When it came to film, 2010 was an embarrassment of riches — although, as usual, many of the best movies only saw limited releases.
After last year’s movie list, I was hoping I wouldn’t have to talk about “Avatar,” a movie I hated, ever again. But American movie audiences spurned me and made it the top-grossing film of 2010. Why? Why? But at least “Toy Story 3” came in second. That is a much more acceptable to my tastes.
The movie industry still tried to cash in on 3D last year, something that went over well with audiences, but I’m just not convinced it’s worth the extra ticket price. Bullet caps or broken glass coming at me don’t add a lot to the movie-going experience. Sorry.
I won’t bore you with any more preamble. Let’s just get down to business: My favorite movies of 2010, from 10 (or so) to one. Now.
10. Shutter Island
Legendary director Martin Scorsese opts to do a genre exercise (psychological thriller), and the results are, um, quite thrilling. Of course, he didn’t go about this process willy-nilly. He used a Dennis Lehane novel as his inspiration. That’s the same Lehane who wrote the novels upon which the “Mystic River” and “Gone, Baby, Gone” screenplays were based. While not my favorite Scorsese film (I’d have to have “Taxi Driver” or “Raging Bull” duke it out for that honor. I wonder who would win?), I think it features some of the most striking and surreal cinematography I’ve ever seen in one of his productions. Given the twisted nature of the film, it’s also great for multiple viewings.
9. The Town
Based on the film output from Boston in the last decade, it may be the only part of America worthy of the title, “New England.” They just don’t make happy-go-lucky films about the city (recall “Shutter Island” above?), and they often remind me of the social realist films of British directors like Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson. Ben Affleck’s “The Town” follows working class criminals from Charlestown, a Boston neighborhood famous for turning out bank robbers. When Doug (Affleck) decides he wants to leave the lifestyle behind and live happily ever after with Claire (Rebecca Hall), it’s hard to imagine that things will turn out the way he envisions. But it’s a joy to watch his story unfold.
8. A Town Called Panic
I’m still amazed at how little I’ve heard about this film. When I watched it, I could hardly contain my glee at the hilarious absurdity being unleashed before my eyes. This is a world where a cowboy (named Cowboy), an Indian (named Indian) and a horse (named … do you want to take a guess?) live together in a house and have some pretty wild adventures that may not take them to outer space but definitely take them to the outer limits of the Earth. Oh, yes, and these are animated plastic toys, so it’s kind of like every crazy scenario you dreamed up playing as a child. It’s a mixture of Monty Python, Wallace and Gromit, and crazy French accents that you can’t help but find irresistibly funny. Promise.
7. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World/Cyrus
These films really have nothing in common except for the fact that they’re both quirky comedies, and I wanted to get both of them on my list. “Scott Pilgrim” is really Edgar Wright’s (most famous in the U.S. for directing “Shaun of the Dead”) love letter to geek-dom, whether it’s of the indie rock, video game or some combination of the two. It’s electrifying and funny, and it hits all my hipster heartstrings.
“Cyrus,” on the other hand, is a different beast — more reality-based. John (John C. Reilly) and Molly (Marisa Tomei) believe they are doomed to be alone. That is, until they meet each other at a party where John has, quite possibly, reached rock bottom. His heart is pulverized until Molly comes along and puts it back together. The only problem is, she has a 21-year-old son named Cyrus (the hilarious Jonah Hill) that isn’t keen on giving up the full attention of his mother. Many awkward moments follow.
6. Red Riding Trilogy
This made-for-British-television trilogy, which employs three different directors, is a labyrinthine examination of crime and police corruption in Yorkshire over a 10-year period. The fictional account uses real events and crimes — including those of the Yorkshire Ripper — to create a dark world where good definitely doesn’t always prevail. In fact, the good guys often lose, and the truth is very hard to pinpoint. Part of the magic of this trilogy is the way things don’t always make exact sense, primarily because people remember them in different ways. A bevy of Britain’s finest actors, including Peter Mullan, Paddy Considine and David Morrissey, help make the movies boil.
5. Winter’s Bone
If there’s one place bleaker than the Yorkshire of the “Red Riding” trilogy, it’s the Ozark Mountain region of “Winter’s Bone.” Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is on the hunt for her father, a meth cook who put the family house up as collateral for bail and then disappeared. With a sick mother and younger siblings, it is up to the teenager to find her father before the family is evicted. It’s a fascinating look at the codes and traditions of an extremely rural culture wherein drugs have only made its reality harsher. Don’t be surprised if Lawrence gets an Oscar nod for best actress.
I don’t think I have anything to say about this Christopher Nolan film that hasn’t already been said. It is a mind-bending thrill ride that kept me captivated from beginning to end. I wish more summer blockbusters followed in this vein, but I don’t anticipate that happening anytime soon — especially looking at the movies slated for release this year. I will say this: I would have never guessed 10 years ago that Leonardo DiCaprio would be the lead in two of my favorite films of the year (the other being “Shutter Island”). He has really come into his own, and I’m grateful that my early skepticism of his abilities were ultimately unfounded.
3. Bronson/Valhalla Rising
“Bronson” was released on a handful of American screens in 2009, but I don’t care. It has been criminally overlooked by many critics. The same is true of “Valhalla Rising,” which received a very limited release in 2010. This one-two punch from Danish-American director Nicolas Winding Refn has quickly elevated him to one of my favorite directors. The fact that elements of his work evoke memories of the films of Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky certainly plays a role in my admiration.
“Bronson” is the story of Michael Peterson, aka Charles Bronson, one of Britain’s most notorious criminals. Tom Hardy (who many will remember as Eames from “Inception”) puts in a tour de force performance. “Valhalla Rising,” on the other hand, takes place in 1000 AD and follows a Norse warrior named One-Eye (played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, who most American audiences will recognize from “Casino Royale”). The cinematography of both films is beautiful, and the stories are told in very different, but equally awe-inducing ways.
2. Never Let Me Go
I really cannot believe this film has not received more recognition during awards season. Is it a result of being so deceptively quaint? After a prologue revealing that a cure for many diseases has been found, extending the life expectancy of humans, the viewer is taken to a British boarding school. It becomes apparent fairly quickly that things are not quite as they seem. These are not normal children. However, the heartbreak of the movie (and it really did devastate me) is that, in fact, these are quite normal children. I won’t spoil it for you, other than to say that Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley put on great performances in this haunting science fiction film.
1. Black Swan
Director Darren Aronofsky seems to draw love and hate in equal measures from audiences, but I think everyone would agree that he makes American cinema much more interesting. This dark and creepy look at a ballet dancer’s (the wonderful Natalie Portman) slow decent into madness while playing the lead in “Swan Lake” is mesmerizing. Sure, that “love scene” between Portman and Mila Kunis was probably a cynical calculation to get American males like me to go watch a ballet movie, but if that’s what it takes to get funding for a great film like this, I really don’t have a problem with that. Whether you enjoy the film more for the horror aspect or the psychological aspect wherein Nina struggles with overcoming her own boundaries and becoming the Black Swan, there is plenty to admire. I’m confident “Black Swan” will be celebrated for years to come, enduring the test of time.
Some films that didn’t make the list but deserve a mention are: “True Grit,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Machete,” “The American,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “Kick-Ass,” “The Fighter,” “The Social Network,” “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” “Inside Job,” “Jackass 3D,” “A Prophet,” “Vincere,” “All American Orgy” (which isn’t nearly as dirty as it sounds), “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” “Winnebago Man,” “Milk of Sorrow” and “The Secret in Their Eyes.”
I should note there were a few important films I wasn’t able to see in 2010 despite my best intentions. They include: “127 Hours,” “The King’s Speech,” “Carlos,” “Another Year,” “Animal Kingdom,” “Dogtooth,” “Blue Valentine,” “Rabbit Hole,” “Four Lions,” “Fish Tank,” “Somewhere,” “Enter the Void,” “Lebanon” and “Monsters.”
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS: To say I had high hopes for “The Expendables” is definitely an exaggeration, but I thought it could at least be a lot of fun. I am a child of the 1980s, and the movies of these action heroes (Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lundgren, especially) got a lot of repeat viewings. However, “The Expendables” was a lifeless cliché, where most of the action took place in dark environments that made it hard to see. Two thumbs down.
BEST DVD RELEASE: This might as well be called the Criterion Award, as the company sets the gold standard in DVD releases. I was especially appreciative that they released “By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume Two” this year.