By Joseph Fahim
The life of a critic is a solitary one, largely spent in front of a big screen with an audience that mostly shares the same tastes, opinions and lifestyle. The dissociation from real life is an accepted upshot of our daily routine.
Perhaps that’s why I was somewhat flabbergasted to find myself engaging in endless conversations about pop culture during my vacation to the US last month. This cocoon I’ve been entrapped in the past few years was shattered with the realization that the high film culture we’ve been ardently supporting for the entirety of our careers does not have a place in the real world.
Cinephilia has always been small, but never that small. Names like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Claire Denis or Olivier Assayas — towering figures of art-house cinema — means nothing to the vast majority of people.
Looking back at cinema in 2010, I recognize the fact that some of the best films I’ve watched this year will never be seen by a wider audience. Few exceptions aside, mainstream cinema offered little to relish this year. A post-“Avatar” Hollywood seemed clueless on what to do, milking the 3D cow till the very last drop.
The dismal endeavors of Egyptian cinema to go ‘serious’ yielded some of the most unwatchable films of the year, presenting pictures that are completely out of touch with the public.
As the big powers fell on their knees this year, new cinemas started to arise from virgin territories: Portugal, Greece and Estonia to name a few. The originality, audacity and sheer brilliance of these pictures have propelled critics and the unaware audiences alike to redefine the narrow concept of entertainment.
Although 2010 may not have been a vintage year for cinema compared to 2009 or 2007, it still managed to produce a large number of exceptional films. To dub each entry of the following top 10 a ‘masterpiece’ would not be a farfetched assessment.
Do these films stand a chance of being seen by say, a quarter of the audience that flocked for “The Social Network”? Doubtful, and hence the chief aim behind this list: To bring attention to great films crushed under the distribution machine.
It’s a brave new world for serious cinema where cinephilia is more fragmented than ever. Movies, regardless of how “difficult,” “challenging” or “experimental” they can be, are made to be seen and they won’t get made unless you see them.
Best Arabic films of 2010
1) “Messages from the Sea” (dir: Daoud Abdel Sayed)
2) “September Rain” (dir: Abdullatif Abdelhamid)
3) “Microphone” (dir: Ahmad Abdallah)
Best international films of 2010
Numbers 25-16: “Silent Souls” (dir: Aleksei Fedorchenko), “Inside Job” (dir: Charles Ferguson), “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow” (dir: Sophie Fiennes), “The Strange Case of Angelica” (dir: Manoel de Oliveira),”Film Socialism” (dir: Jean-Luc Godard), “Dogtooth” (dir: Giorgos Lanthimos),” Winter’s Bone” (dir: Debra Granik), “Enter the Void” (dir: Gaspar Noé), “Wild Grass” (Alain Resnais) and “Certified Copy” (dir: Abbas Kiarostami)
15) Last Train Home (dir: Lixin Fan)
In a year of great documentaries, Fan’s harrowing account of the impact of a new market economy on ordinary Chinese lives stood tall above the rest. Part a portrait of a dysfunctional family on the verge of breaking down, part a microcosmic study of the 200 million migrant workers stranded away from their families, Fan’s film abolishes all notions of a prosperous China, revealing the real price of progress.
14) Le quattro volte (dir: Michelangelo Frammartino) and I Am Love (dir: Luca Guadagnino)
The first is a wordless experimental film that ranks among the most original films I’ve seen this year. The second is a lush, opulent classic melodrama rightfully described as “Visconti on acid.” Both are two starkly different faces of a new exciting Italian cinema. Frammartino’s film is a quiet meditation on life, death and everything in between. Guadagnino’s grand opera is a breathtakingly sensual head-trip; a high drama about fading aristocracy and repressed emotions with a stunning turn from the always unpredictable Tilda Swinton.
13) Chico & Rita (dir: Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba)
Mariscal and Trueba’s Cuban animated musical is the most joyful 90 minutes I’ve spent at the movies this year. Spanning more than 60 years between Havana, New York and Las Vegas, the film charts the turbulent romance between Chico, a young ambitious pianist/songwriter and the feisty Rita, a chanteuse with a golden voice. The highly stylized animation is rendered in thick, bold black lines, evoking the freewheeling, jaunty spirit of a bygone era. Drenched in nostalgia, this is a feast for the eyes and ears; an affectionate postcard to a place and time existing only in film.
12) Life of Fish (dir: Matías Bize)
Young Chilean filmmaker Matías Bize is known for his 2005 art-house smash “In Bed” but his latest release, a major hit in Chile, is easily his most mature film to date. A pensive romantic drama about a travel journalist reuniting with the girlfriend he left behind 15 years ago, Bize, as in his previous films, unfolds the events of the encounter in real time, expounding the ephemeral nature of love. Gorgeously photographed and beautifully acted, “Life of Fish” is a melancholic, delicate and deeply moving musing on loss, regret, missed opportunities and the impossibility of sustaining love.
11) Of Gods and Men (dir: Xavier Beauvois)
A surprise hit at the French box-office, Beauvois’s Grand Prix winner adopts a restrained, non-sensational approach to chronicle the events that led to the kidnap and murder of seven Cistercian monks on the hands of Muslim fundamentalist in Algeria in 1996. Taking a cue from Roberto Rossellini’s “Flowers of St. Francis,” Beauvois immerses his viewers into the daily routines of his monks and their relationship with their Muslim neighbors. The result is a tranquil, yet emotionally devastating, examination of faith, fundamentalism and colonialism. Indisputably the most important film of the year.
10) White Material (dir: Claire Denis)
The greatest living female filmmaker returns to the Africa of “Chocolate” and “Beau travail” for this nightmarish allegory about a French co-owner of a coffee plantation (played with an equal measure of force and vulnerability by the great Isabelle Huppert) in an unidentified African country caught in the middle of a civil war. Denis plunges her viewers inside the conflict, using her signature elliptical structure to stimulate the physicality of the place. At once powerful and hopeless, “White Material” is an angry commentary about post-colonial race-conflict that plays like action film. Dark, nerve-wrecking and deeply engrossing.
9) Another Year (dir: Mike Leigh)
The Charles Dickens of cinema returns for another observational anatomy of working class Britons, more complex than it initially appears to be. The film centers on a meek, happily married elderly couple and the troupe of dejected characters who orbit their universe. Leigh’s free-flowing comedy-drama contains no plot, relying on improvisation by its stellar cast. Underneath the warm, gentle ambiance is an undercurrent of discomfort that grows more violent near the end. “Another Year” is an insightful exploration of aging, loneliness and love; a snapshot of the tragic reality of modern life rendered with compassion and honesty.
8) Carlos (dir: Olivier Assayas)
Frenchman Assayas follows his placid chamber drama “Summer Hours” (our number one film of 2009) with a radically different project: a 5 ½ hours epic biopic about the rise and fall of the infamous Venezuelan terrorist featuring a star-making performance by Édgar Ramírez. The globe-trotting, post-modern thriller demystifies the idealistic anti-imperialist rhetoric that informed the 70s. Assayas’ Carlos is anything but a genuine revolutionary. A narcissistic, self-serving mercenary, Assayas implies that Carlos’ motivations were anything but lofty. Sex, stardom and money were his true inspiration.
7) The Temptation of St. Tony (dir: Veiko Õunpuu)
Estonian filmmaker Õunpuu is the lawful heir to Béla Tarr and with his atmospheric sophomore effort, he proves to be one of Eastern Europe’s most exciting new talents. A dark, surrealistic portrait of post-communist Europe, the film revolves around a mid-level manager grappling with morality in a decaying, dissipated Estonia. Taavi Eelmaa plays it straight against Õunpuu’s absurd, highly theatrical backdrop. Abundant with striking black and white images nodding to Luis Buñuel and David Lynch, Õunpuu takes up the existential crises of his disorientated hero to pose the following question: What constitutes morality in a godless world? Satirical, unsettling and utterly beautiful.
6) The Social Network (dir: David Fincher)
The “Fight Club” director’s enthralling take on Mark Zuckerberg and the birth of Facebook is the best mainstream American film of the year. Fincher subverts his visual theatrics, allowing Aaron Sorkin’s multi-perspective narrative and deliciously biting and brisk dialogue to take command. The comparison to “Citizen Kane” — a Shakespearean tragedy about a man damaged by boundless ambition — is valid, but there’s a lot more to the film than that. This is an imposing record of an entire generation: of misfits, social climbers and wannabe stars; of wanting to see and be seen; of betrayal, deceit and the flimsy nature of friendship in the 21st century. “Social Network” is sleek, profoundly cynical, bitter and very, very entertaining.
5) Blue Valentine (dir: Derek Cianfrance)
Cianfrance’s frighteningly intimate chronicle of a couple (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) falling in and out of love is the “Scenes from the Marriage” of my generation. Cianfrance’s non-linear narrative spans six years in the life of its blue-collar couple, cumulating in one fateful evening where they attempt to mend their relationship. The film gives no easy answers; in fact, it doesn’t give any answers whatsoever. What causes the dissolution of a marriage? No one knows, and the film doesn’t pretend to. Cianfrance doesn’t sugarcoat reality, delivering a raw, uncompromising and sad picture that grows more intense, more painful, towards the end.
4) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (dir: Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Arguably the most jubilant film ever made about death, Weerasethakul’s Palme d’Or winner is an enigmatic, hypnotic rumination on the Buddhist concepts of mortality and reincarnation. Realized mostly via long, still shots, “Uncle Boonmee” is, nevertheless, the Thai wonderkid’s most accessible film to date; a minimalist fairytale populated with invisible phantoms and red-eyed gorillas. A sense of awe and wonder seeps from every frame, obscuring the subtle political references to Thailand’s violent past. Weerasethakul also explores the notion of cinema as photographic memory, a magic lantern stronger than death. Most of all though, this is celebration of the end of a life and a beginning of a new one; of the infinite mystery that is human life.
3) Our Beloved Month of August (dir: Miguel Gomes)
Traveling to the Portuguese countryside with a big, meticulously-constructed script but no actors or budget, former film critic Gomes decides to abandon his project, crafting instead an intricate meta-narrative about a local music festival. The line between documentary and fiction is exceedingly thin and constantly crossed. Gomes’ sophomore effort is part a film about the making of itself, part incestuous romance and part a musical docu-drama. Above all though, “August” is a loving tribute to communal ethos; a romantic carnival of sounds and colors. No on other recent film has managed to vividly capture the spirit of an entire nation like “August.”
2) Everyone Else (dir: Maren Ade)
Another film about the designation of a relationship, Ade’s second feature is the ultimate break-up movie; an incisive, piercing dissection of male/female relationship that harks back to the best films of Antonioni and Bergman. Ade’s camera strips her characters bare, unearthing truths most couples prefer to hide. This is a story about a couple who will never accept each other. The ebb and flow of Gitti and Chris’s relationship never reaches a real crashing point; the Berlin Film School alumnus keeps things tightly under wraps, building tension while denying her audience the relief of catharsis or release. The result is a tremendously sober, distrustful view of love that feels sadistic in parts. Rich, brutally honest and disquieting, “Everyone Else” could very well be the best German film of the new century.
1) The Illusionist (dir: Sylvain Chomet)
Once every blue moon, a film unexpectedly comes along to remind you why you fell in love with movies in the first place. This year, that film was “The Illusionist,” Sylvian Chomet’s adaptation of an unfilmed script by great French comedy director Jacques Tati about a has-been Parisian magician trying to find his place in a world that no longer believes in magic. “The Illusionist” is both an homage to Tati and an elegy of the deceased culture he fervently championed; a reflection on transience of time, growing up and letting go; a heartbreaking story of a father-daughter relationship rendered with tenderness and care. Washed in whimsy and longing, Chomet’s film is imbued with unceasing resignation; a devastating sense of surrender. No other film this year has moved me the way Chomet’s film did. The sense of loss that struck me by the end of the film haunted me for weeks and for some reason, I didn’t want to leave Chomet’s world, hiding away from the real world, reluctant to let go.
Cianfrance’ “Blue Valentine” is a non-linear narrative.
Maren Ade’s “Everyone Else” is the ultimate break-up film.
Italy’s “I am Love” is directed by Luca Guadagnino.
France’s “White Material” is dark and nerve-wrecking.