Looking Closer’s Favorite Films of 2010

This is a revised, expanded version of a commentary that was originally published as a two-part series at Image‘s blog Good Letters. You can read the original series here and here.]

2010 was a year full of unforgettable movies.

And I still have many on my must-see list. For example, Carlos (by Olivier Assayas, who directed my favorite 2009 film), The Kids Are All Right, Animal Kingdom, Get Low, 127 Hours, Another Year, Mother, White Material, Somewhere, and Vincere, to name a few.

In the meantime, here are my most memorable moviegoing experiences of 2010.

First I’ll list six impressive movies that I wanted to love, but couldn’t. Feel free to try and change my mind.

Then, some “runners-up”—films I thoroughly enjoyed and happily recommend.

And finally, I’ll applaud my ten favorites that I’d love to explore, share, and enjoy again and again.

A few of these played in 2008 or 2009 elsewhere in the world, but became available in my neighborhood in theaters or on DVD only this year.

Six Disappointments (alphabetical)

Black Swan

What a trip! Darren Aronofsky’s much-lauded mix of classical ballet, psychological turmoil, and grisly horror features wild, emotional performances by Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis.

But I grew increasingly frustrated with the movie, and eventually started checking my watch. Why?

The relentless, overbearing energy. Heavy-handed storytelling. Flamboyant cinematography. Continuous horror-movie jolts. Abrasive behavior from self-absorbed characters. Simplistic, soap-opera dialogue. Gratuitous girl-on-girl action. A bounty of horror-movie clichés.

Aronofsky is always intense, but here he feels like a show-off, following his film’s climactic image with title cards that shout “DIRECTED BY DARREN ARONOFSKY” and “A FILM BY DARREN ARONOFSKY.” I’ve retitled it

Blecch Swan.

Read my full review here.

Blue Valentine

This is a persuasive, lifelike depiction of a couple’s relationship from first infatuation through marriage to disintegration.

The implosion is brought to vivid life in exceptional, whole-hearted performances from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. In scene after scene, Derek Cianfrance’s film feels true-to-life, even in its rather graphic scenes of a failing sexual relationship.

But ultimately, I wanted to ask, “So what?”

It’s an actors’ showcase that runs high on emotion without giving us much to discuss after the credits roll.

I Am Love

My compliments to director Luca Guadagnino for the sumptuous cinematography, the gorgeous cast, the elaborate style, and the breathtaking architecture of this ambitious, operatic Italian drama.

But despite the film’s visual extravagance, I’m frustrated by its narrative. As the patriarch of the Recchi family—an Italian textile-mill dynasty—hands control of the family business over to the next generation, we can see the world changing. As globalism and individualism spread, so do cracks in the foundation of this aristocracy.

It’s no surprise when some begin to rebel against its unspoken laws, following secret passions and risking the family’s wrath. The new patriarch’s daughter is openly gay. And the new matriarch—Emma (Tilda Swinton), a Russian who seems dissatisfied among Milan’s wealthy elite—has fallen into an all-consuming extramarital affair with a cook.

While it’s easy to pity Emma for her imprisonment in this hard-hearted family, I reject the film’s suggestion that true freedom comes by a surrender to sensual impulses.

Inception

See my previous two-part Good Letters post.

A Prophet

Jacques Audiard’s film is an immersive epic about a prisoner who descends into hell, dragged unwillingly into the sordid dealings of a criminal network behind bars. He’ll either become a devil to survive, or die for resisting.

As the emperor of this underworld, Niels Arestrup gives one of the year’s most incredible performances.

But this story is so soul-crushingly bleak and nihilistic that I felt suffocated. Audiard paints a world without any glimpse of God, grace, or hope.

I really wish I hadn’t invited my pastor to join me for this one; I felt compelled to apologize afterward.

The White Ribbon

Michael Haneke’s study of how German society became susceptible to Hitler’s violent agenda is one of the year’s most harrowing films, but also one of the most beautiful. He captures the slow devolution of a community as mysterious acts of violence kindle fear and suspicion in the residents’ hearts.

How should a family, a neighborhood, or a nation respond to grievous violence? These are important questions, and timely.

Perhaps I’ll come to a greater appreciation of how this film grapples with them. But on a first viewing, I was exhausted by this onslaught of stories about heartlessness.

Runners-Up (listed alphabetically)

How to Train Your Dragon

This animated epic from Dreamworks surprised me with impressive characterizations, an unexpectedly thoughtful plot, and 3D flight sequences that were more exciting than Avatar’s much-hyped aerial adventure. We watch a young Viking named Hiccup learn to consider his enemies with thoughtfulness instead of knee-jerk violence. And Hiccup’s father Stoick, a gargantuan Viking warrior, makes a slow journey to appreciating his not-so-warlike son. I’d recommend this film just for the sight of Stoick’s magnificent red thicket of a beard.

Never Let Me Go

Mark Romanek adapts Yasujiro Ishiguro’s beautiful science fiction novel, drawing delicate performances from Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, and gives Kiera Knightley her most complicated character. Read more about this film in my Good Letters post about “The Actor in Question.”

Ondine

What a delight: Without a flicker of self-importance, Ondine brings back to the screen something that has been missing lately: good old-fashioned storytelling. It’s a modest romance, a charming fairy tale, a showcase for the talents of its wonderful cast, and a film that is beautiful to look at without ever being show-offy. Colin Farrell gives one of his finest performances as Syracuse, a fisherman who catches a beautiful woman (Alicja Bachleda) in his nets. Is she a selkie – a mythological creature who is part seal, part seductress? Or was she really drowning when he caught her? Syracuse’s daughter Annie (Alison Barry) is certain that she’s a magical creature. And as they are both enchanted by her beauty and tenderness, a dark shadow from her past looms, threatening to drag her back to where she came from.

If you’ve seen The Secret of Roan Innish, then you have some sense of just how special Ondine really is.

Rabbit Hole

As this husband (Aaron Eckhart) and wife (Nicole Kidman) struggle to go on after an accident claims their young boy’s life, we get just the sort of shouting matches and crying jags that critics call “Oscar bait.”

Nevertheless, it’s a refreshingly honest film that makes no false promises. This is a story about learning to live with loss, not how to recover from it.

Kidman’s turn as Becca is her finest in many years, but it’s the supporting characters who stay with me. Dianne Wiest is wonderful as Nat, Becca’s mother, whose Christian faith helps her live with her own heavy losses. And newcomer Miles Teller almost steals the show as the broken-hearted young man responsible for Becca’s loss. His delicate conversations with Kidman suggest that healing is possible through confession, forgiveness, and grace.

Becca may reject Christian faith in the film, but she’s stepping onto “the Way” that Christ represents.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright packs this adaptation of the popular Scott Pilgrim comics with playful inspiration and big laughs. Forget Tron: Legacy—this was 2010’s best big-screen video game.

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is an uninspiring romantic lead, and he’s surrounded by young women who are more interesting than his goth-girl crush Ramona Flowers. So it’s hard to care much about his duels with Ramona’s seven evil exes… unless you ever did foolish things in the fever of a crush.

Alas, I’ve been that idiot. And I have a warm spot in my heart for Mr. Pilgrim.

The Secret in Their Eyes

Read my review of last year’s Oscar-winning foreign language film here.

Shutter Island

2010 introduced two films in which Leonardo DiCaprio was caught between reality and delusion. I prefer Shutter Island over Inception.

Martin Scorsese cooks up a spooky stew full of spicy allusions to other psychological thrillers like The Shining and Vertigo. And it cleverly includes actors who have played other psychos, like Ted Levine, Jackie Earle Haley, and John Carrol Lynch.

Its breathtaking design suggests Dante’s Inferno imagined by M.C. Escher. Watch carefully—if you blink, you might miss important details. While Inception’s Christopher Nolan shouts, “Look! I’m bending a city in half!”, Scorsese makes watchful moviegoers gasp with something as simple as a vanishing water glass.

Ultimately, Shutter Island asks why our cultural imagination is so obsessed with stories about investigators and criminals. Do we turn to thrillers so we can face our fears? Or are we fooling ourselves, trying to numb the pain of our losses, or absolve ourselves from any responsibility?

Waste Land

Read my review of this inspiring documentary in a previous Good Letters post—“Trash Transformed.”

And now, here are my ten favorites in order of preference:

The Top Ten

10. Babies

Read my review of this delightful, one-of-a-kind documentary at the website for SPU’s Response.

9. The King’s Speech

Tom Hooper’s movie is made of close-ups, and that makes sense. It’s about a speech impediment, one that almost prevented the Duke of York from fulfilling his duties when he became King George IV.

Colin Firth, playing the reluctant ruler known to his family as “Bertie”, is a joy to watch. Fighting his “bloody stammer,” his despondent, pulpy face balloons, deflates, clenches, and explodes like he’s trying to start the engine of a junkyard car.

Meanwhile, his therapist—Lionel Logue, played with magnificent expressiveness and wit by Geoffrey Rush—patiently questions, teases, and teaches him.

Much will be written about the film’s period-piece elegance, its physical comedy, the endearing supporting turn by Helena Bonham Carter, and its exquisite script. But for me, its shining virtue is its depiction of a heroic teacher who guides a stubborn student with patience, force, cleverness, love, and grace. The King’s Speech is a tribute to the work of dedicated teachers everywhere.

8. The Sun

In The Sun, a 2005 film that finally reached the U.S. in this year’s DVD release, Issey Ogata plays the Japanese Emperor Hirohito at the turning point of World War II. It’s a performance of extraordinary control and wit.

We watch as Hirohito, knowing that the Allied forces are closing in, struggles to cope with the pressure of imminent defeat, knowing that his people believe he is an infallible deity. We watch his attention shift restlessly during those terrible hours. He listens to his officials’ rising panic. He struggles to sustain the nation’s pride by refusing to call down his troops. And he distracts himself with his real passion—the study of marine biology.

Thanks to director Alexander Sokurov’s compassionate storytelling, we care about this emperor. He seems to be a victim of circumstances more than a devilish tyrant. With a curious physical manner that recalls Charlie Chaplin, Ogata impersonates a man in a state of arrested development, an overgrown child disabled by lifelong isolation, striving to fulfill the expectations of a history he does not understand.

I found The Sun’s conclusion deeply moving, for the defeat seems to liberate Hirohito like a child released from school for summer vacation. He’s giddy at the future’s possibilities, as if he can finally wade out into an ocean full of wonders.

7. The Secret of the Grain

This 2007 film reached U.S. moviegoers this year thanks to a Criterion Collection DVD. My review was published previously at Good Letters.

6. Four Lions

I didn’t want to watch a comedy about Jihadists plotting a terror attack. But I’m so glad I did. Just as Monty Python brilliantly satirized Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, and the folly of crowds seeking a Messiah, so Chris Morris makes sharp satire from details he learned about real terrorist activities.

The film’s “four lions” are would-be terrorists who know just enough about Islamic extremism to be dangerous. As they fumble from one bad plan to another, they desire only to join Al-Qaeda and become martyrs for their cause. But they’re living contradictions, casually embracing the very culture they claim to despise. Hatred and ignorance have turned them into paranoid buffoons, so that they shake their heads in public to avoid being clearly photographed, and they blame their troubles—even their car troubles—on their perceived enemies. “It’s the parts… they’re Jewish.” “What parts in a car are Jewish?” “Spark plugs. … Jews invented spark plugs to control global traffic.”

It’s all hilarious, but the truth of it stings. Hatred makes fools of the haters in any culture or religion. Morris might just as easily have made a satire about what hate might do to Christian fundamentalists. Maybe he should.

5. The Secret of Kells

My review is published in SPU’s Response, and my conversation with film critic Steven Greydanus is at Good Letters (Part One, Part Two).

4. The Social Network

My review of this year’s most celebrated movie was featured in a Good Letters post called “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

3. Winter’s Bone

Every single scene of Debra Granik’s haunting thriller has been smoldering in my memory since I first saw the film several months ago. I reviewed it in a previous Good Letters post—“Winter’s Bone: A Fully Human Hero.”

2. True Grit

Is the new True Grit better than the original film? In every way. The Coen Brothers are known for feeding great actors the best dialogue they’ll ever chew. And their faithful adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel serves up plenty in this, their first Western.

As if he’s never even seen John Wayne in action, Jeff Bridges creates a spectacular new version of Rooster Cogburn. Looking and sounding like a disgruntled walrus, this aging gunslinger is so inebriated and temperamental that you’re not sure if he’ll end up shooting his target, his companions, himself, or all of the above. When his burning chimney of a throat isn’t making his lines unintelligible, he’s as quotable as Bridges’ previous Coen Brothers character—The Dude.

In a supporting role as LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger, Matt Damon is more playful than usual, showing that he’s a natural for bringing the Coens’ singular screenwriting to life.

And how about newcomer Hailie Steinfeld? Her debut performance as young Mattie Ross equals the work of her seasoned colleagues. Mattie’s a girl who will stop at nothing to outwit shrewd businessmen and bring justice to killers, but she’s also capable of giving grace to human wreckage. She might as well be the great grandmother of Fargo’s Marge Gunderson.

Mattie’s story tells us that justice is costly, and vengeance costlier still. But the pursuit of killers is not True Grit’s primary story. The central thread is a story filled with moments of nobility and heroism quite unique in the Coen Brothers’ canon. It’s about two broken people who form an unlikely bond. Having lost her father, Mattie finds in Cogburn a friend, a mentor, and a protector in a lawless wilderness. And Cogburn finds something he needed too—someone to love so much that he’ll stand up and become her champion, even if it means risking his rapidly collapsing life.

Shot through with sweat, shootouts, cigarettes, Scripture, and delicious dialogue, True Grit is a film I’ll savor for decades to come.

1. Toy Story 3

Fifteen years ago, I approached Toy Story with skepticism. A full-length feature animated on computers? I feared it would look fake and robotic, a poor substitute for the hand-drawn brilliance of Disney classics.

But Toy Story won me over in its first five minutes. It had colorful characters, an adventurous spirit, and a big, warm, thrumming heart. It entertained kids and their parents equally, without a trace of the cynicism that sours most “cartoons for grownups.” I actually cared about that pull-string gunslinger, his spaceman friend, and their circus of strangely familiar supporting characters.

Pixar had raised the standard for G-rated entertainment… and then they raised it again. Toy Story 2 still stands as one of the only sequels in movie history to surpass the strengths of its predecessor.

Toy Story 3 completes what is arguably the finest American trilogy ever made. Can you think of another one that doesn’t have a weak link? It’s a surprisingly harrowing conclusion. After the first act, which takes Woody, Buzz, and the gang far from home and traps them in a frightening daycare, the movie becomes a celebration of prison-break conventions. Then, in its apocalyptic finale, it achieves an intensity that reminds me of another three-quel’s fiery finale—The Return of the King.

This story about abandoned toys might cause some of us to consider how we respond to our own betrayals and heartbreaks. It raises questions about how we discern our true purpose in life. And when Buzz, Jessie, and the gang are sentenced to a period of torment and abuse for the benefit of more powerful toys, we might wonder what this suggests about our own society’s luxuries and what they might be costing others.

For all of its memorable thrills (including an Indiana Jones-style runaway train caper), its inspired humor (Mr. Potato Head momentarily becomes the Picasso-like Mr. Tortilla Head), and its hilarious tangents (Ken’s fashion show may be the year’s most inspired montage), director Lee Unkrich’s film has one remarkable distinction: it is, shot for shot, scene for scene, the year’s most beautiful movie, alive with colors and shadows and textures that move critics to use words like painterly and sumptuous.

2010 gave us three films that I highly recommend for all ages—The Secret of Kells, Babies, and Toy Story 3. That’s more than usual. American television and cinema feeds American children a steady diet of junk food. But art and entertainment are formative forces, and children need great stories. Pixar’s films continue to reward adults and children alike, giving them something they can enjoy together again and again. And their Toy Story trilogy sets a gold standard for all-ages moviemaking.

We need a whole generation of filmmakers to learn from Pixar’s example.

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