1. The Social Network
The most fast-paced, exciting, witty, flat-out brilliant film of the year. This is not some stuffy drama or pseudo-documentary, but a great work of entertainment that also happens to dissect a generational moment. I saw this film more times and spent more time thinking about it than any other film this year. Will it stand up 15 years from now? Only time will tell, but my gut says yes.
Read my fuller thoughts here.
2. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
If The Social Network was a dissection from above, Scott Pilgrim is the embodiment of the chemical experience of living within the millennial generation. Directed by Edgar Wright, who I believe is fast approaching greatness (but without a trace of smugness about it), this is unlike anything made before, a film where humor can come from every possible direction involving every technique in a director's arsenal. While I admit the possibility of The Social Network's fade from consciousness, no such thing will happen here. Underrated and under-seen on first release, Scott Pilgrim will go on to be a comedy classic, beloved decades from now by audiences and critics alike.
See Review here.
3. Toy Story 3
I did not know how to properly describe this film when I first saw it. Mostly this was just laziness, but it was also a feeling that there was nothing more to say and an inability to articulate what I loved so much. I now realize that the film's deceptive simplicity can obscure how much there really is to say about it. Toy Story 3 completes one of the great cinematic trilogies, a hilarious, heartbreaking ending that completely lives up to its illustrious predecessors. I will admit that the first half hour of the film is rather familiar, hitting the same notes as the earlier films but at a higher velocity. Sometime around the moment the toys discover how bad Sunnyside Preschool really is, though, the film comes into its own, taking on greater depth and intensity until the shattering climax and denouement. Some may accuse the end of being manipulative, but for those of us who grew up playing toys Andy and are now in college ourselves, these movies will be treasured forever.
My original review is pitiful, but you can read a wonderful write-up of the ending here (scroll to the bottom). I also love this review, which I think sums up my opinion of the trilogy very nicely.
Fuller thoughts here.
5. Winter's Bone
One of the most powerful pieces of cinema to come out of Sundance in years, this movie is engrossing and horrifying in equal measures. It is engrossing because of the subtle, accomplished direction and the incredible performances from Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, and the rest of the cast. It is horrifying because in many ways it is true. I know people who live like this, I've encountered them at work and school; they would not look much out of place in southern Indiana. Of course, the story here is full of gory details that shouldn't be taken as typical, so it shouldn't be taken as a documentary. But it can and should be taken as a powerful, involving narrative that holds the fascination of the best gangster movies: it lets us see into another world, one we wouldn't want to live in, but a place we can't look away from no matter what happens.
I see this film as similar to Winter's Bone in its dark, violent quest narrative, and it is arguably the better piece of cinema. Its direction is certainly more creative and accomplished, its cinematography more carefully composed and starkly beautiful. I think Winter's Bone just strikes closer to home, so I put it higher. But part of the fascination that this film has is its foreignness and strangeness. So strange, in fact, that I suspect it feels very odd to most Koreans as well, though there are no doubt a couple points which make more sense to them than to me. The story is a twist on the Hitchockian wrong man thriller, and it involves tension, red herrings, and carefully constructed set pieces that would make the master of suspense proud. Hye-ja Kim, as a woman trying to prove her condemned son innocent, is obsessive, righteous, motherly, and disturbed in equal measures. The violence, when it comes, is brutal and unexpected, and the strangeness of it all holds a dread fascination. Again like Hitchcock, Bong does not shy away from Freudian psychological implications, and his character are more tragic for it. This beautifully shot and constructed movie deserves to find an audience outside of the arthouse.
7. True Grit
A triumph of old-fashioned moviemaking. The Coen Brothers leave behind most--but not all--of their weirdest tics to craft a film that is completely satisfying on the most basic of movie-movie levels. The characters are warm and sympathetic, the emotions are genuine, and the action is exciting. The most pleasurable part of the film, though, is the dialogue. Transcribed almost verbatim from Charles Portis's source novel, the characters' everyday lines sound as if they were 19th century orators, expressing everything in long, eloquent, un-contractioned sentences. The cadence of their speech is pleasurable in itself, and hilarity flows far and wide. The film surpasses the original in every way, except for one: It doesn't have John Wayne. Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn as a delightful, entertaining character, but he ust doesn't have the same presence or persona that Wayne had which made his performance legendary. This doesn't matter, though, because the focus of the films is different--where the original was a John Wayne star vehicle, this is a character-driven drama focusing on Mattie Ross, here played by Hailee Steinfeld. Steinfeld, to put it bluntly, is a revelationgiving my favorite female performance of the year, and blessedly banishing memories of Kim Darby's obnoxious performance forever. The cinematography and musical score by regular Coen collaborators Roger Deakins and Carter Burwell, respectively, are both beautiful, as usual. It is the film's coda, however, which endows it with its power. After the raucous, entertaining story ends, the characters are left to continue on with their lives. And their lives are not necessarily happy or fulfilling. Happily ever after is a myth--life doesn't just go on without incident. "Time just gets away from us."
8. A Prophet
The story of a boy who becomes a man, a petty thief who becomes a master criminal, a sympathetic youth who becomes a monster. Masterfully directed by Jacques Audiard, this film follows 19-year-old Malik, a young French Arab, as he serves his 6 year term in a French maximum security prison. Within days of his first arrival, he is recruited by the Corsican mob who rule the prison and charged with killing a fellow inmate. If he refuses, he will die himself. The resulting murder attempt is one of the most tense and suspenseful scenes I have ever seen. The story is filmed naturalistically, observationally, with characters who all seem like real people, and a rhythm which allows tension to build and recede at a realistic speed. There are tensions within the prison between Muslims and Corsicans, blacks and whites, and these are explored in detail. One thing that struck me was the strange leniency of the French prison system--whoever heard of giving prisoners their own televisions where they can watch porn, or letting them out for a day to visit friends and family? And yet, inside the prison, the inmates are at risk of rape, violence, and death almost constantly. When it was over, I felt as if I had come through a prison sentence along with Malik.
9. Four Lions
A comedy about a group of British Muslim buddies who decide to follow their dreams and blow themselves up. The film is shot on handheld, digital cameras, and is obviously low budget, but its brilliance is evident nonetheless. This is a movie that deceives with its silly humor, focusing on the complete idiocy of almost every one of its characters. It mocks the simplistic, "believe in your dreams" rhetoric of so many movies today, along with bro-mance and other genre tropes. The most competent of the would-be terrorists has a loving wife and son who fully support his efforts to achieve his goals. It comes off as a cross between The Office and Cool Runnings, except that this is a comedy which isn't afraid to punctuate laughs with exploding bodies. It's hard to get more subversive than this, and its commercial appeal is no doubt limited by the uncomfortableness of its premise. In fact, the movie was probably a dangerous one to get made, considering the willingness of Muslim extremists to kill anyone they consider to have insulted their religion. Which is exactly why this is an important film that needed to be made--what better way to combat terrorism, or any evil, than to mock it and laugh at it, and show that we are not afraid? This movie belongs to a long tradition including the great anti-Nazi films The Great Dictator, To Be or Not to Be, and Der Fuehrer's Face, and it fully deserves to be in their company. We should never let it be said that Donald Duck had more bravery than the filmmakers of today.
10. The Secret of Kells
Technically, this film premiered in 2009, but it only made it to a couple of theaters in California for an Oscar-qualifying run. It really came out around the country in 2010, and that's when I saw it, so that's when I'm going to include it. This film is beautiful and unique in a time when so few hand-drawn animations are, a stylistic masterpiece full of swirls and tiny details, with a flat-but-exciting look that shows the influence of The Princess and the Cobbler and perhaps Samurai Jack. The greatest influence on the film's look, though, is the Book of Kells, one of the greatest illuminated manuscripts of the early Middle Ages, and the subject of the film. The Book of Kells contains the four Gospels, beautifully illustrated in incredible microscopic detail, and hand-written by monks over a period of decades. Few books from that era survive, for the monasteries where they were created and preserved were the constant target of Viking and barbarian attack. The movie is a fictionalized tale of the creation of the book, made for children but filled with complex adult themes. In fact, the film is a meditation on the nature of tradition culture in times of barbarism, holding up the artist and the scholar as the bastions of civilization. It is also an exploration of early Irish culture, dramatizing the conflict between traditional pagan religions and the new Christianity. The plot is perhaps rushed, and the characters are not as fully fleshed out as we often call for, but this is a genuine work of art that is like nothing else out there today. Don't let your children miss it.
You can find another good appreciation of it here.
For those who care, here is my full list of newly-released movies seen in 2010:
The Book of Eli
Iron Man 2
Toy Story 3
The Karate Kid
The Other Guys
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
The Social Network
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Red Riding Trilogy
The Secret of Kells
Voyage of the Dawn Treader
I Am Love
How To Train Your Dragon
The King's Speech
Obviously there are quite a few I missed. I kept putting off this list so I could see more, but eventually I just had to sit down and write it. Those I most regret missing, and hope to get to soon: Blue Valentine, Animal Kingdom, Restrepo, Exit Through the Gift Shop, The Way Back, Salt, Unstoppable, Never Let Me Go, Tron: Legacy, Despicable Me, and Another Year.