Here’s my list of the best films of 2010: 1) Winter’s Bone; 2) Toy Story 3; 3) The Social Network; 4) The Secrets in their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos); 5) Rabbit Hole; 6) Black Swan; 7) A Prophet (Un Prophete); 8 ) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; 9) (tie) Another Year and Mademoiselle Chambon; 10) (tie) Ajami and Inception.
Continuing with my list of 2010’s best films: The Tillman Story, True Grit, The King’s Speech, The Girl on the Train (La Fille du RER), Inside Job, Fish Tank, The Ghost Writer, Carlos, Fair Game, Hereafter, The Fighter, Solitary Man, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work and Sweetgrass.
Winter’s Bone is the year’s best movie. A 17-year-old Ozarks girl is determined to save the family home by tracking down her meth dealer dad – dead or alive. The girl’s journey through a series of nasty and nastier Southern Missouri crank cookers is riveting – without any explosions, gunfights or chase scenes. Every moment of this film seems completely real. Winter’s Bone won the screenwriting and grand jury prizes at Sundance.
With just her second feature, Debra Granik has emerged as an important filmmaker to watch. She presents an unflinching look at this subculture without ever resorting to stereotype. Granik hits a home run with every artistic choice, from the locations to the spare soundtrack to the pacing to the casting. I’ll be watching for her next film.
As the protagonist, 20-year-old Jennifer Lawrence is in every scene. With a minimum of dialogue, she creates a lead character of rarely seen determination.
Dale Dickey is exceptional as a criminal matriarch. John Hawkes (the kind Sol Star in Deadwood) also gives a tremendous performance as the ready-to-explode Uncle Teardrop.
Toy Story 3: It’s the best American movie of the year so far, and belongs in the elevated class of Toy Story and Toy Story 2. I would recommend the film for anyone, not just kids. Adults will howl at the enhanced roles of Ken and Barbie, an impassioned duet of “Dream Weaver” and the funniest scene in movie history involving a tortilla.
Pixar understands that the best animation in human history is not enough by itself, and tells great, great stories. Pixar screenwriting is incredibly superior to that of other animation studios.
The preview version I saw was in 2D. The 3D version should make the opening and climatic scenes even more compelling.
The Social Network: The birth story of Facebook is a riveting tale of college sophomores that are brilliant, ambitious, immature, self-absorbed and disloyal – and about to become zillionaires. It’s a triumph for director David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The West Wing, Charlie Wilson’s War). Sorkin has written a screenplay about nerdy guys writing computer code and has made it fast-paced, understandable, funny and even gripping.
The most compelling aspect of the film is Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg. Eisenberg’s Zuckerman has few social skills, less social aptitude and exactly one friend, yet creates a framework for other people to share scores and even hundreds of “friends”. Eisenberg carries the film with an especially intense performance of an emotionally remote character. Eisenberg has been underrated despite strong performances in Adventureland, Zombieland and Solitary Man. Here, it is impossible to think of another actor who could so vividly create this Zuckerman.
The rest of the cast is outstanding, especially, Justin Timberlake (as Napster infant terrible Sean Parker), Armie Hammer, Rooney Mara and Douglas Urbanski.
One more thing: Fincher and Sorkin know how to end a movie.
The Secrets in their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos): This year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Picture, is a police procedural set in Argentina with two breathtaking plot twists, original characters, a mature romance and one breathtaking, “how did they do it?” shot. The story centers on a murder in Argentina’s politically turbulent 1970s, but most of the story takes place twenty years later when a retired cop revisits the murder.
Veteran Argentine actor Ricardo Darin shines once again in a Joe Mantegna-type role. Darin leads an excellent cast, including Guillermo Francella, who brings alive the character of Darin’s drunk assistant.
Director Juan Jose Campanella is receiving justifiable praise for the amazing shot of a police search in a filled and frenzied soccer stadium. It ranks as one of the great single shots, along with the kitchen entrance in Goodfellas and the battle scene in Children of Men.
Rabbit Hole: Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhardt play a couple that lost their four-year-old son eight months ago, and are grieving in different ways and at different paces. David Lindsay-Abaire’s screenplay is based on his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play, and it’s as brilliant an exploration of the grieving process as I’ve ever seen. There is just enough suspense and humor to make the film eminently watchable despite the grim subject. Kidman, Eckhardt, Sandra Oh, Dianne Wiest and newcomer Miles Teller lead an excellent cast.
This is an exquisite film – one of the year’s best.
A Prophet: The story of a young French-Arab from his first terrifying day in prison to his release. Once he starts to adjust to his role in the prison as the toady of a Corsican crime boss, no one else in the movie knows what he is really thinking. It evokes the DeNiro scenes in The Godfather: Part II, except set with gritty realism in contemporary France.
Black Swan: Natalie Portman plays a ballet dancer competing for the role of a lifetime. Her obsession with perfection is at once the key to her potential triumph and her potential ruin. Barbara Hershey brilliantly plays what we first see as another smothering stage mother, but soon learn to be something even more disturbing. Vincent Cassell (Mesrine) captures the charisma of the swaggering dance master who pushes the ballerina mercilessly. Portman’s dancer has the fragility of a porcelain teacup, and, as she slathers herself with more and more stress, we wonder just when, not if, she’ll break. The tension crescendos, and the climactic performance of Swan Lake is thrilling.
Fresh from The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is another directing triumph. In fact, parts of Black Swan are as trippy as Aronofsky’s brilliant Requiem for a Dream. I expect Aronofsky, Portman and Hershey to be nominated for Oscars.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: Rock-em, sock-em feminist suspense thriller built around the very original character of damaged, angry, master hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). Lisbeth makes Dirty Harry look like Bishop Tutu. The Swedish title was Men Who Hate Woman, and there’s lots of violence against women in this film, satisfyingly avenged. This is a whodunit with layers of romance, suspense, and sex, with even some Nazis thrown in.
Another Year: Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies, Vera Drake) has brought us another brilliant observation of the human condition, and asks why some people find contentment and others just cannot. The film observes a year in the life of a happily married couple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen). They generously host their friends and family; the couple (and we the audience) pick up insights about the visitors – variously scarred by unhappy circumstance, cluelessness and self-destructiveness.
Mike Leigh may be the cinema’s best director of actors, and Another Year is filled with excellent performances, especially Broadbent and Sheen, David Bradley and Peter Wight. The wonderful Imelda Staunton drops in with a searing cameo at the beginning of the film. But Lesley Manville has the flashiest role – and gives the most remarkable performance – as a woman whose long trail of bad choices hasn’t left her with many options for a happy life.
Another Year is one of Leigh’s best.
Mademoiselle Chambon is the year’s best romance. Finding one’s soul mate in middle age, when one may have serious commitments, can be heartbreaking. Here, the two people are not looking for romance or even for a fling. He is a happily married construction worker. She is his son’s teacher. They meet (not cute) and do not fall in love (or lust) at first sight. He is unexpectedly touched by something she does, and she is touched that he is touched. Despite their wariness, they fall in love.
The lovers are beautifully acted by Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlaine in two of the very finest performances of the year.
Ajami is an ultra-realistic crime drama set in a scruffy neighborhood in Jaffa, Israel. The story weaves together Arab Christians and Arab Muslims and both religious and non-religious Israeli Jews. Everyone aspires to make a living and live in personal safety, but the circumstances and tribal identities make this very difficult at best. There are two trans-religious romances, but no one is going to live happily ever after.
It’s a film that doesn’t make any overt political statements, but shows what is from the perspective of individual of different backgrounds. Given their own experiences, it’s easy to understand the motivations of each character.
Ajami was co-writtten and co-directed by Scandar Copti, a Jaffa-born Palestinian, and Yaron Shoni, an Israeli Jew. After seeing the film, I was surprised to learn that it has no trained actors – all of the roles are played by real-life residents who improvised their lines to follow the story line. Ajami was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar.
Inception is the year’s most successful Hollywood blockbuster. Because it’s written and directed by Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight), we expect it to be brilliantly inventive and it exceeds that expectation. The story places the characters in reality and at least three layers of dreams simultaneously. A smart viewer can follow 85% of the story – which is just enough. Then you can go out to dinner and argue over the other 15%. The Wife said it was “like The Wizard of Oz on acid”.
Leonardo DiCaprio leads the cast, but the supporting players give the best performances: Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Pete Postlethwaite, Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe, Tom Berenger and Tom Hardy.
The Tillman Story weaves three stories together: the making of Pat Tillman, how he died in Afghanistan and his family’s struggle to pull the sheets back on the US military’s cover-up. At its core, it is the story of people who insist on truth dealing with a system that operates on perception.
I thought I knew the story. Tillman left the fame and wealth of an NFL career to enlist in the Army post-911. He was killed in a firefight in Afghanistan. The Army reported that he was killed while heroically charging the enemy to save his comrades. It was later revealed that he was killed by fire from his comrades. Still later, it became clear that the heroic death story was immediately concocted by the military for spin control or, worse, propaganda.
I didn’t know that Tillman predicted that the Army would propagandize his death and smuggled out to his wife the documentation of his wish for a civilian funeral. I didn’t know that Tillman crouched on a hill watching the bombing of Baghdad, and said, “This war is so fucking illegal.” I didn’t know that Tillman was with the team that waited hours to “rescue” captured soldier Jessica Lynch (abandoned by her captors) until a film crew arrived.
The US military made a huge miscalculation: they assumed that the family that produced someone with Pat Tillman’s values would be satisfied with a phony narrative of cartoonish heroism.
The more I think about The Tillman Story, the more I admire it. And I am increasingly grateful that Michael Moore didn’t make this movie and degrade it into a screed. Instead, Director Amir Bar-Lev avoids the simplistic and satisfying formulas and respects his subject matter and the audience by letting the story speak for itself.
True Grit: Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo, Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men) have brought us the splendid Old West story of Mattie Ross, a girl of unrelenting resolve and moxie played by 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld in a breakthrough performance. Without her performance, the movie could not have been the success that it is, and Steinfeld has no problem standing up to the likes of Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin and Matt Damon. Mattie’s merciless smarts and resourcefulness become clear in her negotiations with prairie mogul Col. Stonehill (magnificently played by Dakin Matthews).
Jeff Bridges is perfect as the hilarious, oft-besotted and frequently lethal Rooster Cogburn. Damon, Brolin and the rest of the cast are excellent, especially Matthews and Barry Pepper.
This film is made from the same source material as, but is not a remake of, the 1969 John Wayne oater (a movie that I particularly dislike). The 1969 film is burdened by a hammy effort by Wayne and the miscast and untalented Kim Darby (playing a 14-year-old at 22) and Glenn Campbell.
The film opens (without title credits) with the old hymn Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, signaling that the Coen Brothers will play True Grit absolutely straight within the traditional Western genre – no ironic winks at the audience.
The King’s Speech is the well executed and crowd pleasing story of a good man overcoming his stammer to inspire his nation in wartime with the help of a brassy commoner. As you would expect, Colin Firth gives a stellar performance as the stuttering king. It’s a very good cast, featuring Geoffrey Rush as the Aussie speech therapist. Helena Bonham Carter is especially good as Firth’s Queen. Guy Pearce and Eve Best capture the shallow, selfish essence of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.
The Girl on the Train (La fille du RER) is an absorbing mother daughter drama set in the Paris suburbs.
The young woman is Emilie Dequenne, the Belgian actress who won the best actress award at Canne when she was only 17 in the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta. In contrast to Rosetta, she doesn’t play a force of nature, but a slacker bobbing through life on a tide of random influences. She lives with her single mom (Catherine Deneuve), and they get along, despite the mother’s unwelcome tips on job hunting.
The daughter meets a guy, her life takes some resulting turns and then she makes a really bad choice. The mom seeks out an old beau, now a celebrity attorney to help fix the situation.
I missed seeing this in the theater because the trailer emphasizes a faked hate crime (and I wasn’t eager to see a topical movie). But the movie is not about the faked hate crime, which occurs late into the story. The story is character driven. The daughter drifts first part of the movie and is controlled by events until she finds herself in a desperate situation; she panics and sees the most stupid option as a solution. The situation then forces the mother to re-open a chapter in her life that she had chosen to close – how far will she open the old door?
Charles Ferguson’s brilliant documentary Inside Job may be the most important movie of the year. It is a harsh but fair explanation of the misdeeds that led to the recent near-collapse of the global financial system. Unexpectedly, the film begins in Iceland, setting the stage for the collapse and kicking off the easily understandable explanations of the various tricks and bamboozles that have hidden behind their own complexity.
Fish Tank: Another really damaged and angry young woman, this time from the British lower class. Breath-taking scene with mother’s boyfriend. Second-worst mother in recent films (after Mo’Nique’s role in Precious).
The Ghost Writer: This fictionalization of the writing of Tony Blair’s memoirs is a first class paranoid political thriller by Roman Polanski. Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan lead an excellent cast, and Olivia Williams stands out.
Carlos is Olivier Assayas’ 5 1/2 hour miniseries on the 70s/80s terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Carlos begins as a playboy who thinks it would be cool to fight for the Palestinians. It turns out that he is way smarter and more nervy than the other dippy wannabe terrorists, so he rises to lead his own crew. At first he prudently tries to remain clandestine, but he inadvertently gains some celebrity and LOVES IT. After his first exposure in the media, he self-consciously dons a Che Guevara beret for his next adventure. Soon he is a legend in his own mind. Finally, he learns what happens when he becomes too hot for anyone to shield.
The action sweeps between atrocities in Paris and Vienna, a terrorist training camp in Aden, secret bases in Berlin and Budapest. Along the way, we meet European goofball radical posers and smarmy Syrian, Iraqi and Libyan intelligence officers. We see dynamite action scenes as Carlos must pull off escapes and attacks in compressed time.
Carlos is a star making performance by the Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez who plays Carlos and has to carry almost every scene. Ramirez perfectly captures Carlos’ bravado, audacity, vanity, sexiness, delusion and dissolution.
Carlos is a French film, but is mostly in English; there are subtitled scenes with French, Spanish and Arabic dialogue. I strongly recommend waiting for the DVD release of the full length version (or watching for it to pop up again on Sundance Channel).
Fair Game: Ripped from the headlines, this is the Valerie Plame/Joe Wilson story with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. We already knew the story of Joe Wilson exposing the Bush Administration’s false WMD pretext for the Iraq war, and the White House striking back by outing an American covert intelligence operative – Wilson’s wife, Plame. But this film adds two more dimensions to the story.
First, this screenplay is based on Plame’s book, and the first act chronicles Plame’s exploits as a CIA officer. She indeed ran undercover operations. The depiction of real life, contemporary spycraft is even more thrilling than a fictional spy movie.
Second, the story also explores the excruciating pressure on the Plame/Wilson marriage. Joe is an able and principled guy with a little too much testosterone. His short fuse leads him to act impulsively to pick a fight that has even more severe consequences for his wife. In principle, Joe is right, but Valerie’s career is ruined, her family’s safety is threatened and her social life is shattered; she is both scared and resentful. And at the moment that they are under the most unbearable stress, each of them wants to react by moving in an opposite direction. Will the relationship survive? This dimension – a study of an adult relationship – makes this film much more than a typical history.
Hereafter: For the first time, Clint Eastwood ventures into the supernatural with the story of three people and their individual experiences with death. It’s also a departure for screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon, The Damned United). The most skeptical, nonspiritual viewer (me) finds this to be a compelling film.
The question of What Comes Next is unanswered, and less interesting than the film’s observations of what happens on this Earth to living humans. Eastwood’s genius is in delivering moments of complete truthfulness, one after the other, across a wide range of settings. Young boys enabling a druggie mother. People in a hostel watching for the last breath of a loved one. Experienced, skilled and loving foster parents facing a challenge that they cannot fathom. Every instance of human behavior is completely authentic.
Equally realistic is the big CGI-enhanced action sequence at the beginning of the film – an Indonesian tsunami, not overblown in any way, but frightening in its verisimilitude.
Eastwood is an actor’s director, and star Matt Damon leads a set of excellent performances. Bryce Dallas Howard has an Oscar-worthy performance of a woman achingly eager to move past the painful episodes of her life. The child actor Frankie McLaren carries significant stretches of the story with his unexpressed longing and childish relentlessness. Cecile de France ably plays a successful television anchor compelled by events to veer her life in a different direction. Richard Kind delivers a moving portrayal of a man seeking closure after the death of his wife.
The Fighter is an excellent drama, starring Mark Wahlberg as a boxer trying to succeed despite his crack addict brother (Christian Bale) and his powerful, trashy mom (Melissa Leo). As one would expect, Bale nails the flashier role of the addict, deluding himself about both past glories and his importance to his family. Leo is almost unrecognized under her teased hair, and is accompanied by a hilarious Greek Chorus of adult daughters, each trashier than the last.
The boxing scenes are very well done, and Wahlberg matches Stallone and Swank in making us believe that he is, indeed, a boxer. See my list of 10 Best Boxing Movies.
Solitary Man: Michael Douglas plays a man whose selfishness and charm know no bounds, and whose impulsiveness drives him into spiraling self-destructiveness. Douglas’ performance keeps us caring about this unattractive character and there is humor in his comeuppances. Mary-Louise Parker, Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, Jenna Fisher, Jesse Eisenberg and Olivia Thirlby round out the excellent cast.
I am not a Joan Rivers fan, but Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work won me over. Rivers’ compulsion to stay busy at age 77 by accepting every conceivable gig is fascinating, and her raw vulnerability makes you care about her. It also helps that Rivers is very, very funny.
Sweetgrass: This unadorned documentary tells the story of the two (heterosexual) cowboys who drove thousands of sheep on the last sheep drive in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains. Because it is not dressed up with narration or music, the audience is left with the story, the people, their quest, the sheep and the landscape – and that’s more than enough.