Monday, January 24, 2011

The Best and Worst of 2010

The general consensus is 2010 was a terrible year for movies. And for most of the year it was. However, like the cavalry in an old western, a terrific run of movies at the end of the year came to the rescue and saved the day.

Before December though, I would substitute the word uninspired for terrible. This summer in particular was one clunker after another. I know we don’t go to the movies in the summer to see Academy Award material, but is it asking for at least craftsmanship and professionalism. So many movies were just so very average, as disposable as tissue, even lacking in basic entertainment value.

As of this writing, I have seen more than 70 2010 movies, either at the theater or later on DVD and cable TV. I didn’t get to see everything. I regret not seeing “The Town” and hope to make quick amends on that one. I mainly see traditional Hollywood fare, but thanks to the After Hours Film Society in Downers Grove, IL, I was able to see a fair number of art, independent and foreign films. Many of these were critically acclaimed, but a surprising number of them left me cold.

My area of west suburban Chicago is blessed with many second-run movie theaters so I didn’t pay first-run prices for a lot of these. But the movies were so undistinguished that I resented even spending $3 to see them and felt myself asking, usually about halfway through, why I wasn’t home watching something on TCM instead. I felt that way more this year than any other year I can remember, and I’ve been going to the movies on a regular basis for more than 40 years.

But all in all, there were 10 films which gave me much pleasure and several, I think, will be timeless classics. Heck, even Tony Scott delivered a good one with “Unstoppable.” Maybe it wasn’t such a bad year after all.

In descending order, my top 10 films of the year are:

10. The Secret In Their Eyes
Last year’s Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film was gripping from beginning to end. Benjamin and Irene first meet in 1974 during the investigation of a rape and murder when she is a judge’s assistant and he is a young investigator. In 2000 they meet again when Benjamin wants to re-open the original investigation. Irene is now a respected judge. The movie bounces back and forth to the 1974 investigation and the current one. I don’t want to say any more, but this is terrific entertainment with a concluding chase at a soccer game that Hitchcock would have applauded. Well deserving of its Oscar.

9. Get Low
Some of the year’s best acting was found in this wonderful film. Set in Tennessee in the 1930s, Robert Duvall plays an eccentric hermit who plans his own funeral, even deciding who will give his eulogy. He wants to see what people say about him, and to see that his money will be well spent. Wonderful period detail with a dryly funny Bill Murray as the town’s undertaker, and Sissy Spacek as Duvall’s old flame.

8. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo/The Girl Who Played With Fire

Like everyone else, I was mesmerized by the books and thought these adaptations from Sweden were excellent. I still need to see (and read) “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest”, but if it’s even half as good as these, it will be a winner. Noomi Rapace may be not be physically perfect for the Lisbeth Salander role – she’s not petite enough – but she inhabits the role so thoroughly, it’s one of those instances where physical resemblance isn’t important.

7. True Grit
The Coen Bros. were smart to retain much of the pitch perfect dialogue from the book, which is one of the great American novels. Still it irks me a bit when some say how faithful this is to the book, much more than the first version, done in 1969 with John Wayne. While I think the Coen Bros. do a better job of successfully translating the film’s tone, the Wayne version actually features more of the book, and uses just as much of the dialogue as the current version does. The Coen Bros. version’s ending is truer to the book, but I prefer the sense of closure the earlier version gave us. Still a marvelous, marvelous film but if I had a gun pointed to my head, I would give the nod to the original.

6. The Social Network
Good movie, but for me a tad overrated. Beautifully shot and splendidly acted, it was a real pleasure to hear such rich dialogue on the screen delivered by such good actors. But, in the long run, it struck me as being about two groups of self absorbed millionaires fighting over even more millions. But there’s no denying the entertainment factor while watching it.

5. Easy A
One of the warmest, funniest, wisest and most human films of the year, this was a total delight from beginning to end. This story of Olive, a high school girl who gets an unearned reputation for being loose and the consequences that follow, was captivating viewing. Emma Stone became a star with this movie and I hope we’re graced with her talent for a long time to come. She has the talent, charisma and screen presence of the great actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Why this wasn’t a bigger hit I have no idea.

4. The Ghost Writer
The year’s best and smartest thriller, courtesy director Roman Polanski, with nary a gun shot or chase sequence in sight. Ewan McGregor is hired to ghost write the memoirs of former British prime minister Pierce Brosnan just as revelations about the prime minister’s approval of torture activities threaten to erupt in scandal. The setting is a lonely, windswept, autumnal beach on Martha’s Vineyard in a house where everyone harbors secrets. Some complained about the ending, but I thought it was chilling. I thought Brosnan was revelatory in “The Tailor of Panama” (2001), and he’s even better here. I love it when former 007s show what good actors they really are.

3. Toy Story 3
One of the best trilogies of all times gets a memorable and genuinely moving send off. I wish they could bottle what it’s in the air at Pixar Studios and distribute it throughout the rest of Hollywood.

2. The Fighter
Incredible acting fuel this true working class life story about boxer Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his crack-addicted trainer Dickie (Christian Bale). Everyone here is at the top of their game. I loved the sisters in this. They’re more frightening than anything you’ll see in a horror movie.

1. The King’s Speech
What can I say, but as perfect and impeccable a movie as you’ll see all year, just tops in direction, acting and writing. There’s nothing so satisfying as a good story well told. I can’t imagine anyone of any age group not being captivated by this movie.

Honorable Mentions:

Black Swan: This almost made the top 10. I really dug Natalie Portman’s high wire performance in this. She plays a ballerina desperate to star in a new production of Swan Lake. She always looks like she’s terrified she’s going to be found out as a phony, even though she clearly isn’t. I do wish the dance sequences were filmed better, without the dancers being cut off at the waist. Too bad director Doesn’t Darren Aronofsky didn’t heed Fred Astaire’s advice. I think it requires multiple viewings to catch everything. For instance, is Barbara Hershey’s mother character real, or also one of Portman’s fantasies? A rather large, middle-aged woman next to us got up in disgust during the lesbian love making scene between Portman and Mila Kunis and it seemed to take forever for her to pass in front of the screen. Very annoying.

The Girl on the Train: French film based on a real case about a young Jewish woman who fakes an Anti-Semitic attack. Sad to watch, but engrossing from start to finish. Catherine Deneuve plays the girl’s mother, and she’s as wonderful to watch as ever.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I: A good build up to the big finale, but more than a bit sluggish in its pacing. What I’ve always liked about the books, and the movies, is how positively Dickensian the characters are who inhabit this world. For me, this one didn’t have enough of those Dickensian moments. And my main complaint about this entry is the same problem I had with the book – when are they going to get out of that damn forest? It had me pining for some awesome Slavko Vorkapich montages to show the passing of time.

The Karate Kid: I expected to dislike this, but wound up really enjoying this. The China locations help a great deal and Jackie Chan delivers his best performance to date.

The Kids Are All Right: Beautifully acted and written if a bit formulaic. Julianne Moore and Annette Bening are wonderful as the lesbian parents of two teenagers who decide to look for their sperm donor father (Mark Ruffolo). When they find him, the family life is turned upside down in all kinds of unexpected ways.

Letters to Juliet: Vanessa Redgrave talks granddaughter Amanda Seyfried into driving through Italy to look for the lost love of her youth. I know this likely has not appeared on other Best of 2010 lists, but to me it was completely satisfying in a way so many current movies today aren’t. Emotions are honestly earned, the Italian location footage is to die for and the characters are very appealing and very human. Put a Max Steiner score and a Delmer Daves director’s credit on it and it could have been a most enjoyable evening at the movies in the 1960s, and believe me, that is not an insult. Plus, I’m in love with Amanda Seyfried so that helped a great deal.

Salt: It was nice to watch an action movie and be able to actually follow the action. That hasn’t happened with a new actioner in a long time.

Splice: The year’s best horror movie also gave us lots to think about. I’m very wary of genetic manipulation (I guess I’ve seen too many horror movies) and this one really delivered the creepy monster goods. It’s the type of movie where you want to yell at the characters not to do things they’re about to do. I’m sure Sarah Polley doesn’t want to be thought of as a scream queen, but since she appeared in two of the best horror movies of the last several years (this and the “Dawn of the Dead” remake in 2004) if she elects to do another one, I’ll be there opening weekend.

Worst Films of the Year

The A Team: Loud, obnoxious and stupid. When I think of the classic tradition of men with a mission movies like “The Guns of Navarone” (1961) or “Where Eagles Dare” (1968) and then see trash like this, it makes me want to weep. I couldn’t wait for it to be over.

Clash of the Titans: The poster boy for horrific 2010 movies, just excruciating on every level. As I wrote last year, “The new incarnation of “Clash of the Titans” is as glum, dreary and depressing an adventure movie as I’ve ever seen. It has no romance or poetry in its soul; what it does have is a series of combat scenes resembling a video game connected by the wispiest of narrative threads. I found it truly unbearable from beginning to end.” It had me pining for “Medusa Against the Son of Hercules” (1963), rubber monsters, bad dubbing and all.

Get Him to the Greek: As contrived and laugh-free a comedy as I’ve ever seen. I can’t stand Russell Brand, which may have been the problem. One of those awful Judd Apatow—produced yawn fests where the characters engage in all kinds of repulsive behavior for the first three quarters of the movie before getting all gooey and touch feely at the end. I saw this on a brutally hot summer afternoon because I don’t have air conditioning. It led me to think maybe I should invest in a window unit.
The Last Airbender: Another big budget fantasy epic that was duller than dull. It’s the type of movie I had forgotten I’d seen even as I was walking up the theater aisle as the credits rolled.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time: Everything about “Clash of the Titans” applies here, though I did enjoy the ostrich races. That’s not something you see every day.

Red: Something of a cheat, as I only saw the first hour before the power in the theater went off and we were given passes to a future movie. I never had the slightest desire to see the rest of it. One overkill scene is so typical of why I despise most current action movies. A stealth team of three or four special ops guys, all dressed in black and wearing masks, sneak into the house of ex-CIA man Bruce Willis to take him out. Being the hero, he disarms and kills them and walks onto his front porch where he’s greeted by seemingly the rapid fire of a dozen or so machine guns. Because nothing says a stealth operation like hundreds of rounds of ammunition being shot off in a suburban neighborhood. Stupid beyond all words.

Skyline: Good special effects highlight this alien invasion movie, but a more unappealing cast of characters I can’t imagine. Would it have the writers to at least attempt to make even one of the characters likeable? Just one?

Loved by Many, but Left Me with a Mere Shrug of the Shoulders

Alice in Wonderland; Animal Kingdom; How to Train Your Dragon; I Am Love; Inception; Mother; Winter’s Bone


The Lady Eve said...

I rarely see new films...though I did see one on your list, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and liked it (well enough to have no interest a Hollywood remake). On my list to see in the next couple of weeks: "Black Swan," "The Social Network" and "Blue Valentine." Plan to eventually see "True Grit"... memories of the original (Glenn Campbell...yikes!) still having an impact.
Thanks, I have a few more to consider!

Kevin Deany said...

Thanks, L.E. I think you might like "Easy A". Some former co-workers of mine said they were glad it was on my list, as they thought it was one of last year's best films.

Rick29 said...

Kevin, I was most intrigued with your "Best of 2010" list. I've seen a few of the movies, but not as many as I should have. Being a fan of Delmer Daves and Max Steiner, you certainly make me want to rent LETTERS TO JULIA. I admit I did quite enjoy HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON.

Kevin Deany said...

Rick: In addition to Delmer Daves, I was thinking of Jean Negulesco while watching "Letters to Juliet." It touched all the right buttons with me. Vanessa Redgrave was excellent in the grandmother role. In fact, I would have put her in the Best Supporting Actress category over Jackie Weaver in "Animal Kingdom." I just don't get what everybody is raving about her in that movie.

ClassicBecky said...

Hi Kevin -- I couldn't agree more with most of your list. I can't say I have seen them all, but I've seen quite a few. Others you described I'm going to look for (the ones in the list of good ones, that is). I thought the King's Speech was just what you said, and just marvelous performances.

My only disagreement would be with The Black Swan. I had great hopes for this movie, and found myself very let down. I found Natalie Portman's constant trembling fear with the same expression on her face really annoying. That may be partly because it was just too long. There were good things in it, and the last 1/2 hour was spectacular, but overall it seemed to me like The Red Shoes on crack. LOL. Really enjoyed your post!

ClassicBecky said...

Oops, I forgot. Do see The Town when you can. I didn't think I would like it, and my son made me watch it. It is really a good film!

Kevin Deany said...

Becky, "Black Swan" seems to be one of those movies that really splits the viewing public. I have friends who I generally agree with, and we split on "Black Swan." It just seems to be one of those divisive movies, but it worked for me.

ClassicBecky said...

Hey Kevin, that is so true! My sisters and I almost always agree on movies, but The Black Swan had 2 loving and 3 unimpressed. I remember the same situation with James Cameron's "Titanic" and the movie "Ghost" with Patrick Swazey (is that how you spell his name?). With those two movies, 3 of us hated and laughed and 2 loved and cried. Especially with "Ghost", we saw it in the theatre. 2 sisters had shaking shoulders from crying, 3 sisters had shaking shoulders from trying not to laugh. LOL

Aki said...

I must say I liked quite a few of the movies in 2010. I really enjoyed True Grit. The Prince of Persia was enjoyable and had great music. Clash of the Titans was okay and had good music too. The Last Airbender was a bummer, but hey, the track Flows Like Water is beautiful music to listen to. I liked The Social Network, The King's Speech, and you know, Kevin, The Expendables was awesome and purely enjoyable!!...good music too. Oh, I liked The Ghost Writer although I can't say it had any music worth mentioning but Brosnan and McGregor were really good.