Sunday, January 30, 2011

Top 10 Films: 2010

I think I've written before about the difference between films and movies, and this year's crop of, er, cinematic releases clearly demonstrates that difference. It's part of the reason why I had such a hard time with my Top 10 (that, and there was a huge glut in the 7-12 range). Anyway, 2010 featured a good mix of both Oscar-style, prestige "films" and good old-fashioned fun "movies." How do you differentiate between intellectually-stimulating, technically marvelous "films" and the "movies" that produce a more visceral reaction? To put this in terms of alcohol (and, let's face it, that's something everyone can relate to), it's like choosing between wine and beer. Highbrow or low? Fancy or banal? How do you choose? My answer is, "You don't."  I tried to assemble a Top 10 that reflects that.  Let's begin:

Honorable Mentions:
The King's Speech
Shutter Island
The Square
Winter's Bone

10) Takers
Directed by: John Lussenhop
Written by: Lussenhop and some other dudes
Starring: Matt Dillon, Paul Walker, Idris Elba, Hayden Christensen's Hat

First off, yes, I'm totally serious. If it's good enough for Stephen King, it's good enough for me. Second, this was almost destined to be on the list -- it's got too many of my favorite things: Los Angeles, a heist, and Paul Walker (whom I have a sick fascination with). All that said, it's actually a taut little heist movie that's probably as good as it could have been (which is to say, somewhat greater than the sum of its parts). Comparisons to Heat are inevitable, but it's probably more like Uncomfortably Warm on the Michael Mann scale. But it does the whole Los Angeles, cop/criminal duality thing well enough that the comparison isn't insulting to one of my favorite movies/directors. The stunt casting (Chris Brown, T.I.) didn't help, but Dillon/Elba/Michael Ealy propped the rest of the cast up (Walker included) with strong performances. This was better than it had any right to be. Finally: A shout-out to Hayden Christensen's Hat (arguably the star of the show). Nice.

9) Rabbit Hole
Directed by: John Cameron Mitchell
Written by: David Lindsay-Abaire
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest

One of the reasons I waited so long to post this list is because there was a number of 2010 films I wanted to see -- you know, all the awards contender-types that we don't get out here in the cultural wasteland that is Arizona until they've been out for a month or so. Two of the main ones were this and Blue Valentine. I didn't think either of them would make this list -- I've never been too keen on the "depressing relationship drama" type of film -- but I wanted to at least say I've seen most of the big art house stuff. Blue Valentine went as expected -- the well-acted, lovingly-made, feel-bad movie of the year. Not my cup of tea -- and I don't even like tea -- but good nonetheless. But not Top 10 good. Rabbit Hole was a different story -- not in the least because of it's more optimistic take of the whole "disintegrating relationship" story. The "death of a child" movie has been done many times before, but never quite with this mix of powerhouse acting (Kidman and Eckhart both should be up for Oscars), intricate script, black humor, and atheistic optimism. I've never seen that last one before -- that somehow there is hope because of the lack of a divine presence. That science can somehow be that crutch that people can lean on in times of tragedy. Such an interesting angle. Ditto all the visual repetition, the sense of a pattern hinted at in the editing (as well as in the eponymous comic book that's a key plot point). This is fine -- and terribly under-appreciated -- filmmaking.

8) Machete
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis
Written by: Robert Rodriguez and Álvaro Rodriguez
Starring: Danny Trejo, Robert De Niro, Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, Jeff Fahey

I love Machete because it's almost critic-proof. I mean, it's based off a fake trailer from Grindhouse and was made for $10 million. This is clearly not a movie made to please lovers of fine cinema. Like most Robert Rodriguez movies, it has an undeniable energy, clipping along at a frenetic pace, plot/audience be damned. If you can't keep up (or don't want to), you're at the wrong movie. But with a cast/characters like this, who needs a plot? That sounds like a terrible thing to say, and is no excuse for a bad movie, but Machete definitely isn't bad. It's not exactly "good," but it does a lot right. Danny Trejo finally gets a much-deserved lead role, Michelle Rodriguez is featured in one of the few roles where I don't want to strangle her, LOST alum Jeff Fahey shines as a corrupt businessman, Bobby D absolutely HAMS it up as a corrupt politician -- and Don Johnson even shows up! With gratuitous violence/T&A (a naked chick pulls a cell phone out of her snatch!), a coyote-truckload of self-depreciation, pseudo-social commentary, and the now-classic line "Machete don't text," Machete is a film of pure hubris -- as such, it demands a place in my Top 10 (and I sure don't want to piss Machete off).

7) Toy Story 3
Directed by: Lee Unkrich
Written by: Michael Arndt
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger

Toy Story 3 is the sentimental favorite on this list. I won't lie -- I got a little misty-eyed at the end. If you didn't, you probably don't have a soul and/or were beaten as a child. Toy Story 3 is a kid's movie whose message and themes is waaaay above the heads of its demographic. It's not so much about growing up as it is about taking that one last leap and leaving your childhood behind forever. What nine-year-old is going to comprehend that? And what adult is that not going to speak to? Oscar-winner Michael Arndt's (Little Miss Sunshine) script absolutely drips with pathos, and if the Academy has any sense, he'll garner another nomination this year (Edit: it did!). The voice acting and CGI are top-notch, as always with a Pixar movie. My only real complaint is the use (or non-use) of 3D. I saw it in 3D and honestly barely noticed it. An unnecessary face lift for a film that just didn't need it.

6) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Directed by: Edgar Wright
Written by: Edgar Wright and Michael Bacall
Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Keiran Culkin, Chris Evans

Fellow pop culture junkies, be on your toes: This isn't so much a movie as a full-on, pop-culture, quote-fest orgy. In a good way. Director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) doesn't miss a chance to test his audience -- every sound effect, ring tone, song, poster in the background, T-shirt, etc. is a reference to something else -- everything from Zelda to Seinfeld to Wayne's World 2 is given a shout out. Scottie P also boasts a stellar soundtrack -- a good mix of songs recorded for the film and old favorites (mostly Canadian). My favorite is the Metric song (performed by The Clash at Demonhead in the movie). As for the cast, the two leads (Cera and Winstead) are passable, but it's the cornucopia of supporting players that steal the show here -- it's a murderer's row of "Where the fuck do I know him/her from?!" types. There's less-famous siblings, Oscar nominees, internet comedians, TWO former superheroes, and (another) Arrested Development alum. Oh, and Jason Schwartzman. About my only complaint is with star Michael Cera, who I'm tired of saying I'm tired of. Learn a new trick already!

5) 127 Hours 
Directed by: Danny Boyle
Written by: Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle
Starring: James Franco

127 Hours has been described as a one-man show, referring to star James Franco. That's somewhat of a misnomer, however -- the film bears director Danny Boyle's unmistakable fingerprint, nearly elevating him to costar status. It's an odd pairing of subject matter and director -- Boyle's kineticism confined to one claustrophobic locale. It largely works, although Boyle does cheat somewhat by utilizing flashbacks and dream sequences. These sequences ultimately work to prevent the film from becoming monotonous and help to deconstruct the Alpha male, extreme athlete archetype, of which Aron Ralston becomes the real-life embodiment. It is captivating, disconcerting, harrowing, and eventually graphic watching Franco (in my favorite male lead performance of the year) go from confident to crippled, all in the course of a brisk hour and a half. It's a credit, I think, to both Franco and Boyle that it seems longer. Much longer. This is a film that I think will slip through the cracks come award time (pun definitely intended), but a necessary film, and the logical next step in Boyle's decidedly illogical directorial career.

4) Kick-Ass
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Written by: Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Nic Cage, Mark Strong

Kick-Ass is in many ways both an anti-superhero movie and emblematic of how all superhero movies should be. I mean, even the "serious" ones like The Dark Knight and Watchmen are, at their core, about people that dress up in costumes to fight crime. So why shouldn't superhero movies have a little awkwardness, a little goofiness, a little slapstick, in addition to all that darkness and soul-searching and violence (which Kick-Ass also has, in spades)? Tonally speaking, I'm not sure I've ever seen a movie like Kick-Ass, with its gaudy set design, quirky casting, pitch-perfect score (love the John Murphy samples), and striking combination of sweetness and ultra-violence, perfectly embodied by 13-year-old Moretz as Hit-Girl (one of my favorite female performances this year), who has no problem dropping C-bombs, slitting throats, or crying over her dead father. Johnson is a likable lead, Mark Strong is a competent (if not rote) villain, and Nic Cage is, well, Nic Cage with some sort of weird Adam West-Batman thing going on. Take it or leave it, but don't miss out on the movie.

3) Black Swan
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Written by: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey

Continuing in the Mulholland Drive, lesbian-sex-mindfuck of a film tradition is Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan. Okay, so the two films really don't have anything to do with each other, but I couldn't resist the comparison. Well, maybe they do have a lot in common, on second thought -- in addition to the obvious, both have an engrossing story, creepy old people, awards nominations, and fine lead performances. Natalie Portman finally graduates to the acting elite her performance here, making Aronofsky two-for-his-last-two with Oscar-nominated lead performances (although don't count on him going three-for-three). Cassel and Hershey (the aforementioned creepy old person) are great in supporting roles, but I don't see the hype for Mila Kunis. I'm glad the Academy showed some brains in not nominating her -- if they did, they might as well have retroactively nominated her for Forgetting Sarah Marshall or That '70s Show, because she played the exact same character in all three instances. Just because this film is a higher pedigree doesn't mean a middling performance is suddenly elevated. Unless they wanted to nominate her for mowing box like a champ (hey, it worked for Jake Gyllenhaal, although he was definitely the receiver). Anyway, Black Swan is the art house film of the year -- impressive craftsmanship, intellectually interesting, sexually and morally ambiguous, and a sure bet for a cult following.

2) Inception
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe

I thought long and hard about where to put this one -- it has about as many flaws as strengths, and, as such, about as many detractors as proponents. In the end though -- and it's pretty much a cop-out, I'll admit -- I put it here at #2 not because of the film it is, but what it means to filmmaking in general: Inception represents what movies could be, the future of cinema. Kind of like Avatar last year -- neither are especially great from an acting or storytelling standpoint -- you know, those parts of filmmaking that have been more or less perfected over the years -- but they excel, nay triumph, in the technical wizardry that has been the magical half of filmmaking ever since Méliès (which is to say, nearly since the beginning). These movies are, to this point, the pinnacle of escapist entertainment, making movies like Transformers and the Star Wars prequels look like they were made with Microsoft Paint. So, yes, Inception has wooden characters, monotone dialogue, negligible character development, and a largely incomprehensible plot, but the sheer audacity of the narrative, of the visuals -- many of which were practical, in-camera, effects! -- of the idea mark it as a special film, and one that will be remembered in the coming years as a turning point in the evolution of filmmaking, even if some aspects of it fall flat (which is perhaps why Nolan missed out, again, on a Best Director nomination).

1) The Social Network
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Jessie Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Rooney Mara

Born from the collaboration between one of the best directors (Fincher) and screenwriters (Sorkin, be the screen large or small) working today is a movie that does excel from an acting and storytelling standpoint: The Social Network. Fincher's invisible hand is felt in every frame, every transition, every camera movement, while Sorkin's bravura is heard in every word (and there are a LOT of them). The Social Network takes the very Shakespearean (Wellesian?) themes of greed, betrayal, and jealousy and applies them to that generation-defining website, Facebook. The result is a complex, oft-chilling, study of "Now" -- Facebook is more or less the nexus of social interaction these days, and exploring its genesis says a lot about human interaction in the 21st century -- how trivial, petty, mean it can be. Has it always been this way? Probably. But it's a lot easier to be an asshole (and make a whole fuckton of money) when computers are involved. Jesse Eisenberg is positively acerbic in an Oscar-nominated performance as Mark Zuckerberg (or at least Fincher and Sorkin's mythologization of him), while Garfield is the emotional crux (and should-be Oscar nominee) and Timberlake is utterly soulless as the more or less antagonist. The emotions are raw, the narrative complex (but not convoluted), the dialogue frenetic, and all is kept in check by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's moody, ambient score. This is my favorite -- and the best -- film of the year, and a potential Best Picture winner. It's a rare thing when all three of those things even have a chance to come together. Who knew it would be a movie about a a website that introduced "Poking" into our lexicon? But hey, at least it wasn't MySpace.

I know it's been 2011 for 30 days now, but these were my favorite movies of 2010. For those curious, The Wolfman was the worst movie I saw last year. Not even worth writing about. Just bad. Thanks for reading, and I'll be back to ramble about the Oscars before too long. Ciao for now.

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