23 December 2010

The best of 2010

From left, Dileep Rao, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Leonard DiCaprio, Ellen Page and Ken Watanabe are shown in a scene from "Inception."
Writing about the movies today, it's easy to focus on the negative. But where's the fun in that?

As much as people like to complain, 2010's release schedule included several wonderful films. In fact, so many were so good that I cannot single out one as the best picture of the year.

Maybe I'm taking the easy way out, but how do you make comparisons between a survival story that largely features one actor in one location; a psychological horror movie about ballet; a film based in dreams that ultimately has four action movies spinning simultaneously; a digital-age "Citizen Kane"; and a classic Western?

The next tier was nearly as solid: a Swedish import heralding the arrival of a major new star; one of the most entertaining comic book adaptations to date; an incredibly well-acted period piece; a mindbending thriller from one of our master filmmakers; and a taut crime drama.

So here they are, my picks for the best movie of 2010, in alphabetical order.

True Grit

Jeff Bridges, left, and Hailee Steinfeld are shown in a scene from "True Grit."
Whenever I watch a film by Joel and Ethan Coen, I am reminded of what Joss Whedon (creator of the TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Firefly," among others) often says of his philosophy toward writing. Paraphrasing, he says every character must have something to say and a reason to be there, and it is important that the audience understands the perspective of each character.

Whether they have ever stated it outright or not, the same goals drive the Coen brothers. There are no insignificant characters in their latest picture, "True Grit," and everyone who appears adds something to the movie, even if they wander through only one scene before moving on.

The Coens' movie is not so much a remake of the 1969 John Wayne film, for which the Duke won his only Oscar, as it is a new adaptation of the 1968 novel by Charles Portis. So even though the story is an older one and known to many, "True Grit" 2010 is readily recognizable as the Coens' work, incorporating their signature quirky characters and humor against the backdrop of a classic Western. It's even something of a crowd-pleaser, a first for the idiosyncratic brothers.

17 December 2010

Black Swan

Natalie Portman is shown in a scene from "Black Swan."
What a devious trick Darren Aronofsky pulls off with "Black Swan."

The film takes place in the world of a professional New York City ballet company, so you might expect something sophisticated, classy, intellectual. It begins by presenting the action in a cinema verite style, following dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) with a handheld camera, showing us the nitty gritty of ballet—the bitter backstage rivalries, the hours of arduous practice, the bruised, bloody toes.

That's not to say "Black Swan" is not sophisticated, classy and intellectual, and does not show us the world of ballet from the inside out—it is and it does. The trick occurs after the first act, when the movie shifts from the documentary feel of Aronofsky's last feature, "The Wrestler" (2008), to a twisted psychological drama bordering on horror, its story mirroring that of "Swan Lake," the venerable ballet at the heart of the action.

The Fighter

Christian Bale, and Mark Wahlberg, right, are shown in a scene from "The Fighter."
Who is the title character of "The Fighter"?

The obvious answer is Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a struggling welterweight boxer from the working-class town of Lowell, Mass. Not even a has-been, Micky is a never-was, north of 30 years old and viewed as a stepping stone for up-and-coming boxers. After a particularly bad fight against an opponent who outweighs him by 20 pounds, his heart just isn't in it anymore. Maybe it's time to give it up, move on with his life, settle down.

The title just as easily could refer to Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), Micky's half-brother and trainer, a former boxer himself whose shining moment was going the distance but losing a late-'70s bout with Sugar Ray Leonard. Even with a debilitating crack cocaine addiction and multiple stints in jail, Dicky is affectionately known as "the pride of Lowell" by its inhabitants. An HBO camera crew follows him, but the movie they're making is not, as Dicky claims, about his attempt at an in-ring comeback.

10 December 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Will Poulter, right, and Reepicheep the warrior mouse are shown in a scene from "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader."
Loads of cash are being poured into it, but "The Chronicles of Narnia" just can't seem to find its footing on the big screen.

The first installment, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" (2005), was a certifiable hit, grossing $291.7 million at the domestic box office and $745 million worldwide even though it was not a particularly good film, struggling to find a balance between its fairy tale atmosphere and heavy-handed Christian symbolism.

Part two, the darker, grittier "Prince Caspian" (2008), was more war movie than fairy tale and the best fantasy film of the decade without hobbits or Harry Potter. Yet audiences weren't particularly interested; its domestic box office take was less than half that of its predecessor, causing Disney to back out as the distributor of future installments. (20th Century Fox stepped up in its place.)