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Excerpt: Films of the Year 2010

by James Naremore

Each summer, legendary film critic and Film Quarterly Writer-at-Large James Naremore provides his retrospective of the best films released in the U.S. during the previous year. Here are excerpts of his top ten Films of the Year, 2010:

10. Inside Job

Photo: Representational Pictures. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, a talking-heads investigation into the Wall Street players responsible for the twenty-first century’s worldwide economic collapse, is a calm and informative look into a government-enabled disaster.

Ferguson uses well-edited archival material and explanatory graphics to help viewers understand economic complexities, but the major strength of his film lies in his interviews with lawyers, economists, and members of the financial services industry. He’s often better informed than they are, and his offscreen questioning catches the worst of them in lies and evasions. He also interviews a psychologist who tries to explain the machismo and bottomless greed of a certain class of big shots, and a “Wall Street madam” who provided them with call girls. I’m not sure the psychological speculation is necessary, and I suspect it would be far more difficult to bring such characters to justice than Ferguson imagines. Nevertheless the film makes a persuasive argument that a number of very powerful individuals in the U.S. should be prosecuted and probably imprisoned alongside Enron’s Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling.

9. Sweetgrass

Photo: Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor. DVD: Cinema Guild

Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s and Ilisa Barbash’s nonfiction film about a family-owned sheep ranch in Big Timber, Sweet Grass County, Montana, is a triumph of the “direct,” “observational,” or “anthropological” form associated with the Maysles brothers, Fredrick Wiseman, and Jean Rouch. This kind of cinema was heavily criticized by 1970s theorists (who also attacked Hollywood’s “classic realism”) and has been shouldered aside in the age of Michael Moore and TV “reality” shows. Sweetgrass helps to remind us what we’ve been missing.

The film is without narration or music (except when Ahern, like an old-time cowboy, sings to the sheep), and is composed mostly in long takes, showing a skilled, back-breaking work that hasn’t changed much since the early cowboy days of the nineteenth century. The camera keeps a discreet distance as Connolly washes utensils after a meal, Ahern saddles his horse, and both men sit quietly in the tent during a moment of peace. Everywhere the scenery is majestic—it’s difficult to point a widescreen color camera in this part of Montana without seeing something beautiful—but the film generally avoids the picturesque and views landscape in relation to labor and the production of a commodity. In one of the most memorable scenes, a 360-degree pan circles the mountain range while Connolly talks on a cell phone to his mother, bitterly complaining that he, his horse, and his sheepdog are at the point of collapse.

Sweetgrass also has an elegiac effect. Part of the drive back down the mountains is photographed late in the day with the sun casting light through trees, and when the river of sheep reaches a railroad crossing at the edge of town, the sense of relief is tempered by regret that something is over. The owner of the farm drives Ahern home and asks him what he plans for the future, because the ranch will be closing. Ahern gazes ahead for a long while and says he just wants to rest and then maybe raise a few sheep. The screen goes dark and a title card informs us that “In 2003, over three months and 150 miles, the last band of sheep moved through Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountains.” A very old tradition of work with animals in this area has come to an end.

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8. I Am Love

Photo © 2009 First Sun/Mikado Film. DVD: Metrodome (U.K.)

If you haven’t seen this film, it may sound familiar. It’s the one about a rich man’s wife who is sexually awakened by a worker on her estate, and another in the endless parade of movies about sex and food. Nevertheless, Tilda Swinton and director Luca Guadagnino, who are also among the film’s producers, have made something special of it. Swinton plays Emma Recchi, a Russian trophy wife who marries into a high-bourgeois family of textile-factory owners in Milan and bears three children. Completely assimilated, she’s a loving mother, a sophisticated manager of an enormous household staff, and a beautifully dressed ornament to her husband; but she has an air of shy submissiveness and seems fully at ease only with her grown children and personal housemaid. Her son’s friendship with an aspiring young chef liberates a repressed memory of her youth in Russia, and she embarks on an affair with the chef. The film climaxes with a coup de théâtre and a breathtaking escape from the Recchi family. Its story has begun in a mansion, and, a bit like Uncle Boonmee (below), it ends in a cave.

One of the most exciting moments is Emma’s visit to San Remo, which deliberately evokes Vertigo, but with the roles reversed so that a woman stalks a man. John Adams’s music in the sequence is reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann, Swinton’s hair has the same French twist as Kim Novak’s, and the winding movement through town is very skillfully shot and edited, generating suspense and ending with a surprise. Of the many times Vertigo has been alluded to in movies, this for me is among the most novel and emotionally effective. It alone would make I Am Love worth seeing, though the film as a whole offers many cinematic pleasures.

7. Winter’s Bone

Photo © 2010 Winter’s Bone Productions LLC. DVD: Artificial Eye (U.K.)

Debra Granik’s film adaptation does an admirable job of giving us the plot and feel of the novel, minus some if its distinctive language and frozen winter chill. Shot in the picturesque but hardscrabble area where the novel takes place, the film avoids studio sets and uses a good many local actors and musicians. Its heroine, the seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly, very convincingly played by Jennifer Lawrence, is the sole caretaker of a family whose father has skipped bail and disappeared on a charge of cooking and selling methamphetamine. Ree prepares the family’s paltry meals, washes her catatonic mother’s hair, and teaches her two young siblings how to read and how to shoot and skin squirrels. She also becomes a kind of detective, trying to locate her father before the police can seize the family home. In this latter role she travels through territory more menacing than Chandler’s mean streets, where she encounters an array of characters scarier than the usual pulp-fiction thugs and suffers as tough a beating as ever happened to Philip Marlowe.

Like all the best hard-boiled stories, the investigative plot results in a kind of map or anatomy of a society. Many of the people in Ree’s world live beyond the law, in backwoods clans. The men are wife-beaters and addicts, and the women marry too young and shoulder too much responsibility. And yet there’s a nearby school, nicely documented by the film, and we glimpse a sociable folk gathering. For all its outlaw quality, the culture is capable of forging strong family bonds and creating a young woman like Ree, who is proud, courageous, and intelligent. In a larger view, however, Ree resembles a figure in ancient tragedy, living in a primal world where family is destiny. One of the most affecting scenes in the film comes when, desperately trying to find money, she naively goes to an Army recruiting office. Even if she were old enough and really wanted to join up and travel, she couldn’t. Her loyalty, strength, and resourcefulness keep her tied to her home, but they also trap her there.

6. Vincere

Photo © Rai Cinema/Offside/Celluloid Dreams. DVD: Artificial Eye (U.K.)

Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere, which derives its title from an anthem of the Italian Fascist party, is at once an extravagant melodrama about Benito Mussolini’s suppressed marriage to Ida Dalser and a powerful visualization of the links between Fascism and Italian modernity. Mussolini is seen largely through Dalser’s eyes, first as a young socialist who defies God and threatens to strangle Victor Emmanuel III with the guts from the Pope’s belly, then as a bigamist and Fascist who, in order not to offend Catholics, conceals his marriage to Dalser and sends her and his son to insane asylums.

The film captures the eerie fascination of Fascism both as sadomasochism and in relation to Futurist or modern art, and it does so by strategically abandoning the realist style of most movies about history.

Bellocchio appropriates material not only from newsreels, but also from Futurist cinema and a variety of silent features (including an Italian re-edit of Eisenstein’s 1928 October), using it for exposition but also showing the characters watching movies. When Mussolini lies wounded in a World War I hospital where he’s paid a ceremonial visit by a midget Victor Emmanuel, he views a silent film adaptation of a Passion play projected on the ceiling, and identifies with Christ; when Dalser and her son are abandoned and alone, she tearfully watches Chaplin’s The Kid (1921). Eventually, Mussolini becomes cinema—a leader of the masses who projects his power through a mass medium. Once he achieves dictatorship, we see him only in newsreel footage, as a bald, iron-jawed figure aping the Roman emperors. The most astonishing moment comes when Bellocchio shows a clip from a sound newsreel of a triumphant Il Duce orating from a balcony—a chubby bantam cock, absurdly decorated with feathers and medals, gesticulating wildly and predicting a new Roman empire. Afterwards, his abandoned son, Benito Albino, who, like his mother, has been driven insane, loudly repeats the filmed oration word for word. It’s a disturbing symptom of the son’s furious resentment and desire to claim his patrimony. He’s a madman imitating a madman.

5. Everyone Else

Photo © 2009 Komplizen Film Produktion/SWR/WDR/ARTE. DVD: Cinema Guild.

Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) and Chris (Lars Eidinger) are attractive, sexy young lovers from Germany enjoying a holiday alone in Sardinia at a summer house owned by Chris’s parents. They wander half-dressed in the golden sun, briefly babysit two children belonging to Chris’s sister, and play childlike sexual games: Chris makes a toy animal out of a piece of ginger and pulls it out of his fly like a penis; Gitti paints Chris’s face with lipstick and eyeliner, and when he worries if he’s masculine enough she tells him, “Do something masculine and I’ll see if I recognize it.”

This is the Edenic opening of Maren Ade’s Everyone Else, a sensitive, complex film about social and psychological threats to a loving sexual relationship.

Everyone Else is so subtly written and directed by Ade and acted by Minichmayr and Eidinger (both of whom are respected theater actors in Berlin) that many reviewers seem not to have grasped one of the unstated problems between the lovers: they belong to different social classes.

The film is never overstated and gives us a fairly equable treatment of the central characters. Gitti’s “play dead” scenes, for example, can be read as acts of revenge, cries for help, and dangerous symptoms. She and Chris are sweetly passionate but destructively codependent; alone together, regressing to a kind of childhood, they’re equally happy, and when the world at large impinges they’re equally exasperating. They softly kiss at the end of the film, but their future is by no means clear.

4. The Strange Case of Angelica

Photo courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

The 101-year old Manoel de Oliveira’s first film, “Labor on the Douro” (1931) is a twenty-one-minute documentary about working life on and around Portugal’s Douro River as it flows from wine-making country to the ports of Lisbon. A fusion of Expressionism, Impressionism, and city-symphony montage, it opens with images of traditional agricultural labor and shifts to mechanical labor as we enter the metropolis, where accelerated cutting suggests the bustling pace of modernity. Oliveira’s latest film, The Strange Case of Angelica, is the antithesis or bookend of the first. Feature-length fiction, it starts in roughly the same place but lingers in a town beside the river where work in the fields is being replaced by machines. It rejects speed in favor of an exceedingly slow and contemplative pace, keyed to the music of laboring songs and the delicate yearning of a Chopin piano solo.

The story opens on a rainy night, when Isaac, a young Jewish photographer (played by Oliveira’s grandson, Ricardo Trêpa), is urgently called upon to take funerary pictures of the daughter of an important local family.

Summoned to take pictures of the dead young woman, he seems in awe of the family’s dark mansion, the mourners sitting like statuary around the walls, and the deceased’s sister, a nun, who looks at him suspiciously. The sight of Angelica, the dead woman (Pilar López de Ayala), strikes him dumb. A beautiful blonde with long hair, full lips, and a peacefully smiling expression, she wears a white wedding dress (she was newly married and pregnant) and reclines on a blue “fainting couch” as if she were merely sleeping. When Isaac looks through the camera lens to photograph her, she opens her eyes and smiles at him.

One evening he awakes from sleep to find her ghost standing on his balcony. They embrace and she takes him on an ecstatic, moonlit flight above the Douro, during which he finds a white lily floating in the water. (The flying sequence—chaste and idealized but resembling a newly married couple in their nuptial bed—is accomplished with digital technology but has the magical, quaintly amusing power of early cinema and puts Hollywood CGI to shame.)

Oliveira has described himself as a “cerebral” filmmaker, in part because of his interest in literature and ideas, and in part because of his slow, emotionally detached style: he typically stages scenes in long takes with little or no camera movement, and his actors are posed as if in a proscenium theater, displaying none of the psychological “realism” we’ve come to expect of movies. The Strange Case of Angelica has these traits, but is nevertheless a whimsical, lovely, and emotionally touching film, beautifully photographed by Sabine Lancelin and graced by charming, mysterious details at the edges of the screen—a goldfish swimming in a bowl in an empty room, or a kitten, fascinated by a caged bird, who becomes distracted by the sound of a dog barking outside a window. For anyone familiar with Oliveira’s work, it’s difficult not to see the film as a personal and deeply felt project.

3. Carlos

Photo © Film en Stock/Egoli/Tossell Film Carlos GmbH. DVD: Optimum Home Entertainment (U.K.)

Carlos tells the story of the real-life Venezuelan terrorist-for-hire Ilich Ramirez Sánchez, aka “Carlos the Jackal,” who claimed to be a soldier of international revolution and probably believed the ideas he espoused, but who was essentially an instrument of totalitarian agendas he barely understood.

In the eyes of his handlers Carlos was a loose cannon who enjoyed women and booze and was much too happy to appear on wanted posters. The PFLP fired him, the Stasi spied on him, Cuba and several Arab states refused him a home, the Syrians expelled him, and the French easily captured him in Khartoum when he lost all usefulness in the Arab region. Even so, right-wing journalists portrayed him as an evil genius and he became something of a pop-culture legend, a name that appears in formulaic stories about International Masters of Terror hunted by Intrepid Government Agents.

Assayas’s well-researched film, admittedly compounded of historical fact and imaginative speculation, grows in part out of his interest in globalization, which he treated previously in Irma Vep (1996), Boarding Gate (2007), and Summer Hours (2009), and in part out of his politics, which are influenced by Guy Debord’s critique of the “society of the spectacle” and George Orwell’s left libertarianism. (He articulately discusses these matters in an interview with Rob White). He nevertheless approaches the social-political themes indirectly, avoiding excessive editorializing or deep analysis of Carlos. Instead he concentrates on the character’s peripatetic bombings and killings, which are depicted factually but in high-adrenaline style—jump-cutting, restlessly reframing, sampling anachronistic post-punk music, leaping to multiple locations across Europe and the Middle East as Carlos rises to rock-star fame and simultaneously becomes a problem for his employers.

The staging of Carlos’s exploits, particularly the raid on OPEC, is swift, spectacular, and frightening, but it also has moments of black comedy, as when Carlos’s henchmen fire rockets at an airliner on a runway directly in front of them and hit planes at the far end of the airport, or when Gabriele Kröchner-Tiedemann, scarily played by Julia Hummer, throws a tantrum because she can’t kill hostages. For all his daring and revolutionary zeal, Carlos himself is portrayed as an alcoholic abuser of women and a lover of fine clothes and bourgeois amenities. He’s also a narcissist who craves celebrity and is turned on by violence. After his first try at bomb-throwing, we see him emerging from a bubble bath, admiring his body in a mirror, and beginning to masturbate as he stands in a window. Later, he boasts that “weapons are an extension of my body” and seduces a woman by having her suck on the pin of a hand grenade.

What keeps the character from seeming little more than a shallow, self-regarding killer is the charisma of Venezuelan actor Édgar Ramirez, who is far more handsome than the real Carlos and brings movie-star glamour to the role, at the same time transforming himself, De Niro-style, from a muscular young proponent of revolution to a bloated drunk with a testicular ailment. The film has many striking performers (especially Nora von Waldstätten as Magdalena Kopp, Carlos’s German wife), but it wouldn’t work without Ramirez. He speaks several of the eleven languages we hear, repeatedly changes his appearance in keeping with Carlos’s love of disguise and costume, and throughout projects a combination of machismo and Brando-like sexual aura. He’s so effective that some reviewers have criticized Assayas for glamorizing terrorism. Actually, the film’s values are made explicit by the minor characters of the left that disassociate themselves from Carlos. The eponymous “hero” is a creature of the media who has no moral qualms about killing and a dim awareness of history. He does know, however, that he has strong nerves and fighting instincts, and that he looks good in sunglasses and a beret.

2. Mysteries of Lisbon

Photo: misteriososdelisboa.com

In an interview publicizing the film, director Raoul Ruiz has said that Mysteries of Lisbon has a “gliding” and “labyrinthine” form. In keeping with the first of these qualities—and with what many describe as the baroque theatricality of the novel on which it is based—he employs long takes, sinuous camera movements, 360-degree pans, lateral tracking shots that slide past the walls of rooms, and complex, graceful blocking. He often frames scenes through doorways, windows, or parted curtains, sometimes using the technique to show us contrasting levels of action. (One of the most amusing sequence shots has two frames within the frame: a priest disembarks from a closed carriage, looks down the street at a violent quarrel, and gets back in the carriage; through the vehicle’s near window we see him reading from a Bible as the action on the street boils past the window beyond him.) Occasionally he places a servant on one side of a doorway or behind a wall, overhearing a private conversation in the distance. Several of his compositions are reminiscent of Welles and Toland in Citizen Kane (1941): wide-angle, floor-level views and deep-focus arrangements in which a giant head—at one point the head of a parrot—occupies the extreme foreground while action occurs in the far background. Now and then he experiments with antique behavior and old-fashioned theatricality: characters who faint upon hearing shocking news are framed in wide shot, flopping to the floor like rag dolls.

The labyrinthine plot defies description and contains many surprises. In somewhat Dickensian fashion, it begins when the orphan Pedro da Silva (played as a child by João Luís Arrais and as an adult by José Afonso Pimentel), with the help of a kindly priest (Adriano Luz), discovers that he’s the love child of a Portuguese countess who was forced to abandon him. Soon, however, everything veers off into stories within the story, told in flashback by multiple narrators. I kept losing track of where it all started, but I was never disappointed. Pedro intermittently returns and several episodes are introduced by inserts of a small, beautifully decorated cardboard theater given to him by his mother. At the end we discover that he’s been narrating everything from his death bed in Brazil. By the time we reach this point, we’ve also learned that nearly all the important characters have hidden identities and secrets that undermine the assumptions we initially made about them.

The major theme of the film could be described as the instability of human identity, which is always constructed out of individual memories, internalized narratives, and social performances, and which, under certain conditions, is subject to fluctuation and change. The characters in Mysteries of Lisbon inhabit a world of immutable aristocracy and Catholic hierarchy, governed by unalterably established institutions.

But that world is decadent, beginning to resemble a Gothic novel in which things aren’t necessarily as they appear. (Significantly, one of the characters has been reading Ann Radcliffe, who was among the inventors of Gothic fiction.) It’s a world in which outlaws become priests, mothers become nuns, and hired killers become aristocrats. The shape-shifting characters, together with the classically realist plot that goes in so many directions it seems to have no goal, make the film and the old novel on which it’s based seem not only romantically fun and fascinatingly mysterious, but also very modern indeed.

1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Photo © 2010 Kick the Machine Films, Illuminations Films Past Lives, Anna Sanders Films, The Match Factory, Eddie Saeta S.A. DVD: New Wave Films (U.K.).

Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul was educated at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, where a collection of “Exquisite Corpse” drawings by the French surrealists gave him the idea for one of his early films, Mysterious Objects at Noon (2000). His subsequent work, consisting of museum installations as well as films, has many things in common with surrealism, including a desublimation of ordinary experience, a disregard for the coherence of realist narrative, a love of the fantastic, and an oscillation of tone between the poetic and the playful. All this is evident in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which tells the story of a Thai farmer dying of kidney failure (Apichatpong’s father, a medical doctor, died of the same condition) and his mysterious encounter with past and future lives.

But Uncle Boonmee can’t be explained simply as a form of surrealism or, despite Apichatpong’s admiration for Gabriel García Márquez, as “magic realism.” The film was inspired by a book by Phra Sripariyattiweti, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, and the finished product, though secular, retains an aura of Buddhist spirituality. Uncle Boonmee is also related to The Primitive (2009), Apichatpong’s museum installation about the violent history of the Renu Nakhon district of northeast Thailand, where he was born and where the film is set. This region was occupied by the Thai army during the Vietnam War and many of its inhabitants, who were accused of being communists, were raped, tortured, and murdered. (According to Human Rights Watch, the Thai military continues a policy of political repression and “disappearances” throughout the country.) Uncle Boonmee therefore offers indirect political commentary alongside its haunting meditation on death, transmigration of souls, and cinema.

Some of Apichatpong’s aims in the film can be inferred from his evocative essay, “Ghosts in the Darkness” (translated in the 2009 Apichatpong Weerasethakul collection edited by James Quandt and published in the Austrian Film Museum’s Synema series), which is both a theory of cinema and a commentary on his key images and themes. “If you notice the people around you while watching a film,” Apichatpong writes, “you will see that their behavior is like that of ghosts, lifting up their heads to see the moving images . . . The moving images on the screen are camera records of events that have already taken place; they are remains of the past, strung together and called a film. In this hall of darkness, ghosts are watching ghosts.”

In an influential essay of 1975, “The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality in Cinema,” French theorist Jean-Louis Baudry compared cinema to the lights flickering on the back wall of Plato’s cave—an illusory shadow show from which we need to liberate ourselves. Apichatpong thinks exactly otherwise. His cinema cave is dedicated to recovering a repressed history, healing pain, and connecting our spirits with others.

The preceding is excerpted from Films of the Year, 2010 (Film Quarterly 64:4, Summer 2011). The full article is available in the Summer issue, on newsstands now.

James Naremore is Emeritus Chancellors’ Professor at Indiana University and a Film Quarterly Writer-at-Large. He is the author of UC Press’ More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, as well as other titles.

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