Posted by Susan Doll on December 6, 2010
Last year, I joined the “list brigade,” that huge contingent of writers and reviewers who feel compelled every December to offer lists of films they have seen during the previous year. I have a confession to make: Once you step into those waters, it’s addictive, and there’s no going back. Usually the lists are generated by movie reviewers obsessed with the year’s ten best films, but I prefer lists of overlooked gems that slipped through the cracks. Many movies that might appeal to a mainstream audience, or to a large segment of the population, are treated shabbily by distributors and exhibitors, and they don’t receive a decent distribution in the theaters. For movie-lovers who don’t live in a major market, the only chance to see some of these films is on DVD, if at all.
My tastes are fairly populist; none of the titles on the list are esoteric art-house movies or quirky British fare with eccentric characters offering life lessons. They are all films that adults with an interest in good drama and appealing subject matter will appreciate. In the spirit of bringing attention to some decent films that were shafted by the conditions of the current industry, I bring you my list of ten favorite movies from 2010 that deserve a second chance or a second viewing.
1 CARLOS Though almost six hours long, this three-part French film about real-life terrorist Carlos the Jackal was riveting, especially the first two parts. The film begins in 1973 when Carlos, who was born Ilich Sanchez, assassinates a Jewish businessman in Paris for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The narrative races at breakneck speed for the first two parts of the film, following Carlos through 1975. That year, he conducted a raid on an OPEC conference in Vienna, killing three people and kidnapping over 60 representatives from all over the world. He took them on a thrill ride around the Mideast, looking for a friendly country willing to accept him and his hostages, before letting them go in Algiers. It was an astounding if self-aggrandizing act on the part of Carlos rendered with gripping suspense by French director Olivier Assayas. The last section covers the late 1970s to the mid-1990s when Carlos was arrested in the Sudan by the French.
A news and history junkie since childhood, I remember reading about Carlos the Jackal over the years, which drew me to the film’s subject matter. But, more than a biopic of a notorious figure, the film illustrates the evolution of terrorism through the figure of Carlos. In the early 1970s, European radicals, painted more as idealist than ideologue, get in bed with Middle Eastern terrorists—literally and figuratively—as a way to rail against the injustices of western capitalism. The hard-core radicals give the Mideast terrorists support and safe harbor in the West. As the years pass, alliances come and go as various anti-western factions make deals with Carlos and his associates, who become less concerned with their cause. With a huge cast headed by Edgar Ramirez, Carlos offers a frightening history of the modern world and how we got here. Despite the large scale and scope, Assayas shot his six-hour film in 11 countries in 90 days on a television budget.
2 CHILDREN OF INVENTION. This independent drama made on a shoestring is as small in scale as Carlos is large. I wrote about this film earlier in the year, so I won’t reiterate its many strengths, but the more I thought about Children of Invention, the more I appreciated its simple, straightforward direction by Tze Chun and the stellar performances by child actors Michael Chen and Crystal Chiu. Children of Invention tells the story of a Chinese-American mother living on the edge of homelessness who tries to make a better life for herself and her children. She gets caught participating in an illegal pyramid scheme, landing her in jail. Her young son and daughter are left alone to fend for themselves, but they rise to the occasion in an innovative way. Without overt sentiment or overwrought plotting, Children of Invention offers a heart-wrenching story about the devastation experienced by an ordinary family during this current economic crisis. The highlight of the film are the performances by the two children, who are natural and likable—unlike the cloying, precocious, or overly sentimentalized kids in most Hollywood films. Trust me, you’ll like this one.
3 THE KILLER INSIDE ME. This traditional film noir is also an independent film, but it’s not on the same level of “independence” as Children of Invention. This one had the advantage of a major distributor, an established director, namely Michael Winterbottom, and big-name stars, including Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson, and Jessica Alba. Given the genre and stars, I thought this film would be a big hit—an edgy alternative to the bells and whistles of summer blockbusters. Yet, despite good reviews and some attention in the media, it did not generate much excitement and fell into the black hole of forgotten films. A terrific adaptation of hard-boiled writer Jim Thompson’s most critically acclaimed book, The Killer Inside Me chronicles the bad decisions of Lou Ford, a deputy sheriff in a small town in Texas during the 1950s. He seems gentle, quiet, and even dim on the surface, but he is a cold-blooded sociopath whose proclivities for violent sex and murder are awakened by a prostitute with a taste for rough sex. The story unfolds entirely from Lou’s perspective, which renders his voice-over narration problematic for the viewer. Unlike many directors who dub their simple melodramas or crime thrillers “film noir,” Winterbottom understands the conventions of the genre and uses them to their full advantage. In addition, the performances by Affleck and Hudson are award-worthy, but I doubt if they will be singled out this season.
4 BURMA VJ. This documentary edited by Scandinavian filmmaker Anders Ostergaard reminded me that film can be a political weapon and a tool for social change. In 2007 in Burma, 100,000 people, including thousands of Buddhist monks, took to the streets to protest the country’s repressive regime that has held them hostage for over 40 years. Foreign news crews were banned to enter, and the Internet was shut down inside the country. The Democratic Voice of Burma, a collective of 30 anonymous and underground video journalists (hence “ VJs) recorded these historic and dramatic events on camcorders. The footage was smuggled out of the country, where it was broadcast worldwide via satellite. Risking torture and life imprisonment, the VJs vividly documented the brutal clashes with the military and undercover police—even after they themselves became targets of the authorities. Ostergaard edited their footage into this documentary, which chronicles the events in Burma while telling the story of the VJs. As I watched this in the theater, I realized that this was real journalism—not the canned, over-narrated bits on cable and network television.
5 THE CHASER (Chugyeogja). South Korean cinema is the latest “new wave” of filmmaking to make an impact internationally and to appeal to cinephiles. Violent, brutal, and wickedly dark, South Korean cinema has shaken up genre filmmaking. My favorite South Korean film to date is The Chaser, a psychological thriller with the most intense chase scene I have seen in years. The craftsmanship and genre-tweaking of The Chaser reminded me of Hollywood filmmaking in the old days—when daring producers gave talented directors creative control to make films that adults found meaningful. The film revolves around an ex-detective who has fallen on hard times and become a pimp. When two of his girls disappear, he realizes one of his own customers is a sadistic serial killer who has been kidnapping and killing his girls. He uses his detective skills to track down the killer, who admits one of the girls might still be alive. Winner of seven Blue Dragon Awards, including best picture, best actor, best screenplay, best director (Hong-jin Na), The Chaser is a well-crafted thrill ride, but it’s also gritty, ugly, and not for the faint of heart.
6 The title of my favorite documentary of the year is a zip code, 45365. Brothers Bill and Turner Ross assembled four seasons’ worth of images from their hometown of Sidney, Ohio, where the zip code is 45365. Some of the vignettes are mundane; while others border on the sublime. But, all reveal the inner workings of a small town in the Midwest, where people interact and socialize in ways city dwellers will never understand. There is no voice-over narration, no titles, no external explanation—only vividly shot sequences of playground antics, high-school hysterics, traffic violations, football games, arrests, and demolition derbies enhanced by a soundtrack of local disc jockeys, overheard phone conversations, and a tune by the Flamingos. It’s the big parade of life, Midwest-style.
7 THE ILLUSIONIST. With several notable exceptions, I don’t like computer-generated, Pixar-style animation, in which characters are rendered in three dimensions and look like toys. Part of the reason I dislike it so much is because in Hollywood, it has replaced traditional, 2-D animation whose roots are in drawing and painting. I don’t understand why both can’t exist in the marketplace. This is not true in Europe as evidenced by The Illusionist, a beautifully rendered, heart-felt cartoon feature that has the look of hand-drawn animation. The narrative is from the last script by Jacques Tati, France’s master comedian and originator of the character M. Hulot. Director Sylvain Chomet (Triplets of Belleville) uses a Hulot-lookalike as the title character, a magician in the twilight of his career who befriends a young girl in need of a father figure. The magician is an old-school entertainer from the days of music halls and vaudeville, and he finds himself pitted against rock ‘n’ rollers and other acts from our modern era. Chomet perfectly captured Tati’s deadpan humor while an international group of animators did a beautiful job rendering the world inhabited by the Illusionist and his fellow music-hall cohorts. This is my favorite animated film in decades.
8 THE SQUARE. This is the second film noir on my list, which probably indicates where my head is at. Released in the U.S. this year, The Square is a 2008 Australian film directed by Nash Edgerton. The storyline is a noirish tale straight out of hard-boiled fiction of another era in which an everyday guy makes a moral miscalculation and pays for it. Raymond, who owns a construction company, is not exactly happily married, but instead of working things out with his wife, he has an affair with a troubled model. The model devises a scheme for Raymond to steal money from her gangster husband by setting their house on fire. Raymond’s life begins to unravel when the fire kills the wrong person—and fate is never forgiving to everyday guys who cross the line in film noir. The Square is shot in a naturalistic style, rather than the glamorous lighting of classic noir, giving it a grittier, nastier edge that services the material.
9 CAMERAMAN: THE LIFE AND WORK OF JACK CARDIFF. I have a soft spot for cinematographers, the unsung heroes of cinema. Jack Cardiff died last year at the age of 94, but he stayed on top of his craft right up till the time of his death, which we see in this documentary tribute to his career. Cardiff, who worked primarily in England, has been acclaimed for his mastery of Technicolor. His filmography includes some of the most important movies in British film history, such as those he did with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger—Stairway to Heaven, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes. He also shot Under Capricorn for Hitchcock, The African Queen for John Huston, and The Prince and the Showgirl for Laurence Olivier. What I liked most about Cardiff was his willingness to embrace new technologies. The last few years of his life he mastered digital cinematography and was advising young directors on its use. According to the director of Cameraman, Craig McCall, Cardiff refused to believe that past technologies such as Technicolor were superior to today’s digital cinematography; he preferred to embrace the future rather than to wax nostalgic for the past. A lesson for us all.
10 VINCENT: A LIFE IN COLOR. I first heard about this documentary at Ebertfest, which is the nickname for Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival held every April, and I was captivated by the subject and the filmmaker. It’s a Chicago story about a genuine Chicago character, Vincent Falk. Falk, who is legally blind, spends his spare hours during the summer months waving from a downtown bridge to boats of tourists on the Chicago River. Actually, he does more than wave. Each day he dons a brightly colored polyester suit and walks from his Marina City condo to the bridge. He takes off his jacket and twirls it over his head, doing a sort-of dance of life for the tourists as the boats pass under the bridge. The boat captains, who call him “Fashion Man,” wave back to Vincent, pointing him out to their passengers. Falk has had one of those lives that would make most of us bitter and not the least bit inclined to dance. He was born with glaucoma and abandoned as a baby to an orphanage. Though told no one would want a sight-challenged baby, he was adopted; though told he would not do well in school, he leaned to read and joined the diving team in high school. He attended IIT in Chicago and became a computer programmer for Cook County. Now retired, he celebrates his life by wearing color and. . . well, being colorful. First-time filmmaker Jennifer Burns was a waitress when she decided to make a film about Falk, and she doggedly pursued her goal despite the costs and difficulties. Sometimes, I get fed up with Chicago’s weather, corruption, and addiction to sports teams, but the determination, toughness, and individuality of residents like Falk and Burns remind me of why I settled here.
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