If 2010 has been the year of the fuzzy line between fact and fiction, it’s also been the year in which the truth became subjective and, often, incidental. These past 12 months saw the arrival of the avowed documentary many suspect is staged “Catfish,” and the admitted staged film that pretended to be a documentary “I’m Still Here,” but as the dust has cleared, what remains is the question of their bona fides as stand alone films. Does Banksy’s puckish “Exit Through the Gift Shop” lose some of the bite of its bitterly funny art world commentary if it turns out to be more engineered than it claims? Is it important that “The Social Network” elides and ignores details about Mark Zuckerberg and the website he founded? Would “Alamar” be less of a movie if it were populated by unrelated actors instead of a father and son?
Your answers may differ, but personally, I’m not that concerned. What’s emerged as most important in these debates for me has been the authenticity of the viewing experience — whether there’s something of substance that sticks, regardless of where the film falls on the fiction/nonfiction slide rule. 2010 proved that a film could be filled with fancy and still ring true, and it could stick to the facts and still seem utterly fraudulent.
10. I Am Love
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
The moment we first lay eyes on Emma Recchi, circling the confines of a Milan estate like an an exotic bird in a teak cage, we know that she’s destined for something other than just playing hostess and ornamental helpmate for the head of the wealthy industrial family into which she married. She’s played by Tilda freakin’ Swinton, after all, speaking Russian-accented Italian and tamping down but never fully extinguishing her slightly alien glow in a series of sleek Jil Sander outfits and smooth chignons. The anticipation of the Emma’s inevitable eruption has Luca Guadagnino’s melodrama aquiver from its old fashioned opening credits sequence. When she falls in love with a gifted chef her son’s age, no words need be exchanged — he has her with a plate of perfectly cooked prawns. Their affair and the events that lead up to and follow it are depicted with operatic sensory indulgence, the homages to Sirk and Hitchcock swirled in with some very contemporary sensuality, the result an irresistibly cinematic concoction.
Directed by Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross
This documentary about Sidney, OH — population 20,211 — is a heady dose of concentrated Americana that could make even the most avowed urbanites yearn for the small-town childhood they never had. Sibling directing team Bill and Turner Ross have created a portrait of their home town that’s nostalgic without being sentimental, gentle but never idealized, and that peers with seeming omniscience into all angles of local life. Proceeding with the seasons, the film travels no particular narrative arc, shaped instead by association and trails of thought. We stop at the radio station and observe an argument over the meaning of The Who’s “Squeeze Box,” we take a nighttime carnival ride at the fair and watch a slow dance to Air Supply on a dive bar dance floor. The camera glides along the early evening streets with the trick-or-treaters on Halloween, checks in on a local election campaign, rides along with a both a cop and some low-key criminals and catches an Elvis impersonator performing under a tent drooping with rain. It’s a mosaic of perfectly observed small moments that, stepping back, forms something moving and profound.
8. Everyone Else
Directed by Maren Ade
Oh, that title. The desire to become or not become “like everyone else” is a knotty fundamental question in Maren Ade’s drama about a vacationing couple who may not be able to survive the rocky road toward adulthood intact. Not that Chris and Gitti (played wonderfully by Lars Eidinger and Birgit Minichmayr) are all that young anymore — they’re at an age where commitment, children and professional success loom too large to be shrugged aside as unimportant for much longer. “Everyone Else” trips along so lightly, its power struggles playing out on such a micro level, that it takes a while to really register the sharpness of its sting. But it’s inescapably there, most pointedly in the difference between how the lovers act when they’re alone versus how they are in the company of others, like, say, Chris’ more successful colleague Hans and his pregnant wife. Chris and Gitti’s playful exchanges in the outset of the film make you wonder if they could somehow exist happily if it weren’t for the pressure of the outside world — but where else is there to live?
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
While I’m on the topic of films with hidden barbs, this thriller from Bong Joon-ho has one that could pierce your viscera. It starts off like an easy, if effective, joke: Kim Hye-ja plays the unnamed title character, a widow who turns dogged amateur gumshoe after her mentally slow son Do-joon (Won Bin), the center of her life, is accused of murdering a teenage girl. Her protective doting on the childlike young man, devotion to clearing his name and desperate clinging to him in an existence that seems otherwise empty are an extreme portrait of a mutually suffocating parent-child relationship — Do-joon will never grow up, and his mother will do anything for her beloved child. But a third act twist makes us question all of our assumptions, not because of any cheap rug-pulling tricks, but because it forces us to consider the real consequences of the ties that bind these two characters together, culminating in the year’s best final shot.
Directed by Giorgos Lanthimos
Taking the theme of smothering parenting to an even greater extreme than “Mother,” Giorgos Lanthimos’ film makes a compelling argument that the urges to protect and to control are two sides of the same coin. Out in the Greek countryside, a man and woman have raised their three children to adulthood in near-total isolation on a walled-in compound, teaching them an alternate vocabulary and filling their days with strange rituals and games. Even before the film’s turn to the truly disturbing, the siblings are troubling, unforgettable creations, stunted in sometimes funny but always horrifyingly plausible ways, surviving at the mercy of the capricious dictates and warped reality of their parent/captors. “Dogtooth” can be read as a metaphor for totalitarianism, though it stands alone just as well as a fable about the darkest human impulses.
5. Winter’s Bone
Directed by Debra Granik
“Winter’s Bone” spins nobility out of necessity and the drive to survive. There’s no preening, posturing or self pity in Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), the stoic teenage protagonist of Debra Granik’s film. She doesn’t need or want to demonstrate how tough she is — she shoulders the burdens of caring for her family and keeps putting herself in harm’s way because she has to, because there’s no one else to step in and solve their problems. Debra Granik’s movie puts a devastating feminist twist on your traditional hard-boiled hero, offering a character who has the wry patience, bravery and doggedness of your most tenacious gumshoe without any use for the cockiness. In the flinty, poverty-riddled Ozark landscape in which the story takes place, macho impulses most often end in wasted lives. “Winter’s Bone” finds something more impressive in perseverance.
4. Enter the Void
Directed by Gaspar Noé
“Enter the Void” may well be the most brilliantly made movie about the silliest idea ever made. Yes, it goes on too long, and it contains an insipid stoner take on the afterlife. But its cinematic ambitions stretch galaxies further than anything else I’ve seen this year — it wants nothing less than to physically work on you like a dusting of narcotics, to give your brain matter a tweak. Noé’s ill-starred, too-close orphaned siblings navigate through Tokyo’s underbelly like figures out of a truly fucked-up fairy tale, tied together by a childhood promise that’s both sweet and destructive. The middle segment of the film, in which the camera, freed by gunshot from the main character’s literal point of view, takes us through his short, brutish life like a moving slideshow skipping inexorably forward in the space between blinks, is on a level all its own. It proffers a treacherous, thrilling world in which moments of beauty and comfort — a lazy conversation in an autumnal park, a boozy late night stop in a space lit with dozens of lamps — are spliced with memories of horror, of the harrowing car crash that haunts the film, always ready to lurch out of the darkness. Here, there are no safe spaces.
3. Blue Valentine
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Sometimes it can feel like American indie film is too wedded to realism, to the safety of bobbing and weaving documentary-inspired camerawork, small-scale stories, underplayed epiphanies and the wearing of minimal make-up. And then you see something like “Blue Valentine,” and it reaffirms your faith in the implacable power of unguarded honesty. Derek Cianfrance’s film is the epic love story of Cindy and Dean, two people who aren’t epic at all, just achingly real and played with astonishing openness by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, a pair of actors who aren’t lacking in acclaim but deserve it for their here more than ever. This romance and its eventual undoing unfold in equal measure on suburban lawns and nighttime city streets, an old age home and a cheesy motel, the very ordinariness of these surroundings belying a not always easy to take emotional resonance. As I wrote after seeing the film at Sundance, “‘Blue Valentine’ may be simultaneously one of the most and least romantic movies I’ve ever seen.”
Directed by Pedro González-Rubio.
A boy and his father, his grandfather and the sea. The actors in “Alamar” play versions of themselves, but that’s obvious from the outset — the tenderness with which Jorge tends to his seasick son Natan could only be authentic. Pedro González-Rubio’s film is deceptively simple, to the point where even describing it can feel like you’re carelessly handling something eggshell delicate, but at its heart it’s an ode to impermanence. Just as the fisherman’s way of life Jorge and Natan partake in seems both timeless and tenuous in the face of a modernizing world, so the unhurried idyll they spend together is defined by their inevitable parting, with Natan heading thousands of miles away to Rome to spend the rest of his childhood absorbing a world nothing like the one in which his father grew up. There are no recriminations here, only acceptance of things passing and the pain that that brings, a bittersweet ache of emotions perfectly summed up by a wordless scene in Jorge crouches by his child’s bed at night, watching him sleep.
1. The Social Network
Directed by David Fincher
“The Social Network” is not a snapshot of the Millennial Generation. It is not a defining statement on how social media has shaped our daily interactions. It is not even a terribly accurate portrait of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and world’s youngest billionaire. And I can see why people who went into it looking for these things came out disappointed, but despite its subject matter “The Social Network” was never really a film that aimed at that kind of cultural zeitgeist. It aims for something grander. David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin find in the story of a few socially stunted, overachieving undergrads battling over a frivolous website worth an absurd amount of money an acid-laced critique of the American dream and the unconsidered gap between the pursuit of success and the pursuit of happiness. The film conceives of Zuckerberg as a tragic hero, a young man who’s justifiably arrogant in his technical capabilities and hopelessly, defensively inept when it comes to dealing with people. And rather than ever face up to his own flaws, he attempts to outrun them, from the claustrophobic halls of Harvard to the sunny suburban tracts of Palo Alto, tossing partners and his closest friendship in the fire of his own ambitions for… what? Even after the bills are tallied and paid, he’ll remain on top, an untouchable figure but also a sad, lonely and deflated one. Instead of the drive to better oneself, “The Social Network” proposes the relentless quest for ascendancy can just as easily be born of the need to avoid self-examination, though it’s no permanent escape — and in the film’s scattered discordant notes suggesting an empire that’s begun to crumble, it hints that we’re all due for a reckoning.
Honorable Mentions: “Black Swan,” “Enemies of the People,” “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” “Last Train Home,” “NY Export: Opus Jazz,” “127 Hours,” “The Red Chapel,” “Secret Sunshine,” “True Grit,” “Videocracy”