Our critics settle their scores, from Toy Story 3 to The Social Network to True Grit.
From the Old West to the birth of Facebook to the fourth level of your dreams, the year in film had something for everyone. Here are our picks for the top ten movies of the year.
Greek filmmaker Giorgo Lanthimos's bizarre fable about a man who keeps his family completely cut off from the outside world plays like an import from a parallel universe. In its depiction of a household with its own rituals, language and belief system, Dogtooth can be read as a metaphor for almost any social or political condition you choose, but it's perhaps best experienced as simply the most confounding, disturbing, and original vision to reach movie screens in 2010. (SVD)
9. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Watching a taut-faced, oft-flummoxed Joan Rivers babbling her way through awkward banter with daughter Melissa for the TV Guide Channel's red-carpet coverage (as cable listings scrolled around them), it was easy to write off the "Can we talk?" comedienne as a befuddled has-been joke. But Anne Sundberg and Ricki Stern's behind-the-Botox documentary restores the original D-List gal to her rightful place in the comedy pantheon, revealing the tough cookie survivor as a vulnerable, whip-smart showbiz pioneer with funnier, edgier material than Kathy Griffin and Sarah Silverman combined. (AO)
8. The Town
It's not just my native Bean-townie bias — after all, I was happy to call bullshit on the bad accents and overpraised melodrahmah of disappointing "Boston noir" potboilers like Mystic River and The Departed. But as he proved in Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck has a knack for combining the underdog charm, tribal loyalties, and no-nonsense (sometimes vicious) pragmatism of his New England lowlifes with lived-in locations, sharp dialogue, and wicked-pissah setpieces. And who needs CGI monsters when you've got the simmering menace of Jeremy Renner, Chris Cooper, and Pete Postlethwaite as the world's scariest florist? (Plus, I have to admit to a weird sense of pride at the film's assertion that my town has the world's best bank robbers… in your face, New York!) (AO)
This year's strangest yet most affecting war documentary takes place not in the battlefields of Afghanistan, but in the fictional town of Marwencol. Brain-damaged after a barroom brawl, Mark Hogancamp begins to rebuild his life by constructing a scale model of a World War II-era French village, populated by doppelgangers of himself and the people he knows. The stranger-than-fiction twists and turns continue right up through a final revelation that would turn M. Night Shyamalan green with envy, but it's the surprising and poignant way Hogancamp transforms his therapy into art that makes Jeff Malmberg's documentary one of the year's best. (SVD)
6. The Ghost Writer
Roman Polanski's personal life may be a disaster, but he proved he's still got plenty left in the creative tank with this low-key but tightly-coiled Hitchcockian thriller. The story of a ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) who uncovers a conspiracy while digging into the murky past of the British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan) unfolds against a gray, moody backdrop of ominous clouds and sudden rainstorms, and the element of paranoia Polanski perfected in Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby worms its way into every nook and cranny of this suspenseful outing. (SVD)
5. Tiny Furniture
I usually hate children of privilege who get everything they want (indie fame, professional mentorship by powerful showbiz admirers like Judd Apatow, etc.) while most struggling young filmmakers are paying their dues in the data-entry and food-service industries. So consider it high praise when I say recent college grad Lena Dunham is the real deal, a distinctive comic auteur fully deserving of her opportunities and accolades. Furniture finds a distaff Graduate named Aura (Dunham) returning home from a Midwestern liberal-arts college to grapple with twentysomething alienation in the condo/studio of her cuter, more ambitious sister and their successful artsy mother (played by the filmmaker's actual kinfolk, Grace Dunham and Laurie Simmons, respectively). In most such films, a schlubby guy comes of age through the unlikely ministrations of a conveniently available (and way too beautiful) dream girl, but the gender roles in Tiny Furniture are swapped, while expectations and genre clichés are constantly upended by the clever script and crackerjack ensemble cast (including the sensational Jemima Kirke who — like Dunham — I hope to see a lot more of in the future). (AO)
4. Toy Story 3
I didn't need the 3D glasses — seriously, Hollywood, I really, really didn't need them — to fully immerse myself in the final cinematic adventure of Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the beloved who's who (or maybe what's what?) of toys from distant childhood memories and fifteen years of Pixar's flagship franchise. I am neither joking nor stoned when I say the climactic scene of TS3's desperate characters joining tiny plastic hands in the face of oblivion was far more harrowing (and life-affirming) to me than James Franco's character chopping off his flesh-and-blood hand in 127 Hours. It's more than just a "kids'" film — I'm guessing this animated masterpiece (yes, I said it) will resonate with its target audience well into adulthood as they eventually face the bittersweet nostalgia of putting aside their own childish things. (AO)
In my circle, there were no mild reactions to Inception. My wife and in-laws flat-out hated the endless gun fights, droning sonic-boom soundtrack, and twisted Comic Book Guy logic of the film's insanely overcomplicated plot. But, while I'll admit the Act Three assault on Ice Station Zebra dragged a bit, writer/director Christopher Nolan nevertheless managed the increasingly rare feat of successfully keeping a brainy, (relatively) original idea intact through the meat grinder of Hollywood's cinema-industrial complex. In an era of slick but instantly forgettable assembly-line "blockbusters," Inception's inventive chronology, fight choreography, offbeat cast, and spinning-top fade-out made it one 2010 celluloid dream that didn't fade as soon as the lights came up. (AO)
2. The Social Network
We all had a good laugh about "the Facebook movie" before it came out, but the joke was on everyone who thought the creation of the all-consuming social-networking site would never make for compelling cinema. Success is the best revenge, at least in Aaron Sorkin's incisive script — a piercing ode to Harvard hubris that becomes, in the capable hands of David Fincher, a bracing comedy of ill manners. Without ever straining for the significance of being A Movie For Our Times, The Social Network achieves that status anyway — and Jesse Eisenberg need never worry about being described as "the other Michael Cera" again. (SVD)
1. True Grit
It's easy to see what attracted the Coen Brothers to the 1968 Charles Portis novel True Grit, despite the fact that a popular adaptation starring an American icon has already existed for more than four decades. Of all the movie genres the Coens have dabbled in over the years, they had yet to tackle a western, and Portis's idiosyncratic dialogue and offbeat characters out of the old, weird America are right in the brothers' wheelhouse. With longtime cinematographer Roger Deakins, they transform the sun-baked plains and snowy woods of the nineteenth-century frontier into some of the most striking visuals of the year, and in another stellar late-career performance, Jeff Bridges makes Rooster Cogburn his own — a shambling, drunken force of nature who also happens to be, like the movie surrounding him, funny as hell. (SVD)
Andrew's Honorable Mention: American: The Bill Hicks Story
I never understood the cult fervor associated with Jonathan Richman until I finally saw the guy play live and found myself converted into a true believer by the end of the first song. Likewise, I never understood the reverence some people have for Bill Hicks, who (in the recordings I'd heard) always sounded more like a hectoring (though sensible) Bill Maher-esque political provocateur than a laugh-out-loud comedy genius. But thanks to Paul Thomas and Matt Harlock's inventive, warts-and-all tribute, I now have a far greater appreciation for the man and his material (as well as a real sense of regret that Hicks, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 at the age of thirty-two, wasn't around to bring his acerbic sensibility to bear on the Bush years, America's recent foreign-policy misadventures, and the rise of the Tea Party movement). Using inventive digital techniques, Harlock and Thomas bring Hicks' story of hard-won fame and drug-fueled infamy to life. Oh, yeah, and the jokes (culled from years of club and TV appearances) are pretty damn funny, too.
Scott's Honorable Mention: Winter's Bone
A creepy exercise in hillbilly horror disguised as a regional indie, Winter's Bone may not be a strictly realist look at life in the deepest, darkest Ozarks, but it is a genuinely transportive experience. Director Debra Granik elicits a bleak grandeur from the tangled woods, ramshackle farmhouses, and burnt-out meth labs that make up the landscape wandered by Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) as she searches for her missing father. Deadwood's John Hawkes pulls off a tricky performance as a frightening meth cooker with a heart of gold, and the climactic act of violence on a moonlit lake is as haunting as any movie scene this year. (SVD)
Andrew's Worst Movie: When You're Strange
If you thought there was nothing more to say about Doors front man Jim Morrison… well, you'd be right, based on the evidence of this boring rehash of a documentary by Tom DiCillo. If anything, When You're Strange actually managed to lower my already low opinion of its subject by depicting the "Lizard King" as the rock 'n roll equivalent of George W. Bush — a quasi-charismatic frat-boy type with delusions of grandeur and the depth of a sheet of paper. Bonus points to Johnny Depp's achingly self-important narration, which I can only hope was meant as an elaborate, I'm Still Here style goof. Speaking of which…
Scott's Worst Movie: I'm Still Here
One of the most notable movie trends of the past year was the manipulation of the documentary form, which ranged from the playfully prankish (Exit Through the Gift Shop) to the downright dubious (Catfish). It's hard to imagine a more pointless such exercise than Casey Affleck's directorial debut, which allegedly chronicles Joaquin Phoenix's retirement from acting and attempt to launch a hip-hop career. Of course, we know now what we suspected all along: it's all a hoax, and a particularly boring, dispiriting one at that. If the idea was to rip the lid off of Hollywood to reveal that movie stars can be egomaniacal, abusive assholes, well, I'll alert the media — and I'm sure they'll get to it as soon as they finish listening to the latest Mel Gibson voicemails.