In 2010 there were a number of new films that I think would be of interest to readers of this blog. Some of them played the dodeca-plexes, some came to your neighborhood art house, and some of them may have flown completely under your radar. But let's hope all of them will at least be available on DVD at some point.
I enjoyed CENTURION a great deal. This historical thriller was about the ancient Picts and their unlikely alliance with a Roman soldier. Written and directed by Neil Marshall (who also wrote and directed Doomsday), this ambitious film combines both large-scale action sequences with intimate, character-driven dialogue to tell the story of Centurion Quintas Dias (Michael Fassbender), the sole survivor of a Pictish raid, bound by oath to a dying Roman commander General Virilus (Dominic West) to help further the Roman goal of destroying the Picts. But along the way, Dias gains respect for these nature-loving mercenaries, including a cool-headed ruthless tracker named Etain (Olga Kurylenko), and a beautiful banished witch named Arianne (Imogen Poots). Unlike most of the historical films that come out of Hollywood, this one is not full of fancy special effects, nor overburdened with long, complicated battle scenes. The onscreen violence feels appropriate to the story, and the story manages to convey a sense of the characters lives and homelands; there is a powerful sense of place at work here.
ROBIN HOOD was somewhat disappointing, being far too full of gratuitous battle scenes for my liking. I mean, since when was Robin Wood a sword-wielding warrior? The story line took liberties with most versions of the legend, too, having Robin (Russell Crowe) play a jaded knight who fulfills a promise to a dying man (there is a lot of this lately; a commentary on the nobility of war, perhaps?), and in the process meets Marian (Cate Blanchett), a noblewoman fallen on hard times, whose husband has been killed in battle. The relationship between them does develop fairly convincingly, and Blanchett is terrific as always. The battles appear to be necessary to protest the corruption and taxation of the local lords. There was nowhere near enough greenwood merriment for me. But the film had some interesting content from a pagan perspective, as when Robin and his merry men plant grain by moonlight to replenish Maid Marian's farm, and the decision to have Marian have a real connection to the earth, and not be a mere noblewoman who falls for an outlaw, is also a welcome choice.
I did not get to see AGORA, unfortunately (it only played here for a week), but having heard good things I am including it in this list. Set in Alexandria in the 4th century AD, it's the story of a Roman Egyptian slave (Max Minghella) who falls in love with the philosopher, scholar and atheist Hypatia (Rachel Weisz). Directed by Alejandro Amenabar (The Sea Inside and The Others), the film explores the theme of religious tyranny, via Hypatia's efforts to lead a protest against the morally-domineering Christians who try to rule the city. Hypatia is more interested in astronomy and peace than in God, and naturally runs into resistance even as the citizens rally behind her.
THE LAST EXORCISM by German director Daniel Stamm was an intriguing fake documentary that unfortunately decided to become a hybrid horror film. A young minister named Cotton (Patrick Fabian), obviously a reference to Cotton Mather of Colonial witch trial fame, who specializes in exorcisms is followed by a camera crew, and decides to expose the exorcism "industry" for the sham he knows it to be. He visits a rural farmhouse where a teenage girl (Ashley Bell) is allegedly possessed by a demon, and prepares to employ all his clever parlor tricks to show how victims are also scam artists. But things go, as they say, horribly wrong. And the promising fake docu adds an eerie score and contrived camera shots, no longer retaining the wonder crude realism it had established. Shifting form and genre midstream isn't a good idea, and the film suffers. But stick around for the end: a completely over-the-top, no-holds-barred Bacchanalian travesty of demonic evil and excess, complete with chanting "satanists" (who are not what they seem), bonfires in the woods, and human sacrifice.
Coming up in Part Two: Survival of the Dead, Let Me In, Devil, and the documentaries Sweetgrass and American Mystic.