Monday, January 17, 2011

FILM: THE TOP 10 OF 2010


A perfect confluence: Aaron Sorkin admittedly writes characters standing around talking in rooms (what writer-director Walter Hill used to refer to with some disdain as "rug shows"), but Sorkin writes their dialogue so very astringently. Combine this with David Fincher's cinematic skill and perfectionism (he reportedly did 99 takes of the initial scene of Zuckerberg and his date in the bar), an outstanding performance from Jesse Eisenberg, and subject matter that captures the genesis of the social revolution of the decade, and the result is a smart, highly entertaining and satisfying movie that is virtually flawless from bookend to bookend. What else could one require of a Best Picture?   Sidenote:  Zuckerberg has reportedly declared the Appletini the official Facebook drink.  Have yours ready to toast when this movie wins the Oscar.


"You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling," Eames (Tom Hardy) urges Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) near the end of this movie. Writer-director Christopher Nolan has given us one helluva big dream. Inception is the most audacious, enthralling, and breathtaking film of the year. You don't watch it, you experience it. You surrender to it. You suspend your disbelief, your confusions, your questions. You become part of its dream, so that your interpretation of the ending becomes a product of your own projections. The dancer becomes part of the dance. It was a hard decision for me not to make this the number one film of the year, because it is the one that I loved the most.  Read my full review.


It's not just that I've always had a soft spot in my heart for evil twin movies (I even wrote one).  It's also that this film is so bold, fearless, and...stunning.  It's more like opera than ballet or film.  Darren Aronofsky, director of Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, would never be accused of being subtle or mainstream, but here, he has pulled out all the stops, risking risibility to engulf us in Nina Sayer's (Natalie Portman) escalating psychosis.  This movie could have been called A Portrait of the Schizophrenic as a Young Dancer:  Joyce employed stream of consciousness to put us in Stephen Dedalus' mind;  Aronofsky uses Natalie's increasingly paranoid mind and hallucinations as his lens. The ending of this film is perfect, simply perfect--where artifice and reality, and madness and sanity, no longer simply intersect, but merge.  (Not unlike the ending of Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg's 1970 film Performance.)


"She sends me blue valentines/All the way from Philadelphia/To mark the anniversary/Of someone I used to be."  One can imagine Ryan Gosling's Dean singing these lines to the accompaniment of his ukelele a few years after this film ends.  The lyrics are from Tom Waits' 1978 song and album Blue Valentines*, at which time he was in self-described "primeval" lust with singer/songwriter Rickie Lee Jones.  Their romance crashed a year later, reportedly prompting Jones to refuse Francis Ford Coppola's request for her to collaborate with Waits on the score of One From the Heart, another film about the break-up of a down-to-earth guy who can't satisfy his wife's yearning.  In both films, the men sing for their women.  But the parallels stop there.  Derek Cianfrance's film is no stylized musical; it's more documentary in style--raw, brutal, intense, riveting, heart-wrenching.  He cuts back and forth in time between the present (shot in high def digital video), when Dean and Cindy (Michelle Williams) are on the skids, and the past (shot in softer, warmer 16-mm film), when they were falling in love. Cianfrance also made a gutsy decision:  Michelle Williams reports that Cianfrance tossed the script (which he co-wrote) when shooting the characters' first date, forcing the actors to improvise for 12 hours.  No wonder there's something archetypally authentic about this portrait of a marriage.  Anyone who's ever been in one, or been in love, will find aspects of themselves in this movie, especially the parts we tend to disavow.


The Coen brothers are the American auteurs who love to make genre films that invert our expectations of them. True Grit is a Western and a buddy movie that pairs a hoary marshall (Jeff Bridges) and a resolute girl (Hailee Steinfeld) on her quest to avenge her father's death.  The Coens make this version new, ironically (and the Coens love their irony) in part by utilizing formal dialogue without contractions, dialogue that is "old"--that is, true to the original Western novel by Charles Portis that they loved as kids.  The dialogue serves to cue us to the mores of a different time and place with a different moral code.  It's been said that all great artists essentially reprise the same theme.  In many ways, this film is The Big Lebowski Redux.  Think about it:  Rooster Cogburn is as reluctant to take on Hailee's quest as The Dude was to go along with Walter's (John Goodman) obsessive scheme to to go to war against the Big Lebowski for the ransom money.  And Matt Damon's LeBoeuf is the comic equivalent of Steve Buscemi's clueless "Donny."  And then there is The Stranger (Sam Elliot), the cowboy who narrates TBL.  But I digress....True Grit is laconic and iconic, with gorgeous cinematography that should garner Roger Deakins the Oscar this year.  Like Inception, this one demands to be seen in a theater.


Christian Bale steals this movie as the manic Dickie Ecklund, a former contender and current crack addict (Bale reportedly lost 30 lbs. for this role) who is so drugged, deluded, and desperate that he believes that an HBO documentary being filmed about him will revive his career.  Mark Wahlberg's acting lacks the subtle complexity that the stalwart Micky Ward's character calls for--Wahlberg's facial expressions just don't have the chops to communicate the conflict that's going on inside Micky.  Despite that, this movie succeeds in a big way, thanks to Bale and also to the  larger-than-life performance by Melissa Leo as Mickey's mother/manager, and the hilarious Greek chorus of his sisters, whom I like to call The Furies (not to mention the women's costumes by Mark Bridges!).  Lowell, Massachusetts functions as another colorful character here, and Amy Adams as Micky's girlfriend Charlene is suitably feisty.  David O. Russell directs solidly from a script by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson.  While much has been written about this film as a long labor of love from its producer-star Mark Wahlberg, it's interesting to me that the lead Executive Producer is none other than Darren Aronofsky.  One can't help but wonder what his version would have been like....


I was astonished to learn that this is only the second feature film from Debra Granik--her first was Down to the Bone (2004, starring Vera Farmiga).  Spare, stark, impeccably crafted, this "rural noir," as one commentator aptly described it, is menacing and haunting.  It gives us two remarkable performances--that of Jennifer Lawrence as our lead, Ree Dolly, and John Hawkes as her sinister uncle Teardrop.  (You might also recognize Sheryl Lee, the doomed homecoming queen Laura Palmer of "Twin Peaks.")  Granik co-scripted with Anne Rosselini from a novel by Daniel Woodrell.  Ree proves herself a young woman to reckon with--and Jennifer Lawrence and Granik, talents I certainly intend to track.


The King's Speech is a triumph of, well, speech.  Not a film of cinematic bravura, its pleasures reside primarily in the distinguished performances of Colin Firth (who was even more superb in last year's A Single Man) as the stuttering King George VI and Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, his speech therapist.  It's essentially a British bromance, pairing two men of different classes and stature.  Top notch entertainment, well-drawn characters, and a nice nod to psychodynamic theory.  Also fun are Jenny Beaven's costumes, particularly for the stylish Wallis Simpson.


This is the most soulful , un-sci-fi science fiction movie you may ever see.  Directed by Mark Romanek and adapted by Alex Garfield from a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, the film focuses on the relationship among three students (played by Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightly, and Andrew Garfield [yes, he was the co-star of The Social Network]) at the idyllic and gothic Hailsham boarding school, presided over by Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling).  It's a film essentially about the human condition--love and death--and echoes the theme of another sci-fi classic (one of my all time favorites), Bladerunner.  Ominous, realistic, and heart-breaking--and not to be missed.

10. 127 HOURS

James Franco is either a Renaissance man or a dilettante or in an extended manic episode, judging by the volume of his artistic ventures over the past few years (writer, artist, multiple masters degrees, a stint on General Hospital as himself, and so on).  In some ways, the implied swagger makes him the perfect star for this film, based on the memoir by Aron Ralston, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place."  Even though I personally found Franco hard to warm to, the film nevertheless succeeds in bringing us something novel and engrossing (well, some have found the amputation scene too gross), thanks to collaborators Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy (director and screenwriter, respectively) who previously teamed on Slumdog Millionaire.  Kudos as well to production designer Suttirat Larlarb, who re-created the crevice on a stage.  Boyle uses the same split-screen technique that he employed in Slumdog, plus some creative POV shots  (e.g., from inside Aron's canteen).  I would have preferred that Boyle had left the focus on the tension of survival and jettisoned Ralston's moral lesson (that isolation has its perils, that we all need community), for that theme is implicit.   Ditto for the ADD-like images at the outset of adrenaline seekers; those shots are heavy-handed thematically and telegraph too much. Overall, though, this film demonstrates originality and cinematic verve within the constraints of a very limiting one-character/one-setting drama.


Somewhere, from our youngest auteur, writer-director Sofia Coppola.  Reprises themes of Lost in Translation--how we live in the spaces, which is where real meaning and relationships reside.  A minimalist poem of a movie.

The Town, from co-writer/director Ben Afleck.  Echoes of Michael Mann's terrific Thief.  As other commentators have pointed out, Afleck may be poised to become his generation's Clint Eastwood.

The Kids Are All Right, from co-writer/director Lisa Cholodenko.  Is it un-PC for me to say I liked Mark Ruffalo and his character best in this movie?  A thoroughly enjoyable and fresh film, even if they didn't  get The Who's title quite right.  I'll toast to this one with a glass of a Rhine Wine/Milk of the Madonna.*


  1. OK, OK, you've inspired me to see Inception and Social Network. I also liked Black Swan very much, not only for its doppelganger aspect, but also for its many echoes of literary works and placement within literary traditions. You mention Portrait of the Artist; others that occurred to me include Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (if you consciously encourage the evil within you to manifest itself it will eventually kill you) and Turn of the Screw (is she seeing ghosts or is her fractured and repressed psyche projecting them?) and even Hawthorne's The Birthmark (if you try to cleanse a human of all stain and make her perfect, she will die). I agree; it's like an opera--or a morality play. Very nicely done. Thanks for posting, Sharon! It's nice to know a real critic!

  2. This was great. What a memory you have! I thought I was the only person in America who still thinks about "One From the Heart" which had one of my all time favorite scores.

  3. @TallTchr When I was starting out as a reader at Zoetrope, Waits was composing the score from One From Hear in the suite across the hall from me, so I got to hear its evolution. I actually got the job because another reader, Kathleen Brennan, had left to write and to marry Tom! As you may know, they became collaborators and are still married. My understanding is that it was Kathleen who recommended Crystal Gayle to Tom.

  4. Love it! Didn't see the connection between Lebowski and True Grit. Well written! Great observations. I really have to revisit Black Swan in the theater...maybe Saturday if you're interested. And I really must see Winter's Bone and Never Let Me Go. Great post...! Thanks

  5. Love the way you sum up the top 10 in easy yet eloquent sound bites. Especially like your review of Black Swan. Reminds me of the films I saw, makes me want to see the ones I missed!


  6. You're a fab writer, Sharon, and I agree with just about all of this. I'll see the few I haven't seen, with the exception of the guy severing his arm off--I have enough PTSD in my own life without adding his...