Sad Proof that George Romero May Be Losing It: Survival of the Dead. I have been a staunch Romero apologist for years. When Land of the Dead divided audiences, I stood firmly with those who thought it was a trenchant social satire hamstrung by a low budget, but otherwise great. I even defended Diary of the Dead, which had many fewer adherents than Land. But Survival...man, what a botch. It's everything that Romero critics claimed Land and Diary were, only worse. His puzzling obsession with having his actors do bad Irish accents doesn't help.
"Modern Classic" That I Just Can't Get Behind: Winter's Bone. Now, understand: I really enjoyed this movie. I've seen it twice, it works on every level, and I'd definitely mark it as one of the top ten movies of the year. The performances, especially by John Hawkes and Jennifer Lawrence, or riveting. Debra Granik's direction is crisp and focused. The backwoods Ozark setting is richly realized down to the smallest detail. And yet...there's something missing. The whole thing feels a bit like one of those dry odes to rural suffering that used to clog the docket at Sundance before the days of sex, lies and videotape. It's important to remember, in a year when many of the best films revolved around the impact of technology on 21st Century life, that some parts of the country haven't seen the 21st century (or even the 20th) arrive yet, but it feels like that's all that's going on in Winter's Bone. As a result, I can't put it near the top slot as so many smarter, better informed critics are doing.
Inaugural Rodriguez Paradox* Award Winner: Robert Rodriguez for Machete. For the most part, I really, really enjoyed Machete, Rodriguez's epic Mexploitation extravaganza, but it left me strangely disappointed. I couldn't put my foot on what was wrong at first, but I've since figured it out: Robert Rodriguez movies are inherently paradoxical, and therefore perpetually unsatisfying. Rodriguez's seat-of-the-pants approach to filmmaking and deep love for lurid trash leads him to make raucous, intensely entertaining action lollapaloozas like Planet Terror and Machete. But that same unfocused enthusiasm and lack of pretensions to taste leave him incapable of really executing his visions successfully. Look at Grindhouse: Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino both undertook to make filmic tributes to the exploitation films of their youth, but only Rodriguez really channeled the trashy energy of the genre. Planet Terror is as over-the-top and lurid as anything that ever played to the trenchcoat crowd in 70s Times Square. Tarantino, on the other hand, couldn't help himself: he just HAD to turn his entry into a talky, audience expectation-defying deconstruction of serial killer movies. But look at the climactic sequences of both films: Death Proof ends in a gripping, expertly paced car chase that culminates in a glorious explosion of female-empowering violence that acts as an orgasmic exclamation point to the whole Grindhouse experience. Planet Terror, by contrast, ends with a should-be epic gunfight between an army of undead soldiers and a ragtag collection of survivors. The scene is so haphazardly staged and edited that it ends up dissipating much of the bloody energy that had been sustaining the film to that point. It makes you wish that Tarantino had shot that sequence (remember the House of Blue Leaves? Yeah, imagine that with zombies and assault rifles!). But if Tarantino HAD directed Planet Terror, it would have lacked the pulpy intensity of Rodriguez's vision. There would have been a bunch of dialog, a few quick bursts of zombie mayhem, and more shots of Rose McGowan's foot than strictly necessary. Machete, which began life as a fake trailer in Grindhouse, epitomizes the Rodriguez paradox: it's an audacious chunk of unapologetic trash, filled with moments that stand out as some of the most deliriously awesome of the year, but at every turn, Rodriguez's slapdash directing and editing keeps the action from making any real impact. Hell, it even ends with the exact same sort of confused, haltingly-aced shootout as Planet Terror (and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and Desperado, for that matter) and similarly deflates the movie like a gore-filled balloon that's sprung a leak.
Movie That Doubles as a Treatise on the Audience's Feelings towards its Star: Salt. Angelina Jolie is supposedly the protagonist of Salt, and yet, for almost the entire running time, the viewer has no real idea what her goals are or where her allegiances lie. The dynamic is an odd way to frame a blockbuster action movie, but it's dictated by the essential alienation between the American moviegoer and the persona of Angelina Jolie. Her public image is so outsized and unrelatable (from knife wielding, blood-drinking brotherfucker to globetrotting, Pitt-wooing, serial adopting humanitarian in the blink of an eye) and her face is so unnervingly proportioned, with thost anime-character eyes and mile-wide lips, that moviegoers can't really accept her as a fellow member of the human race. At this point in her career, she's simply unacceptable as a traditional protagonist.
A Children's Treasury of Unrealized Premises: Human Centipede: First Sequence, Piranha 3D, Predators, Faster. To one degree or another, all of the above films managed to botch a seemingly can't-miss genre concept. Some of the botches are more egregious than other. Human Centipede and Faster, for example, both managed to take the nugget of a great idea and squander it by ineptly relying on tired formulas. Piranha 3D, on the other hand, was about two thirds of a fantastic movie, but it was sadly undermined by glacial pace. The climactic beach-party massacre will rightfully go down as one of the greatest moments of carnage in screen history. In fact...
Best Moment of Screen Carnage of This and Perhaps Any Other Year: Beach-party massacre, Piranha 3D.
Proof that Foreign Films can be Just as Lame and Middlebrow as Hollywood: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo/Played with Fire/Crossed the Road.
Funniest Scene of the Year: Sam Jackson and the Rock jumping off the roof, The Other Guys.
Double Feature on the peril and promise of 21st Century mass media: Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim Versus the World. Both of these movies explore and exploit a current of popular culture: comic books heroism and video gaming. One of them is blunt and dumb, the other lively and insightful. One traffics in cheap transgression, the other weaves jokes into the very fabric of the film. If you don't know which is which, you suck.
Suitable for Framing Award: Shutter Island. This movie has its problems, but Scorsese shows that he can deliver some of the most arresting visuals around, as well as delve into the deep psychology of film noir. It's pastiche, but it's energized, insightful pastiche.
Ov-Er-Rat-ed! Clap! Clap! Clapclapclap!: Red Riding Trilogy. I must be missing something.
I'm so far behind on the seminal films of the year, that I'm going to hold off on a year end Top Five for now. Instead, I'll shortly post a full review of my current favorite film of 2010, and, in a month or so, put out a complete Top Five.
*Alternately the Wes Anderson Paradox