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Column Fri Dec 31 2010

Best and Worst Films of 2010 + a Review of Casino Jack

Hey everyone. Wow, I watched more than 400 movies on the big screen on 2010. That's not a record for me, but it's damn close. This was one of the most difficult "Best Of..." lists to compile, because so many of the films in the first 20 or so are separated in my mind by a micro-fraction of greatness. As I do every year, I conclude with my "Worst Of..." list, and it becomes painfully clear that I took enough bullets to save a small army of a medium-sized nation. I also created a new category that seemed necessary. I selected my 10 favorite films that I'm pretty sure never were released in the United States outside of a festival setting but will more than likely make their way into theaters in 2011. Consider that list you starting point of films to get very excited about seeing in the coming year.

I've spared you lengthy write-ups on every single film on these lists--just the first 10 on my main list and only the top choice on the other ones. Oh, and if you think 40 is too many for a Best Of list, keep it to yourself and simply stop reading when you've had enough. Prologue done. Let's get to the lists, and allow me to bathe in your loving reactions!

Best Films of 2010:

1. The Social Network

How is it that a film with no violence, blood, gore, action, martial arts, grotesque creatures, or perversions tops my list? No, The Social Network doesn't have any of that, but I still found dozens of reasons to love it immensely. Aaron Sorkin's writing, the acting, and the steely visual style that director David Fincher has been perfecting for most of his career and has found a completely new and original way of applying it to a film that, at first, may not seem like a perfect match for his abilities. But Fincher loves a challenge, and with The Social Network, he set himself the goal of providing a stunning backdrop for his note-perfect actors to deliver fully-loaded dialogue. It sounds simple, but it isn't. And it's the reason this film triumphs. I'm ready to see it again right now. Who the hell cares how historically accurate it is? Fine, let's assume it's 100 percent fiction. Guess what. That doesn't lessen its greatness in any way.

2. Inception

A film that is ripe for intellectual analysis and also contains some tremendous, physics-defying action sequences, a great deal of humor (much of it from Hardy), and a real sense of mischief--after all, this is a story about criminals, technically. And then there's that must-own Hans Zimmer score that has already won an Oscar in my head. I particularly liked the bizarrely (yet perfectly) timed horn blasts that almost sounds like a Tuvan throat singing concert performed at the gates of hell. Inception cleared the decks of a terrible summer for movies and set the bar higher than it has been in quite some time--maybe since Shutter Island (see below). One day the two films will make a double-feature that will melt your brain. Every once in a while, expectations are exceeded.

3. True Grit

Sometimes, filmmakers put together something that is so strong, so perfect, so abundantly great that they make it look easy, and you wonder why everyone making movies can't produce something this close to flawless. Ethan and Joel Coen's True Grit is just such a film, an effortless work of perfection that captures a sense of place and period so convincingly that you are taken aback by how effortless it all seems. True Grit is sheer joy for film lovers, from Roger Deakins striking cinematography to Carter Burwell's lovely score to each and every perfectly cast extra whose dusty, sunken faces add character and authenticity to every scene. The Coens have always excelled at selecting the perfect faces for every role--big and small. The story is hardly a complicated one to follow, but there is so much going on in every scene that it takes two or three viewings to really soak it all in, which I was happy to do.

4. Winter's Bone

In 2004, director Debra Granik gave the world one of the best films of the year, and almost nobody knew it. The movie was Down To The Bone, starring a relative unknown named Vera Farmiga in her first lead role. And while many critics praised the film and Farmiga's work, the film got terrible distribution and the general public barely noticed it even existed. In 2010, the world got the chance to make up for this glaring omission by seeing this equally gripping new film by Granik, based on the Missouri Ozark woods novel by Daniel Woodrell. Again anchored by one of the best female performances of the year--Jennifer Lawrence as 17-year-old Ree Dolly--Winter's Bone also benefits from its desolate setting, which is not just a its own character but an overwhelming, often oppressive force that stands to smother Ree and destroy her world. With only her second feature (which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance), Granik has again succeeded in diving headfirst into a culture and setting that does everything necessary to set the tone and establish atmosphere. It's an extraordinary work that sometimes feels like a kick to the gut, taking all the wind out of you with note-perfect performances that never lapse into cliche or stereotypes. The people and homes feel authentic, and as a result, the danger faced by Ree feels inescapably real. Winter's Bone came out in the middle of the summer, and it was as solid a reminder as their was that good films are out there year-round, you just have to look a little harder sometimes.

5. Black Swan

This is a devastating work of power, style, and unfiltered tension. It's about the psychological price of personal accomplishment. It's about having your soul crushed and having it set free. And most importantly, it's about the differences between breaking free and being broken. Make no mistake, the almost-constant look on star Natalie Portman's face is fear. The challenge I put to you is figuring out what she is most afraid of. And after you've compiled your list of possible answers, the correct choice is "All of the Above." Black Swan will rattle you something fierce, and it firmly establishes director Darren Aronofsky as one of the greatest living filmmakers of his and several other generations.

6. The Fighter

Sometimes, when you don't expect something to be truly great, it goes and surprises the hell out of you and turns out to be just that. Director David O. Russell's The Fighter is engrossing entertainment and a triumphant underdog story that is certainly one of the greatest sports movies in my lifetime. For hours after seeing the film, my brain was battling itself trying to figure out which performance I loved the most or what my favorite moments were. I eventually gave in and realized that I loved every second of and every performance, from Wahlberg, Bale, and Leo to the wonderfully scary ladies with the out-of-control hair who played the Ward sisters. The film is as inspirational as it is heartbreaking, as tough to watch at times as it is one of the most watchable films I've seen all year. Prepare to have the earth move under your feet. This is the film that had grown men weeping at Butt Numb-a-Thon, people.

7. Toy Story 3

How is it possible that the folks at Pixar keep managing to surprise me? Did I expect to like Toy Story 3? Well, yeah. What about Pixar or this franchise would lead you to believe anything else? After about 10 minutes, I realized that this third installment in the adventures of Woody, Buzz, Jessie, Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head, Slinky Dog, Hamm, Rex, and those weird little green rubber alien dudes was going to be the best one yet. Let's get the hyperbole out of the way right now. This is the best Toy Story movie, period. This is the best 3D experience I've ever had, period. And I pity those of you that didn't have the opportunity to see Toy Story 3 in IMAX, because the opening action sequence alone--which appears to take place in a Grand Canyon-like location--was worth the IMAX and 3D upcharges. More than the other two Toy Story films, this one's most unforgettable moments are not loaded with chases or danger or humor--although all three are in great supply. The scenes you will cherish are more haunting, mature, the product of the human characters and the audience growing older and able to handle darker shades of drama. This is the gold standard of filmmaking.

8. Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese still has a few tricks up his sleeve. There was never any doubt in my mind that the guy was still in one of the most creatively vital periods of his long career, but that didn't prepare me for what he gives us with Shutter Island, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone; Mystic River). Borrowing a bit from some of the great mental hospital-set films of old, with a dash of Hitchcock mind games, Scorsese has given us a true mind fuck of a movie that I think needs to be seen at least twice to be fully appreciated. I'm willing to bet that even if you don't buy into everything that happens in Shutter Island, you'll still appreciate Scorsese's kind of crazy. It's so complete and visually warped that you can't help but be impressed. It's tough to go into detail about the film without ruining some of the splendor of discovering it yourself, so I'll shut up and just unwaveringly recommend that you check it out a couple times, if only to be sure you saw what you thought you saw.

9. 127 Hours

This is a film that is so perfect as both a visceral and sensory experience that it's almost impossible to say anything more than, if you think you can handle watching a guy cutting his own arm off to escape certain death, you're going to love Danny Boyle's magnificent 127 Hours. Condensed to a 90-minute package of unwasted moments, Boyle hands us not only one of the greatest performances of the year--James Franco as real-life mountain climber/guide Aron Ralston--but also something that goes far beyond simply retelling the facts of Ralston's accident that had him pinned by his arm in crevice well out of the reach of any potential rescue. The movie is meant to shake you up, but not because of the gore. It's the total experience. Both Boyle and Franco are master craftsmen who are giving us the best work of their career, and they put us deep inside Aron Ralston's fractured mind and force us to wonder how we would have held up under the circumstances. 127 Hours is meant to blow your mind and give you an experience you so rarely get these days in a movie theater. Without resorting to 3D or vibrating seats or whatever, Danny Boyle puts us in that hole in the earth. You will squirm, but you will be a better person for having seen 127 Hours.

10. Never Let Me Go

I can't think of a recent science fiction film that felt less like sci fi and more like a quaint love story set largely in the British countryside. But music video director extraordinaire Mark (One Hour Photo) Romanek's latest work, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, shifts effortlessly from haunting to tragic to mysterious with such precision that the film is constantly making you question everything you see and hear. The simple fact is that the most shocking things contained in Never Let Me Go are presented with little fanfare, and the consequences of bigger questions about what defines humanity and the soul are given much more weight than you might expect or be used to. In the world established in this film, we are not looking at events as they took place. Instead, we are presented with events as they might have taken place if one very crucial medical discovery had been made in the 1950s: a cure for most known diseases--a shift that resulted in the average human life expectancy extending to somewhere around 100 years old. But Never Let Me Go isn't overtly about what defines life or humanity, and by keeping events and emotions at such an even keel, Romanek is, of course, demanding that we pay that much more attention to both. Carry Mulligan is our guide and narrator through this story, and even her Kathy seems to understand perfectly what her lot in life is, and it's this accepting that makes us weep for her. Never Let Me Go is powerful, crushing material, and you should give it your total and immediate attention.

11. Kick-Ass

12. Dogtooth

13. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

14. Rabbit Hole

15. Another Year

16. Four Lions

17. The Ghost Writer

18. The King's Speech

19. The Kids Are All Right

20. The American

21. The Secret In Their Eyes

22. Carlos

23. Animal Kingdom

24. Somewhere

25. The Town

26. Tangled

27. Buried

28. Get Low

29. Un Prophete (A Prophet)

30. Let Me In

31. Cyrus

32. Rare Exports

33. Get Him to the Greek

34. Iron Man 2

35. Splice

36. The Last Exorcism

37. The Human Centipede

38. Monsters

39. Jack Goes Boating

40. Hot Tub Time Machine

Best Films I Saw in 2010 That Won't Get Released Stateside Until 2011 (I Hope):

1. I Saw the Devil

South Korean director Kim Ji-woon's latest plays host to ideas and images that have burned themselves into my eyes and brain. These are the building blocks of nightmares, both because of the stylish way the film is shot and the utter distortion of humanity on display. This is one of the few films of true brilliance I saw in 2010, but agreeing to see it may result in eliminating some of the good parts of your soul. The film is set for a limited release through Magnet releasing on March 4, but I really would love to see this roll out for a nationwide arthouse release, just see see how much it messes Americans up.

2. Julia's Eyes

3. Kidnapped

4. The Troll Hunter

5. American: The Bill Hicks Story

6. Bunraku

7. Mother's Day

8. Saturday Night

9. Mr. Nice

10. The Myth of the American Sleepover

Best Documentaries of 2010:

1. The Tillman Story

It's been too long since a documentary made me as angry at and resentful of the powers that be (or powers that were, in this case) as The Tillman Story does. In a desperate attempt to create heroes in early days of the Iraq War, the U.S. government and military concocted a story about the death of the most famous man to enlist in the Army and fight in that war. Patrick Tillman gave up a multi-million-dollar NFL contract to fight, and did everything in his power to keep his reasons for doing so a private matter between him and his tight-knit family. But when he was killed during a skirmish (according to the sanctioned story), the Army myth-making machine saw an opportunity to turn the body of this man into a recruitment poster. Knowing that her son would never have allowed such a thing, Tillman's mother, Dannie, tirelessly embarked on a campaign to find out exactly how her son died and how far the knowledge of the nature of his death went up the government food chain. This film is her story.

2. Thunder Soul

3. Restrepo

4. Exit Through the Gift Shop

5. Inside Job

6. And Everything Is Going to be Fine

7. Casino Jack and the United States of Money

8. The Art of the Deal

9. Catfish

10. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

11. Waking Sleeping Beauty

12. Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

13. No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson

14. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

15. The Thorn in the Heart

Best Reissue of 2010 and of All Time:

The Complete Metropolis

I've had many great moments watching films over the years. I'm not necessarily talking about just seeing great movies, but thanks to memorable one-time-only screenings in Chicago or dozens of trips to Austin or living in a New York City for a couple of years, I've had access to some great "event" screenings that make the film I'm watching all the more special. But right now, I'm hard pressed to think of a place I would rather have been in early June than sitting in the same screening room with Roger Ebert watching the most complete version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis in existence.

This reissue was either the highlight of your year or it wasn't. You were either prepared to take the journey to wherever this restored film is playing near you or you're not. Roger Ebert called this re-release "The most important film event of the year!" before he ever saw it, but it doesn't take someone with his expertise in cinema to know this. Metropolis is a film you must see and acknowledge as a masterpiece before you can even attempt to gain access to the riches of filmed science fiction. The influence and impact this film had on movies that came after it are impossible to count, although I'm guessing that many of your favorite sci-fi works involving a city of the future were touched in some way by this movie. But, that's not the reason to see it. No, you should see Metropolis because it's a powerful piece of cinema by a great director. Amen. The end.

Worst Films of 2010 (in alphabetical order):

The Back-Up Plan; The Bounty Hunter; Burlesque; Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore; Cop Out; Gulliver's Travels; Killers; Jonah Hex; The Last Airbender; Leap Year; Life As We Know It; Little Fockers; Lottery Ticket; Marmaduke; My Soul To Take; Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time; Remember Me; Saw 3D; Sex and the City 2; Skyline; The Sorcerer's Apprentice; The Switch; Tooth Fairy; Valentine's Day; When In Rome; Yogi Bear; You Again; You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Worst Film of 2010:

The Nutcracker in 3D

The godawful 3D only underscores a much, much bigger problem with this late-term abortion of a film by the often-masterful Andrei Konchalovskiy. This film is so horribly ill-conceived that I am truly shocked it was released at all. Weirdly enough, the movie only seemed to be released (at least in Chicago) in theaters outside the limits of major metropolitan cities. Hope you kids in the 'burbs like crap. If you're one of the great unfortunates who live within driving distance of this movie, please stay far away from it, for your own safety. I just posted my original review about a month ago, so there's no reason to rehash, but this film seems to have been put on this earth to terrorize children and scar adults.

And Now for a New Review:

Casino Jack

I'd warn you not to confuse this feature film starring Kevin Spacey for the Alex Gibney-directed documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money, which came out early in 2010, but I don't think there's any chance of that happening. The documentary is an intricately researched, wonderfully edited, and thoughtfully told story about super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff (played in the feature by Spacey), who, during the Bush Administration practically invented new ways to bilk clients out of millions of dollars in fees for essentially doing nothing. Along with his apprentice/partner in crime Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), he also fortified the pipeline that funneled cash from special interest groups to members of Congress, and didn't think twice about it. The doc is a stinging indictment of influence peddling, while the feature, Casino Jack, is more of a spectacle, emphasizing only the most outrageous things Abramoff and his team did, rather than really dig down to the more underhanded, quiet brand of sleaze he got his hands into.

Casino Jack bounces from K Street offices in Washington D.C. to sweat shops in Saipan and the Northern Mariana Islands to tribal gambling operations to the halls of government and lawmaking on Capitol Hill, never quite telling the full story or even highlighting the most dramatic, disgusting aspects of its subject's dealings. And it spends too much time on nonsense, such as his using members of organized crime (here represented by Jon Lovitz as a blundering mob-contacted associate and Maury Chaykin as a character known as "Big Tony"--give me a break) to do his bidding on occasion.

What is far more interesting (and covered much better in the doc) are Abramoff's convincing members of Congress to ignore human rights violations in certain Southeast Asian nations so they can trade cheap goods in the U.S. Even more fascinating is how devoted a husband, father, and Jew he was, while still managing to be a colossal scumbag in the public sector. His wife Pam (Kelly Preston) is barely noticed in Casino Jack.

The only part of Abramoff's many sins that gets the attention it deserves is his treatment of the Native Americans, including two leaders played by the great Graham Greene and Eric Schweig. In various emails and texts between him and Scanlon, Abramoff essentially buried himself and guaranteed he was going to jail (he was just released in the last month to a halfway house). Spacey does his best at attempting to see inside the mind and capture the often outlandish behavior of someone who is both an expert at lying to others and also does a pretty remarkable job of living in a self-delusional world. Spacey and the director, the late George Hickenlooper (Hearts of Darkness; Factory Girl), don't do a particular strong job (especially compared to the documentary) connecting all the dots between Abramoff, Sen. Tom DeLay (Spencer Garrett), and the Bush Administration, but even without the easy comparison, Casino Jack feels like we're skating over Abramoff's life and career rather than doing some real digging to make the film a genuine character study.

I can't say I ever saw Jack Abramoff working behind the scenes to scam his clients, but I don't think he did so quite in the same manner as Spacey portrays him. In the public eye, Abramoff was confident but in a subdued way. In Casino Jack, he's a wild man with expensive tastes and zero sense of how deep into financial ruin he was driving himself, his family and his company (he didn't really care about his clients). Spacey's version and the Abramoff I've actually seen in footage don't jive. It's like Spacey read a book on how to play a wheeler-dealer and just went with it. He's a gifted actor, but I can see him trying here, and it's distracting. Pepper's young turk of a sidekick, Scanlon, is far more layered and interesting character. Again, I have no idea what the man was truly like, but at least Pepper seems to be dialing back the frat-boy persona to give us something underneath to façade. The film made me almost more interested in Scanlon than Abramoff.

Casino Jack is a disappointing failure, and in the halls of cinema history, it will be logged in as a footnote to the much better documentary. I do believe true-life stories are the toughest to get correct. When it happens, you get The Social Network; when it falters, you get Casino Jack, which opens today at the Music Box Theatre. You've got a giant list of movies well worth seeing listed above. Go to any of those instead of this.

 

Richard - The Camera Dolly Guy / January 1, 2011 5:59 AM

And I thought I watch too many movies. Great list Steve - thanks!

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Theater Wed Aug 13 2014

An Epic, Tragic Win: All Our Tragic

By Benjamin Cannon & Mike Ewing

What then is to be made of the Hypocrites' new stage production, All Our Tragic? This massive opus, comprising all 32 surviving Greek tragedy plays re-written and directed by Sean Graney, lasts a staggering 12 hours, including intermissions and meal breaks. Ben and Mike go the distance.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Aug 29 2014

The November Man, Frank, As Above/So Below, Love Is Strange, Life of Crime, Bound By Flesh, To Be Takei & Me and You

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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