I hate hotshots. According to the movies I got out to see, 2010 was yet another parade of hotshots behind the camera, emboldened by mastery of new, completely superfluous technologies (I don't give a damn what camera you shot on—not if the mechanical, pre-determined results might as well have been captured on an old Mitchell 35mm camera) and agitated by market demands into ever more efficient, bottom-line modes of production (prediction: new Academy Award categories for Best Workflow and Fastest Turnaround). Many critics love hotshots. Hotshots appear to have their shit together. They may not tell stories in any truly memorable or honest way, but their speed, Tinkertoy complexity and relentlessness almost look like grace and agility when you're desperate for a thrill. I love slobs. Movies with their greasy shirttail sticking out. Ol' Dirty Bastard, not Kanye West. We have to stop rewarding slickness and boldness for their own sake. We have to re-learn the visual language and emotional acuity that all these hotshots are too business-adroit to be bothered with. Or else we're doomed. Okay, this rundown of 2010 flicks emphasizes what I suspect the directors were up to. It's still a director's medium, you know, despite the growing sensation that "director" now means "savvy producer type with sparkling credit and advanced software skills."
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps was the most interesting mainstream American release for many reasons, but mainly because 1. director Oliver Stone adopted the tabloid style that made movies like JFK and Natural Born Killers overbearing but here works like a soaring op-ed piece, just as it made Any Given Sunday a rousing sports column. 2. As a study of a weirdly sentimental sociopath (Michael Douglas) on a tear, it is as mesmerizing as Sam Fuller's The Baron of Arizona and Wendell B. Harris's Chameleon Street—and it has as much to sing about American graft and self-delusion as did those films. 3. Shia LaBeouf's performance as a young finance hotshot in way over his head is quite accurate to the Maxim-subscribing boiler room types I've encountered, including the moment his whole world crumbles, and we see that he's really just a (stop me, somebody) scared little boy. Sounds terrible, I know, but this flick actually has heart and purpose. Best editorial cartoon of the year.
Enter the Void: That folks have been comparing this hipster visual tantrum to 2001: A Space Odyssey says a whole hell of a lot about where film culture is right now. It doesn't help that Gaspar Noé chose to shoot in nocturnal Tokyo, where any random pink eiga director could have made a trippier, less obnoxious tour of drug dens, sex clubs, love hotels and the afterlife—for a fraction of the cost.
Winter's Bone: A pretty good TV show, the kind they show on HBO all the time to great acclaim, but, like Ramin Bahrani's Chop Shop, essentially critic/sucker bait for those who respond in Pavlovian fashion to narrative slackness and grim posturing posing as contemplation. Excellent performances, lovely color-corrected rust colors, peeling shanties and frosted highlights, but I didn't believe any of it.
Somewhere: Sofia Coppola is more of a natural-born filmmaker than her Dad. Francis Coppola has created a lot of astonishing scenes, but he has never turned something so simple and ordinary as a girl cooking up some eggs into a wondrous event. Daddy's little auteur sees and hears so much. Anybody who fawns over arty colonialist Claire Denis but disses silver-spoon Sofia isn't playing fair.
Inception: To paraphrase the Red Letter Media guy dissing Avatar: advancing cinema further in the wrong direction. A gargantuan, empty experience, like an abandoned Learjet hangar.
Wild Grass: A great old director at play out in the world. It's like watching him take off on roller skates and bust moves you'd expect from a brilliant kid.
I Am Love: Tilda Swinton, with her ghostly pale skin and razor-thin lips, becomes, in dramatic context, as mesmerizing a sexual/emotional creature as Juliet Binoche sprawled across the bed in Certfied Copy (a masterpiece I saw at 2010 NYFF but which hasn't been released in the U.S. yet). This is one keen and wild piece of celluloid, hotshot in the best sense.
Secret Sunshine: I loved it when it played at the New York Film Festival three years ago. This brutal, tearful maternal tragedy hit the IFC Center last year just in time for Christmas. Still playing as of January 7.
Black Swan: Still haven't seen it, but I am preparing myself by forgetting that Isabelle Adjani in one scene from Possession preemptively eradicates any other crazy-bitch-in-leotards movie, especially one made by a transparent hotshot like Darren Aronofsky. (Like Christopher Nolan on Inception, he's another live action director overshadowed by animator Satoshi Kon (R.I.P., 1963-2010): In terms of vigorous mindfucking, Kon's Perfect Blue is to Requiem for a Dream what Paprika is to Inception).
Mother and Child: Nowhere near as good as Armond White made it out to be, but it does fill a void for mainstream movies that deal thoughtfully with the legacy of broken homes. It even makes a lovely suggestion about how to improvise a family with strangers, if one has the heart for it.
Another Year: Folks (like Karina Longworth) naively assume Mike Leigh is parading a bunch of grotesques for our amusement and/or consternation, but that says more about their cynicism than it does about Leigh's vision. The understanding he shows this film's most "pathetic" characters is towering. The only way you'll miss it is if you greet their explanations of why they're so needy and lost with the kind of condescension his two leads shower upon them. Everybody plays the fool, sometimes.
A Prophet: The world didn't need another one of these grim, shank-up-the-ass prison flicks, but at least this one grooves and arrives at an understanding. Any film in which a lackey character eats shit for years and later emerges triumphant would have to be pretty shoddy to lose my vote. This one is as meticulous as a Jean-Pierre Melville crime thriller. With bodily fluids.
The Fighter: This movie wants to be a jazzy improv, but it's stuck with an opportunistic 'hood movie scenario and a director who apparently was just trying to get through it in one piece. Nothing wrong with the script that couldn't have been fixed by letting a barefooted filmmaker like Harmony Korine or Ken Loach muss its hair. Still, Amy Adams does something no other dainty white actress in the history of cinema has managed to do: She becomes an around-the-way girl without a trace of effort.
The Ghost Writer: Still haven't seen it yet, but Polanski can do no wrong. Not behind the camera, anyway. Well, not behind a movie camera, at least.
Old Films I Saw For the First Time in 2010 That Put Nearly All of the Above to Shame
Love Streams (1985): John Cassavetes makes a dream-film about unrequited love as if he had only days to live. And as far as he knew, he did: He got the terminal cirrhosis diagnosis early on in the production. He doesn't hold back anything here, blending his improvisational jones and stylistic instincts (the latter his best kept secret) more harmoniously than ever. Deliriously beautiful call and response between crafts: The camera serenades, the acting swoons—and vice versa.
The Long Day Closes (1992): Terence Davies makes his nostalgia yours, gliding over the ghosts of his early 1950s Liverpool childhood the way Enter the Void's camera hovers leeringly over sordid business. But even at eye level, Davies is at a spiritual height that would make Gaspar Noé (a pimp posing as priest, really) faint dead away.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970): Sam Peckinpah should have directed early-'80s Saturday morning cartoons. This lovely, clunky, corny hymn to the common scoundrel would have gotten him the job. Take out all the sex and killing jokes, and you've got a comic Western as sweet and lyrical as the animated Charlotte's Web.
In Vanda's Room (2000): Even a decade later, Pedro Costa's series of static compositions in and around a crumbling Portugese tenement is the future of cinema. There is nothing wrong with Winter's Bone, Mother and Child, or Inception that Costa's purifying methods couldn't have fixed.
Unreleased Film of the Year
Tape: This epic documentary about an outlandish Chinese performance artist struggling to keep his troupe in business in the face of economic realities is for anybody in the world not born rich who is trying to create something new and eat at the same time.
Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl is Heavy, Fandor's Keyframe blog, Roger Ebert's Far Flung Correspondents and the publisher of Big Media Vandalism.