One of my favorite movie moments occurs at the start of Alfie — the 1966 original, not that other one — when Michael Caine turns to the camera and immediately puts the audience at ease.
“I suppose you think you’re gonna see the bleedin’ titles now,” he says. “Well, you’re not. So you can all relax.”
In a similar vein, let me say: I suppose you think you’re going to read a 10 Best Movies of 2010 story now. But you’re not. Not today, anyway.
Instead, I offer this rundown of five movies that — for me, at least — define the past year in cinema. One or two may eventually appear on my Top 10. All of them are, for better or worse, worth remembering.
Solitary Man : A decade ago — hell, maybe as recently as five years ago — a major studio would have scooped up this brutally unpredictable comedy of bad manners, and launched it in a few hundred theaters (at least) with a savvy marketing campaign aimed primarily at discerning grown-ups.
And not, mind you, for completely altruistic reasons: The decision-makers and bean-counters might have reasonably expected to score a least a modest profit — and, not incidentally, earn a bit of prestige by successfully promoting lead player Michael Douglas as a Best Actor nominee. But that was then, this is now. Douglas is at the top of his game here as fallen-from-grace wheeler-dealer Ben Kalmen, an aggressively charming but arrogantly self-absorbed cynic who deludes himself into thinking he’s being ruthlessly honest even as he lies, cheats and screws his way toward a point somewhere beneath rock bottom.
And the supporting players — including Jesse Eisenberg of The Social Network as a naïve college student who mistakenly admires Kalmen — are individually and collectively splendid. But Solitary Man wound up being released by Anchor Bay, a company that customarily offers only token theatrical exposure to films on the fast track to Redbox kiosks.
As Bob Dylan observed in his Oscar-winning tune for Wonder Boys — the last film in which Douglas was this damn good — things have changed.
Restrepo: Co-directed by award-winning photojournalist Tim Hetherington and author-journalist Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm), this extraordinary documentary about U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan's treacherous Korengal Valley earned the most impressive sort of praise — enthusiastic thumb’s-ups from its heroic subjects.
Indeed, when it was showcased last July at the Angelika Film Center, Oregon-born Sgt. Misha Pemble-Belkin — one of the soldiers profiled in the film — readily agreed to motorcycle in from Louisiana’s Fort Polk, where he was stationed at the time, for a Q&A after an opening-night screening. (This just in from the Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: It was my privilege to lead the discussion for CultureMap.)
Unfortunately, Restrepo, along with the sergeant’s Q&A, tuned out to be the last hurrah for an art house that often opened indie movies with similar guest appearances. Barely seven weeks later, the Angelika closed its doors, leaving Houston — the fourth most populous city in the United States — with the River Oaks triplex (i.e., a single theater with three screens) as the sole surviving commercial venue dedicated exclusively to alternative cinema.
If you want to complain that the Angelika had been allowed to decline by its operators long before its official closing — yes, I know what it was like to sweat out a screening there when its air-conditioning was on the fritz — I can’t argue with you. But consider this: Even with the Rice University Media Center, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and other nonprofits trying to fill in the gap, several critically acclaimed American-produced indies and foreign-language imports (including Leaves of Grass, White Material and Night Catches Us) didn’t make it to H-Town in 2010.
You don’t miss your art-house till your art-house is closed.
Monsters : When writer-director Gareth Edwards unveiled this remarkably accomplished micro-budget indie last March at the SXSW Film Festival, I respectfully noted in my Variety review: “By audaciously turning inside out the narrative conventions of traditional sci-fi thrillers about extraterrestrial invaders, Monsters offers a uniquely satisfying entertainment that may nonetheless pose formidable marketing challenges.”
Trust me: There are times in my life when I’d like to be proven wrong. As it turned out, however, Edwards’ cheeky, challenging film — which makes clever use of footage shot in Hurricane Ike-damaged swathes of Galveston — was too determinedly offbeat to attract the masses, or even grab the cognoscenti. (To again quote my Variety rave: “Edwards attempts a tricky balance of gritty-indie style and horror-movie substance — if John Cassavetes had ever made a sci-fi thriller, it probably would've looked and sounded a lot like this — and he pulls it off with an improbable degree of success.”)
And yet: If you paid close attention to what’s available as Video On Demand (VOD) on Comcast, AT&T and other cable or satellite connections, it didn’t matter that Monsters never played at a theater or drive-in near you. Thanks to VOD, you could have watched (and in some cases still can watch) such notable 2010 indie films as Ondine, Tiny Furniture, All Good Things — and, yes, Monsters — in the privacy of your home.
Given the closing of the Angelika, H-Town cineastes can only welcome this trend: If you can’t get to the indie film, the indie film will get to you.
Winter’s Bone: And speaking of indie films — some generate so many rave reviews, and so much enthusiastic press coverage, that if you’re on the outside looking in, you might assume they have broken out of the art-house ghetto to become mass-audience hits. Alas, that’s not always the case.
Many Oscar handicappers are touting Winter’s Bone — Debra Granik’s quietly astonishing drama about hardscrabble life and violent death in the bleak backwoods of Missouri — as an odds-on favorite for a Best Picture nomination. And Jennifer Lawrence, the film’s extraordinary lead player, has been hailed in countless magazine profiles and movie-blog postings as a Next Big Thing. (Next year, she’ll make the leap from Sundance exotica to Hollywood tentpoles as a member of X-Men: First Class.)
But tell the truth: How many people you know have actually seen Winter’s Bone? Not many, if any, I’ll bet. For all the favorable press and fawning feature stories, Winter’s Bone has grossed only $6.2 million since its June 11 opening.
By indie standards, that’s modestly impressive. (Solitary Man scored a relatively paltry $3.4 million; Monsters barely raked in $237,300.) But it’s also yet another sign that even when a film receives (and, in this case, thoroughly merits) abundant coverage in mainstream media and throughout the blogosphere, it may never attract the audience it deserves. As Samuel Goldwyn sagely noted: “If people don’t want to go to the picture, nobody can stop them.”
Inception: It’s an intellectually challenging, emotionally involving, technically dazzling big-budget extravaganza from a dauntingly inventive filmmaker who has mastered the art of concocting smartly exciting blockbusters. And it generated a zillion dollars in ticket sales.
Yes, Virginia, there still is intelligent life at the megaplex. Thank God.
Editor's note: This is the 18th in a series of articles CultureMap will be running this last week of 2010 on The Year in Culture. The stories in this series will focus on a key point or two, something that struck our reporting team about the year rather than rote Top 10 lists or bests of.
Other The Year In Culture stories: