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Monday, February 21, 2011

The Top 40 Movies of 2010, 10-1

10. Blue Valentine
        The essential fact that love fades is one most often ignored by the movies, and it's not exactly hard to see why. While the notion of putting a decaying relationship on screen might not exactly be news, nearly all of the movies in this pseudo-genre see next to nothing in terms of box office results. Blue Valentine's sparsely populated wallet (it's grossed just under nine million dollars in its two months of domestic release) can attest to this fact, but the movie stands above the rest of the crowd by virtue of its unmistakeable realism. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams star as Dean and Cindy, a pair of lovers whose twin stories we view in intermixed episodes, alternating between the marital unrest of their present, and the youthful bliss of their meeting.

        To say that Blue Valentine is an easy movie to watch would be a flat-out lie, but claiming that it doesn't have its moments of brightness would be equally false. The beginning of the pair's courtship is just as gooey and nostalgic as we all remember meeting our lovers as being, full of cute lines, and wildly amorous smiles. More so than just showing the viewer how the couple is breaking down, Director Derek Cianfrance is focused on the why, and the many outside influences that contribute to falling out of love. The movie's soundtrack, made up of previously released Grizzly Bear songs, almost all stripped of their vocals, provides it with equal quotients of beauty and dread. But the movie simply wouldn't function without the brilliant work from its leads, each playing past and present selves with equal believability. The charm of their bond is what makes their fall so tragic, and sets Blue Valentine apart from the pack as a movie blessed with immeasurable powers of observation. It might hurt to watch, but it's a rich, real hurt.

9. How to Train Your Dragon
        I honestly never thought I would say it, but here it is: 2010 was the year when Dreamworks Animation finally outdid Pixar. How to Train Your Dragon isn't a particularly original movie: it follows the same story guidelines to the same moral conclusions as any number of kid's flicks before it. But unlike all of those movies, Dragon seems to actually believe in the message it preaches, and the difference is immediately evident. Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is a runt of a young man whose expansive imagination, and lack of physical prowess, have made him an outcast amidst the hard-nosed, dragon-slaying clan of vikings to which he belongs. But everything changes when, unbeknownst to anyone else in the village, Hiccup captures a dragon of his own, whom he names Toothless, and begins to discover that the viking perception of the winged lizards just might be all wrong.

        Dragon has a handful of esteemable accomplishments, but none so great as Toothless. Striking a mystifying balance between adorable and fearsome, the black beast is brought to life with stellar animation, and perfect sound design. Hiccup's relationship with the scaled giant will pull at the heart-stings of anyone who's ever owned a pet, as their wordless, perfectly expressive interactions prove beautifully and naturally familiar. As if its emotional content weren't enough, Dragon can also claim to a screenplay filled with witty hilarity, and a few action scenes that could make Michael Bay jealous. The flying sequences, of which there are just enough, are the very best justification for the use of 3-D since its reintroduction a few years ago (And yes, I have seen Avatar). How to Train Your Dragon is the re-envisioning of the animated kids-pic as a big-budget action picture, but its tent-pole excitement never comes at the expense of its emotional content. Far and away the best family movie of the year.

8. Buried
        127 Hours might have a Best Picture Nomination to its name, but as far as creating a purely visceral experience, Buried is the year's most fully realized one-man-show twice over. Ryan Reynolds stars as Paul Conroy, an American truck driver working as a contractor in Iraq who, in the movie's opening moments, wakes up in a coffin with only a phone to his aid, and tries to find a way out. The camera, brilliantly utilized by cinematographer Eduard Grau, never once leaves the box, creating a feeling of claustrophobia that's amplified to perilous extremes by a theatrical viewing. It's too bad that the movie-going public of the US missed this one, as its final take just barely found its way over one million dollars (Buried's overseas gross makes up over 94% of its total). I'm sure its still good on DVD, but I have to imagine that home-viewing diminishes the effect.

        For a movie that is, in large part, one heated phone conversation after another, Buried is lent intensity and immediacy by Reynolds' captivating performance. His Conroy is just as panic-stricken as any real person would be in the situation, but director Rodrigo Cortés' singular focus affords Reynold's the opportunity to display his character's many facets, both good and bad, in an entirely believable way. The movie's Iraq setting, while almost entirely a-political, paints a nightmarish vision of complete isolation, bolstered by the ever-conflicting information that Conroy gleans from his many phone calls. The details of Conroy's entrapment are left extremely vague, which gives the flick the dizzy-making, puzzling edge that many less ambitious movies would have steered away from. Buried is brave film-making for a brave audience, and an experience of blistering intensity unmatched by any other this year.

7. The Ghost Writer
        The Ghost Writer waists no time in getting started, the particulars of its plot all in place within the first ten minutes, and it's certainly not on accident. Director Roman Polanski's first effort in five years has a lot of ground to cover, and is smart and economic enough to do it in just over two hours. After the mysterious death of the last writer attached to the project, a british scribe (Ewan McGregor) is assigned to ghost-write the memoirs of former Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan, in a role specifically based upon Tony Blair). Not entirely excited about the lucrative opportunity, McGregor ships out Lang's luxurious but eerie house, located just a few yards away from an ever-grey coast, and starts to discover more about the man's past than his employers had hoped.

        Regardless of your feelings on the man, Polanski is an absolute master, and The Ghost Writer is priceless proof. The movie is paced better than any other released last year, giving its audience just enough tidbits of information at every turn to keep them starved for more. McGregor and Brosnan are both beautifully restrained, neither giving a flashy enough performance to distract from the puzzle at hand, but both enhancing it with their intense demeanors. Cinematographer Pawel Edelman succeeds in not only creating a vivid color pallet and feel for the movie, but also uses his camera to create an endless feeling of being watched from afar. Much like Inglourious Basterds last year, The Ghost Writer is lent intrigue by its connection to true events, but does not feel beholden to recite an honest history to any degree. It's question-rasing political cinema, but more than that, it's a fully-realized thriller; compulsively watchable, sneakily creepy, and never short of unpredictable.

6. Let Me In
        When I heard that there was to be an American remake of the Swedish vampire romance Let the Right One In, I rolled my eyes just like everyone else did. The original was already a fantastic movie, and on top of that, came out all of two years ago. Who would have known that director Matt Reeves' rendition of John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel would be, in many respects, the superior and definitive cinematic rendition of the story. The life of a young boy named Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is in turmoil; his parents are in the midst of a divorce, and he is brutally bullied in school, his only solace coming in the form of revenge fantasies that he imagines while alone in his room. Fate changes for the young man when a girl his age named Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz) moves into his apartment complex. The two strike up a strange, strained relationship, as Owen begins to learn that his new friend may be just as terrifying as she is alluring.

        Steering clear of the obvious pratfall that so many remakes fall victim to, Let Me In doesn't feel the need to reinvent the wheel, reusing all of Let the Right One In's most effective ingredients, and adding in its own touches without ever forcing them. The two leads are terrific, Smit-McPhee especially, displaying the anxieties and insecurities of their age and situation in a much more tangible way than that other Vampire Romance story. What makes this tale special, both in its American and Swedish telling, is the way that it fits real, palatable pathos into its creepy, sometimes even terrifying horror movie frame-work. Admittedly, I'm a bit of a slow reader, which occasionally makes it harder for me to connect to movies in foreign languages, but I can't help but think that this version has a whole lot more going for it than that. Reeves' searing juxtaposition between the bullying that Owen endures, and the violent attacks that keep Abby alive, makes even more sense of their twisted partnership, and Cinematographer Greig Fraser has a few tricks up his sleeve that make Let Me In its own. Don't let the movie's remake tag fool you: Let Me In is a passionate work by a group of people just as committed to bringing the story to vibrant life as the original film-makers were, and their product might even be better.
5. The Fighter
        I love The Fighter for two reasons: because it's exactly the movie you'd expect it to be, and because it's nothing like the movie you'd expect it to be. An underdog sports flick through and through, director David O. Russell's first feature release in six years has a grand old time finding subtle, fun ways to divert from the framework to which it so clearly adheres. The fighter in question is Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a boxer from Lowell, MA whose career has always been tucked away under the shadow of his domineering mother (Melissa Leo), his pack of ever-gossiping sisters, and his former-boxer, current crack-head half brother Dicky (Christian Bale). His luck starts to change when he meets Charlene (Amy Adams), a bartender with an equally hot-headed attitude, but with a much greater interest in Mickey's well-being.

        Much like Russell's past efforts, The Fighter is stuffed to the brim with characters just as quirky as they are fully-realized. This time around, however, he has a stellar performer in just about every role. Similar Gabourey Sidibe in last year's Precious, Walhberg serves as the eye to the storm that is all of the movie's wacky, loudmouth characters: he's not the actor you'll walk out of the theater raving about, but without him, the flick would be a mess. As the ladies vying for Micky's affections, Leo and Adams are both fierce, hilarious, and lovable despite all of their faults. Then there's Bale, finally given that Oscar-bait role you always knew he could pull off, and absolutely smashing it out of the park. His Dicky is such a mesmerizing mess that you almost can't see Bale underneath the performance. Add to this enough sweeping tracking shots and gritty fight scenes to make Raging Bull jealous, and you've got a sports movie that actually makes you care about the outcome of the final match. In this day and age, that's an accomplishment that should not be taken lightly.

4. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
        When you think about it, it's kind of funny that end-of-year lists often ignore comedies altogether, because they're somewhere around twice as hard to pull off as dramas. The latter genre can rely on a set up and story arch that is allowed to shift and change naturally while holding an audience's attention. Comedies, on the other hand, are built on surprise and speed, two things that are next to impossible to sustain through-out the entire feature film. Thank god for Scott Pilgrim, a movie which, coming in at just under two hours in length, loses next to none of the momentum it started out with. Toronto teen Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) has his sleep-walking, smart-assing existence jump-started when he meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an alluring American with a mysterious past. As the two begin to date, Pilgrim is soon thrust into a series of cartoonish battles against Flowers' seven evil ex-lovers, and must defeat them all before he can rightly lay claim to the woman of his dreams.

       If the whole thing sounds crazy, you're right on the money. Director Edgar Wright, in his first feature not staring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, paces the movie at a furious speed, one joke bouncing off of another at mach three. Cera is... Cera, which has always been more than enough for me, but even his detractors will have to admit that the deep supporting cast is full of hilarious performances, including, but not limited to, stellar work from Kieran Culkin, Ellen Wong, Aubrey Plaza, and Anna Kendrick. But the movie's real star is Wright, whose knack for visual/action comedy is without match. Movies simply shouldn't get away with driving up the MPH the way this one does, a fact that doesn't seem to occur to the whirling, video-game, comic-book rush that is Scott Pilgrim. The movie strikes me as a sort of High Fidelity for Generation Y, a vivid and uproarious description of how pop-culture and mass-media have doomed the love-lives of susceptible, over-saturated youths from here on out. Like a sugar high that you somehow never come down from, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is an exhilarating, giggle-inducing rush that you'll miss as soon as it's over.

3. True Grit
        It took me a few times of seeing True Grit before I 'got it.' I walked into the movie expecting directors Joel and Ethan Coen to reinvent the Western, full of badasses, rough talk, and a white-knuckle shoot-out or two for good measure. Instead, I received a movie that, if rendered in scuffed-up black and white, could almost pass as a film from another time. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld stars as Mattie Ross, a young girl who sets herself and her whip-smart tongue to the task of tracking down her father's killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She enlists the help of the ruthless, drunken U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), the two of them eventually joined by an inept Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who has been chasing Chaney for sometime now, hoping to bring him back to his home state in return for a sizable reward.

        Just like every other movie in the Coens' canon, True Grit can claim to some of the most exacting craftsmanship that you will ever see on film. Its sound design, costumes, and art direction never cease to amaze, Carter Burwell's score swelling with a perfect old-timey nostalgia and romance, cinematographer Roger Deakins turning yet another Coen effort into visual candy. The actors, all perfectly cast, deliver sublime performances, especially young Steinfeld. True Grit is a movie that veils many of its messages to the extent that repeat viewings are necessary to discern them, a subtle touch of which only masters are capable. The problem with my previous expectations was that they ignored the fact that the Coens had already reinvented the Western (No Country for Old Men). This time around, they're paying loving homage to it, creating something that transports its audience to a far away place and time, governed by laws and ethics largely foreign to today's world. True Grit marks the third Best Picture nomination for a Coen brothers movie in the last four years, a fact that even those adverse to the Ten Best Picture Nominees would have to admit is damn impressive. But more than that, it's a movie of a scale that the brothers have never tried before, and it's heartening to see that their absolute mastery is not at all restricted to their smaller efforts.

2. Inception
       What is there to say about Inception that hasn't already been said? Director Christopher Nolan's follow-up to his Box Office smash The Dark Knight is easily the most buzzed about movie of the year, topics ranging from its actual merits as a piece of art, all the way down to what exactly the ending is trying to tell us. Nolan's caper stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb, a gentleman thief in a futuristic world in which the technology exists to enter peoples' dreams, and steal their ideas. Enter Saito (Ken Watanabe), a mysterious and wealthy businessman who offers Cobb his most challenging assignment yet: planting an idea within a subject's brain, known as inception. As with many movies on this list, there's plenty more that I could explain about the plot, but it's best left for the viewer to discover this one on their own.

        Inception is the re-envisioning of the mega-budget blockbuster, as full of big ideas as it is big set pieces. Those who take away from the movie by claiming that its philosophies are half-baked forget what film tradition Inception comes from. The action/blockbuster has never been a place for much thought to take place, and of late it's also been pretty slim in the story-telling department. Even if read as having no intellectual value, an interpretation I for one cannot get behind, Inception is a gracefully assembled puzzle that requires the attention of its audience in a way that no two-and-a-half hour tent-pole actioneer ever has before. All of this comes at no cost to the film's action sequences and use of special effects, any number of shoot-outs and chase scenes filmed and edited to sweat-inducing perfection, the hallway fight scene simply one of the best special effects ever caught on film. The fact that editor Lee Smith managed to make the whole thing sensible is a miracle in and of itself, as is the absolutely dazzling camera work by Wally Pfister. Inception marries the spectacular with the introspective unlike anything else I've ever seen, and if people want to take away from it because it never fully focuses on either one of those two ideals, that's their loss. If you need me, I'll be busy wondering wether that top ever fell down.

And My Number One Movie of 2010 is:

1. The Social Network
        Oh, come on, did you really not see this one coming? Sure, I'm as bummed as you are to have gone all this way only to have the most predictable Number One imaginable, but the truth is the truth: The Social Network is simply the best movie of 2010, and possibly of the last few years. It tells the story of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), a Harvard student in the early 2000's who may or may not have been the mastermind behind Facebook, the most impossibly popular, addictive, and powerful website known to man. The movie follows the site's story from its dorm room beginnings to the joining of its millionth member, and the many back-stabbings that it took to get it there.

        Perfect is not a word that I like to use lightly, but honestly can't think of a single technical problem from which the movie suffers. It's quite possibly one of the most beautiful films to ever be shot on a digital camera, Jeff Cronenweth's impeccable lensing all gold, blue, and streak-free. Its editing keeps the thing moving at a snappy clip, and the score by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is perfectly befitting of the movie's digital-age ideas, not to mention simply sounding amazing. Director David Fincher, usually set on filling his movies with eye-catching directorial decisions, holds the whole thing together without ever really grabbing the spotlight, guiding one inspired performance after another.

        Despite playing another variation of his ever-present nerd character, Eisenberg delivers a career performance by virtue of his immediate and unprecedented command of the screen. The ferocity with which he delivers his rapid-fire dialogue has a searing heat that you can feel from your seat, his sudden power affording revenge on a world that has ostracized him and his lacking social skills up to this very moment. His Zuckerberg is definitely a hero, but wether he's an anti-hero or a tragic-hero is all up to your interpretation. That kind of take-it-as-you-will open-endedness is absolutely perfected by Aaron Sorkin's jaw-droppingly accomplished screenplay, which is also stuffed with the year's best dialogue twice over. As if its fascinating qualities weren't enough, The Social Network is also a joy to watch, never once slipping into disinteresting territory, and packed with laugh-out-loud witticisms.

        I have a long-standing belief that the best movies are the ones that could not have even been made five years before or after their actual release date, and The Social Network is proof enough for me to maintain this opinion. It speaks to a generational shift that is going on right now, where increased connectivity leads to decreased connections, and the ability to insult your enemy with cleverness and speed is indicative of your social intelligence, and hunger for success. It's a movie that perfectly encapsulates the times, moors, and concerns of the present moment, the first film to discuss how we as a people are morphing into some different kind of being, both smarter and colder, right before our eyes. It fits perfectly into a lineage of classic films that have captured with breathless perfection how young people view the world at that exact moment, and as one of those young people, I can't help but be blown away by it. The Social Network is important film-making, the kind of once-every-few-years cinematic accomplishment that's ready to stand the test of time upon its initial release. Ten years from now, no one will even remember that The King's Speech (probably) won Best Picture: 2010 will go down as the year of The Social Network.

***Note: I meant to bring this up at the start of this list, but still view it as important enough to mention. No Documentaries were considered for this list, not because of any prejudice against them, but because I wouldn't even know where to start as far as comparing them to narrative films. They strike me as two very different art forms, and I don't have enough faith in my understanding of what makes a Documentary work to feel comfortable grading any of them myself.***

Hype Starts Here's Top 40 Movies of 2010:

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