Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: Best in Theaters

Integrity, dignity, and ingenuity might be dismissed as old-fashioned virtues, but they are still the stuff of great movies. Indeed, such characters qualities distinguish several (though not necessarily all) of the ten best films that made it by hook or by crook onto New York screens this year. With a bit of fudging, the following non-scientific list presents the best films with arguable New York theatrical distribution, in strictly alpha order.

A searing indictment of an act of legalized plunder committed by the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the city of Philadelphia, Don Argott’s The Art of the Steal might not be the most edifying film of the year, but it does the nearly impossible, making estate law absolutely fascinating. Rigorously establishing its case step by step, it is a clinic in documentary filmmaking that Alex Gibney should be forced to watch repeatedly as part of his penitence for the wildly speculative, utterly unsubstantiated Client 9.

By contrast, Jaak Kilmi and Kiur Aarma’s droll documentary Disco and Atomic War celebrates the resourcefulness of the Estonian people, who went to great lengths circumventing the Soviet censorship of Finnish television stations and the iconic American shows it carried. Enormously entertaining yet easily the most informative film of the year on a frame-by-frame basis, Disco represents what more docs should aspire to.

Also based on stranger-than-fiction Cold War history, Christian Carion’s Farewell grippingly dramatizes the unusual friendship that developed between a high-ranking Soviet informer and the average French businessman he chooses as his handler. It also gives President Reagan his fairest shake on film since his days as a working actor.

Luca Guadagnino’s exquisitely crafted I Am Love was easily the best adultery drama of the year (and there were plenty of them). Featuring a bravura lead performance from Tilda Swinton and perfectly incorporating the music of John Adams, Love is a film of operatic passion and grandeur.

Working from an unproduced screenplay by the late great Jacques Tati, Sylvain Chomet flawlessly captures the screen mime’s gentle but sly physical in the wise and wistful The Illusionist, the best animated film of the year, by a country mile.

Though its inclusion might be a case of rewarding a film for the sake of its subjects, director Frederick Marx also earns credit for nearly dying while recording one Tibetan Buddhist monk’s quest to bring a group of hopeful children over an icy mountain pass to the nearest school in Journey from Zanskar. Though the trek is dramatic, it is the spirit and fundamental humanity of the Zanskari children that are truly memorable. Since the Rubin Museum of Art is positioning itself as a first run theater as well as the leading exhibitor of Himalayan art, Zanskar gets shoehorned into the theatrical list.

Beginning as a period drawing room comedy but subtly evolving into something larger and deeper, Tom Hooper’s The King's Speech is one of the few Oscar contenders of the year that deserves its award buzz.

Shooting a film that forthrightly addresses the Cultural Revolution on-location in China also takes a fair amount of guts. Somehow, Bruce Beresford pulled it off, bringing the inspiring story of Chinese dancer Li Cunxin’s defection to the screen, while also capturing a vivid sense of his passion and talent for ballet in Mao's Last Dancer.

Combining music with tragedy rather than heroism, Bahman Ghobadi’s No One Knows About Persian Cats is a powerful indictment of Iranian censorship. About as indie as indie gets, Ghobadi illegally filmed his drama set in the world of Tehran’s underground music scene on the city streets and in the real life basement clubs where bands risk their lives by playing their haram music every night.

Exhausting in a good way, Marco Bellocchio’s feverish drama Vincere stylishly speculates about the life and fate of Mussolini’s mistress Ida Dalser. Bold and sweeping, Vincere also unambiguously portrays Mussolini as a manipulative socialist who never really changed his ideology, just his rhetoric.

Just like last year, 2010’s ostensive Oscar contenders are a so-so lot, but there are always quality films sneaking into New York’s art-houses. These ten are highly recommended as they expand nationally or find their homes on Netflix. Here’s to happy screenings in 2011.