Jan 10, 2011

The Best Of 2010

Happy New Year!  So I'm a week late with this post, but it was worth it. I enjoyed my unintended blog vacation leading up to the real New Year, and now I'm back fully refreshed and ready for another great year of blogging, starting with a wrap-up of the past year and then continuing tomorrow with a look ahead at all the great spy stuff in store for 2011. 

The Best Spy Movies of 2010

2010 really spoiled spy fans; it was nothing if not a year full of movies in our genre!  And even ones that weren't quite spy movies themselves (like InceptionIron Man 2, The A-Team and The Expendables (review here) to name just a few) tended to feature heavy spy aspects.  It was, however, a somewhat surprising year.  Going into 2010, Salt was probably the spy movie I was most eagerly anticipating, and it turned out to be a disappointment to me. (Read my full review here.) After covering its long and winding road to production, I also fully expected The Tourist to be a likely candidate for this year-end Best Of list, with its truly impressive pedigree including director Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others, one of my favorite spy movies of the past decade), the incomparable Timothy Dalton and probably the two hottest stars in the world, Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie.  I didn't hate The Tourist like a lot of people did.  Far from it, in fact; while I fully recognize and understand why so many people had bad reactions to it, I enjoyed it.  But not on the level that I expected to this time last year.  Not on a level that will earn it a place in this post. 

Conversely, some movies that I didn't have much hope for ended up entertaining me quite considerably. From Paris With Love was a real surprise.  The trailers had me really expecting the worst, as did John Travolta's mere presence.  I really saw it out of obligation (I can't pass up a spy movie... except Killers, I guess; I missed that one), but ended up having a great time and especially loving Travolta's performance.  (Read my full review here.) Likewise, Knight and Day's trailers never really gelled for me, but found the movie itself quite enjoyable in a light and fluffy way. (Review here.) I wasn't alone in that, either: Knight and Day didn't manage to crack my own Top 10 movies of the year (below), but it made Quentin Tarantino's Top 20!

So what were my favorite new spy movies last year? With one exception, I tended to gravitate toward grittier, more serious fare this year than the light-hearted stuff like Knight and Day and From Paris With Love and RED (review here), another one I definitely enjoyed.

1. Green Zone
It was an early favorite, and remained my favorite spy movie of the year at the year's end.  Bourne star and director Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass re-team for their best collaboration yet.  Despite the historical setting (well, 2004, which is actually the same year their first Bourne movie, The Bourne Supremacy, took place–and that wasn't a period piece...), Green Zone might as well be a fourth Bourne film.  It's got all the action and all the nail-biting suspense of that series, along with a plot that, like the Bourne films, tricks you into thinking its meatier than it really is, but turns out to be the perfect frame on which to hang spectacular setpieces.  I don't enjoy the shaky camera, put-you-in-the-middle-of-it style in anyone else's hands other than Greengrass's, but he has truly mastered that technique.  Each film he makes in the action/spy genre is an improvement on the one that came before it. I loved The Bourne Ultimatum (in fact, it's the only film in that series that I've truly loved), but Green Zone is even better.  If you haven't seen it yet, make sure you do.  Read my full review here.

2. OSS 117: Lost in Rio
This hilarious send-up of Sixties spy movies meticulously recreates the era not only in costume and set decoration, but also in filmmaking techniques. It's the rare sequel that's almost as good as its predecessor, and one of the funniest spy comedies ever.  Really, I've written so much about this movie in the last two years (it came out in France in 2009) that readers are probably sick of hearing about it, but if you haven't yet seen it, be sure to seek out the DVD.  Read my DVD review here and my full film review here

3. The Ghost Writer
It took a second viewing for me to recognize this as truly one of the best of the year, but Roman Polanski's moody thriller is as solid a suspense film as it is a character study. It also features Pierce Brosnan's best performance since The Matador, and I really hope he gets a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for it (though it seems like a long shot). Read my review here.

Honorable Mention: Fair Game
Bourne Identity director Doug Liman hones in on what's always struck me as the real drama of the Valerie Plame affair: the spy story at the heart of the issue.  What makes this film remarkable, though, isn't its subject matter or even the riveting lead performance by Naomi Watts; it's the way that Liman manages to redefine the serious side of of the spy genre sometimes referred to as the "Desk Spy" story. Using the same sort of hand-held techniques that put us in the middle of a car chase in his Bourne film, Liman lends the same immediacy and urgency to scenes in cramped Langley conference rooms–and it's exciting. I'd love to see this guy take a crack at Le Carré.

So where do these three spy movies rank overall? Just for fun I'm going to also post my Top 10 movies of the year–spy or otherwise.  There are a few biggies I still haven't seen, but from what I have there were easily enough to fill out ten spots. A lot of people are complaining this year as they do every year that it's been a lousy year for movies.  I couldn't disagree more.  In the last few years I've tried to make a Top 10 list (not posted here), I haven't been able to come up with ten. This year I could easily go to fifteen. 2010 wasn't just a great year for spy movies; it was a great year for movies.

The Best Movies of 2010

1. Black Swan
2. Inception
3. The Social Network
4. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
5. Green Zone
6. The Ghost Writer
7. True Grit
8. OSS 117: Lost in Rio
9. The Kids Are All Right
10. Fair Game

Honorable Mention
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Toy Story 3

The Best Spy Television of 2010

1. Archer
I just love everything about this show. On one level, it's a very funny (and very offensive; as I've said before, it's definitely not for all tastes!) adult workplace comedy about a very dysfunctional family of spies. On another, it's a great spy send-up. And on a third (and my personal favorite), it's a beautifully designed, beautifully animated retro spy show. I just love the look of Archer! The FX animated sitcom takes place in a sort of Cold War Never-Never World, where modern computers co-exist with Cold War tensions (the ideal backdrop for a spy story, in my opinion) and the style of the day is anything that looks good, from Sixties suits of the sorts Connery wore to Eighties Aston Martins like Dalton drove. Archer is one stylish comedy!

2. Covert Affairs
It's funny, but both of my favorite spy shows in a year fairly rife with spy shows approach the genre from a workplace perspective. Archer is a workplace comedy, and USA's Covert Affairs is more of a workplace dramady, focusing as much on Annie Walker's (Piper Parabo) relationships with her co-workers and their sometimes skillful navigation of bitter office politics. And the best thing about Covert Affairs (and a rarity on American TV shows) is that when I say "relationships with her co-workers," I don't mean it in a sexual sense! On Alias, everyone in the CIA's Los Angeles bureau (another thing I like about Covert Affairs is that it's a rare show that actually situates the CIA in Langley and not the scenic and convenient West Coast!) was either family or sleeping together. And on 24, the soap opera drama between co-workers was absolutely ludicrous, and actually ruined many a season of the show for me.  Covert Affairs doesn't ring as true as UK shows like The Sandbaggers or Smiley's People, but it rings much truer than you would ever expect from USA, a network known primarily for its escapist fare. (And Covert Affairs does offer that side, as well.) I'm really looking forward to Season 2. Read my review of the pilot here.

3. Sherlock
This was probably my favorite TV of the year overall, but since the spy aspect is fairly minimal I couldn't rank it as the top spy show. With Steven Moffat and the great Mark Gatiss (author of the Lucifer Box spy novels I enjoyed so much) at the helm, I fully expected to love this show... and it delivered on my every expectation and then some! The notion of setting Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in modern London is brilliant in its simplicity. It worked wonderfully for Basil Rathbone during WWII; why shouldn't it work now? In fact, it works even better now. While the Rathbone films (which are wonderful) basically ignore their contemporary times except for the Nazi bad guys they afford and keep the characters in adventures that might as well be Victorian, Sherlock embraces the modern age and all of the technology it brings with it–all while managing to remain as true to Conan Doyle as any adaptation to date. It's quite an amazing feat! Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman play Holmes and Watson–sorry, Sherlock and John–absolutely true to the text, and without the distraction of Victorian trappings, those timeless characterizations really shine. The spy aspect comes (as it does in the books) from Sherlock's brother, Mycroft, who occupies a mysterious government position. Sherlock is great television and great Holmes. My only gripe is the ridiculously short (even by British standards!) season length of a mere three episodes!

Most Improved: Rubicon and Nikita
Instead of "Honorable Mention," I've opted for "Most Improved," because neither of these very different spy series started out particularly promising. As with Undercovers, I went easy on Nikita's generally lacklustre pilot (review here) because I saw some potential. Unlike Undercovers, Nikita's producers eventually figured out how to mine that potential. Halfway through they year, I'm definitely glad that I decided to stick with Nikita. It's never going to be top-tier spy television, but it is quite entertaining and much more complex than I initially expected from The CW. Whereas Nikita is sexy, ephemeral spy TV, AMC's Rubicon was intelligent, slow-paced spy TV. Perhaps too slowly paced. The first half of the season moved like molasses, and it wouldn't be too much of an understatement to say that nothing happened. But the characters were great as were the actors, so I stuck with it, and again I was rewarded. There was a change of showrunner and the cliched, boring conspiracy storyline (which never really went anywhere) eventually took a back seat to the far more interesting day-to-day operations of a private New York-based intelligence think tank, which was interesting. The last three or four episodes were genuinely riveting... but that's just when AMC decided to cancel the series. Too bad. Thanks to the improvements along the way for Season 1, a second season promised to be great.

Least Improved: Undercovers
Sadly, J.J. Abrams' Undercovers, which I had been quite excited about, failed to significantly improve and has subsequently been cancelled.  The pilot (review here) was a definite letdown, but I didn't hate it.  I saw some potential, but the show's writers never really exploited that.  Some of the most recent episodes, like "Leo's Lost Night," did actually show some improvement, but not nearly enough. Undercovers was probably the big disappointment of 2010 in the spy genre. 

The Best Spy DVDs of 2010

Best Overall DVD: Callan: The Monochrome Years
Network's Region 2 PAL release of the earliest surviving episodes of the seminal Sixties UK spy series Callan, starring Edward Woodward, is–rather atypically for the company–bereft of any significant special features. Yet it still gets my pick for the best spy DVD release of the year, purely because its momentous historical significance in the genre. Network's set includes all surviving episodes from the first two seasons of the series, plus the original pilot which aired as part of Armchair Theatre.These early black and white episodes have never had a legitimate home video release before anywhere in the world–and they're some of the best spy television ever filmed. Or rather, videotaped. This release is a godsend for spy fans everywhere. With television this good, you don't even need special features. Read my full review here.

Best Region 1 DVD: Scarecrow and Mrs. King
And for best R1 release, I'm also going with something without special features, surprisingly. There just weren't any amazing, feature-laden spy DVDs along the lines of that Casino Royale Collector's Edition this year. Scarecrow and Mrs. King is not an essential series like Callan (and certainly not as good), but it is a fun, fluffy series that I was very happy to see for the first time on DVD. It's pretty much the only hit American spy series of the Eighties, so it does have historical value too.  It's a show I thoroughly enjoyed, and I never would have had the chance to do so were it not for this Warner release. I can't wait for Season 2 coming in 2011! Read my full, epic review of Season 1 here.

Best Special Features: The Avengers Special Editions Series 3-6
Now it may be somewhat controversial to list releases that have been so rife with technical flaws on a Best Of list, but when it comes to special features, I find no fault whatsoever with Optimum's amazing remastered Avengers seasons. Furthermore, getting my own copies a few months after the release dates in each case, I've managed to avoid the rather extreme audio and visual hiccups that have plagued set after set. (It's also my understanding that Optimum has been very helpful in issuing replacement discs to people who did purchase the afflicted copies.) Despite the problems, I fully believe that Optimum cares a lot about these titles, as they've unearthed or created many spectacular bonus features for their sets starting with 2009's The Avengers: Series 2 (which also included the few surviving episodes from Season 1). Fans have been treated to documentaries, commentaries, advertising material, scrapbooks, reconstructions of lost Season 1 episodes and my personal favorite: rare early TV appearances of the series' stars like Patrick Macnee in excerpts from "The Importance of Being Earnest" or the complete Diana Rigg TV play, "The Hothouse."  To be fair, I haven't actually gotten the final two sets yet, but I know what's on them feature-wise, and I also know how much I've enjoyed the bonus material on the first three sets. This is how you do special features for classic television! I hope some American company snaps up the rights to The Avengers and licenses Optimum's excellent extras for new Region 1 releases. For UK fans and others with multi-region players, you might be wise at this point to wait for The Complete Avengers 50th Anniversary Collection coming out in March, which is sure to include the corrected discs of all the sets.

Notable Trend of the Year: MOD
It's true that the Warner Archive has been churning out made-on-demand (MOD) DVDs for a few years now, but the success of that program has inspired a wave of imitators in 2010. (Columbia, Universal and MGM all now offer similar programs.) Like many fans, I have a love/hate relationship with MOD releases. I wish we could get full-blown DVD Special Editions of titles like Otley and The Executioner and Tarzan and the Valley of Gold, but the fact is we can't. Maybe in 2002 we could have, but not in this depleted consumer market. Therefore, I'm grateful for the studios' MOD programs, which have afforded us the chance to finally own these movies in nice widescreen versions. My MOD pick of the year has to be Otley. Not for any special features and certainly not for good packaging (Columbia is way behind Warner Bros. in that department; every Columbia Classics MOD title I've yet bought has not only ugly packaging but an off-center spine), but just for being Otley, one of my very favorite Sixties spy movies, and finally being readily available in some format! Every spy fan should own this title. Here's hoping we see more spy rarities pop up on this format in 2011.

Special Prize: 1980s British Miniseries: Codename: KyrilGlory BoysThe Contract
This was an unlikely trend. By coincidence, 2010 ended up being the year of the Eighties British spy miniseries. There were a few months in the middle where I was watching one of these every week thanks to releases from Acorn here in the US (A Cold War Spy Collection) and Network in the UK (Codename: Kyril). And, let me tell you, those weren't a bad few weeks. Britain sure knew how to make a good spy miniseries in the 1980s. There's a format I'd love to see come back. Long-form television (as it used to be called) is really the perfect format, in fact, for complex spy stories, and it's great to have all of these obscure miniseries on DVD. Read my reviews of Codename: KyrilGlory Boys and The Contract.

People We'll Miss

Finally, in wrapping up the year, it's time for some remembrances. 2010 was an especially hard year for spy fans, as we lost some true legends.  The death of Mission: Impossible star Peter Graves hit me the hardest, but I also mourn the losses of other true greats like I Spy's Robert Culp, The Persuaders!Tony Curtis, Modesty Blaise creator Peter O'Donnell, the incomparable Leslie Neilson (whose spy career was actually much broader than just Spy Hard and Night Train to Paris if you delve into low-budget 70s fare), composer Johnny Dankworth, Ingrid Pitt (beloved for her horror movies, but also known to pop up in spy fare as diverse as Jason King, The Adventurer and Smiley's People), and directors Claude Chabrol (who made his mark with Eurospy movies like The Tiger Likes Fresh Meat and Marie-Chantal vs. Doctor Kha before going on to become synonymous with twisty thrillers), Irvin Kersner (Never Say Never Again, S*P*Y*S), Ronald Neame (A Man Could Get Killed, The Odessa File), Jean Rollin (better known for his better horror movies, but known to dabble in spydom with the likes of Sidewalks of Bangkok) and the brilliant Blake Edwards, creator of the sublime Pink Panther franchise and director of The Tamarind Seed.
Thanks to reader "luvnjustice" for the U.N.C.L.E. champagne image!


Paul Bishop said...

Welcome back and Happy New Year to you as well. I liked Salt better than you did, but I do agree The Tourist wasn't as bad as the critics make out. I enjoyed it on a certain 'Charade' type level.

Bob said...

Happy New Year.

No mention of my favorite tv spy comedy "Chuck".

Tanner said...

Thanks, guys!

Paul, I liked the first half of Salt quite a bit. I just let me a lot down in the second half - enough that it definitely didn't live up to my expectations.

Bob, I guess I should have clarified that I was talking about NEW shows in 2010. I actually think Chuck's having a really good season this year!

Jason Whiton said...

Happy New Year, buddy. I'm watching Sherlock now- terrific show! Best of 2010 at Spy Vibe:

I got my Casino Royale CD in the mail today! The LP transfer is warm and awesome.

-Jason (Spy Vibe)