Every year, it is any critic’s “duty” to put together a list of the “ten best” films of the year. I find year after year that this is a time-consuming and difficult task. How is one who truly loves film supposed to narrow down a list to a mere “top 10″? I’ve tried every way I know how to list, number, and/or categorize my favorite films of the year – a lengthy list, indeed – and it never feels as though I’m doing true justice to those films that don’t fit in a list of ten. To further complicate matters, I won’t see everything that would’ve made this list in 2012 as some things open in my hometown in early 2011.
So: I have listed my “top 10″ alphabetically below, preceded only by my two favorite films of the year, then my “Eleventh Place tie” for the films every bit as good that don’t quite fit in those 10 slots. There are categories after that. Still, this is all pretty arbitrary in the grand scheme of things. However, as a top ten is some kind of sacred thing for critics, here goes…
1. The Social Network
Triumphantly returning to the big screen from the wilderness of too-smart-for-TV weekly series such as The West Wing and Sports Night, Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for The Social Network about misanthropic genius Mark Zuckerberg (played with almost freakish gusto and magnetism by Jesse Eisenberg), the multi-track-minded creator of Facebook, begins in a torrent of words and ideas – before the studio logo even comes up! Visual dynamo David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac) has directed the year’s best film – an astonishing, hypnotically fascinating, brilliant, (I swear to God) often funny tale of one man’s rise and spiritual (if by no means economic) fall. The film is not simply the story of the ascent of a business or the increasing popularity of a truly unpleasant, at times even despicable human being, nor is it exactly the mere Rashomon-style account of how he may or may not have stolen the idea from Harvard crew-rowing identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played seamlessly by Armie Hammer with some doubling of Tyler by Josh Pence), but rather it is also the story of his partnership (and eventual blood feud) with young moneyman Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), whose friendship and business relationship with Mark is eventually eclipsed by the seemingly Devilish influence of Napster creator Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake in a wonderful supporting turn). Perhaps it should be no surprise that Zuckerberg’s apparent misanthropy and almost Asperger’s-esque social ineptitude would (along with his rather algorithmic fascination with what makes things tick) drive his creation of the most popular social networking site in the world, and perhaps it should be no surprise that being scorned by a girl (Rooney Mara) he fancied, who quite correctly calls him an asshole in the tour-de-force opening scene, took its toll on his emotional maturity. But, it is still profoundly affecting to see, in the film’s closing moments, how a young man with all the promise of the future of Internet human connectivity in his worldview, and all the money he could ever (but doesn’t appear to) want, and as many “friends” as his Facebook creation has generated, STILL just wants that girl to like him. Although Trent Reznor’s original score for the film (including a virtuoso variation on “In the Hall of the Mountain King”) must be lauded, the fact is that the use of the Beatles’ “Baby You’re a Rich Man” over the final shot of this film could never have sounded more ironic. Bravo, Monsieurs Fincher, Sorkin and Eisenberg. Bravo!
2. Fish Tank
Whereas Fincher’s The Social Network deals in the oft-tread world of the Angry Young Man tradition, writer-director Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, her sophomore effort (following Oscar-winning short Wasp and debut feature Red Road) might well be the first real Angry Young Woman’s tale. First-timer Katie Jarvis gives a mesmerizing performance as Mia, a very troubled youth living in an intensely suffocating suburban slum in Essex with her alcoholic partying cougar mother (Kierston Wareing) and her much younger, foul-mouthed and similarly troubled sister (Rebecca Griffiths) – Precious has nothing on this trio. After a party, Mia’s mom brings home a young, attractive Irish guy called Connor (Michael Fassbender of Inglourious Basterds and Hunger fame) who becomes the one force encouraging Mia’s best way out of this existence – dance. What could go wrong you ask? Arnold’s intensely focused 1.33:1 frame follows this deeply troubled teen as she finds out in what is perhaps the most strikingly effective British film in this mold since Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993).
3. Black Swan
With Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s follow-up to his award-worthy, gritty but inspiring take on the world of athletic entertainment in The Wrestler (2008), he has concocted a powerful mixture of the in-depth and observant (ala’ that film) and the dark and disturbing (which marked his beloved debut efforts Pi and Requiem for a Dream). Natalie Portman hypnotizes as Nina Sayers, a freakishly obsessive perfectionist in a New York City ballet company who aspires to be cast as both the Swan Queen, as well as her dark doppelganger the Black Swan in a “reimagined” version of the classic Swan Lake. Faced with the devastating and graceless exit of her beloved predecessor (Winona Ryder, great in just a few scenes), sexually pursued by her lascivious ballet director (Vincent Cassel, appropriately smarmy and perverse) and brutally psychologically, emotionally and physically stifled by her similarly obsessive mother (Barbara Hershey, giving a rare but welcome and memorable performance), Nina’s problems go from bad to worse with the arrival of the young alternate/understudy Lily (Mila Kunis), who may be more threatening than she even first appears to be. The horror is aided and abetted by Matthew Libatique, whose grainy 16mm (occasionally mixed with opposite side of the spectrum HD Digital) camera darts, swoops, jostles along behind and sometimes simply watches as we at first observe Nina and then are, basically unwittingly, plunged deep inside her troubled mind. Aronofsky (who almost directed The Fighter instead) is well within his element, starting at about the pitch of a nightmare in the opening shots and escalating for virtually two hours to a horrific shriek of psychological collapse and emotional despair. So how much of the film is a nightmare and how much, if any, can be taken literally? It’s up to you to decide.
4. Crazy Heart
6. Leaves of Grass
7. Please Give
8. The Ghost Writer
Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer is perhaps the film that got away in 2010. Still reeling from the arrest and pending consequences over his past indiscretions with an underage girl, audiences certainly liked Polanski’s film – that is to say, those who bothered to see it – but, unfortunately, it’s not always easy to see the forest through the trees when it comes to art; an artist’s personal life can take over whatever merit their work might’ve had (just ask Woody Allen). In this case, it’s a shame because Polanski has made his best film since his heyday back in the early to mid-1970s. Working from Robert Harris’ novel The Ghost, the film stars Ewan McGregor as an unnamed ghost writer hired by a London publishing company (led by an unrecognizable Jim Belushi – sorry to any fans – are there fans? – of TV’s According to Jim, which remains unseen by me save for an unavoidable commercial here or there) to pour over the existing draft of the memoirs of one Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a career politician clearly meant to evoke echoes of Tony Blair and George W. Bush. War crimes charges levied against Lang, mysterious motorcyclists haunting McGregor at every turn, and the mysterious relationships between Lang and his undervalued, enigmatic wife (Olivia Williams) and his icy blonde secretary (Kim Cattrall) heighten the suspense to Hitchcockian levels, aided and abbetted by Pawel Edelman’s chilly cinematography and a delightfully haunted broken circus score by Alexandre Desplat. One of the great overlooked award-worthy films of the year.
9. The King’s Speech
10. Tiny Furniture
- 127 Hours, by Danny Boyle, through which he makes a return to the epically-intimate rough-and-tumble style that marked his pre-Slumdog Millionaire (and, thus, pre-Oscar) days with a markedly different award-worthy take on the astonishing true story of Aron Ralston (James Franco, in a heroically entertaining performance), an aspiring guide and amateur rock-climber who went to the middle of nowhere in Utah one day and fell deep into a cavern only to get his arm caught between – literally – a rock and a hard place. Going days without rescue, Ralston used cleverness, resourcefulness and, in a triumph of the human will to survive, cut through his own arm to free himself! Against all odds, Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) have crafted an often beautiful, surprisingly funny (albeit, gallows-humored) tale, aided and abetted by glorious A.R. Rahman music (as well as the great use of “Never Hear Surf Music Again” by Free Blood over the opening credits; you heard it most likely during the memorable teaser trailer) and wondrous cinematography by the hyperkinetic Enrique Chediak and frequent Boyle lensman Anthony Dod Mantle (put the camera INSIDE a waterbottle as it’s being sipped? Sure, why not!?!). All of this combines for one of the most purely entertaining tales of human perseverance in recent memory.
- Easy A, by Will Gluck,
- Enter the Void, by Gaspar Noe, is surely among the more audacious, perhaps even clinically insane, big-screen cinematic experiments of 2010. Inspired by some very basic and crude notions from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, resident enfant terrible Noe (Irreversible, the We Fuck Alone segment of Destricted) follows a young teen drug addict/dealer (Nathaniel Brown), spending about the first hour of the film viewing the world from his perspective as he goes against the wishes of his exotic dancer/prostitute sister (Paz de la Huerta), right up until the moment of his death at the hands of police during a raid on a bar in the middle of bustling, neon-candescent Tokyo. The film then follows his spirit as it travels through the city, relives his last moments (sometimes from different perspectives), hovers above his sister watching over her from beyond the grave and, finally, receives some semblance of rest in peace. A haunting, challenging but great film.
- Inception, by Christopher Nolan,
- Kisses, by Lance Daly,
- Life During Wartime, by Todd Solondz,
- Shutter Island, by Martin Scorsese,
- The Fighter, by David O. Russell, follows the tumultuous half-rise and not-quite-fall of “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a “stepping stone” of a pro-boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts, in the early-1990s. Ward is hampered at every turn by his crackhead/trainer/half-brother Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale in a stunning supporting turn that steals every scene), his loving but overbearing mother/manager Alice (Melissa Leo, in another scene-stealing role), and rooted on by his bartender girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams, who holds her own). Russell (Three Kings, Flirting with Disaster) somehow manages to precariously balance the film’s dramatic narrative arc with a meandering pace and some laugh-out-loud humor (as is indicative of his best work), while deploying deft camera touches and some great music instincts (a training montage early on is set to The Breeders’ “Saints” – a new favorite!). The film could’ve been a retread of the familiar ground in films as diverse as Rocky (1976) and Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), but it is unique in that it is a boxing movie not about boxing. Rather, it’s about how a young man gets his last shot at “making a real run” at a professional boxing career, and how his family, friends and significant other lift him up – and how he lifts them up in return.
- True Grit, by the Coen Brothers,
- Winter’s Bone, by Debra Granik,
Best Animated Film of the Year:
A Town Called Panic
Best Documentary of the Year:
Runners-up: Casino Jack and the United States of Money; I’m Still Here; Two in the Wave; Waiting for ‘Superman’
Best Foreign Film of the Year:
The White Ribbon, from Germany
Runners-up: A Prophet, from France; Home, from France; I Am Love, from Italy; Secret Sunshine, from South Korea; Terribly Happy, from Denmark; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, from Sweden; The Secret in Their Eyes, from Argentina; and Vengeance, from Hong Kong
Here are some films not quite every bit the equal of the top ten or eleventh place titles, but just as worthy of mention for video rental/streaming ideas: Animal Kingdom; Chloe; Fair Game; Hereafter; Hot Tub Time Machine; Howl; Made in Dagneham; My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done; Never Let Me Go; Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord (1974-1983); Scott Pilgrim vs. the World; Secretariat; Solitary Man; Tamara Drewe; The American; The Kids Are All Right; The Killer Inside Me; The Square; The Town; Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps; and You Don’t Know Jack.
These films won’t be released in PDX till early 2011, or they might’ve qualified for my list this year: All Good Things; Another Year; Biutiful; Blue Valentine; Casino Jack; Country Strong; Dogtooth; My Dog Tulip; Somewhere; The Company Men; The Illusionist; The Way Back; and Wild Target.
Note: I am always seeing films that qualify, and will add them as necessary. Otherwise, see you next year!