Admittedly, everyone and their mother makes a top 10 list such as this every year. But, I’ve never prided myself on originality. Read below to get my takes on the movies I liked best this year. Feel free to argue with me later.
If the Social Network depicts the creation of our current online culture, Catfish forces us to—if I may use a tired phrase—reap what we sow. It’s a movie about a young photographer who forms a relationship with a woman through facebook. As the relationship grows, our intrepid hero (and the audience) realizes that something isn’t quite right with his mysterious cyber sweetie, Megan. And, therein lies the rub. There’s a lot of hoopla about the movie’s “twist” regarding Megan’s true identity, but clever marketing aside, it’s not really the point—at least not for me. This is movie about the consequences of defining ourselves through pixels—through the online personas we create. And, no, the irony is not lost on me that you are in fact reading this through the hallowed fiction of cyberspace. With the advent of the public-facing nature of the internet, everyone is essentially a celebrity. Our photos…our thoughts…our lives—all of it is exposed to the world like we’re all stars in our own network reality series. Catfish simply shows us this fact in narrative form. I hesitate to call it a movie for our time, for with our fleeting attention spans, perhaps it’s best described as a movie for the time before your browser refreshes.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
I recently caught up with Exit Through the Gift Shop, a documentary about graffiti and street artists that made waves at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Very rarely does hype ever live up to final product (see this year’s critical darling Winter’s Bone), but Exit manages to not only meet expectations—it exceeds them. Like the very concept of street art, it’s a difficult movie to describe in a quick logline. Essentially, it follows hapless French filmmaker Thierry Guetta and his search to locate and befriend the notorious street artist Banksy. What results is a meta, “is-this-actually-real?” journey through the nocturnal world of street artists and the cities that are their canvases. This alone would be interesting fodder for a film, but things really begin to ramp up as Gift Shop transforms into an active dissection of that age-old collegiate question: what defines art? (you can stop rolling your eyes now)
The movie is bold, fast-paced, and hilarious. Equally impressive, it made me think (as in actively ponder things) more than any other movie I saw this year. In our current society, now more than ever, it’s easy to create art. In response, Banksy seems to be asking, what defines actual ability in a world where everyone has it? Or, more to the point, in a world where no one can tell the difference?
John Hughes may have invented the high school movie. But, its stuff like Easy A that reinterprets the genre for a new generation. Ripping a page from the acidic wit of Tina Fey’s Mean Girls, Easy A is a modern high school fairy tale—the sort of story that abounds with high school cliques and clichés that ultimately, through sharp writing and acting, manages to defy them. Emma Stone is adorable as a lead character who pretends to be a slut for social and financial gain. The rest of the supporting players are equally as well played, with especially rousing bit performances from Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson. Easy A may not reinvent the wheel, but it’s a high school vehicle that is sure as hell fun to take for a ride.
I’ll admit, there was a time when I didn’t necessarily “get “ the Coen brothers. Or, maybe it was that I just didn’t get what there was to get. As my movie tastes grow, I’ve realized that the Coens are essentially budding linguists—two very talented men that love language and love the varying ways that different people use it. From the accents of Fargo North Dakota to the southern dialects in Raising Arizona, the Coens craft tales where speech itself is the star. That’s not to say they don’t also get the rest of the details right. With True Grit, they’re firing on all cylinders. It’s a western that is as thrilling, beautiful, and suspenseful as it is funny. Amidst it all—stemming from the spectacular performances of Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld—is that glorious attention to dialect. I guess it’s easy to say that the Coens are at the top of their cinematic game. But, really, is that a fair assertion when they’re the ones who keep on defining the rules?
The Kids Are All Right
The setup is pure indy-comedy quirk: two kids from a same-sex couple are out to find their biological father. Shenanigans ensue. But, there’s more…so much more. Lisa Cholodenko’s smart family comedy, The Kids Are All Right, takes what could have been strictly a gimmick and turns it into a story that is touching and real. Both character and plot development get equal screen time here, and the strong cast of female leads breaks Hollywood convention. The writing is well-paced and witty, but really, the movie shines when it takes a step back to analyze what makes a family—for lack of a better word—a family. With this heartfelt realization, Cholodenko may have actually made this year’s most commercial, audience-friendly film. That is, lesbian moms aside.
How to Train Your Dragon
It’s unfortunate that in the world of animated movies Pixar always seems to get the critical acclaim while Dreamworks gets the short end of the proverbial stick. While Toy Story 3 was fantastic (see below), so was Dreamworks equally impressive offering, How to Train your Dragon. Stocked with lush visuals, fantastic set pieces, and solid voice acting, How to Train Your Dragon is a thrilling example of great storytelling combined with flawless animation. But, what really makes the film fly? The connection between a boy and his first pet, which in this case, is an adorable dragon named Toothless. It’s this relationship that drives the movie to a personal place—one filled with equal parts honest sentiment and nostalgia. Now, if only I could adopt my own dragon…
Toy Story 3
Oh, right, Pixar…so can they ever screw up? Seriously, I imagine Pixar Animation Studios to be an enchanted place filled with sparkles, love, and unicorns. This year, much like before, the lauded magic factory delivers yet another masterpiece, Toy Story 3. Yes, I said it. A masterpiece. Although it may never have been originally conceptualized as a trilogy, the Toy Story series is representative of how far character development and storytelling can go when properties are in the right creative hands. From Andy’s youth to his eventual departure for college, our journey with Woody, Buzz, and the gang is as fantastic as it is heartfelt—a story that honestly depicts the fleeting nature of youth in combination with grown-up ideas like loyalty and companionship. And, it does all this through the eyes of plastic toys. Now that, ladies and gents, is truly magic.
Sure…on the surface it’s one of those ripped from a headline stories that Hollywood loves to churn out year after year. But, this one’s different. 127 Hours—the filmic adaptation of real life hiker Aron Ralston’s harrowing journey of survival and eventual life affirmation—breaks the mold of typical Hollywood melodrama. We may have seen these themes on screen before, just not done this damn well (at least not in my recent memory). You could attribute the movie’s success to Danny Boyle’s lively visuals and James Franco’s amazing performance, but really this movie works because of its simple, solitary premise—not, as some would have you believe—in spite of it. It’s about a boy and his rock, and, in turn, every little detail is escalated from the mundane to the extraordinary: the stream of sunlight in Ralston’s dimly lit cave…the drops of water resting in his canteen…the stretch of one’s leg to reach the object that is just a bit too far out of reach. And, as the film reaches its inevitable conclusion, all you can think about is how these little things—these normally overlooked objects and moments—make life worth living.
If Chris Nolan pioneered the thinking man’s blockbuster with the Dark Knight and the Prestige, he has refined it with Inception. It’s the rare sort of movie that manages to give its audience equal dose spectacle and head-scratching mythos, all while keeping the whole production moving at a frantic pace. This is urgent filmmaking by a modern filmmaker, obsessed with the layers and puzzles hidden inside our mind. And, damn is it fun to watch. In our current era of Hollywood-moviemaking, where huge budgets are synonymous with sequels and super heroes, Inception proves that big, bold innovation can still bring in the dollars, and more importantly, the goods. BRAAAMM!
The Social Network
The creation of a website shouldn’t be interesting. It just shouldn’t be. Neither should legal briefings or closed-door depositions. Or, college dorm life and copyright legality for that matter. But, in the Social Network they just are. With the facebook movie (as it’s been affectionately dubbed) director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, have delivered a film that feels as epic as the Godfather. Fincher is at the top of his visual game here. So is Jesse Eisenberg with his portrayal of facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. But, as much I enjoy all of these things—as much as I relish the machine-gun paced, one-upmanship dialogue from Sorkin, the Social Network really shines in the moments of silence. As we watch young Mark Zuckerberg stroll through Harvard Square on a cold winter night, we are given the inclination of a mind hard at work—he’s a kid so far separated from the rest of us that he just may be the only person capable of virtually connecting us. Think about that…about how the connections we make nowadays can be terminated with the simple change of a relationship status. Or, in the case of The Social Network, a billion dollar lawsuit. The story that both Fincher and Sorkin are telling here may not necessarily all be true, but what they’re saying about our generation and human nature most definitely is.
And for a special bonus…the…
WORST MOVIE OF THE YEAR
Sure, technically, there were probably worse movies to hit theaters this year. But, there’s something about the American—with its faux-intelligent “artsy” pandering—that just pisses me off. On the surface it’s a slow-burn espionage thriller starring George Clooney that harkens back to vintage paranoia thrillers of the 70s. In reality, it’s just boring. Really boring. I’m talking five minute long takes of the Italian countryside boring. Amidst all the dullness and ponderous pacing, we get George Clooney mugging lonesome for the camera. A tortured hitman? How ingenious! The American is the type of movie that gives smaller, sparse films a bad name. It’s fulfilling a sort of “art-film” stereotype, complete with gratuitous, awkward sex scenes and long takes of people sitting and doing nothing. Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia may have been dumber theatrical experiences this year, but at least they had the courtesy to not pretend to be smart.