Another year in cinema

SN&R’s critics on 2010’s best films

SN&amp;R critic Jonathan Kiefer reminds not to overlook <i>Ondine</i>.

SN&R critic Jonathan Kiefer reminds not to overlook Ondine.

It’s simple, really: SN&R house critics Jonathan Kiefer, Jim Lane and Daniel Barnes see more flicks than you, your friends, your family and neighbors combined. And in the theater, no less. That’s credentials enough—and then this triumvirate takes it to the next level with unique, distinct takes on 2010’s best. Dim the lights …

Unnoticed grace

Ten of my 2010 favorites, in alphabetical order:

Everyone Else
Exit Through the Gift Shop
The Ghost Writer
Tamara Drewe
The Tillman Story
Winter’s Bone

One of the 10 I’d like to discuss: Ondine.

This poor little film. I could just tell it would go unnoticed. All it seems to care about is beauty, mystery, simplicity and the sooty grey-green textures of the forgotten Irish seaside.

It stars Colin Farrell as a divorced, alcoholic fisherman named Syracuse—and nicknamed Circus, for his clownish benders of yore—whose net one day drags a naked woman up from the sea. She’s played by Alicja Bachleda, just oddly bewitching enough for the fisherman’s clever, sickly young daughter (Alison Barry) to declare her mythic and try fixing her up with dad. Stephen Rea also is on hand as a wise, wry priest, advising, “Misery’s easy, Syracuse. Happiness you have to work at.” This will require some good faith.

And although trumpeted by sensitive critics grown weary of calculated blockbusters and other belabored movie-magic acts (yes, even the almighty Pixar lately seems too adamant to enchant), this poor little film must have struck all but the most openhearted viewers as some sort of ill-advised, stubbornly provincial Splash knockoff, and a quarter-century late to boot. That’s assuming they could even make out a word of Farrell’s thickly accented hangdog muttering.

But like that fisherman’s spirited little girl, Ondine can take care of itself. It doesn’t need your pity. Its point is really nothing more than the delicacy of the spell it casts, the fable as rebuke to grim reality. Accordingly, it is a rejuvenation for writer-director Neil Jordan, whose own adventures in Hollywood—ranging from Interview With the Vampire to The Brave One—have started to seem like the glummest of doldrums, near undoings of the greatness he brought to spikier indie fare like The Crying Game. Here Jordan’s in control again, confidently allocating Farrell’s and Rea’s shrewd affability, Bachleda’s necromantic eroticism, Barry’s welcome aversion to child-actor precocity and all the natural ease with which cinematographer Christopher Doyle records those mossy, salty landscapes. Transcendence, Ondine quietly and Irishly suggests, still is possible.

“Try to imagine a happy ending,” the kid tells her dad at one point, with compassion and also a hint of impatience. Syracuse is a man who lost custody of his girl to her mother (Dervla Kirwan), a fellow boozer, even though he might now be the more stable provider. A man who only confesses to his priest because there’s no local chapter of AA. He has made a little nest for himself in his own low expectations. But when his glamorous guest arrives, and apparently begins singing lobsters straight into his traps, you can see him start to take his daughter’s advice. When he buys the woman a dress, and she says, “It’s just tight on the edges,” you can co-conspire in his sly reply: “You have edges?”

She, meanwhile, warms to the possibility of being someone else’s fantasy, and in just such a way that deepens her mystery. This situation is not without some menace, of course, and Jordan has a knack for balancing the misty buoyancy of parable with the grounding grit of real life. As in The Crying Game, he uses the narrative non sequitur to check sentimentality, and to keep things interesting.

I remember Ondine with affection because it found a way to make a fable work in the 2010 world. It may have gone unnoticed, but even so its grace is undiminished.

—Jonathan Kiefer

SN&R critic Jim Lane says <i>Inception</i> is the best sci-fi flick ever made.

My dream, too

For my money, Christopher Nolan’s Inception was the movie of the year. If it doesn’t win the Oscar for Best Picture, let’s face it: Not one year in 10 does the Academy get it right, and a genre bender like Inception probably doesn’t stand much chance.

The genre that Inception bends is science fiction, and it’s surely the greatest science-fiction movie ever made. But that’s like calling Hamlet the greatest Elizabethan revenge tragedy, Moby Dick the greatest sea yarn, Beethoven’s Ninth the best damn tune anybody ever wrote.

In The Detached Retina: Aspects of SF and Fantasy, the great writer-critic Brian Aldiss talked about how “the awful victories of The Lord of the Rings, Star Trek and Star Wars” created “Instant Whip formulas” for science fiction. “Spiritual isolation, alienation,” Aldiss wrote, “these lie also at the heart of SF, like serpents in a basket.”

In its exploration of spiritual isolation and alienation, Inception is a basket of serpents disguised as a can of worms, a dizzying interweave of dreams within dreams.

The theme of Inception, the meaning of the title, is the planting of an idea in a dreamer’s mind, so deeply that he doesn’t even realize it’s not his own. That’s what Dom Cobb (Leonardo di Caprio) and his team do to Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy)—and more important, it’s what Christopher Nolan does to us, the subtle, insidious son of a gun. Watching Inception, even as the bullets fly between Cobb’s team and their dream-state enemies, ideas percolate in our heads about the nature of dreams and reality, and how they can braid together until the seams disappear. Are these ideas our own, bubbling into our consciousness as we grapple with Nolan’s shape-shifting script? Or are they inserted by him as part of his intricate mazelike design? I suppose you could argue that one either way, but I know where on the table I’d place my chips.

Nolan’s crowning masterstroke is that last shot of the little steel top, spinning on the kitchen table. The top is Cobb’s “token,” his measure of dream vs. reality. If it runs down and falls over, this is reality; if it spins indefinitely, Cobb is only trapped in yet another dream. Nolan ends his movie as the top spins on, with only the slightest, most tantalizing wobble. Personally, I say the top fell. This is my dream, too.

The rest of my top 10 of the year, in order or preference:

2. Flipped
3. Shrek Forever After
4. Easy A
5. Tamara Drewe
6. 127 Hours
7. Unstoppable
8. Tangled
9. Hereafter
10. Secretariat

—Jim Lane

Technology’s reach

1. Restrepo
2. The Social Network
3. Exit Through the Gift Shop
4. The Two Escobars
5. Greenberg
6. Best Worst Movie
7. I’m Still Here
8. Animal Kingdom
9. Nowhere Boy <ve>10. The Fighter

More than a decade ago, Entertainment Weekly tagged 1999 as “The Year That Changed Movies,” offering films varying from Being John Malkovich to The Matrix as examples of how new technologies and narrative innovations would change the face of cinema over the next decade.

As it turned out, narrative boundary pushing didn’t factor into Hollywood’s subsequent output, although we now have no shortage of films from the vampire’s point of view. Meanwhile, the use of CGI technology has taken its cue more from the dreadful sequels to The Matrix (or worse, The Phantom Menace)—whooshing cartoony shit for its own sake, at the expense of story, character and coherence.

The original point was valid—technological advances have always changed the way movies are made and viewed, as surely as technology changes us for good or ill (although who knows, perhaps medical science will find that watching 3-D movies through prismatic dark glasses in a dark room is actually good for your retinas)—but Entertainment Weekly made it 11 years too early.

2010 looks like the real watershed year for the merger of technological advances and artistic prowess. At the same time, technology has become an omnipresent, often invasive presence in our lives, and the best films of 2010 explored the opportunities, consequences and confusion of this new world.

The irreverent Exit Through the Gift Shop was inspired by a dogged but talentless Frenchman obsessed with his camera. In I’m Still Here, tote-able technologies get us closer to raving celebrity narcissism than we ever wanted. The Social Network was a big-budget production, but it employed seamless CGI technology in service of a great story rather than in opposition. Even the protagonist of Greenberg expresses a certain cross-generational angst, admitting his discomfort with the younger generation’s “facility with MySpace pages” and inability to appreciate good “coke music” like Duran Duran’s Rio.

Without a doubt, new technologies were crucial to the success of the year’s best film, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s powerfully immediate, frayed-nerve war documentary Restrepo—miniature security cameras affixed to the soldiers’ helmets even captured some of the footage. Restrepo opens with an action scene worthy of Michael Bay, a mortar attack seen from the inside of an armored vehicle, only these are real American soldiers fighting the Taliban in the impenetrable Korengal Valley.

Following the men of Second Platoon during their tour of duty in Afghanistan, Restrepo offers one of the most intimate and unsettling visions of war-as-hell ever put on movie screens. Strangely enough, Restrepo is also the most complete entertainment of the year, mixing flesh-crawling emotion, bracing action, a beautiful but brutal landscape and even shards of mordant humor.

Restrepo has the raw power of Hearts and Minds, but without a whiff of agitprop or exploitation—the war seems unwinnable enough on its own. Each step forward in the campaign is followed by two steps back; the soldiers are initially encouraged by the arrival of local elders at their camp, only to find out they’ve come to seek reparations for a dead cow—again.

The film is a profound portrait of heroic young men given an impossible assignment: Fight an unseen enemy, conquer an unforgiving terrain, and win the hearts and minds of a people who too often become collateral damage. But they also capture the violence, horniness and adolescent humor of males in close quarters, as when a few soldiers mock-grind each other to a salacious club-anthem MP3.

It’s one of the few lighthearted scenes in the film, but it also serves as an elegy for the irresponsible youth they’ve left behind, and a further reminder of modern technology’s long reach.

—Daniel Barnes