Top Ten Movies of 2010 — Number One

Ree Dolly is a teenage girl living in the Missouri Ozarks. Her family has a modest shack, a smattering of belongings and a distinct lack of money. Her father is completely absent, and her mother exists in a haze of mental solitude, as if simply shut down. Ree has two younger siblings, a brother and a sister, who she is effectively called upon to parent, seeing that they have food on the table even if it means taking a pellet gun into the woods to hunt down any small rodents unfortunate enough to be in range. Ree is constantly instructing them in self-sufficiency, just in case some misfortune rips her away, a possibility that becomes more likely when the mystery of her father’s whereabouts puts what little the family owns on the line. With limited time available to her, Ree ventures out to try and put everything right, running afoul of dangerous factions in her own extended family. Adapted from a 2006 novel, director Debra Granik works with her co-writer Anne Rosellini to develop a vivid sense of place and community in Winter’s Bone. These clans that loathe the outside influence of law operate with their own rigidly enforced set of mores and protocols, unwritten but thoroughly understood rules that Ree pushes up against while searching for her errant father. Granik palpably conveys the currents of understated intimidation that hold the whole chilling system in place. It takes strength to persevere in this community, and that’s precisely what Jennifer Lawrence brings to the lead role, exhibiting an uneasy self-assurance developed out of necessity. She faces down the challenges of life with a hard veneer because that’s what’s required, but there are the slightest tremors of worry underneath. Lawrence has a welcome naturalism, a quality shared by the other professional actors in the cast–there are excellent supporting turns by John Hawkes, Dale Dickey and Garret Dillahunt–but especially vital in her interactions with the amateurs recruited by Granik. There are several of them filling in the cast and, in a reflection of their contributions, cited in the closing credits for providing “Additional Dialogue.” When Ree talks to an army recruiter, for example, the scene’s complete lack of artifice, its rejection of dressed up dialogue in favor of the mundane truthfulness of life, heightens the film’s already considerable authenticity. This is how these sorts of conversations actually play out, each and every day, and it is hard and stark and impactful enough on its own terms. That how Winter’s Bone operates, without exception. And that’s a major reason why Debra Granik’s film is the best of the year.

Top Ten Movies of 2010 — Number Two

Twenty years ago, I thought of the Coen brothers as cheeky titans of upending genres. They started their mutual career with a crime film, a broad comedy and a gangster picture, each of them adhering to the tropes of their respective genres while also spinning them around like they’d been tossed in a turbine. Joel and Ethan Coen were obviously impeccable cinematic craftsmen, but they also laced just enough satirical meta-commentary into the work to make sure the finished efforts were held at a certain remove. Much as I love those films, they operate with a slight lack of conviction, a hint to the audience that the filmmakers might be a little above it all. That aspect of their art has almost entirely slipped away, and their new version of True Grit stands as the latest, strongest evidence of that fact. Not a remake of the 1969 film that won John Wayne an Oscar (though at least one scene pays direct tribute to that predecessor), but a fresh adaptation of the Charles Portis novel from a couple years earlier, Ethan and Joel Coen’s film is as sturdy and stolid as many of the classic Hollywood westerns churned out by studios when tales of weathered cowboys ruled the box office. The Coens embrace the classic narrative style with an inspiring confidence, generating the thrills in their film from beautifully constructed interplay between characters and an expert unfolding of the plot. They also create verbal pyrotechnics by adhering closely to the original dialogue penned by Portis in his book, a shrewdly mannered and buoyantly intelligence bundling of marvelous words that admittedly hews closely to the style the brothers have perfected across their fourteen previous films. The work of the performers is crucial to the effectiveness of that language, and the Coens have assembled a game cast, including Jeff Bridges, a paragon of muttered discomposure as Marshal Rooster Cogburn; Matt Damon, oozing comic vanity as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf; and the film’s largely unsung but completely vital actor, Dakin Matthews as the horse trader Colonel Stonehill. It’s his scene with actress Hailee Steinfeld, playing the headstrong teenage girl out to avenge her father, that establishes her unyielding, impenetrable authority. After watching her talk circles around Stonehill, I believed this girl could get anything she wanted and turn the most grizzled souls to her side. The Coens have said they cast Steinfeld from a pool of thousands of contenders largely because she could handle the difficult dialogue. That’s readily apparent, but she also imbues Mattie Ross with a forcefulness that’s pure and compelling. The Coens could have taken all sorts of eccentric liberties with their film and still made something entertaining. But by being as true as their heroine, they’ve made something that can stand with the revered classics of the form.

Top Ten Movies of 2010 — Number Three

Beginning with a novel by Dennis Lehane that was adapted into a screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis, director Martin Scorsese built an intentional lurid psychological melodrama filled with existential trick shots and mental trap doors. After a decade of intensely focused cinematic storytelling, Shutter Island is the look of a great director at play, indulging himself in a grandiose attempt to recreate the sort of moody film noirs and florid Technicolor wonders that captivated him as a youth, their boldest, brashest qualities exponentially expanded by the happily insidious magnification of nostalgic memory. Scorsese paints the corners in shadow with a fervor that suggests he’s auditioning to part of Val Lewton’s stable of actors and constructs his narrative with the sort of Swiss watch precision that made Alfred Hitchcock an icon. The storyline is a cascade of unlikely madness. While other directors have approached adaptations of Lehane’s works blind to their improbabilities, Scorsese revels in them. He directs the film with a headlong joy in its spiritual anarchy. Every new character is an opportunity to spin the looking glass. It’s no accident that the actors making the briefest appearances–Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley and, having the time of his life, Ted Levine–are also the ones making the greatest impact. Their roles are jack-in-the-box game pieces, springing up in startling fashion to serve the machinations on the greater board. There’s also another exceptional performance by Leonardo DiCaprio, who proves his mettle anew in each collaboration with Scorsese. His haunted U.S. Marshal has some of the same harrowing tension as Billy Costigan in The Departed, but with a undertow of barely suppressed anguish. The role is wrenching and precarious, and DiCaprio unlocks it with fierce ingenuity. For all its feverish grimness, the movie is a devilish lark, an aspect underscored in the final act when the psychiatrist played by Ben Kingsley explains the ludicrously complicated plots within plots with a studious nonchalance. The emotions may be wildly intense, but in the end, the film itself seems to argue, it’s only a movie. Shutter Island just so happens to be a movie that’s clearly been made by a master of the form.

Top Ten Movies of 2010 — Number Four

It can be reasonably argued that the most fragile points of a relationship occur at the beginning and the end. Of course, the end is obvious: whatever rifts and strains existed have reached the point of devastating rupture, and every misstep is like a body blow to the durability of the shared affection. The beginning is precarious too, as the two people carefully get to know one another, gradually discovering whether their idiosyncrasies–a preference for morbidly dark jokes, a youthful impetuousness–will prompt appreciation or agitation. Part of the sharp insight of Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine is the intertwining of these two places in time. In depicting the courtship, marriage and miserable closing moments of a young couple named Dean and Cindy, Cianfrance alternates between two distinctly different stages that exist roughly six years apart. The obvious, simple way to flesh out his film would be to generate conflict by contrasting the blissful past with the dismal future, but Cianfrance doesn’t opt for that. As raw and tough as the film is in the scenes in which the marriage careens to its cold, hard end, the beginning isn’t portrayed as some candy-colored wonderland. As much charm as there is to scenes in which Dean pursues Cindy–especially the justly celebrated moment when he serenades her with his ukulele while she dances in a doorway–the film allows for a lot of complexity to the relationship, even at that point. Cianfrance famously had his actors lives together, a strategy that produced a remarkable connection with one another. They often interact with the sort of physical shorthand that is the hidden language of long-time couples. And those actors are both extraordinary. As Dean, Ryan Gosling has the edgy neediness of a kid who refused to grow up. Michelle Williams is even more extraordinary as Cindy, signaling her character’s changing frame of mind with every bit of her being, including deep wells of wounded hope in her eyes. Blue Valentine isn’t always fun to watch, exactly, but it does produce that thrill that only comes from truly great filmmaking.

Top Ten Movies of 2010 — Number Five

I’m not sure if there was ever a time when the general rule of thumb with sequels didn’t mandate adjusting expectations downward in rough accordance with the increasing number of installments. Even so, as the franchise mentality has almost entirely subsumed any sort of ambition in Hollywood magic-making, it’s appropriate to abandon any vestiges of hope that return visits by favorite characters will be handled with a level of inspiration beyond those usually devoted to examining focus group feedback sheets on the way to modifying laundry detergent packaging. Of course, it’s a different matter when the artists at Pixar are involved. Returning to the digitally drawn world that launched their efforts in feature animation fifteen years earlier, Pixar proved that diminishing returns aren’t a necessity when care and craft are brought to the creative process. Toy Story 3 stands with both of its mighty predecessors as a deeply felt, emotionally satisfying, giddily enjoyable movie that fully transcends any preconceptions that might be in place about its automatic inferiority as kids’ entertainment. Toy Story 3 doesn’t need to be graded on a curve. It’s not good “for what it is” in the way that routinely earns plaudits for other middling computer animated efforts that stand out for any hints of wit or charm. As directed by Lee Unkrich, the third time through with Woody, Buzz and their clan of sentient playthings is rife with excitement and ingenuity–nothing made me laugh harder in a movie theater this year than the heroic efforts of Mr. Pitahead–but it also cuts to the core of what has made these movies work wonderfully: the undying love the toys feel for their owner. The sense of abandonment they feel and the obsolescence they fear can be compared to any number of common human concerns, but it works quite well purely thinking of those emotions in the hearts and minds of the toys, at least for anyone who ever hugged a teddy bear with honest conviction.

Top Ten Movies of 2010 — Number Six

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An endlessly spinning top makes for about as fine a metaphor as could be cooked up for Christopher Nolan’s wildly imaginative, audaciously entertaining film about transforming the human subconscious into a playground for all manner of skulduggery. Inception is a big budget action movie that is fearlessly complicated, dragging the viewer along as its central challengers of constructed mental landscapes plumb layers upon layers of continually warping unreality. I can pay no greater compliment to Nolan and his execution of enough conceits to fill every spot on a roulette wheel than to note that I was freshly delighted every time he cut back to a shot of a van slowly plunging backwards into icy water, its progress towards the inevitable splash made in glacial increments as chaos unfolds on different levels of perception. Nolan packs his screenplay with vexing problems that add up to a grand puzzle that defies shortcut solutions, rendering sadly inadequate all of the many attempts at building an answer key that cropped up across the geek culture church that proselytizes all over the internet. A rollicking argument favoring the journey over the destination, Inception is a luxurious experience saturated in the impossible and echoing with the familiar high emotions that make lightning crash melodrama so alluring. The film is a collision between whirring intellect and the bass-thumping rhythms of uncontrollable passion. And anytime the fiction seems steady enough for the audience to get their collective footing, Nolan has provided himself the ability to literally spin the world, a tactic he employs with the gregarious joy of a born storyteller. Inception is a breathless example of the cinematic heights that can be reached when anything is possible.

Top Ten Movies of 2010 — Number Seven

When writing about the most impressive movies, it’s always tempting to to ascribe levels of nobility and import that may not actually be present. The impact of a movie is shaped by the feelings it stirs up, after all, and when a work is churning up emotions at the most potent, it can feel like its tapping into the universal and the unprecedented at the same time. The more intensely visceral the film is, the more likely it provokes reactions that can be hard to contain, or at least properly intellectualize. The documentary Restrepo, directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, takes that sort of fiercely concerted experience to a whole different strata, embedding with the Unites States military at one of the most dangerous fronts of the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan. They push in close to the action, closer than I ever recall seeing a camera get in a nonfiction film about war; spent shell casings are practically deflecting off the lens. Hetherington and Junger are determined to give the audiences the nearest possible equivalent experience to being in a firefight, driving through a war-torn region, wiling away the hours in a makeshift barracks and simply living every day as a soldier whose life is on the line in an unpredictable land where every bit of progress is met with twice the amount of setbacks. Even as the directors’ efforts deliver incredible moments and staggering scenes, the film is an open admission of the impossibility of capturing the futility, the boredom, the frustration, the terror, the loneliness, the adrenalized courage, the pride, the camaraderie, the patriotism and the turmoil of the time these servicemen spend on the battlefield. The film is resolutely apolitical, taking no stance on the wisdom or agenda of this particular conflict. Except to the degree that every war film is an anti-war film, Restrepo passes no judgment on the act of war itself. It simply acknowledges it, observes it and carries anyone who watches closer to the conflict than is reasonably comfortable. Of course, that discomfort is the goal and the film’s great accomplishment.