Saturday, January 1, 2011

My Top 10 (or so) Films for 2010

I spent most of the year watching older stuff, filling in some gaps, and catching up on films I probably should have already seen but that had escaped me for one reason or another.  Meanwhile most of the more talked about 2010 fare I still need to track down.

Here's my list:

William Wellman's A Star Is Born (1937)

It is at once an extremely tender and tragic love story.  Cukor's version is one of my favorite films of all time, but Wellman's original certainly doesn't disappoint.  It's a wonderfully felt film, full of unforgettable moments and sincere connections.

Yasujiro Ozu's I Was Born, But... (1932)

What deep emotions Ozu is able to explore, particularly the idea of young kids having to come to terms with their father's rank in society. Ozu goes deep, takes it slow, but explores characters and themes that are incredibly universal and real.

Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

One of the best depictions of aging I have ever seen and full of many gut-wrenching and poignant moments.  I didn't fully connect with the character of the aging woman.  But otherwise, I found it to be an utterly bold, unique, and powerful work.

Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D. (1952)

Perhaps the film if you want to understand the bond between a dog and its owner.  Moving, realistic, wise, and full of heart.  A movie with a huge reputation, and rightfully so.  

Yasujiro Ozu's Late Spring (1949)

Another extraordinarily tender and wise film about  life, relationships, and personal growth and evolution.  Ozu keeps things minimal and spare, as usual.  But whenever he goes outside we're reminded of his strong connection to nature and his tremendous feeling and eye for the outdoors. Soft but packs a punch. 

John Ford's Mogambo (1953)

A flawed film, certainly.  But a fever dream of a flick with the painfully beautiful Grace Kelly and some of the most suspenseful scenes in the history of cinema involving animals and humans.  Nice to see Ford taking a break from the Irish thing and delivering this complex tale.

Josef von Sternberg's Morocco (1930)

The most poetic von Sternberg I've seen and some incredibly brave and conceptually consistent filmmaking -- those tracking shots and the scene of Dietrich looking for Cooper upon his troop's return.  I still probably prefer The Blue Angel, but this one pushes very close.

Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1943)

Based on the same James M Cain novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, that led to two American films, this early film from one of Italian cinema's masters is a neorealist marvel.  Detailed, beautifully observed, this seems like a key influence on Godard's Breathless, and many of the other French New Wave works. 

Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth (1937)

I had seen this one about 15 years ago in a Parisian theater and had a mediocre reaction to it but man was I wrong.  This has some of the greatest moments and exchanges of the entire period, particularly the final scene and almost every scene with Mr. Smith, the dog.  I still may slightly prefer His Girl Friday, but this is undeniably a great work.

John Ford's The Long Voyage Home (1940)

I'm still somewhat new to Ford's work.  I've probably seen less than ten of his films.  But I'm starting to see more and more clearly the reason for his huge reputation.  There is a depthfulness and heavy melancholy to some of his work that gives it the kind of heft I've experienced with some Ozu, Mizoguchi, Bresson, and Dreyer.  Toland does some extraordinary things here.  There are four or five completely gut-wrenching scenes, and there's a realism to a couple of the action set pieces that is absolutely masterful.  

Ross McElwee's Sherman's March (1986)

Like Killer of Sheep and Stranger Than Paradise (and many others, of course), Sherman's March is a key work in the history of American independent filmmaking.  But somehow it's just now come to my attention. Ross McElwee's film is absolutely not for everyone.  It's lo-fi, quirky, slow, long, and even a bit austere in its approach.  But it's also very personal, without ever really being abrasive or intimate, in an overly exposed way.

I'm always looking and thinking about ways to make my own work more personal without making it self-absorbed.  It's a tough balance to strike. And whenever I find a filmmaker who can consistently entertain me while talking about themselves, I usually embrace their work (Woody Allen, for instance).  Obviously, it's easier when the filmmaker has a comic streak; it just lightens the whole venture.

One of my favorite contemporary filmmakers is Andrew Bujalski, and particularly his film 
Funny Ha Ha.  If you like that film, I highly recommend this documentary.  Bujalski, like McElwee, really lets you in on his awkwardness, insecurities, anxieties, but he does it with real nuance, grace, and of course, occasional humor.   Some would call both of these films mumblecore, I would simply call them very fine works by very patient and bold filmmakers.

Steven Spielberg's Munich (2005)

Some of my reservations with Spielberg are on display -- his questionable sense of humor, his lapses into sentimentality, and his taste in music.  But it's also as clear as ever that when he puts his mind to it, his formal skills are up there with any of the masters.  The action sequences -- the opening of the film, when Avner first flashes back to "Black Sunday" while asleep on the airplane, the phone bomb, the attempted killing in London, and the first murder in Italy -- are all incredible in their grace, energy, and effectiveness.  In fact, they are probably the strongest set of action sequences I've seen since Heat.  A film with several flaws -- overly wordy, overlong, and uneven.  But when it's great, it's a classic.   

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata (2008)

Kurosawa's lightest and most accessible work I've seen.  It's great to see the director working outside of genre and in territory that's already been masterfully done by Kitano (Fireworks) and Yang (Yi Yi).  Restrained but lyrical with the best final scene I've seen all year.  A wonderful film.  


  1. Fascinating post. I also love your list of favorite films from each year.

    You mentioned that you are relatively new to John Ford's films. If you liked the melancholy of The Long Voyage Home, you need to see They Were Expendable, a WWll film that honored the spirit of doomed men in a particular battle. A very quiet, personal and touching film.

  2. Tom, thank you so much for stopping in. It's great to have you here, and I really appreciate the kind words.

    I've seen THEY WERE EXPENDABLE and like it quite a bit. I agree it's quite a touching film by Ford. He was definitely (obviously) a very interesting filmmaker, and I look forward to continuing to fill in my gaps in his work.

    Thanks again, Tom! Great having you here.

  3. Happy New Year to you and yours Jeffrey! I want to take this opportunity to thank you for your incomparable humility and graciousness all year. You are that rare celbrity who who speaks the language of all you interact with, and I have been greatly honored and deeply moved by your kindness, encouragement and friendship.

    As to this magnificent list, well, what can I say that you haven't already? I absolutely adore both Ozus, as this director took hold with this past year like never before. McCarey's MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW in true Ozu fashion examines old age in a wrenching indictment that stands as one of the most moving films in all of American cinema! The humanist De Sica film is also of course fashioned in that mold. A STAR IS BORN has been a personal favorite since my teenage years, and my adoration for it has not abated. I just watched it with my eldest daughter a few weeks ago in fact! The McAlwee, Ford, Visconti, Von Sternberg, TOKYO SONATA all resonate with me in a very big way!

    Now THIS my friend is truly a list to cherish, as it's timeless.

  4. Sam, wow thanks so much for the wonderful addition to this post. As always, your support is incredible and perspective more than valuable.

    Here's to a tremendous 2011 for you and your family. I truly thank you for your tireless work in offering insight and building community among so many cinephiles. You're a gem.

  5. Jeffrey,
    Thanks for reminding me of that powerful ending to TOKYO SONATA. I had forgotten about it. It provides and interesting comparison for powerfully quiet endings in Japanese films with LATE SPRING, one of my all-time favorite films.
    I'll have to check out some of the other films on this list!

  6. Peter, great to hear from you, as always. Yes, that's a good point about looking at Kurosawa's film within the context of other Japanese cinema. I'm glad to hear of your love for Ozu. He's someone that I really only discovered this past year. But I definitely get all the fuss now.

    Thanks, Peter. Always a treat to have you here.

  7. I recently made a similar list over at 24frames and we had one film that made both our list, McCarey's heart wrenching MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW. I just watched THE AWFUL TRUTH about a week ago for the first time, certainly one of the best screwball comedies made. What a year McCarey had with these two films.

    You've got some great other films on your list (Obssessione, A Star is Born and Umberto D) while there are still a few I need to catch.

  8. John, thank you so much for stopping in here. It's always a treat to have you. Yes, McCarey's year in 1937, I agree, ranks up there among the very best ever. So glad to hear you had an equally great experience with these two films. We're absolutely on the same page. And from your list, I'm also a HUGE fan of MEN IN WAR and THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE. Great stuff.