The end of the year traditionally brings a wealth of best-of candidates, as major studios and studio-affiliated arthouse labels unveil their most austere and decorously appointed films for awards consideration. Yet, a few stray winners aside, we in The A.V. Club film staff found ourselves looking further back in the year for list-makers, including a handful of uncommonly ambitious summer blockbusters, several festival holdovers, and the steady supply of indie and foreign films that slipped in and out of theaters, often woefully unnoticed. Fortunately, 2010 was strong enough in the front end to make up for the back, and we wound up finding plenty of films to rally behind, with such a diverse range of styles, budgets, and themes that it’s impossible to draw a thread to connect them all. So here, for your consideration, are a bunch of films we really liked.
The Top 15
15. The Kids Are All Right
The great but maddeningly non-prolific Lisa Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon, High Art) delivered another smart, funny, and insightful character study about the angst and insecurities of middle-aged women in The Kids Are All Right. The perfectly matched Julianne Moore and Annette Bening play a comfortable lesbian couple whose lives change dramatically when their children (Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska) seek out the man who fathered them via sperm donation (Mark Ruffalo). The kids then form a strange bond with a man who only vaguely remembers selling his seed so long ago. This year brought a slew of films about unconventional means of procreation (The Back-Up Plan, The Switch, Mother And Child), but The Kids Are All Right has the messy vitality of real life. It’s a thoughtful portrait of a relationship in crisis—and surprisingly sexy to boot, thanks to Ruffalo, who oozes simultaneously rugged and laid-back sex appeal as a stud who discovers that he can’t coast through life on the strength of his charm and attractiveness anymore. Leave it to a lesbian filmmaker to create an exemplar of ripe, bohemian male heterosexual sexuality.
14. Shutter Island
If this year’s best films share a theme, it’s the thin, possibly unknowable line between reality and illusion, a notion teased out in everything from Black Swan to Inception to Dogtooth to Exit Through The Gift Shop. Martin Scorsese’s purposefully lurid Shutter Island sends Leonardo DiCaprio to an island of madmen and madwomen to solve a disappearance. As he discovers his own demons have followed him, his quest shifts and the movie starts to explore dark corridors informed in equal parts by Val Lewton and contemporary Asian horror films. The metaphysics may not ultimately work out, but Scorsese’s vertiginous filmmaking and the film’s gripping, outsized emotions make that feel like a petty concern.
13. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
Nearly everyone brings baggage to new relationships. In Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Edgar Wright’s sugar-rush adaptation of Brian O’Malley’s beloved graphic novel, quirky Mary Elizabeth Winstead brings baggage of the terrifyingly brutal sort to her blossoming relationship with lovestruck indie-rock musician Michael Cera. Cera isn’t just competing with the memories of Winstead’s former beaus; he must fight her seven evil exes to win his true love’s heart. In a directorial tour de force, Wright obliterates the lines between comic books, videogames, cartoons, and live-action by transforming Cera into a hero from some lost late-’80s Nintendo game and pushing the film’s zippy, retro-futuristic stylization to comic extremes. Pilgrim is so dizzyingly inventive and loaded with ideas, primarily visual, that watching it can be exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World might be the greatest videogame movie of all time in part because it’s inspired less by any specific game than by the infinite possibilities and cartoonish conflicts of the entire medium.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ disturbing, dryly funny Greek drama considers what happens when a mother and father lock their now-grown kids into a gated estate for their entire lives, to keep the messy outside world from corrupting their discipline. Lanthimos doesn’t go the expected route with this premise; he introduces elements of creeping anarchy into the story right from the start, and makes the parents less overprotective fusspots and more deranged sociopaths who actively mess with their kids’ heads. Dogtooth is witty, smart, and shocking in equal measure, and while it can be read as a commentary on everything from fascism to helicopter parenting, it’s primarily a beguilingly puzzling experience, dropping viewers into a weird place and demanding we acclimate.
Noah Baumbach’s comedies don’t aim broad: They’re plotless, self-consciously literary, and populated by characters who flat-out suck from the time they roll out of the bed until they angrily switch out the lights at night. But his films are still funny and true. In Greenberg, Ben Stiller stars as an idle crank who visits Los Angeles and has a stormy relationship with an insecure young woman played by Greta Gerwig. Almost nothing significant happens, and Stiller stays committed to making the title character an unstable jerk. Yet Baumbach gets the details of these characters and their petty concerns so right that the movie is both bracing and—in its own odd way—hilarious. It’s also a pleasure to look at, with Harris Savides’ cinematography capturing the sunny haze of L.A. with an artistry that would make Vilmos Zsigmond, Conrad Hall, and Haskell Wexler proud.
10. True Grit
It’s not easy slipping into one of the most iconic roles in the history of American Westerns, yet Jeff Bridges somehow escapes the outsized specter of John Wayne’s only Oscar-winning performance in Joel and Ethan Coen’s riveting adaptation of True Grit. The film plays almost like a Western version of Winter’s Bone. Both films concern a precocious teenage girl entering a terrifying man’s world for the sake of her family’s honor and security. But the tones are wildly dissimilar: True Grit is as raucous and entertaining as Winter’s Bone is claustrophobic and grim. Yet despite its playful tone and dark comedy, True Grit earns a sneaky cumulative emotional power as Bridges’ irascible outlaw-turned-lawman learns, like James Franco in 127 Hours, that even the orneriest loners need other people.
9. A Prophet
A 2009 Best Foreign Language Film nominee released here in 2010, A Prophet reads a bit like a single long plot thread from Oz or The Wire, with all the gritty, unflinching detail and devotion to character that implies. Tahar Rahim stars as a teenager facing a six-year prison sentence and trying to hide his fear of his fellow inmates. Over the course of two and a half hours of film and years of story, he finds protectors who double as enemies, and makes enemies whom he learns how to manipulate and turn into protectors. The politics of prison, drug cartels, and the up-and-coming criminals who step in to replace the older generation all get explored in pulpy detail, and with no sense of a morality tale in the making. It’s a familiar coming-of-age story, in a way, but it’s gripping, well-observed, and complicated, a sort of vivid, French mini-Godfather saga that comments on France’s treatment of immigrants as much as on its treatment of criminals.
From The Battle Of Algiers to The Day Of The Jackal to Munich, movies about the minute details of violent political action have practically become their own genre. Olivier Assayas’ three-part, five-and-a-half-hour historical epic Carlos is remarkable for the way Assayas and star Édgar Ramírez take both a detached and pointed view of the notorious revolutionary Ilich Ramírez Sanchez, a.k.a. Carlos The Jackal. This is a film about its times, using jittery post-punk and new-wave music and excerpts from TV news to capture the unsettled feel of international politics and culture in the 1970s and ’80s. But it’s also an intimate sketch of one arrogant activist and how his people-power plans get complicated by money, mistakes, and bad associations. Throughout the film, Assayas literally strips Sánchez down, showing him naked and bloated: just a man, in other words, with appetites and weaknesses that render him far less than righteous.
After putting his own politically charged spin on the giant monster movie with The Host, Bong Joon-ho returns to the world of urban crime he explored so memorably in 2003’s Memories Of Murder. Here, a mystery that finds a young, developmentally disabled man (Won Bin) charged with murder spins into a depiction of the lengths mothers go to protect their children, as Won’s mother (Kim Hye-ja) turns detective in his defense—and then goes further. Kim’s remarkable performance anchors a grim, involving film filled with details of a run-down provincial city until a wonderfully odd and deceptively sad final scene that swaps unexpected, uneasy lightness for grimly accumulated weight.
6. Toy Story 3
There are a lot of strange vibes at play in the third and final Toy Story movie: A good deal of it involves a bunch of toys desperately trying to force an 18-year-old to play with them the way he did a decade ago, mourning when he won’t, and suffering from religion-worthy schisms as they argue over whether they should stand by him even though he’s outgrown them, or move on to younger, more playful pastures. The Toy Story movies have always been about the joy of play, but never before has it seemed like such a drag to be a toy—to essentially be an immortal being whose only pleasure comes from entertaining kids who will inevitably (and quickly) grow up and move on. And yet there were few grimmer movie moments in 2010 than the point in Toy Story 3 where the characters resignedly face their deaths, and few more uplifting sequences than the film’s end. It’s almost preposterous that a kids’ film could be this challenging, moving, and heartfelt, but Pixar continues to put out movies that rival anything else in theaters for sophistication and entertainment.
5. Exit Through The Gift Shop
Is it real? Is it a hoax? A little bit of both? Between Catfish, I’m Still Here, and Exit Through The Gift Shop, moviegoers (or a fraction of them, anyway) spent a lot of time this year trying to figure out how much to trust images that were either revealed or suspected to be false. Yet of those three, only Banksy’s wildly entertaining documentary is deepened by the question of its verity, since deception and outlaw prankishness is at the heart of what he and other great street artists do. Through the story of Thierry Guetta—an eccentric Frenchman who sought out Banksy and other guerrilla artists for a long-in-the-making documentary—the film provides a rare glimpse into how these urban outlaws operate, the philosophy (and trickery) that drives their work, and the commercialization of the form. As Banksy turns the tables on Guetta, his documentary changes course in ways that are unexpected, exhilarating, and, yes, perhaps unreliable.
The next time you watch Inception, a film that practically demands a second viewing, take a moment during the bravura extended climax to wonder at the mechanics at work. The way writer-director Christopher Nolan keeps the action moving on so many planes and at so many different paces at once is exciting in itself. But don’t linger too long. Inception works in part because it seldom calls attention to those mechanics, sweeping viewers along into its dream world—and worlds of dreams within dreams—while offering a thrilling, emotionally affecting film about desire, disappointment, and delusion, all packaged in a movie that’s also about the art of moviemaking. Think of that final shot as a mystery never to be solved in a film that never truly ends.
3. Black Swan
2010 was a year of documentaries that kept people guessing about the reality behind the stories they told, but where questionable facts undermine a documentary’s message, they just enhance the lurid fantasy Black Swan. Director Darren Aronofsky and a trio of screenwriters make the most of the what-is-real? uncertainty in their film, which starts as an intimate story about a sheltered, fragile ballerina (Natalie Portman) vying for the lead in Swan Lake, and turns into a florid, intensely vivid nightmare. It isn’t precisely a fantasy; it’s a left-hand retelling of Swan Lake by way of a Hollywood metaphor and an inquiry into the costs of passion in love and in art. These heady themes could have made Black Swan painfully pretentious, but Portman’s wounded portrayal, the intensity of the imagery, and the constant guessing about what’s going on turn the film into an experience as much as an exploratory essay.
2. The Social Network
The pairing of writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher for a movie about Facebook’s contentious beginnings didn’t seem right on paper: Sorkin’s famously hyper-verbal dialogue stood to hamstring a filmmaker known for his visual pyrotechnics. Yet the collaboration benefits them both, giving Sorkin a more dynamic platform than the typical West Wing walk-and-talk and adding another unforgettable character to David Fincher’s gallery of dark obsessives. Using the deposition recordings of two separate lawsuits against Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg (a scarily focused Jesse Eisenberg) as an ingenious framing device, The Social Network traces the site’s origin in all its agonizing complexity. Sorkin and Fincher capture the heady rush of innovation and youthful energy while also detailing the human flaws embodied by its founder, who’s often petty and invasive, but also driven by a half-poignant/half-pathological need to belong.
1. Winter’s Bone
Jennifer Lawrence gives one of the year’s standout performances in Winter’s Bone, the second feature from Down To The Bone director Debra Granik. But while Lawrence’s evocation of a superlatively proud, stiff-necked Missouri teenager supporting her mother and younger siblings is key to the film’s success, Granik’s realization of the Ozarks is rich, specific, and frightening, and it provides the other necessary half of the puzzle. The film functions as a crime procedural as Lawrence hunts down her father, whose disappearance may cause her family to lose the home that allows them to survive with a tiny bit of fiercely protected independence. But it’s also the kind of vivid time-and-place portrait that offers a window into another world—in this case, a meth-ravaged, chilly backwoods country that inspires equal parts intense hatred and intense bonding in its clannish inhabitants.
Outliers: Notable films on one critic’s list, but no others
Sylvain Chomet’s animated adaptation of Jacques Tati’s unproduced screenplay The Illusionist follows the travails of a Tati-like magician in the UK in the early ’60s, as his kind of entertainment starts to lose steam with the public. As an evocation of Tati’s minimalist whimsy, The Illusionist falls short, but the movie as a whole still succeeds splendidly, paying direct and indirect homage to multiple ’50s and ’60s cinematic showmen and honoring how the simplest tricks can still charm and deceive us. Then it all ends on a melancholy, ambiguous note, with disenchantment and new hope all jumbled together.
Hedwig And The Angry Inch and Shortbus director John Cameron Mitchell dials back—well, mostly eliminates—the stylistic flair in Rabbit Hole, but that ends up working in favor of this adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s play about loss, grieving, and what comes after. Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart star as parents who discover, eight months after the death of their child in an automobile accident, that they have to redefine nearly every aspect of their marriage. It’s a beautifully acted film in which every word counts and every gesture has meaning.
Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams seem to choose roles solely on the basis of how much suffering their characters will endure. Blue Valentine stands out as especially brutal even by the high standards of these two masochistic actors. The film offers a harsh, unblinking autopsy of the doomed relationship between a sweet, idealistic dreamer without much in the way of ambition (Gosling) and the practical woman (Williams) he wins, then can’t hold onto. It’s an intense drama of raw nerves and agonizing moments that grows more and more despairing until a shattering conclusion. Blue Valentine made headlines when it was slapped with an NC-17 despite its lack of particularly explicit sexual content—a judgment that was since withdrawn. Still, the rating at least made a little sense: The NC-17 was created for adult films, and Blue Valentine is adult in the best, least smutty possible sense.
Director Mike Leigh is famous for his collaborative writing process, in which he requires his actors to create detailed personal histories for their characters. The payoffs are clearer than ever in Another Year, a rich ensemble piece about people who have known each other for decades and are dealing with the pains and pleasures of growing older, if not necessarily wiser. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are both wonderful as a picture of marital bliss, but their stability stands in sharp contrast to the unsettled friends in their orbit, especially Lesley Manville, excellent as a middle-aged lonely-heart who dresses (and drinks) like a woman half her age. The message seems to be “Don’t grow old alone,” but the film isn’t quite so reductive, and its lived-in quality gives it warmth and good humor even when things are at their bleakest.
The quintessential break-up movie, Maren Ade’s Everyone Else follows a young couple—she (Birgit Minichmayr) a free-spirited, sometimes childish sprite, he (Lars Eidinger) a would-be architect who’s arrogant and coolly distant from others—as they go on vacation in Sardinia and come to see their incompatibilities. But much like The Forest For The Trees, Ade’s brilliant debut feature about a provincial teacher who struggles socially in a new city, Everyone Else is about the difficulties of fitting in. Setting the story against a lovely backdrop, Ade deals truthfully with the external factors that drive a wedge between the couple, and isn’t afraid to reveal the pettiness and back-biting that happens when a relationship dissolves, even if it makes her characters looks bad. It ain’t pretty, but it’s real.
1. Black Swan
2. Winter’s Bone
3. The Social Network
5. The Illusionist
10. True Grit
The next five
Catherine Breillat's Bluebeard is tiny and tart, taking only 80 minutes to tell the parallel stories of the famous gynocidal lord and two 20th century sisters whose waxing and waning interest in the Bluebead tale makes for a running commentary on sisterhood, folklore, and the cruelty of narrative. A terrific year for documentaries got off to a great start at Sundance, which screened Restrepo, Catfish, The Tillman Story, and Exit Through The Gift Shop, Banksy’s funny, twisty, provocative look at the vagaries and fakery of the art world. This was also an excellent year for animated films, including Toy Story 3, How To Train Your Dragon, and the new Disney classic Tangled, which combines swashbuckling adventure with a surprisingly sophisticated take on mother-daughter relationships. Adam McKay remains one of the few mainstream comedy directors with a strong sense of visual style and pace, and his absurdist buddy-cop riff The Other Guys shows what a little command of the form can do—in this case buoying the deadpan performances of Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg with relentless comic mayhem. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give is a keenly observed, often barbed look at how people with means and compassion still obsess over their self-image.
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
It’s not just that Portman had to learn enough moves to be a credible ballerina in Darren Aronofsky’s phantasmagorical dance drama Black Swan; she also plays a character who swings between an almost paralyzing self-consciousness to an utter lack of inhibition both sexually and aesthetically. Plus she’s dealing with hallucinations, rivals, and a domineering mother, all in a movie that amplifies recognizable human emotions until they become bold abstractions. This is a tough part to wrangle, and yet Portman never loses control. She seems like the same woman throughout—even when her increasingly unstable dancer imagines she’s someone else.
The Kids Are All Right
Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are fine as a complacent lesbian couple, and Mark Ruffalo is terrific as the sperm donor who fathered their children (and who inadvertently disrupts their lives when his now-teenage kids go looking for him). But while writer-director Lisa Cholodenko adroitly captures California at its most I’m OK-You’re OK granola-y, the plot of The Kids Are All Right couldn’t be more generic. It’s all about petty jealousies and pathetic compulsions, played out via dialogue that ranges from merely functional to clunky. And once the characters commit to their tedious story arcs, they never do anything revealing—or even surprising.
Atom Egoyan’s erotic thriller (based on Anne Fontaine’s French film Nathalie…) is a decided change of pace for the usually chilly Canadian writer-director. Chloe is gloriously, deliriously overheated—like Hitchcock by way of De Palma. Julianne Moore plays a fussy gynecologist who suspects her husband (Liam Neeson) is cheating on her, so she hires a prostitute played by Amanda Seyfried to tempt him. From there, a series of misunderstandings leads to crazy plot twists interspersed with steamy sex scenes. Egoyan and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson emphasize the shock and camp, and the result is a treat for fans of arty trash.
Most pleasant surprise
Writer Bert V. Royal and director Will Gluck rely too much on teen-movie clichés for their high school spin on Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Easy A could definitely be a little gutsier when it comes to challenging a high-school culture that prizes sexiness but not sex. But Emma Stone is a true charmer, playing a girl who tries to make the best of her bad reputation by exposing the hypocrisy of her classmates; and Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson are hilarious as her permissive, happily sarcastic parents. Plus, Royal’s dialogue has the wit and snap of a genre classic, and even though Easy A raises issues about teen sexuality that it’s too timid to fully address, it does ask the right questions about whether high school kids have any power to control how they’re perceived.
High-speed trains careening out of control. Unstable chemicals. Heartless corporate lackeys. Denzel Washington and Chris Pine as reluctant partners with sad personal histories. Rosario Dawson putting her hair up and then letting it back down, scene after scene. Ethan Suplee as the slackest employee in railroad history. Kevin Corrigan as the meek safety expert. Pointless helicopter shots and frequent cuts to TV news reporters who recap the audience on what’s happened in the movie so far. Interludes at Hooters. A wildly incongruous club track over the closing credits. Unstoppable takes a pretty decent idea for a B-thriller and adds a bunch of unnecessary junk, and yet in spite—or perhaps even because—of its excess, it was one of the most purely fun mainstream movies released this year.
Future Film That Time Forgot
While it certainly sounds cool to build a suspense movie around three college students stuck on a ski lift with ravenous wolves down below, writer-director Adam Green saddles his thriller Frozen with whiny, shallow characters whom most reasonable people would rather see freeze to death than make it to safety. Decades hence, historians will be able to consult Frozen for prime examples of The Early-21st-Century American Douche.
1. Winter’s Bone
2. Black Swan
3. The Social Network
5. Toy Story 3
6. True Grit
7. Exit Through The Gift Shop"
9. Rabbit Hole
The next five
For two very different looks at how families shape us, you might want to program a double feature of The Kids Are All Right and The Fighter, both, in essence, movies about the ties that bind and choosing which ones to break and which to hold onto tightly. Or, how about a double feature about being locked up in harmful situations? Try Shutter Island and A Prophet, both movies about guilt and confinement, and both about how mind is its own sort of prison. Or you could just seek out the overlooked Never Let Me Go, a satisfyingly downbeat and beautifully acted science-fiction drama about mortality that’s also a great leap forward for ex-video director Mark Romanek.
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
Jennifer Lawrence had done little beyond co-starring in a Bill Engvall sitcom—so, nothing, really—before starring in Winter’s Bone. But even if she had been a well-known name, the way she disappears into the part of a beyond-poor Arkansas teen desperate to track down a criminal father who’s vanished into a backwoods of meth labs and easily disappeared bodies would still be an impressive feat. Much of the film’s sense of danger comes from the moments when she lets her vulnerability peak through a mask of steely determination. By the film’s end, that vulnerability has been corroded away, which is at once her triumph and her tragedy.
Mother And Child
Rodrigo Garcia’s fine ensemble drama about the unseen connections between a group of Los Angelenos—yeah, it’s one of those, but don’t hold that against it—deserves a second chance to find an audience for the fine, restrained performances by Samuel L. Jackson (taking a welcome break from action roles), Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington, Jimmy Smits, and Annette Bening, who gives a prickly turn here that nicely complements her work in The Kids Are All Right.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
This Swedish adaptation of that book you see on every form of public transportation (if you haven’t read it yourself) deserves credit for introducing the moody Noomi Rapace to the general public. But the movie around her—an un-cinematic pile-up of rape and exposition (and exposition and exposition)—should qualify as a form of torture. It’s an endless, unpleasant plod of a movie that spawned two sequels that this writer gladly skipped.
Most pleasant surprise
How To Train Your Dragon
Dreamworks Animation started to up its game with the winning Kung Fu Panda, but the heartfelt How To Train Your Dragon is a real breakthrough, a beautiful-looking coming-of-age story that opens with a few too-hip-for-the-kids’-table Dreamworks tics before settling into telling a rich story with winning characters in the tradition of great animated films from Disney’s golden age to Pixar today. Let’s hope its charm doesn’t get lost in the inevitable string of sequels.
Does it count as a guilty pleasure when something’s so clearly designed to be a guilty pleasure? It does when the pleasure comes with this much guilt. An insane parade of nudity and severed parts—with the bloodiest beach sequence since Saving Private Ryan—Piranha 3D aims lower than you might even imagine. No, think even lower. But as throwbacks to drive-in-era trash go, nothing has satisfied quite like it in a while.
Future Film That Time Forgot
Our children, speaking from the future: “So, wait: It’s a film in which Jason Bateman swaps in his sperm for a donor’s in order to woo and exact revenge on Jennifer Aniston? And it’s a comedy, not some kind of creepy thriller? That sounds terrible! Call it up on the Holo-Vision so we can enjoy some turn-of-the-century unintentional hilarity.”
2. Black Swan
4. Best Worst Movie
6. Exit Through The Gift Shop
7. The Social Network
8. The King’s Speech
9. True Grit
10. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
The next five
An unconventional family discovers a whole new universe of dysfunction in The Kids Are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko’s funny, astute, and altogether lovely comedy-drama about the havoc that ensues when the adopted children of lesbian couple Julianne Moore and Annette Bening seek out their sperm-donor father (Mark Ruffalo). Pixar movies are the safest bets in film; the studio’s commitment to quality control is nothing short of heroic. So expectations were high for the third entry in one of the most beloved animated franchises of all time. Toy Story 3 met the sky-high expectations with another simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking story about growing up and letting go. The haunting psychological thriller Winter’s Bone gave the shadowy, brutally unsentimental world of film noir an Appalachian spin as Jennifer Lawrence, in a star-making performance, plays a tough survivor who goes looking for her father’s killer in a deadly maze of crystal meth addiction, violence, and truly deplorable dental hygiene. Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work elevates its subject from walking plastic-surgery-victim punchline to fiery feminist hero as it follows Rivers through a brutal year of trying to maintain her place in the Darwinian world of show business and stave off professional obsolescence. Chris Morris’ Four Lions derives big laughs out of the some of the most tragic subject matter imaginable: suicide bombers. The scattershot political satire sometimes feels more like an assemblage of inspired skits than a proper film, but no comedy this year exhibited more daring or took more risks.
Marion Cotillard, Inception
It’s not easy to distinguish yourself in a film with eye-popping visuals, a plot so convoluted decades from now we’ll still be trying to figure it out, and a cast that includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Caine, Ellen Page, Cillian Murphy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, and Thomas Hardy. But Marion Cotillard left an indelible imprint on Inception as a woman for whom DiCaprio is willing to bend the laws of space and time. Without Cotillard’s tragic humanity and intense chemistry with DiCaprio, Inception easily could have gotten lost inside its own elaborate machinery, but their bond lends the film an essential emotional grounding. DiCaprio specialized in overly intense men with tragic, troubled relationships this year, and Michelle Williams was similarly haunting in a small but key role similar to Cotillard’s in Shutter Island. Yet it’s Cotillard’s poignant performance that helped make Inception a genuine pop-culture phenomenon with broad appeal, not just another geeky sci-fi mindbender.
With 127 Hours,newly Oscar-anointed auteur Danny Boyle steers defiantly non-commercial source material—a memoir by an adventurer who spent more than five days with his arm trapped by a rock during a solo climbing expedition—into the super-slick realm of music videos, commercials, and Slumdog Millionaire,his surprise blockbuster. Star James Franco can barely move, yet Boyle’s camera seemingly can’t stand still. Instead of staying with Franco, it rockets around the world in the form of fantasy sequences and flashbacks that spell out the film’s themes in maddeningly simplistic terms. Boyle stops just short of opening with a crawl reading, “This is the heartwarming, inspirational story of a callow young man who learns through adversity to give up narcissistic notions of self-reliance and invulnerability and embrace the help and camaraderie of others.” 127 Hours is well-acted and powerful at times, but it’s not as potent as it might have been if Boyle weren’t so damnably intent on beating audiences over the head with uplift and hope.
It’s not too hard to figure out why Hatchet II did not blow away critics en route to becoming a lock for a Best Picture Oscar. It’s an unrated, super-violent sequel to a slasher film that barely played theaters yet picked up a devoted cult following on DVD. Hatchet II is an unapologetic genre film/bloodbath, but it’s also one of the smartest, funniest, and most informed deconstructions of the slasher genre this side of Scream. As a bogus voodoo shaman who sends Danielle Harris and a group of chumps on a perilous voyage to retrieve a lost boat and/or kill a supernatural mass murderer, Tony Todd delivers a performance that’s both creepy and hilarious. Hatchet II offers gore of tremendous quality and quantity: It’s Fangoria fare for people who might actually read the magazine’s articles instead of merely gawking at the bloody pictures.
Most pleasant surprise
Lottery Ticket was marketed as a typically raunchy, ramshackle, lowbrow African-American-targeted comedy. Expectations were adjusted accordingly, yet it turned out to be a film of heart and humor, a laid-back slice-of-life comedy in the ingratiatingly casual tradition of co-star Ice Cube’s Barbershop and Friday. It boasts a charming lead performance from the magnetic Bow Wow (an actor so appealing he might actually survive being a grown man professionally known as Bow Wow) and a loaded supporting cast that includes such ringers as Charlie Murphy, Mike Epps, Terry Crews, and T-Pain, who steals the film as the proprietor of the store that sold Bow Wow the titular prize-winner.
It’s hard to pick a favorite in a ridiculous year that gave the world Step Up 3D and The Expendables, but Burlesque nonetheless towers over the rest of the so-bad-it’s-awesome pack. Burlesque is essentially Showgirls minus the subversive genius of Paul Verhoeven, with Christina Aguilera playing a small-town girl with big dreams and an even bigger voice who heads to the Big City to make it under the tutelage of burlesque house proprietor Cher. Burlesque is the film kitsch enthusiasts hoped and expected it to be, a glittering camp spectacle that never met a melodramatic show-business cliché it didn’t lovingly recycle. It doesn’t really matter if the laughs in Burlesque are intentional or otherwise; all that matters is that the belly laughs start early and never stop.
Future Film That Time Forgot
The Warrior’s Way
The Warrior’s Way doesn’t have to wait for time to forget it; the present seems to have forgotten about it already. Geoffrey Rush’s other film this year is an appropriately tongue-in-cheek campfest about a legendary swordsman from the Far East (stone-faced Korean superstar Jang Dong-gun) who heads to the Old West with a baby he refused to kill and becomes domesticated while toiling at a laundry—until his past comes back to haunt him. Rush and Danny Huston (as a masked, disfigured military madmen) deliver universe-sized performances, because what’s the point of being subtle and restrained in a movie like this?
2. The Social Network
3. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
4. Black Swan
5. Toy Story 3
6. Winter’s Bone
7. A Prophet
8. Another Year
9. Red Riding Trilogy
The next five
The French-Romanian co-production The Concert is unabashedly cheesy in its happy-ending wish-fulfillment, but it’s never dumb or pandering about it. A wickedly clever, manic farce about a once-promising Bolshoi conductor struggling to roust a crowd of has-beens and never-weres into performing a Paris concert, it’s intelligent about misplaced nostalgia, tender about family relations, and gloriously ridiculous about nearly everything else. Don Hahn’s Waking Sleeping Beauty is a personal history of Disney Animation’s ’80s doldrum years and ’90s revival, told by many of the era’s key figures and filled with ground-level insight; it’s lively and funny, but also startlingly candid. Of the year’s several is-it-real-or-a-straight-faced-joke documentaries, the art-world history prank Exit Through The Gift Shop stands most solidly on its own; like Waking Sleeping Beauty, it’s entertaining both for the story it tells and the insiders-only footage it showcases. Nash Edgerton’s debut feature The Square is a neo-noir that fits all the classic noir parameters into the shape of an escalating-bad-choices movie; the protagonists’ doom is sealed early on, and the rest of the film is about watching the inevitable unfold in a breathtaking way. And while Neil Jordan’s Ondine suffers slightly from the looming shadow of John Sayles’ superior, similar The Secret Of Roan Inish, it’s still a strikingly sweet, textured love story by way of a modern myth.
Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
It was a fantastic year for winning performances, from Jesse Eisenberg bringing across all the seething fury of a geek scorned in The Social Network to Natalie Portman evoking frustrated, fragile humanity in the face of crushing expectations in Black Swan. Colin Firth combined those two poles for his performance as Britain’s King George VI, whom he plays as a stymied man, filled with intelligence and self-deprecating humor, but barely able to get either out past his crippling stammer. His inability to speak could have come across as grating, an Oscar-ready disease-of-the-week gimmick, or just a bad parody of a real-life figure. Instead, Firth brings across the humanity under the lack of communication, and evokes George VI’s frustration, embarrassment, self-hatred, and seething rage with every stumble and choked word. He plays the man as a rich stew of pride and shame, stuffiness and down-to-earthness. He’s a main reason why The King’s Speech is a tender personal drama instead of a dry historical.
This overheated thriller was praised in some corners as innovative and intelligent for the many hefty topics it addresses, from the ethics of genetic engineering to the responsibilities of parenthood. And yet it handled these issues in such a sloppy, thoughtless, ham-handed way, it hardly deserves points for addressing them at all. In many ways a remake of Species with less nudity and more talented actors (Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody, who both deserve—and usually get—better material than this), Splice relies heavily and awkwardly on coincidence and illogic in order to move its story forward, and makes its central pair of scientists an irresponsible apparent psychotic (Polley) and an ineffectual, flailing whiner (Brody). Somehow, this results in the creation of ridiculous new life, which naturally follows in the footsteps of its “parents” and engages in an incoherent series of behaviors that are meant to seem unpredictable and frightening, yet touching, but mostly just seem random. Nothing in the story feels like it’s driven by any more thought than, “What will it take to get to the end of this scene?” and it’s hard to take that seriously in horror or in what’s supposed to be a thought-provoking, smarter-than-average thriller.
Not so much underrated as barely rated, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s latest film slipped through theaters like water through a cupped hand, leaving no mark. But while it’s minor Jeunet, without the scope of A Very Long Engagement or the quirky commitment of Amélie, it bears his distinctively odd stamp, and has more flavor than most of the films released in 2010. Its story of a bunch of oddball riffraff combining their odd talents into a campaign against two greedy weapons manufacturers is a lightweight, low-impact fairy tale, adorable and ridiculous in equal measure. It’s more Looney Tune diversion than serious cinema, but Jeunet does diversion with more idiosyncratic detail than anyone this side of Terry Gilliam, and he makes Micmacs into a thoroughly enjoyable farce.
Most pleasant surprise
From the ads, Disney’s so-called final fairy-tale picture looked more like another smarmily playful Shrek offshoot than what it actually is: a polished adventure rooted in old-Disney tropes, but executed with Pixar verve. The emotions feel deep and sincere instead of reserved and calculated, the musical numbers are actually memorable and move the plot along, and the humor is clever instead of broad and smirking. Also, the strikingly vivid animation made for some of the only 3-D this year that added to the film rather than detracting or distracting from it. It was a great year for animation, and several other films (Toy Story 3, How To Train Your Dragon, the finally-released-in-America Secret Of Kells) took more artistic chances than Tangled, or just served up sharper stories. But of all of them, Tangled presented the biggest, most heartening gap between what it appeared to be and what it actually is.
The filmmakers behind Kites set out to make a fusion of Bollywood and Hollywood that would appeal to audiences on both sides of the ocean—audiences who promptly either ignored it or booed it as an endlessly pandering, naked attempt at manipulation. And so it is—but in the spirit of Desperado and Slumdog Millionaire (which it openly emulates), it’s some serious dumb fun. The story of star-crossed lovers who don’t even speak a common language but bond over their respective beauty and obvious qualifications as romantic leads, Kites piles on the shootouts, car chases, explosions, and cultural clichés. There isn’t a brain in its head, but it’s an extremely pretty head—it reads like Jerry Bruckheimer’s idea of a Bollywood film, complete with a big, flashy, utterly gratuitous dance sequence.
Future Film That Time Forgot
Was there really a major studio feature in 2010 that shamelessly stole its plot from the cult musical Repo! The Genetic Opera, its setting from Minority Report, and its ending from Brazil? And did it really feature an erotic sequence of its central couple hacking each other into bloody chunks? It seems like a confused fever dream now. Time has already largely forgotten Repo Men, which has all the other benchmarks of a solid FTTF-to-be: a far-fetched premise, dubious execution, and a solid cast (Jude Law, Forest Whitaker, Liev Schreiber, Alice Braga) slumming it amid gore, a perfunctory love story, and a been-there-seen-that, threadbare vision of a dystopic future.
2. Winter’s Bone
4. The Social Network
5. Exit Through The Gift Shop
6. Everyone Else
7. Shutter Island
9. Toy Story 3
The next five
The first third of A Prophet is as powerful a stretch of film as any this year, following a young Arab prisoner forced into a terrible choice; the last two-thirds are nearly as good, tracing his evolution into a different, more dangerous man. The Tillman Story righteously denounces the official spin job that turned the friendly-fire death of former NFL star Pat Tillman in Afghanistan into something falsely heroic. And three generations of French auteurs came to play: 87-year-old New Wave stalwart Alain Resnais pulled a fast one with Wild Grass, which is enchanting on the surface and delectably creepy and strange underneath, concluding in one great, Dadaist WTF of a denouement. The consistently brilliant Claire Denis brought her intuitive style to bear on the story of a white farm-owner (Isabelle Huppert) who refuses to leave a war-stricken African country in White Material. Not to be outdone, enfant terrible Gaspar Noé (Irréversible) returned with Enter The Void, a phantasmagoric odyssey through nocturnal Tokyo that makes up in dazzling style what it lacks in smarts.
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
As Facebook whiz-kid Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, Jesse Eisenberg goes beyond imitation—though if you’ve seen interviews with the real Zuckerberg, it’s uncanny—and suggests the mysterious forces that drive a social-media innovator who is himself cripplingly anti-social. Eisenberg doesn’t care about making Zuckerberg particularly sympathetic—he’s not a lovable rogue or a self-deprecating nerd, but possibly the “asshole” his girlfriend accuses him of being in the opening scene. And certainly there’s an ugly strain of pettiness and class resentment that drives him to create Facebook, as well as an inability to comprehend other people’s feelings that’s somewhere between narcissism and autism. Yet Eisenberg reveals other, more redeeming sides to Zuckerberg, too: a bright, focused intellect and a desire to connect in the grandest way possible.
The debut feature by Israeli director Samuel Maoz won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival and scored an 86 out of 100 on Metacritic, with critics praising it as a harrowing, claustrophobic Das Boot-in-a-tank. Yet the bluntness doesn’t stop with the mortar fire: Lebanon is a clunky and unsubtle from first frame to symbolically loaded last, losing much of its you-are-there visceral impact to brickbat ironies about the horrors of war. It’s the type of movie where an inexperienced gunner, having cost lives by failing to fire on a carload of hostiles, winds up blasting an innocent farmer and his chickens a little further down the road. At one point, a wounded donkey cries.
A mute, one-eyed warrior (Mads Mikkelson) crushes skulls, slashes throats, and forces one man to witness his own disembowelment in Nicolas Winding Refn’s odyssey, which so pulses with masculine power and violence that it seems borne of John Milius’ ballsack. Following a band of Christian Vikings as they make the trek from Scotland to fight in the Crusades, the film unfolds in six chapters and steadily grows more surreal and acid-tinged as it goes along. It’s not rare to find movies with Valhalla Rising’s level of brutality—hello, Centurion—and many critics bristled at its ultra-violence, but Refn’s idiosyncratic vision stands apart, especially in a long sequence where the Vikings drift aimlessly in a ghostly sea of fog, hovering near death and wondering if God has cursed them.
Most pleasant surprise
Going The Distance
By all indications, Going The Distance never looked remotely promising: The title was generic and the trailer even worse; the release date was pushed out of the summer and into the no-man’s-land of early September; and Drew Barrymore had been going through the rom-com motions for years. Though the film doesn’t exactly break new ground, it proves that the rom-com formula can still be satisfying if it’s done well. The first thing that stands out about Going The Distance is Geoff LaTulippe’s script, filled with profanely funny dialogue that skips past the niceties of PG-13 and gets frank about the problems of young people balancing love with their career ambitions. It’s also blessedly low-concept: Barrymore and her new boyfriend (Justin Long) pursue jobs on separate coasts and don’t have the money to see each other often. A few dumb gags aside—Long’s misadventures with spray tanning foremost among them—the film scores some laughs and some insights, and doesn’t insult the audience in the process. By Hollywood standards, that’s a clear victory.
Disneynature’s aquatic follow-up to Earth teaches children about the wonders of the sea, but it has about as much educational value as a history textbook from the Texas public school system. In place of scientific facts, Oceans offers Pierce Brosnan voicing information-free, pseudo-poetic hunks of narration (“On a clear night, the ocean draws her secrets close”) and whimsically staged images, like a rocket reflected in an iguana’s eyes as it blasts off into the night sky. Directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, the team responsible for Winged Migration, are interested entirely in beauty and nothing more, meaning that some major sea creatures go uncovered as they bask in the dazzling “silk scarves” of the blanket octopus. Basically, it’s HDTV/Blu-ray Demo: The Movie.
Future Film That Time Forgot
Skyline is kind of adorable, a low-budget, Z-grade Cloverfield/District 9-style alien invasion thriller in which $500,000 went to the physical production—and for hiring affordable talent, like leading man Eric Balfour—and another $10 million-plus got dumped into computer effects. Normally such an enterprise would go straight to DVD without anyone giving it a second thought, but Universal thought it might turn a quick buck out of undiscriminating sci-fi and action fans. (Correctly, as it happens.) Critics were unkind and it dropped off the box-office charts as quickly as it arrived, leaving it a future in cable and video outlets, where viewers will consider it merely a waste of their time and not of their hard-earned money, too.