Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Best Movies of 2010

The year in film for 2010 was a lot like the weather. It was a strange one. Many critics have written about how it was a bad year for movies. Certainly the quality of the American output was not what it’s been over the past couple of years. This year marks the first time I’ve compiled a top ten list without including any animated films. I know, I know. How could I exclude “Toy Story 3”? Well, frankly, Pixar’s latest is a good example of how I felt about much of this year’s movies. It was fun, but didn’t offer the amount of substance I look for in great movies.

That’s not to say I was disappointed with the year in film. In fact, I can’t remember a year where I was as consistently entertained in the cinema. I think I saw more movies in the cinema this year than I have in while, if ever. I had trouble getting out of a glut of three-star reviews for much of the year, but I can’t say I didn’t like ‘em if I did like ‘em.

However, I had difficulty finding greatness from this year’s Hollywood output. For I time I thought my Top Ten list would be entirely dominated by foreign films. There are still four foreign films in my top ten this year, with three more showing up in the rest of my four star reviews of the year. I also have three American independents among this year’s entrants and three major productions. Although, none of them made my top ten, I also handed out four stars to four purely mainstream entertainments this year. It felt like Hollywood (and Sweden) were getting back to basics this year and some movies did it so well, I had to award them for it.

As always, there were a number of movies I missed at the end of the year that may have greatly changed the entire geography of my list. The most notable of which include, “The King’s Speech”, “The Fighter”, “127 Hours”, and Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere”. There were also too many independent and foreign films to mention that might’ve made the list had I gotten around to them. Certainly, over the next couple of weeks I will get around to seeing some of these films, and I will regret that I cannot go back and change my list. Alas, this is the plight of an amateur (and unpaid) movie critic.

As it stands, these are the best films of the year.

1. The Square.  I was surprised not to see this intense Australian thriller on other critics’ top ten lists. Many lauded it when it finally made its U.S. debut in early spring of 2010. Its praise is well deserved indeed. It’s a modern film noir that brings its heroes mishaps and bad luck to a new level. I’ve never seen a movie so relentless in its negative treatment of its hero.

The plot revolves around a construction contractor whose company has been contracted to build a luxury resort. He’s having an affair with a younger woman; their dogs are sharing in the affair. The woman, whose husband is a fairly petty criminal, hatches a plan that will allow the couple to break away from their current lives when her husband stumbles upon a big score. They hire an arsonist to burn down her house after they steal her husband’s loot to cover their tracks. To say everything goes wrong is an understatement. More goes wrong than anyone, but the filmmakers it would seem, could even possibly imagine.

The plot plays like something that the Coen brothers might put together, but the writing and direction isn’t as flashy. This more basic approach works better for this movie, because the characters are not the eccentrics that the Coen brothers normally deal with. These people could be your neighbors, or your boss, or your co-workers. These are everyday people who involve themselves in practices that are more than over their heads, and they pay the price for it. So do their dogs.

2. Black Swan.  If “The Westler” was director Darren Aronofsky’s portrait of a performer’s reality, “Black Swan” is the portrait of the performer’s nightmare. “Black Swan” may be the best picture yet from one of America’s most gifted young directors. It plays like an exposé on the life of a professional ballet dancer who gets the opportunity of a lifetime when her company’s long time star decides to retire and the role of the Swan Princess in “Swan Lake” becomes available to a younger dancer to make her mark.

Although the movie does a very good job of submerging its audience into the world of professional dancing with countless harsh details about the life of a dancer, it is hardly a work of reality. It’s a dark fantasy at best, as its heroine, Nina, is such a damaged young thing that she hallucinates about seeing her own evil twin, and she may be quite mad. Between trying to decipher whether her director is trying to make her the best she can be or just trying get into her pants, breaking free from her mother’s over protective wing, or trying to figure out if the new dancer is friend or foe, Nina’s not sure if she is even still in her own head.

Just in its portrayal of Nina’s wavering sanity, “Black Swan” is a compelling thriller. Perhaps, what makes this movie so special though is the second level on which it works, for it’s not just a story about a ballerina losing her mind for a part. It’s also an incredibly moving and functional adaptation of the “Swan Lake” story itself, which tells the tale of a princess trapped in a swan’s body. When her lover starts to fall for a doppelganger black swan, she tries to free herself of her curse. When she can’t, she kills herself to gain her freedom.

3. The Social Network. David Fincher’s telling of the story about the founding of Facebook is one of the most fascinating histories I’ve ever seen on screen. The fact that it depicts such recent history acts as a sort of example of the high-speed society that made Facebook the phenomena that it became, in turn making its founders some of the richest men on the planet, all because they wanted to be included.

I fear that with all the awards attention the movie is getting, winning almost all the major best picture awards and surely the picture to beat for the Oscars, that some people will look at it and say, “OK. It was good. So what?” Fincher’s film is sneaky though. It tells a deeply dark story about people whose motivations aren’t even clear to themselves. Mark Zuckerberg, as depicted here in a superb performance by Jesse Eisenberg, is vindictive and too smart for his own good, or the good of those around him rather. It isn’t so much that he wants to bring his enemies (or his one friend) down, as it is he just can’t let them win.

British up and comer Andrew Garfield (look for him as the new Spider-Man) provides perhaps the best performance in the film. He plays Eduardo Saverin, Facebooks first CFO, the man responsible for the original code upon which Facebook’s main concept is based, and possibly Zuckerberg’s only friend. He’s the audience’s entry into the Harvard world of geniuses who spout code and practice one-upmanship as a rite of passage. A girlfriend causes the first sting to drive Zuckerberg to create the world’s most successful social network, Saverin provides the second by being granted entry into one of Harvard’s elite final clubs.

Fincher’s moody and subtle direction shows how everyone wanted a piece of the Facebook pie without necessarily throwing anything into the recipe. What’s so great about Facebook is that this is what it allows everyone to do. While Saverin had to sue his friend to get the piece of the pie he earned, everyone else wanted in too, including Zuckerberg himself. It’s too bad he had to sell out the only genuine relationship he had to do it.

4. The Secret in Their Eyes. When “The Secret in Their Eyes” won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film last year, many said it was a surprise and even that it had stolen the prize from better films “A Prophet” and “The White Ribbon”.  I’m not sure the people who said that had actually seen this film. While both of those other films would put up a good fight against “The Secret in Their Eyes” (I did consider “A Prophet” for this list, while “The White Ribbon” received its U.S. Theatrical release in 2009 and was therefore ineligible for this year’s list), this thriller from Argentina is rich in detail, plotting, and character. Yes, it’s the most mainstream of the three, but its intelligent and romantic execution reminds us that the mainstream can consist of more than just the thrill.

Juan José Campanella’s splendid film is a wonder of cinema in the way it combines so many genres. It’s part legal drama, part whodunit, part political thriller, part romance, and packs a twist in the last few minutes. It follows a retired legal counselor who writes a novel about the one case in his career that he felt was never really solved. His research brings back all the old memories and feelings, passionate in his belief that the guilty party got away and passionate in his unrequited feelings toward his then superior.

The movie is an incredible technical achievement along with being an emotional and entertaining success. There is one sequence during a soccer match that contains one of the great long cuts in film history. That’s not to say it’s a flashy movie that draws attention to its technique. The mystery and the story are always at the forefront of Campanella’s direction.

5. Winter’s Bone. The independent masterpiece “Winter’s Bone” brings us back into noir territory, although not on the everyman level of “The Square”. “Winter’s Bone” is a backwoods noir that involves a 16-year-old trying to provide a life for her younger siblings. Jennifer Lawrence turns in one of the year’s most remarkable performances as Ree, a teenager older than her years, who is the sole provider for her younger siblings. Her mother is a vegetable and her father a criminal who has skipped his bail. Since he put his house up for bail, Ree must find him in order to keep the roof over her siblings’ heads.

Co-writer/director Debra Granik paints a grim picture of the Missouri Ozark Mountain setting. It’s a place where the peasants of the land live by rules and laws of their own making and they can’t have anyone poking their nose where it doesn’t belong, even if that person is family, and even if she’s only trying to keep a roof over two kids’ heads. Veteran character actor John Hawkes also provides a career best performance as Ree’s uncle, the only person who seems to have any interest in helping her on her quest. His love is just as harsh as any offered in these mountain backwoods, but he knows any wrongdoing is no fault of Ree’s.

Like so many great genre films of the past, “Winter’s Bone” shows us a specific world in which the rules are firm and the people adhere to a code of conduct that create a sense of order in their particular chaos. Ree is an outsider, like the audience, that must navigate this world and even go so far as to break some of its rules in order to survive it. Granik gives us the minutest of details to make this world real to us, and in doing so she creates a movie world that is as wonderous to behold as the planets of “Star Wars” and as tenuous as the Mafia lifestyle depicted in “The Godfather”.

6. Mother. The South Korean film “Mother” keeps us in noir territory with the story of a mother who will do anything to prove her mentally challenged son innocent of a murder. Director Bong Joon-ho made an international splash a few years back with his original and quirky monster flick “The Host”, a movie I erroneously omitted from my 2007 Top Ten list.  With “Mother” he enters more serious territory, but continues to operate within a genre with amazing originality.

After a girl is murdered on her way home from work, the police, in what looks to be a frame up, railroads a mentally challenged boy as the perpetrator. The boy’s mother, given the impression that the police aren’t even looking for the real murder, begins her own investigation into the event. In her obsession to prove her son’s innocence, she finds herself stooping to criminal acts of her own.

The plot may sound like something fairly standard, but Joon-ho’s approach is anything but standard. Like “The Host”, he finds peculiar quirkiness in all of his characters and their actions, and yet everything they do is also keenly observed human behavior. Nothing seems put on just for an interesting story, and even though this mystery unfolds in an unconventional manner, the movie never missteps or betrays itself merely for dramatic or comedic effect.

7. Inception. Crime seems to be a big hit with me this year. With Christopher Nolan’s visionary dreamscape movie “Inception”, we leave to world of noir and enter into a heist flick the likes have never been conceived of before. In this movie, the thieves aren’t stealing gold or bonds or anything so simple as money, these thieves steal ideas from people’s dreams. What Nolan does here is create a whole mythology about the control and manipulation of dreams, and he got audiences all over the world to follow it.

Nolan has both the vision to pull off the feat of showing audiences just how dreamscapes might be manipulated and navigated by his characters and the intelligence to make it all seem plausible and logical. On top of that, he even changes the very rules he’s established about this dream thievery by making the heroes’ mission to implant an idea into their victim’s brain rather than steal one. Another amazing aspect of the screenplay is that Nolan is able to create a compelling action thriller without providing any real villain. Yes, there are a few people who fill villain roles for a while, but in this day and age, it’s rare to find a movie that doesn’t really chose someone or some culture to fill the role of the enemy.

What makes this movie such an achievement, however, is the fact that it is pure cinema. It is a movie that uses every aspect of the art form of filmmaking to create something entirely original and unique that could only be achieved through film. A book couldn’t convey Nolan’s idea any better, music couldn’t, not even poetry. This is an exclusively cinematic piece of art.

8. The Kids Are All Right. Forget that the parents are lesbians. Forget that the children both have the same donor father. This is one of the funniest and most observant movies about what it’s like to be part of a family that I can remember. I laughed more watching this film than any other this year. My laughs were not just because the material was funny. They were vindictive laughs as well. I laughed because other people had to go through the same difficulties I did. I laughed at their pain be cause I shared it. Am I mean?

Beyond my ability to relate to the material, this movie probably contains the best ensemble cast of the year. Julianne Moore and Annette Bening are excellent as the moms, one overprotective and the other too liberal. The children, played by Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson, are intelligent yet still teenagers. They aren’t the Hollywood anomaly of children that are more adult than the adults. Mark Ruffalo’s donor father is perfectly balanced as a figure compelling enough to fascinate this strange new kind of family into wanting to get to know him, but enough of an inappropriate jerk for them not to need him in the end.

Filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko has crafted an incredibly well-balanced film, where despite some pretty egregious betrayals, the family unit never fully breaks down. These are not only intelligent people, but they’re people who depend on each other and define each other in the way only family can. The ups and downs are more rewarding to the audience than they are to the characters of the movie. That’s because the movie doesn’t bow to Hollywood convention. It tells an original story that is supported by the elements within it rather than what convention dictates.

9. True Grit. In term of its revenge story, “True Grit” is merely a good western; but through the Coen brothers’ gifts of character and their ability to write amazing dialogue, they’ve elevated it to the ranks of great filmmaking. Equal kudos go to the cast for providing excellent performances to go along with the Coens’ mastery, especially the young actress Hailee Steinfeld, who anchors the film with her superb performance as the young lady with more gumption than anyone else in this harsh western world.

Much attention has been given to Jeff Bridges’ excellent performance as the drunken codger Marshall Rooster Cogburn, the role created by John Wayne in the original version. Bridges embodies the Coens’ character philosophy in this role by making a larger than life persona through his eccentricities and flaws. Matt Damon would steal the show with his Texas Ranger who develops a lisp in a weaker production. Instead he blends in with a performance that has been overlooked by most.

What the Coens do with “True Grit”, instead of focusing on the fairly traditional revenge elements of the plot, is present an intriguing character study of three very different heroes in the three leads. They each have their flaws, but each are able to rise to the occasion of exacting justice where others lack the heart to deliver it to men who deserve it. The Coens paint their western landscape with colorful details and dialogue to support their heroes, making this one of the most original westerns and remakes of recent years.

10. I Am Love. Tilda Swinton continues to prove her diversity in this Italian drama about a Russian woman living in an Italian family discovering that she is barely a participant in the life that was given her. She’s not unhappy in her life as the matriarch of a successful Milan industrial family, but when she meets a sensuous young chef, she discovers nothing she has done in life has been for herself.

In description, this tale of forbidden love doesn’t sound exceptional. Director/co-writer Luca Guadagino’s languid film might also fool its audience into wondering just how exceptional it is; but as the film builds, it evolves into a fascinating portrait of this woman with nothing to define herself. One of the keys to her existence is her reaction when she learns that her daughter is a lesbian. It’s obvious the rest of the family will take this news with great shock and protest. Swinton doesn’t seem to know just how to react. She accepts her daughter’s lifestyle with surprise at her own acceptance.

Guadagino’s movie sneaks up on its audience. The score by composer John Adams sounds like something out of a Hitchcock thriller. Somehow, that’s appropriate as Swinton discovers that her life has been stolen from her and every move she makes in her affair is like one of Hitchcock’s heroes running from the people trying to murder him. “I Am Love” is an elegant film that has a practical outlook in its final moments, with the main character shouting out in the very way an audience wants her to when the film reaches its climax.

Special Jury Prize

Most film festivals award a special jury prize as a sort of alternative winner. My special jury prize is a movie that could go anywhere on my Top Ten list, but it also has a unique quality that separates it from the other titles found in this year’s selection.

Exit Through the Gift Shop. The world’s most famous street artist, Bansky, has sculpted the most compelling movie of the year with “Exit Through the Gift Shop”.  Some have brought the legitimacy of this documentary into question, but it acts as both a document on the mysterious world of street artist and as a unique piece of street art itself.

The first half of the film unfolds as a much-needed exposé on the world of street art. A filmmaker named Thierry Guetta is able to insert himself into the incredibly secretive practices of street artists. Guetta shoots hours upon hours of footage of the world’s most infamous street artists, including Banksy himself. As it turns out, Guetta never does anything with his footage, so Bansky takes it upon himself to put together this documentary.

Then the documentary finds a twist when Guetta decides to become a street artist himself and miraculously finds success beyond that of what most street artists ever see. The film’s detractors claim that Guetta is merely a concoction of Banksy’s imagination, yet this type of trickery seems to encompass everything that Bansky’s art is all about. It subverts itself and manipulates its audience in a public forum in the way that all great street art does. It’s a masterwork of filmmaking, whether it’s all real or not.

The rest of my four-star movies of 2010.

The American. George Clooney finds his heart is no longer in the killing game in this 1970s European style thriller.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy will be coming to Hollywood in 2011, but the Danes got their shot at it first. The first episode of the series made for an excellent piece of movie pulp in the same vein as “The Silence of the Lambs”.

MacGruber. The very overlooked big screen spin-off of the SNL sketch has finally got some attention with many critics citing its sex scenes as two of the best ever, but the entire show is filled with the irreverence that fueled the great spoof flicks of the 70s and early 80s.

A Prophet. This organized crime prison flick gives us a glimpse of what Martin Scorsese might envision if he sent his mob subjects to jail, but this French import goes a little further with its hero being driven by visions of the victim who got him started down the path of a crime power player.

Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974. “Red Riding” is a British TV mini-series that got a small theatrical release in the U.S. early in 2010 on the strength of its true-life serial killer case material. Although the entire series is worth a look, the first episode is by far the best with another amazing performance by “The Social Network” star Andrew Garfield as a reporter looking down the alley’s the corrupt Manchester police force don’t want him to.

Salt. The Cold War is rebirthed to great effect in this throwback to 80s espionage thrillers, with Angelina Jolie providing a powerful female heroine in a plot with more twists and turns than a Grand Canyon switchback.

Temple Grandin. HBO continues its tradition of excellence in biographical filmmaking with this fascinating portrait of the brilliant autistic inventor. Claire Danes turns in a career defining performance in this film that does an amazing job visualizing the thought process of a person who suffers from autism.

Unstoppable. A disaster flick for our current financial crisis, Tony Scott’s thrilling ride is his best picture since “Crimson Tide” and proves that it’s still possible to put together a crowd pleaser that also acts as a metaphor for our times.

Worst of 2010

1. Frozen. I can’t imagine how this awful, awful movie about three idiots who get stuck on a chairlift over night was a film festival darling.

2. I’m Still Here. Documentary or mockumentary, this dreadful look at Joaquin Phoenix’s failed hip-hop career could also be the death of his film career.

3. From Paris With Love. This is perhaps the most ridiculous espionage flick ever made, and I’m including the Austin Powers series in that assessment.

4. Cop Out. Even if the studio had kept this movie’s original title, “A Couple of Dicks”, it would still be a cop out for everyone involved.

5. The Expendables. I suppose it isn’t really a surprise that Sylvester Stallone was able to assemble an entire cast of major action superstars to make a terrible movie.

6. The Jenson Project. Thankfully there’s television around to make sure that sci-fi clunkers like this one never make their way to theaters.

7. Legion. Heaven sure has gotten angry lately. Does God know we produce such terrible things as this movie in his name?

8. Going the Distance. Isn’t Drew Barrymore getting a little old to be rehashing the same bad romantic comedy storylines over and over again?

9. Yogi Bear. “Hey, Boo Boo. There’s some pretty bad fil-um making going on here!”

10. The Girl Who Played With Fire. I’m sure there were other movies that were bad enough to go in this one’s place on the worst list, but this was by far the most disappointing movie of the year considering how good the first movie was.

1 comment:

The Wells Family said...

As always, well written and informing. Maybe one day I'll be able to stay up past 10 and watch some of these with you. You know, one day when our THREE children are grown up and out of the house....Yes, I said THREE!! Hard to believe :)