Happy Oscar Sunday everyone!!! Just in time to close out 2010 with my Top 10 Films of the year. That this was not the greatest year for movies is certainly not to say that there weren’t some absolutely wonderful films. By and large, the bigger movies underwhelmed while the moderately-budgeted auteur projects really delivered the goods. Here’s to hoping the studios take note and provide funding accordingly. Before I get to my list, a few housekeeping notes:
Movies I Didn’t See: Rabbit Hole; Another Year; Barney’s Version; The Illusionist; Mother; Somewhere
Movies That Are WAY Overrated: The Kids Are All Right; The Town; The Ghost Writer; A Prophet
Honorable Mentions: 127 hours, Blue Valentine; Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work; The Last Exorcism; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1; The King’s Speech; Winter’s Bone
10. Black Swan
We start off in murky waters. The screenplay for the film is a mess. There’s the whole idea, for starters, that the descent into madness is an almost solely sexual one for women. I found it a little condescending and it seemed like the psycho-sexual elements – in particular Nina’s lesbian dream (which was okay yes all right very super totally sexy-and-a-half) – didn’t really amount to much in terms of propelling her further along the downward spiral. And yet. Natalie Portman’s performance is fearless. The ballet is majestic and rigorous and painful. And director Darren Aronofsky, in the same bloody water from “The Wrestler,” creates a complete picture of this dual world. In reality he shows us the cracks and groans and aches of the performers’ bodies, the routine of breaking in their shoes, and the design of the heightened sound of Portman’s breathing really highlights the physical toll. Then there are all of the subtle effects on Nina’s body: her rash, the hair, her eyes, the rippling scales, the creepy visions and eventually, with Clint Mansell’s brilliant score, her transformation. Some people interpret the film to suggest certain characters didn’t exist or that Nina, herself, may have been a figment of someone else. I’ve only seen the film once, but I didn’t take that away. To me, it shows a single-minded pursuit of perfection at any cost. Beyond that, I think the speculation devolves into sortof conspiracy theories.
9. Iron Man 2/ Tron: Legacy
Most of the major action efforts by studios this year were bland and uninspired, and I know plenty who felt that way about both of these movies. I thought the action was top notch, from the hand-to-hand battles in “Iron Man 2″ to the etherial light-cycle sequence in “Tron: Legacy.” And both had plots that engaged me. Most sequels settle for wall-to-wall action, but both of these took their time and provided opportunities for talented actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Jeff Bridges to do some fascinating, if curious character work. And call me a sucker, but the father/son storyline worked really well in “Tron.”
Neither movie bends our expectations so far that we’re in an arthouse movie (although there was some opportunity for it in both, actually), but neither did they insult our intelligence. They could have painted-by-numbers, instead they took some chances, showed some ambition. That goes a long way with me.
8. Shutter Island/Inception
This is the second and final tie on the list. What an interesting double-feature Leonardo DiCaprio offered this year. He plays essentially the same character in both films, struggling internally to make amends with a disturbing personal tragedy that refuses to change no matter what orchestrations he creates. In both he creates a world steeped in his regret and pain, and in both there are disastrous consequences. DiCaprio is perhaps the best actor of generation at conveying anguish. You see it registered over every inch of his face, in his posture, in the way he half-chews when nothing is in his mouth. It would be too big and dramatic if it weren’t also so true; and when he finds stillness, it can be powerful and unsettling.
For my money, “Shutter Island” is the better film, for its additional thematic concerns about men-of-violence and for the way its climax doesn’t sidestep the character’s past, but allows him to relive it and see it as it truly was for the first time. “Inception” still has those themes, but I’m more impressed with it as a piece of action-filmmaking. The hotel sequence with Joseph Gordon-Levitt is probably the most purely exciting thing I’ve seen all year. The numerous layers of reality are interesting, but ultimately, there is a wide gaping hole at the end of the film that goes unexplained. A double bill with a movie each from Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan, both of which leave viewers asking all sorts of questions afterwards, has to be recognized.
A small Greek film from director Giorgos Lanthimos, the plot is spare and upsetting. A husband and wife have confined their three teenage children to their home for their entire lives. A fourth sibling has been created and the children are told he lives over the fence, due to disobedience. The father works at a nearby factory, where he occasionally brings home a woman to have sex with his son. The parents teach their children incorrect meanings for words. Why? Are they afraid they will escape? Are they deliberately cruel? The children are aware of television as an invention, but the only thing they see are their own home movies. When their mother uses the telephone, they wonder why she is talking to herself. The film raises all sorts of questions about parenting and those qualities which are inherent within us versus those that are learned. How does the notion to deceive occur? What about to dominate? What about to lie? What about basic spatial relationships that seem obvious? Do they seem obvious because they’ve been reinforced or because they are naturally evident? In addition to the slow burn of tension and hostility, what makes “Dogtooth” remarkable is that it never explains itself. It simply shows characters behaving. Apart from that, we’re forced to draw our own conclusions.
6. Exit Through the Gift Shop
Now a film that seems to telegraph its perspective for us but maybe doesn’t after all. I love the story of Thierry Guerta, the Frenchman who can’t help but document everything he sees and accidentally gets hooked up with the street artist Shepherd Fairy, who lets him tag along…everywhere. The footage following around street artists as they tag different spots around Los Angeles and the country and then abroad has a fantastic energy to it. Exuberance might be the right word. And while I buy Banksy’s LA show with the elephant and the celebrities, and I see the footage from Disneyland, am I really supposed to buy that Guerta put down his camera to make art himself? And if he did, and if during that time Banksy was back in London, then who picked up the camera to film? And why? There are negative implications about street art as a skill if Guerta really was able to create his own 2008 show. There are even more negative implications if none of that art was his and the whole thing was a sortof joke by Banksy, Shepherd Fairy and the other artists; a joke at the expense of their own audience, except that from their perspective, the audience may have gotten too big – or more accurately too commercialized – anyway, which means that pissing off dumb people you don’t want to buy your art will almost surely result in those that remain feeling an inflated sense of personal connection to the art, thereby possibly making them more likely to purchase more of it; which of course, starts the entire process of commercialization all over again. This movie will either sound exhilarating or exhausting. I found it fascinating and hilarious.
5. True Grit
The Coen Brothers don’t make prestige films and they don’t make standard genre pictures. And yet “True Grit” turned out to be both in a way, but only there’s nothing standard about anything they make. Some felt this was Coens-lite. I disagree. Every one of their major thematic concerns and motifs is represented in the film (blunt, brutal violence; the personal cost of seeking vengeance; the boundless, inventive dialogue; the odd one-scene characters) as well as the stark beauty of the landscapes captured by longtime cinematographer, Roger Deakins. Most of all, there are three brilliant performances in Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon (who deserved a nomination much more than Jeremy Renner), and, in my favorite performance from the entire year, Hailie Steinfeld. She commands the screen at every moment, and she is so fierce – as when she unblinkingly forges a river on her horse – that I felt silly for not realizing the title is just as much about her as Rooster Cogburn. The Coens don’t play safe and they don’t cheat the consequences of their characters’ actions. Sometimes that comes at the expense of an emotional investment in their characters and results in a sortof detached bemusement. “True Grit” seems like it should fall into that same trap. The reason it doesn’t is Hailie Steinfeld.
4. The Fighter
Now my favorite male performance of the year, which belongs to Christian Bale as Dickey Eklund, the cracked out ex-boxer who can’t seem to let go of his past glory. Is he really so oblivious to his own deterioration? To the squalor around him? The recognition of those things in Bale is what makes his depiction transcendent; in fact, that’s what makes “The Fighter” so surprising as a whole. Who needs another boxing movie, was my thought going into the theater. You expect family issues and big fights and to feel like you’ve seen it all before. I don’t know why I didn’t have more initial faith in David O. Russell, a director who’s never made a movie I dislike. He finds the truth in each moment and doesn’t settle for easy resolutions like getting rid of your family for you girlfriend or turning your back on people who cause you pain. Mark Wahlberg, Melissa Leo and Amy Adams (like you’ve never seen her before) lead the strongest ensemble of the year. There is a scene late in the film on Adams’ character’s porch, where she and Bale have to come to an understanding. It is confrontational and angry and you can see both actors putting themselves totally on the line. You expect soft sentiment and easy answers from the scene. What it gives you is a picture of brokenness trying to change; to turn and be mended.
3. The Social Network
For most movies, it would be a bad thing if the opening scene was the best in the movie, but somehow David Fincher’s “The Social Network” manages to feel like such a true extension of that scene (the perfect combination of exposition, character, and theme) that it all works. You see how deeply Zuckerberg’s ambition is rooted in pain. Every aspect is firing on all cylinders. Aaron Sorkin’s script is a technical marvel. Jesse Eisenberg (so deserving of his nomination, good for him!) and the other actors inhabit the roles, Trent Reznor’s score is diabolically good, and Fincher’s direction folds them all together in a way that leaves you breathless. How many amazing sequences does the film contain? My favorite is the Facemash sequence, where Zuckerberg first gets people’s attention. The way the film intercuts different scenes to create a simultaneous stream of dramatic action is like nothing I’ve seen before. I don’t think it’ll win Best Picture this year, but I think it will be remembered much longer than the film that does.
2. Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World
Another double feature would be “The Social Network” and this movie. Both about pop culture, both endlessly inventive structurally, and you’ve got the Michael Cera/Jesse Eisenberg connection. I don’t know why “Scott Pilgrim” was so universally overlooked and underrated when it came out, but the film remains my favorite comedy of the year. Edgar Wright incorporates the breakneck pacing and tone of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” with the more personal stories from “Spaced.” This movie is so good it’s humbling. How many directors can have a three-joke sequence just using framing? From epic fights to hilarious characters to more on-screen cultural iconography than you can fend off without having to Continue – all the while maintaining a sense of story and theme and character that (far from being displaced) are enhanced by the visual style – this is the coolest movie of the year.
1. Toy Story 3
The fact that I wasn’t that interested in seeing the latest from Pixar only reinforces how shockingly good the final act of the trilogy was. What can I say about it? The opening reminded me of the hours I spent as a kid playing with action figures in my room. It shows the nexus of the numerous creative impulses. That’s what people like me saw in their mind. What an astounding character Woody is! Look at his dedication to get back to Andy, in whom he has unwavering faith, combined with his unrelenting love for his friends and his refusal to let them be hurt, even after they’ve hurt him. The fact that you know Woody will stop at nothing, and that his insistence is born from love and goodness, makes his moment of resignation in the film’s climax the most emotionally arresting thing I saw on film all year. There is something inexpressibly beautiful about the way they take each other’s hands, about the looks they share with each other. I’m telling you, it made my heart stop. It is a profound thing to reach the absolute brink of your ability as a creation. No other movie displayed that kind of looking-into-the-abyss moment like “Toy Story 3″ did. For all its invention and humor and excitement and joy (the epilogue is heart-rending in its own way), that moment in the incinerator when we see Woody’s eyes change makes “Toy Story 3″ the best film of the year.