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.

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