Previously: Honorable Mentions
(Short on time so the second half has to wait. Apologies.)
The Film Experience loves nothing more than being transported by the movies. The year's top dozen (a baker's dozen) took us deep inside French prisons, soared over Viking villages, danced into British projects and stumbled into Australian crime dens. This year's best films wandered 'round places both far flung (wealthy Italian estates) and right next door (New York City's Lincoln Center wherein a certain ballerina frets and pirouettes and transforms).
Wherever the year's best took us, we wanted to go. In fact, we're ready to go again. Just let us grab that unpublished manuscript and a treasured childhood toy for the journey. And, oops... just -- updating facebook status. Okay, now we're ready. Let's go!
[mild very vague spoilers on The Ghost Writer and Fish Tank]
Un prophète dir. Jacques Audiard
[Sony Pictures Classics, Feb 26th]
Last year's shouldawontheforeignoscar contender treads excessively familiar ground patiently, biding its time. Malik (breakthrough sensation Tahar Rahim) may be a criminal savant but Jacques Audiard is the alpha dog in this dank dangerous racially charged prison (and outside of it as well). The French auteur's always expressive cinematic voice makes full use of both image and sound. They flicker and pulse as if in whispered conversation, haunting each other with their most awful details. Malik's horrifying character arc from remorseful killer to skilled death-dealer is so gradual that you're as surprised as he when you fully grasp the new criminal ecosystem when exiting this prison.
Toy Story 3 dir. Lee Unkrich
[Disney/Pixar, June 18th]
This latest and hopefully last Toy Story adventure expertly capitalizes on nostalgia for itself. (Please don't make another one Pixar as you'll taint the beautiful full circle affect of this one.) Scene for scene TS3 is maybe both the best comedy and the best tearjerker of the year. The only reason it's not in the top ten -- shush, I realize it's supposed to be -- is that its deep comforts and emotional potency are inarguably the product of 15 years of other movies and cozy familiarity with the characters. Its considerable charm and four hankie finale is not exactly derived from this movie itself. In other words, it's got an enormous advantage over practically everything else that came out in 2010. It's like when everyone declared the end of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith so epic and moving and pretended that the movie didn't suck while it borrowed its emotional affect from the Force being with us for 30 years. The difference here (he quickly adds) is that Toy Story 3 is a marvelous movie in its own right: inventive, hilarious, beautifully staged.
Rabbit Hole dir. John Cameron Mitchell
[Lions Gate, Dec 17th]
This is a refreshingly unhistrionic portrait of grief and those are rare beasts. Its unassuming strengths, and maybe that hushed release in the noisiest of movie seasons, might be the thing(s) preventing it from breaking out. Which, come to think of it, is reflective of Becca herself (a great Nicole Kidman) as she's always getting in her own way. David Lindsay-Abaire's expert screenplay gets so many things about grief right. It understands that those most in need of comfort often push it away, it gets the way righteous anger leaks out as freeform hostility, and it sees that strangers can offer clarity and windows to healing that loved ones, with their messy intimacies, cannot. This might not sound like fun but it's sometimes bracingly funny. Rabbit Hole begins with a shot of Becca opening a bag of soil while she tensely gardens. Mitchell's sensitive direction and the fine cast do the work, but they trust you to notice their eventual flowering.
Top Ten List
How To Train Your Dragon dir. Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
[Dreamworks, March 26th]
Here's to happy miracles. When was the last time you saw a movie boy rewarded for using his smarts and intuition and accepting his peaceful nature? When was the last time the hero of an epic was a pacifist rather than a warrior? I won't hold my breath waiting for the answer. (Gandhi?) How to Train Your Dragon figures out how to have it both ways of course (this is mainstream cinema) and like Tangled, it trips on nervous bids at popularity: why do the kids speak with modern American snark while all the adults have Scottish accents? I haven't a clue! But its flight sequences are as magical as Avatar's and Toothless, the dread Night Fury is a brilliantly executed character. This is a personal choice but this movie arrived in my life right when I needed it. Our top tens ought to be a personal, else why make them? Dragon might be the best hug-your-pet movie since Babe (1995); it's not perfect but that'll do.
The Ghost Writer dir. Roman Polanski
[Summit, March 19th]
We never learn the name of the ghost (Ewan McGregor) hired to shadow and write about a politician under investigation (Pierce Brosnan) and why should we? The movie also plays it coy. Polanski's amazing sleight of hand alternately flashes us a political satire, a nihilistic comedy, a murder thriller and maybe even a drama about having a really shitty job for which no rewards or public acknowledgement will ever come. The Ghost Writer has memorably sinister interiors filled with sharp angles and splashes of blood red color. The exteriors are no safer as the endless stormy weather, slick streets and bodies washed ashore portend. Can a whole film be a red herring? It all builds towards the year's most brilliant ending, a vanishing act, a negation.
Fish Tank dir. Andrea Arnold
[IFC Films, January 15th]
Arnold's sophomore feature follows an angry British girl Mia (Katie Jarvis) around in her grim daily life as she hates on her family, picks fights with the neighbors, crushes on her mom's new man (Michael Fassbender, predictably excellent), and dreams of becoming a professional hiphop dancer. There are plentiful movies about downtrodden inarticulate characters each year but few this acutely observed. Even when Fish Tank risks going off the rails by willfully slamming into metaphor (the horse) or veering towards the edge of genre territory (an abduction) it works a peculiar beguiling magic. Just when you think the movie can't possibly resolve the gangly awkward impulses of its teen protagonist towards any satisfying conclusion, it stages a farewell dance that's both perfectly surreal and absurdly mundane. Wow.
..CONTINUE TO THE COMPLETE TOP TEN