Sylvain Chomet’s animated adaptation of Jacques Tati’s unproduced screenplay The Illusionist follows the travails of a Tati-like magician in the UK in the early ’60s, as his kind of entertainment starts to lose steam with the public. As an evocation of Tati’s minimalist whimsy, The Illusionist falls short, but the movie as a whole still succeeds splendidly, paying direct and indirect homage to multiple ’50s and ’60s cinematic showmen and honoring how the simplest tricks can still charm and deceive us. Then it all ends on a melancholy, ambiguous note, with disenchantment and new hope all jumbled together.
Hedwig And The Angry Inch and Shortbus director John Cameron Mitchell dials back—well, mostly eliminates—the stylistic flair in Rabbit Hole, but that ends up working in favor of this adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s play about loss, grieving, and what comes after. Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart star as parents who discover, eight months after the death of their child in an automobile accident, that they have to redefine nearly every aspect of their marriage. It’s a beautifully acted film in which every word counts and every gesture has meaning.
Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams seem to choose roles solely on the basis of how much suffering their characters will endure. Blue Valentine stands out as especially brutal even by the high standards of these two masochistic actors. The film offers a harsh, unblinking autopsy of the doomed relationship between a sweet, idealistic dreamer without much in the way of ambition (Gosling) and the practical woman (Williams) he wins, then can’t hold onto. It’s an intense drama of raw nerves and agonizing moments that grows more and more despairing until a shattering conclusion. Blue Valentine made headlines when it was slapped with an NC-17 despite its lack of particularly explicit sexual content—a judgment that was since withdrawn. Still, the rating at least made a little sense: The NC-17 was created for adult films, and Blue Valentine is adult in the best, least smutty possible sense.
Director Mike Leigh is famous for his collaborative writing process, in which he requires his actors to create detailed personal histories for their characters. The payoffs are clearer than ever in Another Year, a rich ensemble piece about people who have known each other for decades and are dealing with the pains and pleasures of growing older, if not necessarily wiser. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are both wonderful as a picture of marital bliss, but their stability stands in sharp contrast to the unsettled friends in their orbit, especially Lesley Manville, excellent as a middle-aged lonely-heart who dresses (and drinks) like a woman half her age. The message seems to be “Don’t grow old alone,” but the film isn’t quite so reductive, and its lived-in quality gives it warmth and good humor even when things are at their bleakest.
The quintessential break-up movie, Maren Ade’s Everyone Else follows a young couple—she (Birgit Minichmayr) a free-spirited, sometimes childish sprite, he (Lars Eidinger) a would-be architect who’s arrogant and coolly distant from others—as they go on vacation in Sardinia and come to see their incompatibilities. But much like The Forest For The Trees, Ade’s brilliant debut feature about a provincial teacher who struggles socially in a new city, Everyone Else is about the difficulties of fitting in. Setting the story against a lovely backdrop, Ade deals truthfully with the external factors that drive a wedge between the couple, and isn’t afraid to reveal the pettiness and back-biting that happens when a relationship dissolves, even if it makes her characters looks bad. It ain’t pretty, but it’s real.
The great but maddeningly non-prolific Lisa Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon, High Art) delivered another smart, funny, and insightful character study about the angst and insecurities of middle-aged women in The Kids Are All Right. The perfectly matched Julianne Moore and Annette Bening play a comfortable lesbian couple whose lives change dramatically when their children (Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska) seek out the man who fathered them via sperm donation (Mark Ruffalo). The kids then form a strange bond with a man who only vaguely remembers selling his seed so long ago. This year brought a slew of films about unconventional means of procreation (The Back-Up Plan, The Switch, Mother And Child), but The Kids Are All Right has the messy vitality of real life. It’s a thoughtful portrait of a relationship in crisis—and surprisingly sexy to boot, thanks to Ruffalo, who oozes simultaneously rugged and laid-back sex appeal as a stud who discovers that he can’t coast through life on the strength of his charm and attractiveness anymore. Leave it to a lesbian filmmaker to create an exemplar of ripe, bohemian male heterosexual sexuality.
If this year’s best films share a theme, it’s the thin, possibly unknowable line between reality and illusion, a notion teased out in everything from Black Swan to Inception to Dogtooth to Exit Through The Gift Shop. Martin Scorsese’s purposefully lurid Shutter Island sends Leonardo DiCaprio to an island of madmen and madwomen to solve a disappearance. As he discovers his own demons have followed him, his quest shifts and the movie starts to explore dark corridors informed in equal parts by Val Lewton and contemporary Asian horror films. The metaphysics may not ultimately work out, but Scorsese’s vertiginous filmmaking and the film’s gripping, outsized emotions make that feel like a petty concern.
Nearly everyone brings baggage to new relationships. In Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Edgar Wright’s sugar-rush adaptation of Brian O’Malley’s beloved graphic novel, quirky Mary Elizabeth Winstead brings baggage of the terrifyingly brutal sort to her blossoming relationship with lovestruck indie-rock musician Michael Cera. Cera isn’t just competing with the memories of Winstead’s former beaus; he must fight her seven evil exes to win his true love’s heart. In a directorial tour de force, Wright obliterates the lines between comic books, videogames, cartoons, and live-action by transforming Cera into a hero from some lost late-’80s Nintendo game and pushing the film’s zippy, retro-futuristic stylization to comic extremes. Pilgrim is so dizzyingly inventive and loaded with ideas, primarily visual, that watching it can be exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World might be the greatest videogame movie of all time in part because it’s inspired less by any specific game than by the infinite possibilities and cartoonish conflicts of the entire medium.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ disturbing, dryly funny Greek drama considers what happens when a mother and father lock their now-grown kids into a gated estate for their entire lives, to keep the messy outside world from corrupting their discipline. Lanthimos doesn’t go the expected route with this premise; he introduces elements of creeping anarchy into the story right from the start, and makes the parents less overprotective fusspots and more deranged sociopaths who actively mess with their kids’ heads. Dogtooth is witty, smart, and shocking in equal measure, and while it can be read as a commentary on everything from fascism to helicopter parenting, it’s primarily a beguilingly puzzling experience, dropping viewers into a weird place and demanding we acclimate.
Noah Baumbach’s comedies don’t aim broad: They’re plotless, self-consciously literary, and populated by characters who flat-out suck from the time they roll out of the bed until they angrily switch out the lights at night. But his films are still funny and true. In Greenberg, Ben Stiller stars as an idle crank who visits Los Angeles and has a stormy relationship with an insecure young woman played by Greta Gerwig. Almost nothing significant happens, and Stiller stays committed to making the title character an unstable jerk. Yet Baumbach gets the details of these characters and their petty concerns so right that the movie is both bracing and—in its own odd way—hilarious. It’s also a pleasure to look at, with Harris Savides’ cinematography capturing the sunny haze of L.A. with an artistry that would make Vilmos Zsigmond, Conrad Hall, and Haskell Wexler proud.
It’s not easy slipping into one of the most iconic roles in the history of American Westerns, yet Jeff Bridges somehow escapes the outsized specter of John Wayne’s only Oscar-winning performance in Joel and Ethan Coen’s riveting adaptation of True Grit. The film plays almost like a Western version of Winter’s Bone. Both films concern a precocious teenage girl entering a terrifying man’s world for the sake of her family’s honor and security. But the tones are wildly dissimilar: True Grit is as raucous and entertaining as Winter’s Bone is claustrophobic and grim. Yet despite its playful tone and dark comedy, True Grit earns a sneaky cumulative emotional power as Bridges’ irascible outlaw-turned-lawman learns, like James Franco in 127 Hours, that even the orneriest loners need other people.
A 2009 Best Foreign Language Film nominee released here in 2010, A Prophet reads a bit like a single long plot thread from Oz or The Wire, with all the gritty, unflinching detail and devotion to character that implies. Tahar Rahim stars as a teenager facing a six-year prison sentence and trying to hide his fear of his fellow inmates. Over the course of two and a half hours of film and years of story, he finds protectors who double as enemies, and makes enemies whom he learns how to manipulate and turn into protectors. The politics of prison, drug cartels, and the up-and-coming criminals who step in to replace the older generation all get explored in pulpy detail, and with no sense of a morality tale in the making. It’s a familiar coming-of-age story, in a way, but it’s gripping, well-observed, and complicated, a sort of vivid, French mini-Godfather saga that comments on France’s treatment of immigrants as much as on its treatment of criminals.
From The Battle Of Algiers to The Day Of The Jackal to Munich, movies about the minute details of violent political action have practically become their own genre. Olivier Assayas’ three-part, five-and-a-half-hour historical epic Carlos is remarkable for the way Assayas and star Édgar Ramírez take both a detached and pointed view of the notorious revolutionary Ilich Ramírez Sanchez, a.k.a. Carlos The Jackal. This is a film about its times, using jittery post-punk and new-wave music and excerpts from TV news to capture the unsettled feel of international politics and culture in the 1970s and ’80s. But it’s also an intimate sketch of one arrogant activist and how his people-power plans get complicated by money, mistakes, and bad associations. Throughout the film, Assayas literally strips Sánchez down, showing him naked and bloated: just a man, in other words, with appetites and weaknesses that render him far less than righteous.
After putting his own politically charged spin on the giant monster movie with The Host, Bong Joon-ho returns to the world of urban crime he explored so memorably in 2003’s Memories Of Murder. Here, a mystery that finds a young, developmentally disabled man (Won Bin) charged with murder spins into a depiction of the lengths mothers go to protect their children, as Won’s mother (Kim Hye-ja) turns detective in his defense—and then goes further. Kim’s remarkable performance anchors a grim, involving film filled with details of a run-down provincial city until a wonderfully odd and deceptively sad final scene that swaps unexpected, uneasy lightness for grimly accumulated weight.
There are a lot of strange vibes at play in the third and final Toy Story movie: A good deal of it involves a bunch of toys desperately trying to force an 18-year-old to play with them the way he did a decade ago, mourning when he won’t, and suffering from religion-worthy schisms as they argue over whether they should stand by him even though he’s outgrown them, or move on to younger, more playful pastures. The Toy Story movies have always been about the joy of play, but never before has it seemed like such a drag to be a toy—to essentially be an immortal being whose only pleasure comes from entertaining kids who will inevitably (and quickly) grow up and move on. And yet there were few grimmer movie moments in 2010 than the point in Toy Story 3 where the characters resignedly face their deaths, and few more uplifting sequences than the film’s end. It’s almost preposterous that a kids’ film could be this challenging, moving, and heartfelt, but Pixar continues to put out movies that rival anything else in theaters for sophistication and entertainment.
Is it real? Is it a hoax? A little bit of both? Between Catfish, I’m Still Here, and Exit Through The Gift Shop, moviegoers (or a fraction of them, anyway) spent a lot of time this year trying to figure out how much to trust images that were either revealed or suspected to be false. Yet of those three, only Banksy’s wildly entertaining documentary is deepened by the question of its verity, since deception and outlaw prankishness is at the heart of what he and other great street artists do. Through the story of Thierry Guetta—an eccentric Frenchman who sought out Banksy and other guerrilla artists for a long-in-the-making documentary—the film provides a rare glimpse into how these urban outlaws operate, the philosophy (and trickery) that drives their work, and the commercialization of the form. As Banksy turns the tables on Guetta, his documentary changes course in ways that are unexpected, exhilarating, and, yes, perhaps unreliable.
The next time you watch Inception, a film that practically demands a second viewing, take a moment during the bravura extended climax to wonder at the mechanics at work. The way writer-director Christopher Nolan keeps the action moving on so many planes and at so many different paces at once is exciting in itself. But don’t linger too long. Inception works in part because it seldom calls attention to those mechanics, sweeping viewers along into its dream world—and worlds of dreams within dreams—while offering a thrilling, emotionally affecting film about desire, disappointment, and delusion, all packaged in a movie that’s also about the art of moviemaking. Think of that final shot as a mystery never to be solved in a film that never truly ends.
2010 was a year of documentaries that kept people guessing about the reality behind the stories they told, but where questionable facts undermine a documentary’s message, they just enhance the lurid fantasy Black Swan. Director Darren Aronofsky and a trio of screenwriters make the most of the what-is-real? uncertainty in their film, which starts as an intimate story about a sheltered, fragile ballerina (Natalie Portman) vying for the lead in Swan Lake, and turns into a florid, intensely vivid nightmare. It isn’t precisely a fantasy; it’s a left-hand retelling of Swan Lake by way of a Hollywood metaphor and an inquiry into the costs of passion in love and in art. These heady themes could have made Black Swan painfully pretentious, but Portman’s wounded portrayal, the intensity of the imagery, and the constant guessing about what’s going on turn the film into an experience as much as an exploratory essay.
The pairing of writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher for a movie about Facebook’s contentious beginnings didn’t seem right on paper: Sorkin’s famously hyper-verbal dialogue stood to hamstring a filmmaker known for his visual pyrotechnics. Yet the collaboration benefits them both, giving Sorkin a more dynamic platform than the typical West Wing walk-and-talk and adding another unforgettable character to David Fincher’s gallery of dark obsessives. Using the deposition recordings of two separate lawsuits against Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg (a scarily focused Jesse Eisenberg) as an ingenious framing device, The Social Network traces the site’s origin in all its agonizing complexity. Sorkin and Fincher capture the heady rush of innovation and youthful energy while also detailing the human flaws embodied by its founder, who’s often petty and invasive, but also driven by a half-poignant/half-pathological need to belong.
Jennifer Lawrence gives one of the year’s standout performances in Winter’s Bone, the second feature from Down To The Bone director Debra Granik. But while Lawrence’s evocation of a superlatively proud, stiff-necked Missouri teenager supporting her mother and younger siblings is key to the film’s success, Granik’s realization of the Ozarks is rich, specific, and frightening, and it provides the other necessary half of the puzzle. The film functions as a crime procedural as Lawrence hunts down her father, whose disappearance may cause her family to lose the home that allows them to survive with a tiny bit of fiercely protected independence. But it’s also the kind of vivid time-and-place portrait that offers a window into another world—in this case, a meth-ravaged, chilly backwoods country that inspires equal parts intense hatred and intense bonding in its clannish inhabitants.
the giraffe's rating:
With notes from the original A.V. Club article. Full article with links, images, and individual critic's ballots is available here.
For the A.V. Club's 15 worst films of 2010 see my list here