If it's crap ... We'll tell you
Well, another year is reaching its end, and I think now marks a good opportunity to reflect on the great bounty that the cinematic realm has brought us, the viewers who keep the medium alive. Now, as I am not a professional critic (though I may some day be- let's see how the rest of University plays out), it would be highly pompous and egotistical for me to call my top 10 the end-all, be-all of top 10 lists this year. Heck, there are still several films this year that I still wish to see, and many others that I may never see. So before I dive into my top 10 (which I think I can say is pretty darned good and should hopefully inspire nods of approval with many, maybe a few fun little debates here and there), I wish to acknowledge the few films in particular I have yet to see and indeed wish to see, with the hopes that they are indeed of high quality, perhaps even high enough for me to make a few later revisions so they achieve the recognition they deserve. Here are the films I must still see:
The King's Speech (Directed by Tom Hooper)
The Fighter (Directed by David O. Russell)
The Illusionist (Directed by Sylvain Chomet)
Blue Valentine (Directed by Derek Cianfrance)
True Grit (Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen)
Rabbit Hole (Directed by John Cameron Mitchell)
Barney's Version (Directed by Richard J. Lewis)
Winter's Bone (Directed by Debra Granik)
Please feel free to suggest any other films you think I should seek out! I'd be glad to find any hidden gems that I may be missing out on!
Anyway, without much further adieu, I will begin counting down my Top 10 Films of 2010:
#10: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (Directed by David Yates)
David Yates, who also directed the two prior Potter installments, proves to have been the bets thing that ever happened to this franchise. Yates is capable of hitting all the right notes with these films- he nails the comedic moments, lends the action scenes an intensity and energy that keeps improving with each film, and perfectly captures a dark, grim tone that lends the series a feeling of danger and looming hardship and tragedy for our heroes. The best quality of his Potter films, however, is the square focus on the characters themselves, a quality that this film above all prior installments in the series captures beautifully. It is a sign of Warner Bros.' faith in their audience that they allow Yates to make what is in essence a dark, moody, mega-budget art film centering squarely on 3 friends tasked with a quest which they must complete but are uncertain if they can. If the final book were made into one film like the others, the much-maligned forest scenes would have likely gone, and to me that would be a shame- they become a showcase for just how well both the characters and actors have grown, and are far more engaging than they were in the book. When Harry and Hermione share a brief, yet uplifting dance to Nick Cave's "O Children", it is a desperate stab to escape, ever so briefly, from the hardships they know lie ahead. Extra kudos for the haunting, beautiful animated sequence telling the origin of the Deathly Hallows. I can't think of a better sign that Part 2 will be the epic event we're hoping for, but for now we have something else that is a gripping, finely-crafted work in its own right.
#9: Tangled (Directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard)
An animated fairy tale that feels simultaneously modern and timeless in its style and sensibilities, Tangled may very well be Walt Disney Animation's finest feature since their 90s renaissance, besting even last year's hand-drawn throwback The Princess and the Frog and perhaps marking the beginning of a new, bright era for Disney's home animation department that has recently struggled in the shadows of Pixar and DreamWorks. Disney's 50th animated feature is so consistently and joyfully entertaining to watch, featuring the kinds of memorable songs, first-rate animation and lovable characters that the studio was founded upon. The way the animation expresses the characters' emotions, what I believe to be Disney's greatest strength in the realm, is present in all of its glory and often used to hilarious effect, particularly in regards to Maximus, the valiant steed who never speaks and is all the better for it. Tangled also features what is perhaps Disney's best villain in ages, the vain, beauty-obsessed Mother Gothel, who at several points manages to actually gain your sympathy and trick you into believing her guise of mother's love just as she tricks Rapunzel. If this is the future of Disney animation, then I can't wait for their 51st.
#8: 127 Hours (Directed by Danny Boyle)
Aron Ralston's story of survival is one that must have been a daunting challenge to bring to the screen- how do you get audiences engaged in a 90 minute film where the central character (really our only character to relate to) is trapped in one solitary spot for the majority of the runtime? Hot off the heels of his Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire, director Danny Boyle proves to have been the perfect choice to adapt such material, turning the film into a one-man actor's showcase for James Franco, who until now it's been difficult to take him seriously as an actor. The pressure is on Franco to truly give it his all and he wholeheartedly succeeds, making us connect to a man who lives on the edges of life, shutting himself off from the other people in his life. Placed in Franco's dire straits we are given ample opportunity to delve into his psyche- his past, his regrets, his desires. We see Aron bask in the small slivers of hope that he finds, along with his fantasies of freedom that keep him going until he must finally face the inevitable and amputate his own arm in a climactic sequence that is every bit as discomforting as it should be, never glorifying his excruciatingly painful experience. Boyle's hyper-real directing style turns out a perfect fit for the story, capturing the excitement of life that Aron lives for without glossing over his confinement- Aron's basking in the small piece of sunlight he can get is every bit as exciting as his mountain bike ride through the canyon outskirts. The truly fascinating thing about life is the small moments, the little triumphs that keep us going.
#7: Scott Pilgrim vs the World (Directed by Edgar Wright)
Being such a huge fan of the comic series this was one of my most anticipated films this year, and it sure as hell didn't disappoint. Edgar Wright remains admirably faithful to Brian Lee O'Malley's novels while simultaneously making the story his own, and the result is a hyperkinetic sugar rush of a film that seamlessly blends a hilarious romantic comedy with a stylish comic book-meets-video game action film. Every actor, from lead Michael Cera (who hasn't been this good since Superbad or Juno) to the adorable Ellen Wong as Knives Chau nails their role, particularly scene-stealer Kieran Culkin as Scott's gay roommate Wallace. The film speaks directly to our generation- one raised on video games and pop culture, is socially awkward, tries their best to hold onto aimlessness and avoids commitment like the plague. But as Scott and Ramona must ultimately learn, it's not until we stop avoiding what isn't easy that we can move on and achieve something more.
Admittedly, I can see that this film won't appeal to everyone- some people just won't like it, and as much as I might try to protest against it it's something we all must accept. Despite that, I must say that everyone who does love it will know right away that they've seen something very special, and if you're like me you can consider yourself proud to be one of those people.
#6: Kick-Ass (Directed by Matthew Vaughn)
I had a very difficult time trying to decide whether Kick-Ass or Scott Pilgrim should get this spot, and as much as I love the latter (and I really do), here is a case where the film version actually surpasses its source material- a hysterically dark satire of comic book movies that simultaneously ranks as one of the best comic book movies out there. Whereas the comic is well-done and wholly commits to Mark Millar's twisted vision, the film tones down the more excessive points (Hit-Girl snorting cocaine, anyone?) without dulling the edge to any detrimental effect. Another plus the movie version has is character, with every actor giving a bravura performance- be it in the brilliantly-staged action scenes, fantastic comedic delivery, or surprising emotional resonance, these guys deliver the goods. If it's not obvious already, Hit-Girl (the insanely talented Chloe-Grace Moretz) steals the show, being a lethal badass and a vulnerable young woman in equal measure, but that doesn't mean any of her co-stars should be overlooked. Aaron Johnson plays the title character as a killer parody of Tobey Maguire's performance in Spider-Man, Nicolas Cage get ample opportunity to go nuts while still sharing real chemistry with Moretz, and Mark Strong plays the most memorable crime boss in some time, posing a true threat for our heroes that Strong commits to fully (rarely has a crime syndicate had so much onscreen personality and comic timing). Many films promise to go balls-out. This is one of the rare times when a film truly does.
#5: Toy Story 3 (Directed by Lee Unkrich)
If it's Pixar, it has to be one of the year's best. The final chapter of the Toy Story trilogy is entirely worthy of standing alongside the first two films, delivering the emotional punch that the series deserves and finds the perfect ending for what has become one of the most memorable series in film history. Like parents, the toys must let Andy go now that he's grown and must move on to new chapters of his life, forcing these characters we all know and love to ponder where they go next, and (in a certified child-traumatizing sequence) even come to terms with death itself. But I'm getting ahead of myself- these movies aren't all about this heavy stuff, and in terms of comedy the series hasn't missed a beat since its 11-year absence. New characters like Ken, Mr Pricklepants and Trixie the Triceratops among what must be dozens of others are added to the core roster, adding up to more laughs without clogging up the narrative- the focus is kept squarely on the core characters we all know and love. But looking at the billion-dollar box office, the buckets of unanimous praise from critics and rapturous audience support (not to mention Disney's aggressive Oscar campaign), does much really need to be said about how good Toy Story 3 is? Probably not, but it's still worth saying.
#4: How to Train Your Dragon (Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois)
Here's where I may get just slightly controversial- as much as I loved Toy Story 3 and everything Pixar touches, DreamWorks' How to Train Your Dragon is my favorite animated film this year. Here is a superb piece of entertainment that manages to feel akin to a Pixar product through its heart and emotional center, yet at the same time feels like something different, an adventure yarn that delivers spectacular action scenes, humor derived from the story and characters rather than pop culture references, and a tale of outsiders and accepting what is different. Gerard Butler gives an excellent vocal performance as Hiccup's father Stoick, who never becomes the villain he otherwise might- even as he disowns his son we soon see the regret in his eyes, a man who wants to embrace his son if only his responsibilities and their way of life would allow him to. The animation is best showcased by the dragons, particularly Hiccup's new friend Toothless who can effortlessly flip between intimidating beast and adorable pet at any moment and make us buy it. Spectacular flight sequences that make incredible use of 3D stand out just as much as the more intimate emotional highs, combining for a wonderful adventure that I have watched again and again without diminishing returns.
#3: Inception (Directed by Christopher Nolan)
The genius that is Christopher Nolan (look it up) culminates in what is possibly his best film to date, a brilliant heist film set inside the most fantastic place of all- the human subconscious. A fantastic cast leads us through the most fantastically-conceived setpieces of any film in 2010, always finding new ways to make your jaw drop in awe. However, visuals aren't everything, and Nolan's storytelling ensures hat we are always engaged in what is going on, and always capable of following the story- the intercutting between multiple dreamscapes is handled sublimely, never getting too caught-up with one dream world and reminding us of the many clocks being raced against. Leonardo DiCaprio once again proves that he's one of the finest actors working today, and we fully believe in his past guilt thanks to the consistently wonderful talents of Marion Cotillard as Mal. Once you buy into the premise you can allow yourself to become entirely immersed in Nolan's story, and even capable of interpreting the mind-bending journey in countless ways, which gives the film great replay value. A film that manages to prove that summer blockbusters don't have to dumb themselves down to achieve success is an inspiration that all of Hollywood should follow.
#2: Black Swan (Directed by Darren Aronofsky)
I was highly certain that Inception would remain #2 for some time now, but after just seeing this... WOW.
Natalie Portman delivers a career-best performance as a dancer who in her unending devotion to her art and her desire to achieve perfection begins a mental descent into darkness from which she cannot turn back from. Portman displays an innocence, a fragile vulnerability which must be painfully shattered if she is to embody the seductive Black Swan. Her transformation is a mental and (disturbingly) physical one, and through Aronofsky's vision we are being driven mad right along with Nina, left to question what can be trusted as reality as we witness her manifestations of demons deep inside her, be they sexual repression, jealousy or a curiosity to a world she has been sheltered from all her life. The dancing sequences are a sight to behold, and the actors' devotion to their training in preparation for the film pays off majestically, further founding our investment in the story. Aronofsky and Portman are also aided by fantastic supporting turns from Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis and Barbara Hershey, who whether they mean to or not further fuel Nina's dark descent. Black Swan is a true work of art- coldly beautiful, nightmarish and viscerally raw all at once and more.
#1: The Social Network (Directed by David Fincher)
I love David Fincher's body of work, be it Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but this may very well be his finest film to date. The challenge of making a film where the action centers around typing on computers must be a great one, yet Fincher manages to make a film just as exciting and visually-arresting as Inception without gunfights or expensive effects setpieces. Any doubts about the quality of a movie about Facebook are thrown out the window after the first minute, leaving one mesmerized by the brilliantly-written dialogue by Aaron Sorkin and Jesse Eisenberg's brilliant performance heading a truly excellent cast that absolutely gives it their all. Eisenberg has managed to quickly break out of the Michael Cera mould and concretely establish himself as one of Hollywood's finest young actors, and his Mark Zuckerberg creates a protagonist who doesn't need to be likable to gain our sympathy or our admiration. He believes he is the smartest man in the room mainly because he is, and it is not the money that he wants from his invention but the status, the position among the elite that would provide him with the validation that he craves. It is only until he has it all that he truly begins to reflect on the people he's hurt and the relationships he's broken to get there.The comparisons to Citizen Kane are indeed quite valid, as we admire Mark's intelligence and accomplishments despite the fact that he is cripplingly antisocial, and through his invention he is ironically encouraging more people to become like him.
It is truly a modern masterpiece. I mean it. I try to think of faults or spots for improvement in just about any film, and most times I can. For a film to score my #1 spot it must have no faults I can think of, something that I can look back on the following year and say it's still as phenomenal as it was when I first saw it. From Sorkin's incredible dialogue to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' melancholy score to the astounding performances, there is nary a thing I can find to quibble about. In regards to Fincher's latest, I say that I wouldn't change a thing.
Ouside the Top 10:
The Kids Are All Right (Directed by Lisa Cholodenko)- a charming, funny and emotionally honest look at relationships, no matter what they may be or who they are between.
The Town (Directed by Ben Affleck)- a gripping, tense, skillfully acted heist film that marks a spectacular comeback for Ben Affleck that on the heels of Gone Baby Gone further proves his craftsmanship behind the camera.
Shutter Island (Directed by Martin Scorsese)- a moody, engaging psychological horror-thriller that showcases two greats (DiCaprio and Scorsese) still at the top of their game.
Please let me know what you think in the comments below!