shop (from England)
Prince of Broadway
Black Swan

Trash Humpers

Worst Movie of the Year: I’m Still Here (aka The Joaquin Phoenix Reality Show) — candidate for Worst of the Decade

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Breaking with tradition, I’m going to discuss these films in chronological order based on when they were released. Let’s walk through 2010, starting in January…

Winter

The winter of 2010, like most winters, saw very few good films open. But there was Daybreakers” (no. 12), starring Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe, which came out in January and was sadly overlooked by serious critics, presumably because it was a vampire movie. If “Let the Right One In” can be taken seriously, why can’t “Daybreakers”? Here we had a fresh, fairly deep script brought to the screen in dazzling fashion by the Spierig Brothers, two young men born and raised in Germany who have Danny Boyle’s cinematic instincts. Let’s not forget that Boyle once did a zombie movie (“28 Days Later”), and a great one at that.

February had one gem, “A Prophet” (honorable mention) from French filmmaker Jacques Audiard, about a young Arab struggling to survive in a French prison. The film is over-long and loses a lot of its focus, but its first half is a masterpiece. There is also an unforgettable, goosebump-inducing lead performance from Tahar Rahim, who is just getting started in the world of acting. He has all the talent of a young Marlon Brando, but none of the ego it seems. If there were any justice, Rahim would get an Oscar nomination. Because of the film’s weak second half, I couldn’t make it one of my Top 15. But it more than warrants honorable mention. Everyone needs to see at least the first half of this remarkable film.

Spring

April

As usual, everything began to pick up in the spring. April brought us “Kick-Ass,” (no. 6) a brilliantly innovative twist on the comic-book genre with a mesmerizing supporting performance from a profanity-spewing 12-year-old, Chloe Moretz. As a director, the British-born Matthew Vaughn had previously looked like a mediocre clone of the mediocre Guy Ritchie (“Layer Cake,” anyone?), but with “Kick-Ass” Vaughn becomes one of the most exciting and iconoclastic filmmakers to watch in the decade ahead.

April also gave us Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” (no. 15), starring Ewan McGregor as a man hired to help Britain’s prime minister write his memoirs. The young man gradually transforms into a detective, struggling to put together the pieces of a dark, dangerous puzzle. The film makes despicable veiled allegations about Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, but it cannot be denied that “The Ghost Writer” is a great entertainment for grown-ups. Polanski shows that he hasn’t lost his magical movie-making touch. From the French New Wave (“Repulsion”), to a stunning leap into American filmmaking (“Rosemary’s Baby”), to a masterpiece of 1970s neo-noir (“Chinatown”), to a unique range of choices in the 1980s and 90s, to an Oscar winner in 2002 (“The Pianist”), and now a crisp re-invention of the political thriller. Polanski’s longevity and creative fountain of youth inspire awe.

The inventive, almost indescribable “Exit Through the Gift Shop” (honorable mention) also hit our shores in early spring. From England’s underground street artist Banksy comes one of the most unusual documentaries ever made. It has a slow and repetitious start, but the final half-hour dazzles. One realizes that Banksy is the Andy Warhol of our time.

June

June was a veritable gold mine. First there was “Agora” (no. 3). Given that writer/director Alejandro Amenabar’s last film, “The Sea Inside” (2004) with Javier Bardem, was a global art-house sensation and won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, and his film before that, “The Others” (2001), was a mainstream blockbuster, one would have thought “Agora” would get some attention. But almost no one noticed it, even though it was superb, was filmed in English, and had a well-known Anglo-American Oscar winner, Rachel Weisz, leading the cast. I formally dub “Agora” the Most Under-Rated Film of 2010.

“Agora” tells the story of Hypatia, the real-life 4th-century philosopher caught up in the turmoil surrounding the Roman Empire’s conversion to Christianity. She was eventually executed, allegedly with the support of the rapidly expanding Church. The film is a fascinating study of a period in history that transformed the world forever, with three major religions chafing against one another: Greco-Roman Paganism, Judaism, and Christianity. It boggles the mind to imagine how life would be different today had the Christians not taken power at that time. Would most of us be worshipping Zeus? But far from just a scholarly study, “Agora” is passionate and alive, telling its tale through the eyes of real people. Weisz’s Hypatia pulsates with life, and a great love story is told about the slave (played beautifully by newcomer Max Minghella) who adores her. Put “Agora” on your Netflix queue forthwith.

“Please Give (no. 4), from writer/director Nicole Holofcener, also graced movie screens in June. The film, which got nowhere near the attention it deserved, is a meditation on death and living. It looks squarely into the face of death but is also the funniest film in years, reminiscent of Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.” Especially side-splitting is the send-up of irascible old people. Ann Guilbert, playing a 90-year-old, had me and everyone else in my theater rolling in the aisles. A beautiful counterpoint to Guilbert was Sarah Steele’s insightful and touching portrayal of self-absorbed youth. Amanda Peet also does some very interesting work portraying a woman on the verge of middle age who is still struggling to be a pretty girl. The huge wonderful cast includes Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, and Rebecca Hall.

“Mother and Child” (no. 11), from writer/director Rodrigo Garcia with a terrific ensemble cast led by Annette Bening and Naomi Watts, was another June surprise. The Colombian-born Garcia, who is the creator of the HBO show “In Treatment,” suffers from an obsession with psychoanalysis. Every scene he writes is reminiscent of a therapy session. This makes his work often feel more like daytime television than cinema. But he also has a lot to say that is of major importance, and “Mother and Child” contains ideas you won’t see explored anywhere else.

June’s bounty continued with three films deserving honorable mention: “Mademoiselle Chambon,” “Solitary Man,” with Michael Douglas in a fearless lead performance, and “City Island,” starring the under-rated and under-utilized Andy Garcia.

“Mademoiselle Chambon,” set in a small city in France, introduces us to a middle-aged carpenter who is a good family man without any needs of his own. Dutifully providing for his wife and child for so long, he has drifted into something like auto-pilot, forgetting that he ever had dreams. When he meets his son’s new schoolteacher, a charming friendship develops. He offers to help her with some repairs in her apartment, and gradually deeper feelings grow. Watching this semi-educated man experience surprising feelings that he can’t articulate was at times cinema gold. Equally touching was Sandrine Kiberlain’s performance as the schoolteacher, a woman in her 30s starting to realize that she might never have a family of her own. “Mademoiselle Chambon” may not be complex, but it’s a treasure.

“Solitary Man” is a hard-to-categorize movie from the hard-to-categorize filmmaking team of David Levien and Brian Koppelman. Their writing credits include “Walking Tall” (2004), a vehicle for ex-wrestler Dwayne Johnson, and Steven Soderbergh’s highly avant-garde “The Girlfriend Experience” (one of the unnoticed gems of 2009). “Solitary Man” tells the story of a sociopath (Michael Douglas) who pushes everyone he loves out of his life without realizing what he’s doing. It’s a dark, troubling film that oddly has the surface tone of a comedy. Stylistically the film is confused, but the content is unique and important. Levien and Koppelman show themselves to be thinking outside the box, but their filmmaking skills do not yet match their ambitions. Hopefully in the decade ahead they will learn how to bring their ideas to cinematic life in a more compelling way.

“City Island” brought us the rare pleasure of seeing Andy Garcia on screen. I was fully expecting that Garcia would be nominated for an Oscar for his work in “City Island,” but alas, no prominent critics have been talking about this film lately. “City Island” is also noteworthy for its fresh, unique take on New York City. It is set and filmed on the eponymous island, which sits in the Long Island Sound, connected to the Bronx only by a bridge. Writer/director Raymond de Felitta has that rare gift, a la Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, of capturing a culture on film. With an odd mixture of Bronx and New England, City Island is like nowhere else on earth. The film starts off masterfully but gets cutesy as it goes. I hope in the years ahead that Felitta toughens up his scripts and stops trying to court the mainstream. He’s got a real gift and could develop into a considerable artist.

Summer

July

Typically one thinks of summer as the time of popcorn blockbusters, but increasingly it is also a time for serious films. After June’s extraordinary crop, July brought us the no.1 film of the year, “Winter’s Bone,” and two other wonders: “The Kids Are All Right” and “Inception.”

You don’t just watch “Winter’s Bone” (no. 1); it seeps into your soul. It’s not a perfect film, but at most times it is absolutely stellar. Welcome to the upper echelon of American filmmakers, Debra Granik. It is no surprise that the film won top prize at Sundance when it played there in January 2010. Sundance, Robert Redford’s extraordinary brainchild, continues to astound in its ability to discover masterpieces and near-masterpieces and help them find an audience.

If Granik is the breakthrough American director of the year, 20-year-old Jennifer Lawrence is the breakthrough American actor of the year. She plays a teenage girl in a still-forested corner of Missouri (think Appalachia), where people live in houses that are essentially log cabins. Her father has just disappeared, and she is left to fend for herself and take care of her young siblings and catatonic mother. She goes out on a trek to find Dad, stumbling inadvertently into the dangerous secret world of rural drug addiction.

Shot completely on location in the deep woods with a cast that appears to include many locals, “Winter’s Bone” is profoundly authentic. You feel magically transported to the Ozark Mountains. The sounds, the smells, the music, the trees, the wildlife, the quiet. But the story is also fascinating. Granik has work to do in developing her sense of editing, but other than that she is a nearly perfect director. If “Winter’s Bone,” Debra Granik, and Jennifer Lawrence are not all nominated for Oscars, the Academy will need to hang its head in shame.

Lisa Cholodenko’s delicious dramedy about the nuclear family, “The Kids Are All Right” (no. 5), opened in July as well. It is almost a revelation to watch Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) interact as a couple, shading almost everything they say with that weird melange of love, rivalry, and projection that is the hallmark of family life. When they interact with their teenage children (played in a gently under-stated way by Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson), it is the same. Rarely has family neurosis been depicted so accurately and affectionately. The film does unfortunately have the worst, most pedestrian movie title of the year. But put that out of your mind and focus on the film. You won’t be disappointed.

Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” (no. 8), also released in July, was a gigantic, overstuffed monster of an entertainment, much like his previous film, “The Dark Knight” (2008). To watch it is to be taken up in a whirlwind. Unlike, say, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001,” “Inception” does not add up to more than the sum of its parts. At bottom, it is just an entertainment, intended to amaze more than enlighten. Nolan has some things in common with Kubrick, but the filmmaker he better resembles is James Cameron. Nolan is the brainier version of Cameron, if you will.

But what a full-throttle entertainment “Inception” is, with a hypnotic and scary supporting performance from Marion Cotillard. Will Cotillard get a Best Supporting Actress nomination? I hope so. Nolan clearly realized that Cotillard was bringing something special to the film, given the number of times Edith Piaf is heard on the soundtrack. (Cotillard won the Lead Actress Oscar in 2007 for her earth-shaking portrayal of Piaf in “La Vie en Rose.”) “Inception” must be seen on a huge screen with a thunderous sound system. Nolan takes sound effects to new vertiginous heights. If you missed your opportunity to see it in a giant theater, well, that’s a pity.

July also stood out as the month when Harmony Korine’s filthy and downright nauseating “Trash Humpers” (honorable mention) slithered into theaters. Just when you thought he would start toning it down to curry favor with American critics and get more fans, Korine, who I believe is a genius, brings us “Trash Humpers,” his most radical project yet. The film is a failure, but it’s the most interesting failure since Richard Kelly, another genius, gave us “Southland Tales” in 2007. In these profoundly unoriginal times, it’s heady tonic to encounter Korine’s creativity. How many American filmmakers today can you say are one of a kind, completely unlike anything that has ever come before?

“Trash Humpers” could be interpreted in a million different ways, as is the case with all avant-garde art. But I saw the film as a cross between horror and satire, with Korine depicting humanity (or at least a subset of humanity) as a worm-like species traveling in packs and randomly vandalizing everything around them. Korine fitted the actors with gruesome masks to accentuate their otherness. The middle part of “Trash Humpers” is unwatchably bad, but the film deserves special recognition for its ferocious originality. It also cannot be forgotten that “Trash Humpers” has masterpiece moments. Korine continues to amaze as the early-21st-century’s poet of the unimaginable. If Rimbaud and Baudelaire were alive today, they’d be huge Korine fans.

August

August, not surprisingly, was thin, but one art-house release was a gem: “Brotherhood” (no. 7), the debut feature film from Danish writer/director Nicolo Donato. “Brotherhood” is a window into the present-day neo-Nazi movement. It is a bit predictable and melodramatic at times, but there’s no denying the film’s power and humanity. Lead actor David Dencik, playing a young neo-Nazi struggling with his emerging homosexuality, is so good and so complex that he deserves Oscar consideration. The film takes seriously the attractiveness of Nazism for young men who lack a sense of family and belonging. Deep fraternal bonds make it all the more wrenching when these young men have to decide how to handle the news that two of their brothers have fallen in love. A twist at the end adds interesting, if slightly melodramatic, complexity. Donato ends the film by raising some troubling questions about the gay movement. He seems to suggest that anti-Nazi fervor can sometimes become Nazi-like.

“Prince of Broadway,” another art-house film released in August, deserves honorable mention. Written and directed by Sean Baker, “Prince of Broadway” chronicles the hardscrabble life of poor immigrants in New York City. The main character is an illegal immigrant who ekes out a meager income selling counterfeit luxury items. His life is turned upside-down when a former girlfriend hands him a baby and then runs away. “He’s your son!” This is a great launching point for a story, but it never really goes anywhere. There’s no Act 2. Despite its flaws, “Prince of Broadway” is important and must be supported. We desperately need more hand-made films like it and more filmmakers like Baker who are willing to forgo a life of riches to tell authentic stories about the poor. Bravo to Lee Daniels, Oscar-nominated director of “Precious,” for helping to get “Prince” distributed. And bravo to the Independent Spirit Awards for nominating Baker for their John Cassavetes Award. Shame on you, dear reader, if you still don’t know who Sean Baker (or John Cassavetes) is.

September

September is supposed to be a time when serious films come out of the woodwork. But in 2010 this didn’t turn out to be the case. Only two films released in September deserve recognition, and only as honorable mentions: “The Town” and “Jack Goes Boating.”

“The Town” (honorable mention), second film from director Ben Affleck (after his near-masterpiece, “Gone Baby Gone,” in 2007), is a sturdy grown-up drama. It’s not great, but in a year when mainstream Hollywood produced almost no movies for grown-ups, “The Town” stands out. Affleck proves that he’s got the skill to have a major career as a mainstream director. He also acts here, playing a bank robber who lives in a working-class area of Boston. Affleck plays the role as a tough guy with heart in a colorful but melancholy way that you might expect in a Scorsese film. He establishes an improbable romance with a woman he briefly takes hostage during a heist (played by the lovely and intelligent Rebecca Hall). Thrown into the mix are Affleck’s fellow bank robbers. One member of the gang is played magnetically if a bit one-dimensionally by Jeremy Renner (“The Hurt Locker”). Rounding out the supporting cast is Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”) as a square but determined FBI man. Also nice is a small bit by Blake Lively (“Gossip Girl”) as Affleck’s tough-talking ex-girlfriend. There’s a lot to enjoy in “The Town.”

Released about the same time was the bizarrely overlooked “Jack Goes Boating” (honorable mention), Philip Seymour Hoffman’s directorial debut. It is imperfect, but “Jack Goes Boating” is one of the most ambitious and interesting films of the year. One thing I love is that it’s about ordinary people. Hoffman plays a limousine driver with a sixth-grade education, the kind of man you see everywhere in New York. Playing his best friend is John Ortiz, who is so good that for a while he was generating Oscar buzz. Hoffman’s character is sent on a blind date with a woman as socially inept as he is (beautifully played by Amy Ryan). Initially you think the movie will be the standard parody of super-dorks and idiot savants. But gradually the film gets deeper and more complex, culminating in a sequence depicting romantic implosion that is among the rawest ever filmed. Sometimes the extreme originality of the film comes across arch and once or twice even weird. It doesn’t all come together elegantly. But at its best, “Jack Goes Boating” is a feast for the mind and heart. Let’s pray that Hoffman continues to direct.

Sadly, September also brought us the worst film of the year: “I’m Still Here,” starring Joaquin Phoenix. Imagine Anna Nicole Smith’s reality TV show released as a feature film. That’s what “I’m Still Here” resembles. If it can be imagined, Phoenix is even less interesting than Smith — and more infantile. Phoenix appears to have the IQ of a doorknob. He’s a blithering idiot from the first frame to the last. He doesn’t say a single thing that’s even coherent. He just sort of whines and moans. Casey Affleck is credited with direction, but Affleck simply followed Phoenix around for a while with a video camera and then assembled the footage. “I’m Still Here” is one of the five or six worst films I’ve ever seen. It is almost impossible to stay awake through it. It may sound unduly punishing, but a part of me hopes that Phoenix isn’t able to get an acting job ever again. This film is that bad.

Fall

November

Fall got off to a terrible start, with October a complete bust. But round about Thanksgiving, some major films began to appear.

First there was “White Material” (no. 14), from writer/director Claire Denis starring Isabelle Huppert. The editing is not superb, with one too many slack periods, and some of the ideas are sketchy. But fascinating issues are raised by the film. It tells the story of a woman struggling to hold onto her coffee plantation in Africa during a time of armed rebellion. Part of Denis’s objective seems to be to establish a new vantage point from which to critique colonialism. Most focus on the natives and how they were victimized. Denis focuses on the European perpetrators. They were warped by colonialism as well, she suggests, and their descendants many generations later still suffer from numerous perversions and distortions stemming from it. “White Material” contains unique subject matter gorgeously filmed. There’s also the majestic presence of Huppert, one of the most talented and complex actresses in cinema today. America has Meryl Streep. England has Helen Mirren. And France has Isabelle Huppert.

“The King’s Speech” (no. 10) also made November delightful. This film is put together so well by director Tom Hooper and has such a splendid lead performance from Colin Firth that some may mistake it for more than it is. “The King’s Speech” is a television-level story lifted by great acting, glistening vocabulary, and divine sets and costumes. Firth plays Prince Albert, who ascended the British throne at the start of World War II. He and his devoted wife (warmly played by Helena Bonham Carter) have been in a years-long struggle to cure Albert of his stammer. They finally come upon an unorthodox speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush), who focuses as much on Albert’s self-esteem as his speech. The man gradually becomes a close confidant of Albert’s and then an adviser throughout his reign. One of the many joys of this charming film is the extraordinary experience of seeing Firth, Carter and Rush on the screen at the same time. I sometimes felt I had died and gone to acting heaven. I predict that Mr. Firth will be going back to his Los Angeles hotel room on the night of February 27, 2011 with an Oscar statuette in his hand.

“Fair Game” (no. 9), starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, also hit screens in November, but I appear to be the only person who noticed. American moviegoers and critics continue to ignore films that have anything to do with present-day political matters. What kind of ostriches have we become, wanting to stick our heads in the sand? “Fair Game” dramatizes events surrounding the 2003 “outing” of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame (Watts) by senior officials in the White House, ending her career in espionage and exposing her family and her contacts around the world to grave danger. By all accounts, this was done to punish Plame’s husband (Penn), who at the time was an outspoken critic of what he claimed was the Bush Administration’s false statements about Middle Eastern intelligence. (This critique of course got newfound currency several years later, when the U.S. invasion of Iraq could turn up no weapons of mass destruction.) Not only is the film important, it is also gripping. Director Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”) marshals all his skills in the espionage genre to produce an edge-of-your-seat thriller that should not be missed.

December

December was surprisingly underwhelming. There were several serious works of art, but only one of them, “Blue Valentine,” was a grand slam. “Rabbit Hole” got on base but didn’t quite score. “Somewhere” and “Black Swan” deserve honorable mention but ultimately were only pop flies. “True Grit” was such a minor entertainment that it doesn’t even warrant honorable mention.

“Blue Valentine” wins my vote for second-best film of 2010. It took my breath away on almost every level. The story was complex and unique, the direction masterful as well as innovative, and the acting almost frighteningly powerful and committed. Writer/director Derek Cianfrance, in only his second feature film, catapults himself into the major leagues of American filmmaking. Thank you to Sundance for helping get this film discovered, and kudos to The Weinstein Company for taking the financial risk to market and distribute it.

“Blue Valentine” is a tough film to watch at times. It depicts in ultra-realistic fashion the disappearance of romantic love. The film is the best exploration of a relationship falling apart that I’ve ever seen. Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling play their characters in two different phases of life. One is when they’re young, nubile and trim; the other is when they’ve lost control of their diets and grown puffy and haggard. Gosling and Williams do an astonishing job transforming their bodies to convey the dramatic devolution in these people’s lives.

Exquisite cross-cutting between the time periods adds an extra level of cinematic poetry. The editing somehow seems to breathe along with the characters and the story. Rarely have I seen an artistic team (director, editor, actors) so in sync with each other and so in sync with the characters and story. Only here and there is there a shrill moment or a bit of film-school pretentiousness. The youthfulness of the filmmaking style will only once or twice remind you of MTV. Cianfrance (pronounced SEE-in-france) here provides a master class on directing, and Williams and Gosling do the same with regard to acting. If they are not all three nominated for Oscars, it will be a travesty.

“Rabbit Hole” (no. 13) is not the powerhouse drama I was hoping it would be, but it is a special, deeply humane film. Led by Nicole Kidman, the cast is superb. (Kidman also produced the film.) The material is also great. The problem was in the direction from John Cameron Mitchell, best known for the stage show “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” Mitchell may understand stage drama, but he appears not to have an instinct for cinema. There was an inert quality to “Rabbit Hole” that I couldn’t put my finger on. Then I realized what it was: the camera never moved. Mitchell is simply not a film director. He’s a stage and cabaret director and an acting coach.

Putting the underwhelming direction aside, “Rabbit Hole” still has much to admire and be moved by. It explores the emotional complexities of trying to put one’s life back together after a life-shattering tragedy. Here the catastrophe is the accidental death of a toddler. (Kidman plays the mother.) What I particularly like is that the author, David Lindsay-Abaire, made the tragedy a car accident, allowing him to add a character: the teenage boy who was behind the wheel at the time of the accident (played magically well by newcomer Miles Teller). Kidman and Mitchell understood the power and uniqueness of this material. I wish they had had a better sense of how to use the power of cinema to bring it alive more fully on screen.

The final noteworthy films of December were “Black Swan” and “Somewhere” (honorable mentions), from Darren Aronofsky and Sofia Coppola, respectively. I consider these to be failed films, but they’re noteworthy for what they aspired to be. “Black Swan” wanted to be ballet. By this I mean that it did not want to pay tribute to the classical ballet simply by being about that art form. It tried to be that art form — a fusion of film and ballet. I became annoyed early on in the film, when the characters were such grotesque archetypes and the drama so florid and over the top. But then I realized what that style reminded me of: 19th-century ballet (and opera as well). While the film didn’t work for me, I found Aronofsky’s idea a bold and exciting one. It’s great to see a well-known American director continuing to challenge himself and explore new artistic ideas. Bravo, Mr. Aronofsky. (And your 2006 film, “The Fountain,” will someday be recognized as the masterpiece it is.)

“Somewhere” was not quite as innovative, but it does show Sofia Coppola continuing to resist mainstream movie-making and continually finding a way to get her artistic meditations onto screens in cities across the world. That’s cause for celebration. “Somewhere” takes a look at American royalty: movie stars in southern California. The main character is a young, divorced movie star with a daughter about 12 years old. Coppola gives us a view of the kind of ennui that grows when all one’s desires can be fulfilled at a moment’s notice. At times, Coppola’s silent pictures (tableaux, if you will) of this state of fevered limbo are sublime.

The weakness is that Coppola doesn’t really have anywhere to go with what she’s presented. She creates a superb window on a world but has no Act 2. It’s like Coppola is starting to produce half-movies. Her last film, “Marie Antoinette,” also had this quality of being all dressed up with nowhere to go. Another way of looking at it is that Coppola is these days envisioning 40-minute shorts. Because there’s no market for shorts (a major structural problem in cinema today), she has to provide 60 minutes of filler to get the short shown. I yield to no one in my appreciation for shorts, but they aren’t feature-length films. Feature films, at least in my estimation, require a second act. Still, it’s great to have an artist of Coppola’s caliber among us. I would go see any of her films, even if they’re shorts masquerading as feature films.

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The Year as a Whole

Stepping back from all of this, what can we say about 2010 as a whole? One thing that jumps out is that June and July were surprisingly bountiful when it comes to quality films, especially June. Last year, “The Hurt Locker” came out in June. Do we have a movement afoot? Are specialty distributors losing their addiction to the fall? It’s too soon to tell, but it’s a noteworthy development that should be monitored in the years ahead.

Cinephiles should take note and beware of seasonal blinders. There’s a deep habit in America of seasonal adjustment of one’s taste. From May-August, we expect only popcorn movies. Because of this, people tend to tune out anything that breaks that pattern. If quality films appear, people just ignore them.

I’m convinced that they don’t realize they’re doing this. “The Hurt Locker” stayed in a few theaters in Manhattan all throughout the late spring and early summer last year. And all my friends, even those whom one would describe as cinephiles, said later in the year that they’d never heard of it. When it dominated the awards season, all my friends in New York seemed perplexed. “When did that come out?” they kept asking me. Mind you, when “The Hurt Locker” was released in New York it got a torrent of publicity. It was definitely not under the radar. In fact, it had been getting press long before its release because it was winning so many festival awards. But it came out at a time of year when Americans just don’t focus on serious movies. Everyone just tuned it out. The same thing happened this year with “Winter’s Bone,” “Please Give,” “Agora,” “Mother and Child,” “Solitary Man,” and “City Island.”

This is definitely concerning. Will Americans ever remove their seasonal blinders, or is quality cinema doomed to be ignored if it’s not released in the fall? It would be a terrible shame if we kept ignoring the great releases that are now frequently coming our way in the spring and summer.

[In 2011, incidentally, this pattern of an ever-widening window for quality releases has continued. We are now having the best January in living memory. They aren’t major works of art, but the mainstream movies “The Green Hornet” and “Country Strong” are getting unfairly ignored because no one expects any new movies to be released in January. The first month of the year is no longer a dead zone for new movies.]

Another significant development is a decline in quality. I rate films on a scale of one to 10, and I keep track throughout the year. At the end of the year, I go through my list of eights, nines, and tens to come up with my Top 15 for the year. Nines and tens obviously make the cut, but there aren’t always many of them. I save the 10 rating for masterpieces, and there aren’t more than three or four of those per decade. (I haven’t given out a 10 rating since December 2006, for Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain.”) Usually though there’s at least one 9 per year. Not so this year. I didn’t give a single 9 out in 2010.

Here’s the really disturbing part: I didn’t have enough eights in 2010 to fill out the Top 15. I had to dip into my sevens. That’s a first. I’ve never had a film I ranked a 7 make it to my Top 15 list for the year. This continues a trend first noticed in 2009. Two thousand seven and 2008 saw some fantastic films get made; 2009 and 2010 in the aggregate were much more disappointing.

Serious critics generally agree on this, incidentally. I’m not the only one talking about it. But there’s no agreement on why this is happening. My view is that it’s the fault of audiences. Moviegoers in 2007-08 ignored a mind-boggling number of quality films. In 2007, when I compiled my list of Most Under-Rated Films of the Year, there were almost 40 titles on it. By mid-2008 this pattern at the box office was clear to all. Americans were now only interested in popcorn movies.

Producers cannot keep investing millions in films that have no chance even of breaking even, so they shifted the money according to audience tastes. Moviegoers always get what they want. They wanted a decline in seriousness and a decline in quality, and they got it. They got better popcorn movies than ever, but they got almost no grown-up films. Why? Because they refused to go see grown-up movies.

There might be some light at the end of the tunnel though. If you look at box-office figures for January 2011, you see a surprising number of people going to Oscar-nominated films. It was getting so bad in America that no one was even interested in films nominated for Oscars. I’m sensing a turnaround this Oscar season. “The King’s Speech” is approaching $100 million. “True Grit,” a sober, slow, old-fashioned Western, looks like it will hit $175 million. “Black Swan” is huge as well. Suddenly from out of nowhere, adults in America are flocking to Oscar films again.

Perhaps the popcorn mania of the 2000s is waning. After a decade of reliving adolescence, adults may be needing to feel like grown-ups again. Let’s hope this trend continues. Here’s to a great 2011.



William Dunmyer

 
William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.