Feb 25 2011

Top Ten Films of 2010

With the awards season coming to a close, here are my top 10 films of the year:

10Scott Pilgrim vs. The World:  Definitely the most under-rated film of this year by leaps and bounds.  Pummeled into the proverbial locker by The Expendables at the box office, and, according to the Hollywood Foreign Press, not nearly as funny or musical as The Tourist, Scott Pilgrim managed to define an entire sub-culture within Generations X and Y.

Director Edgar Wright chose all the right things reference: anime fight sequences, 16-bit videogame sounds and iconography, indie rock and a short attention span.  Everything that defines the youth of today’s twentysomethings is displayed in full view; honestly, who didn’t attend at least one awful battle of the bands with groups similar to the ones in Scott Pilgrim?

Beyond Scott Pilgrim’s adherence to a pop aesthetic, the cast provide the film with a sharp sense of humor, Michael Cera provides something that resembles range, and the film also taps into themes concerning the reluctance of being responsible and the transition from “kid in their twenties” to “adult in their twenties;” a definable, non-pop culture related attribute of slackerdom.

9True Grit: The Coen Brothers seemed to find a kindred spirit in Charles Portis, the author of the original novel, when they took on True Grit; so much so that the Coens’ singular presence does not stand out as much as their other films.  Although the film may be their most conventional film to date, True Grit is not lacking in any bite or wit in its script or characters.

The language in True Grit is a simplified, old-fashioned one that is short, but very formal, and with that the Coens create a particular rhythm and cadence that brings a singular identity to the film.  This dialect is spoken by the men of the film (Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper), who also support the Coens’ vision of the West as being dirty, unkempt and very unattractive; the stark opposite of the traditional, lush Hollywood Western.

Of course, it is Hailee Steinfeld who steals the show and provides us with one of this year’s best performances (note: lead performance, not supporting.  Here’s a tip: If the character narrates the film, they are not a supporting actress.).  Despite being at odds with the genre of the film (female, young, clean, long-winded), Steinfeld is the driving force behind True Grit, and holds her own perfectly.

8. The Fighter:  Here is a film that could have easily become a conventional boxing/sport film, and under another lesser filmmaker, could have become Invincible 2.  However, director David O. Russell takes The Fighter into some unexpected places, and the film also boasts some of the best performances of the year.

Everyone knows the ins and outs of the sport drama: there is an underdog, an impossible obstacle, a triumph against the impossible, and of course, training montages.  Although these things are in The Fighter (there is no escaping these things in such a genre), Russell focuses more on the Ward family than on the Ward family business.  Although the film delves into familiar territory with Mickey Ward’s (Mark Wahlberg) training, the film provides a different kind of fighter’s tale in Mickey’s brother Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale), who struggles with his own personal demons in a way that feels genuine; the titular “fighter” could just as easily be Dicky as it is Mickey.

Christian Bale gives the best male performance of the year, bar none, and although it is more debatable that Steinfeld’s supporting actress placement, Bale should be in the best lead actor category.  Furthermore, Melissa Leo and Amy Adams also deliver some of the best performances of the year as lower class, rough-around-the-edges dames with thick accents and sharp claws to boot.  The women who portray Mickey’s seven trashy, motley sisters should also be mentioned; if only they could gain a spot on the best supporting actress ballot as an ensemble.

7. The Town:  Here is a film that was critically acclaimed when it came out, only to be forgotten when Oscar season started, which is a shame; The Town still holds up amongst this year’s heavy hitters, and is a damn good heist movie.

Like The Fighter, The Town is a fairly conventional genre film (this time, a crime drama), and with an average film crew, it would have been visibly conventional.  However, one of The Town’s greatest attributes is its sharp direction, and who would have ever thought that sharp direction- or sharp anything for that matter- could come from Ben Affleck?  Yes, it was not so long ago that Ben Affleck was everyone’s favorite punch line when it came to bad cinema (see: Daredevil, Paycheck or the legendary Gigli), but it seems like Affleck is having the last laugh while he enjoys a successful career as a director, and deservedly so.

The Town is a really lean crime film: it takes the direct, down to business approach in its delivery that saves it from collapsing under the weight of seeking to be a definitive crime epic.  This no nonsense style is best seen in the actual heist sequences, which are wildly exciting and hard hitting, yet tightly controlled at every turn.  The cast of the film is quite good, and each performer captures the identity of their character in full; Jeremy Renner in particular gives a fantastic performance, as does Blake Lively (who is virtually unrecognizable) and the late Pete Postlethwaite.  Most of all, the city of Boston makes the biggest impression in the film, as the culture of the city permeates every frame and becomes a character itself.

6. Toy Story 3:  One could measure Toy Story 3’s success in the amount of tears shed by audiences across the globe.  Pixar has done great job with elevating animation from “kid’s stuff” to a real, respectable film that everyone can enjoy, and Toy Story 3 is definitely Pixar’s most mature film, and its most effective.

The Toy Story films have always appealed to the inner children of its mature audiences, and they have always managed to be heartwarming, yet sincere at the same time, which is harder to do than one may think.  Many animated films are too saccharine or too juvenile in their execution for adults, even when those films are aiming for more universal appeal.  Although the Toy Story films have never had that problem, Toy Story 3 is the first of the series to deal with some pretty adult themes, namely the feelings of sadness and loss accompanied with growing up and leaving things behind.

All the voice actors in the film are great, but Tom Hanks, as always, lies at the heart of the story behind Toy Story 3, and the amount of feeling and expression he can convey with just his voice is a testament to just how talented an actor he is.  Ed Asner, who portrays the villainous, strawberry-scented Lotso, conveys a real, genuine sense of bitterness that will make you hate and sympathize him- not a simple task, considering that the character is a pink stuffed bear.

5. Exit Through the Gift Shop:  Most critically acclaimed documentaries have a political agenda, and it is not difficult to see why: it is very easy to stir up an audience with a politically righteous message.  However, much of the public and award shows underestimate the power of non-political documentaries like The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and Dear Zachary: A Letter To His Son About His Father.  This year, however, the street art-centered Exit Through The Gift Shop has managed to usurp the public’s attention from documentaries shot on a soap box.

There is a lot going on in Exit Through The Gift Shop: on the one hand, it is a documentation on the graffiti art scene and how it is rising through the ranks of artistic legitimacy- or, at least, acceptance- in the art world.  However, the star of the show is none other than Thierry “Mister Brainwash” Guetta, who goes from eccentric cameraman to street art’s rising star- for all the wrong (or maybe right?) reasons.

Gift Shop is, without a doubt, one of the funniest films of the year.  Using footage shot entirely by Guetta, Banksy shows us how the art world’s pretentiousness got the best of them through the bizarro Cinderella story that was Guetta’s art career.  Although Banksy’s compilation of Guetta’s footage provides the film with its subversive edge, Guetta’s idiosyncratic nature and belief in his art make him all the more endearing.  What makes the film even funnier is the commentary from Banksy and his street art peers, all of whom are baffled and virtually speechless at the accidental champion of their art form.

4. Inception:  Writer and director Christopher Nolan has an incredible track record, and seems to only be getting bigger and better with each film he makes.  Inception was by and large the most anticipated film of 2010, and it managed to live up to its own hype.  In the post-Transformers age where big budgets equaled zero imagination or style, Nolan proved otherwise: Inception is as smart and awe-inspiring as its budget is huge.

There has been, of course, plenty of backlash from critics and online folk alike in response to Inception’s success.  Granted, much of what was made fun of in Inception was not unwarranted (personal favorite: “South Park’s” rendition of the Inception trailer music in “Insheeption.”), however, this really speaks to just how massive the Inception phenomenon was, and still is to this day.  As for the criticisms for Inception’s own self-importance and affinity for being over cerebral for the sake of itself, it should be said that, for all its style and playfulness concerning dream layers and such, Inception is fairly straight-forward: it is a heist movie, and a well executed one at that.  The rest is just aesthetics.

Inception boasts all the things inherent to a great “men-on-a-mission” heist film.  For one, Inception has an incredible ensemble cast, and each member plays off one another beautifully.  Furthermore, Nolan keeps a tight grip on the film’s concept of intertwining dream layers, and makes sure that every facet of the film’s schematics are in sync with one another.  The sequence in which the team is pulled out of each dream layer one at a time is perfect, and the way it all plays out goes to show just how good Nolan is a director (note: the Oscars really screwed up by omitting Nolan from the “best director” category).  It is probably one of the most memorable, if not definitive scenes of the 2010, just as Inception is one of the most memorable films of the year.

3. Black Swan:  Darren Aronofsky is one of my favorite directors of this generation; he creates distorted, sometimes even surreal portraits of the world and brings his audience into them.  Sometimes, as is the case in Black Swan, he drags them in kicking and screaming.

In many ways, Black Swan serves as a companion piece to Aronofsky’s previous film, The Wrestler, as both films revolve around the relationship between a performer and their performance.  Although The Wrestler adhered to a cinema verite style and focuses on a man well past his prime, Black Swan follows Nina’s (Natalie Portman) quest for total perfection at the expense of her sanity.  Rather than film the story objectively, Aronofsky relies on expressionism and presents the world as Nina perceives it: a total nightmare.

Black Swan does an incredible job at visually presenting a descent into madness; the paranoia, angst, identity crises, and personal transformations are made real, and in seeing these sensations fully realized on the big screen, audience members will find themselves experiencing madness alongside Nina.  Although Aronofsky orchestrates the nightmare, Portman is the dreamer, the character that embodies the experience of the film and acts as the audience’s point of reference.

Although Black Swan is full of great performances, Barbara Hershey gives a performance that, at times, rivals Portman, yet most award shows- save for the BAFTAs- have seemingly forgotten all about her.  For as smoky Mila Kunis is, and for as sleazy Vincent Cassel is (both did an incredible job), Hershey is so unsettling and unnerving as Nina’s subtly overbearing mother that Aronofsky had no need to use any camera tricks to make her scenes any more frightening.

2. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: There were two films this year that grabbed me by the throat and kept me in a perpetual state of shock and amazement.  Black Swan was one of those films, and the other was The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  Based on the immensely successful Swedish book series by Stieg Larsson, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo garnered an impressive amount of attention in the U.S. for a foreign film, and for good reason; it has been a while since anyone has seen such an extreme, compelling film.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is, no doubt, difficult to watch, as it delves into some dark, brutal subject matter concerning sexual abuse.  That being said, the more exploitative parts of the film never supersede the story, and instead add a depth that is disturbing, yet intriguing.  At its core, Dragon Tattoo is a whodunit, and no matter what weird and winding turns the plot takes into human depravity, director Niels Arden Oplev never loses control of the film, and always makes sure that the mystery and those who uncover it lie at center of the story.

Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist play the film’s investigative team, and both actors are perfect at creating a brilliant investigative team, and a relationship that is somehow both intimate and distant, as well as oddly touching.  Rapace’s performance is perfect, and she rivals Natalie Portman; she brings such a feral commitment to the role physically and emotionally, and owns the film.

One of the best things about the film is how it handles the investigative process behind the film’s mystery: finding a girl who has been missing for forty-odd years.  The investigative process is shot and edited together in a way that brings the audience into the investigation, and that, coupled with a very interesting mystery, makes for a very engaging experience; even the research end of the investigation is thrilling.

The Oscars seem to have completely forgotten about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which is odd considering its relative popularity and success amongst the movie going public and studio execs alike (David Fincher is set to direct an American remake for the end of the year).  Although the film was released in 2009 in Sweden, it was then released internationally in 2010, and various awards ceremonies, including the BAFTAs, has recognized the film for a number of achievements anyway.  The film should be up for an Oscar for, at least, “Best Foreign”- though Rapace should get a nod for “Best Actress”- and the fact that it will not even be mentioned is a joke.

1. The Social Network:  Who would have ever thought there could be a film-worthy story behind the creation of Facebook?  Granted, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) was far from squeaky clean, but watching someone create a website- which involves a lot of desk sitting and code writing- is hardly exciting to watch, unless it is given the Hackers treatment.

In an interview with deadline.com, Harvey Weinstein made several jabs at The Social Network– though he never mentioned the film by name- by discussing the lack of staying power in films that are socially relevant.  Yes, Social Network is about the creation of Facebook, but it’s not really about Facebook, or the culture of social networking.  Although the burgeoning world of social networking lies in background, the film revolves around themes of greed, loyalty, and the desire for success, all of which are timeless cornerstones of drama.

There is a lot going on in The Social Network, both on and under the surface, and all of it is brilliantly woven together by director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.  The criss cross narrative involving the two different legal depositions recounting the creation of Facebook allows the film to cover a lot of ground in terms of plot, context and character development, and provides a visual kind of storytelling that coincides with Zuckerberg’s rapid fire thought process and verbal delivery.

Isolation lies at the heart of the story of Mark Zuckerberg, which is ironic considering he is the inventor of something that revolutionized the social landscape.  Fincher proves to be the perfect director for the film –as he deals with isolated characters more often than not- and the dark color composition that often accompanies Fincher’s films (compliments of his regular cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth) sets the tone perfectly from the get go, as does the minimalist score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

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