The past year has been an emotional rollercoaster for us cinephiles. We battened down the hatches, braced for the worst and were happily surprised when the four horsemen of the cinematic apocalypse never arrived. We were struck, not only by how many gems emerged from this year’s slate. But, more importantly, by how GOOD the best films were. I honestly had a tougher time than usual shaving my favorites down to just ten. I was also surprised by just how many “mainstream” studio films ended up on my list. I’m not some sort of chest-pounding indie snob who doesn’t believe there’s anything to be gained from setting foot outside the art house from May to September. But, that being said, I look back at the films topping my lists in the last few years (A SINGLE MAN, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, LITTLE CHILDREN, etc.) and I can see a definitive trend in terms of financing and distribution structure. So, with all this in mind, I submit for your approval my ten favorite films of 2010- the year the studios closed down their “independent” boutiques and kept all the good films for themselves.
10. ENTER THE VOID
“This thing is not my brother.”
What makes an artist like Gaspar Noé so dangerous it that he appears unencumbered by a sense of obligation to his audience’s physical well-being. His goal is to show people things they’ve never seen before, even at the risk of repelling said people with his oft-unsettling vision. But taking a chance at being repelled is worth the trip with a bizarre masterpiece like ENTER THE VOID- a nearly three hour decent into drug-fueled madness and wonder set against a neon-drenched Tokyo nightscape. Along the way I admit to being repelled as often as I was beguiled. But during this long strange trip I saw things I’d never seen before, things I hope to never see again, things I didn’t imagine I’d ever see, and things I’ll never be able to shake out of my head. Gaspar Noé is dangerous because, for him, it’s not whether what you’re looking at is gorgeous or horrific, but rather the perspective by which you experience it. Even if that perspective is upside down, backward and through a glass (or birth canal, or sewage drain), darkly. ENTER THE VOID at your own risk. Seriously.
9. THE SECRET OF KELLS
“Wait until you see the rest of my forest.”
I’ll fudge the whole “2010 films” thing a bit with number nine for two reasons: 1. This film wasn’t even released in the US until early April (despite being nominated for a 2009 Oscar) and 2. Because I NEED to spread the gospel of this miraculous little unseen gem. In a year replete with eye-popping films, THE SECRET OF KELLS is a bold, enchanting vision that vaults off the screen with an infectiously fleet-footed storytelling verve. And it packs more graphic chutzpah into its two dimensions than almost anything released in 3D this year. The design elements are so complex and intricate; yet possess such character and complexion, that they, at times, invoke a “magic eye” painting sewn onto a medieval tapestry. In an especially strong year for animated films (see #3 on this list) THE SECRET OF KELLS proves to not only be an enchanting and endearing little Celtic fairy tale. But it also acts as a paean to the forgotten elegance of good, old-fashioned cell animation.
8. SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD
“No no no, the first album is much better than the first album.”
2010’s most giddily enjoyable graphic farce is also, quite possibly, the most misunderstood film of the year. But, while time will no doubt be kind to SPVTW and perhaps regard it as the film in which the form of graphic novel adaptation was finally perfected, it also needs to be appreciated for its loftier, philosophical ambitions. 2010 was the year when cinema actually trained its lens on Generation Y with the kind of respect, interest and artful ambition that made it acceptable for us to trot out an overused buzzword like “zeitgeist” without feeling foolish. And while it’s film #2 on this list that will bask in most of the glory for this phenomenon, let’s take a moment to appreciate Scott Pilgrim and his hilarious, bizarre, romantic, exciting and utterly inspiring journey to gain the love of Romana Flowers, and, ultimately, himself. Call me a softie for my generation but I firmly believe that any film that can eloquently filter unrequited longing and self doubt through a kaleidoscope of Zelda lullabies, 8 bit graphics and Ducktales references deserves a special place in the heart of any Millennial.
7. BLUE VALENTINE
“I like how you can compliment and insult somebody at the same time in equal measure.”
A cinematic love story need not reinvent the wheel to achieve greatness. Part of what makes a love story widely respected is a certain level of commitment to connecting with its audience. If we watch a romance that we can’t identify with then we have the potential to become alienated from it. BLUE VALENTINE shows us a familiar story- namely a relationship that begins under the most romantic of circumstances and burns to ashes once life inconveniently intervenes- and attempts to breathe new vitality into a well-worn cinematic blue print through craftsmanship and sheer force of will. Director Derek Cianfrance seeks to make an impression by offering a narrative structure that stops just short of manipulative novelty and a dramatic arc that stops just short of caustic melodrama. And it’s on this tight wire that Ms. Williams and Mr. Gosling- two actors currently achieving something of a critical mass in regard to their mutual commitment to their craft- seek (often quite messily) to find answers to age old questions. Not only “is it better to have loved and lost?” But also “can love survive the loss of innocence?” In BLUE VALENTINE, as in life, answers to these questions will not come easily. But the discussion is a knockout.
6. BLACK SWAN
“That was me seducing you. It needs to be the other way around.”
The so-called “psychosexual thriller” has always been a bit of a cinematic bastard, struggling to find a foothold as a legitimate subgenre. Polanski seemed to be excelling at it up until his real-life psychosexual escapades eclipsed those in front of his camera. De Palma carried the flag prouder than anyone for over a decade before his indulgence reached a breaking point and his creations finally began to turn against him. So leave it to the ever-fearless Darren Aronofsky to resuscitate the subgenre and make it his own. Continuing his unblemished track record, Aronofsky takes what basically amounts to a rather pedestrian contemporary updating of the Swan Lake legend and turns it into the ultimate unholy cinematic love child of Roman Polanski and David Cronenberg. Aronofsky and his longtime lenser, the incomparable Matthew Libatique, capture the aching beauty and macabre horror of the ballet’s production with the strength and texture only 16mm film can provide (their preferred format on 4 of their 5 feature collaborations). A never-better Mila Kunis and ESPECIALLY the always-reliable Vincent Cassell both dig into their performances with incorrigible aplomb. But this, of course, was always destined to be the Natalie Portman show. And she, predictably, gives not only the finest performance of her career but also one that will be dissected, studied and revered for years to come. Portman’s commitment to her craft appears second perhaps only to that of the character she’s playing. That is to say, a staggering level of commitment. Somebody check her for feathers.
5. THE KING’S SPEECH
“If I am King, where is my power? Can I declare war? Form a government? Levy a tax? No! And yet I am the seat of all authority because they think that when I speak, I speak for them.”
-King George VI
Someone described this film to me as “so good that it’s almost boring to talk about”. I agreed. We would go on to clarify that this certainly didn’t mean that the film itself was boring. On the contrary, it’s one of the most entertaining films of the year. The performances are superb, the screenplay is first rate, and the cinematography is striking and beautiful. The comedy comes quickly and unexpectedly while the drama comes subtly and often bearing heart-breaking dividends. The reason the word “boring” was even floated to begin with is that the film is SO good across the board, making virtually no artistic miscalculations, that there wasn’t much one could do while praising it other than to make an effort not to overuse superlatives. Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth inhabit their roles with the kind of imperceptible grace that can ONLY come when one works for many many years at a certain level of professionalism, regardless of the film or the role. These guys don’t know how to phone it in. Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Gambom, Guy Pearce, Timothy Spall and Derek Jacobi round out one of the finest British ensembles this side of a Harry Potter franchise. Add it all up and you’re left with a revelatory film. Perhaps there was something to go on about after all…
4. ANIMAL KINGDOM
“We do what we have to do. Do what we must. Just because we don’t wanna do something doesn’t mean it can’t be done”
-Grandma “Smurf” Cody
ANIMAL KINGDOM; the most recent in a line of exceptional foreign crime sagas that seem to originate in the most unexpected of places, only to find accolades waiting for them on the festival circuit (see GAMORRAH, SIN NOMBRE, A PROPHET et. al), is a powerhouse of a film. It achieves the visceral immediacy of Fernando Meirelles’ best work while retaining the elegant, cinematic posturing of Scorsese. Director David Michôd even has Scorsese’s ear for irony when it comes to his choices in pop music (anyone who offsets melodrama with liberal doses of Air Supply is alright in my book). But while he’s reverent towards his influences, Michôd’s vision is brash, brazen and wholly original. His crime saga concerns a close-knit family of South Australian hoodlums whose fragile network is splintering under the pressure of the imposing fuzz. The task force, led by a mustachioed Guy Pearce (seemingly set free, artistically, by a rare chance to take his native accent on walkabout) seeks to convince the family’s youngest member “J” (a mesmerizing debut by James Frecheville) to roll over on his miscreant uncles. While Pearce, Frecheville and the mostly male cast all excel, it’s Jacki Weaver as the string-pulling den mother “Grandma Smurf” who walks away with the film. She’s absolutely terrifying as the lioness perfectly willing to eat one of her cubs if it means protecting the others. Spellbinding stuff.
3. TOY STORY 3
TOY STORY 3 is the best film of the series. I don’t believe this is a controversial opinion but rather a simple statement of fact. All 3 films are masterpieces. But the latest represents a new level of relevance and weight, visually and philisophically. We all knew that, eventually, Woody, Buzz and their motley crew of playthings would face this endgame. But who could have predicted that Pixar would have the confidence or the wherewithal (or the stones) to craft the most moving and life-affirming installment in the series by basically making a “family film” about accepting one’s own mortality? Along the way, the film not only side-steps huge puddles of potential saccharine but also wrings genuine emotion and cathartic pay dirt out of the most unexpected and often terrifying of places. In the end it proves to be the best at everything it aspires to. And it features the year’s 2 most legitimate tear-jerker sequences. Both are heart-rending, but for profoundly different reasons. I’m not ashamed to say that I welled up during both and sat, baffled at director Lee Unkrich and [Oscar-winning] screenwriter Michael Arndt’s ability to take me there on admirably non-manipulative terms. I guess what ultimately floors me in regard to Pixar’s commitment to quality is that I always go into their films expecting a certain level of greatness. And I seem to always walk out having experienced a wholly unexpected level of greatness. I knew I was going to love TOY STORY 3. I just didn’t know I was going to love TOY STORY 3.
2. THE SOCIAL NETWORK
“I like standing next to you, Sean... it makes me look so tough.”
David Fincher was born in 1962. Which I believe just barely qualifies him a “baby-boomer”. And yet in spite of this, or, perhaps because of it, he has managed to make the defining films of two separate generations for which he isn’t even a member. I don’t think anyone can argue that FIGHT CLUB is the ultimate indictment-cum-celebration of Generation X’s late 20th century emasculated disillusionment. And while few films have taken on so-called “Generation Y” as a legitimate subject for dissection thus far in the 21st century, THE SOCIAL NETWORK brings my contemporaries and I rocketing to the forefront of cinematic relevance. Leave it to Fincher and fellow boomer Aaron Sorkin to eloquently relay things to me about my own generation that I was never able to put into words. What makes THE SOCIAL NETWORK so damned satisfying as a whip smart, modern Greek tragedy isn’t just the crackling, sophisticated screenplay. It isn’t just the star-making performances by Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield. It isn’t just the ripped-from-the-headlines relevance of the central narrative. It isn’tjust the inspired decision to employ Trent Reznor’s incomparable talents in composing the film’s melancholic score. It isn’t even the brilliant-to-the-point-of-absurdity fractured storytelling device that the whole sordid affair gracefully pivots upon. What really sells THE SOCIAL NETWORK, for me, is just how damned earnest Fincher and Sorkin are in their approach to the material. Never complicit in allowing this to become “That Facebook Movie with Justin Timberlake” that many feared it would be, Sorkin’s sharp-as-nails screenplay and Fincher’s “take-this-shit-seriously” directorial approach combine to forge a work of vitality and lasting pertinence. Until I saw it for myself I never would have believed that these two brilliant but disparate talents could collaborate on a subject matter such as this and come up with the first truly indispensable social satire of the 21st century.
“Listen, if you're going to perform 'inception' you'll need imagination.”
Honestly, my top 3 films of 2010 all occupy such a special place in my heart that their order is pretty arbitrary. They really should all be sitting side by side at the top of this list. But I suppose what gives INCEPTION its slight edge is how I react to it as a spectator. TOY STORY 3 hits me on an emotional level and THE SOCIAL NETWORK gets to me intellectually. But, while INCEPTION has both of those things going for it as well, the place it really wows me is as a moviegoer. No other film in recent memory has filled me with the pure joy of sitting in awe of cinema spectacle than Mister Nolan’s most recent masterpiece. Perhaps this is because INCEPTION may very well be the ultimate film about filmmaking. Much has been written regarding the theory that INCEPTION is, in fact, not actually about dreams at all, but is rather an allegory for the filmmaking process and the shared experience of viewing a movie with an audience- Cobb is the director, Arthur is the producer, Eames is the actor, Ariadne is the production designer, Fischer is the audience, the 3 dream levels represent the 3 act structure, etc. To the best of my knowledge Nolan has neither confirmed, nor denied this postulation. But I’m inclined to believe it was always his intention. And if it was, he just might be, as well as one of the most exciting and visionary talents of the last ten years, the ultimate film lover’s filmmaker. INCEPTION is the first movie in I can’t remember how long to remind me why I go to the movies in the first place. No other film this year left me as giddy with that pure ecstatic feeling that only comes when experiencing something completely original. Nolan has no interest in talking down to his audience. He gives us the benefit of the doubt and expects us to keep up with him. And it’s this level of confidence that frees him from the bondage of having to paint his stories by numbers. This gives him requisite license to push the narrative form into new, exciting places. His detail-oriented writing style keeps his stories grounded in logic and reason, but his visual ambitions are bound by nothing but the scope of his vision and the ambition of Wally Pfister, Hans Zimmer and the rest of his loyal band of magic-makers. Nolan’s commitment to respecting his audience’s intelligence, never valuing a set-piece above character development and always opting for a practical in-camera effect over a CG crutch make him something of a hero in a medium that needs them now more than ever. He’s made what many have called “the ultimate thinking man’s action film”. There’s no denying this, but it’s really so much more. It’s a turning point in big-budget studio filmmaking, it’s love letter to cinema itself, and it’s a gift to the spectator in all of us.
-Matt Knudsen 1/13/2011