Although the box office did not perform as well in 2010 as in 2009, there were a handful of absolutely great films that were intriguing, meaningful and humorous. Here are my picks for the Best films of the past year. Note: I have yet to see the French animated film, The Illusionist, and the Mexican film, Biutiful, so keep that in mind.
1. Exit Through the Gift Shop--There has been much speculation as to what is true and what is fabricated in this documentary by the British graffiti artist, Banksy. The film examines the world of subversive public art and its relation to commercial markets? What is good art? Is it simply art that sells or art with a political message? The excoriating treatment of Thierry Guetta, who may or may not be real, demonstrates how art can become nothing more than an empty shell of decorative preciousness if the tone of subversion that was earlier there disappears. In what seems to be such a demoralized analysis of the art world, the film succeeds in being perhaps the funniest documentary to appear in years. The blurring of lines between fiction and non-fiction (a shady gray terrain also inhabited by The Fighter, Social Network, and King's Speech) is the hallmark of American cinema of last year and Banksy's film exemplifies that best.
2. The King's Speech--Tom Hooper's warm portrayal of the Royal Family succeeds because of the sustained humor that marks the innovation of a rather staid plot line. George VI was not supposed to be king; his far more glamorous brother was first in line to the throne. When Edward VIII stepped down because of his torrid affair with the twice-divorced American, Wallis SImpson, George was suddenly thrust into the spotlight, a troubling fate for a man who had a debilitating stammer. The opening scene of the film depicts George's attempt to speak to a crowd gathered at Wimbledon in 1925; his heartbreaking inability to get the words in his mind out of his mouth revealed through the close-ups of his wife played wonderfully by Helena Bonham Carter. When Carter forces her husband to see an unknown speech therapist played by the inimitable Geoffrey Rush, he finally gains the confidence and ability to make it through oratories without failing. Out of all the films of 2010, King's Speech focused attention on relationships makes the film and its performances from Colin Firth and his supporting cast shine.
3. Black Swan--Darren Aronofsky has always been a controversial director. Many critics felt that Requiem for a Dream (2001) felt like a thesis project from a film student. The Fountain flopped after numerous production problems (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett were originally set to star and then Pitt abruptly left during pre-production), but The Wrestler gave Aronofsky his first taste of commercial success. Black Swan has been as divisive as many of Aronofsky's works, but the reasons why many people despise the movie are the very reasons why I think it is one of the most intriguing (if also flawed) films of the year. If The Red Shoes and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane had a cinematic baby it would be Black Swan. The film is a campy, overly dramatic representation of ballet and one woman's descent into madness by associating herself to closely with her role of the evil Black Swan of Tchaikovsky's swan Lake (a cinematic trope that goes back at least to Ronald Colman's Double Life (1947), where his portrayal of Othello drives him to murder his own wife). Natalie Portman, for the first time in my opinion, actually acts. Her weak, pouty face is utterly transformed in the last sequence when she embodies the dark sexuality of the evil bird. The film is clearly over-the-top with many scenes of discomforting shots of cracking feet, broken toenails that surround the body image issues of any ballerina. The mother of this ballerina resembles some sort of Mommie Dearest, but her motivation is left vaguely obscure, an interesting move in a film that seeks to psychoanalyze every character. Somehow this campy horror/dance genre film brings a tear to my eye when Nina in the final act of the ballet achieves "perfection."
4. Toy Story 3--Can Pixar do no wrong? When it was first revealed there would be a third installment of the beloved movies about toys that come to life when no one is around, I rolled my eyes. Clearly, Pixar had lost its creative energy, but Toy Story 3 combines the characters and tone that made the first two films so successful with a renewed idea of storyline and change that brings the film to a new emotional plateau. In many ways, the piece is a celebration of the illusions and wonders of capitalism, the fetishization of commodities that children treat as magical is clearly the heart of the movie. As children, we all desire our precious toys can fulfill our emotional needs and come to life with love for their masters in the way Woody and Buzz Lightyear do when Andy leaves his bedroom. With a brilliant moment when a Deus ex machina saves the characters from an almost certain demise, to the final heartbreaking scene where the toys are passed from one child to the next, Toy Story 3 succeeds as perhaps the most emotional film since last year's Up. Pixar has cracked the code for animated films that adults love as much as the youngest child.
5. Inception--Rarely does a film come along that seems to upend our understanding of and relationship to "reality." The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon certainly did that, and Christopher Nolan's Inception is the most recent addition to this genre of mind-bending fantasy. Just as we walked out The Matrix wondering if we were part of the Matrix, we left the theater of Inception wondering if perhaps we were trapped within a dream of a dream of a dream with no means of escape. The stupendous special effects and editing did not overwhelm the story of a man seeking redemption from his mistakes with his wife. Nolan's greatest ability, however, was the way he was able to maneuver through multiple levels of dreams without losing his audience. The film could have been the most confusing mess released last year, but Nolan's firm hand turned it into one of the biggest hits of the year.
6. True Grit--The Coen Brothers have become a pair of America's greatest cinematic auteurs. Their turn to the Western in 2007 with No Country For Old Men continues with their first remake of John Wayne's classic, True Grit. The 1969 original gave Wayne his solitary Oscar, but Wayne's witty performance was overshadowed by his lackluster supporting cast (especially the dreadful Kim Darby) and cinematography that made the dark storyline seem much sunnier. The Coens reinvented the film by casting the amazing Hailee Steinfeld as the daughter searching for her father's killer. Her firm control of her character and her ability to make the most stilted sounding dialogue sound natural is perhaps one of the greatest performances of the year, especially considering she is only fourteen years old. This decision turned the movie from being about Rooster Cogburn's drunken antics (Jeff Bridges in a role where he combines his Crazy Heart drunken part last year with his cult performance of the Dude in Big Lebowski) into a film about revenge and redemption. The Coens second innovation was their dark cinematography that enhanced the obscurity and moral ambiguity of these set of characters. This is one remake that is far superior to the original.
7. The Kids are All Right--2010 was a banner year for some successful independent films. Directors such as Lisa Cholodenko and Nicole Holofcener found great success in a field dominated by men. Cholodenko's Kids are All Right characterizes an "unconventional family" headed by a pair of lesbian moms and the conflict that arises when their children seek out the sperm donor who fathered them. The central conflict has some problems with its depiction of sexuality and race (as numerous critics have pointed out), but the film's strength lies in its portrayal of the relationship between the characters played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. The inside jokes, affection, and petty arguments that constitute any relationship are the centerpiece of this remarkable film. When the couple are tested in their love for one another, the audience members fear for them because of the attachment that has come about through the course of the film. (A Side note: I think this is why Blue Valentine fails, I had no investment in the main relationship, so when it fell apart, I simply did not care.) The film ends when the son turns to his moms and says: "I think you two should stay together; you're too old to find anyone else." A genius line of affection and humor that marks the entirety of the film.
8. Social Network--David Fincher's career has been marked by dark thrillers with strong characters and innovative plot twists. Seven, Fight Club, Benjamin Button and Zodiac share an interest in changing moral codes, obscure motivations and even controversy. His latest work, Social Network, shares all of these qualities. I do not believe that the Facebook movie is the best film of the year as some critics have claimed. We will probably never know all that transpired behind the scenes when Zuckerberg created his now famous website. However, Aaron Sorkin's script marked by his usage of bantering dialogue, that was such a hallmark of The West Wing, takes a film of pure pop culture and makes it an interesting investigation of moral character and betrayal. When a film is able to make an actor out of Justin Timberlake, you know you are watching the work of a talented director.
9. I am Love--This Italian melodrama has some bizarre characteristics: an overly dramatic score by the acclaimed John Adams, which makes the movie seem like a horror film; luscious cinematography reminiscent of Douglas Sirk; a fragile performance by Tilda Swinton, seemingly one of the firmest actresses working today. The plot has little to offer: a wealthy Italian family begins to dissolve when the patriarch tries to divide his kingdom in the style of King Lear, but the film is so paradoxical and schizophrenic that it is oddly compelling. The beauty of Luca Guadagnino's work makes it a worthwhile movie to watch.
10. Winter's Bone--Talk about a downer! Somehow this dark depiction of life in the Ozarks was based on a young adult novel. The film focuses on a young girl who is forced to raise her siblings while her mother is ailing and her drug-addicted father has skipped out on them. She is eking out a living when it turns out that the family will be evicted from their house if the missing father who has skipped out on bail does not return. The daughter is convinced that her father is dead, but she has to prove to the authorities he is dead by finding his corpse. Jennifer Lawrence's fierce performance, like Hailee Steinfeld's in True Grit, heralds the arrival of a major, new talent. Lawrence succeeds as the single light in this horribly dark drama from director Debra Granik.
11. Please Give--Nicole Holofcener may be one of the great directors of female characters. Since making a a name for herself by directing episodes of Sex and the City, she has created an oeuvre of films centered on complex and complicated women characters in films such as Friends with Money and Lovely and Amazing. Please Give is her most mature work to date. Holofecener's talent lies in molding characters who are not wholly likable but recognizable to anyone. People who are flawed and make bad choices but at heart bad people, simply morally conflicted. Holofcener's muse, Catherine Keener, shines yet again as a woman who makes a profit from selling the furniture of dead people, whose relatives do not recognize the value of the post-war decorative items in their grandparent's lower east side walkups. Holofcener is remarkable in how her films are centered not on plot but on character, allowing her actors to revel in some of the best parts written today.
12. Ghost Writer--Roman Polanski met with great controversy this year when he was almost extradited from Europe this year to face charges from almost forty years ago for statutory rape. POlanski is a divisive figure; his reprehensible actions have not met consequences, while his films win accolades (notably an Oscar for 2003's The Pianist). Of course, the question of does the personality and actions of an artist make their works worthless has been one that has haunted the course of art history in how we evaluate these pieces. The question will never be fully settled, but Polanski this year did make one of his most accessible and fascinating films in year. Clearly, a roman à clef about Tony Blair and his relationship to the Americans in the lead up to the Iraq War, the film's tension follows a man assigned by a publisher to ghost write the memoirs of the now retired Prime Minister. In a masterful revealing of clues, Polanski has created a work that can stand up with some of his best works, such as Chinatown, and is far superior to some of the works that he has created in the past decade, such as Oliver Twist and The Pianist.
13. The Town--Ben Affleck burst on the scene as a talented director with 2007's Gone Baby Gone. It was a welcome move for him since his acting career had almost folded with huge flops such as Gigli, Reindeer Games, and Daredevil, while his best friend Matt Damon was met with huge acclaim for his Bourne movies. The Town may not have the subtlety and moral ambiguity of Gone Baby Gone, but the film's commercial success was based on clear characters placed within common tropes of bank heists. With an amazing cast, performances from jon Hamm and Jeremy Renner have been rightly hailed, while Blake Lively in an utterly ridiculous drunken stupor provided necessary comic relief to a film heavy on problematic decisions.
And some of my least favorite movies:
127 Hours: Two words: James Franco.
Greenberg: Ben Stiller, please don't try to be dramatic. I really try to like Noah Baumbach but I just cannot.
Prince of Persia: Perhaps the worst movie I have ever seen in my life--ever!!! Everything from the acting to the script, to the camerawork was dreadful