Catch up with the idea behind this series here.
By the time the clock runs down on 2010, I will have seen over 90 movies. Most of them were average, nothing special but nothing horrible. An alarming number were downright terrible. But, as always, there are enough gems that shine above the coal to fill out a top 10 list. It wasn’t quite as agonizing a process this year, but that’s beside the point. I want to leave 2010 smiling because, for the most part, it was a good year for the movies – provided you were willing to look off the beaten path.
What I found in common with these 10 special movies released in 2010 was a challenge. Each movie, in an entirely different way, issued a challenge to the moviegoer. These movies weren’t complacent just providing two hours of escapism; they went so far as to engage our minds, hearts, and souls in the moviegoing experience. They provided something that stuck with me, the movie watcher and reviewer, long after they ended and will continue to stick with me well into 2011.
So, here’s to the challenge, here’s to 2010, and here’s to movies!
(A Challenge to High School)
Directed by Will Gluck
Written by Bert V. Royal
Starring Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, and Amanda Bynes
It was about time that a movie like “Easy A” came along and perfectly encapsulated what it’s like to be a high school student in the era of texting and Facebook. I was scared that my generation wasn’t going to get a Hollywood spotlight until twenty years later, and that would make us look like some kind of hokey antiques like the kids in “Grease.” What makes “Easy A” so brilliant is how it incorporates the modern with the past, be it as distant as the Puritans or as recent as the Breakfast Club, to show how fundamentally different the high school experience has changed even since 2004’s “Mean Girls.”
For me, very few moments were so beautifully authentic this year as the movie’s high-speed mapping of the rumor mill, which now moves at the speed of light (or a 3G connection). Propaganda posters after World War II suggested that loose lips cost lives, but in 2010, “Easy A” shows how it can cost reputations, something much more precious in high school. Technology may have evolved, but high school hasn’t. Society may have improved thanks to these innovations, so why haven’t we?
(A Challenge to Coping)
Directed by John Cameron Mitchell
Written by David Lindsey-Abaire
Starring Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, and Dianne Weist
Grief is either overdone or understated. In “Rabbit Hole,” it’s presented in a manner so raw that it manages to be both at the same time, making for one of the most moving experiences of the year. A story about a husband and wife, played to brilliance by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, grieving their lost child, the movie shows many ways to cope. Kidman’s Becca wants to move on, Eckhart’s Howie wants to live with it, and in the middle of it all is Becca’s mother, played by Dianne Weist, offering her advice on how to get to the peaceful state in which she resides. There’s no answer to the question of who handles it best or which way is best; in fact, there’s not even an attempt to answer it. But there’s something beautiful about an unanswered question, and maybe that’s why the grace of “Rabbit Hole” has stuck with me for so long.
“Get Him to the Greek”
(A Challenge to Remain Silent)
Written and Directed by Nicholas Stoller
Starring Jonah Hill, Russell Brand, and Sean Combs
Okay, you can forget the challenge here. It’s not coming from “Get Him to the Greek,” it’s coming from me – I dare you not to laugh at this movie. Between the dynamite comedic pairing of Jonah Hill and Russell Brand, the scene-stealing farce that is Sean Combs’ foul-mouthed music exec Sergio, the ridiculous and totally awesome music of Infant Sorrow, and the hilarious situations that drive the movie, “Get Him to the Greek” was my favorite comedy of 2010. It’s filled with endless quotables and capable of many repeat viewings without any diminishing laughter.
(A Challenge to Patriotism)
Directed by Doug Liman
Written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth
Starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn
Rather than fall into the pile of scathing movies about America’s involvement in Iraq, “Fair Game” takes its anger in a fresh and different direction and funnels it into something constructive. The story of Valerie Plame Wilson, a scapegoat for the federal government in the wake of their exposure, is meant to rouse us, not to dismay us. We are proud that there are still people in this country who believe in the Constitution and the principles on which we were founded, and staying silent is simply not an option. While it hits you with rage, the knockout punch is of pride in Valerie and her courage to stand up for herself. “Fair Game” stands out as an exuberant flag-waving fan while all other movies of the same vein just mope in dreary cynicism.
(A Challenge to Care)
Written and Directed by Charles Ferguson
Narrated by Matt Damon
Who is responsible for the financial collapse of 2008? Charles Ferguson lets us know who he thinks in the activist epilogue, which you can more or less disregard if you choose to do so, but in the hour and 40 minutes prior, he points the finger at just about everyone possible. Including us. Sure, there were many factors leading to a worldwide meltdown of the economy that were out of our control, but a little bit of oversight, we could have seen it coming. By his systematic explanation of everything you need to know to understand what went down (call it “Global Meltdown for Dummies” if you must), he is challenging us to be the oversight that was lacking two years ago. And judging by how things have developed since then, we are going to need a whole lot of it.
(A Challenge to Imagination)
Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Marion Cotillard
For as much as I love the four movies I’m ranking ahead of “Inception,” none had such a monumental impact on the way movies are perceived and made quite like it. Christopher Nolan successfully redefined what imagination means for millions of moviegoers, many of whom had to see the movie multiple times to figure out what was going on in his labyrinthian dreamscape. With a massive spending allowance, he brought the spectacle to life and managed not treat the audience like children, which proved to be one of the most thrilling and psychologically satisfying experiences ever. If a movie like this can’t change the fabric of filmmaking, maybe we are headed for the dark ages like Roger Ebert cries.
“The Social Network”
(A Challenge to Modernity)
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Justin Timberlake
As an old adage goes, “Every time history repeats itself, the price goes up.” David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s “The Social Network” may appear to be a movie planted in the digital era, but as has been said many times, it’s a movie about age-old themes like power, greed, and betrayal. In essence, we’ve seen it before. Yet retold as the story of the site we visit every day, it’s fascinating. And it’s sublime thanks to brilliantly sculpted characters who never fit traditional hero/villain roles driving the narrative. However, this is not just a rehash; it’s a brilliant cautionary tale for our times about individuality, innovation, and solitude. “The Social Network,” along with its cryptic leading man Mark Zuckerberg, is the best movie of 2010 for serious conversation that’s relevant away from the screen and out of the theater.
“Toy Story 3”
(A Challenge to Feel)
Directed by Lee Unkrich
Written by Michael Arndt
Voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, and Joan Cusack
So maybe the whole prison escape plot wasn’t the most original thing in the world. But “Toy Story 3” has a heart so big that nothing else matters. I have no shame in admitting that I cried like the child that the movie made me feel like. For the last 20 minutes of the movie, I felt the most beautiful mix of nostalgia, sadness, and joy that may just be the most powerful potion Pixar has brewed. To be my age and watch this movie is like an ultimate realization that childhood can’t last forever. But the tears aren’t just mourning, they are happy as the torch is passed to a new generation. I pray, for their sake, that no technology can ever replace the comfort that a toy and a little bit of imagination can bring to any child.
(A Challenge to Live)
Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy
Starring James Franco
Life-affirming isn’t a word I get to use to describe movies very often, and that’s precisely what makes “127 Hours” one of the most special experiences of 2010. The perfect combination of Danny Boyle’s superhuman directing with James Franco’s rawly human acting makes for a movie experience defying the odds. Who would have thought that a movie about a man losing his arm would be the movie that made me most glad to be alive? The movie that made me most appreciative for the relationships in my life? The movie that took me on the most gut-wrenching yet blissfully rewarding roller-coaster ride? I don’t know if I’ll be able to watch “127 Hours” again, but I’m so glad I watched at least once because it truly was a movie I’ll never forget.
(A Challenge to EVERYTHING)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John MacLaughlin
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, and Vincent Cassel
It’s such a fantastic irony that “Black Swan” is a movie about the inability of humans to achieve perfection, yet Darren Aronofsky’s movie is the closest thing to cinematic perfection in 2010. Behind Natalie Portman, who delivers one of the finest, if not the finest, performances I’ve ever seen from any actress, the movie soars to heights that I had previously thought unfathomable. It challenges just about every cinematic boundary that still exists and then proceeds to demolish them. But “Black Swan” doesn’t just destroy these boundaries for fun; it’s a purposeful and intelligent movie that gives a reason to change the boundaries of cinema for better and for good. Fearless director Darren Aronofsky choreographs a master ballet of a movie that weaves together horror, beauty, and psychological breakdown with such poise that you’ll wonder why every movie can’t be as thrilling as his. “Black Swan” is a glorious exaltation of cinema and a monumental achievement that will go down in history.