Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Year 2010 In Movies

Let me say right out that I saw some great movies this year.  A few of the movies of 2010 are holdovers from 2009,  and they will show up below, so forgive me for not adhering to the eligibility requirements of the year-end awards! 

I also saw a few duds, movies that promised something that did not deliver.  Only once or twice did I feel burned by a film that I knew I should have avoided in the first place.

Mostly, though, I spent movie year 2010 actively staying away from the local movie screens. By now, I just know what will likely appeal to me, and that I am not part of a market segment that is catered to very much.  I used to see everything in release...after a while, I learned where I was not welcome. 

And so, I can't really offer a 10-Best List.  Instead, I will remember what I liked the most.

Every year I visit movie theaters less and less.  Don't misunderstand; I love going to theater and having a shared experience with other moviegoers in front of a big screen. 

But a few things keep happening. 

First, the movies that make the most money now are the ones targeted to children and adolescents, and  to adults who use movies for kinetic thrills, and who prefer to check their minds at the door. 

Thus, the movie industry creates and markets movies that need to make huge amounts of money right away--it's a fast-food mentality. Many mainstream films are meant to be consumed quickly, not analyzed too deeply, and produced to satisfy that same experience over and over. 

The result is that today's major, big-money films are sold like must-see but disposable events.  These used to be made fast and cheap, and played on drive-in double-bills.  

Second, film distribution (at least in Chicagoland) observes a target-market mentality.  So, our local theaters, some with 10-16 screens, play only what might appeal to suburban high-school kids, forgetting that there are a few film buffs in our modest suburbs who would give a smart film a good run.

Unless we can make the drive to the city or an "upscale" suburb (where serious-minded films, foreign films and documentaries still play) we will forever miss them on a big screen.  Summer, when I would spend many balmy evenings discussing the latest major releases with friends, is now a particularly bleak time for impromptu visits to the local cinemas.

Third, So many films are rushed into release in November and December to qualify for awards that they can't gain a foothold with likely audiences, and after awards season, disappear. Who knows what gems I've missed?

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The first movie I saw in 2010 was  "Avatar", with which I maintain a sort of resigned acceptance.;  it seems like eons ago. A lot of bad 3D films have been released since then, (most of them animated), and what many assumed would be the wave of the future has become sort of a lackluster trend.  Even James Cameron has complained.  Maybe the technology will eventually be applied to more serious work.  (Ang Lee plans to shoot "The Life of Pi" in 3D).

What redeemed the movie year for me was "A Single Man", a film that had very personal appeal to me from the start.  And like this year's "King's Speech" held the potential for a big letdown.  Fortunately, they both delivered; the first, an intimate story of love and loss and renewed passion; the second, a rousing affirmation of friendship and the power of one's voice.  Both films were high on my list of well-loved films. The only thing they have in common is a marvelous lead performance by Colin Firth. 

A lot of people loved "The Blind Side", including Oscar.  I didn't.  I still cringe at the assumptions this film made about "good" values.  Sandra Bullock did nothing remarkable that I could discern. 

Oscar also smiled on Jeff Bridges and "Crazy Heart".  I understand the sentimental recognition of Bridges' lifetime achievements, but this was not anywhere near Bridges' most memorable work.

What else did I like? 

"Black Swan" is 2010's artistic high point, the most exciting filmmaking I saw all year. 
Perhaps my personal favorite on an emotional level is "Never Let Me Go".  The story of three young people trying to live passionate and normal lives as their world literally depleted them was moving and relevant. 

Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and everyone involved with "The Kids Are All Right" deserve praise for creating a sunny and natural family drama that downplayed its unusual aspects to craft a story of our time. 

"I Am Love" with Tilda Swinton immersed me in a lovely Italian landscape and carried me along in a melodramatic story of sex and family loyalty in an operatic way.  On a smaller scale, "Letters to Juliet" provided the pleasures of Italian travelogue and a beautiful role for Vanessa Redgrave.

I was happy to catch James Franco in "Howl", an unusual film about a fascinating poet who is still influential 50 years later.  I enjoyed the animated illustrations of Ginsberg's difficult poem, and the movie provided great insight into the time and culture that was fertile ground for Ginsberg's art. 

The British biography of the young, pre-Beatles John Lennon in "Nowhere Boy" was an unexpected treat, energetic, and featured a strong performance by Kristin Scott-Thomas.

It was hard to avoid animated films, so I threw in my hat and attended a few.  Last year's Oscar-nominated "Secret of Kells" was a beautifully illustrated re-telling of a classic folktale.  "How To Train Your Dragon" was delightful, fast-moving and used 3D effectively.  I enjoyed the dog-like characteristics of the feared beasts.  "Legend of the Guardians", the one about the owls, was superbly done, but in the end, a little too heavy to completely charm me.  (At least, my mother enjoyed it.)  I laughed at the mayhem of "Toy Story 3" and loved many of its characterizations; but felt its seeming allusions to holocaust-type peril was manipulative, and unnecessarily dark.

Documentaries accounted for some of my best filmgoing this year.  "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" won me over.  I found her story troubling, and although she remains a somewhat annoying and egotistical personality, I understood her and sympathized with her in many ways.  "The Tillman Story" should have made a lot of people very angry, in its recount of Pat Tillman, pro-footballer-turned-soldier, whose death by friendly fire in Afghanistan is still being covered up by the government.  "Inside Job" is, to me, one of the most valuable works this year.  For anyone who wants to understand our financial mess (hopefully, everyone) then this is a must-see. 

Oddly, I was less impressed than most by "Waiting for Superman".  I think its subject matter is supremely important, and the spotlight it shines on the failure of American education is commendable.  However, I thought it used documentary techniques in a dishonest way, and succeeded in turning its child-subjects into celebrities, which I think is entirely inappropriate.

"Conviction" had a good story to tell, a true account of a woman who finished law school to defend her wrongfully-imprisoned brother.  While it was not told all that well, Hilary Swank put it over.  I also really liked Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter", an unlikely trio of stories about death, which should not have worked but did, and in a moving way.

Biggest disappointment this year: "Love and Other Drugs."  Seen but not reviewed: "Wall Street 2" and "The Town".  I liked them both well enough, but didn't find anything really interesting to say about either.

As long as I am being a curmudgeon, dubious mention to "Inception", and yes, "The Social Network".  I heard an audio film-clip of the latter, featuring Jesse Eisenberg, on NPR yesterday, and my skin still crawled.  And the former still seemed to be made up by gamers as it went along, with endless "geek-xposition".  I know, I am not in the majority on these. But after re-reading my reviews, I have to stand by my original opinions, and take the brickbats....

I should catch up with several more in 2011: "Somewhere", "Blue Valentine", "Biutiful", "Rabbit Hole", "Ghost Writer", "Winter's Bone", "The Fighter".  Not sure if I'll bite the bullet for "True Grit" or "127 Hours".

Here's to an interesting, if not better, movie year in 2011!


  1. I haven't seen a new film in ages, but I did finally see Avatar and A Single Man.

  2. Eric, let me know when you have seen "Black Swan"!

  3. It's a real shame you're struggling in Chicago to see decent films. Here in the UK (and for the moment we'll ignore all the films that don't get distribution) there's a arthouse cinema in the centre most major cities, including Manchester, Birmingham and Leicester (the last three places I've lived) and even the multiplexes usually have a mix of releases.

    I love hearing your comments, expecially when we disagree, I can see where you're coming from Inception but I would love to have a long talk and another viewing of Social Network with you.

    A you know A Single Man didn't quite work for me and most of the other films you mentioned won't be released over here for a few more weeks, but I'll certainly be taking your recommndations seriously.