Crunching the year's releases into a definitive list of the best is no easy feat – usually. However, this year there were five films that sat heads and shoulders above the others, in my book. The list below represents ten-plus hours of me sitting, riveted, by what unfolded before me on screen.
A Single Man
Scandanavian furniture provided little comfort to inconsolable grief in Tom Ford's impossibly stylish and very smart debut feature. A deceptively restrained meditation on love, loss and the little things that can fill your final day.
Jacques Audiard's intelligent study of a petty criminal's rise through the ranks of prison hierarchy mixed the politics of incarceration with contemporary French attitudes to immigrants. Wily Malik (Tahar Rahim) straddled the chasm between warring factions, and Audiard depicted the ensuing machinations in unflinching detail.
Full kudos to Jackie Weaver for the accolades she has received to date (and those hopefully yet to come) for her role as a Melbourne crime family matriarch, but she had top shelf source material to work with, courtesy of writer/director David Michôd. Hands down one of the year's best.
A gentle American redemption tale that gets top points mainly for Jeff Bridges' experiential turn as the whisky-swilling troubadour who has lived every lyric of his old-school country songs. Watching him struggle to be more successful a performer than he is an alcoholic, was one of the filmgoing highlights of the year.
A brash young Essex girl was unable to process the cues of adulthood, and grew up way too fast in Andrea Arnold's bleak drama. Newcomer Katie Jarvis acted established performers off the screen with her world-weary performance of the fiercely independent teen.
The White Ribbon: Michael Haneke's deadpan morality tale about random acts of nastiness was the year's slowburner
Winter's Bone: A headstrong teen took on an agonistic herd in this quiet observational drama.
The Road: Year's best adaptation breathed life into the exhausted, pale limbs of Cormac MacCarthy's apocalypse survivors.
I Love You Phillip Morris: A laugh-out-loud funny story of devotion that got full houses at MIFF but struggled to land a distributor.
Aftershock : The modernisation of China played out from the perspective of a fragmented family living in the shadow of a devastating earthquake; but for a brief cameo from a truly awful actor in a brief spoken English role, it'd rank higher.
The Social Network: A good-but-not-great piece of 'history told by the victor', about the feuds and jealousies at the heart of invention.
2010 was a good year for film, both at home and abroad. This list was not easily culled from the initial oversized compilation, which was appropriate as the movies on it were not easily made. Each revealed a distinct sensibility which elevated the top five (listed here in alphabetical order) above the merely fine. Whether it was Andrea Arnold's poetically immersive take on teenage life in Fish Tank, or David Michod's magisterial sense of control with Animal Kingdom, these films were both compelling and transformative; you couldn't look away during them, the world didn't feel the same after them.
It was a very good year for Australian film, even if funding focus on genre flicks became somewhat overbearing. Still, there was a strong period war film (Beneath Hill 60) and a big budget teen adventure (Tomorrow, When the War Began), but at the summit was Animal Kingdom, the immaculately composed crime saga that had the dynamics of a family drama and the underlying dread of a horror film. In a film where established codes and orders collapse, the one certainty was assured debut director David Michôd. It's a stone cold masterpiece.
Built around a prodigious central performance by first time actor Katie Jarvis, Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank suggested a new path forward for British social realism, emphasising the corrosive, contradictory beauty of the Essex setting and taking the audience inside the life of a combatively furious 15-year-old girl whose rivalry with her mother extends to growing too close to the new man in their home, played by Michael Fassbender.
“The police shot the right man,” intones a British government functionary at the close of Chris Morris' Four Lions, “but the wrong man exploded.” That was incisive, hilarious standard on the feature film debut of the maverick television satirist, who tackled the concept of homegrown Muslim jihadists who attempt to damage a society they're intrinsically linked to. Morris began by having his ineffectual would-be terrorists stumble through the rituals, but he steadily amends the humour with tragedy, until the two are cruelly indistinguishable.
The Social Network
Of the five filmmakers at the top of 2010, four were making either their first or second feature. The exception was David Fincher, whose eighth movie may well be the best of an already impressive career. Boasting an equally important screenplay by Aaron Sorkin that took his vaunted skill for dialogue and tied it to what was for him a new kind of protagonist, in the form of withdrawn and yet ambitious online visionary Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network turned the creation of Facebook into a dissection of a culture and a generation that fairly crackled with illuminative worth.
Debra Granik's tale of an Ozarks teenager (Jennifer Lawrence, in a career-making lead performance) who must risk her very life by entering the criminal milieu that has already swallowed her father, was a stark, powerful piece of world-building observant of ritual and character. In a world where clans held sway over inaccessible terrain, narcotics was the defining business, and matriarchs had to take control in the absence of husbands (it was more Afghanistan than middle America), the value of life took on a whole new meaning.
Olivier Assayas' Carlos, Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, Armando Iannucci's In the Loop, Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right, Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Ben Affleck's The Town, Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon.
After watching 94 films in cinemas and more than 100 on DVD, here's my verdict: It was a lousy year, the least memorable in recent memory, chiefly due to the preponderance of brainless remakes, sequels and reboots mostly aimed at the lowest common denominator. Compounding that, with a few honourable exceptions, is the Hollywood studios' collective aversion to subjects that are original, bold and risky.
The King's Speech
Tom Hooper's movie about the self-taught Australian speech therapist who helps the King of England overcome a speech impediment and, in the process, regain his self-esteem, is magnificent, alternately funny, touching and stirring. Colin Forth and Geoffrey Rush are worthy contenders for the best actor and supporting actor Oscars, respectively, and David Seidler's original screenplay also has a shot.
How gratifying, and rare, to be able to rank an Aussie film in the top 5. An astonishing assured debut from writer-director David Michôd, it's the best Australian drama for at least 10 years, maybe longer: who can remember the last truly wonderful Oz film? Sharp writing, with wonderful performances all round; I'm rooting for Jacki Weaver as Oscar's best supporting actress.
The Social Network
I can imagine how some Hollywood suits may have reacted to David Fincher's pitch for a movie about Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg: “Waddya mean the opening scene lasts five minutes and just has Zuckerberg arguing with his girlfriend?” Kudos, then, to Sony for backing the movie and to Fincher, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and the top-notch cast led by Jessie Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Rooney Mara for delivering a brilliant film about greed, ego and loneliness.
The Hurt Locker
Kathryn Bigelow's multiple-Oscar winner is a powerful, gritty film that's so vivid and real you can almost taste the sand and feel the heat and adrenaline pumping. And it has a star-making performance by Jeremy Renner.
The Kids are All Right
Gutsy performances by Annette and Julianne Moore as a lesbian couple who raise two teenagers conceived with an anonymous sperm donor are a treat to watch in Lisa Cholodenko's highly original comedy-drama. Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson are great as the kids, as is Mark Ruffalo as the donor who comes back into their lives.
Inception, Up in the Air, Greenberg, Blue Valentine, The American, Iron Man 2, Kick-Ass, The Ghost Writer, The Town, Fair Game, Let Me In, Crazy Heart, Harry Brown and The Disappearance of Alice Creed.
The White Ribbon
Didn't walk from the screening thinking 'Year's Best Film' – wasn't thinking much at all, so floored was I by Haneke's birth-of-fascism parable – but images and themes have haunted me ever since.
Each performance, every frame, perfectly pitched. That it's a decade-long labour-of-love for Michôd shows.
Some carped “too much exposition” – when was the last time we complained about that in an American film! The effectiveness of Marion Cotillard's performance in giving the film its heart and soul has been grossly undervalued.
The Social Network
Pure cinema – visually dazzling, unwavering in its intelligence with a dare-not-blink momentum. A Best Picture Oscar over The King's Speech will herald an out-with-the-old/in-with-the-new shift in the Academy's attitude.
The Milk of Sorrow
Claudia Llosa's Le teta asustada is a heart-breaking story of spirit over hardship; the best unwatched movie of the year. I cry a lot in movies; I cried the most in this one.
It's easy to write off 2010 as the Year of 'Meh'. Hollywood spent grotesque amounts of time and money on determinedly mediocre films and international cinema seemed to overtly rely on tried-and-true formulae (if I have to watch one more over-praised French romantic comedy...). The most satisfying aspect of being a film reviewer in 2010 was greeting the emergence of new talent. There was the 'It Crowd', those that burst onto our screens amidst headlines and deserved praise – David Michôd and his Animal Kingdom juggernaut; Chloe Moretz from Kick-Ass, Let Me In and Diary of a Wimpy Kid; Gareth Edwards, director of Monsters; Katie Jarvis as Mia in Fish Tank (the year's best trailer, too); Sean Byrne and the fresh-faced team behind The Loved Ones; Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone; Tahar Rahim, star of A Prophet; Gabourey Sidibe as 'Precious'; James Rolleston as Boy in Boy. Then there were those delivering on glimpsed potential – Emma Stone in Easy A; Ben Foster in The Messenger; the Spiereg Brothers with their sophomore effort, Daybreakers; writer/director Christopher Smith's criminally under-rated Triangle; The Kid's Are All Right multi-hyphenate Lisa Cholodenko; Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker; the ambition and vision of Paul King's Bunny and The Bull. My list, compiled after much order-shuffling and hair-pulling, is drawn from theatrically-released titles only and would have varied considerably had film festival favourites been allowed – Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's I Love You Phillip Morris, starring Jim Carrey and screened at MIFF, would be at #2, maybe #1; the documentary A Film Unfinished would be Top 5; factual films Restrepo, Marwencol and Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno would have been considered; Robin Williams' black-hearted classic World's Greatest Dad (MIFF-screened then sent to DVD); Andy Serkis' Ian Dury in Mat Whitecross' Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll was extraordinary (what has happened to that film?).
Year end best of lists are one of the hazards of film criticism. Looking back at them can be perilous. So many movies under-valued or missed, so many films over-rated, so many years dismissed as 'disappointing' or mediocre, when in fact, in hindsight, it may ultimately be re-assessed as momentous and full of promise. Usually composed on a short dead line, amidst the manic haste of Christmas obligations, listing the year's best movies then, is a kind of gamble on the future, one made with fingers crossed and disbelief firmly suspended. It is a preposterous game of prediction, which, given the circumstances close analysis takes a holiday and intuition and instinct take over. There was no room for a lot of fine movies that already have an army of support behind them…The Hurt Locker, A Single Man, The Social Network and Inception and there's the odd four-star review like Shutter Island that never made it either. So what follows, in no particular order, is my 2010 'best of' list. The 'best of' are five movies that have haunted me since first viewing…for what they say, and how they say it.
A terrific crime film, a family saga of subtlety and nuance, a piece of suburban myth making, a sublime meditation on loyalty and revenge...Dave Michôd's dazzling directorial debut has been justly lauded for its dense screenplay, white knuckle tension, and note-perfect performances from its very fine cast. But best of all its qualities I reckon, is its serious and compassionate tone. Michod pulls off an extraordinary feat; he makes his monstrous characters all too real and the tragic truth of their lives moving.
Sofia Coppola takes a classic yarn – the irresponsible male made whole again once the responsibilities of fatherhood take over – and turns it into a lovely mood piece about loneliness, and the vacuity of LA's celebrity circuit. There's nothing too profound or earth shattering here; but the unhurried, delicate dedication to the smallest of life's chores indicates that Coppola has a unique take in cinema these days...a fondness for people – warts and all.
With its regular cyclonic emotional catastrophe's and a drama that embraces character over plot, this is an actor's piece par excel lance. Far from a self-indulgent trifle, it becomes a sad and tender tale of a love lost in translation.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson directs and Noah Bambach co-wrote the script of this really inspired animated – and sadly under-rated – adaptation of Roald Dahl's much-loved book. Anderson's very brilliant eye for the telling, witty detail is in full force and with a stellar ensemble voicing a cast of hilarious characters it was a sincere, unqualified delight of 2010.
In The Proposition, filmmaker John Hillcoat offered the promise of a director who understood dark hearts and desperate times. In The Road, his first US produced film, he delivers the apocalypse, and it was shattering. Adapted from Cormac McCarthy's best seller, it is a rare thing; a bleak and violent film with depth and power and hope.
Ah yes, the ritual of the year-end Top 10. Except this isn't a Top 10 but a Top and Bottom 5, which is even harder to do because I can't fit my picks of the year into a mere five and I have a policy of deliberately avoiding films that look absolutely terrible wherever I can.
The justification for an exercise like this is that it gives us a chance to draw attention to films that might have slipped beneath the radar and help them find an audience. So I'm leaving out one of my favourite films, The Social Network, on the strategic basis that it's been successful in attracting the mass audience it deserves and has already built a huge head of steam in various film awards and end-of–year critics' round-ups. Ditto Toy Story 3. And The King's Speech hardly needs a push from me either. Instead I'd like to give a leg up to a wildly original gem like:
Japanese director Hitoshi Matsumoto's astonishingly inventive, out-there existential comedy, which played the festival circuit but didn't see cinema release. That's an injustice because it's like nothing you have ever seen. Recently we've had seen several features about males trapped in an enclosed environment – Buried (coffin), Lebanon (tank) and coming in January, 127 Hours (rock crevice). Symbol forgoes pressure-cooker dramatics for a more playful and surrealistic experience about a Japanese man who wakes to find himself imprisoned in an empty room. This story is inter-cut with a parallel narrative about a woebegotten Mexican wrestler. The moment where the two tales fuse provided the most sublime experience I had in the cinema in 2010.
Andrea Arnold's emotionally-wrenching feature about a wild teenager on a tower block estate took us on a journey that is unpredictable to the very end.
The Father of My Children
Young French director Mia Hansen-Love showed startling maturity in this two-part story about an idealistic independent film producer battling to keep several balls in the air while trying to stave off bankruptcy. Apart from its humanity, the film offered an unusually authentic look at the world of European filmmaking.
I Am Love
A lush, Visconti-like family melodrama of the type they don't make any more, except Italy's Luca Guadagnino did. Featuring one of the performances of the year from Tilda Swinton (as did the heavily flawed, straight-to-DVD Julia)
And.. A tie between The Waiting City (why was this film so efficiently elbowed out of major contention at the AFI Awards?), Animal Kingdom, The Road, The Secret in Their Eyes, The Kids Are All Right, The Runaways and Exit Through the Gift Shop, Fair Game, Boy and Blue Valentine. Told you I had trouble getting it down to five.
FROM THE ARCHIVE:
READ THE TEAM'S 2009 PICKS AND PANS HERE