Here’s the second part of my look back at favorite 2010 movies. Ladies and gentlemen, the top ten…
Read my review of this delightful, one-of-a-kind documentary at the website for SPU’s Response.
9. The King’s Speech
Tom Hooper’s movie is made of close-ups, and that makes sense. It’s about a speech impediment, one that almost prevented the Duke of York from fulfilling his duties when he became King George IV. Colin Firth, playing the reluctant ruler known to his family as “Bertie”, is a joy to watch. Fighting his “bloody stammer,” his despondent, pulpy face balloons, deflates, clenches, and explodes like he’s trying to start the engine of a junkyard car. Meanwhile, his therapist—Lionel Logue, played with magnificent expressiveness and wit by Geoffrey Rush—patiently questions, teases, and teaches him.
Much will be written about the film’s period-piece elegance, its physical comedy, the endearing supporting turn by Helena Bonham Carter, and its exquisite script. But for me, its shining virtue is its depiction of a heroic teacher who guides a stubborn student with patience, force, cleverness, love, and grace. The King’s Speech is a tribute to the work of dedicated teachers everywhere.
8. The Sun
In The Sun, a 2005 film that finally reached the U.S. in this year’s DVD release, Issey Ogata plays the Japanese Emperor Hirohito at the turning point of World War II. It’s a performance of extraordinary control and wit.
We watch as Hirohito, knowing that the Allied forces are closing in, struggles to cope with the pressure of imminent defeat, knowing that his people believe he is an infallible deity. We watch his attention shift restlessly during those terrible hours. He listens to his officials’ rising panic. He struggles to sustain the nation’s pride by refusing to call down his troops. And he distracts himself with his real passion—the study of marine biology.
Thanks to director Alexander Sokurov’s compassionate storytelling, we care about this emperor. He seems to be a victim of circumstances more than a devilish tyrant. With a curious physical manner that recalls Charlie Chaplin, Ogata impersonates a man in a state of arrested development, an overgrown child disabled by lifelong isolation, striving to fulfill the expectations of a history he does not understand.
I found The Sun’s conclusion deeply moving, for the defeat seems to liberate Hirohito like a child released from school for summer vacation. He’s giddy at the future’s possibilities, as if he can finally wade out into an ocean full of wonders.
7. The Secret of the Grain
This 2007 film reached U.S. moviegoers this year thanks to a Criterion Collection DVD. My review was published previously at Good Letters.
6. Four Lions
I didn’t want to watch a comedy about Jihadists plotting a terror attack. But I’m so glad I did. Just as Monty Python brilliantly satirized Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, and the folly of crowds seeking a Messiah, so Chris Morris makes sharp satire from details he learned about real terrorist activities.
The film’s “four lions” are would-be terrorists who know just enough about Islamic extremism to be dangerous. As they fumble from one bad plan to another, they desire only to join Al-Qaeda and become martyrs for their cause. But they’re living contradictions, casually embracing the very culture they claim to despise. Hatred and ignorance have turned them into paranoid buffoons, so that they shake their heads in public to avoid being clearly photographed, and they blame their troubles—even their car troubles—on their perceived enemies. “It's the parts...they're Jewish.” “What parts in a car are Jewish?” “Spark plugs.... Jews invented spark plugs to control global traffic.”
It’s all hilarious, but the truth of it stings. Hatred makes fools of the haters in any culture or religion. Morris might just as easily have made a satire about what hate might do to Christian fundamentalists. Maybe he should.
5. The Secret of Kells
4. The Social Network
My review of this year’s most celebrated movie was featured in a Good Letters post called “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”
3. Winter's Bone
Every single scene of Debra Granik’s haunting thriller has been smoldering in my memory since I first saw the film several months ago. I reviewed it in a previous Good Letters post—“Winter’s Bone: A Fully Human Hero.”
2. True Grit
Is the new True Grit better than the original film? In every way. The Coen Brothers are known for feeding great actors the best dialogue they’ll ever chew. And their faithful adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel serves up plenty in this, their first Western.
As if he’s never even seen John Wayne in action, Jeff Bridges creates a spectacular new version of Rooster Cogburn. Looking and sounding like a disgruntled walrus, this aging gunslinger is so inebriated and temperamental that you’re not sure if he’ll end up shooting his target, his companions, himself, or all of the above. When his burning chimney of a throat isn’t making his lines unintelligible, he’s as quotable as Bridges’ previous Coen Brothers character—The Dude.
In a supporting role as LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger, Matt Damon is more playful than usual, showing that he’s a natural for bringing the Coens’ singular screenwriting to life.
And how about newcomer Hailie Steinfeld? Her debut performance as young Mattie Ross equals the work of her seasoned colleagues. Mattie’s a girl who will stop at nothing to outwit shrewd businessmen and bring justice to killers, but she’s also capable of giving grace to human wreckage. She might as well be the great grandmother of Fargo’s Marge Gunderson.
Mattie’s story tells us that justice is costly, and vengeance costlier still. But the pursuit of killers is not True Grit’s primary story. The central thread is a story filled with moments of nobility and heroism quite unique in the Coen Brothers’ canon. It’s about two broken people who form an unlikely bond. Having lost her father, Mattie finds in Cogburn a friend, a mentor, and a protector in a lawless wilderness. And Cogburn finds something he needed too—someone to love so much that he’ll stand up and become her champion, even if it means risking his rapidly collapsing life.
Shot through with sweat, shootouts, cigarettes, Scripture, and delicious dialogue, True Grit is a film I’ll savor for decades to come.
1. Toy Story 3
Fifteen years ago, I approached Toy Story with skepticism. A full-length feature animated on computers? I feared it would look fake and robotic, a poor substitute for the hand-drawn brilliance of Disney classics.
But Toy Story won me over in its first five minutes. It had colorful characters, an adventurous spirit, and a big, warm, thrumming heart. It entertained kids and their parents equally, without a trace of the cynicism that sours most “cartoons for grownups.” I actually cared about that pull-string gunslinger, his spaceman friend, and their circus of strangely familiar supporting characters.
Pixar had raised the standard for G-rated entertainment...and then they raised it again. Toy Story 2 still stands as one of the only sequels in movie history to surpass the strengths of its predecessor.
Toy Story 3 completes what is arguably the finest American trilogy ever made. Can you think of another one that doesn’t have a weak link? It’s a surprisingly harrowing conclusion. After the first act, which takes Woody, Buzz, and the gang far from home and traps them in a frightening daycare, the movie becomes a celebration of prison-break conventions. Then, in its apocalyptic finale, it achieves an intensity that reminds me of another three-quel’s fiery finale—The Return of the King.
This story about abandoned toys might cause some of us to consider how we respond to our own betrayals and heartbreaks. It raises questions about how we discern our true purpose in life. And when Buzz, Jessie, and the gang are sentenced to a period of torment and abuse for the benefit of more powerful toys, we might wonder what this suggests about our own society’s luxuries and what they might be costing others.
For all of its memorable thrills (including an Indiana Jones-style runaway train caper), its inspired humor (Mr. Potato Head momentarily becomes the Picasso-like Mr. Tortilla Head), and its hilarious tangents (Ken's fashion show may be the year's most inspired montage), director Lee Unkrich's film has one remarkable distinction: it is, shot for shot, scene for scene, the year's most beautiful movie, alive with colors and shadows and textures that move critics to use words like painterly and sumptuous.
2010 gave us three films that I highly recommend for all ages—The Secret of Kells, Babies, and Toy Story 3. That’s more than usual. American television and cinema feeds American children a steady diet of junk food. But art and entertainment are formative forces, and children need great stories. Pixar’s films continue to reward adults and children alike, giving them something they can enjoy together again and again. And their Toy Story trilogy sets a gold standard for all-ages moviemaking.
We need a whole generation of filmmakers to learn from Pixar’s example.