MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest Forrest@moviecitynews.com

Frenzy on the Wall: 2010 Top Ten

2010 has not been a great year for movies.

I think the films that are on this list are superior works of cinematic art, but I think that I saw more mediocre and middling fair than ever before. Is it that the actual quality of the films this year wasn’t as good as the past few years, or is my own perception of “good” and “great” changing as I grow older?

Critics and film writers will always be out of touch with the mainstream, because we see so many movies that the cumulative effect is to make everything — especially mainstream Hollywood films — seem formulaic and predictable. As a result, we look outside Hollywood for something that will surprise or delight us.

As I look at the films on my top ten list, I realize that a large portion of them are not for everyone. But then again, what film is? However, the films on my list are mostly divisive or largely unseen by many audiences. This pains me somewhat, because I do firmly believe in Hollywood filmmaking because, after all, it’s what I grew up on. I want to see Hollywood make great films with wonderful technical credits, but unfortunately it seems like that’s all there is to appreciate in the typical blockbuster.

But I do feel a great deal of pleasure in knowing that the top film on my list in an old-fashioned Hollywood movie, the kind they used to make, but don’t anymore.

If I had to come up with honorable mentions, they would be: True Grit, Inception, Rabbit Hole, All Good Things, Monsters, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Toy Story 3, The Town, The Ghost Writer, Never Let Me Go, Winter’s Bone and Jackass 3-D.

Some under-seen films that didn’t make my Top Ten or honorable mentions, but deserve attention: I Am Love, Flipped, City Island, Daybreakers (yes, the vampire film, I’m an enormous Ethan Hawke fan), and Get Low.

Worst films I saw this year: Twelve, Life During Wartime, The Bounty Hunter, When in Rome, Chloe, Cop Out, Legion, Jonah Hex, Repo Men, and Valentine’s Day.

Biggest disappointment of the year (for me): Somewhere (blog post forthcoming).

Films that I didn’t get a chance to see that might crack the list: Biutiful, Blue Valentine, Carlos (the long version), and Burlesque (just kidding).

Without further ado, here are the ten best films I saw in 2010:

10. Please Give (Dir. Nicole Holofcener)

A lot of love is being given to Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, which I liked well enough but found oddly offensive (really? There can’t be one film, independent or otherwise, about lesbians where one of them doesn’t sleep with a man?), but I’m not hearing nearly the same amount of support for the much stronger Please Give.

What’s fascinating to me about the comparison between these two films and between these two filmmakers is that Cholodenko is very much a Los Angeles filmmaker and Holofcener New York. It’s not that all of their films have been set in one location or the other, but they bring different sensibilities to their movies and I’ve found myself more aligned with Holofcener historically.

But more than that, I don’t know that Cholodenko is able to reach the depths that Holofcener does. Look at the scene in Lovely & Amazing where Emily Mortimer demands that Dermot Mulroney look at her naked body and honestly tell her what’s wrong with it. The dynamic between men and women in this country is explored in that scene, how men stare, judge and demand changes and how hard it can be for women to ignore. Holofcener continues that theme in a subtle and quite funny way with Amanda Peet’s character in Please Give, constantly tanning and ruining her body because of what men want from her.

I don’t think there’s a single scene in The Kids Are All Right that is nearly as knowing about the differences and interplay between genders.

Please Give loves all of its characters and helps us to sympathize with each of them. Sure, we like some more than others – boy, Ann Guilbert deserves some consideration for playing the crankiest old woman in a long time – but we care for each of them. But what really touched me the most about the film is that its central message is its title, but it’s about how we each give in different ways and everything is relative. Sure, Catherine Keener’s character isn’t as saintly as Rebecca Hall’s, but she ultimately learns that while she can’t save the world and make everybody happy, at least she could buy her daughter the jeans she wants.

At turns hilarious and poignant, Please Give cements Nicole Holofcener as a true auteur…and someone who should be working more often.

9. The Red Riding Trilogy (Dir. Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, Anand Tucker)

While not quite as good as the Godfather trilogy as David Thomson hyperbolically stated, it’s still quite an accomplishment. The films are very different from one another stylistically, but thematically and narratively they are linked tightly. Tony Grisoni certainly deserves some kind of award for the mammoth undertaking, for adapting David Peace’s story of murder and corruption into three cohesive scripts that fold in on each other.

Andrew Garfield is the star of the first film, 1974, and it was an auspicious start to a fantastic year for him, but while many have argued that it’s the best of the three, I found it to be my least favorite and most predictable. I think everything that happens in 1974 is necessary, setting up the story of police corruption during the Yorkshire Ripper murders, but that doesn’t necessarily make it entertaining. Garfield and Rebecca Hall hold things together well enough, but I don’t think the trilogy really hits its stride until the second film when Paddy Considine comes on the scene.

But for me, my favorite of the trilogy was 1983, the last of the films. It’s naturally the most satisfying because we get answers to all of our questions, but I loved the addition of Mark Addy and the way that Misfits star Robert Sheehan turns out to be a crucial figure. Ultimately, while the trilogy seems to be about very specific events and big ideas about the sins of our ancestors being passed down to us, it’s really a film about how we need to cleanse and exorcise our demons before we can move forward – both individually and as a community.

8. Enter the Void (Dir. Gaspar Noe)

When I first saw this film, I expressed some disappointment while admiring its technical achievements. My problem was with the storyline and some of the acting, but as I let the film sink in, those things don’t bother me as much. This, as well as the number 3 film on this list, is one of those movies that almost works better in retrospect than during the actual viewing. It’s a demanding film and it takes a lot out of its viewers, but it’s also a rewarding one once you’ve finished watching it. In other words, it’s not necessarily a film that you will enjoy while you’re sitting there, but something that you’ll appreciate later on.

Gaspar Noe is a deranged genius (the best kind, really) who devised an absolutely impossible task for himself: to show the life of a human being through the eyes of the person experiencing that life. Other films have attempted this for brief periods of time – Strange Days comes to mind – but none tried to sustain it for the entire length of a motion picture.

But Noe’s really insane idea is to have the main character – and, in turn, the viewer – die about thirty minutes into the film. Then we go back into the past, learning about the main characters history with his sister and family, and then we fly back to the present and float around the city of Tokyo – all viewed through the eyes of the main character. Showing life through the eyes of a character in a movie is a difficult task, showing death and the after-life is impossible. Yet, Noe pulls it off.

The storyline is still shrug-worthy, about a brother and sister living in Toyko together and drugs and sex, but it’s given a weight because of the way Noe films it. This is a film that really tests the limits of style over substance, but in this case, I think it works.

7. Animal Kingdom (Dir. David Michod)

This one really surprised me and after I watch it again, it might shoot even further up this list. Some folks have called this the Australian Goodfellas and while that’s not exactly accurate, it’s also fairly apt. But the great thing about that comparison is that there is zero chance that this film was trying to emulate Goodfellas, like so many crime films do. Rather, this is a film that is more concerned about the life of a family; except this family is quite different than most.

J is a seventeen-year-old kid whose mother has just overdosed and died and goes to live with his grandmother and his three uncles, all of whom are criminals. There’s also a friend of the uncles who takes J under his wing. They’re all scary and would shoot you if you looked at them funny, but Ben Mendolsohn as Uncle “Pope” is the epitome of evil. When J ultimately comes to a crossroads that would entail him breaking with the family, he thinks that Pope is the one he’ll be crossing swords with, but unbeknownst to him, it’s his grandmother who hides her true face of evil behind a gentle smile.

Jacki Weaver is getting a lot of acclaim as the grandmother and rightfully so; in the third act of the film, she becomes so menacing while remaining utterly sweet. However, the entire cast makes this film rise above its genre roots into something resembling Shakespearean tragedy. This is a film, above all others in my list, that I urge people to seek out, because despite its (semi-)foreign origins, it is one of the best examples of genre filmmaking that I’ve seen in a long time.

6. Greenberg (Dir. Noah Baumbach)

It seems like a lot of folks have forgotten this gem from the earlier part of the year, but as with his previous two films Noah Baumbach has seared his latest creation into my brain. Ostensibly, Greenberg is the story of a lost man who has a midlife crisis. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that the title character isn’t having a crisis at all; in fact, Ben Stiller’s Greenberg character seems to have a pretty good idea of how to handle any given situation. Greenberg doesn’t learn how to become a better person or undergo a dramatic change, rather he just reinforces who he is as a person.

Greta Gerwig’s character, though, goes through changes in the film even if they aren’t always perceptible. But she is young, at least, and still capable of going through changes; she isn’t a fully-formed person yet. Greenberg, for all his faults, is a man who knows exactly who he is, so the best he can do is accept himself.

When the film first came out, I thought it was Gerwig’s film because she is the one who actually changes throughout the course of the film. But watching it again, I realize that it is a film about the two of them; however, Greenberg is more of a catalyst for the people around them. Some folks look at Greenberg and admire his integrity and others look at him as a lesson to learn from. It’s not entirely clear how Gerwig’s character views him, but we know that he makes an impression on her regardless.

5. Agora (Dir. Alejandro Amenabar)

When it came out, I called Agora the first great atheist film. However liberal our society might be, it’s still not a widely accepted view to be an atheist; it’s one of the few things that remains unchanged in the past two thousand years. Agora is not a perfect film by any means, but it’s ballsy in a way that will be unappreciated by the majority of folks who see it; it looks and feels like just another epic movie and not a whole lot of audiences will respond to the whys and hows of the narrative.

Rachel Weisz gives one of the best and most underrated performances of the year as Hypatia, the scientist and astronomer, who won’t submit when everyone around her in Alexandria starts converting to Christianity. The ads for the film played it up like there was some kind of love triangle amidst a backdrop of religious war, but truly it’s a film about recognizing what your beliefs are and sticking to them. Hypatia is a woman of science, who believes in the facts before her (however limited she might be by the tools of her time) and she sees no hard evidence that suggests she should become a religious person.

It’s a film that presents its film in an obvious, but not didactic way; it doesn’t preach its points of view, but it presents an allegory of religious intolerance in a way that is affecting and thought-provoking.

This is what the best Hollywood films are supposed to be. They are supposed to sweep us up with their epic imagery while presenting a theme that might be difficult or controversial, but Amenabar had to go outside of the Hollywood system to get this fairly conventional film made. I was astounded by the film when I saw it, but I’m even more astounded by the fact that nobody has seen this brilliant picture.

4. The American (Dir. Anton Corbijn)

I liked Corbijn’s Control well enough, despite the fact that I had a bias against the idea of the film in the first place (being a New Order, rather than a Joy Division fan, I was disappointed by the idea of hero-worshipping Ian Curtis), but I was certainly assured of the fact that Corbijn was capable of creating indelible images. One of my favorite shots in any film in recent history is the shot of Ian Curtis walking down the street wearing the pea coat that has “HATE” scrawled on the back. It’s not always apparent why Corbijn decided to shoot the film in black and white, but that shot almost makes the entirely endeavor worthwhile.

But with The American, Corbijn has shown that he’s not only capable of composing a beautiful shot, but he’s also adept at maintaining a specific tone. Marketed as an action film, The American is really a film about a man at war with himself; there are guns fired and chases through the streets of an Italian village, but the real action of the film is in the scenes between George Clooney’s hitman character and the village priest or the scenes between him and the local prostitute that he falls in love with.

This is a man that has a job where it’s important to compartmentalize as much as possible, but he’s a character who has love inside of him that he needs to express. Sure, that love might be diluted and dulled by years of murder and betrayal, but it’s inside of him and it’s yearning to be loosed. That, to me, seems to be the crux of the film: that all of us, even the most wicked, have a desire to love inside of us.

A lot of folks have compared this film to the works of Antonioni, which I don’t really get; just because something is set in Europe and moves at a deliberate pace, it doesn’t mean that it resembles Antonioni. Truthfully, the film I was most reminded of while watching The American was In Bruges – minus the comedy. This is an existential crisis film, about a man who has spent all of his life doing something and finally coming to grips with what he does when he finds out why people actually enjoy living. Clooney is really turning into one of the most fascinating leading men out there and I love that he continues to seek out difficult work with visionary filmmakers.

3. Trash Humpers (Dir. Harmony Korine)

I cannot stress this point enough: most people will not like this movie. But I also cannot stress this point enough: this is not a movie, this is an art installation. The aims of a “movie” are very different from the aims of someone creating “video art” in my opinion, although the line gets blurry. Trash Humpers is a film that really straddles that line. But in my point of view, a film’s job is to entertain an audience and to suck them in using the various tools of mise-en-scene.

What Korine is doing with Trash Humpers is making a point by eschewing what we’ve come to expect from the art form. He subverts our expectations of what a “film” is and in doing so, makes the most personal project he’s ever been involved in.

Yes, everything you’ve heard is true: Trash Humpers is about people who hump trash and fellate the branches of trees and pretty much just vandalize and destroy everything they come into contact with and it’s all filmed in the style of “found footage” in the form of a scratchy VHS tape. It would be easy to label the film as pointless and meandering if you just flipped it on for a few minutes. However, if you watch the film from beginning to end and have some understanding of the life of Harmony Korine – and indeed, the life of any artist – you will see that this is a fascinating parable.

Artists always tend to burst onto the scene with an eye for destroying the establishment, then ultimately become the establishment and become normalized. And that’s exactly what happens with two of the vandals in this film – of course, they are the ones played by Korine and his wife – and they become parents and move away from the indiscretions of their youth.

People always laugh when I tell them that ending of Trash Humpers choked me up and touched me more than any other film this year, but I can’t quite explain why even if I had all the time in the world. And this, ultimately, is why I call Trash Humpers “video art” rather than filmmaking; because, like a great work of art, the feelings that it brings out are visceral rather than logical.

I could stare at a beautiful painting and be moved to tears and then find it difficult to express why I felt that way; with film, that’s a rare occurrence, to see something that moves you in a film without being able to explain why.

Chances are you will hate Trash Humpers, but I implore you to give it a chance. Like most art, you’ll probably shrug it off, but if you have an open mind, you might find something incredibly rewarding.

2. Black Swan (Dir. Darren Aronofsky)

I just devoted an entire column to why I think this film is a brilliant near-masterpiece, so I’m not going to retread all that here.

My feelings haven’t changed since then. I saw a lot of comments from readers and got a few e-mails saying the film was too over-the-top or that audiences were chuckling at certain points. Well, most movie audiences aren’t exactly MENSA candidates, so the fact that they were laughing says more about them than it does the film.

As for the allegations that the film is over-the-top, I say this: of course it’s over the top, but does that make it a bad film? There Will Be Blood is pretty over-the-top and we all agree that that film is a masterpiece, so isn’t it possible that there are films that go over-the-top for a reason? This is a movie that is operating in a certain milieu and everything that happens is filtered through the fractured psyche of a damaged individual, so yes, things are going to be slightly off-kilter and sometimes coarse.

If that doesn’t suit you, then that’s fine, but it suits the film perfectly in terms of the story that it is telling about this particular character.

Natalie Portman, for me, gives the best performance – male or female – that I saw this year. She made me believe in her hysteria and buy into the breakdown that occurs. This was a masterful film from a master filmmaker and a lead actress at the top of her game.

1. The Social Network (Dir. David Fincher)

This film has topped so many critics’ lists at this point that I almost feel bad putting at the top of mine, becoming just another voice in the crowd. But, as I said at the beginning of this column, I think The Social Network is an example of Hollywood filmmaking at its finest. It tells us a story that we think we already know and fictionalizes it in a way that makes us understand it better. Just like Citizen Kane helped us gain insight into William Randolph Hearst by fictionalizing his life story, so too does The Social Network help us understand the impetus behind the creation of one of the most important websites of our time.

There are people who think that when you base a film around a real person, then you have an obligation to the facts. Well, I don’t believe that to be true. Unless you are making a documentary (and even then, there’s leeway), you are making a work of fiction and in fiction, you are allowed to create any narrative you want. We read historical fiction all the time that plays around with history and we see films all the time about real people that amalgamate several real people into one character or have our heroes do things that there is no evidence to suggest they did.

But all of that is moot because I don’t look at Fincher and Sorkin and Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg as a villain. He’s a hyper-smart 19-year-old kid who feels isolated from the rest of the world and doesn’t know how to interact with other people his age (or people at all, it seems) because he’s been blessed/cursed with this gift. Yes, he screws over his best friend, but then again why doesn’t Eduardo believe in the company enough to come out to California that summer? Zuckerberg, like most creators, believes in his creation so much that he devotes his entire life to it and he wants to be surrounded by people who also believe in his vision; to me, that doesn’t sound like a villain, it sounds like an artist.

The acting is top-notch across the board, but Jesse Eisenberg was a revelation in the lead role, able to convincingly express Sorkin’s long-winded and twisty dialogue. But more than that was Eisenberg’s ability to portray the single-minded focus and determination of a character who doesn’t know how to do anything well except for one thing. That’s a tough position to be in as an actor because it often leads to one-note performances, but Eisenberg goes the other way and uses that hard-headed focus as the way in which Zuckerberg hides the most emotional parts of himself. It’s not a showy performance, not one that typically wins awards because it’s very even-keeled, but it’s a truly great one.

What I love about the movie is that it could be about anything. It was common for folks to call it “the Facebook movie” but Facebook is really the MacGuffin. Replace Facebook with any other invention and take out the computer stuff and replace it with the jargon for any other industry and the message would still be the same. This is about ideas and propriety…and about a million other things.

My colleague Kim Voynar wasn’t as big a fan of the film and says that it’s far from Fincher’s best. Well, I agree with that. This is not Fincher’s best film. It doesn’t approach the greatness of Zodiac or Fight Club. But those are some pretty lofty heights and just because The Social Network doesn’t fly as high, it doesn’t mean it’s not an excellent film in its own right. And for me, it’s the best film I saw all year and it wasn’t even close.

18 Responses to “Frenzy on the Wall: 2010 Top Ten”

  1. Hollywood Dave says:

    If Social Network is the best film, then why is all the buzz around Hollywood is that The Fighter is going to win it all ?

  2. Robert Hamer says:

    You tweeted earlier that White Material was not going to make your top ten…and it didn’t. Out of curiosity, how come? I found the film totally enthralling and brilliantly acted by Isabelle Huppert. In fact, it might be my favorite film of the year (still holding off until I see The King’s Speech, Biutiful and True Grit).

    Also, I don’t appreciate the implication that detractors of Black Swan (like me) are somehow not intelligent. It’s not THAT unreasonable to claim that several scenes in the film were silly and campy.

  3. Noah Forrest says:

    Robert, I wasn’t trying to insinuate that people didn’t like the Black Swan weren’t intelligent, but I think the people who found it funny were merely looking at the surface of things. It’s certainly not a film for everyone; after all, some people don’t like the theatrics of ballet (I’m one of those people, actually), so it’s natural that some people might not like the theatrical nature of this film. But it worked for me.

    As for White Material, I found it to be a little too plodding, too unnecessarily convoluted and overall didn’t connect with me. I thought it was gorgeous to look at and I’m a Denis fan, but this one just fell flat for me. I thought Huppert was really good, actually, but I think the storyline with the son was bordering on preposterous.

    Hollywood Dave, I don’t understand why there is so much acclaim for The Fighter which is really the most traditional Hollywood film that is being bandied about as as contender. I thought it was a well-acted film (especially by Wahlberg, not Bale) that suffered from having a trite screenplay.

  4. Warren says:

    The American = pretentious and super-duper boring.
    Greenberg = pretentious and super-duper boring, but add whiny and extremely annoying.

  5. Great call on the inclusion of ‘Agora.’ I’ve been astonished at how the film was discounted by so many critics. Weisz was outstanding and the ending packed a wallop. It deserved a bigger audience.

  6. Chris says:

    I really do not understand why laughing at points in Black Swan was bad and why “campy” is an insult if it is done with intent. Aronofsky has made the greatest camp horror film of all time with this film. It works perfectly in the vein that he intended it. It was over the top. It was campy. And that is what made it both a joy and a thrill. It is an amazing genre piece by a master at the top of his game.

  7. Daniella Isaacs says:

    You know, I have a Ph.D and teach college (and really like your reviews, Noah), but I found THE BLACK SWAN funny, but deliberately funny. I think it’s a great straight-faced comedy, very much in control, very smart.

  8. Noah Forrest says:

    Chris & Daniella: laughing at scenes that were supposed to be funny is different than laughing at scenes that weren’t intended as comedy. The audience I was with, for example, laughed at the sex scene between Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman – that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.

  9. Daniella Isaacs says:

    Noah: I understand. It seemed clear to me you were alluding to derisive laughter. I can’t say I laughed at all, really, just smiled a lot (toward the end) at how wittily it was all coming together.

  10. Pat says:

    Laughter is uncontrollable. We laugh in reaction to things we find absurd, shocking, or disturbing. It doesn’t make us less intelligent.

    I am sure lots of critics chuckled while watching some of the more melodramatic and turgid scenes in the Twilight movies. Those weren’t intended to be funny. Does that make the critics stupid or insensitive? Of course not. I enjoyed Black Swan, but there were some scenes for which ‘gasps of laughter’ were the most natural reaction.

  11. Noah Forrest says:

    Pat, if you find Black Swan to be on the same level as Twilight in any way, then I don’t know how to argue with that. I think Twilight is unintentionally hilarious, but I think Black Swan is operating on a completely different plane.

  12. Daniella Isaacs says:

    You know, one could make the case that those laughing derisively at THE BLACK SWAN are a bit like those who laughed at, rather than with, something like Paul Verhoeven’s THE 4TH MAN. I’ve always been exasperated by people who think movies set in, say, the worlds of ballet, literature, gallery art, or opera are, almost de facto, pretentious–unless of course those films are taking pot-shots at the people and the high-culture setting. Of course Argento gets a pass, I suppose because he’s Italian. People laughing at the lesbian scene in BLACK SWAN could be doing so because it’s such a cliche–but, as I would argue, the cliche of an unraveling mind as well as one used in a film that’s a bit of a parody of other art-thrillers and therefore wittily used–or, they’re laughing, as Noah seems to suspect, because they’re immature about same-sex material. I think another good film to compare THE BLACK SWAN to is Ingmar Bergman’s HOUR OF THE WOLF, which also takes Freud’s theory connecting paranoia to repressed homosexuality seriously enough to use it on screen for some perverse cinematic fun.

  13. Keil Shults says:

    It’s Black Swan, not The Black Swan. Why are people still doing this?

  14. Tom says:

    Noah, I’m not here to argue with your list. Although I find several of the films you pick vastly overrated, I respect your opinion enough not to challenge you on them.
    Instead, I am going to point out something that many critics do when they put together their lists, and which you do as well. You list a film [Let’s say Hot Tub Time Machine] and then, in parentheses, the director [(Steve Pink}]. I can understand why this is done but, as an aspiring screenwriter, it irks me to no end.
    Why don’t you give the writers credit? I would argue that their contribution is, if not as important, nearly as important as that of the director. Aaron Sorkin had just as much a hand in crafting the tone of The Social Network as Aaron Sorkin did, and the fact that the Red Riding trilogy had three directors but only one writer should say something about the role that Tony Grisoni had in the creation of those films.
    So I’m just curious, are you merely following protocol, or is there a reason why you mention the director but not the writer?

  15. Daniella Isaacs says:

    I know people who don’t put the hyphen in MOBY-DICK. Whatcha gonna do?

  16. joshua black says:

    lol, a very entertaining thread. Pretention, while very annoying, say, when you are a waiter and your table is behaving as such, can be extremely funny when you are reading something you aren’t forced to and can quit reading at any time. That goes for both the article and the top ten list as well as the thread.

    I have seen so many people argue your point, Tom, about the lack of credit deserving screenwriters receive and I agree with you completely and cannot be accused of bias. Forrest, well I have no idea what he’s gonna say, but there is no protocol that denotes putting the director in parentheses or at all. He chose to.

    while I consider the Squid and the Whale one of my fave movies eva! – Greenberg totally sucked, yes pretentious and whiny and annoying. I know that a top ten list reflects personal taste and is not intended to convince others what their top ten should look like, but this one tries too hard to be “s.m.r.t.” as well as unique – pretentious! But, I had a good chuckle. Maybe I’m condescending, can’t help it though, I guess there’s a reason for that…
    P.S., you almost exonerated yourself with the inclusion of Daybreakers as deserving attention, but so insecurely added the Ethan Hawk excuse. That was a very entertaining film (which is exactly what most film should be) and could have starred anyone.

  17. joshua black says:

    Whoops, I guess its Hawke, with an e, would hate to rile up all the editors in the room, lol. Loved _Social Network, have yet to see THE Black Swan.

  18. joshua black says:

    oh ya, fergat to make of the the PHD chick, “but I love your reviews”, that part killed me

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