May 22, 2013
2010: Best of the Big Screen
Posted on Dec 30, 2010
I don’t know when the practice began or who had the initial brainstorm, but it is now written in fiery letters that at the end of every year that movie reviewers must set aside the really fun stuff—shopping, decorating the front of the house with blinking lights, fighting with their spouses about the placement and decoration of the tree—and spend a day or two tripping down short-term memory lane to concoct a list of the year’s 10 best movies. It is a habit that now extends to all the other expressive forms—books, television, music, theater—but it began with the movies.
I suppose it’s a harmless enough activity—except for its arbitrary quality. I mean, who decreed that we should have to choose 10—and only 10—movies for our lists? It is theoretically possible, if unlikely, that some years we might want to honor 11 or 12 films for our lists. It is much more likely that we will be straining to come up with 10 really good movies per year.
I’ve always wanted to say the hell with it and just compose a list of the movies that I really like and think may have a chance of outliving, for a few years, the year they came out. Thanks to the tolerance and good nature of Truthdig’s editors, that’s what I’m about to do. Here they are, in subjectivity’s rough order:
1. “The King’s Speech”: Bertie (Colin Firth), second in line for the job, was not meant to be England’s monarch, so his stammer was not of much consequence—until his brother David got involved with Wallis Warfield Simpson, the grim divorcee, who for that quaint reason could not be queen. That means that her twit paramour didn’t feel like being king. Now, suddenly, his younger brother’s speech impediment matters a great deal—he has to become the spokesman for a nation entering World War II.
Encouraged by his wife (the charmingly perky Helena Bonham Carter), he grudgingly goes to work with a cheeky and eccentric speech therapist, Lionel Logue (a superb Geoffrey Rush), with Tom Hooper’s film (written by David Seidler) tracing the relationship’s development with wit, passion and elegance. Firth’s performance as the man who would become George VI is wondrously subtle—he’s a kindly, stuffy man who is—all unknown to him—just waiting to get unstuffed. He’s an unlikely heroic figure in a highly unlikely movie. But neither Firth nor the movie stresses oddity. There’s something almost homey about the movie as it lets us discover its best qualities slowly, which quietly ensures our passionate involvement with these disparate men as we observe a true and lifelong friendship developing between them. Stylistically the filmmaking is very traditional, but that also works to the movie’s advantage—highlighting the curiosity of this relationship and, incidentally, the way they managed to subvert the class system as it worked in England not so very long ago.
2. “Another Year”: Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) drive a Volvo, grow their own vegetables and lead quiet, useful lives—snug as bugs in a rug. This is middle age as ’60s activists dreamily imagined it might be. Their friend Mary (Leslie Manville, in the great female performance of the year), is their nightmare alternative—lonely, man-crazy, hard-drinking and the pest seemingly put on earth to torment their placidity. Out of these modest materials writer-director Mike Leigh has fashioned another in his increasingly impressive series about the miseries of middle class English life. Nothing really out of the ordinary happens in these films; people fall in and out of love, get married and generally try to keep up appearances. Sometimes death touches them, but with not too heavy a hand. What dramatically animates a story such as “Another Year” is the largely unacknowledged lies that sustain these lives, tamping down the desperation that only Mary manifests. OK, it’s a chamber piece—but a subtle and haunting one.
3. “Mesrine”: Two French films, running between four and five hours apiece, each portraying the life of a decidedly anti-social character, were released this year in the United States. One, “Carlos,” recounted the life of “The Jackal,” the formerly notorious terrorist, the other, “Mesrine,” is about a cheeky and prolific bank robber who operated in roughly the same era. The former received more—and more enthusiastic—critical attention here, doubtless because Carlos himself achieved more international notoriety. But the life of Jacques Mesrine, whose fame was pretty much confined to France, provides the basis for a much better film, partly because there is no quasi-political justification for his depredations, and partly because Vincent Cassel gives such a wild and gripping performance in the title role. In the annals of movie anarchists he achieves, I think, an unmatched level of psychopathy, which the director, Jean-Francois Richet, never deigns to explain or justify. Mesrine, the product of a bourgeois background, is a tireless bundle of anti-social activity who eventually derives what job satisfaction he can from the glamorized image of himself the French press is only too happy to propagate. Carlos declines into fat and irrelevance, which the movie spends far too much time detailing. Mesrine, on the other hand, goes out snarling, with the movie spending almost as much time on the fate of a dog wounded in his final shootout with the cops as it does on the criminal’s demise. Tres French. Tres wonderful.
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