Gilbey on Film: The best of 2010

A look back at the year in cinema.

Film of the year

The Social Network

Honourable mentions

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives , A Prophet, The Headless Woman, Greenberg, Gentlemen Broncos, Father of My Children, Beeswax, Another Year, Lebanon, The Time That Remains, Scott Pilgrim Vs the World, The Arbor, Still Walking, The Ghost (though let's keep things in perspective -- what's with the 3,017 prizes for Polanski's picture at the European Film Awards?).

Most unjustly forgotten film of the year

The Road, which also contained the scariest scene of the year: good to see there's life (and death) in the creaky old "Don't go down to the cellar!" routine.

Soundtracks of the year: The Social Network (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) and Greenberg (James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem)

The "What took you so long?" prize for delayed distribution

Contenders included I Love You, Phillip Morris, with 15 months elapsing between its Sundance premiere and its UK release, and The Headless Woman, which opened here nearly two years after its Cannes debut. But the most extreme case of delay was Frownland,an extraordinarily abrasive US independent film about a lonely, emotionally victimised door-to-door salesman. It took more than three years to get here, but it was worth the wait.

Knockout comic performance of the year

A tie between Nicolas Cage as a drug-crazed cop who hallucinates iguanas and breakdancing spirits in The Bad Lieutenant Port of Call: New Orleans, and Jemaine Clement as the pompous science-fiction novelist Dr Ronald Chevalier in Gentlemen Broncos.

Most inventive death scene

Many contenders here, all of them from the impressive Hong Kong socio-horror film Dream Home, which included: a man forced to slash with a penknife at his own neck in an attempt to sever the cord that was strangling him; mid-coital disembowelment; asphyxiation by plastic bag and household vacuum cleaner. And the winner is... (cue fumbling with blood-spattered envelope)... the "man stabbed in the neck with his own glass bong" scene. That's what you call going out on a high. By the by, Dream Home also wins the L'emploi du temps award for Best Recession-related Film of the Year.

Rip-off cinema of the year

The Vue, Shepherd's Bush, west London. One adult, one child, bringing their own 3D glasses to a 10.30am screening of How to Train Your Dragon, on a Sunday morning three months into the film's release. Ticket price? £21. Consequence? I don't go to Vue cinemas any more. Admissions may have risen, but multiplexes shouldn't think they can price prohibitively, especially in off-peak times. Joe Flint wrote a sound piece on the subject on the LA Times website this year. His beef was with the pricing structure at Hollywood's otherwise wonderful Arclight cinema, a classy venue that knocks any Vue into a cocked popcorn tub. Extortionate pricing, Flint says, "gives people just one more reason to stay home. At a time when theater operators are worried about movies popping up sooner on DVD and video-on-demand and thereby undercutting ticket sales, making it costlier to go out to the local multiplex seems ill advised."

Misjudgement of the year

The violence in The Killer Inside Me. A straight minute, or however long it was, of Casey Affleck bashing Jessica Alba's face until it resembled an overripe nectarine may have grabbed headlines. But for visceral, enduring impact, it was manifestly not the cinematic equivalent of the few, sparing sentences that Jim Thompson used to convey the attack in his original novel. Winterbottom receives a partial pardon for some gorgeous moments in his six-part BBC2 series The Trip (especially episode four -- the "We leave at daybreak!" one), which started limply but proved a real grower.

Guilty pleasure of the year

The crude action movie spoof MacGruber was good, indefensible fun. Even doubters should seek it out for the divine Kristen Wiig (she plays the unimprovably-named Vicky St Elmo). I'm hoping 2011 will be the year that Wiig, who was also excellent this year in Drew Barrymore's underrated Whip It!, breaks out with a scorching lead performance. Nicole Holofcener, director of Please Give, has expressed a desire to work with her.

The "I don't get it" award for movie phenomena that passed me by

I experienced strange waves of guilt for failing to warm to either Of Gods and Men or Toy Story 3. That said, the latter film featured both my favourite character of the year -- the lumbering, shabby, horribly mewing Big Baby, who was both tender and menacing -- and the most traumatic scene: the toys holding hands in acceptance of mortality as they descend toward a furnace. No such guilt about disliking Inception, a film which felt like being trapped in business class on a grounded flight, listening to CEOs discussing their dreams for two-and-a-half hours.

Funniest line of the year

This award goes not to any screenwriter, but to an anonymous wag with a biro at London's Holborn underground station. On the poster for Please Give, the certificate advice reads: "CONTAINS STRONG LANGUAGE AND INFREQUENT SEX." Next to which someone scribbled: "Story of my life."

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Hugo Glendinning
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The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.