This wasn’t a year to wow you. 2010 may have been somewhat of an off year for movies, but there are several quality films that hit theaters this year which are worth noting. A couple things struck me as I was putting together this list. First, how actresses stepped up huge this year. Whether in lead or supporting roles, it was a year dominated by the performances of the fairer sex. And second, 2010 was a year of raw emotion, almost visceral, brought to screen. You might argue that one or two of my choices didn’t have elaborate plots, but each delivered on an emotional level.
I tried to see everything I could but a few films slipped through the cracks, including Exit Through the Gift Shop, The Art of the Steal, and Mother. Although I’m only including one animated film on the list it was a good year for the genre, including Despicable Me, Megamind, and How to Train Your Dragon. And I’ve got to take a minute to acknowledge the films I cut from the list at the last minute, which include 127 Hours, Shutter Island, Rabbit Hole, and Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter.
Enough with what didn’t make the list, let’s countdown what did make it, starting with:
A married couple (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) see their relationship come to an inevitable and painful end in this stark drama from writer/director Derek Cianfrance. Blue Valentine captures the couple’s torturous final days while interlacing them with their happy beginnings. Here is a relationship that should have ended happily enough after a couple of months drags this pair of mismatched lovers down for years. Unflinching, it’s not a movie you’re going to want to watch often (if ever again), but like many of the movies you’ll find on the list, it’s full of regret, pain, and characters that have become trapped and lost in their own lives. Currently in limited release.
Writer/director Sofia Coppola‘s latest project is a deeply personal tale of a young girl (Elle Fanning) and her relationship with her celebrity father (Stephen Dorff) who has become lost in a world controlled by agents, appointments, and empty relationships. Somewhere‘s slow pacing and old school European cinema feel may put off some, and it requires a fair bit of patience, but at its heart, this tale of a father reconnecting with his daughter (and through her, slowly, the rest of the world) rings true far more than most Hollywood fare. Somewhere also showcases surprising depth by both Dorff and the young miss Fanning. Currently in limited release.
I’ll admit to having mixed feelings when I first heard the Coen brothers had decided to remake one of John Wayne‘s most famous films. I need not have worried. Though similar to the classic western, this version of True Grit is every bit its own story. Young Hailee Steinfeld carries the film as the headstrong girl seeking revenge for the loss of her father (and holds her own onscreen with both Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon). Beautiful, touching, and at times very funny, the Coens have delivered their own spin to the traditional western. Currently in theaters.
Adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel of the same name, three childhood friends (Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley) grow up in an orphanage and eventually grow apart. Sound familiar? Here’s the difference – all three of them are clones, bred as organ donors once they’ve reached adulthood. Never Let Me Go takes a well-worn sci-fi concept and turns it around into a poignant tale of young love, tragedy, and the hopelessness and brutal truth of death. Filled with subtle touches, this haunting narrative takes on a controversial subject with aplomb. Available on DVD February 1st.
Perhaps the safest choice on my list, The King’s Speech retells the story of Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) and his struggle with a stammer that almost ended his reign as King of England before it ever began. Firth gives one of the year’s best performances as a man with a near crippling condition for someone in the pubic eye, struggling with a position he never wanted. Helena Bonham Carter has a nice turn as the woman behind the throne who finds her husband an unorthodox speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) with just the right touch. Well-crafted, well-acted, and wonderfully performed, it’s one of the year’s best. Currently in theaters.
Pixar delivers yet another moving tale. The Toy Story franchise comes to an end, the only way it can – with the toys dealing with the fact that their owner has grown up and is moving on without them. Toy Story 3 opens with a terrific action sequence and closes on such a tender moment about the end of childhood, I defy you not to cry. For that, and everything in between, it earns a spot on the list. A perfect end to Pixar’s trademark series. Currently available on Blu-ray and DVD.
In The Ghost Writer, Ewan McGregor stars as a writer chosen to ghost write the autobiography of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) after the previous writer dies under mysterious circumstances. This thriller from director Roman Polanski has everything, including plenty of paranoia and surprises, a slow-building mystery with a very satisfying conclusion, and a terrific supporting performance by Olivia Williams as the woman behind the man (with a few secrets of her own). Now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
I may have not fallen as deeply in love with director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin‘s collaborative take on Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and the creation of Facebook as some, but it’s a really good film. Even though the film is centered around an unlikable and in some ways broken main character, we can’t help but be fascinated by this tale about a nerd who wants little more than to be cool (and the forgiveness of his college girlfriend). Smart, funny, and ultimately (like the portrayal of Zuckerberg himself), tragic and sad, The Social Network delivers on all levels. If there was any remaining doubt, Eisenberg proves he’s to be taken seriously as an actor, and The Social Network reminds everyone that Facebook and social media are here to stay. Available on Blu-ray and DVD January 11th.
Darren Aronofsky‘s companion piece to The Wrestler is yet another look into the world of single-minded obsession and madness, and a damn fine one at that. Natalie Portman gives the performance of her career as a sheltered but talented ballet dancer on the cusp of stardom whose world begins to fall apart just as she realizes her dreams. Part drama, part suspense, and part horror, Black Swan, is constantly shifting our perception and making us question what is really happening. The film builds to a stunning onstage climax during the performance of Swan Lake that is impossible to forget. Currently in theaters.
It’s impossible to talk about I Am Love without first discussing the performance of Tilda Swinton who learned to speak near-flawless Italian with a Russian accent for the role as Emma Recchi. Once again the themes of loss, the search for love, and obsession find themselves on the list as Swinton stars as a Russian woman who has married into the wealthy Recchi family. Although well-loved and provided for she still feels more kinship with the housekeeper than most of her in-laws. Her role as hostess and loyal wife is fractured by her daughter’s new romance and her own feelings to the best friend (Edoardo Gabbriellini) of her son (Flavio Parenti), a chef who rekindles a passion in her she thought long dead. Although Swinton is terrific throughout it’s the film’s final half-hour that earns her, and the film, its high spot on the list. It’s inconceivable to me to imagine another actress playing those gut-wrenching scenes (completely devoid of the movie’s thrilling musical score which punctuates most of the film). Like all great films, I Am Love knows how to use silence to its greatest advantage. Now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
I remember first seeing a trailer for Hubble 3D while watching Avatar for the first time. I promised myself then and there that whatever I had to do, I was going to see this movie in IMAX 3D. Taking footage from the final mission to repair the Hubble telescope and blending it with scenes from Earth and images from Hubble itself, this documentary is mesmerizing to behold. Still not available on DVD, it’s a shame so many missed the opportunity to view the film as it was meant to be seen, in near overwhelming IMAX 3D. Had the film been a full-length feature, rather than only 45 minutes, it would have earned the top spot on the list, but we still have one film to discuss…
Loss, obsession, tragic love, and some of the year’s most mesmerizing special effects come together in 2010’s best film. Christopher Nolan blends the best aspects of his previous movies together for his masterpiece. Nolan examines the world of dreams, of haunting memories, personal loss, and how far one will go to get home. Inception is both a bigger than life sci-fi flick and a very personal tale of loss and grief. Leonardo DiCaprio is terrific in the main role as the man hired to implant the seed of an idea into a businessman’s (Cillian Murphy) dreams, and Marion Cotillard (as the woman who haunts his own dreams) is amazing in a role that could have been nothing more than a plot device. Loss is explored, both in terms of the characters becoming further removed from reality as well as the deeply personal loss of love. Each dream world, one built upon the next, creates a byzantine journey for the team, and audience, to traverse, but it’s the human journey DiCaprio’s character is unwilling to take that keeps him lost in a limbo of his own making. Inception is the year’s most complete film, built by a master storyteller in Nolan, and filled with strong performances from top to bottom, and as perfect a final shot as I’ve seen captured on film this year. Currently available on Blu-ray and DVD.