The Best and Worst of 2010

The Best and Worst of 2010

By Danny Minton

More than usual, I heard many grumblings this year that 2010 was a horrible period for films.  I’ll admit that there weren’t a large amount of Oscar-worthy films released in the first three quarters of the year, and that there were a slew of terrible and mediocre films, but overall there were still some terrific motion pictures.  Just like any year, I spent an immense amount of time narrowing down my Top 10 and there were at least 20 that are close in line.  For me, this became the year that animated films stole the scene.  Four of the top 10 grossing films of the year were animated and Tangled could very well become the fifth when all is said and done.  

As far as Oscar predictions go, you’re unlikely to see many of my Top 10 in the list.  Social Network, which I thought was a good/not great film is looking like the film to beat.  I’m still holding out hope for Toy Story 3 and True Grit, which could be contenders, but I’m pretty certain the Academy will rule in Facebook’s favor this year.  Many of my favorites this year are currently available on DVD/Blu-ray and if not you can catch them in theaters – and I highly suggest that you do so.  

1) How to Train Your Dragon.  There are so many things to admire about this film about a viking boy who befriends the most dangerous dragon known to his clan.  If I could pick out just three things it would be its story, its music and its sense of adventure.  The story is more complex than you usually get with an animated film and takes many unconventional steps to get to the end.  The score by John Powell is magnificent both with the film and by itself.  And both kids and adults become empathetic to the hero, making it easy to imagine what it would be like to befriend and fly on a dragon, as well as stand up to traditional thoughts and beliefs in order to make a change for the better.  I’ve seen this one a half-dozen times this year and it has never gotten old.

2) Tangled.  Disney has been making the princess movie since the studio entered into the feature arena, but none of those stories can match up to that of Rapunzel in Tangled.  With its modern animation and classic story-telling, the mouse house reached new heights and created what will be considered by many more than myself as one of their greatest masterpieces.  Bringing back composer Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast) was a huge boost for the production as the songs are as memorable as they are lovely.  

3) Animal Kingdom.  With the Angelika Film Center closing this year just as Animal Kingdom was opening, you might have missed this amazing Australian crime drama about a good kid who is taken in by his bank-robbing uncles and grandmother after the death of his mother.  While it did receive a limited run months after the rest of the country saw it, you’ll be able to rent or buy this twisty drama come January.  If you are paying attention to awards season right now you’ll see Jackie Weaver’s name pop up as a favorite for Best Supporting Actress.  As the matriarch of the family, she’ll send shivers up your spine with her spectacular performance.

4) Toy Story 3.  Andy is going off to college and his toys decide to escape to a daycare in this third and probably final Toy Story pic – which also just happens to be the best one of the trilogy.  The story is clever, but what really makes the movie are the two huge tear-jerking scenes at the end of the film.  You will find yourself fighting to hold back your emotions as both you and Andy say one last goodbye to Woody, Buzz and the gang.  Fortunately for us, on home video we can say goodbye time and time again.  

5) Shutter Island.  This under-appreciated film teams Scorsese and DiCaprio again in Dennis Lehane’s tale about a U.S. Marshall sent to a remote island to investigate a disappearance at an insane asylum.  What I liked most about this film was that it was so fun to try to figure out and impossible to do so.  And then when you watch it a second time, it is a completely different film.
6) True Grit.  Even fans of the original John Wayne film based on the same novel by Charles Portis can agree that this new incarnation is a tremendous piece of western fiction.  The acting is solid from all angles, the score by Carter Burwell is gorgeous and the cinematography by Roger Deakins is inspiring.  This may be the Coen brothers’ most accessible film, but it is also one of their best.  

7) A Prophet.  While this film was nominated for a 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, because it didn’t hit the U.S. until Spring of 2010, I am including it on this year’s list.  This French crime drama about the rise of prison nobody into a kingpin will bring back memories of The Godfather and the lead, masterfully played by Tahar Rahim, will make you think of a young Robert De Niro were he given such a role as a young man.  

8) Restrepo.  Two brave filmmakers dug themselves in with a group of U.S. Marines in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, widely considered to be the most dangerous post in the U.S. Military, in order to make one of the most important documentaries of our generation.  There are no politics here – just a group of men putting their lives on the line for their country.  Never has such authenticity been captured in a war film, simply because it would have been too dangerous to do so.  Several soldiers died during the making of the film, including a medic named Restrepo for whom they named their base after, and later the film.  

9) The Secret In Their Eyes.  Last year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film also received a spring release date in 2010, so I had to put it on my list.  This Argentinian film, about a retired legal counselor that travels back to Buenos Aires in order to write a book about the case that changed his life, is one of the most shocking and thought-provoking films of the year.  You can’t help but feel hopeless and helpless against a corrupt system and the ending will most definitely blow you away.

10) The Fighter.  The boxing film has been done so many times and many of them have been good films.  The challenge with the sub-genre is to create a film that is fresh enough to not leave its audience apathetic.  The Fighter follows the true story of “Irish” Mickey Ward as he struggles between the decision of letting his family be in charge of his career and watch it go down the toilet, or let professionals handle it and have a shot at the title.  What stands out the most in this pic is the tremendous acting by the likes Christian Bale, Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, and the chorus of sisters that steal every scene they are in.  

Honorable Mention:
127 Hours, Biutiful, Black Swan, Edge of Darkness, Fair Game, Four Lions, Inside Job, Jack Ass 3D, Kick Ass, Let Me In, Social Network and Winter’s Bone

The Worst of 2010:

1) Sex and the City 2.  SATC 2 was one of the most high profile films of the summer and also one of the first indications that the tentpole films of 2010 were not exactly going to hold up the tent.  Every single minute of the film was ridiculously stupid and the movie strived to be unwatchable with every little dumb plot and lame joke.  And to make matters worse, fashion should have been the name of the game here and the girls all looked like circus clowns.  The stellar HBO series we knew wanted to go out with a bang.  Instead we got a backfire.  

2) The Last Airbender.  Director M. Night Shyamalan proved once again that he is no longer worthy of a studio’s trust after he royally ruined this film version of the popular animated series.  You might point out that the film was still one of the year’s top grossers, but that was merely because there were so many fans of the show – and trust me when I tell you that not many people left the theater happy.  I couldn’t have lost more brain cells if I downed a bottle of absinthe.  

3) Valentine’s Day.  Just because you get a world-class director like Gary Marshall and every A-List actor in Hollywood doesn’t mean you can tell a Love, Actually-like story with success.  Intertwining so many bad tales into one incohesive film only provided one of the most miserable experiences of the year and a reason to hate February 14th.  

4) The Back-Up Plan.  Jennifer Lopez really wants to be a mother and when she can’t find the right man she loads up a set of twins artificially.  But then the bad romantic comedy starts up when she meets the man of her dreams.  The story itself had some potential, but due to bad writing, horrible characters, and loathsome acting, the film falls apart before it can even get going.  

5) Grown Ups.  While most of the cast’s other films are fairly low brow in nature, they are at least somewhat funny.  But when Adam Sandler decided to bring together his closest friends Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade and Rob Schneider, the result turned out to be more lame than you can imagine.  The jokes hit so rarely that when one makes you chuckle it only serves as a reminder of how dumb the rest of them are.  

True Grit

True Grit

Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country For Old Men)
Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images
Appropriate for ages 13+

    For many Americans, the original True Grit stands out as one of the great western classics and perhaps John Wayne’s best film.  After Wayne won his first and only Oscar for his turn as Rooster Cogburn, the rough, tough and drunk U.S. Marshall that helps a young girl seek revenge against the man who killed her pa, it became hard to imagine the heroic cowboy without his infamous eye patch. 

    For those that wonder why they would possibly remake such a treasured film – its simple – they didn’t.  The Coen Brothers, who have created some of the most visionary work in the last twenty years, wanted to tell their version of the story as laid out in the novel by Charles Portis.  The elements are largely the same, but the movies are very different. 

    Donning the eyepatch now is Coen Brothers alum Jeff Bridges, fresh off of his Oscar win for Crazy Heart.  His larger than life presence, dangerous confidence and heartless exterior make him an excellent Rooster Cogburn.  It would not surprise me at all if he were up for another Oscar this year, although I doubt he’ll win due to the amazingly tough competition and the fact that he received a trophy in 2009.  Matt Damon is also wickedly good as Cogburn’s sidekick Texas Ranger LaBoeuf.  But stealing the show is newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as the tough as nails fourteen-year-old who wants to see her father’s killer hanged.  The studio is pushing Hailee for Best Supporting Actress during awards season, but I feel that this is a mistake as True Grit is her movie and she gives one of the greatest performances of the year in it. 

    While the acting is truly great – it’s not the only thing that makes the film special.  First off, the script provides a fantastic journey, filled with unusual and imaginative color that only the Coen’s could concoct.  And for those fans of great cinematography, Roger Deacons re-teams with the Coens here for a breathtaking look at the old west, proving once again that he is the finest cinematographer of our time. 

    Finally, I have to mention Carter Burwell’s magnificent score.  Usually Carter’s scores can be fun but they typically sit in the background and while they do wonders for the scenes they are in, they have never reached a peak of brilliance.  This one does.  Using the themes of protestant hymns such as “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” Carter provides a score that soars above the film and resonates in your head long after you’ve left the theater.  A+

The Fighter

The Fighter

Starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo
Directed by David O. Russell (Three Kings)
Rated R for language throughout, drug content, some violence and sexuality
Appropriate for ages 17+

    On the outside, The Fighter looks like your typical boxing film.  It tells the true story of “Irish” Micky Ward (Wahlberg) sand his against-the-odds journey to winning the light welterweight title in the mid-80s.  But on the inside it is a drama based more on struggle and life in the streets as his once-famous boxing brother (Bale) trains him while his own life is spiraling away due to crack addiction and taking his whole family down with him.

    It is very easy to see a trailer for a film like this and think to yourself that you’ve seen it all before.  While the boxing parts of the film might prove you right, the story most definitely offers something new.  Part of the reason this film succeeds is due to some of the absolute best performances of the year.  Watching Wahlberg’s subdued but talented hero not achieving the greatness he is capable of because of his poisonous family environment, forces the audiences’ empathy to be thrust upon him.  But then watching the family that truly loves him being left out his career for reasons they can’t help but take personally creates a tremendous feeling of heartache.  Ward’s mother (Leo) is superb as the mother/former agent that must give up leading his career even though she desperately wants to be included in her son’s success.  And Bale as the crack-addicted brother/trainer turns in perhaps his best performance yet that could very likely win him the Oscar.  Amy Adams is also wonderful as the girlfriend that convinces him that the only thing getting in the way of winning the belt is the people working with him.  Then there are the seven inseparable sisters that steal the show and round out what is easily the best acting ensemble of the year. 

    While the film was originally supposed to be directed by Black Swan’s Darren Aronofsky, David O. Russell took over in grand style and created a terrifically entertaining movie that far exceeds its genre.  This engrossing sports movie has a lot to offer both discerning movie aficionados and the folks that just want to see a good action drama.  A

New in Home Entertainment December 14, 2010

New in Home Entertainment

December 14, 2010

The Town
Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Ben Affleck writes, directs and stars in this box-office surprise hit about a group of Boston bank robbers that bite off more than they can chew when they take the wrong hostage during a heist.  The ensemble, including Jon Hamm, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner and Blake Lively all turn in strong performances that have already reaped a few acting awards from some critics’ groups.  The movie is very well put together and provides for a tight thriller that really entertains.  Check out the special feature “Ben’s Boston” where Affleck takes you through how the film was made and the inspiration behind it.  A-

Despicable Me
Rated PG for rude humor and mild action
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

The war of the super villains commences in this animated feature about two Bond-ish bad guys that try to outdo each other.  While the movie doesn’t possess nearly the story-telling quality of this year’s other animated features (i.e. How to Train Your Dragon, Toy Story 3 and Tangled), it is still a really fun flick for kids and possesses perhaps the cutest characters of the year in Gru’s adorable henchmen, simply known as “Minions.”  The Blu-ray contains loads of extra features including 3 mini-movies, featurettes and Gru-control, where the Minions take over the film from time to time.  B

Rated R for some sexuality and brief violence
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
French with English Subtitles

Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie) is back with one of his most unique visions yet.  When the hero, Bazil, catches a stray bullet in the head that doesn’t kill him, he and a band of friends that live in a junk-yard fantasy home take on two weapons manufacturers by making each of them think that the other is after their destruction.  As funny as it is imaginative, Micmacs brings its audience into its fantastically creative world and through its weirdness evolves a strong message about our own violent culture.  A-

Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole
Rated PG for some sequences of scary action
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

300 Director Zac Snyder orchestrates his first animated pic with this remake of the popular novel by the same name.  I’m very mixed on this one as it is simply spectacular to look at but the story is more than weak.  Also, this is far from a good film for children as it contains some fairly violent and scary material.  There is a feature on the disc entitled Maximum Kid Mode – but I wouldn’t let young children anywhere around it.  C+

Exit Through the Gift Shop
Rated R for some language
Available on DVD

This inside story about the rise in popularity of street art, or graffiti as some still call it, follows a crazy frenchman named Thierry Guetta who loves to film everything in the world of street art and who eventually becomes an famous artist himself, despite his apparent lack of talent.  For the first part of the documentary the story follows Thierry as he attempts to partner with the world’s greatest street artists just to film them in action.  But when his movie falls apart during editing, one of the artists, the infamous Banksy, picks up the slack and creates the final product that ended up in theaters and now on DVD.  It is not only a fascinating tale of politics, vandalism and art, but also provides proof that it doesn’t necessarily take talent to succeed in the art world.  You will find yourself enthralled at first and then flabbergasted by the end results.  It may not be the best documentary of the year, but it certainly is the most entertaining.  B+

Space 1999: The Complete Season One
Available on Blu-ray

Back in the 1970s, TV sci-fi writers thought it was possible that by 1999 man would be living on the moon.  It was also possible that a nuclear explosion on the dark side of the moon could propel it like a giant ship into the depths of outer space.  Martin Landau and Barbara Bain star in this very popular series that while maybe lacks scientific plausibility, certainly crawls with creativity.  The newly remastered Blu-ray set is dated, but not nearly as cheesy as some of the other sci-fi shows of its time such as Star Trek.  B-

Black Swan

Black Swan

Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, and Vincent Cassel
Directed by Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler)
Rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use
Appropriate for ages 17+

    Nina (Portman) is a ballerina for the New York City ballet company who is given the opportunity to replace their prima ballerina for their season opener – Swan Lake.  While Nina is perfect for the White Swan due to her innocence and grace, she struggles to become the much darker Black Swan.  When she befriends a new dancer (Kunis), she gets in touch with her darker side, allowing her to perform at a higher level that sends her down a sinister path as well.

    There is a lot to like about this troubled artist picture, but it walks a very fine line (almost too fine) between a dramatic thriller and the macabre.  There is the part of the film that allows the audience to root for the ballet dancer struggling with her suffocating mother and lack of confidence and then there is a the part of the film that horrifies like a nightmare.  Many will find this very disconcerting, but others will consider it borderline genius.  I definitely see the genius at work and respect both director Aronofsky and the writers for their brave, almost experimental movie. 

    The actors here are all in rare form and while I like many of Portman’s films, I can’t think of a better performance from her.  Her arc is so dramatic, yet so believable that by the ending you are left out of breath and deeply disturbed.  Kunis and Cassel also turn in stellar supporting performances that both guide you through Nina’s dark journey, but confound you as well as their seemingly alternate agendas collide. 

    And then there is the production that deserves maybe the highest praise of all.  The sets, make-up and choreography, as well as the stunning cinematography all provide a realistic-looking and exciting view of Nina’s world, as if her eyes were ours – all backed up by the beautifully haunting score by Clint Mansell that incorporates just enough of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake to provide a dark and emotional experience for the listener as well as the viewer. 

    This is by no means just a film for ballet lovers and should especially be kept out of view of young girls that think they might be interested in the subject matter.  The lesbian themes of the movie will throw many audiences off due to not only their shocking nature but their overall place in the movie.  While the film shows no nudity, it is highly sexual and at times extremely uncomfortable to watch.  After all, the movie is less about the art and more about the downward spiral of its heroine.  A-

New in Home Entertainment December 7, 2010

New in Home Entertainment

December 7, 2010

Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Every minute of this Christopher Nolan film starring Leonardo DiCaprio is confusing, and yet it’s so interesting to watch that it’s hard to take your eyes off of it.  The story, which revolves around a group of corporate espionage agents that try to place an idea inside of someone’s dreams, is as weird as it is ingenious.  The actors buy into it completely, giving the ideas put forward enough credibility to work.  DVD/Blu-ray is the perfect venue for a film like this since you will probably need to see it multiple times to fully understand it – if that is possible.  If you do have the blu-ray, check out Extraction Mode where the filmmakers and actors help guide you through the concepts and how the film was made.  A-

Shrek Forever After
Rated PG for mild action, some rude humor and brief language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Shrek returns a final time in what turns out to be a very adult tale about going through a mid-life crisis.  When Shrek tires of the routine life he has been sentenced to, he longs to spend just one day as he did not too long ago.  But when Rumplestiltskin betrays him in a return-to-the-past contract, the one day turns into an alternate reality that Shrek must find a way out of.   The story is fairly decent, but lacking here is the brilliant creativity of the first two films.  It almost feels like the filmmakers lost their touch, but then again, very few of the original filmmakers worked on this new version.  Also available is Shrek: The Whole Story which contains all four films (the first two providing incredibly large shoes to fill) and loads of new special features.  Shrek Forever After C+; Shrek: The Whole Story B+

Cronos: The Criterion Collection
Rated R for horror violence and for language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
English and Spanish with English subtitles

Since discovering Guillermo del Toro years ago I have been trying to get my hands on his first film Cronos, but it has been unavailable until now.  This very strange vampire tale revolves around an older antique shop owner that discovers a device that acts as a fountain of youth, but with extreme consequences.  The movie is fairly frightening, yet just like del Toro’s other works, the monster is not the villain, but rather the human trying to kill the monster.  It’s a fascinating first work from a gifted but twisted mind.  The featurette Welcome to Bleak House is a must-see guided tour of del Toro’s personal museum that would be the envy of any fantasy geek.  A-

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, and some sensuality
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

I will freely admit that I am not the targeted demographic for these films – but I am still curious enough about the popularity of the series that I like to at least watch them.  While the teenage soap opera vampire story is just as lame as the first two, the production is a vast improvement.  This new pic, directed by David Slade (30 Days of Night), has pretty decent production values and a good score by Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings) but the dialogue is still downright terrible.  Some of the scenes are written like a South Park episode making fun of Twilight.  It doesn’t help that there are only a handful of good actors and the rest of the cast is simply chosen because they are pretty.  But when compared to the pathetic first film and the slightly better second film, this new one definitely stands out as the best so far.  C

Knight and Day
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action violence throughout, and brief strong language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

While the title is quite bad and so is some of the make-up, Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz are a whole lot of fun to watch in this espionage thriller about an unwilling bystander that ends up on the ride of her life when a spy is forced to take her on his journey.  A lot of folks have claimed they are done with Tom Cruise, and this film’s box office is indicative of that, but if you are willing to give him a second chance, I can promise this film won’t let you down.  Not only is it a decent spy thriller, but it is just as funny as it is action-packed.  Watching it in hi def does make you wish the make-up artist could have decided whether to make Diaz 25 or 40.  B+