It’s that time of year again. Over the next few weeks I’ll be making a series of posts on my favourite movies, music, and books of 2010. As always, comments are welcome.
Opportunities to see films were few and far between this year, but that need not prevent, and has not prevented, my writing about the best of those that I did see.
This is actually from 2009, but I only caught up with it this year. Jeff Bridges plays Bad Blake, a country music singer whose star has faded. He travels the bar circuit, alone, playing to small audiences, and finding his comfort where he can — mostly from a bottle. He is a wreck, headed straight for the bottom. En route, his down-and-out spiral brings him across the path of a young woman, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and this encounter works a slow but decisive transformation. In the end, it is a story about the power of love to rescue souls from destruction. Wisely, given that potentially sentimental theme, the film is hard-boiled and evades a conventional happy ending, but without relinquishing the moral victory that is at its heart. The arc of the story reminded me of the line from T.S. Eliot: ‘to be restored, our sickness must grow worse’. There is a lot of music in the film, much of it of high quality. (Songs were written by T Bone Burnett, Greg Brown, and Waylon Jennings, among others.) The acting is also very good, earning Bridges the best actor Oscar last year. In fact, the whole film is excellent, which is why I’ve put it at the top of this list.
Ben Affleck impressed me with his directorial debut Gone Baby Gone a few years ago, and in The Town, which is even better, he has returned to Boston with a gritty story about blue-collar criminals. The fact alone that Affleck returned to the same city to tell another story earns him points in my books. It must be the case that he is attached to the place, or that, as Walker Percy might have said, he is on familiar terms with the genie of the place. I suppose I wish that I had a place to love like that.
In addition to directing, Affleck co-wrote the script, and himself played the lead role, so it was his film to make or break. At its heart the story is about Affleck’s character’s moral struggle to break out of the life of crime that he has been living, with all that that entails. Sure, there are car chases and heists and shoot-outs, but the characters are the main point. I especially like Affleck’s directorial style: sober, unintrusive, and carefully crafted. In these respects, his films remind me of some of Clint Eastwood’s recent work (Mystic River, Gran Torino). The Town is maybe not a great film, but it is an awfully good one.
I plan to watch Inception again, just to see if I change my mind about it. After a single viewing, my opinion is mixed. Of course I acknowledge that it is a fantastically ambitious film — by that measure, probably no other film from 2010 could match it. Despite the almost inarticulable convolutions of the story, it retains, even if just barely, a beating human heart at its core. At a time when we have grown accustomed to startling visual effects, Inception still managed to amaze. Yet I have reservations. First, the premise of the film is not compelling. We are supposed to believe that “inception” — the covert planting of an idea in someone’s mind — is something remarkable and unprecedented. But many millions of people are employed today in doing just this; they are called ‘advertisers’. Let that pass. My main worry about the film concerns the very last scene, for the meaning of the whole film hinges on it.
When I left the theatre, I did not regard the ending as ambiguous; it seemed to me that Nolan had told us, in directly a manner as his medium permitted, that the odyssey through dream worlds had ended. This ending affirmed, in quite a beautiful way, the primacy of the real world over our fantasies, which affirmation I take to be basic to an honourable and serious human life. Yet in subsequent conversations with others, I was surprised to find that they thought the ending was ambiguous, and they presented several arguments in support of that interpretation, some of which gave me pause. As I said, I now need to view it again. In the meantime, Inception has my cautious and slightly irritated admiration.
Honourable mention: The Social Network. I find Facebook to be mostly a nuisance, and I watched this film about its genesis with a certain reluctance. I was won over. To be honest, the ‘true story’ angle was largely irrelevant to my enjoyment. It is a smart film, with an absorbing screenplay and some of the most sharply written dialogue I’ve heard at the movies in a long time.
No doubt there were good films this year that I missed. (In fact, there are some good films on the horizon before the end of the year, but I’ll probably not have time to see them until next year.) If you’d like to boost your favourite, I’d love to hear about it.