the best fiction films of 2010 were (not) documentaries*

Two thirds of them anyway. Seriously though, the most compelling experiences I had in the theater this year in 2010 involved three films, all of which are fictional, two of which were labeled as documentaries.

I saw a good many films in 2010, mostly on Friday nights at the latest possible screening. Most of them were disappointing. But not Winters Bone, I’m Still Here, and Exit Through the Gift Shop. Catfish also deserves a mention in this bunch.

Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone was authentic and overwhelming. It did what few films are really capable of, though many try: it puts you firmly in the place of the protagonist. Though usually solo, I saw this film with a friend. We sat in an otherwise empty Pasadena art house theater, eyes riveted to the screen. We left shaken, but better for it. I marvel at Granik’s ability to create such a rich tone and elicit deeply felt performances. Winter’s Bone deserves to win the Oscar for best picture, direction, and lead actress.

The other two films, billed as documentaries, were nothing of the sort, but I expected that. In fact I relished it. The two most exciting nights I spent at the theater in 2010 were preceded by anticipation of being gloriously duped. It is a rare and distinct pleasure to witness the specific machinations of a first class mockumentary.

Exit Through the Gift Shop was a tricky, layered critique of the art world. Similarly, I’m Still Here was a hilarious jab at fame and Hollywood. Much has been written about these two films and their status as documentary or fiction, but I want to ask one thing: Why can’t professional critics tell when something is fictional? Most critics reviewed them as they were labeled: documentary. Any professional critic who saw I’m Still Here and thought it real after 5 minutes needs to quit the business. Looking at the reviews, we’d have a lot fewer critics. If you were a young film star sitting around with friends drinking, thinking up shenanigans for a film hoax, you would think up I’m Still Here. It’s pretty easy to imagine the soggy napkin with the scenes scribbled out. Movie star goes off the rails, does drugs, tries to be a hip hop artist, berates his assistant, grows a Morrison-like beard, etc etc. The amazing thing is Joaquin Phoenix’s near year long performance and the Letterman appearance. Name another actor of his stature willing to go to such lengths. I saw it opening night with about 35 people when its veracity was still in question and the place was roiling with laughter. Both Exit and I’m Still Here should be nominated for best picture and Joaquin Phoenix should win best male actor.

I just saw Catfish last night, and will reserve detailed comment for a future post, but it does deserve a mention in this mix. Not reading about it beforehand I expected the film to be fake. But it is a hybrid, and an exciting if troubling one. Exciting because it experiments with the fiction / non fiction line in interesting ways, ways that the film makers themselves are reticent to celebrate or even admit. Troubling because of the probable manipulation of the subjects. We are a long way from the (impossible) claims of Direct Cinema here. I’m pretty sure the first half of the film was reenacted, or just acted, while the second part was likely shot first. But none of this matters.

Whether films labeled as documentaries are “true” or not is a question we are well beyond, in my view. Like subjective and objective, these are conceptual categories whose premises we have outgrown. And maybe the television, movie, and net media we consume has blunted our ability to discern the fabricated from the (mostly) real.  At the same time, there is a difference between acted and non acted material. In I’m Still Here most professional critics could not tell that it was acted. In Catfish, there are those who can’t see that the main subject is a real person and others who do not question whether the first part of the film is pretend. I don’t care how fiction / nonfiction is labeled, used in a story, or mixed with its opposite. I am concerned that no-one seems to be able to tell the difference, especially critics. Or maybe I’m excited by it. This is a happy confusion, a blessed befuddlement, and one that enables creative opportunities. And that, I think, is all that matters.

Video for A Certain Surface by Nebulotinklstab, my collaborative recording project. This song, and others, as well as credits and words, can be downloaded on the bandcamp page.