Links: ranked Letterboxd list, Intro, Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.
in order of preference:
Easy A (Will Gluck)
One of the best teen comedies in recent memory, Easy A strikes a delicate balance between high school histrionics, where literally everything is the end of the world, and glimpses of life beyond the teenage years. Better yet, it manages this without any last-minute saccharine moralizing. The film's emphasis on adult relationships quietly forms the backbone to this mile-a-minute sex comedy and provides most of Easy A's pleasures. Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as Olive's parents and Thomas Haden Church and Lisa Kudrow as the high school faculty turn out surprisingly nuanced performances that provide a nice counterpoint to the supercharged relationships of the teenagers. In this respect, the film often plays like a film about adults masquerading as a teen comedy; a film that reflects on high school through the sobering lens of marriage, good and bad. What's more impressive is how director Will Gluck (whose other work I haven't seen) executes a comedy entirely about sex without actually showing any.
Ray's Birds (Deborah Stratman)
Stratman's 2009 work, O'er the Land (which is the only other Stratman I've seen) is among the most poetic and startling cinematic works of the past decade. Her approach to documentary echoes both a 1970s verite work combined with an 80s essay film. The same qualities are apparent in Ray's Birds on a tinier scale. Clocking in at just under seven minutes this evocative slice of life is a masterclass in brevity. The short alludes to a dynamic world through tantalizing glimpses of a single (and singular) location, building any understanding through a dialectic between image and sound. Taking a fly on the wall approach Birds ruminates on a man and his vast aviary of birds of prey who gives demonstrations to a small audience. Complete in its incompleteness it avoids portraying the subject as his occupation, or even of the site of the bird demonstrations as some kind of microcosm. It's at once a lyrical impression of a person, birds, labor, space, but it also avoids total abstraction. There is almost a character study here, but the subject is a holistic one; it's everything that makes up this place.
Repo Men (Miguel Sapochnik)
Call it a casualty of bad timing, Repo Men premiered in the nether period of early spring when studios dump all of their weird shit that can't be marketed during the blockbuster summer or award season autumn. The sole feature outing of now-veteran television director Miguel Sapochnik (True Detective, Game of Thrones, House M.D.), Repo Men is remembered (if at all) as one of the worst American films of 2010, a distinction that I find perplexing given how confident this science fiction thriller is directed, particularly its gruesome action choreography. At first it seems a bit derivative of other high profile films (Blade Runner, Resident Evil, Total Recall), a point noted by its detractors, but Sapochnik utilizes these cinematic references smartly to establish his dystopian world on the fly, eschewing stuttering exposition in favor of constant movement. Not to mention the film has enough character to make the visual references seem merely cosmetic. As a genre film it moves through familiar tropes with a rare sense of grace, allowing the slow burn of character development to make well-worn tropes feel organic, which becomes the saving grace for the rather cliche ending. The film also has that rare distinction of being an on-the-nose critique of corporate greed that is first and foremost a frenetic action film. But I like to think the reason this bombed was because critics and viewers weren't ready for such a direct attack on corporate America; none of that passive reference to bailouts and the 1%, but horrific depictions of corporate suits being bludgeoned to death with hammers in a pre-Bolshevik uprising. But that's just me.
Don't count this out 'cause its near the bottom of this list. Long after Repo Men and Ray's Birds fades from memory, this might be the one that lives on. The porn parody has long been a staple of the adult film industry, but wunderkind Axel Braun has made the genre a cause célèbre with his own studio dedicated to super hero porn parodies. Batman XXX, which was among his first, is damn near perfect. While it lacks the total vision of the work of golden age porn directors like Radley Metzger, it's style and attention to detail elevates it above the hackneyed and superficial attempts of contemporary porn directors to make more sophisticated titles. Played out like a serialized episode of the Adam West series, Batman XXX has just enough plot to get its characters naked and alone, but it's the stylization that drives the film. Where it stumbles as a feature are the handling of its sex scenes. For whatever reason they play as a mishmash of styles: some are perfect extensions of the thematic vibes of the piece, while many of the longer ones feel like forced obligations. The strongest are the scenes with the villains (the Riddler and the Joker), who are both better realized by their performers and carry a kind of sexual mania present in the source material into more literal manifestations (particularly the Riddler), where as the star sequence of Robin and Batgirl (James Deen and Lexi Belle) is rote and boring. In the end it feels like a series of missed opportunities; even the combination of single-take gonzo performances gels pretty well with the studio camp, but the film only works in those sequences when everyone is on board for a zany sex-crazed romp. The seriousness of the more standard straight porn tropes are rather dull (honestly this could have done with more kink and queerness, a Batman porn parody without Batman fucking Robin or Catwoman bondage seems like a waste).
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)
The greatest compliment that I can give Black Swan is that I didn't hate it. Aronofsky is one of the few filmmakers whose success and following completely baffle me (along with Iñárritu, von Trier, and Gaspar Noé) everything they produce feels like a stunt; an art house put-on that mistakes conservative depictions of sexual pleasure as some how transcendent. While Black Swan is nowhere near the old testament condemnations of humanity that previous Aronofsky morality plays are, it's still primarily a film about the ontological horror of finger blasting. It gets points for displaying a sense of subtlety and restraint, something Aronofsky seems allergic to, in the meticulous depiction of Nina's perspective on a decent into madness (not to mention Portman's performance is incredible). The vagaries in the peripheral vision and the tricks on the edge of the frame are perhaps Aronofsky's most sophisticated filmmaking to date, but by the second half the trademark bombast comes roaring in and Black Swan ends like just another pretentious, self-serious art film about paper thin ideas and insufferably literal representations. It's this later part that really sabotages the work, as the film as a whole is confused as to whether or not it's supposed to be expressionism or realism and the mashing together of the two produces some pretty muddy images.