As far as movies are concerned, 2011 couldn’t have started better. Right on New Year’s Day I saw Des hommes et des dieux, a French film about a group of Trappist monks executed in Algeria in 1996. It is one of several French films that transcend the usual dialogue-heavy “je t’aime… …moi non plus” attitude we associate with French drama.
Of 2010’s new releases there was no single outstanding film so I just list my ten favorite films in alphabetical order:
- Kûki ningyô/Air Doll (Kore-Eda, Japan 2009): As soft and light-weight as its wide-eyed sex-doll-come-to-life protagonist. With its musette score it plays like a Japanese version of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie, but less flashy, subtler and certainly more enigmatically philosophical.
- L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot (Bromberg/Medrea, France 2009): The thrilling tale of a movie that might have been, had it ever been completed. Romy Schneider with blue lips in a psychedelic phantasmagoria.
- Die Fremde/When we leave (Aladag, Germany 2010): the first of two thoughtful and subtle films about the tensions of modern women suffering from religious traditions. Formally and emotionally superior to Na Putu/On the path.
- Gainsbourg – vie héroïque (Sfar, France/USA 2010): A biopic that dares to leave blanks. What might have become a clumsy act of worship is transformed into a raw and at the same time polished piece of art by first time director Joann Sfar based on his own crudely drawn graphic novel.
- L’illusionniste (Chomet, UK/France 2010): Less zany than Chomet’s earlier Triplettes de Belleville but ultimately more beautiful, this out-dated Illusionist roaming around Scotland combines Jacques Tati’s slow building visual gags with the melancholia of a dying art form. This year’s only animated feature without action sequences.
- Nowhere Boy (Taylor-Wood, UK/Canada 2009): A polished period piece as decidedly British as they come. I have certainly seen better films in 2010 but this one will stay in my memory. After all, how could I resist a film about John Lennon’s youth, no matter how modest in scope?
- Precious (Daniels, USA 2009): An emotional bulldozer that hits all the right notes. Gabourey Sidibe proves that a great actress is able to avoid the victim-trap even with a character that has to endure an almost preposterous amount of adversities.
- Shutter Island (Scorsese, USA 2010): Scorsese even succeeds when reworking the 50s genre pictures he adores so much. Call it unfocused, even weak in comparison to his “auteur” projects, but it was one hell of a ride with a perfect soundtrack.
- A single man (Ford, USA 2009): Can a western director succeed in bringing Wong Kar-Wai's style to a literary adaptation? A few lapses aside, yes, if he is fashion designer Tom Ford.
- Winter’s Bone (Granik, USA 2010): Gut-wrenching, bone-chilling – this year’s Shotgun Stories, just stronger and from a female point of view. Lead actress Jennifer Lawrence is a natural.
What remains on the cutting floor
The Kids are all right, A serious man, and The Social Network almost made the list. Fantastic Mr. Fox is not included because I had to see it a second time to fully enjoy and appreciate it, so I went for Sylvain Chomet’s film instead. But why only one animated feature in a list of ten films? First of all, I wasn’t overwhelmed by any animated film this year like I was by Mary and Max, Ratatouille or Spirited Away in previous years.
The Toy Story 3 screening was ruined by several factors, so I can’t say much about that. Tangled was better than expected and far above last year’s The Princess and The Frog. The storytelling was floweing seamlessly, the zip-style animation was limited to a horse acting like a dog – which was surprisingly funny. All in all, it was a successful return to the tightly structured 90s features like Beauty and the Beast. The problem is that it’s just not the kind of picture I would want to see or the direction I would want a once inventive studio to take. Not that I have anything against fairy tales or screwball comedies along the lines of It Happened One Night. But frankly, I don’t need to see an average American teenager stumble through a set that looks like it was inspired by Disneyland, no matter how beautiful and impressive the animation – and believe me, it is impressive. Since they get the teenager characterization so right, why not do a story taking place in a real 2010 environment?
The good news is that I actually liked large parts of a Dreamworks feature: Hadn’t it been for the tedious action scenes, How to train your dragon could have been a masterpiece. I’m sure, the core relationship between the boy and his dragon would have been strong enough to carry the whole film. The other thing I liked was the fact that the final battle had a lasting effect on the boy. Why these films always resort to a scene where the hero is assumed to be dead remains a mystery to me, though.
Expanding the back catalogue
When I wrote about Italian cinema last year, I wouldn’t have thought that a year later I’d write about the same subject again. Then the musical Nine made me wish to see Otto e mezzo (1963) again. Not only was my wish granted, I was even given the opportunity of presenting it in a public screening. While the Fellini are part of the cinema italiano I've known for a long time – the director driven art house branch beginning with Rosselini and Neorealismo and ending with Antonioni, Visconti and Bertolucci – Scorsese opened my eyes for the vital tradition of purely entertaining screen comedies of the 50s, 60s and early 70s by directors like Dino Risi and Ettore Scola. Last summer, I finally saw some of these films and I’ve become addicted to them ever since.
After seeing Otto e mezzo several times, Marcello Mastroianni was already my new favorite actor. But I only discovered his immense range of expressions in films like Dramma della gelosia (Scola, 1970) or Divorzio all’italiana (Germi, 1961), two gems I’d watch again anytime.
Another great discovery of 2010 was Swedish director Jan Troell, especially his monumental two-part emigrant saga Utvandrarna (1971) and Nybyggarna (1972) about a poor family who leaves Sweden to settle down in Minnesota. Doing his own (hand) camera work, Troell achieves a level of realism that transcends even Terrence Malick’s similar undertaking in The New World (2005). I don’t think I have ever seen such an intimate saga completely devoid of sentimentality or any insight into the characters inner life. The slowly paced experience takes a little less than seven hours but is worth every minute. Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann act like forces of nature in their struggle against the harsh realities of a farmer's life.