Top Ten Films of 2010

There have been years where I’ve only seen a handful of new movies. That was definitely not the case this year, as the close to thirty films released in 2010 that I saw over the course of the year is one of the highest numbers I’ve done in a while. I think I’ve also done a good job of seeing as many of the “important” films of the year as well, the awards contenders, that is. For those films that I did not previously review in any fashion on this site, I’ll post what is in essence a mini-review with one exception. Links will be provided to reviews already on the site. There is one glaring omission to the list, which is entirely because Blue Valentine doesn’t open in Boston until the middle of January. I’m not sure if it would crack the top ten (this is a pretty damned good top ten), but it’s something to consider. If It does assert itself as a top ten film, I will update my list accordingly. However, for right now, without further ado, the top ten films of 2010:

10. 127 Hours (W: Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle; D: Danny Boyle)

Review is here. 127 Hours is probably Danny Boyle’s most consistently good film. James Franco’s performance is obviously central to the success of the film, and he more than capably carriers the entire movie on his shoulders. It’s one of those funny things a little like when Coraline was released in the same year as Up, wherein Franco’s performance is more than worthy of a few gold statues, and he could easily find himself losing out to the Colin Firths and Jesse Eisenbergs of the world this upcoming awards season. He doubtlessly deserves any wins he gets for quite the impassioned performance in an incredibly well conceived film.

9. The Fighter (W: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson; D: David O. Russell)

The Fighter is a formula film. Every beat of the plot wouldn’t surprise anyone watching. True story or no, The Fighter plays out like every single inspirational sports movie in the history of the (boxing heavy) genre. What sets this apart is the choice of David O. Russell as director, and the decision to focus the meat of the film on the characters and familial relationships, turning the actual boxing into an afterthought until the (admittedly a little disappointing) third act. Mark Wahlberg is blessed with a killer supporting cast that makes up for him basically using the same acting shtick he always does. He’s fine, but he’s fine in the way he always is, which can get a little samey. There are quite a few flaws in this film, which is a testament to the absurd acting quality of the support.

Christian Bale should win every supporting actor award on Earth this year. This is probably one of the top two or three overall performances of the year, right alongside Natalie Portman and Jesse Eisenberg. He outshines everyone else in the movie, completely dominates all attention when he’s anywhere close to the screen, rubber faced and lanky, full of crack and energy. This is a titanic achievement for the man who’s basically made his career on titanic achievements. And with Melissa Leo’s infuriatingly perfect mother hen performance and Amy Adams actively playing trashy against her innocent Disney Princess in the Flesh persona (something Anne Hathaway seems to enjoy doing as well), and you’ve got one of the best ensemble casts of the year. The acting is so good and the cast is so good that it overshadows the predictability and banal plot of the third act.

8. Rabbit Hole (W: David Lindsay-Abaire; D: John Cameron Mitchell)

The fact that this simple, straightforward domestic drama was directed by the same man who gave us psychosexual colorful freakouts Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Short Bus is something I still can’t really fathom. To be honest, the directing isn’t even all that important or visible. It’s a domestic dialogue driven drama based on a play; Mitchell makes the correct choice of being the invisible director, simply pointing the camera where it needs to be and letting the actors present the material as it should be. The center of the film lies in Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart’s performances, which are masterful examples of quiet despair tempered by at least a little bit of hope for the future. Rabbit Hole isn’t about being flashy; there’s no violence or physical domestic abuse, though there are a few moments where Eckhart gets to let loose with his signature yell. Angry Eckhart is a force of nature, all veins and barking, sounding practically inhuman like a wild dog about to be unleashed on an unsuspecting victim.

It’s amazing considering how goddamned depressing the events of this film are that there can actually be an overall uplifting sense that things will get better. Whether that actually happens is a question, as their brothers in arms at a therapy group seem to potentially foreshadow, but for now they’re committed to making things better. This movie is about the silence of sitting on a park bench too afraid to speak but knowing that life has to go on despite our fears, emotions, and insecurities. These are some of the most naturalistic performances in a long time, and while there are some other roles this year that are a little more impressive, Kidman and Eckhart are absolutely more real. It’s a very good story done about as well as can be done, and you can’t really ask for more than that.

7. Exit Through the Gift Shop (D: Bansky)

This is the sleeper of the year, a wonderfully witty and incisive documentary about street art that constantly turns corners on you throughout its running length. Indeed, in some ways this is the Adaptation of documentaries, with a constantly twisting and self-referential focus (you’re really watching the making of the documentary you’re watching for much of the first half of the film) that doesn’t fail to surprise as the entire subject of the proceedings naturally shifts as characters are introduced and you realize that what you are watching is not actually what you are watching. What begins as essentially a documentary about Banksy turns into a documentary directed by Banksy that is about the original documentarian that started the project in the first place, Thierry Guetta. And among all of this is the very real possibility that nearly all of it is made up, and that this is Banksy’s greatest piece of pop performance art. The actual movements that put things in this direction are maddening and bizarre and practically unbelievable (hence all the speculation that it’s bunk), but it’s a joy to watch. Even if it is all fake, the question of whether is what adds to the art of the piece in the first place, as what this film really is at its core is a meditation on the state of art in relation to pop culture and consumerism as a whole.

These street artists do incredibly cunning and insightful work, and much of the greatness of watching the film is the process they use to create these wild and stunning works of art, and all of the holes they are required to jump through in order to actually implement them without running afoul of the law. This is the type of film that makes you fall in love with art all over again, and is one of the most exciting documentaries to watch in years. Everyone should watch this.

6. True Grit (W/D: Joel and Ethan Coen)

This is a Western with a capital W. Something about this film is just so incredibly charming. It’s got the same kind of otherworldly energy that Scott Pilgrim has; all the characters operate in this little reality just a few degrees off from our own, leading to a world populated with all sorts of indelible characters and moments. The marquee performances come from Hailee Steinfeld’s lead Mattie and the downtrodden old coot Rooster Cogburn as played in full Jeff Bridges mode by, well, Jeff Bridges. I actually want to spend a little time on the other two supporting actors, Josh Brolin and Matt Damon. Brolin’s villainous Tom Cheney only has a few scenes of screen time, but he uses them to the fullest potential, crafting a character that comes off as monumentally stupid but tempered by an undercurrent of craft and malice that immediately marks him as a dangerous man. He’s built up as kind of a boogeyman, is initially pigeonholed as a simpleton, but comes around and earns his original reputation, all in a little less than twenty minutes. Damon’s LeBeouf (hilariously pronounced La Beef by everyone in the movie, including him) also comes off as dim-witted and over his head, but sincere and dogged in his goals. These are Coen Brothers characters through and through, breathing life out of every orifice.

It’s interesting that the only characters in this little universe that have even an ounce of a clue are Mattie, Cogburn, and Ned Pepper (played by Barry Pepper, not that you can even recognize him). Everyone else, from lawyers to judges to salesmen to other criminals, comes off as ineffectual morons, completely unable to deal with the intelligence, witticisms, or cunning of a fourteen year old girl, a whiskey soaked US Marshal, or a hardened career criminal. They just talk circles around everyone. Bridges is especially difficult to follow, diving deep into a pronounced southern drawl that is completely off the deep end and constantly flirts with unintelligibility. It’s a wonderful contrast to Mattie’s efficient and carefully enunciated speech; she is clearly using her literacy as a weapon to put herself in a position of power.

True Grit isn’t going to change lives; it’s simply a fantastically written, shot, and acted western of the highest degree. The performances are super solid and undeniably entertaining. The story is light and fun. This isn’t No Country for Old Men. It’s actually a lot closer to something like The Big Lebowski or The Hudsucker Proxy or Burn After Reading on the Coen scale. It’s the perfect film to just sit back and enjoy, and one of the better opportunities to do so in the cinemas this year.

5. Inception (W/D: Christopher Nolan)

Christopher Nolan’s nine year project finally came to fruition this summer, and it has the added benefit of being one of the most original and fully realized scripts and ideas in years. Inception is complex and deep, a nearly perfectly executed heist film that has one of the all time great actual heists I’ve personally seen. Perspectives change, complications and intricacies abound, and everything feels like it’s going to fall apart at nearly every second as the van makes its slow descent. It’s such a fantastic framing device, not immediately making complete sense before you realize exactly what’s going on and why it’s happening. Nolan thought of everything, creating a perfectly realized and logical world with well established rules and gadgets that are followed through at all times through the dream world. We are given the pieces, and are never betrayed. Plus, as a nice bonus, we get to see some wonderful performances from Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

The only flaw of Inception lies in its lack of emotional depth. Which is not to say that it doesn’t attempt emotional depth, but that it fails to actually deliver it. The Cobb/Mal relationship falls flat, mostly because of DiCaprio’s acting. I’ve been public about my general dislike for DiCaprio; I think he’s a serviceable actor but is usually lacking something in his starring roles, which is all he gets these days, and he has a nasty habit of being outacted by his supporting cast. That’s the case again here, and Cobb’s character isn’t fully realized because of it. The rest of the film is such a dazzling breath of fresh air that it can remain great despite this, but it’s a shame that it has to fall a little short.

4. Never Let Me Go (W: Alex Garland; D: Mark Romanek)

I’m going to write a full review of the one in the new year, because it deserves it. Mark Romanek’s first film since 2002’s One Hour Photo is a remarkably beautiful and sad, somber rumination on what it means to be alive and in love when dread is lurking just beyond the horizon. It’s a dystopia without throwing it in your face, but it’s easy to be keenly aware that all is not what it seems under the surface. Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightly, and Andrew Garfield are incredible as the lead cast. The third act is devastating in its frankness and uncompromisingly depressing. It’s not an easy film to swallow, but it’s rewarding as all get out. More on this later. It comes out on DVD on February 1. BUY IT. I will.

3. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (W: Michael Bacall and Edgar Wright; D: Edgar Wright)

Review is here. I’ve talked at length to everyone I know in person and on the internet about my love for Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and spent most of November watching the Blu-Ray too many times to be considered healthy, reading all of the graphic novels, and playing the Playstation Network video game adaptation. I might have a problem. I see this as Edgar Wright’s coming out party, a wild and overstuffed piece of pure passion and whiz-bang ingenuity.

2. The Social Network (W: Aaron Sorkin; D: David Fincher)

Review is here. David Fincher. Aaron Sorkin. Trent Reznor. Jesse Eisenberg. Andrew Garfield. Everyone involved in this damned thing is absolutely at the top of his or her game; this is essentially the all-star team of modern film for this year. All it takes to have a classic, apparently, is to take the best screenwriter on Earth, a man ludicrously gifted with the word processor, and pair him with a visionary director who is smart enough to drop the pretense and focus entirely on squeezing the best possible performances out of the more than willing cast, while a somber techno soundtrack frames the action. Simple, no? From an overall quality perspective, this is peerless, and will be eminently rewatchable for what I assume to be a very long time. But it’s not quite the absolute best.

1. Black Swan (W: Mark Heyman, Andrew Heinz, and John McLaughlin; D: Darren Aronofsky)

Review is here. It says more than enough. I’m convinced now that Aronofsky is the best director working in the business today. His films are giant events, wringing every possible bit of emotion out of everything, presenting tragedy after tragedy that somehow never gets old. Natalie Portman is warring with Bale for the performance of the year. Clint Mansell’s score is as good as always, this time deftly incorporating Swan Lake into his own work. Aronofsky’s films are a cut about the rest, and Black Swan is no different.

And now, before I go, some quick honorable mentions:

The Best Films Not on This List: Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon

Scary good year for film in general, considering these didn’t make the top ten cut, but it was also a scary good year for animation as a whole (I haven’t seen Despicable Me, but Tangled was also excellent). Toy Story 3 is your standard issue unfairly perfect Pixar storytelling, while How to Train Your Dragon proves that the folks over at Dreamworks can put something out that isn’t an embarrassment or doesn’t star a giant green ogre (or, more often, both). Having seen both of these films in the last week, I am fully aware that Toy Story 3 is the better film, but I actually find myself enjoying How to Train Your Dragon more as a I watch it; Pixar’s film is more cerebral in its approach while Dragon decides instead to push things into the stratosphere with big, bombastic action scenes that are flawlessly animated to take your breath away. This was a good year to be a fan of the computer generated family film genre.

Performer of the Year: Andrew Garfield

In the year 2010, Andrew Garfield has been involved in the wide release of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (he was awesome), the US release of Red Riding 1974 (he was awesome), and the overall releases of The Social Network (he was awesome enough to receive a Golden Globe nomination for Supporting Actor), and Never Let Me Go (he was LUDICROUSLY awesome in this one, one of the top five single performances of the year). And as a nice little bonus, he got the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man in Sony’s upcoming reboot from Marc Webb. That’s probably good enough for three years, and it happened in one (well, sorta two, considering Red Riding). In January, I doubt many people knew who Andrew Garfield was at all. Now, in December, he might not be a household name, but he’s a star on the rise and fully deserving of his nearly guaranteed future success.

Score of the Year: Hans Zimmer’s Inception

It might be some level of blasphemy for me to put this ahead of a Mansell score, but the chilling and bombastic work Zimmer put into Inception is responsible for a lot more of its success than most would probably realize. He’s expanded on the dread of his work with James Newton Howard on Nolan’s Batman films, pushing forward with low, earth-shattering bassy brasses that make your seat shake in the theater and resonate to the core. It’s the perfect mix of pushing the otherworldly nature of dreams without pushing too far to compromise the fact that the dreams in Inception aren’t exactly supremely otherworldly. It fits the film like no other, narrowly beating out more than impressive fare from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network) and Clint Mansell (Black Swan).

Worst Film of the Year (of the ones I’ve seen): Shutter Island

I really am not a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio as a leading man, as I have already mentioned. I’m also not a fan of hackneyed genre pictures far too obsessed with the ‘Gotcha!’ aspect of twist endings. Shutter Island, to me, is the worst kind of offender from this perspective, clearly telegraphic the resolution to its twist very early in the film, and not offering enough compelling reasons to stick around for the ride. Had the film simply pushed to its conclusion without note, it would have been simply forgettable. Instead the reveal of the twist we all already knew takes approximately four and a half hours to play out (this is obviously hyperbole, it’s more like twenty minutes or so, which is still WAY TOO LONG), with a lot of long winded exposition and an infuriatingly slow-paced flashback scene that just destroys the senses and obliterates any attempts at patience. This is an unimpressive film that was completely ruined by a badly botched ending, and the first film I nearly walked out on since Cinderella Man.

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