Monday, July 25, 2011

The Best Movies of 2010 (Part II)

If you missed Part I of this list, you can check it out here. Moving right along, here are the Manifesto's Top 10 Movies of 2010:

10. Fair Game. As befits a film based on books by Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson, Doug Liman's political thriller is overtly partisan, bristling with outrage from its authors and scorn for the Bush White House. Politics aside, however, Fair Game is a canny, invigorating piece of muckraking cinema. Tightly plotted, crisply edited (remember, Liman made the first and best Bourne picture), and laden with verisimilitude, the movie swiftly and efficiently paints a portrait of both a country in turmoil and a marriage in crisis. Naomi Watts is typically sharp as outed CIA operative Plame, but it's Sean Penn who provides the film's real force. Bringing his considerable talent to bear, Penn portrays Wilson as part righteous firebrand, part weary husband, a confident, decent man lashing out at the institutions who have failed him. Fair Game may inspire heated reactions (perhaps if anyone actually saw it), but it's a reminder that hushed conversations and shadowy figures can form the backdrop for a movie as gripping as any blockbuster.

9. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Violent, nasty, and borderline sadistic, Niels Arden Oplev's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's wildly popular novel is not to be taken lightly. But the film's descent into such grisly territory is necessary in order to illustrate the utter depravity that forms the backbone of Larsson's story. While it traffics in ugliness, the screenplay also exhibits patience, gradually weaving the plot's disparate threads together and setting us up for an electrifying final half hour. Oplev's sense of atmosphere is impressively foreboding, while the haunting Swedish landscape helps to heighten the gloom and the dread. And as the iconic title character, Noomi Rapace is singularly compelling, with her brash physicality camouflaging hidden vulnerability. David Fincher's American remake is set to hit screens this Christmas, and while I like Rooney Mara, I wish her luck – the intensity and nuance of Rapace's portrayal is not likely to be imitated easily.

8. The Secret in Their Eyes. Another suspense film that appreciates the virtues of patience, Juan José Campanella's slow-burning crime picture flows easily from danger to romance and back, slipping in and out of different time periods but remaining insistently urgent throughout. Though it functions successfully on many levels, The Secret in Their Eyes is most memorable for its thesis on humanity's thirst for revenge, and the price we're willing to pay for it. Ricardo Darín is thoroughly persuasive as a lawyer searching for the truth, while Campanella shows off some directorial chops, most notably in a dazzling, single-take sequence that sweeps through a soccer stadium. But it's the film's finale that packs its most powerful punch, as we meet a character who has achieved his lifelong quest for vengeance, at the mere cost of his soul.

7. Black Swan. The endemic problem with most mind-fuck movies (think Mulholland Drive) is that they don't abide by any set of rational rules, meaning anything can happen at any time, so our capacity to relate to the onscreen proceedings virtually evaporates. Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan avoids this trap, partly because it tackles the very notion of perception versus reality as its subject matter, and partly because it's just so damn entertaining. As the story burrows deeper into the fractured mind of Nina Sayers, Natalie Portman's tortured protagonist, it becomes very clear to us that something is not quite right, but Aronofsky tethers Nina's mounting psychosis to real-world elements in her ballet company, only gradually turning up the insanity quotient. The result is that we embrace the film's plummeting descent into mental decay, experiencing Nina's horrors from her own splintered perspective. It helps that Aronofsky treats us to a sensual world of splendorous sights, overwhelming us with visual and aural pleasures, including ravishing cinematography, intricate costumes, Tchaikovsky, and Mila Kunis. Black Swan may be a movie about madness, but madness has rarely looked this beautiful.

6. The Square. Noir pictures are so rife with cinematic possibility – from archetypal heroes to cold-blooded femme fatales to diabolical plot twists – that it's surprising we don't see more of them. Nash Edgerton's The Square takes a standard noir blueprint – an ordinary man hopes to escape his life of drudgery with millions of dollars and a beautiful woman, only to find himself in way the fuck over his head – and laces it with desperation. The genius of The Square is that, as the double-crosses pile up and the brilliant plan starts tumbling down, we continually sympathize with David Roberts' titular hero, even as he commits some truly dastardly deeds. Roberts himself is crucial to the film's success, as he embodies a man of fundamental decency driven to horrific extremes seemingly through no fault of his own. Edgerton, meanwhile, wields his camera with a vigor and dexterity reminiscent of the Coen Brothers, effortlessly snaring his audience with faultless technique and a geometric certainty that suits his title. Buyer beware: The Square's corners are awfully sharp.

5. Toy Story 3. I'll admit that I met the prospect of a third Toy Story movie with limited enthusiasm, as it initially seemed like a purely commercial creation from a studio otherwise renowned for focusing on story rather than profits. But while Toy Story 3 was undeniably a marketing bonanza, it turns out that the folks at Pixar still had plenty of story left for its golden goose of a franchise. The magnificence of the animation – the eye-popping colors, the painstaking detail, the characters' limber and lifelike movements – is expected from Pixar at this point, but what really sparkles is Michael Arndt's screenplay. The dialogue flows effortlessly and is free from artifice, while the story of characters journeying into adulthood is recognizably universal but also vitally new. The result is a picture that's both exhilarating and profoundly touching. Toys may never grow up, but people do, and so do film franchises.

4. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Edgar Wright's freewheeling, frenzied adaptation of Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novel is, I admit, totally bonkers. It's also the trippiest, funniest, most insistently entertaining movie of the year. Approaching the material with a child's zeal but a filmmaker's eye, Wright gleefully transforms Scott Pilgrim's wacked-out zaniness into the cinematic equivalent of a fun-house ride, but he also adroitly ensures that viewers never get thrown from their seats. The movie employs its share of colorful gizmos – thought bubbles form, animations explode, and sound effects splatter – but Wright (ably assisted by his two editors, Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss) consistently propels the story forward rather than reveling in his own creativity. And it's that combination of spirited inventiveness and narrative drive that turns Scott Pilgrim vs. the World into the most furiously paced fantasy adventure since Moulin Rouge!. The film doesn't always make sense, but its universe is a seductive black hole of imagination and ingenuity, and as the loaded cast (most notably Kieran Culkin and Mary Elizabeth Winstead) delivers one knockout one-liner after the next, we can't help but be sucked into the vortex.

3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. Many viewers, even ardent fans, complained that this first installment of the stupendous two-part conclusion to the Harry Potter series dragged, featuring too much scurrying and too little action. I won't deny that the film takes its time, but that's precisely the point. By slowing the pace, director David Yates ultimately heightens the tension, effectively conveying the enormity of the quest that lies before his characters, and the sense of hopelessness that continually gnaws at them. This is not to suggest, however, that the movie is boring. On the contrary, Deathly Hallows: Part 1 hums with excitement and energy, as sporadic bursts of action serve as the perfect ballast to the characters' frantic searching and fraying alliances. Gorgeous art direction and chilling, desaturated cinematography deepen the dread, but it's the three lead actors who carry the film. Led by a heartbreaking Emma Watson (her finest performance yet), they remind us that in a world rich with terrors – snarling snakes, possessed lockets, wizards and witches of blackest evil – it is the discord among compatriots that poses our greatest danger, and the bonds of friendship that forge our greatest strength.

2. The Social Network. It's been three years since I've dared to call a film "perfect", but David Fincher's lacerating character study is just about that. A technical marvel, The Social Network is a production of ruthless efficiency and craftsmanship, from Kirk Baxter's and Angus Wall's precise, whiplash editing to Trent Reznor's and Atticus Ross' eerie, ambient score to Aaron Sorkin's incisive, unapologetically smart screenplay (all three earned Oscars). Yet its story is also compelling and vigorously paced, which is particularly amazing given that it's basically scene after scene of people talking and, well, that's about it. Andrew Garfield's heartfelt decency and Justin Timberlake's shrewd opportunism serve as perfect foils for Jesse Eisenberg's scrupulously unsympathetic lead performance, a singular concoction of confusion, obsession, and loneliness. Meanwhile, behind the camera, Fincher shepherds everything forward with merciless detachment. The Social Network may just be a film about the nerd who invented Facebook, but it's also an astonishing reminder of how so much human feeling can be contained in a movie comprised of – and about – all those zeroes and ones.

1. Inception. I'll be honest: On balance, The Social Network is probably a better movie than Inception. Where The Social Network is taut, streamlined, and visceral, Inception is chaotic, bulky, and fantastical, with a boundlessly inventive screenplay that nevertheless raises more questions than it can possibly answer. Yet it still climbs to the summit of my year-end list for one simple reason: It is transportive. As I watched Christopher Nolan's sublime fusion of James Bond-style action and cyber-punk philosophy on dreams, the walls of the theatre melted away, and I found myself brought headlong into his magnificently detailed universe of hurtling trains, rotating hallways, and bending cities. The movie is absolutely breathtaking. You can move down the checklist if you like, marveling at the seamless special effects, the exquisite production design, Hans Zimmer's electric score, the ridiculously talented cast (with Leonardo DiCaprio leading the way), the labyrinthine screenplay. But the truly transcendent quality of Inception is transcendence itself, the way it yearns to be glorious, to be great, to be new. It's more than just a movie – it's va va voom come to life, right up there on the screen. It's cinema's dream.

Till next year.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Best Movies of 2010 (Part I)

Movie critics are supposed to publish year-end top 10 lists. It's part of our job (and while I receive no income for holding this alleged "job", I'm still labeling myself a critic and that's that). Sure, you can grouse about how it's morally objectionable to rank subjective works of art against one another or how 10 is an arbitrary figure (I particularly enjoyed ever-bitchy New York Times critic Manohla Dargis seething that our habit of composing 10-item lists functions as tacit approval of the Ten Commandments), but readers have a ravenous appetite for easily digestible summaries of the year that was, and it's our duty to oblige them.

Back in 2007, I defied this silent edict and published a list of the top fifteen movies of the year rather than my usual decathlon. My rationale was entirely laudatory – there were simply more stellar films than there was available space on a catalog of 10. And while I couldn't quite label titles such as Charlie Wilson's War or Juno as one 2007's 10 best films, I couldn't in good conscience exclude them from my commemoration of the year's superlative features. I had no choice: I had to expand the list to 15.

For 2010, I'm inflating my year-end "best of" list to an even 20 films, but my reasoning this year is considerably different. My problem isn't that I saw too many great movies in 2010; my problem is that I saw too few. Don't get me wrong, the past year offered plenty of pretty good movies, but they were just that – pretty good. Maybe it's a slate of increasingly indistinguishable films, or maybe it's my increasingly jaded cinematic sensibilities, but for whatever reason, I found it difficult to separate the wheat of 2010's theatrical offerings from their chaff.

That's the bad news. The good news is that as a result, I now have double the number of movies to recommend to readers, and just because I can't endorse all of these pictures with the utmost zeal doesn't mean they aren't all worth adding to your Netflix queue.

So let's get to it. This post will provide the back half of the list, with the remaining 10 arriving shortly. Here are the Manifesto's Top 10 20 movies of 2010:

(Honorable mention: The American, Another Year, The Ghost Writer, Hereafter, I Am Love, Lebanon, Love & Other Drugs, Rabbit Hole.)

20. The Town. Ben Affleck has made some questionable decisions in the past as an actor (not to mention as a celebrity), but he's atoning in style as a director. His first feature, Gone Baby Gone, was a riveting thriller that flirted with masterpiece status; The Town isn't quite as good, but it nevertheless confirms Affleck as a filmmaker of considerable poise and confidence. The movie breaks little new ground, but its set pieces are executed with such speed and precision that they create genuine suspense. The acting is uniformly strong (an achingly vulnerable Rebecca Hall leaves the most lasting impression, as she always does), and the brisk pace never flags, even during the overlong climax. The Town may not be a great movie, but it's a thoroughly solid one that indicates that Affleck's best has likely yet to come.

19. You Don't Know Jack. HBO may be ceding some ground to AMC in terms of airing the best shows on television, but it remains the preeminent network when it comes to producing feature films. A compassionate, often captivating examination of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, Barry Levinson's You Don't Know Jack strikes a delicate balance between professional objectivity and personal outrage. Anchored by a committed Al Pacino – abandoning his late-period bluster and delivering his best performance since Insomnia in the process – Levinson's film is clearly political, but it employs a terse, matter-of-fact style that slyly camouflages its agenda without blunting its impact. Danny Huston turns in superb supporting work as Kevorkian's lawyer, but this is Pacino's movie, as he portrays with perfect clarity a man whose passion in life was his commitment to death.

18. The King's Speech. Depending on my audience, my assessment of 2010's Best Picture victor can vacillate from critical snorting to earnest support. On the one hand, I firmly believe that The King's Speech is the weakest title to take home Oscar's biggest prize since 2005. The visuals are drab, the story is utter cornball, and little about the film feels vital or fresh. On the other hand, the movie dispenses pure pleasure, dodging its underdog-hero clichés by employing a savvy mix of warm humor and heartfelt sincerity. Colin Firth is magnificent as a dignified man fumbling futilely for respect, while Geoffrey Rush is nearly as good as his wry, acid tutor. The King's Speech didn't deserve to win Best Picture, but that doesn't mean it isn't an enjoyable time at the movies.

17. Agora. Alejandro Amenábar's first English-language feature since The Others, Agora grossed a tepid $600 thousand at the domestic box office, as Newmarket showed little interest in promoting it. That's a shame, because American audiences missed out on an odd, often stirring blend of intimate drama and throwback epic. On one level, Agora is a rousing, straightforward tale of old-school religious conflict and barbarism on the scale of The Ten Commandments. Yet it also spends significant screen time on a subplot in which a woman (Rachel Weisz, in fine form) becomes obsessed with discerning Earth's position in the solar system. This latter focus on academic curiosity would seem incongruous with a sword-and-sandal saga, but Amenábar fuses them into a unified story with nimble dexterity. In the end, Agora is a film of true spectacle, whether dealing with a horde of Christian zealots or a diagram drawn in the sand.

16. Shutter Island. As a director, Martin Scorsese has always been playful, even when exploring such sordid subjects as simmering revenge or gangland violence, but in Shutter Island, he abandons any semblance of discipline. The resulting film is nonsensical but never mundane, grotesquely overwrought but furiously watchable. The plot is basically incoherent and essentially has nowhere to go, yet the movie somehow builds and builds, delving ever deeper into its deranged universe. That universe happens to be the mind of its protagonist, Teddy Daniels, and it helps that Daniels is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, turning in yet another jaw-dropper as a desperate man grappling with both the inmates of an asylum and his own inner demons. Hurtling from one bizarre sequence to the next, Shutter Island is a house of cards, threatening to tumble at the slightest breeze, but Scorsese and his star somehow keep us mesmerized, oblivious to the absurdity that surrounds us.

15. Never Let Me Go. The science-fiction label has recently attained a stigma of sorts, as it's usually appended to movies heavy on explosions and light on plot. Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go, based on Kazuo Ishiguro's wildly popular novel, is technically a science-fiction film, but there's nary an action sequence or cyborg to be found. Rather, it's a hushed, hypnotic drama about the tyranny of disease and the fraying bonds of female friendship. Romanek operates at an unhurried pace that will irritate some viewers, but he lends his characters real depth and shading, and the film ultimately achieves a catharsis of surprising potency. Composer Rachel Portman essays the year's finest musical score, while Keira Knightley's acrid, hopeless yearning is a music all its own.

14. Barney's Version. Paul Giamatti is a magician of an actor. With his hangdog face, scruffy facial hair, and gruff voice, he's virtually the antithesis of a movie star, but he invariably transforms his characters from bumbling schlubs into everyman heroes of indefinable but undeniable charm. And Barney's Version is its irascible leading man personified. A sprawling character study that lurches from past to present and from one undercooked subplot to the next, the movie is a mess, but it's a wonderfully appealing mess, leavened with sharp humor and a central romance that is both highly improbable and deeply moving. Heartfelt supporting work from Rosamund Pike, Dustin Hoffman, and (against all odds) Scott Speedman help elevate the material, but it's Giamatti's winsome, soulful turn as the title character that redeems a film that first appears, much like its protagonist, to be irredeemable.

13. Dogtooth. "This movie is really weird," wrote a YouTube user posting a clip from Dogtooth. No kidding. Giorgos Lanthimos' demented satire of a family who takes home-schooling to the next level is occasionally depraved, frequently disturbing, and consistently transfixing. Lanthimos' style is one of cool, formal discipline, a rigor that helps undercut a story whose myriad absurdities include three incestuous siblings, two beatings involving home video equipment, and one mutilated cat. But Dogtooth's outright lunacy doubles as its strongest asset, as the film plunges us into its well-manicured wilderness and lets us forage for understanding without any guidance. The great pleasure of Dogtooth is not its madness but the manner in which that madness is gradually revealed, as we ever so slowly come to appreciate the depths of Lanthimos' twisted vision, even as we're horrified by the sight.

12. Let Me In. One of the finest films from 2008 was Let the Right One In, a Swedish concoction of equal parts savagery and tenderness. (Its director, Tomas Alfredson, is helming Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, the long-awaited adaptation of the John le Carré smash due in November.) Depending on one's perspective, the decision to remake it just two years later was either a bald insult to Swedish cinema or a noble attempt to tell its story to subtitle-phobic American audiences (if the latter, it was a catastrophic failure, as it scraped just $12 million). Personally, I felt no need for a new version, but evaluated independently, Let Me In is damn impressive filmmaking, with director Matt Reeves sustaining a sinister mood of coiled suspense. Young actors Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz are persuasive, but it's Reeves' patience and restraint – his refusal to rush – that lends the film an exhilarating, exhausting tension. Let Me In may have been unnecessary, but it lingers a long time afterward regardless.

11. True Grit. There probably wasn't any more need for the Coen Brothers to remake True Grit than there was for Matt Reeves to remake Let Me In, but I'm still not complaining, not when the Coens brought their trademark perfectionist craft to the screen. (Admittedly, I've yet to see the prior incarnation that gave John Wayne his lone Oscar.) In the Coen canon, True Grit is neither a diabolically clever tale in the mold of Blood Simple nor a ruthlessly unforgiving thriller à la No Country for Old Men. What it is, however, is the most relaxed picture the brothers have made since The Big Lebowski, an effortlessly told drama that pleases easily, even when it's trafficking in deception and murder. There's minimal subtext beneath True Grit, but there's much to behold on the surface, from Roger Deakins' magnificent cinematography to Jess Gonchor's immaculate production design to the Coens' rhythmic adaptation of Charles Portis' dialogue. The Coens have also done cinema a great service in discovering Hailee Steinfeld, the startlingly self-assured actress whose pitch-perfect performance shall remain in memory long after the spectre of this insubstantial, delightful film has faded.

Check back soon for Part II.