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.

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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster