This has got to be the most boring, obvious top ten list I’ve ever had. Five of them are nominated for Best Picture (in a field of ten, which hopefully very soon will seem extremely unlikely to have ever been the case to anyone reading this then) and two others are nominated for best of their respective genres. And the few that are left can’t be terribly surprising. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, of course. That is not why I mention it. It’s just that I don’t suspect I’ll have a whole lot to say about a lot of them. It will all have been said many times over and repeating that again, two full months into the following year, that is something to be ashamed of. At least a little bit.
It was a really good year, relatively speaking (which is the only way possible), and a lot of that seems due to a return to American classicism (even if three of the following movies were directed by the English and one of those is actually Canadian.)
1. The Social Network – This is the quintessential American story. The ruthlessness necessary to make any progress under capitalism and the expenditure of otherwise generally valued relationships in the process. That it has to do with the creation of Facebook only gives this timeless story a bit of superficial apposition. And, of course, while all of this helps, it does not necessarily make a movie the best one of the year.
An unmitigatedly unlikeable main character, legal procedures that never get past the deposition stage and a whole lot of typing. These are not things that should make a watchable movie, never mind a great one. But from the opening salvo of torrential dialogue, it is clear The Social Network will not be something with which you will ever be able to be bored.
It is all present and accounted for, the rise and the fall, the pitfalls of money, the choices between friend and fame. But they are woven together so expertly you might not notice. You’re given them all at once, so that it doesn’t matter that you’ve seen this story before, doesn’t matter that you know where it is going, because getting there is so engaging.
And going beyond that, every individual facet of this movie is near perfect. It’s barely a period piece, but the world does seem different. The score is fused to the fluidity of the camera. Everything feels thoroughly planned out and yet is so layered and, at times, chaotic. The dialogue almost annoyingly so. Aaron Sorkin is finally able to leave himself out of his script (even if he’s not out of the movie) and just do what no one ever questioned he could do as well or better than anyone else. The bookends of Mark’s relationship with Erica alone, the entire driving force behind everything that happens, are enough to make this one of the best movies of the year. But thankfully, there was a whole lot more in-between.
2. How To Train Your Dragon – It is disconcerting how many times recently the best action movie of the year has been animated. Maybe it is the only way to surprise us anymore. But even in being the best action movie of the year, How To Train Your Dragon goes a long way towards avoiding any action. There is a constant struggle against violence. Which is a great lesson, but one that has to get abandoned at some point under these circumstances. In this though, when it does, it doesn’t make the mistake of contradicting itself. It makes violence the only possible resolution, incorporating everything learned leading up to that point.
Best of all, there are ramifications to that inevitable avenue of resolution. One of them an irreversible, horrible consequence that is still staggering that it could happen in a kids’ movie. Without that ending this would still be one of the best movies of the year, but with it, it stands above (most of) the others. Which is ironic, considering…
3. Toy Story 3 – Saying this is now the greatest trilogy in cinema history isn’t really as superlative a statement as it seems to be. There is no other set that makes choosing a favorite among them so impossible. Or unnecessary.
An action-packed opening, a host of new fascinating characters, sustained gripping tension throughout and two wrenching endings in a row should make this a much more serious contender for Best Picture than it was. Pixar continues to prove that movies can appeal to everyone at once and that kids not only aren’t stupid, but they grow up, and there’s no reason to shy away from that like so many other movies (whether they are intended for kids or not) go to great lengths to do.
4. Kick-Ass – A lot of the entries among the recent flurry of comic book related movies have tried to ground their characters in the world with which most of us are familiar. Eventually, they all seem to run into the same problem: that chasm that exists between this world and the one in which such heroes exist and function. Most choose simply to ignore it. Kick-Ass is the only one that address that chasm.
Anchoring that delicate balance is someone who seems to be struggling to maintain a similar equilibrium with every role he takes. There’s a whole lot that goes right in Kick-Ass, but it’s unlikely any of it would have amounted to much if not for Nicolas Cage’s Big Daddy. Nic Cage has gone wrong so often lately it was getting hard to remember he could do things like this. But he is so completely out of his mind as the one person who seems to have this whole hero business figured out that it is now just as easy to forget all that stuff that was making us forget this (and then, of course, came Season Of The Witch.)
And yet somehow, Nicholas Cage is not what resonates. He is not the first thing that comes to mind when recollecting this movie. His training/rearing is the reason we can accept the trite wise-well-beyond-one’s-years nature of Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz – who seems to making a career of such characters) who otherwise might have been the disconcerting fantasy some people purported her to be. He is everything that titular character Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson) aspires to be when he puts on his costume. And of course his actions are behind the motivations of every other character, including Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) who is one of the best villains to come along in a long while. He is as effortless in his mounting frustration with the ridiculousness of superheroes being behind his recent work troubles as he is with his turmoil over his son’s refusal to be left out of the family business. All of these things are more easily remembered after the fact, supported almost transparently by one (almost literally) unbelievable performance. If only the Academy took this sort of movie seriously.
And there’s no reason it shouldn’t. As much of a comedy as this movie is, the violence is not a joke. Kick-Ass is hurt terribly even in his messy victories. Hit Girl’s famous crowd favorite hallway slaughter is instantly followed by her getting brutally beaten by a man at least 30 years older than her. Even the opening is instantly turned into the sad fate of a mentally disturbed individual. There are ramifications to violence is the point. It begets itself. And when the central question is why no one actually gets into this fantastical hero racket, that is one of the best answers.
5. Black Swan – It is difficult, when someone puts forth such an amazingly captivating performance, especially in a movie so myopically focused on their character, to separate it from the movie as a whole. In this case, I’m not sure it should be. Natalie Portman is incredible and deserved to win everything she did. But everything else about Black Swan is nearly as incredible. The script is pretty simple, but concise and focused. There is the obvious parallel to the story of the ballet within the movie, but that is more of an influence than supposed coincidence. And as a portrait of a person losing her mind and the dubious hold on reality that comes along with that, it has no parallel at all.
Being purposefully unclear about what is happening and what is just imagined without much intention of ever clearing up definitively which is which is a tenuous position in which to put an entire movie. To avoid making it the primary thought on the audience’s mind when it is over (see: Inception) is even more impressive. Black Swan is an indelible update of the story from which it gets its name and of the classic workplace paranoia framework. All this with the added layer of actually seeing the world from the perspective of a person more disturbed than anyone could ever see from any other angle.
6. Gasland – There are times in Gasland, many of them even, where the frame includes both the subject and the director of this documentary on the natural gas industry in America. This is not because said director (Josh Fox) is making himself the star of his movie, a la Michael Moore. He too is holding a camera, thinking he is getting the shot that is going in the movie. He is just so ill-prepared for doing what he has set out to do, and so caught up in what is happening, that his footage is probably unusable. The fact is, it isn’t what he set out to do. This is an accident of a documentary and all the more relevant and satisfying because of that.
Josh Fox was just the owner of land the gas companies wanted. He received a letter just like hundreds of others did. Rather than trusting those companies and taking the money like they did though, he decided to investigate. When the phone failed him, he took a video camera to a place where it had already happened to see how it turned out. So we learn along with him, through his interviews and self-reflective narration and simplified graphics, what this whole process is and how it affects more than just the people whose property from which it originates.
You may have seen these effects on 60 Minutes or other such news programs, but that is showing you that it is happening to other people. News people are never talking about you. But Gasland not only takes you further into the fear and confusion of the people being directly impacted, it makes you one of them, just as Fox becomes one of them with every progressive step he takes in his journey.
Lighting tap water on fire is astonishing and even funny, but that gives way quickly to everything else that goes along with that. There are explosions and cancers and the fact that no one can drink the water in their house. People are sick. Children are malformed. And even if it weren’t already too late, nobody can move because a house without water isn’t worth all that much anymore. And yet the push of the movie is not for a fight to eradicate fracking, as the process of extracting natural gas fro the ground is called, but rather simply for more information to be collected and shared. All throughout, the movie constantly returns to its thesis: that loopholes were created and then used by the natural gas companies that allow them to circumvent the evaluations to which any other industry would be and is subjected. And worse than any side effect of the gas-gathering process is the idea that this is allowed and even encouraged by our own government.
You sound like a crazy person suggesting such a thing, but this is why we have the 2nd Amendment. It’s not so you can teach your kids to hunt. It’s not so you can shoot the prowler who wouldn’t have broken into your house had he known you were home. It is so you can raise a militia when the government (or its appendages) starts killing your children. Again, this is not ever the point of Gasland. In fact it is almost infuriating how calm everyone seems to be given what the movie is showing you. I suppose they ought to be commended for their level-headedness, but if they are ever looking to respond the way they should, I am ready to enlist.
7. Please Give – Nicole Holocefer might be the best writer/director around today. She certainly seems to be the most consistent. Some might say too consistent. In that all her movies seem to contain the same insecure, guilt-ridden characters. That’s not entirely accurate, but I’m not sure it would even matter. Please Give is everything we wish Woody Allen was still able to give us. Vibrant new characters in old situations. They are funny, they are neurotic, they are overwhelmed with problems we only wish we had. But you never question their authenticity. Because relationships are the same no matter how much money you have (or give.)
This isn’t fair. I am cheating here. This is the only movie on this list about which enough for a book hasn’t been written. But Please Give is great and I’m going to watch it again when it comes on Netflix Watch Instantly in a few hours. Which means when you read this, it’s already there, so you should be watching that instead of being here reading about it. Or not reading about it as the case seems to be.
8. The Fighter – Another American classic: the boxing movie. We should be over this by now, having seen every conceivable version of it. That this is a true story really shouldn’t make a difference. And it doesn’t. Boxing quickly becomes secondary to bafflingly impressive performances, even people from whom we’ve sort of come to expect them. And then tertiary to wrenchingly accurate portrayals of other familiar subjects like addiction, jealousy and family dynamics. Besides being painfully applicable to many things other than boxing, the title seems present only to remind us that at some point, there will, in fact, be boxing. And yet, even the boxing scenes stand out as very well done. Which is the most amazing aspect of The Fighter. Everything stands out. Which you would think would mean nothing would stand out. There doesn’t seem to be anything original happening, yet not one moment feels forced or false or forged.
Maybe the most surprising facet, though, is how funny it is. By no means is it a comedy, but the characters are so instantly knowable, they can fast become situational pawns of comedy. Early on, it may seem like they will be relying on the regional and era-specific attributes the true part of the story provides, but that quickly blends into the rest of the background world, so effortlessly realized, it’s only noticeable when towards the end, the documentary being made within the movie brings it to the forefront. Mark Wahlberg’s still somehow unappreciated ability combined with Christian Bale’s unbelievable embodiment of an unbelievable person combine for some of the funniest moments in any movie this year.
Of course, this is all just a symptom of the performances that are ubiquitous throughout. It’s possible it wouldn’t matter what the movie was actually about, this cast might have come up with the same sort of extraordinary result. They all may just be doing perfect impressions of the real people they represent, but they are those people. When during the credits, the real Eklund brothers are shown, it is completely unnecessary. Because we’ve already seen them.
9. 127 Hours – Plenty of great movies have been made about events to which we all know the ending (or should know anyway.) But they generally do not take place for the most part, in one stationary spot with just one stationary person. This movie really has no right being one of the best paced movies of the year. That it didn’t win Best Editing is almost as much of a shame as The King’s Speech winning Best Picture.
Much like Black Swan was a glimpse of a mind as it broke down under its own weight, this was of a mind as it broke down under the strain of the physical conditions with which it was beset. And, just as with Black Swan, on performance (by James Franco) has a whole lot to do with getting that across. For him to make talking to himself and talking directly at a camera he doesn’t really have an expectation of ever being found seem so natural, when everyone knows just what that should look and sound like, cannot get enough recognition. But again, like Black Swan, it takes a lot more than just a singular performance, even in a movie so obviously carried by one. A world was created in that crevasse, one that Aron Ralston wasn’t ever going to get out of. The singular event that is understandably the touchstone for describing or summarizing this story hangs there in front of you the whole time, but it is never distracting from the present. When it finally happens, the movie almost assumes you already know what’s going on, it backs off of it so much. And it can get away with that because of how captivating the rest of it is (and because you already know what happens.)
10. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World – It’s kind of a relief that this movie failed as thoroughly as it did at the box office. The last thing any of us want is to suffer through a decade of less-than-capable directors trying to imitate it. This one was dizzying enough. But even if your mind couldn’t sort it all out for you, you were still aware of the fact that your eyes were seeing something they hadn’t before. The way the scenes shift and blend in the first twenty minutes is like a concentrated language class, teaching you to take in information in a completely different way than you are used to. Without this crash course in how to speak Scott Pilgrim, you would not be able to accept what comes next.
But all of that means very little if there isn’t a genuinely good movie underneath it all. And sometimes it seems like that may not be the case. A lot of the comic on which this is based is a capricious undertaking, especially where the fighting is concerned, and the movie does not deviate from it enough, leaving you in a constant state of unease. And yes, that does parallel brilliantly with how Scott Pilgrim is meant to feel with all these lurking exes everywhere, but it’s difficult to make the connection until well after the fact. So it is not surprising (nor undeserving) that the movie puts far too many people off. But for something so intent on randomness and the apparent humor inherent in that, it certainly covers a lot of ground. It has no trouble leaving a superfluous character behind, but it never falters on its central concerns, and there are a few. Scott’s transformation from ignorantly self-centered to knowledgeably self-centered isn’t nearly as transcendental as what’s been going on around him. And that is where Scott Pilgrim vs. The World succeeds most thoroughly, the marriage of its romantic comedy underpinnings with the conceptual environment in which it exists. Both would be highly commendable on their own, but together they’ve created a seemingly singular event. I think I hope so anyway.
Brooklyn’s Finest – This is kind of like three American classic cop movies in one. Criss-crossing each other in a fantastically woven climax.
The Virginity Hit – There is no mystery as to why this is one of the most ineptly marketed movies of all time. It’s premise is basically finished within a half an hour. So it just keeps reinventing itself. You will never know where or why it will go next, making it probably the most realistic fake found footage feature there’s ever been. Never mind the funniest. Because that’d be too much alliteration.
Greenberg – Only such a perfectly presented self-involved character could make the “events” of this movie seem so noteworthy.
Repo Men – Like most things, you should have watched this before you knew anything about it. You probably still have that chance. It didn’t do very well.
True Grit – I’d still rather have seen The Coen Brothers write their own Western, but having an already great movie so closely remade yet brandishing their distinctive imprint seems equally as impressive.