Say what you want about the state of cinema in 2010. It’s the same deluge of sequels, remakes, and spin-offs that characterize most years prior to the late-fall Prestige Films shoved out by studios to keep fresh in the minds of Academy voters.
I think we can all agree on the worst trends of the year: 3D and “rebooting” franchises that are barely dusty (e.g. Spider-Man, the last trilogy of which started less than a decade ago).
But I’d prefer to shed some light on my favorite films of the year, two of which seemed to go entirely unnoticed by both audiences and critics.
1. Never Let Me Go directed by Mark Romanek
This is delicate territory to tread. The trailer itself gives away a chunk of what’s really Going On, but all the themes behind it are tucked away in Spoiler Territory.
I’ll try to paint this in broad strokes. Never Let Me Go is a tragic love story. That seems pretty obvious, right? But there’s a wrinkle in that fabric revealed not long into the film. It’s about the price of love, and if it’s possible that you can find some sort of True Love with someone else even when you know it can’t last for more than a few years. A done-before trope, sure, but in Never Let Me Go it’s particularly potent, given the characters have almost zero control over their own lives, and they all have a big ticking clock above their lifespans.
I wouldn’t be honest without admitting that my serious crush on Carey Mulligan led me to this movie. If any of you follow my Twitter
schizorants feed, you’ll know I’ve made the claim several times that it seems Mulligan and Michelle Williams have a monopoly on looking sad. I think Mulligan edges ahead, if only because she’s younger and to summon the sort of pain her character feels she must have to dig into some reservoir of pitch-black experiences to get there. She’s beautiful, and she’s beautifully sad. I really hate doing these sort of PSAs, but Never Let Me Go comes out on DVD on March 1, and it’d be a disservice to let it go quietly into that good night. If you live in a city with some decent theaters, you might be able to still catch it somewhere instead of waiting a month.
Correction: Amazon has Never Let Me Go available since February 1. I can only imagine this is a case where Netflix has been blocked by a distributor or, worse, Blockbuster from getting the disc to its subscribers on the day-and-date release.
2. Restrepo directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
Imagine my surprise when Restrepo was nominated for Best Documentary by the Academy. Here’s a film shot with what seems a Sony Handicam, with horrid audio and a perpetual smear on the lens.
But I guess you don’t have time to clean your camera when you’re embedded in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan, which, according to one apocryphal account, Bush saw on CNN and immediately labeled it the deadliest place on Earth.
Restrepo follows the 15-month deployment of an infantry unit to “the KOP” (Korengal Outpost) and how the rumor that they’d get shot at every day turned out to be true. It’s about the death of a friend that led a bunch of 18-, 19-, and 20-somethings to push into Taliban lands and create an outpost that served as a game-changer for the Valley.
It’s not about armchair generals talking about pie-in-the-sky plans for Afghan democracy or the Progress they think we’re making. It’s about boots on the ground, none of whom seem to ever once engage in the sort of faux patriotism in every war movie ever. To say it’s apolitical misses the mark; politics never play a part. They build the titular OP Restrepo not because they think it’ll convert the Taliban to all things good and American; they build it as a stuck-up middle finger to the guys harassing them day in, day out for over a year.
Restrepo is about those fifteen months where, yes, the unit gets in multiple firefights every day, all while trying to live like human beings: playing guitar (including a surprisingly-moving acoustic, instrumental version of “Stay Together For The Kids” by Blink-182 plucked by an enlistee); painting their plywood and Hesco outpost to make it a little homier (if a giant “SPARTA” and helmet in spraypaint counts); playing PSP; writing letters home with a drawing of the Valley (“Because it’s the only thing I know how to draw,” the raised-by-a-hippie-mom Pemble quips).
I guess Retrespo is so obviously a great war documentary because it’s genuine. The filmmakers were in the Korengal for all fifteen months, putting themselves in as much danger as the soldiers. This isn’t Dan Rather – “Gunga Dan” – posing for a photo op walking along some dusty trail with an Afghan elder during a two-day trek through safe territory. These are guys trying to sift through the fog of war and make it home at the end of their deployment (and, then, probably return). The pro-war company line of The Mission couldn’t be any farther from the day-to-day lives of these men.
3. Catfish directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Catfish is a better movie about Facebook than The Social Network. And this isn’t just because one is a documentary (there are nay-sayers but fuck ’em) and the other is much-exaggerated fiction. But The Social Network was about the embryonic days of Facebook, when the community was so insular that you needed to put yourself as truthfully as possible up online, since most of your Friends were real-life friends who’d call foul if they saw a doctored profile.
Catfish – again, without any reveals – is about today’s Facebook, which we can all agree has as much use as a dating site. And, naturally, Catfish is about someone who misrepresents themselves online under the auspices of starting a relationship.
But that’s just the start of the rabbit hole. Catfish starts with one lie and spirals into a nest of them. I don’t think I’m violating anything too secret, so here’s the iceberg tip: Brooklynite documentee Nev is online chatting with a girl from Michigan, and she gives him a few choices of a song she’s going to cover for him. Nev picks, and less than an hour later, he gets the file. It sounds like all the other recordings this girl has given him.
Nev hadn’t heard of one song before, so he Googles it. Turns out, the first YouTube result is a woman performing the exact same song the exact same way. And it’s obviously not the girl Nev is talking to.
So that starts off, among other things, the most obvious question: Why would someone do that?
You might think you know or can guess the trajectory of Catfish, but the truth isn’t just stranger than fiction. The truth behind Nev’s online crush is surreal and heartbreaking. Catfish is what you can do with Facebook, and how easy it is to disappear and become someone else entirely online. It’s about the longing to escape yourself. It’s about confronting the age-old maxim that you can always start over and realizing you can’t. It’s about claustrophobia. It’s about, in its own way, hope.
(Endnote: For this article I looked up the poster, and I recall the trailer, and try to forget that there’s the promise of some giant reveal at some point. It comes gradually, and I think it’s just a case of a distributor having no idea how to market their film.)
Thus ends my yearly assessment of films. It was a bit off the beaten path from everyone else, since most everyone last year latched onto The Hurt Locker pretty quick, myself included; I was a lot more lukewarm about The Social Network than everyone else, too. This year was a bad case of some really great stuff slipping through the cracks, especially in face of so many giant, self-proclaimed spectacles in glorious, dim-as-hell 3D. Hollywood is, in many ways, a giant shouting battle, and whoever is the loudest wins. That’s probably why I’ve only met one other person who saw Never Let Me Go. That movie is, comparably, a whisper. But what’s said in that whisper is more salient than anything else I saw this year.
And it wouldn’t be the internet without a semi-pointless little section of 2010 movies I really liked that aren’t worthy of canonizing by dint of praising them in a handful of paragraphs:
Enter The Void
Exit Through The Gift Shop
Iron Man 2