Every year has its share of good movies and bad movies, but in 2010, the good ones were especially good and the bad ones sucked more than they usually do. And then there were the ones that fell somewhere in between – films that a lot of us were looking forward to seeing that didn’t pan out quite like we’d hoped. But there was nothing more destructive to cinemas this year than the onslaught of 3D, with studios hell-bent on trying to convince moviegoers that it was the future of movies. Sorry to say, but it was a gimmick in the 50s, a gimmick in the 80s, and it’s a gimmick today, not to mention a giant scam. Nevertheless, the good far outweighed the bad, with new films from innovative directors like Christopher Nolan, Edgar Wright and Danny Boyle, and what’s shaping up to be one of the most exciting Best Picture races in years. That’s not to say that all of my choices are necessarily award-worthy, but in a perfect world, they would be.
1. “The Social Network”
It might sound a bit contrived to say that a movie can define an entire generation, but in the case of “The Social Network,” I honestly believe it. There have been plenty of films made about corporate empires built on ruined friendships, broken promises and massive egos, but never has one hit so close to home as the story of Mark Zuckerberg and the rise of Facebook. It’s not just a product of our time, but something that directly affects the everyday lives of people all around the world. Interesting stuff no matter how you spin it, but David Fincher takes what could have been a boring courtroom drama and turns it into a wildly entertaining character study filled with some of the zippiest and cleverest dialogue that Aaron Sorkin has ever written. There’s not a weak link in the cast – from major players like Andrew Garfield and Armie Hammer, to Rooney Mara’s brief (but important) appearance as one of Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook girlfriends – but it’s Jesse Eisenberg’s star-making performance as the socially inept whiz-kid that makes “The Social Network” the year’s most enthralling film.
It’s hard not to be envious of a filmmaker like Christopher Nolan, because the guy is only 40 years old, hasn’t made a single bad movie yet, and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Though it might have seemed virtually impossible to outdo “The Dark Knight,” Nolan’s seventh feature is better in just about every way – from its incredibly complex and original mind trip of a story, to the stunning visual effects and outstanding ensemble cast. “Inception” is the kind of film that only gets better with each new viewing, and though everyone may have their own theory about the ending (you could ask just about anyone whether or not it fell and they would immediately know what you were talking about), the real delight is watching the journey that leads us there. There are so many memorable moments that it’s hard to keep track, but the last 40 minutes are particularly spellbinding as Nolan manages to juggle four different dream states without tripping once. Can we just give the man his Oscar already?
Edgar Wright wasn’t exactly a household name prior to directing “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” but that will hopefully all change with this wildly ambitious action-comedy that pretty much rewrites the rules on comic book movies. It’s been said that mimicry is the highest form of flattery, and if that’s the case, then Bryan Lee O’Malley must be blushing, because the film adaptation of his six-volume comic series is not only incredibly faithful to the story, but its quirky humor and breakneck pacing as well. The ensemble cast is terrific (from a pitch-perfect Michael Cera in the title role, to bubbly newcomer Ellen Wong), the fight sequences are playfully unique, and you’d need a Rolodex just to keep track of all the clever pop culture references that are crammed into the script. It’s like dying and going to geek heaven.
4. “127 Hours”
Aron Ralston’s incredible story of survival may not exactly sound like the feel-good movie of the year, but despite all the attention that was placed on the dreaded amputation scene, there’s a really positive message coursing throughout the film. It’s not necessarily something you’ll notice the first time you watch it, either. In fact, while I was engrossed by Ralston’s perseverance during my first viewing (his know-it-all selfishness may have gotten him into the mess, but it’s also what got him out of it), it wasn’t until I saw it a second time that I truly appreciated how much the film is bursting with life. There aren’t too many actors that could have played Ralston without coming off as smug, but James Franco brings an Everyman quality to the role that wins you over immediately. And if he’s the heart and soul of the movie, then Danny Boyle is the brain, interweaving memories/daydreams/hallucinations of Ralston’s family and lost love as he tries to free himself from the boulder. This could have been a really dull film, but under Boyle’s direction, it’s an unforgettable, one-of-a-kind experience.
5. “The King’s Speech”
Even if historical dramas aren’t normally your cup of tea, “The King’s Speech” is worth seeing for the acting clinic that the cast puts on alone. Colin Firth commands the screen as the soon-to-be king who can hardly speak for himself, much less an entire nation, while Geoffrey Rush is the perfect complement as the whimsical speech therapist that helps him find his voice. It’s a story that a lot of directors could have easily ruined by spending too much time on politics and family drama, but Tom Hooper smartly focuses on the unlikely friendship between the two men instead, letting the natural comedy of their relationship dictate the tone of the film. Hooper may not be a particularly stylish director (although he definitely shows skill in the way that he frames his shots), but he never fails to get great performances from his actors, and sometimes, that’s all you need.
There’s no better place to watch a movie like “Micmacs” than in the historical Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas with 1500 fellow cinephiles, so it’s no surprise that Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s comedy caper ended up being my favorite film at South by Southwest this past year. Though it doesn’t have the mainstream appeal of “Amelie,” “Micmacs” features just about everything you could want from one of Jeunet’s contemporary fairy tales, save for an appearance by the ineffably cute Audrey Tautou. But Dany Boon doesn’t disappoint in the lead role – a modern day Buster Keaton who can entertain with even the simplest pantomime – and Jeunet regulars like Dominique Pinon and Yolande Moreau highlight an excellent supporting cast. An “Ocean’s Eleven”-style revenge film that’s jam-packed with Jenuet’s quirky sensibilities, “Micmacs” is guaranteed to put a big, fat smile on your face. And if it doesn’t, then you probably don’t have a soul.
Just when it looked like the superhero genre was starting to get a little complacent, Matthew Vaughn gave it a swift kick in the pants with one of the funniest, most violent, and all-around entertaining films of the year. “Kick-Ass” may be fairly unconventional in terms of what audiences have come to expect from comic book movies, but it’s exactly what the genre needed. Though Vaughn’s version is more of a satire than the comic that serves as the blueprint to the film, it still maintains the same overall tone. Which is to say, there’s lots of gratuitous violence and cursing – a majority of which is doled out by the pint-sized Chloe Moretz in her most memorable role to date. Controversial? Perhaps, but that doesn’t make it any less fun. From the high-energy action sequences to the colorful cast, “Kick-Ass” is like “Spider-Man” by way of Tarantino. A movie geek fantasy made real.
Documentaries are a tricky business, because it’s automatically assumed that everything you’re being told is 100% truth, even if a lot of times you’re only getting one side of the story. Since its premiere at Sundance, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether the events in “Exit Through the Gift Shop” are real or just an elaborate hoax devised by its director, renowned graffiti artist Banksy. It feels genuine for the most part, as it’s been cobbled together from years of footage, but a lot of people can’t bring themselves to believe any of it because of Banksy’s reputation for his art pranks. So is it real or not? The easy answer is that it doesn’t matter, because it’s entertaining either way. Whereas the truth about “I’m Still Here” may have ruined the illusion, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is only more captivating because of it. That is, if it’s even an illusion at all. Perhaps Banksy’s biggest prank yet was in making us believe that it could be fake.
9. “Four Lions”
Depending on your sense of humor, “Four Lions” is either laugh-out-loud funny or extremely offensive. I believe the two go hand in hand, because it’s exactly the provocative nature of Christopher Morris’ directorial debut that makes it so gut-wrenchingly hilarious. You wouldn’t think that a movie about terrorists could even be funny, but Morris finds the humor in the situation in a way that has more to say about the current political climate than any self-important war movie. To call it a dark comedy is a bit of an understatement (one of the terrorists’ sons is so comfortable with the concept of jihad that his bedtime stories feature “The Lion King” characters as suicide bombers), but there are shades of tragicomedy as well, because despite their intentions, the terrorists are all likeable in a strange way. You’ll certainly feel guilty about it afterwards, but that’s kind of the point.
10. “The Ghost Writer”
It’s a shame that Roman Polanski’s latest film will probably be overlooked at this year’s Oscars, because it’s not only one of the best movies of his career, but at the time of its release, there was also speculation that it might be his last. A Hitchcockian thriller that features the type of ripped-from-the-headlines story that Polanski is partial to, “The Ghost Writer” is riveting from start to finish – a modern day detective story told with 1970s panache. All of the actors are at the top of their game. Ewan McGregor delivers yet another solid performance as the nameless ghostwriter, Olivia Williams is wonderfully low-key as the femme fatale, and Tom Wilkinson and Eli Wallach impress in cameo roles. It’s surprising that the film didn’t make a bigger splash than it did, because “The Ghost Writer” is the kind of movie that Hollywood needs a lot more of. Smart, stylish and entertaining.
1. “The Human Centipede”
Tom Six’s medical horror film is one of the worst movies that I’ve seen in a long time – and not because of its subject matter. In fact, while the actual explanation, creation and existence of the titular human centipede is pretty darn gross, it’s never as revolting as its reputation would suggest. The idea is a lot sicker than the execution, and that’s where “The Human Centipede” fails, because there’s not a whole lot to admire beyond the initial concept. The acting is horrible, the dialogue is even worse, and there’s not a single entertaining moment throughout. The big payoff, so to speak, happens at the midway mark, at which point the movie limps to its clichéd finale because it has nothing else to offer. Sometimes infamy is well deserved, but in the case of “The Human Centipede,” it’s a damn disgrace.
2. “Vampires Suck”
Every year, the latest spoof film from the hack duo of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer always winds up pretty high on my worst-of list, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to see “Vampires Suck” sitting in the number two spot. But to put into context just how bad these movies really are, consider this: “Vampires Suck” is their best film to date. Not only is it much more focused than past efforts – using the first two “Twilight” movies as its backbone, almost to the point of copyright infringement – but it might even make you giggle a few times thanks to the lead actors’ ridiculously spot-on impressions of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is an absolute mess, but that’s because Friedberg and Seltzer still haven’t learned that the easy joke isn’t always the funniest.
3. “The Back-Up Plan”
If there’s anything to learn from watching a movie like “The Back-Up Plan,” it’s how not to make a romantic comedy. There’s so much to hate about this film that I don’t even know where to start, but the thing that probably bugged me the most is the all-too-perfect lead characters. Not only are they both extremely attractive, but they run small, philanthropic businesses (an animal rescue store and an organic cheese shop, respectively) and yet still manage to make enough money to support a lavish lifestyle in New York City, as if that somehow makes them more relatable to the average moviegoer. But Jennifer Lopez and Alex O’Loughlin can hardly muster a spark of chemistry between the two of them, and that alone is enough to sink any rom-com from the start. Throw in some terrible stereotypes about pregnant women, an annoying single mothers support group, and an adorable, handicapped Boston terrier for the obligatory reaction shots, and you can begin to understand why so many critics detested this movie.
I’m still not entirely convinced that “Marmaduke” wasn’t just some crazy bet between a pair of studio execs to prove that any film with talking animals can make a killing at the box office, but I do find some comfort in the fact that it was a colossal failure. It’s hard to believe that there was even a demand for a “Marmaduke” movie to begin with, because Brad Anderson’s long-running comic strip is remarkably dull. The film is insulting even to children – from the constant narration to dreadful puns like Cowabarka and Chupadogra – and it’s disappointing to see such a wealth of talent wasted on voicing talking dogs. At least they were smart enough to hide behind a microphone, because it’s absolutely embarrassing to watch William H. Macy act like a fool for an easy paycheck. Shame on you.
No one likes a tie, but Kristen Bell has had such a bad year that it only seemed polite to combine this pair of cinematic train wrecks into a single write-up. In fact, sitting through these films is certainly comparable to experiencing a real-life pile-up, as you don’t know whether to look away or keep watching out of a morbid curiosity that they might get worse. And more often than not, they do. Entire books have been written on the basics of screenwriting, and yet none of the writers responsible for these movies appear to have read a single word, instead creating weak premises built on conflicts that could easily be addressed if the characters stopped acting like children. You’d think that romantic comedies would be right up Kristen Bell’s alley – she’s cute, funny and instantly likeable – but if she ever hopes to make it as a leading lady, she’ll have to do better than this.