Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Calm Before the Storm

Summer is pretty much over, and with it, the first half or so of 2010. With summer ending, fall begins, and with that, a new season of films. 2010 Hasn't really been too remarkable as far as movies go, but there have been some gems, and more than a handful of films to look forward to as we get into. That being said, I'm surprised at how conservative critics have been this year, especially with the more remarkable films so far. Generally speaking, critics tend not to line up with the average Joe-Six-Pack audience members, and praise a film for being different, bold, and not just another brick in the wall. But this year there's been this odd knee-jerk reaction amongst critics towards more original, fresh, and different material.

Take Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" for example. Surprisingly, it received a lukewarm response from critics, despite it being, in this writer's opinion, the director's finest work since "Goodfellas". The film is expertly crafted, beautifully acted, and masterfully directed. But it's not like the rest of Scorsese's work. So critics had, again, a knee-jerk reaction to the film because they expected a typical Scorsese film. The question I would pose however, is what exactly is a typical Scorsese film? A gangster film? He's only made a small handful of those in a career that spans about 21 films. As I stated before, "Shutter Island" is, for my money, one of the finer films of the first half of 2010, and it's a shame others didn't feel that way.

Likewise, Anton Corbijn's sophomore effort "The American" has been receiving a similarly mixed critical reception. With the likes of Roger Ebert praising the film and giving it 4 stars, his highest rating, and others calling it a snore, one has to wonder what exactly they were expecting out of it. Focus Features' marketing is somewhat to blame, as the film has been advertised as a straightforward star-vehicle thriller, in the vein of the "Bourne" films. But as Kris Tapley astutely pointed out earlier, evoking those films as a measure of anything in a review of Corbijn's film is a dead end analysis. Comparing the two get's you nowhere, because they have absolutely nothing in common. The "Bourne" trilogy is a very straightforward trio of espionage action thrillers. They are brilliantly written and expertly made, but very much action films. "The American" is an art-house film to it's core. It's a slow burner character study. There are bursts of violence sprinkled in the film, but not enough to even justify calling it a thriller. But for some reason, I suppose critics were expecting "Salt", not art.

This kind of mixed reaction to films that dared to be different, fresh, bold, and original in a year filled to the brim with known properties, sequels, remakes, and rehashes is troubling for a couple of reasons. For one thing, one would assume people would welcome such a change of pace, especially critics. Low and behold, the most critically acclaimed film of the year, "Toy Story 3", is not only a sequel, but the third part in a trilogy.

Now, I loved "Toy Story 3" as much as the next person, but in what world do critics prefer a three-quel to original material? To be fair, it has the Pixar factor going for it and deserves every bit of praise it gets. But at the same time, where are the champions of the new? Even "Inception", Christopher Nolan's mind-bending follow-up to "The Dark Knight" had a number of detractors who simply couldn't wrap their heads around such a bold, ambitious, thoroughly original film. It's as if we've become so accustomed to the repetitive shit that studios throw at us year after year that when something different and great comes a long, we have no idea how to react. To be fair, though, "Shutter Island" and "The American" are loosely based on lesser known novels of the same names, but that doesn't make them any less exciting, bold, and original as films.

In any case, there's still a good deal of films to look forward to, as well as a few gems worth checking out on DVD and Blu-Ray if you haven't had the chance. Let's take a look at the best of 2010 so far and what to look forward to this fall during festival season.

In no particular order, my favorite films of 2010 so far are

"Inception" (Christopher Nolan): An extraordinary masterpiece by one of the best filmmakers working today. It's still in theatres and this film is living proof of the possible marriage between big budget studio-filmmaking and bold, original material. This is hands down my favorite film of the year so far, and will likely remain high up in my top ten for the rest of the year. Nothing has come close to be as bold, ambitious, exciting, and smart as Nolan's greatest achievement yet.

George crossing the townsquare in Castel del Monte

"The American" (Anton Corbijn): Anton Corbijn's sophomore effort is a step-forward for one of the most exciting new filmmakers working today. His eye for shot composition is unmatched, and his photography roots are evident in his latest film. It's not a film everyone is going to like. In fact, I expect quite a few to hate it. It's slow-paced, but in a beautiful way. It's a slow-burner character study, visually stunning, philosophically rich, and features one of Clooney's finest performances in an unusually subdued turn from the actor. With very little dialogue and a relaxed pace, the film is likely to divide audiences and alienate those seeking a straightforward adrenaline rush of a thriller. But intelligent viewers with open minds will be rewarded by one of the most compelling, philosophical, and spiritually rich films of the year. The film opens this weekend. 

"A Prophet" (Jacques Audiard): Technically a 2009 international release, but a 2010 US release, this French gangster film is a masterpiece. Matching narrative power with visually stunning cinematography, and a star-making performance from Tahir Rahim (my favorite performance of the year so far), this film is tragic, compelling, and altogether riveting. The film is out on Blu-Ray and DVD so be sure to watch it. 

"How to Train Your Dragon" (Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders): I tend to go back and forth as to which of this year's great animated films I liked more. As much as I love and adore "Toy Story 3" I tend to settle on Dreamworks' "How to Train Your Dragon" as my favorite of the two. Beautifully animated, no doubt thanks to legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins' contribution as visual supervisor on the film, it's one of only two films I've ever seen where I would actually recommend the 3D (the other being "Avatar"). But more importantly, the film has a whole lot of heart. I definitely found myself tearing up by the end. Perhaps the film just speaks to me on a personal level. I've always been a pet lover, especially dogs, and always been very close with my dogs. So the bond between man and animal in this film was especially powerful and poignant to me. In any case, make sure to check it out on Blu-Ray and DVD this October. 

"Toy Story 3" (Lee Unkrich): As I said before, Pixar's latest is the most critically acclaimed film of the year, and for good reason. It's as emotionally, thematically, and visually rich as Pixar's films tend to be, and a perfect conclusion to one of the most beloved franchises in film history. I definitely was reduced to a blubbering mess during the film's last 20 minutes or so. Simultaneously moving and hilarious, with a script and character development that outclasses 99% of live-action features this year, Pixar has added yet another classic to their belt. The film is still in a few theatres, and will be on Blu-Ray and DVD in November. 

"Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" (Edgar Wright): If ever there was a film that fit the label "underdog" it's Edgar Wright's third feature. The film has been facing a huge uphill struggle at the box office. The question get's asked, is it too niche? Too generation-specific? I suppose that could be said, but when A.O. Scott gives the film a rave review when the themes and video-game references on display are about as important to him as Surgeon General's Warnings are to Don Draper, you should sit up and pay attention. Not only is "Scott Pilgrim" one of the most visually inventive films of the year, it's the most hilarious, outrageously entertaining action-comedies in years. That may all sound like hyperbole, but when a film is this good, it needs hyperbolic word of mouth to survive. If you want to support good movies, go see this film pronto! It's still in theatres, so go see it the way it was meant to be seen, on the big screen!

"Shutter Island" (Martin Scorsese): Leonardo DiCaprio certainly is on a roll this year. Two films in one year and both of them masterworks is nothing to sneeze at. Fortunately, audiences took notice and came out in droves to see both. "Inception" is the talk of the town right now, but "Shutter Island" is every bit as good. In fact, there are a number of parallels between the two films that might make for an interesting double feature one night. Beautifully crafted, "Shutter Island" is, for my money, Scorsese's finest film in 20 years. When that 20 year period includes "Goodfellas", "The Aviator" and "The Departed", you know you're in for something special. It's the best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made. 

"Iron Man 2" (Jon Favreau): I'm going to get some flak for this choice, but I don't really care. Even if the sequel didn't quite live up to the high bar set by the first film, it's still one of the most entertaining, sharply written, well acted action films of the year. Robert Downey Jr. was born to play Tony Stark, even if he has no plans to do so after "The Avengers". Call it a guilty pleasure if you want, but I still liked the movie a great deal. The film is out on Blu-Ray and DVD September 28th. 

That's it for the first half of 2010. Tune in later for my full review of "The American" and a look at what's to come in the fall. What are your favorite films of 2010 so far? As always, have at it in the comments section below!


elizagolightly said...

Oh Shutter Island. I love that movie so much. And Inception. And IM2! WOO! I need more. I can't wait to see what you think about Never Let Me Go.

Kevin K. said...

I'm definitely looking forward to it. Two weeks from now right? I think the limited release is September 14, and it premieres at one of the major festivals next week. I'll post my most anticipated list today or tomorrow.

mombot said...

Inception was so good, people in the cinema were going "Aww!" at the end, because they wanted to know whether Dicaprio was still in the dream or not. lol
I agree with you on the ones I've seen so far. (Haven' seen Scott Pilgrim or 'Dragon)I am hoping to see The American this weekend.

Danny King said...

I'm also in the DiCaprio camp. "Inception" and "Shutter Island" are two of my favorites of the year, and both of his performances are fantastic. And although I think Clooney's work in "The American" is one of the year's acting highlights as well, the predictability of that film's conclusion was a bit of a letdown. For the most part, though, Corbijn's sophomore film is well worth sitting through.

Kevin K. said...

I think predictability is something that other people complain about that I just simply don't get. A film can have a forgone conclusion/plot points and still tell a good story, character studies in particular. Jack was always doomed from the start because he's a fatally flawed person. Hubris, if you will. He can't escape destiny because he tries to escape what is really is, a killer.

Danny King said...

I don't think that "The American" is a pure 'character study' because we know so little, and learn very little, about the character. And I don't think that 'hubris' describes Jack's flaw effectively. His 'doomed' fate is more attributed to his profession than any characteristic of his. He obviously doesn't like what he's doing, but he keeps doing it because he's good at it and because that's the only way he can make his living at this point - he does it out of necessity, not hubris.

And while I do agree with you that predictable stories can be powerful, I do not think that is the case with "The American," particularly because up until the conclusion, the film is a very unconventional exercise, and I think a more original ending was needed to fulfill that purpose.

Kevin K. said...

Again, the predictability thing just doesn't jive with me. Different strokes. In any case, I just got back from a second viewing of the film and it holds up surprisingly well. In fatc, I felt even more absorbed in the way Corbijn told the story, and Clooney's performance. Thea tragedy of the character is very compelling and again, only helped by Clooney's performance. The film won't win any awards come later this fall or oscars time (cinematography is a possibility though) but to me, it's still one of the finest films of the year, and will likely end up on my end of the year top ten list, but with such a strong fall movie season coming up, who knows. Reviews out of Telluride and Venice for Black Swan, 127 Hours, The Way Back, The King's Speech, Never Let Me Go, and Meek's Cutoff have been pretty extraordinary, and early buzz on The Social Network is fantastic as well. But The American is simply the kind of film that is right up my alley. Docking a film for being "predictable" or having a "predictable ending", again, just doesn't really compute with me, but apparently everyone else hates it. As always, I'm fine with that.

snobbyfilmguy said...

I praise you for putting A Prophet on this list. It's a masterpiece. For me, I liked The American more 2 days after I'd seen it than I did the 2 minutes after I saw it. People are dismissing this film quickly when it deserves to take up some of your thoughts. I disagree with Danny King's comment to an extent. Jack's 'doomed' fate is from the decisions he makes (like who to talk to and how much to say) as well as being stuck with his own thoughts. He's almost haunted. All the same, thanks again for reminding others of A Prophet!
P.S. Ironman 2 sucked

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