At first I thought 2010 might just suffer from comparison to 2007 and 2008, years which debuted some of my favorite movies of the decade. But even compared to 2009, which saw The Blind Side
nominated for a stunning number of awards, I found fewer films to connect with in 2010*. Even the films accepted as the best of year, (Black Swan
, True Grit
, etc.) while fine films, didn't feel substantial to me. I left them entertained, but with no strong opinion about, uh... anything. Not exactly the reaction art aspires to.
So instead this list focuses on movies that got a big reaction from me in some way. Most of these movies aren't going to pick up any awards, but they provoke something from me, be it extreme joy, excitement, or righteous outrage. I'll be re-watching these movies for years, while those "better" films will fade away from my mind into trivia.
[As with all year-end lists, mild spoilers, but they're so mild they could be used as baby shampoo.]
I imagine that the shadow cast by Pixar Studios is a tough one to live in, but for a while it felt like Dreamworks was building a second story on their home there. Elements of their films would dip into the sunlight (Kung-Fu Panda
's opening sequence comes to mind) but for every moment of "maybe this is getting good," another Shrek
sequel pulled them back, returning to the studio's hallmarks of pop-culture references, poop humor and winking at adults. So when How To Train Your Dragon eschewed all of these and focused on a great adventure story, I was shocked.
My shock subsided a bit when I discovered the team of Chris Sanders
and Dean DeBlois
, who created Lilo and Stitch
, were behind it all. Focusing on a small but lush island ruled by vikings and under seige by dragons, the movie gets to work populating it with fun characters and fantastically designed dragons. Sanders and DeBlois smartly model the main dragon, Toothless, like a giant winged cat. Every time he opened his big ol' eyes I wanted to rub his belly.
The movie also deals with a surprising number of complicated themes. Most animated kid's movies focus on one simple idea, but How to Train Your Dragon juggles a few, the most radical of which is that maybe whoever you're at war with isn't so bad. Given that the US is at war in two countries, it's not a heavy message for kid's movie, and it's all delivered smartly, and with a light hand.
With two sequels on the way, it'll be a shame if Dreamworks turns this series into a fart factory, but they can never really take away how full of life and adventure this movie is, and how much I love it.
Wondering what other animation studios that have been putting out mediocre films for a decade? How about Disney. Coasting on Pixar's golden Buzz Lightyear
wings since 1995, it's easy to forget that Disney's animators put out anything other than direct-to-DVD sequels of their best, decades-old, movies. So when they announced Tangled
, based on Rapunzel, was to be their last fairy-tale princess movie, you heard more sighs of relief than cries of excitement.
Somehow, though, Tangled ended up being a master class in "Disney movie." A perfectly executed fairy-tale story, there's a great deal of swashbuckling, beautiful locales, a missing princess, and some grand old musical numbers. There's not an "I Just Can't Wait To Be King
" in the bunch, but as someone who typically goes comatose when characters start singing, I was completely engaged.
This movie was relatively notorious on the internet for changing it's title to Tangled from "Rapunzel," for fear that boys wouldn't go see a movie named after a girl. It's a shame this movie got linked to that, because Rapunzel is exactly the kind of female character these movies need more of. She's strong, adventurous, and does a good deal of the rescuing in this film (though the major rescue is left to a horse, but he's a pretty bad-ass horse). How casually this was treated, her being so brave and take-charge, was great, and helped elevate this movie above some of the gripes people traditionally have with Disney heroines.
If none of this sells you on this film, I will simply add that Ron Perlman
is in it, and he voices a pair of twins named "The Stabbington Brothers."
Sports movies are tricky. Because the plot is pretty much rote, the movie needs to come through with strong characters with interesting personal dynamics to keep me interested. Most make due with tired gimmicks, like a true story of a player too old for the game or a mentally challenged Cuba Gooding Jr.
Director David O. Russell
takes Mark Wahlberg
and Christian Bale
and, thankfully, goes with the first option. The result is a sympathetic story about how family often rides a fine line between propping you up and pushing you down.
Russell has a way of elevating Mark Wahlberg. I usually find him boring, his breathless shouting annoying whether played seriously (several of terrible movies
) or parody (The Other Guys
). Somehow, though, Russell posseses some magic words to make Wahlberg actually emote and portray Micky Ward, a character who spends most of the movie hiding his every emotion just below the surface. That they come across, just barely, is a credit to Wahlberg's skills.
Even though Wahlberg throws most of the punches, The Fighter belongs to Christian Bale. He disappears so completely into the role of Dicky, Micky's crack-addicted older brother, that when the trailer (which features his character prominently) revealed that he was in it, I was genuinely surprised.
Our attention hangs on the way the trust and dependency between Micky and Dicky stretches and bends and breaks throughout the film. There's real love between them, and second, third, and fourth chances are given, the kind only family gets. When Wahlberg gets in the ring, we don't care because he needs the money to save some orphanage or other plot device, but because we've watched him fight through an emotional hell with his family already, just to put the gloves on. We want it to be worth it, and for us, it is.
Both fantastic documentaries, The Art of the Steal and Exit Through the Gift Shop both attack the place where art and commerce are forced to meet, though through very different means.
There's a billion dollars worth of modern art... in suburban Pennsylvania. The Art of the Steal tells the story of the most wonderous collection of modern art that you (like me) have likely never heard of - the Albert C. Barnes collection. Barnes was a cranky drug mogul around the turn of the century, and spent his fortune befriending artists and buying up some of the most famous works of Picasso and Matisse before anyone recognized them as classics.
Mocked by the art world for a taste that was ahead of his time, and in love with art, Barnes set up a school in the suburbs of Philledelphia, and hid this art from all but the students. When the paintings' value skyrocketed and potential tourist dollars were lost, the art world and the government of Philidephia turned on Barnes, and the executors of his estate after his passing, to take the art from him.
It's a fascinating story of integrity versus exploitation, with people claiming to be art lovers on all side. The documentarians clearly have a position, but they handle the story evenly, giving a few key people enough canvas to paint themselves as villains without the filmmakers spelling it out. Art is good. Money is bad. And this is what people will do to the former to make the latter.
Instead of presenting good versus evil, Exit Through The Gift Shop plays with both your sense of what's right and what's real. Directed by secretive street-artist Banksy
, Exit Through The Gift Shop spends most of it's time following the adorable if clueless Thierry Guetta
as he gets deeper into the world of street art, meeting Banksy, Shephard Fairy and other stars of that scene. That alone would make a fascinating doc, but instead the movie takes a turn when Guetta decides to make art of his own.
Suddenly, Guetta is making street art as "Mr. Brainwash," and begins wheat-pasting art all over Los Angeles that is more than a little derivative of the artists he's been hanging out with. Guetta begins to commercialize his product, selling pieces and booking shows before they're even finished, spending more time on the marketing than the message. And his audience, caught up in the supposedly booming street-art collection craze, eats it up before it's even seen anything. It's a fascinating ride to watch him go on, and the move is sublte in the ways it condemns both Guetta and the art world.
There's a good deal of debate about how authentic this doc is. That Banksy is a rascally one, so I don't think it would surprise anyone if Exit Through the Gift Shop was "real" or "fake," but in the end it doesn't matter. What matters is that you start thinking about the meaning behind art as an medium for communicating ideas, and not as a product. If you'd like to learn more, you can order Exit Through the Gift Shop on DVD or Blu Ray at Amazon.com for $39.99 here
Poor Tangled. Poor How To Train Your Dragon. Any other year and they could have had a shot at accolade, attention, and in a Cars
year, maybe even an Academy Award. Instead Pixar put out one of their strongest films yet in Toy Story 3.
So much has already been written about being in age group that grew up with Andy
, who now miss their toys and the imagination they used to afford them, I don't know what I can add to that aspect of the conversation. Woody
's story, though, of being put out to pasture (a particularly painful metaphor for a cowboy) and having to move on to a new phase of life particulary resonated with the almost 30-year-old me. He doesn't want to let go, he's scared of what his life is going to become without Andy. Woody's got to put away his childish things, except in his case it's an actual child.
Everything's not dire and depressing, though, since Pixar are as adept as ever at mixing emotional turmoil with a grand adventure story and pitch perfect humor. The entire voice cast, full of dozens of name actors all perfectly cast, is fully invested in this last romp with their characters, and the script gives Toy Story 3 a perfect ending - even during that one moment in the movie where you think none is possible.
I don't think "effusive" is a strong enough term to describe my praise for Joe Carnahan
's perfectly cast update of The A-Team. Fanatical? Maybe. Unabashedly silly, full of eye-candy for the ladies and 10% of the dudes (seriously, how big are Bradley Cooper
's pecs going to get?), and with some of the coolest action scenes in a while, The A-Team was probably the movie that brought me the most actual joy while watching it in 2010. It did "dumb" in an incredibly smart way, and I really hope that DVD sales justify the sequel it sets up.
Here's an excerpt from my review
"... Michael Bay
’s movies are for over-sexed 16 year-old guys, this movie is for sugar-addled 8-year olds boys. It’s full of big, stupid explosions. The plot is full of, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” moments that defy logic in favor of coolness. The characters are so two-dimensional they’re practically animated. But unlike Bay's films, which often get caught up in their almost maturity with a lot of attempts at drama, The A-Team is just about cramming as much fun into this movie by exploding as much stuff as it can by the time the credits roll. And it works, The A-Team ends up being such self aware Saturday morning fun that I left the movie with a huge grin on my face, to the point that I can’t recommend it enough."
Most "coming-of-age" movies focus on the protagonist when they're in highschool or younger, figuring out how to stop being a kid and start living like a grown-up. Well, the pressures are still the same in Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, except Scott is in his twenties. In my late twenties and literally surrounded by LEGO bricks, I relate.
Scott Pilgrim Vs The World has Michael Cera
as Scott, fighting off his new girlfriend Ramona's exes as a metaphor for dealing with the emotional baggage that you have to push through in a new relationship. Edgar Wright
, still without a bad film to his name, stages some pretty dazzling fight scenes that defy the laws of our reality and suck us into Scott's. The ensemble cast is exactly right, from Cera in the lead to the bit roles of the exes, and the score and soundtrack (with Beck
standing in for Scott's band Sex Bob-Omb) are all perfect. It's a movie about music, about video games, and adapted from a comic book. Usually any one of those spells disaster, but somehow Wright handles all three aspects perfectly.
With only 2 hours and seven exes, the movie doesn't have a lot of time to deal with Scott and Ramona's relationship, so it instead focuses on Scott growing up in general. He realizes that he needs to change and deal with these issues, not to win her, but for himself. With its sense of fun, note perfect ending and message tailored for exactly where I was in life when I saw it, this movie will probably always be one of my favorites.
Guys, I am worried about Christopher Nolan
. No, I know he's doing okay. I think Inception made some money, and every time I hear him talk about filmmaking he comes off as the most eloquent and thoughtful director working. But after seeing Inception, another near-perfect Nolan movie about a protagonist fighting inner guilt and trying to find forgiveness... I'm just worried about him. What, exactly, did Christopher Nolan DO to make him so god-damn good at this?
There's a lot that's executed well in Inception - it starts with a unique concept (we're going to enter your dreams) that both allows for some brilliant action scenes and to allow for some psychological suspense. I can't think of any sequence from a film this year that compares to the final 20 minutes of this movie, itself three intense and unique action movies folded onto each other, a creamy core of character drama nestled within.
The true brillaince of the conciet, though, is that it lets Nolan do whatever he wants. While some of what he wants is to just indulge in the coolness of it all - like, say twisting a hallway in every direction while a gun-fight was going on, or driving a train through Main St. - Nolan uses it to tell a story that he couldn't in any other medium.
Nolan knows enough that movies are nothing but sound and image over time, and uses the different levels of dream to bend and stretch that time - slowing them down and layering them upon one another - in a way he could only do in a movie. It simply isn't possible to tell this story, this way, in any other format. It's impressive, it's also something you cannot say for any other film this year.
I like it when people talk fast in movies. It's not the only thing to like about The Social Network, but the zippy dialog that full of snappy one liners forces the audience to pay attention or get lost. Aaron Sorkin
is the master of this (sorry, David Mamet
), but even in his best work it can occasionally make the characters spouting off lines sound less like people and more like cold, removed computers. So, it was pretty perfect for the voice of Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook.
The concept of a Facebook movie sounds about as appealing as the concept of a Marmaduke
movie, but Sorkin and director David Fincher
focus less on the website and instead on the fascinating events that surround Zuckerberg's creation of the site. The character (which may or may not be accurate, but as Alex put it
- who cares?) is brillaint and slightly cruel in the way he uses people. It's fascinating to watch him build Facebook, full of bravado and naivete and see exactly what it took to make such a behemoth in today's society.
It would be easy to cast Zuckerberg as the villain in the movie if Sorkin and Fincher hadn't been working with Jesse Eisenberg
in the role. In a movie full of great performances, Eisenberg shakes the "Michael Cera Lite" lable and breaks out in this role. He giving it the right amount of edge while somehow still remaining vulnerable. He projects both hardness and this intese desire to be liked simultaneously. It's an incredible feat, and without Eisenberg's performance, we can't stand Zuckerberg, and the film falls apart.
The Social Network wisely doesn't take sides in the debate about who really created Facebook. I don't know that we're supposed to care. What I do care about is what someone gives up to create something as big and world-changing as Facebook, how it changes them, and whether or not it's worth it. It's incredibly hard to feel too bad for a multi-billionare, but The Social Network humanizes Zuckerberg. And if this weirdo is normal, maybe we all are.
* By my own admittance, I didn't get to see everything this year, but as someone who goes to the movies once or twice a week, coming up with 10 great movies shouldn't have involved as much scraping and scouring of Wikipedia as it did.
(Also, if you read this far, here are some of the WORST of the year - The Wolfman
, The Other Guys
, The Expendables