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06 January, 2011

My Personal Top Ten List


by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

As a media junkie (guilty as charged), I cannot help but be inundated this time of the year with all manner of critics pontificating on their "top ten" favorites of the year in the worlds of film, theater, music, art, fashion, politics, etc. While in the past, anxious readers waited with breath that is baited for what the New York Times writers and other major critics singled out as the year's best cultural attractions, the internet has created a democratization that defiantly says that what I say matters as much as the next person. However, as someone who works within the film industry, attends as many as 30 film festivals a year and also tries to mine the worlds of independent and international cinema on a daily basis, I am as qualified as anyone to make up my own personal Top Ten In Film list (to which you can violently agree or disagree in stately or snarky comments). So, not necessarily in ranking order, except for my Number One Choice, here goes........

SANDY MANDELBERGER'S TOP TEN

1. THE SOCIAL NETWORK.
It may have boasted a few too many Hollywood contrivances but no other film of the past year so accurately captured the dual embrace of new technology and the loneliness that all that connectnedness can bring. A smart script by Aaron Sorkin, a devious directorial plan by David Fincher and the exquisitely squirmy acting stylings of Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Timberlake as overachievers with little or no moral grounding made this not only a guilty pleasure but also a significant zeitgeist moment. Where will all this "social networking" lead us.....to a new enlightenment or to a dark hole of loneliness and despair is the film's overwhelming question. In years to come, analysts many understand their own culture by what they uncover here. With the real life Mark Zuckerberg being dubbed as Time Magazine's "Man of the Year", this is, simply and definitively, the movie of the year.

2. CARLOS. Many times international co-productions are mainly about financial couplings but in the case of this globetrotting thriller of 1970s terrorism, the jumble of languages, cultures and geographic locations is truly stunning.....a reminder of how much our planet has shrunk. Edgar Ramirez gives the year's most riveting performance as a committed idealogue who does not hesitate to grab what he wants for the causes he defends. The director Olivier Assayas takes his audiences on an international tour of the underbelly of institutional and governmental authority, while commenting on the callous nature of those who commit their violent crimes in the name of the people. The film is a primer to investigate the explosion of violence in our own times and our hallowed institutions' helplessness in satisfying the needs of individuals and nations in equal measure.

3. MOTHER AND CHILD. The multi-layered, multi-character drama that peaked when the film CRASH was an upset Oscar victor a few years ago finds a true resonance and raison d'etre in this stunningly sensitive and damnedly painful film. Annette Bening, who may very well finally win the Oscar for her bitter pill of a performance in the infinitely more breezy THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, should be recognized for her stunning work in this film as a mother who still agonizes over her decision to give up her child for adoption. Paralleling the malaise of the central performance is a corporate go-getter with her own well of pain in another great turn by the perpetually underrated Naomi Watts. This is sensitive indie filmmaking of the highest order. Unfortunately, this profound and moving film on the theme of mothers and daughters could not find a large audience and will therefore most probably not be recognized during this highfallutin' awards season. But this is a film that I predict will grow in stature in future years as a beautiful example of screen acting and the power of cinema to create emotional echoes that move and touch us to the core.

4. EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP. The hands down winner of the most outrageous film of the year is this hilarious mockumentary on artworld pretension and celebrity. Directed by the graffiti artist Banksy as a kind of Warholian spoof, the film seems to be about one thing (the rise of the Los Angeles art wunderkind Mr. Brainwash) but is really about Banksy's own ambivalence about his success as a millionaire street artist. In the end, the whole thing is a clever hoax and a prank of genius which has spurred more "what was it really about?" comment than any other film this season. One thing is sure, do not underestimate the wry talents of this artist and social provocateur....

5. PLEASE GIVE. Add to the great director/actor teams the on-going relationship between director Nicole Holofcener and her alter ego, the actress Catherine Keener. This hilarious yet rather hateful film about greed and indifference in an age of affluence perfectly captures a particular kind of Manhattan dual-edged sword sensibility that is both liberal in its leanings and conservative in its action. As the couple who waits for an elderly neighbor to die so that they can break through the wall to engorge the empty apartment, Keener and Oliver Platt mine the depths of urban neuroses, consumerist longing and liberal guilt in the funniest and most acerbic pairing of the year. If you want to know what New York life, in all its complexity and absurdity, was like in 2010, look no further than here.

6. CAIRO TIME. Wistfulness is a difficult emotion to portray but this sensitive and perceptive film finds a visual expression of that longing in the face of one of our most emotive actresses, the brilliant and brittle Patricia Clarkson. As a diplomat's wife who visits the exotic city of Cairo while she waits for her United Nations husband to join her, Clarkson gives a from-the-inside-out performance that is akin to silent screen acting. Her alabaster face is both rigid and expressive, and the mere arch of her eyebrow or the pouting of her lower lip describes more than a page of dialogue ever could. Alexander Siddig matches her intensity as a local man who takes her under his wing, expressing both an attraction and a disdain for the Westerner in his midst. This is a film of a kind of moral courage that is rare and to be coveted for its near-silent expressiveness. I hope more people find this beautiful gem of a movie.

7. JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK. OK, I will confess, I have been a devoted Joan Rivers fan for as long as I can remember. From her early self-depricating humor to her current tendency to deflate our moral and political pretensions, the comedienne is a true envelope-pusher and comedic icon. However, in this not-always-flattering portrait, the inner restlessness and emotional chaos that fuels the comedic talent is revealed in astonishing and disturbing fashion. It is perhaps a cliche to say that comedy is the outward expression of pain, but this is evidenced again and again as Rivers struggles to keep relevant as time relentlessly marches on and newer faces come to the fore. Not at all a puff piece, this may be the most confessional and accurate portrait of the dark side of show business that has ever been captured on film. The fact that this celebrated documentary has not made the final cut for the Best Documentary Oscar is one of the scandals of the film season.

8. I AM LOVE. This ravishing film, which seems to have been forgotten in the current awards season despite its great critical and box office success this summer, is a reminder of the lush dreamworld that cinema alone can create. Tilda Swinton, in a remarkably transformative performance, is both alluring and despairing as the matriarch of an aristocratic Milanese family whose neglect by her husband and children lead her to an illicit amour fou. Drawing on the best traditions of such filmmakers as Luchino Visconti and Bernardo Bertolucci, the film is a sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears, with a delicacy and delibirateness to it that made for a swooning experience of a night at the movies. Why this film is being forgotten so quickly is a true mystery, but perhaps its exotic nature and its obvious connection to classic European cinema has been more hindrance than help.

9. A PROPHET. As a longtime lover of prison melodramas, this hard-boiled tale of an Arab man who must become a hardboiled murderer in a French prison was exactly my cup of mint tea. Tahar Rahim as the youth who grows up in a hurry and Niels Arestrup as the Mafioso kingpin who demands complete loyalty are astonishing in their portrayals.....a nod to the celebrated gangsters of the Warner Brothers films of the 1930s and amazingly original in their own brutal identities. This is a film that veers from formula and sensationalism (although the violence quotient is certainly visceral) and comments on the social order both inside and outside the brutal prison system. Life is a jungle, both behind and outside the bars, and the only integrity left to someone is their own moral courage. This film is literally a stunner and proclaims a promising career for its French writer/director Jacques Audiard. While this film opened in Europe last year, it only came to these shores in 2010, and certainly qualifies as one of the most satisfying and terrifying cinema showcases of the year.

10. WINTER'S BONE. As an example of what riches can be derived from a seemingly unpromising story and setting, this astonishing feature debut by Debra Granik captures the harsh beauty of the impoverished communities of the Ozark Mountains with the intensity of Greek mythology. The gods are not smiling as these human beings squirm in the bloody, nightmarish hell that they have created for themselves. As a microcosm of a society that is falling apart through moral indifference and the dissolution of familial and institutional bonds, the film offers a chilling portrait of a divided nation as well as a silent scream for sanity. The performances by Jennifer Lawrence as the seeming innocent in search of her father, John Hawkes as her meth-fueled uncle and Dale Dickey as a harrowing missing-teeth matriarch makes up the best ensemble cast of unknowns this season. This is a film that continues to haunt me........

If I was to expand the list to 20 titles, the following would have made the cut: INCEPTION, THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, THE FIGHTER, THE TOWN, THE GHOST WRITER, LEBANON, ANIMAL KINGDOM, BLUE VALENTINE, BLACK SWAN, 127 HOURS, VINCERE, INSIDE JOB, THE KING'S SPEECH and JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT: THE RADIANT CHILD. Truth be told, I have yet to see TRUE GRIT, WHITE MATERIAL, ANOTHER YEAR and THE TEMPEST, but I stand by my choices. What do you think????

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