Try as I might, I did not see a better film this year than Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon. A cinematic gut-punch depicting the atrocities of war through the perspective of four terrified young soldiers, the film says more about the nature of modern warfare — and the people fighting them — than most films, and it does it in a way that’s never preachy. From the claustrophobic atmosphere to the tense performances to the harrowing conclusion, Lebanon makes war look like the worst thing anyone could ever be involved in.
Easily the darkest kids’ movie since Babe: Pig in the City (certainly as dark but not quite as depraved), Toy Story 3 pushes Pixar’s increasingly challenging story to the next level, using the familiar Toy Story menagerie to tell an incredibly sad story that’s simultaneously about growing up, losing innocence, and realizing a once passionate relationship has ended. It’s also extraordinarily funny, but the dark undercurrent permeating the film grows steadily as the story moves toward an ending simultaneously happy and upsetting. Seriously, it’ll make you cry, which I consider the hallmark of a great film.
It might be a cheat to include a film that’s still on the festival circuit in search of distribution, but I consider Norman an opportunity to look ahead at 2011 as much as look back at 2010. You might notice a pattern in my top three when I say this film starts out seeming like a relatively innocuous teen comedy but heads into dark, unexpected territory. It could have easily relied on lazy genre clichés, but the script by Talton Wingate and direction by Jonathan Segal refuse to make anything easy for Norman or the audience.
A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical release followed by a quiet DVD exile is no way to treat one of the year’s best comedies. I can’t explain the baffling marketing decisions that led to the burial of The Winning Season, but I can tell that few things in life are better than watching Sam Rockwell play an alcoholic, verbally abusive girls’ basketball coach. The film has some superficial similarities to The Bad News Bears and Hoosiers, among other sports movies. Like those films, it tweaks the genre conventions and takes its characters seriously enough to transcend the genre and feel like real people living real lives that just happen to fit the beats of a sports movie. A perfectly cast (in addition to Rockwell, Margo Martindale and Rob Corddry play supporting roles, and the players include Emma Roberts, Rooney Mara, and Emily Rios), richly observed comedy that’s ultimately about a cranky drunk learning how to deal with women (after failing miserably as a husband and a father).
A tremendous achievement, Rabbit Hole manages to make a film about grief that doesn’t rely on eye-rolling histrionics or relentless darkness. Rabbit Hole actually has a sense of humor, allowing its suffering central couple to trade barbed quips without diminishing the sense of deep loss they both feel. It lets the audience understand grief without annoying or alienating them, and as the characters grow and leave us with some hope that they can move forward with their lives, we’re allowed to feel something we rarely get the chance to in a grief-stricken downer: hope.
A perfect storm of talent combined to create a phenomenally compelling film about a presumably dull subject: the founding of Facebook. The combination of Aaron Sorkin’s tremendous screenplay, David Fincher’s subtly stylish direction, and terrific performances (notably Jesse Eisenberg, Armie Hammer, and Andrew Garfield, but there’s not a false note in the film’s huge cast of characters) allow The Social Network to rise above the problems endemic to docudramas.
I loved this movie, but I can absolutely see why I’d be a minority there. I find it hard to recommend, and I struggled with whether or not to put it on the list. Ultimately, the fact that it was kind of hard to find ten great movies this year led to me to take the gamble. Here, Edgar Wright takes his wild visual sensibilities to the big-budget level, making a painful comedy about early-20s romances so packed with information, it requires at least a dozen viewings to catch every joke in a given shot.
Even though I loved it, it strikes me as a bit esoteric and of-its-time. For me, the film felt like a trip down the uncomfortable Memory Lane of my hazy college years, but Wright doesn’t make Scott or his problems easily relatable to anyone who hasn’t shared similar experiences. I can easily imagine viewers who aren’t males who hung out with a bunch of weird artsy types neither understanding nor enjoying the movie. I can also imagine future audiences feeling a bit alienated by the numerous pop-culture references, which are very much of my generation and may not translate to the next.
A grim neo-noir about tough-as-nails, overly parentalized teenager Ree (Jennifer Lawrence in one of the year’s best performances) wandering her small, southern Missouri town in search of her missing father. Ostensibly, that’s the plot, but the story’s really about a girl uncovering dark family secrets, inadvertently forcing herself to make choices that will likely define the rest of her life. The fact that the film feels so real — so rich with production detail and so intimately familiar with the rhythms of ordinary life — makes it even more difficult to stomach as Ree heads down the dark road, but it’s well worth taking the journey with her.
I never would have expected a documentary about street art made by Banksy would have the charm or entertainment value of Exit Through the Gift Shop. Forget the elaborate hoax conspiracy theories floating around — this is a film that operates on a half-dozen levels and accomplishes numerous goals. If it is indeed another Banksy conceptual-art hoax, it doesn’t matter, because he achieved the impossible: He made me respect and appreciate street art. On top of that, he made me care about hapless documentarian and wannabe-artist Thierry Guetta, the most fascinating subject since R. Crumb. As interesting as it is laugh-out-loud funny, this is a monumental achievement in both documentary filmmaking and filmmaking in general.
Mother and Child has some tonal similarities with Rabbit Hole. It’s a drama that could have easily slipped into over-the-top melodrama, and although it comes much closer to teetering off the cliff than Rabbit Hole, the film has enough restraint to remain consistently wonderful throughout.
It’s an exploration of how the lives of three women are affected by the grueling process of adoption. Annette Bening, in a performance that I’ll argue is better than her lauded acting in The Kids Are All Right, plays a woman who gave up a child for adoption because she was 16 and couldn’t raise a kid. It has left her brittle and lonely, and pathologically terrified of men. Naomi Watts plays an adopted child (now an adult, obviously), a driven career woman with a sort of depraved obsession with winning the approval of older men and destroying marriages. Finally, Kerry Washington plays a barren woman hellbent on adopting a child. The lives of the three women weave in and out of each other, often thanks to coincidences that even Charles Dickens wouldn’t buy, but Rodrigo García’s script and direction has enough detail and richness to overcome its occasional problems. All of this is aided by a supporting cast of ringers like Jimmy Smits, Samuel L. Jackson, Marc Blucas, David Morse, Amy Brenneman, Carla Gallo, Brittany Robertson, S. Epatha Merkerson, Lisa Gay Hamilton, and Cherry Jones, most of them giving career-best performances.
Movies I Undervalued:
This isn’t really an “honorable mention.” Each year, I’ll see a movie I mostly like, and then I discover it sticks with me. In the long term, I find myself thinking about it more and recommending it more often than movies I initially thought I liked more. This year, those films are as follows: Knight and Day, Going the Distance, Monsters, and Golden Slumber.
D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.