Saturday, January 29, 2011

Top Ten Films of 2010

Every year, to accompany their list of the finest achievements in cinema over the past twelve months, critics will typically say that they don't really support the idea of a top ten list and that ranking art is an absurd practice. As it happens, I agree. Philosophically, anyway. On a practical level, I do so love making lists, and while I know I'm no arbiter of taste, I often look to top ten lists for guidance on what I missed or overlooked or just didn't look at the right way. So I do believe they serve some purpose in a larger sense. On a personal level, knowing I'm going to write this at the end of the year keeps me seeing as many movies as possible, which is good for ya'll and even better for me. And, as always, one hopes it sparks some discussion, so go to town in the comments section.

With that in mind, the idea that I only have twenty-one films listed here seems insane when I look at my list of eligible films and think of everything that could easily be on here. Maybe not in the top five or even ten, but certainly as a runner-up. But one must draw the line somewhere, I suppose; I just really am baffled when people say there aren't ten great films every year, because I have never found that to be the case, and I'll be shocked if I ever will. As far as a general assessment of the year...well, I was surprised how many filmmakers were willing and able to abandon reality in favor of emotion, and that they all did it so successfully. If you're a strictly left-brain filmgoer, might be out of luck.

Honorable Mentions:

Piranha 3D
It'd be one thing if the film was just batshit insane fun, which it absolutely is. It's another that, in the year of the 3D explosion, this was by far the best use of 3D. The underwater footage is surprisingly beautiful (even when it's beautifully absurd), and the mayhem is a blast. As much as I encourage people to look at the art of 3D movies, there's something to be said for when it's used for pure schlock. (Available on DVD and Blu-Ray)

I only saw it two days ago in preparation for this list, and I'm nowhere near ready to make anything of it (I guess I'd say its like spending a night at the Overlook Hotel when all the real people have gone away). I know it's a fairly exceptional piece of work, however, and one that more than bears mentioning. (Available on DVD and Netflix streaming; available on Blu-Ray March 28th)

Runners-Up (in no particular order):

Director Pedro González-Rubio has nearly perfected a wonderful kind of cinema, a blurring of documentary and fiction that doesn't at all hinge on a "what's-real-and-what's-made-up" gimmick of your Exit Through the Gift Shop or I'm Still Here, but is a guided and redirected vision of something very real, while still allowed to capture things that would take place were his camera not there. It's really touching, surprising stuff. (Available on DVD and Netflix streaming)

Ben Stiller is given the most he's ever been given to do, and knocks it out of the park doing it. This is the first of writer/director Noah Baumbach's films I've at all liked; weirdly hilarious and touching in the most desperate way imaginable. (Available on DVD and Blu-Ray)

Blue Valentine
An emotional steamroller, but one worth enduring. Michelle Williams gives the performance of the year, and elevates everything around her - including, when necessary, the film itself. (Still in theaters)

Everyone Else
The sister film to Blue Valentine, this is a relationship dissolving in a way a little more familiar to most of us - increasingly awkward and uncomfortable silences, undefined problems, and a nagging feeling that we just don't feel the way we used to anymore. (Available on DVD and Netflix streaming)

The Square
A death grip of a crime thriller that few are willing to be, these days or ever. (Available on DVD and Blu-Ray)

The Fighter
Surprisingly hilarious, eccentric, and then all of a sudden moving, director David O. Russell did himself a favor by making a mainstream movie that works on its own terms (and a few of his), and gave us a sports movie that doesn't quite feel like a sports movie. (Still in theaters)

Sofia Coppola's near-masterpiece is one I feel like I haven't fully unpacked yet. Like Marie Antoinette, there's far more going on beneath the surface, and what I have glimpsed is quite brilliant, but I'm eager to revisit. (Still in theaters)

Jack Goes Boating
The most romantic film of the year - honest, genuine, unashamed. A delight. (Available on DVD and Blu-Ray)

Starts out as a comedy, becomes a gripping crime procedural, and then transforms into something very different by the end. Another one I'm eager to dive back into. (Available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Netflix streaming)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
This deserves mention if only for the extended camping sequence, the bravest move I've seen a blockbuster pull in quite some time. Never mind the excellent ensemble work and David Yates' ever-assured direction. I can't wait for this to be even better after Part 2 comes out. (Still playing in some theaters, believe it or not)

The Top Ten

10. Buried
Here is a film I was truly unprepared for. I had heard the buzz - Ryan Reynolds trapped in a box for an hour and a half, we spend the entire running time with him in that box, and oh hey it's not boring. I guess I just wasn't prepared for how un-boring it is. The script is kind of a wash (you'll see that crop up a lot here), but director Rodrigo Cortés is absolutely on fire. It's not only not boring, it turned out to be the most exciting, intense experience I had at the movies all year. A sort of action movie in a box. By the end, I felt so suffocated that I had to get outside before I caught my breath. That, my friends, is damned effective filmmaking. (Available on DVD and Blu-Ray)

9. Toy Story 3
Man, big screen summer entertainment doesn't get much better than this. I'm not a Pixar devotee by any stretch of the imagination - the last, and before this only, time a Pixar film landed in my top ten was The Incredibles in 2004. I liked Wall-E well enough, but I had some serious issues with Up. In both of those cases, it felt like Pixar was apologizing for making you sit through so much art that they kind of shoehorned in a chase-the-magic-item action-adventure film at the end, regardless of how well it fit tonally or thematically with the rest of the picture. Toy Story 3 has those entertainment elements built in from the start, with a truly fantastic (in every sense) opening sequence, and the excitement rarely lets up. The prison break aspects are a joy, and the introduction of the monkey did a very rare thing for a film of any kind - got a true, full-throated laugh from an image alone. And yes...those moments at the end are as sad and beautiful as everyone says, and serve the purpose so few third films of a franchise care to fulfill - a complete summation of the series' themes, ideas, and emotions. A wonderful film on every level, and if this were simply a list of the most "perfect" films of the year, this would be tied with The Social Network for first. (Available on DVD and Blu-Ray)

8. Black Swan
The film's detractors have done a good job of describing the film - over-the-top, melodramatic, messy, thematically-loaded imagery...uses a handheld camera (really guys?) - but have done a less convincing job of summing up why these are always bad attributes. In depicting the mental collapse of a ballet dancer, director Darren Aronofsky has thrown caution to the wind and created something wildly chaotic in the best way possible. Forsaking the notion that ALL dance should be filmed in a wide shot, Aronofsky stays trained on the face of his lead actress, and is better for it. Natalie Portman proves more expressive and less restrained than many of us thought her capable of, and the film's off-the-rails downslide towards insanity is all the more convincing - and effective - for it. (Still in theaters)

7. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
I didn't plan for it to shake out this way, but lo and behold, I have three films in a row here (starting with this) that just might change cinematic language. Or anyway, they're trying. I said it before, and I'll stand by it - the way writer/director Edgar Wright cut this film is just as much a landmark stylistically as what Jean-Luc Godard was doing in Breathless. The way he tells entire stories in seconds, the way one scene feeds in flawlessly to the next, this is someone who has built his film so completely, moment to moment, and has nothing to apologize for. This is not the usual movie set up where a collection of scenes end up telling a story - this is almost one big scene that cuts between locations and across time. And that's just the freaking EDITING. Never mind the year's best ensemble in a fine year for ensemble, a whip-smart script capable of both mocking and embracing the modern culture of the wayward twentysomething (long a staple of all narrative forms of art), and a visual style that does not give a damn about "reality." It's hilarious, exciting filmmaking, and left me hoping for a brighter tomorrow when most great films are content working in modes of the past. (Available on DVD and Blu-Ray)

6. Wild Grass
If there's anyone who's earned the chance to work purely in modes of the past, it'd be Alain Resnais. At 88 (87 when he made this) and with a handful of classics in his filmography already, no one would blame him if he settled in and made a pretty straightforward film (and nobody did when he made Private Fears in Public Places). And yet here he is, still blazing trails. What works in large part as a charming French romance by way of Curb Your Enthusiasm hints at, and by the end dives full-forced, into a weirdly cosmic bit of absurdity. I didn't know what to think the first time through, but the second left me enthralled and befuddled in the best way possible. (Available on DVD)

5. Enter the Void
Not a terribly deep movie - it pretty much explains its conceit twenty minutes in and then spends another two hours executing it - but I've come across few more convincing examples of pure artistic expression at the movies (note: may have more to do with my still-limited exposure to the avant-garde). Filmmaker Gaspar Noe has created a purely expressive experience entirely through image and sound that is really quite special, and I'm saddened to see how many have disregarded his artistic accomplishment for lack of thematic ambition. Utilizing stunning computer effects on a relatively tiny budget (around $12 million in U.S. currency), Noe's film is an ever-expanding, rarely-cutting trip through the afterlife that really has to be experienced before any sort of description even makes sense. (Available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Netflix streaming)

4. True Grit
I wrote in my review about how True Grit is just a big ol' lovefest, and that's the reason it's this high on my list - it is inescapably loveable. The characters are great, from Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, in one of his finest performances) all the way down to the undertaker at the beginning of the film ("If you'd like to sleep in a coffin...that'd be all right" ranks just behind "I have my bearskin!" on the list of funniest things I heard all year), the story endlessly compelling, and the dialogue...oh, that dialogue. It's music. The Coen Brothers probably won't have a film out by the end of next year, which will be strange after four straight years of gems, but this will keep me dancing 'til the next time around. (Still in theaters)

3. The Social Network
As much as I am an art-over-craft kind of guy (see below), it's tough to ignore craft this fine. And don't get me wrong, director David Fincher is as fine an artist as mainstream American cinema will allow, but he and Aaron Sorkin are first and foremost crafting a drama rather than creating art. And what exciting drama it is. I don't know what more I can say about this that hasn't been said, but a) the oft-maligned Regatta sequence is crucial to the film's overall impact, a necessary break from the onslaught of dialogue, and b) watching the special features on the Blu-Ray has given me incredible appreciation for what Fincher and editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall did just in cutting this together. The rhythm of the dialogue might be on the page, and there's a poetry to the way the actors say it, but it really becomes something altogether different because of the editing. In any other director's hands, this would have been a perfectly satisfying adult drama - in Fincher's, it's the masterpiece we know it as. (Still in some theaters; available on DVD and Blu-Ray)

2. Shutter Island
This is the dividing line - between those who watch movies for story and those who watch for emotion or artistry. The plot mechanics of Shutter Island can be overwhelmingly stupid, and the way the twist is revealed and broken down is so idiotic I could hardly believe I was watching the same movie. But just as I don't pay much mind to the lyrics of a song, I can easily overlook storytelling for something this thematically, emotionally, and psychologically powerful. From the opening scene on the boat through the gates of the asylum on through when we hear that absolutely pounding theme once again in the film's final frames (one I can't believe WASN'T written for the film - all of the music is gathered from other sources, and there really should be some sort of recognition for this), Martin Scorsese has crafted psychological terror at its finest and elevated what would, in any other hands, be a fine genre exercise into a classic - the best film of his DiCaprio years and one of the finest of his career. Get the twist spoiled for yourself first or watch it again if you've already seen it and were left frustrated by the revelation - it changes everything about what you see, and for the better. Oh, and Michelle Williams' big scene near the end? The most devastating moment of the year. She and DiCaprio absolutely kill in it, and that scene alone puts the entirety of Inception to shame. (Available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Netflix streaming)

1. Never Let Me Go
It might be a stretch to say that Never Let Me Go was the only film all year to consider the soul, but it was certainly the only one that made a strong impression. This and Shutter Island are the two movies I have been unable to shake all year, and with this's really something special when it only takes a whisper to completely knock you down. In exploring our essential mortality through characters who, at a young age, know they will not grow old, director Mark Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland (adapting the novel by  Kazuo Ishiguro) have crafted one of the defining mood pieces - this certainly isn't a "statement" - on how we deal with the fact of death. It's all about small decisions, quiet resignation, and making the best of what little time you have, though the end result is an inevitability constantly lingering in the air. I still well up when I remember the final scene, or the image of Kathy (played beautifully and heartbreakingly by Carey Mulligan) holding herself while the titular song plays in the background. I have my qualms with the film - as they say, great films aren't always perfect - but the totality of it is so unshakeable, so overwhelmingly emotional in such minor notes, that when I really got down to thinking about it, there was no other choice for this spot. (Available on DVD and Blu-Ray February 1st)

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