It's been awhile since I've had the urge to act like a film critic. A few years ago I hung up the notebook. My heart was no longer in it. The idea had finally sunk into my thick head that I wanted to make movies rather than criticize them. This is not meant to defame critics. They serve an important purpose and the good ones are invaluable. The others... well, let's not get into that. Since making my decision I've been working hard at writing and the process has changed my perception of movies.
This top ten list is not the product of a critic but someone with an eye toward creating films. It's not about film criticism but instead what grabs me as a film maker. That's really what I wanted to write about, the power of film and what I'm trying to learn and (hopefully) apply from it.
To get on this list, the movie has to be one that I am drawn back to powerfully. Something about it, be it the cinematography, acting, writing or directing is so powerful that I want to experience it over and over again. In my days as a critic, at times my top ten lists could include movies that impressed me with their virtuosity but I never went back to revisit. That won't be the case here. Every movie on this list is one I've either seen more than once or can't wait to see again. This is about being deeply in love with a film. Something about them touched me in a way that makes me unreasonably happy.
10. Shutter Island
I'm a sucker for unreliable narrators. I doubt any of us are ever completely honest when describing our self or our lives. So when a movie effectively takes the viewpoint of a character and then slowly lets us know that person is either lying to us or themselves, I'm hooked. Martin Scorsese layers on the hints and clues through out the movie, making sure we know something is wrong. We just can't tell what. And he doesn't go for the sudden moment of yanking the rug out from under us. It's a slow build and he lets gives his actors the space to add to the mystery in their own ways. This is a movie that plays even better the second time around as you watch the movie with new eyes.
You almost certainly didn't see this movie. It came and went from theaters without causing a ripple. I would have missed it myself if I hadn't been tipped off by my friend, the astute William Bibbiani. See? Good critics do serve a purpose. This French movie is a delightfully whimsical tale of revenge. Yes, you read that right. It is about people living in a junkyard, building inspired contraptions and using their odd talents to seek revenge on a pair of weapons manufacturers. The creativity and cleverness on display here is such that I stared at the screen with a big goofy grin on my face almost the whole way through. There is a theme running through the movie about human ingenuity, particularly when struggling with obstacles, that I found irresistible.
8. How To Train Your Dragon
This movie caught me off guard. I try to take my kids to just about anything aimed at them, because I love movies and want them to love them too. Most of the time, the kiddie flicks are rather lacking but you have to start somewhere. So my expectations weren't terribly high. Dreamworks hadn't exactly been knocking it out of the park with their animated movies of late. Boy did that change in a hurry. The core of this movie is the developing relationship between the viking Hiccup and a dragon he names Toothless. The connection between them and how it grows over the movie is just masterful storytelling. And it builds up to a scene of the two flying that took my breath away. That might be my single favorite scene of the entire year. It's gorgeous and exhilarating and comes as the payoff to a slow build up of friendship that gives it a powerful emotional punch that floored me.
7. Toy Story 3
What are the odds that a third movie in a series is going to even be good, never mind excellent? How many third movies can you think of that are genuinely great? All I can come up with are Return of the Jedi and Return of the King. Add Toy Story 3 to that list. I have a love for Pixar that borders on creepy obsession. And yet every time a new Pixar movie comes out, I think this is the one that finally lets us down. Nobody puts out a streak of great movies like this. No one. And yet their streak remains intact. This movie has probably the most powerful emotional punch of this entire list. The third act is so deeply moving that I spent almost all of it literally biting my tongue to avoid letting out large embarrassing sobs. Kudos to screenwriter Michael Arndt who is quickly becoming one of my favorites (he previously wrote Little Miss Sunshine).
6. The King's Speech
This is the movie on the list that gets where it is by being so thoroughly good on all levels that it seems almost unreal. I caught this as the final film at the FilmColumbia festival. I knew absolutely nothing about it at the time, apart from having caught constant whispers from various folks at the festival saying it was the best of the bunch. That wasn't quite true but it was damn close. The performances by Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth are great in that they don't feel like performances. They feel like real people and thus their relationship builds in a satisfying manner. It's quite similar to How To Train Your Dragon, minus the scales and flying. But it too culminates in a moment that carries a great emotional moment. It's also a gorgeously shot film. The scene where Bertie and Lionel argue in the fog is one of the prettiest of the year.
5. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
It was a box office flop sadly. But probably a predictable one. The comic book geek set was sure to attend and most everyone else saw the trailer and asked, “What the hell was that?” It's a fair enough question. It's a movie bursting with so much creativity and style that you'll probably need to watch it a bunch of times just to catch every little thing. I always had a problem with musicals because everything would stop for a musical number because someone was having an emotional moment. This movie takes the same approach, except it substitutes wild superhero level fight scenes for dancing. Writer/director Edgar Wright was already a favorite of mine thanks to Spaced, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. But working without longtime partner Simon Pegg for the first time in a movie, he proved his brand of genius is genuine.
4. The Social Network
Two minutes into this movie I was marveling at the breakneck pace of the dialogue. A couple minutes later I had forgotten about that and become thoroughly fascinated with this cinematic version of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg. Is he true to the real life figure? I don't know and I don't care. As a movie character he is impossible to take your eyes off of. Writer Aaron Sorkin has outdone himself with this script. And in the gifted hands of director David Fincher, this movie is deeply engrossing. The best compliment I can give it is that when it ended, I really wanted it to keep going. I didn't even care where it would go, just that it would.
3. Exit Through the Gift Shop
Early in this movie the street artist known as Banksy sits down for an interview and says that this is about a guy who tried to make a movie about Banksy but turned out to be a lot more interesting instead. That alone could make for a great documentary but add in the birth and growth of a new art scene and a truly deft approach to the immortal question of what qualifies as art and you have something special. It is funny, surprising and deep. Talk to someone about this movie and you'll find that it's just about impossible not to get into a lengthy debate about the issues dealt with in it. And don't let the subject matter turn you off. I knew next to nothing about Banksy or street art in general and dearly loved this movie. So much so that I went back and watched it the very next day and have been trying to talk people into seeing it ever since.
This movie may inspire even more debates than Exit Through the Gift Shop does. It seems like just about everyone comes away from this movie with a slightly different take on it. Love it or hate it though, they all want to argue about it with anyone else who has seen it. I'll sidestep all that because I'm not interested in debating the details right now. I just want to talk about how much I love it's (literally) multiple levels, fascinating ideas and amazing visuals. The anti-gravity hallway fight left my jaw on the floor. And I'm also thrilled that an intelligent movie based on no previous movie/book/TV show/video game/board game/comic book/fortune cookie could be a monstrous hit at the box office. It's a message that Hollywood desperately needed to hear this year.
1. Black Swan
If you told me last year that my favorite movie of this year would be about ballet, I would have hurt myself laughing. This is one of the things that I love about movies. Done well, any subject can make a great movie. And it only took the opening sequence to suck me in. It's an astonishing moment where the camera follows the ballet from just a couple feet behind. We're so used to static wide angle shots of ballet that completely fail to capture the power and elegance of it. And from that moment on we're plunged into a world of a woman desperate in her quest for perfection. Natalie Portman gives the best performance of her life. I mentioned earlier that I love an unreliable narrator. Here we have a deeply unhinged one. Director Darren Aronofsky isn't going for subtle here. He sets an unrelenting tone of ambition and paranoia that is incredibly effective. His earlier film Requiem for a Dream was similarly unrelenting in pounding on the viewer but with Black Swan, Aronofsky finds a much deeper emotional ground. So instead of feeling beat up, the audience can be frightened, disturbed and exhilarated.
Really quickly, let me say that my list is imperfect as I didn't see every movie. Notable misses include 127 Hours, Never Let Me Go, The Fighter and Blue Valentine. I'm sure I'll catch up to them eventually but for what I actually saw in 2010, this is an accurate list.
Just as quickly, let me toss out a few honorable mentions. Mike Leigh's Another Year is a sweet comedy that is warmly endearing. The indie comedy Tiny Furniture is uncomfortably funny and a bit of a breakthrough for digital film making. It was shot entirely on Canon 7D DSLRs, which use the exact same sensor as the camera I use. If you know cameras, you're impressed right now. Winter's Bone is a great indie drama that perfectly captures an area. I've also found the reaction of people to it can tell you a lot about that person. True Grit is the best western we've had in many a year. Red Hill is a kick ass Australian revenge thriller pseudo-western. Finally, I loved White Irish Drinkers, but it's actually coming to theaters in 2011, so call it an early contender for the next top ten list.