Whether you see it as a glorification of internet entrepreneurship, or a scathing criticism of social media and its greater implications on our rapidly changing society, you can’t deny that at its most basic level, The Social Network is a movie about connection and disconnection. Director David Fincher has once again created something that defines a generation, just as Fight Club did for the previous decade. I have a feeling that he has also painted a cinematic Rorschach print: you see what you want to see in it. If you’ve been a Facebook user since the “old days,” you might feel nostalgic like I did. Most of us know now that Facebook is a circus compared to what it was, back when it was exclusive, invitation-only — that was its appeal over MySpace and the like. I’d been seriously considering deactivating my account for some time; seeing this crystallization of ideas put me over the edge. Afterwards I felt like an extra in Mark Zuckerberg’s life, just another statistic in his business venture. Whether you see him as a monster poised to take over the digital landscape or a true genius — and whether or not that has anything to do with his fictional depiction — The Social Network is that rare movie that can entertain both perspectives at once; a darkly satirical portrait of greed and disconnection.
For me, there was never a more gripping moviegoing experience this year than Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, a chilling and creative adaptation of Aron Ralston’s autobiography, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. James Franco remains my personal pick for best actor of the year, turning in a soul-bearing, up-close-and-personal performance. The camera is rarely more than three inches from his face, the takes are long and uncut, and Boyle uses mostly available light. No room for slip-ups, in other words, and there aren’t any. While we’re on Oscar nominations, the biggest snub of the year has to be Boyle for director. He’s created something truly unique here, a rendering not just of the hard external reality, but also the inner psychological reality of Ralston’s situation. Like Fincher, he has managed to turn what could have been a simple autobiographical account into a universally dramatic tale, in this case one of dependence and independence. While the film’s themes can be boiled down to the simple statement: “that’s why you always leave a note,” Franco’s reflection over the pieces of his life that had led him to this point, and the grim realization of the poetic justice of the situation, are a dramatic masterstroke by Boyle.
Ben Affleck’s engaging tale of Townie bank robbers trying to escape their grim purgatory took me by surprise. It’s the movie I got the most into this year, cheering both sides of the cops-and-robbers dynamic like I did in The Fugitive, on the edge of my seat the whole time. This is a movie where every moment, every plot development, is no less than exciting. The Town is many things, an exploration into the delicate, brotherly relationship between Affleck’s and Renner’s characters, a “forbidden fruit” love story, and a solid directing/acting achievement for Affleck, who can put this in his portfolio beside the equally-good Gone Baby Gone. My pick for best supporting actor this year? Jeremy Renner as the high-strung Jem Coughlin.
Is it highbrow art or just torture porn masquerading as such? Black Swan may be a psychological shock-fest with little plot or substance, but as a trip, this is one hell of a roller coaster ride. Natalie Portman plays Nina, a technically flawless but prudish and passionless ballet dancer in a tragic tale of the self-imposed pressure of perfection. While a tensely competitive dance company is the obvious backdrop, this is a universal story that transcends profession and which I, as a writer, for example, can especially appreciate. Dark, macabre, and shot with gritty realism, Black Swan is a brilliant companion piece to Darren Aronofsky’s last intimate work, The Wrestler. The psychological horror aspect is very Lynchian, but tamer than other mindfucks exploring inner realities that have come before it, namely Lynch’s Inland Empire, to which I couldn’t help but draw certain similarities.
Catfish falls in line with what seems to be the underlying theme for docs this year, this sort of “is it real or just a hoax?” possible mockumentary fare (I’m Still Here, Exit Through the Gift Shop, etc). Of those films, this one captured my imagination and stuck with me the longest. For those who have inadvertently (or purposefully) skipped ahead and spoiled the ending a la Wikipedia, I can testify to the experience that you can still watch the movie and be entertained, even if you know what’s coming. Knowing what was coming down the road, as the layers of this mystery unfolded, I still appreciated how the filmmakers had crafted something both Hitchcockian and rife with social commentary. This was another movie I approached as an anti-Facebook satire of internet culture, and one that I think hits a lot harder in that regard than The Social Network. Besides the heavily marketed suspense aspect, it’s a picture of how we live our lives, online or otherwise in this brave new world. Angela’s obvious social issues are no more a contributing factor to that eerie picture than Nev’s unflinching faith in the reality of what he is presented.
I’m very amused by Inception’s “love it/hate it” relationship with critics. My reaction was probably the mildest amongst my floored friends the first time I saw it. I’d been anticipating the movie for longer than any of them and was slightly pissed Nolan hadn’t gone a more “Terry Gilliam” route in his far-too-logical, heavily rule-based depiction of dreams; disappointed he didn’t show us more of the bizarre, surreal imagery he used to sell the movie in the trailer. I was worried I would like it even less the second time around, but to my delight, I actually appreciated it more. Sure, the movie reaches levels of convolution bordering on pure silliness (for every hard rule about how things work in these dreams, there are 20 other sub-rules to explain those, and 20 rules per each of those for an exponential mind-clusterfuck). But it works as long as you keep in mind Ellen Page’s line that it’s not about imagery, but the sense of it being indistinguishable from reality. Every creative choice Nolan makes, no matter how complicated, supports this theme. Cobb’s reality “outside of dreams” (if you believe any part of the film is “real”) is a noir-ish thriller, where he’s always on the run from corporate bounty hunters. The movie wouldn’t have worked if this was any different, if the two “realities” presented were noticeably dissimilar. Here was another big snub for the Directing Oscar. Nolan is definitely the showman of the year in the same sense that James Cameron was in 2009.
Kick-Ass is so gleefully irreverent that Nic Cage shooting his bulletproof vest-clad daughter to expand her pain threshold, and a group of mobsters arguing over the mechanics of cooking a traitor in a giant microwave, are a couple of its milder scenes. The only thing I found more satisfying than Chloë Grace Moretz slicing and dicing baddies was reading the reviews of critics who were offended by this no-holds-barred gore fest. With a liberal dash of Tarantino, Sam Raimi and Sergio Leone, Kick-Ass is the rare movie that lives up to its title (there are few other words to describe it). Bar none, it’s the most fun I had at the movies this year. An overlong climax, and its tendency to go for shock value for shock value’s sake, are minor hiccups in a film that succeeds where the previous Mark Millar adaptation, Wanted, failed. If you like Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, Shaun of the Dead, and Fight Club, you’ll embrace this one with open arms. Guilty pleasure or otherwise, it’s one kick-ass time at the movies.
The Ghost Writer is a movie that recalls the best of Hitchcock, from its classically suspenseful score to its precipitous sense of pacing. Of these picks, this movie probably entertained me on the most levels simultaneously. I was intrigued by its political subtext, enchanted by its comprehensive sense of place (the North Sea island of Sylt standing in for Martha’s Vineyard because of Polanski’s inability to set foot on U.S. soil), and engaged in its “everyman unraveling a conspiracy”-type plot. Polanski could make a grapefruit mysterious if he wanted to. He could take a day care center and make it the nexus for a sinister national secret. Ewan McGregor as the average guy caught up in something over his head, is both likeable and fallible. One of my favorite scenes involves him staring at himself in the mirror, poised on the brink of slipping beneath the covers with the British Prime Minister’s wife, calmly telling himself “bad idea” — before Polanski cuts to him invariably doing just that.
This is Pee-Wee’s Playhouse for the generation who grew up watching Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, all grown-up. There’s a sea of cherubic faces in this movie, and it was a huge flop, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the hell out of this seamless marriage of cinema and video games. The line between those two mediums isn’t just blurred, it’s lost completely in the ensuing chaos. I can’t imagine anyone rendering this adaptation of the comic more effectively than Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), whose MTV-style editing and pitch-perfect sense of comedic timing is quickly becoming legendary. And if you’ve seen Spaced, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Despite what seems to be the popular conception, you don’t have to be emo, a scene-kid, or a hipster to fall in love with this movie, but you may have to have played a few fighting games in your day. The references to the golden age of comics and 16-bit gaming drop like coins in Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a kaleidoscope of attention-deficit imagery that hits you like a sack of potatoes. You’ll be seeing stars for days. The appeal does have a limited window, but if you’ve picked up a SNES controller or dumped quarters into an arcade fighter, you’ll laugh. If you grew up reading comics in the eighties and nineties, you’ll laugh. If you’ve ever been in or around an indie-type band, you’ll think this is a riot. Between this and Kick-Ass, it was a good year to be a nerd.
From the man who nearly defined the plotless indie flick, Greenberg is a severely under-appreciated classic. This might be Noah Baumbach’s most accessible movie yet, aided in part by the fact that the main character is played by Ben Stiller, in what I can surmise to be his Lost in Translation or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s the latest in a continuing series of vehicles for established comic actors to transition into the world of drama, with interesting and commendable results. Now I wouldn’t necessarily put this in the same league as those films, and I don’t think it’s as good as Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, but it’s got one of the best scripts of the year, second only to probably The Social Network.
Exit Through the Gift Shop is another coming-to-L.A. tale, but that’s where the similarities between it and Greenberg end. Banksy’s tongue-in-cheek sense of social parody is definitely reflected in this, his directorial debut about a riotously eccentric amateur videographer who becomes an unexpected, overnight sensation, and as a sidenote explores the underground world of graffiti art. Banksy tells a clever story about what it means, and what it takes, to be an artist, commercially and critically, in today’s confused world. The film calls into question what is and isn’t art — where the line is drawn or blurred — with a wry sense of humor and an uncanny sense of realism. The fact that audiences couldn’t tell if this was an actual documentary or just Banksy having fun all the more proves his point.
The Kids Are All Right, The Fighter, True Grit, Toy Story 3, The Crazies, Shutter Island, Winter’s Bone, I’m Still Here
Josh Medcalf is a freelance writer living in Chicago.