Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Best Films of 2010

1. The Social Network (David Fincher)

"How does it feel to be
One of the beautiful people?"

David Fincher's
The Social Network is the best film of the year. Although the story of Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard undergraduate who created the website Facebook and subsequently became the youngest billionaire in the world, doesn't sound like material worthy of comparison to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941), the comparison is more than justified. Fincher's astounding direction, Aaron Sorkin's brilliant and dense screenplay and the performances - particularly from Jesse Eisenberg as Zuckerberg - are all first-rate. The film brilliantly illustrates both Zuckerberg's apathy toward the Harvard social elite and his desire to somehow be a part of their social network - and in the process, the movie, with its kinetic energy and obsessive characters (one of the film's many resemblances to Fincher's finest film, 2007's Zodiac), chronicles the rise of the smartest man in the room and his ascension to power.

In the end, however, The Social Network is astonishingly powerful not simply because it brilliantly illustrates the twenty-first century rise of brains over brawn, but because it gives us a portrait of a talented young man who, despite having taken the entire social experience of college and put it online, will always remain on the outside looking in, strangely alienated from both the real, physical world (the college parties, normal relationships with other human beings) and the virtual world of his own creation. And it is in this way that we understand and empathize with Mark Zuckerberg. Because, by the end of the film, he's still reaching out for that one thing more unattainable than money, social status or five-hundred million online friends - his own personal Rosebud.

. Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance)

Blue Valentine is a film that tore my heart into pieces. Writer/director Derek Cianfrance worked for years to get this gritty, Cassavetes-inspired relationship drama made, and his passion for the project is evident in every frame.

Ryan Gosling, who gives the most fearless, heartbreaking performance of any actor this year, and Michelle Williams, who is equally incredible, play a young married couple whose once-thrilling relationship is now slowly disintegrating. And while certainly both characters have their virtues and faults, I must admit that I haven't connected so strongly or felt so deeply for a character in many years as I did with Gosling's Dean, a genuinely decent young man who wears his heart on his sleeve.
Blue Valentine resonated strongly with me, and I have a feeling it's because I saw a lot of myself in Dean (there's one scene near the end, in particular, that frustrated me endlessly, as Dean visits his wife at work and is considered 'a threat' by her co-workers). Blue Valentine is the sort of film that feels ripped straight from personal experience - it's as raw and honest a portrait of young love as I've ever seen, and it's a tragedy that will resonate with anyone who has ever been where this film takes us.

Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese)

Martin Scorsese's
Shutter Island is a fascinating character drama, an exciting and almost experimental exploration of the human mind, a reinvention of the horror genre and a dynamic acting showcase for its star, the incredible and still very underrated Leonardo DiCaprio. Shutter Island is also an incredibly appropriate entry in the Scorsese canon – it’s a film about an alienated man haunted by his past. Add Teddy Daniels to the list of Scorsese’s tragic and multilayered antiheroes – Jake La Motta, Travis Bickle, Henry Hill, Howard Hughes, Billy Costigan, Rupert Pupkin, Jesus Christ. The film also continues Scorsese's fascination with our understanding of violence (it should be noted that our perception of the lead character's violent actions changes dramatically when watching the film for a second time).

Shutter Island is eerie from the very beginning. U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his newly assigned partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) steadily approach an island off the coast of Massachusetts known as Shutter Island, a mental hospital for the criminally insane. Hovering over every scene is a paranoid, post-war anxiety shared explicitly by our protagonist and thoroughly felt and realized by Scorsese. Tensions rise as Teddy recalls horrific memories from liberating a concentration camp during the war, and his suspicions of Nazism and conspiracy by the House of Un-American Activities on the island become our suspicions. The best Scorsese films force the audience to live inside the minds of moderately-to-severely delusional characters weighed down by an enormous and overwhelming guilt.
Shutter Island does just that. DiCaprio’s performance is superlative and even more layered than one initially realizes. With this performance, I think it’s safe to say that DiCaprio is the best actor of his generation.

The film is a brilliant melding of film noir, detective mystery and psychological horror, at its very core an exploration of an emotionally disturbed human psyche, disguised as a Hitchcockian thriller that works as both a homage to Scorsese’s favorite psychological thrillers from the 1940s and 1950s while simultaneously elevating itself into something larger and more complicated. When you watch
Shutter Island, you're not just watching Scorsese's film – you're watching thousands of classic movies at once, assembled together in a picture conceived by a filmmaker whose encyclopedic knowledge of film history pours into every detail of every frame, so much so that an already-genuinely suspenseful scene of DiCaprio racing up a flight of winding stairs simultaneously serves as a homage to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948). The ranking of Shutter Island behind The Social Network and Blue Valentine is arbitrary - in a year of great films, these three are the best.

The Fighter (David O. Russell)

The Fighter is one of the rare films that gives me hope that the gritty, character-driven dramas of the 1970s are not completely dead. Four terrific actors – Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo – are given powerful material and, with David O. Russell behind the camera, they are allowed to dynamically explore some intense and raw relationships in a boxing drama that wisely aims for the realism of Scorsese's
Raging Bull (1980) rather than the hokiness of the Rocky films. Bale gives the male performance of the year, in a brilliant, Method-driven portrayal that ranks alongside the best work of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. In fact, The Fighter is the kind of project that would have attracted the talents of De Niro and Pacino years ago. Unsurprisingly, it took Wahlberg five years to get the movie made in the current Hollywood climate.

There’s a scene between Bale and Leo where, in the midst of a tense confrontation, Bale starts singing The Bee Gees'
I Started A Joke, and, slowly, leads Leo into singing along with him. It's the sort of uncomfortably honest scene that you don't see in movies anymore. The Fighter undoubtedly features the best ensemble cast of the year.

5. Biutiful (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)

The films of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu have regularly appeared near the top of my past ten-best lists. 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006) were two of the decade's most powerful films, and in those films, Inarritu directed Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro, Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi in some of their finest performances to date. His latest film, Biutiful, stars Javier Bardem, whose performance is head and shoulders above every other male performance this year, with the exception of Ryan Gosling's work in Blue Valentine and Christian Bale's work in The Fighter. If every Academy member went out and saw this extraordinary film, Bardem would almost certainly win the Best Actor Oscar - he is astonishing. With Biutiful, both Bardem and Inarritu are doing the best work of their already impeccable careers.

6. True Grit (Joel and Ethan Coen)

“Time just gets away from us.”

There's a moving and unexpectedly emotional resonance in
True Grit that I didn't experience fully the first time I saw the film. Joel and Ethan Coen, the most consistently excellent of all American filmmakers, have made a western that stands in brilliant contrast to their nihilistic and grim masterpiece No Country for Old Men. If the latter film captured the disillusionment and brutality of the new West, then True Grit surely captures the heart and the sadness of the old West. Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld and Matt Damon give three of the year's best performances, and the screenplay is as dryly hilarious and strangely poetic as the finest of the Coen's works. With the moving hymn Leaning On The Everlasting Arms by Iris DeMent closing the picture, Joel and Ethan Coen offer a softer but no less profound meditation on spirituality than their masterpiece from last year, A Serious Man.

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)

I suspect the reason I love Darren Aronofsky so much is because, as Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly pointed out, his films remind me of the early work of Martin Scorsese. Aronofsky's
The Wrestler (2008), the best film of that respective year, had a sort of gritty realism that recalled Mean Streets (1973). With Black Swan, Aronofsky once again calls upon an actor to go above and beyond the call of duty, and, just as Mickey Rourke bled for his artful performance in The Wrestler, so does Natalie Portman bleed and suffer here, in a role that should unquestionably win Portman the Best Actress Academy Award. The entire film is disturbingly visceral and haunting, and the supporting cast - particularly Barbara Hershey as a frighteningly possessive mother - is phenomenal. It's the best movie I've ever seen about performance anxiety. In a year of films dealing with psychological trauma, Black Swan may very well remain the finest.

Inception (Christopher Nolan)

This breathtakingly original and fascinating film is not a sequel, a remake, a superhero movie or the latest installment in a film franchise. Nolan, who brought gravitas to superhero films with 2005’s
Batman Begins and especially 2008’s The Dark Knight, is one of very few commercial American filmmakers taking risks and exploring new territory with his films, and Inception may represent his finest accomplishment yet. The film is a complex and thrilling heist movie, a tragic romance, an exploration of the human psyche and Nolan’s own, seemingly personal commentary on what separates our dreams from our reality. As far as science-fiction thrillers are concerned, Inception is the best of its kind since Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002).

Leonardo DiCaprio, further cementing his status as the best actor of his generation, is Cobb, a ‘dream thief’ who specializes in extracting ideas from people’s minds while they are asleep. What distinguishes
Inception from nearly every other big-budgeted action picture in recent memory (particularly James Cameron’s Avatar, which seems less impressive with each passing day) is the film’s sheer originality in concept and execution, and, most importantly, Nolan’s use of a dynamic ensemble of actors, including Marion Cotillard’s deeply felt and powerful performance as Mal, Joseph-Gordon Levitt’s sly and ingeniously underplayed point man Arthur, and Cillian Murphy’s troubled tycoon Fischer, a character so compelling that he deserves his own film. When was the last time a science-fiction action picture broke your heart and engaged your brain simultaneously? With Inception, Nolan has set the bar extremely high for summer entertainment.

127 Hours (Danny Boyle)

Danny Boyle's extraordinary
127 Hours is, quite simply, the most intense and gripping theatrical experience I've had in years. And yet the movie is also one of the most uplifting, life-affirming and joyous odes to the human spirit that I've seen since Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Boyle and his star, current Tisch School of the Arts student James Franco, have taken fascinating true-life material and elevated it to great art. This is masterful filmmaking and features a lead performance from Franco that will be talked about for years to come.

The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski)

The Ghost Writer is one of the year's great surprises - a thrilling, shocking mystery that represents Roman Polanski's finest work in years. This film opened on the same weekend in New York City as
Shutter Island, and it was amazing to sit back and watch as two legendary filmmakers, Scorsese and Polanski, showed their younger peers how to direct deliberately-paced and shocking thrillers. As grim as Chinatown (1974) and every bit as entertaining, The Ghost Writer is the sort of movie that would have made Alfred Hitchcock very proud. Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams and Tom Wilkinson give fantastic performances.

There were more than ten excellent films this year, however. Here are fifty-one movies that deserve some recognition. Following the list, I've posted some personal awards.

1. The Social Network
2. Blue Valentine
3. Shutter Island
4. The Fighter
5. Biutiful
6. True Grit
7. Black Swan
8. Inception
9. 127 Hours
10. The Ghost Writer
11. Another Year
12. Hereafter
13. You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger
14. Greenberg
15. Animal Kingdom
16. The Town
17. Life During Wartime
18. The Kids Are All Right
19. Somewhere
20. Fair Game
21. I Love You Philip Morris
22. Rabbit Hole
23. Barney's Version
24. Solitary Man
25. Let Me In
26. Get Low
27. Never Let Me Go
28. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
29. Toy Story 3
30. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
31. The American
32. Inside Job
33. A Letter to Elia
34. Please Give
35. Cyrus
36. The King's Speech
37. Enter the Void
38. Winter’s Bone
39. Casino Jack
40. City Island
41. Stone
42. Leaves of Grass
43. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
44. Mother and Child
45. Green Zone
46. Farewell
47. I Am Love
48. The Killer Inside Me
49. Exit Through the Gift Shop
50. The Other Guys
51. Love and Other Drugs
52. Ondine
53. Harry Brown
54. Machete

Best Picture: The Social Network
Runner-Up: Blue Valentine and Shutter Island

Best Director: Martin Scorsese,
Shutter Island
Runner-Up: David Fincher, The Social Network

Best Actor: Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine and Javier Bardem, Biutiful
Runner-Up: Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island

Best Actress: Natalie Portman,
Black Swan
Runner-Up: Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine and Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale,
The Fighter
Runner-Up: Matt Damon, True Grit

Best Supporting Actress: Melissa Leo,
The Fighter
Runner-Up: Amy Adams, The Fighter and Lesley Manville, Another Year

Best Original Screenplay: Christopher Nolan,
Runner-Up: Blue Valentine and Black Swan

Best Adapted Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin,
The Social Network
Runner-Up: Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit

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