Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Top Ten of 2010

Putting my curmudgeon's hat on for just a moment...

If there's one word critics generally admit they have no business using when assessing a film (or any other work or performance), it's "overrated." In theory, this seems right: how a work is received by others has nothing to do with its intrinsic merit, and should not affect an individual's evaluation of that merit. As a measure of quality, "overrated" and its corollary, "underrated," are meaningless.

But I call BS. The fact is that cultural criticism is inherently subjective, not objective, and unless you see a movie in a complete vacuum, your reaction to it is inevitably going to be influenced by the preconceptions and expectations you bring to it. And with a turbo-charged, Internet-driven media constantly flooding our consciousness (and subconsciousness) with advance information, breathless hype, and that indefinable, fickle creature known as "buzz," it's a miracle that moviegoers haven't become entirely jaded by now.

But maybe that's just me, and maybe I just read too much about movies before I see them. All I know is that with each passing year, there seem to be more and more that I look forward to with intense anticipation, only to be let down, to varying degrees, once I actually see them. Examples this year: INCEPTION; THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT; THE SOCIAL NETWORK; THE KING'S SPEECH. All of these films had merit; but I could not share even a fraction of the overwhelming enthusiasm they seemed to inspire in others. And this has made it difficult for me to distinguish how much of my critical response was truly based on my own standards and how much was me falling victim to my own expectations, fanned into a frenzy by the insidiously powerful Buzz Machine.

It's worth noting that there were several films that the Buzz Machine touted full blast that I still ended up enjoying very much, without a shade of disappointment, such as THE FIGHTER, BLACK SWAN, and TRUE GRIT. And I still liked THE SOCIAL NETWORK enough to put it in my top ten. However, some of the films that actually stayed with me the longest were smaller pictures that all but slipped under the critical radar. These are the ones I'm proudest to include in my top ten - and I'm not just being contrarian.


This little gem went largely unnoticed, though it did get some attention for Patricia Clarkson's beautifully nuanced lead performance as a Western woman adrift in present-day Cairo. Her co-star, Alexander Siddig, was even better, and the delicate direction of Ruba Nadda elevated what could have been extremely trite East-meets-west material into a subtle and poignant romance.


Yes, this based-on-a-true-story boxing picture owes a huge debt to ROCKY, and no, it doesn't really break any new ground. Doesn't matter. It's so dynamic and so well acted across the board (Christian Bale and, surprisingly, Amy Adams the standouts) that it kept me riveted from start to finish.


Over-the-top? Yes. Ridiculous? Yes. Original? Not particularly. But you still can't take your eyes off it. This is the kind of balls-out, teetering-on-the-edge filmmaking only Darren Aronofsky can give us, and his nightmare vision of the artist driven to madness still haunts me.


Just saw it last weekend. For such a downer of a film, it's also remarkably tender, funny, and engaging. It finds beauty in pathos, in what could have been a merely sad, scruffy, even sordid tale of a doomed marriage. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams will wring your heart as the couple that proves that love, alone, isn't enough.


A Coen brothers movie with a heart! Rare and valuable for that alone. But still with plenty of their merciless, bone-dry wit, and excellent turns by Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. Especially Bridges, who refuses to let the ghost of John Wayne intimidate him. The Dude abides.


Ok, ok, it was good. It deserves to be here. My criticisms still stand. Can we move on now?


I'm not sure Sofia Coppola's really progressed that much as a filmmaker, but even if she hasn't, I continue to enjoy what she does. Few can capture as deftly as she does those wordless moments of tenderness or tension that relieve the anomie of everyday existence.


Not a perfect film by a long shot, but something about it has stuck with me these many months. It has a clarity of vision and purpose, and a profound respect for reason and intellect, that you rarely see in films today, even the good ones.


A very good, sensitive rendition of a book that had to have been incredibly challenging to adapt to film. Critics were largely dismissive, perhaps because it took few risks stylistically, but I think it deserved better. Dare I say it was underrated?

10. HOWL

Again, flawed, yet there's something charming, almost quaint (in a good way) about its half-pictorial, half-documentary-style presentation of a cultural "moment" and the man behind it. I did not expect it to show up in my top ten, but it stayed with me, and here it is.

Just missed: TOY STORY 3; 127 HOURS




Blogger Dave said...

In addition to whether a movie is under or over-rated, couldn't there simply be just a strong difference in tastes that leads people to differ on movie choices? For instance, I tried watching the movie you rated #1, Cairo Time, and literally couldn't get past the first 20 minutes. I deleted it from my DVR. I came into the movie with very low expectations, only recalling that it got good reviews from several critics and generally liking Patricia Clarkson. But the slowness of the movie, with long pauses where the characters are doing nothing, plus the fact that the plot was clearly orchestrated from the opening scene made it just unwatchable for me.

Contrast that with Inception, a movie that could not have been more over-hyped when I saw it 6 months after it came out in theaters. I was still blown away by the movie's plot, the score, and the general imagery and creativity of the film. At the end of the day I like movies with intricate, complex stories more than movies with interesting settings and character development. I recognize that about my own tastes and don't shy away from it. But I know it will color any top ten lists I'd come up with.

12:24 AM  
Blogger lylee2 said...

That's definitely true - as I said, movie reviewing is inescapably subjective - except personal taste and preference doesn't really explain the recurring pattern of disappointed expectations. I like all types of movies, and I love movies that play with the idea of the tenuousness of reality, of our perceptions of reality, and our memories. But I just didn't love INCEPTION (even though I oddly did enjoy talking about it with other people afterwards). And I contrast my reaction to my much stronger response to MEMENTO, a movie with similar themes, and I can only conclude that ten years ago, I could build up some anticipation, but not nearly as much - or for as long - as today.

12:26 AM  
Blogger LVJeff said...

Might I suggest, perhaps, an opposite approach to your usual protocol: trying to read as little as possible about any movie before you see it? :-)

2:26 PM  
Blogger lylee2 said...

Yes, I should! But I'm not sure I'm capable of that kind of self-restraint. :-) It's all tied up with my general Internet addiction.

4:58 PM  

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