It’s time to write those final holiday cards (if you still do those), get those last gifts, and plow through the latest crop of Top 10 lists. So here are my 10 favorite movies from 2010, in no particular order.
Everyone loses in this tragic tale by the great French filmmaker Claire Denis, who went back to Africa, her girlhood home and the site of her first feature, for this collaboration with the lionhearted Isabelle Huppert. Denis developed the scenario (the script is by Marie N’Diaye) for Huppert, whose ropy body and blazing light-blue eyes make her convincing as a French coffee grower convinced that her country’s obsession with skin color doesn’t apply to her, even though white skin is now almost as big a liability as black skin was in colonial times. Huppert’s Maria is a compellingly repellent character, so sure of her own righteousness that she can’t see anything or anybody else. You can’t help but admire her courage and grit -- and yet, in a damning repudiation of the blindness to white privilege and the ruinous effects of colonialism that make characters like Maria and movies like Mugabe and the White African so infuriating, Denis and D’Diaye make it clear that her fight is doomed, destructive, and more than a little unhinged.
Last Train Home
Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Lixin Fan got amazing access to his subjects in this wrenching portrait of the human price of China’s rapid transition to a form of state-controlled capitalism. Focusing as crisply on the long view as the close-up, he hones in on one disrupted family without letting us forget the ocean of people that are in the same boat. Zhang Chanhua and Chen Suqin, a worn-out middle-aged couple from a rural area, support themselves and their family by doing factory work in the city of Guangzhou. But China’s migrants, who are treated like second-class citizens, are not allowed to bring their families with them to the overcrowded cities. The couple’s two children live in the country with their grandmother and see their parents only once a year, when they make the long trip home for the holidays. That distance inevitably turns into an emotional gulf filled with heartache and anger.
12th and Delaware
A report from inside a powerful campaign of domestic terrorism that may already have won, 12th and Delaware takes place almost entirely within or just outside two innocuous-looking one-story buildings on the sunny Florida street corner of the title. One is an abortion clinic and the other is a "pregnancy center" run by Christian foes of abortion, put there to confuse and divert the women who come to the clinic for abortions. Cutting back and forth between the two, this knockout documentary anatomizes anti-abortion zealots' relentless fight to end abortion by any means necessary. Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp, Freakonomics) switch back and forth between the two camps, penetrating equally deeply into both.
The Social Network
A 21st-century version of What Makes Sammy Run?, The Social Network is a portrait of a driven young man that’s interesting mainly because of what it implies about the rest of us. The movie doesn’t really get into how technology is degenerating our social networks: It's interested in Facebook as an idea Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) develops and a lot of other people fight about, not as a social phenomenon. But it opens the door to that idea by showing how we're making kings of people so socially inept that they actually believe an online "community" like Facebook is a way of "taking the entire social experience of college and putting it online," as the Zuckerberg character puts it. Director David Fincher creates a bracingly kinetic film about ideas, thanks in part to the fast talk that is the movie’s main engine. His cast does Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue justice, talking as if their tongues can barely keep up with the hard drives spinning away in their skulls.
The Kids Are All Right
If there were a cinematic equivalent of the Great American Novel, The Kids Are All Right would be a contender. Not that it's weighty or self-important (on the contrary, its self-aware humor is part of its charm), but it takes the temperature of family life in a particular place and time in American history as precisely as a John Updike novel. It is also – like all of director Lisa Cholodenko's films – an exploration of the blurry lines we try to draw around our sexuality but often fail to maintain. Cholodenko and her co-writer, Stuart Blumberg, make us fall half in love with an upper-middle-class California family whose only problem seems to be the inevitable tension between intimacy and autonomy. Then the two teenagers, whose lesbian mothers conceived them through artificial insemination, get in touch with their sperm donor “dad,” and his intrusion into the family circle brings some long-simmering conflicts to a boil.
Just about all the extras and some of the actors with speaking roles in this film are from the hardscrabble part of the Ozarks where it takes place, and it was filmed on location in some of the actors’ homes. That probably goes a long way toward explaining how director and co-writer Debra Granik made such an unpatronizingly authentic-feeling film of Daniel Woodrell’s novel. Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a stoic 17-year-old who takes care of her younger siblings and her mentally ill mother, her grit and quiet competence just barely keeping the ramshackle roof over their heads. When her father skips out on a bond, leaving the house as collateral, Ree heads out to find him and save their home. Her grim odyssey turns up some horrible secrets, but the real subject of this beautifully shot, fiercely acted movie is the merciless code of behavior that has endured for generations in that part of the Ozarks. It's also about the meth that makes men like Ree's daddy even more dangerous than they already were.
No One Knows About Persian Cats
Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi specializes in documentary-style features, in which nonprofessional actors play themselves or people like themselves and the stories are, as a title at the start of Persian Cats informs us, "based on real events, locations, and people." But where his earlier films are about the struggles of rural Kurds, his latest is a thoroughly contemporary tour of the underground music scene in Tehran. Two young musicians, Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad), are trying to get to London to perform. Getting the gig was the easy part. What’s hard is piecing together a band to replace musicians who have fled the country, getting black market visas or passports for everyone, and buying one of the musicians out of his obligation to serve in the army. It's all very dangerous, very expensive, and very precarious, and they never know who they can trust. Ghobadi takes us through beautiful old streets and into secret rehearsals and performance spaces, giving us a clandestine tour of the city and what amounts to a series of underground music videos as Negar and Ashkan audition a wide variety of musicians. As we see these gentle souls forced into becoming outlaws, songs urging people to get past "the fences around your mind" take on deeper meaning.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Layer upon layer unfolds in this “street art documentary” by street artist Banksy. The first is the dryly funny story of Thierry Guetta, an eccentric Frenchman who loves street art so much that he films it obsessively, following the artists with his omnipresent video camera. The second is a quick gloss on the art form with an emphasis on Banksy and Shepard Fairey, who play with iconic images to critique popular leftie targets like corporate control and consumer excess. The third is the commoditization of art and the hype-happy commercial art world, which is depicted as unable to distinguish between real art with a unique style and vision (like, well, Banksy’s stuff) and the derivative dreck Thierry hires minions to crank out when he puts down the camera to make his own street art. The fourth and deepest layer is the question that emerges about the story itself: Is Thierry for real or is he just another Banksy invention, dreamed up to tweak the status quo? By finding a new way to ask an old question – what is art? – this smart, funny film jolts us into thinking about what we’re looking at.
A fascinating trip down the rabbit hole of the human imagination that’s as carefully constructed as the 1/6-scale town it depicts, Marwencol is a portrait of an artist who doesn’t think of his work as art. In a way, it’s the flip side of Exit to the Gift Shop. Mark Hogancamp, this documentary’s subject, was beaten so badly in a bar fight that he was in a coma for days. Released from the hospital long before he was ready to function (his Medicaid payments ran out), he created his own form of physical and mental therapy, building a model town, Marwencol, that he populated with dolls representing himself and the people in his life. Like a real-life Lars from Lars and the Real Girl, Mark feels more comfortable with his dolls than with most of the humans around him, even bringing them along when he ventures out into the real world. Filmmaker Jeff Malmberg introduces Mark’s quirks gradually, letting us get to care about him as a person first, so they feel more like details than labels. Meanwhile, stop-motion photography and Mark’s own luminous photographs show us Marwencol as he sees it: irony-free and full of life. A photographer and editor who “discover” Mark get him a show in Greenwich village, 100 miles and several worlds away from his hometown of Kingston, New York, but he could care less about achieving fame or fortune as an artist. For him, his work is simply his lifeline, an essential part of “the process of finding out who I am.”
Ever since her first feature dissected a pair of best friends who were pushing 30, writer/director Nicole Holofcener, now 50, has chronicled the internal lives of people like herself and her friends. With her latest comedy of bad manners, Please Give, she enters the sandwich generation, with an emphasis on Kate, a guiltily comfortable upper-middle-class Upper West Sider played by Holofcener muse Catherine Keener. Most movies with multigenerational casts favor one generation over the others, but Holofcener gives almost equal time to Kate's teenage daughter and two twenty-something sisters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet), and their 91-year-old grandmother (Ann Morgan Guilbert). They're all alternately unreasonable, ridiculous, and surprisingly sympathetic.
In case that’s not enough, here are the others that made it into my top 20 for The L Magazine A Film Unfinished, Mother, Carlos, 127 Hours, Toy Story 3, A Prophet, Let Me In, The Illusionist, The Strange Case of Angelica, and Winnebago Man.
Written for TimeOFF