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Ben's Top Ten Movies of 2010

Lots of people are saying that 2010 wasn't a good year for movies, but I say phooey to them. Sure we didn't have a CLASSIC FOR THE AGES like a few years back when There Will Be Blood came out, but I wouldn't trade any of my top ten movies this year for the world. I'll have more thoughts on the year 2010 at large below, after I have a chance to talk about the individual movies.

But first, some movies I didn't see this year that I probably should have before making up a top ten list: Animal Kingdom, Enter the Void, Winter's Bone, Cyrus, Never Let Me Go, The King's Speech, Dogtooth.

Next, if you twisted my arm and made me write my runners up list, it would probably look something like this (plus or minus Rare Exports or Monsters):

20. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (my original review)
19. I LOVE YOU, PHILLIP MORRIS (my original review)
18. RABBIT HOLE (my original review)
17. DOG SWEAT (my original review)
16. HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 1 (my original review)
15. THE SOCIAL NETWORK (my original review)
14. EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP
13. SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (my original review)
12. INCEPTION (my original review)
11. THE FIGHTER (reviewed in my BNAT write up)

And finally, the list...

10. PIRANHA 3D

I am convinced that Piranha 3D is the only movie to come out of this current 3D fad that really understands the place of 3D in movie history. 3D is not meant to be serious; it’s exploitative and audacious. Everything in this movie is TO THE MAX. Just when you think you’ve seen all the fake boobs and wet t-shirt contests that could possibly be jammed into one movie, a pair of lesbian porn stars halt the movie for a five minute naked underwater ballet. Just when you think the 3D gore couldn’t get any more ridiculous, a hell-fish barfs up Jerry O'Connell’s penis at the camera AND IT’S COMING AT YOU IN 3D!!! Just when you though it was awesome that Richard Dryfuss shows up for a wink-winky cameo at the beginning of the movie, Christopher Loydd shows up halfway through and completely steals the show by basically playing Doc Brown from Back to the Future. And then there’s Eli Roth, who cameos as a judge at a wet t-shirt contest and gets to deliver what is possible the best line in motion picture history: “Hey ladies, show me your Danny DeVito’s!”

9. THE GHOST WRITER

As much of a skeez as Roman Polanski is, he is still an amazing director, and his latest The Ghost Writer is no exception. 2010 was full of movies about people "in the spotlight" who are nonetheless totally isolated. Black Swan, The Social Network, and many more showcased the claustrophobia, paranoia, and loneliness of characters in the public eye. Perhaps none did that better than The Ghost Writer, which casts the lives of a former prime minister and a best selling author as an eerie, paranoid calm in the eye of the hurricane. Ewan McGregor (billed only as “the ghost”) is as intelligent as any of us in the audience, but he’s no match for the sinister machinery of behind-the-scenes political espionage. Even if he can outsmart them, they can always fall back on brute force. He can’t. The Ghost is compelled by a sense of justice, an oh-so-modern feeling that the people deserve to know the truth. The Ghost Writer is haunted by a sense of entrapment and impending doom. Even the clouds on Martha’s Vineyard hang oppressively low. This is not thriller moviemaking on a grand scale, but it hits every mark it aims for.

Read my original review here.

8. TOY STORY 3

Sitting in the theater this summer, tears streaming down my cheeks, watching Toy Story 3, it hit me like an anvil that the Toy Story movies have been a huge part of my life. I remember exactly where I was when I saw the first movie, at Thanksgiving with family and family friends in Portland, OR. I remember my dad remarking about how great it was “for a kid’s movie,” and talking about this newfangled computer technology. I remember a little later when I got into high school, putting on airs that I was “too cool for kid’s stuff.” I remember my friend Steve Ok schooling me that Toy Story 2 wasn’t just kids stuff, it was freaking great. I remember him freaking out about the animation of the Cheeto dust on Wayne Knight’s character’s fingers. I’m 26 now. The Toy Story movies and characters have been with me since I was a kid myself, and though I never stopped to realize it, they have been as much a part of my awakening as a movie lover as Star Wars or Quentin Tarantino. Pixar honored that special relationship by making a closing chapter to the saga that I didn’t realize needed a closing chapter, and by making me confront the idea of growing up in ways I didn’t realize I was avoiding.

7. BLACK SWAN

Black Swan is a brutal portrayal of the price of perfection. And it's fun as hell to boot! Natalie Portman astounds; we've never seen anything like this performance from her before. I'm smitten with Darren Arinofsky's meta-swagger; the frame stories and self-commentary hidden in this movie reveal it to be as much a harrowing fun house ride as a serious commentary on the price of genius. The way Black Swan straddles between these two extremes will make it an easy one to revisit in the years to come.

Read my original review here.

6. 127 HOURS

Danny Boyle continues to make movies with the heart of classic Hollywood and an edgy hyper-modern aesthetic. It’s a wise combination. James Franco is astoundingly great. It’s only through this movie that I finally understand what a star he is. A lot of people seem to view 127 Hour’s hyperactivity as a deficit. I couldn’t disagree more. I think the intrusive technology, technique, and style Boyle and his team utilize add a really complex layer to Aron Ralston’s persona. The audience can see from the start that Ralston leans heavily on society, culture, and technology; he’s the George Bailey figure who needs to realize and embrace that need. Boyle is the auteur of the non-traditional feel-good movie.

Read my original review here.

5. FOUR LIONS

Four Lions is not only the laugh-so-hard-you'll-cry funniest movie of the year, it's also manages to squeeze a spot instantaneously into the annals of history as the most current and relevant movies about the psychological effects of the war of/on terror. I wonder if future generations will be able to understand what's going on in this movie, or if its language, insinuations, and circumstances will be lost to those who didn't live it.

Read my original review here.

4. TRUE GRIT

In terms of the nuts and bolts of quality filmmaking, True Grit is the best made movie of the year. Were there more inspiring or thought-provoking movies in 2010? Of course, but with a movie this beautifully photographed, with this good of score, with as high a caliber of acting, with such clever dialogue, and such an impactful and clear sense of atmosphere, who cares? The Coens’ True Grit is a movie’s movie the caliber of which we don’t get too many of. Sometimes it’s just a joy to watch great craftsmen do what they do best.

Read my original thoughts about True Grit from my article "Butt-Numb-A-Thon 12 in Review" here.

3. SPLICE

By any standard, a horror movie about a monstrous half-human, half-animal potpourri clone gone horribly awry should be a cautionary tale about the dangers of genetic engineering. Splice is just too freaky and morally ambiguous for that to be the case here. Every scene and idea suggests a million tangents, what might have been “if only…” Is Dren’s viciousness a product of underlying nature or a result of her brutal, confused, unsympathetic upbringing? For being so high on this list, I’ve only seen Splice once, and I hesitate revisiting it. Incest, rape, and bestiality are not easy to pop in the ol’ DVD player over a bowl of popcorn. However damaged, Splice rings uncomfortably true. Few this year were willing to admit it, if they even bothered to see the movie in the first place.

Read my original review here.

2. THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT

The Kids Are All Right has both the most likable and the most despicable characters in any movie this year. The core family unit - Nic (Annette Benning), Jules (Julianne Moore), and the kids - really feel as though they've known and lived with each other their entire lives. In the case of the kids, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Lazar (Josh Hutcherson), I longed to discover what sort of adults they would grow into. Add Mark Ruffalo into the mix as the kids’ sperm donor come father figure, and this is one amazing ensemble of actors. Wasikowska specifically is very impressive; she’s a name to watch out for in the years ahead. The way that the adults (I use the term loosely) interact with Joni and Lazar – what they say, what they don’t say, the way they use their children’s obvious affection toward them for manipulative ends – rings uncomfortably true. I don’t hide the fact that a lot of my admiration for this movie is related to my own childhood. I grew up with adults attempting to use the unconditional love of children (even teenage children) as a tool for manipulation. The relationships between the two generations of characters hit unnervingly close to home. Everybody in The Kids Are All Right acts out of the desire to love and for love, but some have a hard time understanding the effects their actions have on those who care about them.

Read my original review here.

1. SUMMER WARS

I know this must look like a willfully obscure pick for my #1 movie of the year, but honest to god it really is the best movie I saw this year. Trust me, I am well aware how silly I must look defending an anime movie as the single best movie of 2010. However, in a year where the impact of social networking was such a hot topic, Mamoru Hosoda's Summer Wars did a better job than any other movie (yes, even The Social Network) of mapping out what our future with this controversial technology might look like. Social networking has grown to dominate social interaction in the last decade, leading to the complaint that it’s made us isolated and our relationships superficial. That concern – expressing an underlying fear of technology and change – seems very American to me. I’m sure we had similar complaints about the telephone. We like to think of change as being for better or worse, instead of what it is, just change. Hence, we’re left at the end of The Social Network with Mark Zuckerberg neurotically clicking the refresh button on his Facebook page as the audience nods along, smugly aware that this giant of commerce has missed the point of friendship and interaction completely. In the other corner we have Summer Wars, a movie that suggests that regardless of changes in communication technology, we are still the same human beings we’ve always been, and can still experience love, friendship, family, laughter, sadness, and grace as we always have.

Summer Wars (which, by the way, is a terrible title and has very little to do with the actual movie) tells the story of two intertwining universes. The social networking program Oz is like what Facebook would be if our world governments and infrastructural organizations started hosting their servers and data on one mammoth, all encompassing cyber-landscape. Back in the real world, high school student and small-fries Oz moderator Kenji (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is roped into playing fake-boyfriend for his crush Natsuki's (Nanami Sakuraba) massive family reunion in the Japanese countryside. He barely has a chance to get his feet on the ground when Oz crashes and he's framed for the deed. The catch is that a virus that crashes Oz has very real, tangible consequences in the non-digital world. Traffic lights stop working. Air traffic monitors are kaput. There's even potential for nuclear threat. The way this threat organically increases to ludicrous proportions is a great feat of cinematic pacing.

The visual imagination on display in the depiction of Oz is astounding, and as the virus takes over an manipulates the program's digital landscape, it expands, contracts, and modulates like nothing I've ever seen put to film before. What's more, the Miyazaki-esque pastoral landscape of Natsuki's family country house manages to conjure up a whole different but equally powerful aesthetic. The early morning quiet pierced by the haunting wail of cicadas is magical and nostalgic.

Summer Wars cleverly blurs the boundaries between real and online space, suggesting a much more mature, complex relationship between the two than just real life=good, digital life=bad. Family, friends, and strangers bind together to overcome great obstacles just as they have throughout history, through intelligence, flexibility, and grace. No newfangled computer technology is going to change what makes people people.

And if you live in Denver, you'll have a chance to see Summer Wars the way it should be seen, on the big screen, when it reopens at the Denver Film Center on Colfax this Friday. There will be screenings both in original Japanese with English subtitles and in dubbed English. Don't be a chump, see it in Japanese.

Looking at 2010 as a whole, trends start to emerge. We have an obvious preoccupation with new technology. This is borne out in The Social Network, 127 Hours, Four Lions, Inception, and countless others. More importantly, we are concerned with connectivity, and by that I don't just mean social networking. We are utterly obsessed with making sure we have a community around us. In 127 Hours, Aron Ralston ends up cutting off his own arm because he didn't keep his friends and family close. Black Swan's Nina and The Ghost Writer's "Ghost" are doomed by their isolation. Contrarily, Toy Story 3 reinforces the strength that comes from communal bonds. Four Lions proves that the encouragement of friends and family can lead you to fulfill even the most misguided ends. In The Kids Are All Right, a tight knit family group is almost unraveled when they begin to take each other for granted. Hell, even True Grit reveals a fascination with the self-imposed isolation of the Old West. Bringing all of these threads together, Summer Wars shows a family learning how to navigate our brave new technological world, and finding that the bonds that bind them do not brake away even in the face of these unprecedented challenges. There are plenty of cynical commentators out there in the world right now who think we've lost sight of our humanity in favor of technological neuroses. At least our movies, however, reveal an underlying concern for salvaging human connection. We live in a period of transition, and if this year's great movies don't give you hope for the future, I don't know what will.

-Ben

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