2010: A Cinematical Retrospective

Oh hello,

I'm just sitting at a six-years obsolete computer, drinking coffee, firing off emails, and generally slacking off on my last day of 2010 (pronounced "twenty-ten," because it sounds more futuristic and therefore awesome). And seeing as I have just over 12 hours of free time before I have to start committing to my New Year's resolution--whatever that may be--I figure it wouldn't hurt to rattle off my lists of whatever burned down the (movie) house this year. Beware of spoilers, naturally.

So, without further ado:

The Five Best Films of 2010:

5.) Black Swan, Directed by Darren Aronofsky
A confession: despite being hailed as a seminal work of body horror, David Cronenberg's The Fly never made me cringe. I love it, of course, but certain celebrated sequences like Jeff Goldblum pulling his own fingernails off didn't have the effect on me as it does with most others I've spoken with on the subject of that movie. Actually, until Black Swan I never thought anything related to fingernail removal--sans yours truly doing the actual physical act--would make be squeamish. Thanks, Aronofsky. Though marketed as a psychological thriller--which it certainly is, no doubt--Black Swan is also body horror at its finest. I never considered the twisted, even contortionist nature of ballet until seeing this film, and that notion will probably be in my mind for long afterward. 

4.) Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Directed by Edgar Wright
Edgar Wright's third feature film, an adaptation of Toronto comic artist Bryan Lee O'Malley's series, was probably too idiosyncratic to win over a large audience, hence its box office bombing, but it's an incredibly endearing flick, essentially a musical with over-the-top fight sequences instead of song-and-dance numbers, and one that both trashes and embraces indie/nerd culture. Michael Cera steps out of his comfort zone and plays a character that, at least for part of the flick, has some actual cajones, lending to some chuckle worthy moments (e.g. leaping off his couch to accuse Brandon Routh of being a "cocky cock!!!"). Extra kudos to Kieran Culkin for pulling off one of the few casually gay characters in Hollywood, and to Ellen Wong for being both cute and terrifying.

3.) The Social Network, Directed by David Fincher
If you told me a year ago that one of my favourite movies of 2010 would have been the story of Facebook, I might have laughed in your face--which is saying something, considering I much prefer to laugh at myself. Granted, I wasn't even on the titular social network at that time, but I couldn't possibly see how a movie about a website would make much sense; it was too soon, if nothing else. But then I heard David Fincher, one of the best directors of the past two decades, was at the helm, and then I learned the one-man-band himself Trent Reznor was scoring the film, I was intrigued. It was the theatrical trailer, a montage of intense conversational snippets set to an unsettling choral rendition of Radiohead's "Creep," that convinced me this movie would be of the utmost quality. The Social Network has nearly everything I look for in a movie: engrossing dialogue, an against-the-grain musical score, and--this is going to sound cliche--star-making performances from Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield. Also, you know Justin Timberlake's made it as an actor when you don't remember he was once in N'Sync until partway through the end credits.

2.) The Town, Directed by Ben Affleck
I was pleased after first seeing The Town. I felt it was a great film, though maybe not as good as Affleck's 2007 directorial debut Gone Baby Gone. It was Heat, albeit set in Boston and with fewer characters, a solid heist thriller that wasn't as introspective as that other film but definitely worth a purchase. But rewatching it at home, specifically Alffeck's nearly half hour-longer cut, I truly appreciated The Town in all of its intricacies. I haven't read Prince of Thieves, Chuck Hogan's novel upon which this film is based, so I don't know how much of the dialogue was adapted verbatim, paraphrased, or added, but the movie's conversations have a genuine rhythm, brought to life by the regional accents donned by Affleck and most of the primary cast. On top of that you have solid performances by all of the leads, especially Jeremy Renner as Jem Coughlin, taking the otherwise tired "loose cannon" archetype and making something likeable and strangely humorous out of it. Affleck takes the cake, though. Ever since seeing Chasing Amy, I've asserted that the guy has the proper acting chops, provided he has good direction. In 1997, said direction was Kevin Smith's. Now it's his own, and he anchors the movie without it seeming like a vanity project.

1.) Inception, Directed by Christopher Nolan
This took a lot of consideration. Though Inception thrilled me--and has continued to thrill me since--the moment I walked out of the theatre, I've frequently wondered if I just got sucked in by the hype. For all the--hopefully not wasted--hours I invest in pondering the themes and craft of certain movies, I nevertheless get swept up by their more emotional aspects, my appreciation of a certain movie perhaps fueled by adrenaline and maybe not perceived in an objective light. However, watching Inception in my dad's intimidating home theatre, I concluded that it was, even if by a close margin, my favourite film of the year, one that is both philosophically ponderous and intensely emotional--what The Matrix could have been. This movie consumed a decade of Chris Nolan's life, and it shows. Nolan leaves much up to interpretation without it seeming like he doesn't know the answers to his own questions, and you have a great cast all around. I could go on and praise Inception in all its aspects but that would require another blog post entirely, so I'll just leave you with see this damn movie.

The Three Best Performances of 2010:

3.) The Social Network--Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg
If Eisenberg's performance secures Best Actor award at the Oscars, it will not be for, as Brokeback Mountain author Annie Proulx once accused, an act of mimicry. Eisenberg's Zuckerberg is only like the real man insofar as general appearance and a sense of detachment. The real Zuckerberg, as I've seen in numerous videos, comes off as an unassuming nerd out of his element. What Eisenberg loses in accuracy he makes up for with intensity and some of the most articulate wordplay I've heard in years. He's the ultimate spurned geek, a strangely intimidating mixture of envy, indignation and, even, suppressed rage. His best, and simultaneously most hilarious and chilling moment, comes during a deposition scene when he declares his accusers to be incompetent, even idiots, accented with "Did I adequately answer your condescending question?" I will not be surprised if this clip accompanies the mention of his name at the Oscars this year.

2.) Shutter Island--Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels
I was eight when James Cameron's Titanic hit theatres and, repulsed by it's super-sappy tone, I declared my eternal contempt for anyone involved in its production, including leads Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Thirteen years later, I count both of them among my favourite actors, DiCaprio having first entranced me during his performance as a South African smuggler in Blood Diamond, and won me over as the pesky but likeable Billy Costigan in The Departed. With Shutter Island, he's put in a performance I feel is worth of Best Actor. His take on Daniels is verbal and intense, which some might regard as annoying, even overacting, but I genuinely enjoy seeing characters pushed to their absolute limits, as Daniels is during the course of the film. One wonderful moment sees him effectively intimidating a violent mental patient through pencil scratches, quiet accusations and an unbroken stare--grating even on my nerves. Shutter Island, both Lehane's novel and Scorsese's adaptation, are certainly not the first to use the twist ending that has drawn some derision, but both were wise to imbue the affected character with as much emotional resonance as possible, which Leo portrays wonderfully.

1.) Black Swan--Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers
It's funny, but Natalie Portman's first critically acclaimed role, that of young, wannabe hitman Mathilda in Léon, is in some ways the inverse of the performance that nabbed the top spot on my list a decade and a half later. Her Mathilda was wise beyond her years, opposite the emotionally retarded title character played by Jean Reno, and possessed all the attributes that came with such wisdom: adaptability, a--naturally unsettling--sexuality and even a kind of death wish that, understandably, doesn't quite often accompany child roles. On the flip side, Nina Sayers is very much a child: virginal, unassuming and, for most of the film, an island of innocence. Metamorphosis is a central theme of Black Swan, be it transforming from child to adult, obedience to rebellion, or White Swan to Black Swan, and Portman engages in each one of these transformations, with Sayers not merely playing but becoming the title character in the film's final moments. But so far I've only described one side of the role. Portman's performance is also intensely physical, dancing all but the most complex moves, all the while horrified by the--imagined?--changes her body endures throughout. I'm putting my--metaphorical, of course--money forward for her winning Best Actress this year.

The Three Best Soundtracks of 2010:

3.) Shutter Island--Various, Arranged by Robbie Robertson
Shutter Island lacks a traditional score, with Robertson (of The Band!) assembling a cohesive compilation from various 20th century composers, including some abstract and experimental works by John Cage and Nam Jun Paik. 

2.) Tron: Legacy--Daft Punk
Tron: Legacy was a pleasant surprise, a fun, well-crafted flick featuring Jeff Bridges as, as best as I can describe, a stoned cyber-wizard. But it's major appeal was the Daft Punk-scored soundtrack, one that is both a throwback to 80s electronica--tell me you can't hear a little bit of Blade Runner--and enjoyable even without the nostalgia factor. So kudos to everybody's French electronic duo, for composing one of the few movie scores with a house beat.

1.) The Social Network--Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
I own all the major Nine Inch Nails releases, have seen NIN perform live, and regard The Fragile as the soundtrack to my life, so I might be biased when I say there was no way in Hell the score to a David Fincher movie composed by Trent Reznor wouldn't be the best this year. And it is. Reznor and Ross draw from their work on the NIN instrumental-only album, Ghosts I-IV, at one point sampling "35 Ghosts IV" as "A Familiar Taste," and the end result is a paradoxically organic and industrial soundscape. Reznor and Ross' work underscores many of the scenes with ambient unease, even if it's as something as mundane as a deposition hearing. Choice tracks include "In Motion," a piece that hearkens back to the earlier days of video games, and "The Gentle Hum of Anxiety," with what is possibly the most self-explanatory song title in the history of music.

The Five Best Cinematic Moments of 2010:

5.) The Town--Jem Coughlin's Standoff
The last stand of James "Jem" Coughlin in Ben Affleck's crime drama reminds me of nearly every time I've had a go at any game in the Grand Theft Auto series: surrounded by the fuzz, low on ammo, and having committed some serious felonies. Which is not to say that Jem's blaze of glory is some adolescent power fantasy put to celluloid. Rather, it's an intense, darkly hilarious climax that hits all the right notes: he chases Jon Hamm's FBI Agent Frawley around a car, firing his Tec-9 wildly; when cornered behind a newspaper box and ordered to throw down his weapon, he pauses and responds with a distant, mostly off-camera "Fack you;" and when he realizes the jig is up, he gulps down a half-empty cup of Coke lying nearby before shouting "I SURRENDER!!!", rising with both guns ready to fire. He's dead before he hits the ground, the violence over so quickly it's hard to process.

4.) Black Swan--The Swan Lake Performance
The climax to Darren Aronofsky's psychological thriller takes place over the four acts of Tchaikovsky's famous ballet. Though understandably compressed, this performance can be appreciated even by itself: wonderfully choreographed and shot, immersing me in the rhythm and flow of the ballet. It embodied the film's tone, a blend of terror and grace, and I could hardly breathe for its duration--though maybe this was because the laptop playing the film was resting on my chest. Still, magnificent.

3.) Scott Pilgrim vs. The World--"Launchpad McQuack"
Edgar Wright's adaptation goes from quirky dialogue comedy to an in-your-face musical-with-fistfights within the first five minutes, the whole film shifting gears without a clutch (a largely outdated, but still satisfying, idiom) as Alison Pill as Kim Pine screams "WE ARE SEX BOB-OMB!! ONE! TWO!! THREE!!! FOUR!!!!" and the best theme song of the year blasts into sonic existence. The ensuing pull-back shot, accompanied by Mark Webber's muffled vocals and the film's retro aesthetic title, amps up the adrenaline and you're quickly plunged into the frenetic, possibly seizure-inducing opening titles. It's strange saying this, but I've never enjoyed opening titles as much as I have with this movie.

2.) Shutter Island--Teddy's Second Dream
When watching movies, I often look for moments of pure cinema--that is, when all the elements of filmmaking (acting, writing, cinematography, sound, editing and direction) come together in a wonderfully holistic fashion. Scorsese, being a master of all things awesome, crafted such a moment in Shutter Island as Teddy Daniels slips into his second dream of the film, a rather Lynchian scene taking place largely in snowswept Dachau, underscored by John Cage's "Root of an Unfocus." Since watching this sequence, I can no longer tolerate listening to that jarring piece late at night.

1.) Inception--The Rotating Hallway
In 1968, Stanley Kubrick used a slowly rotating set, complete with fixed camera, to bring the artificial gravity centrifuge of the Discovery to life in 2001: A Space Odyssey--to date one of the most impressive practical effects in film history. Christopher Nolan took it a step further in Inception by having former-child-star-turned-badass Joseph Gordon-Levitt duke it out with a stuntman as the hallway set turned on its axis. The sequence was one of the few to have me physically thrashing about in my seat in amazement, professing my love for Chris Nolan. Since the movie's theatrical release, I've probably watched that scene in particular ten times as much as the whole film itself, and it still blows me away for the same reason: when Christopher Nolan needs to create the impression that an environment is spinning on its axis, he does exactly that. Counter-intuitive, really. Oh, and one more thing: Best. Fight scene. Ever.

Well, that's out of the way. Here's looking at a fine 2011, folks!

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