Saturday, February 26, 2011

Best Movies of 2010

As I always mention whenever I do my best films of the year list, I like to wait till around February or so to allow myself to be able to see some of the movies that don't go nationwide until the new year. I'm on a modest budget and I don't get to go to film festivals, so it's impossible for a Midwesterner such as myself to catch all the prestige films that are rushed to release during the Oscar season that manage to land on a lot of critics' year-end list. I feel that as long as I can do my list before the Academy Awards, it can still remain somewhat relevant and topical. This was also the first year that I got a subscription to Netflix and if you haven't jumped on board by now, I highly recommend it if you're a movie buff such as myself. It allowed me to watch more movies in a year than I have in a very long time and is partly the reason why this list is close to 60 and could have potentially been higher if I had the time to fit in everything I hoped to see.

1. I Am Love

One of the most visually impressive films of the year was not a flashy, big-budget Hollywood effort, but a brooding family drama from Italian director Luca Guadagino. The set design and wardrobes are rich with vivaciousness and detail that pop off the screen in an effective, subtle manner and reflect the tone and personalities of its scenes and characters beautifully. This is a movie that deals with contrast at nearly every corner, since the main character, a Russian woman played Tilda Swinton who married into an affluent Italian family, is an outsider in her own family and that idea is delicately exposed in nearly every frame. Technically, I Am Love is masterfully produced, but when it delves into the intentions and actions of its characters, the effect is poetic as it can be interpreted in many different ways. Even the film's final, grainy shot could have several connotations after repeat viewings (I've seen people refer to it as having the qualities of an ultrasound). I know I've come across a great film when I can't get it out of my head days later and I am constantly thinking it over in my head. As is the case with a lot of revered art, everything may not come to you the first time around, but along the way it forces you to ask yourself questions you never thought of before and enriches you in the process.

2. A Prophet

The brutality and violence shown in A Prophet is portrayed in an unflinching way, the kind that isn't shown much in American films. This doesn't mean that American movies shy away from violence—as a matter a fact, gruesomeness is seen as a badge of honor—but the way its done is fetishsized and desensitizes the impact on its viewer. In A Prophet, there is nothing romantic about the acts that are portrayed and it managed to jar even a nonchalant, bloodlusting American as myself. I believe that anything that can get a reaction out of me has made an achievement in that it has accomplished its goal, but that only speaks to the skill of director Jacques Audiard and glosses over the heartening content of the movie that has earned it such a high spot on my list. This French film centers on a young Arab who enters a ethnically divided prison (is there any other kind?) and links up with the Corsicans, an act that is in direct conflict with his Muslim brethren. With the mixture of social issues and gritty entertainment that shares a few strokes from some of Scorcese's earlier works, A Prophet, with its epic span, distinguishes itself from the ordinary crime drama and delivers a more fulfilling experience.

3. Mother

In Bong Joon-Hoo's follow up to The Host, the Korean director finds himself once again juggling around with genres. Mother flows from drama to mystery to suspense seamlessly. Of course, such an arc is required for the story, which deals with an intensely loving mother who will do anything to prove that her mentally disabled son is innocent of a murder he has been accused of. Hye-ja Kim, who plays the character simply titled as Mother, is wonderful in the role as she has to maintain a pained look on her face while also making you believe that this is a determined woman who will do whatever it takes to exonerate her only child, even if it causes her to be in over her head. The movie also has a trance-like tone throughout so as not to latch on solely to the mystery—which is certainly entertaining in its own right and kept me guessing—but to remind us of how far family is willing to go for one another.

4. Restrepo

The fact that a documentary was filmed in Afghanistan in one of the Taliban's strongholds is impressive enough, but following a platoon in the midst of it all is still mind-boggling. Perhaps it's because I would lack the courage to strap on a camera and follow this group of brave men, knowing that at any moment we could be ambushed. Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington were brave enough to do such a thing, and not only was the footage astounding, but it gave us a not too often seen, in-depth look at the horrors of war and put a face to the men who put their lives at risk everyday. Fewer films provided as many intense moments as Restrepo, but it would be almost unfair to compare it with a work of fiction. The stakes were all too real as tragedy struck and its effect ever remaining on the faces of those who survived. The film does not strive to make a statement about whether war is good or bad, but simply observes a year in the life of these men. The viewer is left to decide on their own, and the answer may not be pretty.

5. Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky is my favorite contemporary director. His work is consistently fearless and challenging with a visual flair all his own. He continues to hold that title here with Black Swan, which is the most accessible out of all his films, but doesn't cop out in anyway. I'm a fan of color scheme in movies and I know that it matters a big deal as to what color a character is wearing with the most detailed directors. Whenever we're in Nina's bedroom, the main character portrayed by Natalie Portman, I kept focusing on that one black plush toy in the background because it was such a contrast with the other white animals and it was no coincidence that that one random toy would be in the frame. It's the type of subtle foreshadowing that makes Aronofsky's films so rich. As Nina descends into madness (or is it reality), Aronofsky strikes a balance between fantasy and the real world that is plausible and keeps the audience guessing as to what is actually happening on the screen. It makes for an engaging experience that requires your attention, but at the same time jolting and visceral enough to provide few dull moments.

6. The Secret In Their Eyes

This Argentinean film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film last year over such great movies as The White Ribbon and my #2 A Prophet. At the time of its victory, I wanted to think that the Academy was afraid to give the award to something more daring, but when I finally sat down to watch The Secret In Their Eyes, I was impressed by its mastery and tone. While I still do prefer The White Ribbon and A Prophet, it is only by the slimmest of margins and the Academy Award was still much deserved for this film. The story centers around a federal investigator who is writing a novel based on a murder case from nearly two decades ago as a way of seeking closure. New things are revealed, leading up to one of the more surprising and honest climaxes of the year. The movie does have the arc of a television procedural, but it's also just as fascinated with its characters and their motivations just as much as the grisly crime.

7. Last Train Home

The title of the film refers to one of the biggest annual human migrations in the world where workers return to their homes in rural China from the cities once a year for the holidays. The focus is on one family over the years as they deal with being separated and the oncoming rebelliousness of adolescence. For about the first 15 minutes of Last Train Home, I honestly thought I was watching a work of fiction and I had to do some research when I got home. I was so impressed at how the director was able to catch such intimate moments of a family of migrant workers in China that I didn't want to believe it was a documentary. The participants rarely talk to the camera and most of what we find out is through the dialogue between them. It's an approach that I found refreshing and better served by the content. By directly addressing the camera, we immediately become aware that those people are being followed, and as a long time viewer of reality television and documentaries, anytime this happens, I always try to make sure that I'm cognizant of whether some events or staged how things might have been edited to better serve a narrative. With Last Train Home, none of that ever crossed my mind and it actually felt like I was watching a story, albeit a real live one.

8. Blue Valentine

I adore Natalie Portman's performance in Black Swan because I think it was very demanding and required diversity, but I'll be rooting for Michelle Williams to take home the Oscar. Without giving too much away, there is a scene at a clinic that filled me with dread, discomfort and sadness all at the same time, but all we mostly see is Williams' face. It was a heart-wrenching display of great acting and it will forever be seared into my mind because of the depths that Williams must have to dig through to pull that out of her. Blue Valentine centers around a couple falling out of love, with Ryan Gosling (in another excellent performance) portraying her significant other. The movie goes back and forth to show them in happier times to the present, where things have turned considerably bleak. There is not much hope offered in the film and those moments of despair are undeniably brutal and real, which is all part of the human experience. We understand how things have gotten to the way they have, but even while watching the couple fall in love before our eyes onscreen, I felt more warmth than from the majority of romantic movies that are released every year. The fact that both ends of the relationship spectrum were captured so expertly made Blue Valentine one of the most enduring films of 2010 for me.

9. The Social Network

If you've noticed, Hollywood does not make a lot of movies that cater to mature adults anymore. It was not uncommon for smart, dialogue-driven, crowd-pleasing films starring older actors to become box office hits on a yearly basis (think Dave, As Good As It Gets, Jerry Maguire, The American President, etc.). Now it appears that Meryl Streep is the only one capable of helping to make those types of movies any significant money. The Social Network reminded me a lot of those types of movies in the sense that it was mostly just characters talking, but there was still plenty of excitement and memorable moments. The main difference is that The Social Network featured younger actors and was a bit more flashier. A lot of credit goes to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (who also wrote the script for The American President) for giving the film its zip and a bit of old school charm, but the bigger achievement goes to director David Fincher for creating a movie whose premise might seem dull on paper into an exhilarating film. It's certainly one of the bigger mainstream achievements overall of the year, firing on all cylinders and exceeding above the standard in writing, acting and directing. Simply put, it's a high quality piece of work that should remain enjoyable over the years to come, even when its subject matter is no longer as topical.

10. Toy Story 3

Even without the previous emotional attachment I've had with the characters of the Toy Story movies over the years, this still would have been one of the most entertaining films of 2010. Without even getting into the established characters, take a look at such new wonderful creations as Big Baby and the cymbal monkey (two creepy characters that wouldn't be out of place in a PG movie) and the dazzling action sequences as examples of the level of creativity that went into making Toy Story 3 one of the best threequels ever. There's not much new that can be said about what Pixar did here. It's become expected for them to do something smart, funny and with a lot of heart. It's a combination that rarely goes wrong for me, but Toy Story 3 seemed to tug at the heart strings a little more than usual. The constant theme of growing up and moving on is a universal one that just about anyone can relate to and provided heavier moments than most family films. This movie can be enjoyable without having seen the first two, but if you were a fan coming into this one like I was, Toy Story 3 becomes all the more special and you may have come close to choking up a bit, like I did.

11. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
12. Another Year
13. True Grit
14. The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo
15. Winter's Bone
16. Exit Through The Gift Shop
17. The Square
18. Dogtooth
19. My Dog Tulip
20. Inception
21. The Lottery
22. Shutter Island
23. Tangled
24. How To Train Your Dragon
25. Rabbit Hole
26. The Girl Who Played With Fire
27. Catfish
28. The Tillman Story
29. Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work
30. The Kids Are All Right
31. Salt
32. White Material
33. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest
34. Easy A
35. Vincere
36. The Town
37. The Secret of Kells
38. Waking Sleeping Beauty
39. Machete
40. The Losers
41. Cyrus
42. Winnebago Man
43. Greenberg
44. The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector
45. Ajami
46. Megamind
47. Diary of A Wimpy Kid
48. Youth In Revolt
49. MacGruber
50. Hot Tub Time Machine
51. Inside Job
52. The Fighter
53. Iron Man 2
54. Kick-Ass
55. The Runaways
56. The Expendables

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