Friday, December 31, 2010

My Top 10 Films of the Year

Looking over this list again, it's interesting how many of my favorite movies were suspense/thriller genre pictures. I've always prided myself on being very open-minded when it comes to movies, but I guess at the end of the year my unconscious preferences stick out. There were plenty of excellent movies this year, and a few major ones I still haven't seen (127 Hours, The King's Speech, Blue Valentine, The Kids Are Alright). Nonetheless, I think I've enjoyed enough hours at the theater this year to make my list fairly well-informed (55 movies and counting). When it comes to opinions, though, I doubt that matters much.

So, here's my list (in alphabetical order):

Black Swan (Fox Searchlight Pictures, dir. Darren Aronofsky)

A ballet dancer goes insane trying to play the dual roles of Swan Lake in Darren Aronofsky's latest thriller about the torments people put themselves through to obtain perfection. Natalie Portman's performance, already being mentioned in every publication, is the reason to attend and turns this dark melodrama into art.

Inception (Warner Bros., dir. Christopher Nolan)

When Inception was released this summer, it was all the rage, with fans and critics singing its praises. Now, as time has passed, criticism is falling upon it like the stunning image of the collapsing city in the movie's first act. It seems that moviegoers are like fans of pop music -- if a song gets overplayed, they suddenly hate it. Nonetheless, Inception is a work of art by Christopher Nolan, who may be the best action/suspense director working today. His script is a convoluted tale about Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a thief-for-hire whose work takes him into the dreams of his clients' targets. Cobb gets the challenging task of planting an idea in a mark's dream, and it's up to him to build a crack heist team and overcome the personal demons that have the potential to destroy his work. No film this year attempted to challenge, frustrate, or fill its audience with awe more than this one.

Kick-Ass (Marv Films/Lionsgate, dir. Matthew Vaughn)

Dave Lizewski is a Peter Parker-esque teenager who tries his hand at being a super hero. Despite being a crappy vigilante, he attracts the attention of professional vigilante's Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) as well as mob boss Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong). Soon, Dave finds himself smack dab in the middle of a war between Big Daddy and D'Amico -- and all he really wants is to find a way to prove to the girl he loves that he isn't gay. Kick-Ass is violent, depraved, and probably morally irresponsible -- especially in the way it treats Moretz' foul-mouthed, gleefully violent, pubescent heroine Hit Girl. But it is so pointed with its satire of America's obsession with glamorizing violence and passing it down to our children that it walks the line of hypocrisy. It's a fun line to walk, and gives the movie it's edge.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Universal Pictures, dir. Edgar Wright)

Not enough people went to go see this beautiful, fun-loving love letter to Gen X/geek culture. If you base your estimation of this film by box office performance, it was an epic fail. But, in a way, I think this movie needed to be a bust. Geeks thrive on being on the outskirts of culture, maintaining their superiority by appreciating things the mainstream has overlooked or ignored. Scott Pilgrim may now be the poster child for geeks everywhere. The film is about Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), a slacker bass player who falls in love with the mysterious Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), but to win her completely has to defeat her seven (evil) exes in video game-inspired fight sequences. The soundtrack, by indie genius Beck, is loaded with grungy, 8-bit gems. Edgar Wright's direction, which overloads the screen with video game and Japanese anime imagery, is inspired and every bit as inventive as Nolan's Inception.

Shutter Island (Paramount Pictures, dir. Martin Scorsese)

Is Shutter Island one of Scorsese's greatest films. Probably not, but it is certainly one of his most fun. Leo DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a detective who must go to Shutter Island -- an Alcatraz for the criminally insane -- to find a missing murderess. Teddy's trip forces him to enter the dark territory of his own mind, which is every bit as scary as the island housing some of the world's craziest killers. Scorsese, as always, is a master of suspense, and does a perfect job of setting us up for what is one hell of a twisted ending.

The Social Network  (Columbia Pictures, dir. David Fincher)

Already the odds-on favorite to win this year's Best Picture at the Academy Awards, The Social Network is most deserving. Aaron Sorkin's script about the creation of Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook empire and the legal mess surrounding it is dramatic without being tedious, complex without being boring, and brilliant without being pretentious. Jesse Eisenberg's performance as Zuckerberg is the best thing about the movie -- he makes Zuckerberg petty, myopic, self-absorbed, yet sympathetic. The last scene, in which Zuckerberg keeps refreshing his friend request page, has stuck with me in that it seems to symbolize where our society is headed in the next decade -- a bunch of interconnected "friends" with no real connections.

The Town (Warner Bros., dir. Ben Affleck)

This film could have been a simple heist film (re: Armored), but in Ben Affleck's hands it paints a portrait of the sociology that creates armed robbers. Affleck plays Doug MacRay, a professional bank robber from a borough of Boston called Charlestown. According to the film's introduction, Charlestown is notorious for producing generations of bank robbers. It's easy to see why. There's a hopeless undercurrent running through every conversation between residents of the Town. Affleck's script and direction take the time to develop this environment, which allows the main plot involving Doug falling in love with a bank manager his crew kidnapped to avoid being trite and cliche. The tone of this film is more like that of David Simon's classic HBO series, The Wire, and that is the highest compliment I can pay this film.

Toy Story 3 (Disney/Pixar, dir. Lee Unkrich)

Pixar's film library seems to have a permanent place on most end-of-the-year "Best of" lists. And for good reason. Their catalog of movies are a Master's level course in how to make movies right. Toy Story 3 is a perfect example. We pick up with our favorite toys as their owner, Andy, is getting ready to make the move to college. Their future is as up-in-the-air as his. After a mistake that almost gets them taken to the garbage dump, the toys decide to try finding a better future at Sunnyside, a day care center. What they find instead is a situation inspired by countless numbers of prison films, from Cool Hand Luke to The Great Escape. Our characters are deepened, our love for them increased, and the finale is profound. The movie never pushes us too hard till it knows we're already there, and it earns every ounce of sentiment in the final act. I saw the movie in 3-D, of which I'm not much of a fan, but I loved it even more in 2-D in high definition.

True Grit (Paramount Pictures, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

The Coen brothers are special, no doubt about it. True Grit is the reason why. They take a time honored, much-beloved classic Western with an iconic performance by John Wayne, and they manage to make a completely different, significantly better film. Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is on the hunt for her father's killer and hires aged, drunken federal marshal, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). They are joined by the preening, self-satisfied Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). The story is simple, but the harsh realities young, intrepid Mattie faces are not. This movie is dark, rough, and leaves no room for the sentimentalism of the 1969 original. That's the Coen's for you, though -- they just aren't satisfied with making a crowd-pleaser, they've got to make a masterpiece.

Winter's Bone (Anonymous Content, dir. Debra Granik)

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) isn't your typical 17-year old girl. She tends to her invalid mother, and raises her younger brother and sister in the rough backwoods of the Ozarks. Her father, in and out of prison for cooking and selling crystal meth, has skipped bail after putting the house up as collateral, and if she doesn't track him down in a few days she and her family will be homeless. Ree's journey is riveting, heartbreaking, and symbolic of the frustrations of poverty. This is a deeply felt film, with great performances all around. Jennifer Lawrence should be a lock for an Oscar nomination, but equally brilliant is John Hawkes as Ree's uncle Teardrop, whose conflicted search for his long lost brother is just as mesmerizing.

Honorable Mentions

 (Studio Canal, dir. Atom Egoyan)

Dr. Catherine Stewart (Julianne Moore) believes her husband, David (Liam Neeson), is cheating on her. So, she hires a prostitute named Chloe (Amanda Seyfried) to seduce her husband. The set-up is simple, but the execution is complex, psychological, erotic, and tense.

(Scott Free Productions, dir. Jay and Mark Duplass)

The Duplass brothers are indie film experimenters in a style called "mumblecore," which is a low-budget form of filmmaking that focuses exclusively on personal relationships with an improvised script. Cyrus might have a bit bigger budget than the Duplass' previous effort, Baghead, but the spirit is the same. Here, we meet John (John C. Reilly), a 30-something divorcee who can't seem to get his life back together until he meets Molly (Marisa Tomei). Everything's perfect until he meets her 20-year old son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill), and realizes that the co-dependency of Cyrus and Molly's relationship could be the undoing of this good thing he has going. The improvised script provides the freedom actors of Reilly, Tomei and Hill's caliber need to shine. The film is a bit rough at times, but it never sinks into the sitcom territory the premise threatens.

The Ghost Writer
 (R.P. Productions, dir. Roman Polanski)

Say what you want about Polanski, but the man knows how to make a great suspense/thriller. Here, Ewan McGregor plays the Ghost, a writer who is called in to take over writing the memoirs of British Prime Minister  Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). The Ghost gets more than he bargained for as he uncovers a deep political conspiracy.

How To Train Your Dragon (Dreamworks, dir. Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders)

If it weren't for the juggernaut that is Toy Story 3, Dreamworks' How To Train Your Dragon would be, hands-down, the best animated film of the year. Unfortunately, as Dreamworks has had to learn time and again, when you're up against Pixar, you can only aspire to second best. Nonetheless, Dragon is a great picture. Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is a viking in name only. He longs to prove himself worthy of his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), the viking's great leader. He gets his chance when one of his inventions wounds a rare, mysterious Night Fury dragon. The film's characters are so lovable, and Hiccup's pacifist tendencies so endearing, that you can't help but get involved in the fanciful storytelling.

Winnebago Man
 (Bear Media, dir. Ben Steinbauer)

Jack Rebney is the angriest man ever, at least in the hysterical viral Winnebago salesman outtakes you can find here on YouTube. Ben Steinbauer wanted to know if that was the real Rebney. This documentary chronicles his search for, discovery of, and relationship with Jack Rebney, the infamous Winnebago Man. Easily the funniest documentary I've ever seen, Winnebago Man is a wonderful character study of a man who has to learn the world isn't laughing at him, but gaining catharsis through him.

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