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A Note on the Best 23 Films of 2010…

January 7th, 2011 No comments

Here is a list of the best films of 2010 according to our Friend on the Fringe and contributing writer, Eric Rowe.  Enjoy.

Note:  Some of these films may have technically came out in 2009, but if their theatrical release was in 2010 in the States, then they count towards 2010.

1) Sebbe

This film came out of nowhere and knocked me on my ass.  It centers on a teenage boy, Sebastian, whom lives alone with his mother.  It is established early on that Sebastian is a loner.  He doesn’t seem to have many friends and he spends most of his time alone.  Sebastian’s mother has a dead end job, and as the film progresses it is established just how much she resents Sebastian, for holding her back in life.  This film works so well really just because of how well it’s directed.  The film never panders to the audience by over explaining aspects of Sebastian’s life.  It’s a true character study of Sebastian, and as a viewer you can learn everything you need to know just by watching him.   The mother character could have easily been this cliché character (i.e. Monique in Precious) but instead she is treated as a true human being; with lots of pitfalls but also is given some very genuine moments, which remind you that she is human and not some mythical evil monster. Aesthetically, this film reminded me quite a bit of Paranoid Park.   It’s beautifully shot and really does a great job of getting you into Sebastian’s mindset and feelings.  This is definitely a film that fits in the ‘Teen Angst – High School” genre, though its really the best film of the genre that I have seen.  It is just such an intimate portrait of a teenager; the most emotionally affecting film of the year for me.

2) Dogtooth

Giorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth is a constant reminder for me of what Art Cinema should and can be. This film is complex, bizarre, and disturbing to watch. The film centers around a husband and wife whom keep their three children completely isolated from the outside world. The father is the only member who ever leaves the “safety of their home”. Their children are incredibly naive, and spend there days watching homemade movies or learning new vocabulary words like “Zombie,” which in this family’s world means ‘a small yellow flower.’ As the film progresses these children begin to slowly and subtly resist some of the parents techniques. We notice that this overprotection and sheltering is inadvertently causing the three children to perform quite sadistic games, which, because of their lack “street smarts,” appears to them to be totally harmless. The direction is very surgical; each frame was clearly thought out and really does a good job of relaying the alienation; the smothering of the father is particularly causing. The film is very similar to Haneke’s The Seventh Continent in this way, and really a lot of ways, which is a high compliment. As borderline disturbing as this film is, it’s actually quite comical in the absurdist way to boot. One scene in particular, when the father tells his kids about the dangerous “cat” creature that lurks outside the confines of their home. He teaches the children about the dangers and even teaches them how to bark like a dog.  The film theme seems to be about over-protection and one’s nature to lash out about such stringent authority/guidelines. Though the message is true literally between parents and children, I imagine the director’s statement might be more about his countries governmental practices. This is not a film that the average viewer will understand. Many will find it slow, boring, and just weird. It’s a shame, because this is a very well done piece, and if you believe cinema is more than just entertainment then you should see this film.

3) Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine tells the story of a married couple, played brilliantly by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. The cross cutting structure between different time periods of their relationship exposes intricacies and details about them.  The film’s overarching story takes place in the presumable present as their relationship has deteriorated to some degree. The film is very subtle in its approach in showing an honest depiction of a relationship. Now, when you have two of the best actors of their generation as the couple, it sure makes the film even better. I really liked how the film was structured, and the subtlety in its approach. The film never strays from what is important; The Relationship. It also doesn’t really pick a side either. When it is all said and done, do I know exactly what the film is about? Is it about the social standards that society places on us? Is it about accepting fate, or working hard at a relationship? Hell, maybe its about how monogamy is bullshit. It doesn’t matter, cause this film just presents it to the viewer and lets them form their own conclusions.

4) Life During Wartime

The pseudo-sequel of sorts to Happiness should not be even thought of in that regard. I think this is why Solondz chose to make all the characters completely different. For example, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character in the original is now played by a Michael K. Williams, known most for his betrayal of Omar on THE WIRE. Life During Wartime is exactly what you would hope to expect if you are a fan of Todd Solondz. It is a heart wrenching, hysterical, uncomfortable film that follows a family of individuals as they navigate through the World as we know it. Todd Solondz is so good at finding the beauty in things that are thought of as vulgar and/or disgusting by the common man, and this film is no exception. The film really studies the beauty of despair and gives us insight into the human psyche when dealing with daunting emotional issues in a way only Solondz can. This might be his most beautiful film to date, at least in terms of photography. It’s fantastically written and features a great cast of character actors who all do great jobs. I think the biggest surprise for me was just how much this film resonated on an emotional level, though Solondz has always had such a unique way of doing so.

5) The Portuguese Nun

If you watch movies solely for entertainment stay the fuck away! The Portuguese Nun tells the story of a French actress whom goes to Lisbon for a film shoot. One night she sees a nun kneeling in a chapel in the city, and she begins to grow more and more intrigued. It is a slow paced film that is beautifully poetic, though it is definitely not for everyone. It’s a very intellectual piece for starters and for anyone not familiar with Eugène Green’s work, his directorial style is very unique and does take some getting used too. Green is obsessed with his lead actress, Leonor Balaque, and I can honestly understand why. Her eyes are piercing. Green breaks the forth wall countless times, having many of the actors looking right into the camera. Green knows that his film is not conventional or what many would deem “entertaining”. In the beginning when the young actress is checking into her hotel, she has a conversation with the man behind the counter about how French films are too intellectual and/or boring. Sure I could say it drags a bit in parts but its very pretty and features some beautiful compositions. The dialogue has a weird brand of humor at times, but it really makes you more than just an observer with its intellectual segments. The film also does a great service to Lisbon with his slow pans and static shots, really showcasing the beauty of the city. One scene towards the end of the film when the Actress finally confronts the nun is just about perfect. The dialogue is sharp, beautiful and intellectually stimulating. Robert Bresson would honestly be very proud of this film. As stated throughout my review, some will find this tedious or boring, but as our young protagonist says while defending her film within the film: “I find it compelling” and personally I would have to agree.

6) Somewhere

The first time I watched Somewhere, I wasn’t sure about it.  The biggest problem I had with Sophia Coppola’s newest film was that I never felt as emotionally invested in Johnny’s character as I should have been. I wish the script had given us a few more climatic moments earlier in the film to help elaborate Johnny’s emotional anguish from more than just a visual standpoint, but from a character standpoint.  After days, I was still thinking about the film and realized that it had totally engrossed me, as I was still thinking about it days later.  Somewhere tells the story of Johnny (Stephen Dorff), a movie star whom seems to be on top of the world.  His life is planned out for him, from this press junkets, to his meetings; all he ever has to do is just show up.  Johnny’s life is empty.  Sure, he has lots of fake connections with beautiful women, and he can pretty much afford anything he wants, but he lacks real connection.  That is outside of his daughter, Claire.  Claire stays with Johnny occasionally when her mother can’t take care of her, and they have a good relationship although it is assumed that they don’t see each other as often as they should.  The film chronicles Johnny’s life over the course of a few days, as we see this lifestyle unfold.   The visual design is very well done, using mostly static shots to convey how Johnny feels.  It’s a very interesting dissection into celebrity and how even though to the average person they seem to have everything, this entitlement can’t be more of a prison. The problem being that by the time the climax of the film begins, and Johnny is having an emotional moment, it just feels a little too late.  That being said, its still an engaging interesting film.  Perhaps the opening shot of best sums it up.  It’s a long static shot of a Ferrari going around a racetrack, over and over again; a rather brilliant choice, as to symbolize our protagonist’s life going nowhere.

7) Enter the Void

This is the definition of a Cinematic experience. Gasper Noe’s latest film attacks the audience both with visuals and audio to create a truly unique cinematic experience. This film is incredibly visceral, but that isn’t to say that it lacks a narrative. Actually, anyone who says this film is lacking in story clearly doesn’t understand what Noe is trying to accomplish. This film takes us on a psychedelic journey, but to say this is the best drug film ever made (which it is) would be a true discredit to the film. It’s a beautifully poetic film as well.  I think this films emotional resonance does not get the credit it deserves.  I personally was very interested in this brother sister relationship, and the car accident scene was one of the most heart wrenching moments I have witnessed on film in awhile.  Some may critique the film for being self indulgent, but I beg to differ. The only knock on the film I can think of is that it does run a little long, but I was still consumed with this film from start to finish. I tip my hat to Noe for trying to do something different and for understanding that a true artist constantly tries to challenge the medium.

8 ) Of Gods and Men

Of Gods and Men tells the story of a group of Cistercian monks living in a monastery in an unstable region where Islamic fundamentalists wage war with the government. These men spend their days praising god and helping the villagers around them. As political unrest and terrorist activity increases the monks begin to question whether its safe to stay and what is the right thing to do. The local government asks them to leave, but under the leadership of the head monk, Christian, the men decide that they can do much more if they stay. Whether you are Christian or athiest, Of Gods and Men is an engaging, poetic tale of what men are willing to do for what they believe in. It’s a very tasteful retelling of a true story, with a beautifully poetic ending.

9) Heartless

An incredibly well done horror film, which really transcends the genre and shows that horror can be very intelligent and thought provoking. Heartless tells the story of Jamie Morgan, a man who was born with a large birthmark across his face. Jamie has disdain for his existence because of this birthmark and he spends most of his time alone. One night Jaime discovers that there are demons on the streets of East London, causing chaos and violent crimes. Without going too much into the plot, this film has philosophical musing on death, beauty, evil & good, and it’s a film that is challenging and no doubt will require additional viewings just to grasp everything Philip Ridley wanted to say. From a technical standpoint, the cinematography and art direction completely set the atmosphere for this creepy world of East London. The cast is great, especially Joseph Mawle, whom is frightening; his presence alone demands your attention. This film is tense, creepy, intelligent, and beautiful.

10) Valhalla Rising

Anyone who expects an action packed sword and sandal epic is bound to be disappointed but this film is pretty much everything I love about cinema. The film’s cinematography is just fucking perfect; from the beautiful wide shots showing off the landscapes to the lingering close-ups, Nicolas Winding Refn continues to prove that he is a visual master. Refn doesn’t spend any time catering to the audience; this film doesn’t give you any answers but what Refn has done through the imagery and sound design is create a cinematic journey to the end of the world. The movie is filled with symbolism and references to Norse mythology, and while honestly I probably missed a few of them, it really doesn’t matter. This is the type of film that lingers in your mind, and just wont let go. Cinematic Bliss.

11) Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, Black Swan, tells the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), a ballerina whom dreams of being the lead in her dance company’s next show. Her mother is an overbearing woman, whom essentially lives out her dreams of being a successful dancer through her daughter. Nina gets offered the lead in Swan Lake and without giving anything away we are led down a dark story of obsession and awakening. Aronofsky’s does a great job of getting strong performances out of his lead actors, particular Natalie Portman whom has never been better. As we have seen before, Aronofsky has an uncanny talent at creating the psyche of a character visually and this film is no exception. He masterfully goes in and out Nina’s perception of things, creating an intense hypnotic experience. I wonder if Aronofsky had recently watches Polanski’s Repulsion as these films do have a lot in common.

12) Amer

Amer is a visual tour-de-force of style about a woman’s sexual repression and carnal desires. The film chronicles this during three times in Ana’s life. This film consists of nearly no dialogue at all relying solely on the visuals to keep you interested, and it works extremely well. The visual design of this film is almost as hectic as Enter the Void in nature though it’s color schemes right out of Italian Giallo, It you are expecting this film to have a lot of violence you will disappointed as it is much more a story about a woman’s sexual identity. Although, towards the end of the film you do get one fucking gruesome scene that is executed fantastically. The film is an editor’s dream because of how many interesting compositions, and angles they filmed. Really cool stuff.

13) Winter’s Bone

Winter’s Bone tells the story of Ree Dooy (Jennifer Lawrence), a 17 year-old girl who is forced to take care of her younger brother and sister. Her mother is mentally incapacitated and her father is a meth-head leaving her little other options. One day, The Sheriff informs Ree that her father put their house up for his bail bond and disappeared. This sets Ree off looking for her father, which inherently leads her down a rather dark and mysterious path of town secrets and meth-heads. If Ree fails to find her father, her entire family will be thrown out of there house and into the woods “like dogs” as Ree herself puts it.  Winter’s Bone is a strong thriller/mystery film. It takes a lot of time to develop the atmosphere and setting. We are shown Ree’s surroundings, her home, and follow her on her daily routines before the sheriff informs her about her dad. The audience is really given enough time to engross oneself into her world of the poverty stricken South. It feels genuine, real and even foreboding. As the film progresses we follow Ree, as she sifts through various lies and mysteries slowly unraveling the truth about her father. The pacing is perfect, in that the audience basically experiences exactly what Ree does, and is forced to pay attention to small details.  Jennifer Lawrence is impressive as the tough skinned Ree. This film is pretty close to a one-woman show, and her performance is strong willed yet naive. The supporting cast is also good, particularly John Hawkes who plays Teardrop, the brother of Ree’s missing father. Winter’s Bone story and script is overall very subtle. There are a few moments where the dialogue is a little too information heavy (aka NOT SUBTLE), but overall, it’s well written and feels genuine to the setting. It touches on the social order of things in small southern towns and how important reputation can be. It never dives too deeply into the meth world either, only giving us glimpses, never taking us away from the central story arch or the character struggle Ree is going through.

14) The Social Network

A really strong concept for a film and well directed by David Fincher. Fincher’s aesthetic is very apparent but just in more subtle ways than usual. I was happy that the script didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would, being that I am not a big Sorkin fan, but it was actually just about the perfect in-between. The two leads, Eisenberg & Garfield, do a great job as well; Garfield in particular who I am glad to see is finally breaking out state side. The atmosphere is beautifully created mainly by Reznor’s score, which is just fantastic in every way. My main complaint with this film is that it was just never as emotionally investing as it could have been. Except for Garfield’s one scene, and maybe the final scene of the film, there really was no scene that truly affected me on an emotional level. I understand that Eisenberg’s character was supposed to be blinded by his ambition, but I felt like they didn’t do enough early on to set the seed for this inner loneliness which is obviously given to us at the end, like There Will Be Blood did so well. Don’t get me wrong, this is still grade A filmmaking, but I do think it could have been better.

15) The Square

A pretty bad ass Noir-inspired thriller about a man whose life becomes a complete mess when he and his mistress hatch up a plan to run away together, but everything goes terribly wrong. This film is brooding and features a great lead performance by Ray Yale. It slowly unwinds giving us more and more to think about as we move towards the inevitable conclusion. The direction and cinematography help tell the story quite well, and are well done. Just a strong noir about a man tries to stop his life from completely falling apart.

16) King’s Speech

I really liked Tom Hooper’s last film, The Damned United, so I was looking forward to this and it didn’t disappoint. The King’s Speech is about a prince who is thrown into being King after his father’s death and his brother’s abdication of the throne. The one problem being that he has a debilitating speech impediment. Colin Firth is great in this film, I was completely convinced by his performance. Geoffrey Rush is also terrific as the doctor who tackles trying to cure the impediment. Don’t be surprised if one or both of these guys are nominated for some awards. I think the visual design of this film is really superb as well. It uses a lot of very tight frames to create this claustrophobic feel, really enhancing the emotions we feel for our protagonist. Really a beautifully shot and realized film; great performances and engaging story.

17) Tiny Furniture

Tiny Furniture tells the story of Aura (Lena Dunham) whom returns home from college jobless, with no choice but to move back into a Tribeca loft with her artist mother and sister. This film works well because of how genuine and honest it really feels. It probably has to do with the fact that this is clearly semi-autobiographical, and the mother and sister are in fact, the director/actor’s real sister and mother. It’s an honest film about a young woman’s struggle to figure out really who she is and what she wants. The cinematography uses an abundance of static shots, really creating this static, sterile life that aura inhabits. The static framing really dictates the image, which really helps the film. The writing style is whimsical at times yet it never screams “INDIE FILM!, I am cute and interesting” like so many other American independent films seem to this day. The writing kind of reminds me of a Whit Stillman film. Dunham was really smart in how the film ends as well; really summing up our protagonist’s experience and really the point of the film.

18) Four Lions

This is a truly great comedy. The context of the film could be incredibly controversial, being about a group of inept terrorists who plan out a bombing. The film’s dialogue is just razor sharp and is really a great farce. The Brits really are two for two recently with In the Loop, and this both being extremely well crafted, hilarious comedies. If I did have one complaint about the film it would be the single camera docu-style, it can be a bit much and somewhat distracting at times. This really is a mild qualm though, as this film is just too much fun and yet does surprisingly have some emotional resonance especially during the end of the film.

19) Terribly Happy

A much over-looked film about a Copenhagen cop who, after moving to a small town, sees his world fall apart around him. It’s a very bleak, dark themed film that has elements of film noir. In that way it reminds me of the Coen’s to some degree. Its very well constructed, with the story unfolding very naturally. I realize this supposedly came out a few years ago, but I saw it in theaters this year so it counts…

20) PolyTechnique

A haunting dramatization of the shooting that took place at a Montreal school in 1989. Similar to Gus Van Sant’s film, Polytechnic spends time early on in the film creating a sense of foreboding dread. The films stark black and white cinematography only helps the mounting tension and once the moment comes its quite arresting. The film spends a lot of time with not only the victims but also with the killer. Its structure is layered as it shows a few various viewpoints, but in a different way then Elephant. There are some parts that were a tad too emotionally manipulative (unless they are true), particularly the scenes taking place after the shooting. The sound design is great too, with an interesting assortment of sounds.

21) The Fighter

The Fighter tells the story of Mickey Ward, an Irish Boxer from Boston. With the help of his brother Dickie, a local legend  for going “toe to toe with Sugar Ray”, he trains to go pro and make a name for himself.  Let me start off by saying that they might as well just give Christian Bale his Oscar now to save time.  While the film is about Mickey, Bale steals every scene he is in as Dickey, the crack-addicted ex-boxer who still has disillusions of some day making his comeback.  The film is more about Mickey’s relationships with his family; from his mother whom is comparing him to his brother and always looking for his next fight, to his six sisters whom think they know what’s best for him.  It’s more about these relationships and Mickey’s feelings of inadequacy then it is about boxing.  While the boxing scenes are all well directed, there isn’t much too them and the real strength of Russell’s direction actually comes outside the ring.  I cannot help but wonder how this film would have been with Aronofsky behind the lens.

22) 127 Hours

Danny Boyle’s newest film tells the story of Aron Ralston, the climber who got stuck in a canyon leaving him with no other option but to amputate his arm for the sake of survival. In the beginning I was a little concerned because Boyle was going too overboard in the style department, ala Tony Scott as of late, but once Ralston gets stuck, the film really begins to shine. Boyle uses lots of experimental techniques to capture Ralston’s decent to near madness. His visual style is all over the place and besides being overbearing at the beginning it works great. Boyle clearly understood the lesson of this story and I bet the real life Aron Ralston couldn’t be happier. The actual amputation scene is pretty much perfect. It’s beautifully executed with great visual and sound design. After the criminally overrated Slumdog Millionaire, I am very glad to say that Boyle has returned to form.

23) Lebanon

A pretty strong war film about four Israeli soldiers who operate a tank. On a mission that they are told will be “routine,” their spirit is tested when all hell breaks loose. The film is very well shot, and it really does tear at the soul in some of the shot selections. I could argue that it’s a little emotionally manipulative but not enough to really take that much away from the film. Lebanon attempts to examine how terrifying and impacting war can be to the human soul. For the most part it succeeds.

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A Note on The Holy Mountain

November 20th, 2010 No comments

today’s posting written by a friend on the fringe, Eric Rowe

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain is a bizarre, surreal satirical exploration of a man’s quest for his inner truth.  On that note, this is not a film for everyone.  That needs repeating; this is not a film for everyone.  This is the type of film that would shock most casual viewers by its grotesque, yet beautiful visuals and overall unconventional story telling.

The Holy Mountain is one of my favorite films because of the challenge it poses to its viewers to think critically, not only about the film but also about their own personal spirituality, society, and religion.  The film follows a Christ-like figure that wanders through a bizarre, perverse land where he encounters a mystical enlightened guide, whom sends him on a spiritual pilgrimage.  The film is stuffed full of beautiful, however perverse, imagery as the viewer follows this Christ-like figure through his pilgrimage.  The most common response to the film is that it attacks organized religion, though this is most likely an effort of average moviegoers to dismiss the film and avoid deeper reflection. Upon closer examination one can see that Jodorowsky was trying to illuminate precisely how primitive our understanding of the world can be. As the theorist Abraham Maslow suggested in A Theory of Human Motivation, self-actualization is the highest stage of human physiological development. This film illustrates the journey to this end.

At first glance, the film appears to be a simple hero’s journey, a man seeking truth in a maniac world, but it also must be interpreted as a reflection on both Jodorowsky’s and the audiences’ lives.  The Christ-like figure must face the numerous temptations of this world. Along this journey Jodorowsky stresses the importance of making one’s own decisions and the consequences that ensue.  In an early scene the protagonist walks through Mexico City to observe all of the city’s grotesque distractions that astonish the eye and confuse the mind.  It is a bizarre festival of whores, soldiers, and liars. After taking it all in, the figure then meets priests who befriend him and proceed to mass-produce a mold of him under the promise of enlightenment.  They have created a product that is promised to bring clarity, belying their true intention to market it to society, in effect emulating the everyday promises of new technologies. It’s a concept that has been used throughout history. The figure, disgusted by this greed, flees on a journey to find his personal truth.  In this way Jodorowsky suggests that man sees the world as chaos. He further suggests that each person must arrive at his or her own conclusions, finding their own personal truth without being alienated by a society whose intentions may be deceptive.

The final act of the film is the most linear in that this is when the actual journey towards enlightenment takes place. Our protagonist has faced many challenges on the path to enlightenment: distractions, debauchery, and confronting personal fears.  After all the trials and tribulations the figure, and those who have joined him along the way, complete their journey to the top of a mountain.  Again this is reminiscent of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, where the ultimate twist is revealed and the alchemist breaks the fourth wall as if to tell the audience, “What did you expect?  This is just a movie!”

In the end, Jodorowsky does not provide any obvious answers, implying that viewers must find their own meanings and identify their own self-actualization. Jodorowsky makes his final statement about spirituality and beliefs perfectly with this ending, asking each of us to find our own truth because life is a series of experiences that no one can fully understand or can possibly interpret in the same way.  The film suggests that society at times can frighten, tempt, and distract, and if one cannot accept these, then they will not experience the pinnacle of true living. Thus, we all must experience life for ourselves, finding truth and meaning in its events as they pertain to our selves. For the film The Holy Mountain, as in life, one must find his own meaning and develop his own interpretations. This was mine.

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