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!


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


(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.


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.


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.

“Inside Job” Poll Results

3 12 2010

I’ve weighed in twice on “Inside Job.”  First was back in October when I looked at its awards chances in an Oscar Moment.  I wrote:

“The movie makes the argument that Wall Street has been heading for collapse ever since the 1980s when institutions were allowed to trade on their own behalf.  The idea that banks and firms are betting against the customers is frightening, and the marketing campaign behind the movie seeks to make it look like an ‘economic horror movie.’  It’s an interesting notion, and given some of the movie’s revelations, Sony Pictures Classics may be on to something.”

And then I saw it for myself last month and went nuts.  In my review, I said among other things:

“No matter if you choose to agree with [writer/director] Ferguson’s assessment or not, it’s impossible to walk away from ‘Inside Job’ without feeling a little bit more knowledgable on the subject.  In my opinion, the more you know about the events leading up to the financial crisis, the more upsetting the whole debacle is.  There are certain facts you cannot slant, and Ferguson provides plenty of them that will have your jaw on the floor.  You can’t dismiss the movie as just an editorial piece because Ferguson researched it so comprehensively that he can back up any claim with statistics and the words of experts.”

But aside from my speculation, “Inside Job” is getting noticed by big names.  A few weeks ago, it got Forbes‘ Oscar vote.  But will it get the Academy’s vote?  That was the question I posed almost two months ago.

The poll only drew two disagreeing votes, one saying “yes” and the other “no.”  The low voter turnout was probably due to lack of knowledge of the movie and the category, but based on what I know, I think this is a safe bet for at least a nomination given its financial and critical success.  It made the shortlist of 15 nominees for Best Documentary, so now it has to prove itself superior to at least 9 of them.   We’ll see if politics get in the way or not.

REVIEW: Inside Job

24 11 2010

I see a lot of movies, and I don’t exactly try to hide it.  People often ask me, “Have you seen this movie?”  I breathe and most often reply, “Yes, I have.”  Then I brace myself and wait for the inevitable follow-up question: “How was it?”

I have a nice reservoir of descriptors that I’m ready to whip out at a moment’s notice, but I usually start with the simple good.  If a movie is particularly noteworthy, I might add very in front.  If people are particularly curious, they might probe for more, asking “Really?”  At this point, I’ll take the time to more thoroughly explain my thoughts, pointing out a certain performance or technical aspect I found to be exemplary.  It’s also at this point when I whip out more sophisticated adjectives, like dazzling, flooring, and mind-blowing.

With “Inside Job,” I can skip over good and go straight to the vocabulary that no movies ever allow me to use.  It was infuriating, an outraging movie experience that left me reeling and in total shock.  How often does a movie come along that merits the use of those words?

Given that it took a $20 trillion global meltdown to bring me such sentiments, I’d rather have this be the only time I have to feel similarly.  But we have to face the facts: it happened, and documentarian Charles Ferguson goes all the way back to the era of Alan Greenspan to show how the financial crisis began.  He then takes us through the next twenty years, stopping along the way to show all the ways that the recession could have been prevented.

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Random Factoid #450

21 10 2010

Documentaries can often arouse passion and indignation. But do they change our minds or just preach to the converted?

That’s the question that Patrick Goldstein of The Los Angeles Times‘ blog The Big Picture asks, and it’s the question Marshall of “Marshall and the Movies” will try to answer.

There has been an influx of politically-charged documentaries hitting mainstream consciousness as of recent, beginning with Davis Guggenheim’s but actually Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”  Ever since then, we’ve seen movies that tackle touch issues like the economy (“Inside Job”), education (“Waiting for Superman”), dolphin killing (“The Cove”), and Iraq (too many to name) going outside their usual art-house audience.  These are very different kinds of documentaries from the ones that you see at school and on the history channel; they are made by filmmakers with a mission to prove that something needs to be changed and then try to spur you to action over the course of the movie.  The Internet has made it a whole lot easier to give such help, and documentaries have become a powerful tool for real change.

But, as Goldstein puts it, “Documentaries can often arouse passion and indignation. But do they change our minds or just preach to the converted?”

Here’s my take on these politically-charged documentaries.  I am willing to listen if the movie gives me the facts first and then allows me to make my own conclusion.  I don’t mind listening to a differing opinion, but as long as I get some separation, I can bear it.  If a filmmaker can’t do that, I really don’t want to spend my time watching the movie.  I want to be informed, not lectured.

Oscar Moment: “Inside Job”

8 10 2010

There are many categories on my Oscar ballot that I always call a toss-up, such as the short films.  However, one such category regrettably includes the Best Documentary Feature, which I have, in the past, had little interest in.  These movies tackle important current events or shine new perspectives on old ones, and as I’ve become more educated, these have become more intriguing to me.

So in 2010, I’ve vowed to take an active interest in handicapping the Best Documentary Feature race, and it starts today with this Oscar Moment.  First on tap is Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job,” the documentary on the 2008 financial collapse that opens today in New York and Los Angeles.

The documentary first made a blip on my radar when it premiered at Cannes back in May.  There it was the best reviewed movie of the festival, receiving nothing but the highest of praise from all angles.  According to IndieWIRE, “Inside Job” was the only movie at Cannes to score an A average.  Sony Pictures Classics picked it up there in France and played it at the Toronto and Telluride Film Festivals last month and the New York Film Festival last week.

The movie makes the argument that Wall Street has been heading for collapse ever since the 1980s when institutions were allowed to trade on their own behalf.  The idea that banks and firms are betting against the customers is frightening, and the marketing campaign behind the movie seeks to make it look like an “economic horror movie.”  It’s an interesting notion, and given some of the movie’s revelations, Sony Pictures Classics may be on to something.

The movie is more than just Ferguson’s hypotheses based on CNBC reports; he managed to get some high-profile figures on camera.  While there’s no Alan Greenspan or Ben Bernanke, he did manage to land former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and a high-end Wall Street prostitute.  These interviews make for an interesting aspect, according to Kris Tapley of In Contention:

With the brave subjects at apparent fault who somehow thought it was a good idea to go before Ferguson’s lens, the filmmaker takes on the role of interrogator, holding fast as they squirm and never allowing retreat (to the point that one subject, clearly flustered, asks that the camera be turned off for a moment). The thickness of the material and the dizzying nature of the underhanded tactics held up for examination pretty much becomes the point as the film moves on.

The movie is narrated by all-American boy Matt Damon, but it seems to me like Ferguson is the big character in the movie.  He has a stance, and he’s not afraid to put himself out there to make it known.  This isn’t just the facts; there is a slant.  The politics of “Inside Job” line up nicely with Academy politics, so the movie’s opinion certainly won’t work against it.

The real question is if “Inside Job” will align with the Academy’s flavor of the month in the documentary category.  Last year’s winner, “The Cove,” dealt with a very strong ethical cause that had not been anywhere in the news.  Two years ago, “Man on Wire” told the story of Philipe Petit’s 1973 walk between the World Trade Center towers.  Three years ago, Ferguson’s own Iraq documentary “No End in Sight” lost to “Taxi to the Dark Side,” which took a look at American policy on torture in Iraq.  Four years ago, winner “An Inconvenient Truth” made global warming an issue.  Five years ago, “March of the Penguin” charmed everyone in America.

Political hot-button issues may have a place on Fox News and CNN, but the Academy doesn’t always welcome them as we can see by their track record over the last five years.  With the economy being all over the news, do we need it again at the Oscars?

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Documentary Feature

What To Look Forward To in … October 2010

18 09 2010

In less than two weeks, we are headed into October.  More quality fall entertainment, more Oscar contenders.  But really, “The Social Network” leads off the month and it’s all downhill from there.  Sorry, every other movie coming out in my month of birth.  AND PLEASE TAKE THE POLL AT THE END … I blanked and left it off for a few days, but please vote!

October 1

I’ve stated twice that I’m dying to see “The Social Network,” and I’ve predicted it twice now to win Best Picture.  I’m counting on a great movie, and I’m planning on catching the first showing after school on Friday.

“Let Me In” reminds us of a time when vampires were still scary, not sexy.  Chloe Moretz (best known as Hit Girl) plays the blood-sucking child in question in this remake of the 2008 foreign horror flick “Let the Right One In.”  I think subtitles make anything creepier, but Hollywood sees English-language versions as a way to make things more accessible.

I love the book “Freakonomics,” and I think the documentary montage without any particular focus is a perfect complement to the bestseller.  If it’s anything like the book, it will be fascinating and incredibly thought-provoking.  It’s an interesting tactic to put it on iTunes before releasing it in theaters, and I’ve been asking myself whether or not I should wait for the big screen.

And on another note, poor Renee Zellweger has dropped so low as to start doing low-brow horror like “Case 39.”  To think she won an Oscar just 7 years ago…

October 8

Ugh, “Secretariat.”  Inspirational sports movies now give me an averse reaction.  And there’s also more gross horror in 3D with “My Soul to Take.”  Way to sell your soul, Wes Craven.  With the only other wide release being a corny Josh Duhamel-Katherine Heigl romantic comedy, “Life as We Know It,” it looks like I may be seeing “The Social Network” for a second time.

On the indie side of things, I’ll be happy to see some of the offerings.  For example, I’m sure “Inside Job” will be an illuminating (and probably slanted) view of what really went down with the economic meltdown in 2008.

“Stone” looks intense, much like “Brothers” appealed to me this time last year.  With an impressive cast of Robert DeNiro and Edward Norton (Milla Jovovich to a lesser degree as well), it could be a pretty good under-the-radar movie.

Tamara Drewe” has been playing at a lot of film festivals this year to mixed/positive reviews, most of the praise going not to director Stephen Frears but to leading lady Gemma Arterton.  “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” has also been playing film festivals recently albeit to much less success.  Despite the widespread acclaim the filmmakers’ past two movies, “Half Nelson” and “Sugar,” have received, this just hasn’t caught on.  “Nowhere Boy,” the story of John Lennon, premiered at Toronto this week, but I didn’t hear anything about it.  No news is NOT good news at a festival.

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