Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Best of 2010, Part 1: Top 20, Zen Awards

Well hello there! Writing on this blog sort of feels like dressing up in full Aztec regalia and prancing around Mexico City: it happened frequently a long time ago, but doing it now just makes me feel a bit strange. That being said, I've been posting about my favorite movies of the year since I was fifteen, and I sure ain't gonna stop now. So, here begin the Zen Awards: the name sucks, I know, but tradition, dammit. Today, I'll do the best movies of the year, plus my annual silly awards. Tomorrow will come directing, acting, and screenplays (or just directing and screenplay if I'm feeling lazy). Next will be technical citations, and I'll finish up with my dream-Oscar ballot. Should be fun!
So, it occurred to me that y'all never really know what movies I've seen. I always preface posts like these with "I haven't seen ____" statements. This year, I believe in transparency. I'll list all the movies I've seen from the 2010 calendar year. If you wonder why some film/performance/whatever isn't included in some upcoming list, check to see if I've seen it. Chances are, I haven't. And, if I have, and you still wonder why I'm not talking about it, then chances are your movie taste sucks. Ok, that was a joke, but I'll stand by it. Argue with me! So here they are:
127 Hours, Alice in Wonderland, Animal Kingdom, Another Year, Black Swan, Blue Valentine, Buried, Burlesque, The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Clash of the Titans, Conviction, Country Strong, Date Night, Despicable Me, Dogtooth, Easy A, Edge of Darkness, Exit Through the Gift Shop, The Expendables, The Fighter, Frozen, The Ghost Writer, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Green Zone, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, How to Train Your Dragon, Howl, I Am Love, Inception, Iron Man 2, The Kids Are All Right, The King's Speech, The Last Airbender, Lebanon, Legion, Let Me In, Letters to Juliet, Love and Other Drugs, Machete, Monsters, Never Let Me Go, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Piranha, Please Give, Rabbit Hole, Red, Red Hill, Restrepo, Robin Hood, Salt, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Secretariat, Shrek Forever After, Shutter Island, The Social Network, Somewhere, Splice, Tangled, The Town, Toy Story 3, TRON Legacy, True Grit, Unstoppable, Winter's Bone, The Wolfman
Well, there are your contenders. Now let's get to it, shall we?
The Best Films of 2010
20. I Am Love
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Not a perfect movie, but beautifully designed and realized. Guadagnino's tale of sexual repression and xenophobia among Italian billionaires is dazzlingly acted and wonderful to look at.

19. Buried
Directed by Rodrigo Cortes
This movie has the balls to drop Ryan Reynolds in a box for 90 minutes and just leave him there. the claustrophobia is palpable. I could have done with a better script (sans snake attacks, for instance), but the sheer chutzpah of the one location/one character premise is impressive.

18. Red Hill
Directed by Patrick Hughes
This utterly delightful mash-up of the Western and Cop drama genres, with its own distinct Australian flavor, had me grinning from square one. The film is wonderfully shot, full of (intentionally?) ridiculous action, and solid performances. Plus, it has a shootout in which a boomerang is involved. Only in Australian movies, man.

17. Please Give
Directed by Nicole Holofcener
Holofcener's quietly observed comedy about a woman with too much politically correct heart to succeed in her profession as a post-mortem apartment scavenger is both scathingly amusing. The ensemble performance drags this movie toward something nearing greatness.

16. The King's Speech
Directed by Tom Hooper
Handsomely mounted, efficiently directed, well-performed, with a fantastically literate screenplay. The King's Speech is a great little time at the movies with an uplifting climax. I just wish it weren't going to win best picture.

15. True Grit
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
True Grit is a lesser Coen film, to be sure. That being said, even a lesser Coen film is better than many directors can even dream of accomplishing. Aided by demigod cinematographer Roger Deakins and a performance from Jeff Bridges far more Oscar-worthy than his Crazy Heart hamming, True Grit provides images and moments to stick with you long after other films have evaporated. The film missteps occasionally, and it lacks a strong emotional impact, but the film succeeds as a Swiss watch of film craftsmanship.

14. Exit Through the Gift Shop
Directed by Banksy
Banksy, best known for his guerrilla street art, comes to the multiplex with this strangely engrossing documentary. What begins as a film about the process of making such temporary art slowly morphs into a treatise on the definition of art itself, and where the line between art and cynical, manipulative images begins. This is easily one of the most entertaining films of the year, and it shines a spotlight on a rarely seen subculture.

13. Easy A
Directed by Will Gluck
I'm love a good comedy as much as the next guy; I'm just much more selective with what I consider 'good.' Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that Will Gluck's silly high-school movie is both incredibly funny and pretty damn smart. So many favorite moments; the best might involve the running gag about Huckleberry Finn, but as far as one-off moments go, it's hard to argue with the Quizno's Man accidentally infiltrating a protest ("not now, Quiznos!"). Add a star-making turn from Emma Stone and you've got the best, most intelligent comedy since Mean Girls.

12. The Fighter
Directed by David O. Russell
David O. Russell and a rockstar cast take material that could have been tired and melodramatic, and turn it into something fresh and alive. This film is really about the performances: Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, and Christian Bale all do their best to steal the show from Mark Wahlberg, A reliable (if less showy) lead. The true stars might be the gaggle of seven well-coiffed women who play Wahlberg's sisters. The film wanders down a few dark roads, but emerges victorious in the end.

11. The Ghost Writer
Directed by Roman Polanski
Ewan McGregor, the Ghost, stumbles into a far-reaching political conspiracy when he agrees to ghost-write the memoirs of the ex-Prime Minister. This movie is the definition of classic thriller. It's lean, efficient, and as tightly wound as possible; crafted as only Polanski can do it. The last shot is amazing.

10. Animal Kingdom
Directed by David Michod
I can't believe this is David Michod's debut film. A crime thriller in the vein of GoodFellas, Animal Kingdom tracks the potential fall of a local Australian crime family. Our protagonist is the young, unwitting nephew, thrown to four lions in the shape of uncles, all presided over by one nasty den mother. Animal Kingdom conjures unbelievable tension from the smallest looks, words, and actions. Who knew that grocery-shopping, or backing down the driveway, could make me so apprehensive? The film wouldn't achieve the greatness it does, however, without the villainous turns by Ben Mendelsohn and Jacki Weaver, in particular. Weaver's conniving little mommy is one of the year's greatest screen characters.

9. Blue Valentine
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
It almost feels fair to file this one under 'disaster movie,' right next to The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. Blue Valentine tells the story of a couple at two points in their life: when they first fall in love, and when they know that they don't love each other anymore. I suppose this movie is bittersweet. Some parts of it are sweet, and some parts of it are indescribably bitter. The death throes of this relationship are almost violent in their pain and vulnerability. The two leads, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, demonstrate here why it would be fair to call them the best two actors of their generation.

8. 127 Hours
Directed by Danny Boyle
Y'all know I'm a Danny Boyle fan, and that I'm a fan of movies that experiment with cinematic form, so of course 127 Hours makes the cut. Boyle's camera seems to find itself just about everywhere: in the sky, among the rocks, in Aaron Ralston's camera, in Aaron Ralston's water bottle, in Aaron Ralston's arm...It makes a nice counterpoint to a main character who is essentially stuck in the exact same position for the majority of the movie. The film's frenetic style is balanced out by its static location and one single plot point (there's a rock on this man's arm. That's pretty much the crux of the film). Of course, 127 Hours wouldn't work without James Franco, who proves again how ridiculously talented he is.

7. Dogtooth
Directed by Yorgos Lagrimos
Dogtooth is possibly the most unique film of the year. It's a bizarre interpretation of home-schooled life, in which three children, all 20-somethings who have never left their house, are raised into a world completely different from our own. In their house, cats are murderous monsters, home videos are the only form of entertainment, planes routinely fall out of the sky into the lawn, and sex between siblings is a pretty groovy way to pass the time. Dogtooth is perversely violent, disturbingly sexual, and, admittedly, kind of funny. You've never seen anything like it, and, once you've seen it, you probably won't want to see anything like it ever again. The last shot, for my money, provides a much more intriguing question than the much-discussed "did the top fall?" that Inception offers.

6. The Kids Are All Right
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko
To paraphrase a friend: "this movie writes awkward silences so well that I feel like I should say something." First off, Cholodenko's script is next to brilliant. Rarely do characters and situations feels so authentic and lived-in. Secondly: the acting is across-the-board fantastic. Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, and Josh Hutcherson create such a cohesive family unit, it's honestly kind of difficult to remember that none of them are related. The Kids Are All Right is funny, honest, and quite moving, sometimes all at the same time. It probably might panic a few stuffy folks to see a gay family portrayed so very normally; by normally, I mean that their orientation is never the issue or the focus. Instead, much like real life, Nic and Jules have the same problems any other parents do, and confront them the same way many other parents would. This authenticity helps the movie become one of the finest films offered up this year.

5. How to Train Your Dragon
Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
Not gonna lie: I'm a little surprised this film managed to stay so high on my list. When the group I was with decided that this was the film we were going to see, I was more than a little disappointed. A Dreamworks movie? Everyone knows their films are tongue-in-cheek cutesy movies with too many pop culture references. Miracle of miracles! How to Train Your Dragon is actually a beautifully rendered, fantastically written, and thoroughly delightful movie. Perhaps it's John Powell's bombastic score that gets me, or the gorgeous animation (that learning-to-fly sequence is a stunner), or maybe the literate, intelligent screenplay that eschews cliche in favor of hard-won truths. Whatever specific factor it is that makes this film for me, there's no denying that How to Train Your Dragon was my most pleasant surprise all year, and one of the year's best films.

4. Restrepo
Directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
Two documentaries in one top 20 list! Madness! Where Exit Through The Gift Shop was playful and light, though, Restrepo dives in with the intention of making you walk through the streets feeling lonely and confused. Honestly, Restrepo probably shouldn't even exist: the film was created by two journalist/documentarians who entrenched themselves for a year with a combat company in one of Afghanistan's deadliest combat zones. The footage that the film captures is absolutely astounding, and serves to redefine any civilian view of the kind of combat in Afghanistan. It's not just a miracle of documentary film-making: it's a piercing look at the psychological effects of battle on soldiers, and the commitments we ask of the young men who go to fight. Not every cause is worth fighting for, but every fight has a consequence, and Restrepo demonstrates that to shattering effect.

3. Toy Story 3
Directed by Lee Unkrich
Should I be surprised that a threequel ended up this high on the list? Nah, it's Pixar. Everything they touch turns to gold. Pixar movies have a penchant for dealing with themes far more grown up than their plot would suggest. Toy Story 3 tackles a very difficult subject: how to act when the person you love doesn't need you anymore. Heavy stuff for a movie about a bunch of toys. Sure, Toy Story 3 is funny. Hell, it's flat-out nuts; Mr. Tortilla-head, a mushroom cloud of monkeys, a murderous baby doll, what can only be described as a hateful view of toddlers. But Toy Story 3 doesn't just want to make you laugh--it wants you to cry. And it has no mercy. The last act, in which Woody, Buzz, and the gang, make peace with death and obsolescence, is heart-breaking. Then, it gives all the toys the thing they want more than anything else: the love and attention of their friend, if only for one afternoon. I'll be honest: I cried at the end of this movie. Three times. This movie reduces me to a blubbering manchild.

2. The Social Network
Directed by David Fincher
Here's the best screenplay of the year, shepherded by one of the best directorial jobs of the year, containing some of the best performances of the year. The Social Network pretty much has it all. It's far more entertaining and relevant than any movie about the founding of Facebook has any right to be. The movie succeeds, really, because it's not actually about the founding of Facebook: it's about loneliness, and the need for acceptance, and wanting to make a connection with someone, even though you're not sure how. It's about the things that power makes people do, and about the frailty of friendship compared with the temptation of fame and glory. The Social Network eloquently addresses all of this, while never missing a beat with its fast-paced, incredibly verbal dialogue. Throw in an amazing score by 9 Inch Nails front-man Trent Reznor, a killer ensemble, and the year's best editing rhythm, and you've got something truly special...

1. Black Swan
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
...Not special enough to take #1, though. Admittedly, I'm a huge Aronofsky fan, so I might be a bit biased here. Black Swan takes a simple enough premise (ballerina wins huge role, struggles with pressure), and turns it into a writhing, quivering mess of psychological horror. This is the kind of film that crawls under your skin and dies there. It's stunningly shot, with an incredibly detailed and unnerving sound mix. Natalie Portman gives the performance of the year as a psychologically disturbed ingenue. The visuals are psychedelic, and by turns hypnotic and disturbing. The pace of the film is relentless. The story plods forward with a horrific inevitability. We can see what's coming a mile away, but can't escape it, which makes it all the more distressing. And of course, Darren Aronofsky. The man is a rockstar among directors. He's slain a Minotaur. He perfectly toes the line between psychological horror and sheer absurdity, creating one of the most fundamentally unnerving films I've seen recently. Black Swan succeeds on every level, and then some. It's a legitimately great movie, and is further proof that Aronofsky is one of the most important directors working today.

There we have it. Lord, that took a while. It's a good time, then, to let our hair down and enjoy ourselves. The awards that happen next will never come within 50 miles of the Oscars, though I wish they could. Next: The Zen Awards!

Best Scenes of the Year

10. The Mexicans break things-Machete

It's that big, delightfully ridiculous fight scene at the end, which includes every silly stereotype you could imagine (the ragtag army rides to battle in low-riders and taco trucks, and they do their slaying with garden tools). It also involves Lindsey Lohan dressed as a nun armed with automatic weapons, and this:

9. Family Dinner Turned Awkward-The Kids Are All Right
*spoiler warner!*
Nic finally decides to let Paul into the family life, discovers the affair, and does her best to keep cool. Tough.

8. The Three Brothers-Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
Really gorgeous shadow animation makes this my favorite part of any Harry Potter movie ever.
(Note: I know this video has a stupid, annoying song in it, but it's the only version of the scene on youtube that wasn't filmed in a theater.)

7. Hospital Fight-Blue Valentine
Dean and Cindy's relationship problems finally come to a disastrous head when Dean awakes from his ill-conceived hotel romp to find that his wife has left for work. He follows her there, and she finally tells him the truth about their doomed relationship. This is acting at its best.
(sorry, no video)

6. Test Drive-How to Train Your Dragon
Possibly the best argument I've seen for 3-D, and a flight scene to match anything from Avatar

5. Hey, I guess my tooth fell out-Dogtooth
The kids of Dogtooth have been told that they're only ready to leave the house when their dogtooth falls out. One of their children has a problem with patience on this front. This makes the list because it still makes me cringe.
(Warning: this is pretty violent.)

4. Eduardo Confronts Mark-The Social Network
Just great acting and great writing put together. Eduardo finds out his share of Facebook has been diluted to almost nothing, and he's a little upset.

3. Rotating Hallway Fight-Inception
I've got some problems with Inception, but it's impossible to deny how amazing that unbroken hallway shot is.

2. Nina's Dance and Transformation-Black Swan
Nina finally overcomes (becomes?) her demons for a moment to dance the part of the Black Swan, and finds herself transforming, growing feathers with every spin.
(note: the video doesn't show the cool part, which is the transformation. Just the dance.)

1. The End-Toy Story 3
I've given this award three years running, and Pixar has won it three times. Not a bad record. This scene wins because it makes me bawl like a child.

The "I'm Too Awesome to Have an Award Named After Me" Award for Outstanding Young Actors-Emily Hahn-Toy Story 3
Bonnie is absolutely one of the most adorable children I've ever encounted at the cinema, and a huge part of that is due to how well her character is voiced. So congrats, Emily Hahn! I've never heard of you, but I'm sure you're wonderful.

The New Image Award
-for movies that show us something completely original and unique.
Dogtooth-The world of this movie is so strange, it might as well be alien.
TRON Legacy-the movie wasn't particularly good, but its visualization of the inside of a computer is just dazzling.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1-for the Tale of the Three Brothers animation scene, which we already discussed. Man, I loved that scene.

Best inanimate object in a movie
-Nina's music box-Black Swan. For being hypnotic and creepy, even when it's broken.
-Mark's fuck-you-flip-flops-The Social Network. For being alliterative and carrying a message.
-the boomerang-Red Hill. Because it's a BOOMERANG in a SHOOTOUT. Guys, this movie is really awesome.
-the Famous Amos cookie box-Burlesque. If you've seen this movie, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Day-um.
THE WINNER: The Dead-Baby-Box-Country Strong. I'm not lying. There is legitimately a dead baby box in this movie. I laughed for about five minutes straight.

The Child I'd Most Like to Punch in the Face With a Punch-Operated Shotgun
Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, Ben Barnes, and Will Poulter from The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Man, this movie was awful. Bonus points to Will Poulter for managing to sound like an old British lesbian for two hours.

The "You're Not This Gay, but Dammit, You're Trying" Award
-Huckleberry Finn and his modern counterpart in Easy A. "Did you hear? Brandon just ran off with a big black guy!"
Honorable mention: all that distracting unintentional chemistry between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy Inception.

Best Worst Movie
The Last Airbender. This is honestly the funniest movie of the year. It's just jam-packed with profoundly retarded statements. It's the only movie I've seen in which Dev Patel, dressed in a tunic, yells "Give Me All Your Elderly!" to a crowd of frightened Inuits.

Absolute Worst Sex Scene
Splice. Because Adrien Brody's nose is scary enough when it's not nuzzling the deformed busom of a mutated alienbaby.

Incontrovertible Proof that Alice in Wonderland Sucks
I will never unsee this.

And finally:

The Worst Films of the Year
5. The Wolfman
This movie would have been great if it were pitched at a Mystery Science Theater 3000-spoof level. But no, they took it seriously. Anthony Hopkins gets lit on fire.

4. The Expendables
Overly long, overly violent, way too much Stallone. This movie kind of hates Hispanic people. Dolph Lundgren plays Stallone's lovable retarded sidekick who is given firearms more than can be considered safe.

3. Alice in Wonderland
Tim Burton figured if he threw enough color and noise at the screen, he'd be ok. He was terribly wrong. Johnny Depp should have his legs removed as punishment.

2. Edge of Darkness
Mel Gibson's daughter is poisoned, and then shot in the stomach 4 hours later. Mel Gibson clearly doesn't know what people sound like, as he dances through the movie sounding like a giraffe getting raped.

The Peter Travers "Did I Really Just See That?" Award for Biggest Piece of Crap to Smear its Way onto Screens
Legion. Shark teeth, terrible effects, "acting" from some guy named Jeep. This movie was made to be ridiculed.

Well, there everything is. If anyone made it this far, leave a comment so I know you're still alive. Man, that was long.

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