Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Best Movies of 2010

Maybe it’s the recession or just my own ambivalence toward watching another crop of incredibly depressing movies, but I found it hard to identify 20 films worth recommending from 2010. As I’ve noted in previous “best of” lists, my reviews often differ from those of traditional film critics, who look for movies that are unusual and unsettling, but may not be entertaining. That’s why I don’t include movies like “Black Swan” and “Blue Valentine” on this year’s list…I guess I want movies that don’t leave me black and blue (sorry, I had to do it). I’m also not a big fan of movies that paint a picture but don’t have much of a plot line, like “The American” and “Winter’s Bone.”

So, in inverse order, here are the films I currently consider the Twenty Best of 2010:

20. True Grit: While I respect this Coen brothers adaptation of the classic Western novel by Charles Portis, I’m not so thrilled with it as the Academy Awards nominating committee appears to be. Indeed the performances by Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and outstanding newcomer Hailee Steinfeld are worthy of merit, and the script is workmanlike and realistic for the time in which it is set, but the lack of emotional connection between the characters left me cold, as did the dour ending. It is definitely worth seeing, but I wish it had been more compelling.

19. Kick-Ass: There is something perversely entertaining about this film, which centers around teenagers who decide to become superheroes, even though they have no super powers. Directed by Matthew Vaughn (“Stardust,” “Layer Cake”), this film is raucous and quite violent, with an outstanding performance from Chloe Moretz as “Hit-Girl.”

18. Hot Tub Time Machine: Three, 40-something guys (played by John Cusack, Craig Robinson, and Rob Corddry), who are dissatisfied with their lives, decide to rekindle old times when they travel (with one of their nephews) to the winter resort that was instrumental in their lives one night in 1986. They jump into an aging hot tub and are whisked back to that fateful evening with a chance to relive those events. Such is the plot of this uneven but enjoyable film, directed by Steve Pink. While not as outrageous nor funny as last year’s “The Hangover,” it is along the same lines.

17. Red: As an acronym, RED stands for “Retired, Extremely Dangerous” in this movie directed by Robert Schwentke and starring Bruce Willis and Mary Louise Parker, and with an all-star supporting cast that includes Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, Richard Dreyfus, Brian Cox, and Rebecca Pidgeon. This is just a fun, action-comedy which the actors appear to relish as much as the audience. Don’t think too much…just enjoy the ride.

16. Another Year: Although I generally prefer a little more plot, I will make an exception for the films of Mike Leigh, the British director of “Life is Sweet,” “Secrets and Lies,” “Topsy-Turvy,” “Vera Drake,” “Happy-Go-Lucky,” and this film. It shows a slice of the lives of a sixtysomething married couple (played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) in each of the four seasons of a year. While occasionally disjointed and leaving some details hanging, it also boasts an incredible performance by Lesley Manville as the friend who has a crush on and some history with the couple's thirtysomething son. The movie’s final scene is incredibly haunting.

15. Secretariat: OK, so I’m a sucker for the Disney biographical sports films (“Remember the Titans,” “The Rookie,” “The Greatest Game Ever Played”) as well as for the estimable charms of Diane Lane. Add in the fine supporting performances of John Malkovich, Scott Glenn, Dylan Baker, and Dylan Walsh, and you have the true story of the greatest horse that ever raced and the housewife/owner who battled the odds in a male-dominated field. Even though you know how it turns out, you still find yourself cheering every time this thoroughbred rounds a turn.

14. The Book of Eli: Directed by the Hughes brothers, this post-apocalyptic tale stars Denzel Washington, with supporting performances by Gary Oldman and Mila Kunis (who seems to be in most movies these days). It combines occasionally excessive violence with biblical undertones to create a compelling tale of a drifter with a sacred book that some believe will allow them to rule others. Washington’s understated performance, combined with some interesting plot twists, make this a film worth seeing.

13. The Kids are All Right: If you’ve seen director Lisa Cholodenko, you will understand where Annette Bening got the model for her part as the more dominant member of a lesbian couple who sees her family slipping away. I left this movie underwhelmed by the plot, which, had it been about a straight couple, was quite cliché. But what makes it worth seeing are the acting performances by Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, and especially by Bening, who is jarringly perfect in the role.

12. Salt: Director Phillip Noyce is no stranger to the spy-action genre, having previously directed “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger.” That’s why it is no surprise that this Angelina Jolie vehicle is among the best of its kind. With an excellent supporting performance by Liev Schreiber, this one keeps you on the edge of your seat from start to finish, reminding you at times of an adrenaline-packed “No Way Out.”

11. Animal Kingdom: This Australian film, directed by David Michôd, is about “J,” a young man, played by future star James Frecheville, whose mother dies and is taken in by his grandmother and uncles, who are all criminals with varying degrees of intensity and sociopathic tendencies. Guy Pearce (who seems to be in all the movies that Mila Kunis missed) plays the detective who tries to rescue J from his family. As well as some intriguing plot twists, this outstanding indie features an amazingly disturbing performance by Jacki Weaver as the criminal matriarch.

10. She’s Out of My League: British comedian Jim Field Smith directed this surprisingly entertaining film, written by Sean Anders and John Morris (who also co-wrote “Hot Tub Time Machine”), about a rather homely TSA screener in Pittsburgh (played by Jay Baruchel) who meets the perfect woman (played by Alice Eve). Amazingly, this woman is attracted to him, and what ensues is a story about the insecurities we all harbor and how our friends can, sometimes unwittingly, play on those insecurities. This film is enhanced by a strong supporting cast and a script that makes some interesting choices.

9. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: A live-action combination of a video game and graphic novel, this is one of the few truly unique movies. Directed by Edgar Wright, the British filmmaker who brought us “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” this visually stunning film stars Michael Cera as the title character, who falls for a girl played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who has seven ex-lovers, each of whom Pilgrim must defeat, as one might in a video game. Wright clearly has his finger on the pulse of the twentysomethings, and this thrill ride is definitely rewarding.

8. Toy Story 3: If you are a young adult who grew up with the Toy Story franchise or a parent who has raised a child to adulthood, this Disney/Pixar animated movie is particularly poignant. For everyone else, it is just good moviemaking. Directed by Lee Unkrich, it features most of the same all-star voice cast as the previous movies (Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Estelle Harris, etc.) with additional voices by Ned Beatty, Michael Keaton, and Jodi Benson. Alternately beautiful, joyous, exciting, and sad, it is among the best animated movies ever made.

7. Easy A: Occasionally, a teen film comes along that humorously and sarcastically captures the underside of the high school experience. This category includes “Heathers,” “Mean Girls,” and the newest entrée, “Easy A,” starring the always delightful Emma Stone as Olive, who briefly lies about losing her virginity and then begins to cultivate her fame as the class slut. The film, directed by Will Gluck, references The Scarlet Letter and features fine supporting performances by Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes, Thomas Hayden Church, Patricia Clarkson, Lisa Kudrow, Stanley Tucci, Malcolm McDowell, and Alyson Michalka.

6. Nowhere Boy: Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, this British gem tells the story of a young John Lennon (played convincingly by Aaron Johnson) and his relationships with his aunt Mimi (played by Kristin Scott Thomas), who raised him and his mentally challenged mother, Julia (played by Anne-Marie Duff). Although the film does show the development of the Quarrymen (predecessor to the Beatles), it is not a typical rock biopic, focusing instead on the triangle involving John and his two mothers. Whether you like rock music or not, this film is worth your time, but if you are a Beatles fan, it is particularly satisfying.

5. The Fighter: Lowell, Massachusetts has long been a working class town with a diverse population that grew in the 1970s due to an influx of Cambodian immigrants. It is also the home of “Irish” Micky Ward, a junior welterweight boxer and former WBU champion who is the subject of “The Fighter.” However, this is not a boxing movie so much as a film about family, relationships, and addiction. Mark Wahlberg, Melissa Leo, and Amy Adams all turned in excellent performances, but the role of Micky’s half brother, Dicky Eklund, as played by Christian Bale, is this year’s standout male performance. Directed by David O. Russell, this is a very good film.

4. Inception: Some movies are eye candy or ear candy. “Inception” is brain candy—a movie that makes you think from start to finish. Directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, and Marion Cotillard, this film is about invading the subconscious during dream states. At one point, there are five different levels of reality operating simultaneously. In addition, there is a subplot involving Cotillard as DiCaprio’s late wife buried within his consciousness. Believe me, this movie is not about its plot…it’s about stretching the mind while drawing on intense visual images. In doing so, Nolan has created a film that begs for repeated viewings.

3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Although this Swedish film, based on the first of the “girl” novels by Stieg Larsson, was released in 2009, it did not make it to US theaters until 2010. Directed by Niels Arden Oplev and starring Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace, this movie has been shunned by many because of the graphically violent rape scene near the beginning. In making that scene, the director stayed true to the book, as he did with the revenge scene that occurs later. With it all, the movie remains one of the tautest psychological suspense thrillers in a long time, reminiscent of some of Hitchcock’s best work.

2. The King’s Speech: Colin Firth will doubtless win a long overdue Oscar for this movie, although it could be argued that the Oscar is for his body of work, including last year’s “A Single Man.” Awards aside, this very well-made and heartfelt film, directed by Tom Hooper, is the true story of King George VI, who ascended to the throne as World War II was erupting and had to overcome his terrible stammer in order to speak regularly, on the radio, to his British subjects. The interplay between Firth and Geoffrey Rush, who plays the Australian-born, working-class, speech tutor, is superb, and Rush once again proves that he’s one of the movies’ best character actors. Don’t be fooled by the plot, which at its surface seems somewhat trivial. This is an excellent psychological character study and a clear examination of class and privilege.

1. The Social Network: What makes this the year’s best movie is not its acting, which is excellent in the form of Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Justin Timberlake, nor its direction, which is spot-on as usual by David Fincher. This is the year’s best movie because it has one of the most effective and dynamic screenplays ever written, by Aaron Sorkin. This script, about the founding of, is so good that if you staged it as a high school play, it would still be riveting. Sorkin is no stranger to great screenplays, having already written “A Few Good Men” (“You can’t handle the truth!”), “Malice,” “The American President,” and “Charlie Wilson’s War,” as well as TV shows including “The West Wing” and “Sports Night.” But “The Social Network” is his best effort to date, and it keeps you glued to the screen from the opening scene to the final frame. This is a thoroughly absorbing movie about the highest levels of geekdom in the business world. You may not understand the technological complexities (few can), but they are secondary in importance to the tale of rejection, success, and betrayal that this movie tells.

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