So, checking into the six, almost seven month mark of 2010, where do we stand?
In pretty good shape. While the year has delivered a pitiful summer so far and pretty tepid mainstream prospects, as usual, the indie and foreign markets have dug deeper to give us something much more enriching. So in no particular order, here's The Playlist's Best Films of the Year So Far. And just remember it's early and this list is bound to change by the end of the year.
The sophomore feature film from writer/director Debra Granik uses a simple premise to draw us into a unique world. Seventeen-year-old Ree is caring for her younger siblings and psychologically spent mother when word arrives that her father has jumped his bail, and worse he's put up the family home as collateral. Unless he's found, the house will be seized. Thus begins Ree's journey into the heart of darkness that surrounds her rural Ozark community. It will draw her into a world of meth cookers and dealers; the layered politics and power struggles that keep a delicate balance. There is no greater heroine on screen this year than Ree. Determined yet vulnerable, she soldiers on because it's her only choice, but also because she doesn't know what else to do. Jennifer Lawrence delivers a breakout performance that's raw, heart wrenching and undeniably compelling, and considering she's on screen for pretty much the entire running time, she commands a presence of an actress far beyond her years (John Hawkes as her methed-out uncle is also intensely riveting). Oh yeah, the icing on the cake? Granik's film was shot on RED but not a single frame feels "digital" in the least. Michael Mann only wishes he could shoot non-celluloid this well.
Unfairly ignored by audiences and critics, this terrific, emotionally soulful picture, is an underrated gem and audiences with a female-centric bent would be wise to spend their time with these fully-dimensionalized characters rather than the cardboard cut-outs of "Twilight: Eclipse" and "Sex And The City 2." Thoughtfully rendered by writer/director Nicole Holofcener, the film masquerades as a comedy, but is far more textured. It tells the story of an upwardly mobile couple (Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt) who run a very successful antiques store. Their success has allowed them to purchase the adjacent apartment in their building, that they plan to add to their current apartment once the elderly owner dies. Things get a little more complicated when the couple is drawn into the lives of their elderly neighbor's daughters (Amanda Peet, a wonderfully good and sensitively drawn Rebecca Hall), all the while their own daughter struggles with the pains of puberty. While the main thrust of the story is fascinating and funny, Holofcener has cleverly set up the film as an observation of middle/upper class life and guilt, and the shifting morality that allows us to enjoy our creature comforts while others in our own community, or even on our street, struggle. With a sharp, smart script bolstered by strong performances across the board, Holofcener's film is a layered, humanist dramedy that reveals so much more beneath the surface.
Sold as a comedy in the vein of "Step Brothers," the major indie league debut by "mumblecore" duo the Duplass Brothers is really a different beast altogether. Surprisingly complex and rich, and pulling off a careful balance between broad comedy and darker dramatic notes, "Cyrus" is a mature, intelligent and yes, very funny look at the difficulties of a fledgling relationship in midlife. Our EIC caught the film at SXSW in March where its surprisingly dark, funny and moving tone resonated deeply, and as the rest of the Playlist team caught up with it, the film remained one we kept talking about. The film manages a tricky tonal balance between broad comedy and mature drama, and toes the line between the two with an astonishingly assured hand. Blessed with rounded and rich performances from John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei and a game-changing turn by Jonah Hill, "Cyrus" is the result of what would happen if the (wonderfully) silly McKay/Ferrell collaborations grew up.
Is it real or fake? In the end, it doesn't really matter because Banksy's high wire not-quite-documentary is one of the most flat out entertaining films you will see this year. Think of it as "Jackass" for the high art set. Without spoiling what happens, the film
begins as a documentary on the street art movement -- its artists, history and yes, even the notoriously mysterious Banksy himself -- and is flipped on its head partway through as the narrative completely shifts focus for the remaining run time. The latter part of the film is a hilarious sendup of art world absurdity and excess; whether or not the facts are "true," the sentiment is real. Don't go into this one expecting to get the final word on (or from) Banksy, because you won't. However, keep an open mind, and you will be treated to one of Banksy's most brilliant post-modern art world stunts to date. Andy Warhol and tricksters throughout history would be proud."The Killer Inside Me"
Darkness comes in many flavors and Michael Winterbottom's neo noir take on the pulpy American novel by Jim Thompson will stick to the bottom of your shoe (or mind) like a messy home invasion/ brutal slaying at a Carvel Ice Cream shop. Disquieting thanks to an unnerving turn by Casey Affleck as a twisted, sexual psychopathic police officer, the film is rounded out by Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson, who are essentially punching bags for the twisted mind of Affleck's creepy, unsettling character. In that sense, the ambiguous motivations and amorality's are not easy to swallow, and it obviously has its share of "gratuitous violence" controversies, but that's getting sidetracked with a PC-view of the picture. Saturated with a disconcerting, eerie tone of distressed mood, sweaty atmospherics and sometimes operatic Kubrick-ian tenors — not to mention black humor — the picture (which also features an amazing turn by a intensely sinister Elias Koteas) might be emotionally aloof, but it's about an off-kilter serial killer, what did you expect?
Having delivered two of the best foreign films of the aughts ("Memories Of Murder," "The Host" -- both of which made our best of decade lists), South Korean auteur and genre bender Bong Joon-Ho nails the hat trick with his piece de resistance, "Mother." An oedipal murder-mystery procedural in the vein of Hitchcock with soupcon traces of absurdist humor and troubled family drama, the filmmaker's fourth directorial effort chronicles a slow, mildly-retarded young 20-something accused of killing a young girl while drunk on a night out, and the obsessive mother going to pathologically Olympian lengths to prove his innocence. Blending myriad tones, "Mother" is hilarious, disturbing, fascinating and tragic. This is a masterclass piece of work (and if it somehow doesn't make our end of year list, it's probably because we saw it at Cannes in 2009 and it feels like a distant memory).
It's only a matter of time until Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn is considered the new Christopher Nolan or some such regarded cinematic luminary. Utilizing a bold artistic palatte that evokes cinema titans like Kubrick, Lynch, and Tarkovsky, his latest — a spiritual and stark Viking drama with dollops of some physical brutality as needed — is a haunting, meditative and slow-burning masterpiece that gives us the horror movie Terrence Malick has yet to make. The fierce and droning picture stars Mads Mikkelsen as a one-eyed mute Viking warrior who travels with a pack of crusading Christians on a holy land pilgrimage that hellishly descends to a nightmarish spiral into madness. We caught it at TIFF last year and were unnerved by this astonishing piece of work.
The premise is simple and twisted: three young adults have been confined to an isolated country estate their entire lives thanks to their obsessively protective parents. Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos' sophomore effort is a bizarre, editorially neutral, disturbing, but still pretty darkly comical drama. It won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes last year, and we caught up with it at TIFF. Completely sheltered and cut-off from the outside world, the child-like adults are forced to play games, both cruel, abusive and sexual, according to rules created by their pathologically overprotective and fucked-up parents. Stark and unsettling, "Dogtooth" is an amazing odd treat — perhaps only those with a twisted and arch sense of humor will appreciate its strange, off-putting tone — but it's a marvel to behold and an impressive study in perverse domesticity.
"The Secret In Their Eyes"
Though it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, this is one that wasn't officially released in North American until this spring and, after watching it, we can definitely say this is one the members of the Academy got right. Director Juan José Campanella weaves a love story, a mystery and a crackling thriller into a decades-spanning tale that investigates the corruption of power at the highest levels of government, and how it changes the lives of all those it touches. The film slowly unfolds its various plot threads with meticulous ease, like taking apart an elaborately constructed origami creation. And right smack-dab in the middle of it, is an astonishing five-and-a-half minute single shot centerpiece foot chase sequence that rivals anything out of Hollywood and took a full year to put together. But that dazzling piece of work aside, the entire film is a powerful look at the weight of justice, the cost of setting it right and the scars it leaves behind.
"The Red Riding Trilogy"
While not entirely successful front to back (the third film tends to buckle under the weight of the complex, duplicitous story lines in this township conspiracy tale), the English-made "Red Riding Trilogy" is a sprawling and often electric and intense triptych about a serial killer that runs rampant terrorizing a Yorkshire community for over two decades. Adapted by Tony Grisoni ("Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas") from David Peace's novels, the talent involved in these pictures alone is almost enough to forgive any narrative shortcomings. Beautifully shot in three formats (16mm, 35mm, digital), and broken into parts, (the years '74, '80, '85), the films are directed (respectively) by Julian Jarrold ("Brideshead Revisited"), James Marsh ("Man On Wire") and Anand Tucker ("Hilary And Jackie"), and features an estimable ensemble of English thesps like Paddy Considine, the always venerable Peter Mullan, Rebecca Hall, Sean Bean, Andrew Garfield, Lisa Howard, Eddie Marsan, Mark Addy, and David Morrissey, to name a few. It's a gripping and epic saga of clandestine and unspeakable crimes, dark troubling secrets and those who struggle to uncover the buried, tangled and ugly truths sometimes festering in the underbelly of wicked communities.
Blurring the line between fiction, found art, provocation, snuff movie, documentary and feature film, Harmony Korine's latest is a dirty finger in the eye to Hollywood's glossy, family-friendly, CGI HD 3D money train. Shot and edited on cheap-looking VHS and then blown up to 35 mm, Korine's latest not only looks ugly, but it boasts some of the most depraved characters you're likely to meet on screen this year. The film(?) gleefully concerns a group of four freaks who go around doing the most perverted, fucked up, freaky shit you can possibly imagine, and lives up to everything you might think the title implies. Like what, you dare ask? How about: humping dumpsters; jacking off plants; showing children how to put razorblades into apples; dragging baby dolls behind bicycles; public defecation and slapping escort's asses (that one caused a good portion of the walkouts). That's just the tip of the iceberg. But Korine does have something to say in all this madness. The film is a wicked evisceration of the myth of suburban safety and posits the very things that society deems as deviations from the acceptable are not so far from home. Even though we saw this one as early as TIFF last year, it remains a film unlike any other we've seen in ages.
While it split some of our writers and editors, Noah Baumbach's latest really deserved a better reception than it received, but perhaps it (like much of his work lately) was a bit too prickly for most. Certainly, the titular character, played by a nicely dialed-down Ben Stiller (who needs to do more of these kinds of roles) isn't sympathetic. Caustic, sarcastic, mean and self-centered, Roger Greenberg is at a crossroads in his life. Recently released from a mental hospital, he crosses the country to house sit for his much more successful brother and in the process hopes to try and sort out his life. Along the way, he begins a fledgling relationship with his brother's housekeeper Florence (Greta Gerwig), re-connects with an old friend and ex-bandmate Ivan (Rhys Ifans), and reaches out to ex-girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Yet, for all of Greenberg's flaws, there is something in his inability to let go of past regrets and missed opportunities that strikes a chord. As he figures himself out in a world that seems to be slightly out of his grasp and understanding -- through a series of mistakes, blunders, harsh words and finally some tough introspection -- he comes to a tentative resolve on where his life needs to go. There is no pat resolution or conclusion to "Greenberg," but Baumbach's film contains the sort of honesty and bracing reality we need more of on the big screen.
While we've officially mentioned twelve films, we could easily name more. Top of mind are some uneven, but very memorable and scrappy pictures, Tim Blake Nelson's multi-layered stoner comedy, "Leaves of Grass" starring Ed Norton (in duel roles) as a set of twins trying to evade drug dealers that want to kill them. It's a comedy, a family drama, a violent thriller, a romance and a philosophical Greek tragedy all rolled into one. While all those tones are hard to manage, it's ambition and writing is extremely admirable. Another imperfect, but still valuable film is Neil Jordan's enchanting and romantic sea nymph fairytale, "Ondine," starring Colin Farrell and Alicja Bachleda. Other worthwhile films we tremendously enjoyed included Ken Loach's uplifting, but never corny, life-coaching dramedy, "Looking For Eric;" director/writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien's soulful, wise and mature look at the aging male psyche in "Solitary Man," starring a very excellent Michael Douglas; Bruno Dumont's most thought-provoking and less provocatively shocking "Hadjewitch" (it hits theaters later this year), Claire Denis' moody and intense African-set drama, "White Material," starring Isabelle Huppert (it also hits theaters later this year), Don Argott's fascinating art documentary, "Art Of The Steal," the uber-silly "Hot Tub Time Machine," which might be mentally retarded in some aspects and totally slight, but it's also probably the funniest (and enjoyable) comedy of the year so far (yeah, we said it). Lastly, not perfect, politically dubious, but still thrilling and engaging in our minds is Paul Greengrass' "Green Zone," starring Matt Damon.
Update: We did forget to add Jacques Audiard's "A Prophet." It's easy to think of that film as a 2009 film, as most of us saw it late in that year. "Toy Story 3" is a decent one too, but we didn't really feel it was neccesary to represent it here.
Here's a cheating hint for how the rest of the year plays out. One film that doesn't come out until July we've already seen, and it's definitely cracked the top of this list, is Lisa Cholodenko's "The Kids Are All Right." We've done mid-year lists before and by their very nature, not all the pictures stick around to crack the final top 10, but this is where we are at the moment. — Kevin Jagernauth & RP