2010 was a year full of unforgettable movies.
And I still have many on my must-see list. For example, Carlos (by Olivier Assayas, who directed my favorite 2009 film), The Kids Are All Right, Animal Kingdom, Get Low, The Ghost Writer, 127 Hours, The Fighter, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Another Year, Mother, White Material, Somewhere, and Vincere, to name a few.
In the meantime, here are my most memorable moviegoing experiences of 2010.
First I’ll list six impressive movies that I wanted to love, but couldn’t. Feel free to try and change my mind.
Then, some “runners-up”—films I thoroughly enjoyed and happily recommend.
And finally—in tomorrow’s Part Two—I’ll applaud my ten favorites that I’d love to explore, share, and enjoy again and again.
A few of these played in 2008 or 2009 elsewhere in the world, but became available in my neighborhood in theaters or on DVD only this year.
Six Disappointments (listed alphabetically)
Black Swan: What a trip! Darren Aronofsky’s much-lauded mix of classical ballet, psychological turmoil, and grisly horror features wild, emotional performances by Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. But I grew increasingly frustrated with the movie, and eventually started checking my watch. Why? The relentless, overbearing energy. Heavy-handed storytelling. Flamboyant cinematography. Continuous horror-movie jolts. Abrasive behavior from self-absorbed characters. Simplistic, soap-opera dialogue. Gratuitous girl-on-girl action. A bounty of psychological-thriller clichés. Aronofsky is always intense, but here he feels like a show-off, following his film’s climactic image with title cards that shout “DIRECTED BY DARREN ARONOFSKY” and “A FILM BY DARREN ARONOFSKY.” I’ve retitled it Blech Swan.
Blue Valentine: This is a persuasive, lifelike depiction of a couple’s relationship from first infatuation through marriage to disintegration. The implosion is brought to vivid life in exceptional, whole-hearted performances from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. In scene after scene, Derek Cianfrance’s film feels true-to-life, even in its rather graphic scenes of a failing sexual relationship. But ultimately, I wanted to ask, “So what?” It’s an actors’ showcase that runs high on emotion without giving us much to discuss after the credits roll.
I Am Love: My compliments to director Luca Guadagnino for the sumptuous cinematography, the gorgeous cast, the elaborate style, and the breathtaking architecture of this ambitious, operatic Italian drama. But despite the film’s visual extravagance, I’m frustrated by its narrative. As the patriarch of the Recchi family—an Italian textile-mill dynasty—hands control of the family business over to the next generation, we can see the world changing. As globalism and individualism spread, so do cracks in the foundation of this aristocracy. It’s no surprise when some begin to rebel against its unspoken laws, following secret passions and risking the family’s wrath. The new patriarch’s daughter is openly gay. And the new matriarch—Emma (Tilda Swinton), a Russian who seems dissatisfied among Milan’s wealthy elite—has fallen into an all-consuming extramarital affair with a cook. While it’s easy to pity Emma for her imprisonment in this hard-hearted family, I reject the film’s suggestion that true freedom comes by a surrender to sensual impulses.
Inception: See my previous two-part Good Letters post.
A Prophet: Jacques Audiard’s film is an immersive epic about a prisoner who descends into hell, dragged unwillingly into the sordid dealings of a criminal network behind bars. He’ll either become a devil to survive, or die for resisting. As the emperor of this underworld, Niels Arestrup gives one of the year’s most incredible performances. But this story is so soul-crushingly bleak and nihilistic that I felt suffocated. Audiard paints a world without any glimpse of God, grace, or hope. I really wish I hadn’t invited my pastor to join me for this one; I felt compelled to apologize afterward.
The White Ribbon: Michael Haneke’s study of how German society became susceptible to Hitler’s violent agenda is one of the year’s most harrowing films, but also one of the most beautiful. He captures the slow devolution of a community as mysterious acts of violence kindle fear and suspicion in the residents’ hearts. How should a family, a neighborhood, or a nation respond to grievous violence? These are important questions, and timely. Perhaps I’ll come to a greater appreciation of how this film grapples with them. But on a first viewing, I was exhausted by this onslaught of stories about heartlessness.
Silver Medal Movies-- Films That Didn't Fit in the Top Ten (alphabetical)
How to Train Your Dragon: This animated epic from Dreamworks surprised me with impressive characterizations, an unexpectedly thoughtful plot, and 3D flight sequences that were more exciting than Avatar’s much-hyped aerial adventure. We watch a young Viking named Hiccup learn to consider his enemies with thoughtfulness instead of knee-jerk violence. And Hiccup’s father Stoick, a gargantuan Viking warrior, makes a slow journey to appreciating his not-so-warlike son. I’d recommend this film just for the sight of Stoick’s magnificent red thicket of a beard.
Never Let Me Go: Mark Romanek adapts Kazuo Ishiguro’s beautiful science fiction novel, drawing delicate performances from Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, and gives Keira Knightley her most complicated character. Read more about this film in my Good Letters post about “The Actor in Question.”
Rabbit Hole: As this husband (Aaron Eckhart) and wife (Nicole Kidman) struggle to go on after an accident claims their young boy’s life, we get just the sort of shouting matches and crying jags that critics call “Oscar bait.” Nevertheless, it’s a refreshingly honest film that makes no false promises. This is a story about learning to live with loss, not how to recover from it. Kidman’s turn as Becca is her finest in many years, but it’s the supporting characters who stay with me. Dianne Wiest is wonderful as Nat, Becca’s mother, whose Christian faith helps her live with her own heavy losses. And newcomer Miles Teller almost steals the show as the broken-hearted young man responsible for Becca’s loss. His delicate conversations with Kidman suggest that healing is possible through confession, forgiveness, and grace. Becca may reject Christian faith in the film, but she’s stepping onto “the Way” that Christ represents.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright packs this adaptation of the popular Scott Pilgrim comics with playful inspiration and big laughs. Forget Tron: Legacy—this was 2010’s best big-screen video game. Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is an uninspiring romantic lead, and he’s surrounded by young women who are more interesting than his goth-girl crush Ramona Flowers. So it’s hard to care much about his duels with Ramona’s seven evil exes...unless you ever did foolish things in the fever of a crush. Alas, I’ve been that idiot. And I have a warm spot in my heart for Mr. Pilgrim.
The Secret in Their Eyes: Read my review of last year’s Oscar-winning foreign language film at Filmwell.
Shutter Island: 2010 introduced two films in which Leonardo DiCaprio was caught between reality and delusion. I prefer Shutter Island over Inception. Martin Scorsese cooks up a spooky stew full of spicy allusions to other psychological thrillers like The Shining and Vertigo. And it cleverly includes actors who have played other psychos, like Ted Levine, Jackie Earle Haley, and John Carrol Lynch. Its breathtaking design suggests Dante’s Inferno imagined by M.C. Escher. Watch carefully—if you blink, you might miss important details. While Inception’s Christopher Nolan shouts “Look! I’m bending a city in half!” Scorsese makes watchful moviegoers gasp with something as simple as a vanishing water glass. Ultimately, Shutter Island asks why our cultural imagination is so obsessed with stories about investigators and criminals. Do we turn to thrillers so we can face our fears? Or are we fooling ourselves, trying to numb the pain of our losses, or absolve ourselves from any responsibility?
Waste Land: Read my review of this inspiring documentary in a previous Good Letters post—“Trash Transformed.”
Tomorrow… the top ten. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. What films impressed you the most in 2010?