10 for ’10: Best Movies (The Challenge)

31 12 2010

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!

#10

Easy A
(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?

#9

Rabbit Hole
(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.

#8

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.

#7

Fair Game
(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.

#6

Inside Job
(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.

#5

Inception
(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.

#4

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.

#3

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.

#2

127 Hours
(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.

#1

Black Swan
(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.

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“Fair Game” Poll Results

13 12 2010

“Fair Game” has all but disappeared from discussion in the awards race, which really is a shame.  In my review last month, I raved:

“What makes ‘Fair Game’ one of the best movies I’ve seen this year is the fact that it is a politically conscious movie but not necessarily politically charged.  It’s a movie that reminds us that the truth has no political affiliation, and it reaffirms the very American responsibility to stand up and voice our discontent when we see the government failing in its duties.  Naomi Watt’s Valerie Plame Wilson does this in spite of one of the worst political climates for dissent in our history, and it’s a rousing profile in courage that will reinforce your sense of patriotic duty.”

Back in the Oscar Moment before I saw the movie, I was optimistically cynical about the movie’s chances, writing:

“For the movie to have a shot at Best Picture, there needs to be some big buzz building around the opening to carry it through the season.  It received mostly positive marks from its Cannes debut, but no one was jumping out of their seat in excitement.  Emerging from the Bush era, ‘Fair Game’ takes a look at how far we were willing to let the government take our freedom in exchange for security – and the victims of such policies.  It’s not a sympathetic look at America, and neither was last year’s Best Picture winner ‘The Hurt Locker.’  Are the politics of Oscar entering an era of confronting harsh realities?”

Over a month after the movie’s release, we haven’t seen any fireworks.  It was certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, but its score in the 70s wasn’t exactly a game changer.  It didn’t exactly get a large platform release, but it scored fairly modestly even in just over 400 theaters with $8 million and counting.

So, does it still have a chance?  Back in October and November, you seemed to think so.  2 voters said yes, and 1 voter said no.  I’d have to say that unless some massive late surge comes for the movie, we are looking at an also-ran.  A very good also-ran, though.





REVIEW: Fair Game

8 11 2010

It’s really a shame that we live in such a polarize political climate that we rush to affiliate any movie about current events with a political ideology.  Because “Fair Game” tells the story of a woman and her husband who did their jobs and were led to be skeptical of the Bush administration based on their information, it has been labeled a liberal movie.

Yet what makes “Fair Game” one of the best movies I’ve seen this year is the fact that it is a politically conscious movie but not necessarily politically charged.  It’s a movie that reminds us that the truth has no political affiliation, and it reaffirms the very American responsibility to stand up and voice our discontent when we see the government failing in its duties.  Naomi Watt’s Valerie Plame Wilson does this in spite of one of the worst political climates for dissent in our history, and it’s a rousing profile in courage that will reinforce your sense of patriotic duty.

How is it possible for the story of a woman who dared to question the authority and logic of President George W. Bush to be patriotic?  At first glance, the movie seems to be painting an incredibly cynical and unflattering portrait of the government.  Without remorse, they ruin Plame’s career by outing her as a covert CIA agent.  Under the leadership of Scooter Libby, the office of the Vice-President takes steps to discredit her and leave her without support to face the most powerful institution in the country.

Read the rest of this entry »





Oscar Moment: “Fair Game”

19 10 2010

How ready is America to embrace a movie that is pretty deprecating to our sense of patriotism?  Doug Liman’s “Fair Game” will certainly show us if the bomb that was this March’s “Green Zone” was an anomaly or indicative of what to expect for movies about American involvement in Iraq.  (Interestingly enough, both movies share a connection to the Bourne franchise through their directors – Liman took on the first installment in that series, and Paul Greengrass helmed the second and third movies before making “Green Zone.”)

The movie will probably make its two biggest power plays in the lead acting categories with two performances from prestige actors.  Naomi Watts, who plays CIA spy Valerie Plame, was been nominated for Best Actress in 2003, and Sean Penn, who plays her husband, has won the prize twice.  Both stand decent chances, but it’s a tight year in both fields, and they could easily get squeezed out.

With firmly established pack leaders like Annette Bening and Natalie Portman, Best Actress will surely be a tough field to crack for Watts.  She’s strayed away from Oscar-type roles since her 2003 nomination for “21 Grams” save some mild buzz for “King Kong” in 2005.  Watts is well-liked but hardly beloved; however,she has gotten a fair amount of buzz from the movie being shown at Cannes and other festivals; Guy Lodge of In Contention remarked: “Naomi Watts is ideally cast as Plame, really warming to her character as she becomes more imperiled.”  Jeff Wells at Hollywood Experience was a whole lot more supportive:

“… I think this may be her finest performance yet. I think the reason I feel that way is because her role in this film as Valerie Plame is a truly challenging role because NOCs (Non-official cover – government intelligence operatives who assume covert roles in organizations without official ties to their government) are wallflowers by nature and are usually understated and quiet. They want be the least interesting person in the room and want to learn about you without you learning about them.”

I don’t think Sean Penn could win again just because of the virtual cap off at two Oscar wins.  Three would put him at Jack Nicholson status, but even Jack received his Oscar with eight and twelve year gaps.  A win for “Fair Game” would make three wins in seven years for Penn, which is, needless to say, a little excessive.  But Meryl Streep has been nominated a whopping 11 times since her last win, so a nomination is by no means out of the question.  He clearly has the respect and the praise to get him there (Sasha Stone of Awards Daily raved “he has so much charisma, such cinematic force one can hardly wrap one’s mind around it”), but it’s a pretty tight field as is.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get edged out by first-time nominees like Jesse Eisenberg and James Franco or one-time nominees like Colin Firth and Mark Wahlberg.

For the movie to have a shot at Best Picture, there needs to be some big buzz building around the opening to carry it through the season.  It received mostly positive marks from its Cannes debut, but no one was jumping out of their seat in excitement.  Emerging from the Bush era, “Fair Game” takes a look at how far we were willing to let the government take our freedom in exchange for security – and the victims of such policies.  It’s not a sympathetic look at America, and neither was last year’s Best Picture winner “The Hurt Locker.”  Are the politics of Oscar entering an era of confronting harsh realities?

It will need either an audience (which doesn’t seem too likely given the reception for other Iraq movies) or some strong critical allies to overcome what looks to be a fairly lackluster reception.  It’s hard to get a best Picture nomination when you draw a remark like this from a major trade: “Greeted with solid applause and a smattering of boos after its first press screening, ‘Fair Game’ has an enjoyable opening hour before disintegrating into melodramatic hooey” (that would be Manohla Darghis of The New York Times).

The movie’s chances could be hurt by fledgling studio Summit Entertainment.  As Kris Tapley of In Contention put it, “I’m curious to see how the studio will handle a campaign that doesn’t unfold serendipitously, as ‘The Hurt Locker’ seemed to do last year.”  The campaign will need to be big and brassy to keep interest going for four months on this movie.  Precursors are going to have to mention it frequently if it wants to nab a spot in the bottom 5 of Best Picture.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Actress (Watts)

OTHER POTENTIAL NOMINATIONS: Best Actor (Penn), Best Adapted Screenplay





What To Look Forward To in … November 2010

11 10 2010

Folks, we are moving closer and closer towards the best movies of the year – at least according to the Academy.  How many Oscar nominees are we looking at in this bunch?  How many box office smashes?  I’m looking forward to a healthy helping of turkey and movies this month.

November 5

The highlight of the week for me has to be “127 Hours,” although I’m sure New York and Los Angeles are going to hog it for several weeks before it comes to Houston.  Turning such a gut-wrenching story into a life-affirming movie is something I’m really excited to see.  (Check out more of my thoughts in the “Oscar Moment” I wrote on it.)

“Megamind” seems to be a little bit of “The Incredibles,” a little bit of “Shrek,” and a little bit of every Will Ferrell movie.  The combination should be fun – keyword should.  This is no certain bet.

“For Colored Girls” looks intense and depressing.  I do have to ask though – does anyone know what the plot is going to be about just from the trailer?  It’s basically like a montage of angry African-American actresses looking to put on a show for the golden Oscar.

As for other movies on the indie circuit, if “Client 9” looks so interesting to you, just pay the $10 to watch it during October on iTunes. A story about Eliot Spitzer’s prostitution ring is certainly a story that many don’t want to hear, but how much of it we really want to spend hours of our time hearing is debatable.  I’ll talk more about “Fair Game” in an Oscar Moment next week, but I think it looks like an intriguing contemporary thriller.  I just hope it doesn’t become some blatant political manifesto.

November 12

I liked “Skyline” better when I saw it as a little movie called “Independence Day.”  Carbon copy much?  On the same note, I liked “Unstoppable” better when it was called “The Taking of Pelham 123.”  Denzel Washington even stars in them both.

To save the weekend, there’s Rachel McAdams in “Morning Glory!”  As if she’s not enough, Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton are on board for this drama-comedy mix that doesn’t seem to favor any genre over the other.  What a great surprise awaits us!

November 19

HARRY.  FREAKING.  POTTER.  That’s really all.

The Next Three Days” brings us Russell Crowe far removed from his Oscar days, here as a man trying to organize a prison break for his wife.  Even with Paul Haggis (Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Crash”) onboard, I still can’t really get behind this.

Again, I hate to delay my thoughts, but more will be coming on “Made in Dagenham” in an Oscar Moment.  I think it looks like a fantastic comedy, and I love Sally Hawkins.

November 24/26

The only movie not getting a head start on Thanksgiving weekend is “The King’s Speech,” so expect the Oscar buzz to cue up in a big way around this weekend.

As for those movies opening on Wednesday, there’s quite an interesting array of releases.  We have Christina Aguilera and her crazy vibrato in “Burlesque.”  There’s also the dubious “Faster” starring Dwayne Johnson … er, The Rock.  Apparently the remake of “Red Dawn” is supposed to open too, but given MGM’s financial troubles, I’m hearing that’s not going to happen.

There are two nice options this holiday weekend, one for families and one for adults.  “Tangled” comes from the Disney animators who can’t cut it at Pixar, and the company has been furiously selling it to boys after the gender deserted “The Princess and the Frog” based on its name.  Notice that the movie is not called “Rapunzel” in an attempt to make it seem less girly.  Nonetheless, I can almost guarantee you that once the turkey has settled, my family will be headed to this.  (Side note: WHERE ARE THE CHRISTMAS MOVIES THIS YEAR??)

And another semi-cop out to save commentary for an Oscar Moment, but “Love and Other Drugs” looks to be the weekend’s adult hit.  Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, the story of one of the earliest Viagra salesman seems like a well-acted, steamy comedic outing.  I’m in, although this could go wrong.

So, what are YOU looking forward to in November?  Looking like a pretty thin slate, but not a shabby one.