The 2010 top ten list was a little weird to come up with. Since the birth of my daughter, I've been way behind on my movie watching. For examples, I've only seen a handful of movies from 2012. But still, I did the previous 7 decades, so I thought I might as well keep going. Now, as is evidence by the fact that I've done a top 10 of the 2000's twice and the lists are different, my view of the best movies of the decade can and will change between now and when I can do a proper list of the decade (or, ya know, at least when the decade is actually over), but this is what it looks like right now today:
10. The Social Network (2010, directed by David Fincher)
The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich. Following the rise and sort of fall of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg). Though its accuracy depends on who you ask, I take every "based on a true story" movie as fiction, so it doesn't bother me. What fascinates me is the central performance of Jesse Eisenberg and how his character of Mark Zuckerberg is so representative of the times. He's technologically savvy, socially awkward, and morally flexible. He seems to not have any remorse for stepping on people to get where he is in life (one of the richest men in the world). He might've been spurred into his idea for Facebook by others, but when being sued for stealing the idea from the Winklevoss twins he tells them "If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you'd have invented Facebook." Almost willfully ignorant of anything anyone contributed to the invention of the social networking giant. It's a fascinating performance, and a fascinating movie.
9. Inception (2010, directed by Christopher Nolan)
8. The American (2010, directed by Anton Corbijn)
Thekla Reuten, the hotel owner from In Bruges). While in Italy he begins dating a local prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido), and begins being haunted by his former deeds and imagines what it would be like to be able to run away and start a new life.
Clooney is one of the best low key actors we've ever had. He can say so much with his body and his face without saying any dialog. This may be his best work as an actor, he lets us into Jack's mind and its opening up to the possibility of a new life when all he's known is the life of a killer and seemingly a spy. He knows much more than is ever let on, he's experienced so much, and Clooney tells us all this in his sparse and amazing performance. The ambiguous ending leaves us with a wonderfully open feeling from this very insular movie, one that I really want to revisit soon.
7. Leaves of Grass (2010, directed by Tim Blake Nelson)
Leaves of Grass has a lot of autobiography from its writer/director Tim Blake Nelson. Not so much in Ed Norton's twin Kincaid brothers, the marijuana dealing, or the violence, but in many of the little details contained in this wacky ride through my beloved home state. Nelson (probably most famous as Delmar from the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?), although from humble Tulsa beginnings, is an Ivy League (Brown University) educated Classics major, a Julliard graduate, an accomplished playwright, and an experienced filmmaker, Leaves of Grass marking his 4th major work as director. About half of that description applies to Bill, one of the twin brothers played by Ed Norton (who also serves as a producer on the film).
Bill is Professor of Classical Philosophy at Brown, a hot young name in academia being courted by Harvard to start up his own program there. The movie opens with a great monologue by Bill dealing with the teaching of the ancient Greeks, and it's a testament to Nelson's faith in his script that he doesn't turn it into simply a montage of Bill lecturing to students, but a fully formed monologue, much of which foreshadows the intellectual themes of the rest of the movie. Soon after, we meet Brady, a genius pot grower in the Southeastern Oklahoma town of Idabel. He and his best friend Bolger (Nelson) are running into problems with a Tulsa based Jewish drug kingpin (deliciously played by Richard Dreyfuss) who wants payback, Brady and Bill's hippie mom (Susan Sarandon) who's checked herself into a retirement home, and with Brady's pregnant girlfriend Colleen (Melanie Lynskey) who wants Brady to stop selling, stop growing, and stop smoking his beloved mary jane.
Blackly comedic hijinks ensue as everybody crosses paths and we get faked deaths, real deaths, obvious comedy, subtle comedy, uncomfortable comedy (thanks to Josh Pais's unbelievably great performance), philosophical discussions on poetry and the existence of God. Brady has an interesting theory about why he does believe in a higher power, I would've never thought about explaining God's possible existence with parallel lines, but it makes a lot of sense when Nelson gives his characters the time to talk about things and ideas the way that few movies ever do. It's intoxicating to find a movie that allows the ridiculousness of legendary singer/songwriter Steve Earle angrily shooting a crossbow (with his bluetooth headset in his ear) to exist in the same realm with Keri Russell reciting Walt Whitman while she guts a catfish. It's a wonderful feeling, even if Nelson doesn't quite have the directorial flair to be able to pull it off without a hitch. There aren't many problems with the movie, but maybe those things can't go flawlessly into a movie in the first place. I'm still really glad he tried.
Now, I've not been a huge fan of Edward Norton over the years. I was never one of the people praising his work to the heavens and declaring him the best actor of his generation. I think he's a solid actor whose performances tend to all feel the same to me. Not, however, in Leaves of Grass. Bill is intelligent and logical, but increasingly reaching the end of his rope, often due to Brady. And Brady is a brilliant mind who doesn't always put his smarts to use in a constructive manner. Although the "hick" accent that Norton uses for Brady is way too over-the-top, either he or us grows into it, and I was okay with it. Norton creates these two characters with a wonderfully subtle bag of acting tricks, and the illusion of the twins is handled wonderfully by Nelson and his bag of directorial tricks. I knew, of course, that Norton wasn't acting opposite himself, Nelson made pains to include many shots of Bill and Brady together, and Norton's timing and amazing ability to play off of himself seals the deal so that we never question that we're watching two brothers interacting.
6. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011, directed by David Gelb)
That's right, a documentary about a guy that makes sushi. But not just any guy. Jiro Ono is the master of sushi. Anthony Bourdain has said the 20 minutes he spent at Jiro's 10 seat restaurant may have been the best meal he's ever eaten. When Jiro was awarded a 3-star rating from the Michelin Guide, they said that 3 stars (a rating which only around 100 restaurants in the world have achieved) was the only acceptable rating for Jiro's food. Not that it makes a bit of difference to Jiro, he is not spurred on by outside praise. He seeks only to achieve perfection in the simplicity of his own mind. He is the harshest critic of his food, he seems to take less pleasure in his food than most chefs, but it's not because of a lack of pride. He, like our traditional view of the Japanese, takes all the pride in the world in his work. His work just happens to be sushi. No appetizers, no entrees, no salads. Sushi. And the waiting list is often months long.
The movie is a fascinating portrait of the pursuit of perfection. We don't meet Jiro's wife, but he has two sons. The oldest, Yoshikazu, is 50-years-old, and in the Japanese tradition, working for his father, intending to take over when the old man retires. But Jiro is 85, and seems to only want to do one thing in the world, and that's make sushi. The younger son, Takashi, opened a mirror image of his fathers restaurant (mirrored because one is right handed and the other is left handed, and the restaurants sit accordingly), but admits that he'll never be as good as his father. So although his restaurant is very successful, he must charge less money than Jiro, because his sushi is inferior to his dads. Jiro admits to not being a great dad, and others talk about how he hates national holidays because he must close. He seems to be only interested in perfection of his sushi.
I wouldn't have thought a movie on this subject (despite being a big fan of sushi) would be as engrossing as this, but the relentlessness that Jiro possesses is fascinating. The single mindedness with which he lives his life is quite a sight to see and explore on screen.
5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010, directed by David Yates)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was the first one that in my mind really captured so much of the magic of the books into the movies, but even it had so much that was cut from the novel as to be disappointing. Splitting the mammoth final book into two parts was a good idea here, as even though many things were cut out, few of them are truly missed. Although Deathly Hallows, Part 1 certainly feels like the first half of a story, it also succeeds admirably as a movie.
Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson as the three leads have truly grown a lot since their first forays into our lives. Radcliffe had, in my mind, more than a few awkward line readings and uncomfortable times in the series, but as he has become a man he has also become a better actor. He gives Harry weight and depth as a character, and not in just a "good for a kid actor" sort of way. Grint, who's buffed up in the past couple of years in addition to his normal growth, keeps Ron's role as the comic relief of the trio, but also adds some layers to Ron, the love and anger and friendship that the role needs. Emma Watson, whom I've thought was the star of the group since the fourth movie or so, again soars here. There's a scene in the first few minutes of the movie, when Hermione wipes herself from her parents memories, when Watson conveys all of Hermione's psychological conflict in just a look, and director David Yates gives us a great shot of Hermione walking away from her house, and maybe her family, forever.
Yates, returning for the 7th and final movie after also helming numbers 5 and 6, again gets things right as far as the balance of character and action, giving us some of the same small moments that make Rowling's books so delightful to return to, as well as the big action scenes that a blockbuster of this type requires. I've heard some rumblings from some people that the movie moves too slowly, but I didn't feel that way in the slightest. I thought the 146 minutes flew by wonderfully, with only some of Dumbledore's backstory that I can think of that I really missed seeing from the novel. Yates and his cinematographer Eduardo Serra do maybe go a little too heavy on the handheld sometimes. I'm thinking mostly of the chase with the Snatchers, which felt very Paul Greengrass-y (like his terrible handheld work on his two Bourne movies), but mostly the movie is gorgeously shot, whether in the forest, on the beach, or in the Ministry of Magic, the movie looks terrific. My favorite part of the movie though, had to be the animated sequence detailing the "Tale of the Three Brothers", done in an updated take on the animation of the legendary Lotte Reiniger's paper cutouts. Such a beautifully done piece.
So we get what I feel is the best Harry Potter movie. A lot of people went just as crazy for Part 2, but to me it doesn't have the dramatic weight that this one does. It's too much of a big action movie, and I disliked how Yates changed so much of the final assault on Hogwarts, for the worse. But it's still a fine movie and a good conclusion to the series, it's just that Part 1 is the best Harry Potter movie and that's why it's here on this list.
4. Toy Story 3 (2010, directed by Lee Unkrich)
Andy is now 17-years-old and getting ready for college. His beloved toys lay in his toy chest, unplayed with for years. Misunderstandings ensue, and the toys are donated to the Sunnyside Daycare. There they meet a host of other toys lead by the fluffy, strawberry scented, Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear (voiced by Ned Beatty), and Ken (Michael Keaton), who immediately falls for the Barbie doll that Andy's sister had donated. They're told that Sunnyside is an ideal place for toys. They're played with all day, 5 days a week. But after one day in the "caterpillar" room, with the youngest kids (or, "not age appropriate" as Buzz says), they begin to doubt the sincerity of Lots-O and the other toys. Meanwhile, Woody has been snatched up by a sweet little girl named Bonnie and taken to her home where he meets another set of lovable toys, but he's determined to get back to his friends and to Andy.
There was something about Toy Story 2 that didn't connect with me. It didn't have the simple magic that the first Toy Story had, but didn't have its own magic to ride on either. Toy Story 3, on the other hand, has that magic. There's an amazing amount of heart poured into this movie, the characters and relationships (both positive and negative) drawn with more care and developing in much more interesting ways. I was afraid at one point that it would simply be a case of "heroes triumph over villain" and I'd have to leave the theater telling myself "Yeah, it was good. I just wish it had been more than that." Thankfully, I didn't. I even found Lots-O's backstory fascinating on its own in how it shaped the toy we see. There's also a wonderful development between Jessie and Buzz, made most hysterical when Buzz gets accidentally switched to Spanish mode, taking on the over-the-top poetic lover mode of a Spanish hero.
Pixar delivered us another masterpiece, with the best ending since the perfection of Monsters, Inc's. Pixar slip up with its next effort, Cars 2, but that was just a misguided artistic move. Cars was/is a merchandising phenomenon, but those two movies are their two weakest. Regardless, Toy Story 3 may not reach the poetic brilliance that Wall-E did, or cut straight to my heart like Remy's love of food in Ratatouille did, but it easily sits next to the family saga/action bonanza of The Incredibles and the unadorned majesty of the original Toy Story as not only Pixar's best work, but among the great gifts the art of animated cinema has ever given us.
3. Midnight in Paris (2011, directed by Woody Allen)
Scoop are films I can enjoy a great deal. Granted I've only seen about half of his movies, but there hasn't been even one that I downright disliked, simply a couple I haven't cared for as much. 2011's offering (I say 2011's because Allen works so regularly that 1981 was the last year he didn't have a movie, and he still released 10 movies in the 80's) is the charming romantic comedy Midnight in Paris. It's not as deep or as impressive as Allen's best work, but damn if it isn't romantic, funny, and highly enjoyable. And subsequent re-watches on DVD have only proven this.
Owen Wilson takes on the lead role here, that of hack screenwriter Gil Pender. He churns out crappy Hollywood movies but yearns to write a book and be important and worthy like his literary heroes. He's in Paris on vacation with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams), they tagged along with her parents who're there on business. He's a romantic who wants to roam the streets and stop in cafes, drink wine and walk in the rain. He's the only one in the group who even likes being in France until he and Inez meet up with Paul and Carol (Michael Sheen and Nina Arianda) who want to take them to Versailles and drone on in pseudo-intellectual talk about French history and art. Gil just wants his simple pleasures (and to be out of the presence of the insufferably pompous Paul) and Inez is happy to get rid of him, so she lets him go.
While the clock strikes midnight one night, a car pulls up and a jovial group of people pull Gil in with them and take him to a party. At the party he sees a guy who looks mysteriously like Cole Porter singing songs to adoring listeners, and meet a couple who introduce themselves as the Fitzgerald's, F. Scott and Zelda. Scott takes a liking to Gil and offers to take him along to a bar they're going to to meet up with Hemingway. Gil finds himself magically drawn into the world of 1920's artistic Paris, a time and place he'd dreamt of his whole life. He runs across Dali, Bunuel, Man Ray, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Matisse, and TS Elliot, among others during his few extraordinary nights. He also happens to run across the beautiful Adriana (Oscar winner Marion Cotillard), who has Picasso, Hemingway, and legendary bullfighter Juan Belmonte fighting for her affections. Gil falls for her just like the others do as he dreads the inevitable end of his miraculous journey through 1920's Paris.
Owen Wilson is one of the better actors when it comes to playing the traditional "Woody" role. He has a bit of Allen neurosis, while also keeping his strangely laid back charm, and some shades we've not seen from him before. His ability to portray Gil's hopeless romanticism, while those around him try to destroy it, is essential to making the movie work. Wilson's Wedding Crashers love interest McAdams is pitch perfectly hateable as Gil's relentlessly unsupportive fiancee, so obviously crushing on Michael Sheen's pedantic Paul while Gil is too busy being annoyed by him to notice. Marion Cotillard is as luminous as Paris itself, making it unsurprising that so many of the artists are using her as their muse.
The script is Allen's strongest since Sweet and Lowdown, the sweetness and romance fully coming through without being forced in the slightest. The gorgeous photography by ace cinematographer Darius Khondji brings an extra amount of warmth to the movie that fits in nicely with the unassuming romanticism Allen's going for. I also like Allen's comments on coming to terms with the times you live in and not getting bogged down in the nostalgia of the past, because the people in that time probably didn't think everything was so great and idealized a previous era too. Even with a little bit of intellectual comments on nostalgia, it's still hard not to think of this movie as simply one of the sweetest love stories I've seen in a long time, and glad to see one of my favorite filmmakers working at such a high level.
2. 50/50 (2011, directed by Jonathan Levine)
50/50 kinda came outta nowhere at me. I love all of the actors that are in it, but had never heard of the writer Will Reiser, nor the director Jonathan Levine. So I was taken aback while sitting in my theater seat, watching the directorial command of tone and storytelling, and the wonderful evocation of a multitude of emotions from the writing.
It tells the story of Adam, a 27-year-old radio journalist who finds out he has a rare cancerous tumor on his spine. He's told his chances of survival are only 50/50, and his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen)'s remark that "50/50? If you were a casino game you'd have the best odds. You're gonna be fine." doesn't help. He's sent to a therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick), to help him cope with his life changes, but he's only her third patient, and ends up helping her grow as much as she helps him. Adam also has to deal with his overbearing mother (Angelica Huston), and his inconsistent girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), while his whole life is turned upside down with cancer.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt proves again that he's our finest young actor (not that we needed reminding after movies like Mysterious Skin, 500 Days of Summer, Brick, and The Lookout), and this is among his best work. His journey as he goes through the few highs and many lows of cancer treatment is rendered with such honesty and heart from Gordon-Levitt that I hope he's not forgotten when Oscar time comes around, it's the best performance I saw this year. Not to be out done, the supporting cast is flawless, especially Angelica Huston as the mother. Her love for her son, while also caring for her Alzheimer stricken husband, is palpable and Huston's subtlety in the performance is heart wrenching in some scenes, it's another award worthy piece of work from her. While Anna Kendrick is very good as the therapist, it's not all that different from her work in Up in the Air as George Clooney's young tag along. The real surprise for me was in Seth Rogen as best friend Kyle. He brings a ton of humor, and a real dramatic weight to his character.
But the best thing about this movie is that it's a movie about a young man getting cancer, it's very heavy in some moments, but it is extremely funny. While I would categorize Rogen as the "comic relief" the movie really doesn't need it as writer Will Reiser finds the humor in most situations without cheapening them. One of the best examples is that of Adam's chemotherapy friends (Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall), who convince him, after he initially declines, that eating their weed-infused brownies is about the only way to get through something like chemo. He can't argue with that logic, and so indulges.
Despite not representing anything I've personally gone through, there wasn't a single second of this movie that rang false for me. It was easily the best movie of 2011, for me, and an easy one to slide in here at #2.
1. Hugo (2011, directed by Martin Scorsese)
It's a glorious visual marvel, so obviously fake in many scenes, but with a style evocative of the types of children's storybooks the movie itself is adapted from. Scorsese creates these amazing adventurous worlds for us to inhabit. The hissing and fog filled walls and clocks of the station, so different from the busy people crammed place outside its walls. The whole thing has a kid-like adventure feeling to it that no other movies have. I wouldn't characterize it as a "kids movie" like so many have, I'd say it's a movie for adults who remember what it was like to be a kid. And I'd also say it's the best movie of the 2010's.