Top 10 Surprises of 2010

Okay, rather than yet another Top 10 list lurching narcissistically towards establishing some sort of blogger street cred, I offer instead ten moments with film and t.v. that surprised and, at times, astonished me this year. 

The criteria for inclusion is not just theatrical release in 2010 but films that were not readily available in any format prior to this year.   While a good deal of time is spent on this blog lamenting the home theater take-over and The Death Of Movie Going, the digital film restoration biz seems to be entering a boom phase, making more and more films available, and that is nothing but good for cinephiles, couch potato or otherwise.

So, here goes, another lurching narcissistic attempt at establishing blogger street cred.  With a twist!

(Some of the surprises, below, were unhappy surprises, I am afraid.)

Surprise #1.  Catfish.  I don’t care about the alleged manipulations with the sacred documentary format.  What matters is how well the tale is told.  Call it Documentary, DocuDrama or DocuLie, in the case of the Schulman’s Catfish, call it a riveting Human Dramedy which is as much about “the way we live now” as the more lavishly praised Social Network.

Surprise #2.  The Prowler, directed by Joseph Losey.  At long last caught up with this object of obsession on TCM.  A DVD release is scheduled for 02/11, and it should be one of the most sought-after items for Cinephiles five minutes later.

One might wonder why all the fuss about Losey, but twenty minutes or so into The Prowler you realize that instead of the standard Noir involving femme fatales and jaded cops you are  confronted with a profound meditation on class jealousy, framed with the astonishing compositions that are consistent with Losey’s entire oeuvre.  There was no more subversive film produced by Hollywood in 1951, and it obviously got him into a heap of trouble.

Surprise #3.  Greenberg, directed by Noah Baumbach.  I know, I know.  It is hard to get a film made, and it is harder still if your primary interest is the interrogation of unsympathetic characters.  I admire Baumbach and what he has accomplished so far.  But Greenberg blows.  It manages to waste the talents of both Ben Stiller, giving his most mannered and annoying performance to date, and the great James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, whose score sounds to me like it could have been composed by any random knob twiddler with Pro Tools.  The fact this been-there-done-that meditation on the alienated of L.A. has landed on so many Best Of lists is perhaps the greatest unhappy surprise of the year.

Surprise #4Possession, directed by Andrej Zulawski.   Caught up with this batshit crazy cult Whatzits by any means necessary.  All I can say is, I get it, sort of.  This is the kind of film one is obsessed and possessed by.  Alternately awful/awesome, unwatchable/riveting, unintentionally/intentionally funny.   What is clear is that director Zulawksi is some kind talent. 

What is unequivocal the greatness of Isabelle Adjani.  Her freak out scene in the Paris Metro is one of the greatest pieces of character inhabitation ever committed to celluloid, and easily as scary as anything in The Exorcist.  This is a completely fearless actress, a great star who didn’t give a fuck about being a great star if she had a great part.  Hers is the forbearer performance for Natalie Portman in Black Swan, and any other instances where movie stars throw caution to the wind and give themselves over completely to a completely insane director.

Rumors of a Blu Ray release (finally) have the easily obsessed foaming at the mouth.

Surprise #5.  The ineffable Romy Schneider.  Serge Romberg’s  Henri-Georges Clouzot's L’Enfer is fine, I suppose, especially for Clouzot completists.  But what fascinates is the  portrait of an actress, Schneider, cast in a dream role never realized.  In fact, at a certain point, the otherwise misbegotten project seems to exist for no other reason than for Clouzot to train his gaze unblinkingly on Ms. Schneider while he tries to figure out what his film is about.

Prior to seeing this I had a limited relationship with Schneider.  She was great in Tavernier’s Death Watch, an obscure favorite of mine, as a character whose last dying days on earth are captured on camera and telecast to a rapt world audience (this wildly underrated film from 1980 is both prescient of today's reality obsession and also filled with grim irony, as Schneider herself died—too young—not shortly after its release).  She was a major star in Germany and in France, and did a bunch of American films, mostly of the wacky comedy variety like What’s New, Pussycat,  in which she was generally wasted as the sexy Foreigner.  I had not idea she was, in fact, a great actress.

If anyone is wondering what acting for the movies is like (and for those who assume it is easy), watch as Schneider keeps giving it her all, take after take, bringing a nuances to the same material over and over, on and on, while a desperate director searches for….what?  And she remains sexy, unapproachable, ineffible all the while.

Surprise #6.  The Year of the Woman Director.  Superb films by Maren Ade (Everyone Else), Sofia Coppolla (Somewhere), Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids are All Right), Jessica Hausner (Lourdes), Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone), Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture), Claire Denis (White Material), Nicole Holofcener (Please Give), Catherine Breillat (Bluebeard), Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank), among others. There is little doubting the relative ease and lower cost of digital/D.I.Y film making has opened up heretofore unheard of opportunities for film artists previously shunned do to their inconvenient gender.

Surprise #7.  Play Dirty, directed by Andre de Toth.  Thanks to my new Roku (Merry X-Mas to me!) and streaming Netflix, I caught up with this from de Toth, a working-man’s director from the Golden Age, who seems here, in his final feature, to be making his masterpiece.  The late sixties/early seventies were the Golden Age of cynical World War II films, and, and while clearly influenced by the Dirty Dozen formula, this may be the best, and most personal, of the lot.  And it is all here.  The heroes without any illusions or anything to lose.  The disregard for women (the sole woman in the cast, a German nurse played by Vivian Pickles, is saved from rape and murder merely because she is able to care for a gut-wounded member of the gang).  The, shall we say, unromantic ending (at least at the end of the Dirty Dozen some of the characters are left to chuckle cynically in the hospital).  This is dark as night, but the whole of the scenario is blasted with bright, sand swept light.

There is a sequence, just after the end of the first act, that would never be made today.  The ragtag special unit that is charged to blow up a German fuel depot tries to lift their jeeps up a steep hill to a plateau above by jerry rigged pulley.  De Toth lets the sequence play out in virtual real time, and we agonize with the men as one after the other vehicle makes it safely then, just as the group is ready to celebrate, the worst possible thing happens.  It is a scene that feels fully experienced, and could never be shot in this manner in this day of quick cuts and short attention spans.

Surprise #8.  Exit Through The Gift Shop

I don’t know how the video camera came to my hand, but I know the moment it came into my hand, I couldn’t let her down…ever.  It was more than any drugs, to anybody.  It was obsession.

Surprise #9.  The Model Shop.  This late American movie from Jacques Demy got a DVD release this year.  Gary Lockwood is the disaffected hero, and Demy utilizes him in much the same manner as Kubrick did in 2001 about the same time.   He is a blank slate upon which the viewer can project one’s own…I don’t know.  Ennui?  Ennui and inertia are certainly among of the film’s subjects, and the fact the character does not progress one iota (no hugs, no learning) is what makes it of its time, and also weirdly moving.

The film offers a great glimpse of late 60s Venice, California, in all its derelict glory.  And, for music snobs, a great score by the semi-forgotten band Sprit (I Got a Line on You), whose members also make up part of the cast.  I spent many hours obsessively trying to track down the vinyl of the score in greater vintage record stores in the greater Seattle area to, alas, no avail.  You got a copy?  

(consider for a moment Demy's first choices for both lead role and the band:  Harrison Ford and the Doors.  Something tells me this would be far from the obscure object it is if Demy had gotten his initial wishes fulfilled) 

Surprise #10.  Three Silent Classics by Joseph Von Sternberg.  Lovely release from the beloved Criterion.  Of the three (Underworld, The Last Command and Docks of New York) the latter is the supreme masterpiece, and has long been a kind of Holy Grail for cinephiles due to its unavailability on VHS or DVD.

Sternberg’s reputation is as a woman’s director due to his long collaboration with Dietrich, of course, but Docks is a rough and tumble man’s man picture which nevertheless manages to soften and humanize the brawling longshoreman protagonist (George Bancroft) at the film’s conclusion as he begrudgingly accepts the unconditional love of a hardened woman (the amazing Betty Compson) he saves from drowning.  There won’t be a dry eye in your house at the end, but Sternberg never panders, never gives in completely to sentimentality.  And there is always, from frame to frame, the remarkable, one-of-a-kind Sternberg talent for composition and lighting.   The other two films in the collection are worth watching as well, of course, but Docks is worth the price of the set.

Other surprises, 2010-style:

What an awful, pretentious, self-important howler the much-praised I Am Love was;  that multiplex dreck The Expendables and The A-Team are actually pretty good; that I think Casey Affleck and Michal Winterbottom are very talented, but it seems to me the only point of The Killer Inside Me is genre exercise and misogyny, and that ain't enough; that The Leopard restoration was a major event, but the film itself still leaves me a little cold.  And I love long, lush, historical epics where not much happens.  Not sure I am a Visconti guy; that My Son John (on Netflix Streaming but still not on DVD) is a masterpiece, despite its dubious politics and the compromises born of the tragic death of Robert Walker; that the recently and dearly departed Frank Henenlotter’s Bad Biology is way, way over the top, but filled with great ideas; that when it is all said and done (Oscar!) The Social Network is nothing more than a really solid piece of professional film making; that The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (released for the first time on DVD with a beautiful Blu Ray from Blue Underground) is an artfully made and quite scary horror movie that holds up with the best of Romero; that Dexter, on HBO, hit a new high in quality this year, perfecting its formula of mixing biting social criticism with its thrills and chills (in the case of this year, skewering the ridiculous and growing downtrodden-white-middle-class-male-self-help industry); that Mad Men had more so-so episodes this year than great ones, signaling, perhaps, the end is near? 

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