Cole Smithey's Top Ten Films of 2010

City Pulse | January 4, 2011
2010 was a year of surprises at the cinema, not all of them good. Hollywood's vulgar attempts at leveraging 50% more from box office ticket prices with marginal 3D effects only exposed the lacking storylines they hoped to bolster. Even the staunchest fans of the overrated "Toy Story 3" had to concede its 3D effects were less than inspiring. Movie abominations were in plentiful supply. The M. Night Shyama-ding-dong string of train wrecks rolled on with "The Last Airbender," while "Sex in the City 2" had something to offend audiences in every social strata. Julia Roberts crashed and burned in "Eat Pray Love." Sofia Coppola's unredeemable "Somewhere" had critics like Roger Ebert fawning over what is in effect a black hole of self-indulgence and narrative indolence.

However, an unprecedented February introduced gutsy thrillers from Polanski and Scorsese during the same week. It was too early in the year for audiences to grasp the significance of "Shutter Island"--a far better psychological thriller than "Inception"--but Scorsese's film easily made it into my top ten. It's more than I can say for David Fincher's entertaining "Social Network," but Olivier Assayas's abbreviated version of his three-part mini series "Carlos" would have filled my imaginary eleventh spot anyway. Choosing my top ten films of 2010 was easier than in recent years based on the undeniable strength of movies that audiences will discover, savor, and return to for many years to come. Here are the ten best films of 2010:

TEN - Winter's Bone: Relative newcomer Jennifer Lawrence delivers an unforgettable performance as Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old Ozark girl who cares for her mentally disabled mother and two younger siblings. Ree's hardscrabble rural existence is threatened by legal machinations which threaten to repossess her home and wooded land if her outlaw father Jessup fails to appear for a court date. Desperate to track down her crystal-meth-producing dad Ree must request the assistance of coldhearted relatives who treat her with more than passing contempt. Co-writer/director Debra Granik takes full advantage of the harsh Missouri landscape in order to examine the cruel mindset of some of the meanest people you'll ever encounter on or off the big screen. Gothic in tone and unapologetically downbeat, "Winter's Bone" is a film that turns over a rock of backwoods American reality and studies the beautiful and ugly things that crawl there with equal interest.

NINE - The Kids Are Alright: The mid-life parenting crisis of a lesbian couple is the narrative cornerstone for a memorable comedic family drama by writer/director Lisa Cholodenko. Together for 20 years, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) raise their teenage children Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and Joni (Mia Wasilkowska) in the comfort of their Los Angeles home. Nic is a doctor; Jules is starting her own landscaping business. Laser hangs out with a juvenile bully while 18-year-old Joni tracks down the man who anonymously donated his sperm that gave her and her brother life. Groovy Paul (Mark Ruffalo) is a motorcycle-riding restaurateur with a passion for locally grown vegetables and a bevy of attractive women who rotate around him. When fireworks ignite between Jules and Paul, the story turns into an exploration of desire, honesty, and loyalty in an unconventional familial setting.

EIGHT - 127 Hours: "127 Hours" is based on mountain climber Aron Ralston's memoir about his misadventure in Utah's Canyonlands National Park where he became trapped by a boulder and was forced to cut off his own arm in order to save his life. Director Danny Boyle is a master of movement. He understands how stagnate objects can come to life. Boyle reaches an expressive moment of such physicality when James Franco's Aron Ralston runs through a snaking rock crevasse in the Moab desert. He runs his hand--ostensibly the one he will lose--along a smooth continuous wall of ancient rock. It gives the audience a particular type of tactile satisfaction that pulses with the foreshadowing of the inciting incident that must come when a rock will pin Aron for more than six days. Watching how the director uses a full arsenal of visual and sonic cinematic devices at the service of a terrifying situation is deeply engrossing. You won't soon forget the experience.

SEVEN - Blue Valentine: Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams credibly play a young married couple--Dean and Cindy--whose relationship is falling apart in director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance's heavyweight romantic drama. Housepainter Dean (Gosling) is a caring father to the couple's young daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka). The pressures of working as a nurse constantly on call have made Cindy deeply unsatisfied with her marriage and role as a mother. The filmmakers use a flashback motif to show a series of events and adventures that led the couple to marry under less-than-ideal circumstances. The emotional and sexual vibrancy between Gosling and Williams is unavoidable. Sex is a significant ingredient in the film. The emotionally honest scenes of lovemaking are exquisitely executed to give depth and meaning to the relationship. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are two of the finest young American actors working in film today.

SIX - The Fighter: Part biopic and part untraditional character study, "The Fighter" is an immaculately executed film about two lower-class brothers whose common ground unites them through personal struggles. Based on real-life sibling boxers Mickey Ward and Dicky Eklund, the movie, set in Lowell, Massachusetts, examines problematic familial loyalties. Mickey (Mark Wahlberg) is a junior welterweight contender in a family boxing business run by his busy-body mother Alice (Melissa Leo). Micky's older half-brother and personal trainer Dicky (amazingly played by the estimable Christian Bale) is a crack addict and former fighter who carries around his reputation for knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard during a 1978 match as an eternal badge of honor. Following a break from boxing, the nearly over-the-hill Mickey attempts to stage a last-chance comeback. There's a gritty rawness in the portrayal of marginalized people used to fighting for everything they have.

FIVE - Black Swan: Darren Aronofsky's voyeuristic psychological thriller about a prima ballerina's descent into madness employs the same subjective dancer's-point-of-view that gave "The Red Shoes" its sense of frenetic authenticity. Natalie Portman delivers the most dazzling performance of her career as Nina, a ballet dancer determined to prove to her manipulative choreographer that she possesses the duality of the Swan Queen role in his version of Swan Lake. To do so she must possess dueling identities as the innocent "White Swan" and the erotically-if-demon-possessed "Black Swan." The ubiquitous Vincent Cassel dominates in his role as New York City Ballet choreographer Thomas Leroy. Leroy bullies, neglects, and seduces Nina into expanding mental and physical boundaries set by her neurotic mother Erica (Barbara Hershey). Nina still lives at home with mom in their Manhattan apartment. In this dysfunctional home setting, echoes of "Carrie" reverberate along with abstract corporeal elements that tip toward Cronenberg's cinema-of-the-body surrealism.

FOUR - Vincere: "Vincere" means "victory," and its import becomes apparent during the young Benito Mussolini's passionate affair with a woman named Ida Dalser. Ida sells all of her property and possessions to finance the propaganda-driven newspaper that Mussolini (Filippo Timi) dreams of starting in 1914. In spite of birthing Mussolini's first-born child in 1915--a boy bearing his father's name--Ida is rejected by the would-be dictator after he marries another woman. When she publicly demands to be recognized as his first wife and mother to his heir, Mussolini exiles Ida and their son to her sister's guarded house from which she continually writes begging letters to public officials. The filmmaker makes fantastic use of historic archive footage of Mussolini, along with brilliantly stylized sequences of tragic beauty, to give the film an epic scope that mints itself in the viewers mind. The terrible suffering that Ida endures becomes a kind of totem upon which the hopes and dreams of Italy are set asunder by its maniacal leader.

THREE - Shutter Island: For his forty-fifth film Martin Scorsese crafts a gorgeously stylized psychological thriller full of darkly lush horror that torments its obsessed protagonist. As former World War II vet turned U.S. Marshal "Teddy" Daniels, Leonardo DiCaprio hits every psychological mark that Scorsese dynamically orchestrates against a vast metaphorical natural and unnatural setting. "Shutter Island," a Boston Harbor land mass, circa 1954, contains a private prison hospital for the criminally insane. There, a female inmate named Rachel Solondo has escaped from her unbroken cell. Teddy and his first-time partner U.S. Marshall Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) arrive on the fog-shrouded isle to investigate the patient's disappearance. "Shutter Island" is a complex mystery that exponentially folds back on itself during its shocking third act. America's most accomplished and inspired director makes yet another truly absorbing picture.

TWO - True Grit: Ethan and Joel Coen adapt Charles Portis's novel with so much humorous panache and deathly reason that you can't help but give yourself over completely to the movie. More than just filling John Wayne's shoes in what was his greatest performance, in Henry Hathaway's 1969 original "True Grit," Jeff Bridges creates a more believable character as U.S. Marshal Ruben Cogburn a.k.a. "Rooster Cockburn." With a leather eye-patch covering his blind right-eye Rooster is a man with "grit." It's an elusive quality of calculated confidence in everything he does that draws 14-year-old Mattie Ross (brilliantly played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) to him. As with "Fargo," there's a steely spine of feminist thought at play. "True Grit" is one damned fine western that's better than the original.

ONE - The American: Anton Corbijn crafts a sexy and taught European thriller about an assassin on a mission in the remote Abruzzo region of Italy. George Clooney is Jack, an aging hit man on the run from a group of dangerous Swedes who inexplicably want to kill him. Clooney plays his character of walking contradictions with an alternating intensity and sensitivity that registers with a rigor that's a delight to savor. His mercurial performance represents his finest work in an already accomplished career. Anton Corbijn's intuitive sense of scale and composition create an unforgettable regard for a unique region of Italian culture where, in this case, earthy romance and unseen danger collide. "The American" is a perfect espionage thriller.

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