The Best Films of 2010

Now that the Academy has done their thing, handed out awards, and patted each other on the back, and long after the critics have handed out their picks, we (Anders and Aren) might as well get around to telling everyone what our favourite films of last year were. Our criterion for eligibility is that the film must have played in Canada to the paying public (either at a festival or regular run) some time in 2010. So, without further ado: Anders' Top Ten:

1. Inception

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Ellen Page.

Still my favourite film of 2010, after the hype has died and the inevitable backlash has taken hold, Inception is not only an immensely creative work that establishes its science fiction premise on some of the oldest questions of ontology, but it’s also enjoyable on a very basic level as perhaps the most elaborate and fantastic James Bond film ever conceived. I maintain that the film is far less complicated than some have made it out to be, with an elegant parabolic structure that ties such concepts as “dreams-within-dreams,” dream-time, and limbo into a classic heist-film narrative. It’s easy to get distracted concerning questions of skepticism or epistemological certainty, but such Cartesian concerns are only an introduction to what the film ultimately seems to be saying about the need to find closure and resolution through a “leap of faith.” The impeccable careful camera-work, innovative special effects, and great cast all serve a thoroughly creative and original work that more than holds up to a second (or third) viewing, revealing the layers and details Nolan and company have tucked into this treat of a film.

2. Shutter Island

Directed by Martin Scorsese; written by Laeta Kalogridis; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, and Ben Kingsley.

I’ve written about how I think Shutter Island is perhaps the most underrated film of 2010, dismissed as a genre exercise by a master filmmaker and not one of his “serious” films. But I believe that to dismiss the film in this way condescends to the idea that “genre” films are not worthy of serious attention. Shutter Island challenges that assumption, using its generic conventions to deliver a powerful reflection on memory, identity, and the trauma of existence in the 20th Century.

3. The Social Network

Directed by David Fincher; written by Aaron Sorkin; starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Justin Timberlake.

David Fincher's film is compelling and wickedly entertaining, with strong performances and (as usual) Fincher's great cinematography. Comparisons to Citizen Kane, while perhaps overblown, are not entirely unreasonable as the film manages to be both of its time and timeless in chronicling the rise of an era shaping individual. Still, the film is not really about trumpeting the inescapability of Facebook. Even if you're not sure what this whole “social networking” thing is all about, it's worth seeing this film for a classic Hollywood tale of ambition, and a look into the secret worlds where history is made.

4. Carlos

Directed by Olivier Assayas; written by Olivier Assayas and Dan Franck; starring Édgar Ramírez, Alexander Scheer, and Nora von Waldstätten.

I saw the 2 hr 45 min cut and eagerly look forward to Criterion’s release of the longer cut of this excellent film, since even in its truncated form it is easily one of the most impressive and cinematic achievements of the year. Edgar Ramirez gives an amazing performance as "Carlos" AKA Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, a mercenary and terrorist, whose role in some of the most famous hijackings and assassinations of the 70s was motivated as much by his quest for glory as by his politics. Assayas' film sparks with energy, and has one of the best soundtracks of the year. One can see both the idealism and the ego that fueled the revolutionary movement of the 70s and 80s.

5. True Grit

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; starring Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, and Matt Damon.

True Grit continues the Coen brothers run as one of the most impressive creative teams working in film. While in many respects it is a fairly straight forward Western, a second adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel about the nature of revenge and the possibility of justice in this world, the excellent cinematography and memorable performances contribute to making a film that sticks with you long after the credits have rolled.

6. Norwegian Wood

Written and directed by Tran Anh Hung; starring Rinko Kikuchi, Ken'ichi Matsuyama, and Tetsuji Tamayama.

This adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s book, of which I am also a fan, manages to satisfy on many levels, not least of which because it’s simply a gorgeous film, and that's not something I take lightly. Tran manages to bring a cinematic touch to Murakami’s tale of young love in the 60s, the music, and sexual mores in Japanese society. Jonny Greenwood’s memorable score is the icing on the cake.

7. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee raleuk chat)

Written and directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul; starring Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, and Sakda Kaewbuadee.

This Palme D’Or winner from Cannes tells the very Thai tale of a man who must confront his past lives, both in previous incarnations and also in the various actions of a single lifetime. It is both a metaphysical musing and a political comment about life in 20th century Thailand. For a film interested in meditating on the nature of the cinematic-image and on the nature of being, Uncle Boonmee is not as obtuse as one might think. Rather it’s filled with memorable images and moments that haunt you long after seeing it.

8. Black Swan

Directed by Darren Aronofsky; written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin; starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, and Vincent Cassel.

As a fan of both Natalie Portman and Darren Aronofsky, I couldn’t help but be caught up in the spectacle and emotion that is Black Swan. Essentially a horror-film in the guise of a ballet drama, the film works on a visceral level offering an interesting counterpart to the body-horror and sacrifice on display in Aronofsky’s earlier film, The Wrestler. In the end I was won over by Portman’s virtuosity, but the film raises disturbing questions about the nature of artistic performance.

9. The King’s Speech

Directed by Tom Hooper; written by David Seidler; starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter.

Some people have pooh-poohed this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner for being too staid and crowd-pleasing to be worthy, but there is something to say for a film that manages to be this compelling and yet to tell such a fundamentally decent story that you can feel good sharing with your parents and grandparents. Colin Firth is truly remarkable in embodying the contradictions and complications of reconciling one’s personal struggles with one’s duty, and while such a theme might not be a popular one today, The King’s Speech manages to entertain and uplift.

10. The Fighter

Directed by David O. Russell; written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson; starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, and Amy Adams.

David O. Russell tells the story of Micky Ward and his brother Dicky Eklund, focusing less on the ins and outs of the boxing world and more on their personal trials and tribulations on the road to Micky’s boxing glory. The climactic fight carries emotional weight, not through filming the boxing match in some new dynamic way, but by making us care about the characters involved.

Honorable Mentions:

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Directed by Bansky.

A funny and insightful look into the world of street art, and amazingly entertaining.

The Ghost Writer

Directed by Roman Polanski; written by Robert Harris and Roman Polanski; starring Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, and Olivia Williams

A solid political thriller that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Toy Story 3

Directed by Lee Unkrich; written by Michael Arndt; starring Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, and Ned Beatty.

The best animated film of the year and a moving, poignant ending to the Toy Story saga.

 

Aren's Top Ten:

1. Inception

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Ellen Page.

No director commands modern genre cinema like Christopher Nolan. While other genre directors are content to rehash the same old concepts with “gritty” modern takes, Nolan takes the conventions of the heist genre, combines them with his peerless storytelling ability and powerful imagination, and delivers a film that is truly one-of-a-kind in its vision. Inception delivers as a fantastical heist film with various science fiction borrowings, but beyond that its Nolan’s exploration of the cinema as collective dreaming. We are lucky that Nolan surrounds himself with the best actors, technicians, and composers working today, because what makes a film like Inception so satisfying is that it delivers fully in all aspects. It is the film that every blockbuster should aspire to be: original, innovative, and thunderously entertaining.

2. Black Swan

Directed by Darren Aronofsky; written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin; starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, and Vincent Cassel.

Not the behind-the-scenes realistic look at ballet that some were expecting, but instead an entrancing, melodramatic, surreal horror film that brilliantly explores the depths artists are willing to go to for their art. Natalie Portman delivers a tour-de-force (and ultimately Oscar-winning) performance as Nina Sayers, the perfectionist ballet dancer who loses her grip on reality as she strives to embody, both mind and soul, the Swan Queen of Swan Lake. With such a towering lead performance, it is easy to overlook Darren Aronofsky’s stunning direction, Clint Mansell’s hypnotic score, and the dizzying, whirling camerawork that pulls you into the dance and holds you until the breathless, astounding finale. Black Swan is like a drug to the emotional moviegoer; if you surrender yourself to the film, it will take you places no other film this year could.

3. The Social Network

Directed by David Fincher; written by Aaron Sorkin; starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Justin Timberlake.

Smart doesn’t begin to describe this timely and timeless tale of ambition. David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin took a contemporary story that could’ve been a “movie-of-the-week” and turned it into a generational classic, exploring the changing landscapes of how we communicate and the drive of one young man to remake the world in his image. From Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Mark Zuckerberg to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score, The Social Network is excellent in all aspects. It is grand storytelling and compulsively watchable for a film that could’ve been so dull and lifeless.

4. True Grit

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; starring Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, and Matt Damon.

Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit is an example of a deceptively great film. The impeccable filmmaking seems all too easy. From Roger Deakins’ beautiful, panoramic cinematography to the Coens’ clever, archaic dialogue to Hailee Steinfeld’s astounding debut performance, True Grit delivers on all fronts. However, because it is so understated and polished, you may not notice the depths the film reaches. It makes some insightful comments on the nature of retribution and justice, and is a worthy remake of the John Wayne classic.

5. Mother

Directed by Bong Joon-ho; written by Park Eun-kyo and Bong Joon-ho; starring Kim Hye-ja, Bin Won, and Ku Jin.

Few directors attempt to juggle as many genres as Bong Joon-ho does. While his 2006 The Host was a clever reworking of the monster movie, the startling tonal changes and mixes of (among other things) slapstick comedy with environmental commentary did not always work. With Mother, Bong’s genre mish-mashing works beautifully, wedding an intimate portrait of small-town life in Korea with a compelling neo-noir, complete with generous doses of humour, drama, and insightful social commentary. Mother also features one of the most impressive performances of the year; Kim Hye-ja’s performance as the titular mother is nothing short of extraordinary.

6. The Town

Directed by Ben Affleck; written by Peter Craig, Ben Affleck, and Aaron Stockard; starring Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, and Jeremy Renner.

Bank robbers have served as the subjects of some classic crime films and The Town is another film that utilizes the potential of the gripping subject matter. While the story is a conventional tale of criminal redemption, the film’s excellent performances and craftsmanship are anything but ordinary. Gun fights in Fenway Park; frantic car chases through the tight streets of Old Boston; some of the best heist scenes in modern cinema; The Town is state-of-the-art genre filmmaking and another indication that Ben Affleck is a director to be reckoned with.

7. Toy Story 3

Directed by Lee Unkrich; written by Michael Arndt; starring Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, and Ned Beatty.

It has become something of a cliché to say that Pixar makes the best of mature, emotional children’s entertainment, but they really do. And the Toy Story films have always been the films of theirs that have had the greatest hold on me. Perhaps this is because they were the first Pixar films to arrive, but more likely, it is because I’ve always felt a strong kinship with the toys’ owner, Andy. I identified with Andy's fierce imagination and strong childhood hold on his playthings. Thus, the filmmakers’ decision to have Andy age with the audience was a masterstroke for emotionally connecting to the films’ fans. Although Toy Story 3 is brilliant throughout, it is the closing scene that really hits home, wrenching the heartstrings of any child, young and old, in the most emotionally engaging scene of the year.

8. The King’s Speech

Directed by Tom Hooper; written by David Seidler; starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter.

The King’s Speech is an exceptional film all around. Although it may not be as innovative as Inception or as relevant as The Social Network, it manages to tell a remarkable, moving story with humour, grace, and emotion. It is also surprisingly entertaining and dynamic, a remarkable feat for a film about royalty, and the kind of film you want to share with everyone, young and old.

9. Shutter Island

Directed by Martin Scorsese; written by Laeta Kalogridis; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, and Ben Kingsley.

It’s been over a year now since I first saw Shutter Island and the experience has stayed vividly in my mind. To dismiss it as a disposable genre exercise by Scorsese has two fundamental flaws. First, Shutter Island is an excellent genre film with a tremendous lead performance from Leonardo DiCaprio and some of the most consistent thrills of a movie of its kind. Secondly, it’s far more than a mere genre exercise, mainly a haunting exploration of memory and guilt. Shutter Island is an extremely memorable film and one of the most misunderstood films of this previous year.

10. The Fighter

Directed by David O. Russell; written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson; starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, and Amy Adams.

The Fighter deserves a place alongside Rocky as a great boxing movie that’s also a fascinating portrait of family dynamics. It is home to a wealth of powerhouse performances, primarily Christian Bale’s electric portrayal of Dicky Eklund, boxer-turned-crack addict. Bale’s transformation is total and dominates the film, almost jumping off the screen to command the audience’s attention. However, although Bale has the showy role, you can’t forget about Mark Wahlberg’s strong, silent performance in the central role of Micky Ward. Wahlberg is the steady foundation upon which this gripping, and surprisingly funny, film is built.

Honourable Mentions:

The Ghost Writer

Directed by Roman Polanski; written by Robert Harris and Roman Polanski; starring Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, and Olivia Williams.

The Ghost Writer is a tense, tight political thriller that oozes more atmosphere and intelligence that can be found in most films of this sort.

Harry Potter and the Dealthy Hallows: Part I

Directed by David Yates; written by Steve Kloves; starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson.

The Harry Potter films once again demonstrate how they are the best universal entertainment to be had in the modern cinema.

Inside Job

Directed by Charles Ferguson; written by Chad Beck and Adam Bolt

Charles Ferguson clearly and logically outlines what led us to the 2008 Economic Recession, delivering the information in an entertaining, illuminating format.