How Do You Know?

Every four years, the American people act en masse to send a message to the nation’s power brokers, and every four years, this vote is interpreted as a sign of the decline in taste, intelligence and moral rectitude of the populace. Every four years, a Jackass movie opens at No. 1.

I’m not too worried that the continued success of Jackass (which offered me the closest thing to pure escapist pleasure found on the job this year) is a sign we’re getting stupider. However, I do sort of wonder if the massive success of Inception is a sign we’re getting stupider. Sold—and bought—as the year’s most “intelligent” blockbuster while actually baldly insulting its audience’s intelligence (to quote Andrew O’Hehir’s review, “Every time the story gets puzzling, the characters call a timeout and explain it”), Inception both conquered the 2010 zeitgeist and helped define it. It was merely the biggest rendition of the year’s most prevalent movie theme: How do you know that what you think is real is actually, like, really real? How do you know you’re not being fucked with?

It’s a theme that manifested itself across budgetary strata and genres, popping up overtly or as subtext in everything from camcorder quasi-docs such as Catfish, Exit Through the Gift Shop and I’m Still Here to big-money entertainments such as Salt and How Do You Know. Two of my Top 10 choices, Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, directly deal with the “real real” question, and most of the other films on my list incorporate some variety of au courant skepticism, from the romantic questioning of Everyone Else (is what feels like love really love?) to Enter the Void’s vision of afterlife as “the ultimate trip” to the full-on phantasmagoria of my No. 1 film of the year.

So, counting down from 10:

10. Enter the Void
I can’t fully condone director Gaspar Noé’s trip—in my review, I called it a “mash-up of the sacred, the profane and the brain-dead,” and I stand by that. But I’ve come to appreciate its stoner stoopidness as part of its charm. And nothing else in 2010 set off my “What the fuck am I watching?” sensor quite like it.

9. The Ghost Writer
The best Hollywood thriller Hollywood didn’t make this year. Directed by Roman Polanski.

8. Shutter Island
The best Hollywood thriller Hollywood did make this year. Directed by Martin Scorsese.

7. Everyone Else
Want your Blue Valentine-like dissection of marital strife but could do without the Academy-montage mugging and wall-to-wall Grizzly Bear? Try Maren Ade’s second feature, a grueling (but gorgeous) snapshot of a young couple whose vacation idyll is slowly eroded by the insecurities brought in from outside.

6. The Red Chapel

The surprise winner of the World Cinema Documentary prize at Sundance in January, Mads Brügger’s hilarious document of his subversive journey into North Korea with two Danish-Korean comedians in tow is, like Dogtooth (see below), concerned with a closed system maintained through manipulation of reality. But Brügger and gang come armed with their own complicated series of manipulations: In The Year of Being Fucked With, the year’s best doc offered a game plan for how to fuck with Them back.

5. Somewhere
The year’s second masterful portrait of LA ennui as seen through the camera of Harris Savides (the other is Greenberg), Somewhere should be remembered as a game-changer for director Sofia Coppola, the point at which she shrugged off the crutches— music-video language and decorative design—that defined her first three films, adopting an entirely new stylistic approach while remaining true to her key concerns. Don’t think of it as a movie about the rich, famous and beautiful from the perspective of a woman who has been all three since birth; think of it as a movie about what happens when you get everything you thought you wanted, and you’re still miserable.

4. Dogtooth
Feted by Cannes in 2009 and heralded by aging tastemakers (David Byrne, John Waters) upon its summer 2010 release in New York, the second film from Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos is a matter-of-factly violent, blacker-than-black comic parable about sex, pop culture and closed societies set in a single suburban home.

3. Daddy Longlegs
Ronald Bronstein, the director of the 2007 underground opera of awkwardness Frownland, is starting to attract awards attention for his go-for-broke performance as the desperate dad of two young sons in directing brothers Josh and Benny Safdie’s manic, electric 16mm roman à clef. If only all awards-bait family dramas were as unflinching, honest and funny-horrifying as this.

2. Greenberg
Through Ben Stiller’s epic depresso Roger Greenberg, a 40-ish Bushwick refugee floundering around LA and anti-seducing the much younger, surprisingly receptive Florence (Greta Gerwig), Noah Baumbach (and soon-to-be-ex-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh) distilled a certain toxic stew of unearned snobbishness, generational entitlement and self-defeating self-obsession—familiar from “Losing My Edge,” the 2002 single by James Murphy, who composed Greenberg’s soundtrack—and gave it a name. This is Stiller’s best role of his career.

1. Trash Humpers
Influenced by surveillance and prank videos, but hardly haphazard (in fact, its non-aesthetic is the result of intricate design and careful production), Harmony Korine’s faked relic about a separatist group of drunken, garbage-can-fetishizing, self-mythologizing miscreants is the ultimate, twisted-fairy-tale allegory for our decaying times. After vacillating on a No. 1, in the end, I voted with my heart. And no, I am not fucking with you about that.

This article appeared in print as “Karina Longworth’s Top 10 Movies of 2010: How do you know that what you think is real is really real?”

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