Typically my year-end lists have consisted mostly of superfluous numbers and numerous superlatives. Of course, ranking entertainment according to my preference is elitist and pretty much unnecessary, and ranking it according to inherent aesthetic value is elitist and pretty much bullshit. But I respect critics myself, and lean pretty heavily on reviews, for two reasons:
1) Even though critics are known for being elitist cynics (who for example give bad reviews to stuff normal folks like, just because they’re easier to write), I’ve found that a charitable and well written review can actually help me appreciate something I might not otherwise. When I watched Mulholland Dr this year, I had no idea what to make of the experience until I read a few reviews. Roger Ebert’s, even though it was an awful piece of writing, was a pretty perceptive bit of criticism. Sometimes critics notice things we don’t; it’s their job after all.
2) When I’m being entertained, I’m attentive but impatient. It’s not always a virtue, but if a movie or record or TV show won’t hold my attention, I turn it off. (Books usually fare better, though I did start and put aside Moby Dick this summer—what a chore.) More often though, that impatience supplies the anti-inertial willpower it takes to turn the TV off after the first half of Conan (or—I wish—to quit watching the Office, because it’s no longer funny,) and do something worthwhile. And that’s good, right?
So anyway, think of these silly ranked lists as a set of ordered recommendations for those of y’all who, like me, are looking for solid entertainment, but will only put up with so much.
Also, I apologize for the loooong sentences and too-numerous parenthetical intrusions to come. But I will not alter them.
And let the record show, I did not actually cry tears due to Toy Story 3.
This wasn’t the best year for movies in recent memory. There were only a handful of titles worth making a list for (I did finally round up 10) as opposed to 15 or 20 solid contenders in ’09. Only this year’s top 4 would have stood a chance of making last year’s list.
Pending but Promising (movies I haven’t seen):
The Kids are All Right
Whatever the new TRON is called.
“I’m Here” [watch it for free here]
Spike Jonze is obviously still cool, as the vodka company that sponsored his 2010 short film will attest. I mean, what’s cooler than an indie love-story in which the main characters are robots made out of computer parts from the late ‘90s?
What I think Jonze does best is setting. The exhaustively deliberate aesthetic of everything he’s directed—from the suburban war in his new Arcade Fire video to the cramped, faceless office in Being John Malkovich to the lonely suburban-LA interiors in Adaptation—eliminates the need for exposition and lets him tell whatever focused story he has in mind.
And what a story “I’m Here” has. Based on Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree”, the film probes (among other things, and in just 30 minutes) the complications of mixing self-sacrifice into young love, as well as the metaphysics and emotional mechanics of just what exactly love is. It’s among the most earnest and human bits of film to come out this year, profound enough to get by as a metaphor for substitutionary atonement—all despite its characters’ metal parts.
2010's Top 10 Movies:
[edit: I saw Winter's Bone and would probably put it at #7 or 8 if I were making the list now. But I'll let things stand]
Inception is probably the most ambitious movie to come out in like five years: visually stunning, with a brilliant, high-profile cast and a plot layered more densely than a Fat Smitty Burger®. And the limited promotion of the film meant that, at least for the first 20 minutes, I didn’t know where it was going.
But (for me) the main plot-twist of Christopher Nolan’s newest (and weakest) effort comes in the credits, when it turns out that Inception wasn’t adapted from a Philip K. Dick novel. That’s less because it’s conceptually intricate than because none of its characters is really believable (and so none of them is sympathetic). Example: Remember the scene where Leo starts explaining to Ellen Page how dream-worlds work: not only is she not at all unsettled or confused to learn you can inhabit other folks’ thoughts, but she also immediately diagnoses Leo’s deeply buried psychological problems based on nothing but this little crash course. Kind of implausible behavior for a shy architect, right? Now remember that the concept behind that scene is how the human mind rejects incoherent fictional constructs. I mean, come on Nolan! That’s when the top quit spinning for me.
9. Shutter Island
Another ambitious “What’s Real? What’s a Dream?” movie, also starring Leonardo Dicaprio. Scorcese’s execution beats Nolan’s, and despite a few shortcomings (mainly the fact that we’ve seen pretty much this same thriller more than a few times before) Shutter Island works. The master-director’s greatest strength is making us wonder, at least initially, what kind of movie we’ve gotten ourselves into. Is it a metaphysical or psychological thriller? Maybe just asking that question gives it away, but I’d still recommend it over Inception.
Of the films Noah Baumbach has directed, Greenberg is the most watchable. Of course, if you know Noah Baumbach’s films, you know that’s saying very little. Another loser-drama from the almost too smart writer-director of The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Margot at the Wedding (2007), Greenberg casts a sufficiently unlikable Ben Stiller as the out of control narcissistic title character. The vital signs of a solipsist are all accounted for—arrogance veiled as apathy; unabashedly elitist manners and vocabulary and taste; zero ability to talk about anything except his own problems…. The list goes on, and it’s not fun to watch. But the story, really about someone who loves the angry bastard despite it all, is sneakily healing (without ever sacrificing its faithful representation such a loathsome character,) and it redeemed for me an otherwise unpleasant film.
7. Get Low
A scruffy tale of guilt & redemption that casts Robert Duvall in a role that would be the high point of anyone else’s career. Solid screen-writing means believable if sometimes merely functional dialogue, and the obligatory Duvall monologue is worked in with impressive subtlety. And seriously, Robert Duvall plays such a perfect senile, hard-to-forgive curmudgeon that almost nothing else matters. Just be warned, “else” includes a molasses-paced story and an uncomfortable, unfunny performance from Bill Murray. Still, forgiveness is a tough topic for film, and Get Low doesn’t flinch at it.
6. Never Let Me Go
Kazuo Ishiguro’s sort-of sci-fi novel probably didn’t need to be a big-budget movie. But it got made anyway, and it’s really not bad. Sure, the love-story would have been served better with another thirty minutes of childhood exposition up front (especially since the child counterparts of Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley were so convincing). And none of the settings are ever developed to satisfaction. Oh, and every damn shot in the movie is colorized in the same gloomy seafoam grey.
But the story itself is more powerful than any science fiction I’ve come across since reading Ender’s Game, evoking a wholly believable dystopia in which human clones go to school, fall in love, and grow up just in time to have their organs harvested (yikes). The pacing is a bit off, but if you still manage to sympathize with its characters the film is a touching story of the value of human life. Do clones have souls just like the people they’re killed to save? It could be a stand-in for world-disparity, or the ethics of abortion, or genocide, or really any issue that matters today.
5. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
That British dude who did Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz is back. Woohoo!
Plot: Scott Pilgrim (the relentlessly type-cast Michael Cera) starts dating this cool, blue-haired indie girl (obviously cribbed from Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine) in the awkward-but-cool way Michael Cera’s characters date anyone. Then he finds out he has to literally (or figuratively?) fight her Evil Ex-Boyfriends to keep her.
In practice, this works similarly to a musical; only instead of breaking into showtunes, the characters break into Mortal Kombat-styled battle sequences. The gaming gimmick is cartoonish, but that’s the point; the movie totally commits and it works perfectly.
Pilgrim has more personality than any high school movie in recent memory, staying hip without being woefully over-written (Juno) or being influenced by John Hughes’s out-of-touch writerly sensibilities (Mean Girls, Easy A). Cera is his usual practiced-but-still-pitiably-awkward self, but the movie’s funniest performances come from unlikely cast members Jason Schwartzman and Kieran Culkin. Scott Pilgrim is the coolest, funniest movie of the year and none of its jokes rely on cultural knowledge more recent than the late ‘90s, so they shouldn’t feel outdated (pun?) for at least a few years.
4. Exit Through the Gift Shop
The reclusive graffiti artist Banksy made a documentary about street art. Telling you anything more would begin to give away the film’s oddly exciting twists and turns, so I’ll just say Exit Through the Gift Shop is the most entertaining documentary I’ve ever seen, artfully exploring the motives of the world’s leading street artists while shrewdly satiring America’s elitist high-art culture. The questions of whether the film is authentic or Banksy’s biggest hoax yet just deepens the mystery, and I wouldn’t really be disappointed either way.
3. True Grit
Jeff Bridges steps up to the Coen Brothers’ plate once again, this time to play the lead (a US Marshall whose grit is in question) in their latest film. The role suits him perfectly: Rooster Cogburn is the most lovable scoundrel in film since Jack Sparrow, and Bridges’ performance is at the center of a lot of humor. It would be easy to mistake all the laughs for comic relief from an otherwise pretty tragic story, but the Joel & Ethan Coen manipulate our feelings for much craftier reasons than that (Cf. Burn After Reading).
True Grit pays homage to classic Westerns—the tough guys are still tough, and the religious references have been kept intact—but it foregoes some of the genre’s conventional devices for modern techniques, and thus affords itself some of the lifelike realness of modern (i.e. post-Godfather) cinema. It’s still a Western, but it’s also more than that (just like The Big Lebowski is more than a stoner comedy, and No Country for Old Men is more than a revenge thriller). In other words, the Coens have done it again.
2. The Social Network
Even if it unfortunately backgrounds the Facebook’s creepiness (FB can sell its users’ contact info and photos to any third party it wants, and has a formula that can predict 90% of all facebook-relationship breakups three weeks in advance)—and even though, in fact, it’s only barely about Facebook, The Social Network is fascinating as a study of how interpersonal communication has changed in the last ten years. It’s also the best capitalist-thriller since 1987’s Wall Street.
The film focuses on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and derives its plot from the lawsuits brought against him by his earliest collaborators, and not, interestingly, from Facebook’s epic rise to household-name status. The bulk of the story is framed as an after-the-fact exposition (via deposition) of the company’s roots in dirty venture capital deals. Given the sort of boring legal claptrap the actual settlement transcripts consist in, it’s a miracle a film from this angle is watchable, let alone thrilling.
Credit for that miracle goes to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s artful and faithfully human dialogue. The out-of-court settlement sessions feel like clever (and intelligible!) repartee fests, and we actually have a window into who these people (yes, even the elusive Mr. Zuckerberg) really are. Jesse Eisenberg puts in the year’s best male performance as an ambitious, starry-eyed, and super nerdy Harvard Zuckerberg, suggesting through pitch-perfect expressions and mannerisms that maybe the guy isn’t truly a douche; maybe he’s really just missing whatever gene makes the rest of us capable of social niceties.
Of course, it’s doubtful that Zuckerberg was ever such a bad guy as the film (in the name of entertainment) makes him out to be. And Harvard’s classy-frat-partyin’ final clubs are misrepresented; and probably the scene where Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin get blowjobs in the men’s room of a Boston bar was made up too; etc. Zuckerberg learned from all those early lawsuits to keep his lips sealed, so we only have Saverin’s side of the story, filtered through two dubiously researched narrative versions. But none of that lessens the film’s impact in the least. The Social Network is the sequel Wall Street should have gotten.
1. Toy Story 3
1995’s Toy Story is the perfect kids’ movie—funny, infinitely re-watchable, profoundly affecting (for two years I refused to give away my old toys, worried I would hurt their feelings), and perfect for the coveted marketing demographic of, well, everyone who has ever been a child. The final installment of the unlikely trilogy is at least as solid (albeit still a little weaker for being a sequel). The story is more predictable than Wall-E or Up, but it still takes plenty of narrative risks for a kids’ film (at one climactic point even letting fear distill into dread and resignation), and there’s a wealth of smaller surprises along the way. Except for a few groaners (e.g. Buzz’s Spanish-mode) the jokes are never off-pitch, and its insistent heartstring-tugging final minutes are too appropriate to be off-putting (even to a world-weary cynic like me).
Toy Story 3 unexpectedly turns into a circle-of-life picture, an elegy to how everyone grows old, and childish things—youth itself—must be left behind. It’s truly moving when Andy hands down his old toys to a little girl who still has the imaginative equipment to play with them—a bit overwrought maybe, but the movie earns the feeling. And really, what a brilliant exit strategy for a series that has always been about toys—to transform it back, into a story about the people who play with them. Andy’s tiny CGI tears come from someone a lot like us, and when he kneels down to play with his toys for the last time, naming what makes each of them so special, we maybe even shed some tears of our own.
TV Still Worth Watching in 2010:
I watched lots of TV this year. Yuck. Oh well.
I like watching funny TV shows approximately 15 times more than watching dramatic TV shows. That is all I will say about why Mad Men and Breaking Bad and whatever else you might watch aren’t on my list. Also, I’m nowhere close to caught up on those shows.
The following are basically worthless reviews, because instead of offering any preview of what makes these shows funny I’ve been pretty much 100% evaluative. But I seriously don’t want to ruin even one joke from any of them by taking it out of context. Just take my word for it: I laughed very hard at every new episode of each of these shows.
3 Modern Family The easiest-to-relate-to sitcom since Seinfeld or Boy Meets World. 90% of the comedy is character-driven, 95% of the dialogue is well-written, and 100% of the jokes are politically correct. Straight As.
2 Party Down The 2nd (and tragically the last) season of Party Down slipped under many radars, because it aired on Starz. Of course, thanks to its premium-channel home the show got to do all sorts of funny shit (like saying shit) that broadcast and cable don’t.
Premise: It’s a sitcom about failed actors who work for a catering service in LA, which takes them to meet all sorts of people who did make it. Of course, that description is basically worthless, so think of it as Hollywood’s answer to The [British] Office, and expect to see most of its cast more and more frequently in the next couple years.
1 Community Community’s sitcom shtick is so obvious I’m baffled it didn’t emerge before 2009. It was fast-tracked from the start for Thursday-night success at NBC, on the strength of its (mostly) solid cast (including a not-quite-washed-up Chevy Chase!) and its “an unlikely group of gimmicky misfits oddly meet each other and strangely become a community, unexpectedly)” premise.
The first season began humbly, basing all of the first ten episodes on the romantic tension between main character Jeff (a douchey lawyer who got disbarred for faking his degree) and Britta, a snarkey and more importantly pretty blonde. That worked very well while it lasted, but of course, the only reason I still watch the show (other than that every TV show ever is an addictive habit) is that (unlike, say, The Office) it has largely abandoned that early meta-plot in favor of examining its (initially) minor characters and doing hilarious gimmick episodes, which reward but never require familiarity with the rest of the show. If you don’t want to start at the beginning, at least do yourself a favor and check out “Modern Warfare” (an all-school paintball war), “Epidemiology” (the Halloween zombie episode), “Conspiracy Theories” (self-explanatory), and “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (in claymation!).
Good Books Published in 2010:
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
If you know anything about Franzen, you probably know how cool it is to hate on him. Sure, he’s sort of an elitist and obviously competitive, and Freedom isn’t as funny or personal as 2001’s National Book Award winner The Corrections. But the glowing reviews from everyone (excepting a handful of unhappy consumers and too-cool critics), from the New York Times to The Economist to GQ to Oprah, aren’t an accident. Nor is it an accident that even the anti-Franzen publications are calling Freedom’s absent N.B.A. nomination a “snub” (which in all seriousness it obviously is. Half the finalists this year are historical fiction; and the main character in Nicole Krauss’s nominee is A FUCKING DESK).
Freedom is a great novel, one that captures better than anything I’ve read (besides David Foster Wallace’s essays) how Americans live now (or at least the sort of Americans who are likely to pick up a 700 page novel). The pages turn like the best of John Grisham, but you can turn back through them like the best of Tolstoy. And come on, it’s about us. Give Franzen a chance.
Runner-Up (which I haven’t read yet):
Absence of Mind by Marilynne Robinson
Robinson’s first book of essays was mind-opening. I expect her new one, which deals with everything from human identity to the New Atheism, is no different in that respect. I don't believe there's any subject her mind can't pick apart and put back together.
...well that's it for now. Come back soon for copious music musings.