Moving into the top fifteen, we've officially left behind the stupid delights, the intelligent failures, and the utter garbage of 2010. Henceforward all of the movies on this list deserve some kind of recommendation, one way or another.
How to explain Dogtooth? To call it a Greek film that is up for an Oscar would be technically true but actually the wickedest kind of subterfuge: you'd be thinking tzatziki drenched food spreads and cousins dancing arm-in-arm, when really you should be concentrating on incest and false imprisonment.
This is a very weird movie. The basic premise is that a father and mother have, for unknown reasons, raised all of their now-adult children to believe that the outside world is filled with impossible dangers, and that they must remain on their own fenced property, or face certain destruction. Sounds weird enough, but it's weirder even than that: take a peek at the trailer for a sampling of its flavor. I wasn't always compelled by its shambling, erratic structure, or its blindly unexplored premises, but ultimately I do think it works, both as a human story and a kind of social allegory. In the words of the Guardian's film critic, "it is a film about the essential strangeness of something society insists is the benchmark of normality: the family, a walled city state with its own autocratic rule and untellable secrets."
In the DVD extras attached to this film, a rowdy Melbourne gangster flick, director David Michôd observes that one of his lead players "has that rare quality that you find so often in Australian actors: he's a man." How true, but also how damning to American manhood in the Age of Bieber.
There are plenty of men in evidence here -- too many, really, because the vast majority of them are psychopathic assholes. The film follows an orphaned 17-year old, already more manly than Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is informally adopted by his dangerous, criminal-minded uncles, almost all of whom are more manly than James Franco. Trapped in this super-masculine kind of hell, our protagonist has no place to turn: least of all towards sweet/sinister family matriarch Jacki Weaver, who has gotten well-deserved Oscar attention for her work here.
Michôd says that he was trying to make a sprawling, epic sort of Melbourne crime film, but the intense focus on this oppressive family actually makes this film feel more hermetic than otherwise. As Katherine said after we finished watching, Animal Kingdom is actually a lot like Dogtooth, but with guns. And manly Aussies, of course.
What was that about the sad state of American manhood again? Never mind. Must have forgotten about Mark Ruffalo.
He's in great form in this film, playing a comically enhanced version of the guy you've always known Mark Ruffalo was, anyway. The effortlessly confident rake, easygoing to the point of exasperation. "Right on. Cool. I love lesbians." But even when he reveals too much chest (which is always), you still like him, somehow; and even when he sucks embarrassingly at basketball, you still want to impress him. Yeah, Ruffalo is a natural in this role.
As for the rest of the film, it's very good: Annette Bening has a great screen-holding close-up moment, Julianne Moore has a great messy emotional speech, and Moore really should be getting Oscar love. My two main critiques are that the film's main action unfolds with improbable speed and decisiveness, and that in the second half the movie mysteriously abandons the more interesting of the two kids, Laser, for the less interesting, Joni. I love "Blue" as much as the next guy, but "Laser" will always > "Joni."
Also, we needed more scenes with the toolbox skateboarder friend. "Hey, man, look, a stray dog! Let's piss on its head!" Now that's showing initiative.
Hey look, more American men. Rumors of their demise have been greatly exaggerated. Fuck you, David Michôd. Isn't that a French name, anyway?
You might go into this film thinking that it's a documentary about the war in Afghanistan, but really, it's not. Even after spending an hour and a half in the Korengal Valley, that war -- its purposes, its corruptions, its dilemmas -- only seems more bafflingly remote than ever. It's not about the war, it's about the men who are fighting it. And the troops, it turns out, are not so different from you and me: they hate getting up early in the morning to dig stupid ditches, they love '80s remix dance music, and they cry, devastatingly, when their friends die.
I really liked this film, and I agree that it's an important document for public consumption. But it also frustrated me because I think it could have been even better. Director Sebastian Junger tells his story with jagged cut-backs between post-Afghanistan interviews and 'live' footage he shot while embedded with them in the Korengal itself. Yet there are so many soldiers involved that not many of them emerge as intelligible moral actors or interesting psychological characters. In his defense, Junger might say that such distortion and uncertainty are part of the lived truth of the Afghanistan experience, and narrowing it down to a few artificial storylines would be a surrender to Hollywood cliche. Maybe. But it also might have given the film an emotional thickness that Restrepo, for all its power, didn't quite have.
It's weird: this film was made by a respected director, earned reasonably strong reviews (74 on Metacritic), made a ton of money and was nominated for an Oscar. And yet virtually no one I know seemed to like it. Paradox!
OK, that's not too hard to explain: I know a lot of film snobs, and there really is a lot to dislike here. But rather than rehashing all that's wrong, from Leo's predictably troubled "intensity" to every scene with Ellen Page, I'm going to offer a defense. Or really, because I'm sick and tired of having this argument, I'm going to outsource my defense to Devin Faraci at Chud.com.
Faraci is much too enthusiastic about the profundity of the whole thing, but if you've seen it, I think his central claim holds up: Inception is not a movie about dreams, it's a movie about movies. DiCaprio is only a "dream architect" in the most literal sense, and the reason none of the psychobabble about the laws of the "dream world," etc, has any consistency or logic is that Christopher Nolan doesn't give a shit about it. What he does care about is cinema, the "shared dream," as Faraci says, that captures us all.
There's a lot more to be said about this: see Jonah Lehrer here, for instance, on the neuroscientific connection between dreams and films. But as I said, I do weary of this battle. Whatever we think of this film, we can agree on Roy Orbison, David Lynch, and Dean Stockwell's interpretation of "In Dreams," can't we? Well, let's do that, then, no?