Monday, January 03, 2011

Best of 2010: Film

I saw a lot of movies this year, thanks to my membership in the WGA and the flood of screeners that arrived at the end of the year. So, I caught almost all the big Oscar movies, and, ironically, few of them actually made it to the list. But, some did in what I'd consider over all a fantastic year for movies.

10. The Fighter

There were a bunch of movies in contention for this tenth spot on the list (and I still haven't seen a couple of big 2010 movies I'd like to have seen [Blue Valentine and Mesrine in particular]), but The Fighter ultimately won out over True Grit, Somewhere and The Runaways. The reason is it was one of the most emotionally engrossing films I'd seen this year. There was some cliché plotting along the way, and it sort of fizzled at the end, but through the Sanchez fight, this was a consistently intense, and emotionally gripping film. I hated Christian Bale's character so much, and Amy Adams really jumped out as a hard edged lady who took no shit from anyone. Her performance totally changed my perception of her as an actress, it's one of the most electric roles of the year, and really made the movie. I just wish it had kept up that momentum and ferocity to the ending.

9. The Kids Are All Right

I've written a lot about how TV is the trend setting, innovative visual storytelling medium now, so consider a huge compliment to say that The Kids Are All Right had the character depth and easygoing realism of a great TV show. Tonally, it recalled Six Feet Under in its depiction of a family that has its issues, but loves each other and is trying to do good in a world full of temptation. The loose narrative leaves plenty of room for character exploration and the uniformly excellent cast makes it all work. Julianne Moore is fantastic here, reminding me why she was once my favorite actress out there. But, Mark Ruffalo really steals the show as the ne'er do well, but charming absent father. He's so charismatic and engaging, it's easy to see why the whole family falls under his spell. A really satisfying adult targeted film. This is one of those movies that people say they don't make any more.

8. Inception

Inception is one of the most visually ambitious films of the year, and features some of the most dazzling action sequences I've ever seen. It's the action movie as crazy videogame, stacking level after level of crazy obstacle on top of each other, and indulging in a mix of intense psychology and pure action movie joy in sequences like the snow attack or zero gravity battle. It's a great looking movie, with a phenomenal score. What holds it back from greatness is the reliance on a dour, tormented hero who can't express himself emotionally (i.e. every single Chris Nolan character ever). It's a film about dreams that feels so utterly controlled and without any random elements sinking in. That stops it from being an all time great movie, but there's so much good in here, I can forgive the flaws.

7. Rebuild of Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance

The second new Evangelion film didn't quite pull all its elements together. But, it was full of very haunting moments, and its finale was exhilarating and points to a bold new direction for the rest of the films in the series. This whole project remains caught between breaking new ground and paying homage to the past series. This one manages to strike a pretty good balance, and presents a nicely distilled version of the original series' psychological troubles. But, I would still point a new viewer to the original series over this version.

6. Toy Story 3

Pixar continues one of the longest hot streaks in film with their most emotionally potent film yet. Toy Story 3 is about 80% really good, fun film. The whole imprisonment at day care is funny and full of well executed set pieces and gags. But, it's the other 20% of the film that just emotionally anhialates viewers. There's hints of this in the opening, particularly during the videotape sequence, but it comes to the fore most notably in the inferno sequence, where the characters confront their own mortality and prepare to face death. Lingering in the fire past the point where it's a cliffhanger and to the moment where everyone accepts death, it's intensely harrowing. After crossing through death, they make it out to a new life in the emotionally overwhelming finale. For what's ostensibly a kid's film to be so emotionally effulgent is a real feat, and a testament to Pixar's skill.

5. Tron: Legacy

In a year of visually stunning films, none could match the production design and overall aesthetic of Tron. Updating the 80s style for the present day, everyone in the film looked intensely stylish as they moved through gorgeous environments, backed by the fantastic Daft Punk score. Beyond the fantastic look, the film offered a solid take on the hero's journey, definitely calling back to Star Wars at times, but delivering a story that satisfied. Its video game based universe might not make any sense objectively, but in the world the story it all hangs together for a visually dazzling, emotionally engaging ride full of really cool moments. I wish everyone dressed like the characters in this movie do.

4. Black Swan

Black Swan is another great Darren Aronofsky film about obsession and a character's desire to be the absolute best, at the cost of their sanity. I love the intensity of the film and the frequent surreal indulgences. Natalie Portman is fantastic, and everything in the film draws you into her mental world, which is less intriguingly ambiguous when everything wraps up in the end. It's a totally engrossing film, and one of the most refreshingly insane movies I've seen in a while.

3. The Social Network

The so called 'Facebook' movie is actually a rather classical look at the corrupting influence of power and money. But, thanks to David Fincher's ice cold direction and Trent Reznor's alien electronic score, it becomes something more. It's a deconstruction of a world that becomes increasingly separate even as technology brings us together. I don't usually love Fincher, but the really strong Sorkin script proves the perfect anchor, filled with biting humor, keeping him from drifting off into the excess darkness of some of his other works. This is a great example of two auteurs coming together to make one great film.

2. Runaway

This Kanye West film wasn't a feature, but it demonstrates a wonderful understanding of what film can do as a medium, an audacious half hour full of incredible visuals and strange ideas. The film throws back to European art cinema motifs, with a portentious symbolic storyline that recalls Fellini, and a strangely mannered acting style that is at once alienating and intriguing. But, combined with an incredible soundtrack, it becomes a really unique package full of amazing moments, like the opening slo-mo shot of Kanye in front of a fiery explosion, or the final Phoenix ascent. So many films fail to make use of true visual storytelling, this one is a consistently riveting experience, one that lingers with me far more than most traditional features.

1. Enter the Void

Speaking of experiences, Enter the Void is attempting something entirely different from virtually any film made this year, or any other year. Gaspar Noe isn't telling you a story about someone else as he is in making you feel and experience things. The movie's title is a command, you must enter the void, and by the end of the film, you'll have passed through death and rebirth and experienced a dizzying array of images and sounds. At times, it's an assault, at times it's soothing and beautiful, this movie did things that no other film ever has. I think it's less cohesive and emotional than Irreversible, but it's just as technically dazzling and has more moments of abstract transcendence than Irreversible did. Watching the final half hour or so, in which the camera winds its way through Tokyo's sky before settling in a hotel to watch a variety of couples have sex, you reach a total altered state, and what could be vulgar becomes absolutely beautiful. This film is an experience, and I'd love to see more filmmakers approach the medium like Noe does. Film can be a great narrative medium, but it can also be so much more, and this film shows you that.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Best of 2010: TV

10. Breaking Bad

Here's a show that is beyond a lot of others on the list in terms of visual artistry and narrative intensity, it's a show I feel like I should absolutely love, but still hasn't one hundred percent clicked for me. I always enjoy it when I'm watching it, but, despite having had the episodes on DVR since they aired, I still haven't finished the third season. I'm getting there, and I'm sure in the next couple of months I'll wrap it up, but I just didn't feel that need to see what happens next that you feel on a truly great series. So, Breaking Bad remains a show I really respect, but don't outright love.

9. Doctor Who

This year of Doctor Who got a lot of great press, but didn't hit me as hard as any of the Davies years. I think part of it is the feeling that, despite some continuity with the previous version, this is basically a reboot of the franchise, and I feel like it's too soon for a reboot that hits a lot of the same beats as Davies did over the course of his run. To me, it feels like Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men run, perfectly solid on its own terms, but unable to shake the feeling that I didn't really need anything else after Grant Morrison finished his run. There's some really fun stories here, but it doesn't feel essential or 'real' to me in the way that Davies' run did. But, it's still a great show, and I'm excited to see where it goes next year.

8. Lost

A show that made more terrible creative choices than any other show on the list, but also the show that I was more engrossed in than anything else on here. Frustrating as it was, it was also really exciting to be part of the excitement surrounding the final season. As a standalone entity, this season was poorly plotted and not great, but as an experience, it was a lot of fun, and did have a few satisfying moments along the way.

7. Bored to Death

A bit more lightweight than most of the shows on the list, Bored to Death works thanks to the charm of its ensemble and the investment in the small scale mysteries that drive the show from week to week. It does a great job of telling small scale noir stories that intersect nicely with relatable plot arcs for the main group. Few shows were as outright fun as this one on a week to week basis.

6. Treme

Once you accept that this is not The Wire 2, you can appreciate Treme on its own terms as a slice of life verite journey through the world of post Katrina New Orleans. I'd be happy if we never heard another speech about how no outsiders can appreciate New Orleans, but once the show got past its preachy phrase, there was some really great character work and an enjoyable energy propelling the series. And, visually it's truly astonishing. Getting something to look like it's all just happening and being captured in the moment is not easy, and this show makes you feel like you're there and these are real people. I'm excited to see it develop and continue to come into its own.

5. Community

This year, the show maintained the easygoing humor and sweet natured ensemble interaction of the early episodes, and added huge visual scope (the paintball episode, the stop motion Christmas) and a more intense character focus (the Annie/Jeff stuff in the conspiracy episode, the bar episode), creating a show that somehow manages to soar into freeform flights of fancy one week and be intensely grounded the next. There were a few bumps in early season two, with one two many gimmick episodes in a row, but the last few episodes have been uniformly fantastic, and the ensemble continues to reveal new layers and chemistry in every single combination.

4. Parks and Recreation

The show has been unfortunately absent from TV since May, but looking back on the close of the second season, Parks was TV's funniest show, with one of the deepest comedy benches ever, and a commitment to expanding its universe and creating a world that was simultaneously surreal and consistent and believable. As with Community, the characters could occasionally move towards the absurd, while still maintaining consistency and believability.

3. Eastbound and Down

In it second season, Eastbound pulls off the nearly impossible task of making a comedy sequel that is even more satisfying than the original, pushing Kenny Powers to increasingly dark and disturbing areas, all in an absolutely gorgeous set of episodes. The production on the series was amazing, the Mexico setting providing the opportunity for a whole new level of visual flourish than the series used in its first season. It was extremely funny throughout, but the story worked just as strongly on a dramatic level, and the triumphant return home at the end of the season was a particular emotional highlight. It's simultaneously sophisticated and juvenile, a good place for a comedy to be.

2. Friday Night Lights

It's been amazing to watch Friday Night Lights come back from its second season slump and just get better and better. The fourth season's closing run was full of extremely intense moments, none more than Tim Riggins' increasing maturity, and the realization that he would have to go to prison to keep his brother with his family. The Thanksgiving scene at the end of that season still sticks with me, an amazing capper to the series' best season yet. Season five is still bringing the pieces together, but it looks every bit as strong as four. Still visually majestic, I'll be sad to see the show go.

1. Mad Men

I've been a Mad Men fan since the start, and always felt it was a great show, but this was the season that confirmed Mad Men's place as one of the all time best in TV history, a drama to stand with The Wire and The Sopranos when critics reflect on the golden age of TV. The fourth season broke down the mystique surrounding Don Draper that the show had spent three years reinforcing, while skillfully advancing the story of his two closest analogues, Peggy Olsen and Sally Draper. I love the structural experimentation of the season, the use of voiceover, or the two actor showcase “The Suitcase.” In totally upending the show's status quo, Weiner let the characters grow just as real people do, and offered myriad opportunities for drama and conflict. This is the most ambitious visual art being attempted in any medium, it's synthesizing the best of classical Hollywood, classic European art cinema and more contemporary verite to create something that, though set in the past, feels intensely modern.