Hits and Misses of 2010
Electric Sheep writers review best and worst films of 2010.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
A powerful and complex portrait of maternal love, Mother mixes tragedy and goofiness to tell the story of Do-joon, a mentally challenged young man who is arbitrarily accused of the horrific murder of a school girl, and of his mother, an eccentric peddler of medicinal herbs and illegal acupuncture, who will do anything to prove her son’s innocence. Although Mother is constructed like a murder mystery, structured around escalating tension and gradual revelations, it is not a conventional police procedural but a psychological thriller. As the secrets mother and son share come to light, an intricate, inescapable web of overwhelming love and guilt is revealed. Superbly crafted both visually and narratively, Mother builds up extraordinarily intense and complicated emotions that culminate in a morally ambiguous dénouement, making it one of 2010′s definite must-sees. Virginie Sélavy
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee raleuk chat)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is powered by an animist magic that is genuinely mysterious, the more so for being woven into a narrative of everyday life and death. Boonmee, played with quiet melancholy by non-professional Thanapat Saisaymar, is dying of kidney failure, and haunted by the lives he thinks he might have lived in the past. As the film begins, he is visited by a sister-in-law, Jen, and young nephew, Tong, at his remote farm in north-eastern Thailand. But Uncle Boonmee is more than an elegiac rural drama. It is also a ghost story, a fable and a meditation on memory and place. Tone and style vary, mirroring the shifts between real and supernatural that come to feel logical. As in his Tropical Malady (2004), director Apichatpong Weerasethakul brings plants and animals to vivid life, his skilful observation of nature an important counterpart to Uncle Boonmee‘s more esoteric elements. The military history of the region – occupied for two decades by the Thai army, who carried out frequent attacks against suspected communists – is part of the unquiet, haunted backdrop, too. The final reincarnatory twist only reinforces the surety of Weerasethakul’s vision and the magic of what has gone before. Frances Morgan
The well-deserved recipient of the Un Certain Regard award at last year’s Cannes festival, Dogtooth is the second feature from Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos. Taking place almost entirely within a single location, the film centres on a married couple and their three grown-up children, who have never set foot outside the house and are confined to the ludicrous universe created by their tyrannical parents. The only outsider allowed to penetrate this insane domesticity is Christina, a female security guard at the father’s factory who is employed to have sex with the son. But Christina’s intrusion sets off a chain of events that has increasingly nasty and tragic consequences.
Set on the borderline between the real and the incredible, Dogtooth plays on everyone’s perception of the family while offering a glimpse of the distorted dynamics that are set in motion by over-controlling parents. Yet the film has a lot more to offer than a psychological survey into the wreckage of family dysfunction. Contributing to the parents’ outrageous stories about the dangers that lie beyond the garden fence, the isolated country home gives the film a claustrophobic feel and a consistently troubling atmosphere of otherworldliness and lurking evil. But the film’s truly brilliant achievement, and what makes this odd fable all the more effective and original, is the deftly balanced mixture of raw and uncompromising realism with a dark and absurd sense of humour and occasional, unpredictable moments of cruelty. Marking Lanthimos out as a great talent to watch, Dogtooth is a bold and unsettling mini-marvel that first sneaks up on you before biting you to the bone. Pamela Jahn
Winter in the Ozark Mountains. In this incestuous community, where the families are all linked by blood ties and a terrifying patriarch is king, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) goes looking for her father who is missing ahead of a court appearance. If he skips the hearing, the family’s home, posted as bond, will be seized. But when Ree tries to find him, she’s taught the hard way not to interfere in other people’s business. Directed by Debra Granik and based on a novel by Daniel Woodrall, Winter’s Bone paints a portrait of a remote community mired in poverty and drug addiction. Chillingly authentic, this is a place that few outsiders will ever see. The film is well served by two terrific performances. Jennifer Lawrence, in her mud-stained, ill-fitting clothes, her hair knotted, exudes grace and a rough, unvarnished beauty. John Hawkes plays Teardrop, her father’s brother and a violent, unpredictable addict given one last shot at redemption, his craggy features and thin, worn-out frame blending perfectly into the landscape. Granik’s film is part social realism, part mystery and part tragedy. But as bleak as it sounds, Winter’s Bone has a special quality that makes it an unmissable film, and deserving of the Grand Jury Prize that it received at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Sarah Cronin
In Yang Ik-joon’s stupefying Breathless, gangsters are only marginally more violent than wife-beaters, and equally as contemptible. The main character, the psychotic Sang-hoon, and the boys under his command work in parasitic packs, intimidating and beating up unfortunate people, because violence is the only thing they know. These low-level thugs are an exaggerated version of the men of South Korea, the casual brutality required in their line of work a heightened form of generalised patriarchal abuse. Although sons may sometimes rebel against the fathers’ rule, they inevitably end up perpetuating the cycle of violence as adults. And yet, when Sang-hoon meets tough schoolgirl Yeon-hue, it seems that there might be hope of breaking out of this pattern. Their encounter is shockingly unsentimental, disturbing and funny in equal measures. Both isolated misfits in their own way, they take tentative steps towards each other, always modulated by diffidence and wariness, their spiky verbal duelling hiding their vulnerabilities and traumas. Despite its subject matter and harrowing scenes, Breathless is never depressing, partly because it is infused with the fervent energy of a deeply felt anger, partly because the encounter of Yeon-hue and Sang-hoon offers a glimpse of hope. Breathless is no issue movie, but a profoundly singular, devastatingly powerful, intensely personal vision of both the explicit and hidden violence underlying social and familial relationships. Tina Park
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
How Werner Herzog ended up helming a kind of remake of Abel Ferarra’s 1992 film, starring Nicolas Cage, I don’t know, and don’t really want to. I prefer to think of it as a product from an alternate universe where Herzog does this kind of thing all the time. What you need to know: it’s a blast, and funny as hell, with Ferrrara’s gritty, tortured Catholicism tossed in favour of wilful absurdity and a plethora of lizards. Cage is terrific, with a lopsided gait and a crack-pipe laugh, torturing grannies and shaking down football stars, screaming one quotable line after another. It’s every cop show cliché reflected in a hall of mirrors – wholly indecent fun. Mark Stafford
An unnamed African country immersed in civil war. A charismatic rebel leader, The Boxer, is in hiding. Child soldiers run wild. The government ruthlessly murders members of the opposition. Both sides stir up anger against white settlers. And a woman fights for her coffee plantation, desperate to salvage the harvest despite the whirlwind of violence that is building around her. Her workers are angry and frightened; her son lazy, mentally disturbed; her husband desperate to sell the farm at any price.
Claire Denis’s White Material is a riveting, dark portrayal of personal and political breakdown. Isabelle Huppert is perfect as Marie, a passionate, deeply misguided woman who still believes in some kind of post-colonial fantasy; Huppert and Denis worked on the project together from the start, and the result is a charismatic, yet often unlikeable heroine. The film, beautifully shot and scripted, has some winning moments: Huppert, riding a beat-up 125cc bike, floats her hand in the air, riding the warm breeze; young, invading soldiers tiptoe around her home, holding onto their guns and knives, but childlike in their delight at the trinkets they find inside. That scene makes their tragic fate all the more poignant. Sarah Cronin
A Prophet (Un prophÃ¨te)
Jacques Audiard dives into the murky pool of the Gallic underworld once more when youngster Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is sentenced to a six-year stint in prison. The young Arab is forced to align with a Corsican gang, led by César Luciani (a disquieting performance by the ever-excellent Niels Arestrup), and soon finds himself rising up the ranks through a series of often violent acts. Arestrup reprises the ambiguous fatherly role, part ogre, part mentor, that he fills in Audiard’s earlier The Beat that My Heart Skipped, while Rahim plays Malik with the same sort of nervous intensity Romain Duris brought to the character of Thomas Seyr in the same film. Audiard’s interest in exclusively male environments is here exacerbated by the prison setting. Just like Thomas in The Beat, Malik is caught between two worlds, this time defined by racial and ethnic ties rather than familial ones, and succeeds in negotiating his own, individual path between them. Those who have yet to be captivated by the director’s prodigious talents may find this film a somewhat challenging introduction – there’s certainly more warmth and originality in The Beat that My Heart Skipped and Read My Lips (2001) – and at a bum-numbing 149 minutes, this sprawling gangster saga is not for those with an MTV attention span. However, there’s a reason why it was so acclaimed at both the Cannes and London Film Festivals: its gritty, realistic portrayal of life within the brutal corridors of prison is thoroughly riveting and makes another impressive addition to Audiard’s growing filmography. Toby Weidmann
A fascinating fusion of narrative and documentary cinema from artist filmmaker Clio Barnard, The Arbor tells the powerful true story of Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar (The Arbor, Rita, Sue and Bob Too) and her daughter Lorraine. Dunbar wrote honestly and unflinchingly about her upbringing on the notorious Buttershaw Estate in Bradford and was described as ‘a genius straight from the slums’. When she died tragically at the age of 29 in 1990, Lorraine was just 10 years old. The Arbor catches up with Lorraine in the present day, now also aged 29, ostracised from Buttershaw and in prison, serving a sentence for manslaughter for the death of her son. Through compelling interviews (with the actors seamlessly lip-syncing the words of the real-life subjects) we learn that Lorraine sees her mother as a destructive force throughout her childhood; an alcoholic who let her suffer abuse and whom Lorraine blames for all that is wrong in her life. Also featuring first-hand accounts from other members of the Dunbar family, this essential work presents a contrasting and not always flattering view of Dunbar. Distinctive, compassionate and compelling, Barnard is very clearly an important new voice in British cinema. Jason Wood
John Hillcoat’s big screen adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road is as faithful in its dramatic bleakness to acclaimed author Cormac McCarthy’s (No Country for Old Men) bestseller as it can be. And yet, despite being set in a world without hope, The Road is far from a forlorn experience, thanks in main to an engrossing narrative, which thankfully disregards the usual spectacular trappings of Hollywood’s post-apocalyptic special effects to concentrate on the characters, supported by captivating performances from the principal cast. Viggo Mortensen and moppet newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee are exceptional as the father and son survivors wandering the desolate landscape of a world devastated by fire and earthquakes.
While many films of this type offer some glimmer of hope, The Road is perhaps more realistic (or should that be nihilistic?) in its harrowing depiction of a cataclysmic future, mirrored by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe’s gloomy visuals, which are bereft of all but the most minimalist colour. Humanity has been reduced to its basest level: scavenging, looting, raping, killing and, in some cases (as illustrated in the film’s most disturbing scenes), feeding on each other. And yet within the darkness lies an irresistible sliver of light, found in the boy’s innocence, the father’s resolute attitude and their few acts of decency. Perhaps humanity can be saved after all… Toby Weidmann
The one-line pitch for this claustrophobic little war movie runs ‘Das Boot in a tank’, and for once that’s pretty damn accurate. Based on writer-director Samuel Maoz’s experiences the film is set during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, as seen in Ariel Folman’s Waltz with Bashir. Apart from the opening and closing shots of the film, we the audience are trapped with an ill-prepared and uneasy crew of four inside the tank for the tight 92-minute running time. As with the ‘war is hell’ sub-genre in general, the focus is on the experience of combat rather than a cohesive view of the rights and wrongs of the conflict itself. As in Waltz with Bashir, the blame for the true evil is shifted onto the brutal Christian Falangists, with the Israeli forces mostly represented as misled and misguided – although to its credit, Lebanon does show the Israelis firing upon the guilty and the innocent, and the film does not flinch from the traumas inflicted upon the civilian population.
It’s as a sensual experience that Lebanon is at its strongest. As the film progresses, the men’s sweat begins to drip and pool on the tank’s floor, thick with muck, dog-ends and soup croutons (don’t ask). The air fills with smoke, while oil and mystery crud accumulates on the faces of the cast. You can almost feel the heat, and definitely feel glad you can’t smell the action. Lebanon is not earth-shatteringly original – it’s heavy-handed in places, and a little clichéd, but it feels authentic: grimy, stinky, delirious and chaotic. It works. Mark Stafford
Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers has to be one of the most extraordinary films of the year, if only because it so gleefully defies everything that is expected of mainstream cinema. The top user review on IMDB (which also finds time to slag off Marguerite Duras) gives the film only one star, calling it a ‘non-movie’. It’s a description that’s curiously hard to argue with. Korine himself has described the film less in terms of a work of art, than as something one might find in a ditch somewhere. The experience of watching it offers the same illicit thrill one might obtain by peaking at the diaries of the mentally disturbed. But for all its VHS fuzziness and hand-held shakiness, there are occasional glimpses of a working aesthetic that belie its auteurist origins, a certain pre-dawn light caught in its still beauty, brief essays becoming a formalist montage of attractions. Scanning a random selection of other reviews on the web, one finds a fairly even split between those praising its genius and scoffing at its impossible awfulness. Whatever else, it’s probably the only film that’s been shown at your local Odeon this year that might lead you to ask the question, is this a movie? And even, what is a movie? Robert Barry
The Sky Crawlers (Sukai kurora)
Mamoru Oshii’s The Sky Crawlers is a languid tale of young fighter pilots in a near future that evokes both real world conflicts, such as the 1940s War in the Pacific, and fictional ones, such as the perpetual warfare in George Orwell’s 1984. Oshii uses the tropes of the war movie as a springboard for meditations on youth, memory, the fetishising of technology and the war against terror. It’s is a dreamy, beautiful film that gently weaves its way around the lives of various pilots as they learn their skills, romance local girls, clash with authority and take part in graceful, exhilarating dogfights with the enemy. The general look of the film is inspired by the 40s and 50s, but with a hard SF twist I won’t reveal here, that adds additional poignancy to the notion of the brief lives of the (handsome) young men pressed into military service. Many of Oshii’s films unwind at a deliberate pace, but the elegiac animation of sky, land, sea and aircraft also seems inspired by younger filmmakers such as Makoto Shinkai, whose melancholy style suits the material and is echoed as Oshii captures memories of long, golden, youthful summers that now seem alien and impossible.
The Sky Crawlers is Oshii’s finest film since 2001′s underrated Avalon and his best animé since the original Ghost in the Shell. The familiar subject matter of wartime romance may even attract new fans to the director’s work, who might not have initially warmed to the cyberpunk thrillers and Gothic siege warfare found elsewhere in his oeuvre. Alex Fitch
Fish Story (Fisshu sutôrÃ®)
Happenstance, predestination, mishaps, mistakes, premonitions, paranormal record collectors, an earthbound comet and a fateful proto-punk record are just a few elements of Yoshihiro Nakamura’s utterly charming Fish Story. Made up of a series of seemingly disparate, but ultimately interconnected stories, the film explains how music can save the world in the most unexpected of ways. It opens on a scene of seemingly apocalyptic desolation as a mysterious comet hovers menacingly in the sky, before going back in time to the tale of a timorous college student, who learns to overcome his fear when it matters. The film jumps forward to 1999, as a doomsday cult awaits the end of the world in accordance with Nostradamus’s prophecies. Things don’t quite go according to plan, and the story moves on to the bit of the puzzle that takes place in 2009, on a ferry that is about to be hijacked. There are hints, clues and red herrings as to what might happen next, but Nakamura changes the scene again and heads back in time to the 1970s, when punk band Gekirin (Wrath), described by their record company as ‘talentless losers’, record ‘Fish Story’, the song that is, somehow, destined to save the world, despite its inauspicious beginnings.
It’s a brilliantly crafted piece of storytelling, and each chapter could survive independently, but Nakamura revels in the idea that seemingly random events are intertwined, resonating down the years, until they culminate in a moment freighted with meaning. Funny, melancholy, hopefully, helplessly optimistic, deliciously absurd, Fish Story is a quirky gem of a movie. Eithne Farry
Monsters straddles the divide between several genres: the giant monster genre, alien invasion movies, travelogue and romance. The fact that Monsters weaves all these strands together in a comprehensive and complementary way is an achievement in itself. The fact that director Gareth Edwards accomplished that while location-scouting on the hoof in a country he was unfamiliar with, working with a cast of untrained actors, who improvised many of their lines, and designing terrific special effects, makes this one of the most assured and impressive feature debuts in recent years. Edwards uses the backdrop of a quarantined Mexico, still partially infested with aliens, as the setting for a slightly old-fashioned drama that recalls the films of Frank Capra as a gentle romance unfolds between a mismatched and slightly antagonistic couple. It also draws on the familiar post-20th-century tale of an indentured photo-journalist reporting from a war zone, and the improvised, semi-illegal filming of Michael Winterbottom’s In this World (2002), where refugees from a war zone play fictionalised versions of themselves. Mixing satire, media commentary, excellent direction and sympathetic performances, Edwards creates a science-fiction film that sums up the decade prior to its release in memorable microcosm.
Monsters isn’t a perfect film; the plot, like the characters, meanders a little and the final scene seems a little conventional and forced. However, it is the finest and most thought-provoking alien invasion movie since the excellent District 9, and it uses its small budget in absolutely exemplary fashion, easily outshining movies costing five times its amount, and showing the emergence of a major new British talent. Alex Fitch
24 City (Er shi si cheng ji)
At its peak of productivity, Factory 420 in Chengdu, China, employed 4,000 workers in order to manufacture equipment for the military. Today, the structure is a shadow of its former self, awaiting reinvention as an upscale apartment complex with an adjacent shopping mall. Jia Zhangke’s quietly compelling 24 City chronicles the declining fortunes of Factory 420 – and those of its former employees – as a means of commenting on the consequences of China’s change from communism to capitalism. The director alternates between nine monologues, in which individuals recall their experiences of happiness and hardship, and musical moments, while an amateur opera troupe performs within the soon-to-be-demolished factory; interviews with real workers are combined with scripted scenes performed by established actors (Joan Chen and Jia regular Zhao Tao), thereby blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction. However, 24 City maintains a largely static aesthetic that prevents the melancholic mood from ever seeming self-consciously manipulative, even when Jia engages in meta-cinematic references to Chen’s status as an international movie star. Clearly constructed with both care and compassion, 24 City achieves an emotional resonance that is rooted in both the personal regrets of the past and the economic reforms of the present. John Berra
The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw described Mammoth as ‘a fatuous, self-serving and fantastically dishonest exercise in pseudo-compassion’, and it’s hard to find a more accurate summation of this misfire from a figure once described by Bergman as a ‘young master’. Segueing from the droll and delightfully observed Together into less palatable but formally inventive fare such as A Hole in My Heart and Container, Lukas Moodysson’s attempt to once again capture the hearts and minds of discerning cinema-goers is, however well-intentioned, painfully condescending. The film revolves around a successful New York couple, Leo (Gael GarcÃa Bernal) and Ellen (Michelle Williams), whose lives are about to unravel. Leo is the creator of a booming website, and has stumbled into a world of money and big decisions. Ellen is a dedicated emergency surgeon who devotes her long shifts to saving lives. Their eight-year-old daughter Jackie spends most of her time with her Filipino nanny Gloria, a situation that is making Ellen start to question her priorities. When Leo travels to Thailand on business, he unwittingly sets off a chain of events that will have dramatic consequences for everyone. A film that feels like a depiction of third-world poverty as fashioned by the Hallmark card company, Mammoth plays like a fifth-rate Alejandro GonzÃ¡lez IÃ±Ã¡rritu movie, minus the artistry, insight and empathy. Jason Wood
The Last Seven
Writer Carl Neville recently relayed a story in which a friend of his who works in television actually met Danny Dyer and was shocked to find him ‘performing’ (so this friend assumed) the whole cockney wide-boy act 24/7. How exhausting it must be, the friend concluded, to be Danny Dyer. All the bloody time. Imran Naqvi’s The Last Seven sees Dyer dispense with his usual tirade of plosive ‘Bruv’s’ and ‘Geezer’s', for a blood-drenched snarl and a black leather greatcoat. Yes, this is the film in which Dyer goes Goth, with predictably cringe-inducing results. Though the premise is a tempting combination of I Am Legend and The Twilight Zone, the result is closer to a GCSE drama piece, shot by the kids’ parents. Then again, perhaps the decision to render Dyer mute is a sign that the former Human Traffic star has transcended the status of actor/TV presenter to become pure signification, a kind of working classness in itself. The Last Seven presents a sort of right-wing utopian fantasy in which the whole of London disappears, leaving just seven slightly bewildered, vaguely middle-class folk, whose lives are incidentally interconnected. The only spectre haunting this dream, currently being made real by the welfare policies of the Tory administration, is the gruesome image of Dyer as the Angel of Death, a kind of return of the proletarian repressed. Robert Barry
Tetsuo: The Bullet Man
Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Bullet Man is another example of a franchise that started off brilliantly, only to beat the original idea into the ground. Sadly, everything we loved about his original Japanese cyberpunk masterpiece Tetsuo: The Iron Man in 1989 – its ferocious nihilism and furious pace, the stunningly inventive visuals and the proto-industrial soundtrack – has been cheaply and brutally gutted in this third, American-produced instalment. The only comfort to be found in this wasted cinematic effort is that with no theatrical release in sight, it will most likely remain one of the worst films of this year that won’t reach an art-house near you anytime soon. Pamela Jahn
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (MÃ¤n som hatar kvinno)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo makes Electric Sheep‘s list not because it’s a bad film, but because it’s just not the ‘utterly compelling’, ‘edge of the seat thrills… cracking rollercoaster of a movie’ that the critical/marketing hype suggests it is. Anyone expecting this film to do for thrillers what Let the Right One In (2008) did for vampire movies will be sadly disappointed… as were we.
The film is a perfectly acceptable made-for-TV thriller, which has some reasonably good performances from the cast, adequate direction and pacing and a plot that sticks near enough to the book to satisfy the millions of fans who have read and enjoyed the late Stieg Larsson’s novel. Michael Nyqvist makes a likable lead as the disgraced journalist Michael Blomkvist, hired to investigate the case of a missing girl, while Noomi Rapace is believable as the socially inept private investigator Lisbeth Salander who helps him. However, neither really make the roles their own and fans of the book might feel both are miscast.
It is impressive how a fantastic film poster, tied with an unstoppable marketing machine and the pedigree of a bestselling novel, can make a ‘must-see’ film out of what is just an average movie. Toby Weidmann
The Killer inside Me
It is rather frustrating that, with a few exceptions, American noir novelist Jim Thompson’s remarkable body of work should have led to so many disappointing cinematic offerings, and Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of The Killer inside Me is a particularly deplorable entry into the canon. The film stars Casey Affleck as Lou Ford, the outwardly sweet-natured but dim-witted Deputy Sheriff of a small Texas town, who under his Southern good manners hides a frightening intelligence and psychopathic impulses. This story of deceit and death is the occasion for extreme violence, with two particularly grisly murder scenes, in which women are subjected to extended brutality and degradation. There is a tremendous sense of indulgence in these beautifully shot scenes, and the copious amount of gratuitous sex adds to the sensational aspect of the film. The characterisation of the main female characters is spectacularly reductive: always half-naked and in bed, they are both stunningly gorgeous and like rough sex…
Winterbottom has said in interviews that he wanted to be ‘faithful’ to the source novel, and this has served to justify the violent excesses of the film, but his incredibly unsophisticated literal approach is particularly unsuited to capturing a novel as ambiguous as The Killer inside Me: Winterbottom scrupulously follows to the letter a book that actually requires reading between the lines. He channels Thompson’s savage view of humanity through a slick, superficial noir pastiche that completely misses the seediness, mediocrity and complexity of the evil described by Thompson. Virginie Sélavy