The annual list of favorite movies is a fun exercise, but it’s also a tough one. I believe in debating movies on their merits, but what qualifies a movie to be a personal favorite often transcends the dry discussion of whether it is objectively great or not. It depends on your own expectations for the movie, your movie preferences in general, who you saw it with, if you got the chance to see it again, and a million other things. That’s why I call this my list of favorites, and not a best of 2010 list.
Also, a list of this kind will inevitably make it glaringly clear that there are a lot of worthy movies I haven’t seen. Either because they haven’t come to Norway yet, or I haven’t had the time, or that I simply didn’t want to see them, for whatever reason. And remember that this list follows the Norwegian release schedule, in that only movies that were shown on film festivals, in theaters, released on DVD or on TV in Norway between January 1, 2010 and December 26, 2010 are eligible. This is mostly to keep a certain consistency with previous year-end lists, and give the late entries of 2009 (the Oscar-bait, mostly) a chance to compete, even though they didn’t open in Norway until this year. On the 2010 list this benefits A Single Man, while Milk and Into the Wild were notable hold-overs on the 2009 and 2008 lists, respectively. This year. the list of year-end staples that haven’t come to Norway yet include Black Swan, True Grit, Blue Valentine, Another Year, Never Let Me Go, The King’s Speech and many others. On the list of movies that are eligible but that I just haven’t seen, I’d mention Somewhere, two Danish movies, (Armadillo and In A Better World) and a host of documentaries (Restrepo, The Tillman Story, Client 9, Catfish, etc.)
The list of movies that nearly made the top ten includes the Swedish film The Girl, French Oscar nominee and Cannes favorite A Prophet, docu-drama Howl, Richard Loncraine’s spirited period-piece My One and Only and Charles Ferguson’s excellent Inside Job, a temperamental and well-argued documentary on the financial crisis.
- The Social Network (Directed by David Fincher)
Writing about The Social Network sometimes feels like an impossible task. Not so much because it has already been analyzed to death, but rather because I know that once I’m done writing this, I’m going to beat myself up over failing to capture exactly how much I love this film. And by that, I mean love. The first time I saw it, I fell in love with Aaron Sorkin’s signature whip-smart dialogue and Jesse Eisenberg’s icy yet accessible Mark Zuckerberg. The second time, I begun to appreciate the emotional resonance of the Zuckerberg-Saverin partnership, owing much to how Andrew Garfield convinced me that this is first and foremost a story of friendship and betrayal. The third time, I dove into the technical aspects and the nuts and bolts of the storytelling. From the top-notch sound mixing, making sure that the nightclub scene that seals the alliance between Zuckerberg and Sean Parker has exactly the right pounding, bass-driven intensity, to camera work and cinematography that brings a dark shade to the Harvard campus, this is not only a gorgeous-looking film, but one in which every directorial choice supports the broader vision. Finally, the fourth time, I wasn’t so much watching the film anymore as I was reliving it. At particular moments in The Social Network, my memory of how I had reacted to them previously were so strong that I just then understood how much this film had come to mean to me. Also, the trailer may be even better than the film itself. Not kidding.
2. A Single Man (Dir: Tom Ford)
Where many saw flaws, I saw friction and life, things that made Tom Ford’s directorial debut truly great. And “Colin Firth, one of the most versatile male actor in current British cinema, paints a truly gripping portrait of the grief-stricken George,” whose life loses all meaning following the death of his boyfriend. (Review)
3. Toy Story 3 (Dir: Lee Unkrich)
Nothing could have prepared me for the emotional complexity of Toy Story 3, except maybe Toy Story 2. In that film, a scene showing the melancholic sense of rejection cowgirl Jessie felt when she was abandoned by an owner who had grown out of her toy-playing phase, set up much of what was to come. A sequel eleven years in the making, Toy Story 3 gets so much right about what makes kids tick and parents weep. By making Andy’s departure for college a meditation on time, loyalty and life in general not only for the toys under threat of being thrown away, but for Andy and his mother as well, Pixar has made a film every bit as mature as last year’s Up. Toy Story 3, appropriately nostalgic in tone from the first scene inside 7-year old Andy’s imagination, to the final, dignified curtain call, is a gender-bending, anti-totalitarian, existential treat. I’ll miss these guys.
4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Dir: David Yates)
The first trailer for this two-part film promised ‘the motion picture event of a generation’. That could of course be debated on the merits, but if nothing else, it shows that the franchise has grown in confidence of the nearly ten years since Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone opened. I rewatched the entire series before I went to see The Deathly Hallows a second time, and I have to say the consistency of vision and quality has been remarkable. Sure, the first two movies at times felt like Roald Dahl movies lacking the darkness and sardonic wit that made Dahl’s books such a thrill, but from Azkaban on, the franchise grew into a deeply personal and engaging story of friendship and the struggle between good and evil, on a societal as well as a personal level.
The reception for The Deathly Hallows has been good, but not universally admiring, and more than a few critics seem to think that it suffers from being only the first half in a two-part story. I disagree. Exactly that choice, whether it was made for artistic or commercial reasons, has freed up time to focus more closely on the characters than in any other Harry Potter movie. Yates trusts us to know and love these characters by now, and thus much of the unnecessarily disposition of the previous films is stripped away. The result is a film that, while it contains a handful of heart-thumping action sequences, leaves more room for conflicting feelings, maturity and downright horror. And my favorite scene, in which Hermione via magic eliminates herself from the minds of her parents, isn’t even in the book. Witness the scene in which Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson dance awkwardly to a Nick Cave song. You’ll have to blink away a tear.
5. Inception (Dir: Christopher Nolan)
It says a lot about Inception that although I didn’t love it as passionately as I did many other films on this list, and although I never really connected with it on a gut level (as opposed to an intellectual level), I nevertheless saw it three times in a movie theater, and I’ll likely see it at least twice a year for the next several years. You simply cannot find a more powerful combination of artistic vision and just plain fun in Hollywood cinema these days. Christopher Nolan has shown for years, most notably in his Batman reboot, that this is his tour de force. Starring a bunch of the best actors of its generation (Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Paige, Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Inception went through with Nolan’s mind-bending dream-implantation premise with visual artistry and good humor (like the nod to Titanic in the first collapsing dream sequence). Wait for the totem/alternate reality discussion to become the cocktail chatter staple of the years to come.
6. Shutter Island (Dir: Martin Scorsese)
Inception stole much of the Leonardo DiCaprio-infused thunder of 2010, but which of the two I consider my favorite changes almost on a daily basis. Scorsese had a very uneven decade, but Shutter Island rivals The Departed as his masterpiece of the new millenium. Expertly deploying every tool he has at his disposal (among them the inimitable Max von Sydow and an excellent Sir Ben Kingsley), Scorsese’s film is a treat not only for the eye but for the brain as well. And this is where DiCaprio’s involvement gets really interesting. The mind-manipulation in Shutter Island is more traditional but no less effective than in Inception, and when the twist invited me to rethink the narrative completely, I happily went along for the ride.
Critics were somewhat split on Shutter Island, but to my mind, I was great to see a Scorsese film that transcended the well-made and wonkish but somewhat distant feel of The Aviator and Gangs of New York. As with The Departed, his other great film of the millenium, he scales back his epic impulse a little, and gives himself over to a deliciously stringent b-movie excess that brings out the horror element of what is essentially a detective story.
7. Tetro (Dir: Francis Ford Coppola)
Sometimes you see a film that’s so good you just have to bend the rules a little. This film, chronicling the complicated relationship between Tetro (Vincent Gallo), a playwright who seems perpetually unable to put the final touches on his supposed masterpiece, and his brother Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), technically wouldn’t qualify for this list, since it hasn’t been released neither in theaters nor on DVD in Norway yet. When it’s included anyway, it’s because I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it in a long time. Taking place in a theater enviroment allows it to unashamedly embrace grand gestures and heart-on-its-sleeve emotions, but the human drama is also brilliantly captured by Gallo, who fills his character with tragic-comedic intensity. Ehrenreich instantly positions himself as a Young Leonardo prospect, and the beautiful cinematography gives an echo of classical Hollywood cinema.
8. The Kids Are All Right (Dir: Lisa Cholodenko)
Reduced to its essence, The Kids Are All Right is a film about mothers who struggle with problems that any mother struggles with: How to get your son to tell you even the things he doesn’t want you to know, or how to come to terms with your daughter leaving home to start a life on her own. Sure, it’s also a story of the daughter wanting to get to know her donor dad (Mark Ruffalo), and the trials this puts Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules’ (Julianne Moore) marriage through. Helped by the impeccable chemistry and acting chops of its leads, writer-director Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, Itty Bitty Titty Committee) handles the the weighty stuff (like what it means when a lesbian suddenly sleeps with a man, or how to save a twenty-year relationship) with the same steady hand as the light comedic bits. The result is one of the most entertaining films of the year, and a scene about leaving for college that rivals the one in Toy Story 3.
9. Dogtooth (Dir: Giorgios Lanthimos)
When you make a film like Dogtooth, comparisons with Austrian evil genius Michael Haneke become almost inevitable. And yes, Giorgios Lanthimos’ second feature, which made a splash at Cannes last year, shares its underlying sense of discomfort with a Haneke film like Funny Games (1997), but it also shows that Lanthimos is able to stake out some ground for himself. The most disturbing aspect of this part family drama, part social satire, was how readily I accepted the logic of its wicked universe. A controlling and impulsively violent father has convinced his three adult children that they will be in grave danger if they leave the family mansion, but as outside influences seeped in leading to the social experiment’s painful conclusion, I was kept at the edge of my seat, much due to crisp cinematography and an unsettling score. The dancing scene at the end of Dogtooth was magnetic in a ‘don’t look-can’t-look-away’ kind of way.
10. The Ghost Writer (Dir: Roman Polanski)
A classic of a film of the kind that old cranks regularly complain doesn’t get made anymore, Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer takes a firm grip on the viewer’s imagination from the first, discomfiting scene. Ewan McGregor suits the role of a naive biographer very well, but the two standouts in the excellent cast may be Pierce Brosnan, whose role as a egomaniacal Tony Blair-style prime minister looks like it was written for him, and the always reliable Olivia Williams as his wife. Polanski has decades of experience with how to construct slow-building suspense, and here he even co-wrote a witty script to go with it. So witty, in fact, that The Ghost Writer‘s only possible flaw may be that its wit at times threatened to undercut the thriller aspect. In all, however, this is Polanski at his best, in the mode of the second half of his career, in movies like Bitter Moon (1992) and Frantic (1990).