Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on December 28, 2010
I was able to see more movies during the year than this guy. To honor him, I’m going to run down my favorite Genre Films of 2010. As top-ten lists rain down upon us, a general consensus emerges and recurring titles get chewed over like regurgitated cud. So while I greatly admire The Social Network (#2 on my year-end list here), I feel no need to spill more metaphorical ink over it. What doesn’t get recognized during the awards season hullaballoo are the disreputable action/sci-fi/horror movies that earn profits and low Rotten Tomatoes scores. I’m using the colloquial definition of “genre films”, of macho flicks with b-movie scenarios, but in reality everything that’s produced slots into one genre or another (David Bordwell persuasively argues that even the art film is one). So forgive my semantic fudging for the sake of headline-writing brevity. In any case, anonymous disfigured corpse from The Crazies, this is for you.
In Alphabetical Order:
Buried is a horror movie about thought processes, how the mind continually attempts to work itself out of danger, constantly running scenarios that will lead to the healthiest outcome. In this case, the problem is a casket, as Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) has been buried alive by an Iraqi insurgent looking for ransom money. The camera never leaves the casket for the entire running time, and manages to sustain the tension of Conroy’s plight, endlessly cycling through possible rescue plans. Provided with a cell phone to stump for the money to be paid, he triangulates between family, work and the law as his desperation rises, marking up the wood panels with strategies of survival. In the end, it’s a tour-de-force about the limitations of technology and of thought itself.
Centurion, directed by Neil Marshall
Remnants of a slaughtered platoon of Roman Soldiers navigate their way back home through Northern Scotland while fighting their way through the rebellious Pict natives. Director Neil Marshall (The Descent) is a reliable hand for cogently framing bloody mayhem, and the climactic battle between the splinter of Romans and Pict warriors is smartly choreographed. The central battle stakes Michael Fassbender against Olga Kuryenko, and the final blow is established in wide shot as Fassbender somersaults toward his victim. Then in two percussive inserts Marshall ends the secondary fight (a spear to the undercarriage) and the main one, as Fassbender places downward pressure on the sword after his sprightly evasive maneuver. The way in which Marshall creates a rhythm and clarity to this sequence, out of boilerplate material, is indicative of the film’s scrappy ingenuity.
A relentless remake of George Romero’s 1973 original, it outlines the chaos that ensues after a biological weapon crash lands in a small mid-western town, turning its residents into psychotic murderers. I prized this one for its pared down screenplay, which strips away backstory, revealing character only through action. The narrative is constantly pushing forward, just like Sheriff David Dutten (Timothy Olyphant), who tries to spirit his wife out of the newly quarantined hot zone. Olyphant has perfected a thoughtful stoicism in his work, playing heroes who do the right thing, but whose pauses and mutterings imply that he wishes doing good wasn’t so much goddamn work.
Devil, directed by John Erick Dowdle
Slightly roomier than Buried, this M. Night Shyamalan produced potboiler takes place almost entirely in an elevator. A group of abrasive city-folk get stuck in a lift and start turning on each other. So far, so realistic, but there’s a metaphysical morality play tacked on to justify the underlying savagery. While this is a bit of a cop-out, I’ll forgive anything to watch DP Tak Fujimoto wend his SteadiCam around a neon-lit office building, tracing the paths of fate.
This ridiculous concoction is the jokey B-side to Taken, Morel’s humorless revenge drama from 2009. Instead of a brow-furrowing Liam Neeson, it’s a face-pulling John Travolta, who plays CIA agent Charlie Wax like a macho Jerry Lewis (his yammers are punctuated by nasal screams, and he leaves destruction in his wake, except with Travolta it’s intentional). The fight scenes have the physics of a Loony Tunes short and the plot is totally improbable. In short, it’s almost perfect. If only the lead-footed Jonathan Rhys Meyers subplot hadn’t kept diverting things from the aria of Charlie Wax.
Frozen, directed by Adam Green
Frozen is a fine lesson in theme and variation. The plot is minimal, three dopey college kids stranded on a ski lift, but writer/director Green elaborates an escalating series of reasons for his characters to be terrified. The calculus of escape shifts from avoiding frostbite to stanching blood loss to avoiding death-by-wolf over the course of the first hour. It is the patience with which Green allows each new variation to sink in, to allow the morbid thought processes of each vapid character to be drawn out, that nicely ratchets up the tension of this minimalist bit of indie-horror.
On a purely visual level, one of the most impressive films I saw this year. Fully embracing 3D technology, Anderson sets up shots to emphasize depth, from the multi-layered, multi-planar Umbrella headquarters to the relative simplicity of a hole in the ground (which Joe Dante also explored in 3D in his still-undistributed The Hole). In the opening sequence, the background and foreground planes of action are so clear there is no need for cross-cutting. And Milla Jovovich continues her superb run as Alice, working the stoic hero territory as well as, say, Timothy Olyphant.
Splice, directed by Vincenzo Natali
A disturbing entry in the mad (but adorable) scientist sub-genre, it finds Adrian Brody and Sarah Polly gene-splicing their way to unwanted parenthood. Their little lab-creature develops a major Electra complex, and soon ignites the relationship anxieties simmering below the surface. They explode in psycho-incestual images that are hard to shake.
Direct-to-video but none the worse for it, this is the third part of a series initiated by Walter Hill in 2002 (I wrote about the whole series back in June). It refreshes the fight tournament scenario by capturing a variety of attacking styles with a high-speed camera, from capoeira to taekwondo, and hires athletes rather than slumming actors. Marko Zaror steals the show as the villain, a Garcia Lorca-reading heroin addict who is my pick for cinematic asshole of the year.
Unstoppable, directed by Tony Scott
The pleasures of motion, rendered with lucidity. There’s a runaway train, and Denzel Washington and Chris Pine have to track it down. The forward movement is not just over lines of track but through lines of communication. Scott’s nimble cross-cutting between CEOs, middle-managers and station chief Rosario Dawson lays down the social strata that Denzel and Pine are burning through in order to do their jobs. It is within this shorthand class structure that slam-bang montages of speeding trains raise the pulse and recall the original cinematic thrill of the Lumiere Brothers’ L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat:
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