CHARLES CASSADY'S TOP TEN OF 2010
I want to circulate a conspiracy theory: When he was arrested, Roman Polanski retaliated by laying an old Polish Gypsy curse on 2010 and the art form that had brought him so much grief. This would therefore be...worst...movie...year...ever.
It's not just me. Writer Joe Queenan, mid-way through the summer, asked if this wasn't the crummiest annum in motion-picture history. Joe Queenan has actually written nice things about visiting Cleveland. So we may be dealing with a bit of a softie here. And even HE couldn't work up the enthusiasm to be a blurb whore about "Prince of Persia" or "Knight and Day."
If Obama didn't have anything better to do (and when it came to moviegoing in 2010, there was always something better to do), I'd call for a creativity stimulus package. Or an imagination bailout. Or something, to reverse a most utterly unmemorable 12 months. More comic-book adaptations (ooooh, JONAH HEX at last; now we can die in peace), more futile book-to-film exercises, more sequels, more remakes, more lookalike digital-animated children's movies with voiceovers by Not Ready for Prime Time Players (DESPICABLE ME vs. MEGAMIND, who'd win? Answer: Not anybody who paid to see them.), more transfigured TV shows (was there really an A TEAM feature or was I just having a post- MACGRUBER nightmare?), more marketplace-assembled, CGI-rendered entertainment "product" with no enduring import, value or point.
Subsequent to the current Year of Viewing Dismally I had started to notice that the end credits of some movies now carry a "green" disclaimer, probably to placate evironmentalists by asserting that the sensitive film artisans did everything possible to minimize their "carbon footprint" in practicing their noble craft. Dudes, your flicks are insubstantial enough as it is. A carbon footprint is practically all you had left. Here, though, at the request of my editor, is a list of what I most enjoyed in 2010. Compiling it was not easy, I assure you:
- BLOOD INTO WINE – I know editor Bob Ignizio wasn't impressed by it, but this was really the ONLY feature of 2010 that made me want to run out into the street, grab strangers by their lapels, and drag them to it. A deftly funny and original sort of docu-variety presentation about alt-rock star Maynard James Keenan who, when not fronting three different bands (Tool, Puscifer, A Perfect Circle), finds a different, calmer and perhaps even more fulfilling calling as a winemaker. Maynard runs his vineyard in Arizona, despite the innate media skepticism of some Mister Rock-Star going into a vastly different arena and the snobbiness of wine culture. The film combines a wine-for-dummies approach with a Wild West-mythology flair and guest bits by current comics poking fun at the pretensions of oenophiles and sommeliers (Mr. Ignizio thought those diverse elements distracting, but I liked it) with a flattering, if selective look, at Mr. Keenan and his hardworking cohorts. Then again, I've been seeing a lot of rock-music pathographies lately in which the musicians seem doomed to either the grave or a prolonged stay in Arkham Asylum, so maybe I'm too easily impressed. The title sequence alone here will renew your love for Sonny and Cher.
- INCEPTION – I'll be honest, I didn't even see this thing. I just heard universal good about it, including from my wife, and from people who would otherwise be cynical about everything else. So much good that now I don't want to see it, for fear of what a letdown it will be (a lesson I learned from EASY A). So there, INCEPTION is terrific, all the more so for me not having experienced it. Kind of like how the Little Prince liked best the drawing of the lamb that didn't show the lamb. It was just a box, and he was told the lamb was inside. Maybe I'll never see INCEPTION. Aww, I'll probably have to eventually. If only to bone up for the inevitable damn sequel, INCEPTION 2: INCEPTION MEETS WOLVERINE.
- DISCO & ATOMIC WAR – My favorite movie from the Cleveland International Film Festival (who have a remarkable record for showing some of the least-seen pictures on record, sorry) is this Eastern European import. The end of the Cold War is seen from a cockeyed documentary perspective very different than the standard Ken Burns PBS treatment or dramatizations such as CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR. Call this "David Hasselhoff's War," a sardonic mix of nonfiction memoir, CIA-KGB interviews and re-enactment. Filmmaker Jaak Kilmi recalls growing up in Soviet-Bloc Estonia in the 1980s, where taboo TV transmissions from neighboring, more liberal Finland helped erode the USSR's iron ideological grip via the cultural impact of Dallas, Knightrider, disco dance, topical satire and even porn.
- THE YES MEN FIX THE WORLD – Yes, it was a tragedy for the gay community when SEX AND THE CITY 2 bombed critically and commercially, but reassure all those mourning homosexual guys (now standing in line for the Spider-Man musical) that not all sequels suck. In their second funny documentary feature, after 2004's THE YES MEN, prankster-activists Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno continue their avocation of fighting against ruthless globalization and unregulated corporate greed, mainly by pretending to be company reps and capitalist toadies issuing outlandish statements and hoaxes that lay bare the absurdities of money-at-any-cost mindsets. For example, the time the duo claimed Exxon will manufacture fuel out of dead human bodies, with actor-comedian Reggie Watts impersonating a willing Exxon janitor who let himself be turned into "Vivoleum" for a trade-show crowd. Any possibilities BP will take part in a third installment?
- CHILDREN OF INVENTION – Chinese-American filmmaker Tze Chun's terrific feature debut is a drama which echoes those classics of world cinema from Iran and France that show the resilience and inner grace of children under circumstances in which adults crumble. In this case an ill-equipped single mother, a Taiwanese transplant in Boston, loses her home and gets sucked into a pyramid scheme. Her unsupervised little son and daughter must persevere on their own, and do so with heartbreaking resourcefulness. Give this one a look if you come across it.
- THE ELEPHANT IN THE LIVING ROOM – No, the best Ohio-made cinema this year was not a collection of YouTube videos showing idiot sports fans burning LeBron James No.23 jerseys. The underground trade in exotic and wild animals hits home in this powerful documentary that follows a Dayton animal-control specialist (and his counterparts in Florida and elsewhere) confronted with deadly tropical vipers, attacking cougars and abandoned bear cubs. The film goes to heroic lengths to be sympathetic to a worst-Ohio-neighbor-nightmare, a disabled trucker who has emotionally bonded to two majestic - and enormous - African lions crammed into inadequate cages on his property.
- A SMALL ACT – This HBO Films documentary may cause viewers to rue any jokes they made over actress Sally Struthers' tearful fundraisers on late-nite TV. As a boy in an impoverished Kenyan village, Chris Mburu was sponsored in his primary-school education by a complete stranger in faraway Sweden, Holocaust refugee Hilde Back. Mburu credits Back's small donation as making all the difference in helping him along to Harvard Law School and a globetrotting career with the UN. Out of gratitude, he establishes a scholarship for his village in Back's name - without her even knowing about it, until she gets a surprise invite to come to Kenya and be honored. That reverse COMING TO AMERICA bit doesn't just stop at being an offbeat uplifter; the narrative shifts to the pressure felt by Kenyan schoolkids to excel in exams that will earn them Hilde Back Foundation scholarships, against a backdrop of a small-scale civil war, and it becomes like SPELLBOUND with guns.
- WELCOME – Rumor is that US audiences have taken to booing and hissing movie trailers promoting exposés that deal seriously and sadly with war in Iraq or Afghanistan; evidently the knuckle-walkers in the Glenn Beck demographic just don't want to hear about it anymore (unless Iron Man or Stallone are out there kicking ass, of course). So take comfort that (A) this excellent refugee drama was too low-profile to generate a trailer, pity the same couldn't be said about "Yogi Bear" and (B) the current international US-Islam horror show is just a merest hint in the background of a haunting tragedy about an Iraqi teen refugee in France, his unlikely comradeship with a divorced swim coach on the English channel, and his jaw-dropping long-shot plan to reunite with his true love in London.
- CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY – While Kevin Spacey has taken the title role in the scripted narrative "Casino Jack," do your homework and watch democracy collapse in nonfiction form, with this juicy documentary on Washington D.C. super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a star among the neo-conservative Republican crowd, who is now serving time in jail. He was only the most visible and reckless of a new breed of political opportunists who have exuberantly corrupted the system of campaign finance, until "contributions" are very much a legal form of bribery. And don't think the Democrats don't get their slice too, though in this telling the scumbags are all right-wing Bible-thumpin'-and-business-deregulatin' GOP. Guest appearance by former Ohio Congressman Bob Ney, or did you guess that already?
- THE LEAST AMONG YOU – Most of the movies released in 2010 are what I imagine would be playing on premium cable in Hell. So why not end the list by throwing a bone to a piece of "Christian" cinema. Yes, these evangelical movies have evolved over the years (ironic use of the word "evolved," I know) to the extent that some are well advanced beyond low-budget amateur things shown in rented church halls. This was a standout, based on fact (well, that's what they all say) about a young black activist arrested during the Watts riots who accepts a plea-bargain deal to attend an all-white seminary school to avoid prison time. Resulting faith-based melodrama smoothly mixes street drama, racial parable, Gospel play, some damnably sophisticated ethical debates and uniformly fine acting from newcomer Cedric Sanders as well as old pros Louis Gossett Jr., Lauren Holly and William Devane. As that monk in the old Xerox ads used to say, "It's a miracle!"