Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s the list that takes its time! The list that doesn’t care about currency or relevance or pageviews, but waits until anything that could possibly be from the past year has passed through Kansas City and the world! This is the list that completes the line-up! The last list you’ll ever need! This is the Best Films of 2010 and Assorted Miscellany!
So 2010 was not a very good year. I do my best not to fall into easy pessimism or nostalgic despair, but Hollywood showed some structural issues that need addressing, and the indie and foreign scenes didn’t quite pick up the slack. Granted, a lot of the former may be the final shakeouts of the writers’ strike, and really, year to year the quality of movies released can vary widely. Still, a problem I had was a certain lack of ambition in the films released. Too many pictures were content to be good or even just okay films of their type; action films, comedies, horror flicks, etc. tried to do one job well, and that’s admirable, but it created a certain lack of urgency. There wasn’t enough that you had to see in the theater, not enough that fulfilled the promise of entering a movie house and going elsewhere. The film industry needs competence, but it doesn’t need austerity. Even among the great films, even some on this list, there was a sense of unnecessary restraint.
That said, it wasn’t all bad. There were original stories, moments of showmanship, and some surprise hits among the critical darlings. And some of the unambitious B-fare was pretty good too. So let’s ac-cen-tu-ate the positive with a countdown of the year’s Top 10!
(Order subject to change at any time. Management not responsible for inconsistencies that may result. Close cover before striking.)
10. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. And already I’m cheating. This was unveiled to most of the world in 2009, and played some US dates late that year, but whatever. Weird distribution patterns qualify. In any case, it’s a splendid thriller, in some ways a traditional murder mystery while in others expanding and focusing more on the broken personalities of people brilliant enough to solve such things. The plot is full of surprises that end up making sense, and the lead performances are fearless in their intensity. Hard to watch in at least one place, but gripping and compelling.
9. Winter's Bone. An excess of blue notwithstanding (Note to filmmakers: OTHER COLORS EXIST), this is a strong picture that is mostly a noir-esque thriller, but also a fascinating portrait of an oft-unseen culture. It treats the concept of impoverished communities becoming havens for meth without straying too far into lurid sensationalism, and the focus on the lead character’s need to keep her family taken care of at all costs holds it together.
8. The King's Speech. I still don’t quite think this deserved Best Picture and I confess my ranking might have been slightly higher had it not won. It’s a very good picture, with amazing performances and a script that manages to wring genuine tension, emotion, and surprise out of a series of diction lessons. Firth and Rush alone guarantee it a spot on the list.
7. Inception. An expertly crafted bit of psychological acrobatics, Inception is crisp, elegant, and engaging in its constant shifting of realities. Sharp acting and dialogue, and the occasional moment of good humor, keep it from becoming a cold and lifeless academic exercise, and the puzzle-box construction of the thing is truly a wonder.
6. Toy Story 3. In some ways this is a film that confronts many of the same issues and themes as the first two entries in the series, but it gets closer to the nub- the cold reality that nothing lasts forever- than it ever has before. It’s funny, it’s gut-wrenching, it’s surprisingly imaginative for a third run-through, and it’s one of the few new 3D films to make the technology work.
5. Shutter Island. A reasonably straightforward, traditional psychological thriller may not be what most people expect from Scorcese, but he brings a real flair and energy to the genre. Shutter Island is atmospheric, intense, and let’s just say it, scary as Hell. It’s an old fashioned thrill, and the twist is one that you may see coming, but it’s still a great time.
4. True Grit. There’s something weirdly welcoming about this movie, despite it being a spare and brutal story of vengeance and death on an unforgiving frontier. Maybe it’s the performances (especially those of Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld), maybe it’s that the Coens know just the right balance of terror and beauty and dark humor, maybe it’s that it just looks so damn good. It’s so low-key that you don’t know who or what to credit most.
3. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. THIS is what I’m talking about, people. Someone puts together a dazzling and audacious slam-bang action romantic comedy that defies genre boundaries as it reinvents them and is full of treats for the viewer in nearly every frame, and it gets completely ignored. Remember fun? Remember bright colors and action sequences that make sense? This is not a film without its flaws- it shares the comic series’ problem with a protracted conclusion (even if it’s not the same conclusion)- and I guess if you’re the sort of individual who does not forgive personal flaws easily the main characters may seem unworthy of true love, and there’s something you could say about “hipsters”, but all of it just seems so insignificant. This is spectacle, this is a main event, this is smarter than it looks and more sincere than you would ever expect, and it’s a pure example of the kind of satisfaction we should be demanding when we pay ever-increasing ticket prices.
2. Black Swan. Darren Aronofsky likes to make movies about obsession, and like The Wrestler this is focused on the obsessions of performance and art. It’s moody, intense, and unwavering, at once a pile of dance movie clichés and a glorious head trip. Natalie Portman doesn’t miss a step, the visuals only get ridiculous when they’re supposed to, and the result is one of the most memorable pictures of the year.
1. The Social Network. We’ve all heard that Aaron Sorkin took a lot of liberties with the real story behind Facebook, but it’s hard to care that much. The point is not to do a hatchet job on Mark Zuckerberg or create conflicts where none exist, but simply to show with clarity and beauty the growth of an idea and the rise of a man who is utterly devoted to making it work. It doesn’t push too hard on the negatives or positives of what Facebook is and how it’s changed us, and Sorkin and Fincher focus on the exhiliration of the journey. It’s a subdued yet daring picture, spinning a remarkable story out of what could have been either dry as toast or a bad movie of the week.
Just missing the cut off: Get Him to the Greek, The Tempest
Still need to get around to: 127 Hours
The ever-expanding list of notable performances:
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Justin Timberlake, The Social Network
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Helen Mirren, The Tempest
Djimon Honsou, The Tempest
Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom
Danny Trejo, Machete
Joseph Gordon Levitt, Inception
Most Underrated Movie of the Year: The Tempest. I’m convinced part of this is fallout from the Spider-Man on Broadway debacle, but Taymor deserves better. I’ve already written up a full review, suffice it to say: movie good, imagery not over the top considering subject matter, Mirren flawless.
Saul Bass Award for Best Opening Credits Sequence: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.