Every four years, the American people act en masse to send a message to the nation's power brokers, and every four years this vote is interpreted as a sign of the decline in taste, intelligence and moral rectitude of the populace. Every four years, a Jackass movie opens at No. 1.
I'm not too worried that the continued success of Jackass (which offered me the closest thing to pure escapist pleasure I found on the job this year) is a sign that we're getting stupider. However, I do sort of wonder if the massive success of Inception is a sign that we're getting stupider. Sold — and bought — as the year's most "intelligent" blockbuster while actually baldly insulting its audience's intelligence (to quote Andrew O'Hehir's Salon.com review, "Every time the story gets puzzling the characters call a time-out and explain it"), Inception both conquered the 2010 zeitgeist and helped define it. It was merely the biggest rendition of the year's most prevalent movie theme: How do you know that what you think is real is actually, like, really real? How do you know that you're not being fucked with?
It's a theme that manifested itself across budgetary strata and genres, popping up overtly or as subtext, in form and/or content, in everything from camcorder quasi-docs such as Catfish, Exit Through the Gift Shop and I'm Still Here, to big-money genre entertainments like Salt and How Do You Know, to Oscar all-but-sure-things Black Swan and The Social Network. Two of my Top 10 choices, Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer and Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, directly deal with the "real real" question, and most of the other films on my list incorporate some variety of au courant questioning, from the romantic skepticism of Everyone Else (is what seems to be love really love?) to Enter the Void's vision of afterlife as "the ultimate trip," to the full-on phantasmagoria of my No. 1 film of the year.
A few notes on the Undistributed section of the Film Poll ballot (which you can see in full at laweekly.com/filmpoll): Twice I tried and failed to see Film Socialisme with the "Navajo English" subtitles (at the Toronto film fest and AFI, it was mistakenly shown with no subtitles at all), but it's the only film I (sort of) saw this year whose lack of distribution seems like a scandal. The fact is, thanks to newish ventures in distribution (Oscilloscope Laboratories, Variance Films) and exhibition (Brooklyn's ReRun Theater), most worthy (and a lot of unworthy) films that make it to the festival circuit eventually find their way to some kind of theatrical play — at least, in New York. Films that I considered for this poll that have been distributed enough to not qualify for the Best Undistributed Film category but that remain theatrically undistributed in Los Angeles, include Audrey the Trainwreck, The New Year, Open Five, Lourdes and Making Plans for Lena. Two of my top 10 films, Dogtooth and The Red Chapel, did not open in L.A. in 2010 at all (current evidence suggests the former will, in January, and the latter likely won't at all). Steven Soderbergh's And Everything Is Going Fine, which would have made my Top 15, had a single public screening here last week. As far as what qualifies as "undistributed," we might be due for a redefinition.
Finally, to swing wildly from one end of the commercial spectrum to the other, an assessment of 2010 would be incomplete without mention of James L. Brooks' How Do You Know, which its distributor didn't screen for critics until after ballots for our poll were due. The filmmaker's most quotable feature since Broadcast News (and also his most creditably romantic), flabby and messy in a manner that marks it as uniquely Brooksian (he boldly lets certain scenes go on forever, expertly guiding their mutation from slapstick comic to deep poignancy and back again), How Do You Know steers clear of the knee-jerk clichés that are choking its genre. Its guiding influence seems to be Billy Wilder's The Apartment, up to and including a goofy yet wonderfully shaded turn from Paul Rudd in a part that could have been writtern for Jack Lemmon. Consider it No. 11 on this list; I have no doubt that it is the best studio romantic comedy of the year (a subject on which you can consider me an expert, as I reviewed most of them).
So, to count down from 10:
10. Enter the Void
Directed by Gaspar Noe
I can't fully condone Noe's trip — in my review, I called it a "mash-up of the sacred, the profane and the brain-dead," and I stand by that. But I've come to appreciate its stoner stoopidness as part of its charm. And nothing else in 2010 set off my "What the fuck am I watching?" sensor quite like it. (On DVD Jan. 25)
9. The Ghost Writer
Directed by Roman Polanski
The best Hollywood thriller Hollywood didn't make this year. (On DVD now)
8. Shutter Island
Directed by Martin Scorsese
The best Hollywood thriller Hollywood did make this year. (On DVD now)
7. Everyone Else
Directed by Maren Ade
Want your Blue Valentine–like dissection of marital strife but could do without the Academy-montage mugging and wall-to-wall Grizzly Bear? Try Maren Ade's second feature, a grueling (but gorgeous) snapshot of a young couple whose vacation idyll is slowly eroded by the insecurities brought in from outside. (On DVD and Netflix Watch Instantly now)
6. The Red Chapel
Directed by Mads Brügger
The surprise winner of the World Cinema Documentary prize at Sundance in January, Brügger's hilarious document of his subversive journey into North Korea with two Danish-Korean comedians in tow is, like Dogtooth (see below), concerned with a closed system maintained through manipulation of reality. But Brügger and gang come armed with their own complicated series of manipulations: In The Year of Being Fucked With, the year's best doc offered a game plan for how to fuck with Them back. (Opening in New York Dec. 29; L.A. release TBA)
Directed by Sofia Coppola
The year's second masterful portrait of L.A. ennui as seen through the camera of Harris Savides (the other is Greenberg), Somewhere should be remembered as a game-changer for Sofia Coppola, the point at which she shrugged off the crutches — music video language and decorative design — that defined her first three films, adopting an entirely new stylistic approach while remaining true to her key concerns. Don't think of it as a movie about the rich, famous and beautiful from the perspective of a woman who has been all three since birth; think of it as a movie about what happens when you get everything you thought you wanted, and you're still miserable. (In theaters Dec. 22)
Directed by Giorgos Lanthimos
Feted by Cannes in 2009, heralded by aging tastemakers (David Byrne, John Waters) upon its summer 2010 release in New York, the second film from Greek director Lanthimos is a matter-of-factly violent, blacker-than-black comic parable about sex, pop culture and closed societies set in a single suburban home. (Opens Jan. 7 at Cinefamily for one week only)
3. Daddy Longlegs
Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie
Ronald Bronstein, the director of the 2007 underground opera of awkwardness Frownland, is starting to attract awards attention for his go-for-broke performance as the desperate dad of two young sons in the Safdie brothers' manic, electric 16mm roman à clef. If only all awards-bait family dramas were as unflinching, honest and funny-horrifying as this. (DVD release in 2011, date TBA)
Directed by Noah Baumbach
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Through Ben Stiller's epic depresso Roger Greenberg, a 40-ish Bushwick refugee floundering around L.A. and antiseducing the much younger and surprisingly receptive Florence (Greta Gerwig), Noah Baumbach and soon-to-be-ex-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh distilled a certain toxic stew of unearned snobbishness, generational entitlement and self-defeating self-obsession — familiar from "Losing My Edge," the 2002 single by James Murphy, who composed Greenberg's soundtrack — and gave it a name. They also gave Stiller the best role of his career. (On DVD now)
1. Trash Humpers
Directed by Harmony Korine
Influenced by surveillance and prank videos, but hardly haphazard (in fact, its nonaesthetic is the result of intricate design and careful production), Korine's faked relic about a separatist group of drunken, garbage can–fetishizing, self-mythologizing miscreants is the ultimate, twisted fairy tale allegory for our decaying times. After vacillating on a No. 1, in the end I voted with my heart. And no, I am not fucking with you about that. (On DVD now)