Tuesday, February 15, 2011

2010: The Best Films of the Year: The Top 10

And finally, we arrive at the 10 best films of the year. The best of the best – the films that make you leave the theater knowing you just saw greatness.

10. Another Year (Mike Leigh)
Mike Leigh’s Another Year is one of the director’s calmest films – one that is bursting with life, both the good and bad that goes into in. It is not marred by the misanthropy of some of the director’s earlier work. Instead, his film focuses on a happily married couple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), who have been together for decades, and is one of those couples who is still in love after all those years, still content to be in each other’s company. This relationship is the heart of the movie, and it fills the supporting cast with a mixture of joy, envy and self loathing. Lesley Manville gives one of the best performances of the year as an old friend – divorced once, left by the “love of her life” another time (because he was married), and not wanting to admit that she is no longer young, or even that for her, middle age is a thing of the past. She is getting old now, and she will likely do it alone. She is a woman who hates silence, who tries to fill every void with one of her rambling stories. At first, the other characters in the film pity her, but soon that changes, when it becomes clear just how far gone she may actually be. The last shot of the film is a simple heartbreaker. Mike Leigh has always been one of the best directors working – his improvisational style, and the fact that he works for months with his cast getting their characters down, means that his films are always brimming with real life. Another Year is one of the best films of his career.

9. Animal Kingdom (David Michod)
Animal Kingdom is one of the best films to come out of Australia in years, and is easily one of the best crime dramas I have seen in a long time as well. The film is about a sullen teenage boy, whose mother dies of a drug overdose, and is taken in by the extended family he doesn’t know. Almost immediately, he is suck into this violent criminal family – and he observes everything without really saying much. Two of his uncles try to take him under their wings, and show him the ropes. His grandmother (Jacki Weaver) is an outwardly kind woman, fiercely devoted to her “boys” – perhaps too much so as she looks at them a little too intently, holds kisses a little too long. And there is the violent Uncle Pope (Ben Mendohlson), who is the leader, perhaps because everyone is afraid of him – you never know what he’s going to do next. Slowly, the gears start turning, the bodies start piling up, and this teenager finds himself in the middle of a situation he didn’t start and cannot stop. Pressured on all sides, he will finally have to do something. Animal Kingdom is a crime drama, but it is also a portrait of a dysfunctional family – easily the most dysfunctional in any film this year. The film is violent, and yet writer director David Michod does an excellent job of slowing things down, and sometimes just observing. There a little of Scorsese in him – especially the way he uses music (I defy anyone who sees this movie to ever be able to hear the cheesy 1980s ballad “I’m All Out of Love” again and not have chills run down your spine). This is a masterful crime drama, from the most promising debut filmmaker of the year.

8. Inception (Christopher Nolan)
Christopher Nolan’s Inception is undeniably one of the greatest technical achievements of the year – perhaps even the best one. If I knocked it down the list a little bit in the past few weeks, it was because I find the more times I watch the film, it gets a little less interesting. Inception works best the first time you see it – when it overwhelms your senses with his head trippy visuals (refreshing realistic, as Nolan uses as many practical effects as possible), and draws you further down the rabbit hole with its mindfuck of a plot, that literally takes us into the mind of one person after another after another. For all the talk about how complicated Inception is, it really isn’t – it is essentially a heist film, with a sci-fi twist. But what a heist film! Nolan is perhaps the best director of action working right now, and Inception is no different – the action sequences are fast paced and exciting. Yet I almost prefer the slower sequences in the film. Leonardo DiCaprio takes on a nearly impossible role, as the leader of the dreamers as it were, and delivers a great performance out of it. This is Nolan’s most ambitious project to date – perhaps his best movie, but I’m not entirely sure of that – but it is a film that proves that you can make complex, long, head trips in mainstream American film – and the audiences will still come. Yes, I think Inception loses something when you know its mysteries – yet it is still easily one of the best films of the year.

7. True Grit (Joel & Ethan Coen)
When it was announced that the Coen brothers were remaking True Grit a lot of people, myself included, wondered why two of the most original filmmakers in the world would want to remake a B-Western from the 1960s, known only because John Wayne finally won an Oscar for it (and because he was sick, not because he deserved it). When the final product came out though, I understood why. The Coens have found the depth that was existent in Charles Portis’ novel, but was lacking from the old movie. They have made Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Brides) from a hero, into a drunken lout, who has pushed away everything he has loved, and is truly just as bad as the people he tracks down. They have turned LaBeouf (Matt Damon) from a comic foil, into Cogburn’s equal – the flip side of the same coin. And most importantly, they have understood that this is Mattie Ross’ (Hailee Steinfeld) story, and that it is not a triumph for her, but a tragedy, as she essentially becomes Cogburn. I could talk about the brilliant cinematography by Roger Deakins, the terrific score by Carter Burwell, the pitch perfect art direction and costume design – the magnificent supporting cast, including Barry Pepper channeling Robert Duvall or Josh Brolin making the murdering Tom Cheney into a pathetic, dim witted loser, and what a brilliant choice that was. But when I think back to True Grit, it all comes down to the final two scenes in the movie – where Cogburn finally learns a lesson – and Ross does not. Not one of the greatest films the Coens have ever made – but only because their resume is chock full of masterpieces.

6. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)
If there are two things I can seemingly count on every year it is there: 1) That Pixar will make one of the best films of the year and 2) That the film will make me cry like a little girl with a scraped knee. For the fourth year in a row (following Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up), Pixar is represented on my top 10 list, and I think it is safe to say that they have become the most consistent, driving force of quality entertainment in American movies right now. I admit I was a little disappointed when I heard that Pixar was making Toy Story 3 – although I loved the first two films, I thought that Pixar had surpassed them with almost all of their films since, and I wanted to see new and different. But even though this is the third movie in the series, this still qualifies as new and different. Toy Story 3 is a wonderful film about nostalgia and growing up, and having to leave childhood behind, even though we do not want to. It is also an exciting film – with a wonderful “Great Escape” like prison break from a day care center, and some excellent, surrealistic touches (Mr. Potato Head’s Salvador Dali inspired sequence for example). It is a film that treats children with respect – trusting them to be intelligent enough to get what is going in the movie. And yet for all the praise I could heap upon the film for its technical brilliance, the wonderful writing, the great voice acting, when I think back to Toy Story 3, I remember that horrific, terrifying sequence where the toys are inches away from their own demise, and how it shook me to the core – and then how in the finale, it did it again. Every year, Pixar makes one of the best films of the year, and also provides me with one of my most embarrassing moments – walking out of a kid’s movie with tears in my eyes. I anxiously await to see what they do with Cars 2 – because I think the first one is perhaps their weakest film ever.

5. Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese)
I know that some saw Martin Scorsese’s latest film, released all the way back in February, as little more than a silly genre exercise, where they guessed the conclusion from the beginning of the film. Yet to me, the “twist” ending of the film was beside the point and to my mind not much of a twist at all – it was inevitability. Scorsese’s film, starring a brilliant Leonardo DiCaprio, continues his examination of guilt on film – and the seeming impossibility of redemption. DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels follows other Scorsese characters like Travis Bickle, returning to his life waiting to explode again, Rupert Pupkin, deciding to stay in jail and “work on his act”, Henry Hill, living the rest of his life as a schnook, Archer, refusing to see the women he is in love with, Howard Hughes, retreating into his own world and Billy Costigan accepting death as inevitable, in that they are prefer their delusions to reality – are all ultimately unable to deal with the tremendous guilt they suffer through. DiCaprio’s last line in Shutter Island, could apply to any one of the them as well. Beyond that, Shutter Island is one of the best technical achievements of the year – I love the dark cinematography, the pitch perfect sets, the pounding score, the period details. I love that Scorsese mixes genres here – the film noir with an old school horror film. I love the supporting cast, who you have to watch twice just to understand what they are doing. I love the feel of unease and dread throughout the film. In fact, I love everything about Shutter Island. It is worthy of Scorsese’s career – and given the career he has had that is saying something.

4. Carlos (Olivier Assayas)
Olivier Assasyas’ epic, three part five and a half hour movie about the life of terrorist Carlos Ramirez is the great French director’s greatest achievement. Despite its mammoth running time, the film is never dull, never boring. It starts in the 1970s, with Ramirez spouting off the political rhetoric of the time about power to the people, and a free Palestine. In the second part, it details his most well known achievement – taking over an OPEC meeting and taking all the Oil Ministers of the countries on a cross Europe plane ride, before relenting. The third part is Ramirez in the 1990s – out of work, overweight and without friends – hiding in Africa and waiting for the other shoe to drop. Assayas’s film examines the life of this man who wanted the world to see him as a sort of Che Guerrva, but was really just a self involved man who cared little for anyone but himself – whose main goals seemed to be to make money and fuck a lot of beautiful women. Assasyas constructs his film almost like an American action film – I was reminded of Michael Mann throughout – but his film is completely in keeping with his recent examinations of globalization, like Summer Hours or Boarding Gate. The film is impeccably crafted – with great cinematography, attention to period detail, and score of pop songs that serves the movie extremely well. At the center of every scene in the film is Edgar Ramirez’s towering lead performance – he follows Ramirez from the lithe, hard bodied man in the 1970s, to the overweight, self indulgent man he became. Yes, the film is five and a half hours – and yes, I watched the entire movie in one sitting at the TIFF Lightbox last fall – but it never feels long. Assays cut together a two and half hour long version for theatrical release in North America – and I hear its fine – but trust me, you should see this epic in all its glory. Seeing the other version would be like seeing a trailer. A staggering achievement for Assays.

3. Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance)
Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine is the most emotionally devastating movie of the year. Cutting back and forth between the beginning of a relationship between Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) and its ending, so that even those seemingly sweet, cute scenes of them falling in love is undercut with the sad realization that it will not last. We even see seeds of what will drive them apart in what initially brings them together. The sexuality in the film, which initially got it rated NC-17, is pivotal to the films successful. The three sex scenes in the film – one between Williams and another man early is offset against her first sex scene with Gosling (which is the most graphic one, but hardly porn like) and lets us see the tender side of Gosling, which she didn’t have in the other guy, and then offset once again to a sex scene late in the film, which shows that tenderness has now completely gone away. The film hinges on the performances by Gosling and Williams – and two better performances in one film you will not find this year. They have an effortless chemistry together, that works beautifully. Cianfrance, who made a film I had never heard of more than a decade ago, has crafted one of the most touching, sad love stories I have ever seen – a triumph for this young filmmaker and his cast.

2. Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)
A lot of critics have describe Darren Aronofsky’s dizzying Black Swan as The Red Shoes meets Carrie – and while I typically hate that kind of statement, here it actually makes sense. No film that I can think of has better matched ballet dancing to the characters psychological state since Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 masterpiece. And few films have painted a better picture of motherly fanaticism leading to sexual repression in their daughters, and spilling out in more horrific ways. Aronofsky’s terrific dance film/horror film/melodrama (and I mean that last one as a compliment) was a brilliant mishmash of genres and style, as we go deeper and deeper into Natalie Portman’s head, as she spins more and more wildly out of control. Portman delivers perhaps the best performance of the year – a brilliant examination of sexual repression and insanity that finally spins out of control. The finale is a masterwork, but the entire movie is a huge accomplishment for Aronofsky and Portman. This is the love it-hate it film of the year – and the people who hate it do so for the same reasons as those who love it. For me, few experiences this year came close.

1. The Social Network (David Fincher)
Yes, like practically every other critic in the world, I think David Fincher’s The Social Network is the year’s best film. Yet, rather than see this as a complete lack of originality on my part, I prefer to see it as a testament to just how brilliant Fincher’s film really is. It is easily the best written film of the year – Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant screenplay fires off its rapid dialogue at a pace that would make screwball comedies of the 1930s jealous. The actors, especially Jessie Eisenberg, know precisely how to deliver this dialogue, and make it sing. The direction by Fincher is smart, the editing precise, the cinematography makes excellent use of the limited space in the movie (it pretty all takes place in small, dingy dorm rooms and large, sterile conference rooms). The music by Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch nails) and Atticus Ross is the best, most original and most memorable of any film this year. Fincher, as always, concentrates on the smallest of details to bring the realism it needs. It is also the most entertaining film of the year, the most endlessly rewatchable, and at times even the funniest. All of that would be enough to place this film high on my list – perhaps even in the top slot – but I think what makes The Social Network the best film of the year, one of the very best of the new Millennium, is that it is the definitive portrait of how we live right now. The great irony, of course, is that Facebook was a sight that helped facilitate friendships, while inventing it destroyed the friendships of their creators – especially Mark Zuckerberg, who of course doesn’t really know how to relate to people at all. Yet at the same time, that seems almost appropriate, because does Facebook really bring anyone together, or is it really just a massive ego stroke to us all, as we convince yourselves that the world needs to know our every movement (I don’t exclude myself there – after all, I started a blog because the world needed to know my opinion on movies). The whole movie is driven by sexual insecurity, and the desire to fit in – which is all ultimately trumped by money. If you wanted to put a movie in a time capsule that showed future generations how we lived in the year 2010, The Social Network would inarguably be that movie.

1 comment:

  1. Take 'Animal Kingdom' out and replace it with 'White Material' and I'd totally agree with you.