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In this pivotal year, documentaries had the most movie mystery

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / December 26, 2010

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How is a critic to interpret a year in film that just didn’t send him? Are the movies to blame or is he? For the first time in recent memory, I had to wrack my brain to come up with an annual Top 10 list. There were films I liked and even loved, but precious few that stood above the fray and seemed built to last longer than the long tail of their release patterns.

I think we — movies and the society they reflect — are in a period of profound transition. The blockbuster film is hardly a thing of the past, but it’s metastasizing into something that, within a decade, may not resemble a movie at all. Which is to say that the defining film of 2010 may turn out to have been the one released at the end of 2009: James Cameron’s “Avatar,’’ a looking-glass world of 3-D IMAX ravishment and narrative banality.

It felt as though popular culture took a long, deep breath after that film came out, and then, in late October, Cameron announced two sequels, the first due in 2014. Where Cameron goes, Hollywood will follow, and our children’s children will not watch movies but wade into a hi-def sensurround experience that should probably be called something else. Feelies, perhaps. At that point, the cinema as we have known it for over a century will have disappeared into the past. Like vaudeville music or network TV, it will become the province of historians, nostalgists, and other people wary or weary of the Brand New Thing.

On the other hand and in the other direction, the captured image is splintering into the endless Argus eyes of social media and “reality’’ feeds: YouTube videos, cellphone movies, viral fads skipping from tweet to tweet. “Catfish’’ was a documentary not so much filmed as posted, Googled, GPSed, and texted. It’s a world where Antoine Dodson is a star; if you don’t know who he is, ask your kids. Does that devalue “real’’ stars like Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp? Hard to argue otherwise when “The Tourist’’ falls off a cliff its opening weekend.

So the future is almost here, and they’re still working out the kinks: If 2010 was notable for anything, it may have been the wave of blockbusters crippled by post-production 3-D. Films like “The Last Airbender’’ and “Clash of the Titans’’ were dreadful experiences made worse by murky, cut-rate “dimensionality.’’ And guess what? You paid extra for it!

Old-school movies — the sort of dramas, romances, and comedies we’ve been feeding on for decades — felt uninspired, yet there were a handful of fleet new contenders that partook of the pace and discontents of a new generation of audiences and filmmakers. Christopher Nolan’s “Inception’’ was an ingenious movie not much deeper than the M.C. Escher poster it at times seems sprung from, but it caught the zeitgeist and got a lot of younger viewers marveling once again at the possibilities of long-form 2-D storytelling.

“Inception’’ may be best read — and quite richly, at that — as a metaphor for the impossible mission of filmmaking itself, with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb the tormented director, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur the unsung producer, Ellen Page’s Ariadne the set designer, and Cillian Murphy’s Fischer both featured actor and location (I guess that makes Marion Cotillard’s Mal the critic). As such, the movie reveals the limits of brilliant young directors who know everything about cinema and not quite enough about life.

Life is uncertainty, indeterminacy, and Hollywood movies have always been averse to that. Now more than ever: Coming attractions boil entire films down to three-minute mini-movies, predigesting our food so we don’t have to eat it. First-weekend box office can be divined by examining the Twitter-storm. But some of us still feel the thrill of sitting down in a theater and realizing within minutes that we don’t know where a film is going to take us — what emotions or laughter it may evoke, what grace notes of behavior it may reveal. Mystery is anathema to a culture predicated on never, ever sitting still (virtually speaking, at least), but that is why it is more necessary than ever. What we don’t know always tells us more than what we do.

Increasingly, this critic is finding the mystery — great stories, unpredictable characters — in documentaries rather than fictional films. I’m not talking about agitpop civics lessons like “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ’’ or “Inside Job,’’ worthy films that prompt arguments and, hopefully, effect change. Instead, it was small movies about the kind of people Hollywood doesn’t want us to think about (because they’re difficult to package and harder to sell) that sustained me in 2010. The sparring Texans of “Boxing Gym’’ and the vanishing cowboys of “Sweetgrass.’’ The lightly fictionalized Iranian rockers of “No One Knows About Persian Cats’’ and, in “The Tillman Story,’’ an American son named Pat Tillman who, even in death, refuses to be labeled — who insists on the mystery of self.

While there are narrative entertainments on my Top 10 and runners-up lists, it was these and other documentaries that most surprised me, engaged me, and moved me the way movies are supposed to. Possibly they’re a vanishing species. Maybe they’re the start of something new. Ask me again next year.

The best of 2010 1. EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP In a year of slippery cinema (is that really Mark Zuckerberg? what dream-level of “Inception’’ are we on? where’s the rest of Harry Potter?), a trickster named Banksy delivered the most insanely entertaining switcheroo of all. A documentary by an idiot about an art scene that ends up being a documentary by an artist about the idiot (trust me, it makes sense when you see it), “Gift Shop’’ both celebrates the raw urge to create and mocks the hype machine that turns creativity into marketable cultural “events.’’ A few critics have indignantly insisted the movie’s a hoax, and even if they’re right (which I doubt), they’re both missing and proving the point — that art becomes a commodity and a con the moment the spray-paint is dry. In any event, what Banksy is up to here is far more sophisticated, not to mention funnier, than the year’s other suspect doc, “Catfish.’’ Titled with dry precision, “Exit Through the Gift Shop’’ is a Rubik’s Cube of graffiti history, social commentary, and blistering wit that its maker keeps twisting until we and he all cry Uncle.

2. THE SOCIAL NETWORK On the simplest level, the filmmakers are to be congratulated for taking the curse of modern cinema — scenes of people typing at computers — and filming them like action sequences for the brain. On the next level, good lord, it’s nice to see old-fashioned movie craft back in the game: the grinning swordplay of Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue, the burnished intelligence of David Fincher’s shot language, a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that gooses everything forward like a viral shot of Four Loko. Oh, and there’s the acting, including Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as the soulless, motormouthed quiz kid hero. No, this may not be how Facebook “really happened,’’ and there are genuine discussions to be had about the way pop culture bends history into finer, falser shape. But this movie — as glib and as trenchant as that Orson Welles classic about another sudden media tycoon — carries an unyielding moral sting in its portrait of a world where everyone is “friends’’ with everyone else and no one actually connects.

3. THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT

Some people couldn’t get past the cultural issues this movie raises but isn’t all that interested in addressing. Surprise: Lesbian couples drive their teenage children bonkers just like straight parents do. Instead, the great, warm joke of Lisa Cholodenko’s comedy of LA bourgeois manners is that the characters behave and misbehave like human beings rather than talking points. Would Julianne Moore’s character really get it on with her kids’ sperm-donor daddy (Mark Ruffalo, playing a mellow fellow who has wandered into a minefield)? Well, people have followed their bliss and anxieties into stranger places. “Kids’’ is a remarkable balancing act — a light and lusty social farce about the profound failure of the progressive upper middle classes to live up to their own ideals and/or not become their parents. Cholodenko nails the self-deluding language of organica-veggie LA and extends forgiveness to every one of her laid-back, freaked-out strivers. The kids (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) are all right, but Annette Bening is astounding as a hipster mom with control issues and a bottomless glass of Merlot.

4. TOY STORY 3 and 5. MARWENCOL Two films about the secret lives of dolls — about all we breathe into them and everything they give back. “TS3’’ is, of course, a rounding off of an intensely-loved generational saga that began in 1995, when its audience was still in pull-ups, and that ends, 15 years later, as they’re navigating college and preparing for the wider world. In it, Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), and the gang contemplate nothing less than the Void itself. Does a toy cease to exist when it’s destroyed — or when it’s simply no longer played with? What’s the best way to say farewell? There were laughs and plenty of them, but animated family comedies don’t come more emotionally resonant.

Documentaries, by contrast, rarely get as eerily personal as “Marwencol,’’ Jeff Malmberg’s film about a Kingston, N.Y., man who recovered from a brutal beating and a coma by building a miniature World War II village in his backyard, complete with doll versions of his friends and family and a rich narrative of sacrifice and healing. Mark Hogancamp could be Andy from “Toy Story’’ grown into a sweet-souled lost boy, and his make-believe town is both a therapeutic response to the waking world and a better version of it. “Toy Story 3’’ is about what toys do when we’re out of the room. “Marwencol’’ is about what toys do when we can’t get them out of our heads.

6. BOXING GYM and 7. THE FIGHTER Another felicitous pairing: Two movies in which the “sweet science’’ defines who a person is and how far he’s willing to go. “Boxing Gym,’’ the legendary Frederick Wiseman’s 39th documentary in 43 years, scrubs the sport down to its most elemental moves and beats. Filmed over several months at Lord’s Gym, in Austin, Texas, it focuses on the regular folks who train there — men and women, old and young — and celebrates individuality in the unique rhythms of each person’s sparring and footwork. Boxing is dance to Wiseman, an expression of one’s innermost being, and “Boxing Gym’’ is an ordinary masterpiece that every so often opens onto the cosmic.

“The Fighter,’’ too, is about private endeavor in a public arena, specifically asking how a boxer named Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) can become his own man rather than the fighter imagined by his mother (Melissa Leo) and brother (Christian Bale). The most radical aspect of David O. Russell’s galvanizing boxing biopic is that it goes against a century of accumulated Hollywood wisdom to insist your family can be your worst enemy — and that you eventually have to strike a truce with that enemy before you can move on. One movie embraces a seedy, prostrate, defiant Lowell, while the other movie rarely leaves the gym, but both understand that what happens in the ring is never as important as the battles that get you there.

8. A FILM UNFINISHED The year’s most crucial history lesson — a crash course in the way movies can lie to us. In 1942, the Nazis sent a camera crew to the Warsaw Ghetto ostensibly to document the lives of the Jews living there. The film was never finished or released, but Israeli filmmaker Yael Hersonski patiently peels back the layers of surviving footage and outtakes to show how the Germans staged sequences set at fake banquets and in nonexistent nightclubs while simultaneously capturing the reality of corpses in the street. The intended message: Look how well the Warsaw Jews live, and look how horribly they treat their own. Hersonski has given us a gift — an essential dissection of propaganda as it occurs on the fly — but then she goes further and reclaims the footage as memory in the eyes of aging Ghetto survivors who watch the old film and gasp as they glimpse people they knew and loved. The movie’s a flower pulled from a boneyard — and if it’s the only revenge possible at this point, it’s no less satisfying for that.

9. LAST TRAIN HOME In which we are invited to consider China’s economic miracle not as a mass movement involving more than a billion people but a human tragedy involving four. Every Chinese New Year, garment workers Zhang Changhua and his wife travel 1,300 miles from Guangzhou to their farming village to visit the two teenage children they barely know. Filmmaker Fan Lixin captures the macro of their journey — with 130 million workers making the annual trek, it’s the planet’s largest human migration — and the heartbreaking micro of their domestic dissolution. The film’s secret star is the couple’s daughter, Qin, who acts out a rebellion that looks unexpectedly Western and who makes her own journey toward either freedom or free fall. “Look at me,’’ the girl begs Fan’s camera at one point, and that cry for individuality pierces the lens straight to a viewer’s heart. What happens when you replace the notion of family with the drive to profit? China is on its way to finding out.

10. TRUE GRIT Here’s the deal: Temporarily forget the 1969 version starring John Wayne ever existed. (Not too difficult to do; it’s an immensely fun movie but hardly a great one.) Now find a copy of Charles Portis’s dry, deep 1968 novel; you can get it at the library and it’ll take you all of two days to read. The book’s intense love of language — the way the frontier characters cling to the formalities of speech as shaky proof they’re still civilized — is what drew Joel and Ethan Coen to the project, dovetailing as it does with the brothers’ long-established love of double talk. The resulting film is a beauty and a pleasure, stately toward its time and place yet respectfully wry about its people: Hailee Steinfeld as the self-possessed young Mattie Ross, Jeff Bridges as a Rooster Cogburn plonked down between the Dude and the Duke, Matt Damon as a bluffly naive Texas Ranger. It also understands, as do the characters, that violence and death are never not close at hand, no matter how fine people talk. Yes, “True Grit’’ is a picaresque, but at this point in their career the Coens’ mastery of their craft (and Carter Burwell’s achingly fine hymn-based score) provide it with majesty and depth.

RUNNERS-UP: “127 Hours,’’ “9500 Liberty,’’ “Ajami,’’ “Blue Valentine’’ (opens in Boston Jan. 7), “Carlos,’’ “The Ghost Writer,’’ “Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno,’’ “I Am Love,’’ “Inception,’’ “Machete,’’ “Metropolis,’’ “Mother,’’ “No One Knows About Persian Cats,’’ “The Oath,’’ “Please Give,’’ “Rabbit Hole,’’ “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,’’ “Sweetgrass,’’ “Tibet in Song,’’ “The Tillman Story,’’ “Winter’s Bone.’’

The worst of 2010 FURRY VENGEANCE: A bizarre anti-development message wrapped in unwatchable Funny Animal special effects, this “family comedy’’ seems expressly designed to torment star Brendan Fraser. And us.

THE LAST AIRBENDER: That sound you hear is M. Night Shyamalan’s career gurgling down the toilet.

THE NUTCRACKER IN 3D: A $90 million cup of poisoned eggnog. What in Tchaikovsky’s name prompted director Andrei Konchalovsky to make a “Nutcracker’’ movie by throwing out the dance, giving the music cringe-inducing lyrics, and tossing in a Holocaust theme?

SEX AND THE CITY 2: A blinding hangover to an era of pampered girly-girl excess. Carrie and her pals travel to Abu Dhabi and turn into ugly American ninnies. Pssst, Abu Dhabi — you can keep them.

THE VIRGINITY HIT: The bastard spawn of social media and “Porky’s,’’ this hateful teen sex farce said it’s OK to videotape your friends hooking up and then post it on the Web. Actual events in 2010 suggested otherwise.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

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