2010 was a bland, mediocre year for movies, with few moments of galvanizing light or heat. You know it's a down year when European and Asian filmmakers, counted on respectively for penetrating character studies and innovative genre films, are largely MIA. The main culprit, though, as it's been for quite a while, is the ongoing malaise in American movies.
Now it's not as easy, or as fun, as you might think to come up with a fresh year-end rant about Hollywood. I take no pleasure in harping yet again on the vapid state of American cinema, and the infantile obsession with teenage vampires and boy wizards, maniacal serial killers and animated, anthropomorphic animals, vapid rom-com heroines and cliche-riddled hero's journeys. Every studio is single-mindedly focused on a young, male audience, and as a result computer graphics and 3D are devouring the multiplexes.
Anybody paying attention is well aware that Hollywood has turned the first eight months of the year into a virtual no-man's-land for adult moviegoers, with the return of juveniles to school in September finally allowing for a parade of serious, thoughtful movies. But this year only a handful of such titles -- The Town, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, The Social Network, Conviction, Stone, Hereafter, Fair Game -- opened between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. Now, finally, we're in the midst of a blizzard of worthwhile fare, but instead of four months of interesting, challenging movies, we're reduced to one.
"The Social Network"
An unnecessary trend, as long as I'm venting my spleen, was five movies set in Boston, complete with the requisite overplayed accents. As a guy with both Chicago and San Francisco connections, I'm mystified why those fascinating cities are ignored or used as generic background while Boston was overexposed in the blue-collar tints of The Town, Conviction, The Fighter and The Company Men. At least The Social Network, which began in the cosseted world of Harvard, had the good sense to jump to Silicon Valley midway through.
"Life During Wartime"
So, as has become the norm, we turned to independent filmmakers to challenge and provoke us. Of course, eliciting uncomfortable reactions is not the path to box-office success. If Cyrus and Life During Wartime vanished from theaters before you caught up with them, or if you missed the tough-minded Winter's Bone, by all means seek them out. You're just in time, however, for the year's other top indie, Blue Valentine, opening Jan. 7 in the Bay Area (exactly a year after its Sundance premiere).
"The Killer Inside Me"
British directors, frankly, provided the most fascinating contradiction of 2010. Michael Winterbottom (the unfairly dismissed Tex-noir The Killer Inside Me and Danny Boyle (127 Hours, a far more introspective parable than The Social Network of the cost of being a technologically savvy, plugged-in loner) examined different versions of American machismo to excellent effect. But working on their home turf, the venerable Stephen Frears (Tamara Drewe) and Mike Leigh (Another Year) failed to approach their career highs.
The most successful British film of the year, The King's Speech, is an impeccably crafted crowd-pleaser that takes pains to let us know what we should feel at every moment. However, the best British film of 2010, arguably, was Anton Chekhov's The Duel, filmed in Ireland by an Israeli director (Dover Koshashvili) who was born in Soviet Georgia.
Coincidentally, two of the strongest foreign-language films of the year, Ajami and Lebanon, were made by Israeli filmmakers. Other standouts included the German pre-war mountain-climbing drama North Face, the intimate Mexican father-son portrait Alamar, Bong Joon-Ho's shocking mother-son yarn Mother, Olivier Assayas's ambitious Carlos, Claire Denis's breathlessly sensual White Material and the gorgeous and mysterious Iranian fable The White Meadows.
The surest bet at the ticket window in 2010, and for most of the last decade, was choosing a documentary -- any documentary. Now some people figure that they don't miss anything by seeing a doc on the small screen, so they skip the theatrical release and wait for the DVD. If that's you, well, you have a ton of mesmerizing nonfiction to catch up on, starting with The Tillman Story, Inside Job, A Film Unfinished, Waste Land, Joan Rivers -- A Piece of Work, Last Train Home and Gasland.
You can take your time, though. For after you trek to the best of the year-end films -- Black Swan, The Fighter, the deliciously acted True Grit -- Hollywood will make no claim on your attention until next fall.