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Saturday, January 08, 2011

The Top 10 Best Films of 2010

2010 will not be remembered as a great year in cinema. While there were a number of diamonds in the rough - many included on this list, obviously - the year felt noticeably overstuffed with uninspired retreads, remakes, sequels, , 80s nostalgia, slavish adaptations and calculated attempts at franchise-building (Hello Prince of Persia! What's goin' on, Tron: Legacy?). Frankly, there wasn't a great deal to get really excited about - especially in the first dire 8 months. However, a handful of releases stood out from the rest, offering hope that magic could still be found in a darkened room on a glowing screen. The ten films listed below, and the honourable runner-ups, each, in their own individual way, managed to leave a permanent mark and loom large over the competition. If you haven't yet seen them, I recommend you add them to your list.

1) 127 HOURS Forget 3D, director Danny Boyle’s vigorous portrayal of climber Aron Ralston’s traumatic ordeal in the Utah canyons was easily 2010’s most immersive cinematic experience. Utilizing almost every technique in his very distinctive bag of tricks, the Oscar-winning director created a gruelling, sweaty, life-affirming action film in which the lead character rarely moves. With his right hand pinned down by an errant boulder, Ralston (a magnetic James Franco, almost invisible behind his character’s stubble, grimy skin and weary eyes) battles valiantly for not only survival but redemption; facing down the demons of his past as he tirelessly chips away, day after day. Boyle places us in that canyon right next to him, experiencing every ache, moment of weakness, bout of unbearable thirst and - when desperation kicks in - agonizing cut. Though 127 Hours mercilessly runs you through the emotional gamut, the overwhelming sensation of catharsis waiting at journey’s end is profound and intense – this film doesn’t just reward the senses, it rewards the soul.

2) INCEPTION If there was any doubt left after The Dark Knight that Christopher Nolan was the premier master of intelligent, bold blockbuster filmmaking, Inception cements the fact. As Leonardo DiCaprio (a doppelganger for the auteur, with his slicked-back hair and suave suits) and his crack team of high-tech corporate con-men navigate the subconscious of mourning energy mogul Cillian Murphy, we’re content to let the director guide us through the tale, eager to witness each new grand sight and original idea. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Nolan respects the audience and the act of viewing cinema and, like a true showman, creates enthralling works of large scale high-wire entertainment that reward the thinking film-goer and the adrenaline junkie alike. In combining his fascination with psychoanalysis, science fiction mind-benders and the James Bond catalogue, he’s crafted his most ambitious and engrossing work to date; the rare studio event picture that knows that smart and cool often go hand-in-hand.

3) THE FIGHTER Great sports films understand that dramatic heft comes from the rich personalities involved, not the game itself, and David O. Russell’s electric biopic of welterweight champion “Irish” Mickey Ward (portrayed with understated modesty by Mark Wahlberg) is bursting at the seams with fascinating characters. While Christian Bale – giving a career best performance as Ward’s crack addicted half-brother and trainer – and ferocious family matriarch Melissa Leo are the obvious stand-outs, The Fighter gives even the tiniest bit players juicy material to bite into. The result is a scrappy, authentic and honest boxing picture that holds us firmly in its grasp until the final victory bell rings out.

4) WINTER’S BONE Bleak and sombre, Debra Granik’s breakthrough neo-noir sleeper creeps up on you like an icy draft from a cracked window. Set in a desolate, moody Ozarks mountain town overrun by poverty and crystal meth, Winter’s Bone follows an intrepid teenager as she embarks on a perilous quest to track down her father, who has jumped bail and put the family farm in jeopardy. Headlined by confident, strong-willed Jennifer Lawrence and a fearsome John Hawkes - who commands your attention in every scene with his gripping, tragedy-soaked turn as the girl’s criminal uncle – Granik’s captivating film sucks you into its wounded, ominous world, where a single misspoken word can lead to a sudden burst of violence and grim secrets lurk behind every battered door and cold, weathered face.

5) BLACK SWAN On paper, a psychological horror film set in the world of ballet seemed like an odd choice for Darren Aronofky, the art-house auteur behind intriguing works like The Wrestler and The Fountain. In practice, however, Black Swan is a mesmerizing and visceral continuation of the director’s many stylistic obsessions and narrative themes; a film which doesn’t so much capture insanity as plunge you into its gaping abyss. As we sit in uneasy silence, watching driven dancer Nina (a fearless Natalie Portman) psychologically splinter while attempting to tap into the duality of her lead Swan Lake role, the helmer gleefully jolts us with unforgettable scenes of shocking body horror and disturbing surrealism. By the time the astonishing culmination of Nina’s madness occurs we’re so completely under the spell of Aronofsky’s warped vision that it’s impossible to not hunger for an encore.

6) THE SOCIAL NETWORK Although the notion of a Facebook movie seemed ridiculous when it was first announced, David Fincher’s engrossing account of the behind-the-scenes trials and tribulations surrounding the juggernaut social networking site proved to be anything but. Fiercely clever and observant, with a crackling script by Aaron Sorkin, the film assembles an exceptionally compelling group of fully-rendered personalities – flawlessly inhabited by ace ensemble Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake and Armie Hammer - and watches intently as they bounces off one another. The ensuing fireworks are fast, hypnotic and frequently hilarious, touching upon a number of universal truths and elevating the material far beyond its trendy roots.

7) HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON After spending more than a decade churning out mediocre animated product that favoured A-list voice stunt-casting and pop-culture references over strong storytelling, Dreamworks finally hit gold with this crowd-pleasing adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s best-selling children’s novel. Lovingly assembled by former Disney talents Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, How to Train Your Dragon soars to the same exhilarating heights as its lovable title character, Toothless, presenting invigorating flying sequences, thrilling action and a genuinely touching central friendship – all set to a John Powell’s pulse-quickening score. A dazzling treat for movie-goers of any age, it’s a film that deserves to be ranked amongst the very best cinematic portrayals of kids and their amazing pets.

8) KICK-ASS Matthew Vaughn’s uncompromising, balls-to-the-wall descent into superhero-driven lunacy was one of 2010’s most unexpected treats. Revelling in the glorious excesses of author Mark Millar’s inferior comic-book series, Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman fashioned a comic-book origin tale that blazed with punk rock spirit and snarling attitude. Frequently misinterpreted as a failed attempt at a real world take on masked heroes, the film is, rather, a wry examination and celebration of the superhero genre, with Aaron Johnson’s idealistic masked avenger violently learning the rules of his own fictional universe. Featuring a star-making performance by Chloe Moretz as the purple-wigged, death-dealing crusader Hit Girl and a batty and disarmingly warm turn by an Adam West-channelling Nicolas Cage, Kick-Ass is a startling blast of blood-soaked irreverence that never dares pulls a single punch.

9) THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT One of the funniest films released in 2010, this Sundance fave written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko was especially notable for producing the year’s most memorable on-screen romantic couple in Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. Cast as long-term lovers raising two teenagers (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson), the two actresses each give powerhouse performances and create a wholly believable and endearing movie relationship. Their union isn’t Hollywood perfect; there are huge bumps along the way – especially when formerly anonymous sperm-donating interloper Paul (Mark Ruffalo) arrives on the scene – but Cholodenko’s ultra-sharp writing sidesteps clich├ęs and allows their bond to transform and adapt in frank, absorbing ways. More than just all right, this is a damn engaging film, teaming with witty dialogue and charming characters, which creates such a friendly, inviting atmosphere that we don’t really want to have to leave.

10) RABBIT HOLE Making movies about couples in grief can be an extremely messy business. There’s a tendency to depict one partner as being more sympathetic than the other, or to simplify their emotional processes. Director John Cameron Mitchell and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (adapting his own stage play) get it just perfect. Starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as a married couple shattered by the untimely death of their young son, the film tackles its complex adult subject matter with humanity and quiet sympathy. Refusing to take sides, it offers us a window into both protagonists’ heads, revealing both the strengths and limitations of their contrasting approaches to existing day-to-day. Backed by a solid supporting cast which includes Dianne Wiest, Sandra Oh and Miles Teller, Rabbit Hole is quiet, raw and often sad, but never loses hope that there’s something better waiting just around the corner.

Honourable mentions: EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP, WINNEBAGO MAN, TRUE GRIT, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, THE KING’S SPEECH, TOY STORY 3.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Film Review - THE TOURIST

The Tourist is a light-hearted romantic spy romp with lead feet and a head full of rocks. That it stars two of Hollywood’s most sexy and beloved movie stars and is co-written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the Oscar-winning director of 2006’s The Lives of Others (and the filmmaker with the best chance of one day having a Bond villain named after him), only compounds the frustrations of slogging through its paced-like-congealed-syrup 103-minite run-time. These people are more than capable of creating great audience-pleasing work! Why are they wasting their time and ours on a project that, more often than not, resembles a particularly tedious perfume commercial?

I imagine the chance to shoot in Venice was a significant part of the draw. The ancient canals and architecture of the world’s most romantic city look gorgeous on-screen, and von Donnersmarck lingers seductively on each and every charming location. As a travelogue, The Tourist ain’t half-bad. It’s glossy and lovingly shot by cinematographer John Seale (The Talented Mr. Ripley, The English Patient) - a man who knows how to mine visual majesty from foreign locations. Pity, then, that nothing remotely interesting happens in front of the magnificent backdrops.

Inspired by bubbly Hitchcock thrillers such as To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest, and 60s-era star power-driven escapades like Stanley Donen’s Charade, The Tourist casts Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp as romantic opposites who find themselves on the run in Venice from generic movie gangsters and the law. Jolie’s Elise, a mystery woman being tailed (and constantly ogled) by an Interpol financial crimes team led by Paul Bettany, picks up unassuming math teacher Frank (Depp) on a train headed for Venice. She’s been instructed by her shadowy criminal lover to find a man bearing similar features to use as a decoy. However, after seductively luring the bumbling Frank to a luxurious hotel sparks begin to fly between the two. Or so we’re supposed to believe.

Certainly Depp and Jolie, individually, have undeniable chemistry with the camera, but together they feel awkward and cold; like two detached alien life-forms attempting to mimic love scenes from more successful movies. Fine, if the film was a globe-trotting remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but deadly for a picture whose main selling point is the promise of cheerful romantic adventures. While Jolie relies on her come-hither stares, breathy delivery and bordering-on-X-rated body language, Depp plays his character like a stuffy, clumsy bore who seems like he would far rather peruse dusty old volumes than carry on a conversation. While we can buy her duping this poor sap, there’s nary a moment when their alleged mutual attraction translates to the audience. They also aren't done any favours by the hopeless dialogue which lacks any of the necessary zip or wit.

With the love story barely even operating on autopilot, there’s no strong central dramatic pulse to hold our attention during the film’s convoluted espionage hijinx. The classics which inspired this picture knew the crime thriller stuff was just a means of bringing together the attractive leads and rarely allowed the behind-the-scenes power players an opportunity to take centre stage. The fun came from watching the plucky protagonists weave together the ludicrously complex plot strands on their own. In The Tourist, we spend an exhausting amount of time with Paul Bettany’s team as they incompetently plan, plot and scheme. Bettany is a great actor, and, in a perfect world, would be playing the Depp part, but he’s saddled with a dull character whose only job is to explain the plot to the audience and tie up loose ends. The only time he seems to be having any fun is when he’s sparring with a lively Timothy Dalton, playing his hard-ass superior, in a couple all-too-short scenes.

The general sense of lethargy carries over to the film’s action set-pieces as well. There is a chase scene featuring two tied-together water crafts that looks great, but lacks any thrills as it is – in keeping with the rest of the movie - arguably the slowest boat chase ever committed to film. The vehicles don’t actually appear to accelerate past 5 miles per hour. Slightly more energetic is a rooftop pursuit involving a bare-footed Depp and two gun-toting assailants, which cheerfully bends logic (Depp’s feet must be made of adamantium) but doesn’t feel like the showstopper it was intended to be. The character is such an aloof cipher that all emotion is drained from the scene. It’s almost impossible to care if he’s caught or not.

So little of the picture works that it’s kind of amazing. Even the shocking last minute twist is gratingly moronic, and actually worsens the experience of having sat through the whole sluggish affair. This is a film that needed to be faster, sharper and more attentive to the demands of its genre, or at least so hilariously awful that one could enjoy it on an ironic level. Instead, it’s flat and boring; a forgettable movie aimed at the masses with next to nothing to offer. The Tourist is in desperate need of a map and better directions.

1.5 out of 5