At last, we're down to the probable grand finale. I'd love to toss in a couple more essays (best trailers/posters, the year in review, etc), but that depends on whether or not my daughter takes a nap on any given afternoon. But should this be the final major entry of 2010, so be it. Below is a list of fourteen of my favorite pictures that were released in theaters or DVD in 2010, plus a final nod to my favorite film of 2010 (no surprise if you've been reading me with any regularity). They are not necessarily 'the best', as there are plenty of allegedly great films that I missed (likely contenders: Inside Job, Blue Valentine, Animal Kingdom, Tiny Furniture), but they are all pretty great. As usual, the first fourteen are in alphabetical order.
First and foremost, that 'incident' that occurs at the third act isn't nearly as hard to watch as you've heard. If you're staying away out of fear, buck it up, because James Franco's grandmother thinks you're a 'p***y'. Danny Boyle's dazzlingly compelling and sharply edited character study about a young climber trapped in a cave is about so much more than its climax. It's a shockingly unsentimental yet genuinely moving look at the choice that we all have to make to truly live. James Franco, Hollywood's most versatile entertainer (he's the equivalent of that kid in high school who wanted to be on every page of the yearbook), gives the performance of his career. And you know what? If you want to close your eyes and ears at the end, I won't hold it against you. The movie works whether you keep your eyes open or not.
Darren Aronofsky's dazzling creepy and intense psychological horror picture works for two very specific reasons. First of all, we have Natalie Portman's astonishingly physical and emotional tour de force, which is worthy of every plaudit and award she has and will win. Second of all, the characters are not drawn in broad strokes. Mila Kunis's Lily is far from a stereotypical 'bad girl' rival, as she genuinely appears to be interested more in befriending Nina than competing with her. Vincent Cassel's seemingly draconian ballet director may come off like a cad, but we have no reason beyond our preconceptions to believe that he's lecherous, and all evidence points to a man who will do whatever it takes to get the performance he requires from his dancers. And even Barbara Hershey's seemingly conventional overbearing stage mom gets moments of empathy and depth. For a film that sells itself as a visually-stylized thriller, the characters are surprisingly three-dimensional.
I happen to consider Mean Girls the best teen-girl comedy ever made. So when I say that Easy A is the best comedy about teen girls since Mean Girls, that's high praise. Emma Stone becomes a mega-star in this deliciously well-written and sharply acted take on The Scarlet Letter. Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson (two actors who got their big break on Murder One) shine as arguably the world's coolest screen parents, but the film is unafraid to subtly question their 'my kids are my friends' parenting style. Thomas Hayden Church, Lisa Kudrow, and Malcolm McDowell round out the type-flight adult cast. And Amanda Bynes gives one of her best performances as the leader of the school's unofficial God squad. But it's Stone's movie through-and-through. While the film basically highlights how little we've progressed in regards to how we treat sexually active young women, the picture goes deeper and becomes a passionate and timely plea for privacy and tolerance in an age where the generation of kids have willingly chosen to become their own high-tech Big Brother.
Going the Distance
I missed this one in theaters, and shame on me for that. This is easily the best romantic comedy of the year, and a near-perfect example of the much-derided genre. Writer Geoff LaTulippe and director Nanette Burstein seemingly have a checklist of romantic comedy clichés to avoid, and steer around every single one of them. Drew Barrymore and Justin Long both shine as two professional adults trying to do the 'long distance relationship' thing, with mixed results. The devil is in the details. First and foremost, the main couple is so likable that we actually want to see them end up together. The dialogue is incredibly smart and funny without being obnoxiously clever. The film openly deals with the real economic world as it is now, and is far from idealistic when dealing with the reality of both young love and keeping romance alive after kids. More than a great romantic comedy, it's just a great movie period.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part I
This is easily the best in the long-running series, and the first picture in the constantly good franchise that achieves true greatness. Plunging into despair and cynicism on a level most adult dramas wouldn't dare, the penultimate chapter of 'the boy who lived' is a dark, violent, and overwhelmingly sad adventure story, where the quest to destroy evil is not a Campellian hero's journey, but perhaps merely delaying the inevitable defeat. Harry, Ron, and Hermione basically carry the film on their burdened shoulders and they are quite up to the challenge. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Gint, and especially Emma Watson deliver heartbreaking performances that in a different genre might have netted them year-end awards. As we round the final curve, Harry Potter finally earns his place among the great fantasy franchises of our time.
How to Train Your Dragon
In a different year, this would have arguably been the top cartoon. But coming in second-place is no shame when your movie is this bloody good. This Dreamworks animated fable tells a simple tale of a young man befriending a baby dragon in a society where dragons and humans are sworn enemies. The vocal cast (Jay Baruchel, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, etc) shines, with Gerald Butler giving the best performance of his career as a loving but conflicted father. This was the one film that was worth every penny of that IMAX 3D ticket, as it told its thoughtful and moving geopolitical parable in high visual style. This is a beautiful movie, inside and out.
The Karate Kid
This was easily the year's happiest surprise. The much ridiculed remake of the 1984 classic got the last laugh, as the picture was a moving and compelling character drama on its own merits. Jaden Smith has obvious charisma, but also genuine instincts on when to turn off the charm. Jackie Chan delivers the performance of his career, which in a less crowded year would have netted his first Oscar nomination. The film works by refusing to coast on the coattails of its predecessor, and by refusing to condescend to its young audience. It's an intelligent and thoughtful motion picture, and stands by the original with pride. This was actually the year's biggest hit that didn't play in 3D or IMAX. Perhaps that's because it was one of the summer's few big movies that made quality its highest priority.
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole
This was the one movie that I missed in theaters that I instantly regretted. I can only imagine how beautiful this must have looked in IMAX 3D. The plot is basically a mishmash of Lord of the Rings and The Dark Crystal, but it's told with a genuine cynicism toward the whole 'hero warrior myth'. In this film, war is tragic and ugly, with no winners and only survivors. But the reason it makes the list is that Zack Snyder's adventure story is the most beautiful movie released this year, bar none. Every image is frame-worthy. Every scene is astonishingly detailed and lifelike. I liked watching this picture, but how I loved looking at it.
Let Me In
This was the year's best horror film, and it gives American remakes of foreign horror films a good name. Whether or not this Matt Reeves picture is better than the original Let the Right One In is frankly irrelevant. Both are richly atmospheric and strikingly acted mood pieces. Reeves makes enough token changes to make the film his own, often replacing the clinical detachment of the original with a tighter and more character-centric look. Chloe Moretz gives an Oscar-worthy turn, and Elias Koteas again proves that he's arguably the industry's most valuable character actor.
Yes, that's right Mega Piranha. This is one of the few SyFy monster movies that actually delivers what it promises. You want giant piranha crashing into buildings, eating whole houses, causing massive explosions, and generally killing the hell out of everything in sight? Well, early and often folks, early and often. You get the requisite carnage, plus the goofy kick of Paul Logan doing his best Jason Bourne/Horatio Caine/Jack Bauer impression amidst the carnage. Like Chris Klein in Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li, Logan gives a heroic performance every bit as awesome as the ones you delivered when you played in your backyard as a youngster. You haven't lived until you've seen Logan kick-box a piranha. Edited like a cheap episode of 24, and featuring straight-but-goofy turns by 80s pop-star Tiffany and Barry Williams, this craptastic delight delivers in a way that Mega Shark Vs. Giant Octopus could only dream of. God I loved this stupid, wonderful piece of pure fun.
Joon-ho Bong's follow-up to The Host applies that same weirdly inappropriate humor to a genuinely gripping thriller that would truly make Hitchcock proud. Hye-ja Kim delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as an overbearing mother of a developmentally-disabled adult child. After her son is arrested and charged with the murder of a schoolgirl, she sets out to clear her son's name. That's all you need to know. But this one is a doozy, plain and simple.
Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy
I was hopelessly behind on seeing documentary films this year. But while Inside Job may have made the cut, one cannot deny the astonishing wealth of information found on this retrospective documentary of the original eight Nightmare on Elm Street series. The feature itself is four hours long, with a second disc containing another four hours. And every single bit of it is worth seeing. With interviews with probably 90% of the relevant talent and a refreshing honesty regarding the uneven franchise, there isn't an ounce of fat to be found on any of the eight hours of interviews and documentary footage. If this project came about because of the Nightmare on Elm Street remake, then it was all worth it.
This Tony Scott yarn, easily his best since Enemy of the State, is a perfect example of the kind of movie that they just don't make enough of anymore. This lean and mean little thriller concerns two over-their-head train operators (Denzel Washington and Chris Pine) attempting to stop a runaway train filled with explosively toxic chemicals that is heading into populated areas. With smart characters who ask the same questions we would, just enough character development to make us care, and just enough class commentary to make it socially relevant, this terrific action picture was one of the most enjoyable theater going experiences I had last year. That it got made means that Hollywood can deliver on the basics. That it rebounded after a soft box office opening due to word of mouth means that there is still an audience for this kind of old-fashioned thrill-ride.
Arguably the best live-action picture of the year, this tense and moving thriller contains two of the best performances of the year. Jennifer Lawrence deservedly got the lion's share of the media, but John Hawkes delivers a career-best turn as well. The plot is simple and stark: a young woman must track down her criminal father after he puts up the house as collateral and then apparently jumps bail. But the film presents a look at the devastatingly poor backwoods communities and how meth did just as much damage there as much as 1980s explosion of crack/cocaine in the inner-cities. The film never glamorizes nor lingers on the obvious hardships, and it is refreshingly unsentimental. Most importantly, Winter's Bone never tries to be about every person living in Ozark Mountain or similar areas of America, but instead is about a single young girl who finds herself surrounded by family, but rendered completely alone by her inability to count on anyone other than herself.
And now, the best film of 2010. It was an easy call:
Toy Story 3
I've written quite a bit about this one, so I'll try to avoid repetition. But the film is the most enjoyable, funniest, most exciting, and most moving cinematic experience of the year, bar none. It is perhaps the finest 'part 3' ever, and closes out perhaps the finest trilogy in film history with a climax that perhaps tops the two prior masterpieces. If it were a live-action film, it would be the front-runner at the Oscars. No film was more haunting and no film was more powerful. Tom Hanks caps off his finest character with his best performance in years. Pixar caps off their crown jewel series with perhaps their best film to date (to argue whether it's better than Up, The Incredibles, or the prior Toy Story films is kinda silly). I presume most of you have already seen this film and have decided what it meant for you. So I'll simply say that Toy Story 3 is my favorite film of 2010, and it darn-well is probably the best film of 2010 to boot.
And that's a wrap for this year, folks. Feel free to share your thoughts and check out the rest of the year-end wrap up. For more, read the various year-end wrap-ups for 2009, 2008, and 2006.