Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Obligatory Year-End List

By Pamela Zoslov

I may as well confess, I never liked “Best” lists. My critical Sharpie is happier when analyzing and finding fault with things than with praising them, a job that’s better left to those of sunnier disposition. I'm a little more like Alice Roosevelt Longworth ("If you haven't anything nice to say about anyone, come sit by me.") And, of course, I didn’t see every movie released in 2010, avoiding stuff I’m not interested in, like sci-fi and animation, and missing films I dearly wanted to see, like The Tillman Story. Some things that make my list are movies I know are flawed (like Love and Other Drugs), and others that don’t are prestige films that were lauded beyond their worth (like The Social Network). I know that some of my bests will appear on other critics' worsts, and some of my worsts (Black Swan) are on their best lists. I’m obviously partial to documentaries and dramas about serious issues (though I also like romantic comedies that other people despise).

With those caveats, here are the movies I remember most fondly from this year.

1. Inside Job Charles Ferguson, who in No End in Sight exposed failures in the Iraq occupation (but not, alas, its mendacious justification), this year made an important documentary that dissected, in minute detail and with cathartic outrage, the reckless and villainous greed behind the global financial meltdown.

2. Life During Wartime The long periods between films by the misanthropic genius Todd Solondz are sadly bereft, but this year, Solondz followed up his 1998 masterpiece, Happiness, with a superbly mournful melodrama about the same dysfunctional family, entirely recast. (Paul Reubens, aka Pee-wee Herman, an underrated dramatic actor, is particularly affecting as the sad ghost of a man who committed suicide). The recasting is not surprising from a director who once had his lead characters played by different actors within a single film (Palindromes).

3. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work One of the rare films I wished would run longer, Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s profile of the 77-year-old comedienne revealed a smart, vulnerable and endearingly self-aware woman and performer who lives obsessively for her work. The movie me want to spend time hanging out with Joan.

4. Fair Game In a coup of perfect casting, Naomi Watts played Valerie Plame in Doug Liman’s penetrating drama about the covert CIA agent outed by Bush administration officials in retaliation for the exposure by husband Joe Wilson (Sean Penn, also excellent) of Bush’s lies to justify the invasion of Iraq.

5. Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer Alex Gibney, who chronicled U.S. torture practices in Taxi to the Darkside, turned his attention to the downfall of the brilliant, disgraced ex-NY governor, examining the machinations of powerful enemies, alongside reckless hubris, that brought down the onetime “Sheriff of Wall Street.” The sections delving into the demimonde of high-end prostitution were squirm-inducing, but it scarcely detracted from the film’s fascinating character study of the complex but admirably candid Spitzer, and revelations about politics and power in New York state and the U.S.

6. Catfish Call it the anti-Social Network; Catfish was a refreshing antipode to that overpraised bore about Mark Zuckerberg’s college days. Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost’s cyber-styled documentary about a young man’s journey to find the seemingly irresistible young woman he met on Facebook, is an absorbing study of the seductions and deceptions of social networking.It's not a big, life-changing movie, but it was compelling in its own right.

7. The Fighter Christian Bale, who lost weight to the point of gauntness for the part, is superb in David O. Russell’s raw, roistering biopic about welterweight boxing champ Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), whose career was sidetracked by the machinations and missteps of his manager-mom (a vivid Melissa Leo) and brother/trainer Dicky (Bale), a fighter who once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard and later succumbed, for a time, to crack addiction and crime.

8. True Grit Rare is the year when a Coen brothers movie doesn’t make my year-end list, and this year the siblings presented a lyrical adaptation of Charles Portis’ Western about a 13-year-old girl (Hailee Steinfeld) who enlists the services of a hard-drinking U.S. Marshal (Jeff Bridges) to avenge the death of her father at the hands of a drunken rogue (Josh Brolin). The movie demonstrated of the sublime harmony of the Coens’ team — Joel and Ethan’s writing and direction, Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography and Carter Burwell’s subtle, note-perfect scoring -- and a needed literary corrective to the 1969 True Grit, which turned Portis’ story about a tough, determined girl into a boisterous romp about John Wayne.

9. The King’s Speech Tom Hooper’s lovely film starring Colin Firth as King George VI and Geoffrey Rush as the Australian actor-turned-speech therapist who helped him overcome a career-crippling speech defect was a beautifully appointed two-hander, exceptionally well acted by both stars. Though I would have preferred to have watched the roiling constitutional crisis taking place mostly offstage than on Bertie's speech therapy, this was a nicely carved cameo brooch. If Firth, who humanized this reluctant monarch, does not win the Best Actor Oscar, I will eat my pack of commemorative Kings and Queens of England playing cards.

10. Love and Other Drugs Reviled by some critics, Ed Zwick’s movie about a reprobate pharmaceutical salesman who falls for a Parkinson’s patient (Anne Hathaway), was no masterpiece, but it was clever, funny and unexpectedly touching. It earns a place on this list for subversively disguising its devastating critique of Big Pharma as a sexy romantic tragicomedy.

Worst of 2010

To paraphrase Tolstoy, every bad movie is bad in its own way. Some movies are just inherently and unsurprisingly bad: Little Fockers, for example. Others are bad in proportion to their pretensions to quality: Black Swan, the year’s worst “good” movie. Some bad movies I have probably blotted out from memory, but here is a lineup of the guilty parties whose effluvium lingers.

A Bucket of Syrup It was a good year for fans of novelist Nicholas Sparks, with two adaptations of his godawful books. The worst was The Last Song, a sticky tearjerker that highlighted the nonexistent acting skills of pop singer Miley Cyrus, and the sticky Dear John, which squandered the considerable skills of director Lasse Hallstrom and some actual actors.

Comedy Crud Bad romantic comedies will always be with us, but a couple that really pushed the boundaries of badness this year were Garry Marshall’s wretched ensemble thing Valentine’s Day, which not only inflicted Ashton Kutcher on us, but ran about as long as The Sorrow and the Pity; and You Again, which teamed Sigourney Weaver and Jamie Lee Curtis as rival moms in a numbingly moronic slapstick romp. But for awfulness in comedy, few movies surpass Grown-Ups, in which Adam Sandler and his aging pals taxed our endurance with a flabby, grimly unfunny middle-aged reunion farce that tried to wrest laughs out of pee-in-the-pool jokes and other puerile plop. And god help any children exposed to Marmaduke, an atrocious live-action family comedy allegedly based on the famous panel comic, with Owen Wilson voicing the surfboard-riding Great Dane. So bad it hardly qualified as a movie.

A Lamentation of Swans Tchaikovsky had a rough time of it in life, dying of either cholera or suicide or suicidal cholera, but thankfully he’s not alive to see his music hijacked by Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s masturbatory fantasy focusing on – allegedly – the world of ballet. The movie, basically Carrie in a tutu, was a psychosexual farrago so putrescent it has to be seen to be believed. Why this generates swoons rather than laughs (the New York Times' A.O. Scott was captivated by it) is beyond understanding. Different strokes for different folks.

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