As with my 2009 list, I will not call this a Best Of 2010 list, since there are still plenty of movies that I have not yet seen. CASINO JACK, BLUE VALENTINE and ANOTHER YEAR have yet to open in my neighborhood. I missed others that I had high hopes for including HOWL, LAST TRAIN HOME and CATFISH.
10. LET ME IN, written & directed by Matt Reeves. It is sacrilege in nerd circles to praise a remake, but in adapting the 2008 Swedish chiller LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, Reeves creates that rare remake that is as good as its source. The American version hones the story to the core, simplifying some supporting roles, but deepening the longing and isolation of the two leads — a bullied young boy and the new girl in town who is so much more than she seems. One aspect of the original that is happily left intact is the period, the early 1980’s, allowing for a Ronald Reagan cameo that resonates heavily with the overall theme.
9. INSIDE JOB, directed by Charles Ferguson, and CLIENT 9: THE RISE AND FALL OF ELIOT SPITZER, written & directed by Alex Gibney.
Hollywood crime movies and 007 villains will have big shoes to fill following the portrayal of the players in the 2008 global financial crisis depicted in these two documentaries. Ferguson’s JOB casts an impressively wide net within its restrained running time, bringing us face to face not only with how far reaching the damage was, but how deep the well of corruption remains. Gibney’s CLIENT 9 narrows its focus to one of the few people who tried to police the network that created this event. As an economic or political story, Gibney’s film is made more interesting if you have already seen Ferguson’s. As a story of the price of hubris, Gibney’s film speaks to the ages as a classic cautionary tale.
8. CELL 211, directed and co-written by Daniel Monzon.
This Spanish thriller makes the absolute most of an intense premise: a young prison guard on his first day of work becomes trapped inside during a riot and pretends to be an inmate to survive. It touches on multiple arguments in the question of prison reform without ever become preachy. If nothing else, see it for Luis Tosar as king of the block Malamadre, in one of those performances that raises the bar for anyone else who tries to play bad@$$ from here on out. Hopefully Tosar is at least being considered for the planned 2013 American remake.
7. TOY STORY 3, directed and co-written by Lee Unkrich.
I may be such a sucker for Pixar that I should start titling my list “9 Favorites + Pixar’s annual offering.” Time and again these folks come up with characters and stories that resonate with the changes and challenges life throws at people of all ages. The story at its most basic follows the adventures of Andy’s toys after he has outgrown them. It succeeds to a greater degree by banishing Woody, Buzz and company to a day care center reminiscent of a retirement home, an asylum or a penitentiary. In a series that has always featured outcasts of one type or another, our heroes become the outcasts, making the noble toys’ strength and love resonate more deeply than ever before.
6. SOUL KITCHEN, directed and co-written by Fatih Akin.
The downside of this German comedy is that I will never again be able to forgive a subtitled comedy with the excuse that a joke had been lost in the translation. This is a charming and rambunctious ode to the joy of food and rock-n-roll that made me laugh more than any film in any language this year. In framing criticism of social issues, including immigration and economic disparity, with the simple story of a down and out restauranteur who hires a volatile chef, SOUL KITCHEN jokes and jabs on an international scale.
5. RESTREPO, directed by Tim Hetherington & Sebastian Junger, and THE TILLMAN STORY, directed by Amir Bar-Lev.
The Wars on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan have already spawned several outstanding documentaries. These two films are both titled for Army soldiers who gave their lives in Afghanistan, but the films themselves are stylistically very different. RESTREPO follows a platoon from the 173rd Airborn as they fight to acquire and hold a hilltop outpost in the Korangal Valley. The 173rd name the post after their medic Juan Restrepo, who was among the first to fall in this campaign. This film was produced by National Geographic; like many of their nature documentaries, the emphasis is on showing rather than telling. The camera is often right beside soldiers, the definition of embedded, whether in firefights or performing their daily grind of building and maintaining the base. THE TILLMAN STORY includes some combat footage, but the bulk of the story is told through interviews and news footage. This film divides its time between two Tillman stories: first, Arizona Cardinals linebacker Pat Tillman, who walked away from the NFL to enlist in the Army in 2002; and second, the story of his family in their search for the truth of how their son died during a 2004 ambush in Afghanistan. We meet Pat Tillman through NFL and college football interviews and family films, and his family through C-SPAN coverage of Congressional hearings to determine whether his death was manipulated for propaganda purposes. Both films will leave you with a profound sense of the ripple effect caused by the loss of each and every soldier.
4. WINTER’S BONE, directed & co-written by Debra Granik.
On many levels this is probably the most unexpected drama of the year. A teenage girl in rural Missouri attempt to track down her meth-dealing father after he uses the deed to his family’s house to post bail and then vanishes. This is one of those rare stories that can be compared to so few films before it that you find yourself settling in for wherever the ride takes you. The cast may be the finest ensemble you’ll find anywhere this year. This is especially impressive considering that, aside from Jennifer Lawrence in the lead and John Hawkes as her uncle, most of the cast have short resumes in film or TV. The backwoods location, used as vividly as any film noir has ever used darkened city streets, is the kind of remote that would create real challenges to shooting a film. This cast and crew turned each of these challenges into opportunities to create an unusual and haunting mystery.
3. THE GHOST WRITER, directed & co-written by Roman Polanski.
Polanski is part of a vanishing breed of filmmakers who show up every so often to remind us how it’s done. The story concerns a writer who is hired by his publisher to help a former British Prime Minister to write his memoirs. Putting aside that the PM is inspired by Tony Blair, this film could have been made and taken place any time in the last fifty years. It has the urgency and nuanced perspective of some of the best Cold War era spy films. Going against the recent grain of rapid fire editing and shaky camera movement, Polanski prefers to set a mood with each scene, and again within each shot, and allow you to study it until it chills you to the bone. A conversation on a fog shrouded country road between Ewan McGregor and Eli Wallach is probably the most perfectly composed scene in any movie I’ve seen this year.
2. MARWENCOL, directed by Jeff Malmberg.
No doubt about it; on every level, this is the most unexpected documentary of the year. It follows a young man named Mark Hogancamp who had been beaten into a coma outside of a bar in his hometown of Kingston, NY. When he awakens with little memory of who he is, he is left trying to figure out who he had been and who he wants to be. He begins a regiment of accidental art therapy by building a fictitious town called Marwencol in his front yard and populating it with G.I. Joes, Barbies and other dolls and action figures. Hogancamp uses photographs of his town to create allegorical stories, taking place during World War 2, but in essence helping him reconstruct his current life. Malmberg offers us a fly on the wall perspective into Hogancamp’s life and art, rolling out revelations as Hogancamp himself makes each discovery, resulting in 2010’s hands down winner for the “life is more amazing than fiction” award.
1. TRUE GRIT, written & directed by Joel & Ethan Coen.
Yes, it stays closer to the Charles Portis novel than Henry Hathaway’s 1969 version, but that’s irrelevant. Slavish adherence to source material has created plenty of mediocre films, while some adaptations like L.A. CONFIDENTIAL can stray quite a distance while remaining consistent with the spirit of their source. In the end what is most important for a film is how well it engages its audience. The Coen’s TRUE GRIT is the kind of film that makes me love movies. The novel challenged western cliches of its day, focusing on a young girl who hires a U.S. Marshall to avenge her father’s death, rather than on the hired gun himself. The Coens continue to upset tradition; in their hands moments that might have been filmed as gallant rescues become fearsome confrontations. One particular moment of violence against an animal is so masterfully handled that it not only convinces us that we just saw more than we actually did, it also grabs us and shakes us and reminds us that for all the nobility portrayed in frontier sagas, a certain amount of ugliness was also required to cut the path.
A FEW OTHER FAVORITES:
Best Worst Movie
Exit Through The Gift Shop
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
The Girl Who Played With Fire
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child
The King’s Speech
Machete (go ahead and scoff, Machete kicks @$$!)
Never Let Me Go
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
The Social Network
You Don’t Know Jack (HBO)