Monday, August 23, 2010
I am completely stumped. For months now, beginning all the way back in April or May, all I heard was how awful the summer 2010 line-up was. And it seemed as though, in spite of whatever new film came along, that perception was to remain regardless. I was skeptical then and I'm outright baffled now, as I found this summer to be, pound for pound, lightyears better than last summer - and all things considered, oddly inspired. For all intents and purposes, we'll say this summer began in April and lasted until...well, the end of this month, but I'm all done with my summer viewing so how do you like them apples?
In spite of the public and critical perception that superheroes have taken over the box office, there were only two honest-to-goodness superhero films this year - the sublime Iron Man 2 and the better-than-expected Kick Ass (unless I'm forgetting something). I maintain that Iron Man 2 is the most exciting development in the superhero genre since Ang Lee's Hulk, a statement I realize says more about the superhero genre than it does Iron Man 2, but which nevertheless makes it noteworthy. It excites not through action and spectacle but dialogue and character, a trait just as exceptional and important as the more overtly groundbreaking The Dark Knight. The critical reception of each parallels those in the classic era who ignored Howard Hawks but elevated Fred Zinneman or Elia Kazan (though, as a stylist, Nolan has more in common with Fritz Lang, his storytelling is regretably far more blunt). Its few action scenes make it count - the anxiety in Tony fighting Ivan on the racetrack in particular - but it's the banter and competition between Tony and Pepper, and the continuing development of Tony as the only interesting protagonist of the superhero genre, that makes this a winner.
Action films as a whole had a pretty good go of it, with the summer's most important film (in the contemporary landscape anyway), Inception, delivering best on that accord. Though it wasn't, as Jean-Luc Godard wrote, "the film we had dreamed, the film we all carried in our hearts," Joseph Gordon-Levitt's hallway fight scene is still one of the best bits of action to ever hit the screen. Pushing past those that would seemingly seek to damage the genre in spite of some clever ideas (The Losers, The A-Team, The Expendables), we find the two films that made me believe in action cinema again.
Enter Knight and Day and Salt, which not only boast pitch-perfect execution of action as entertainment, but also use action to reveal character and develop plot. This puts them in a much higher, more rarefied league that the inexplicably acclaimed Star Trek never reached. Oh, AND the acting is great, you say? Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz have wonderful chemistry, and Angelina Jolie's performance is as raw and committed as any I've seen this year, regardless of genre. While Inception more aggressively invaded the public consciousness, James Mangold and Phillip Noyce quietly executed the summer blockbuster masterfully.
After a banner year in 2009, animation has sort of resigned to more of the same, a model which yielded one masterpiece (Toy Story 3), one solid ground double in baseball terms (How to Train Your Dragon), and one complete miss (Despicable Me). None of these, it's worth noted, were particularly interested in doing anything truly unique to their form. In the age of the computer, animation has grown more and more content to keep the physics of the world and biology of the characters grounded when they have the perfect outlet to do otherwise. It should be noted, however, that Day & Night, the short that played before Toy Story 3, is something that could have only been accomplished in animation, and it better for it.
The summer's biggest loser, genre-wise, was comedy. To be fair, I've yet to see MacGruber, which I've heard great things about from the right people, but the only thing that really carried me away was The Other Guys, which is just awesome. It executes the easy (smacking Mark Wahlberg with a wooden gun) and the conceptual (a cliche "break it up, fellas" tussle done in whisper) with equal ease and conviction, and any film that lets Michael Keaton and Mark Wahlberg do comedy this confidently is great in my book. But otherwise...Dinner for Schmucks? Get Him to the Greek? Laughs were had, but I can't recall many of them, and they were fairly empty in their attempts at reaching our heart. And don't even get me started on Hot Tub Time Machine, which thankfully came out before the summer and thus will receive no further consideration.
So all that leaves is the art house, which saved last summer for me, but this year alternately provided some of the best, worst, and dead-center films of the year thus far. Wild Grass and I Am Love provided two of the most shattering, enlightening experiences cinema will likely provide this year, while Exit Through the Gift Shop, The Square, and The Secret in Their Eyes were totally engrossing in their handling of plot and character. Winter's Bone, Cyrus, and Get Low were well-intentioned films, though their execution left everything to be desired, whereas Micmacs was a perfectly executed film with nothing in the way of intention. Solitary Man, The Kids Are All Right, and Please Give were perfectly fine films in most respects while admittedly inconsequential and fairly disposable.
Oh, right...and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. An unclassifiable, imperfect, but magnificently realized film that will live on forever in my heart (and, finances providing, on my shelf). If I begrudge it anything, it's that many of its techniques and developments were actually pioneered in the Wachowski Brothers' superior Speed Racer, but that is a problem of perception. It's not the film's fault. The film's just out there on its own, being awesome. Seriously, why have you not seen Scott Pilgrim already? Do it! Bring your friends!
If you feel I've missed anything, neglected my duties in any way, or want to try and convince me all over again that Star Trek is somehow worth anyone's time, sound off in the comments. In the meantime, between dozen or so great films that have come out thus far and a truly stellar fall slate ahead, I can tell already that it's going to be near impossible to whittle down a list of the ten best.
Posted by Scott Nye at 3:32 PM