Posted on Friday, February 25th, 2011 by Adam Quigley
For an awards show that purports to honor outstanding achievements in film, the Academy Awards seem oddly drawn to the familiar. The movies with the most nominations at this year’s Oscar race, for example, are The King’s Speech and True Grit — two films with a great deal of critical acclaim backing them, but ones that are decidely lacking in any grand ambition beyond presenting a traditional, accessible story. The Oscars, it would appear, favor the classically good to the unconventionally good, leaving the latter out to be forgotten in a sea of mediocrity and predictability. This isn’t a shocking revelation; the Academy Awards have always favored films that adhere to a certain standard of genre filmmaking. A heart-rending, war-based drama about one man’s uplifting struggle against adversity will always win out over the truly innovative, progressive, subversive films of our times.
As evidence of this, consider the following Best Picture losses: Goodfellas (lost to Dances with Wolves); Apocalypse Now (lost to Kramer vs. Kramer); Brokeback Mountain (lost to Crash); L.A. Confidential (lost to Titanic); Taxi Driver (lost to Rocky); Raging Bull (lost to Ordinary People); Raiders of the Lost Ark (lost to Chariots of Fire); Fargo (lost to The English Patient); Pulp Fiction (lost to Forrest Gump).
And it only gets worse. These films weren’t even nominated: Psycho, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Blade Runner, Memento, Adaptation, Children of Men, Do The Right Thing, Barton Fink, Trainspotting, Brazil, Boogie Nights, The Matrix, Requiem for a Dream, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Manhattan, The Empire Strikes Back, and so on and so forth. (And lest you think their competition may have been especially strong those years, I can assure you, it wasn’t.)
Despite this track record, the Academy Awards continue to be hailed as the most prestigious and notable of all the film industry award ceremonies, and their selections frequently determine which of the year’s underseen indies will receive widespread recognition and box office success. But what of the films released every year that actively strive to defy cinematic convention and, in doing so, fail to get recognized? What’s their reward?
Allow me to propose an alternative. Let’s stop worrying about needing to collectively agree on which movies should be deemed the “best” of the year — an arbitrary and futile endeavor that may very well be reductive to the concept of film as a subjective art form — and help to promote the movies that tried something new; the movies that pushed boundaries; the movies that were unconcerned with appealing to the status quo of the current cinema landscape, and had the balls to attempt what had never been attempted before.
This is that list. Below are the movies from 2010 that, as best as I have been able to ascertain, helped contribute to the landscape of film in ways that are important, creative and culturally significant — regardless of any personal animosity you may feel toward them.
Four Lions — Free from context, Four Lions operates in a manner not unlike, say, This Is Spinal Tap. It’s a jovial story about a group of bumbling buffoons who, despite their best efforts, are unable to perform a simple task without somehow mucking it up. Were it not for the specifics of their goal—to strap bombs to their chests and blow up innocent civilians—there would be nothing to suggest there was anything dark about the film’s humor at all. At a certain point though, the film’s satirical bent reaches an apex, impetuously clashing the absurdity of what these loveable morons are trying to do with the tragic horror of what suicide bombers actually manage to do. It’s an uncommonly vicious approach, taking an already alienating premise and pushing it further into the realm of startlingly transgressive comedy.
Kick-Ass — Kick-Ass‘ perversion of the superhero genre was refreshing, but it’s the film’s 11-year-old assassin that truly flew in the face of cinematic convention and cultural acceptability. Hit-Girl broke down the image barrier for how children are depicted in mainstream cinema, putting the film at the forefront of a recent movement glamorizing the assertive, take-control badassery of young heroines (see: True Grit, Sucker Punch, Hanna). In doing so, Kick-Ass inverted two social norms—i.e., the passive roles of women/kids in film—simultaneously.
Monsters — Marks an unprecedented achievement in large-scale filmmaking with limited resources and severe budgetary restrictions. A startling display of what can be accomplished in today’s age with consumer-grade equipment, a seven-person crew, off-the-shelf computer software, and the know-how to put it all to good use.
How to Train Your Dragon — A landmark realization of the benefits of 3D (particularly when utilized to create a staggering sense of scale and depth) and a remarkable example of how far CGI animation has come. While Monsters showed what sorts of movies can be produced with strict filmmaking limitations in a modern era, How to Train Your Dragon demonstrated that, sans limitations, the modern era is equally capable of producing a sense of jaw-dropping spectacle unlike anything previous generations have ever seen or experienced on the big screen. Watching this movie in IMAX 3D was a potent reminder of the power of cinema.
Exit Through the Gift Shop / Catfish — If real, the films illustrate how ubiquitous cameras have become in our culture, allowing us to capture—with unparalleled clarity and precision—unthinkable real-life stories that would’ve previously gone undiscovered. If fake, these meta documentaries evince our culture’s perpetually evolving desire to confront our perception of the world, successfully blurring the line between fiction and reality in a way that hasn’t been actualized since Orson Welles’ F for Fake and Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth’s The Five Obstructions. Either way, they’ve made a permanent impact on how documentaries will be perceived in the future. (NOTE: I considered also crediting I’m Still Here for effort, but it dropped the ball in execution.)
The Social Network — The internet was arguably the single greatest technological and sociological development of the 20th century, forever changing the way we learn, interact, and conduct business. The Social Network, meanwhile, was the first major film to satisfyingly tap into this cultural phenomenon. It subtly and insightfully examines the advantages and repercussions of its hugely influential subject matter, all while maintaining a dizzying momentum and sharp narrative focus. Best of all, it does the one thing no movie before it seemed capable of doing: Make the use of computers cinematic without blindly abandoning reality.
Dogtooth — Normalcy is relative. And it’s a good thing, too, because if it wasn’t, there would be no way to say civilization is anything but completely fucked. Dogtooth exemplifies this unfortunate truth by simulating a culture that’s almost otherworldly on the surface, and yet, troublingly, not at all different from our own. The film dares us to question our preconceived notions of human nature, and at the same time satirically condemns the casual manner in which ostensibly ordinary suburban middle class families indoctrinate their kids.
Enter the Void — Very rarely do movies attempt to channel what it’s like to experience the indescribable—to engage with reality in a way that transcends all rational comprehension—and rarer still (if ever) do they succeed. Enter the Void is the exception that proves the rule. The film is an absolute sensory assault, immersing you (whether you like it or not) into a soulless abyss of life-altering despair, vacuous sex, vibrant neon cityscapes, and obsessive existential desires. It’s so much more than an astounding visual feat; it’s a one-of-a-kind work of stunning ambition and passion, abandoning orthodox storytelling structure in exchange for an unrestrained, psychedelic trip through one man’s drug-fueled perception of his life, his death, his afterlife, and his rebirth.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World — A straightforward love story, but one that’s been filtered through very modern sensibilities, playfully satirizing an age that’s become heavily defined by its pop culture influences—if not outright consumed by them. Rather than outline the rules of its world, the film allows the zeitgeist of recent generations to characterize its world for it, personifying those pop culture influences to create a uniquely postmodern reflection of today’s youths. Its purpose isn’t merely to inject things that people love into a hyper-stylized setting; it aims to reify the emotional baggage that we must all face in relationships, depicting outward the battle we experience inward. In doing so, the film is able to cleverly mobilize elements of movies, music, video games and TV to humorously and excitingly portray what’s foremost a coming-of-age tale about learning to better one’s self.
Inception — Not the intellectually demanding mind-bender that some viewers made it out to be, but its layered dreamscape (and the resulting heist within it) was exactly the sort of inventive twisting of genre tropes audiences should be demanding from their summer blockbusters. A time-altering, gravity-defying race through overlapping realities, the sequence proves the importance of properly contexualizing action beats to better serve their efficacy. Individually, most of the scenes offer little more than a flurry of bullets and faceless villains, but by interweaving them to satisfy the underyling mythology of writer/director Christopher Nolan’s world, they were transformed into something spectacular.
Buried / 127 Hours — Two examples of a not altogether uncommon subgenre—the single-location thriller—executed in masterfully different ways.
Buried disregards the filmic need for constant diversification and sees the potential in its constraints. Restricted to nothing more than a small sampling of handy implements, a dusty coffin and the lone actor trapped inside it, the movie makes skillful use of negative space and close-ups to force the viewer into a constant state of claustrophobic discomfort. It is economic, minimalist filmmaking at its finest.
127 Hours goes in an opposite direction, showing with utmost determination that being confined to a single location has almost no bearing on the restrictions of the narrative. The film employs any creative means available in order to visually communicate each and every intimate sensation that the protagonist is experiencing, turning what very easily could’ve been a cinematically inert slog into a surprisingly entertaining tale of introspective redemption.
The Secret of Kells — A movie that’s better seen than discussed, and better admired than analyzed. To call The Secret of Kells “style over substance” is to neglect the substance that can be found in any great painting. While other animated films are competing to reproduce realistic physics and environments and so on, the picturesque 2D artistry on display here is as far removed from tangibility as an animated film can get. And it is breathtaking. Emulating the insular art from the real-life Book of Kells, the film has an anomalous animated style that’s rife with vibrant colors and elaborately adorned illustrations. There’s an ethereal quality to it, made all the more enchanting by the zeal with which the film embraces and takes advantage of traditional animation’s simple beauty.
Jackass 3D — An experimental tour de force of multi-dimensional violence and vulgarity. Not since Avatar has the use of live-action 3D in a major release made such strident leaps in immersion and innovation, highlighted by such winsome gags as the launching of a dildo across dioramic depictions of the many great wonders of the world. And, of course, an explosive upside-down enema.
If that’s not challenging the medium, I don’t know what is.
Disagree with my selections? Appalled by my not at all facetious inclusion of Jackass 3D? Share your thoughts below. Which 2010 films do you think challenged and advanced the medium?