It's that time of year again! Time for all the real critics to post their much more meaningful Top 10 lists and time for me to mimic them, like a child playing dress-up in mommy's clothes and high-heels. Again, as in previous years, this is not my notion of "the best" or "most awards worthy" films of the year, but it's a little more complicated than just a list of my favorites. I genuinely feel that each of these films is a great total package and more than just a good time at the movies or a great performance or good writing.
"Did you ever want to be a proper politician in your own right?"
"Of course. Didn't you want to be a proper writer?"
10. The Ghost Writer (original review here)
It's past the point of cliche now to say that "They don't make them like they used to." But here is Roman Polanski, a filmmaker in his seventies, making them exactly like he used to, like he hasn't for decades. This is a real meat-and-potatoes thriller for grown-ups, without the frills and audience grabbing tactics of modern films of the genre but overflowing with the solid storytelling skills so many of those films sorely lack. This film excels on pretty much every level - writing, acting, and technical. Ewan McGregor gives the film its foundation with a modest, understated performance, but Dollhouse's Olivia Williams is the standout.
"Jessup and me run together for comin' on forty years, but I don't know where he's at, and I ain't gonna go around askin' neither."
9. Winter's Bone
A film that, like so many of its characters, keeps its cards close to its chest. Ree Dolly has a seemingly simple task - track down her missing father. But the reason she needs to find him and the obstacles in her way are eked out slowly and brilliantly over the course of this remarkable film. The most fascinating aspect of this film to me is the unique role that women play in how this particular subculture deals with Ree as a potential threat who happens to be female. This is a hard film to categorize (though the climax takes it almost into the horror genre), and that's kind of its genius for me.
"You're waiting for a train, a train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you can't be sure. But it doesn't matter - because we'll be together."
I struggled with whether to include this, because I feel that once I got the hang of the mechanics of the movie - the dream levels and how they work - a lot of the magic was gone. I found myself less excited by my second viewing, and while everyone around me was hashing it out and discussing it, I just didn't feel like I had anything to say. But the more I thought about it, the more I found that what makes it memorable for me is not the mind-bending dream world - not even, as amazing as it is, Joey Gordon-Levitt doing his zero gravity thing - but the fact that, stripped of all its gimmickry, it's this moving love story. Sure, all these other characters are brought into it, but the impetus for the entire setup is Cobb's grief and guilt over his wife's death and his desparate need to get back to his kids.
"How do I get a hold of you?"
"You just contact the mayor's office. He has a special signal he shines in the sky. It's in the shape of a giant c**k."
7. Kick-Ass (original review here)
I will readily concede that part of my affection for this movie has to do with the amazing screening it had at BNAT last year. But while no screen audience comes close to the enthusiasm and appreciation of a BNAT audience, pretty much every "normal" audience I saw this with had a similar appreciation for it. It wasn't as successful as it should have been, but I think that, like Scott Pilgrim, this will gain a pretty substantial following in the coming years as people discover it at home. This is a movie that speaks to our culture's fascination with celebrity and what draws us to superhero stories in particular, and it does it irreverently, humorously, and intelligently (no matter what its detractors say). It might have been an even more compelling story if, as was originally intended, it had revolved around Hit Girl and Big Daddy. But its hard to argue against the focus on Dave/Kick-Ass. He's the viewer's proxy and the reason it's as thoughtful a film as it is.
"I hold out little hope for you winning your bounty ... My man'll beat you to it. I have hired a Deputy Marshal, the toughest one they have."
6. True Grit (2010)
It seems like every new film that Joel and Ethan Coen make feels like an odd decision at first, and this was no exception. Taking a classic that has perhaps been better remembered than it ought to be and remaking it seemed a bizarre choice, even for these unconventional filmmakers. Focusing the film on a precocious and wise-beyond-her-years child character was a bit risky as well, as those characters can so frequently be off-putting (*raises a knowing eyebrow to Dakota Fanning*). The result, however, is a genuine masterpiece and a noble addition to the ranks of The Searchers, The Magnificent Seven, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Shane, and other great westerns, in whose company this new True Grit need not be ashamed. Bravo, Messrs. Coen, Bridges, and Damon, and especially Miss Steinfeld.
"You better lawyer up, asshole, because I'm not just coming back for 30%, I'm coming back for everything."
5. The Social Network (original review here)
I don't think it's incidental that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin chose to title this film The Social Network, rather than use the title of the book on which the script is based (The Accidental Billionaires). This could not be a clearer attempt by Sorkin to mimic the work of his idol (and mine), Paddy Chayefsky, and Chayefsky's beyond brilliant script for the 1976 film Network. Few films in recent memory have dealt more closely with the kind of world we live in today. Not just our interactions on social networking sites, but the nature of the business world, where it's not so much being the first to have an idea but having the talent to take a good idea and make it bigger and better. And how lonely it must be to be that kind of person. People who aren't plugged in to Facebook and other networking platforms might not relate to a lot of this movie, but the final shot of the film is one of the most human moments I've seen in a film in this or any other year. Refresh, refresh, refresh...
"Please don't do that. ... I believe sucking smoke into your lungs will kill you."
"My physicians say it relaxes the throat."
"They've all been knighted."
"Makes it official, then."
4. The King's Speech (original review here)
At first glance, this looks like an Oscar war horse. It's British, it's a period costume drama, it's set just before World War 2, and it features a character trying to overcome or at least deal with a disability. In other words, it's right in the Academy's wheelhouse. This film is much, much more than that. The Big Scenes in the film get all the attention, but they would mean nothing without the little moments that build up to them. This is not a movie centered on a disability (sorry, Harry Knowles, but you are wrong about that); it is a movie about a friendship and a king's duty as a symbol for his country during some of the most difficult times in our world's history.
"Now Woody, he's been my pal for as long as I can remember. He's brave, like a cowboy should be. And kind, and smart. But the thing that makes Woody special is he'll never give up on you ... ever. He'll be there for you, no matter what"
3. Toy Story 3 (original review here)
How - HOW - did Pixar take a movie trilogy about toys and teach us about our own lives and human frailty? The first film showed us a world where toys not only talked but had feelings; they could fear being mishandled by a malicious child and, most significantly, they could feel jealous of newer, cooler toys, much like a child feels jealous of a new sibling. The second film took it a step further, showing us toys who fear their eventual neglect as their child outgrows them. And the third film takes it even further, showing us what happens to these toys when they are eventually cast aside, in a setting that is somewhat analogous to a nursing home. Not only that, but having them face their own mortality and be, in a way, resurrected as they find a new life with a new child. As strange as it seems, though, the toy box is a rather perfect metaphor, since as children we act out what we know of life with our own toys. If this is what Pixar can do with sequels, I frankly can't wait to see what they can do with new chapters in the Cars and Monsters, Inc. universes.
"I just want to be perfect."
2. Black Swan (original review here)
The best High Horror film since Silence of the Lambs? Quite possibly. A critic I follow said that the two overarching themes of films this year (as far as his responses to them were concerned) were 1) art, and how artists create it, and 2) human frailty. This film is a brilliant meditation on both of those themes. Natalie Portman's struggle to play a dual role in Swan Lake and her eventual descent into madness vacillates from the humorous to the horrifying. We are appalled by the lengths she goes to to achieve her art, but we are nonetheless fascinated and full of admiration for her achieving it. The thing about art is that is it important enough for people to want to give their whole selves, their sanity, their health and well being, and perhaps even their lives in pursuit of it, and even though we might hate to see people suffer like that, the scariest thing is ... isn't it worth it to create something of true beauty?
"Such a beautiful place .. to be ... with friends."
1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I (scattered thoughts here)
I realize that for some people this choice may invalidate the entire list, but this is my list and there is seriously not one film this year from which I derived more joy or meaning. I am forever grateful that I encountered Rowling's books and these films precisely as I did, and whatever remakes the future might hold, these particular films will always be entwined for me with the books and my own fandom experiences. I think all of the films prior to this have their peculiar mix of virtues and faults, but as I said earlier this year, there is not one thing about this movie I don't like, even after five viewings. Every aspect of filmmaking has gone up several steps with this one, and kudos to them for just going for the best adaptation of this particular book that was possible, regardless of whatever setups and clues from the earlier books they neglected in earlier films in the series.
"You're a porn actor who wants to know what a porn film is about?"
A Serbian Film (original review here - by all means, click if you're curious, but DO NOT GOOGLE THIS FILM)
I could not, in good conscience, even think about giving this a number on any kind of list. But at the end of the day, no other film this year - in my life, I expect - has had a bigger impact on how I watch movies, how I think about them, and how I talk and write about them. This is a truly shocking, boundary-pushing film, but an intelligent and very well made one. I'm rather surprised at all the people calling shenanigans on the metaphor, because if you are paying attention to anything besides the shocks it is splattered all over the film, especially the dialogue. These filmmakers are mad as hell, and they express that feeling in a piece of extraordinary political and pornographic rage. I'm not sure director Srdjan Spasojevich and his co-writer Aleksander Radivojevich could ever top this (and I don't really think I want them to), but I'm excited and frankly a bit horrified to see what they do next.