2010 was a lean year, my friends; both cinematically and personally. While I spent much of the summer cooped-up, wishing for enough money for a ticket to a show or a movie, there were few films which were actually worth the $10+ admission. Of course, no year is completely devoid of entertainment or pathos-rich catharsis. So, below, I present the a list, the final list in this long series looking back at this past year, of 10 films (and honorable mentions) that really did it for me in 2010. 

10. The Social Network
The first truly 21st Century film? Maybe. It is most likely the first time that the subject matter has been exclusively Millennial, however, this is a largely rote meteoric rise of a “celebrity.” This is Ray if he were white, had sight, and clacked on a computer keyboard instead of a piano one. That’s more than a bit reductive, but it does highlight the film’s greatest weakness: the bloated, high-flying middle of the film where the film’s central character gets swept up in the glamor of all the money and attention. For a biopic–the story of the controversial birth and ascension of Facebook and it’s creator Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), The Social Network seems intent on bucking the trends set by the limp, self-serving portrayals of celebrity and the corruptible powers of fame and wealth. Aaron Sorkin’s script crackles with an energy and wit rarely seen in any major motion picture. David Fincher’s warm lighting and steady hand makes for a sumptuous looking image for a largely insular and low-key settings (board rooms, dorm rooms, and bed rooms are the dominant set pieces). But the 40 minutes where Zuckerberg is wooed and schmoozed and eventually won over by Napster founder Sean Parker (the wonderfully sleazy Justin Timberlake) is one weak cliche after another. The movie is already over-long at an even two hours and the bulk of the savvy viewing public this is aimed at (the knowing youth of Zuckerberg’s generation), don’t need long club scenes and zip lines from LA homes to prove that twenty-somethings (and most “regular” people) don’t know what to do with instant success. However, the other hour and 20 minutes, despite being rather cliched themselves, are made more than enjoyable on the strength of Eisenberg’s stellar performance–buoyed by Sorkin’s sharp and speedy screenplay.

9. Inception
When Christopher Nolan burst onto the scene at the head of this decade with Memento, I doubt many would have pegged him to one-up the Watchowski brothers. But he did. On his decade-long move from indie darling to engaging constructor of summer blockbusters, Nolan was quietly planning his magnum opus, 2010’s Inception. While I’ve been cooler on the film than many of the general public, Inception is a visual marvel and philosophically thoughtful, though simultaneously problematic. The thing that keeps me at arms length from most of Nolan’s films, Inception included, is with all the attention placed on the multiple levels of trickery, deception, and thematic depth, Nolan never seems to place even half of the emphasis on characters or performance (the moody Prestige [2006] and Heath Ledger’s scene-stealing turn in The Dark Knight [2008] are exceptions which prove the rule). Inception may be his most egregious offense. Because Nolan had to invest so much screen time on rules and exposition, we’re left with thin archetypes, waiting for the next explosion or gun fight. This is to say, it’s not a great film, it’s a good movie.

8. Winter’s Bone
A thematic sibling, of sorts, to the Coen brothers’ True Grit, Winter’s Bone manages to out-bleak the nihilistic s.o.b.’s who brought us No Country For Old Men (2007). Winter’s Bone, like the Coens’ western, follows a young woman who takes responsibility for the loss of her father. Both movies rely heavily on a strong performance from a young actress–Winter’s Bone leans heavily on the talents of Jennifer Lawrence–as well as the grizzled presence of a well-worn character actor. Lawrence’s strong, tight-lipped (masculine?) performance as Ree Dolly and her character’s dogged tenacity reach almost folkloric heights as she navigates the labyrinthine maze of lies and twisted wreckage which litter the Ozark Mountain countryside she lives in. The film’s light on dialog, placing lots of emphasis on what can be said or implied by looks and, often, violent gestures. The film manages to largely avoid the sort of “third world porn” that something like Slumdog Millionare dipped into, by using the stark, twisted, rugged terrain as a compliment to the emotions and the characters who people it. The Dolly’s own problems are highlighted, but that’s the point of the story; the backwoods, “backwards” ways of this world are taken, in many ways, at face value and only once thrown into contrast with the rest of contemporary America. Winter’s Bone doesn’t seem to have any intention of lingering on the poverty and the disconect of this slice of fronteir life in 21st Century America, it’s found a landscape where the problems of one character seem to have the room to breathe and drift away only to see how claustrophobic and small this expansive country side can seem.

7. I Am Love
I Am Love began as a dream of Tilda Swinton and director Luca Guadagnino to revive the melodrama (I’ll save the argument for whether or not that gauntlet had already been picked up for another place). The two revived it with gusto. This isn’t a revisionist take on the Euro-American housewife yarns of yore, this is a sumptuous tribute to the yens of lonely women left at home while husbands jet off to work. Even the tipping point, the catalyst for the woman’s affair, is classically restrained and lofty (hint: look at the picture above). There’s a lot to dissect from the film, but when you get right down to it, Swinton’s turn as the love-starved Emma Recchi and Guadagnino’s exquisite direction are so moving, little else needs to be said about the subplots and commentaries on our connections to places, familial loyalties, and the complexity of the relationships between servants and those whom they serve. It’s a rare “art-house” film that asks little from the viewer but offers so much in return.

6. True Grit
Like a friend said of Pixar films–and Toy Story 3 specifically, one of the greatest wonders of True Grit is that I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing anything to enjoy something that my friends, family and much of America also enjoys. There’s a noticeable dirth of subtext in this lean rendering of the classic Charles Portis novel about a teen-aged daughter seeking revenge against her father’s killer. True Grit is, for lack of a better term, a simple film. Not that it was easy to make, on the contrary, but that it’s finest qualities require little explanation (unlike the Brothers’ previous film, A Serious Man): It’s a well-shot, well-conceived, and immaculately acted film. I could begin to pick apart all of the wonderful touches of the actors and the crew add to the film, but all that would really do is bolster my central point: True Grit is a finely crafted, darkly comic (escapist) film.

5. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
While everyone was swept up in crowning The Social Network as the first truly great film about the new millennium, they were missing out on a film that probably captures qualities which are wholly unique to millennials. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, is my candidate for the first great film about this millennium. While The Social Network may, in some ways, only be possible post Y2K, in as much as the subject is exclusively 21st Century, his story is old news. And while Scott Pilgrim’s attempts to woo and fight for Ramona Flowers don’t represent a particularly new story (boy sees girl, boy wants girl, boy overcomes obstacles to get girl), the characters who populate Scott Pilgrim’s Toronto and the way the story is told would have been completely unfathomable even as late as 1999. Each one of Scott’s friends is mediated through a well-woven web of pop culture references and archetypes. It takes a fellow jaded pop culturista to see the emotion and charm in the group of assholes. There’s no attempt to try to excavate (m)any feelings or salvage their respective humanities, partially because so few of us give one another that chance, but mostly because we (20-somethings) know that vulnerability has become somewhat of a liability. To be human is to err, is to miss the latest meme, is to be derivative, but not in a knowing way. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World may be the first truly 21st century film because it takes the millenial’s desire to hide behind a mask of knowledge and pastiche and presents the mask without feeling the need to explicate who’s wearing it.

4. Exit Through the Gift Shop
Exit Through the Gift Shop is a deceitful piece of art that could only be pulled off in television or film. What began as a documentary about street art (graffiti as high/conceptual-art), turned into an obsession with one particular artist–Banksy, and ultimately, when it’s lens is turned on the documentarian, becomes a study on the nature of obsession and hype. Exit Through The Gift Shop walks the fine line many documentaries walk, that one between fiction and reality. However, where filmmakers like Errol Morris heighten drama, or make minor exaggerations for effect, Banksy–who took over the film and is credited as it’s director–leaves us wondering how much is actually true? Regardless of Banksy’s fidelity to the actual events–if there were any to begin with–Exit is a dizzyingly entertaining, witty, and intelligent film. (Bonus, the film is streaming, in its entirety, on the youtubes: start part 1 here.)

3. Hilarious
I wouldn’t be surprised if even just last year, I would have slotted something safe and lush like I Am Love above this. A nod to my education, a deceleration that I’m not slumming it on some silly little comedy special when there’s high, European melodrama to contemplate. But I think that’s not only a disservice to myself, but it’s denying other modes of production as viable avenues for creating quality cinematic art. If an indie film can be forgiven for lacking production values because of sublime performances, so too should Hilarious be lauded for C.K.’s stunning stand-up. There’s little to commend in any technical sense: there are very few (if any) sweeping, panoramic, establishing shots, the costuming–C.K.’s requisite black t-shirt and jeans–is hardly worth mentioning, there’s almost no score to speak of, but C.K. is on another level right here. As always, he’s irreverent, but he’s also, aside from his wonderful new sit-com on F/X, more personal and open than ever before. C.K. has an extremely accessible yet wonderfully nuanced hour-and-a-half-long set, with only a few lagging minutes, which ultimately serve some of the greatest laughs. This is a landmark special on par with Bill Cosby’s Himself, Live at the Sunset Strip from Richard Pryor, and Bill Hick’s prosthelytizing on Relentless. (Plus, the whole thing is up on Youtube, as of this writing, you can start off with part one right here.)

1. (tie) The Illusionist / Toy Story 3
It’s worth noting that two of 2010’s most poignant films are animated. That could be meant as a scathing critique on Hollywood and/or the year’s slate of releases, however, these are two wonderful films which would deservedly garner considerable respect in almost any year. The Illusionist (L’Illusionnite), the latest film from Sylvian Chomet (The Triplets of Bellville), is an adaptation of an unfilmed script from French director Jacques Tati. The script was written between Tati’s twin masterpieces Mon Oncle (1958) and Play Time (1967), it shares much of the provincial tone of the former, but is a much more cynical and personal film. Tati’s expressive but nearly mute alter-ego, Monsieur Hulot, is once again his star. Hulot is an old school magician, still pulling–very plump–rabbits out of hats and producing coins from behind ears as mop-topped rock n’ rollers and televisions are beginning to push him to the margins. He charms a young girl from a Scottish village who follows him to Edinburgh and an extended engagement, to ever-dwindling crowds, at a music hall there. Like Mon Oncle and Play Time, Hulot is face-to-face with oncoming modernity which threatens to drown out his quiet, affable charisma. The vaudeville staples (ventriloquists, clowns, and tumblers) who surround him contemplate suicide, pawning possessions or selling their talents as novelties for larger, commercial interests. The shiny new capitalism also seduces the young village girl who goes from small improvements to better her condition (new shoes) to Jackie O-style trimmings and the “vapidity” of keeping up with fashion. It’s a quiet, if not occasionally ham-fisted commentary on new, mass-produced capitalism which bombards you with enviable products on every street corner and mocks or throws away the magic of earlier days. Toy Story 3 sits largely opposed to Tati and Chomet’s pessimism. As Woody, Buzz and the gang grapple with the disposable nature of consumer goods/themselves, there’s ultimately a belief that there will always be a place in our hearts and homes for things that make us smile. Toy Story 3 acts almost as a love story to mass-produced capitalism, but more so to the imagination of children, who have the powers to imbue a hunk of plastic which resembles millions of other hunks of plastic with unique characteristics and personality. The aura from the creator can be substituted with an aura from the possessor, and these empty vessels can be re-filled many times over with new imaginings and new fantasies from new owners. There’s a renewable optimism in the mass-produced objects of the 20th and 21st Centuries, the very emptiness which The Illusionist tacitly shirks is the very quality which allows us to fill with and/or project onto them our hopes, dreams, and wishes.

Honorable Mentions (alphabetical order):
Black Swan, Bluebeard, The Ghost Writer, Greenberg, Jackass 3D, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Ondine, Winnebago Man

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