Every year it gets harder to figure out exactly what’s coming out when and how and blah blah. Big-studio pictures still regularly get wide releases, and so do some of the independents, but so much goes straight to DVD/On Demand/etc. and other films may play festivals for a long time before they get an official “release.” So with that in mind, I decided to do two separate Top 10s for 2010: Wide Release and (for lack of a better term) Independent.
Hopefully my categorization makes sense. The short version goes something like this: Wide Release films are those that most everyone probably had a chance to see in theaters if they lived within a reasonable distance of a larger city. This includes multiplex stuff as well as higher-profile foreign and “indie” films that may have been distributed by larger companies. Independent films are those that were not made or distributed by major studios and therefore maybe made their official release debuts as midnight movies, or maybe only played festivals and have not seen wide release (theatrical or otherwise).
And one last note before I begin: if you’re wondering where The Social Network or Jackass 3D are, I’m afraid I didn’t get to see them. This is why these lists are almost always hopelessly incomplete, although they at least serve as a decent guide to what I did manage to watch this year out of the countless films released. Let’s go!
Top 10 Wide Release Films:
10. Toy Story 3 (dir. Lee Unkrich)
Pixar is notoriously careful about their quality control, and the fact that they even made a second Toy Story sequel was a huge surprise. What wasn’t that much of a surprise is that it was, typically, excellent. A tremendously exciting and very funny escape film with a beautiful, completely satisfying (and touching) conclusion. It’s been so long since the last one that I forgot what a joy it was to spend time with these characters, and I can’t imagine a better way to send them off.
9. The Good, the Bad, the Weird (dir. Ji-Woon Kim)
Seriously, this movie would have made the list if it was only the utterly astonishing 20-minute chase sequence near the film’s climax. However, this revision of The Good, the Bad & the Ugly set in China manages to cram in more “HOLY WOW” moments throughout its running time than almost any other film this year. The pacing is flawless, and the 2-hour-plus length seems to fly by. Hilariously awesome.
8. Mystery Team (dir. Dan Eckman)
And speaking of “hilarious” and “awesome,” here’s Mystery Team. Pretty easily the best American comedy of the year, and certainly one of the most unique. So unique, in fact, that the first time I watched it I liked it but didn’t quite know what to make of it. A second viewing fixed that: it’s a riot. And it gets funnier with repeated viewings.
7. Triangle (dir. Christoper Smith)
I know, I know, this one was released directly to DVD in the States back in January. So my categorization is a little blurry. Sorry! Christopher Smith, whose previous feature was the modern classic Severance, completely switches gears with this bleak thriller involving a harried single mother and a small group of acquaintances who run into a massive storm while at sea and end up on board an abandoned cruise ship. Things get weird, and saying much else would spoil the film’s surprises.
6. Four Lions (dir. Christopher Morris)
Hands down the funniest film of 2010, period. Four Lions follows the wacky misadventures of a UK terrorist sleeper cell as they try to figure out something really good to blow up so they can become martyrs. Utterly hilarious on a surface level, where Four Lions really becomes unsettling is when you realize what Morris does through his slapstick approach is humanize these people who are so often just abstract monsters, faces in mug shots on news broadcasts. Absolutely required viewing for anyone who doesn’t think smart comedy still exists.
5. Enter the Void (dir. Gaspar Noé)
Enter the Void is the antithesis of what I loved about several of my favorite movies this year: it is not fun at all. However, it has barely left my brain since I saw it months ago, and the more I think on it the more I realize how amazing it is. Just from a technical standpoint, Enter the Void is a staggering accomplishment. But more than that, all of my initial complaints about the film have become, on reflection, obviously deliberate choices on the part of the filmmakers (Noé co-wrote with his wife Lucile Hadzihalilovic). Seriously mind-blowing. Kubrick would have been proud.
4. Kick-Ass (dir. Matthew Vaughn)
With the exception of one other film (somewhat, uh, higher on this list), I had more fun at the movies seeing Kick-Ass than at any other film this year. Matthew Vaughn’s gleefully profane take on Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s irreverent comic book delivered more entertainment value than I believed possible. Everything here is pretty great, but there’s no question that Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl is worth the price of admission alone.
3. Black Swan (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
A completely insane patchwork monster made of The Red Shoes and Repulsion with sprinklings of Suspiria and Mulholland Drive, Black Swan somehow manages to evoke all those films without making you wish you were just watching any one of those again. The slow build constantly ratchets up a tension that seeps into every scene, and the last act hits like a freight train. Gorgeous and harrowing.
2. Inception (dir. Christopher Nolan)
Don’t let all the noisemaking fool you: Inception is not great because it’s complicated and difficult. It’s really neither of those things for any viewer actually paying attention to what’s happening on the screen. And that is what is really great about Inception— it’s a huge big-budget blockbuster that actually requires you to pay attention, and rewards your investment in its storyline with moments of confounding beauty, imaginative action, and bitter poignancy. This is basically Christopher Nolan’s Inland Empire, a film obviously rooted deeply in his personal obsessions that also acts as a summary of all his strengths (and weaknesses) as a filmmaker.
1. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (dir. Edgar Wright)
In a year with a lot of seriously fun movies, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was the most fun. And, in addition to being a great time out at the movies, it also managed to flawlessly incorporate a vocabulary of video game and pop cultural references without becoming a film about those references. The cast is rock solid across the board, and Michael Cera shockingly turned out to be exactly the right choice for Scott Pilgrim. Seeing this on the big screen in a very loud theater was absolutely the most exhilarating show at the multiplex this year.
Top 10 Independent Films:
10. Make-Out with Violence (dir. The Deagol Brothers)
Released on DVD this year after having played festivals for some time, Make-Out with Violence is a seriously unique take on the zombie film. Two brothers find the (somewhat) reanimated corpse of Wendy, their friend who had gone missing. Patrick decides to keep her in their friend’s house while he’s away for the Summer while distracting his brother Carol with assistance in getting the girl of his dreams. Coming on like the bastard offspring of John Hughes, Wes Anderson and George Romero, Make-Out with Violence is a refreshingly new take on the increasingly tired zombie film subgenre.
9. The Pink Hotel (dir. Chris Hefner)
Watching The Pink Hotel, it seems pretty obvious that Chris Hefner’s main influences for his debut feature were Guy Maddin and David Lynch. This is not a bad thing at all. The Pink Hotel borrows the absurdist humor and obsession with primitive film technology of Guy Maddin and marries it to the type of nightmarish dread that Lynch all but patented in his early films. Shot entirely on silent black & white Super 8mm film, The Pink Hotel is an ambitious debut feature that demands multiple viewings.
8. The Taint (dir. Drew Bolduc & Dan Nelson)
It’s easy to imagine Lloyd Kaufman looking down from Heaven with a proud tear rolling down his cheek after seeing The Taint. Or probably not Heaven, since he’s not dead, so at least looking down from his office at Troma and kicking himself for not coming up with this concept on his own. A mysterious substance taints the water supply and turns any man who drinks it into a rampaging, murderous misogynist with a raging erection. One man has missed the whole thing by accident and meets a tough woman who may be able to lead him to an untainted well. This super low-budget feature has some shockingly great special effects and the sort of jaw-dropping eagerness to offend that only a true independent film can offer.
7. Trash Humpers (dir. Harmony Korine)
Perhaps the most appropriately-titled film of 2010, Trash Humpers is the sort of thing that sounds like a joke but is actually a real thing. Three weirdos in old-person masks run around a very Southern area doing antisocial stuff while another one tapes it with what appears to be a very old VHS camcorder. Activities range from watching a chubby kid try to play basketball and laughing at him to hanging out with a guy trying to tell racist and homophobic jokes and, later on, some possible kidnapping and murder. Thinking of it as August Underground’s Jackass gives you a rough idea of what to expect. One of the few films I’ve ever seen that made me laugh out loud and feel deeply unsettled at the same time. There’s absolutely nothing else like it.
6. Red, White & Blue (dir. Simon Rumley)
Simon Rumley’s debut feature, The Living and the Dead, made a big splash in horror circles but didn’t really grab me. His follow-up, a thorough clinical dissection of the revenge film, absolutely did. Discussing much of what happens in the film would possibly ruin some of its many surprises, including its structure. Rumley basically takes one story of revenge and turns it into an anthology with each section of the film following a different main character as their lives intersect. Red, White & Blue takes the time to firmly establish each main character as a complete personality, and when the cycle of revenge begins the film hits like a punch in the gut.
5. Scumbabies (dir. Joseph R. Lewis)
Writer/director Joseph R. Lewis describes Scumbabies as a “‘Slapstick Horror Musical Fairytale about Love & Death,” which pretty well covers it. Scumbabies feels like classic slapstick as reinterpreted through the machine-gun editing of Moulin Rouge, an irrepressible “let’s put on a show!” enthusiasm, and the low-budget grit of 70’s exploitation cinema. In other words, it’s truly unique, deeply personal, and the kind of film that can only be made completely independently. Short version: If there’s a Scumbabies party coming to your town, you should make it a point to attend.
4. The Living Wake (dir. Sol Tryon)
It’s always a tricky proposition when one actor has to basically carry an entire movie by appearing in virtually every frame of the film. If that actor is not absolutely perfect in the role, or the writing is not exactly right, it can be a disaster. The Living Wake is an example of what happens when this goes right: Mike O’Connell is undeniably perfect as K. Roth Binew, an egomaniacal self-proclaimed genius whose doctor has diagnosed him with an extremely rare disease that will cause him to die at a very precise time. On the day of his death, Binew and his assistant Mills (Jesse Eisenberg, post-The Squid and the Whale and pre-Zombieland) set out to invite everyone in their small town to Binew’s living wake to celebrate his life and death. In a just universe, O’Connell would win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Binew. Bizarre, hilarious, and surprisingly touching.
3. Popatopolis (dir. Clay Westervelt)
Last year’s documentary on Don Dohler, Blood, Boobs & Beast, started as an inspirational story of dreams coming true and slowly became a cautionary tale of being careful what you wish for. Popatopolis, a documentary about b-movie legend Jim Wynorski, is somewhat similar, except it doesn’t seem that Jim has much of a problem with where his career has gone. Starting off making low-budget exploitation films in the 80’s, Wynorski has continued knocking out multiple films every year to the present day. However, the market has completely changed Wynorski’s role: where he used to make goofy stuff like Chopping Mall, he now makes shot-on-video soft-porn knockoffs like Cleavagefield. Popatopolis follows Wynorski, his stars and crew as they attempt to shoot The Witches of Breastwick in three days. Interspersed with interviews about Wynorski and the state of exploitation film with Roger Corman, Julie Strain and other b-movie luminaries, Popatopolis is a very funny and also very sobering look at what some filmmakers are willing to do to keep making movie magic.
2. Phasma Ex Machina (dir. Matt Osterman)
The lazy answer for “What is Phasma Ex Machina?” is that “It’s Primer with ghosts.” This gives people a rough idea of what to expect, and isn’t too far off— it’s a low-budget independent science fiction film that deals with a fantastical storyline in a “realistic” matter. After the death of his parents, Cody drops out of college and becomes obsessed with building a machine that will allow him to contact the other side. His work leads him to Tom, an electrician dealing with his own loss. Unfortunately for both men, the machine works much better than expected. Phasma Ex Machina is a fascinating hybrid of science fiction, low-key indie relationship drama, and subtle horror.
1. Satan Hates You (dir. James Felix McKenney)
If you go into Satan Hates You without knowing anything about Jack Chick, you are probably going to be seriously confounded. Writer/director James Felix McKenney has basically created a dead-on live-action film version of Jack Chick’s comic book tracts, which depict Satan’s minions preying on weak sinners and the power of Christ overcoming all. The film follows two obviously doomed characters: Wendy, a promiscuous teen who likes to drink, do drugs and party, and Marc, a deeply closeted homosexual and committed alcoholic. Larry Fessenden and Bradford Scobie play a pair of demons who do their best to lead Marc and Wendy down the path to eternal damnation. It’s hard to imagine Jack Chick himself making a more accurate adaptation of his comics, and the complete lack of ironic commentary on the proceedings is refreshing. Satan Hates You is the epitome of exciting independent filmmaking— there’s no way in hell (no pun intended) that a big studio would ever produce anything like this!
Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He writes reviews for Film Monthly and “The Crown International Files” for Criticplanet.org.
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