Thursday, January 6, 2011

True Grit: The 10 Best Films of 2010

2010 nearly became a sea of dreck: from godwaful summer hits (I'm looking at you Sex and the City 2) to overrated Oscar-hopefuls (The Town really bummed me out) it looked like slim pickings. Then came David Fincher's mesmerizing and simmering Greek tragedy in the form of the most powerful social networking site around, Joel and Ethan Coen's new classic re-telling of "The Duke's" only Oscar-winning role, a vampire movie that didn't suck and who name doesn't begin with Twilight, and the the beginning of the end for a beloved boy wizard. Add a lesbian couple's marriage on the rocks, a writer investigating corruption in the life of a public servant, and thieves pulling the perfect crime in our dreams, and we have 10 of the movies that not only didn't suck, but had true grit (forgive the pun) as well.

1. Inception - No other movie this year dared to dream bigger and dug deeper than Christopher Nolan's follow up to the '08 smash The Dark Knight. Leonardo DiCaprio is haunting as Don Cobb, a thief-for-hire who steals ideas from corporate bigshots while their victims are counting sheep, but can't get his deceased wife (played by the excellent Marion Cotillard)out of his head - literally. The ultimate prize is offered to Cobb by Mr. Saito (Ken Wantanbe) so he can go back to America without having to face a trial and jury for his corporate crimes in the past, if he and his team can perform the impossible: planting an idea into Saito's main competitor for energy, instead of extracting one, or inception. From there, we dive down the rabbit hole where laws of physics are bended and broken to one's will, and Cobb's secrets threaten his ticket home. Props to Nolan who's imagination is as vast and uncompromising as when Ariadne (Ellen Page) bends the Louvre on top of itself. To quote Cobb's right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), "There's nothing like it."

2. Black Swan - Natalie Portman gives the performance of the year as a rising ballerina in the New York Ballet company who's landed the biggest role the production of Swan Lake. As the opening draws near, she faces a mental breakdown as she begins to explore her darker side as the Swan's alter ego in the recital. What could have been a total melodrama with a memorable steamy girl-girl sex scene between Portman and her co-star, a surprising, sensual performance by Mila Kunis, director Darren Aronofsky, along with longtime collaborators cinematographer Matthew Libatique and composer Clint Mansell take us on a harrowing, dark, and erotic journey into Nina Sayer's head, where her drive to being perfect threatens to destroy her and the production. The last line floors you: "I felt it. Perfect. I was perfect." It's the best way to describe Portman's tour-de-force and Aronofsky's latest, and best, creation.

3. The Social Network - A movie about Facebook? Hollywood has jumped the shark you might say. That guy from N'Sync, a handsome-looking but largely unknown British actor, and the kid in Zombieland? This has to be a fucking disaster, and in lesser hands, you would be correct. Director David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (TV's The West Wing) don't give a damn about how LOL and OMG became part of our online vocabulary, the pair are hunting bigger game in how gifted genius, ruthless ambition, sex, money and betrayal paved the way for Zuckerberg to become the world's youngest billionaire and how his own shortcommings in social communication brings about the social networking phenomenon. Jesse Eisenberg gives the best performance of his young career as Facebook's founder, genius techie, and all-around brooding prick, while Andrew Garfield laces loyalty and heartbreak as Edwardo Saverin, Mark's best and only friend he eventually screws over for Napster founder Sean Parker (an excellent Justin Timberlake).

4. The Ghost Writer - Roman Polanski may be a sick, deplorable child fucker, but he's never been better as a filmmaker in this Machiavellian and haunting political thriller. Ewan McGregor is shines as a Ghost writer, hired to write the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) who's in self-exile in America as the International Criminal Court moves to convict him for engaging in torturing prisoners of war (all names have been changed in this movie to protect the guilty). A simple assignment becomes a cat-and-mouse hunt for the truth and a fight for his life the deeper the Ghost digs into Lang's rise into politics, and Polanski - along with composer Alexandre Desplat, and cinematographer Pawel Edelman - create a claustrophobic web of intrigue and ruthless power that hooks you until the final frame.

5. The Tillman Story - We all know the story of Cpl. Pat Tillman: how he turned down a lucrative deal to continue playing for the Arizona Cardinals in order to serve his country after 9/11. We all know how the Pentagon and the Bush Administration covered up his death (he died via friendly fire by his own unit) in order to use him as a recruiting tool for the military and to make him an American hero back home. Director Amir Bar-Lev and narrator Josh Brolin go further to uncover how our government tried to block the truth on how he died to a grieving family, and revealed the man behind the propaganda. The result makes the documentary all the more heartbreaking and sickening as Congress and the media looked the other way. The Tillman Story sticks with you long after the credits roll.

6. 127 Hours - A claustrophobic thriller/true story where the hero is incapable of movement? Sounds like another bland, weepy docudrama. Danny Boyle, who won the Oscar for Best Director in 2008 for the masterful Slumdog Millionaire, avoids the cliches and pitfals, and follows up with a brilliant, inspiring and harrowing journey into the six days that defined Aaron Ralston's life as his hand was pinned down to a boulder in a canyon in Utah. James Franco has shown off his acting chops before (see Harvey Milk's first partner in Milk) but he digs deep to show us what's going through Aaron's head as he comes face-to-face with his reckless/lone-wolf behavior, and with certain death. You feel like you're just as trapped as was the real hiker was, with hope fading minute by minute, which makes 127 Hours unforgetttable: Boyle and Franco make you believe.

7. The Kids Are All Right - In a year where comedies range from the painfully unfunny (Grown Ups) to the cliched sitcom antics of two people trying to make it work (Going The Distance), leave it to acting legends Julianne Moore and Annette Benning and first-time director Lisa Cholodenko to show everyone else how its done. For those who are expecting to see girl-on-girl sex from its two lead actresses, snap out of it. Yes, the subject is gay marriage, but if you dig beneath the surface, you'll see something universal: two imperfect people who are trying to make a relationship work when it seems the love has begun to fade.

8. Let Me In - It's a miracle! A vampire movie that doesn't suck, and an American remake (2007's mesmirising Sweedish horror movie Let The Right One In) that improves on the original. Matt Reeves, who wrote and directed the film, doesn't coddle to the fangirl base by plugging a couple of attractive leads and doesn't skimper on blood-sucking and feeling. Abby is played by the fantastic Chloe Crace-Moretz, the vampire who befriends Owen, a young boy who's tormented by bullies at school and his alcoholic, Bible-thumping mother, who is played with tenderness and traces of bubbling menace by Kodi Smit-McPhee. The relationship that forms turns deadly and deeply moving as the body count begins to pile up in the small town of New Mexico, as a local cop (Elias Koteas) tracks Abby and her guardian down (the always reliable Richard Jenkins).

9. True Grit - First the Facebook movie, now Hollywood remade the classic 1969 western staring John Wayne in the only role in which "The Duke" snagged the Best Actor Oscar? Again, this would be a walking disaster in lesser hands, but leave it to Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men) to take a vastly different approach and come away with a new Coen Bros. classic. Much like No Country in 2007, the directing duo don't just understand Charles Portis's novel of the same name, they know how the characters act, think, and breathe. The dialouge is among some of the finest the pair have ever crafted, as each line is laced with ferocity and stinging humor. Cinematographer Roger Deakins captures the open range with both breathtaking beauty and the lurking danger that spring at a moment's notice. As for the man who plays Wayne's Rooster Cogburn? Jeff Bridges dons the eye patch and does the The Duke proud by making Cogburn into a fat, drunkard with quick aim and glimmers of regret. The movie, though, belongs to newcomer Haliee Steinfeld, playing Mattie Ross, the 14 year-old smartmouthed, headstrong girl who hires Cogburn to hunt down Ton Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father. She's a live wire.

10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I - Rounding out my list is probably the most unappreciated movie of the series. The rap is that Part One of the two-part finale of J.K. Rowling's epic fantasy series, is that its a huge tease: it's all buildup, zero release, and no payoff. Yes, it sets the stage to the final battle between Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and the sinister Lord Voldemort (Ralph Finnes) and I will agree that the middle does lag in certain areas, but the payoff is in the performances of its three leads. For over a decade, we've seen Radcliffe and pals Emma Watson and Rupert Grint grow and mature from wide-eyed kids who'd let their Macaulay Culkin-esue facial expressions do the acting for them, to young leads with serious acting chops. Grint has usually been reduced to comic relief as Ron, but in Part One, there's a harder, more vulnerable edge to him that we've never seen before. Watching him charge with fury as a piece of jinxed jewelry unleashes his fear of losing Hermione to Harry is heartbreaking. Watson's Hermione has always impressed me for the start, but she takes it to a new level by introducing something we haven't seen in her character: the burden of being the brains of the trio and the conflicting emotions she has for both Harry and Ron. And Radcliffe as Harry shows him losing his faith in the late Dumbledore's request in finding and destroying the remaining Horcruxes (bits of the Dark Lord's soul hidden in various objects) without a clue where to search and how to destroy them.

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