2010 might have signalled the start of a new decade, but as for the year in cinema, it was hardly anything fresh or revelatory. There were certainly fewer movies last year than in 2009, or even the two years before that, over which I was absolutely gaga. I know, call me crazy, but I, unlike apparently everyone else on the planet, thought 2009 was absolutely crackerjack. As for the previous year, there were plenty of good films, plenty to admire, but only a few which I would have no hesitation in calling great. This year's list only goes to ten, therefore, unlike last year's, but with ample honourable mentions. Hopefully, it will provide a ray of cinematic sunshine in a year marked, in the news, by a dismal variety of environmental and economic tragedy.
Of course, it's entirely possible that I missed out on quite a few of the year's gems. In the interests of full disclosure, here are some of the films I direly wished I could have seen before diving into this list, but, in the interests of not keeping everyone waiting until about March, had to fall by the wayside: Another Year, Blue Valentine, Carlos, Inside Job, The Illusionist, and Last Train Home. This saddens me as I'm sure some of them would have made the list had I been able to see them in a timely fashion. Sometimes, these lists can be cruel mistresses.
Maybe it's not such a bad year after all if movies as dazzling and enjoyable and otherwise remarkable as these next few don't even make the proper list.
Ajami (Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani), an intense and heart-wrenching exploration of religious and cultural conflict in Tel Aviv, from an intimate perspective.
Despicable Me (Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud), the year's best, most charming exploration of the lighter side of super-villainy, with a great voice performance from Steve Carell and a lovely, textured, almost Gaelic style of animation to boot.
Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold), the year's most startling coming-of-age story, with a gritty realism in direction and writing that expertly evokes its blue-collar English setting and a revelatory, assured lead performance from newcomer Katie Jarvis.
The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski), an elegant, stylish, richly characterized, almost effortlessly gripping thriller from a master of tension, who proves he's still more than got it. Of course, the stunning cast, from a deviously smarmy Pierce Brosnan to a quietly intense Ewan McGregor, doesn't hurt either.
I'm Still Here (Casey Affleck) One of this year's crop of possibly fake documentaries. Viewed from the perspective most had of it when it was released, this portrait of the nearly surreal downfall of Joaquin Phoenix into drugs and dissolution was a dark, bizarrely captivating portrait of Hollywood hubris. Now that it has been revealed as a hoax, it's become a cunning bit of insider satire of the ridiculousness of celebrity.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright), an exuberantly entertaining movie that deftly interweaves the media of film and of graphic novels far more successfully than something like Sin City. Endlessly clever and dazzling, and wickedly well-acted from (who else?) Michael Cera, Jason Schwartzman, Anna Kendrick, Kieran Culkin, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead... although its energy peters out towards the end.
Splice (Vincenzo Natali), the year's most unfairly overlooked bit of lurid, darkly comedic B-movie fun mixed with smart, serious, high-concept sci-fi. Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley make an incredibly winning team.
True Grit (Joel and Ethan Coen). While not the year's grittiest or most emotionally involving Western (you'll see), it is a resplendently beautiful and satisfying entertainment, with marvellous performances from Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and, most astonishingly of all, Hailee Steinfeld, and snappy writing -- largely based on Charles Portis's novel -- that just about pops off the screen.
10. Mother (Bong Joon-Ho)
Mother can be called downright Hitchcokian in its suspense, but Bong Joon-Ho's finished product is startlingly new, defying such simplistic descriptions. A mother sets out of a mission of discovery, then maternal protection and crazed revenge, when her mentally challenged son is accused of murder. The cinematography here is gorgeous, and Bong's assured shifts in mood and tone, from the darkly funny to the seriously disturbing, prove mesmerizing. Most amazing of all is the performance of Kim Hye-Ja as the mother, a breathtaking study in maternal affection and delirious obsession. Until Mother, I hadn't seen any of Korean director Bong's previous efforts. On the strength of this dizzying and ever-surprising horror gem, I may have to remedy that.
9. Inception (Christopher Nolan)
So maybe it isn't that great. Does it really all fit together in the end? Do dreams really work that way, with architecture and structure? It may not be the most psychologically probing thriller out there, nor is it quite Christopher Nolan's masterpiece, but Inception is still far more ambitious, imaginative, and engrossing than nearly any big-budget Hollywood feature this year. Rigorously structured and invigorating, Nolan's sure directorial hand keeps us riveted from beginning to end while somehow wrangling all of his numerous Big Ideas into a form that is not only manageable but downright brilliant. As the dream-explorers, Nolan has also wrangled himself a uniformly excellent cast, from Leonardo DiCaprio as the tormented leader of the dream heist, Marion Cotillard, furiously strong-willed as the imagined figments of his wife, Ken Watanabe as the smooth-as-silk corporate backer for the project, and the radiant Ellen Page and the dashing Joseph Gordon-Levitt as DiCaprio's assistants. In terms of emotionally engaging storytelling, Inception is better than such a determinedly heady project as any right to be. In terms of pure style and brainy exhilaration, Inception is downright masterful.
8. 127 Hours (Danny Boyle)
While the eclectic Danny Boyle is hardly a slouch in delievering quality films of wildly varying genres (although Slumdog Millionaire, while initially impressive, seems less remarkable the more I think about it), 127 Hours is his most resonant effort since Trainspotting. Boyle's bursts of cinematic theatrics are well-suited to the true-life story of Aron Ralston, a hiker of boundless energy whose lifestyle gets him trapped by a boulder in a Utah canyon, who then uses this tragedy as a wake-up call and, in his resourcefulness, cuts through his own arm to free himself. James Franco gives a virtuoso performance as Ralston, making us feel his reckless enthusiasm as vividly as his inner demons. Boyle makes the mostly stationary action (after all, the guy is forcibly trapped in one place for nearly the entire duration of the film) thrilling, evoking Ralston's sensory experience (his hunger, thirst, etc.) and his gradual mental deterioration (flashbacks and hallucinations come to dominate his mind), and his eventual capability for grisly, violent determination with mesmerizing style. 127 Hours shows a triumph of the human spirit in the most electrifying sense possible.
7. Animal Kingdom (David Michôd)
A searing Australian crime drama and family saga so brash, meaty, and assured it warrants comparison to Scorsese. Newcomer writer-director David Michôd works with uncommon style and urgency, while at the same time deftly showcasing the balance between family and justice, punishment and loyalty that come to dominate the central Cody family, a pack of wild thugs (none more malicious than its outwardly cheery, inwardly cut-throat matriarch) from Melbourne. Better than Ben Affleck's The Town, Animal Kingdom is evocative of its particular gritty neighbourhood as well as achieving a smart balance between violent criminal outbursts and twisted displays of family bonding. And it features sizzling performances from Ben Mendelsohn, as the most screw-loose, rage-prone member of the family; Guy Pearce, as a gruff and determined cop trying to bring justice to his beat and, perhaps, save some of the more innocent members of the Cody clan from their violent fate; Jacki Weaver, stuning as the wicked den mother; and James Frecheville as 'J,' the young, fresh-faced cub trying to balance his loyalties, exact vengeance of his own, and emerge as a strong survivor.
6. Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy)
The shrewdest and funniest of the year's potentially "fake" documentaries, an unintended indictment of the art world, and a pointed commentary on the deceptive, malleable powers of cinema in general. Initially purporting to be Thierry Guetta's never-ending chronicle of the world of street art (or is it just graffitti?), to which the affable, perhaps a bit dim Frenchman was introduced by his cousin, the movie quickly becomes Banksy's chronicle of the rise to (improbable) fame of Guetta. His endless hours of footage prove too much for Guetta, and so Banksy, one of the most legendary of the world's street artists (creator of a Guantanamo-themed blow-up doll at Disneyland and a bent-and-smashed London-style telephone booth), takes control and turns the tables on the supposed director, becoming the story of how Guetta became "Mr. Brainwash," and even got his own well-attended exhibition in swanky digs in L.A. Exit Through the Gift Shop provides irresistible fun and energy while tantalizing us with the question of who is the real subject and who is pulling the strings. It's absurdly hilarious, with some genuinely thought-provoking points to make about art, filmmaking, commodity, integrity, and subjectivity. And thankfully, it's all organized around the tantalizing, cool, anonymous figure of famed, controversial street artist Banksy and his groupie/partner in crime/screw-loose student Guetta. Dizzying, deep entertainment from the most unexpected of sources.
5. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard)
It seems 2010 was the year of riveting, epic crime drama. This is a note-perfect French film about Malik, a young criminal who gets sent away to prison, only to rise through the ranks and re-define himself, painstakingly, as a new breed of crime boss. Targeted initially for his half-Arab roots by César, the Corsican leader of the prison pack, a mafia boss, Malik sneaks his way into César's inner circle and becomes his right-hand man, before his own ambitions rise above the mob boss. Jacques Audiard lets the story speak largely for itself, trading showiness for the real, shocking violence of prison life. (Suffice it to say, if you weren't already wary of accepting oral sex in prison, you certainly will be now.) Audiard takes his time and gives his characters dimensions and motivations that lend uncommon intensity to the story. Tahar Rahim is mesmerizing as Malik, and Niels Arestrup is downright throat-gripping as César, one of the great villains of the year. A Prophet is grounded, meticulous filmmaking, representing a new breed of prison drama that is all the more lively for its calm naturalism.
4. Winter's Bone (Debra Granik)
Debra Granik also uses calm naturalism to intense effect in Winter's Bone. There's no fakery to this tale of poverty and desperation: Ree is a frightfully determined teenage girl facing seemingly insurmountable problems. Her family -- a younger brother and sister and their mentally ill mother -- will lose their home if Ree doesn't track down her father, a fugitive meth dealer who has seemingly skipped town after promising the house as collateral on a bail bond. Jennifer Lawrence is the big discovery here, imbuing Ree with uncommon intelligence, heart, and determination. It's a fierce, radiant performance that haunts the memory long after the lights come up. But director and co-writer Granik's most remarkable achievement is using her realistic approach to create a magnificent sense of hard-scrabble community, using real settings and real locals to tell her uniquely Ozark story. John Hawkes is also mesmerizing as Teardrop, a scary-druggie relative who pushes Ree away only to come to her aid. Winter's Bone is an unflinching, achingly moving, strangely beautiful all-American story.
3. The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko)
A funny, bright, heart-warming, sexy film that's also one of the most perceptive films about family (gay or straight) to come around in a long while -- The Kids Are All Right hits all the right notes. Lisa Cholodenko's film could easily have wound up as excessively colourful or indie-clichéd, but the energy and humour she brings to the proceedings is infectious. Annette Bening is Nic, a harried doctor with a quick wit and a habit of hitting the bottle a little too hard to soften her hard edges. She's married to Jules (Julianne Moore), a flighty woman wandering between jobs (her current project is as a landscape designer). Their children, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), a bright student crumbling under the weight of expectations, and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), a curious teenager, become fascinated with meeting their birth father. Their search leads them to Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a hip, almost improbably easygoing restaurateur.
This sunny film marches along with confidence, erasing the blunt quirkiness of its subject matter (a gay couple! with a dysfunctional, patched-together family! oh my!) and letting its characters breathe and the story unfold naturally. Cholodenko's direction is so assured here that it makes the movie's wise observations about family life and its snappy humour seem practically effortless. The screenplay, from Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, is smart and detailed, allowing the cast room to bring their characters to life. And that cast is downright sublime. Bening is marvelous as Nic, making her a woman in tune with her faults and complexities, and with a strong will and confidence that is downright inspiring -- it's a wonderful match of star to character. Moore is equally confident and sexy, with an easygoing aura and a sharp comedic timing. Ruffalo gives some of his best work to date as Paul (his scruffy charm has never fit this well), and Wasikowska, barely notable at all in Alice in Wonderland, is downright radiant here. The Kids Are All Right is more than alright -- it's damn near perfect.
2. The Social Network (David Fincher)
David Fincher's latest (his most accomplished work to date) is a timely drama about the genesis of Facebook full of such technical, brainy dazzle that it practically rewires your senses. It's therefore a shrewd match of form to content: after all, Facebook has rewritten not only the rules of the internet, but changed the very way we interact with each other. From first frame to last, The Social Network is a film simply brimming with zesty talk and twisty human interaction -- it's a complex thriller that's also a bold statement on the way we live now. And it's such a layered drama that it may take more than one viewing to truly absorb its nuances. Indeed, it's easy to take Fincher's casual genius for granted here, as I did, to some extent, before watching it again. But genius it is, and a particularly spiky and durable form of genius, at that.
Jesse Eisenberg gives an electrifying performance, easily one of the best of the year, as Mark Zuckerberg, the anti-social jerk-genius who founded Facebook -- or did he have some (uncredited) help? Certainly that is what his Harvard colleagues Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (identical twins both played with a hilarious air of smarmy entitlement by Armie Hammer) claim. Zuckerberg's best friend Eduardo Saverin (a wonderfully sincere Andrew Garfield) is also suing him for bilking him out of his share of stock in Facebook. A final key player is Sean Parker (a -- and I never thought I'd type these words -- gripping and entertaining Justin Timberlake), the founder of Napster who sallies his way into Zuckerberg's inner circle and wrests some control of the project for himself. The dramatic question is whether or not Zuckerberg screwed over his friends, ironically, in producing a website designed for connecting with friends, and, of course, what led him to this idea.
Fincher stages bravura scenes here that add up to more than the sum of the parts -- at times, it might almost be a Citizen Kane for the digital age, albeit with a disgruntled ex-girlfriend instead of a sled. The performances are endlessly surprising and layered, delivering Aaron Sorkin's rich, whip-smart dialogue at breathless pace. The score, from Trent Reznor (of all people) and Atticus Ross, subtly but noticably underlines the proceedings with similar briskness. The technical elements work together brilliantly, but more importantly, they highlight and deepen the story. The Social Network is grand entertainment, a magnificent triumph of form and content that may come to define the new generation and set a tone for a new brand of filmmaking.
1. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)
If The Social Network is the timeliest film of the year, Toy Story 3 may just prove the most timeless. If I were voting with my brian, and maybe my gut, I might have easily put The Social Network at the very tip-top of this list. But I went with my heart, and my heart loved Toy Story 3 without bounds. And even amidst massive amounts of anticipation -- Toy Story and Toy Story 2 are such enduring classics that their legacy is all but untouchable -- and even more massive amounts of doubt -- Pixar may be able to pull off a sequel, but a three-quel? And not only that, but a three-quel to some of the most perfect (read: self-contained and self-sufficient) films of this generation? -- Toy Story 3 stands tall. No movie this year drew more knowing laughs, rollicking excitement, and meaningul tears than this wonderful finale of the Pixar saga about the secret lives of a child's playthings. No movie this year featured characters as identifiable in situations so intense, heart-warming, and imaginative.
Andy has grown up and is about to leave for college. The toys, who have long been relegated to an old treasure chest, will wind up either with Andy, in the attic, in the trash, or at a day care centre. After some close calls, the gang wind up at Sunnyside, seemingly a dream come true, as they will be played with day in and day out by dozens of eager new children. But there's a dark side: Lotso (a delightful Ned Beatty), a purple teddy bear with a charming Southern drawl masking his fascist tendencies, the leader of the Sunnyside toys (which also include Ken [a hilarious Michael Keaton], who has a fateful run-in with Barbie), keeps Woody and the gang in the room with the younger, more violent and destructive children, and keeps the place locked down at night. Toy Story 3 then becomes a daring escape adventure as thrilling as anything in The Great Escape, as the gang must struggle to break free of the prison-like day care and return to Andy, even if it means life in the attic.
Toy Story 3 is delightful and antically original in the early at-home scenes and the Sunnyside scenes, with old favourites like Tom Hanks and Tim Allen gamely providing the voices for Woody and Buzz once again. As it reaches its dazzling conclusion, however, it becomes almost elegiac, as the toys must face their own obsolescence. A final scene *obvious spoiler alerts ahead* featuring Andy giving the toys over to a much younger neighbourhood girl is a joyous and wonderfully touching moment of passing the torch -- of saying goodbye to the glory of old and greeting a new era full of promise. And it works like clockwork both from Andy's perspective and from the toys. Toy Story 3 is funny, thoughtful, adventurous, exciting, imaginative, visually eye-popping, and vividly touching entertainment -- so layered with real-life meaning (rife with wisdom about growing old, reaching out, living up to expectations, staying loyal and saying goodbye) that it may captivate adults even more than children. In cinematic terms, it really does go to infinity and beyond.
The worst films of the year
And now for something completely different: These are the worst films I had the displeasure of seeing from last year. Now, once again, I'm the type of guy who goes out of his way to avoid the true stinkers, and I've got a rather good nose for them at this point, so there are probably worse movies out there than these (well, not worse than #1, which was downright abominable... but we'll get to that). And I'm only doing four this year, because, well, I don't feel like wasting space on more than four of these lemons. With that out of the way, these are the films from last year that most made me want to throw up my hands in frustration...
4. Legion (Scott Charles Stewart)
A dead-in-the-water January release that is an insult to the month of January with its sheer dreary laziness. The apocalypse has rarely felt less urgent than it did here, and despite an enjoyably blasphemous premise of angels descending to earth to wipe out humanity, which has apparently fallen out of God's favour, the movie never really takes off and ends in the most muddled way possible. Paul Bettany and Dennis Quaid somehow got suckered into appearing in this, and while Quaid is quite pointless, Bettany isn't too terrible, so that's... something?
3. Robin Hood (Ridley Scott)
Well, it's safe to say that Errol Flynn, the dashing star of The Adventures of Robin Hood, one of the most lovely movies of all time, has never been so thoroughly crapped upon as he has by this movie. It's a long way from the joyous and charming merry-making of the '30s Technicolor era, folks. Scott's historical epic aimed to be a truer portrait of the legendary outlaw Robin Hood, but simply wound up being a duller, greyer affair (literally, that's pretty much the only colour they seemed to have used in shooting the movie) that saps the figure of both his mythos and his appeal. Russell Crowe slogs his way grumpily through this mess like a fly trapped in molasses.
2. Cop Out (Kevin Smith)
Kevin Smith, a filmmaker widely renowned as a better writer than a director, directs someone else's hackneyed script (Robb and Mark Cullen). The result, as expected, is a visually bland and tiresomely written affair that manages to deflate even the resiliently energetic, bug-eyed comedian Tracy Morgan and leaves Bruce Willis floating in the wind. Also, it's oddly long for such a small concept, adding excess to injury.
1. The Last Airbender (M. Night Shyamalan)
It's finally happened. The Last Airbender is the absolute nadir of M. Night Shyamalan's decline in status as a director, a master class in wrong-headed, incompetent filmmaking. All sense of pacing, intelligent, unmechanical writing, consistency, exciting action, visual splendour, and even racial sensitivity (some of the characters from the original Nickelodeon series, upon which this bombastic misfire is based, have somehow arbitrarily changed races) falls by the wayside in Shyamalan's quest to find the perfect storm of cinematic awfulness. On its own, its a towering achievement in incompetence. After viewing some of the quite solidly constucted series upon which it is based, this abomination is downright insulting and mystifying.