Top Ten Movies of 2010! Black Swan, Winter’s Bone, Fish Tank, You Are Here, True Grit, Enter the Void, The Kids Are All Right, Kick Ass, Mother, Nowhere Boy.

Posted in Cultural Mining, Movies, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on December 30, 2010

Well, we’re on the verge of a new year, and movie reviewers seem obligated to say which movies were the best in the past year. But I’m what you’d call a promiscuous moviegoer (I see about 250 movies a year), so it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few. But I’ll try. (I’m not including documentaries or animated movies, just because I’m trying to narrow it down. And I’m also not counting any movies I saw at film festivals that haven’t played publicly yet in Toronto.

The best movies all have a great story, script, direction, and acting, and are in some way new and novel. They also go beyond what’s normally expected from a movie, and transcend genres. Here, in no particular order, are my 10 favourite movies of 2010.

Black Swan

Dir: Darren Aronfsky

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a sheltered, young ballerina who wants to play the lead part in Swan Lake, but the ballet director wants her to explore her dark side, and try to play the Black Swan. She has to overcome her inhibitions, her rivals, her doubts, and her increasingly psycho-sexual delusions if she is to make it in her part.

Despite my ignorance and lack of interest in Ballet dancing, this movie had me transfixed. Aranofsky successfully navigates between the documentary-style hyper-realism of backstage massages, taping and bone-cracking, the high camp of melodramatic scenery-chewing and cat-fighting, and the surreal, drug-induced psychological fantasies. All of this plus stunning visuals and sound.

Winter’s Bone

Dir: Debra Granik

Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17 year old girl who lives in dirt poor rural Missouri in the Ozarks with her silent mother and two little kids. She has to find her missing father, who’s out on bail before a trial, or else lose the family homestead. She’s a Dolly – “bread and buttered”, she says. The Dollys aren’t the nicest family in those parts, but they’re her kin and she has no one else to turn to so she starts on a mysterious journey into the dangerous swamp of her creepy family’s secrets.

Winter’s Bone is an excellent, compelling mystery-drama, made on location in the Ozarks, with great acting, a compelling story, and an unknown cast. With the fiddle, banjo and the guitar and mountain folksongs in the soundtrack you really feel like your there with her.

Fish Tank

Dir: Andrea Arnold

Mia is a 15 year old street-smart and tough-as-nails high school drop-out who lives with her mother and little sister in a high-rise council flat in England. Her hobbies are drinking, smoking, shouting, fighting, stealing, pilfering through wallets, and practicing her hiphop dancing. (She wants to be a dancer.) Her mother’s handsome Irish boyfriend Connor acts like a young father to her and her little sister – but then she sees him half dressed one day. The familial structure begins to crumble when all of their roles silently adjust themselves.

This is a great movie, with a terrific cast, especially the staggeringly good Katie Jarvis, as Mia, in her first acting role, and Michael Fassbender, as Connor. The movie itself looks almost improvised, though it clearly follows a story – and a heart pounding, tense, and engrossing story it is

You Are Here

Dir: Daniel Cockburn

This first feature is an experimental film that’s hard to categorize: it’s like a series of matrushka dolls dancing on a moebius strip, being fed through a reel to reel tape recorder. I don’t have enough time to even attempt to say anything about the story or characters, except that its sort of like an abstract physics string theory plot… if that makes sense. You are Here is a great, unique, Toronto movie.

True Grit

Dir: Joel and Ethan Coen

In this remake of a 1960’s John Wayne western, 14 year old Hattie hires a drunk Marshal Rooster Cogburn to hunt down her father’s killer. Can she depend on the True Grit sincerity and perseverance of either Cogburn or the Texas Marshall LeBoeuf? It’s a great, classic western, complete with Spielberg-style cliffhangers and tear-jerking scenes, along with the Coen brothers absurd comedy and violence.

Enter the Void

Dir: Gaspar Noe

A Canadian brother and sister living in Tokyo are tied together by a childhood bonding. But when the brother dies, he’s torn from his body and his spirit drifts around the city’s underworld, back and forward in time, through walls and over rooftops. This spectacularly, overwhelmingly trippy is a 2 1/2 hour hallucinogenic experience, seen directly through his eyes. Enter the Void is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It is an extremely absorbing and mind-blowing — but looooong — work of art. Even the opening credits are more fantastic than most movies.

The Kids Are All Right

Dir: Lisa Cholodenko

Nik and Jules (are a southern California middle-class, lesbian couple living happily with their two teenaged kids. But things change when their daughter hunts down the sperm donor (Mark Ruffallo) – a happy-go-lucky, organic motorcycle rider and college drop out who hits on every pretty woman he sees. He’s the third wheel that intrudes in the peaceful family.

Normally I’m not a big fan of light family dramas, but this movie has such good acting, (Juliane Moore playing against type, and Annette Bening in what I think is her best role ever) and is so funny, is such a good story – I really liked it. It’s a honey of a movie.

Kick Ass

Dir: Matthew Vaughan

Dave (Aaron Johnson) is a High School boy who’s tired of the undesirable combination: invisible to girls, but a magnet to bullies and muggers. So he makes himself a superhero costume, and when he’s caught on film fighting some street thugs, it goes viral on youtube and he becomes a superhero for real. But when he encounters some real superheroes, Hit Girl and Big Daddy (played by Chloe Moretz and Nicholas Cage), he is shocked back into reality. These real “heroes” were also amassing huge amounts of weapons and money they steal. The even more horrific villains he encounters, forces him to make a decision.

Kick Ass is not just a typical teen action comedy. It’s a fascinating, shocking, extremely violent, morally ambiguous drama, adapted from a graphic novel.

Mother

Dir: Bong Joon-ho

A desperately poor Korean mother (Hye-ja Kim), is shocked when her ne-er-do-well, not very bright son is accused of a murder. When the police don’t help her , she sets off to find the real killer. The great acting, uncomfortable characters and gripping mystery/detective plot make this a cinematic treat.

Nowhere Boy

Dir: Sam Taylor-Woods

John Lennon (Aaron Johnson), is a high school student in the late 50’s, growing up with his cold aunt Mimi in a middle class home in Liverpool. But when he discovers his long-lost mother is still alive, and lives a couple blocks away, his life turns upside down. His mother introduces him to banjo music. He combs his hair like a rock n roller, and becomes rebellious, cocky, almost a local tough, joy-riding around town on the roof of a double decker bus, smoking, drinking, and kissing strange girls. I was expecting another tired Beatles biopic, but this actually a great movie.

Have a Happy New Year, control yourselves, go crazy but not too crazy, and I’ll be back next year (and next week) with more movies.

Super Macho Friday! Films reviewed: Love and Other Drugs; Black Swan; Kings of Pastry

I was recently in The States for American Thanksgiving, and at an American chain bookstore, I noticed a whole section – not just a table, not just a shelf, but a whole section — devoted to “paranormal teenage romances”! I’ve seen that ultimate teenaged paranormal romantic vampire trilogy (the eclipse trilogy) – and I have to say, they were awful, I couldn’t find the appeal in any of them. But different people like different things…I guess it’s a matter of taste.

You might think you like things that blow up, crashing cars, scary monsters, blood and guts, and fistfights. Yeah, me too. That’s why I’m calling this week’s reviews Super Macho Friday, so I can talk about some uber-alpha-testosterone-laden action-packed movies. Yes!!! We’re going to see three rough and tough movies about cut-throat competition, nerves of steel, ironman endurance…! One’s a romantic comedy, one’s a film about ballet dancing, and one’s a documentary on… exquisite French sweeties?

OK I lied, they’re not stereotypically masculine as movies go, but, keep listening: some of them are well worth watching.

Love and Other Drugs
Dir: Edward Zwick

Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a retail salesman in the mid-1990s whose aim is to get laid – on the job – as often as possible. But he gets fired for hitting on his boss’s girlfriend. He’s young, handsome, ambitious, and out of work. Meanwhile, his slovenly, obnoxious, unattractive little brother Josh, who has made a fortune in the dot-com bubble, offers to set him up with a sales job at a global pharmaceutical giant. If his sales reach a certain target, he’ll get to move away from the backwater he’s placed in to the big-time: Chicago.

So he trains hard, works hard, and learns the trade, while also sticking to his hobby. Is he trying to pick up women in order to up his sales? Or is he working as a traveling salesman to sleep with the metaphorical farmer’s daughters? Who knows? Either way, he’s being trounced by a more successful, rival salesman: an ex-marine peddling prozac. But, after bribing a doctor to let him dress as an intern, he encounters a beautiful woman, Maggie (Anne Hathaway) a barrista and artist with early onset Parkinson’s. Sounds interesting so far? It is, sort of.

After that, unfortunately, the rest of the movie is just about them jumping in and out of bed, and whether their casual sex will develop into a loving relationship. Granted, there’s lots of gratuitous shots of the two movie stars running around scantily dressed… but the movie itself was pointless and boring. Will Maggie and Jake stay together? Will he get his transferred to Chicago? Will she continue to make coffee and snap photos and buy medications? Who cares? You get the impression even they don’t really care. And when the movie tries to be funny, it usually fails miserably, like the lame scene about Viagra-induced priapism and a three way with a model-like saleswoman in a hot tub (“She’s Thai, and I’m Thai-curious”).

It doesn’t even really deal with the real problems of big pharmaceuticals, aside from the industry’s high prices and competitiveness. Instead, it was more of a non-stop product placement for the drugs themselves. They even have a depressed homeless guy whose life is turned around after garbage-picking Prozac samples. Oliver Platt as his trainer and Hank Azaria as a GP are bth great, but other than that, unless you really love Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, (or have a thing for awful 90’s music, like The Macarena) this is a stupid, pointless romantic movie that goes nowhere.

Black Swan
Dir: Darren Aronofsky

I reviewed this during the Toronto Film festival, and it stayed with me – it’s a haunting, moving film.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina, pure of heart, who wants the lead role in Swan Lake. She’s been raised to reach perfection, en pointe, by her relentless stage mother who was also in the ballet, but never made it big. Nina doesn’t drink or smoke or have sex – she still lives at home, she’s bullemic, plays with stuffed animals, wears a fuzzy pink coat, and listens to her little music box with a dancing ballerina by her bed.

But the ballet director, played Vincent Cassel, wants to put new life into the that cliched old ballet. He pushes her to also play the role of the Black Swan, the sinister evil twin of the Swan Queen. For this, he wants her to abandon her remaining childhood and purity and to become angry, passionate and sexual. He’s exploitative and cruel. Meanwhile, Beth the former diva at this ballet, (Winona Ryder) is forced to retire, and a new competitor, Lily (Mila Kunis) is also trying for the role, and trying everything she can to take it from Nina. Sophisticated Lily is Nina’s opposite – sex, drugs, smoking, and backstabbing all come as second nature to her. Nina has to hold on, both to her role in the ballet, and to her tenuous grip on reality.

The big question is: does Aronofsky’s latest venture work or not. I have to admit, at times, this movie drifted into high camp, and felt like nothing more than a remake of Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls”, another movie about backstabbing dancers.

That said, I think it’s a totally watchable classic melodrama and psychological thriller, with great acting by the two main women, plus very enjoyable overacting by Winona Ryder as the former prima donna and Barbara Hershey as the over-the-top stage mom. This movie’s also stunning on the eyes and ears, with amazing production values.

I think Aronofsky knows exactly what he’s doing, neatly alternating three styles: The super-real, documentary-like footage just like in The Wrestler – behind the scenes bone-cracking, massages, rehearsals, warm-ups and make-ups; the scenery-chewing catfights of melodramatic soap opera; and surreal, drug-induced psychological fantasies (like in his great “Requiem for a Dream”). For me, this balance worked.

Kings of Pastry
Dir: Chris Hegedus, and D.A. Pennebaker

The title says it all: this is about the cut-throat competition to be accepted as a Meilleur Ouvrier de France and allowed to wear the coveted collar. The movie follows the competitors from Europe and North America, as they go from stage to stage, constructing elaborate spun sugar sculptures, designing multi-layered chocolate truffles, obscure pastries, and impossibly complex cakes. It’s like a reality show or Iron Chef – except it’s not a TV show competition. It’s the real thing. They all compete, with an olympic-like ethos, to create these monuments of grotesquerie.

Part of the competition is to take these huge, delicate and breakable constructions, lift them up, using their own hands, and carry them all the way to the table where the judges do their judging. And even though this is an unscripted documentary, you just know it, one of the chefs is going to stumble…

When I was a kid, they did the learning numbers sequence on Sesame Street – some of you might remember this – and one film clip that still sticks in my mind is, in each sequence, there would be this guy at the top of a staircase in a white chef’s toque announcing something like “Seven Pumpkin Pies!” And then dropping them all.

Anyway, I don’t get it. I’m not a sweet tooth so I don’t see why you’d breaking your back creating hideous spun-sugar displays and petit fours arangements, but clearly some people live for this stuff. And the chefs, obviously, still value these old-school distinctions. I guess you could say they want to be archaic, and eat it, too. The film starts slowly, with the chefs in their home territories, practicing spinning flawless sugar ribbons; but once they’re at the big competition, it really heats up. Tthis is an excellent documentary, and the ultimate dessert film.

Just to review, today I talked about Love and Other Drugs, now playing, Black Swan opening today, check your local listings, and Kings of Pastry which is playing at The TIFF Lightbox – go to tiff.net for details. Also starting today is Sell Out!, a funny and unusual satirical musical-comedy about Rafflesia, a reality show host whose ambition comes to the rescue when she finds a new way to attract Malaysian audiences – using death as the ultimate draw.

Great Dramas at TIFF 2010: Deep in the Woods, The Matchmaker, Black Swan, plus The Light Box

Well, the Toronto Film Festival is in full swing, and there’s still time – this Friday, Saturday and Sunday — to catch some really great movies, surrounded by other people who also love movies. It’s not everyday you get to ask a director questions about a movie right after you see it, or know that the person sitting beside you definitely has an opinion too, and is willing to share it with you – whether you like it or not. In fact, it’s one of the few times when semi-straight-laced Toronto sheds its inhibitions and throws aside the childhood warning: Don’t talk to strangers.

Now is also the time to check out the Tiff Light Box at the corner of John and King in downtown Toronto. Just this past weekend they’ve opened up a brand-spanking new headquarters for the film festival to function as a full-year event. There’s a restaurant and café with huge glass walls downstairs, and upstairs are some really nice looking movie theatres, that seat up to 500 people. It feels like you’re entering a museum or an international exhibition. Very impressive, very exciting experience.

If you listen to my reviews regularly you might remember my lament over the death of the velvet curtain, the dramatic opening and closing that used to mark every movie. To paraphrase Mark Twain, news of its death has been greatly exaggerated. And evidence of this is right there at the Light Box. Huge red curtains part to start each show, and rows of neat red seats arc out in the theatre. My only complaint is they sacrificed looks for comfort. There are impressive, minimalist, row after row of little square fold-down seats… but no arm rests. What are they thinking? I guess they figure people who like movies all wear black turtlenecks and have tiny bums and straight backs and will sit for hours with their hands neatly folded in their laps, calmly contemplating Fassbinder and their next fix of heroin.

We’ll see how that pans out…

CORRECTION: I have since discovered that, while the seats in my row at the Light Box had flip-up seats with no arm rests, most of the other rows had regular, comfortable seats. So I just lucked into that one special row for the Fassbinder fans in black turtlenecks… or maybe people who use wheelchairs.

The Light Box also has a series of galleries-cum-movie theatres that straddle the space in between art and cinema – movies projected as art; video art using cinematic narratives. There are shows and installations on right now by Canadian directors Atom Egoyan and the amazing Guy Maddin, as well as Singapore-born artist Ming Wong’s show in which he plays all the characters, male and female, in a Berlin soap opera.

Now let me talk about a few of the films I found interesting at this year’s festival.

Deep in the Woods

Dir: Benoit Jacquot

Timothee, a kid, a ruffian, really, in torn clothes with matted hair appears in a small town in France in the 1850’s – he can barely speak, and has filthy teeth and black hands. But he makes eye contact with Josephine (Isild Le Besco), the well-educated daughter of the town doctor, and proceeds to study her, climbing trees, peering through her windows, and hiding in the bushes as she fends off a boring suitor trying to impress her with his poetry.

She is straight laced and wears a bodice, but Timothee (Argentine actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) sees her true self yearning to be free, standing at the edge of steep cliffs daring herself to fly away.

So he insinuates himself into her life, and soon impresses the family with his seemingly magical skills in magnetism, prestidigitation, fortune telling, and hypnotism. When they are alone together, Josephine is quick to strip off her clothes and have sex with Timothee. Has he forced her using hypnotism?

Soon she follows him deep into the woods where they live a random, itinerant life, encountering people and events as they travel down a road. Their relationship – a sort of a marriage is constantly evolving; and the power dynamics – a rich educated woman living with a destitute man with survival skills and perhaps magical powers – gradually shifting from him to her.

This is a powerful and strange movie, unlike any I’ve even seen. Maybe it’s closest to the great movie “The Lovers on the Bridge” / “Les Amants du Pont Neuf”, (dir: Leos Carax) but different. It’s not for everyone, but I really liked it, especially the two main actors who are captivating in their roles.

Another movie that I really liked is

The Matchmaker

Dir: Avi Nesher

Arik, a kid in Haifa, Israel in the late 1960’s, is hanging out with his friends playing soccer when a man with a cane and huge scar across his face, and a mysterious past, arrives on their block. He’s Yankele Bride (Adir Miller), and he’s a matchmaker from Romania who’s there to find husbands and wives for unusual people with peculiarities who haven’t had any luck on their own. He says, he’ll find them the match they need, but not necessarily the one they want.

So after Arik’s prank misfires, he hires him to come work for him in the wrong side of town where he lives. His office is right beside a movie theatre that only plays movies with happy endings, run by a family of little people, dwarves who had survived concentration camp experiments by the notorious Dr Mengele, and near to an elegant woman Clara, who runs a late night speak-easy. The Matchmaker also earns his money in a shady occupation, but his vocation – matching up people who truly love each other – is his mission. None of the characters dare to bring up the concentration camps; in the 1960’s it was still considered taboo to talk about. They refer to it only as “there”.

Meanwhile, young Arik is falling for his neighbour, a tempestuous Iraqi girl, Tamara (Neta Porat), who has rejected her family’s conservatism and embraced the American youth culture of psychedelic music and the sexual revolution.

If this sounds like a complicated plot… it is, but it’s a fantastic story with compelling, captivating, and unusual characters – not all loveable, but you really want to find out what happens to them. Nesher is a not just a great director, but also an amazing storyteller. This is the kind of movie, one with a great story – with comedy, passion, romance, intrigue, betrayal, and truly memorable characters — that you rarely encounter anymore. Look out for this movie – the Matchmaker — hopefully it will be released after the festival.

Another movie, and one that definitely will be released, is

“Black Swan”

dir: Daren Aronofsky.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina, pure of heart, who wants the lead role in Swan Lake. She’s been raised to reach perfection, en pointe, by her relentless stage mother who was also in the ballet, but never made it big. Nina doesn’t drink or smoke or have sex – she still lives at home, she’s bullemic, plays with stuffed animals, wears a fuzzy pink coat, and listens to her little music box with a dancing ballerina by her bed.

But the ballet director, played Vincent Cassel, wants to put new life into the that cliched old ballet. He pushes her to also play the role of the Black Swan, the sinister evil twin of the Swan Queen. For this, he wants her to abandon her remaining childhood and purity and to become angry, passionate and sexual. He’s exploitative and cruel. Meanwhile, Beth the former diva at this ballet, (Winona Ryder) is forced to retire, and a new competitor, Lily (Mila Kunis) is also trying for the role, and trying everything she can to take it from Nina. Sophisticated Lily is Nina’s opposite – sex, drugs, smoking, and backstabbing all come as second nature to her. Nina has to hold on to her role in the ballet, as well as her tenuous grip on reality.

OK: does Aronofsky’s latest venture work or not. I have to admit, at times, this movie drifted into high camp, was unintentionally hilarious, and felt like nothing more than a remake of Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls”, another movie about backstabbing dancers. Who knows, maybe “Black Swan” and “Showgirls” will still be double-billing it at rep cinemas 50 years from now.

That said, I think it’s a totally watchable classic melodrama and psychological thriller, with great acting by the two main women, plus very enjoyable overacting by Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey (as the over-the-top stage mom). The movie’s also stunning on the eyes and ears, with great production values.

I think Aronofsky knows exactly what he’s doing, neatly alternating super-real, documentary-like footage just like in The Wrestler – behind the scenes bone-cracking, massages, rehearsals, warm-ups and make-ups – with equal parts scenery-chewing soap and surreal, drug-induced psychological fantasies (like in his great “Requiem for a Dream”). For me, this balanced worked.

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