Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Top 20 Films of 2010

Few, if any, would argue that 2010 offered as many cinematic delights as last year, a particularly damning comparison since most critics railed against 2009’s own slate of films at the time. I happen to think last year served up some keenly underappreciated fare, whether it was Inglourious Basterds, the finest piece of termite art posting as white elephant spectacle since Gangs of New York, or an adroitly observed coming-of-age dramedy boosted by tone-perfect actors and one of the best soundtracks ever (Adventureland). Granted, with the exception of The Hurt Locker, the Oscar-bait fell flat, but 2009 had copious offerings for those who knew where to look.

The same is true for 2010, of course, but there weren’t nearly as many nooks to examine. Monetary concerns limited my access to the theater -- even with Netflix rentals and the occasional screener, I logged fewer than 60 films, a sizable step down from last year’s 80. The lack of spare cash ensured I sought out only the films that interested me, not simply everything I could take in, and even with that in mind I only found about 25-28 films that I fully enjoyed even after I distanced myself from them a bit. However, when it came time to whittle the list down, I remembered why I enjoyed so many of these movies and, as ever, forming a list proved harder than I would have thought. Rather than use all kinds of warped justifications for maintaining a top 10 while including even more movies, I've decided to simply list the 20 best, even though I could still stand to add a few. These were the delights of a disappointing year, a combination of sensual delights and intellectually rigorous features that teased and pleased long after the dust settled from their viewings. Without further ado, let's get down to it. (All entries contain links to their respective reviews.)

1. Certified Copy

A typical European art romance that is rendered anything but conventional, Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy represents the boldest examination of the Iranian director’s blend of reality and fiction since his early ‘90s work. Juliette Binoche walks the line between sanity and madness as she teases us with the possibility that the man she just met may be her estranged husband. Kiarostami has an uncanny ability to delve into the intellectual realm of metaphysics at will, but to do so in such a way that he uses the layers of reality to map a path to the purest human emotion. The commentary he makes on love, loss and art are provocative, but Certified Copy’s true power lies in its searing insight into pain.

2. Carlos

Ironically, Olivier Assayas' five-and-a-half-hour epic serves to show how fleeting fame and notoriety really is. Carlos the Jackal is a joke, a self-absorbed attention junkie whose radial politics are quickly subsumed into the creation of his own myth, a myth that dies like an old god when the world moves beyond him. For all the farce and irony of Carlos’ slow, unimpressive downfall, there is a serious statement on the way that radical politics always get absorbed and forgotten. Timothy McVeigh and Eric Robert Rudolph have already become footnotes in less than a decade, and the best a radical can hope for is that the memory lives on long enough to become mainstream. After all, the Founding Fathers were freedom fighters, and who invokes them these days but the most reactionary members of society?

3. The Social Network

For something derided long before its release as “The Facebook Movie,” The Social Network has almost nothing to do with social networking. Instead, it focuses on the mindset behind organizing one’s life online: Facebook is merely the extension of tools that allow someone as driven but awkward as Mark Zuckerberg to reconfigure the minefield of social maneuvering into the more rigid, clearly defined hierarchy of professional coding. One could argue that an alternate title for the movie might be “White People Problems: The Motion Picture,” but The Social Network breaks through Fincher’s remove to sympathize with the terrors of defining oneself in a globally connected world. Not even the well-deserved condescension leveled at the vicious entitlement on display can undermine that.

4. Bluebeard

Catherine Breillat drops her shock and awe and goes for straight storytelling. Hilariously, she ends up with one of her most devastating commentaries on gender relations and the cage into which women are routinely placed. Never has an Elektra complex been so glaring, with the petite farm girl pouring out all her issues with her father onto the gargantuan creature that is Bluebeard. Breillat’s static tableaux recall the old scrolls that used to tell epic tales centuries ago, but they also make plain the erotic undertones inherent in each composition. Quietly hilarious, gently terrifying and wholly brilliant, Bluebeard is so masterful I went from skeptic to Breillat faithful in just 80 minutes.

5. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

At once a return to Edgar Wright’s stomping grounds (it heavily recalls the sensitive but surreal sitcom Spaced) and an aesthetic marvel that not only represents Wright’s biggest leap forward but an impressive progression of the capabilities of commercial cinema, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is an avant-garde work posing as blockbuster. Its cinematic quotation ranges from Phantom of the Paradise (Jason Schwartzman’s villain looking and sounding like Paul Williams’ producer) all the way up to Ikiru (the swing set in the cold, black night), and its mash-up of comic book, video game and Saturday morning cartoon is exhilarating. I’ve devoted more viewings of this film than any other in 2010, and while it has its limitations, it’s rare to get progressive cinema that also happens to be an utter joy to watch endlessly.

6. True Grit

The Coen brothers remove their snarl but not their bite. True Grit pulls off a coup, bypassing the 1969 original to more faithfully transcribe the actual source novel, it honors the material even as it subverts it without ironic commentary. Under their piercing lens (made all the more haunting and elegiac by Roger Deakins’ cinematography), Mattie Ross’ quest for revenge is emotionally resonant but also self-defeating and deliberately undercut. John Wayne’s drunken but lovable Rooster is replaced by Jeff Bridges’ repellent, mumbling alcoholic who can attain redemption only through kindness, not the glorified bloodshed of the original. When Michael Dukakis was mocked for his liberal views on justice when someone asked him what he’d do if his wife were raped and murdered, most agreed he should have responded that he’d want to flay the man alive but that such feelings were proof of the necessity of an impartial system. True Grit visualizes this: it empathizes with pain and rage, never condemns people for feeling bloodlust at being wronged, but it also demonstrates how vengeance and sadism consume those who channel them. It is not the Coen brothers’ finest meditation on moral reckoning, but it is certainly their most magical and touching.

7. The Ghost Writer

From its stark but unconventional opening, Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer is an exercise in style par excellence, a thriller that delights in confounding its audience just to play with them even as it serves as a potent political fable in the age of Guantanamo and legalized torture. For a Holocaust survivor to gently but devastatingly point out the fascist policies in Western democratic powers make his attack all the more vicious, and even the slight air of self-martyrdom for America’s view of Polanski’s cannot bring down the larger political view. For two hours, one of the world’s most acute directors traps us behind glass, putting us in the same situation as the unnamed ghost writer who edits memoirs in front of a massive, transparent wall that reveals but obscures by playing tricks on us. It’s the dominant visual metaphor of a film that always finds a way to surprise and enrapture by showing everything and nothing all at once.

8. Toy Story 3

You can accuse me of being its target audience, but since when has an animated film been squarely aimed at the collegiate young adult? Toy Story 3 builds upon the second film’s existential musings with a heartbreaking rumination on the nature of letting go and moving on. The vibrancy of its color palette turns a limited number of locations into myriad of shifting moodscapes, while the climax brings back an element of horror to family-friendly viewing the like of which could challenge even Coraline for pure suspense. The ending is poignant and affirming in its tragic tone, a release that sidesteps the arrogance of equating its characters with the whole of Gen-Y childhood and earns its tears. When you get down to it, Toy Story 3 is as relevant to its young audience as The Social Network.

9. Our Beloved Month of August

A failed movie-cum-documentary-cum-revamped fictive film, Miguel Gomes’ Our Beloved Month of August frames questions of truth vs. fiction in ouroboric terms, compounding an otherwise sweet, if warped, comedy into one of the more provoking entries in reflexive cinema. Gomes may portray himself on-screen as a pretentious hack whining out in the forest, but his graceful and curious overview of the rural Portuguese landscape and the characters who populate it is anything but removed. Sashaying and twirling as if caught up in the irresistible dance of the rollicking, romantic folk music that plays throughout, Our Beloved Month of August is one of the year’s most delightful films, even as it is also one of the smartest and most evocative.

10. Black Swan

If it is ultimately as shallow a psychosexual commentary as Enter the Void, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan also channels that film’s spellbinding construction. The missing link between the garbled but fitfully poetic The Fountain and Aronofsky’s first genuinely emotive film (The Wrestler), Black Swan fails to say anything all that provocative but succeeds wildly in portraying the exaggerations of stage fright, repression and the effects of a parent’s living vicariously through children. Natalie Portman has never been better, funnily enough because she’s never been so loose and sloppy. It mash-up of early Polanski claustrophobia and Red Shoes phantasmagoria has no right to work, and perhaps in a way it doesn’t, but this is a powerful movie that kept me more spellbound than a number of films I would say were “deeper.” As with The Wrestler, Black Swan is essentially constructed from various clichés. When put together, however, it is vastly greater than the sum of its parts, a vivid, unique experience that practically left me stuck in a blob to the theater ceiling by the end.

11. Shutter Island

After months of consideration, I’ve decided that the Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle I most enjoyed this year is, when you get down to it, the more oneiric of his two hallucinogenic movies. Shutter Island is a barnstorming return to form for Martin Scorsese, who finally won his Oscar, of course, by watering down his style and themes to something that the average teenager and disinterested adult could digest and quote without thinking. Shutter Island is alive, his most vibrant since Bringing Out the Dead and his most meaningful and moving since the messy, beautiful Gangs of New York. Scorsese takes the Master of Suspense and recontextualizes Hitchcock’s style around an emotional core, leading us on a wild-goose chase to a predictable ending with an unpredictable resonance. Just because it’s a B-movie doesn’t mean it isn’t a sharply made work, and Shutter Island makes me look forward to Scorsese’s next decade of filmmaking more than nearly anything in the last one.

12. Inception

It may have dropped somewhat in my estimation since I first saw it back in July, but Chrisopher Nolan’s ambitious dreams-as-filmmaking allegory/weirdo heist movie allows the director to literalize a dreamscape while still playing just out of reach. For all the headiness of its exposition, Inception works primarily on an emotional level, from the protagonist’s inability to let go of his guilt -- woefully misidentified as reductive sexism when clearly Dom is the one being judged for his failure -- to the inception itself, an emotional release for the tormented heir who would gladly give up the secrets Dom usually steals to get his father’s love. Even when Nolan’s movies have holes (and they all do), his desire to tell epic, intelligent stories in a way that encourages the mainstream to actually think about what they’re seeing is commendable. Besides, isn’t part of the nature and frustration of dreams that some things just never add up?

13. Winter’s Bone

An intimate epic, Winter’s Bone has been derided by some -- and by some I of course mean Armond White -- as a “white Precious.” But where that film preyed on stereotypes and exploitation to get at a wholly un-earned “happy” ending, Debra Granik’s sophomore feature digs into cardboard characters to get to the human traits that eventually became stereotypes, straddling the line between Gothic, apocalyptic thriller and chilly but invigorating character study. Magnificent turns from character actors such as Dale Dickey and John Hawkes flank a powerhouse performance from Jennifer Lawrence, almost as big a breakout start this year as Christoph Waltz was in 2009. She breaks the mold and facilitates the humanization of character types, all the while commanding attention on her quixotic quest. Downbeat but far from nihilistic, this is a story about perseverance and sacrifice that recognizes the small yield for great effort, but decides that the alternative is too horrible to consider.

14. White Material

The weakest of Claire Denis’ last three films is still a superior work by one of the world’s greatest living directors, a political tract that never lapses into full polemics thanks to the grace of her camera. White Material, like The Intruder and 35 Shots of Rum, works chiefly as a tone poem, its haunting imagery functioning in the magic realist realm and drawing an almost spiritual response from docudrama. Denis can turn the pedestrian into the poetic, the concrete into the abstract. White Material is no less masterful than her previous works, and it has a reason for not touching us as profoundly and emotionally as her last movie.

15. Enter the Void

Its plot may be all but nonexistent and its sexual commentary little more than a host of skin-deep Freud, but one typically doesn’t go deeper than a few inches when sex is on the brain. Enter the Void is the first Gaspar Noé film that is watchable, which isn’t necessarily a condemnation of his confrontational Irreversible but at least opens the option of getting his commanding formal daring without the urge to vomit. A phantasmagorical romp through the afterlife, Enter the Void makes bold, original use of digital effects, layering explosions of colors and light over Tokyo’s already vibrant cityscape. For all the misleading emptiness of its psychological ramblings, the film makes up for it by presenting them in evocative visual terms instead of clunky speech, and the results are surprisingly moving for a film I think I should hate but feel I love. I’ve thought about Enter the Void incessantly since I saw it, and that’s gotta count for something, right?

16. Mother

What I neglected to sufficiently mention in my full review of Bong Joon-ho’s latest is that, despite the black comedy and the impeccable suspense, the most striking feature of the Hitchcockian twist Mother is how graceful and sympathetic it is. The same fluidity that permits Bong from moving seamlessly between comedy and drama also allows him to poke fun with genre conventions while withholding any bile for its touching, if deeply disturbing, parental relationship. A deft hand guides the swirling moods, and if nothing else, Mother further shames me for not getting around to this South Korean maestro sooner.

17. Unstoppable

Tony Scott’s most solid piece of entertainment in ages may not reach the emotional and intellectual heights of his compromised masterpiece Déjà Vu, but it demonstrates just how smart he can be even at his most gloriously thick. Unstoppable is a rush, but its statements on corporate fat cats who balk at doing the right thing because of how much it could cost them -- even when the wrong thing will ultimately cost them so much more -- are blistering without being polemical. But it’s the ingenious digs at the embarrassment of the 24-hour news cycle that most entertained me, a satirical lashing of the lengths reporters will go to for a good bit of TV and how quickly they will abandon the chase when something approaching actual journalism is involved. Taken with the believable chemistry between Denzel Washington and Chris Pine that keeps the main plot chugging along, these political touches elevate an already exhilarating film beyond the simplistic limitations so many action films operate within for no reason.

18. Wah Do Dem

Oh, to go back to November 4, 2008, the night when anything seemed possible, when the world loved us again after Bush had torn foreign relations to tatters. This anti-mumblecore feature slyly captures the cessation of American isolation, if only for a moment, on that night. Its protagonist, a New York hipster played by a real-life New York hipster, takes a cruise to Jamaica, where mishaps force him out of his self-absorbed shell and incorporate him into local life of Jamaica (never so vividly captured by American cameras). It culminates in a bar on election night, and the screams of seemingly the entire country when Obama’s name is called is as beautiful proof as any that, for one night, we truly were all Americans. A beautiful subversion of isolated, hip mumblecore that also reminds us of one of the most uplifting moments in recent history.

19. Wild Grass

Alain Resnais' delightfully whimsical, darkly humorous romantic comedy breaks about as many rules as Gaspar Noé, Darren Aronofsky and Martin Scorsese did with their respective descents into the subjective. By placing the rampaging id into the body of an older gentleman, he better exposes the absurdity of our baser desires, but he also adds an amusing false front of respectability. It's a shaggy-dog story to the nth degree, but any regular reader of this blog knows how I love my shaggy dogs. There is a massive gap in my Resnais knowledge, but this makes me as eager to catch up with his filmography as his '60s work.

20. How to Train Your Dragon

After stopping their free-fall descent into sub-mediocrity and endless puns with Kung Fu panda, Dreamworks Animation finally delivered a film to challenge a number of Pixar movies, even if that studio stole the thunder by releasing one of their finest works a few months later. How to Train Your Dragon rips up its source material, switching a Viking tribe's actions toward dragons from domestication to genocide, allowing for the emergence of a kinder soul to teach the wisdom and advantage of living in harmony. It knows to make humans goofy enough to avoid the uncanny valley (something the Toy Story franchise still stuck to through the end -- Andy bordered on the terrifying), and the animation of the dragons is wonderfully varied to show off a host of different creatures. But beneath it all is a message of looking beyond the feeling that you're supposed to hate something or someone just because your community always has, and that we are stronger and happier for reaching out to others in understanding and friendship. What better message could there be for a child in such turbulent times?

Films I Wish I’d Seen Before Making This List
Alamar, I Love You Philip Morris, Inside Job , Another Year, Everyone Else, Blue Valentine, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Poetry, Film Socialisme, Amer

(Miscellaneous awards coming soon...)


  1. great list! i feel like i still have a lot to see. it's acutally been a good year for film (mostly the indies though, not the mainstream ones).

  2. Jake, this is a distinguished list authored by a true cineaste who has backed himself up with essays worthy of the choices made here all year long. Like with all other lists there are choices I stand with you on, and I others I part company with. I have resisted making a Top 20, as I am always seduced by the exacting challenge of going with a disciplined Ten Best list (always 11 with me as I have a two-way tie for the last spot!)

    Anyway, I'll play the game by your rules here and I'll present a speculative Top 20:

    1. Lourdes
    2. Blue Valentine
    3. Carlos
    4. Rabbit Hole
    5. Un Prophete
    6. Toy Story 3
    7. Another Year
    8. The King's Speech
    9. Winter's Bone
    10. Wasteland
    11. Inside Job
    12. White Material
    13. My Dog Tulip
    14. Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Radiant Child
    15. Mademoiselle Chambon
    16. Shutter Island
    17. Vincere
    18. How to Train Your Dragon
    19. Welcome
    20. Bluebeard/Please Give

    Like with the composition of any list, I may change some of these by way of order or actual omissions/additions before the two week appearance of a final list.

  3. 1. The King' s Speech
    2. L'illusionniste
    3. Toy Story 3
    4. Inception
    5. Bal
    6. The Ghost Writer
    7. El secreto de sus ojos
    8. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
    9. Copie conforme
    10. The Kids Are All Right

  4. Cool list, props for Unstoppable and Scott Pilgrim!

  5. Phenomenal list, Jake. It's amazing to me that you've managed to see so many movies this year, not to mention write about all of them. I'm working on a list now, but I won't get past 10 films - there's just too many I've been unable to see. From your list, for instance, there is Unstoppable, How to Train Your Dragon (which my dad said was the best 3D film he has ever seen), Wild Grass, Mother, Our Beloved Month of August, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Bluebeard, and Certified Copy. Your blurbs have augmented my anticipation further, so thank you for that!

  6. Thanks very much, Carson. I basically went off the tried-and-true criterion "Things I Managed To See" for deciding which movies counted as '09, '10 or '11, and I managed to get my hands on copies of stuff like Certified Copy so I went with it. I actually have screeners of Uncle Boonmee, Poetry and Filme Socialisme, but I got them at the 11th hour and I'm going to well and truly try to see them in a theater, though I also did that for Certified Copy, Wild Grass etc. and came up short because I'm out in the boonies most of the time and rarely get back to Atlanta. I'm sure I'll cave and watch them before that, though, especially since Uncle Boonmee is the only one I bet comes within 500 miles of me, and only because it won at Cannes.

  7. Jake:

    I'm curious...did you not like THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT or THE AMERICAN or SPLICE or PIRANHA 3D (I'm tipping my hand a bit to what will most likely show up on my list)? I suppose I could go back and look at your reviews...but in addition to being curious I'm also lazy!

    Great list. Mine won't be ready for another month or so. Love love love that you included MOTHER and SHUTTER ISLAND. The latter of which I feared would be totally forgotten this time of year, but bloggers are doing their part in bringing back to the forefront. I still think the two old masters, Scorsese and Polanski, made two of the very best movies this year.

  8. I never saw The Kids Are Alright or Splice. The American just didn't make the cut and Piranha 3D will get a mention as my guilty pleasure.

  9. Yeah, Uncle Boonmee is at the very top of my list. How do you have a DVD of it?

  10. Yes, you have seen a lot, Certified Copy is a bold choice for your number 1, which I need to seek out ( : I don't know The Intruder (1961), looks like it's worth a watch.

    2010, I can't say has really had too many knock-out films for me. Of what I’ve seen so far, a lot of good, but not great films in my opinion: Inception, greenberg, unstoppable, winters bone, the social network, ghost writer, shutter island. None so far have been added to my favourite films, which is how I rate a film year. Maybe I'll find something soon.

    You might want to check my top 10 films of 2010, there are a few obscure gems I loved ( :

    Heres hoping 2011 will be a a stronger cinematic year! Happy new year to you

  11. Oh, I meant Claire Denis' The Intruder, made in 2004. I reviewed it a month or so ago and absoluely think it's worth a watch.

    I did see your list and, while I don't agree that 2010 was so bad no films warranted a mention, you did list some movies I've never seen before and I look forward to checking some of them out.

  12. Great list, Jake. Bluebeard! God, how I love that movie. Count two of us that have been converted - though I left the fact off my little capsule on my top 25, I hadn't really seen a Breillat I responded to before it either. Her next film appears to be in the same vein, an adaptation of Sleeping Beauty? I'm so in.

    The only movie on your list that I actively didn't enjoy I guess would be Winter's Bone, though I know I'm in the minority there. It had a lot going for it, Hawkes and Lawrence were just excellent, and the look/atmosphere of the movie was nailed. I was just continuously taken out of the experience by the egregiously lame dialogue that felt like second hand ideas about rural speak more than it did anything remotely resembling authenticity, nor did it have the kind of baroque, literary quality that it felt like they were striving for at times. It also felt like every frame was composed to pack in as many expressive hick faces as possible, at the expense of any real tension or urgency. Bah.

    But I pretty much either loved or haven't seen everything else on your list, and I'm looking forward to filling in the holes where I need to. Props to Kiarostami #1, Void, White Material, and of course Unstoppable!

  13. I have to say, Drew, I thought that about Winter's Bone initially, but I'm from the South (not the Ozarks but I've been in Appalacia), and a great deal of the film rang horrifyingly true to me. And I don't think those hick faces were meant to condescend to Southern types but to get at that atmosphere. As I said with Dickey's entry, these people recall the Depression-era photos, looks into people who have had to tolerate the intolerable. They look into a barren, lifeless landscape and see only the tattered community trapped there, united by blood and proximity but kept apart from the resentment of seeing one's own reflection in those haggard and cracked faces. I struggled with the film for a bit, wary that it was exploiting poor hillbillies, but after awhile I really felt them as people and, to my horror, recognized people I've met in a few of them.

  14. I guess my problem is that I've lived in the deep South my entire life, and it rarely rang anywhere close to the truth for me, though admittedly I'm not from the Ozarks either. I get what you're saying about the people recalling Depression-era photos, and sure that can be remarkably potent, it just crossed a line into overkill (or, more accurately, overselling) for me at a point. I don't think the faces were necessarily meant to be condescending (unlike the dialogue; well, I don't know if the intent was there, but by god, it was truly awful), all I was merely getting at there was that, compositionally, the film consistently felt undermined of the tension and urgency it was so eager to capture by continuously jamming all of the faces to paint a milieu it had already greatly succeeded in capturing (the film's admittedly a real triumph of production design). I guess I just felt that Ree's psychology as a tactile presence in the story was sacrificed in favor of this. I don't know, maybe I'll see it again down the line and have a change of heart, but it was really a case where I just didn't get the critical adulation.

    Anyway, I'm not trying to bring down your comments section down into this stuff. I literally saw the movie last week, and haven't had the chance to air these thoughts out at all, so I'm definitely not trying to rain on the parade here.

  15. Interesting list as always...though I disagree with your overall sentiment about the year that was. I thought this was a solid year full of many good and really good films, though perhaps nothing "great" or anything that totally blew me away. I thought overall quality was consistent and in line with 2009, which outranks in 2010 only in its audacity.

  16. I liked your list. We share some of the same picks, but I've got a couple unconventional favorites of my own. They are here: in case you're interested.