As you might have guessed from my Sexiest Males Alive list (meant to be a monthly feature but published somewhat irregularly lately), or my year-end film lists, or perhaps from my list of fifty favorite movies of the aughts; I’m kind of a sucker for listmaking. Not because I need them in order to sort out my life or anything like that; I just love how they force me to (re-)evaluate my taste, no matter if I tend to regret my choices or their ranking the very second they’re published (I’ll spare you my revised ‘Top of the Aughts” list). In the case of the SMA, they are just a chance for me to flash my gay side and do some pleasurable “research” while doing it, but when it comes to the film lists, I actually take them seriously. I want people to read and react to them, and I want to read about other people’s choices. Nothing deepens my love for a film more than being challenged to defend it.
As an avowed list-maker, however, I feel like im in a minority. Every December, critics I read and admire, like Movieline’s Stephanie Zacharek or Slate’s Dana Stevens, write about how making these year-end lists is one of the least pleasurable obligations of being a movie critic. And to a certain extent, I get their frustration. Not only do you have to limit the number of movies to put on your list; normally, you are even asked to rank whether you think this film that you have already canonized is even better than that other film you also gave the honor of including. If that is your approach to doing it, I can see how it feels like cheapening some truly great movie experiences. But personally, I’m nonetheless intrigued by having to argue with myself over whether or how the latest Harry Potter movie is better than Shutter Island.
But to someone like me, the dreaded kill your darlings phase of listmaking is probably my favorite part of the entire ordeal. In that regard, Stephanie Zacharek raised an interesting point in her Movieline round-up. She more or less said that when she’s reading someone else’s list of favorites, she’s particularly interested in those near the bottom of the list, because in her experience, that’s where you tend to find the quirky, left-field passion projects; those that survive although you know you might be ridiculed for having included them, and that occupy the places below the well-made Oscar favorites. For Zacharek this year, one such movie was Florian Henckel von Donnersmark’s otherwise panned The Tourist. I agree with her that it’s interesting to see which surprising the-little-movie-that-could choices critics are willing to risk their reputations for when they have dispatched with the expected well-done Oscar material, but I still feel like Zacharek doesn’t allow for the possibility that for some, that Oscar-favored consensus favorite could be precisely that movie that you would be willing to do just about anything to make everyone else love as much as you do. Like I indicated in my post on the 2010 list, this year, for me that movie was The Social Network, no matter how much it’s a critical favorite.
As for my list of 2010 favorites, I was only in genuine doubt about #10. Like I hope I suceeded in conveying in my festival post back in October, I was absolutely blown away by Charles Ferguson’s documentary Inside Job, about the consequences of and the people and culture that created the global financial crisis of 2008. Ferguson is also the man behind the excellent documentary No End In Sight, about the many mistakes in the strategic planning and execution of the Iraq war, and his take on Wall Street is no less persuasive or provocative. I wanted to highlight it in order to get more people to see it, not only because it’s very good at making complicated things understandable for ordinary viewers, but also because it’s like a masterclass in how to make an impassioned documentary without ever falling over into simplistic propaganda, like Michael Moore has done at times, even in his best movies, like Sicko (the trip to Cuba) or Roger & Me (his condescending tone toward several of his interview subjects).
But even though Inside Job was closest to cracking the top ten, that doesn’t mean I couldn’t have made a list of fifteen films, and still have felt good about including each and every one of them. For instance, it pained me not to have a free spot for Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl. Two of the most interesting documentary filmmakers I know of, Epstein and Friedman (who made The Celluloid Closet together; Epstein also made the Oscar-winning The Tines of Harvey Milk) took what they already knew – representations of an edited “reality” – and make it into a truly engaging docu-drama. The absolutely magnetic James Franco – who I’m sure was great 127 Hours, for which he’ll get an Oscar nod, but who is as excellent here – recreates an Allen Ginsberg interview word for word with mannerisms, insecurities and openness, while the court proceedings following the publication of Ginsberg’s allegedly obscene poem. Howl will inspire you to ponder questions of freedom of speech and objective literary quality, regardless of whether you know beforehand the result of the trial or not.
Also among those that nearly made the top ten, I want to point to the Swedish film Flickan (English title: The Girl), a moving portrait of a resourceful young Swedish girl who has to take care of herself when her family leaves for an expedition to Africa. Instead of pressuring us into sympathizing with the estranged girl by simply pleading for our deeply rooted empathy, director Fredrik Edfelt does something much harder: Through a movie that is scarce on action as well as dialogue, he draws a portrait of someone who is forced to act beyond her age, and whose survival instincts are rivaled only by her desire to not let other people in on her loneliness. If I just made this sound like a drag of 1970s Scandinavian social realism, I apologize. Sweden is by far the most interesting country for Scandinavian cinema these days. If you can see them in your country, movies like Darling (2007), De Ofrivilliga (2008), I taket lyser stjärnorna (2009), Man tänker sitt (2009) and Farväl Falkenberg (2006) are all highly recommended.
Two final recommendations go to two movies that have been around for a long time already, but weren’t released in Norway until 2010; Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet and Gregg Mottola’s Adventureland. For the first hour or so, I was convinced that A Prophet, a favorite to take the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2009 until The White Ribbon came along, was going to be one of the absolute best films of the year. The way it sets up and navigates the ethnic, social and religious codes of prison life is sublime and suspenseful, and the fateful act that sets off Malik’s (Tahar Ramin) ascent through the criminal hierarchy is absolutely hauntingly conceived. Niels Arestrup is very good as the gangster that provides him with protection, and I can’t find anything in particular to explain exactly why it didn’t quite stand its running time, except to say that I think it works better as a prison drama than as a more straightforward mob drama.
It would be an understatement to say that Adventureland is a very different film, but the fact that I still remember it fondly almost year after I saw it has to count for something. Its offbeat humor and never feels forced or scripted, and from Kristen Stewart to the infallible Jesse Eisenberg, the acting is infused with enough charm and tenderness to shoulder a generic love story with a twist. As someone who fell for the nostalgia of 2008’s The Wackness, I imagine Adventureland will have a similar effect on people who of age in the eighties. Also, it’s a surprisingly touching story. Gregg Mottola was the man behind the overrated Superbad and the underrated Daytrippers, but Adventureland is his best movie.
And finally, to throw in some honorable mentions in addition to these honorable mentions, I’d name Up in the Air, We Live In Public and My One and Only.