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Friday, February 18, 2011

The Top 40 Movies of 2010, 25-11

25. Tamara Drewe
        The other 2010 British ensemble comedy segmented into four chapters based on season (how's that for a comparison to Another Year?). Director Stephen Frears' follow-up to his Oscar-certified The Queen is far less straight-faced, but no less nuanced. TD lays its scene in the English countryside, where a slew of writers, some free-spirited (Gemma Arterton in the titular role), some ever-suffering (Tamsin Greig), some slimy (Roger Allam), and some American (Bill Camp), all struggle to write while succeeding at taking themselves too seriously. Tamara Drewe is based on the graphic novel of the same name by Posy Simmonds, and it's a treat to see the subtle ways in which Frears translates comic-book aesthetic onto film without any of the on-screen mania that similar transitions usually bring. The acting is uniformly strong, no one performer allowed to stand out by virtue of everyone's stellar work. Once again, Frears proves a master at molding characters who are multi-dimentional and imperfect, then using them to promote thoughtfulness and laughter at alternating turns. This one might be a little, 'te-he-he,' for some, but not for me.

24. Casino Jack
        One of my most immovable rules of film-viewing goes like this: if Kevin Spacey is in a movie, run, don't walk. Sure, it's been twelve years since the guy last won an Oscar (American Beauty), but that's more by virtue of his love for the stage than anything else. When given a nice, juicy part, Spacey can still knock it as far out of the park as anyone else in the business, and Casino Jack is ample evidence. The movie chronicles the rise and fall of Jack Abramoff, that infamous Washington Lobbyist/Scumbag whose escapades saw him reach obscene levels of fame and fortune before it all went crashing down. What separates CJ from other damn-you-corporate-America! fair is that Spacey's Abramoff, empowered by his Jewish faith, seems to honestly think that he's doing god's work. Or does he? For such a showy and outlandish performance, it's a marvel just how many questions the viewer is left with about Abramoff's motives and ethical parameters. This all goes without saying that the movie moves along at a zippy clip, stocked with great performances from all involved. But let there be no doubt: this is Spacey's show.

23. Somewhere
        It's hard to feel too sorry for Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), the handsome actor/playboy at the center of writer/director Sophia Coppola's Somewhere. The man can have whatever he wants, whenever he wants it, but the limitless nature of this privilege has led him to a restless boredom. Quite the problem to have, right? But what might have turned out to be an unsightly pity piece is saved by Coppola's conviction to show the viewer just how it feels to be in his situation. Much of the movie is occupied by wordless, extended shots whose extreme focus on a particular thing or event seem capable of stripping the glamor off of just about anything. Even the pole-dancing twins that visit Marco in his hotel seem to slowly lose their appeal as their scene goes on, the squeaking of their palms against the aluminum allowing all the sexiness of the situation to drain out, drop by drop. Somewhere also boasts of a stunningly subdued and natural performance by Elle Fanning as Marco's daughter, but the point of this one was never so much the characters as the feeling it creates. Apathy is an endless loop, a daytime sleepwalk that is easier to maintain the longer that you do it, a concept that the ambiance and visuals of Somewhere explain far more eloquently than words ever could.

22. Dogtooth
        Sure, we've all thought that our parents were a little on the strict side at one point in time or another, but I can't imagine too many of us have/had it as bad as the three kids at the center of Dogtooth. The Greek import and Oscar Nominee for Best Foreign Language Feature refuses to even name the three young adults, two girls and one boy, who serve as its leads. They live in an impossibly white home which they have literally never left, their mother keeping watch, while their father goes out and makes money. The complete isolation of the three kids allows their parents to control each of their world-views, a fact that they take advantage of by teaching them improper meanings for words, or life-lessons that simply aren't true. To say the least, it's the kind of movie that twists your stomach into knots, a multitude of cringe-inducing occurrences taking place that I feel no need to spoil here. Director Giorgos Lanthimos' movie is about as provocative as they come, setting out to raise questions as opposed to giving answers. The performances are all strangely subdued, the emotions of the characters muted and white-washed in the very same fashion as the prison-like home. Dogtooth is the year's most puzzling movie that isn't literally a puzzle.

21. Shutter Island
        Many, including myself, cried foul in the late summer of 2009 when Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island was pushed back from October to February of the next year. One hates to wait for the next offering of a master, of course, but the real reason to be saddened was that the move took the film out of that years' awards season, never a good sign for the quality of a flick. Luckily, you only have to watch about two minutes of Shutter Island to understand just why. SI is Scorsese's attempt at making his own The Shining, a mind-bending horror film that one has to assume the Academy wouldn't want anything to do with. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall sent out in search of a missing inmate from a hospital for the criminally insane. Like The Shining, Shutter Island is full of long shots immediately followed by short ones, a score so bombastic that you might just laugh in between thoughts of how awesome it is, and that ever-present sense of impending doom that only real film-makers can accomplish. As just about everyone on the planet has observed by now, SI does devolve into lengthy stints of exposition at the end, but that shouldn't negate all of the haunted-house fun that comes before it.

20. Toy Story 3
        One of my ever-present opinions about movies is that just about all of them could stand a bit of trimming, over-staying their welcome by attaching unnecessary plot-twists and revelations. It should come as no surprise that Pixar would know better, as Toy Story 3 likely stands as the most time-economic movie of the year. There's not a dull moment in the thing, TS3's comedic moments just as fully-realized as its emotional ones and, somewhat surprisingly, its action ones. Having been long neglected by their now teenaged owner, Woody, Buzz, and the gang (somewhat) unwittingly end up at Sunnyside Daycare, a candy-colored play-place that might just be heaven, and might just be hell. Above all else, it's a kick to see these characters on the big screen again, but, thankfully, that's not all your ticket will buy. Part action/adventure, part coming-of-age story, and part a-lot-of-other-things, Toy Story 3 is yet another ambitious offering from Pixar, pushing the studio's ideas and abilities further in terms of both animation, and story-telling. And if that last scene doesn't choke you up, you've probably never loved a toy.

19. Enter the Void
        Far and away the trickiest movie on this list to assign a ranking to, Gaspar Noé's latest is a puzzling mix of mesmerizing elements, saddled right alongside underwhelming ones. Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) is a drug-dealing American teen living in the blazingly neon world of Tokyo and... yeah, that's all I'm going to give you as far as plot. A lot of Enter the Void's merit lies in its shock value, and I can't help but think that any viewing of it would be aided by knowing less going in than I did. The technical aspects of the movie, however, should, and must, be discussed. EtV is made up of three different types of shots: most from the first-person perspective of Oscar, some that languidly drift from building to building around the dazzling city, and a few composed entirely of unfathomably bizarre CGI drug trips. The visual and visceral world of the movie is so unsettling and immediately tangible that one would have to go as far back as David Lynch's Mulholland Drive to find a good comparison, but even then, this one is much more intense for being experienced through a first person perspective. Noé must have spent just about all of his energy creating such a world, because the writing and acting in Enter the Void are abysmal enough to keep this otherwise jaw-dropping accomplishment all the way back at Number 19 on my list. But all of that doesn't matter; this one still stands as a must-see for anyone the least bit interested in the power that a movie can have over its viewer.

18. The King's Speech
        Here it is: the be all, end all of non-risk-taking movies. It's the sad truth for me (and many others, specifically of my generation) that The King's Speech's reluctance to make a bold move will keep it a ways out of my Top Ten, because it's doubtlessly one of the best crafted entertainments of the year. Director Tom Hooper's film tells the story of the stammering King George VI (Colin Firth) and the rogue of a speech pathologist (Geoffrey Rush) who helped make his affliction manageable. With the jarring exception of Timothy Spall's wildly over-the-top Winston Churchill, the acting through-out is superb, each and every role occupied by an inspired performance. Hooper finds a few interesting things to do here and there, the occasional use of a fish-eye lens, or off-center shot spicing the familiar tale up just a bit. The writing's great, the pacing's great; really, all of The King's Speech is great, and truly heartwarming to boot. It's a blue-print followed and executed to the utmost of cinematic perfection, and if you're not as attached to boundary-breaking as I am, it's an awfully good choice for the Best Picture of the Year.

17. Black Swan
        After creating a handful of movies in hyper-styleized, surreal fashion, it came as a surprise when Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler was finally released. The movie told a simple story in a simple fashion, no glaring symbolism or abundance of jump-cuts to be found. Who was he kidding? Black Swan finds the director back in his preferred territory, making a real head-scratcher of a movie bound to be adored in some circles, and disgraced in others. Natalie Portman stars as Nina, an aging ballerina cast as both the White Swan and the Black Swan in an upcoming production of Swan Lake. Nina is as square as they come, trapped in an eternally infantile state by the overbearance of her mother (a stellar Barbara Hershey), so playing the Black Swan is nearly impossible for her to truly understand. The movie is a summation of that process, turning White into Black, and the insane places that it can take a person. It's ironic that this one should be placed right next to The King's Speech because I can't help but feel that if Aronofsky would have taken a few less risks, he might have had more time to strengthen the movie's emotional core. But none of that stops Black Swan from being a dizzy-making trip down the rabbit hole, one boasting of phenomenal lead performance from Portman, whose impending Oscar is beyond well-deserved.

16. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
        Scale is a tricky thing to get right in a movie, especially one as strange as Rare Exports. The Finnish offering lays its scene in the valley of the Korvatunturi mountains, where a slew of strange occurrences take place that point to one sinister actuality. Setting out to make a horror movie about Santa Claus is naturally going to lead you into some comedic territory, but what makes Rare Exports special is the straight face that it keeps through-out nearly all of its runtime. As previously alluded to, the scale of the thing is never short of perfect, its essential silliness leveled by the morbid grandeur afforded it by director Jalmari Helander. Rare Exports kind of feels like a movie that Sam Raimi might have made back in the day, only bigger, and with a little less slapstick. It's in keeping with the tongue-and-cheek, deadpan vibe that you often get from Scandinavian Cinema, mixed with the child-like wonder of something like E.T., with just a pinch of genuine terror on the side.

15. 127 Hours
        The question as to wether a movie with one guy stuck in one place can be entertaining is surprisingly irrelevant in the case of this one. 127 Hours is undeniably an engrossing watch, as Danny Boyle's typical style-on-hyper-drive direction fills every corner of the screen from beginning to end. It's the true story of Utah outdoorsman Aron Ralston (James Franco), who, in 2003, had his arm pinned against a rock wall by a falling boulder while hiking alone in near Moab. While Boyle simply can't help himself from zipping away to distant lands and more populated memories, facts that go quite a ways in stunting the visceral impact of the movie, his trip through Ralston's decaying mind is a visually and emotionally rich experience. The infamous scene at the end is pretty intense, but the emotional gratification thereafter is a rush.

14. Winter's Bone
        Unlike 127, Winter's Bone doesn't have a single bright color, or splashy edit to its name. Director Debra Granik's Ozark Mountains drama follows Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a seventeen-year-old charged with caring for her two younger siblings in the literal absence of her father, and the mental absence of her mother. Even amidst these hardships, things get worse when the law threatens to take the family's house unless Ree's crack-cooking dad shows up to court to prove he hasn't jumped bail. It's a serious-minded movie, even as its noir undertone lends it the smallest measure of fun, but the setting and the people take us to a land where movies rarely ever go. The terrain of the Ozarks, the grey sky, naked trees, and rustling wind, prove a vivid enough landscape that no stylization seems necessary. WB is intense, full of surprising moments that send ripples down its otherwise strikingly still surface, all featuring an unforgettable performance from young Lawrence.

13. Never Let Me Go
        For a guy with such extreme, outlandish talent, Director Mark Romanek hasn't really done too mush with his film career yet. Never Let Me Go is his first feature since 2002's One Hour Photo, but it's well worth the wait. I apologize in advance for giving little to no description of the movie’s actual plot, but in this particular case, giving away much is giving away the whole thing. What I can tell you is this: Never Let Me Go follows the lives of three school children, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and Ruth (Keira Knightly) as they grow up from childhood to their mid to late twenties. They start out at Hailsham, a fondly-remembered boarding school that is immediately more quietly menacing to the viewer than the characters, and continue to live their lives together in a similarly warped environment. Many of the goings-on behind the camera are miraculous, as Cinematographer Adam Kimmel creates one of the most beautiful films of the year, all colors simultaneously vibrant and muted, like a devastated Candy Land. Never Let Me Go is a decidedly sad film, pouring on the misery from first frame to last, but it's a decadent sadness that's rich, and full of feeling. 

12. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1
        Unlike many who have actually read the books, I like the Harry Potter movies, but none of them even come close to being as good as the first portion of the saga's final chapter. I guess I'll give you the rundown, though I can't help you've already got it: Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is forced to drop out of Hogwarts because of the ever-increasing threat of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). Along with his stalwart friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), Harry must use his extended summer vacation to seek out and destroy Horcruxes, a collection of various items that each contain some fraction of Voldemort's soul. And as silly as all of that sounds, it almost never is on screen. Each of the film series' many performers, be they young or old, have now lived in their part long enough that the only performances given are authentic ones. Rowling's novels all contained pieces of what would eventually be her big finale, so it makes sense that the final two movies would be the best, but the man most responsible for Deathly Hallows' hike in quality is Director David Yates. The helmer is good enough with pace to prevent a two-and-a-half hour long movie with no ending from feeling endless, and his use of special effects is both inspired, and classy. The movie is also beyond beautiful, landscapes and vistas turning the otherwise boring camping scenes into some of the movie's best. Splitting the final book into two movies now looks like an utterly brilliant decision, and I simply can't wait for Part 2.
11. Four Lions
        In terms of technical accomplishment, Four Lions probably ranks about a three out of ten at best, which is a shame considering its screenplay is an eleven and a half. Four Lions is a screwball comedy centered on the bumbling exploits of a group of five... wait for it... British Jihadists. If that doesn't sound like the movie for you, then I can't imagine that it is, but FL is endlessly provocative film-making, all wrapped up in the trappings of a laugher. The five men, one kind of smart (Riz Ahmed), the others all varying degrees of stupid, want to perform god's will by martyring themselves, and taking some non-believers along with them. While it may be difficult to see how this all could be comedic, the movie is full of hilarious word-play and moral no-man's-lands that are enough to make your head spin. It's a film with the conviction to follow its thesis all the way to its natural conclusion, and one that doesn't mind humanizing those so often painted in a demonic light, even if it does so while poking fun at the perversity of their ambition. While not exactly the most fun to look at, Four Lions proves one of the funniest and most thought-provoking movies of the year.

Hype Starts Here's Top 40 Movies of 2010:


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