Note: For a complete list of my favorite films of 2010, please visit my wholly deficient list over at criticWIRE.
Obligatory Repetitive Introduction
In the past, in lieu of ranking movies and being held hostage by the dissonance between the film release calendar and my own experience of the ebb and flow of filmgoing, I have listed my favorite cinematic experiences of the year. I want to get back to that; as the way in which I get to watch movies and talk about them continues to diversify, as the idea of cinematic experience expands to multiple devices, formats, cities, communities, I think this list is here to stay. The age of the theatrical release calendar is dead for me; we’re living in a new time, where the movies can be found in every area of life, from online conversations to your home entertainment system, the back of a car seat to a projection screen at a restaurant, your phone to a portable tablet. So, I am going back to my old model, probably for good; over the next ten days, I’ll be posting my Top 10 Cinematic Experiences of 2010. Not necessarily films (although sometimes), these are the experiences that defined my year in film culture. Subjectivity alert!
2. Blue Valentine at Sundance
No moviegoing experience in 2010 came close to the electricity of seeing Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine at Sundance this past January. Unfortunately, or perhaps amazingly, that experience happened at the very start of the year; nothing in the intervening months has had the same impact on me as a film viewer. I loved a lot of movies this year and had a great time watching many, many films, but there was something about Blue Valentine that connected with me. Bad break-ups? Regrets? The overwhelming desire to be needed by someone? The inability to stop making things worse when I am trying to make them better? Blue Valentine describes a very specific type of romantic experience; the immature, pathological attempt to convince someone who has given up on you to give things one more chance, to convince them of the possibility of change, to try to rebuild a broken relationship on the idea of how things should be, on how real your feelings are, on a shared history that grows ever distant in the rear view mirror of real life.
No one is doing better work on screen than Michelle Williams. No one.
I’ve certainly been there. I haven’t always been the best partner, the best lover, the best possible friend. I carry around my own regrets inside of me and I see my present day actions, from arguments and frustrations to joys and celebrations, as a continuum of lessons learned. The experience of personal history is a deeply private thing, so loaded with context and change that it is probably indescribable, so to see a film that examines the fabric of a relationship in this way, this honestly and deeply, was beyond my wildest fantasies. In the internet age, every movie receives a backlash; some critics and filmgoers don’t buy into the film’s structure, it’s on-the-nose transitions between the past and the present, it’s overriding sense of sadness. Take this, from A.O. Scott’s review this past week, which makes the (I believe fatal) mistake of focusing on form over feeling:
“Cindy and Dean remain, for all their sustained agony and flickering joy, something less than completely realized human beings. Mr. Cianfrance’s ingenious chronological gimmick, coupled with his anxious, clumsy plotting, leaves them without enough oxygen to burst into breathing, loving life. A recent German film called Everyone Else directed by Maren Ade (and released in the United States this year), shows, with minimal embellishment and absolute honesty, how potentially fatal fissures begin to develop within a young couple’s relationship. Blue Valentine mystifies the emotional logic that Ms. Ade presents with bracing clarity and leaves its audience, along with poor Cindy and Dean, in a muddle of hurt feelings and vague disappointments.”
Despite my agreement with the assessment of the amazing Everyone Else (and my own vague disappointment with making a comparison between two films as if both could not be great at what they do) I couldn’t disagree more with the premise here; the narrative strategy of Blue Valentine is to keep us close to the emotional reality of Dean and Cindy as their relationship dissolves. If we’re honest with ourselves, who among us is an articulate advocate for their own feelings at the moment when everything seems to be falling apart? To expect the film to use the couple’s slow crawl toward divorce as nimbly as a young couple who is dating (ala Everyone Else), a couple without nearly the same history and baggage, is a little bit like when people with pets want to compare notes with me about being a father; yes, I’m sure going home every five hours to walk your dog is a drain, but really, you have no idea. What makes Everyone Else work as a film is precisely the lack of gravity in the relationship; the emotional explosions of Everyone Else are juxtaposed against the couple’s ability to break apart and reassemble moment to moment, feeling to feeling. Blue Valentine works in the opposite way, utilizing the depth of the couple’s long-term romantic connection as the source of tragedy for the relationship’s slow, terrible dissolution. Both films feel real, both valuable, terrific cinema, and neither should be used to diminish the other.
It's All Downhill From Here...
Writing about the film at Sundance, I said:
“Who hasn’t stood broken hearted, in the arms of the one you love, desperately aware that it’s all over?... I had plenty of conversations with younger, otherwise thoughtful friends and colleagues who dismissed the film for one reason or another (“The more I think about it, the more I’m souring on it,” one told me), but I look at that reaction as a sort of optimistic line in the sand; one day, maybe not long from now, maybe years down the road, you’re going to be staring down the end of a relationship, suddenly and shockingly aware that every word, every gesture, every action is inadequate to repair the damage of every previous word, gesture and action. You’ll open your mouth to say something, to provide yourself some closure, and maybe you’ll remember this; the movie was real all along. It’s just that your experience of love wasn’t.”
Ryan Gosling kills it in this role. Again.
In the intervening months, as the film was slapped with an NC-17 which was subsequently repealed, Blue Valentine became something of a cause for me, a movie that I felt demanded to be seen by a wide audience. As it now has started making its way into the marketplace, I hope it catches fire. Today's indieWIRE report gives me hope:
"Nearly a year after its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, The Weinstein Company finally released Derek Cianfrance’s Michelle Williams-Ryan Gosling relationship drama Blue Valentine, and the results suggested it was well worth the wait. Coming off a controversial NC-17 rating, and subsequent appeal to the MPAA, which reversed itself to give the film an R rating, “Valentine” debuted on 4 screens to a not-so-blue $180,066. That made for an excellent $45,017 per-theater-average, making “Valentine” one of only eight 2010 limited releases to debut to $40,000+ PTAs (the others were “Black Swan,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Fighter,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “127 Hours,” “The Ghost Writer,” and “Cyrus”). The film will expand significantly January 14th."
I hope audiences and awards organizations wake up and recognize what we have here; I think this movie is unlike anything that’s been made in America in a long, long time. When you feel something as deeply as I felt watching Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling breaking into pieces, you just don’t forget it. Blue Valentine forever.
#10 Twitter! Argh!
#9 Jury Duty
#8 Otherwise Unavailable
#7 The Social Network at NYFF
#6 The Home Consumer, Finally
#5 And Everything Is Going Fine... At Slamdance
#4. Post Mortem at The New York Film Festival
#3. Greenberg at Burns Court