21 January 2011

Films of the Year 2010: Surprises; Or Hold Up, I Actually Didn't Mind These

The ten films listed below, as with my 2010 disappointments list, are in no order. All titles surprised me in one way or another without, perhaps, stretching that extra mile to being actually solidly great films. These ten below certainly aren't world-beating masterworks, far from it, or really even great examples of cinematic exploration (and neither did they most likely set out to be), but they worked just a little bit of magic on me in small ways. I entered into them with no expectations and exited with the cheer of a decent surprise seen.

One of the first films I saw last year was Daybreakers. I was partway curious about it – vampires! with jobs! – but not banging at its door exactly. As it turned out I went to see it on my birthday, more for the fact that it was the one thing on that day which I could likely get a kick out of, and would act as a nice hors d'oeuvres to that day's later screening of Miike’s Audition. Anyway, I liked its world. I liked that the filmmakers clearly expended sufficient thought on creating and maintaining a semi-believable (yes, I know how batshit daft this sounds) environment for the undead inhabitants. And I liked the time I spent lapping up the techno-jumbled atmosphere. It was all blueish daylight, blood bags and flashy fangs. Fine, ridiculous stuff.


The world envisioned for those titular alien pests in Predators wasn’t quite so well brought alive on screen. It’s a jungle, frankly. They all look incredibly similar – that’s all we need to know. But I didn’t really care when there was a mud-covered Adrien Brody and a nimble Alice Braga (both utilising massive weaponry as if their lives depended on it) around to dispatch any invisible-alien wrongdoings that materialised in front of them. Plus Laurence Fishburne as a stowaway fruitcake doesn’t do any harm, either. With the diced spam of the Alien vs. Predator duo lingering in the mind, this reboot/overhaul of the Predator franchise was earmarked for bargain-bin birthday gifts, but it deftly clawed its way to the big screen and provided a solid night’s interstellar scraping. (More on Predators.)

The Joneses popped up suddenly and with no fanfare to speak of. It was one of those films which said more silently beneath its celluloid shell than it did outwardly through its dialogue or surface narrative. This approach nicely echoes the lives of the behind-closed-doors fake family who present a picture-perfect public advert to the world... or, well, their corner of high-end LA suburbia. The film was a diverting enough, and contained more than a few juicy moments of underplayed tension and grim awareness of the cost of living the phony high life. Plus Lauren Hutton was scary – Stepford scary – as a queen of the commerce drones. I would’ve ideally loved to see this script in Cronenberg’s or Carpenter’s hands, but as a general satire it displayed gumption. (More on The Joneses.)

The Objective initially sounded dubious. Then intriguing. Then baffling. I gave it a spin anyway - I was glad I did. Apart from the hasty and oblique ending it was an entertaining war drama-sci-fi puzzler hybrid. It came from one of the folk responsible for The Blair Witch Project and, although it often showed a loose interest in paranormal shenanigans, it ably maintained the intriguing momentum for its duration, give or take a few dicey moments here and there. But it didn’t have Blair Witch's innate creepiness, but it was well made and decently engrossing.


Someone who unexpectedly showed a bit more to their persona on screen last year was Mischa Barton in Homecoming, a film which had direct-to-DVD written all over it; and it was indeed on the small screen that it debuted in the UK. But it was actually, by and large, more diverting than many similarly harebrained thrillers regularly shown on the big screen. It was essentially Misery by way of Dawson’s Creek. If you can imagine a Hollywood A-list party girl going all Annie Wilkes, then the film is for you. Barton will clearly never threaten to topple Streep’s reign (wouldn’t it be fun if she did?), but she gave a bizarrely affecting performance – and the film maintained a nicely moody tone right up to its gleefully nutty, though obligatory, ending.

Both The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Skyline coasted along just fine on ridiculously derivative fantastical concepts – the kind of concepts which have been worked and reworked to the nth degree time and again. But still, in these two relatively cheap-and-cheerful efforts I found myself pleasingly entertained. Apprentice was perfect fodder for people like me who don’t have the time or inclination to invest in the numerous adventures of Harry Potter (I have no idea which Harry Potters I’ve actually seen... I know I've seen at least three) and like to sit back and enjoy Nicolas Cage being absurd from time to time. I also liked the nod to Fantasia, too. Skyline was straight-up B-movie cheese (I've said it here before) – but did it position itself as anything but? Nope. I don’t see why more folk didn’t ride its idiotically laughable vapour trail with a touch more humour. The majority of the reviews were so straight-faced that it took the fun out of any post-movie enthusiasm anybody might have had.

There are a lot of good things and a lot of bad things to be said about Salt. Most of them have been said already, however. And ten times over. But, apart from what I mentioned here I found it to be a dafter than daft ride, gleefully watchable and full of stupid, stupid instances of unfathomable cheesiness. Jolie likes appearing as the glamorously moody action heroine, and long may she trot her villain-kicking adventures for our amusement. I was also just glad Tom Cruise didn’t make the film like he was initially supposed to.

London Boulevard

I knew literally two things about London Boulevard before I saw it: it starred Colin Farrell and Keira Knightley and it was set in London. On some boulevard. Lack of front-loaded information worked wonder here. I thoroughly enjoyed every silly twist and turn of it. The variety of pans it received were unwarranted, I felt. It’s not a particularly stunning or life-changing entry into the British crime genre, but neither is it something to easily dismiss. (Isn't it more refreshing to get a new take on the subject rather than receive another half-arsed remake?) I’m fond of Farrell, more than many anyway, and this was the second film in which Knightley has surprised me in recent years (The Duchess was the first one) – Her low-key performance was one of the film’s highlights. Great back-up thesping from Anna Friel and David Thewlis made it an actorly joy, and although its pace was choppy, and its tone muddled, I actually thought it worked well enough for what it was. Let’s have a few more leftfield British bafflers as throwaway and as unpretentious as this, I say.

One of the main things that was so endearing about Going the Distance was that it was a straightforwardly enthusiastic exercise in relationship strife and joy. In fact, it was by far my favourite rom-com of the last few years. And I mean rom-com in the normal sense – with no ironic derivations required. It left the likes of The Bounty Hunter, Did You Hear About the Morgans?, It’s Complicated and so on eating its dust. Drew Barrymore and Justin Long – both actors I’ve always relished watching perform comedy on screen – made for an appealing, energised couple. Their characters appeared to go through identifiable enough problems mainly because both actors are skillfully reliable and experienced to a credible degree that they imbue them with solid personality; both were charming where many of their lesser-talented/higher-profiled peers are, more often than not, tiring. There were plenty of genuine laughs and a plethora of keen moments of playfully inspired character interaction. Connoisseurs of rom-com excellence might agree or they might well set me straight on its true merits (lord knows I’m no hardcore devotee), but when a film piles on the titters with such verve as this, I couldn’t care less if I’m off track or not. Barrymore for the win, folks. She’s great – you all know it.

Surprises - a quick-glance rundown (in alphabetical order):

Going the Distance
The Joneses
London Boulevard
The Objective
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Next up: technical/crew, male and female acting, worst films, best films.

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