In December 2009 I did a round-up of my film viewing for that year and listed the five best films I'd seen. I'm running a bit late with my summary for 2010, but trying to decide what was worth-while, with a little bit of distance and a number of films for comparison, still seems a good idea. I felt I'd seen significantly fewer films in 2010 than I had in previous years so was surprised to discover that while my film-viewing was down - I'd seen 52 films for the year, an average of one a week - it compared better than I had expected with the 60 I'd seen in 2009. Still, it feels as if most of my 2010 list is made up either of movies I went to see for my monthly film discussion group or films I saw at the Sydney Film Festival. I saw embarrassingly few Australian films last year - only four of them - along with ten from the UK, 23 from the USA and nineteen from other, mostly LOTE (language other than English) countries. And yes, that adds up to more than 52 because a surprisingly large number of the movies I saw last year were co-productions across countries. As for 2009, there's a preponderance of films from the USA because that's just the way the film industry is, rather than because I have a preference for films from the USA.
Essentially, my film viewing habits haven't changed. I don't watch DVDs as I find I'm too easily distracted to concentrate on the movie as completely as I would like. (As an aside, I have an hypothesis that people in cinemas are getting noisier because they're transferring their at-home DVD watching behavior to the cinema...or maybe I'm just getting older and grumpier). So, all the movies listed (apart from a few I saw on a plane) were viewed in the cinema.
Overall, I think there were fewer wonderful films in 2010 than in the previous year. My 'five best' list is just as grim as it was in 2009 which says more about my preferences than it does about the range of movies being made. A number of movies not among my top five distracted or entertained or pleased me for a variety of reasons - I loved the design and costume elegance of Jane Campion's Bright Star and I Am Love with the incomparable Tilda Swinton; I was delighted by the unpretentious exuberance of Bran Nue Dae; I sat on the edge of my seat anticipating disaster which never eventuated throughout the Russian film How I Ended This Summer; I learned so much that is deeply relevant for our times from The Most Dangerous Man in America (the story of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers); and I uncritically relished seeing two of the Millenium series of novels, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire, transferred to film.
So, on to my top 5:
After much debate and indecision my top film is German director Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon. The austere, black-and-white film is set in a German village immediately prior to the outbreak of WWI and I think it is a meditation on the nature of evil. It has also been described as an allegory of the lead-up to Fascism in 1920s and 30s Germany but, as long as you aren't seeking easy answers to the meaning of the film, I think it works well without having to be viewed as an allegory of anything. The village of the film has all the claustrophobia of small, enclosed communities where neighbours can half-know but ignore horrendous practices behind closed doors. The most scarifying thing about the film is that it depicts even children as having the capacity for evil-doing. Thought-provoking and gripping.
A close runner-up is the Australian film Animal Kingdom, directed by David Michod. A lot of other people must also think this film is wonderful as it was voted best picture at the Australian Film Industry (AFI) awards as well as receiving the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. There's recently been a whole lot of often indifferent or even distasteful television series and films focusing on the criminal underworld in Australia, and I was initially fearful this would be yet another of them. It is a film about a family of criminals, but it's also about how the individuals in that family are shaped by their environment and about how horrific deeds can become 'normalised' through repetition and the expectations of others. Veteran Australian actor Jackie Weaver has been justly lauded for her portrayal of the family matriarch (and has been nominated for a Golden Globe award for her role) but I think the stand-out performance is Ben Mendelshon as the menacing older brother and armed robber. For once, a great Australian script.
My number three is the American anti-war (in my view) film, The Hurt Locker. For once, I think the Oscar voters got it right, as this was voted best motion picture for 2010. It's the story of an elite bomb-disposal squad in Iraq, where it it is never clear who is the enemy or where is safe. After the very early death of the Guy Pearce character, the squad acquires a new leader who seems to take risk-taking to unsafe and dangerous levels. The film revels something of its central characters and their motivations, but I think its great achievement is in making you confront the difficulty of returning from such experiences to the everyday world. As I became older and realised what 'ordinary ' men of my father's generation had been required to do during the second world war I was amazed at how they were expected to master the sudden transformation from war to home. Among other things, this film explores that transformation. A superb performance from Jeremy Renner who was also wonderful in the recent Ben Affleck movie The Town.
Number 4 is Winter's Bone. This has to be one of the most perfectly-made movies ever. It's a 'small' movie set within an isolated community in the Ozark mountains in Missouri. It's a community beyond the fringe of legality, comfort and safety where moonshine liquor would have been made during prohibition, marihuana grown in the 70s and 80s, and amphetamines cooked in current times. The centre of the story is a seventeen year old girl, Ree, who cares for her demented mother and young brother and sister. Their ramshackle house and the land around it is all that lies between the family and destitution, but her father has used the property as his bond to be released on bail from a drugs charge. Ree needs to ensure her father honours his bond to maintain their house. What's so wonderful about the film is its evocation of the community where 'family' can be just as dangerous as being an outsider. One of the unexpected wonders of the film was the music with the simple melodies and aching harmonies that make up some of the best traditional music from such mountain regions of the USA.
And a documentary to round things out - the China/Canada co-production Last Train Home. This feature-length documentary was made over several years and traces the annual, grueling journey that is made for Chinese New Year by more than 200 million (!!!) workers from the manufacturing areas of eastern China to their home provinces often thousands of kilometers distant. The parents at the centre of the film have left their now teen-aged children with their grand-parents so that they can work for minimal wages in appalling conditions in factories to ensure a better life for the children. In the way of such sacrifices, the children resent their parents' absence and the stress that is placed on school performance and dutifulness. The tragic but inevitable cost of rapid change and industrialisation is devastatingly clear. I thought I saw somewhere that this documentary was to be shown on TV on SBS (or maybe has been shown?) but can no longer find any trace of it. But do see it if you have the opportunity.
So, they're my picks for 2010. Pretty grim, but I think uncontroversial in terms of quality. Any comments? Anyone else have any favourites or suggestions?