Friday, December 31, 2010

Moving On and Letting Go - The Best Films of 2010

Maybe I'm a big crybaby, maybe I'm just sentimental about my all time favorite television show, LOST,  coming to an emotional close this year, but I feel that this year my views on films have really been shaped by themes of letting go or moving on. How to define 2010? A lot of people have been saying it was a weak year for cinema. Personally, I thought it was the strongest year since 2007.

This year, there was an embarrassment of riches on screen. My cup runneth over with great films, so to speak. In fact, quite a number of films that were dismissed or passed over by audiences and critics alike really truly spoke to me in a profound way. There was an abundance of creativity, with directors, actors, and screenwriters finally bringing passion projects to the screen, and breaking new ground. Some have cited the summer movie season as one of the worst in recent memory. I couldn't agree more, but where there was darkness, light was also to be found.

By the end of the year, you have to try to ignore as much talk of Oscars and the like and really think about what films you saw and cherished. You start to think about what films you want to share with everyone as your favorites, the ones you truly loved.

I certainly loved watching the first part of the final chapter of the Harry Potter saga come to life on screen, even if it's not yet a complete film. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is probably the most fun I've had in a theatre all year, with its unique brand of comedy and action solidifying it as one of the most inventive and wildly entertaining films all year. And while Iron Man 2 was a bit of a disappointment compared to its predecessor, it was certainly a lot of fun watching Robert Downey Jr. continue to do his thing on screen, with Mickey Rourke stealing the show in every scene he was in.

The Fighter, if treading on familiar ground, very much came together as a compelling drama about family and the baggage they bring, headlined by a masterful supporting turn from Christian Bale. Kick-Ass certainly delivered on the hyper-stylized ultra-violence, if falling a little short in the storytelling department. But it's such a joy to watch Chloe Morentz in a star-making performance that one forgives the film's minor shortcomings.

There was no shortage of great documentary filmmaking this year. Restrepo, a film that is a miracle to even exist, really gave viewers a riveting insight into the realities of combat in the most dangerous posting in the U.S. military, putting us right in the front-lines with them. And while Exit Through the Gift Shop and Catfish never really came together for me as best films of the year, they certainly had a lot to admire about them.

There were a small handful of films I wanted to give a special mention to outside of my top ten. A runner up section, if you will.

15.) Let Me In

Matt Reeve's Cloverfield follow up is not a typical remake. A lot of passionate supporters of Thomas Alfredson's 2008 film Let the Right One In scoffed at the notion of an American remake of a film they held dear. While I certainly liked the Swedish film a lot, I felt Matt Reeves's version was superior, trimming all the fat and creating a much more refined, frightening piece of cinema. Part vampire film, part love story, the film succeeds on crafting a violent nightmare of young love and friendship caught in a larger, grislier conspiracy. Succeeding in atmosphere and moving narrative, the film really solidifies Reeve's place as a genre force to be reckoned with.

14.) The Town

Ben Affleck's sophomore effort as a director may not reinvent the heist genre, but it doesn't need to. Boasting one of the year's best acting ensembles, the film not only succeeds as an engrossing character study of a man trying to escape his life, but also as a riveting crime thriller. Featuring some of the most intense action sequences of the year, and a killer sound mix, the shootouts and chases in the film are as good as anything Michael Mann has ever done. While I respond to a bit more stylistic, art-house approach like Public Enemies and Heat Affleck's film really soars effortlessly on every level, making it one of the most entertaining and compulsively watchable films of the year.

13.) The American

In what may be George Clooney's most subtle, refined, and mature performance to date, he embodies an assassin on the run who simply can't outrun fate. Some will rebel against the film's deliberate pacing and long stretches of silence, however I found it one of the most compelling thrillers of the year. Director Anton Corbijn's eye for shot composition is incredible, and it shows here, in the golden sheen that envelopes a small town in Italy. It's not intense in a traditional sense, rather, it's a slow, beautiful burn that serves as the ultimate show don't tell film.

12.) 127 Hours

While I've cooled a bit on Danny Boyle's latest film since seeing it back in October, it remains one of the finer works of his career, featuring a masterful lead turn from James Franco, an actor I've admired for some time.
Watching the film, I saw a lot of myself in Aron Ralston, a man who lives in self-imposed isolation from the people who love him in order to seek out his own rush. An adrenaline junkie of the fiercest kind, rather than finding his plight a hindrance or bad experience, he comes out of it a better man. It only took losing an arm to get there.

11.) Toy Story 3

Not since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King has there been a more emotionally satisfying conclusion to, what I feel, is a now vital franchise in motion picture history. In a lot of ways, this is a film made for those of us who grew up with the first two films, when we were a mere 5 to 10 years old. A real-time sequel if you will, it hits home for all of us who ever played with toys and have long since outgrown them, departing for college. But have the toys outgrown us? Can they ever let go of a life once shared in youth? The film closes on an emotional climax that reduced many a viewer, myself included, to a pile of weeping mush in the theatre, giving us closure on a chapter in our lives. If the opening scene of Up is perfect, the final scene of Toy Story 3 is as well. So long partners, we'll miss you. 

Before I get to my top ten films, I want to give a special mention to a film that, while technically a 2010 US release, has always been a 2009 film in my mind, and will stay that way. However, it remains one of the most incredible films I've seen all year, and is a must-see, no question. 

A Prophet

Jacques Audiard's prison gangster masterpiece is one of the most thematically, visually, and narratively rich and complete films I've seen all year. With an incredible ensemble headlined by a powerhouse performance from newcomer Tahar Rahim, the film ranks amongst the greatest crime epics of all time, schooling everyone on how to make a modern gangster film, the likes of which would make Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola proud. Featuring some of the most beautiful images you'll see on screen, the film leaves the viewer breathless from start to finish, ending on a melancholy note that concludes a masterful portrayal of the loss of innocence and the corruptive nature of power. 

And now, without further adieu, the top ten films of 2010 are

10.)  Enter the Void

Director Gaspar Noe's three hour hallucinatory nightmare may just be the most visionary and innovative film this year, not just pushing the envelope on narrative filmmaking, but tossing it out the window. Slow, deliberately paced, pretentious, indulgent, offensive, shocking, and ultimately the most philosophically challenging and stimulating film to come out this year, it's a bit like watching the "Jupiter and Beyond" segment of 2001: A Space Odyssey for nearly three full hours. Certainly not a film for everyone, especially those without patience for slow, somewhat narrative structure-free films, and especially not for people susceptible to motion sickness or seizures (plenty of strobe-light effects and flashing lights and colors), it's one of the most intense cinematic experiences I've had, and certainly one of the most rewarding.

9.) Blue Valentine

Derek Cianfrance's portrait of a marriage in crisis is everything Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road was trying to be, and so much more. Almost unbearably heartbreaking, yet subtle and gentle, the film never outstays it's welcome and never once beats its audience over the head with sadness. To say Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams give two of the best performances of the year would be an understatement. Both actors have come into their own in a way only hinted at in already incredible careers, with powerhouse performances behind them. Gosling in particular, gives what I think is one of the most emotionally complex and devastating performances since Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain, breathing life into a portrayal of a person who starts off as a ne'er-do-well man working as a mover, eyes-wide with ambition and love for life, to a broken, beaten down shell of his former self, complete with glasses, a receding hair line, and a beer gut. A tough film to sit through, but ultimately a rewarding emotional experience that will leave many in tears.

8.) The King's Speech

Tom Hooper is not a household name by any stretch, but what he accomplishes here should get him playing in the big leagues now. A truly moving tale of friendship and letting go of one's demons to fulfill one's destiny that is nothing short of brilliant. From the pitch-perfect original screenplay to Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush's phenomenal performances, the film is an exquisite insight into a man who had to overcome his fears and be the man he was always capable of being, even if he was terrified of being that man. So much more than the "Oscar bait period piece" people tout it as, the film has a true artistic and directorial identity to it that elevates it beyond whatever others may say it is or isn't, into a nearly perfect film.

7.) Winter's Bone

Debra Granik's outing into the Ozarks isn't the thriller it was advertised as. It's a beautiful and compelling piece of modern noir set in the backwoods South with some of the scariest thugs in recent memory: meth dealers and addicts. Featuring a star-making performance from Jennifer Lawrence, and a scene-stealing turn from longtime Deadwood fan favorite John Hawkes, the film boats some of the most under-appreciated cinematography of the year. As a detective story, the dark, depressing nature of the film can be almost unbearable, but it's the fierce will and determination of Ree Dolly that really keeps the film from wallowing in self-pity and breathes life into what could have been an otherwise overbearingly gloomy film. A minor masterpiece of sorts that will hopefully garner more attention for Granik, Lawrence, and Hawkes. 

6.) How to Train Your Dragon

For everything Pixar has accomplished this year, the true animated marvel of 2010 surprisingly comes out of Dreamworks Animation, long considered the less sophisticated little sibling of Pixar. What bursts out of the gates is a near-flawless film about friendship and trust, the likes of which we haven't seen since  E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Featuring jaw-dropping gorgeous animation overseen by the legendary Roger Deakins, the film hits all the right notes, never once missing a beat. Hilarious, thrilling, and moving, the film never fails to get the waterworks out of me by the end with it's beautiful tale of a boy and his dog, err, dragon. At the risk of sounding cliche, the film soars. 

5.) True Grit

Many fans of the Coen Brothers aren't really sure what to do with their newest film. Lacking the cynicism and dark nature of their previous efforts, its emotional warmth and earnestness has left quite a few Coen enthusiasts scratching their heads. However, to me, it's not only an incredibly moving tale of causality and the elusiveness of closure, but also the finest western since Unforgiven. However, unlike Clint Eastwood's film, it isn't trying to be a deconstruction or dissection of the genre. Rather, it's almost a love letter to the films of John Ford, Anthony Mann, and Sergio Leone. Western fans are a little wary of a supposed remake of a film they treasure. Not only is the film not a remake (it's a more faithful adaptation of the novel both films are based on), but it also surpasses the John Wayne film on every level. Jeff Bridges is nothing short of iconic in his turn as Rooster Cogburn, Matt Damon is a mini-revelation as Texas Ranger Laboeuf, and Hailee Steinfeld emerges as the biggest breakout star of the year in a performance that should win her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, even if such a statement supports category fraud. If nothing else, the cinematography by Roger Deakins is worth the price of admission alone, but this is truly extraordinary filmmaking on every level. 

4.) Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky is quite possibly the most exciting filmmaker of his generation. If nothing else, he's incapable of making a boring film. That's certainly true of his psychological horror masterpiece, which stands as the most terrifying film since The Silence of the Lambs. And what more can be said of Natalie Portman's performance? It's nothing short of a revelation. Never once coming off as anything by genuine and authentic, she transforms herself, much like her character, fully making the transition from the little girl we all saw in Leon, to a woman of iconic stature. But the film is so much more than its horror genre beats suggest. A glimpse into the performing artist's plight, the film rings true for anyone who's been a dancer, musician, or actor, in search of perfection in their craft. Featuring some of the most dynamic imagery and film editing of the year, Aronofsky's film really is nothing short of breathtaking. 

3.) Inception

Christopher Nolan showed us all two years ago that he could elevate the comic book genre out of its trappings and craft a crime saga masterpiece about morality, the nature of heroism, and how we react in the face of unstoppable evil. This year, he set out to bring his passion project about dreams, the nature of reality, and guilt to the big screen in a big way. And the result is the most original and intelligent blockbuster in decades. Featuring state of the art cinematography and art-direction, and a third act that serves as a master-class in set-piece construction, the heart of the film is a tragic love story between and man and a woman who lost sight of their own reality and how that man comes to terms with his grief and guilt. An extraordinary masterpiece from one of today's visionary masters, the film solidifies Nolan's place as one of today's most original and ambitious filmmakers of our time.

2.) Shutter Island

Unfairly maligned by critics upon its February release, Martin Scorsese's genre exercise is a stunning homage to Hitchcock and Wise, and yet finds an identity of its own in what is quite possibly the most moving film of the year. Many viewers were left agitated by a conclusion they felt was a cheat, but the real twist comes at the final moment of the film. Was this man ever cured? Or was he content to stay in his fantasy if it meant never having to live with the reality of the horrible truth of his life? A masterwork of craft and style, it's a film about human frailty in one of the most fascinating trips down the rabbit hole into the labyrinth of a very disturbed man's mind. As a narrative, the film doesn't rely on a twist to be a riveting piece of cinema, since it is an entirely different experience upon repeat viewings. It stands as the most under-appreciated film of the year. Featuring a career-best performance from Leonardo DiCaprio that serves as the culmination of his eight year collaboration with Scorsese, and the best cinematography of the year, the film is not just a stylistic and atmospheric masterpiece, but a truly moving tale of guilt and human frailty. 

1.) The Social Network

It's easy to call a film like The Social Network overrated. But that's only because people like me keep piling on the praise for it. Easily David Fincher's best film since Se7en, there is a rhythm to the film that never once lets up or misses a beat. Intentionally lacking a traditional three-act structure, the film plays out like a long drum solo, never taking breather a skipping a note, and in my mind, this is the future of dramatic filmmaking. That Fincher filmed the entire thing on memory cards, no film, no tape, is a feat in and of itself. Quite a brave new world of filmmaking. Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake shine as supporting players, each one a voice in Zuckerberg's head, with Garfield the angel and Timberlake the devil. But it is Jesse Eisenberg who towers above the rest of the cast in one of the finest performances of the year. Some say it wasn't enough of a stretch for him, but given the amount of thought and preparation he put into the role, I'd say it was plenty difficult enough. And what more can be said about Aaron Sorkin's incredible screenplay? The dialogue is razor sharp and in Eisenberg, Sorkin has found the perfect actor to speak his language. But the film just comes together in a way that no other film does this year. It may be cliche at this point to join in on the praise for Fincher's masterpiece, but it's hard to argue with the evidence right in front of us. And while I never bought into the idea that the film defines a generation (I personally feel that the film needs more time before such proclamations are made), it's a brilliant character study within a profound statement about business culture, entrepreneurship, and what it means to create something. It is my choice for the best film of the year. 

What a tremendous close to 2010! I for one am looking forward to seeing what 2011 brings us. Bring on the new year! Once again, the ten best films of 2010 are

1. The Social Network
2. Shutter Island
3. Inception
4. Black Swan
5. True Grit
6. How To Train Your Dragon
7. Winter's Bone
8. The King's Speech
9. Blue Valentine
10. Enter the Void

What are your favorite films of 2010? As always have at it in the comment section! Thanks for a great year and here's to another great one!


michelle mccue said...

Fantastic list, Kevin. I hope AMPAS Voters venture outside of the Pixar zone and award Dreamworks' HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON the Oscar. Good point on Deakins too!

Kevin K. said...

Thank you! I'm really glad you enjoyed reading it, I worked very hard on it! :D

elizagolightly said...

Wow Black Swan fell to 4th? But I can't complain as Leo is 2 and 3. OH Shutter Island! Like you, I preferred Leo in that one to Inception, even though they were both wonderful. I never saw The Social Network. I am sure I will sometime. And I am SO glad to see The King's Speech on here! I truly wonderful movie. I will see True Grit soon, after I write my Fighter and King's Speech review. AND I cannot WAIT for Blue Valentine. Great blog! Great list!

Anonymous said...

I don't know what to say about the top five, except that I'm glad Black Swan at least managed to place higher than True Grit.

I'm really surprised that 127 Hours isn't in the top ten, not based on what you've previously said about (because I honestly don't remember), but anyway, it just seems odd to me.

The more lists that include Blue Valentine, the more I want to see it. Ah! It just sounds so wonderful, and I love Gosling and Williams. I wish Williams was getting more buzz for her role in Shutter Island.

Anonymous said...

Great list and mostly agree with your choices.

Nice to see Un Prohete and Enter the Void mentioned, which were both great films.
Still have to watch True Grit.

Kevin K. said...

I do want to point out that despite Black Swan being in 4th, I adore the film beyond reason. Don't let any rankings fool you guys, if a film made it on to this list, I absolutely love it, so decreased rankings are all kind of relative when it includes a crop of films this good. What I'm trying to say is don't get discouraged by what appears here, since I really love all these films.

Arlee Bird said...

Haven't really seen any of these movies yet except for Shutter Island, but you've provided me more of an incentive to do so. Good overview of the films.


Kevin K. said...

You should definitely check them all out! Some of them, like Enter The Void and The American, really aren't for everyone, but I hope you like the films I listed here :)

Anonymous said...

Chelsea M (posting as anonymous because for some reason it won't let me post any other way) said...

Fantastic list! I saw The King's Speech today and absolutely adored it, and though I haven't seen Black Swan yet, it's definitely next on my list of movies to view. I was on the fence about Blue Valentine as I haven't really heard much about it, but I think you pushed me over to the "see it" side.

Kevin K. said...

Was it not letting you post as Sea4Shoes? That's odd.

Thank you for you endorsement! The King's Speech is so wonderful. Best original screenplay this year, as much as I love Inception's screenplay too, I think I would give Nolan director over screenplay. Definitely be sure to check out the films here you haven't seen!

amy said...

Well, that's kind of a spoilerific still for Black Swan, isn't it?

Can't comment much since half these films haven't opened down here... Personally, I didn't think Shutter Island was that great, I definitely would put Black Swan ahead of it.

And Enter the Void didn't seem to strike a chord with me, but I saw it's appeal... and the visual style -- especially during the first part of the film -- were... to die for - pun intended.

And I would put TS3 ahead of Dragon, solely based on how TS3 sold me the whole trilogy since I wasn't hardcore on the characters. In regards of Dragon, found a lot of the elements quite forgettable, except for the father/son moment.

Kevin K. said...

Most people weren't as high on Shutter Island as I was. I damn near put it as my #1, it was that close. But ultimately, Fincher's film won out. But I think it's a genre masterpiece, and I think with time, people will come to accept it as such. A modern day Blade Runner, if you will. But I'm ok with being in the minority on the film, just like I was last year with The Lovely Bones, a film I loved but most hated venomously. As far as Toy Story 3 vs. How To Train Your Dragon goes, I think Dragon hit a lot of personal chords with me, as did Toy Story 3, but Dragon held up more to repeat viewings as a standalone film, whereas, as much as I love Toy Story 3, it's very much a part of a trilogy. I love both films for different reasons, but Dragon was a huge high point for me this year. I've seen it a half dozen times and it never gets old, and stands as a damn near flawless film.

Hope you get to see the films that aren't out yet soon!

Kevin K. said...

Oh and I forgot to address the Black Swan still. I wondered about whether or not it would be too spoiler-y, but it's been in the TV ads and circulating tumblr and such for quite some time. A shame, since it's a shot I was able to see for the first time when I saw the film at Austin Film Fest in October, long before the onslaught of tv ads, and when it happened in that screening, holy shit it took my breath away. Probably my single favorite shot out of any film this year.

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