Best 11 Films of 2010 That Entertained Me

Posted by Charles Reece, December 31, 2010 01:08pm | Post a Comment
The Revolutionary Spectacle


Since Che only showed for a week in 2009 and I couldn't see it until this year, I'm including it here (and, conversely, I included Mother and Trash Humpers on my last year tally). Along with Carlos, The Social Network and Mesrine, this was the year of the biopic for me. I generally hate biopics, since they tend to reduce an interesting individual to the least interesting aspects of his or her life. Who gives a shit about the summer Che traveled around on a motorbike falling in love? Why, he's almost just like us ... except for that time he took over a country. Steven Soderberg and Olivier Assayas focus their epics on what made their respective subjects, Ernesto Guevara and Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, historically significant, namely wreaking ideological havoc. Thanks to their loving attention to the details of guerilla warfare and terrorism, I can now knowingly return to my homeland and make it the independent republic that God always intended it to be. Best historical epics since David Lean was making them.

The Phantasmagoric Spectacle


Like everything else, tripping has lost its religious significance these days, so I'm glad filmmakers are providing product to keep acidheads off our suburban streets. Nicholas Refn's Valhalla Rising is vague, contemplative and takes you down the rabbit hole via a mistaken orthogonal turn. Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void is garrulous, explicitly laying out what's coming in the first 20 minutes through a stoned reading of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Life and death are circular; you don't enter the rabbit hole, but are already there. Plenty of solid, hallucinatory potential here, kids.

The Old-Fashioned Spectacle


I don't think it's a matter of selective sampling of the past on DVD to suggest that Hollywood's output before the 80s produced a lot more films like these than after 1980. Anything from Nora Ephron hardly comes close to any randomly selected romantic comedy from the 30s or 40s, for example. The delivery is too dull-witted, but the writing isn't as sharp, either. The Social Network does compare favorably to comedy's golden age. Despite David Fincher's being too self-important to make a film under two hours, Aaron Sorkin's smart enough to remind me of Howard Hawks, Frank Capra and George Cukor's scenarists. The Coen Brothers harken back to the 50s western where characterization and the contemplation of existence took precedence over action and plot with some comedy thrown in (Matt Damon plays the Southern flipside of The Naked Spur's Ralph Meeker). If True Grit isn't on the level of Anthony Mann, it at least approaches Budd Boetticher, and that's good enough for me. Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer recalls a time when Polanski was better at making films than escaping justice. It's far superior to the political thrillers of 70s Hollywood like The Parallax View or Three Days of the Condor while remaining fairly platitudinous in its ideology. In other words, it works as an enjoyable thriller, but don't expect ZIn a better world, these three films would be average genre entertainment, the baseline that moviegoers should expect. In our world, they make best-of lists.

The Documentary Spectacle

Both of these films document the ingenuity of entertainers trying to come up with novel ways to keep an audience looking at the screen. Jeff Tremaine's Jackass 3D details a new arsenal of self-torture techniques from the Knoxville crew. I was particularly impressed with some of the simpler ideas such as Johnny Knoxville proving Roger Miller's dictum that one can't roller skate in a buffalo herd (Knoxville, like his aesthetic mentor John Waters, has good taste in pop music). Although its 3D effects aren't very consistent, the introductory and final sequences are the most glorious use of the technology I've seen. Steve-O bouncing slow-mo into a ceiling fan is, without a doubt, the most beautiful action sequence of the decade, much better than anything in Avatar or, even, the mass bromicide in Piranha 3D. And, on the other side of the equation, Henri-Georges Clouzot and his team of cinematographers demonstrate what can be done in special effects without digital or 3D artifacts by experimenting with mirrors, lighting, lens manipulation and makeup. The footage of these experiments is the primary reason for seeing Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea's doc about the making of Clouzot's failed film.

The Escape, or Punishing the Wicked, Spectacle


A natural pairing since both films center on the thrill of escape -- from prisons and banks in the case of Mesrine and from preschool in the case of Toy Story 3. Neither is as intense as the classics Le Trou and Rififi, but each creates spectacular thrills nonetheless. Despite not being a fan of what CGI has done to cartoons, Pixar has earned my begrudging admiration, albeit for the same reasons I like non-animated films: direction, writing, etc.. One of those cetera is ideology. There's a definite conservative streak that runs through their best films, but it's complexly instantiated in well-rounded character arcs, never the embarrassing puerility that constitutes the Republican party. Ratatouille is a populist critique of high-toned social critics (e.g., Critical Theorists). The Incredibles is a libertarian mocking of egalitarianism. And with Toy Story 3, possibly Pixar's best film, we get a moral re-examination (if not rebuttal) of commodification and power relations through individual responsibility. Andy's gang of toys is imprisoned in a panoptical preschool overseen by the omnipresent eyes of a cymbal-clanging monkey. The monkey, like all the other inmates, is under the control of Lotso, a fuchsia-colored, stuffed bear with a game leg and S.O.B. disposition. Long ago, he confronted his commodified status when his little girl owner, believing him lost, simply replaced him with another version. The film empathizes with this selfhood reduced to exchange value qua mechanical reproduction, but it doesn't excuse Lotso's rise to power by treating his toy brethren in the same manner. After he fails a second chance at redemption proffered by Woody at the fiery gates of a junkyard hell, he's condemned to a bug-splattered crucifixion on the grill of a diesel semi. French bankrobber Jacques Mesrine tried to justify his thievery and murdering with Marxian rhetoric, that it was supposedly all a revolt against the bourgeois system. But, as with the bear, Jean-François Richet's diptych biopic (Killer Instinct and Public Enemy #1) makes it clear that leftist sympathies were a mask for a greedy will to power. The final bullet to the head is what Mesrine morally earned, despite France's police and penitential system of the period not meeting the basic requirements of humanism. Both stories make for an interesting analysis of just deserts in a de-individualizing social system, but Toy Story 3 is more serious about it than Mesrine.

Che The Movie

Posted by Gomez Comes Alive!, March 2, 2009 08:30am | Post a Comment

I had many thoughts after I watched the four hour, seventeen minute Che biopic. I enjoyed the movie very much, but because I felt I’m somewhat biased, I wanted to know what people thought about it. Would people's opinions be based on what they thought of the movie or what they thought of Che (or, for that matter, Steven Soderbergh and Benicio Del Toro)?

Did people who proclaimed it great do so because it’s a great story or a great film? Did the people who hate it have their own ulterior motives? I also wondered if I would like it myself if I saw it again.

Che, like Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, was probably a very hard movie to make. Movies about political icons seem to bring out the worst in people. People are overly passionate on both sides of the fence and on top of that, there's a multitude of critics who are quick to knock down any iconic figure of the far left. Serial killers get better treatment by the press. A journalist from PBS interviewed me during the intermission of the movie when I went to see the film. Most of his questions were asked in a condescending tone: “What do you know about Che other than the image we see on the t-shirt?” and "Is Che relevant today?" Duh…I don’t know, is oppression relevant today?

The reviews of the movies weren’t too glowing. Most of them were of the garden variety. I loved the reviewers who stated that the film was both "too long" and “didn’t give enough of Che was really about.” Really, did we want to sit through a ten-hour movie next time?

The other complaint was that it was mostly in Spanish. Along with the length of the film(s), this really turned off many of the Academy, who didn’t even give the film a blink during the Oscars. Made me wonder how well Slumdog Millionaire, which is a great fim, would have done if the actors spoke in Marathi, Urdu or Hindi. Michael Russnow from Huffington Post summed that mentality best:

Benicio Del Toro is magnetic and haunting as Che, but he has the difficult task of communicating to us through subtitles, as most of the film is told in Spanish. It lends an authentic ring to the story, but distracts our attention somewhat in the manner of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. If a film is truly a foreign film it's one thing, but this is a huge motion picture starring an American actor and directed by an American, and there's no reason why this story couldn't have been told in English.

Other reviews really put their political slant to the mix. I wondered if Mick LaSalle from the SF Chronicle came from a Cuban exiled family:

If Soderbergh made as idol worshiping an epic about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln -- actual heroes with tangible, positive legacies -- people would gag at the naive treatment. Perhaps with Che, the hope is that audiences might be confused or browbeaten into reverence, into just assuming they're missing something.

He went on to say:

This is a pro-Castro, anti-CIA film made by a mainstream American director, and it will be shown in art houses throughout the country. Try making an anti-Fidel, pro-American film in Cuba, and see how that works out for you.

Foreign investment companies funded Che’s 58 million dollar budget once U.S. movie studios bailed when it was known that the movie would be mostly in Spanish. Perhaps knowing that worldwide sales would be better than in fickle North America, it seems to have been a wise investment. Perhaps seeing the movie’s potential elsewhere, Andrew O'Hehir from wrote this:

[Che] is something that people will be eager to see and eager to talk about all over the world, something that feels strangely urgent, something messy and unfinished and amazing.

One of the best things about movies is talking about them afterwards. There are so many disposable movies that leave my brain just as soon as they enter it. I have had great conversations about Che with different people. Some I agree with and some I don’t, but it has made enough of an impact that I’ve actually had conversations with people that went beyond, “Did you see it?” and “Did It suck?”.

In any biopic, you are never going to get the full story. People are too complex for that. I imagine as a filmmaker at one point you have to stop listening to everyone’s opinion about a person and just make film the way you see fit. If anything, I think Soderbergh took a tremendous risk by including the less celebrated Bolivian chapter in Che's life. He could have easily made the first triumphant part longer and made a “pop” version of Cuba’s revolution, but didn’t. The long, drawn out scenes of nothing happening in the Bolivian forest are painful to watch, knowing the inevitable will eventually happen. It’s much like the movie The Thin Red Line -- lots of long shots and few battle scenes focusing on the psychology of war over actual fighting. The second part of the movie amost parallels the first part, mainly to show that what worked in Cuba did not work in Boliva.

There are some scenes that are a bit over the top (the scene where Che is on a horse in Bolivia suffering from an asthma attack looks straight out of a western…way over the top!), but overall I thought they did a great job with the acting and the cinematography is pretty amazing. I also think there is a poetry to the movie that is lost in subtitles, not just in dialogue but in accents. The different accents between people from the city and country, from different providences and, in Che's case, another country altogether.

Is it good movie? Yes. Is it a great movie? Perhaps. I’ll let you know when I see it again.