Saturday, February 26, 2011

10 Best Films of 2010

Alright, I'm extraordinarily late on this but was trying to wait until I'd seen more. This only covers movies I've seen! I've still not seen Winter's Bone, so it is possible that it belongs here. I don't know. But rest assured The Social Network did not make this list. Unlike last year's list, this one is ranked.

Honorable Mention:
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo -- I felt weird including this in the official final list since I haven't seen the other films in the trilogy yet. But I saw this one, and it was good. The Swedes still make good films, and Noomi Rapace is fabulous. The original Swedish title, "Men Who Hate Women" actually is much more accurate though.

Toy Story 3 -- It's not that the movie is bad. It's perfectly fine. But it isn't great like you'd expect it to be. In the end, it's a half-hour of good material padded out. It's amusing and enjoyable, but the world of Pixar has changed since the first one came out. The animation has been refined so the humans all look better, but different. The characters are almost too detailed now. Woody's hat, which used to be plastic, now flops about in the wind. Not to mention the sentiments in the film's plot are lifted directly from Toy Story 2, so it feels like a rehash. Where the first sequel built on the original, this one coasts on nostalgia. Like a Buzz Lightyear toy, it amounts to being enjoyable but overrated.

Okay, now to the official list!
10. Inception -- I was very undecided about whether this made the cut. Ultimately, it's well-crafted enough to be a notable film of the year. There are good elements to it, and if you go with the premise it mostly pays off. Marion Cotillard continues to be a joy onscreen, and DiCaprio continues his string of intense characters losing their grip. Ellen Page looks weird in a neckerchief. The zero-gravity stuff was cool. Unfortunately, the script is also too cute for its own good, muddying itself with too many elements and ending on a frustrating note of ambiguity just for the sake of doing so. Christopher Nolan is hailed as a genius, but his popular works continue to be ambitious frenetic jumbles that fall apart on close inspection. Still he's competent enough to make me curious for The Dark Knight Rises. ...I've recently begun questioning though whether any of us ever really "dream within a dream". If we don't, then the entire movie falls apart.

9. How to Train Your Dragon -- When judged against the usual Pixar fare it might seem to fall short. However, viewed against DreamWorks' previous efforts, this is their best film to date, at least rising to the level of The Prince of Egypt. It's success is due in no small part to the team of Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, two highly creative story men from Disney. They were responsible for Lilo & Stitch, and you can see a lot of that in the animation of Toothless. While the plot at times meanders or makes no sense (why are the Vikings all Scottish?), and adds characters who have little to do (Astrid), the scenes with Hiccup and the dragon really call back to the kind of wordless marvels of animation that we used to see in the 1940s from Disney, or still come out of Japan. I also really liked that all the text in the film is in runes, that seem to be accurate. Jeffrey Katzenberg has announced several sequels in the works; I hope that they don't follow the Shrek model and dilute the franchise. If they can improve on what was already here, DreamWorks may finally be an animation studio to take seriously.

8. Skirt Day -- It may be a bit of a cheat to include this film, since it debuted in France over a year ago. However, it only hit our shores in 2010, and I just saw it a week ago. Journee de la Jupe as it is known in France follows a high school drama teacher in a rough urban school. She wears skirts, so the students harass her; it has become school policy that all females must wear pants, lest they be taunted as sluts or worse. In a bizarre series of events, she ends up holding her class at gunpoint to gain some respect and teach her lesson on Moliere. The film has a lot to say about the way we approach race and sex in modern education. The principal, who at first seems to blame soon becomes sympathetic. We are treated to the no-win scenario of public education. Along the way there are issues of bigotry over religion (a number of the students are muslim, at least nominally). It felt very much like something out of Boston Public. Unfortunately, the film doesn't want to glorify the idea of violence solving problems, so it goes a few steps too far toward the end in wrapping things up. Though teetering between didacticism and social commentary, and never quite sure whether guns are good or not, it's a gripping movie. The way things are left though, you wonder if there's any way to hold any control in a situation like this, or will things always get out of hand?

7. True Grit -- It's a rare thing for a remake to stand out on its own, but this one does. The Coen Brothers have made another fine film. The cinematography is gorgeous. While there are bits that don't always work as they might, it's never uninteresting. Hailee Steinfeld is a real find, and though I think she's still a bit green here, she will be one to watch in the future. I especially enjoyed the score, culled from hymns of the period, primarily "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms". Oh, and that ending... Well, let's just say it's nice that a movie acknowledges firearms have a kickback to them. It almost approaches a farcical level, but manages to sidestep that, and maintain suspense.

6. Tangled -- My favorite animated film of the year. I saw it three times, and every time it was fun. While I'm still not sure of the title, this is certainly the strongest of the CG Disney efforts. What I enjoyed most were little touches of the lighting; when the light is refracted through the jewels in the crown, that's great stuff! Alan Menken's music score is more folksy this time around which doesn't always work with the power some of his prior scores had, but there are still sparks of brilliance, and a uniqueness about it.

5. Waking Sleeping Beauty -- Can you tell I like Disney? This documentary feature chronicles the Disney Animation studio from its shaky status in the 1970s after Walt's death, through the success of The Lion King. The film is composed almost entirely of footage shot at the time by Don Hahn and his pals. We see glimpses of John Lasseter and Tim Burton. We follow Glen Keane and Andreas Deja. But we are also taken behind the curtain to some of the strife involving Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy Disney, when men who came in to save the studio began to make things more difficult. It's a fascinating and pretty candid look at things. I only hope someone makes a film similarly covering the later years someday (1995-2008 or so) when things were just as tumultuous. Also of particular value is the film's sentiment for lyricist Howard Ashman, and how his death disrupted things. It's a shame this film wasn't nominated for Best Documentary Feature.

4. Blue Valentine -- This is by no means a fun film. But it's harsh and real. It follows a couple whose marriage is falling apart, intercut with flashbacks of how they got together. They were mostly brought together through her pregnancy (it isn't his, but he offers to marry her anyway). But things descend as they fight all the time. He wants to be with their daughter, she thinks he's not serious enough about anything. He wants to rekindle their romance, she wants to be "realistic". In the end, I feel like she comes off meaner. It's a sad movie. But you also recognize why each one feels the way they do about the relationship because of the flashbacks. We know the relationship each one had with their parents, and in the end both want what's best for their daughter, though from vastly different perspectives. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams give performances that transcend normal dramatic acting. The movie feels voyeuristic; it has a reality. It's pretty much summed up in the little song he sings with his ukelele: you always hurt the ones you love. This is the most adult film I've seen all year.

3. The Fighter -- I love movies that have an authentic sense of time and place. Watching The Fighter really does feel like being in Lowell with these people. This is due in no small part to its location shooting. The entire cast is great, and there are moments of humor that are very real. Not the comedy of a Hollywood screenwriter; the comedy of "types" and the way they behave. Christian Bale pulls no punches in his performance as a crack-addict washed-up former boxer. In fact, one of the few reasons the film isn't higher on this list is that he almost steals the movie for the first half. But the film levels off and gives Wahlberg his time to shine as well. I like Amy Adams in most things, and she is great here. In prior films she was playing "sweet", but here she gets to be undeniably hot. Many "true story" sports movies get treacly and maudlin, but The Fighter avoids much of this. It hits some familiar notes, but never feels too formulaic to me. It doesn't have the artificial feeling that The Blind Side did.

2. The King's Speech -- A movie that's been pretty universally praised, and deservedly so. It looks at the fragility of the royal family, humanizing the figureheads. It tells us about the goings-on behind Edward's abdication and such. But its primary focus is on Colin Firth's portrayal of a stuttering man trying to get by in a public arena. It feels very much like a stage play, in that it's dialogue-driven, but also is shot and cut in such a way as to prevent boredom. It's part costume drama, part buddy movie, and it works. It will very likely win the Best Picture Oscar. And unlike some in previous years, this one's actually good.

...and now finally, my pick for the best movie of 2010...

1. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World -- Scott Pilgrim was easily my favorite movie of the year. Whether or not other films had more dramatic or technical merit, this one is like an old T-shirt that just feels right. Maybe part of appreciating it comes in being someone of my generation. But I loved it. I loved the humor and the effects and the brilliant touches of music and sound throughout. Truly, this film has such a dense and varied sound design it was robbed of an Oscar nomination. It's well-cast and maintains its Canadian sensibilities. I think it's Edgar Wright's best movie so far. While it could have used a bit more of the Scott/Kim backstory, it succeeds pretty well. There are a few things I might change, and I'm glad they went with a different ending from the one planned, but on the whole, it's a great experience. I hope it becomes a cult favorite worthy of midnight screenings. This movie deserves it. I heart Scott Pilgrim so much.

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