The Best Films of 2010

| December 29, 2010

The King’s Speech
This is an inspired work that handles what is quite often a casually dismissed malady with the utmost of dexterity and dignity. “The King’s Speech” is a finely wrought piece wherein all vested parties – actors, screenwriter, director, cinematographer, production designer, sound, and so on – have worked in harmony to produce the most complete, most perfect film they could. Colin Firth keeps the tension tightly bottled, Geoffrey Rush keeps believing in and pushing him, and Helena Bonham-Carter keeps up the façade as Her Royal Highness with enormous conviction. It quite simply comes down to everyone involved with this project having put forth their best effort, and that it shows so readily upon viewing, that this is my choice as the best film of the year.
The Ghost Writer
Roman Polanski’s body of work, like his personal life, has certainly been a roller coaster. But one look at “The Ghost Writer” and its easy forget everything he has done in the past, with perhaps the exception of “Chinatown.” “The Ghost Writer” touches upon a number of contemporary hot button topics while simultaneously being a top-notch suspense thriller, a chess-piece spy drama, and a dark comedy of sorts. It is witty, it is beautiful, and it has some of the best performances of the year. It handles the tongue-in-cheek worlds of publishing mashed up with the double-crossing worlds of politics and espionage with a subtle and yet compelling efficiency. Outstanding in a stellar cast are Ewan MacGregor and Olivia Williams. This was my number one film for 2010 until I saw “The King’s Speech.”
True Grit
When I asked my friend Hank if he had seen “True Grit” over the holidays, his answer was, “Yes, in 1972.” Unfortunately, that film pales by comparison. This film, a return to form by the Brothers Coen, borrows more from Charles Portis’ original novel than it does from the first interpretation, which featured John Wayne and Glen Campbell. In this film, the girl plays Maddie Ross as a 14-year old, true to the book, and the ordeals of life at the time are treated with greater historical respect. Jeff Bridges portrays the Rooster Cogburn character without the machismo of Wayne, and in so doing gives us a character with greater depth and a sense of a much richer life than Wayne’s ’72 antihero. “True Grit” also features some of the best dialogue in a western since Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” The Coens inspire some very fine acting from the known names as well as a number of relative unknowns, and the cinematography is, at times, simply amazing. And to that reviewer whose headline read: “The Coens try their hand at genre,” I suggest you take another look at their body of work.
Selkies (also known as silkies or selchies) are mythological creatures that are found in Faroese, Icelandic, Irish, and Scottish folklore. Neil Jordan’s “Ondine” is a fanciful tale of one such mermaid who falls in love with an Irish fisherman named Syracuse (Colin Farrell). Syracuse is a divorcee with a gravely ill daughter, Annie (Alison Barry), who happens to be wheelchair bound and who possibly falls in love with the idea of Ondine (Alicja Bachleda) actually being a selkie more than her father for all the obvious reasons. But there is truth underlying this fairy tale, and the truth is much harsher than the fiction, but as it must, truth will out, and so must true love have its way. Ondine is a beautifully realized film with superb cinematography by Christopher Doyle and perhaps the best performance of Colin Farrell’s career, and a stunning debut from singer Alicja Bachleda as Ondine. This was the best romance film of the year, for me.
Man Of Vendetta
Korean director Woo Min-ho’s “Man of Vendetta” is an impressive and staggering work. Lead actor Kim Myung-min plays Joo Young Soo, an ex-pastor who tracks down the kidnapper of his 5-year old daughter some 8 years after she had gone missing. During all that time Joo Young Soo had to move on, to give up any hope of finding his daughter alive again, just to be able to get out of bed and do his daily routine. His wife, played by Park Joo-mee, never gives up, wandering the streets handing out flyers every night after work, imagining she sees their little girl at the strangest times. During one of these delusional moments she accidentally runs into the street and is hit by a passing car. She ends up in the hospital, comatose and on life support. This is the defining moment for the father, who is drawn slowly back into believing that his daughter might still be out there somewhere, and sends him off in pursuit of the cold-blooded psychopath who serially kidnaps and kills little girls, siphoning life savings off the parents of his victims. Intense, brutal, and staggeringly real, Man of Vendetta makes my Top 10 for 2010.
French director Catherine Corsini’s “Leaving” (“Partir”) examines the repercussions of an extramarital love affair when beautiful but lonely Suzanne (Kirsten Scott-Thomas) falls in love with Ivan (Sergi Lopez) the craftsman hired to renovate the examination room where she plans on opening her own optical service. Their interlude starts off harmlessly enough, but once husband Samuel (Yvan Attal) discovers he’s a cuckold, his possessiveness and bruised ego get the better of him, and he drives the two star-crossed lovers to extremes. Ms. Corsini has crafted an excellent examination of the depths of madness to which love can descend, and the lengths we simple human beings will go to in order to experience true love.
The Town
Ben Affleck is flexing his directorial chops after earning major props for some outstanding work in “Gone Baby Gone.” He offers one of the best crime films of the past few years with a story that rivals Eastwood’s adaptation of “Mystic River.” “The Town” is about a man who cannot stand being what he is, who wants to be more, and who realizes he cannot ever be those things so long as he remains a part of the dirty, grubby, destructive lifestyle he has fallen into in his own home town. His partners, some of the sleaziest crooks in Boston, refuse to let him go because he’s so good at it. But he knows that if he stays, he will die here and his entire life will have been a complete waste. Strong performances, gritty but beautiful cinematography, tough direction, and a great story mark “The Town.” Sometimes the toughest thing can be letting go.
The Secret of Kells
This rather fanciful and quite beautifully illustrated work of animation concerns the Book of Kells, a medieval illuminated manuscript that ranks among the most important artifacts of Irish civilization – indeed, all civilization. And it is only fitting that a movie concerned with the power and beauty of drawing — the almost sacred magic of color and line — should be so gorgeously and intricately drawn. And while this tale of a young novice learning to follow his dreams and stand up for what’s right fits comfortably into the Hollywood mainstream, Tomm Moore’s film is also about seeking something greater than ourselves, and therefore takes it one step beyond standard Hollywood animated feature films. Like the crystal lens that is a crucial element of the master illustrator’s craft — an enchanted eye that refracts and renews his, and then our leading character’s, perception — “The Secret of Kells” discloses strange new vistas that nonetheless seem to have existed since ancient times. Definitely my choice for best animated feature of the year.
Winter’s Bone
A truly independent American film full of the stuff that makes the people and this country what it is. The setting is my home state: Missouri. The people are not unlike some of my own distant family. The people are like many we have all met – inbred, backbiting, selfish, proud, harsh, hard-skinned, and rough-edged. Just the kind of folks you would expect when you combine various cultures in a melting pot. Director Debra Granik’s very fine first feature includes suspicious lawmen on one side and a clan of violent drug dealers on the other, both pressing adolescent Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) into their differences, and only adding to the already considerable worries of any normal teen. Ree’s father, a highly regarded local master at cooking meth, has disappeared, and her emotionally devoid mother has long since abandoned the simplest of parental duties. And so Ree must also run the household and care for her two younger siblings. Her Uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), greets her with silent menace which most know is liable to erupt into violence, though he turns out to harbor more compassion than most. Winter’s Bone is as hard and cold as it sounds, but there is an underlying sensitivity which cannot be ignored.
The Killer Inside Me
Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of Jim Thompson’s ultra-dark noir “The Killer Inside Me” is the kind of film that either repulses you altogether or sucks you in like that truly horrific accident on the interstate which you just cannot bear to look away from. That one human being can be so cold, brutal, cruel, and unfeeling is truly unbelievable to many of us. And yet, so many people walk among us who are just as crazy, in their own way. For Casey Affleck’s character, Lou Ford – on the surface a sheriff’s deputy with fine manners and a clean white shirt – it is suggested that he truly gets in touch with his darker side when he meets Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), a working girl who turns her tricks from a small house on the outskirts of town. She seems to enjoy their ritual beatings, coveting the slaps and punches he bestows upon her as though they were the most tender of kisses. And so when he suddenly murders her and her fiancée, it is not all that surprising. But when he continues murdering others in his small Texas town, then he draws the suspicions of several locals, including newspaperman Joe Rothman (Elias Koteas), who sees right through the killer’s mask almost from the moment he looks into his eyes. Winterbottom’s film is mesmerizing stuff, and another tour de force performance from Casey Affleck.
The Girl Who Played With Fire
To be quite honest, I find Swedish author and journalist Stieg Larsson’s books as bland and weighty as phone books, but this, the second in his “Millennium Trilogy” about young Lisbeth Salander’s search for vengeance upon some very nasty family members, is definitely one series worth merit among the many fine films released in 2010. But the first film in the series,” The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” really is a much better film than the two sequels, and even “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest” is a better film than the second in the series. But as a trilogy, this title stands as some of the best films dealing with crime, revenge, and brutality against women this year. I wish other American filmmakers besides Scorsese would pay closer attention to foreign-made mysteries and thrillers; the genre(s) offer some of the best opportunities to present important issues in a truly artful way.
A Shine Of Rainbows
“A Shine of Rainbows,” also known as Tomás and the Rainbows, is an Irish family drama directed and co-written by Vic Sarin and is a film adaptation of the novel A Shine of Rainbows by Lillian Beckwith. It stars Aidan Quinn and Connie Nielsen as a loving couple who eek out an existence on the Irish coast. Their life seems perfect, if not idyllic, except for some recurrent health problem which Maire (Nielsen) seems to bear. She is also unable to have children, and young Tomás (John Bell) is an orphan, harassed and ridiculed by the other children in his orphanage for his timidity and stuttering. Just after letting a pigeon free from his classroom, he is called to the headmasters’ office to be greeted by Maire, who takes him back to her home, to be greeted coldly by Alec (Quinn) who had wanted someone older and perhaps more confident. Parents be forewarned that this is a true family drama with some very strong dramatic twists and turns, just like in a fairy tale.
Red Hill
Australian director Patrick Hughes has successfully updated the American western and transferred it to rural Australia. Red Hill is a small town far from the big city, which is just where new young cop Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) wanted himself and his wife transferred. It’s Cooper’s first day on the job and the town is threatened by an escaped convict, a killer named Jimmy (Tom E. Lewis) – an indigenous tracker – who has come back seeking revenge. The town’s police captain, Old Bill (Steve Bisley) put him away for murdering his wife and child. When he learns that Jimmy is headed straight for Red Hill, and he’s taking hostages and killing anyone who crosses him, Old Bill deputizes half the men-folk in town and tries to lock the place down. But Jimmy’s anger is too much for them, and Cooper is one of the first to come up against him. Left for dead, forgotten by his new compadres, Cooper does his best to not only stop Jimmy but also to find out why he is so hell-bent on revenge. It’s the Aussie version of High Noon and it is great fun.
Valhalla Rising
Danish made and filmed in Scotland and the U.K., Valhalla Rising is an incredible film that succeeds with less than two pages of total dialogue in its entire ninety minutes. This film succeeds thanks in large part to the cinematography and the acting. The latter is anchored by Mads Mikkelsen, stylish villain in Casino Royale and erudite revolutionist-assassin in Flame and Citron. Supporting Mikkelsen are British character actors Gary Lewis and Ewan Stewart. The cinematography is by Morton Soborg, whose fine work is evident in the “Pusher” trilogy and in the original version of “Brothers.” Director Nicolas Winding Refn (“Pusher” trilogy, “Bronson”) orchestrates it all with a steady hand and purity of vision which pay off surprisingly well. Set in the 10th century, an expedition sets out from Scotland to return to Scandinavia but gets lost in the fog. They eventually reach an unknown land and think it is Valhalla, the Viking equivalent of Heaven–but it turns out to be America.
Perrier’s Bounty
If you were disappointed by “The Bounty Hunter,” or any of a dozen other unremarkable rom-com’s this year, perhaps you should have sought out “Perrier’s Bounty,” instead. Consider it the Irish version of “Snatch” mashed up with a coming-of-age tale featuring two star-crossed twenty-somethings. One of those is Cillian Murphy, so wonderful in Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” films and “The Wind That Shakes The Barley,” and who stars here as Michael McCrae, a resident of Dublin who happens to owe €1,000 to gang leader Darren Perrier (Brendan Gleeson). He’s about to miss his deadline, and Perrier will have his gang will punish him by breaking a limb (and the longer he takes, the more limbs they will break). Desperate for the money, he seeks financial aid from “The Mutt” (Liam Cunningham) who is known as a criminal lender. Things become complicated, however, when his estranged father Jim (Jim Broadbent) and his secret crush, Brenda “Bren” (Jodie Whittaker) become involved, and when Bren accidentally shoots and kills one of the gang members sent to deliver his first punishment. Then Perrier forsakes the money owed and instead offers a €10,000 bounty for Michael and Bren. The film follows the three as they desperately seek to salvage the situation before Perrier can capture them. Directed by Ian Fitzgibbon (TV’s “Ballykissangel” and “Midsomer Murders”), “Perrier’s Bounty has more genuine laughs and originality than half the action comedies released in the United States in 2010.
The Eclipse
And since we’re in Ireland, let’s hang around for a moment longer and talk about Conor McPherson’s “The Eclipse.” Michael Farr (Ciaran Hinds) is a widower living in a misty Irish seaside town struggling to adjust to his new role as the sole caretaker of his two children. Still reeling from the death of his wife, he has been plagued by terrifying apparitions. When he volunteers at a local literary festival, he finds himself drawn to Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle), an empathetic author of supernatural fiction. While Lena tries to help Michael with the mystery of his nightmarish visions, she must contend with problems of her own, including being jealously pursued by a self-obsessed novelist and her one-time lover, Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn). As the lives of these three converge, the turbulence of the supernatural world will soon have nothing on that of the living.
The Warlords
Released in China in 2007 but taking much longer to find distribution in the States, “The Warriors” is a heroic tale of three blood brothers and their struggle in the midst of war and political upheaval. Based on “The Assassination of Ma,” a Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) story about the killing of general Ma Xinyi, this version is co-directed by Peter Chan and Wai Man Yip. The stars are Jet Li as General Pang, Andy Lau as Zhao Er-Hu, and Takeshi Kaneshiro as Zhang Wen-Xiang. This is an epic, sweeping historic drama marked by lush cinematography and fantastically choreographed battle sequences. Lau, an actor highly regarded for his craft, is matched in this drama by Li’s own abilities as an actor, which is another highlight of a film which gained too little fanfare upon its release.
Of the many comic book-based films released this year, only one really and truly made me let go and enjoy it. Its characters are foul-mouthed, mean, violent, and angry – and those are just the adjectives I’m using on the heroes. The villain is played by Mark Strong, the actor who is fast becoming the “go-to” guy to play a villain in your major motion picture, because he is so good at playing nasty. He chews up the scenery here and makes us believe he would cut the heart out of a child just to serve it as a side dish for his noon meal. He is the kind of villain who inspires heroes (yes, more than one) like the really pissed-off Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson) or the very, very angry and violent Hit Girl (Chloe Moritz) and her father, Big Daddy (Nic Cage). Director Matthew Vaughn (“Layer Cake,” “Stardust”) does an adequate job of adapting Mark Millar’s graphic novel to the big screen, and in so doing gives us the meanest, slickest underage superheroes ever.
The Red Riding Trilogy
“Red Riding” is an adaptation of English author David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet. Published between 1999 and 2002, the quartet comprises the novels Nineteen Seventy-Four (1999), Nineteen Seventy-Seven (2000), Nineteen Eighty (2001) and Nineteen Eighty-Three (2002). Set against a backdrop of serial murders, including the Yorkshire Ripper case, they deal with multi-layered corruption and feature several recurring characters across the four books. Though real crimes are featured, the scripts are fictionalized and dramatized versions of events rather than contemporary factual accounts. The films feature acting by such British stalwards as Sean Bean, Paddy Considine, Rebecca Hall, David Morrissey, Maxine Peake and Lesley Sharp. A grisly, dark set of crime thrillers, these should have received as much attention as Stieg Larsson’s famous trilogy, but for some reason did not.
The Crazies
This is Bret Ratner’s remake of George A. Romero’s 1973 film, and Romero is executive producer and co-writer of the update. The film takes place in the fictional town of Ogden Marsh, Pierce County, Iowa, the “friendliest place on Earth,” whose town water supply is accidentally infected with the “Trixie” virus. After an incubation period of 48 hours, this virus gradually transforms the mental state of the infected into that of cold, calculating, bloodthirsty killers, who then prey on family and neighbors alike. And while the infected are a dark cousin to Romero’s famous “living dead,” the true villains here are the government agents and military forces who impose authority over small-town America after creating the very disaster they are trying to quell.
Leap Year
Anna (Amy Adams) plans to travel to Dublin, Ireland to propose to her boyfriend Jeremy (Adam Scott) on February 29, leap day, because, according to Irish tradition, a man who receives a marriage proposal on a leap day must accept it. While mid-flight to Dublin, there is a storm and the plane diverts to Cardiff, Wales. Anna hires a boat to take her to Cork, but the severity of the storm forces her to be put ashore on the Dingle Peninsula (clear around the far side of the island!!). She enlists the help of a surly Irish innkeeper, Declan (Matthew Goode), to taxi her across the country to Dublin to pull off the proposal in time, and begins to question her intentions with Jeremy when she makes a connection with Declan. Director Anand Tucker’s film is so romantic is will probably make your teeth hurt, but it will also keep you laughing until you get to the end, where you are rooting for the small-town Irishman to win over the pretty American’s heart, even if he doesn’t stand a hope of a chance.
District 13: Ultimatum
Two years have passed since elite police officer Damien Tomasso teamed up with reformed vigilante Leito to save the notorious District 13, a racially charged ghetto populated by violent drug dealing gangs and vicious killers. Despite government promises to maintain order, the state of the district has deteriorated, and a group of corrupt cops and elected officials are conspiring to cause civil unrest in D13, looking for an excuse to raze the area and cash in on its redevelopment. Now Damian and Leito must join forces again, and use their mastery of martial arts and their unique physical skills to bring peace to the neighborhood by any means necessary… before a proposed nuclear air-strike wipes it off the map. This film, like its predecessor, is full of the amazing and beautiful to watch Parkour, combined with some unbelievable stunts. This film is my pick for best action flick of the year.

About the Author:

Del Harvey is a co-founder of Film Monthly. He is an independent filmmaker, film director, screenwriter, and film teacher, currently living in Chicago.

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