LIFE WITHOUT OSCAR: Chad’s best of 2010

Posted by · 8:56 pm · January 18th, 2011

When it came time to choose a snappy title for my year-end retrospective, the one that seemed to fit best is the one given to all my columns at In Contention this year. Oscar and I have shared a mutual disinterest in what the other feels to be award-worthy for a few years now and it doesn’t look like the trend is going to change much in 2011. For those interested, my top 20 last year garnered a whopping three nominations between them (two coming in the Best Animated Feature category).

If there was any kind of trend or narrative to my taste this year, I guess it would be the rise of documentaries. Nearly 50% of my top 20 is comprised of the medium (including a few hybrids that blur the line), compared to a single entry last year. My guess it has more to do with a growing disenchantment towards lazy screenwriting than a noticeable uptick in quality non-fiction film. Regardless, truth was truly more interesting than fiction for me in 2010.

Elsewhere, a number of high ranking films have to do with relationships and their struggles, possibly connected to the fact that breaking up with my girlfriend of four years was probably the defining event of my year, personally. Sometimes a movie hits you when and where you need to be hit.

For those who think I’m a snob, the list probably won’t disappoint. If you haven’t come across some of the titles before, hopefully you’ll look into giving them a chance. They may not move you the way they moved me, but that’s the real joy of moving outside of the Hollywood system. Once films are not being made to please as many people as possible, they stand a much better chance of pleasing YOU in a transcendent way that only movies can.

In the end, I didn’t see everything I wanted to. “Dogtooth,” “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” “The Fighter,” “True Grit,” “Somewhere” and “Another Year” will have to wait and could easily have made this list if they all weren’t released at the same time when I’m too busy and poor to go to the movies every day.

I know Guy and Kris went with honorable mentions and a top 10, but I’m pushing forward with a straight top 20.


Directed by Miguel Arteta

Teen comedies are rarely done well and this is by no means a perfect film, sometimes Arteta lets the supporting cast reach a little too far for the laughs, but the main storyline is surprisingly poignant and realistic. Michael Cera pulls off a strong double performance, simultaneously acknowledging and shaking off the criticism that he has only one schtick, while Portia Doubleday makes a case for genuine stardom as the object of his affection. The mushrooms sequence alone is worth the price of admission.


Directed by Jeff Malmberg

Recently crowned Independent Spirit Award winner for the Stranger Than Fiction award, Malmberg’s documentary certainly fits the bill. Mark Hogancamp was brutally beaten outside of a bar and suffered enough brain damage to set him back to square one in terms of learning to walk, talk, read and write. Oh yeah, he’s also constructed a second life for himself in his backyard, where he lives vicariously through World War II dolls. Incredibly interesting look at both a wounded soul and a reluctant artist finding his voice.


Directed by Michael Palmieri & Donal Mosher

Palmieri turns the camera on his own family and paints a bleak portrait of the cyclical, debilitating effects of poverty. It all loses a bit of power when you stop and think that the director got out and made something of himself, but what’s left behind is still a moving portrait of an all-too common American existence. Palmieri’s ability to really peel away the layers make it impossible to simply brand these characters “white trash,” and hint at a strong intelligence buried beneath a shockingly defeatist attitude.


Directed by Jay Duplass & Mark Duplass

There’s a lot to like here. First of all, the Duplass brothers were able to cash studio money, team up with Ridley and Tony Scott, cast movie stars and still end up with a film that bears their signature on every frame. I’m still not crazy about their shooting style and ultimately the concept of a man squaring off with his potential son-in-law is not exactly original material. But what the film does absolutely right, and what sets it apart from typical Hollywood, is that it focuses on and makes you care about the actual relationship at stake, thanks in no small part to career best work from Marisa Tomei.


Directed by David Fincher

Aaron Sorkin’s overwritten and oversimplified screenplay is the weak link in a film that frustrates and excites me in equal measure. The still above is a perfect example. When a roommate asks for an html code, who grabs a white sharpie and writes it on the window? Nobody. That’s who. That the shot appears in a bravura sequence of directing, editing and scoring makes it slightly more forgivable, but I just wish Fincher didn’t feel the need to embellish like that. At worst, the film plays like an episode of “Boston Legal,” at best it harkens back to “All the President’s Men.” Either way it’s leagues better than “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and as respectable a Best Picture choice as I’m likely to get.


Directed by Aaron Katz

Katz’s most personal film is also his most exciting. Gently mixing familial relationship drama with Sherlock Holmes-inspired mystery is a tall order for any filmmaker, but “Cold Weather” succeeds fantastically at both. A sudden left turn in genre and tone can be an annoying manipulation, but because the characters are set up so well here it simply feels like a continuation of their story, albeit one you would never have seen coming. For the budget it was made on, it has no right to boast cinematography so refined and Keegan DeWitt’s score is the best you’ll hear in any film this year.


Directed by Lixin Fan

I wonder if there were any reviews of this film that didn’t include the joke, “And you thought your commute was bad?” Fan’s documentary follows one family over several years as the parents work all year in a clothing factory, sending money home to their children being raised on a farm by their grandmother. They get to go home once a year, on Chinese New Year, and the only snag is that 200 million people are also leaving the city at the exact same time. If the logistics weren’t fascinating enough, the family dynamic slowly unfolds in heartbreaking ways, suggesting that all the parents work may be for naught.


Directed by Zach Clark

The official synopsis reads, “An existential beach party movie about life, death, sex, drugs and other shit that totally fucks you up.” Can’t accuse Clark of false advertising as he channels the spirit of Annette Funicello through John Waters to the feet-tapping rhythm of new wave pop. It’s alive in ways few films are and provides four young actresses with four great roles, Lydia Hyslop proving a mesmerizing standout.


Directed by Nicolas Philibert

Nénette is a 40 year old orangutan, living in a Parisian zoo. This 69 minute documentary features nothing but shots of her hanging out, swinging, eating and sleeping. The only audio is captured conversations of the men, women and children who stop to gape at her during the day. It’s sometimes philosophical, sometimes funny, mostly irrelevant. This concept either excites you or sounds like watching paint dry. In truth, you get the gist after five minutes, but the real joy of experimental cinema is getting the gist, sticking with it and seeing what else comes out of the experience.


Directed by Laura Poitras

Between this and “My Country My Country,” Laura Poitras is effortlessly making the most thought-provoking documentaries about the current situation in the Middle East. Initially setting out to make a film about a prisoner from Guantanamo Bay being released, she instead stumbled upon former Osama Bin Laden bodyguard and current taxi driver, Abu Jandal. An explosive screen presence, Jandal shifts the focus to himself and his views on anything and everything. As a character, he’s wildly contradictory and transforms from villain to tragic hero from scene to scene in a story that never quite goes where you expect.


Directed by Katie Aselton

A stagnant couple agree to one night of no questions asked freedom in an effort to save their relationship. If that sounds high concept and absurd, it is, but Aselton and Shepard somehow find a way to sell it with their fantastic performances. Of course, the agreement turns out to be a terrible idea and Aselton pulls no punches with her exploration of jealousy, fidelity and honesty. This one hit me in the gut at the exact right time.


Directed by Maren Ade

Maren Ade’s delicate look at the vacation of a couple who may or may not be terrible for each other would serve as a nice double feature with my number five film below. Restrained and filled with as much subtextual silence as sun-drenched skin, few films captured the essence of their locations as well. The two performances from Birgit Minichmayr and Lars Eidinger are perfectly natural and heartbreaking. One of a few films on the list you’d be advised to steer clear of on a first date.


Directed by Erik Gandini

Gandini’s look at the culture of politics and media in Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy is both the most fascinating and most WTF-inducing documentary of the year. If you ever wondered what it might be like if Rupert Murdoch became President of the United States and reality shows somehow got even more uncouth, then look no further. Gandini really only scratches the surface, but his camera captures the culture from three very different angles and each one is more grotesquely engaging than the last.


Directed by Noah Baumbach

I had all but written off Ben Stiller before he won me back in “Greenberg.” Given a character of wonderful idiosyncrasies by Noah Baumbach, and an unusual foil in Greta Gerwig, he completely inhabits Roger Greenberg. It’s an unlikeable performance, but an infinitely watchable one. Baumbach perfectly captures the culture shock between New York and Los Angeles, thanks in part to Harris Savides’ cinematography, which recalled the work of László Kovács on “Shampoo.” And then there’s the star-making performance from Gerwig, Hollywood’s unlikeliest and most talented new star.


Directed by Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman

Nev Schulman’s slow discovery of the truth surrounding his penpal may have led some viewers down a path of skepticism, but it led me on the most unforgettable and tense journey of the year in film. That it turns into one of the most unusual and poignant portraits of a lonely soul is but one twist of many in the second half and it would be a shame to give them all away. Just see it.


Directed by Derek Cianfrance

This film lives or dies by the two lead performances and they are both diamonds. Cianfrance doesn’t necessarily have anything new to say about relationships, but he says what he does with conviction, taste and piercing honesty. It’s easy to jump cut between happy and sad times to elicit the effect of a disintegrating relationship, but Cianfrance fills the scenes with so much intricate detail that alludes to the entire scope of the couple’s time together that it transcends the structural gimmick.


Directed by Casey Affleck

I saw this before it was officially announced as a pre-conceived concept and can’t honestly say how I’d feel about the film if that wasn’t the case. As it was, I felt like I was watching something truly special. Real or not, Joaquin Phoenix clearly has a very tangible contempt for celebrity culture and the distorted dialogue that takes place between that world and ours. Phoenix begins the film with a rant about his childhood, wondering if he really was angry and withdrawn or if people simply started saying he was and he become so in response. That idea permeates through every step of the film. Was Phoenix really an asshole or did we just decide he was and no matter what he did, it would fit that perception? Lots of interesting ideas and drop dead funny to boot.


Directed by Ben Safdie & Joshua Safdie

The Safdie brothers mined their own childhood experiences for this disconcerting tale of a father incapable of properly caring for his two children. Ronald Bronstein is perfect as the father, doing his best with the little time he has with his kids, and gets away with borderline despicable things because of the humanity he brings to the character. The kids are more loud, blurry distractions than characters, which is a nice change from most films. It’s not about the kids anyway. Just like their previous film, “The Pleasure of Being Robbed,” the Safdies employ a sense of whimsy to the super gritty 16mm shooting that harkens back to a bygone New York era, making their output feel timeless.


Directed by Pedro González-Rubio

Another documentary-narrative hybrid, González-Rubio follows a young boy who is spending a few days with his father on a remote fishing village off the coast of Mexico. The boy lives with his mother in Italy and couldn’t have two more differing cultures as his heritage. The father knows he has only these few days to imprint himself on his son and they spend the time fishing, playing, cooking, eating and befriending a small bird. The action unfolds in quiet, poetic beauty and by the end of the film, the boy and the audience are hesitant to leave such a tranquil paradise. It’s a gorgeous little film that will make you want to call your Dad and say hey.


Directed by Jacques Audiard

I’m a year behind Kris and Guy, but “A Prophet” is the real deal. Epic filmmaking with a far-reaching scope that is nevertheless intimately grounded by a phenomenal lead performance. Audiard borrows from classic gangster films, French New Wave, Greek tragedy and everything in between to tell his story of one man’s rise to power through the prison system. Bold, brash, disturbing and yet somehow triumphant. Any film that can execute a “ghost” character that guides the protagonist and not have it be all sorts of awful is a crowning achievement.

Blam! As I mentioned before, this column serves as both the wrap-up for my Life Without Oscar series (which I hope you enjoyed) and also my swansong on the site in general. Thanks again to Kris and Guy for letting me share space with them and I look forward to meeting Guy when my new film premieres at Cannes in 2012.

Feel free to chime in with thoughts and comments below.

→ 42 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Life Without Oscar

42 responses so far

  • 1 1-18-2011 at 9:15 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Great to see “Blue Valentine” on there. Still find “A Prophet” overrated. And a 2009 film.

    Did you see “The Illusionist?”

  • 2 1-18-2011 at 9:17 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “And a 2009 film.”

    Released February 2010 in the U.S. Unless you go by other territories’ schedules, how/why do you consider it a 2009 film?

  • 3 1-18-2011 at 9:18 pm

    Aoife said...

    Great list Chad. Will really miss your contributions here. Best of luck with everything.

  • 4 1-18-2011 at 9:19 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    And indeed, bravo on the series, both box office-wise and Life Without Oscar. It was a good run with an old college chum.

  • 5 1-18-2011 at 9:29 pm

    Speaking English said...

    I’ve started to go by international release for a couple years now. Besides, “A Prophet” was nominated at the 2009 Oscars so it sort of validates it in my mind.

  • 6 1-18-2011 at 9:30 pm

    Jim T said...

    Thanks fo sharing!

    I’m glad more people believe that The Social Network’s direction isn’t inferior to its script. By the way, it’s not “html code” but that doesn’t change your point.

    I’ll miss you but wish every success and satisfaction from your filmmaking.

  • 7 1-18-2011 at 9:31 pm

    al b. said...

    LOVED the box-office columns! Your insight is still missed in that arena. The Life Without Oscar columns were wonderful as well! Chad Hartigan, you will be missed!

  • 8 1-18-2011 at 9:36 pm

    LePuu said...

    “how/why do you consider it a 2009 film?”

    He’s talking about Oscars, I think.

  • 9 1-18-2011 at 9:42 pm

    Danny King said...

    “I look forward to meeting Guy when my new film premieres at Cannes in 2012.”

    Congratulations — mostly on getting a chance to meet Guy, but Cannes is pretty cool, too.

  • 10 1-18-2011 at 9:56 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    “thanks in no small part to career best work from Marisa Tomei.”

    Did you see “The Perez Family” (1995)?

  • 11 1-18-2011 at 10:03 pm

    Drew said...

    Anyone want to bet on how long it takes for “A Prophet” to get remade for American audiences?

  • 12 1-18-2011 at 10:36 pm

    James D. said...

    Of what I have seen, I loved October Country, The Oath (both of which I saw on your recommendation, as I had not heard of either), The Social Network, Everyone Else, Greenberg, A Prophet, I’m Still Here, and Alamar. They would probably all make my own top twenty. I liked Cyrus a lot, but the ending kind of ruined it for me.

    I have been waiting for Daddy Longlegs, Catfish, Blue Valentine, Last Train Home, Marwencol, and Videocracy for some time now. I have never even heard of Vacation!, Nénette, or The Freebie. As for Youth in Revolt, who would have thought? The film passed me by completely, but I will check it out. I think Cold Weather is 2011 for us non-festival folk, but it will be up on my radar this year.

    I know you know, but I loved your writing, Chad. You introduced me to a lot of films that don’t get any real mainstream exposure. I would not have fallen for Greta Gerwig without you.

  • 13 1-18-2011 at 11:03 pm

    Ibbs said...

    Blue Valentine is my favorite of the year, and I think I’m Still Here and The Oath are some of the most underrated (or underappreciated) films of the year. I also greatly admire A Prophet, although I’m not in love with it. Well done.

  • 14 1-18-2011 at 11:29 pm

    Scot said...

    just so you know, October Country is about Mosher’s family, not Palmieri’s. nice list!

  • 15 1-18-2011 at 11:31 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    James D- I’m pretty sure Videocracy is streaming on Netflix.

    /3rtfu11- I have not seen The Perez Family

  • 16 1-18-2011 at 11:32 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Oh right, good catch Scot

  • 17 1-19-2011 at 2:14 am

    MARTIN said...

    Jesus , can this list be any more pretentious .
    More like a List of 20 movies no one saw .

    Your taste in movies surprises me .

    Try makin` a movie someday , then maybe you`ll learn a bit about truly brilliant cinema .

    And BTW , I have seen most of the films on your `list` . And none of them [ except 2 ] make even a top 50 .

  • 18 1-19-2011 at 2:38 am

    the other mike said...

    nice list. and good luck in your new adventures.

  • 19 1-19-2011 at 3:44 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Try makin` a movie someday , then maybe you`ll learn a bit about truly brilliant cinema

    Chad has tried. And succeeded. So you’ll need to think up a better burn that that.

    You know what would be really pretentious? Filling his list with films he doesn’t like as much as these (but that more people saw), in order to please trolls like you.

  • 20 1-19-2011 at 3:56 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Absolutely ace list, Chad — one that makes me all the more excited for the titles on it I have yet to see. Although our lists didn’t overlap much, there are still plenty of titles I’m glad to see here — particularly “Vacation!,” which I have you to thank for seeing in the first place, along with Zach’s previous feature.

    I admit “Nenette” was a film I wanted to love a lot more than I did, though I was in such a black mood on the day I saw it Berlin that it didn’t really get a fair shake.

    I’m also glad I now feel a bit less of a heathen for not falling at the feet of Aaron Sorkin this year.

    Anyway, thanks for everything you’ve written at the site the past couple of years — you’ve been a constant joy to read, and no one puts more wit and personality into box office analysis than you do. Looking forward to the new film, and looking forward even more to meeting you one of these days.

  • 21 1-19-2011 at 4:11 am

    Kalel Johnston said...

    It’s going to be a shame to see you go, Chad. Managing to turn the mundanity of Box-Office numbers into weekly entertainment, and offering a slew of new titles for me to scour for throughout the years, made you a writer that I loved reading. You formed a great trio with Guy and Kris, but I was a fan of ‘Luke of Brie’ so I’m looking forward a lot more to your film career. Keep us updated!

  • 22 1-19-2011 at 5:46 am

    Hero said...

    It’s been great, Chad. Can’t wait to see your movie! Best of luck.

  • 23 1-19-2011 at 6:26 am

    Nicolas Mancuso said...

    Wow. “The Social Network” really is a consensus film if even Chad is singling it out! :)

    Seriously, though, Chad, it has been a pleasure reading you for the past couple of years. I wish you the best of success!

  • 24 1-19-2011 at 7:01 am

    pfranks said...

    hate to be THAT guy, but about that scene in The Social Network, he wasn’t writing “an html code” (whatever that is), he was writing the formulas for the FaceMash ranking algorithm, which is the kind of thing a window is awesome for, especially if you don’t have a large whiteboard nearby. And yes, lots of people do that.

  • 25 1-19-2011 at 7:11 am

    Silencio said...

    Keep rocking, Chad. Your voice was fresh, and we’ll miss it. For some, begrudgingly ;)

  • 26 1-19-2011 at 7:37 am

    Nelson said...

    Where do you find these movies?

  • 27 1-19-2011 at 7:48 am

    red_wine said...

    Gosh I have seen just 3 films from your top 20 – A Prophet, Everyone Else and The Social Network but the first two out of these make my Top 10 too, Top 5 actually.

    Both A Prophet and Everyone Else are very great films. Somewhat of a surprise to see such a massively acclaimed and border-line popular film as your no. 1 but what a masterpiece. Also surprised to see Social Network make it, even Guy didn’t mention it!

    From the ones that I haven’t seen I’m most looking forward to Alamar, Greenberg, Daddy Longlegs and Last Train Home.

    And I concur, non-fiction film-making is blooming like never before. Some of the most essential and astonishing stories are being told through that medium. A film like Exit Through The Gift Shop (which didn’t make your list) is such a treasure.

  • 28 1-19-2011 at 7:52 am

    Matthew Starr said...

    I’ve seen 5 of these 20 I guess I have a lot of catching up to do.

    I thought Cold Weather was a 2011 release?

  • 29 1-19-2011 at 8:27 am

    David said...

    Whatever happened to “Life Without Oscar: 2009”? Inquiring minds want to know.

  • 30 1-19-2011 at 11:59 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    David- Felt weird giving 2009 its own column, so I’d say just refer to my Top 20 I published last year on this site to cover that year.

    Kalel Johnston- You seem like a really smart person with great taste.

  • 31 1-19-2011 at 12:03 pm

    Mitchell said...

    Cannes 2012? I’m surprised they schedule that far away! Congrats!

    Also, it’s hard to believe how many movies are actually made per year. I’ve never heard of a lot of these. I felt like I had seen everything! Thanks for introducing me to so much cinema during your time here.

  • 32 1-19-2011 at 12:37 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Guys, Cannes 2012 is a joke. Albeit one that I’m willing into reality.

  • 33 1-19-2011 at 12:42 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Oh I get it, because you having a film at Cannes would signal the end of the world (2012).

  • 34 1-19-2011 at 12:57 pm

    Mitchell said...

    @Chad Hartigan: I had a feeling. But you never know!

  • 35 1-19-2011 at 1:26 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Now to really court the insults. My 10 worst, keeping in mind I don’t go see movies I don’t anticipate liking.

    1. The Living Wake
    2. Diary of a Wimpy Kid
    3. You Again
    4. Shutter Island
    5. Knight and Day
    6. The American
    7. The Exploding Girl
    8. Exit Through the Gift Shop
    9. The Art of the Steal
    10. Get Him to the Greek

  • 36 1-19-2011 at 2:37 pm

    Nick said...

    I think it’s kind of odd that I agree with so much in your top 20, but three of my favorites of the year are on your 10 worst… But either way, I’ve extremely enjoyed reading your columns and I think I speak for everyone that follows the site in wishing you the best of luck. We’ll miss you

  • 37 1-19-2011 at 7:15 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    So glad to see The Exploding Girl on your list — the kind of vacant, inert anti-character study that gives indie micro-cinema a bad name.

  • 38 1-20-2011 at 6:00 pm

    Al said...

    Glad to see someone knocking Sorkin’s writing on Social Network.

  • 39 1-22-2011 at 5:20 am

    daveylow said...

    Happy to see the inclusion of Youth in Revolt, a movie I thought would have been a bigger hit in theaters. I hear Miguel Arteta’s new film is very funny.

  • 40 1-22-2011 at 6:16 am

    Loyal said...

    What I love most about Chad isn’t his provocative and idiosyncratic film criticism (that’s a dime a dozen these days and somewhat boring) but rather his star turn as game show contestant extraordinaire on the hit IFC program Ultimate Film Fanatic.

    It’s definitely worth checking out on Youtube. Chad loves obscure movies and loves to let us know that he loves obscure movies but he also knows a shit tonne about popular/bad movies as well.

    Perhaps he even secretly enjoys them, sneaking off to the local AMC on Wednesdays to check out the latest Ashton Kutcher comedy.

  • 41 1-22-2011 at 6:22 pm

    Fernando said...

    Wow, Cannot believe INCEPTION is not here.

  • 42 2-04-2011 at 9:14 am

    James D. said...

    The more I see from this list, the more I love it. Just saw Catfish yesterday. What a film.