I’d apologize for being late, but can something called the Last Top Ten even be late? I could publish in June and my pants wouldn’t light.
And now, my Top Five.
5. Winter’s Bone
This movie snuck up on me, kind of from the front. I loved Winter’s Bone when I saw it, but I expected the film to fade as the year went on. I didn’t know I’d be here in February selling you on its merits. I’m also surprised to find the film in Oscar contention. Award movies are for winter, and Bone came out in the wrong winter: the last one.
But nothing about Ree Dolly’s odyssey conforms to expectations. It’s a thriller, but one without car chases or climactic fist fights. The police don’t roll in at the end, nor would they even be welcome. Ree’s world—a meth-cooking, insular Ozark community—has no need for outsiders or even independent young women who, like Ree, are in desperate need of help. Ree’s missing, drug dealing father risked his family’s home as bail money, but Ree finds little sympathy as she searches for him. One older woman looks at her, bewildered, and asks “Don’t you have a man to do this?” Ree doesn’t want or need one. She’s alone, and in great danger.
If you seek the film out, look for character actor John Hawkes as Ree’s uncle. He’ll lose to Christian Bale on Oscar night, but it won’t be for lack of bad-assery.
When movie geeks buy a ticket for a blockbuster action flick, this is what we’re hoping to get. Don’t misunderstand; we’ll settle. We’ll settle for action excellence like Die Hard, or fantastical fun like Iron Man, but what we’re really hoping to find is a movie like Inception, which blends fresh, innovative action with real ideas, and movies like that are notoriously hard to find. To be sure, Inception has its flaws (the towering wall of exposition gets tougher to climb with each viewing) but there’s nothing quite like the film’s extended climax, a single, ambitious sequence that begins at the film’s halfway point and pushes straight through to the final credits.
The debate about Inception’s ending is destined to dominate conversation going forward, like a certain piece of unicorn origami that came to mean everything and nothing about Blade Runner’s central purpose. My only question isn’t about the spinning top, or what it represents, but whether we will allow Cobb to remain happy and at peace, whether in a dream or wide awake, or if we’ll consume him with franchising and ruin this mechanical, massive, and somehow incredibly delicate tale of redemption, one of the most beautifully engaging action films of all time. Let’s all agree to let it be.
3. The Social Network
A couple of weeks ago, a friend told me that he guessed I hadn’t liked The Social Network. He pointed to a video from the movie I’d posted on my Facebook account—the rowing sequence—and how I’d called that my favorite scene of the film. If such a small, irrelevant scene from the movie was my favorite, surely I hadn’t cared for the rest of it.
That’s kind of the beauty of David Fincher’s movie. Every scene is a winner. I like the rowing sequence because of how it’s shot, edited, and scored to reveal the world of the Winklevoss twins as an isolated fishbowl of wealth and entitlement, where a caustic nerd like Mark Zuckerberg can’t touch them. It’s a crucial piece of the overall story. Zuckerberg is currently, right at that very moment, destroying them precisely because he’s not been invited to (in another scene, they let him into their frat building, but no further than the bike room.)
Your own personal scene might involve some of the breathless dialogue, cut impossibly fast in the editing room so that if you catch even two-thirds of its brilliance, you’ll feel like you’ve won. Or it might be one of the scenes of corporate intrigue, where a man obliterates his only friend to control a website where other people can connect with theirs. Or it might be a hopelessly sad scene near the end, as one character endlessly refreshes a page, hoping for a change that will never come.
Critics called The Social Network “the film of our generation.” I don’t know about all of that; those films are usually chosen by, I dunno, the generation. But it’s still an important, astonishing film, and one that 500 million people should see.
(PS: What was the film of the last generation, anyway? What did Gen-X choose? I woud guess Fight Club, and David Fincher did that one, too. Can we acknowledge that Fincher is one of the all-time greats? Is it time yet?)
2. The Fighter
There was an ugly, Dreamcatcher-like battle waged in my brain here at Hollywood Projects, Incorporated, over whether The Fighter would be my favorite movie of the year or my number 2. Obviously, The Fighter got bumped, but I want to make it clear how tough the call was.
I was surprised by this movie. If you’ve seen one boxing film, then you’ve seen Rocky IV. And if you’ve seen two, then you realize they’re all basically Rocky IV. And now here we are again with Mark Wahlberg, king of the inspirational nobody-to-somebody story. And, of course, leave it to Hollywood to rummage through boxing history and toss a dozen positive minority success stories over its shoulder to pluck up an underdog story about a white guy. Cynicism is my anti-drug.
Whoops. My fault! The Fighter is not that movie, not that corporate piece of trash meant to drive box office and tissue sales. Director David O. Russell (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees) needed a comeback film, and he took what could have been a cliché-riddled bit of moldy cheese and turned it into one of my favorite sports-related movies of all time. The Fighter is not the story of a struggling boxer, not really. Boxing is altogether incidental to the story. Instead, the film concerns a struggling family, so tightly wound and drunk off their past success that they can’t see what an embarrassing wreck they’ve become. Christian Bale has made a hobby of collecting physically grueling roles, and here he steals the movie as Dick Eklund, an ex-boxer with a story so sad that a documentary crew follows him to film the crumbs of his life. What could have been a trite message about drug use turns into a resonant symbol of our own fucked up families, and how we can grow past them, but never grow away from them.
1. Black Swan
In a stronger year, this might not have been my number one. Black Swan isn’t a perfect film, and people looking to tear into it will find a lot of meaty flaws in which to sink their teeth. But Swan is certainly my favorite film of this year, precisely because of those flaws. It’s a movie about perfection and beauty, shot in such an intentionally rough and clumsy style that its imperfections become a comment on the story itself. Like The Wrestler, Aronofsky’s previous film, Swan zeroes in on the physical demands behind the curtain of performance art, but Swan adds an additional layer of madness and feverish horrors. Love or hate Black Swan, you can’t forget it.
I’ve never been much of a Natalie Portman fan. Sure, she was great in The Professional, whoop-de-shit. She was 12 years old. Show me something now. She checks out of roles she doesn’t love. The Star Wars prequels? Mars Attacks? She uses emptiness to her advantage in Closer, but it’s still her go-to state. (And fans are advised to avoid her turn in the awful Goya’s Ghosts. It’s actively humiliating). But here, finally, in a movie about a perfectionist trying to show her darker side, Portman finally does the same and gives the year’s best performance. The movie lives and dies on her. It mostly lives.
(That’s it for 2010’s best. I pretty much agreed with the majority out there, except in one very big area: Pixar. I just didn’t think a great third act was enough to overcome the lame and easy first two acts of Toy Story 3. Still good. Nowhere near great.
Coming up next, I’ll post quickly about my five least favorite films of the year, and then I’ll be ramping up to bring you a brand new Project, featuring a few movies that any revolution can be proud of.)