I Am DB

February 13, 2011

Favorite Movies of 2010

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 1:02 pm
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#1
INCEPTION

The movie I was most looking forward to all year met and exceeded my expectations, easily becoming the movie I loved more than any other all year. When it ended and the lights in the theater came up, people around me standing and collecting their belongings to shuffle out, I was still pinned to my seat. I had to sit there for a moment and take a breath, very possibly the first I’d taken in at least an hour. I couldn’t wait to see it again. Not just because the twisty plot requires multiple viewings, but because I wanted to get back into the cinemascape so brilliantly conceived by master filmmaker and storyteller Christopher Nolan. I never knew what was coming. That’s true of many good movies of course, but here every moment carried the thrill of what would happen next.

The world of the film is our own, but here there exists technology that allows Extractors like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb to infiltrate a person’s subconscious and steal an idea. It’s the latest form of corporate espionage, and although Cobb is the best, he’s paid a heavy price for living inside the mind. It has separated him from his family, and the only way back to them is through his most difficult job ever, involving a task many deem impossible. The assignment will take Cobb and his team into the mind of an heir played by Cillian Murphy, where they will have to move through multiple levels of his subconscious to complete their task. It’s head-trippy stuff, but Nolan keeps confusion at bay. Not that the movie is simple; you can’t sit back and let it wash over you. You need to participate in it, make the connections, follow closely the how’s, who’s, why’s, where’s and when’s. And I still can’t say that I understand every single piece, but the whole thing is so damn thrilling that a few loose strands hardly matter. The ride sweeps you willingly along.

Standing out among the strong ensemble is Marion Cotillard as Cobb’s wife, a complex character whose presence is a wild card in a job that relies on careful planning. Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to prove just how effortlessly cool he is, handling some of the most mind-boggling action in the movie with total commitment. As the newest member of Cobb’s team, Ellen Page is a smart and appealing surrogate for the audience, learning truths about Cobb that even his longtime associates don’t know, and helping him from losing his way in the recesses of their subject’s mind. But the real star of the movie is Nolan, who gives us personal filmmaking on an epic scale and orchestrates it with flair and dexterity, guiding brilliant work from his usual team of collaborators which includes cinematographer Wally Pfister, editor Lee Smith and composer Hans Zimmer. Inception is a grand, cerebral spectacle with an emotional core that, fittingly, will remain lodged in my mind for a long, long time. It’s literally a dream movie.

#2
THE SOCIAL NETWORK

During a press conference to promote The Social Network, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin said, “It might seem counter-intuitive, this marriage of director and material. David is peerless as a visual director. I write people talking in rooms.” The David he speaks of is, of course, David Fincher. And while Sorkin is right that the marriage may seem an odd one, the resulting offspring is the latest evidence that opposites attract. Remove the players from the equation and you’re still left with an unlikely premise: that a movie about the founding of a website – even one as game-changing and ubiquitous as Facebook –  would make an interesting movie. But against the odds, The Social Network – like The Insider – takes court depositions and related events that don’t seem inherently cinematic and spins them into movie gold. It’s been hailed as a generation-defining work by film and cultural critics, but I’ll leave that to the professionals. For me, it’s just a great story well told.

Set largely on a Harvard University campus that seems perpetually cloaked in night, the film traces the creation and skyrocketing ascent of Facebook, and the personal conflicts born as a result between founder Mark Zuckerberg and some of the people he steps on along the way. While based on factual events and legal documents (the film is actually adapted from Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires), there is no way to know how close the Zuckerberg of the film is to the real man, but in the hands of Sorkin, Fincher and actor Jesse Eisenberg, he’s a fascinating figure – arrogant, awkward, brilliant, selfish, petty, lonely, pathetic, bold and often inscrutable. It’s a great performance by Eisenberg in which he adds a harder, darker edge to his frequent persona of the fast-talking geek. There’s always been something sharp about the actor’s speech; his words, with their staccato cadence, always sound pointy. Here, more so than in his past work, they truly cut like a knife.

One of the movie’s more interesting elements is the friendship between Mark and Facebook’s co-creator Eduardo Saverin, played in a breakthrough performance by British up-and-comer Andrew Garfield (also on this list in Never Let Me Go). Eduardo is the movie’s most sympathetic character, a nice guy who is a much better friend to Mark than Mark ever is to him, prompting one to wonder what he ever got out of the relationship. Facebook’s popularity soon brings them into the orbit of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, also very good), and Garfield does excellent work as the rapid growth of Mark and Eduardo’s creation comes between them and Mark becomes increasingly worshipful of Parker.

The other revelation in the cast is Armie Hammer, who gives two great performances playing the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler, who accuse Mark of stealing Facebook from their idea. In most movies, these guys would be reduced to just douchebag antagonists, but Aaron Sorkin doesn’t do one-dimensional. The twins are, in some ways, everything Mark wishes he could be: attractive, wealthy, privileged…and yet his jealousy of those same qualities is what drives him to create his own site rather than labor under them as a programmer-for-hire. As the twins struggle with the right course of action to take after Facebook goes live, Hammer impresses with his ability to offer distinct shadings to the brothers while making them more than athletic pretty-boys. One would also be remiss not to mention actress Rooney Mara, who plays a small but critical role in the film, most of her screentime coming in the outstanding, much-heralded opening scene. Like Garfield and Hammer, this will surely prove to be a breakout role for her (Fincher has already cast her as the lead in his next film, an English language adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.)

Fincher’s direction is confident but unintrusive. Whereas many of his other movies deliberately call attention to the ruse of filmmaking, here his camera (guided by cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth) is not self-conscious. He lets Sorkin’s script and the actors take center stage, and reinforces their work with fine editing by Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, as well as a terrific, moody score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

I know many people, young and old, who have no interest in Facebook, but you don’t need to “get” the site, or be a user, to enjoy this story of its creation. Facebook is the MacGuffin in a story about ambition, isolation, creation and betrayal. The Social Network, and its incredibly compelling main character, leaves you with plenty to discuss.

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#3
TOY STORY 3

I know, I know…the continual act of marveling at Pixar’s accomplishments is getting old, and yet they just keep defying expectations and producing movies of such incredible quality that marveling can’t be helped. How often do we reach the third movie in a series (a series that, it’s important to note, was not conceived as a series; this isn’t Star Wars or Lord of the Rings) and find that not only has there been no drop in quality whatsoever from one film to the next, but that it’s arguably better than its predecessors?

We pick up with Woody, Buzz and the rest of the gang as their owner Andy is about to depart for college and must decide what to do with his once beloved and now largely forgotten childhood playthings. They wind up at a day care center called Sunnyside, which seems to promise them a good life of attention and adoration. Instead, they face dangers both from over-enthusiastic children and some of their new fellow toys, prompting them to stage an elaborate escape that would make the likes of Steve McQueen and George Clooney proud. Along the way, some new characters are introduced, including an avuncular pink bear called Lotso (voiced by the great Ned Beatty), the foreboding, near-silent Big Baby, a theatrical porcupine ingeniously named Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton) and Barbie’s love interest Ken, hilariously portrayed as a fashion-loving metrosexual and voiced by Michael Keaton. The movie is often laugh-out-loud funny, and Ken is often the reason.

I try not to get into spoilers here, but I can’t talk about Toy Story 3 without bringing up its thrilling climax, so stop reading if you haven’t seen it yet. As you know if you’re still here, the toys find themselves at the city dump facing the threat of incineration, and I credit the team at Pixar for making that threat entirely real. I honestly believed that it might happen, not just because of how the writers and director (John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich receive story credit, while Little Miss Sunshine scribe Michael Arndt wrote the script; Unkrich directed) presented the scene, but because of how the character animators sold the emotions. When Buzz looks at Jessie and reaches for her hand, the expression on his face that says, “This is it; don’t fight it” is stunning, and was instantly seared in my memory. It’s a moment of unspoken communication to which any flesh and blood actor should aspire. The subsequent moments of the toys grabbing hold of each other and staring down what seems an inevitable, fiery demise is as powerful an image as any I saw all year. The toys do survive, and of course I felt foolish for ever thinking they wouldn’t; this is a G-rated family movie. But that’s how well done it is. And the movie still has one last high to hit: its pitch-perfect coda, in which Andy delivers the toys to a little girl in the neighborhood, introducing them one by one and joining her for one last round of playtime. With that scene, the Toy Story trilogy – never intended to be a trilogy when the first movie announced the arrival of Pixar fifteen years earlier – came to a brilliant and beautiful close that could not have been more satisfying. I hope the filmmakers are smart enough to stop here. These characters should endure as the stars of short films, but in terms of another feature, there’s simply nowhere else to go. Not even the phenoms of Pixar can up the emotional ante of Toy Story 3. They nailed it. Again.

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#4
THE FIGHTER

Loved this movie. From first frame to last, it had me. Mark Wahlberg has been on a years-long crusade to bring this true-life story to the screen, and how gratifying for him and fortunate for us that it arrives in such stellar shape. Although boxer Mickey Ward (played by Wahlberg) is the central figure, it’s the characters around him that give the story its color. Wahlberg is smart enough as the film’s producer and generous enough as its star to let the other actors flex their muscles, and the result is aces. Christian Bale dominates the movie as Mickey’s step-brother Dickie Ecklund, a one-time fighter himself whose own potential was squandered to a drug addiction. Bale’s performance is natural, moving and completely commanding. As the boys’ mother Alice Ward, Melissa Leo chews plenty of scenery as well. Alice manipulates Mickey by playing the “importance of family” card (she manages him, while Dickie serves as his trainer) even as their handling of his career threatens to end it. And into the close family fold, which includes seven fierce and funny sisters mostly played by non-professional, local actresses from in and around Lowell, Massachusetts (where the movie takes place and was shot) comes Mickey’s love interest Charlene, played with gusto by Amy Adams in yet another display of her talent and range. As a story, the movie is fairly traditional, but under the direction of David O. Russell and the tremendous skill of the cast, it’s a perfect combination of commercial crowd-pleaser and award-caliber artistry.

The Rest:
ANIMAL KINGDOM

When his drug-addicted mother dies, 17 year-old “J” goes to live with his grandmother and uncles. Unfortunately those uncles are criminals fresh off a robbery that has the police hot on their trail, and through no crime other than proximity, J finds himself caught between cops hungry for blood and family practicing self-preservation at any cost. This Australian thriller is a taut gem, full of surprises. Actor James Frecheville has a tricky task in making J interesting despite being so numb, and he pulls it off nicely, holding himself with a rigidity and blank stare that invite concern and empathy. Guy Pearce, always a welcome presence, plays a decent cop trying to help J make the right decision, and Jacki Weaver has won raves, critic’s awards and an Oscar nomination for her role as J’s grandmother, fiercely loving and protective of her boys. But even more chilling than Weaver is Ben Mendelsohn as the eldest of J’s uncles and the one most worried about his nephew’s ability to toe the family line. His performance, in particular, got under my skin. I realize this may not be the best way to convince anyone to see it, but to play on the title’s jungle metaphor, Animal Kingdom is the movie-watching equivalent of an anaconda attack. It grabs you, holds you, tightens its grip and doesn’t let go. But, you know…in a good way…and minus the killing you part. Trust me. See it.

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BARNEY’S VERSION
While I certainly enjoyed this movie, it wouldn’t have quite made my list for favorites of the year were it not for the tremendous performance by Paul Giamatti as Barney Panofsky. Perhaps my affection for the movie also stems from the fact that, in a circumstance that’s rare for me, I knew nothing about it in advance. I had no idea what the movie was when I walked into it, and even as I watched the first half hour or so, I still wasn’t sure. Was it a murder mystery? A tale of an older, lonely man recalling his more colorful youth? A warts-and-all love story? The movie turned out to be all these things and more. Mainly, it’s the story of a man’s life – a man who loves women, hockey, a good drink and a good cigar. It’s a life as ordinary as it is interesting and flawed. Good, bad and ugly, Giamatti nails it all. He had me rooting for Barney’s highs and shaking my head in disapproval for his lows.

Even with the glowing lead performance, Barney’s Version has room for other actors to shine as well. Dustin Hoffman portrays Barney’s father, and what a treat to watch Giamatti and Hoffman play off each other with that warm, father-son dynamic. The two enjoy a great rapport. Rosamund Pike gives a graceful and tender performance as Miriam, the love of Barney’s life who stands by him even when he hurts, embarrasses and disappoints her. Together, Giamatti and Pike beautifully portray a true marriage – one with ups and downs, but never without love. Like Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine (see further down), they make the relationship so real and recognizable. Among many other things, Barney’s Version is a wonderful depiction of an adult relationship, maybe the best I’ve seen since 2008’s Ben Kingsley/Penelope Cruz drama Elegy.

I wish Giamatti had scored an Oscar nomination for this, one of the highlights of his admirable career. He did just win a Golden Globe award, surprising many who had predicted the award would go to his heavyweight competition Johnny Depp (nominated for both The Tourist and Alice in Wonderland) or Jake Gyllenhaal for Love and Other Drugs. Their roles may have been in higher profile films, but anyone who saw Barney’s Version shouldn’t have been surprised by Giamatti’s victory. Unfortunately the movie was a victim of poor marketing, released too late in the year with too little fanfare against too stiff competition. The market was saturated with award-hopeful movies, and this one was given no room to breathe. I think had it been released more strategically or advertised more aggressively, Giamatti would at least have been a more prominent part of the Oscar conversation, even if he eventually got squeezed out. But if you see the movie, the performance is a reward in itself.

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BLACK SWAN
This is one fucked up movie. I debated whether or not to include it since, in a way, I’m not sure how good it really is. Watching it, I was riveted, sucked in by Darren Aronofsky’s bravura, operatic direction. But strip away all the razzle-dazzle – the bold directing, the committed performances, the art direction, the cinematography, the costumes, the music, the makeup – and what’s really left on the page? What is it all built on? Is it a house of cards? A lot of sound and fury signifying nothing? Maybe that’s going too far, but the script is pretty flimsy. Yet in the end, despite the thin foundation, I was taken in by its extremes and how creepy and darkly funny it is. It’s brazenly over the top, but Aronofsky beat me into submission with the sheer force of his filmmaking skill. In a strange way, it’s not unlike what Michael Bay does. Maybe I’m more willing to go along with Aronofsky because he at least has loftier aspirations.

Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers is a timid ballet dancer in New York’s premier company who lands the dual-lead in Swan Lake. While Nina dances the elegant White Swan role to perfection, she struggles to tap into the rougher, darker persona of the Black Swan. Mila Kunis plays Lily, a confident and sensual new dancer to the company who tries to help Nina tap into her wild side. Kunis does good work, as does Vincent Cassell as the company director, Barbara Hershey as Nina’s overbearing mother and Winona Ryder as the company’s aging star, but the movie rests on Portman’s shoulders. Black Swan, more than any film I’ve seen in a long time, fits the description “psychological thriller,” and Portman is marvelous as she depicts Nina’s increasing instability. I still don’t know what was real and what wasn’t, what to believe and what to doubt, but I know that the actress gives it her all. Playing meek or strong, unraveling emotionally and mentally, and delivering on the physical demands of portraying a top ballerina, this is a tour-de-force for Portman.

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BLUE VALENTINE
The dissolution of a marriage is hardly new terrain. From Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to The War of the Roses, from Carmela and Tony on The Sopranos to Revolutionary Road, this is territory that has been frequently explored in literature, on stages and on screens large and small. That doesn’t mean there’s not more to say on the subject. As long as people continue to struggle in marriages, the topic will be explored through drama. The latest example stars Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling as Cindy and Dean, a couple whose relationship is cracking under everyday pressures and the shifting expectations they carry of themselves and each other. Though the marital strife does sometimes escalate to bouts of screaming, mostly the movie is made up of smaller moments that show the marriage fraying. These scenes, which take place over the course of just a day, are juxtaposed with the sweet courtship and romance that brought them together. Derek Cianfrance writes with an ear for realism and directs in close-ups that bring the viewer right into Cindy and Dean’s personal space. His background as a documentarian allows him to approach his first fictional film with unsentimental observation, and while this is a piece driven by writing and acting, he shows an eye for composition as well, filling the movie with reds, blues and blacks that help it come alive.

Williams and Gosling are Cianfrance’s partners every step of the way, acting with raw intimacy and intensity that is remarkable to behold. Neither character is completely right or wrong, and the movie doesn’t lead you to sympathize with one over the other, though you may well find yourself choosing a side. From the city streets where they get to know each other to the kitschy, “future-themed” hotel room where they try to save the relationship, Blue Valentine gives us a front row – almost invasive – view at the life of a couple: love, sex, regret, secrets and hopes. It isn’t always comfortable, but it’s pretty damn powerful.

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CYRUS
A good script and good performances distinguish this dark comedy from writer-directors Mark and Jay Duplass, whose indie film background (they come from the mumblecore movement) probably explains why they wring more authenticity and emotion from a story that, in mainstream hands, would likely be much more shallow. John C. Reilly has a great role as John, a sad guy who has failed to move on since his marriage fell apart. Then he meets Marisa Tomei’s Molly, and the two connect almost immediately. Things get complicated when John meets Cyrus (Jonah Hill), Molly’s creepy, live-at-home son, who does not approve of John’s intrusion into the uncomfortably close relationship he shares with his mother.

Aside from being so funny, it’s the realism and restraint that impress me most about Cyrus. When the building tension between John and Cyrus explodes for all to see, the brothers Duplass play the aftermath in a way that respects an audience’s intelligence. A lesser movie would have villified John, or failed to include the scene where he fully explains the situation to Molly. But by not going too broad with the humor, the movie earns the right to include that scene and to allow Molly to actually hear what John has to say…and then, in turn, to have an honest conversation with Cyrus. It’s such a simple thing, and yet it’s what makes a movie like this so much better than, say, Meet the Parents, in which Ben Stiller’s character is made out to be an asshole by everyone around him, never given the benefit of the doubt or an opportunity to explain himself. Don’t get me started on that tangent…the point is that Cyrus avoids that kind of nonsensical plotting, and instead scores with humor that is heightened but believable.

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THE GHOST WRITER
Skillfully directed by Roman Polanski, this quiet, elegant political thriller stars Ewan McGregor as a writer hired to complete the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), Britain’s recently exited Prime Minister, after the original ghost writer dies in an accident. He journeys to the house on Cape Cod where Lang and his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) are staying, and quickly finds that the job is not nearly as simple – or safe – as he expected.

It seems to come across onscreen how much fun Polanski is having with this clever mystery, and following its twists and turns is just as much fun. In addition to a strong and engaging story, the film’s pleasures include its outside-the-box casting, with James Belushi, Kim Cattrall, and Timothy Hutton among the familiar faces popping up, and a super score by composer Alexandre Desplat. The Ghost Writer is also a triumph of contemporary art direction, with the interior design of the beach house contributing intangibly but unmistakably to the movie’s air of intrigue. And the ending…well, having directed Chinatown, Polanski is responsible for one of the great movie endings of all time. The Ghost Writer‘s final moments may not be in that hall of fame, but they’re pretty memorable.

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HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART I
As we move toward the finale of this grand adventure, director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves continue to do a mostly admirable job of translating J.K. Rowling’s story to the screen. The three lead actors are excellent (Daniel Radcliffe, while still lacking in certain areas, has done his best work under Yates’ guidance), and this time more than ever before, the film is truly on their shoulders. Rather than returning to Hogwarts for the final year of school, Harry, Ron and Hermione are on the hunt for hidden fragments of Voldemort’s soul. Destroying them all is the only way to defeat him, but their journey is perilous and exhausting. Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson convey the weight of the task as the characters struggle to keep their spirits up and their friendship intact. Some viewers may find the journey drags, but I appreciated the filmmakers staying faithful to the idea that the trio must keep moving even without always knowing where they’re going or what to do next. As the days stretch on, Voldemort’s Death Eaters tighten their noose on the wizarding world while the Dark Lord himself pursues a tool he believes will make him truly invincible.

Although much of the film tracks Harry, Ron and Hermione’s wanderings across the countryside, the supporting cast isn’t entirely absent. In particular, Brendan Gleeson, Helena Bonham Carter and Imelda Staunton all get good (if brief) moments to play. As usual, the production values are top notch – art direction, cinematography and score are all noteworthy, and the visual effects are the best and most seamlessly integrated we’ve seen in all the films. While no Potter movie can ever live up to the one in my head, Deathly Hallows Part I left me quite satisfied and excited for the conclusion.

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HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON
“Dragons is sooo stupid.” So said Yosemite Sam’s Black Knight in the classic Looney Tunes short Knighty Knight Bugs. If only he’d had Hiccup on his side. The protagonist of this film adapted from a series of children’s books by Cressida Cowell, Hiccup is a boy in the seaside Viking village of Birk, where for generations man has battled dragons. Not exactly the warrior type, Hiccup finds he has other gifts when he begins observing and then interacting with a wounded dragon. As the two enemies take stock of each other, Hiccup discovers a more complicated truth about the creatures that his fellow villagers are determined to destroy.

Dreamworks Animation often seems to build its movies around a star-studded vocal cast, so it’s ironic that the success of this outing – which emphasizes story and character – is so connected to the central vocal performance. Jay Baruchel’s distinctive voice, with its sarcastic overtones and inherent likability, makes Hiccup an enormously appealing hero, and the vocal work is matched by the excellent character design and animation that bring Hiccup to life. Together, Baruchel and the animators make Hiccup into a character that’s easy to root for because he’s got scrappy, underdog appeal. As he surprises the village and himself with his cleverness and bravery, the movie proves a funny, charming and moving adventure.


THE KING’S SPEECH

Okay, just because my Oscar ramblings make clear I’d rather see something else win Best Picture doesn’t mean I don’t think The King’s Speech is great. Cause the movie is great – an entertaining examination of one man’s personal triumph set at a fascinating moment in history when Hitler was on the rise and the advent of radio was changing the way people were connected and informed. It really is an instance of truth being stranger than fiction that against that backdrop, Prince Albert – known to loved ones as Bertie and eventually to the world as King George VI – would find himself having to overcome a debilitating stutter. When nothing and no one seems able to help, his wife Elizabeth turns to quirky Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, whose unconventional methods begin producing results. As the movie goes on, Bertie and Lionel’s relationship moves beyond doctor-patient and into a friendship that proves as vital to Bertie’s growth as the attack on his stammer.

Colin Firth’s layered performance as Bertie is impressive for more than just his handling of the obvious handicap. He shows us a man whose fear exceeds public speaking and extends to whether he has it within him to lead the nation – a role that, as the younger sibling, he never expected to fill. Geoffrey Rush has fun with Logue’s eccentricities and sense of humor, his loose style flying in the face of the stiff formalism of Bertie’s world. As a member of Britain’s royal family, with its protocol and pomp, Bertie doesn’t quite know how to deal with Logue’s  directness and attempts at familiarity, and sparks fly between the actors and characters as Logue increasingly tries to dig beneath the surface of Bertie’s life not only to get at the root of the stutter, but also to encourage him to embrace his inner strength. It’s more fun than you’d think to watch these two match wits. In fact, for a period piece about British royalty, it’s more fun than you’d think, period.

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NEVER LET ME GO
Despite earning high praise, Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go didn’t do much for me, so the fact that it was being made into a movie was barely on my radar. I wasn’t particularly eager to see it, but when the opportunity came up, I took it. And I’m glad I did, because it turned out to be one of my favorite movies of the year…obviously, given its place on this list. The story covers a 16 year span, and feels like a period piece even though it begins in 1978 (which, some might say, does in fact make it a period piece). It concerns three friends at a boarding school called Hailsham, nestled in the English countryside. And like the most famous English boarding school (Hogwarts, of course), Hailsham is a place for special students…and I’ll say no more than that. As with many normal relationships, the one between this trio of friends – Kathy, Ruth and Tommy – is complicated, both because and irregardless of what makes them special.

In the last two-thirds of the movie, which take place after the Hailsham days, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are played by Carey Mulligan, Kiera Knightley and Andrew Garfield, and they create a familiar and believable dynamic that pays off in the story’s quiet but powerful endgame. Mulligan’s Kathy is the central character and narrator, and she gives an especially good performance, conveying a lot through silence and stillness. Where I felt the book meandered and went too far at times into Kathy’s disjointed memory, the film streamlines events and makes more immediate the delicate entanglements between the three, resulting in a movie that I found sad, beautiful and moving…none of which I got from the book. There is one sequence toward the end, when Kathy and Tommy encounter someone from their Hailsham past, that does suffer in the film from being too abbreviated. In the book, the scene is actually too heavy with exposition; here it’s too light. I wish the filmmakers could have found the middle ground. But in the end the movie packs a punch thanks to the open performances and the stark visual composition brought by director Mark Romanek. This was one of those movies – there seems to be at least one every fall – that arrived with high expectations and award-season pedigree yet didn’t seem to catch on. But I suspect and hope that in time, people will find their way to it and be as touched by it as I was.

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SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD
Movies don’t get much more fun than Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which is based on a graphic novel series about the titular 23-year old musician/video game enthusiast/heartbreaker/geek (played by Michael Cera) who falls for the aloof, alluring Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) but must defeat her seven evil exes in order to be with her. It’s a movie that adheres to absolutely no laws of realism, logic or gravity…and therein lies its huge appeal. At the point mid-movie when Ramona pulls a gigantic sledgehammer out of her bag as casually as if it were a case of mints, it didn’t even phase me. I barely noticed the oddity. I was on my third viewing of the movie before I stopped to think, “Hey, where did that ridiculously large sledgehammer come from?” But that’s par for the course in this movie that plays like a gonzo mash-up of comic book and video game without being at all vapid or brainless. For all the loopy fantasy the movie basks in, it provides Scott with a worthy character arc and even has something to say about the baggage people bring into their relationships.

Much of the credit for the film’s success belongs to the direction by Edgar Wright, not just for so inventively realizing the story onscreen, but for so successfully communicating his vision to the cast. Watch the movie and then try for a moment to imagine the actual on-set filming of, just for one example, the fight which finds Scott squaring off against the flamboyant Matthew Patel. It’s ludicrous enough (delightfully so) in the finished product, but what must it have been like to actually shoot it, in the moment, without the music, editing, and sound and visual effects to tie it all together? Seriously…how much trust do you need to have in your director to play that scene?

That down-for-anything ensemble cast, one of the strongest of the year, includes the welcome return of Kieran Culkin (back in the smart-ass mode he nailed so well in Igby Goes Down), Up in the Air‘s Anna Kendrick, a wonderfully deadpan Allison Pill and among the exes, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh and Jason Schwartzman. Cera, meanwhile, continues to mine variations of the awkward persona he perfected on Arrested Development. I know some people have grown tired of him and think he just does the same thing from movie to movie, but I still find him hilarious and see distinct shifts between his roles in Development, Juno, Superbad, Youth in Revolt and this.

Comparing a movie to a video game is usually intended to denigrate it, but not so in this case. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World asserts that a movie can play like a video game and still offer intelligence, wit, originality and heart.

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TRUE GRIT
Having never seen the 1969 classic that won John Wayne an Academy Award, the only baggage I carried into the remake by Joel and Ethan Coen was my love of their films. They did not disappoint. With their usual cadre of collaborators, including the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins, the Coen Brothers spin the story of 13 year-old Mattie Ross, who hires the formidable marshall Rooster Cogburn to find and kill her father’s murderer, Tom Cheney. Determined to personally see the job through, Mattie insists on accompanying him…and there’s just no winning an argument with Mattie Ross.

While the film’s star and presumptive main character is Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges in his first collaboration with the Coen Brothers since they gifted The Big Lebowski unto the world, the true main character and star of the film is Mattie, played wonderfully by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. This modern teenager slips effortlessly into the skin of a girl living in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s, left to help manage her family’s affairs and seek justice by her own means. She’s a great character, and Steinfeld plays her to the hilt, displaying strength, subtlety, confidence and a mastery of the verbal acrobatics provided by the Coens (and by Charles Portis, author of the book on which the film is based). Steinfeld would outright steal the movie were it not for Matt Damon, adding yet another feather to his cap in the role of LaBoeuf, a Texas ranger who’s also in pursuit of Cheney. Damon is often hilarious without ever playing for an obvious laugh. His take on LaBoeuf is perfect and priceless, and I’m consistently amazed by his ability to occupy the role of Movie Star and yet continue to be so versatile and surprising. With Steinfeld and Damon commanding so much of the spotlight, it might seem like there’s none left for Bridges, but he makes a great Cogburn, lending the character the toughness to match his reputation, as well as the grim humor required for sparring with Mattie and LaBoeuf. Once again the Coen Brothers meld violence, humor and intensity into a hearty stew. More please.

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WINTER’S BONE
Hailee Steinfeld was not the only young actress to impressively leap onto the scene in 2010. Meet Jennifer Lawrence, star of this Sundance breakout that could have gone by the name True Grit just as easily as Steinfeld’s film. As it is, Winter’s Bone is a perfectly apt title for this original and affecting drama set in an insular Ozark community where secrets run ominously deep. Lawrence plays Ree Dolly, a tough, resourceful teen with a rarely-present father and a mentally frail mother. Left to care for her younger siblings, Ree’s already fragile world is threatened when she learns that her father, recently out of prison, is missing and had put the family’s house up as collateral for his bail. If he fails to appear in court the next week, they’ll lose their home. So Ree sets off to find him, but quickly realizes that those most likely to know his whereabouts are not inclined to help. Her determination to protect her family equals a refusal to stop stirring the pot, and her search for answers leads her down a dangerous road.

The script by Debra Granik and Anne Rosselini is a fresh and detailed examination of a community unlike those we normally see in mainstream film. Director Granik palpably captures the chill in the mountain air, though that chill is as much about the mystique of the setting as the temperature. Even Ree’s allies are sketchy and unsettling, most particularly her father’s brother Teardrop, played with a mix of menace and concern by John Hawkes. Ree’s journey into the dark heart of her surroundings makes for a thrilling story of discovery, but for the audience, the movie – and the talent in front of and behind the camera – is a discovery of its own.

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As always, there are other movies that made a positive impression to one degree or another, but these are the ones that I felt compelled to single out. But because I love me a good montage of movie scenes, the following two clips offer another look at  2010’s playlist – good, bad and ugly. The first is much more inclusive, but the second hit some images that I also liked, plus I dig the song.

(Click here for list of films featured)

(Go here and click Show More for list of films featured)

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