'I Am Love,' 'Secret Sunshine' among year's treats

For critics, 2010′s best films revel in the details

Judging by the end-of-year critics’ polls, one of 2010′s best films isn’t a film at all but rather the 330-minute miniseries “Carlos.” To see the long version on the bigscreen, you had to attend Cannes or catch a handful of special screenings, which gave the project — a sprawling, career-spanning examination of celebrity terrorist Carlos the Jackal — the note of prestige it needed to wow my peers.

When it came time to make their top-10 lists, 36 of the critics queried in the Village Voice’s annual poll included “Carlos” (it came in second to “The Social Network”). The IndieWire survey and Los Angeles Film Critics’ awards concurred, while the ever-esoteric Film Comment crew ranked “Carlos” above David Fincher’s Facebook movie.

Steering by critical consensus, like running with scissors, can have a dangerous effect on your eyes. I found director Olivier Assayas’ achievement more impressive than impactful, and had I realized that made-for-TV Canal Plus productions were eligible for film awards (AMPAS begs to differ, while the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. chose to nominate “Carlos” strictly for television prizes), I might have cast my L.A. Film Critics ballot for “Maison Close” — a bawdy, bordello-set melodrama unfolding in Paris at roughly the same period that HBO’s “Deadwood” takes place in the West.

But perhaps my peers have a point. The line that once separated big- and smallscreen productions has blurred. With the rise of video-on-demand and advances in homevideo technology, 2010 made it increasingly difficult to distinguish between the two.

Studying that same Village Voice poll, I was surprised to see a tie between “The King’s Speech,” a perfectly agreeable slice of “monarchs are just like us” pie directed by Emmy-winning helmer Tom Hooper, and “The Red Riding Trilogy,” a landmark, decade-spanning indictment of police corruption built around the Yorkshire Ripper case. Though “Red Riding” was commissioned as a series of three, 90-minute features by Channel 4 in the U.K., the latter two installments (directed by “Man on Wire’s” James Marsh and “Hilary and Jackie” vet Anand Tucker, respectively) were both lensed in a cinematic 2.35:1 scope (as was “Carlos”), while “The King’s Speech” is ready to fit your HD set at 1.85:1.

These days, if you buy the right equipment, you can watch “Avatar” in 3D from the comfort of your living room, while the only way for most audiences to see the two bigscreen endeavors that impressed me most this year — Luca Guadagnino’s sensory-overload swooner “I Am Love” (from Magnolia) and Lee Chang-dong’s soul-searching Korean drama “Secret Sunshine” (picked up more than three years after its Cannes debut by IFC) — was via VOD.

Between their inherent beauty and the esoteric nature of their subjects, such films lose something in the reduction to a TV screen. Where others gladly forgo the headache of dealing with baby-sitters and overpriced tickets, I find movie theaters to be the lone sanctuary where I can give a film my undivided attention, opening myself up to wherever that may take me. My most profound moviegoing experiences are virtually impossible to re-create at home, where dirty dishes beckon to be washed or e-mail yearns to be checked, leaving me to multitask instead of engaging fully with a film.

At the same time traditional theatergoing seems to be under fire, TV programming has evolved to become more cinematic. The past eight seasons of “24″ were as exciting as any blockbuster I’ve seen in the past few years, while 2010′s most satisfying bigscreen actioner, “Date Night,” paired sitcom stars Steve Carell and Tina Fey under the direction of TV vet Shawn Levy.

On the dramatic front, “Mad Men,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Walking Dead” raised the bar on serialized storytelling. With multiple episodes able to more completely explore central characters and arcs, these shows have become less plot-driven than studio features, encouraging a level of introspection generally untapped in television before “The Sopranos,” while luring the likes of Martin Scorsese and Frank Darabont to direct.

Such cross-pollination is nothing new, of course, with talent and innovation moving back and forth between film and TV since the ’50s. John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet and Blake Edwards all got their start on the tube. Even screenwriting giant Paddy Chayefsky, whose punchy style clearly influenced “The Social Network” scribe Aaron Sorkin, did most of his work for TV, earning his first Oscar by adapting his “Marty” teleplay for the bigscreen.

Under Fincher’s direction, Sorkin’s dense, dialogue-heavy “The Social Network” escapes the TV-savvy scribe’s infamous walking-and-talking style and takes on a heft larger than the dorm rooms and legal meetings that contain it. With any luck, Fincher will bring real cinematic scope to “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” a story given routine procedural treatment in the Scandinavian version by — you guessed it — a TV vet, Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev.

To see directors really engaging with the potential of the bigscreen in 2010, one had to excuse excess (“Inception” comes to mind) and, to a certain degree, failure — as in the wildly innovative yet disappointingly hollow “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” or Gaspar Noe’s subjective head trip, “Enter the Void” (seen through the eyes of a dead drug dealer wedged between the underworld and the afterlife).

But films needn’t be spectacular to justify their bigscreen status. Although Variety’s Rob Nelson dismissed “The Kids Are All Right” as “an ingratiating, sitcom-style entertainment,” I loved the way Lisa Cholodenko’s hyper-observant, character-based comedy (co-written with Stuart Blumberg) made a statement — that same-sex parents can raise well-adjusted kids — while delivering the kind of warm, relatable comedy we want from the movies.

I was similarly encouraged by such fresh voices as “Tiny Furniture’s” Lena Dunham, who quickly landed work with HBO, and Derek Cianfrance, whose NC-17-dodging “Blue Valentine” tackles mature themes entirely foreign to the Cinemax set.

This time of year, as critics and industryites alike are deluged with DVD screeners, I can’t help but wonder how many of these films carry the same impact when viewed on TV (the full version of “Carlos” aired on the Sundance Channel in October, for instance). Of course, such pics lose far more when lost in limbo without distribution, leaving today’s film fans to reflect: Better the smallscreen than no screen at all.

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