Monday, February 14, 2011

Best of 2010: Movies

Here is my completely biased list of the ten best films of the year. I had a simple criterion for the inclusion of a film on this list. It should have, simply, moved me. 

Endeared me. Provoked me. Amazed me with recognition of my own life's stumbles. Made tears escape my eyes in spite of myself. The movies on this list are those that have, in some manner, reached out and turned on some switch within me. By this yardstick then, some films fell away. So Inception is not on the list; it blew my mind but did nothing for the heart - I could not have cared less for the characters in the film. Likewise, The Social Network had better writing than any movie this year, and was sophisticated and slick, but alas, it failed to evoke what Roger Ebert calls 'elevation', that feeling when you completely connect with a film. I did with the ten films below.

1. 127 Hours  Most movies would like to think that they have earned their euphoric ending; few actually do. When the protagonist in 127 Hours stumbles out of his personal hell in the last act of the film, I was shaking in my cinema chair with so much uncontrolled exhilaration. When a movie produces such a visceral, physical reaction, one has to bow to it. If you already know the premise of this film, and think you lack the nerve to see it, do not let that stop you. For a film about a man stuck in a canyon for 127 hours who finally begins to introspect his life, the movie is remarkably kinetic, made that much more frenetic by Danny Boyle's direction. Like the best films, it reflects the universe through the experience of a single person. 

2. The Kids Are All Right  When I was not beaming from cheek to cheek while watching this movie, I was marveling at how precisely tuned the film was to the realities of all families. The movie makes it irrelevant that the kids in the film had two mothers (instead of a mother and a father). Because it reveals how all families are the same in their universal struggles: in the way that only family members can hurt us (because who else knows us well enough to do that) and also accept us despite our considerable faults. Featuring a bravura set of performances from its five lead actors: Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson, this movie has a big enough heart to find compassion for all of them. Witty, heart-breaking, sexy and clever, as far as I am concerned this film gets everything right - from start to beautifully understated finish. 

3.  Buried: This is the year’s best film that nobody saw. Just when you think that in the hundred plus year history of cinema, everything that can possibly be done on camera has already been done, along comes a movie that shatters that perception. Do you think that someone can make an engaging full length film that features only one individual and which never ventures out of the tight inner space of a coffin? Ladies and gentlemen, this has just been done. This film, about a man (Ryan Reynolds, in a cracker-jack performance) trapped alive in a small underground space who has to use limited resources to try and engineer his rescue, will make you forget to breathe. It takes a singular concept that is almost deceptively simple, and builds on it cleverly layer upon oppressive layer until it gets to a feverishly unbearable pitch. You are depriving yourself of one of the better cinematic experiences in quite some time by not urgently seeking out this film. This is work of breathless beauty.

4. The Town In another year, this film would have easily topped this list; it is that good. A fast-paced, tightly plotted heist movie, it has ambitions of being what few films aspire to: grand. And grand it is. In its scope, in its execution and in its emotionality. In case this sounds too high-minded, let me also say that this is the best action film of the year, featuring three amazing bank robberies that tether a wildly twisting storyline bouncing off one terrific episode after another, including an amazing piece late in the film set in the underbelly of Boston’s Wrigley stadium. And the film also makes a strong case for Ben Affleck to spend the rest of his film career behind the camera; as a director Affleck is the real thing. Underrated now, I suspect that in years to come this film will be regarded as one of the great heist films of all time. 

5. How To Train Your Dragon: This film had more heart than any other this year. And I realize that I am in a singular minority when I say this, but as fine as Toy Story 3 was, the best animated film of the year was How To Train Your Dragon. For years in a row, the Pixar annual release has made it into my year end list; but not in 2010. Examine how Dragon brings home its messages (of unflinching tolerance, of giving a fair chance to a long considered enemy, of the possibility for anyone to rise to exceptional grace under pressure) with tremendous emotional clarity. The film also features the most amazing depictions of diving through the skies; the movie one-ups Avatar in this regard by utilizing likely a tenth of the budget. This film just spoke to me, at every level. And the delirious sense of joy it left me with has stuck with me more than six months after seeing the movie.

6. Hereafter  This film is not on anybody’s list of best movies, but I found it a deeply moving meditation. On finding closure from traumatizing events. And of the very human need to connect with others. Clint Eastwood can do no wrong as far as I am concerned; his string of fully realized and successfully executed films of mind-boggling diversity (in tone, in subject matter, in style) from the past six years, continues unabated. Eastwood chooses an uncharacteristically tempered (but ultimately right) pacing to tell the story of three geographically separated characters, each trying to deal with a personal affliction - and delivers something surprisingly complex. That this film dares to not provide all the answers is its greatest strength. There is a scene late in the film, of the interaction between two of the three principal characters that broke me down into spontaneous tears. Confirming again, Roger Ebert’s conviction that what moves us most in films is not the terribly tragic, but it is people doing good under impossible circumstances.

7. The King’s Speech  This is not your father’s stuffy James-Ivory British period piece. What it is though is an instant classic. I suspect people will be watching this movie five, ten, twenty years from now. The story of the relationship between an unwilling British monarch who stutters and his unconventional Speech Therapist hardly inspires must-see ardor. But like the best narratives in any medium, this one leaves you wondering afterward as to why nobody ever thought to tell this story before. From the get go, there are little treasures to be discovered in almost every scene of this movie - when you smile in admiration at what has been achieved with just solid, hard-working, filmmaking skills. Those who find this movie conventional are really missing the point: when you have a film this good, being unconventional seems irrelevant.

8. Black Swan  Like a tropical fruit left on the vine too long, this movie is gloriously, unapologetically pulpy. And what an overripe mango this is. That the film fails to fit comfortably in any genre (is it an All About Eve style ode to women clawing their way to the top?  is it a psychological thriller? is it a Rocky-like celebration of the underdog?  Or is it a flat out horror film even?) is its greatest asset. This movie may be a lot of things (indulgent, frustratingly non-committal, sleazy, manipulative), but one thing it is not is predictable; I loved how this film trumped my expectations at every corner, and took me on a wild ride. This is the story of a (physically and emotionally) fragile ballet dancer who after winning the highly coveted lead role in a new production of 'Swan Lake' is unable to handle the pressure of playing the dual role of the innocent white swan as well as (and particularly) the uninhibited, malevolent black swan. As she starts losing her grip on reality, so too the film starts to come unhinged. This is not for everyone, but for those seeking a trippy cinematic experience, you are in for a treat.

9. Band, Baaja, Baarat (Band! Drums! Wedding Procession!)  This 2010 Indian film is a minor miracle. Disguised as a thoroughly conventional entertainer (the quintessential masala film), it subversively drives a knife through the heart of one tired convention after another. And by doing so it joins the extraordinary new wave of movies that are bringing maturity to Indian cinema. When most Indian films are so fraught with insecurity that they feel compelled to cram as much content as possible into the three hour running time, this movie aspires to be only about one thing. About the relationship between two individuals fumbling on the path to a love they are unprepared to acknowledge or handle. And what the film does with these two characters is altogether revolutionary: it allows them to be real and flawed. It allows their character arcs to get complicatedly unpredictable, growing in directions contrary to their personalities. How else to explain the highly cynical female lead with a lifelong contempt of corny, exhausted concepts of love who finds to her horror that she may have to rethink her stand. Or the male lead who has always carried a torch for the girl, but after an unexpected night of intimacy with her, cannot reconcile his feelings toward her and starts to inch away. That an Indian film even dares to consider, as a plot device, the repercussions from a relationship that unexpectedly turns physical, is cause for celebration. And what glorious alignment of brilliant writing, acting and directing. Welcome, little movie, you can walk side by side with the few others in their march toward intelligent filmmaking from the Indian subcontinent. 

10. Waiting For Superman  There were many fine documentaries released this year, but none that carried a stronger emotional wallop for me than this one. While making a damning case for fixing a broken educational system in America (which includes a frighteningly imbalanced wielding of power by the Teachers' Union), the movie also wisely weaves its political stand with the real life stories of five kids struggling to buck the system by winning one of a few coveted slots in better schools - available through a lottery system. That one has to rely on lottery at all for better education speaks to how far we have come from the implicitly assumed right of every American child to a good education. And the suspense the film generates from the reveal of the eventual fate of each of these kids far exceeds anything in a fictional film this year; after all only the future lives of these kids is at stake. Like the best documentaries, this one has the ability to change our world. 

Honorable mention: What a great year for cinema that any of the following films could have just as easily stood proudly on best of the year lists: Blue Valentine, Fair Game, Mother and Child, City Island, Let Me In, Inside Job, Ghost Writer, Easy A, Ishqiya and True Grit.

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