2010: Out with a Howl

CN&R’s senior film critic wraps up the year in filmCN&R’s senior film critic wraps up the year in film

A few reflections and thoughts on the 2010 movie year (as well as late-arriving films of the 2009 crop):

The year’s best: Ghost Writer, A Prophet, Winter’s Bone.

The rest of the best (locally, at least): Social Network, Inception, Fair Game, A Single Man, Crazy Heart, I Am Love, Greenberg, The Secret in Their Eyes, Hereafter.

Foreign Affairs: A Prophet (France), I Am Love (Italy) and The Secret in Their Eyes (Argentina)—along with Pedro Almodovar’s Broken Embraces from Spain and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon from Germany—were the lone foreign-language stand-outs to reach Chico theaters, but there was a wealth of remarkable foreign work to be found via video: Alamar and Lake Tahoe from Mexico, Mid-August Lunch from Italy, Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl from Portugal; and a dozen or so outstanding films from France, including especially Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass, Claire Denis’ White Material, and Stéphane Brizé’s Mademoiselle Chambon.

French Connections: Other French standouts on video were the fantasies Blue Beard and Micmacs, the dramas Home and Villa Amalia, the witty comedy-dramas Let It Rain, Making Plans for Lena and Change of Plans; Gaspard Noé’s psychedelic Enter the Void (filmed in English in Japan); two idiosyncratic films from old masters of the French New Wave—Jacques Rivette’s Around a Small Mountain and the late Claude Chabrol’s final film, Inspector Bellamy; the cracked psychodrama of Leaving with Kristin Scott Thomas and Sergi López, and the uncut French release of Bertrand Tavernier’s American-made crime film from 2009, In the Electric Mist. And Johnny To’s Vengeance has a French hero (Johnny Halladay) seeking revenge from Asian hitmen in the streets of Hong Kong.

Unjustly overlooked English-language movies: Animal Kingdom from Australia; Harry Brown (with Michael Caine) from Great Britain, and the U.S. indies City Island, Leaves of Grass, Howl, Life During Wartime and Tiny Furniture.

Performances to Savor: Jennifer Lawrence and Dale Dickey in Winter’s Bone; Sean Penn in Fair Game; Sandrine Kiberlain in Mademoiselle Chambon; Isabelle Huppert in White Material, Home and Villa Amalia; George Clooney in Up in the Air and The American; Jacki Weaver and Ben Mendelsohn in Animal Kingdom; Tilda Swinton in I Am Love; Johnny Depp and Anne Hathaway in Alice in Wonderland; Ewan McGregor in Ghost Writer; James Franco in Howl and Date Night; Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Crazy Heart; Colin Firth in A Single Man; Edward Norton’s dual roles in Leaves of Grass; Amy Adams and Melissa Leo in The Fighter; John Malkovich in RED; the ensembles in For Colored Girls and City Island; Benedict Cumberbatch as a 21st century Sherlock for BBC/PBS; Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup in A Prophet; the composite portrait of Coco Chanel rendered by Anna Mouglalis and Audrey Toutou in two separate movies about the fashion icon (Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky and Coco Before Chanel).

Stray Cats: Few really good music films strayed anywhere near us this year, but I’m reasonably happy to settle for the animated Sita Sings the Blues, the remastered Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones, Patrice Leconte’s lavishly scored documentary Dogora: Ouvrons les yeux, and the trio of John Lennon pictures that turned up in late autumn (including Nowhere Boy at the Pageant). Plus, a case can be made for the musical segments of Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky.

Best documentary: Sweetgrass, a portrait of Montana cowboys herding sheep at the end of an era.

Best westerns (the genre lives on): There were none in the classic sense (and the Coens’ True Grit is a few days away from opening as I write this), but there were a good many noteworthy films that also rate special mention as near-westerns or as westerns lurking in other guises. There are interesting variations on the so-called “cowboy mentality” in the outdoor dramas of Winter’s Bone and Leaves of Grass and in the boot-scootin’ ambience of Crazy Heart. Jackass 3-D, if you think about it for a minute, is devoted to out-of-work cowboy-types with too much time on their hands.

Poetic Justice: Walt Whitman’s poetry figures crucially in Leaves of Grass, which nevertheless is also much concerned with that other kind of grass. A couple of Fernando Pessoa’s poems are read to pungently deadpan effect midway through Manoel de Oliveira’s Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl. But the great poetic coup in the year’s movies is in Howl, where James Franco’s reading of Allen Ginsberg’s most famous poem (“Howl”) brings its “barbaric yawp” fully back to exhilarating life.