I was surprised at how much trouble I had narrowing down my top ten movies this year. My top 20 were all very close, but here are the movies that I ultimately enjoyed the most. I readily admit that I did not see near as many foreign films as I would have liked, but by the time I cover most of the mainstream fare, there is simply no time left.
Honorable Mentions: Fair Game, Tiny Furniture, Greenberg, Cyrus, The Tillman Story, The American, Mother and Child, Scott Pilgrim.
10. Waiting for Superman
This Documentary was equal parts frustrating, inspirational, and heartbreaking. Director Davis Guggenheim (No End in Sight) sheds light on the dismal state of our public school system. He follows the plight of several children who live in various geographic regions who are placing all of their hope for an decent education into lottery systems for charter or private schools. Guggenheim relies on their compelling stories for a narrative, while interspersing lots of graphics and cartoons illuminating some pretty harrowing statistics.
Clocking in at ninety minutes, the film is far too short to offer any real answers to the problem, though it does present a few charter schools that are getting it right. The film has been [rightfully] criticized for not providing solutions. However, the strength of the film lies in its ability to start a dialogue about the problem. This is one of the most important documentaries of the year, and deserves recognition.
9. Winter’s Bone
Director Debra Granik perfectly captures the glum and chill of the poverty in the rural Ozarks in this fine film. I actually grew up in the area, so the film struck a particular chord with me. It was puzzling to me when so many east and west coast film critics brushed off the film as fantastical. They complained that no one really lives like that. I assure you, they do.
The film was shot on location in Southern Missouri with a lean budget of only $2M. Newcomer Jennifer Lawrence provides an Oscar-caliber performance as a 17 year old who navigates the world of rural meth-making while searching for her father and caring for her siblings and mother. She is unforgettable as the tragic heroine.
We see a lot of movies about urban poverty, but very few about rural poverty, and Granik absolutely nails it.
8. The Company Men
Featuring an amazing cast (Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones, Maria Bello, Rosemarie DeWitt) this film is about as timely as they get. It examines the economic collapse of 2008 by following the stories of several executives who work at a manufacturing company and abruptly lose their livelihoods. You might find it difficult to feel sympathy for people who were bringing in extravagant salaries when they were fired, but the characters are well written, and you realize that the economy had disastrous consequences for everyone.
Particularly touching is the plight of Chris Cooper’s character Phil, who worked his way up from the factory floor over the course of his life, and is now perceived as too old to be a viable candidate for any other job. He’s just screwed. His speech to pal Gene (Tommy Lee Jones) killed me. When he states that the hardest thing for him to accept is that the world kept going on when his life basically ended, it is devastating.
There is also a nice (though slightly contrived) storyline about Ben Affleck’s hot-shot salesman Bobby learning humility and the value of an honest day’s work when he resorts to construction work to get by. This movie is the only film that I went back and saw in theaters a second time. It really hit home for me, though some might find it too painful and depressing to watch.
7. Rabbit Hole/Blue Valentine (tie)
Yep, I am totally cheating here. However, the films were so similar in tone, theme, and acting that I couldn’t choose one. Both films deal with death and loss. Both are minimilist, stripped down examinations of interpersonal relationships.
In the case of Rabbit Hole, Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart play a couple dealing with the loss of their young son. The film takes place eight months after his death, so we are spared the actual death. This allows director John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) to explore the long lasting implications of grief. I think a lot of us (myself included) believe that grief is something that must be overcome. What I liked about Rabbit Hole is that it posits the idea that it is okay to carry your grief forever. You learn to live with it, instead of without it. For some reason, I find that comforting.
Kidman and Eckhart are both superb in the film, and their acting performances are some of the most realistic ones you will see on film this year.
Blue Valentine portrays death of another variety-the death of a relationship. Michelle Williams (Cindy) and Ryan Gosling (Dean) are a couple whose marriage hangs by a thread. Cindy seems to have mentally checked out of the relationship long ago. Dean still wants to make a go of it. He convinces Cindy to go spend the night at a hotel, and hopes to rekindle their romance. Instead, ugly truths are unearthed, particularly as the two drink more.
Through flashbacks, we see the first moments of their relationship, when they were young, impulsive, and very much in love. As their love story unfolds, we witness the small life events that caused their love to flicker and fade. It is so real and raw, that it is difficult to watch. Williams and Gosling are both excellent. It’s a downer of a movie, but it is beautifully shot.
6. The Fighter
As I mentioned in my review, this is just flat-out a crowd pleaser. It is exciting, moving, inspirational, and it is based on a true story. Mark Wahlberg plays Micky Ward, a small-time boxer who has lived in his brother Dicky’s shadow his entire life.
Now Dicky (Christian Bale) is a junkie and is dead weight around Micky’s neck. Complicating matters is Micky’s overbearing mother Alice (Melissa Leo) who has mismanaged his career into the toilet. It isn’t until Micky meets Charlene (Amy Adams) that he has the courage to cut the ties that bind, and ultimately triumphs. Great acting all around, though Bale and Leo seem to getting the most attention for their performances.
Stay tuned for part 2 of Shannon’s Top 10 of 2010!