Friday, January 14, 2011

Top 10 of 2010

It was not a good year for great movies in 2010. It was, however, a great year for good movies (see what I did there?). I enjoyed a fair number of movies but found the majority of this year’s crop to be flawed in one way or another.

I had very little difficulty in choosing the seven best of the year, but beyond that, tough decisions were made. Numbers 8-10 are flawed movies, but they are great movies no less. In each case, the filmmakers committed to an idea and saw it through to the end, warts and all.

If there is a unifying theme in this set of films, it is that each one forces viewers to consider something about themselves. Most people go to the movies to be entertained. They don’t want to think, much less think about their lives, their careers, or their beliefs. And, that’s fine.

But, these movies ask for something more. That is what distinguishes them from the rest of cinema in 2010. That is what makes them the Top 10 of the Year.

10. Black Swan

Here is a movie that revels in its grandeur and takes the genre of psychological horror into new levels of the absurd. Darren Aronofsky is a brilliant director who has yet to make a bad film, but all of his films take thought.

Leaving the theater, I didn’t know what to make of Black Swan. It’s over the top. At times, the story dives so deep into the psyche of our unreliable narrator that it’s hard to even know what’s going on at any given moment.

The filmmakers go to great lengths to establish the fractured mind of Natalie Portman’s ballerina -- the soundtrack, the cinematography, the editing, etc. Often, it’s too much, but as puzzling as it is, an effort like this must be applauded for the chances it takes.

9. Chloe

Atom Egoyan specializes in movies about people reaching out for love, affection, and hope. In Egoyan’s films, everyone is reaching, but no one can reach back. His characters are incapable of recognizing their own needs in others.

Chloe is an examination of two married people who probably love each other but are ignorant of how to express love or of how to ask for it. Enter Chloe, a prostitute played by Amanda Seyfried in a performance of which I would never have suspected her capable.

She needs something, too. Perhaps it is love. But, her needs do not matter to the older couple. Their lives revolve around what they need. The needs of others are of minor consequence. Egoyan’s critique is clear in this brilliant melodrama -- if we refuse to consider others, how can we demand that they consider us?

8. The Social Network

A success story that does not make you feel very warm and fuzzy inside, The Social Network tells a complex story in a very straightforward way. It is nuts-and-bolts filmmaking at its finest. The film is devoid of the frills and flourishes of much of director David Fincher’s previous work.

It benefits from a literate and biting screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, a writer known for his literate and biting television series, like Sports Night and The West Wing. Sorkin guides the audience through a world as foreign as anything in National Geographic and makes it a story about business, something Americans understand well.

Jesse Eisenberg is the perfect cinematic Mark Zuckerberg. Eisenberg deftly hits every note of Zuckerberg’s public persona and private reflections. But, Zuckerberg is not someone to get close to, and in the same way, the film holds its viewers at a respectful distance. Maybe, that is for the best. If the filmmakers took the audience too deep, viewers might find something they would not like.

7. Shutter Island

From the opening musical chord of Shutter Island, I was sold. With this film, Martin Scorsese chose to ratchet the kitschy genre film level up to 11, and he committed fully to that vision. It takes an expert to play with genre the way Scorsese does, and there is no one more expert than Scorsese.

Its closest cinematic cousin is the nightmare boat sequence at the end of Scorsese’s own Cape Fear remake. The world resembles something more akin to a nightmare than to anything in normal life, but the psychological terror is 100 percent real.

Guiding us through the nightmare is Teddy Daniels, the US Marshall played by Leonardo Dicaprio. Dicaprio is a marvel, and he proves once again that he is not afraid to take chances with his performances. It is his most daring work since The Departed and it is also his most rewarding.

6. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

As bright and sugary as a fistful of cotton candy, Edgar Wright dives into the deep end of the pop culture swimming pool. This film is built on the references and in-jokes of an entire generation of disaffected youth who have nothing particular about which to be disaffected.

For all its hyperkinetic stomping through modern cultural tropes, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World brings one hell of story along with it. Absolutely, it is a comic book-style fantasy about a Me-generation lay-about who must defeat his crush’s seven evil exes. But, like the best of fiction, it uses the fantasy elements to paint a disturbingly accurate portrait of the entire generation.

It is a generation that can not communicate except through half-hearted, sarcastic quips. It is a generation of people so involved in themselves that a collective term to describe them is almost dishonest. They are individually self-absorbed but in the exact same ways. It is my generation.

5. Dogtooth

What are we but what our parents made us? What is the world but what we experience? What is truth but what we each know? These are the questions that linger right at the surface of Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos’ bleakly comic fable.

It is an allegory about the influence of parents on their children, of older generations on younger generations, of governments on the governed. These analyses are there for every viewer, but what makes Dogtooth great is that each viewer will have a subtly different understanding of its meanings.

The film relies heavily on what viewers bring into it. It is not a movie for passive admiration, though the crafts are impeccably controlled by Lanthimos. The viewer must actively interpret, react, and evaluate every nuance of tone and texture that Lanthimos built into the film. The active viewer will experience something profoundly moving.

4. Exit through the Gift Shop

It is all there in the title of Banksy’s art world exposé-cum-documentary. As much as we like to think that art is the truest expression of the deepest human emotions, it is also true that there is a multi-million dollar business around the sale of those emotions. The best part -- the emotions do not have to be real.

The subject of the film, Mr. Brainwash, is an artist in the sense that he creates a product that others evaluate and many buy. That his work is all painfully derivative occurs to no one but those from whom he derives. But, Mr. Brainwash sells. That is what matters.

Banksy’s documentary is the most probing and honest film ever made about the world of “high class” art and artists. It asks -- what is art and who are artists? Most importantly, it poses the question that makes all self-styled artists uncomfortable: if it does not sell, who cares?

3. 127 Hours

You may have heard that this is a one-man show, that James Franco lives and breathes every inch of this film, and that it lives or dies with what Franco does. This is true to the extent that we watch in awe as Franco brings life to every frame of the film. But, for my money, it is a two-man show.

To me, the real star of the film is Danny Boyle. Aaron Ralston spent 127 hours trapped in a pit, pinned by a rock, and unable to move. Boyle’s task is to make a movie that goes nowhere and in which nothing happens until the end interesting. He succeeds at every turn.

Using creative editing, clever camera techniques, and a brilliant lead performance, Boyle crafts an entertainment that inspires, not something that is easy or that should be taken lightly.

2. The American

George Clooney is one of the most enjoyable actors to watch on screen because he tends to look like he is enjoying himself. The Ocean’s movies were the perfect vehicle for his winning smile, regal good looks, and effortless charm. The American is not a vehicle for those qualities.

Under the stellar direction of Anton Corbin, Clooney strips away every layer of gloss and red carpet pomp that usually surrounds him and reveals a vulnerable and conflicted altar ego who is not so much worried about his soul as he is worried that he does not have one. There is no glamour. There is no movie star. There is only a character.

While Clooney sells the character, Corbin sells the film. It is a taut, tough, wintry thriller that never lets up on the tension and never gives in to action movie clichés. This is not an action movie, as it was sold. It is a brilliantly crafted and expertly acted thriller about one man’s crisis of conscience.

1. Fair Game

Doug Liman’s movie is a just-the-facts retelling of the Valerie Plame scandal. It is not intrinsically emotional. Plame (Naomi Watts) and her husband, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), act on what they see and on what they know. It is not about what they believe or what they feel. I believe this to be the heart of Fair Game.

Feelings and beliefs have no place in the American political system. In an ideal world, voters would vote and leaders would lead based on what they see and on what they know. That they behave this way is what makes Plame and Wilson heroes. That the government and the media do not behave this way is what makes them the villains.

This central conflict provides the emotional crux of the film. The film presents facts, and how the characters (all real people) react to the fact tells us who they are. How we react to the facts tells us a little about who we are. Only the great films reveal to us things we may never have known about ourselves. Fair Game is a great film.

A Recap:

10. Black Swan
9. Chloe
8. The Social Network
7. Shutter Island
6. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
5. Dogtooth
4. Exit through the Gift Shop
3. 127 Hours
2. The American
1. Fair Game

2 comments:

Nathaniel said...

I always enjoy reading your thoughts on movies, Anthony. The fact that our Top Ten lists share more than a few similarities is something that I take a bit of pride in, as a matter of fact.

Sean Patrick Leydon said...

Look how cute nate is! Awwww.
I only saw a few of these. PROBELM. We need to live on, near, or with each other again.