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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Top 40 Movies of 2010, 40-26 and The Five Most Disappointing

        As a movie buff, there's no popular notion in film that I hate more than the ever-present complaint that movies used to be better. Cinema has seen a great many movements and changes over the years, and while this inevitably means that certain types and genres of movies are bound to suffer at any distinct moment, it also implies that others are soaring. So while you're busy bemoaning the state of the modern-day Romantic Comedy, a slew of excellent flicks that blur the line between fantasy and reality have all hit the silver screen right around the same time. If this example doesn't work for you, consider how quality the animated out-put was last year in comparison to this one, then do the same with digital film-making, giving 2010 the advantage. There are going to be ups and downs to every year, and while 2010 was something of an off year at the movies for me personally, there's still plenty to celebrate about it. Over the next three posts, I'll be running down my Top 40 Movies of 2010, saying a word or two about what endears each of them to me, and why they deserve to be mentioned as among the year's best. Today's post will include Numbers 40-26, as well as a countdown of the Five movies that disappointed me most in 2010. Let the ranking begin!

40. Step Up 3D
        I start off my list with a movie that embodies the highest ideals of film-making, a piece ripe with challenging ideas and artistic innovation. OK, so maybe not, but Step Up 3D is one in a series of deeply entertaining flicks that could immediately be described as awesomely bad. While other movies struggle with poorly written, confused screenplays, Step Up 3D manages to entertain and even tickle funny-bones with the inhuman nature of its dialogue, and the hyper-earnest nature of its 'dance-and-we-can-change-the-world' attitude. As a matter of fact, it's kind of refreshing, even if simultaneously laughable, to see something on screen in the year 2010 that's content to disallow an ounce darkness to seep into any of its corners. This all goes without mentioning that the film is jam-packed with jaw-dropping dance moves, a single take of a pair dancing down a New York street serving as SU3's most exhilarating sequence. Throw in the appropriately gaudy use of 3D, and you've got the best Bad Movie Night pick of 2010.

39. The Way Back
        Didn't get around to seeing Peter Weir's war/survival epic? You're not alone. The Way Back received next to no push from the studio who released it, but I suppose that's what happens when National Geographic is one of your primary backers. It's easy to see why: The movie bares the finger prints of heavy last second editing, suffering from jerky, confusing transitions all in the name of a shorter runtime. And while what's left of Weir's film is far from perfect, it does boast of a truly inspirational (if slightly falsified) story, and one stunning vista after another. The movie follows a multi-national group of escapees from a Siberian Gulag during WWII, and their incredible 4,000 mile trek to freedom. Like any movie made up of epic walking, The Way Back might test the patience of some, but it's filled with great performances by its strikingly varied cast (Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, and Saoirse Ronan), and its visual splendor is hard to match.

38. Love and Other Drugs
        Love and Other Drugs succeeds for two reasons, and no, they're not those two reasons. Romantic Comedies fly or die by the chemistry of their leads, a fact that makes LaOD the genre's unquestioned champion of 2010. Through all of the wacky, forced plot twists and contrivances that the screenplay pulls them through, Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway continue to shine. Their interactions, be they vertical or horizontal, are at once effortlessly natural, and endlessly sexy. Gyllenhaal stars as Jamie Randall, a ladies-man of a pharmaceutical salesman who crosses paths Hathaway's Maggie Murdock, a free-spirited mega-babe who is one Parkinson's Disease away from being anybody's dream girl. Hathaway's illness, along with her much-discussed nudity, don't really push the movie in any new directions: Deep down, this is a standard Romantic Comedy, elevated the the top of its genre by the visual and verbal magnetic pull that its two leads have to one another. Try watching these two interact without smiling, I dare you.

37. Get Low
        The greatest accomplishment of Get Low is its creation of a specific time and place that never fails to ring true. The movie lays its scene in the rural Tennessee of the 1930's, as long-time hermit Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) decides to come out of hiding, and spend the remainder of his money on an elaborate funeral for himself, to be enacted while he is still alive. Everything about the film seems like a relic of the past: Costumes, Lighting, Dialect, Music... you name it. Duvall is his usual self, which is to say that he slips under the skin of Bush, embodying every impulse and contradiction. Bill Murray also shines as the cynical owner of a funeral home who's just looking for any opportunity to make a buck. Get Low is stoic and reserved, hiding its secrets and themes in plain sight. It may not be the most immediately entertaining movie of the year, but its creation of a distinct and concrete world is something to celebrate.

36. The American
        The much-maligned George Clooney star-vehicle was killed before it ever hit the screen by improper expectations. While trailers and TV spots led audiences to think they were buying tickets the straight-faced action thriller, Director Anton Corbijn's sophomore effort is much more restrained (see: slower) than all of that. Clooney stars as an assassin so veiled and removed from true human interaction that he alternates names depending on who he's talking to. The complaints against the movie are easy to understand: The combo of gorgeous George and the European setting do seem to lend it a feeling of frothy, style-focused escapism, and his character's eventual love of Clara (Violante Placido) feels at least a little bit forced. What The American does have, however, is a unique and inspired way of putting the viewer into the head of an assassin, camera tricks and subtle use of sound moving the audience through the step-by-step process of a killer at work. It's a whole lot less noisy than your average movie with a gun on the poster, but the film's way of making you think and view its proceedings through the paradigm of Clooney's character is a technical marvel.

35. Mother
        Thriller is probably the most loosely used genre label at work in movies today, and Mother is yet another example of just how much wiggle room there is under its umbrella. Director Joon-ho Bong's latest offering is a mixture of any number of impulses and ideas, slow-moving chills giving way to broad laughs and even soul-searching questions. Hye-ja Kim shines in the title role as a guardian possessed with an unrelenting drive to prove her mentally-challenged son innocent of the murder charge that has been leveled against him. It's not quite as straight-faced as that description would lead you to believe, but it's at least as dark, as the movie takes the audience in some truly unpredictable directions. Bong is a name to watch in over-seas cinema, and Mother serves as a convincing testament as to just why he deserves such attention.

34. Greenberg
        Writer/Director Noah Baumbach loves nothing so much as an unlikable character, and in Roger Greenberg, he's really outdone himself. Ben Stiller stars in the title role as a man who appears to be going through a whole-life crisis. Having torpedoed every opportunity afforded to him over the years, Greenberg is now a bitter middle-classer without even his youth to cling to, though he does anyways. While house sitting for his brother in Los Angeles, he meets Florence (the phenomenal Greta Gerwig), a mellow twenty-something whose lack of agency leads her down the same self-destructive avenues that Greenberg himself walks. It's not always the most enjoyable movie, but that's more a credit to Stiller's complete embodiment of his character's nastiness and undercurrent of self-resentment than anything. Greenberg is yet another great example of generational resentment, a theme explored in many of 2010's best, and a rare showcase for Stiller to show his real talents.

33. Easy A
        Loose adaptations are a tricky thing to get right, especially when they're as loose as Easy A's connection to The Scarlett Letter. While the tale of plucky High Schooler Olive (Emma Stone) doesn't really borrow much from the Nathaniel Hawthorne book besides the red upper-case of its title, it fills in the rest with hilarious and witty dialogue, all set to the absurdly speedy pace of this generation. Olive and a classmate make a scene behind a closed door at a party in order to (wrongly) convince everyone of his sexual orientation, unwittingly prompting other male peers to ask for a similar favor. The concept, along with the gifts she receives for giving credence to the lies of her pseudo-courters, is enough to make an audience uneasy, but Director Will Gluck keeps the action and comedy coming at a snappy, sure-footed pace that distracts from what might otherwise be distressing plot developments. This all goes without saying that Stone delivers a star-making turn in the lead, fully in control of her character's brainy quick wit, and the lingering insecurities that they hide.

32. Biutiful
        If it isn't clear by now, the bottom of my Top 40 list is primarily occupied by movies that saddle clear, irrefutable demerits next to elements of jaw-dropping splendor. Biutiful does just about everything in its power not to break with this trend. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu's first foray into feature film-making without writer Guillermo Arriaga is a dense, overstuffed attempt at a masterpiece, and while the whole comes up short in my eyes, the moments that rise to the occasion more than justify the journey. Javier Bardem stars as Uxbal, a middle-man in the shady backstreets of Barcelona who is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and subsequently focuses on settling his affairs and providing for his children. Iñárritu maintains steadfast in his love adding more characters and plot twists than necessary, as well as continuing his legacy for crafting individual scenes the make the heart swell with their pained, pristine beauty. Pair that with the brilliant Bardem, whose scenes with Uxbal's children will prove the death of many a Kleenex, and you have a mesmerizing, if uneven, emotional journey that alludes to a great future for one of the world's most talented film-makers.

31. Kick-Ass
        Kick-Ass is a pretty polarizing movie. Some have derided it as being shallow and mean-spirited with a garish visual style. Others have called it the perfect post-modern superhero romp, straddling the line between real-life consequences and general over-the-top fun. Calling the tale of Dave Lizewski's (Aaron Johnson) rise from high school nobody to superhero nobody revolutionary strikes me as ill-concieved, since many caped crusader movies over the last few years has addressed the pre-existance of comic books. Kick-Ass is, however, a total blast, complete with fun soundtrack, flashy editing, and yet another wacko character to add to Nicolas Cage's eccentric, confusing catalogue. Director Matthew Vaughn knows who to handle action, and as Hit-Girl, youngster Chloë Grace Moretz absolutely walks away with the thing, perfectly handling her character's duality of child and killer. It might not reinvent the wheel, but Kick-Ass is none-the-less the best superhero movie of the year.

30. Valhalla Rising
        Though I'm sure the movie's truest champions would argue otherwise, Valhalla Rising actually has quite a bit in common with 300. Both films are hyper-violent, stylized journeys back to a harder, dirtier past where action scenes rock, and dialogue sucks. Here, we trade in swords and sandals for a Viking epic, one in which an unnamed, mute, one-eyed warrior/slave (Mads Mikkelsen) gains power over his life and those around him through his unrelenting physical dominance, suggesting something both supernatural and sordid. Photographed in gritty, surreal fashion by Morten Søborg, Valhalla Rising, despite any number of artistic choices that might try to convince you otherwise, strikes me as a celebration of style over substance, a damning statement were its style not so striking. With shockingly intense battle scenes and unrelenting gore, VA might not be the best choice for the squeamish, but it's an absolute triumph of tone and mood, not to mention a miracle to look at.

29. Another Year
        Mike Leigh seems able to craft fully-formed characters with only the most minimal effort, a talent that Another Year seems almost wholly occupied with putting on display. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen star as a happily married couple getting along in their years who just happens to be surrounded by a slew of far less joyous friends. Another Year might not be laugh-out-loud funny, but its subtle observations of normal human interactions are lent humor and pathos by just how easy they are to believe. Leigh writes and directs just about all of his movies, allowing him the control to see his vision and characters become fully realized. While its 'my-oh-my-how-the-times-have-changed' brand of dreary nostalgia is occasionally over-the-top, Another Year is packed with tragically believable characters and brilliant little incites into life itself.

28. Youth in Revolt
        What's more frustrating than hearing yet another person complain about the limited range of Michael Cera's acting? Hearing just about all of the same people admit that they haven't seen Youth in Revolt, the young actor's first real try at branching out. He stars as Nick Twisp, yet another nerdy high-schooler desperate to lose his virginity, an affliction immediately doubled when he meets the irreplaceable girl of his dreams (Portia Doubleday). After uncontrolable circumstances threaten to kill his chances at landing the girl, Twisp creates an alter-ego named Francois Dillinger who might just have enough guts to go out and get what he wants. Cera, who has always been more of a comedian than an actor, places a surprising amount of seriousness behind Dillinger's steely stare, making for a deliciously theatrical double performance. Youth in Revolt can also claim to an embarrassment of wealth in supporting actor category, the likes of Fred Willard, Justin Long, Steve Buscemi, Ray Liotta, M. Emmet Walsh, and Zach Galifianakis spicing things up at every turn. Meeting their characters, each given just enough screen time and nuance by Director Miguel Arteta to prove perfectly memorable, is one of the movie's greatest joys. Youth in Revolt knows that you need both intelligence and mischief to pull of the perfect coming-of-age movie, and it's got both in spades.

27. Rabbit Hole
        Not all movies about death, loss, and mourning have to yank at the heart-strings in a cold, calculated, Oscar-baity way, and Rabbit Hole stands as proof. This small, intimate story about a married couple struggling with the loss of their four-year-old son has all of the standard tear-jerker scenes, sure, but it also has moments of delicate insight, and surprising humor. Nicole Kidman, an actress that I (and plenty others) often have little patience for, finds her finest role in some time, while Miles Teller contributes a stunning supporting turn, solidifying an already excellent group of performances. Rabbit Hole bests other weepies because it's not so much about mourning as it is about how we pick ourselves back up, and find a way to live again.

26. The Town
        I can't imagine that too many people have really compared The Town to The King's Speech, but here it is: More so than any other movies in 2010, these two showed exactly how far you can get without taking any risks. Like The King's Speech, The Town is exactly what you expect it to be, only a really, really good version of that product. Ben Affleck directs and stars as Doug MacRay, a bank robber in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston who strikes up a romance with a Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), a brunette beauty who happens to have been present at the scene of his mens' last job. You know the story: He wants to quit the business, a higher-up won't let him (Pete Postlethwaite), his romance threatens to tear everything apart, and a few shoot-outs are slipped in here and there. But for all its familiarity, Affleck's movie is slick, clean, and engrossing at just about every turn. Inspired performances from Jeremy Renner and Chris Cooper bolster the thing even further. The Town is about as lean and entertaining as template film-making gets.

The Five Most Disappointing Movies of 2010:

5. Cyrus
        Because there are limits to the amount of time and torture that I can take in a movie theater, I actually tried to avoid the year's five worst. I'm sorry if you were looking forward to reading me blast Vampires Suck, but no, thankfully, I didn't see it either. I did, however, run into a handful of movies that greatly underwhelmed me, and Cyrus is a perfect way to start the list. It's not a bad movie, per say, but it is a remarkably conventional one, and one featuring characters who are just as unbelievable as the decisions they make. The last two movies crafted by the directing team of Jay and Mark Duplass, The Puffy Chair and Baghead, were both little indie movies that could, full of no-name actors, and true-to-life dialogue and character interactions. Cyrus was supposed to be their first step into the mainstream, and with a trio of actors like John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, and Marisa Tomei, one had to like their odds. Instead, the movie turned out to be yet another story of an unattractive loner bagging a smoking-hot lady with little discernible effort, and even less charm. Tomei is given next to nothing to do, and Reilly's character's crippling self-doubt isn't as fun or realistic as the Duplass' likely hoped. Hill manages to escape unscathed, and some of his scenes opposite Reilly are just as fun as the premise and names attached suggested. Not anywhere near as big of a clunker as they come, but still a major letdown.

4. Tron: Legacy
        Sometimes I feel as though Hollywood studios forget just how little we ask of them. When I first saw the trailer for Tron: Legacy in all of its big screen, 3D glory, I was almost beside myself with anticipation. Light-Bikes! Glowing Frisbees! Olivia Wilde! Imagine my dismay when Tron turned out to be a total drag, focusing on a messy and disinteresting plot filled with sub-par performances instead of, you know, stuff blowing up. When Sam Flynn (a cringe-inducing Garrett Hedlund) first enters the neon-lit darkness of the grid, he's immediately forced to compete in a plethora of Tron games, and you start thinking that this movie might actually be awesome. Don't get your hopes up: you'll soon be propping your eye-lids open as the overwhelming darkness of the frame and stupidity of the story do everything in their power to put you to sleep. Even the Daft Punk score isn't really anything to write home about. Not to keep bringing up 300, but if Tron: Legacy would have followed that movie's, 'action first, action second, talking third,' blue print, they might have been onto something. As is, it's a real snoozer.

3. It's Kind of a Funny Story
        If my inclusion of Youth in Revolt and Easy A in my Top 40 hasn't made it clear, I harbor a pretty strong affinity for High School movies. I also think the world of the writing and directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, whose Half Nelson is one of the great tragedies of the last few years. Finally, who wasn't curious to see how Zach Galifianakis would fair with his first semi-serious film role? In the end, however, IKoaFS turned out to be a shallow attempt at a coming-of-age story, weighed down by Keir Gilchrist's charisma-free lead performance. Even if realism is what Boden and Fleck were going for, Gilchrist simply can't hold the screen, and the pop-phychology counseling sessions he has with Viola Davis alternate between laughable and offensive with their simple-minded solutions to real-life afflictions. Using the wacky antics of Gilchrist's mentally-ill ward-mates as comedy is also pretty off-putting, made all that much more so by the fact that the jokes almost all fall flat. Galifianakis is good, sure, but how bright can anyone really shine in a train-wreck like this?

2. Alice in Wonderland
        Raise your hand if you were excited when you heard that there was to be a 3D, big screen, live-action remake of Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton. If your wrist is still by your side... what's wrong with you? It's easy to take away from Burton, his visual style and story-telling sentiment never really changing in any dramatic way through out his entire career, now midway into its third decade. But the combination of Burton's dark whimsy and Alice's lack of traditional narrative and pitch-black undercurrent sounded just about perfect, all this while the director was coming off what I still believe to be his best move to date in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. But Alice isn't really any of those things: it trades in the original movie's loose structure for a standard good-versus-evil story arch, and its moments of darkness feel thrown in to appease a few Hot Topic shoppers. Perhaps just as disappointing is the fact that not even the technology was well-used, the visual world of the film feeling artificial, cartoonish, and ugly while the 3D proved content with simply throwing various items at the audience to jarring, unplesant effect. The discovery of Mia Wasikowska withstanding, this one was a total bust.

1. The Kids Are Alright
        ...or, as it's more properly known, The Kids Eat Dinner. Admittedly, entering a movie expecting Best-Picture quality is often a bit ill-fated, but The Kids Are Alright is a clunker no matter how you look at it. As a comedy, it's nearly laugh-free, even when viewed as a satire. As a hard-hitting drama, it hinges on unrealistic plot twists, and an ending that's unresolved in all of the worst ways. As a depiction of homosexual life in today's america, it finds itself a member of a long, bigoted tradition of films who refuse to accept that a woman could ever be sexually satiated without a man. As an Oscar-Caliber acting ensamble, the three adults all play some of the broadest characters to hit the big screen in forever. Annette Bening plays the high-strung, type-A Wine-aholic, Julianne Moore her free-spirited, younger companion, and Mark Ruffalo slips in as a hippie-burnout who says, 'yeah... yeah,' often and casually enough to make the whole thing seem soooooo reeeeeeal. When Brokeback Mountain came out, it ignited a debate as to wether the movie would have drawn the same press were the love affair a straight one. It's a criticism that I've never seen the merit to, but seeing this one helps me understand their complaints. The Kids Are Alright is It's Complicated starring lesbians: Yuppie-porn and escapism with no real heft to its name.

Hype Starts Here's Top 40 Movies of 2010:

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