10) HOT TUB TIME MACHINE (Written by Josh Heald & Sean Anders & John Morris; Directed by Steve Pink)
This mostly-1986-set/all-‘80s-spoofing movie should not have been that good, let alone great. The obvious title, the ridiculous throwbacks, the ludicrous plotline and jokes… All of this shouldn’t have worked. But the solid cast (from ‘80s comedy prince John Cusack to Office and Apatow alum Craig Robinson and Childrens Hospital creator Rob Corddry to icons-of-the-time Chevy Chase, Crispin Glover, Billy Zabka) kept the mood light and casual, acknowledging that this was all too stupid to take seriously. Even as a “high concept” (a Hollywood term for an idea that could have only been conceived while inebriated) film, Hot Tub Time Machine turned out to be best straight-up comedy of the year.
9) PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 (Written by Michael R. Parrty & Christopher Landon & Tom Pabst; Directed by Tod Williams)
Yeah, it was pretty much the same thing, but this prequel/sequel did do a great job of maintaining the psychological terror that made the first one so fascinating. The minimalist moviemaking was expanded just enough to include a full family, most endearingly a dog and baby (to really dig at our fearful sensibilities). Though the ending of the Oren Peli's original was far spookier, I would say that Paranormal Activity 2 is consistently more thrilling, quickly picking up the momentum of where the first one left one and upping the game (as sequels are wont to do). I’m actually curious enough that I’ll probably check out this year’s third installment.
8) GREENBERG (Written by Noah Baumbach & Jennifer Jason Leigh; Directed by Noah Baumbach)
Noah Baumbach is the king of slow-drip dramedy, having scored well with Kicking And Screaming and The Squid & The Whale, both powerful glimpses at awkwardness, doubt and insight amongst socially dysfunctional adults, usually from wealthy East Coast towns. Greenberg nicely mixes this Atlantic attitude with a West Coast setting, and Baumbach continues to mix humility and humanity into his humor with a grace few possess. Ben Stiller (playing a former mental patient who comes home to L.A. from N.Y.C. to do specifically nothing) proves that he can still do a great job of acting with nuance and subtlety (remember Permanent Midnight and The Royal Tenenbaums?), and Greta Gerwig matches his inexplicable strangeness with her own like it ain’t no thing. Every year of film is filled with idiosyncratic little movies about the emotionally existential crises that occur amongst everyday people, but few actually transcend the genre and work as simply great cinema. Greenberg is a rare exception, a winning comedy about spiritual inertia and hesitation that also has plenty of juicy dramatic moments to remind us of how weird we people can be to each other.
7) TRUE GRIT (Written for the screen by The Coen Brothers, based on the novel by Charles Portis; Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen)
The Coen Brothers again fail to disappoint, sticking close to Portis's novel (that was also the basis for the 1969 film that finally won John Wayne an Oscar) and staying devoted to a genre instead of subverting it. I’m not going to bother comparing the two films, because they’re way different beasts. But the fine performances from Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper and especially Hailee Steinfeld, and the astonishing cinematography by Coen Bros. regular Roger Deakins, make for one well-crafted Western, a surprisingly funny story of revenge and a harsh critique about survival. Can’t wait to see what you unleash upon us next, Two-Headed Director, but thanks for wrapping up 2010 so sweetly.
6) SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (Written for the screen by Michael Bacall & Edgar Wright, based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley; Directed by Edgar Wright)
Michael Cera has slowly but steadily been expanding beyond his bumbling-nervous George Michael archetype that made him famous in the first place, and he does so to his best effect here. After slightly missing the adaptation of Youth In Revolt (still a good one, just nowhere near as good as the book), he redeems himself by teaming with Shaun Of The Dead/Hot Fuzz director Wright and completely nailing it when it came time to translate O’Malley’s beloved slacker hero into a silver screen champion. The supporting players are perfectly cast, and I can’t imagine how they could have pulled this movie off any better. It didn’t do well at the box office, but I don’t know if I had more fun at the theater this year. Here’s hoping it becomes the cult classic it ought to be.
5) 127 HOURS (Written by Simon Beaufoy & Danny Boyle, based on the novel "Between a Rock and a Hard Place" by Aron Ralston; Directed by Danny Boyle)
Despite loving most of Danny Boyle’s work, I was not the biggest fan of Slumdog Millionaire, a movie that robbed far more deserving ones of Best Picutre awards. But damn if he didn’t make up for it with this one, turning a true story about a guy getting his arm trapped beneath a boulder into something not only exciting but also affecting. Boyle and über-artist James Franco deliver some of their finest work by vividly and crazily recapturing the five most harrowing days of Aron Ralston’s life. Largely centered on Franco’s flawless performance (and Boyle’s continued use of strangely articulate camera shots), I’m hoping this one above all else gets the major nominations. And notice I haven’t even mentioned the inevitable but still climactic ending, one of the most cringe-worthy endings of the decade.
4) THE SOCIAL NETWORK (Written by Aaron Sorkin, based on "The Accidental Billionaires" by Ben Mezrich; Directed by David Fincher)
I don’t want to encourage David Fincher if it’s true that the fantastic first scene of “Facebook The Film” took 99 takes to finish, but being a perfectionist does pay off, and it speaks volumes about what the drive to create something can do to a person. The story of the rise of a powerful new type of asshole isn’t actually a biopic about the real Mark Zuckerberg per se; Sorkin merely wanted to define the cynicism and drive within the past decade of youth culture and found a perfectly nonpolitical way to do so by using the creation of Facebook as the backdrop for a rise to power/fall to disgrace story. Jesse Eisenberg gives his greatest performance by unhinging the sensitivity that usually accompanies him and unleashing it with powerful dialogue and disapproving stares that make him one of the finest actors of my generation. The supporting players are just as fun to watch (I especially loved Armie Hammer as both of the Winklevoss twins), but I’m sure it’s Eisenberg who’s gonna get all the awards for this picture.
3) TOY STORY 3 (Written by Michael Arndt & John Lasseter & Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich; Directed by Lee Unkrich)
Probably the best opening scene of the year, definitely the best 3-Dquel of the year (take that Piranha and Jackass) and undoubtedly the best family film in a long while – Toy Story 3 was a winning achievement all around. The screenplay was written by the guy who wrote Little Miss Sunshine, which may account for its dramatic touches. Toy Story 3, for all its adventurism and enthusiasm for imagination, is a surprisingly effective meditation on how time marches on (even for timeless seeming toys), while continuing the series's trend of reminding us of the fact that love does not always sustain the its same level of intensity over time (though the strong sense of sentimentality will continue to creep on those still affected by something as simple as a toy). It’s nice that Pixar has taken their time with the Toy Story sequels, because each has been just as good as the first (which was the first completely computer animated feature-length film made, opening the floodgates for all kinds of family fare – the good, bad and ugly) – in fact, the third is arguably the best yet. Not just the top-grossing film of the year, Toy Story 3 is everything a cartoon (and indeed, a movie) should be – it’s seldom that a third installment of any franchise is so competent. And how cool is it of Disney & Pixar to keep kickin’ it old school by also giving us another brilliant animated short (this time, Day & Night) before the main attraction?
2) INCEPTION (Written & Directed by Christopher Nolan)
Wow, Christopher Nolan, you just won’t stop, will you? Inception was the thrill ride of the year, a cinematic coup de grace against dreams themselves, spinning a what-it-is-it-ain’t subconscious heist film not quite like any other. From the shoot-‘em-‘up-ski-‘em-down to the taking-forever-for-that-van-to-fall-off-that-bridge sequences, the astonishing visuals are some of the most memorable in Nolan’s already adventurous career. Great performances from a stellar ensemble cast, and every scene generates more momentum than the last, until it all comes to a dizzying end, the kind that demands immediate rewatching. The fact that this was all a little detour while Nolan prepares to follow up the amazing Dark Knight with the last of his Batman trilogy makes this feat all the more impressive (then again, there’s a reason we all expected this to be the biggest movie of the summer – The Prestige was Nolan’s “little film” hot off the heels of Batman Begins, and look how that turned out).
1) BLACK SWAN (Written by Mark Heyman & Heinz & John J. McLaughin; Directed by Darren Aronofsky)
Darren Aronofksy’s really been coming into his own all over again with his last two features. Don’t get me wrong, I love each of the man’s movies, but The Fountain was fairly impenetrable, and I was wondering just where the weirdo director was going to go after that. But then came The Wrestler, which was about as mainstream as we’ve seen the man come (it was still a very brutal movie going experience, but certainly easier to follow than Pi). And then he’s come forth with what might be his best film of all, maybe better than Requiem For A Dream even. A strange and nightmarish recreation of Tchaikovsky’s beloved ballet Swan Lake, Black Swan is ostensibly about a girl vying for a coveted part amongst her fellow dancers but really about the darkness within each of us finding a way to emerge. Matthew Libatque’s camerawork and Clint Mansell’s score help the director push his star (a toned, twirling and teetering Natalie Portman) towards a chaotic climax, making for one harrowing and haunting trip all along the way. Not a frame is wasted in this vision of physical madness and mental descent.