I write this while sitting on a plane back from Sundance, where I managed to see eight films in 48 hours. To be at Sundance and dedicate yourself to films intensely, even for a few days, is one of the most liberating experiences I can imagine for a few reasons.
Beyond the abundant quality and gritty humanness that tends to be woven into the fabric of most Sundance films, the stories behind the making of these films serve to inspire you to do more, try harder, and to never surrender. The fact that the festival runs at the beginning of each year, provides eleven months for you to follow through with the energy and the possibility that Sundance affords those who care to hold a mirror up to themselves.
Of the eight films I saw this year, six were devastating yet beautiful sketches of modern life and familial dysfunction, most will never find a large audience, but to affect a few people passionately is to have accomplished more than most people will ever say. The good news is that now you can watch a seemingly infinite number of films, many of which in the past would never have had any kind of distribution before, instantly on a whim thanks to Netflix, xbox, Roku, and AppleTV and others. The release window is now incredibly fast for challenging films like the ones that come out of Sundance, as evidenced by the fact that ten of the films on this list are already available on demand.
Every year is a great year for films if you are willing to look hard enough. It would appear that the broad unifying theme among my favorites for 2010 would be bleak, gritty, and hyper-real films that depict a realistic human condition, versus those that provide a superficial escape. In fact, almost no film featured here is merely light hearted and fun. Even "The Kids Are All Right," and "Cyrus," two movies that come the closest, deeply explore characters who are fighting the good fight for happiness. So, if you are looking for cheery fare, this Bestest will seem more like the Worstest. So enjoy, or at least endure, these films that put modern life into perspective.
1) Animal Kingdom - Dir. David Michôd (Guy Pearce, James Frecheville, Joel Edgerton)
There is an odd calm that hangs in the air during the first few moments of the ultra-cool Aussie film "Animal Kingdom." In it, a teenager, Jay, sits on the couch staring blankly at a game show. Next to him sits his mother. Time passes and then the paramedics show up, try to revive her and then wheel her away. The boy picks up the phone, calls his grandmother and informs her that his mother has just OD'd and he doesn't know what to do. You can tell he is a good kid, but he is neither scared nor sad. It is this same voice that so matter-of-factly narrates the hugely compelling, rapid unraveling of Melbourne's scariest family.
Jay's estranged mother's family consists of four brothers, each scarier and more unpredictable than the next. Two rob banks, another deals drugs, and the fourth and youngest just seems to reluctantly do what he is told by the chiseled, tattooed others. But despite their indisputable thuggishness, these guys are strangely, and handsomely charming, and each of them also has a genuine goodness about them. On top of the heap sits their mother, a relentlessly upbeat lady, so genuinely in love with her boys that it is almost as if she is genuinely proud of what they actually do. But as Jay says in the beginning, "like all crooks, they are scared, they need to block out the thing they must know, which it that crooks always come undone, one way or another." "Animal Kingdom" is a great film, and watching it is like placing a big ball of twine at the top of a steep hill and watching it race down, getter faster and smaller with each rotation, but impossible to take your eyes off of.
2) Winter's Bone - Dir. Debra Granik (Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes)
Every year there seems to be a film cast entirely with unfamiliar faces, shot on a small budget that captures an incredibly specific slice of overlooked America. Films like "Frozen River," "Sling Blade," and "Lars and the Real Girl" hold a microscope up to the small communities, seemingly isolated from the rest of the country, that still have a character grounded in something other than the mass ubiquity reflected on television. "Winter's Bone" is a film every bit as powerful, unexpected and real as anything you will see this year. It tells the story of a small Ozark town where the local economy has become increasingly dependent on meth production, populated with bleakly colorful characters all connected by hostile blood ties, and haunted by paranoia and revenge.
But the story is really the journey of a 17 year-old girl named Ree Dolly, played remarkably by Jennifer Lawrence, and her search for her missing father. The estranged Jessup Dolly, a notorious meth cooker, has gone missing and has left the family home as collateral for his bail, leaving two small children and his disabled wife hanging by a thread. The film is honest and authentic, yet moves along at just the right pace to make you feel their race against time. It never feels contrived or over dramatized. As Ree sets out, combing through her disparate family members, there is a stunning intensity and control, amidst a kind of raging chaos. There is always something thrilling about directorial breakthroughs and star-making performances that could only exist far away from the pressure associated with box office receipts and Oscar nominations. "Winter's Bone" is not only the most natural feeling film of the year, it is the year's most compelling.
3) A Prophet - Dir. Jacques Audiard (Tahar Rahim, Neils Arestrup)
The ambiguity of guilt, especially when the "guilty" is an orphaned, illiterate teenager born into a hostile racially divided world, serves as the jumping off point for one of the most powerful crime films in a long time. "A Prophet" is one of those films that resists the urge to answer questions, but is satisfied to pose them through the hollow eyes of an actor who most convincingly grows into a man in front of the camera. There has neither been a prison nor gangster film as good as this since the Coppola and Scorsese classics, and certainly nothing this profound, in the past decade.
Much of the film is shot on the drab and decaying grounds of a French prison, but really this is the story of two people. The first is played by Tahar Rahim, who at 19 is thrown into prison with $50 to his name, and no friends or relatives waiting in the outside world. There he meets one of the unofficial Corsican prison leader played by the explosive Niels Arestrup who gives the new inmate a chance, after forcing him to murder a fellow Muslim inmate within days of arrival. But the story of these two men, one learning how to survive, and the other losing his long held control has such a perfect symmetry that it keeps the film from ever seeming too heavy or relentless to bear. This is a classic in a genre with incredibly high and thick bars.
4) The Black Swan - Dir. Darrren Aronofsky (Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel)
Like each of his four prior films ("PI," Requiem for A Dream," "The Fountain," and "The Wrestler"), Darren Aronofsky pushes audiences much harder than they would like. "The Black Swan" is one of those films whose beauty is also its ugliness. Everything is examined so closely through the tightness of the shots that it exposes every imperfect pore both superficial and emotional. I can think of no better metaphor to explore pain than the relentless demand for perfection of professional ballet. Yes, this is "The Wrestler" revisited, but a film like that deserves a sequel.
The storyline follows the gradual descent into delusional madness experienced by an emaciated and repressed Natalie Portman. Many of the words used to describe "The Black Swan" are a bit misleading- - "horror" and "graphic sex" seem like over-reactions to what ultimately amounts more to an incredibly dark psychological examination into what it takes to succeed. Although the film belongs to Portman, who seems to alternate between emotionally daring bare roles like this, and Hollywood fluff, Vincent Cassel is sublime as the almost sadistic leader of the ballet company who extracts greatness through any channel necessary and available. This is a film that will no doubt polarize those who make it through, but despite the many moments of unavoidable squeamishness, there is no doubt that "The Black Swan" is another brutal masterpiece from the most daring director of this time.
5) The Kids Are All Right - Dir. Lisa Cholodenko (Mark Ruffalo, Annette Benning, Julianne Moore)
Mostly the movies that remind me how much I love movies are the ones that don't utilize special effects, 3D technology and megastars. "The Kids Are All Right" is a small, perfectly written and acted talkie, about a modern family in our modern age. It is also the most honest and insightful film of its kind since 2000's "You Can Count on Me" (also staring Ruffalo). Ten years later though, Ruffalo, having perfected his trademark slacker persona, delivers perhaps the best performance of his career. He plays an organic farmer and restaurateur who is hurled headlong into an unexpected life chapter when he is contacted by the children his anonymous seeds gave life to 18 and 15 years before. The children have grown up to become the precocious offspring of a lesbian couple played by Julianne Moore at the top of her game as an unfocused new age idealist, and Annette Benning resurrecting her character from "American Beauty," as a high strung OBGYN.
In a film like this everything depends on the believability of the dialogue and the chemistry of the actors, and on both counts it soars. In almost every family that appears to have achieved a sort of rare normalcy and happiness, there is always something missing below the surface. "The Kids Are All Right" is a great film that explores a family that is superficially different, but at its core is the same as most. Perhaps it proves Tolstoy's observation that all happy families are alike. In the end perhaps it is too subtle for the masses, but maybe this is what makes it so special.
6) Exit Through The Gift Shop - Dir. Banksy
The best documentaries watch like films. "Exit," a darling from last year's Sundance Festival, is filled with real life characters as colorful as any in any film this year, and a story as interesting as any fiction. In it you see first ever footage capturing the creation of some of the most incredible street art in the world executed by some of the most important artists of our time. These films are captured by an obsessive, charismatic Frenchman named Thierry Guetta, with no more particular goal than the joy of the game.
Like a thriller with a surprise ending, it's better to leave the details alone. The directing credit is given to Banksy, the elusive Godfather and resident Picasso of the international street art scene, who manages to transform a story about this increasingly mainstream art form into one of the funniest, most creative films of the year. For Banksy cynics, this film should change your mind about him and the whole scene.
7) Another Year - Dir. Mike Leigh (Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen)
Mike Leigh is a director so in touch with humans, and the actors who bring to life his observations, that it is impossible not to lose yourself immediately into his characters. Like Clint Eastwood's work, which continues to get better as he ages, Leigh's most recent run, including "Happy-Go-Lucky," "Secrets and Lies," and my personal favorite "Naked," oozes with raw energy. "Another Year" continues his ruthless examination of the pursuit of happiness.
At the center is a long married couple, played by the great Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen who, you can tell, found their groove almost from the beginning. They manage to take each day as it comes and are capable of enjoying even the smallest details in life, like the preparation of a great meal, or taking care of a garden under a beautiful gray sky. But even they aren't insulated from the pervasive loneliness abundant in the world around them. The film really belongs to their friends, played relentlessly hopeless and lonely by Leslie Manvile and Peter Wight, who, we know, will never find the elusive contentment that seems so easy but so far away. "Another Year" manages to insert just the right amount of comedy to save it from the bleakness and it moves the story forward, but in the end it is this lurking sense of reality that makes it everything that it is.
8) The Social Network - Dir. David Fincher (Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Timberlake)
"The Social Network" is a work of inconsistently accurate but hugely compelling filmmaking. It is a rare highbrow popcorn flick, filled with obviously overly-literate college kids and the brooding air of espionage and urgency. It is best to assume that the storyline progresses somewhat linearly along a basic trail of real events, but also to remember that the details and many of the facts as presented represent only one possible perspective and are airbrushed neatly for Hollywood.
But Hollywood rarely tosses a salad with ingredients as fresh as this one. The cast is impeccably selected despite the fact that people who know the real life players acknowledge that none of them are quite as cool as their sharply rehearsed impersonators. The script is predictably Sorkinian, with rapid fire dialogue batted around like Olympic ping pong balls, rarely stopping, and never allowing for any of the characters to have any of the inevitable lapses in eloquence that plague most humans. There is not a misplaced word, nor a lazy sentence anywhere. The cinematography is crisply dark, accentuating the relentless 24/7 sprint the company has been on from the very beginning.
Of the many remarkable things about this film, for me the most important and most likely to be overlooked is the incredible Trent Rezner score. From the first moment, there is a kind of relentless buzzing, darkly compelling, and occasionally cloying music that creates a rich texture and intensity. This is created, I assume, to emulate the ceaseless grinding mechanics of Zuckerberg's mind and the frenetic sense of urgency that drove this kid to become both richer and potentially more influential than even the mighty Steve Jobs, in just six years' time.
The filmmakers argue vehemently that "Zuck" should be seen as a hero or at least as an anti-hero, but for those less familiar with the mythology, his on screen presence often veers to the side of villainy. For example, the film does a lovely job of highlighting Zuckerberg's inability to be genuinely happy for anyone else. After the first three or four times it starts to feel a bit heavy handed. But in Jesse Eisenberg's ever capable and always lovable hands (a bit of a reprise of his Adventureland role), the character seems at times softer and more impressionable than the real Zuckerberg. What is most important to take from this portrayal is that he is very, very smart. Perhaps you are to ask yourself throughout whether he might even be among that elite class of geniuses, with Gates, Jobs, and Bezos, who all possess a miraculous intuition about how people want to interact with technology. It is this odd juxtaposition of social awkwardness mixed with clairvoyant human insight that propels the film, the company, and Zuckerberg himself.
9) Blue Valentine - Derek Cianfrance (Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams)
In my mind the more realistic the film, the more I tend to appreciate it. Most people go to the movies to get away from reality, but with rare exception I always tend to get to too bogged down in my own cynicism to fully enjoy Hollywood spectacles. I guess this is why I loved "Blue Valentine," a stark and gritty slice of busted romantic disappointment. This is film is about two characters whom you almost instantly love, despite knowing how doomed they really are individually and together.
It is hard to decide whether Ryan Gosling's uniquely earnest loser or Michelle William's saintly, but unlucky overachiever is more compelling. Both have made careers shying away from shallow romantic roles and instead embracing emotional raw performances like Gosling's "Half Nelson" and "Lars and the Real Girl" and Williams "Wendy and Lucy" and "Brokeback Mountain." The beauty here is in the naturalistic portrayal of the disappointment and struggle of trying to find happiness and satisfaction in the modern world. Both characters will break your heart many times throughout the course of their meeting and falling into and out of love, but in the process they also force you to consider what it means to love and be loved. "Blue Valentine" is a painful and wonderful postcard from the edge.
10) Barney's Version - Dir. Richard J. Lewis (Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Bruce Greenwood)
Some films just reach out and suck you in immediately, and "Barney's Version" the terribly named but unbelievably textured film about a Montreal TV producer and his quest for true love, was that unexpected pleasure. Giamatti never really strays too far from his sad sap on screen persona but Barney's moodiness has an incredible energy and passion. At its core this film is a story about love - the love that exists between fathers and sons, husbands and wives, and people and their careers. Each of these depictions are refreshingly convincing without oozing forced sentimentality.
The film flashes back and forth between the richly captured groovy 70's and the less colorful modern age, and in it Giamatti just kind of ages neatly before our eyes. Of course because this is the story that examines what appears to be a life lived largely without regrets, it is also a warning about how fragile happiness can be. One mistake can spoil a lifetime of hard work and discipline. In the end we all grow old, and occasionally sick, and everything that has come before disappears into the hazy glow of old age.
11) 127 Hours - Dir. Danny Boyle (James Franco)
"127 Hours" is a film about a man who finds himself trapped in an isolated canyon and has to cut off his own arm to save his life. For most people the premise alone will wrongly keep them from seeing the film, and although there is an almost constant intensity that runs throughout, there is only one short scene where things get gory. This scene can be easily skipped by merely closing your eyes for a few minutes if need be, and allows you to roll with a truly great film.
"127 Hours" is largely a rich character study, whose protagonist reminds you of a luckier and similarly likable version of Chris McCandless from "Into The Wild." James Franco continues to evolve into one of the best young actors today and brings a kind of kinetic optimism and energy to his largely one man performance. In so doing he enables director Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire," "Shallow Grave," "Trainspotting") to tell a story going in an inevitably gruesome direction with a kind of lightheartedness that makes it both bearable and entertaining. In so many ways, there is hardly enough raw material for this film to be this good, but Franco + Boyle = Magic in this case.
12) Cyrus - Dir.- Jay & Mark Duplass (John C. Reilly Jonah Hill Marisa Tomei)
In addition to being the funniest film of the year, "Cyrus" is the first big film to have emerged from the ultra-indie "mumblecore" movement. Like the twisted stepchild of an Apatow film, the humor here is much less obvious and a lot more uncomfortable, but much more unique. I have become a fanboy of the sibling directors, having loved each of their previous films with increasing respect starting with "The Puffy Chair" and "Baghead" and most recently the perversely hysterical "Humpday." In some ways it helps to have this insight going into "Cyrus," whose humor might otherwise seem slightly contrived. John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill have never been better, and taking them one standard deviation away from Apatow and Ferrell, gives them a chance to explore something weirder and in some ways more honest than what we have come to expect from them.
The film largely gravitates around the increasingly awkward relationship between Reilly, a lonely heart who has recently been reawakened by Marissa Tomei, and her grown son, played by Hill, whose odd relationship with his mother spins the threesome into chaos. Unlike most modern comedies, this one is bold enough to explore dark emotional areas generally uncommon in the genre. But herein lies the secret sauce. "Cyrus" is so well written and strangely compelling that it is hard not to find yourself sucked into this wacky vortex, laughing unexpectedly and consistently throughout. It will be a surprise to see anything else quite as clever.
13) True Grit - Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen (Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Josh Brolin)
Its official, the brothers Coen could not make a bad movie if they tried. Like all the great Westerns of the modern age ("Unforgiven," "3:10 to Yuma," "The Proposition") "True Grit" proves that the genre is still ripe for innovation and reinterpretation. Not only do the brothers have a way with picking and directing the perfect actors, they always manage to infuse even the darkest stories with humor and light. Although Jeff Bridges is able to masterfully mash up elements of the "The Dude" and "Bad Blake," the film belongs to newbie Haillee Steinfeld, whose precocious Mattie Ross is perhaps the strongest female character of the year.
From the crisply captured sun-drenched plains of the Wild West to the quirky survivors who inhabit it (Josh Brolin and an incredible Barry Pepper), to the fast moving plot, no detail is overlooked. Of all the movies I saw on the big screen this one was the one that went down the easiest, the one you wished wouldn't end. Sure it is a remake, but given that the Coen's hadn't seen the original in decades and focused on the original book instead, the resulting film was something totally new and another great product of the most consistent directors of our time.
14) The Ghost Writer - Dir. Roman Polanski (Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan)
Broadly speaking, Roman Polanski doesn't make bad films. Maybe it's because he doesn't work as prolifically as his seventy-something peers Eastwood and Allen, but this one seems particularly slick, and as compelling as any pure thriller this year. There is a strong Hitchcockian feel throughout, complete with anonymous tailing cars and clues difficult to find but ultimately hard to miss, but it is updated with all the distractions and details of modern times (cell phones, GPS, flash drives).
Although the film is based on a marginally realistic storyline, that is to say you don't get bogged down in cynical plausibility, the film is largely driven by both McGregor's curious ghost-writing protagonist and Brosnan's slick but distracted former Prime Minister. The old fashioned structure fits neatly into the beautiful and dreary rain-soaked Martha's Vineyard location and the stark modern house that serves as home base. In a year filled with dark and challenging films, "The Ghost Writer," is highbrow art that doesn't make your head hurt too much.
15) The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo / The Girl Who Played With Fire / The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - Dir. Daniel Alfredson (Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist)
I will start by admitting that I didn't read a single page of the bestselling Stieg Larsson series on which the films are based. There has only been one trilogy to have graced the Bestest in the many years I have been doing this. The jaw-dropping revenge series from Korean director Chan-wook Park which included "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," "Oldboy," and "Lady Vengeance," proved that sequels can get better with each chapter, a characteristic not lost with these films. There are many similarities here. Both begin with extreme violence and bleak locales and end with some sense of "justice prevails", for only partially sympathetic protagonists. But the "Dragon" films also share some of the same cinematic qualities as my other favorite crime series, "Prime Suspect," whose unenhanced naturalistic tones provide a solid template.
Although the stories are tightly scripted and perversely addictive, it is Noomi Rapace who elevates them beyond merely cinematic transcription. Tattoos cover her slight yet powerful frame, and her mind races faster than ours, as she almost never stops moving. When she does, you are many moves ahead of the present. "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" is the best of the bunch, more graphic, and faster moving, with "The Girl Who Played With Fire" the weakest, and "Hornet's Nest" anchoring things nicely, but each also can stand on its own, drawing from the fire that is revenge. I will likely never know how these films stack up against the novels, but it doesn't matter-- the films hold their own without comparison.
Also great, but you need to draw the line somewhere:
16) Biutiful - Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Javier Bardem)
Another bleak and brutal Inarritu film (Babel, Amorres Perros, Syriana) , again examining a family living on the edge of the moral conflicts associated with survival.
17) Carlos - Dir. Olivier Assayas (Ahmad Kahbour, Alexander Scheer)
This is likely the baddass film of the year, about one of the coolest terrorists of all time, but I was only able to see one of the three installment of the film before publication.
18) Greenberg - Dir. Noah Baumbach (Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig)
Ben Stiller hasn't been this good since "permanent Midnight," and Noah Baumbach can turn a rut into comedy better than anyone.
19) The Tillman Story - Dir. Amir Bar-Lev (Pat Tillman)
A heartbreaking relic of a shameful period of American politics, this film tells the story of a stubborn and courageous man and shines a light on the complexity and tragedy of heroism.
20) The King's Speech - Dir. Tom Hooper (Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush)
This film was draped with Oscars before it even reached the theaters. Firth and Rush make it seem so easy, even though what they are doing is hard to achieve.
21) Mother - Dir. Joon-ho Bong (Bin Won, Hye-ja Kim)
In the best Korean film of year, the mother of a mentally challenged boy pursues the truth in the ambiguous murder he is involved with, only to find that the answers are not what they seem.
22) The Town - Dir. Ben Affleck (Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm)
Affleck is growing up right before our eyes, directing and starring in this pitch perfect portrait of people trying to change their circumstances escape the mean streets of South Boston.
23) A Solitary Man - Dir. Brian Koppelman (Michael Douglas, Danny DeVito)
A criminally underrated performance from Michael Douglas as a fallen man, lost in the middle of a life filled with bad decisions and hard to achieve third chances.