A few months ago, my friend Brent sent me the following email: "Is Robin Hood worth watching for a guy who doesn't go to many movies?" It was his last phrase that forced me to remind myself of a simple fact: Not everyone is obsessed with movies. Not everyone sees over 100 movies per year. Not everyone considers movies to be among the five most important things in his life, along with his family, his softball team, his PlayStation 3, and Kyle Singler.
So when people ask me whether or not I recommend a certain film, I need to recognize that many people demand excellence from movies in a way that I don't. Don't get me wrong, I have high standards for movies – it's just that, because they're my preferred method of existence, I can feel satisfied after watching a perfectly decent one as opposed to a truly great one. But if I'm going to recommend a film to someone like Brent – someone who simply doesn't watch that many movies – then it needs to pass a certain threshold.
And when viewing the first eight months of 2010's cinematic slate through that particular prism, things look pretty bleak. Sure, I've seen more than a handful of good films, but very few would pass the Brent test. Still, lest I paint myself as one of those dour curmudgeons who never ceases complaining about modern movies, I wanted to highlight three films released thus far in 2010 that are truly great. (Note: I'm leaving off The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, partly because I already championed it here, partly because it is most assuredly not for everyone. But it's pretty great.) Overall, the first two-thirds of 2010 at the theatre may have underwhelmed, but these three pictures all earn the Manifesto's enthusiastic recommendation – and that, I must say, is tough to come by.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Color me surprised. Going into the theatre for this movie, I knew virtually nothing about Edgar Wright's post-punk fantasy, only that it played well with the nerds at Comic-Con and starred Michael Cera of Superbad/Juno/"Arrested Development" fame. So when I found myself thrown into a videogame-inspired universe that seemed like a cross between the romantic surrealism of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and a classic "Street Fighter" bout, I felt like I'd just been pummeled with a 64-hit combo. But despite possessing a frenzied energy rivaling that of Moulin Rouge!, Wright's valentine to nerddom and indie rock isn't just an assault on the senses. It's also a finely textured, deeply heartfelt romance that treats both its universe and its characters with nostalgic, near-fetishistic affection. Of course, it tanked at the box office, but the world of Scott Pilgrim – endlessly inventive yet strangely at home – will live on for years to come.
Toy Story 3. Critics have been decrying the epidemic that is sequelitis for decades, but Toy Story 3 proves that a numeric appendage to a title doesn't automatically deprive a film of originality. Of course, Toy Story 3 builds from its predecessors' lovingly constructed universe, but it gleams with a vibrancy all its own. That's true of course in terms of the predictably dazzling animation, but it's also in the franchise's gentle maturation into adulthood, both in terms of its subjects and its subject matter. It's overly facile to suggest that Toy Story 3 is about growing up, but it is about how the world is ceaselessly changing and how difficult it is to combat that inexorability. The genius of the movie is that it conveys its brute-force themes with such nimble dexterity and abundant humor that it glides along effortlessly, right until its devastating finale, which delivers the most powerful emotional stomach-punch I've felt at the movies in years.
Inception. As if you were expecting something else. I won't get into the frivolous meta-debate between stuffy critics and self-righteous bloggers that consumed the blogosphere upon the release of Inception – though for those interested, A.O. Scott chronicled the matter nicely – but I'll happily thrown my hat in with those declaring Christopher Nolan's mind-bending thriller to be a masterpiece. Praise can be heaped on Inception for virtually every aspect of its filmmaking, from its agonizing craftsmanship (Lee Smith's editing, Hans Zimmer's score, and Guy Dyas' production design lead the way) to its preposterously talented cast (Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tom Hardy are among those providing sturdy support for the incomparable Leonardo DiCaprio) to its intriguing metaphysical exploration of how dreams intermingle with reality. For fans of cinematic technique, it's a feast.
But for me, the magnificence of Inception lies in the breathlessness of it all, the slack-jawed wonder that gripped me in a way I haven't felt since The Matrix. It's the same sense of electricity that Nolan brought to The Dark Knight, only this time he's tethered his vast moviemaking genius to a meticulously constructed screenplay that grants Inception just the proper dosage of realism; there's a firm element of order to his mad labyrinth, buried amidst all of the crumbling buildings and spiraling stairs. The result is an utterly gripping moviegoing experience, the kind that renews my faith in cinema as a medium.
In retrospect, I suppose the only problem I have with Inception is that it ends. But I suppose that's the way of things: You can dream for awhile, but sooner or later, you always have to come back to reality.