“The Best (and Worst) Movies of 2010”
Upon first reflection, I was thinking to myself that 2010 was not really a strong year for movies, with mainstream Hollywood churning out the usual dribble like The Bounty Hunter and Sex and the City 2 seemingly every other week. But once I thought back at the more artistic movies that I saw last year, I realized that, while there was not a plethora in quantity of great movies, the quality of cinematic efforts I saw was quite high. In addition, as I compiled the list, I saw how many very strong movies centered on true powerhouse lead performances by female actors. And there was even one bright spot in the mainstream when the best movie of the year turned out to be a big, exhilarating summer blockbuster that did combine cinematic art with commercialism and was widely seen (you can probably guess which one). So here are my picks for the best films of 2010 with the runners-up listed after in alphabetical order.
10. A Prophet – A brutal, messy and gut-wrenching gangster film of a high order, this movie, which won the Grand Prix in the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, chronicles the visceral arc of how a young, naïve French Arab outcast is turned into a deadly criminal entirely behind bars. This knowledge of prisons being far from reformatory grounds but rather breeding grounds for crime and animalistic struggle has been shown before. But rarely has it been delivered with such rich nuances of human behavior and characters like Malik (Tahar Rahim) and especially the prison mob kingpin, Cesar (Niels Arestrup), whose mere steely eyes make Don Corleone look like Mr. Rogers.
9. Winter’s Bone – Every one or two years, there is the Sundance breakout film that stands apart from the rest and wears its independent spirit more confidently to present its own seldom seen world with such truth and authenticity. In the year 2010, it was this movie that follows a teenager (astonishingly played by newcomer, Jennifer Lawrence) from the Ozarks who goes out into the dangerous woods to find her missing drug-dealing father while trying to hold her family together. And if that sounds like it could draw parallels to Little Red Riding Hood, the beauty of this film is that it fully respects that fairy tale tradition while adhering to its own gritty reality.
8. Black Swan – Most of the best films this year achieved their quality by portraying reality so well so it is nice that there was also one like Black Swan that leapt straight into fantasy and hysteria with unabashed and operatic abandon. Centering on a bold performance that should bring its lead actress, Natalie Portman a shower of accolades, director Darren Aronofsky sets this depiction of the pursuit of perfection pushed into very mad extremes elegantly and hauntingly within the world of ballet. It also crosses and masters the styles of past films on its subject and wrenches out the narcissistic soul underneath.
7. Restrepo – This factual journalistic account of one long year with an American military platoon in Afghanistan reminds us why documentaries exist. If 2009 had brought the fictionalized powerful take on the war in Iraq with The Hurt Locker, this movie brings the unadorned, surreal nature of modern warfare close to the bone. The movie avoids taking precise political sides. It just watches, as it wonders the increasingly insoluble dilemma how this current war can exactly be won.
6. Of Gods and Men – The winner of the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, this movie by Xavier Beauvois, like Carlos Reygadas’ masterpiece, Silent Light, is a slow, meticulous piece that requires its audience to meet in the middle. However, this quietly potent film that depicts a community of Ciscercian monks in Algeria contemplating on how to act in the midst of an uprising of fundamentalist terrorists in the area is a brilliant example of immersive regional filmmaking that depicts a world we hardly know about.
5. Poetry – Few directors are better at bringing to focus the very fragile emotional states of socially marginalized people than Korean director Lee Chang-dong and his seventh film is one of his best. This time, he centers on a lonely 66-year old lady (played brilliantly by Korean veteran actress, Yoon Jung-hie) who tries to seek enough meaning in her life to write poetry amidst extremely dire circumstances. That story may seem trite on the page but at the hands of Lee where characters are X-rayed by the micrometer, it is a shattering effort that may not find an emotional lift but rather a sublime solace.
4. Exit Through the Gift Shop – This unusual documentary may be all real or all a hoax but unlike the other abysmal Joaquin Phoenix documentary, I’m Still Here, this movie’s central conundrum of reality or hoax is endlessly fascinating. The director, Banksy who takes the footage of a French man named Thierry Guetta who videotapes the graffiti artists may have the long speculation of whether Banksy and Guetta are one and the same person. But this kind of self-referential mosaic (and also very funny) approach only adds more brilliant intrigue to the central question of what constitutes true art and whether it really lies in the beholder when the beholder himself is in question.
3. The Secret in Their Eyes – This Argentinian film was the winner of the 2009 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and it was the most deserving win in many years of Academy history. It is also the most romantic movie I have seen all year, as a retired male legal counselor and a female judge are brought back together by a past unsolved, brutal crime and have much to lose or gain from the outcome of the case. The chemistry between these two vivid characters played by Ricardo Darin (a great actor who should be seen by more people in the US) and Soledad Vilamil reminded me of the classical romantic sparks generated by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the 1940s.
2. Bedeviled – This Korean indie movie was not well seen over here in America and, for that matter, was hardly seen by its local audiences either. But if you ever wondered how an initial feminist revenge fantasy can transcend its own shock value with thoughtful characters and a proper moral complexity, this movie by first-time director, Jang Cheol-su proves how you can do it. There have been so many movies on brutal feminist retribution that have ranged from being gutless to just plain reprehensible and irresponsible. But this movie, which is anchored by another mesmerizing female performance from Seo Young-hie as the anti-heroine, Kim Bok-nam, provides not only a haunted portrait of a pained woman subjugated by everyone around her in a remote Korean rural village but a very complex moral universe that painfully depicts the tragic price of apathy.
1. Inception – The pick may seem a little superficial and obvious to some but honestly, this movie gets the top spot as it was the only film I saw in 2010 that I immediately wanted to see a second time as soon it was over. With every repeat viewing, I am again impressed with the intricately layered dream logic, the bravura editing and the astonishing cinematic sights like the city of Paris folding in half or the revolving hotel hallway fight scene, the latter of which ranks as the most dazzling scene of the year. And those who said that this film does not contain an emotional core missed the point, as it has one vibrating stronger than any previous effort by director Christopher Nolan. His turn of his exploration of obsession to romanticized idealism brings into clearer focus the themes he only hinted at in his previous films and makes the movie more than just a splashy action film. Movies like this provide hope that there are some filmmakers like Nolan still out there who are willing to use their commercial success to give us intelligent, artistic blockbusters and not just dumb ones like the Michael Bay films and their clones.
Runners-up: Another Year, Buried, Four Lions, The Ghost Writer, I Saw the Devil, The Kids Are All Right, The King’s Speech, Rabbit Hole, The Social Network, True Grit, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
Worst films of the year (in order of lousiness): Sex and the City 2, The Bounty Hunter, The Back-up Plan, Grown-Ups, Eat Pray Love, The Switch, Kick-Ass, From Paris with Love.
Remakes that did not need to be made: Death at a Funeral, The Karate Kid, Let Me In, A Nightmare on Elm Street.