Owing to space restrictions (and without consulting their writers, harrumph), the Philadelphia City Paper switched to an omnibus approach to best-of lists this year, leaving room for only a handful of words on each film and none at all for an essay to put them in context. You can read those, if you like, here, but I'd rather you stick with me for a bit. I'm not taxonomically inclined by nature, which is to say I don't particularly care for making lists, and I find them especially valueless when that's all they are. Any idiot can come up with a list of ten movies and stick numbers in front of them; it's the why that matters, and what that group of films might reveal about its creator's taste or the year's events. I'm apt to pay more attention to the lists of critics I respect, which is why Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is high on my to-watch list for 2011, but a ranking and a couple of sentences is not what I hope to get out of the transaction.
But fine, first, the list:
One thing this group of films has in common is that I didn't get to write at length about any of them. Venues for feature-length criticism continue to dry up, and as a freelance writer, I've been spending a lot more time pursuing interviews, to the extent that I felt slightly uneasy participating in the year-end surveys for which I was asked to submit ballots. One thing I hope to do in 2011 is write more at length about the films I love, although given the way the industry and my career [sic] are going, this space may be the best place for me to go long.
Looking over the list, I'm struck first by the number of documentaries, the most spots they've occupied in several years. Partly, that's a reflection on a fairly rum year in new releases, but it's also because so few fiction films — including a number of frequent poll winners — have much on their minds.
I've been particularly perplexed, if not actually surprised, by the dominance of The Social Network and the praise for Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit, which I reviewed at length here. (True to form, the review ended up having to be cut in half for print.) In both cases, I feel like a lot of praise comes from the fact that they're movies that look and sound like movies: Aaron Sorkin's script for The Social Network displays his usual fondness for the snap and crackle of classic Hollywood dialogue, and the Coens' True Grit boasts the look and feel of a classic Western. (That Roger Deakins' cinematography has been aggressively manhandled in postproduction doesn't seem to faze the movie's admirers; the Coens haven't so abused the digital intermediate since O Brother, Where Art Thou?) Sorkin is transparently riffing on Citizen Kane, to the extent of providing a wholly invented Rosebud to explain Facebook creator Mark Zuckberg's attempt to transfer flesh-and-blood socializing to the digital realm, but by focusing on how the site came to be rather than what it's become, the movie utterly misses the point. I'm generally of the opinion that you review the movie that a director made, not the one you think he or she should have made, but in this case, the failure to address the implications of how Facebook has amended the definition of what it means to be a friend dooms the film to irrelevance. Instead, Sorkin and David Fincher — who for my money may be the most slavishly overpraised director working today — tell us that people will fuck over their friends for money, to which I can only say: Duh.
As luck would have it, someone did make the movie Fincher and Sorkin should have made. Catfish is a documentary about an online relationship gone horribly wrong, or at least one that turns out to be vastly different from what one of its participants thinks it is. Underlying the story is the idea that, contrary to what you might think, online socializing has actually made people far more credulous than they used to be. Rather than relying on the instincts that come into play when we meet someone for the first time, all the unconscious nuances that tell us whether or not a person is someone we'd like to know better, on the web you're responding to a constructed persona, one that may or may not bear any resemblance to the person who created it. We all knew this at some point — "On the internet, no one knows you're a dog," etc. — but Facebook's apparently open interface circumvents our natural defenses. You can see what people look like, what and who they "like" (another word whose meaning Facebook has significantly enlarged), where they live, even who your mutual friends are, just enough information to make it feel like you're not interacting with a stranger. Catfish is a case study in just how far its possible to take an online relationship without actually meeting face-to-face, and the lengths to which it allows people to create a self utterly at odds with their own.
Like Catfish, and the less successful I'm Still Here, Exit Through the Gift Shop deals with a created self, or several of them. Its ostensible subject is Thierry Guetta, a devoted documenter of the street artist Banksy who decides to get into the game himself. Christening himself Mister Brainwash, Guetta undertakes a facile imitation of Banksy's style which nonetheless gains him overnight fame and fortune. Both Catfish and Gift Shop were dogged by suppositions that they were staged, a depressing development I came to think of as "hoaxism." The reasoning was that the stories they told were too outlandish to be real, which to my mind demonstrated a profound underestimation of just how strange real life can be. Then again, I thought the genuinely fraudulent I'm Still Here might have been at least partly real, so perhaps the joke's on me.
In The Tillman Story, the joke was on all of us, only it wasn't funny. Amir Bar-Lev's deeply infuriating documentary is the kind that makes me want to chain people down and force them to watch, not just those who continue to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but anyone who still harbors the delusion that the government is on our side. The tragedy of Pat Tillman isn't just that he was killed by so-called "friendly fire," or even that the military and the Bush administration actively worked to cover up the circumstances of his death and manufacture a heroic counterstory. It's the way Tillman, who gave up a promising NFL career to join the army, was exploited for publicity purposes in direct contravention to his desire to be treated like any other soldier. Despite, or because of, the fact that it would have made headlines, Tillman refused to discuss his reasons for joining the military with the press. It was what in our era has become a rare and almost unfathomable oddity: a genuinely private decision. After his death, he was turned into a symbol, a shill for the war effort that he questioned even as he took part in it. That this occurred while the military was stonewalling his family members' attempts to find out the circumstances of his death only adds to the outrage. One of the most depressing things about the state of our culture is the way that politicians, particularly on the right, are able to maintain a 180-degree polarity between their rhetoric and their actions, mouthing the phrase "support the troops" while cutting veterans' benefits, denying aid to 9/11 workers and dishonoring their sacrifice with lies.
Sometimes, the only response to the world's absurdity is to laugh at it. I want to call Chris Morris' Four Lions satire, but in truth there's almost nothing in it that's more than a few degrees off from reality. Morris' devastatingly funny and sometimes terribly sad film takes in the extremities and idiocies of jihadism, with a side glance at how the West is managing to lose the war of ideas to people who think, in the words of one of the movie's inept jihadis, that "spark plugs are Jewish." Morris is a well-known provocateur in U.K. television comedy, but his feature debut dials down the bomb-throwing, making room for some surprising emotional resonance.
On to happier territory, though not by much. Given that I spent more hours reading bedtime stories than watching movies in 2010, perhaps it's not surprising that a number of my favorites can be viewed as films about parenting, although I didn't exactly relate to their warped perspectives. The parents in Dogtooth have locked their three children away from the outside world since birth, creating an elaborate mythology to prevent them from straying beyond the borders of their fenced-in family compound. Truthfully, I wouldn't have thought of the film as a study in parenting until director Giorgos Lanthimos presented it to me as such, but it's a thoroughly convincing account of the way the world can be reshaped by manipulating perspective, and of how attempts to channel human nature often produce monstrous results.
The monster in Vincenzo Natali's Splice is literal, the fruit of genetic scientists Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley's lab work, but it's flesh of Polley's flesh and soon becomes more like a surrogate child than a specimen. Like the job of parenting itself, the movie keeps changing: one minute it's horror, then science-fiction, then melodrama. Perhaps it was the film's protean nature that led Warner Bros. to drastically mishandle its release; they paid a ton for it at Sundance and then did their best to make sure no one knew it was coming out.
Like Dogtooth, Bong Joon-Ho's Mother was a portrait of obsession first and a family drama second. And while hile we're on the subject of family, a special honorable mention to Disney's Tangled, whose manipulative Mother Gothel, voiced by Donna Murphy, ties with Animal Kingdom's Ben Mendelsohn for the most terrifying screen villain of the year.
Closing out my Top Whatever, the supremely sensual I Am Love was an overblown explosion of style held together by its own pure joy and anchored, gloriously, by Tilda Swinton. Neil Jordan's Ondine expertly works the border between myth and reality, a terrain he arguably knows better than any living director And Bradley Rust Gray's The Exploding Girl lingers on the sublime contours of Zoe Kazan's face, finding moments of calm amidst her spasmodic existence. A lot of my favorite writing this year was about movies that I didn't necessarily like, but these ones gave me pleasure while I watched them and a lot to think about after the fact.