Wait, you watched movies this year? Holy hell, SO DID WE. Clearly, we have exceptional taste. Hence:
10. Toy Story 3
By August, the final 20 minutes of Toy Story 3 had almost become an alpha-male’s parlor game: “Dude, I’ll bet you that you’ll be crying by the end.” To view it this way, though, is to reduce the wonderful final installment of Pixar’s best work to the territory of a maudlin melodrama. Lost in the reaction to the film’s potent statements about the end of childhood and the struggle with mortality is a genuinely hilarious movie, a throwback to prison escape movies and screwball comedies that (unlike some of Pixar’s work) can be appreciated at every age. The real beauty here is that the eight-year-olds watching Toy Story 3 now will revisit it in a decade and finally understand why their parents were sobbing in the theater. How many films aimed at children, in an era of cinema that all too often panders to them, attain an air of instant timelessness?
The typical documentary tries to construct a filmic story out of a real one, to have the feeling of narrative cinema drive along a very real story. In the case of the wonderfully, woefully unseen 45365, Bill and Turner Ross spent nine months in the midsize town of Sidney, Ohio capturing isolated moments of Midwestern life. Snapshots as simple as an impatient child leaving church to use the bathroom just to make time move faster, or a rained-out music festival being saved by a roadie’s unintentional comedy become at once a portrait of modern life and intensely personal, a flood of those arbitrary memories that stick with us for reasons we’ll never fully understand and cause us to laugh or smile wistfully without explanation.
Because Kick-Ass was sold as a subversive attack on stale, ponderous superhero movies, much of the criticism leveled against it spoke to the idea that it wasn’t as clever as it wanted to be. In fact, it was; not only does it riff on nearly every superhero mythology to get the cinematic treatment in recent years, but when it digs deep for emotional resonance, it manages to beat nearly all of them to the punch. As Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson) becomes a superhero pretty much only due to his ability to be abused, he takes a stand for every kid who ever wanted to be a superhero but knew they didn’t have the power. This is bolstered by amazing performances from the top down, particularly Nicholas Cage’s much-maligned turn as Big Daddy. Cage manages to take what could have been a mere caricature and, rather than try to take it in a new direction, embraces caricature to such a point where it becomes heroic. Serious discussion aside for a moment, it’s also a wildly hilarious movie, and though director Matthew Vaughn makes some missteps in the third act, Kick-Ass is still one of the best superhero movies in years.
7. Enter The Void
Gaspar Noe wants you to be appalled by his movies. Revulsion is the medium in which he paints, but unlike the cold detachment of Haneke or the Technicolor torture porn of Miike, Noe seeks nothing less than an absolute immersion into depravity that at once repels and steals the breath away. With Enter The Void, he’s painted himself into a corner that’s going to be difficult to escape; he’s made a film so great and so repellent all at once that it’s going to be difficult to top. Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) is killed in a bathroom stall after a drug deal gone wrong, and the film’s protagonist for the next two hours of running time is not Oscar, but his disembodied, wordless soul floating over Tokyo, stalking former lovers and worrying after his sister (Paz de la Huerta), drifting in and out of an enlightened, neon-soaked mega-consciousness. By the time the film collapses into a (very, very literally) pornographic nightmare in which new life is taken to perverse, stunning places, Noe has accomplished one hell of a high-wire feat: A film about indulgence in the dirtiest, sickest parts of humanity that’s so beautiful you can’t look away.
This movie came out with the unfortunate baggage of having to rescue a summer filled with mediocre tentpole pictures that left audiences feeling as indifferent as (seemingly) the people involved in making them. Enter Christopher Nolan. Inception may not have the deft characterization of some of his earlier work, but it more than makes up for it by creating something that audiences have truly never seen before. It borrows ideas from a lot of places (notably Paprika, a Japanese anime about entering dreams), but still feels completely and wholly original, precisely because the airtight script demands that an audience enter into a dream logic that’s not theirs. The film sets up its rules early on and often, and does not at any point cheat on them, no matter how much is happening simultaneously. The distortion of time has never been so exciting.
5. Four Lions
Can we laugh at suicide bombers yet? Comedy has become so politically correct in recent decades that it’s lost sight of one of its most potent uses, to make everything we fear a joke so that we don’t have to fear it anymore. Leave it to the English to make an uproariously funny comedy of errors about a devoted father and wannabe suicide bomber (Kayvan Novak) who assembles a crew of morons to attack…something. They don’t know what, and this isn’t a concern; bombing for them isn’t a holy thing so much as something they decided they were destined to do and can’t fail at. By the time Barry (Nigel Lindsay) suggests that the Muslim men blow up a mosque to “radicalize the moderates,” it’s clear that they’re a walking collective punchline. They’re also real.
4. The Fighter
Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is not that interesting of a character. In a deceptive bit of directing and acting by David O. Russell and Mark Wahlberg, respectively, this is exactly The Fighter’s point. He’s been worn down to a nub by his overbearing mother (Melissa Leo) and his junkie brother (Christian Bale) to such a point where protest is futile. Even his career as a boxer seems to have come about solely because he’s been strong-armed into it; he’d rather meet a nice woman, like Charlene (Amy Adams), a waitress who knows their neighborhood of Lowell, Massachusetts so well that she knows exactly who Micky’s family is and what they’ve done to him. Little by little, the strange dynamic of their family unravels, and by the film’s end, the fact that Micky has a title fight ahead is irrelevant; nobody he steps into the ring with can beat him any more viciously than his family has for his entire life.
3. The Social Network
Speaking of subtle acting, Jesse Eisenberg pulled off something with Network that arguably few actors could. In his hands, Mark Zuckerberg is at once vulnerable and an obnoxious prick, an incredibly smart man who knows he’s incredibly smart and, somewhere inside, wishes he could relate to a single person around him. We have to understand Zuckerberg so well that we can’t hate him even if we want to. He’s also supposed to scare us; more than anything, Network is a movie about how terrifying it is that (in its version of the tale) the man who’s helped bring us all together in an unprecedented way could not last 30 seconds in a room with any of us. Maybe that’s just the uncomfortable truth: We’ve become terrible at making friends and really good at making “friends.”
It’s probably going to be difficult to fully enjoy Greenberg if you’ve never known anybody like Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller, the best he’s ever been.) To look at a man like him, so cruel to the people around him, prone to bursts of violent anger at the slightest provocation, most people would tell him to fuck himself and go about their day. The incredible resonance of Noah Baumbach’s first great film lies within the knowledge that, if you’ve been friends with somebody like this, you can’t let them go; you sigh, roll your eyes and accept that this is how they are. Even Florence (Greta Gerwig), who knows better and who turns to her friends to be told that she should know better, can’t stay away. Men like Greenberg have a pull they exert. They create the need to protect them, to be the person who teaches them that life isn’t really so bad. And men like Greenberg, once they’re nearing middle age and only a few people can handle them, they simply accept what they do as the course of everyday life. Nobody in this film is ever going to change or get particularly better, and it’s so painfully real that you want to look away, but can’t.
1. Exit Through The Gift Shop
“The film is about a guy named Thierry Guetta, who tried to make a film about me, but he turned out to be a lot more interesting than I am. It’s not Gone With The Wind, but there might be a moral in there somewhere.”
In 2003, Theirry Guetta accidentally captured the core of the street art movement on tape. The proprietor of an L.A. thrift store, Guetta just filmed compulsively and happened onto a movement that would eventually bring him into the fold. The chronicle of his deeply strange headlong dive into the art world, Gift Shop is an infinitely watchable movie, hilarious and entertaining and thought-provoking all at once. To see Guetta develop a yen for the art he’s captured is fascinating; to see the places he takes it is on another level entirely. And then there’s Banksy, famed British street artist and the film’s director, who as the direct and indirect inspiration for the whole production brings humor and intrigue to the proceedings. At once an adventure, a character study and a meditation on the lines between homage and ripoff, between inspiration and selling out, Exit Through The Gift Shop is the best movie of the past year.
1. The Town – Most people are probably going to disagree with this pick, but I’d argue that this is the best-made film of the year. It doesn’t have the sustained gravitas of Ben Affleck’s last directorial effort, Gone Baby Gone, but The Town evokes the same sense of culture and place—South Boston, in both films—in the same authentic way. Martin Scorcese’s work became synonymous with New York city, and Affleck has shown a similar ability to show the symbiotic relationship between people and place—how each define and trap the other. All of which happens in the backdrop of a thrilling bank-heist flick. It doesn’t all work; Affleck is significantly better as a director than an actor—indeed, he is fast becoming one of the best American film makers—and the film’s central romance feels tacked on the a more interesting story about families who live and work in the same community from which they steal, but the final shootout and chase is so expertly staged that you’ll overlook the movie’s other deficiencies.
2. The Social Network – My sense is that more people were enraptured by the story of Mark Zuckerburg and how he invented—or stole, depending on your perspective—Facebook than I was; the first two thirds of the movie were engrossing, but I felt like the story lost some of its steam in the final 30 minutes (which isn’t really a criticism of Aaron Sorkin or his deft script – the story happened as it did, and he could only so much he could do to turn the complicated legal wrangling between the social network’s founders into something cinematic). That said, the final scene, which I won’t spoil, was a brilliant summation of the film’s commentary about narcissism, isolation and social interaction in the digital landscape. Few films captured the zeitgeist of the last decade in such full force.
3. Black Swan – I think perhaps the best sign of the quality—both in film making and storytelling—of Black Swan is how engrossing it remains even if you start to see the arc of the story early on. Darren Aronovsky changes pace from the subtly of The Wrestler, and instead works with a story strikingly similar to his best film, 2000’s Requiem for a Dream. Like that film, Black Swan builds tension in layers of feverish paranoia for the first two thirds of the film, and then lets the walls crash down in the final act. That the film’s plot so intelligently plays off of the plot of the Swan Lake ballet its characters are performing in is a sign of the quality of script, and Natalie Portman holds the whole thing together with a bravura performance.
4. Toy Story 3 / Tangled – Toy Story 3 is clearly the better movie. It takes greater risks, is better-written and tells a more poignant story about characters trying to process transitions between major stages of life (which of course sounds like a pretentious thing to say about a kid’s movie, but then again few kids films feature a prolonged scene in which anthropomorphic toys see a literal vision of their own fiery death and destruction). That said, I just enjoyed Tangled more. It was escapist, yes, but why is that such a bad thing? Tangled was probably the most pleasant 90 minutes I spent at the movies all year. PLUS, A HORSE!!!!
5. Inception – It’s not that you didn’t get it, it’s that there’s not as much to be understood as the film would have you think. If you try too hard to peel back all of Inception’s layers, you’ll just be disappointed to find that there isn’t some profound revelation at its core. But if you can just content yourself to enjoy the layers themselves, to let the film expertly pull you in a million directions, then really, wasn’t this fucking excellent? Go ahead, try to name another big-budget director that gives his audience as much credit as Christopher Nolan.
6. The King’s Speech – Great acting in a story that situates a very personal drama in the context of a sweeping historical moment. Geoffrey Rush steals the movie, but don’t overlook the quality and skill that goes into Colin Firth’s portrayal of a man hobbled by a speech impediment.
7. Shutter Island – For me, Scorcese’s latest pairing with Leonardo DiCaprio hinges less on the twist revelation at the end, and more on the noir paranoia that is infused into every scene.
8. The White Ribbon — So absolutely no one saw this German film from Michael Haneke about a rural German village in the weeks before the outbreak of World War I, which is a shame because of how moving and intelligent it is. Is it a crime thriller? Is it a domestic drama? Do the films events portent something about the rise of Nazism? All of the above? I don’t want to give any of the surprise of the film away, just trust me that it’s worth seeing. It technically was released on December 30th of 2009, but if you know me, then you know I’m a rebel and you can just sod right off with your rules and technicalities.
9. Predators – This film isn’t of the same quality as most of the other ones on this list, but it makes it for no other reason than that I really enjoyed it. This is a perfect example of how a well-made genre movie (in this case, the aliens-transport-random –killing-trained-humans-to-a-far-away-planet-and-then-hunt-them genre) can be a great experience.
10. Kick-Ass – Yes, it is as fun and super-violent as every says it is. Yes, you need(ed) to see it.
10. The King’s SpeechPerhaps what makes The King’s Speech a cut above most Oscar-baiting period pieces and costume dramas is its humor. The fact of that Tom Hooper could make a film about someone with a speech impediment, without having us laugh at him, but still making us laugh, is no small accomplishment. Or perhaps, it’s the film’s brilliant performances. Somehow, the characters in this movie are alive and relatable, and their interaction seems genuine, rather than the typical stories of Kings and Queens and the commoners who long to be like them. Or perhaps, it’s the fact that the stakes are lowered. As King George VI, Colin Firth isn’t a guy who wants to conquer nations or control governments, he just wants to be able to speak in front of a group of people without going to pieces. And whether you stutter or not, that can be a hard thing to do. Overall, what makes The King’s Speech so good is that it’s enjoyable. The sum of all its parts actually adds up to a fun movie, rather than another stuffy bore about royalty.
9. Toy Story 3Toy Story 3 is both a love letter to years gone by and a hymn to the future. When our generation thinks back to childhood years from now, the Toy Story films will undoubtedly be among the movies that come to mind, and Toy Story 3 will be a fitting bookend to the series and to our childhoods. As fun as it is to watch, it’s not always easy. But hey, neither is growing up.
8. Blue ValentineI’m a sucker for movies about relationships. I’m even a sucker for movies about relationships gone bad, like the one in Blue Valentine. Everything you need to know about this movie can be summed up in the words to “You Always Hurt The One You Love,” sung by Ryan Gosling in one of the film’s sweetest moments. As a couple whose marriage is falling apart, Gosling and Michelle Williams share scenes in this film that are painfully intimate to watch. Yet despite the heartache, the movie is worth seeing because it’s as honest and realistic as anything you’re likely to see come out of Hollywood, showing how both the beauty and the ugliness of love oftentimes come within the same breath. Movies like this are little mini-miracles; wonderful to behold, yet devastating in their sincerity.
7. Inception/Shutter Island– Sure, the plot of one was confusing and the ending of the other was convoluted, but obviously I’m not here to point out either film’s flaws. Inception and Shutter Island are the rare films where the major things done wrong are outweighed by the many things done right. Both of these films kept me on the edge of my seat, Shutter Island with a creepy, intriguing mystery and Inception with mind-blowing action sequences. Shutter Island is pure genre fun, a good old-fashioned mystery told by a true master. Inception, while also a piece of genre filmmaking and also told by a master storyteller, had the added bonus of some truly great writing. Say what you will about Nolan’s characters, but some of the speeches delivered in Inception were as smart as it gets in movies. Both films had brilliant performances by Leonardo DiCaprio, although the supporting cast of Shutter Island was pretty great too. The parallels between the two stories and between Leo’s characters in both of them are obvious, but that doesn’t diminish the effect of either. Inception and Shutter Island are about obsession, specifically the obsession to find the line between fantasy and reality, and about how we often blur that line to cope with what we couldn’t otherwise. Neither Inception nor Shutter Island are the best films that Christopher Nolan and Martin Scorsese have ever made. But like I said, I’m not here to talk about what these films got wrong. I’ll take lesser Nolan and Scorsese over no Nolan and Scorsese at all, because let’s face it, the work that these guys do on a regular basis is better than the work most directors do in their entire careers. One film from an old master, and one film from a young one, Inception and Shutter Island were undoubtedly two of the craziest, intelligent, and most fun movies of 2010.
6. True GritI’ve made no secret over time that I’m not the world’s biggest Coens fan. However, when something is good, it’s good, and when something is awesome, it’s just plain awesome. True Grit is awesome. From the excellent music, to the beautiful cinematography, to the compelling story, True Grit is just an all-around awesome experience. And of course, there are the movie’s awesome performances too. Note to the Academy: take Jeff Bridges trophy for the average Crazy Heart back, and give him one for this, because his Rooster Cogburn is as fun and memorable a character as your liable to see this year. Then of course there’s Hailee Steinfeld, who as heroine Mattie Ross has gumption and wisdom way beyond her young years. And I can’t forget Matt Damon, showing his comic side as the vain, prideful Texas Ranger LaBouef. It may not be as deep as No Country For Old Men, yet True Grit manages to hold true to the Coen brothers classic sensibilities while still being a bona fide crowd-pleaser. This film deserves to be mentioned as both the newest great Coen brothers movie, and as the first great Western of the decade.
5. The Fighter The world didn’t need another great boxing movie, but with The Fighter we got one anyway. David O. Russell, temperamental though he may be, has proven that his short career has not been a fluke, and he is now primed to join the ranks of other great working directors. But Russell didn’t do it alone; it took Amy Adams as the prideful Charlene, Melissa Leo as the batty Alice, Mark Wahlberg as the stalwart Micky, and Christian Bale, truly the star player as the fierce Dicky, to make the film work. These actors transformed themselves physically and emotionally to become their characters. The Fighter is the perfect merging of cast and director. Russell and his players told a time old underdog story, and made it feel new with their vibrancy and tenacity. There was no film this year more inspiring without ever being contrived, as many “based on a true story” movies often are. As touching as it is brutal, The Fighter is primed to join Million Dollar Baby, Rocky, and Raging Bull in the pantheon of great boxing movies.
4. Kick-AssAll of the controversy aside, Kick-Ass is simply one of the best superhero movies ever. Period. Merging the story of nerdy Dave Lizewski’s transformation into amateur crime-fighter Kick-Ass with the more archetypal superhero story of Big Daddy and Hit Girl, Kick-Ass gives us the best of both worlds; a realistic “what if there really were superheroes?” story combined with classic comic book mythology. Aaron Johnson is perfect as the would-be masked avenger, and Lyndsy Fonseca, as Katie, his love interest, brings surprising depth to the typically boring role of the superhero girlfriend. Clark Duke and Evan Peters as Dave’s hilarious friends Todd and Marty also turn in great performance, with Duke in particular stealing every scene he’s in. And then there’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse, taking another step away from the constraints of McLovin with his role as Red Mist, a gangster’s son and villain in training. But the show is unquestionably stolen by Chloe Moretz as the foul-mouthed Hit Girl. Regardless of whether you thought her character was appropriate or not, it is impossible to deny that Moretz is a ridiculously talented young actress. It’s hard to imagine anyone else her age playing the role as well she did. This great cast combined with giddy violence and sharp dialogue makes “Kick-Ass” the best genre film this year. And admit it, there wasn’t a moment in any other movie this year that you enjoyed as much as Nic Cage screaming, “Now switch, to Kryptoniiiiiite!”
3. A ProphetThis film was released in a few select cities last year, but I, like most normal folks, didn’t get to see it until the release was greatly widened this year, and frankly, it’s too good to leave off this list. A Prophet is a gangster movie, a prison movie, but more than anything else, it’s a power movie. As great films about criminals often are, A Prophet is about how people rise to and fall from power, and the great lengths they will go to acquire and keep it. A Prophet also plays with notions of race and religion (particularly interesting topics in France, where this film is from,) and how these things too affect the balance of power, no matter where you are in life. Ridiculously well made with a gritty, raw aesthetic, A Prophet is why you should see foreign films. It’s challenging, complex, and enthralling, and should be the new golden standard from crime movies everywhere.
2. The Social Network – The Social Network is a work of genius as great as Facebook itself. We all know this is because of David Fincher’s brilliantly meticulous directing, Aaron Sorkin’s mile-a-minute, whip-smart script, and the best ensemble cast of the year. But lurking under all this is a bigger message, about us and the times we live in. Consider; Mark Zuckerberg is not cool. Sure, his character is perhaps embellished in the film, and he is made at least a little bit cooler by being the world’s youngest billionaire, but that doesn’t change the fact that fundamentally, he’s not cool. Sean Parker on the other hand, is cool. Maybe the EpiPen and the inhaler aren’t that cool, but other than that, Sean Parker is cool. Mark Zuckerberg (the fictional one anyway) created Facebook to get people to think he was cool, and enlisted help from people like Sean Parker in an effort to convince everybody. In this, we see the film’s brilliant casting, i.e. Jesse Eisenberg: not so cool, Justin Timberlake: very cool. But like I said, this desire to fit in says something very profound about the times we live in and Facebook itself. Why is it that our generation needs to take to the Internet to seek approval? Why do we want people to know whether we’re “in a relationship” or not, why do we need to post pictures of ourselves getting drunk and partying, and why does it matter how many online “friends” we have? This desire to be accepted, to be seen, has been taken to the forefront in an extreme way with the digital age. If Toy Story 3 is how we grew up, The Social Network is what we turned into. It may be the defining movie of our generation. And that’s not necessarily a great thing for us.
1. Black Swan
Campy? Maybe. Ridiculous? Probably. A masterpiece? Definitely. Full disclosure, I was a little premature in declaring The Social Network the best film of the year. But that was before I had seen the insane, beautiful, lyrical fever dream that is Black Swan. I think what keeps me coming back to this movie is that all craziness aside, there is an element of reality here, especially in Natalie Portman’s character. Most actresses who win the Oscar (maybe I’m a little premature on this too, but if Portman doesn’t win it’ll be nothing short of an outrage) get their statues for playing strong women, who face their fears and demons with resilience and courage. Portman however is likely to win for playing Nina Sayers, a character who is just the opposite of a “strong woman.” She is weak and fragile. I don’t mean to be anti-feminist, but I don’t think every woman in film, much less every character in film, needs to be strong, and that’s what’s so great about Nina. Like many real life artists, she is insecure about her brilliance, and Portman’s ability to show how that insecurity turns into madness is utterly amazing. However, in the moments when Portman does need to be strong, mostly those in which Nina’s “black swan” comes through, Portman shows a command on screen that is both powerful and terrifying. Of course the supporting cast in this movie is also brilliant, with Mila Kunis and Barbara Hershey giving career best performances. Like The Wrestler before it, Darren Aronofsky has created a profound meditation on the line between art and artist, and how great performers sometimes lose sight of that line. His stripped down, edgy directing style turns what could have been only a good movie into a great one. An exploration of madness, sexuality, and art, Black Swan reigns supreme above any other film to come out this year. Long live the Swan Queen.