I spent much of 2010 bemoaning the sad state of Hollywood studio filmmaking. But looking over a roster of the year’s most worthwhile releases, it struck me that it might not have been such a bad year after all. If you’re simply looking at the number of good films released, then 2010 was certainly not one for the books — but if you focus on the quality of the very best releases, few as they may have been, things start to look a bit different.
Like 2009, last year offered some very refined diamonds in the rough. In fact, this may be the strongest Top 10 list I’ve compiled in my 11 years at the News-Sentinel — and there’s still a few promising titles I haven’t been able to catch yet (see Page 2). So let’s cast aside any lingering bitterness and unequivocally celebrate 10 absolutely superb films, many of which may have placed higher in a lesser year. All films on this list are both “arty” and accessible, in their own ways, making them perfect entertainment for cinephiles and casual viewers alike. The long and short of it: If you don’t like these picks, then you suck at movies.
— Jason Wallis, News-Sentinel Film Critic.
1. “Rabbit Hole”
A humbling movie-watching experience
This may seem like a strange choice for my film of the year, especially given my predilection toward stylized, pop-arty cinema. There’s nothing flashy or even particularly “weighty” about this simply told story of a couple (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, each in the best performance of their respective careers) attempting to “move on” after the sudden death of their young son. Mitchell — working from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire — bucks expectations at every turn, and never falls into the easy, melodramatic trappings of this sub-genre. We never wallow in the suffering. Every scene feels honest and genuinely revelatory, the result of a storytelling technique that is so delicate and subtle as to seem invisible. These feel like shared moments, full of pain and sadness but also, in the end, healing and reconciliation. But no words on paper can possibly describe the humbling experience that is “Rabbit Hole,” the rare film about grief that manages to remain hopeful and even boldly humorous in the face of such typically dark subject matter — and all without a trace of self-consciousness. It demands to be seen, and I promise that the experience will leave you moved. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell.
The psychology of grief and guilt
Like “Rabbit Hole,” “Inception” is a film about process. It, too, is an examination of responses to and the psychology behind grief and guilt, and how far we will go to maintain some sense of sanity and order when confronted with incredible loss. (See also: No. 7) But that’s a psychoanalytic reading. On its face, “Inception” is, quite simply, one hell of a mind-bending thrill ride. Essentially a heist flick set inside the world of dreams (within dreams within dreams), Nolan’s incredibly intricate — but never confusing — film succeeds as a symphony of sound and image in which style is unapologetically valued over substance. Thematic concerns are not left unaddressed, however, and we all had fun over the summer debating the relevance of that maddening spinning top. It was the event movie of the year for discriminating viewers, and further evidence that Nolan is the most naturally talented “big-movie” director to emerge since Steven Spielberg. Directed by Christopher Nolan.
3. “Toy Story 3”
A cartoon that will make you cry like a little girl
Best animated family film ever? Hard to argue with that. It’s certainly Pixar’s most impressive effort to date — full of the usual eye-popping computer effects and amazing visual textures, but more importantly, instilled with a true sense of nostalgia and sentimentally that never feels forced. It doesn’t have to be forced, because it hits you with the subtlety of a dump truck. At several key points in the film I wept and audibly sobbed like a 5-year-old girl whose puppy just died, but damned if it wasn’t the most exhilarating and therapeutic movie experience I had all year. This “great escape” caper was a fitting send-off for Woody and Co., but beyond that, every scene hits just the right bittersweet note, and by the end the film reveals itself as nothing less than a grand requiem for lost youth. Directed by Lee Unkrich.
4. “Exit Through the Gift Shop”
Documentary or mockumentary?
Before seeing this deep-meta documentary about the world of underground street art, I had only a passing familiarity with Banksy, the noted (and anonymous) underground “street-art terrorist” who is as celebrated as he is mysterious. I have little interest in modern art, but that didn’t prevent me from loving every jaw-dropping second of this astoundingly accessible, flat-out hilarious expose of the banality inherent to the contemporary art scene. Banksy transitions from documentary subject to documentarian in the course of his dealings with Thierry Guetta, an eccentric Frenchman who sets out to make a film about his street-artist friends, and the hall-of-mirrors nature of the resulting narrative is enough to make your head explode — in a good way. So what if it’s fake (and I’m not convinced it is)? Its status as a mockumentary would arguably make the film even more impressive as a concise, cutthroat critique of a culture that has unwittingly become a parody of itself. As a former Banksy spokesman observes at the film’s end: “I think the joke is on… I don’t know who the joke is on, really. I don’t even know if there is a joke.” Indeed. Directed by Bansky.
5. “The Social Network”
Moral parable that’s not so much about Facebook
OK, so the critics went a little nuts in their praise for Fincher’s Zeitgeisty chronicle of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. But don’t let the wild hyperbole dissuade you from seeing the year’s biggest and best “fad” movie, which is actually less a film “about” Facebook than it is a moral parable about what Facebook represents in a cultural sense. Fincher’s film has been read in a variety of ways, but is perhaps best appreciated as a cautionary tale about alienation and the loss of individualism in a world increasingly defined by social groupings. Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar-bound screenplay is about as feverish and exciting as this kind of thing gets, and of course, Fincher’s wizard-like filmmaking techniques take center stage from beginning to end. I “like” it. (Sorry, had to.) Directed by David Fincher.
6. “Black Swan”
Ballerina on the brink of madness
This deeply psychological, highly stylized study of a perfectionist ballerina on the brink of madness could easily have gone bad in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. I was prepared for the film to devolve into a sprawling, over-indulgent mess (see: “The Fountain”), but Aronofsky exercises an amazing degree of restraint through the whole thing. As in “The Wrestler” (a thematic sister film to “Black Swan,” with its probing analysis of different kinds of performative self-degradation), the director is aided by a mesmerizing lead actor. As the ballerina, Natalie Portman gives the year’s finest, most nuanced and certainly most courageous performance. Directed by Darren Aronofsky.
7. “Shutter Island”
Scorsese mystery on a secretive island
It seems that most people have forgotten about this tight, effective, visually dazzling neo-noir from master filmmaker Martin Scorsese. I suspected something like this would happen after the studio bumped the film’s release from October 2009 to February of last year, but the extent to which this marvelous piece of genre tribute is being ignored is just inexcusable. In addition to serving as a director’s showcase, the film also boasts an engaging plot with a great hook (two U.S. Marshalls are dispatched to a secretive island prison to investigate the seemingly impossible escape of an insane murderess), a well-executed solution to the central mystery, and, most importantly, the year’s most impressive ensemble cast. Directed by Martin Scorsese.
8. “True Grit”
Western for every audience
For their most entertaining film since “The Big Lebowski,” the Coen brothers have returned to the western themes and motifs they explored to great effect in “No Country for Old Men.” This time the tone is much lighter — think Howard Hawks/John Huston rather than Sam Peckinpah. The result is a delightful, family-friendly reworking of Charles Portis’ beloved novel, featuring a pair of delightful performances from Jeff Bridges as wild-card lawman Marshall “Rooster” Cogburn, and Hailee Steinfeld as the young girl who hires him to track down her father’s killer. An absolute gas from start from finish. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
9. “A Prophet”
Muslim youth in a French prison
It’s been referred to as the “Godfather” of prison movies, and I’m inclined to agree. No other film has taken the viewer so deep inside this world, or provided such a vivid, lived-in portrait of everyday prison life. Audiard clearly owes a lot to Martin Scorsese, as his film occasionally draws from “GoodFellas” in structure, style and tone in telling the story of a Muslim youth who enters the French prison system and immediately falls under the influence of the Corsican mafiosos who run the prison from the inside. But the director never comes across as a film-school hack. The movie is ultimately quite unique and entirely his own, but still embedded with a deep appreciation for genre history and influence. Admirable. Directed by Jacques Audiard.
10. “The Town”
Emotional thriller that shows director’s skills
Not as impressive as “Gone Baby Gone,” but how many movies are? Affleck’s sophomore effort as a director, about a Boston bank robber (played by the writer/director) who falls in love with a former hostage and decides to quit the business, is still as nimble and blistering as any character-based thriller you’re likely to see. And like his first film, it too is instilled with a strong sense of community, a keen feel for the shifting moods and rhythms of its environment, that seems truly revolutionary. No other filmmaker has captured a location quite like Affleck captures Boston, and “The Town” suggests that I wasn’t jumping the gun with “Gone Baby Gone”: After two films of this magnitude, Affleck must be considered one of the most important filmmakers to emerge in years. Directed by Ben Affleck.