Middle-of-the-road would probably be the best way to describe 2010's crop of cinematic releases. Out of the 166 films I reviewed, those that were great, rating three-and-a-half stars and four, numbered 12 (down from 15 in 2009, but up from 11 in 2008), while those that were terrible, rating one star or lower, came in at a count of 18 (the lowest since 2004, when there were just 16). As for the mediocre two-star rating, the number was, again, right in the middle (53 in 2010 vs. 41 in 2009 and a record-high 62 in 2008). Looking over my top-ten list below, only one picture had a budget over $18-million and at least seven of them were produced outside of the major studio system. By comparison, only one film on my bottom-ten list could be considered an indie; the rest were big Hollywood releases (and two of them, yes, were in crummy 3-D). The jury is still out on whether or not money can buy happiness, but it certainly can't buy good movies. By and large, the most original, innovative and exciting films are those the average moviegoer outside of New York and Los Angeles would have to search to findand even then, plenty of the strongest efforts never do make it beyond the top markets. Will this ever change? It's doubtful, as long as dreck like "Jackass 3D" keeps making $100-million-plus at the box-office.
The format is the same as my past "The Year in Review" essays. First up are my picks for the best performances of the last twelve months (with the ultimate winner colored red), followed by my choices for the year's most overrated and underrated films. Finally, my lists for the best and worst motion pictures of the year top things off. Yes, film critics have to sit through a lot of truly miserable movies, but there always seems to be that special few waiting in the wings to reignite one's passion and make the bad experiences worth it. With a new year soon upon us, I can't wait to see what 2011 has up its sleeve.
(my pick for the absolute best is indicated in red)
"Inception," directed by Christopher Nolan, made over $292-million at the box-office and continues to play in theaters five months after its release and with the DVD and Blu-Ray already in stores. It was also critically acclaimed, currently rating 87% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes out of over 270 reviews. Its few detractors, however, are just as passionate about disliking it as its supporters seem to be in praising it. Meticulously sculpted and technically solid, "Inception" was a sci-fi heist picture set predominately within the layered world of dreams. Nolan took great pains in explaining the out-there complexities of his plot so that audiences wouldn't be hopelessly lost, but in doing so he neglected much of the film's vital human element while falling back on standard, formulaic, even laggard action set-pieces dressed up in artificially fancy threads. For a motion picture set within the boundless reaches of the subconscious, "Inception" was depressingly lacking in imagination.
"The American," directed by Anton Corbijn, is a deeply misunderstood, ruminative, character-rich gem that was hurt by an advertising campaign that billed it as a "Bourne"-like actioner. Grievously, Cinemascorea general consensus of audiencesrated it an almost unheard-of D-, more a comment on the dumbing-down of Americans who prefer fast, loud, mindless drivel rather than cinematic experiences that require a little more thought and concentration. Distinctly European in its sensibilities, "The American" cast George Clooney as an against-type assassin hiding out in a sleepy, picturesque Italian burg as he waits for his next assignment. Classically handsome but looking every one of his forty-nine years, Clooney brought a haunting solemnity to the role of a man who has made plenty of mistakes and done many terrible things, and knows it.
Vampires Suck When you're writer-directors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, the putzes responsible for three of the worst films to ever light up multiplex screens (2007's "Epic Movie" and 2008's one-two punch "Meet the Spartans" and "Disaster Movie"), coming in at number ten on an annual worst list should be considered a valiant victory. "Vampires Suck," well, sucked, but as a botched, lame parody of the "Twilight" series with precious few laughs, at least actual locations rather than Styrofoam sets were used, newcomer Jenn Proske showed flair at imitating Kristen Stewart, and there was something resembling a flimsy narrative to follow rather than just a barely-connected series of sketches and pop-culture references. On the downside, Seltzer and Friedberg have the comic timing of a dead rat, totally ill-equipped and without a clue about how to shoot, edit, and sell their bids for low-rent humor.
Jackass 3D As skit-laden feature-length films, 2002's "Jackass: The Movie" and 2006's "Jackass: Number Two" were almost equal parts amusing, sickening and flat, cinematic junk food of the "turn-your-brain-off-at-the-door" variety. Thoroughly uninspired and not even trying to one-up its predecessors, "Jackass 3D" just came off as kind of sad. Closing in on forty, the regular ensemble of perverse stuntmen and pranksters, headed as usual by Johnny Knoxville, seem to be getting awfully long in the tooth for this sort of juvenile foolishness. Furthermore, almost none of it was funny this time around, hurt by boring and unoriginal shenanigans, poor editing, and a sneaking sense of desperation on the cast's parts. The final blow: it was in utterly pointless 3-D.
The Back-Up Plan For an actress who these days only headlines a major studio movie every five years or so, Jennifer Lopez sure knows how to pick 'em. The worst romantic comedy of the year, "The Back-Up Plan" was absolutely odious and tone-deaf, a disastrous vehicle that went so wrong in so many ways it now ranks alongside 2009's Sandra Bullock-starring "All About Steve" in the history books of recent A-list blunders within the genre. So artificially orchestrated and empty-headed as to not work for a second, the film exists in a vacuum where identifiable people who are living, or may have at one point lived, on planet earth do not exist.
Clash of the Titans Like a visit to an amusement park where all the roller-coasters are closed under renovation, "Clash of the Titans" promised a large scope and lots of thrills, yet ended up delivering upon none of it. The characters were wholly forgettable and no reason was given for why the viewer should care about them. The action was about as rousing as a wheelchair race between two half-comatose octogenarians. The CG effects felt half-finished and unrendered, aspiring no sense of awe. Hastily converted at the last minute to 3-D in order to cash in on the success of 2009's "Avatar," the dingy, dark and shabby theatrical presentation of "Clash of the Titans" was but an unfortunate supplement to a lifeless, stinking corpse of a remake that made the outdated 1981 original suddenly look mighty desirable.
Marmaduke Dog and cat lovers, beware: "Marmaduke" is the first family film in recent memory with the power to make you hate domesticated pets. An amalgamation of dopey physical pratfalls, yucky (if not unpredictable) bathroom humor, mixed morals, amateurish editing, and only the thinnest sense of narrative cohesion, the movie pushes one's patience to the brink. No onenot dogs, not cats, and not human beingsescapes looking good. Every step of the way during this film's journey to the big-screen should have been fraught with worried eyes and questioning voices. Clearly, no one making it cared enough to bother. Kids' pic or not, "Marmaduke" was a pathetic waste of time and money for all concerned.
The Virginity Hit In the case of their feature directorial debut "The Virginity Hit," Funny or Die web site creators Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland have no choice but to sign their own death warrants. A combination of "American Pie," "The Blair Witch Project" and crap, the film was made up of 87 minutes' worth of faux YouTube videos all shot by an obsessive teenage voyeur attempting to get his gawky adopted brother laid for the first time. These weren't entertaining YouTube videos, either, but the kind that you might click on, watch five seconds of, get immediately annoyed, and quickly close out of. Crass verging on detestable, filled with deplorable, brain-dead teens posing as protagonists, "The Virginity Hit" was a particularly appalling experience that one felt downright unclean watching.
Our Family Wedding Directed by Rick Famuyiwa with the skill of a tone-deaf baboon, "Our Family Wedding" barrelled below even the lowest possible expectations to become one of the most offensively tasteless and just plain imbecilic motion pictures of the last few years. So awful that the viewer had to wonder if everyone responsible was under the control of brain-melting hallucinogens during its screenwriting, shooting and post-production stages, the film, indeed, went wrong in every way a movie made with recognizable stars, a healthy budget and studio support possibly can. Filled to bursting with ethnic prejudices, hateful slurs, and disgusting stereotypes, "Our Family Wedding" was a a rancid ode to the quainter, simpler times before integration and that pesky Civil Rights Movement got in the way.
Little Fockers Cynical. Mean-spirited. Ugly. Lazy. Aimless. If a contest were created to write the most worthless and unfunny script imaginable, "Little Fockers" would have a fighting chance at taking home the prize. All involved would have been wise to run screaming from the dotted line of their contracts when this script was presented to them. Oh, wait, who am I kidding? What script? Directed by Paul Weitz, who should hang his head in shame, consider the worst possible continuation imaginable for this by-now scandalously wretched franchise and then go lowernot by a few steps, but all the way down into the fiery pits of cinematic Hell. This is where "Little Fockers" resides. A maddening, joyless experience, easily one of the most inept films of the year.
Cop Out At the time of its release, Kevin Smith claimed via Twitter that he took an eighty percent pay cut to direct "Cop Out," his first major studio release that he didn't write the screenplay for. One cannot rightfully say that he sold his soul, but it's safe to say he must have at least temporarily lost his mind. A buddy-cop comedy starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, who looked like they couldn't even stand being around each other, let alone get along, "Cop Out" was laugh-free and unspeakably terrible. There was no high drama, only some ugly violence and a distinct disregard for human life to leave you sobered and depressed. There was no comedy, either, since the film was absent of wit and proper timing. There was also no heart, for in order to have that a film would also require a trace of humanity. Suspense was beside the point, though a third-act shootout was anticlimactic even by the lowest of standards. Visually drab, to boot, "Cop Out" failed on every possible level a movie can.
Furry Vengeance One of the most insufferable monstrosities in memory, it can be stated firmly and confidently, without an ounce of hyperbole, that it has been years since a so-called "family film" has been as absolutely loathsome, moronic, and without redemption as "Furry Vengeance." Brendan Fraser reaches a new low in his careerquite a featfor a 92-minute cavalcade of human humiliation, gross racial, ethnic and sexist profiling, and violent pratfalls posing as broad, all-in-good-fun comedy. All the more empty, miserable and heartless because of its faux-sincere eco-friendly message, the picture is obnoxious, vile, distasteful, and beyond unfunny, successfully acting as repellent for all audience members outside of humanoid sewer dwellers who have never seen a movie before and may be attracted to the sight of moving images. Of all the things viewers expect from the cinema, that is just about the only requirement which "Furry Vengeance" got right: there was, indeed, movement on the celluloid.
Easy A Akin to what 1996's "Scream" did for the slasher genre, the exuberant, whip-smart "Easy A" does for teen comedies, both satirically subverting conventions in a slyly self-knowing way while, at the same time, having no choice but to adhere to them when they present themselves to feisty protagonist Olive Penderghast (a beyond-radiant Emma Stone). In many ways, "Easy A" is deceptively groundbreaking; it's so bouncy and funny and effortlessly entertaining that viewers might assume at the onset it doesn't have anything new to offer or anything of substance to say. What they soon discover is that their first assumptions are wrong, very much in the same way Olive's classmates are mistaken in their hasty reading of who she is as a person. This isn't just some pandering cinematic throwaway narrowly targeting the high school crowd, but, like 1984's "Sixteen Candles," 1995's "Clueless" and 2004's "Mean Girls," strong enough to become a lasting, defining motion picture of its respective era.
Catfish Even with a "20/20" episode devoted to the real human subjects, the debate endures over whether or not the purportedly true "Catfish" is a fake. In this film's case, it doesn't really matter. If it is a real documentaryand the filmmakers are adamant that it isit's staggering and miraculous, lightning in a bottle personified. If it's fiction, then directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman are, without a doubt, exquisite filmmakers who ought to have first pick on a follow-up project. Either way, it's a truly exceptional piece of work, a ravenously fascinating motion picture that, in its account of the unlikely online friendship between a NYC photographer and an 8-year-old artist from Michigan, offers up a one-of-a-kind viewing experience fraught with what might best be described as a Tilt-a-Whirl of emotional responses. Sweet-natured amusement at the onset eventually makes way for a high-wire act of intrigue, pathos, and disquieting tension. Watching "Catfish" has the power to simultaneously chill the bones and break one's heart.
Cairo Time Sometimes the most moving films are the ones that don't feel the need to shoot from all cylinders, bombarding the viewer with melodramatic, overwrought situations and drippy, string-laden music cues as a means of manipulating one's emotions. "Cairo Time" is consistently low-key and observant, an achingly beautiful snapshot of little more than a moment in time and the impact it has on two people who, at the end of the day, live on opposite sides of the world. Exquisitely written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Ruba Nadda, the picture works simultaneously as a stirring platonic love story, a quietly poignant character study, and a lush, luminescent Egyptian travelogue. There is scarcely a false or artificial note in all its 90 minutes. As for Patricia Clarkson's inestimable contributions, hers is one of the loveliest performances of the year.
The Eclipse Not to be confused with the third entry in the "Twilight" series, "The Eclipse" blends romance, drama and supernatural horror into a truly original, thoroughly unforgettable concoction, refusing to tip its hand in any one finite direction. A heartfelt study of a widowed father (Ciaran Hinds) haunted by ghosts from his past and future, set against the backdrop of Ireland's annual Cobh International Literary Festival, the film is as fresh as it is immediate. Writer-director Conor McPherson is less interested in recognizing genre than he is in telling a multilayered story with beautifully drawn characters, following them wherever their paths may lead. In doing so, he leaves his enraptured audience feeling unbalanced in the best way, ill-prepared for the unexpected power to come. Poignant, tender and, it should be noted, containing some of the most singularly petrifying, jump-up-and-scream-in-pure-terror moments perhaps in cinema history.
Tangled With ample imagination, memorable characters, delightful songs, impeccably gorgeous traditional animation blended with its more current CG counterpart, and a story worth caring about, "Tangled" was one of this year's happiest surprises. One would never have expected such a rich, fulfilling experience based on the trailers and television ads, which falsely positioned the male love interest of long-maned heroine Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore) as the lead character and hid the fact that this was a full-blown musical. Move over, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Sleeping Beauty," "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," and "The Lion King." Within the annals of the non-Pixar Disney canon, "Tangled" is utterly fantastic, good enough to stand head and shoulders alongside those aforementioned animated classics.
Frozen The premise of "Frozen" is a doozythree college kids are stranded on a ski lift 100 feet in the air just as the resort shuts down for the weekbut the depth of character and the masterful, unsparing grasp writer-director Adam Green and cinematographer Will Barratt have over their mise en scene are the film's all-important special ingredients. A crafty, inventive plot hook only goes so far if there is more style than substance and no one to care about at its center. "Frozen" understands this, turning what might have been an empty exercise overextended to the breaking point into a breathless, poignant, vibrant potboiler where nary a single scene, shot or frame is wasted. Akin to swimming in a giant, extra-duty washing machine for 94 minutes, this expert pulse-pounder puts you straight through the wringer. While you gasp, the movie mischievously laughs.
127 Hours In April 2003, 27-year-old thrill-seeker Aron Ralston set off for a day of hiking, mountain-biking and rock-climbing in Utah's Blue John Canyon when a falling boulder pinned his arm against the rock wall. Trapped for five days with little food or water and the knowledge that no one knew to look for him there, Ralston ultimately saved himself by amputating his own arm with a dull knife. His physically and spiritually transformative experience is dramatized to harrowing, unflinching effect in "127 Hours," director Danny Boyle's far superior follow-up to 2008's manipulative, grossly overrated "Slumdog Millionaire." At once manic and ruminative, vast and intimate, the film is as energetic as its adventurous human subject (played by James Franco in an emotionally grueling performance), working as both a grand entertainment and a thoughtful existential character study.
I Am Love A passion project for writer-director Luca Guadagnino and actress Tilda Swinton (who, amazingly, learned to speak fluent Italian and Russian for the part), "I Am Love" is an intoxicating tour de force bridging the gap between rich human drama, generous visual and thematic poeticism, and technical astonishment. A tale of one's identity lost, then reclaimed, the film builds the stakes high before knocking them down and seeing, for better or worse, where they may fall. High style frequently overshadows substance, but not here, the glorious imagery proving both meaningful and essential in the complimentary layers it adds to the characters' depth and conflicts. If that weren't enough, the operatic music score by John Adamsthe first ever for this Pulitzer Prize-winning composeronly adds to the narrative's sense of make-or-break immediacy, so rapturous as to steal the viewer's breath away. In a modern filmic sea too often characterized by superfluousness and apathy, "I Am Love" is something of a miracle.
Enter the Void The word, "masterpiece," is bandied around with a certain frivolousness when it comes to modern film criticism. There are plenty of great pictures, but how many truly deserve their place in the upper echelons of cinema history? "Enter the Void" indisputably earns this distinguished label, reinventing a whole new filmic language with a structure, style and subject matter that are thoroughly and without question unique. Remarkably innovative in form, unshakably haunting in tone, and nothing less than transcendentally devastatingand, ultimately, soothingin plot and intention, writer-director Gaspar Noé's has made an experience to be treasured, feared and never forgotten. So many movies these days rely on conventions and clichés to tell their stories that it's worth celebrating when one of them defiantly breaks free from the pack and carves out fresh, untrammeled territory. Done close to flawlessly, to boot, and the results are downright miraculous. "Enter the Void" is a big, gorgeous, sprawling, heartbreaking stroke of genius, a motion picture as seminal as it is sublime. You can rest assured that you haven't seen anything like it before.
Somewhere An American actor (Stephen Dorff) feeling disconnected from his surroundings, adrift in a state of silent ennui. An 11-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning) whose entrance into his world gives him a newfound sense of purpose, even as it also places a magnifying glass over the crucial things missing from his life. The central setting: an illustrious, exotic hotel. "Somewhere," an unofficial companion piece to writer-director Sofia Coppola's 2003 opus "Lost in Translation," is breathtaking cinema. If any cinematic auteur working today is capable of making better films about existential crises and the power of human connection, they clearly have yet to put page to screen. Hypnotically photographed and sumptuously scored by Phoenix, "Somewhere" is that rare motion picture that would stay exactly as is were the liberty be given to change anything about it. Meticulous yet unrestrained, a tone poem of deep, quiet lyricism and frequent flashes of striking brilliance, the film is ravishing in its ability to say so much with such deceptive simplicity and all the more intensely moving because of it. No other movie in 2010 quite made me feel as much and as deeply as "Somewhere" did.