Best Movies of 2010 March 25, 2011Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, European Films, Hollywood, Literature, Noypi, Yearender.
The delay was necessary, or so I thought. But should I put a finger on something, it’s goddamn work. It always is! A day job sucks the life out of you, and it really sucked the life out of me in the last few months. Up to now, in fact. Writing personal stuff is becoming every bit of a chore, which basically defeats its purpose, but the least I can do is try. After all, aiming and missing is the whole premise.
As a latecomer, I wish I could make up for the trouble by upping the quality of writing, but crap, forget it. I was just happy that it’s done and you’re patiently reading it. While I was doing this, I was aware that some friends had already finished doing their own lists. I constantly peeked through them from time to time. Dodo Dayao shies away from ranking, but his favorites are fairly obvious. It’s a fantastic selection, which goes without saying, one that makes me a bit insecure. Oggs Cruz’s yearend list is devoted to local movies, half of which I may not be in agreement, but he manages to write a valuable roundup of some noteworthy upshots in Philippine cinema of the past year, so go read it. Noel Vera shares Oggs’ pick for the best film of the year, which is Mario O’Hara’s Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio. Noel differentiates “best” from “notable” and provides a number of interesting recommendations, some of which I have yet to see (Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Girl on the Train, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Secret of Kells, and actually, Ang Paglilitis).
On the other hand, Philbert Dy thinks that Kano is the best movie of the year, calling it ‘finely crafted and keenly observed.” Sanriel Ajero does a comprehensive record of Filipino and foreign movies, a very tedious task, and his efforts are truly impressive. Adrian Mendizabal’s selection is also interesting, and his choices cover films not only released in 2010. And lastly, my good friend Ayn Dimaya, upon my insistence (lol), has also started writing down her thoughts, but she left it unfinished so… Ayn!
Anyway, here we go.
25. The Ghost Writer
The latest from Polanski features a lot of political goofs made even more hilarious because they truly happened. Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, and Olivia Williams talk and talk and talk, run and run and run, like they don’t have any clothes on, and Polanski chases them with a burning torch in hand before wrapping the show in an outrageous close.
24. The Housemaid
Oh yes, only the Koreans can do it. That sweet smell of success laced in dark, brooding revenge, that evil giving a whiff of Victoria Secret, clad in chic chauvinist veneer. One of the many proofs that Asians can remake their own films and still make them work, whereas Hollywood sucks at almost every attempt.
23. Easy A
For classical lit poseurs, Easy A makes Nathaniel Hawthorne seem like a fun guy to hang out with, much like when Amy Heckerling made Jane Austen seem like a ghost writer for Sweet Valley High. I’d love to single out every homage to 80s movies that sends me on a laughing spree, but it’s the “Knock on Wood” number that limbers me up, a wonderful sequence that makes me want to hold a prayer vigil for the existence of a rewind button.
22. Ang Panagtagbo sa Akong mga Apohan
It’s always touching to listen to old people share their stories. The distinct tone of their voices, the lines on their faces, the whiteness of their hair, and more importantly, the gleam in their eyes provide a warm embrace. In her film, Malaya Camporedondo interviews her grandmothers and other elders in Samal Island who were there when the Moncadistas started to flourish in the 50s. Not only has she come up with an enlightening picture of youth driven by faith, but she has also managed to return to her roots and paint a family portrait that is both personal and intimate.
Distance in Sofia Coppola’s films is rather hard to define. While it’s obvious that she’s aiming for both its literal and figurative sense, it hardly matters, since the most remarkable quality of her works is their ability to slip through your fingers even if you’re holding them tight. In Somewhere, she follows an actor promoting his recent film, his time at the hotel and on the road, his trip to Italy, his relationship with his young daughter, his glorious time with a pair of pole-dancers, his bouts with narcolepsy (like, dozing off in the middle of foreplay), his sexual encounters—basically his easy and luxurious life, treated so mundane the movie seems to shy away from any interpretation aside from what’s onscreen. How Coppola seems to tiptoe in every narrative turn—laying claim to her denial of self-importance, implying a lot while saying so little—makes the drowsy aftertaste and droopy eyelids worth the time.
20. Agrarian Utopia
Depending on how you look at it, the “utopia” in the title is partly true and partly false. The shots of blue skies, windstruck fields, and children running about in the mud fulfill the description of an ideal life, evoking carefreeness and freedom. On the other hand, the story of two families trying to make ends meet, harvesting rice, picking mushrooms, hunting frogs, and shooting dogs is a reminder of that pitiful gap between the rich and the poor, the depressing omnipresence of poverty. But looking at these people’s lives, never does the audience get any sense of irony, or any indication of an attempt to suggest a figure of speech, of art trying to be relevant. Agrarian Utopia captures what a good documentary should capture, and that is both the external and internal surroundings of its people, declining to pass judgment and succeeding to impart an honest depiction of life on the seams.
19. How To Train Your Dragon
[Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois]
The title seems to leave nothing to the imagination, considering how it connotes childishness and immaturity, but in actuality the film has a whole universe to offer. How to Train Your Dragon grows a spectacular pair of wings sequence after sequence, flight after flight, and spectacle after spectacle. It harks back to that specific phase in your childhood that you wish will happen again, that dream of reaching the skies and falling from them with a bite of clouds between your teeth.
18. I Am Love
I say this not out of self-defense, but most of the films I enjoy watching are imperfect. My appreciation stems from the fact that the movie, I am Love for instance, deliberately makes a wrong move, a misstep that avoids the usual direction forward, finding a dirt road that may not be as satisfactory as the common route, but in the end offering a number of surprises. And the driver here, of all the sane chauffeurs to chance upon, is Tilda Swinton. Seeing her character slowly take shape, she resembles a grenade waiting for the right moment to explode. Which she happened to do, eventually. Case in point: that scene when she tensely walks down the stairs towards the kitchen and kisses her lover. Heedless of the eyes around them, she goes to him driven by an impulse to hold him, and the camera smoothly navigates her path. The film’s visuals, which evoke the obliviousness of high-class society, are carefully shot with sophistication, looking vintage yet far from being contemporarily out of place. The film doesn’t force you to love its madness, but it’s something you cannot resist.
17. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Right when the term hipster is about to be considered ancient, like, what exactly is this freaking youth culture, what constitutes it, who are these annoying people, why are they dumping their shit in every place they put their fucking feet on, not to mention the inanity and ridiculousness of bringing up the topic in the first place, comes a film which, in my opinion, epically, totally, and awesomely defines it. (Breathe. Canadian hipster check: multiple commas are cool, eh?) But the thing is, hipster culture is anything but exact. You might as well ride along with it, and Wright does that, beyond reasonable limits. Genre-smashing is such a reckless way press releases describe Scott Pilgrim, but upon seeing a work that’s fine, fresh, and fierce (whoa, Katy Pery alliterations, so-not-hipster!), it doesn’t matter whether or not you have read the books or have listened to Plumtree. There’s still a lot of junk space in the world for all the geeks and smarty-pants to jerk off.
16. White Material
I do think that Claire Denis is the finest French filmmaker working today. Except for Beau Travail, her movies are never flat-out exceptional, but they leave you feeling awfully disturbed and subservient to the progressiveness of her ideas. She’s very good at blending her personal experiences and political stance with the fastidiousness of her filmmaking style. In White Material, she takes up the subject of race in an unnamed French-speaking country in Africa, where a civil war is ongoing and a family of “white people” owns a coffee plantation. The narrative travels to and fro; and the line between reminiscence and present-day is somewhat indistinct. But everything moves in accordance with Denis’ rueful pace. Nicolas Duvauchelle steals the show with his cranky, rifle-toting, and stellar portrayal of the white family’s son, innocently naked in one of his few appearances in the film, but it is Isabelle Huppert who walks away with a piece of our crazy heart, crushing it as the credits start to roll, closing the film with more questions and less hints of hope.
The first thing you notice after watching Bluebeard is its terseness. For a span of 80 short minutes, Breillat is able to narrate two stories, both of which relate to Charles Perrault’s infamous tale. One recreates the original story of Bluebeard and his curious new wife; the other revolves around two young girls reading the book, kids who have completely opposite personalities, and whose names (Catherine and Marie-Anne) are actual first names of Breillat and her older sister. The matter-of-factly connection between the two narratives, which the director herself handles with unabashed distance, contributes to the film’s tautness, leaving an impression of dryness. But this flat and clinical treatment is where the movie derives its power. Breillat no longer relies on her usual themes of sex and power but she still manages to inject strength and wisdom in her female characters, particularly in the modern-day Catherine reading the fairy tale to her frightened older sister, mirroring Breillat’s own unorthodox beliefs. The movie’s striking storybook composition is pulled down by the unimpressive costume design, a nitpick worthy of mention, but the shoddiness only makes you feel humbled by Breillat’s intention, which is simply to acknowledge one of her many influences, skinning the story to spooky bits and keeping its moral eternally relevant.
14. Mondomanila / Son of God
[Khavn dela Cruz]
Quite like teaching old dogs new tricks, but Khavn is neither old nor lacking in new tricks in these two filthy works that only keep him closer to the throes of flames. The former is an adaptation of Iwa Wilwayco’s novel, not a bit disappointing because Khavn teams up with Iwa in writing the screenplay and the two are like brothers raised in hell, dragging anyone to it. The second is a collaboration with Danish filmmaker Michael Noer, which is supposed to make a difference, only it doesn’t, because Khavn tricks Noer and Noer tricks Khavn as they mess with faith and reveal the hypocrisies of some of its followers, irreverence being Khavn’s finest dish.
13. Exit Through the Gift Shop
If you notice, most documentaries that garnered considerable attention recently were those thought to fall under the sub-genre of “mockumentary,” or what they call “a brilliantly executed prank.” There’s quite a handful this year—I’m Still Here, Catfish, Exit Through the Gift Shop—three engrossing documentaries whose premises are so good, you no longer care if they are a set-up or not. And if the filmmaker in question is an enigma as slippery as Banksy, then mischief is surely lurking behind. Exit Through the Gift Shop works not only as a glimpse to the disobedient world of street art but also as a sort-of-Being-John-Malkovich torture of being inside Thierry Guetta’s mind and hearing his upsettingly preposterous thoughts on art and life. Sitting through the film is like watching Banksy fall from a cliff, only to see him fly on a parachute right before the movie ends, chuckling at his own cleverness.
12. The Kids Are All Right
It’s hard not to be moved by the sheer simplicity of The Kids Are All Right. All the touchstones of excellent moviemaking are here—impeccable writing, credible actors, subtle direction, a cunning sensibility, and some fine music (Annette Benning and Mark Ruffalo singing Joni Mitchell)—but never does Cholodenko go overboard, and never does she shove any staple of morality down to the audience’s throats, except for the prison it creates. Instead, she wraps an otherwise stale gay movie in a bittersweet suburban prank, showing how curiosity can easily turn life into one massive joke whose damage, by the time everything sinks in, is completely irreparable.
11. No Distance Left to Run
[Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace]
During their gig at Glastonbury in June 2009, Blur briefly left the stage for a break. But the members of the crowd couldn’t get enough of them so they continued to sing Graham’s verse from “Tender,” out of sync but never out of spirit. Oh my baby / Oh my baby / Oh why / Oh my. Damon looked so astonished he raised his hands in awe. It was an ecstatic, hair-rising moment which Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace managed to capture in their documentary, providing a meaningful and touching bookend not only to Blur’s story but also to their fans’. The mix of stunning archival footage from their early tours (some crazy moments like Damon and Graham kissing, fangirls pounding on the door of a hotel, various displays of the band’s stage antics) and recent interviews where each one of them, including Alex and Dave, talks about their comeback is done with a bit of restraint, but everything’s lovely and amusing nonetheless. These interviews are actually the best bits; when you listen to their stories, when you realize how much they aged, when you feel how much they changed and how much they didn’t—your eyes just start to well up. It takes a while before euphoria starts to wear off, but when it does, it has certainly flown you far enough.
[Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost]
While it’s understandable that many people are charmed by The Social Network, it still makes me a bit uneasy when I hear it called “the film of our generation.” That’s quite a vague thing to say, considering that “generation” will always have a beginning and an end. If the generation these people are referring to is the age of Facebook, then certainly it hasn’t ended yet, has it? So why pick a movie to represent it this early? Is it because belongingness to a huge community qualifies the need for fast and immature pronouncements? Or is it because—how foolish can you get—the film is able to “humanize” Mark Zuckerberg, whom most of these people, allegedly, have related to? Oh, come on, gimme a break. If anything, Catfish has more of that “emotional truth” than The Social Network.
The question of whether or not everything is just a harsh setup is answered at the end, not by the filmmakers but by our similarly gullible selves. As we look at Angela speaking to Nev (like Michael Moore trying to reach out to Charlton Heston, only with more heart), confessing to him and complimenting his beautiful teeth, the feeling of sorriness moves between them before it is passed onto us. Catfish is able to put forth a redefinition of romance—of cyber romance, to be exact—one whose seed is planted on imaginary soil, watered by imaginary water, and nurtured by imaginary affection. I can’t blame Angela for wanting Nev—he’s young, attractive, and bursting with life—and the extent of her obsession, of her desire to have her love reciprocated, isn’t far from our own. She has actually done what we haven’t; only these guys, a little too narcissistic for their own good, had taken the liberty to make a film about it. The cruelty is the difference.
9. Ang Mundo sa Panahon ng Bato
[Mes de Guzman]
The last time rumors came my way, Mes was residing in Nueva Vizcaya, settled down and enjoying married life as a barriotic punk. But no one told me that he’s still doing films, and films that only he can do. Bato is the second in his Earth Trilogy, coming after Yelo and before Bakal, and it’s quite a harrowing piece of shit I’m willing to eat. Mes shoots town children diving for gold mines in a muddy creek, soaked in grubby briefs, forced to scuba their way down the sludge. In his casual leisurely style, he keeps his distance without losing his grip on their starving innocent souls, leaving the audience a climax that shatters as much as it disheartens.
8. Sketches of Kaitan City
The film is just like that— sketches—but every stroke of its pencil reveals features that smudge evenly, details that start to take shape like buildings embraced by thick fog, stories that defrost and melt and burn our throats the moment we knock out the fifth glass of whiskey. Kaitan City fits the idea of Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town.”
7. Rabbit Hole
[John Cameron Mitchell]
“A brick in your pocket” is that image in Rabbit Hole that sticks out, thanks to Dianne Wiest and Nicole Kidman. But what it truly feels like, upon seeing Becca and Howie cope with the loss of their son, is “a knife in the chest,” a stab that hurts more than it has to, a wound that stings like hell. It’s a carelessly imaginative way to describe it, considering the movie has its share of awful criticism, which, in all frankness, every great movie deserves, but it’s so easy to be hard on Rabbit Hole. It’s a movie in which hope is present but it fails to materialize, and in which faith is actually reasonable, that is: god, in fact, watches you suffer. Mitchell presents the story very well—too polished, too calculated, and too fine-tuned—to the point that it seems to bore, to the point that it seems to kill the viewer with its agonizing fineness. Nicole brings to life another ice queen, but one that is so deliberately delivered you wouldn’t mind pulling her out of the wreck with your bare hands. Indeed not every beauty is a pleasure to look at.
6. Senior Year
Making it look easy is the hardest, especially when the strings are thin and the subject is the misty rendezvous of all things indelible, but Jerrold Tarog, in his third full length, sews the holes and stitches the hems of a high school reunion with a dirty finger, soiling every page with unbearable lightness, loosening his wits with a monkey wrench, and succeeding where Pisay, unfortunately, loses hold.
5. The American
Why don’t we ask Corbijn to make a career out of doing biopics? Because even if he doesn’t intend to, he still ends up doing one, like this masterly thriller set in gorgeous Italy, where Andrea Camilleri might have taken one of his naps before meeting up with Professor Montalbano. Corbijn follows Clooney from head to toe, walks beside him, behind him, over him, above him, sneaks up everywhere he goes, and lets us memorize every contour on his face and every muscle he flexes. Everything in The American works elegantly, from its simple sonorities down to its nifty revelations that make the ordinary leap out amid the truce, its mere silence overshadowing all the bombastic, fried-brained blockbusters released last year.
4. Another Year
Family has always been the weightiest entry on Mike Leigh’s dictionary. Over the years, he has constantly and consistently rummaged through every foul corner of the household and delivered, in the most painful way, remarkable portraits of adulthood. Another Year doesn’t bank on surprising turns of the narrative or ugly confrontations, but on the brilliance of its tempered writing and flawless ensemble of actors. Its feat, which also holds true in most of Leigh’s movies, is having you as part of the family and its members’ acquaintances, sharing their dinner and clinking glasses, witnessing the sad realities faced by these people, old fogies complaining how “everything in the world is for young people,” loveless blokes trying to keep their heads above water and failing at it. The moment the film fades out, you get the feeling that it has only just begun, that no matter how many seasons pass, how to survive another day and year is always a struggle to figure out.
3. Certified Copy
For quite some time, Iranian cinema was represented—and more or less defined—by Abbas Kiarostami. The works of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, his daughter Samira, Majid Majidi, Bahman Gobadi, Jafar Panahi, and other lesser known Iranian directors always had to stand alongside Kiarostami’s movies. But fortunately, Iranian cinema has moved on since his historical win at Cannes for Taste of Cherry. Older films are being rediscovered, canons are being pronounced, and DVDs of these movies are being released with subtitles for international audience. Kiarostami’s greatest contribution to world cinema is actually to his own country, enlivening its film industry by encouraging scholars and archivists to care for its almost forgotten movies.
Which is why his new film, aptly called Certified Copy, is a cause for celebration. It’s his first work produced and shot outside Iran; it stars French icon Juliette Binoche and British opera singer William Shimell; its dialogues are written in three languages; it is set in Tuscany; it exemplifies Kiarostami’s perfection of his themes and visual style, and above everything else, it’s goddamn talkative. You could immediately see the sleight of hand in the first few sequences, how, in every tangle of the couple’s conversations, you see strings attached and, by virtue of acknowledging their presence, you simply don’t care. Oftentimes, Certified Copy takes a bewildering turn that only makes you appreciate the technique even more, let alone the almost unrecognizable pomposity.
Furthermore, Binoche and Shimell deliver luminous performances, acting pieces that travel the length between simple and complex, mundane and otherworldly, infuriating and gratifying, both of them egging Kiarostami to play with our emotions. It’s a movie that pulls its surprises randomly; and at some point, it seems that Kiarostami, like his pair of actors, strangers among strangers, is doing a copy of himself, mocking his own style, and reveling in non-sequiturs. In that case, it’s only natural to respond in awe.
2. Love in a Puff
At the onset of Pang Ho-Cheung’s Love in a Puff, you hear a group of Hong Kong people talk and make fun of each other, telling ghost stories and sharing gossips, obviously trying to idle away from work and squeezing in as much entertainment as they could during their fag breaks. It’s the most beautiful aspect of the movie—how, in its aim to share a love story that everyone has at least once experienced, or has seen at the movies or in the telly, it has also let the city enter and participate in Jimmy and Cherie’s romance, like a close friend who’s just a text message away. Hong Kong feels that way in the film: never a stranger but a good old pal. Its dwellers sink into its charm. Sometimes, watching it feels like being trapped in a sappy David Pomeranz song, but once a memorable scene gets into you, you realize that Jimmy and Cherie seem more like strolling down the meaningful spaces of a French movie, or wandering in that Woody Allen film where he and Diane Keaton fall in love and fall out of it. The experience is forgettable in an unforgettable way.
1. Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria
[Remton Siega Zuasola]
On those two occasions when I was asked to introduce Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria, I felt extremely nervous. On one hand: how can I not seize the opportunity to have an audience who will listen to what I have to say? How can I refuse a request on account of self-embarrassment? But the danger lies on the other: how do I put into words my opinion of it? How do I talk sensibly and sound convincing? I made some efforts, mind you—I read notes, I spoke to Remton, I tried to stress the importance of cinema from the regions to foreigners at Alliance—but the happiest thing for me above all else is seeing the film again, and hearing the reactions of the audience. That’s priceless, because I don’t get this chance often, I don’t usually get to answer questions on subjects which I believe I’m knowledgeable of, I don’t usually feel the pride of being part of a movie’s deserved critical praise. At this point, you actually have the right to doubt me: I’m writing this in purely personal terms. But what’s the point of criticism if it doesn’t spring from the personal? How do you draw the line between honest appreciation and reasonable prejudice? You don’t.
Remton Zuasola used to be a director of travel shows on television, so it’s just natural, dare I say impulsive, that he makes a film about voyages. The surprising thing about it though, for a movie that is completely Cebuano, is that the theme of Damgo strikes you as very familiar. Everyone knows it. It’s a terrain in which local scriptwriters always find themselves exploring but rarely do they share anything new on the subject. And I’m not only referring to TV writers and Star Cinema people; I point my fingers at every filmmaker who thinks that realism, neo-realism, or whatever prefix they attach to it, gives them an excuse to pick up a camera and call any of their works important, much so after getting recognition abroad. The advocacy! Yeah right.
Unsurprisingly, all discussions of Damgo bring up the single long take, which, to satisfy everyone’s curiosity, is indeed a single long take. Given in this age, doing that is easy, what with all the technologies around, but see, the feat of Damgo is that at some point you cease to notice the long take and become involve instead in what happens during the long take. It’s Terya’s excruciating journey away from home, her seemingly endless walk around the town with her family, but quintessentially the film moves inward, into her self, into her feelings. Far from a journey faraway, the film is actually a journey within. Terya picks up pieces of herself one by one, fragments she lost along the way, and realizes, by the time she reaches the dock, that each of these pieces doesn’t fit. They don’t come together. They are not hers. And she keeps it a secret.