Not just the best thriller/crime story/ character study of the year — Winter’s Bone is the best movie of the year. Jennifer Lawrence gives a star-making performance that is heartbreaking and inspiring in even measure. But it’s John Hawkes who does career-best work as the scary meth-addled uncle, who slowly goes from covering his own ass to nursing a righteous anger against those who are responsible for his brother’s disappearance and possible murder. That his path to semi-redemption is brought about by a thirst for revenge is an irony that director Debra Granik never shies away from. I saw other movies that were just as thematically rich last year, but none that combined this depth with such emotional resonance.
Going into The Social Network, I figured there was a 50/50 chance that this could either be a great film or a massive train wreck. Don’t get me wrong; individually, I have plenty of faith in David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin. But Fincher’s ability to clinically dissect his subjects seemed to be at odds with Sorkin’s impassioned (sometimes sanctimonious), stylized dialogue. Who would have thought they’d be a perfect fit for each other? Many critics have pointed out how the film is perfectly of our time, which is true when talking about the subject matter and the way social networking has changed our ways of communicating. But the themes at play have been used in drama for as far back as can be remembered: friendship, jealousy, betrayal, greed. But even when you look at the film as a pure piece of entertainment, it’s a breathless experience with great dialogue and acting. Most any other year, it would have taken the top spot on my list.
I had more fun at Scott Pilgrim vs. the World than I did at any other film all year. Edgar Wright makes the jump to big-budget Hollywood fare, but keeps his kinetic, thoroughly silly style intact. The film is extraordinarily funny but also full of heart and honest emotions to accompany the visual pyrotechnics on display. With its off-kilter tone, creative use of special effects, and ability to balance satire with sentiment, it felt and looked like something completely new. Coming out of the studio system, that’s something worth celebrating.
By the third film in a franchise, the law of diminishing returns should be well into effect. Pixar doesn’t play by those rules. Toy Story 3 is one of the funniest movies of the year with great animation and perfect vocal work (Michael Keaton’s Ken doll is a true highlight), it’s also one of the most sentimental. But this is one of those rare films that’s able to remind us that sentiment isn’t necessarily a dirty word. There’s schmaltz, there’s sap, and then there’s well-earned sentiment. This film is the epitome of honest sentimentality and shows how that can be one of the most powerful elements a filmmaker can achieve. Just a stunning work from a company that seems incapable of doing any wrong.
No one is able to put together these huge, lumbering monsters the way that Christopher Nolan can. A twisty heist film with a witty script, it’s also a continuation of Nolan’s obsession with the fluid nature of reality. Occasionally, these obsessions get in the way of the film, causing it to be slightly more confusing that it needs to be. But like Scott Pilgrim, Inception is another film that looked and felt like something brand new. From the nifty effects to the clever ending, I enjoyed the hell out of this film.
When I first saw the trailer for this film, my reaction ran along the line of: “No way in hell am I going to sit through that depressing, melodramatic Oscar grab.” Am I glad I was wrong about not just watching the movie, but also about what it actually was. A remarkably sensitive portrayal of a married couple putting their lives back together after the death of their child, it’s also a film filled with unexpected humor, hope, and an understanding that people grieve, but they also do the best they can to get on with their lives. There are the expected moments of dramatic explosions, but they never come off as false or manipulative. It also has the best ensemble work of any movie of the year, anchored by the astounding performances by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart.
It would be a shame if the controversy behind the film (it’s still not certain if this is an “honest” documentary about how easily duped trendy art enthusiasts are or if it’s a gigantic hoax cooked up by director and street artist Banksy) eventually overshadowed what a perfectly entertaining movie it really is. From the great footage of numerous street artists at work to the cheerfully oblivious Thierry Guetta, who acts as the film’s unexpected protagonist, it’s a blast of energy and creativity. It’s a hard film to describe to people without ruining it, but I will just say that it comments just as much on the documentary format as it does the art scene. A completely unexpected and entertaining film in all the best ways.
Quite frankly, I’m surprised I liked this film as much as I did. I did feel that Danny Boyle’s message about people always needing other people to be a bit too obvious, but it was impossible to ignore the sheer ballsiness of his inventive visual direction in telling the tale of a man literally stuck in one place. But all of Boyle’s creative editing and sound design would have been for naught if James Franco had not nailed his performance. It’s an open, honest turn that made me feel his growing desperation and regret. He made the ordeal come across in painful, visceral ways that had me on the edge of my seat, even though I already knew the outcome. This movie left me shaken and elated — high praise coming from someone as jaded to film manipulations as I am.
I’ve called Greenberg a movie that I really like, but I can understand if someone tells me they hate it. Much like the titular character, it’s prickly, difficult, sarcastic, and belligerent. It’s also painfully funny and a great character study of a guy who has convinced himself that he doesn’t care what others think of him…until he does. It also boasts great performances by Ben Stiller and Greta Gerwig that never pander or try to sway any unearned audience sympathy. It’s a tough movie to enjoy, but it has its rewards.
Martin Scorsese breaks out of his late-career funk (I know, I’m the only one who feels this way) with a gothic horror movie masquerading as a mystery. Using every trick in the book, he amps up the paranoia and suspense to nearly unbearable levels. Along the way, he gets probably Leonardo DiCaprio’s best performance to date and wakes Ben Kingsley up from that sleepwalking spell he’s been in since Sexy Beast. I know people who hated this one. I thought it was a great piece of pure cinema.
Special Mention: Skeletons
As far as I know, Skeletons never received a proper theatrical release in the United States. I caught it at last year’s Chicago International Film Festival and it was the best film I saw during my brief time there. I hate to call the movie Kaufman-esque, because it makes it sound like a ripoff of Charlie Kaufman’s work. It’s far better than a cheap ripoff, but it dabbles in the same surrealism meets mundane reality that Kaufman has made his home. A perfectly pitched combination of high-concept comedy and domestic drama, it manages to carve out its own genre with a big heart and a painful understanding of the lengths to which people will go to avoid bad news once they realize it’s on the way.
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):
Kick Ass, Hot Tub Time Machine, Restrepo, The King’s Speech, Leaves of Grass, The Town, Monsters, The Last Exorcism, Animal Kingdom, The Ghost Writer, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, Four Lions
Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.