2009 stunk. 2010 was better.
CHRIS' TOP TEN THEATRICAL RELEASES OF 2010
1. Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor)
2. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Andrei Ujica)
3. Wild Grass (Alain Resnais)
4. I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhang-ke)
5. Nénette (Nicolas Philibert)
6. The Strange Case of Angelica/Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl (Manoel de Oliveira)
7. Mother (Bong Joon-ho)
8. Alamar (Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio)
9. Boxing Gym (Frederick Wiseman)
10. A Useful Life (Federico Veiroj)
TEN MORE THAT ARE STILL DAMNED GOOD: Last Train Home (Lixin Fan), True Grit (Ethan and Joel Coen), Everyone Else (Maren Ade), Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy), Somewhere (Sofia Coppola), Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso), What I Most Want (Delfina Castagnino), The Exploding Girl (Bradley Rust Gray), Splice (Vincenzo Natali), Inside Job (Charles Ferguson)
"True Grit" is the best American feature I saw this year. And it still didn't make the top ten. That's due in large part to the biggest contrast between 2009 and 2010: the quality of the year's documentaries. 2009 offered a field of approximately two (the superb "Beaches of Agnes," and Chris Smith's "Collapse"), but there are five docs in my Top 10 this year and "Last Train Home" and "Exit Through the Gift Shop" could easily have made it as well.
Two of these documentaries, "Sweetgrass" and "Nénette," feature two of the most memorable scenes of the year, each similar. In the opening of "Sweetgrass," a sheep turns slowly to the camera to make direct eye contact with the viewer, producing a reaction somewhere between laughter and sheer(ed) terror. Is this the look of "bottomless stupidity" that Werner Herzog talks about, the dull-eyed reflection of an indifferent universe, or a rare moment of connection in said universe? I vote for all of the above. "Sweetgrass" has many other great moments: the cussing cowboy calling home to mom, his laconic senior partner's ovine greeting: "Morning, sheep. Morning, sheep." And the best soundtrack of the year. "Sweetgrass" is the best film of 2010 for innumerable reasons.
In "Nénette," the title orangutan, just turned 40 in a life spent almost entirely in a zoo, gazes impassively at an array of gawkers who natter away off-camera about how pretty/ugly/sweet/scary she looks in her cage, safely closed off from the public with transparent fiberglass (or something similar). For the entire film we simply watch Nénette watching others who are watching her. Sometimes they are visible in reflection that briefly overshadow Nénette, but she is the star and inevitably comes into focus. The opening shot is a close-up of her finely articulated face and wide, oval eyes that evoke a world-weariness of infinite depth. Is that just an illusion created by context? Probably, but I'll never forget Nénette. Ever.
The only rival to Nénette for movie character of the year is a hairless orangutan named Nicolae Ceausescu. Director Andrei Ujica composes Ceausescu's "Autobiography" entirely out of televised/found footage, most of which were photo ops and other propaganda staged by the former dictator to control and polish his public image. Ujica recontextualizes the material into a scathing and hilarious deconstruction of this monstrous buffoon. Just when you think this farce can't get any more ridiculous, Richard Nixon shows up.
I've counted a few unreleased films that I suspect/fear will never get an American release, but excluded ones that already have a distributor for next year or will likely get one. If these were fair game, Jean-Luc Godard's brilliant portrait of capitalism at the end stage of its global metastasis, "Film Socialisme," and Apichatpong's Cannes-shocker "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" would have been near the top.
I had to make room for Federico Veiroj's "An Unfinished Life," the year's most poignant love letter to cinema. Stocky, film-guy-unkempt programmer Jorge (Jorge Jellinek) may be overseeing the end days of the Uruguayan Cinematheque, an institution slowly atrophying due to spreading apathy. He copes by looking for love and doing a surprisingly nimble dance on a grand staircase, another of the great movie moments of 2010. An added sweetener: the struggling Cinematheque is currently holding a Manoel de Oliveira retrospective, still fighting the good fight. You have to turn in your cinephile card if this doesn't touch you.
SPECIAL JURY PRIZE: "Roy Halladay No Hitter – 9th Inning – 2010 NLDS Game 1" (Christopher Long, 2010)
I modestly submit my video as a successful and illustrative example of the rapidly expanding field of amateur, on-site sports video. In this game, Roy Halladay pitched only the second no-hitter in the history of the major league playoff baseball. More presidents have been assassinated, so get behind me, Zapruder.
The video works because it's a single long take (just under 11 minutes) that captures footage and presents a perspective you can't see on the television broadcast. It starts with Halladay walking from the dugout to the mound (home viewers would still have been watching a commercial) in an atmosphere so charged it's hard to believe the camera could actually capture it all. The camera stays on him almost the entire inning, only moving away for balls hit in play and a few times to the scoreboard. These shots serve as "narration" to remind viewers of the stakes: the zero under the hit column. The crowd provides a soundtrack that tells far more than an announcer could ever achieve. The cheers after each pitch reach a fevered crescendo only to reach an even higher one and higher still, tracing a similar trajectory to "White Rabbit" and ending on an equally cathartic note.
Most importantly, the shot holds unbroken through all three outs, the subsequent celebration, and finally to Citizens Bank Park's signature playing of Harry Kalas singing "High Hopes," the now-traditional ending to every Phillies' victory. The single shot captures the full scope and immediacy of an event and links it to a specific point of view, something an edited, multi-angle broadcast can't do. Even the broad arc of the shot, starting from the left and down at field level (Halladay walking to the mound) and ending to the right and up (the scoreboard) gives it a pleasant sense of harmony.
If I had it to do over again, I might keep the video on Halladay the entire way, not even moving away for the outs. But that shot of the scoreboard before the final pitch is so important. Oh well, this is an art form still in its embryonic stages. I hope more sports videographers will take advantage of the power of the very long take.
CHRIS' TOP DVD/BLU-RAY RELEASES OF 2010
1. Night of the Hunter (Criterion)
2. Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa (Criterion)
3. Beaches of Agnes (Cinema Guild)
4. Sweetgrass (Cinema Guild)
5. Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy (Criterion)
6. The Complete Metropolis (Kino)
7. 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg (Criterion)
8. Close-Up (Criterion)
9. Chaplin at Keystone (Flicker Alley)
10. The Actuality Dramas of Allan King (Eclipse)
Like every year, Criterion dominates the list. I was certain that the Pedro Costa set was going to be my top DVD of the year, but then Criterion released the extra of the year, and one of the greats of all time: "Charles Laughton Directs ‘Night of the Hunter.'" It could easily be a release (and a great one) all by itself, but as a second disc along with one of the best American films ever made, it makes for one hell of a DVD set.
"Beaches of Agnes" was my top film of 2009 and "Sweetgrass" is my #1 for 2010, so I have to give a shout out to Cinema Guild who does yeoman's work in bringing the best of contemporary film to DVD, and with consistently good transfers too. "Beaches of Agnes" also included some nifty short films on the DVD. And whaddayaknow, Cinema Guild also released "Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl" and "Everyone Else," two other films on my list. Yeah, they're good.
Allan King was my discovery of the year, although, of course, many other filmgoers had discovered him long before I did. This boxed set from Criterion's Eclipse line is a stunner, showing that labels like "direct cinema" and "cinema verité" mask a wide degree of variety in this school (for lack of a better term) of non-fiction (for lack of a better term) cinema. From "Warrendale" in 1967 to "Memory for Max, Claire, Ida, and Company" in 2005, this great Canadian director was recording reality in a way unlike anyone else.