As a film school graduate, I’m afraid I have an obligation to take entertainment way too seriously. That’s why, when awards season rolls around, I can’t help but partake in the senseless, arbitrary, and totally nerdy critic’s pastime of ranking all the films I saw and compiling a Top Ten List.
And since 2011’s award season has already come and gone (catch “Best Of Film 2011” for more on that), why not retroactively look back at movies from other years that were just as good?
(This list originally appeared on FabApp last year.)
Highlights of 2010 included Ryan Gosling channeling Norman Bates in drag; beloved Disney characters nearly being burned to a crisp; Nicole Kidman’s child getting hit by a car; a mentally unstable Korean lady solving crimes; and Leonardo DiCaprio freaking out about what is real, harassed by his dead wife (for the second time — see also: Shutter Island).
Meanwhile, the year’s five best films featured Julianne Moore getting impregnated by and sleeping with Mark Ruffalo, but not in that order; Natalie Portman lezzing out with Mila Kunis and sprouting feathers; a chipper Australian lady plotting the death of her teenage grandson; a punk, prophet, and billionaire who nobody “likes”; and Ryan Gosling in his second role of 2010 where a dog’s death serves as a harbinger of the expiration of his marriage, too.
So here they are…
10. ALL GOOD THINGS
It all starts off nicely enough: privileged rich boy meets nice middle-class girl. They fall in love, get married, and move to the country; but then daddy pressures son to take over the family business, the happy couple moves to the big city, wife discovers husband may have sociopathic tendencies… and things slowly… start… unraveling.
You know that moment in a horror flick when you’re yelling at the blonde chick to run while she still has the chance? That moment lasts for years in the life of Katie Marks. “David, is there something wrong with you?” she timidly asks her husband at one point. (“Something wrong” is a bit of an understatement.) Based on the real-life, never-solved disappearance of Kathy Durst (names changed to protect the guilty), director Andrew Jarecki takes us to crime scenes and courtrooms in fairly predictable fashion, but what elevates this above Lifetime movie-of-the-week status is the initially sweet, then gradually disturbing relationship between the young lovers, a marriage slowly but surely decaying, building to inevitable tragedy.
As gloomy, troubled husband David, Gosling gives a startling and subtly disquieting performance while Kirsten Dunst anchors the film as the ill-fated Katie. She’s never been better. If the film is guilty of anything, it’s of being too short; the “unconventional” relationship between David and an elderly neighbor played by Philip Baker Hall demands more fleshing out (it could easily be its own movie).
The latter half of All Good Things zips by like a really good episode of Law & Order, playing coy about the facts while leaving us with little doubt about what actually happened to Kathy (hint: not all good things). But a number of novelties make this a story well worth watching — not least of which is the chance to see Ryan Gosling in extremely unflattering drag during a section of the film that plays like Zodiac meets Tootsie. Only a true story could be this unbelievable.
Whittling down the year’s films to the ten “best” is no easy feat; one hopes to be well-rounded, choosing from blockbusters and indies alike, while trying to represent animation, documentaries, and foreign films, too. Which is why it pained me to have to choose between two very different films telling wildly different stories about motherhood: Bong Joon-ho’s Korean Mother, and Rodrigo Garcia’s Mother And Child.
The former is a masterfully crafted mystery with elements of horror and film noir, transcending both genres thanks to its fantastic exploration of mental illness, murder, and the maternal instinct; it stars Kim Hye-ja in an unforgettable role as a woman with an unhealthy attachment to her mentally challenged offspring, desperately tracking a killer in hopes of getting her son out of jail.
Meanwhile, Mother And Child is a moving drama about the circle of life (cue lion cub raised to the sun), concerning three stories in which adoption plays a central role. Annette Bening stars as an even bitchier mom than the role she was Oscar-nominated for, still conflicted about giving up her only child 37 years after the fact. It’s hardly a flawless film — the latter half sags a bit, and at times, veers dangerously close to being sappy (in some of Bening’s later scenes and, most egregiously, with a blind character who should have been left on the cutting room floor).But far outweighing any criticism is the impressive interweaving of stories, at once intimate and universal, and the chance to see a pitch-perfect ensemble of actors playing fully-realized characters (Kerry Washington, Cherry Jones, Shareeka Epps, and Jimmy Smits amongst them). The storyline involving ice-cold attorney Elizabeth, embodied by Naomi Watts in her most arresting performance in ages, is transfixing and utterly heartbreaking; she’s a fierce yet fragile man-eater who uses sex as both solace and weapon. Her affair with boss Samuel L. Jackson gives us the rare opportunity to see that actor’s softer, gentler side in a part that is not in any way badass. (Maybe his agent told him the movie was called Motherfucker And Child?) Aided by Edward Shearmur’s haunting score, Mother and Child gave me one of the most moving experiences I had at the movies this year.
Both films have so much to say about the sacrifices moms make for their kids, so I am plugging the one that most personally resonated with me, Mother And Child, while acknowledging that Mother is a slightly more competent, one-of-a-kind film. (Just see both of them.) I’m going to go out on a limb and say Mother has the saddest dance number in the history of cinema; I won’t spoil it, but the opening scene is one of the most unexpected and delightful of all time, setting up a daring film that defies categorization and never goes quite where you expect it to. (And in the end, it all comes full circle, too.) I knew right then that I was a little bit in love with Mother; trust me, you’ll know right away whether or not this unconventional gem is for you.
8. TOY STORY 3
Another year, another Pixar masterpiece. Does anybody else churn out such consistently good material?
Still, my expectations were only so-so given that this was a three-quel coming out fifteen years after the original. (Kinda makes you feel old, doesn’t it?) But rather than rehash the same ol’ (toy) story, Toy Story 3 pushes its characters in a fresh, emotionally mature direction that truly feels like the completion of a trilogy, not a mere cash grab.
That the film is loaded with Pixar’s trademark okay-for-kids, even-better-for-grown-ups humor goes without saying — witness genius touches like the Chatter Telephone acting as a Deep Throat-style informant, the hilariously grim clown who fills in the villain’s backstory, and of course Michael Keaton voicing the flamboyant metrosexual Ken. It’s a treat just to spend time with Woody, Buzz, and the gang as the film begins, but when Toy Story 3 becomes a prison-escape flick complete with an uber-creepy giant baby doll acting as prison guard, it soars as pure, exhilarating escapist entertainment.
And leave it to Pixar to take a few smart risks, like actually making us question the fate of these plucky playthings as they accept their mortality in the face of a looming incinerator. Yes, for a moment I actually believed that this Disney cartoon might end with our cherished heroes meeting a gruesome, fiery end. Now that’s good storytelling. When was the last time a family film actually left us in suspense about whether or not there’d be a happy ending?
This one’s, at least, is bittersweet — the franchise has grown up, and so have we. It’s not often the year’s highest-grossing film is one of the best. But life, like a Pixar movie, is chockful full of pleasant surprises.
7. RABBIT HOLE
Sorry, but I’ve found few films more grating and off-putting than John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, while Hedwig And The Angry Inch merely left me shrugging. So I’m overjoyed that the man has redeemed himself with one of the year’s tightest, tautest dramas — and one of the most seamless stage-to-screen adaptations I’ve ever seen.
Unlike Shortbus, which primarily relied on amateur actors (and it showed), Rabbit Hole features a master class of performers at the peak of their craft, turning in some of the best work of their careers. It’s the year’s most solid ensemble. Nicole Kidman has received well-deserved raves as grieving housewife Becca, struggling to move on after the loss of a child before she’s found the desire to; Aaron Eckhart is equally superb as the boy’s father Howie, yearning to reconnect with his wife after the tragedy — and gradually losing faith that such a thing will ever be possible.
As “his” and “hers” support beams, Dianne Wiest and Sandra Oh are both highly appealing, but relative unknown Miles Teller is an understated revelation in his role as a teenager who… let’s just say has “something” to do with all this. (To say more would be a major spoiler.) It’s his character who really anchors the film and allows Becca to come to terms with what happened — she tumbled into a rabbit hole that took her to a strange, unfamiliar place, and she will be forever changed because of it.
The script (adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his play) is near-flawless and not nearly as grim as the subject matter might suggest. This is not a movie about loss, but about taking stock of what’s left afterward. Rather than lead us on a dark downward spiral as the title suggests, instead we are guided from a murky place to an increasingly hopeful one. A curious trajectory for such a story — but a welcome one indeed.
Let’s just get this out of the way — no, Inception is not a perfect film, as some of its most ardent fans might insist. The screenplay is heavy on exposition, short on character development, and that lengthy snowbound sequence seems like a missed opportunity to conjure up a much more unique and stunning dreamscape.
Still, for those who managed to fall under Christopher Nolan’s unique spell anyway, no other film this year was quite so hypnotic. Hans Zimmer’s enthralling score, the mesmerizing editing, and of course, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s instantly-iconic anti-gravity fight scene — this is a blockbuster of the highest order, and Nolan must be credited for somehow pulling off a mega-budgeted two-and-a-half hour joyride through his (arguably too straightforward and logical) subconscious. In a marketplace crowded with box office behemoths that play it safe, here is one film that truly delivers on spectacle. (Plus, whether or not that wobbly top eventually falls or not is the year’s liveliest cinematic debate.)
I attended a midnight showing on the eve of the film’s release, resulting in one of the most memorable moviegoing forays of my lifetime. The lights came up around 3 AM in a packed house, everyone chattering breathlessly about a cinematic experience that can truly be called mind-blowing; I practically had to pinch myself to be sure that this wasn’t just another layer in Nolan’s meta-movie. (In other words, it was a total trip.)
And isn’t it refreshing to see a title on the silver screen without a number or “The Movie” after it, not based on a comic strip or theme park ride or a long-forgotten TV series? A film that caters to sentient adults rather than fan boys? Kudos to the director of the third biggest movie of all time (The Dark Knight) for planting a wild notion in Hollywood’s head: original ideas can make money, too! Let this be a wakeup call. If Inception paves the way for more auteurs at Nolan’s level to craft such dazzling fusions of art and commerce, it truly will be a dream come true.
5. BLUE VALENTINE
“You always hurt the one you love,” Ryan Gosling croons goofily (and prophetically) on his first date with Michelle Williams in this film’s most charming scene. From there, it’s all downhill.
Any film that begins with the untimely demise of the family pooch is bound to be a downer, and in that respect, Blue Valentine does not skimp. It’s a wrenching eyewitness account of the dying days of what was probably never an ideal match in the first place. The film spends no time examining what, exactly, went wrong, or placing blame on either spouse for the union’s flatlining; Dean and Cindy have merely drifted apart, as people do, and are now scrambling to find any last measly scrap of what they once shared to hold onto. Unfortunately, they’re coming up empty-handed.
In his second portrayal of a short-fused hubby this year, Oscar-snubbed Ryan Gosling is once again aged up thanks to the magic of makeup (even prematurely balding!). Here, as in All Good Things, his performance is unnerving — we don’t know exactly what Dean is capable of, and we get the sense he doesn’t either. As Cindy, Oscar-nommed Michelle Williams looks constantly fed up and drained of all energy; it only takes one glance at her to realize she’s felt this way for years.
Of course, neither started off this way: in flashbacks, we see Dean pursue Cindy. He’s charming and persistent, she’s coy and reluctant — trying her best not to fall for him, but failing miserably. They’re pretty young things with their whole lives ahead of them; trouble is, we also see exactly what those lives have in store, and it’s devastating. Director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance uses this structure artfully, giving us information out of context, then flashing back later to connect the dots. (For example, when Dean and Cindy visit a tacky themed motel room, he puts some music on, and she’s unimpressed; later, we watch the young lovers choose this as “their” song, adding a whole new layer to the scene we saw previously.)
And few films have ever had so much riding on their end credits — juxtaposed with the joyful sound of fireworks on the 4th of July, we see stills of the happy couple during their courtship, glossed-up and color-brightened. It’s reminiscent of the way we look back on our own lives as a series of snapshots, more vivid now than they were back then; Blue Valentine is stark, unflinching, and absent any flashy cinematic flourishes until this coda. It is only through those final images that we see what Dean and Cindy had, what they lost, and too late. Because now the story’s over.
4. THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
Unfortunately but inevitably hyped as the Lesbian Moms Movie, it’s impossible to look at The Kids Are All Right without examining it through the lens of social context as a Message Movie. Yep, it confirms — gay parents can raise normal, well-adjusted children too! Score one for the left.
Yet The Kids Are All Right also has the audacity to portray both the “Momses” as flawed individuals, giving critics of same-sex partnerships plenty of ammo with which to judge (though anyone pointing to adultery and an over-reliance on red wine as tokens of dysfunctional gay parenting has clearly not examined many heterosexual unions lately, either). This story would work just as well centered on a boring ol’ straight couple, but as focused on two well-drawn, realistic gay women, an added layer of complexity is added (along with a progressive buzz factor). It’s a breath of fresh air to see characters who are truly alive, living their lives moment by moment rather than as some preordained plot tells them to. These people fuck up and then deal with the consequences.
Often, this unconventional tale threatens to veer off course and become too sentimental or too predictable — too Hollywoodized or too indie — but to director/co-writer Lisa Cholodenko’s credit, it doesn’t. Annette Bening is marvelous as the wine-guzzling wronged wife, deservedly Oscar-nominated; however, Julianne Moore has the tougher role as a free-spirited cheater, and she nails it — allowing the audience to cringe at and sympathize with her actions simultaneously, all while giving what might be the funniest performance of her career. And as the titular kids, Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska are quite a bit better than merely “all right.” They ground the movie. The joke of the title is that young Joni and Laser are doing just fine, whereas the moms are the ones who find themselves in a bit of a mess.
Mark Ruffalo also deserves his due in another tricky role, the sperm-donating man-child, keen on being a dad to two nearly-grown kids until he realizes that means having a responsibility to them, too. The climactic door slammed in his face has been misread by some critics as a curt dismissal of his character, but no. The scene slyly says it all — this family in crisis already has two loving parents, and no last-minute appearance from an absentee father figure is necessary to save them. It’s love and commitment, not biology, that matters here.
So relax, conservatives. In the end, the kids are indeed all right — and this movie is even better.
3. THE SOCIAL NETWORK
What to say that hasn’t already been said more eloquently? Yes, the “Facebook movie” (perhaps you’ve heard of it?) is the year’s most acclaimed film. It’s a rare masterpiece, a movie that is not only relevant to (as Justin Timberlake states, with a flourish) “our time,” but couldn’t exist outside of it.
It’s only fitting that a story about the creation of a website that altered the way human beings interact with one another would somehow feel interactive; each of us, in our way, is a part of this movie. We remember first learning about “the Facebook” (and stubbornly shaving off the “the” when mentioning it to our friends); it seems like only yesterday we created our account, blissfully unaware that we were, in effect, signing away our privacy and everything we knew then about social interaction. And then we witnessed the world change around it — but we hardly noticed, did we? At least until Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher made a movie that reminded us just how far we’ve come in under a decade.
In that way, The Social Network is terrifying. Ten years ago, the word “friend” had several less connotations; now, here is a story about a boy (not a man) who played a large part in changing that, by selling out his own friends in pursuit of a greater glory. To successfully build an empire that connects people all over the world, this movie’s Zuckerberg disengages from every last meaningful relationship in his own life; a guy with 500 million Facebook friends and zero real ones. Is this an accurate representation of Mark Zuckerberg? Doubtful — but the one played by Jesse Eisenberg is subbing for all of us; and he, like most of us, seems unaware of the vast disconnect between social network and actual, physical person-to-person interaction. (And isn’t it ironic that the man who allowed us to self-publish and edit the way the rest of the world sees us has issues with how he’s portrayed in the movie?)
Some critics have hailed this as the movie that defines our generation, when actually, it’s anything but. This is not a story about Facebook as we know it — the social network is not really put in context as the global phenom it’s become. (The film’s masterful trailer says more about how Facebook has infiltrated our everyday lives than the film even attempts to.) Instead, this tale of a power-hungry tyrant sacrificing loved ones like lambs in his rise to the top is as old as storytelling itself. What’s fresh is that it’s been made now, before we’ve truly taken to time reflect on what all this burgeoning technology has done to us. (This will be a fascinating film to revisit in five, ten, twenty, one hundred — any amount of years.) The Social Network is about the changing of the guard as the power baton is begrudgingly handed from crusty, Ivy League traditionalists to flip flop-wearing kids from the suburbs. Old school “connections” no longer matter. What does? A great idea. Whether or not Zuckerberg actually stole Facebook is irrelevant; what this film tells us is that in this day and age, it doesn’t matter.
Fincher should win an Oscar for bringing his trademark shadowy, menacing edge to otherwise-banal scenes of college kids typing and partying; Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross cannot go unrecognized for elevating what’s on screen with their innovative score, which pulses with techno fury swirling around a melancholy black void. A trio of actors could practically fill up the Best Supporting Actor category by themselves: Justin Timberlake, who brings a cool rock star vibe to the role of Napster creator Sean Parker, providing this film with a necessary jolt of mischief and hedonism; Armie Hammer, who nails two roles as Winklevoss twins who might as well have been named Abercrombie and Fitch, never portraying them as the pretty boy caricatures they easily could be; and future Spider-Man Andrew Garfield, finally getting the recognition he deserves as the film’s most (well, only) likable male. (The fact that all three were shut out of the Oscar race probably speaks to the fact that voters were divided — they were all so good.) And that poster? That trailer? If only there were an Oscar for Best Marketing, Social Network would have it in the bag.
Or, in short? I “like” it.
2. ANIMAL KINGDOM
This awards season, Winter’s Bone is the crime drama du jour according to the critics, while Ben Affleck’s The Town is the one that scored with audiences. Both are solid films, but this Aussie treasure takes the best aspects of each and one-ups them both, blending a kinetic cinematic sensibility with tense, heady drama. (Plus, Australian accents are way hotter than the Ozarks or Boston’s.)
David Michod’s assured directorial debut has been described as “GoodFellas Down Under,” but Animal Kingdom doesn’t have that movie’s sprawling grandiosity. As a filmmaker, Michod has more in common with Paul Thomas Anderson (witness the way he uses Air Supply’s “All Out of Love” to simultaneously amuse and unnerve). Our hero here is J, aimless and mumbly, the most average teenage boy imaginable. He turns to his saccharine-sweet grandma for help after his mom dies of a drug overdose (it’s a killer of an opening scene, in the most understated way possible). For a long while, we think grandma’s taking him under her wing; actually, she’s thrown him to the wolves.
At grandmother’s house, J gets acquainted with his criminal uncles — he’s a helpless cub amongst full-grown, feral lions. We expect this to be another tale of a naive youth seduced and then consumed by the excess of the underbelly; instead, it’s a relentlessly taut story of survival in this man-made jungle, as we join this family on the eve of its inevitable decline. One by one, the uncles are picked off by their enemies — the Cody clan is a dying species, rapidly going extinct. As a detective played by Guy Pearce assures J, it’s survival of the fittest; aligning himself with his family’s unstable ringleader (Ben Mendelsohn) can only end badly for everyone involved. But won’t defying his ferocious uncle have the same bloody result?
Unlike most American crime stories, there is no glamorization of the underworld. The killings are sad and shocking, all actions have consequences, and the innocent suffer just as much as the guilty. Yet the most alluring reason to see Animal Kingdom is to delight in the performance of Oscar-nominated Jacki Weaver as the cheerfully sinister grandmother — a grinning dingo more than willing to eat her own young if need be. “You’ve done some bad things, sweetie,” she coos deliciously in one scene. Witnessing those bad things has seldom been so good.
1. BLACK SWAN
2010 might best be remembered as the year in which movies went all schizo on us — a number of documentaries (Catfish, Exit Through The Gift Shop, I’m Still Here) and narrative films (Inception, The Social Network, Shutter Island) blurred the lines between fact and fiction, and/or made us question what is real and what is a fantasy/lie/delusion/dream. And no film did that quite so artfully (or blatantly) as Darren Aronofsky’s dark triumph Black Swan, which jolts adventurous movie-lovers with a dizzying dose of pure cinematic ecstasy.
At its grim, gorgeous core, Black Swan is essentially a horror movie set in the ballet world (let’s take a moment to marvel that it ever got made). And I’ll readily admit that, like all of Aronofsky’s work, it’s not a film for everyone; you’ll either surrender to it or not. Some have dismissed the intense psychodrama as an overcooked thriller, and that’s exactly what it would have been in the hands of any paint-by-numbers filmmaker. But you can feel Aronofsky’s vice grip on every frame as he follows Natalie Portman with a handheld camera, restraining the viewer almost to the point of repression, locking us in her mind. (It’s similar to the shooting style he employed in Black Swan’s male counterpart The Wrestler, also concerning a person whose body is their livelihood, who will stop at nothing to achieve greatness in their chosen profession. Separately, both films are brilliant, yet each enhances the other when viewed as companion pieces.)
A muted color palette, so drab and yet so pink, only adds to the claustrophobia — and speaks volumes about our protagonist, too. The cast is uniformly solid, with Mila Kunis stealing scenes left and right as the “black swan” Nina yearns to be; and of course Portman will win a richly deserved Oscar as the doomed ballerina. But the real showstopper here is Aronofsky, a brave, bold filmmaker unafraid to go for the jugular. (“Less is more” is probably not one of his favorite sayings.) The camerawork is breathtaking throughout, most notably in Nina’s intoxicating climactic dance, in which, yes, he “goes there” by having her sprout feathers. Witness the film’s most exhilarating series of events as Nina is drugged at a club, makes out with a stranger in a dingy bathroom, engages in an explosive fight with her (over-?)protective mother, and hooks up with Mila Kunis (or does she?). It’s an assault of sound and fury that has us tripping right along with our rapidly unraveling heroine.Black Swan is what a movie should be: vibrant, visceral, with bombastic music and eye-popping costumes and breathtaking cinematography and a big, over-the-top finale that actually means something. (Creative types will especially identify with Nina’s arc.) It’s a high-art thrill ride. But is there a hint of camp? Absolutely! Black Swan strikes the perfect balance between trash and sophistication. That’s why I so dearly love Darren Aronofsky, one of few filmmakers willing to take us to Crazy Town. Yet he’s able to do so without losing control of a credible, stirring story. At times, Black Swan tows the line of going a little too bonkers (screaming paintings!), but in the end, comes together so exquisitely in service of Nina’s transformation. Poor Nina does exactly what’s been asked of her by her lecherous director, unaware of the monster he’s created.
And here’s the clincher — Black Swan follows in the grand tradition of Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino with a playful, vaguely self-referential closing line (“I’m finished!” and “I think this just might be my masterpiece” from There Will Be Blood and Inglourious Basterds, respectively). “I was perfect,” Nina whispers just before curtain. She may as well be speaking for the film itself.
Who says a nutso melodrama can’t be a masterpiece?