My best films of 2010 (part two of two)
(part one is here)
5. Let Me In
This year’s most deeply American film turned out to be a remake of a Swedish horror movie, Tomas Alfredson’s cold and moody Let The Right One In. By transposing the original story to 1980s suburbia, right in the middle of the Reagan era, Matt Reeves managed to make a film at once very faithful to the original (with some scenes shot almost the exact same way as in Alfredson’s film) and extremely different in its undertones. Many French critics panned the film and criticized Reeves for adding what they deemed unnecessary religious imagery (thus showing just how little they understand American culture and history), when those changes are exactly what makes the American remake just as good as the Swedish original.
(More on that in my entry about the different vampires of Let Me In and Let The Right One In)
4. The Social Network
Few directors were as much in control of their material as David Fincher was in 2010. Take the first twenty minutes of The Social Network, for instance, which shift effortlessly for fast-paced dialogue to a gorgeous credits sequence (Jesse Eisenberg running around Harvard wearing flip-flops and a backpack in the middle of winter, as oblivious to the weather as he is to the people around him) to a slick montage of Zuckerberg hacking into the school’s files to create his tasteless “FaceMash” website, setting the tone for the rest of the movie and establishing the strength of Aaron Sorkin’s script.
The Social Network isn’t so much the story of Facebook it was advertised to be as the story of one man’s obsession (a recurring theme in Fincher’s filmography to be sure), first with recognition, then with his own creation. Eisenberg portrays Mark Zuckerberg as a single-minded genius with amazing instincts and a near-total lack of empathy, a larger-than-life and, at times, pathetic figure (based on the script, I doubt it was Sokin’s intent to make Zuckerberg look sympathetic, yet this is exactly what Eisenberg does). As has been mentioned countless times already, this is quite the breakthrough performance.
I am loath to even use the word zeitgeist, so I’ll spare you the “this is a movie for our times” spiel. What The Social Network certainly is, though, is an extremely well-made and deeply entertaining film about a fascinating character.
The story of Nikita Mikhalkov’s 12, based on Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, is a well-known one: twelve jurors, a murder trial, and a case that seems clear but turns out to be anything but. Here the accused is a young Chechen boy, suspected of having killed his stepfather, a Russian officer who adopted him after his parents died in the Chechen War. The courthouse needs repair, so the jurors are sequestered in the gymnasium of a nearby school. Since this is a murder trial, their verdict has to be unanimous. Eleven of them think the boy is guilty; one isn’t as sure. Coming up with an unanimous verdict will take them close to two and a half hours.
Mikhalkov’s film is like a series of little plays: each of the jurors in time tells a story relevant to the case or explaining why he would be inclined to believe that the boy is guilty or that he is innocent. The gymnasium is their stage, the camera follows them as they pace around the lone table that stands in its center. Each is an accomplished storyteller in his own way, even the one with a speech impediment. Their stories are sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant, but they never leave their fellow jurors indifferent. And after twelve stories, a few reenactements of the murder, and some close looks at the evidence, they do finally reach an unanimous verdict.
Much like Matt Reeves turned his remake of Let The Right One In into a very American movie, Mikhalkov takes the American classic that is 12 Angry Men and makes a deeply Russian film out of it. The themes of corruption (humorouly symbolized by the bailiff, who uses the cell phones he confiscated from the jurors to place personal calls while they are deliberating), and anti-Chechen sentiment are central to the film, along with the economic consequences of the fall of the Soviet Union and of the meteoritic rise to power of a few oligarchs. In the end, 12 remains reminiscent of its great predecessor, but manages to build its own, powerful identity. And isn’t that what all good remakes aspire to?
2. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
There is more visual invention in any five minutes of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World than in all the 3D movies released in 2010 combined. Adapting Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel series, Edgar Wright creates a mashup of cinema, comic book, and video game aesthetics, at times reminiscent of such movies as Kung Fu Hustle, and the final product is a hilarious mess.
Like The Rebirth, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World isn’t for everyone, though for entirely different reasons. Scott Pilgrim is chaotic and fast-paced, with a story that only makes sense if you are willing to embrace the madness and accept everything that is thrown at you without asking questions. If you start wondering how come Scott is such an accomplished fighter, or why people burst into coins upon dying (it’s a River City Ransom reference, for what it’s worth), then the film’s already lost you. On the other hand, if the 8-bit Universal logo had you smiling, chances are you’ll like what you’re about to see. Namely, the funniest comedy of the year, as well as perhaps the most original-looking film in a good while.
On top of that, Scott Pilgrim does a better job depicting relationship dynamics than the overwhelming majority of romantic comedies out there. Michael Cera plays the Michael Cera character, but for once the fact that he is stuck in a sort of perpetual adolescence isn’t supposed to be endearing. Rather, Scott’s growing up and no longer acting like a fifteen-year-old is pretty much the whole point of the film, and his selfish behavior and cowardice come back to bite him several times.
Of course, for Scott, growing up means first having to defeat his girlfriend’s seven evil exes. Don’t ask. If you’re in the right mindset, you’ll fine that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World truly is, as advertised, an epic of epic epicness.
I have already written at length about Yang Ik-june’s directorial debut on this very blog. There isn’t much I can add. Breathless is my favorite film of the year for its raw emotional power, its unsettling and brutally effective depiction of domestic violence and of its consequences, and the amazing performances by Yang and his co-stars Kim Kot-bi and Jeong Man-shik. It just doesn’t get much better than that.
Bonus section: 20 films that didn’t quite make it to my top 11 but that I think are worth mentioning (#12-31, if you will), in alphabetical order:
Another Year, Black Dynamite, Buried, Carlos, City of Life and Death, Four Lions, Inception, Kaboom, Kick-Ass, Monsters, Mother, Nostalgic for the Light, Poetry, Summer Wars, Tangled, The Housemaid, The Secret in their Eyes, The Town, Toy Story 3, White Material
As for worst film of the year, it’s a tossup between Rob Marshall’s Nine and Joel Schumacher’s Twelve (how fitting). I think I’ll have to give the edge to Twelve for its constant and obnoxious voice-over narration, its idiotic story with its hackneyed message (“don’t do drugs and be the best person you can,” thanks for that), and its awful, bad-music-video aesthetics, but Nine could certainly give it a run for its money.
And on that note, happy new year everyone!