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The Best Films of 2010

January 13, 2011 Leave a comment

With 2010 behind us, it’s time for my list of the ten best films released in the year 2010. All lists are subjective, and you will probably disagree with some of my choices. But who really cares what you think? Kidding. Without further ado, here are the best films of 2010:

1. The Social Network

Honestly, I had a hard time deciding my number one film of 2010. It could have easily been “Shutter Island.” Why “The Social Network” makes my number one slot is simple enough. I put the blu ray of the movie on and was only prepared to watch a bit of it, and suddenly I just couldn’t turn it off. The film is made with such mastery, that I couldn’t resist watching it again. I remember when this project was first announced in the Fall of 2008, many people thought a film about the founding of Facebook couldn’t possibly be good. Those nay sayers were dead wrong. David Fincher’s direction and Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay make for a dynamite combination. The actors are all on the top of their game. Jesse Eisenberg, as Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, is an enigma of a character who we simultaneously hate and feel sympathy for. Andrew Garfield is also good as the moral center of the film, and Justin Timberlake conveys the right amount of arrogance and charisma as the man who breaks up the Eisenberg Garfield friendship. Armie Hammer delivers a career making role playing the Winklevoss twins who sue Zuckerberg over Facebook. The film moves at a lightning pace; the editing and fast talking dialogue never deliver a false note. If any film this year could be called perfect, this film could be it.

2. Shutter Island

I named Martin Scorsese’s film the best film I had seen so far back in August of 2010, and it only falls down one slot months later. The film, about a U.S. Marshal who searches for an escaped mental patient, divided audiences and critics alike when it came out last February. Many discounted the film because of the false narrative of the story. Others, including myself, may have found the narrative false, but the emotions and truth behind it, to be incredibly moving. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the U.S. Marshal, who is deeply haunted by the death of his wife, while he searches the island for the escape mental patient. When his character finally confronts his haunted past, it felt like an emotional punch to the stomach. I literally left the theatre in a trance like state after the film’ s resolution. There is wonderful filmmaking on display from Scorsese and his regular crew composed of Thelma Schoonmaker, Robert Richardson and Dante Ferretti. This is the kind of picture that you can watch multiple times and find new meanings in each scene.

3. Animal Kingdom

This is a terrific feature film debut from Australian writer-director David Michod. A young seventeen old boy, played by James Frechville, gets caught in the middle of a war between his criminal family of Uncles and a group of corrupt Australian police. The title of the movie is appropriate because Frechville is literally struggling for his own survival between the two. The film features great performances from Ben Mendelsohn as Frechville’s insane Uncle Pope, and Jacki Weaver, as the matriarch of the family. I can’t begin to say too many great things about Weaver. She is terrifying, but she underplays it. She comes across as simply a mother who will do ANYTHING to protect her sons. I was on edge watching this film because just when you thought it was going one place, it goes in another direction. The film doesn’t glorify the criminal lifestyle, but it shows us the terrifying consequences that everyone in this family must pay. I can’t wait to see what Michod has to offer next.

4. Somewhere

Sofia Coppola has been one of my favorite filmmakers ever since her sophomore feature, “Lost In Translation” came out in 2003. What I loved about that film and her new film, “Somewhere,” is how she is completely a visual filmmaker. She uses the image to tell us everything about the characters and the atmosphere of the story. In her latest film, Stephen Dorff plays Johnny Marco, a Hollywood action film star who lives an empty life of excess at the Chateau Marmont. His lifestyle is changed when his eleven year old daughter, played by Elle Fanning, arrives. Both lead actors are pretty damn great here. Dorff easily conveys a real sense of emptiness and loss in just his body behavior. Elle Fanning as Cleo, is a remarkably smart young lady, who managed to grow up normal within the crazy atmosphere of the Hollywood lifestyle. Coppola doesn’t condemn the celebrity lifestyle outright, instead she shows us the ridiculousness and appeal of it. This film is Coppola’s most minimalis to date. There is no real traditional story line present in the picture. Coppola simply uses the visuals to tell the story of a man who is able to find some measure of truth amidst his empty life.

5. Inception

Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” was the lone standout in the shit storm of big budget, disappointing tent pole films released in summer 2010. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a con man who is able to enter people’s dreams and steals their ideas. The plot at first glance, may seem confusing, but it’s rather quite simply. The film simply demands the audience be an active participant, which is something that most mainstream Hollywood blockbusters never ask of their audience. Nolan raises the stakes of the film as we go deeper and deeper into the layers of dreams that DiCaprio and his crew dwell into. Though structured as a heist film, the film’s emotional core of DiCaprio reeling over his dead wife, played by Marion Cotillard, is what makes the film memorable. The picture’s incredibly level of craftsmanship, the terrific musical score by Hans Zimmer and the boldness of the screenplay’s originality make this one of the most exciting films to come out of a major studio in some time.

6. True Grit

This film is probably Joel and Ethan Coen’s most sincere film to date. This story centers on thirteen year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who searches for the man that killed her father, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie is assisted in her journey by a U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and a Texas Ranger named La Beouf (Matt Damon). Among the great level of A-list talent in the film, the film is really held together by the performance of Steinfeld. She more than holds her own against Bridges, Damon and Brolin. She isn’t the rambunctious little girl we sometimes see in films, but she is a hardened person who has experienced a lot despite her youth. Bridges perfectly inhabits the role of the drunken, rough Cogburn and Damon is the perfect comic foil to Cogburn. This movie feels like a traditional Western we would have seen from Ford or Hawks. The last fifteen minutes of the film is just bravura filmmaking. The Western imagery captured by cinematographer Roger Deakins is breathtaking. The Coen’s always fill their films with interesting faces, and I love all the character that we meet in this film. A mysterious, strange encounter with a doctor wearing a bear suit comes to mind. I left the theatre wanting to spend a lot more time these characters.

7. A Prophet

I was not going to list this film on my top ten of 2010 because I originally counted it as a 2009 release. But since the film didn’t get a U.S. theatrical release until 2010, I’ve decided to put it on my list. This French film from director Jacques Audiard, is about a half French, half Arab man who is sent to a French prison and slowly rises up the ranks inside to become a mafia kingpin. Tahar Rahim, who plays the young man, Malik, is terrific here. He has a magnetic movie star quality to him. He has the potential to become a big movie star that can actually act. That’s a deadly combination. Audiard does a very good job of showing us the life and death stakes that Rahim encounters inside the prison. I’m specifically thinking of the scene where Rahim has to commit his first murder using a strategically placed razor blade. That scene is so masterfully constructed that it leaves you on the edge of your seat. The film has been compared to “The Godfather” and after watching it, you’re going to understand why people are comparing it to that great film.

8. Black Swan

It took me a second viewing to take in everything that this film had to offer. During my first viewing, I was impressed technically with the picture, but I was a bit turned off by some of the fake scares that occur during the film. On my second viewing, my appreciation of the film grew even more and I was even more impressed with the performance of Natalie Portman. The film is an examination of Portman’s descent into madness as she prepares for the lead role in the ballet production of Swan Lake. This is without a doubt the most intense, fearless performance that Portman has ever given. You feel the pressure literally pounding down on her, it’s all present in her body and face. Director Darren Aronfosky shoots the film with a gritty realism that flies in the face of the psychological fantasy elements present in the story. The climax of the film occurs during the production of the “Swan Lake” ballet and when Portman transforms into the black swan, it’s quite extraordinary to see. I love how the camera glides during the ballet and allows us to see Portman let go of all her inhibitions. The cinematography in the film by Matthew Libatique is quite extraordinary here.

9. Catfish

There was a lot of buzz surrounding this documentary when it premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. People who saw the film at Sundance recommended that people should go into the film knowing as little as possible. I took that advice and was really surprised at the griping story this documentary told. The documentary follows a young New York photographer, Nev Schulman,who develops a romantic relationship with a girl through Facebook. Schulaman begins to develop suspicions that something is not quite right with the young woman. Nev, along the films directors, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, document the journey the three of them take to meet the girl in person. There has been alot of controversy surrounding whether this film is a complete fake. Regardless of that issue, there is no denying that this is a great story. The film builds a lot of suspense building up the Nev’s meeting with the girl. When the story’s truth is revealed, it is sad, uncomfortable and touching at the same time.

10. The American

This film, directed by Anton Corbijn, stars George Clooney as a professional assassin that specializes in building weapons intended for death. He lives a solitary, empty life in the shadows and Clooney soon finds his own life threatened by a mysterious figure. I really enjoyed the hell out of this picture. I was immensely impressed with what is essentially an art film that could have come out of the 1970’s. The crowd I saw the film with seemed very unimpressed. It wasn’t the movie they were expecting. This probably has to do with the film’s marketing that emphasized the action. The film is very minimalist and not every story detail is neatly explained to the audience. There are long stretches of silence that do an excellent job of building suspense. Give the film a fair chance and you might come out being totally impressed at the level of craft and expertise that went into this film.

Rounding out my top 25:

11) The Kids Are Alright 12) 127 Hours 13) Exit Through The Gift Shop 14) I Am Love 15) Rabbit Hole 16) The Tillman Story 17) The King’s Speech 18) Restrepo 19) Cyrus 20) Blue Valentine 21) Toy Story 3 22) The Fighter 23) Winter’s Bone 24) Inside Job 25) Never Let Me Go

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Best Male Performances on the Year…So Far

September 13, 2010 Leave a comment

1. Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island

If any of you are a regular reader of this blog, and I know there are at least two of you, you know that I am a big fan of this film. You can check out my review of the film and my recap of the best films of the year so far to confirm my love for this picture. This film had a powerful emotional impact on me and part of the reason was DiCaprio’s performance as a United States marshal haunted by his traumatic past. DiCaprio has really grown as an actor through his collaborations with Martin Scorsese. I applaud him for not caving in to starring in crappy romantic comedies after the massive success of “Titanic: in 1997. He could have played it easy, but he chose to challenge himself and his works with Scorsese are really pushing him to the limits as an actor. DiCaprio’s character in the film is a World War Two veteran who is plagued by the horrors he saw in the war. You get the sense that he is hiding something, that maybe his own character isn’t even aware of. And at the end, when he’s confronted with what he’s hiding, it’s truly tragic.

2. Mark Ruffalo as Paul in The Kids Are All Right

This is without a doubt the best performance I have seen from Mark Ruffalo in some time. He first came to everyone’s attention in 2000’s “You Can Count on Me” and in this film he finally gets to shine.  In this picture he plays Paul, an older hippie type who donated sperm years ago. Years later he is shocked to discover when the children from his sperm have contacted him. Ruffalo plays Paul as a cool, yet kind of douchey guy. He wants to be kind of a father figure to his biological children, which upsets the children’s lesbian mothers. Ruffalo’s actions are never malicious, but naive. In another actors hands, this part could have been played as a real jerk. Ruffalo is able to shape Paul into a real character, flaws and all.

3. Michael Douglas as Ben Kalmen in Solitary Man

“Solitary Man” was one of the highlights I saw at this year’s Newport Beach Film Festival. The reason this film is such a success, is the performance of Michael Douglas. It is his certainly his best performance since 2000’s fantastic “Wonder Boys.” Douglas plays an aging womanizer whose out of control sexual appetite is slowly destroying his life. Douglas is clearly playing a version of his womanizing persona in real life. Douglas isn’t afraid to let everything hang out here, all his character’s flaws are all out there for us to see. That deserves some applause and Douglas makes this not very sympathetic figure, one we feel for, because of all his flaws.

4. John Hawkes as Teardrop in Winter’s Bone

The character of Teardrop is a mysterious, dangerous figure. He is perfectly realized by John Hawkes in the film “Winter’s Bone.” Hawkes plays the Uncle of Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly. As Lawrence searches for her missing father, Hawkes is both an obstacle and her protector in the Appalachian meth community in which they live in. Hawkes is terrific because you think you know what kind of character he is, but as the film advances, he is able to surprise you. His character is always on edge; you never know what he might to do. This is exciting to watch on-screen.

5. Jonah Hill as Cyrus in Cyrus

Jonah Hill has certainly come a long way since he burst on the screen in 2007’s “Superbad.” In that film he played an over the top, super foul-mouthed character. It would have been difficult back then to picture him playing almost the total opposite type of character in “Cyrus.” In the film, he plays the twenty-something child of Marisa Tomei’s character, who gets upset when her new boyfriend, John C. Reilly, upsets the balance in the household. The ads for this film play up the crazy antics that Hill attempts to drive Reilly away. While those antics are in the film, behind those acts is a real humanity and sadness to Hill’s character.

The Best Films of the Year…So Far

August 30, 2010 1 comment

By general consensus 2010 has not been a great year for films so far. But some films do stand out above the pitiful pack. Here are six:

1. Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese’s latest film had a deep personal and emotional impact on me. This is Scorsese’s deepest exercise in working with genre. He is able to use all the crafts over the years of filmmaking to put the viewer into the off kilter world of this film. Look at the way he uses editing and a cup of water to leave you wondering what the hell you just saw. I think the reason I was so taken by this film is because of the way it examines how a man deals with guilt and remorse. This is a theme that Scorsese has explored in his earlier films and in this film it is represented by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall sent to investigate the disappearance of an escape mental patient on Shutter Island. This is certainly DiCaprio’s best acting performance. He has the emotional range to go to levels I’ve never seen from him before.

2. Animal Kingdom

This Australian crime film blew me away and only got better the more I thought about it. The terrific feature film debut from writer-director David Michod follows a young seventeen man caught up in the war between his criminal band of Uncles and corrupt Australian police. The title of the film is appropriate, because this film is all about survival. The boy, played by James Frecheville, is introvert, quite, he is making up how to survive on his own. The film doesn’t glorify this criminal world, there is a real documentary feel to it, which I loved. Great performances from Ben Mendelsohn, as Frecheville’s most terrifying Uncle. The audience feels this kid’s terror when Mendelsohn is on-screen. Jacki Weaver, as the matriarch of this crime family, is also terrific. She’s not the brains behind the crime family, but rather a mother who would do ANYTHING to protect her sons. And this makes her just as scary as any of her sons.

3. Inception

Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” is the lone standout in the shit storm of big budget, disappointing summer tent pole film released this past summer. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a man who steal information from person’s dreams. Instead of stealing an idea, he has to try plant an idea inside the mind of corporate head, in order to get back home. This is a film that I could watch over and over again. It is just pure entertainment. I remember sitting in the theatre in joy and amazement at some of the things depicted on-screen. That anti-gravity fight scene in the hotel is pure cinema. Roger Ebert sums up the film well, he says “it is wholly original, cut from new cloth, and yet structured with action movie basics so it feels like it makes more sense than (quite possibly) it does.”

4. The Kids Are All Right

This is a great look at the struggles a relationship and a family go through. It doesn’t matter that the relationship and family is led by two women. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play a couple whose children decide to find their sperm donor father, played by Mark Ruffalo. The performances all around are excellent. Bening, as the “breadmaker” of the family, is the best she has been in some time. She could have played the part as an over-the-top caricature, but she is a real person, who feels real pain when Ruffalo enters the family and almost takes her place within the family. Ruffalo also gives a great performance as the biological father. He is great at playing this cool, yet douchey guy. The film never exploits him as the “villain” in the film. Credit director Lisa Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg for crafting this excellent examination of a family.

5. Restrepo

This is a great documentary following two filmmakers as they are embedded with a platoon of soldiers in the deadly mountainous region of Afghanistan known as the Korengal Valley. We get to see the war through the soldiers’ eyes. Besides the gunfight battles, we see how dangerous and crucial communication is with the local Afghanistan people in order to win over the Valley’s residents. When a soldier is killed, you can’t help but be touched when the other soldiers are recounting the pain at losing a member of their team. The end the documentary leaves us with the thought that it might be impossible for us to ever “win” this war and was it worth the loss to get control of this Valley.

6. Cyrus

A terrific film from directors Mark & Jay Duplass, the founders of the “Mumblecore” movement. In “Cyrus” John C. Reilly falls in love with Marisa Tomei, but he doesn’t fall in love with her odd son played by Jonah Hill. This is a perfect blend of comedy and drama. There are real human moments that you would never find in a mainstream Hollywood movie. Great performances all around, especially Hill. He expertly walks that fine line between rational and irrational. His character is never a caricature, but a person who is simply afraid that he might lose his mother.

An Unforgettable Visit to Shutter Island

February 24, 2010 2 comments

From the minute I saw the opening credits of this film, I had a big smile on my face. The big, menacing score playing over as we enter through the gates of a creepy mental institution, only confirms that we are in the authoritative hands of an old master, Martin Scorsese. He knows how to use film as a medium to create a deep emotional impact in the viewer.

“Shutter Island,” based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, is set in 1954 on a island off the Boston coast. From among the foggy ocean a ship carrying two U.S Marshals, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), heads towards a mental institution for the criminally insane on Shutter Island. Their job is to investigate the disappearance of a prisoner, Rachel Solondo (Emily Mortimer). During their investigation they are greeted with reluctance from the hospital staff, including the head medical director, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley). Teddy soon believes that something is not right about this investigation. During his inquiry, Teddy starts to get massive headaches which trigger haunting dreams about his dead wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams).

Scorsese does a brilliant job of setting up an atmosphere of paranoia and dread. The cinematography by Robert Richardson is terrific at creating a beautiful fantasy dream landscape and the dour colors on Shutter Island. Look at the way Scorsese uses point of view shots to set up the paranoia emotions of Teddy. The editing, by the great Thelma Schoonmaker, is sensational at throwing the audience off its axis. A scene involving a patient drinking a glass of water will have your mind guessing what you just saw.

The images that Scorsese and his team create are simply gorgeous to behold on-screen. The dream sequences are shot in rich colors, which stand in stark contrast to the reality of the prison walls. I was carried away by the simple, entrancing imagery of papers endlessly floating around a room in one scene. Another hauntingly beautiful dream involves DiCaprio holding his wife in his arms as she turns into a pile of ashes. These dream scenes are important in providing insight into the film’s narrative.

I saw this film twice, and the second time around I took notice of how great DiCaprio’s performance is in this film. This is without a doubt, his best performance to date. There are times, when his performance almost brought me to tears. He is a man who loves his dead wife with a passion and love that is completely believable. You see the heartbreak, pain in his eyes when he looks on at his wife. There are a group of other great performances in this film as well. Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow, as another doctor at the institution, are great at bordering the ambiguity of good and evil. Emily Mortimer is appropriately crazy without over doing it. Jackie Earle Haley and Patricia Clarkson are very memorable in their brief moments on-screen.

Other than being a master at creating a dark atmosphere, Scorsese is experimenting with narrative here. At the end of the film, we ask ourselves what is the truth? Who are we to believe? There’s going to be a lot of talk about the ending and I can see how it could throw some people off. I was so drawn into the picture, that I was thrown off a bit when the ending arrived. There is too much explanation about what’s been occurring. I would have liked to have had some more ambiguity surrounding the conclusion. However, after seeing the film a second time, the ending didn’t bother me as much. There is whole new dimension to the story once you know the ending.

Whatever issue I had with the ending during my first viewing, I must admit that I was emotionally and mentally blown away by it. I was literally hunched over in my seat, my eyes glued to the screen. I can’t remember the last time a film had such a strong emotional impact on me. I did not want to leave the theatre as the credits played. When I left the theatre, I literally left in an almost trance like state.

If this film had been made as a standard horror/thriller film, it would have been easily forgotten. Scorsese, with his team of actors and technical crew, rises above the story’s familiar trappings. He has crafted a film that is a tragic examination of a man living with guilt and trauma. This is certainly the best film of this early year. The rest of the movies to be released this year have a lot to live up to.

5 stars

One of the reasons why I didn’t want to leave during the credits is because of a haunting, beautiful song played over the credit reel. The song was a combination of “This Bitter Earth” with a piece music called “On the Nature of Daylight.” Never before have a song and film fit so perfectly together.