Movies of 2010: Best to Worst
I have to say, 2010 was not, in my opinion, a good year for movies. I saw 21 of them (not counting the ones I saw on DVD or on-demand, which were mostly made in earlier years) and only six qualified, for me, as good. Four others were flawed but had merit. So I’d have to count the flawed films to make up a ten-item list of best films.
Be that as it may, here’s my list for last year. (And yes, I know people usually do these best/worst lists in December, but what if one encounters a best- or worst-of-its kind on December 31st? That’s what I’m asking. Besides, I have to be true to myself. If I didn’t put it off till January what I could have done in December, it just wouldn’t feel right.)
The Social Network was my favorite movie of 2010, hands down. And I wasn’t even planning to see it, because it’s about Facebook, which I find so annoying. What I resent most about Facebook is the fact that even though it annoys me, I have to be on it or be shut out of the society in which I allegedly live. And I resent that if I don’t go on Facebook to post something once in a while, I feel like I’m being that truculent, anti-social old-man-in-the-dilapidated-mansion-on-a-hill that kids are scared of on Halloween. If, on the other hand, I do go on Facebook, I squander countless hours about which, even ten minutes later, I don’t remember a single thing.
Besides—a movie about the founding of a business: how fun could that be?
Then I heard a clip from the movie on the radio. It’s that scene where Justin Timberlake wakes up in bed with a Stanford girl he’s met at a party the night before. They don’t know a thing about each other, not even each other’s names. As she’s getting dressed, she asks him diffidently,
“What do you do?”
“I’m an Internet entrepreneur.”
“Oh,” she sneers, “In other words, you don’t do anything.”
“I wouldn’t put it that way.”
“Well how would you ‘put it’.”
“I’d say I’m an Internet entrepreneur.”
“All right. What have you entrepreneured?”
“I founded a company that lets people share music online.”
“Uh huh. Kind of like Napster?”
“Exactly like Napster.”
“What do you mean?”
“I founded Napster.”
“No you didn’t! Sean Parker founded Napster.”
“Yes. It’s good to meet you too.”
I’m quoting from memory so I may not have all the words quite right, but you see what I mean: textbook brilliant writing. As a guy who runs a writing workshop, let me just tell you that from now on when someone asks me how to write dialog that works, I’m going to say, “Like that.”
So anyway, I went to see The Social Network and found it fascinating on so many levels. First, because Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, is portrayed relentlessly as an obnoxious geek, a guy you wouldn’t want spend two minutes with–and yet the movie makes you want to hang out with him for a whole movie’s worth and see what happens; and you end up on his side, cheering for him to slay all the dragons out to sue him one the grounds that they created Facebook, not he (or so they claim.) And it does this without softening its portrayal of Zuckerberg and what he’s like.
Even more fascinating is the understated way the movie conveys that all these plaintiffs are wrong: none of them invented Facebook, and neither did Zuckerberg. Facebook already existed in the world in potentia: the trick was to see it out there, know what it was, and then create the apparatus that allowed it to actualize itself, to materialize. Facebook invented itself.
Other movies I’d put on my ten-best list for last year:
- The King’s Speech: Great to see a movie so suspenseful in which no one gets killed or is ever in danger of getting killed.
- Crazy Heart: It’s easy to dramatize a life that crashes irretrievably, but it’s a trivial achievement. It’s difficult, and precious, to dramatize a life that crashes and believably recovers, because whatever is believable is possible, and what would you rather have be possible than redemption?
- Hereafter: It isn’t superstitious claptrap, as some have said: like the best of Eastwood, it is a movie replete with ambivalence, subtleties, and shades of gray.
- Burlesque: I like this movie because it’s corny and predictable–in the best way. Yes, there is a good way to be corny and predictable; indeed this is the quality we crave from all genre-art, I submit. What we want, however—and what so few works deliver—is corny and predictable that works. This one works, not least of all because ohmigawd who’da’ thunk Christina Aguilera could sing like that? (Even mentioning her singing in this movie makes me want to taste that flavor again.)
- The Kids Are All Right I like this movie because it isn’t corny and predictable. And it doesn’ t have a happy ending. But it’s not an unhappy ending either. You end up feeling that love is possible…but not inevitable…that loss is possible…but not inevitable..and life goes on. It’s a comedy, sort of, but it’s not funny so much as true. So true.
That’s it for the legitimate best-movie contenders.
As for the flawed but worthy films:
- Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Far-fetched, no-deeper-meaning suspense movie but hey! The suspense works. What’s also intriguing about this movie is that it follows the book exactly—I mean scene for scene: which reveals something interesting about the global popularity of the book. It isn’t really a book, it’s a movie in written form.
- Avatar: Yes, the plot was grindingly trite. Yes, the characters were staggeringly clichéd. Yes, the dialog was cringe-inducingly empty. Yes, the theme was shallow, sentimental, self-congratulating, and pompous. I guess I’m making this one sound really flawed, huh? On the plus side, Avatar was the only 3-D movie I’ve seen that was worth the eye-strain. Thing is, it wasn’t really a piece of fiction. You can’t look at it that way. Approach this movie purely as a National Geographic-style travel documentary about visiting another planet–then it’s ravishing. Too bad it has a plot.
- Kick Ass Way too much kicking of ass in this movie, but the murderous kid, her kindly, vengeful father, and the nerdy superhero in his baggy outfit—all of that was entertainingly inventive.
- The Runaways It’s the usual band biopic: the kids break upon the scene, they soar, they’re taken advantage of, success goes to their heads, dissension breaks out, the whole thing falls apart. We’ve seen this before, lots of it. But good acting elevates the rote plot, and if you were there in the seventies and the Runaways were on the edge of your screen somewhere, it makes some revealing points.
Which brings us to …
I’m sure there were movies worse than any I saw, but I didn’t see them. That’s not accidental. In order to make the “worst” list, a movie has to attract but disappoint. It has to have aroused some expectations somehow. Poor Mick LaSalle, for example—even after acknowledging that expectations have to factor into ones evaluations–lists I Spit on Your Grave as one of the worst movies of last year. Apparently, that movie disappointed him. Apparently it wasn’t as good as the title made it sound. I wouldn’t know. I didn’t see it. So for me…
The second worst movie of the year was Skyline. I went to see it before reading any reviews. The newspaper ads drew me in. They told me Skyline was working in the same fictional terrain as Cloverfield, which I liked a lot. But apparently, the people who made Skyline said, “Let’s just make Cloverfield again, only this time? Everything they did right? Let’s do all those things wrong.”
Cloverfield perfects the movie-as-artifact conceit pioneered (mostly unsuccesfully) by The Blair Witch Project. It tells the audience: this is not a product. You’re looking at a video someone happened to be shooting when something really bad happened. No observer’s perspective here, no narrative voice “outside-the-frame,” no explanation of what’s going on or what it all means. What you see is what you get: it’s all shaky, hand-held camera, much of it topsy turvy and chaotic, faces flashing onscreen and vanishing, off-camera sounds of clamor and confusion, irrelevant glimpses of pavement on the fly, someone’s back, the sky.
What’s more, about a quarter of the movie goes by before the main event even begins. In that long first segment you’re looking at a clumsy home movie of ordinary people living everyday lives, but the camera keeps catching hints of the issues lacing through these lives, the dynamics we find so compelling in everyday life: someone is secretly attracted to someone, career goals are coming into conflict with relationship goals, jealousies are surfacing that might turn troublesome–all the stuff that we take so seriously normally and that would not matter one whit if alien monsters started destroying our city. Usually, these are in two different movies. If everyday life issues matter, and are developed with some subtlety, then we’re in the kind of movie where people-gobbling aliens don’t drop into the story, they just don’t. And if it’s a monster movie we’re in, then the opening scenes establish who the characters are, their lives, careers, relationships, but does it quickly and then we’re onto the good stuff. Cloverfield dares to start as one kind of movie, and become that other kind. And for me at least, it works–brilliantly.
Once the mayhem begins, the movie makes another brilliant move. It keeps you in the dark. Toward the end, once or twice, you catch a glimpse of something with tentacles in the streets, but you can’t quite make out what it is, and what you see doesn’t explain the explosions you’ve seen earlier, or the strange symptoms people develop in the subway—in short, you don’t know what has happened, and you never know.
Skyline follows the same narrative arc, but the shaky handheld camera is gone. Apparently that annoyed many people. What we get instead is slick Hollywood production values: easier to watch; but trivial; false. Skyline also takes the time to develop the lives and interrelationships of the main characters, but it makes all these issues explicit: you don’t have to dig anything out for yourself, and you don’t need to judge them, that’s given to you. And the people are unlikable, every one of them. Then the monsters arrive, and you quickly see what they look like: big nasty, slimy bug-like things. The mystery’s gone and and from then on you’re just with a bunch of unlikable folks trying to escape some horrid bugs, and in the end the bugs win, and you know what? You’re sort of glad. Because now you get to go home.
For worst movie of the year, I nominate Inception. I went to see it because the Washington Post gave it a glowing review. The Post reviewer said the movie was so intellectually complex you’d need to see it at least twice to get the implications. No you won’t. May I just take a moment to spoil the movie for you quickly? The premise goes as follows: a team of geeky specialists have a technology that enables them to enter people’s dreams. Once they’re inside a dream, they can learn what the dreamer knows, including information he or she is trying to keep secret. Governments and corporations hire this team, of course, to do their specialized type of spy work. One day a newbie joins the team, and the first thing she learns is this: the dreamers think they’re awake and the mission will fail if they realize they’re not. So once once she’s in someone’s dream, she must not to do, or allow to happen, anything that would break the illusion that this is the real world.
Hello! Everything that might make the movie interesting has just been rendered inadmissible! From this point on, Inception becomes exactly like a movie that isn’t about entering people’s dreams. In the dream world, there are dangers our heroes must evade, and what are they? You guessed it: Car crashes, heavy falling objects, people with guns. Bombs, explosions, fires. If a bullet hits you in the dream world, does it hurt? Yes. Can it kill you? Exactly as it would in the non-dream world. In short, once the movie has established its premise, it becomes like a Tom Cruise action movie. No better, no worse, no more or less intellectually provocative than Mission Impossible VII. There is, it’s true, some tedious bull pucky about “second-level” dreaming—that is, if someone in a dream falls asleep, our heroes can go into the dream they’re having in the dream, and that’s a second level dream-world. Perhaps this is what the Post reviewer found so intellectually intriguing she had to ponder it for days. How is the second level dream-world different from the first level one? It’s not. In any way. None. Here too, everything must seem exactly like the non-dream world. Here too, look out for speeding cars, runaway buses, explosions, men with machine guns, etc. Third-level dream-world? Car crashes, fires, bombs, men with machine guns. And so on down. In the previews for this movie, you see some nice, surreal images of cities coming apart, cliffs eroding as in a dream. The movie has those images but no more than the ones you see in the previews. Once you’ve seen the previews, in short, you’ve seen everything that sets Inception apart from Mission Impossible 23.