Top 5 Films of 2010 (Chinese Bootleg Edition)
For the better part of a year, I've been living and working in Shanghai. Though only 20 Hollywood blockbusters make it past the censors and into Chinese theaters each year, these are more than adequately supplemented by the myriad bootleg DVD shops scattered throughout the city. With prices set at about a buck a piece, it's easy to stock an armageddon-worthy library, and even easier to waste night after night with mini-marathons. So, in that spirit, here are my Top 3 Bootleg Double-Features from 2010.
Salt / Unstoppable
Hour-for-hour I've probably watched more series television than films this year, and while I'm thrilled to have so many great multi-season serialized, novelistic series to dig through* sometimes I just need a simple, near-plotless Action-Packed-Thrill-Ride to kill a couple hours, and these two were the best I found this year. Salt was by far the more complex of the two, with multiple-double-crosses, shifting alliances, and miscellaneous Spy Intrigue, but ultimately none of that mattered: great action set pieces, stylish cinematography and decently-believable dialogue were more than enough to hold it together for the running time, and the film was satisfying even if you never really cared to answer the tagline "Who Is Salt?"
Unstoppable was a great action flick with a two-word plot. The film makes very few demands of the audience, but delivers a huge return on that small investment. The pacing of the film is perfectly synced with the speed of the train, building slowly but inevitably to the (somewhat inevitably disappointing) climax (When SPOILER ALERT they stop the train. By turning it off.) Great fun.
*lets see, covering the Sopranos, finally, Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles, catching up with Mad Men, following Treme and Boardwalk Empire as they aired (or several days later), and currently about halfway through Deadwood --- all recommended.
Chloe / Easy A
These are two I imagine Bizarro Lindsay Lohan could have easily starred in both were pleasant surprises with great performances from their young female stars. Chloe centers on an adorably-creepy performance from Amanda Seyfried who - while maybe not entirely convincing as a prostitute - nails the seduction and stalking of Julianne Moore and (briefly) Liam Neeson with her best Lolita in this (semi-)erotic, psychological thriller. Where the film really shines, though, is in the examination of Moore and Neeson's disintegrating marriage, the deep loneliness you feel from each of their characters; Chloe as a representation of long-suppressed hopes and desires.
Easy A was a pleasant surprise, probably the best high school comedy since Mean Girls, and a great showcase for That Girl From Zombieland (Emma Stone). While the Scarlett Letter framing device was cute, the film probably could have succeeded without it, given the quality of the jokes, and great performances all around. The video-blog narration gave the film a self-awareness that never seemed obnoxious, and allowed the characters to call out the John Hughes references specifically, which was a nice, realistic touch. Plus: Quiznos guy at a protest.
Shutter Island / Inception
When the first Russian bootlegs of Inception hit Shanghai, my DVD guy ingeniously put these two side-by-side. Seen back-to-back, Shutter Island's unambiguous twist ending suggests a neat solution to Inception's convoluted plotting and ambiguity: both films are carefully disguised character studies of a man who has has lost his family and loses touch with reality in his struggle to cope without them.
Shutter Island was an adequate thriller, with a solid performances all around, an appropriately-tormented diCaprio (and luckily just-shy-of-too-many horror-flick cliches), but Inception was a triumph. Without the emotional core of diCaprio's character driving the action, I'm not sure it would have worked,* but with each action sequence clearly justified (at least in in-film dream logic) each scene seemed wholly necessary, and the cuts between different dream-levels and time-scales made for a thrilling climax unlike anything I've seen in a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster.**
*probably would have turned out like The Prestige, a fun film to unpack (especially on second-viewing after the big reveal) but not one with particularly engaging characters.
**not counting Memento or TimeCode. (remember that one?)
Inception rises to the top of my list for another reason. While I take Dom's introspective journey/mourning/grief to be the primary theme of the film, inextricably linked to this is its meditation on how we construct our own reality. The long exposition takes place in three distinct urban environments: Tokyo, Paris, and Tangiers/Mombassa: each shown in aerial shots, and each representing a unique mode of urbanism. The chaotic souks of Africa. The Beaux-Arts Boulevards of Europe. The futurist high rises of East Asia. While still ostensibly in the 途eal worldNolan presents these cities as clearly distinct, with as many differences in pacing, editing and tone as there are between the various dream levels. On a second or third viewing, this equivalence is clear, with the real-world cities falling nicely in line with the four levels of the dream world. The Paris sequence is particularly rich, as Adriane constructs and deconstructs the city in real time, in a prophetic vision of the user-generated augmented-reality video-game world of the coming century.