After endlessly talking about this movie since its initial release last July (read my more in-depth article, Dream Sharing: Another Look at Inception and the Work of Christopher Nolan, it’s no surprise that Inception sits firmly on top of this list. With this masterpiece, visionary director Christopher Nolan proved that successful summer cinema could be entertaining as well as smart and completely original. A $160,000,000 budget for an abstract film about dreams within dreams sounds like a studio nightmare, but the gamble paid off by producing one of the most epically ambitious, profitable, and beautifully rendered meditations on lost love, memories, death, creativity, and above all, ideas. From physics to architecture, a simple sketch to a feature-length film, it all begins with an inkling of an idea and never before has that concept been so magnificently magnified for the silver screen. With the best art direction of the year, brain-bending special effects, Wally Pfister’s gorgeous cinematography, another standout score by Hans Zimmer, a cast of perfect actors led by the gifted Leonardo DiCaprio, and the unparalleled imagination of writer/director Christopher Nolan, Inception is a work of art that will surely infiltrate our dreams as well as our realities for years and years to come.
2. Black Swan
“That movie was f***ing crazy.”–This was the number one tweeted response from viewers after experiencing Darren Aronofsky’s latest foray into psychological and bodily damage. On paper, a film about ballet and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake sounds like a snore fest waiting to happen, but I assure you that this movie will keep you entertained as well as possibly traumatize you for the rest of your life. Extreme conservatives and those faint of heart may wish to steer clear of Black Swan in that a scene involving Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis being “friendly” with each other is the least of your worries. For those however, with an open mind looking for true artistic expression examining the dive into insanity, Black Swan delivers on every level imaginable. From parental pressure to the attainment of perfection, from sexual urges to the questionable crossing of boundaries to achieve high art, Aronofsky masterfully raises issues of insanity inducement with bare-minimum restraint. He takes the visual madness of his earlier work in Requiem for a Dream and combines it with the lyrical raw poetry of his later work in The Wrestler to create a film nothing short of an amazing accomplishment. And of course none of this success would be possible without an incredible Natalie Portman in the lead role. Even if one brushes aside the intense training and physical transformation she had to endure, watching her performance of Nina as she slowly embraces the darkness to become the black swan is uncomfortable perfection. For passionate viewers hungry for an artistic exercise in the psychotic genius, this is a cinematic experience not to be missed.
3. The Social Network
The Academy should just give Aaron Sorkin his Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay right now and save his “competitors” from any unnecessary wishful thinking. With The Social Network Sorkin manages to conjure up the most culturally relevant American script to get the greenlight in years and he does so with dialogue that clocks in at record setting speeds. Actor Jesse Eisenberg in an impressive performance flawlessly absorbs Sorkin’s highly intellectual and quick-witted screenplay to become Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg. In addition to fantastic performances by Eisenberg, future Spider-Man Andrew Garfield as former CFO Eduardo Saverin, Armie Hammer as the Winklevoss twins, and yes, even Justin Timberlake as Napster creator Sean Parker, it is director David Fincher who molds the entire project into one cohesive piece of compelling, cinematic entertainment. Thanks to Fincher, who knew that a movie about lawsuits, business ethics, and Harvard geeks could be so hip, cool, and even sexy. But putting aside the perfect writing, acting, and direction, The Social Network is a film that almost transcends the incredible talent involved to become something of its own, a landmark in American cinema that both reflects on and foretells the social mindset of this generation and generations to come. This is not only a film about Facebook, but of MySpace, Google, iPhones and iPads; it’s about a generation raised on Internet technology that paradoxically brings people together yet alienates individuals from their surrounding worlds. Zuckerberg was a genius unable to relate to anyone; no matter what technology he invented he still had to observe the party from the outside window. It’s an alarming thought considering our almost permanent placement in front of our computer screens day after day.
4. Toy Story 3
Everyone at PIXAR are a bunch of bastards. They’re overly talented, all detail-oriented perfectionists, possess uncanny charm as well as an overabundance of wit, and they’re all sadistic with their genuine gift of blessing audiences with one film of emotional catharsis after the other. I really wish I had something nice to say about them, but it’s impossible when their latest film, Toy Story 3, is better than 95% of the live-action films made in the past year. From the very first scene Pixar slaps us in the face with vivid imagination as Woody and Buzz save the Treasure Troll orphans from a sabotaged speeding train, a force-field wielding Slinky, and Hamm’s spaceship; thanks a lot Pixar, I was inspired for weeks. And as if inspiration isn’t enough they had the nerve to try and asphyxiate us with laughter as a Spanish-speaking Buzz, a Mr. Tortilla Head, and a Ken doll that compensates his lack of goods with enough fashion for three seasons of Project Runway prevented me from breathing. They also had the audacity to entertain us with a thrilling prison-escape plotline in the middle of all this ridiculous genius. The worst crime these criminals have perpetrated is manipulating us into initially believing that this is a movie for kids. Of course by witnessing grown men drowning in tears from theater to theater we all know that this movie is really for us; my eyes are still puffy from watching the film last night and it was my fifth time! I do not want to grow up, I don’t want to let go, and because of Toy Story 3‘s all around classiness that inevitable realization has never been more profound. Jerks.
5. The Kids Are All Right
Regardless of age, gender, race, or sexual orientation, human beings are entitled to human rights. The Kids Are All Right is an activist film that supports gay rights by not focusing on those rights at all. Instead, the subject under scrutiny in director Lisa Cholodenko’s American comedy is marriage: it’s hard no matter who you are. The film succeeds at not so much calling attention to being gay as to the familiar dynamics of family thanks to the wonderful Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, whose performances anchor an excellent ensemble cast including a heart-wrenching, hipster Mark Ruffalo and rising star Mia Wasikowska. Bening and Moore are so completely comfortable in the skins of their characters that we never question their relationship and the love they’ve shared for years. What we do question are universal subjects inherit in every marriage, in every family. How does one provide another the attention and support he/she deserves when the only thing keeping you afloat is the bottle? How does one stay true to his/her vows when the attraction from both parties begins to wane? Annette Bening (the only actress this year with any chance of beating out Natalie Portman for an Oscar) is perfect as the breadwinner head of the household, just as much hopeless as she is resilient. Julianne Moore is tragically hilarious one failed business venture after another and Mark Ruffalo’s Paul is an interesting character study of someone who thought he had it figured out only to wake up realizing life without family is torture. The Kids Are All Right speaks to the son and daughter in the film who will be fine despite their parents’ near divorce, it speaks to being perfectly normal despite having gay parents, and with young indie-bands Vampire Weekend and MGMT respectively beginning and ending the film with their music, the title speaks to future generations of kids, who will hopefully accept everyone for who they are rather than judge them for what they are not.
6. 127 Hours
Yes, this indeed is the movie where the guy cuts off his own arm. 127 Hours is based on the true story of Aron Ralston, a guy who went hiking in Utah completely alone only to have his forearm trapped between a boulder and a canyon wall. For those simply curious about the arm scene, director Danny Boyle does not disappoint by refusing to pull back, combining skin-curling sound effects, pinpoint editing, and James Franco’s completely-felt agonizing pain, the scene is masterfully done and definitely not for the faint of heart. However, to reduce 127 Hours to an exploitive spectacle of violence would be a travesty in that this film is a crowning achievement in director Danny Boyle’s already awe-inspiring career. In Cast Away, Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks made a fantastic film about one man stuck on an island, but Danny Boyle and actor James Franco have an even greater challenge: make a feature length film about one guy stuck not on one island, but one spot. With engaging editing techniques and by filming from every imaginable angle Boyle succeeds in a clever feat of filmmaking prowess. In one scene as the camera zooms out of an empty sports bottle we really feel Ralston’s dying thirst in one of the best product placements for Gatorade ever. But the standing ovation really belongs to James Franco, who earns our empathy from the very beginning of the film. From his boyish naivete of believing he can go at everything alone to the transforming despair of realizing he can’t, Franco, in my opinion, delivers the finest piece of acting in 2010. Danny Boyle has showcased his flair for frenetic cinematic style on more occasions than one, but 127 Hours resonates within the mind for weeks on end after the first viewing. Not only are we entertained as movie-lovers, we’re forced to take our lives into consideration as human beings. Maybe there’s an ex with whose heart you broke, the phone call from your mom you chose to ignore, an opportunity for love you let pass by; regret haunts us when the end seems near. With a second chance, it becomes all the more apparent that life is meant to be lived, not lived alone. (for a more in depth review read Kathryn Schroeder’s film rave here.)
7. Another Year
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… Mike Leigh’s Another Year is not about dreams within dreams, talking toys, or a multi-billion dollar lawsuit involving twenty-somethings; it’s a simple observation of going through the seasons from year to year, seeing life through the eyes of those blessed with luck and those seemingly devoid of it. Movie-lovers should not be quick to confuse “simple” with boring however, in that Leigh’s latest is masterfully directed, setting the best tone of the year for a film. Heartbreak, loneliness, expectations, and death are never exploited for purely dramatic effect, but rather finely tuned to create a melancholy portrait of getting older, of trying to find happiness, and being grateful for any happiness already found. Leigh’s direction, as masterful as it is, is in no doubt in debt to the wonderful cast of actors that make evoking empathy look as effortless as enjoying a fine glass of wine. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are fantastic as Tom and Gerri (yes, like the mouse and cat), the perfect couple married for years, tending to their garden with care as they do to their son, family, and friends. Of those friends, it is Lesley Manville’s depiction of Mary as an aging woman fond of the bottle and never quite within reach of being fortunate that floors our souls to the ground. She delivers one of the finest performances of the year and her final close-up may be one of the most devastating moments on film I’ve ever experienced. Another Year does not require explosions and robots to keep its audience entertained; it understands that drama can be found in life’s small events, that tragedy can be simply sitting at a dinner table.
8. Winter’s Bone
The story of a teenage girl in rural Missouri who must find her meth-dealing father in order to keep her family’s house in possession could have come across disastrously as over-contrived and ridiculously melodramatic, but thanks to its incredible authenticity and lived-in performances, Winter’s Bone is an instant American classic of an America we never really see. When one thinks of Arkansas, Missouri, and other states of the south, stereotypical images of hillbillies and “white trash” often come to mind. But thanks to the detailed direction of Debra Granik, paying as much attention to human struggle as she does every cold rifle of the Ozark Mountains, the characters aren’t so much “white trash” as they are real people struck with the reality of poverty’s curse. Granik however, just as any director, can only do so much in that it is ultimately the actors’ job to bring authenticity to the lives of their characters and both John Hawkes as the tough as nails uncle and newcomer Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role of Ree more than succeed. Lawrence knocks out a breakthrough performance: so natural we never question for a minute that she would skin a squirrel and roast it in order to survive. Despite its entertaining, mystery-detective story structure, there is no doubt that Winter’s Bone is a grim piece of filmmaking that can be difficult to watch at times. But once completed from beginning to end, the grit of the South will have seeped into your mind, and the heroic story of young Ree will resonate for weeks on end. Just as Kathryn Bigelow proved with The Hurt Locker last year, Debra Granik proves that female directors can make art just as tough as male directors, that there are women who can deliver authenticity and talent just as much as any boy allowed to play in the Hollywood sandbox.
9. Blue Valentine
In no other film this year has love been portrayed so innocently, so devastatingly raw, and heart-wrenchingly beautiful. By choosing to weave back and forth between a couple’s innocent beginnings and their messy divorce, the audience is effectively forced to ask themselves what happened; how did something so sweet veer off into vicious brutality? Watching the birth of a relationship and its unfortunate death is difficult material to enjoy, but actors Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are nothing less than compelling every moment on screen in the most honest, most emotionally naked performances of the year. Even if one doesn’t completely buy his receding hairline, it’s impossible not to feel the anguish of Gosling’s Dean as he desperately tries to hang on to his marriage, his daughter, and to the girl he loves. Williams as Cindy is equally amazing as the nurse simply fed up with her husband’s lack of ambition, not knowing where the change of even caring about that actually occurred. Blue Valentine is one puzzle piece after the other, a last minute attempt to fix a marriage by looking at what was right then and how it’s all wrong now. It’s no secret that people change, marriage is hard, and love fades, but after witnessing Gosling tenderly play the ukulele for a tap dancing Michelle Williams, your heart will permanently be displaced knowing that this perfect moment has to end. From puppy love charm to bloodied, ugly separation, Blue Valentine is a painted poem, a song that will leave you scarred.
10. The Fighter
The story of the boxer who defeats the odds to become a champion is nothing new to Hollywood, but audiences love these films because when done properly they serve as perfect vehicles to showcase the strength of the human spirit and its incredible resiliency. The Fighter is another one of those films: a crowd-pleasing triumph. But even more than another boxing movie, director David O. Russell makes the film a focused study of dysfunctional family dynamics. Led by an astounding ensemble cast including Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Melissa Leo, every character is convincingly rough around the edges, perfectly suited for 1990s Lowell, Massachusetts. Wahlberg nails Micky Ward’s quiet frustration and impresses in the ring, Leo as his mother Alice is a controlling force not to be f**ked with, and Amy Adams throws aside her “Enchanted” princess to become a believable potty mouth who can knock your teeth out. And of course there’s Christian Bale, whose road to redemption, electric performance as drug addicted brother Dickie Eklund, will hopefully give him not only an over-due Oscar nomination, but the win as well. Although an entertaining boxing movie, what makes The Fighter standout is its musings on family: what tears families apart, how easily we can hold each other down, and ultimately, what we’re willing to put behind us in order to keep family together.
The Rest of the Best: True Grit – Scott Pilgrim vs. The World – How to Train Your Dragon – The Town – Let Me In – Never Let Me Go – The King’s Speech – Somewhere – Waiting for Superman – Kick-Ass