10. Last Train Home
At first, I resisted this documentary and its apparent intent to edify for us just how good we've got it by depicting the plight of a pair of migrant Chinese factory workers who can only afford to go home to see their children once a year. But once I started viewing the film as simply an anthropological remake of March of the Penguins, I quickly grew fascinated by it. Because really, that's all it is. It may focus on this one particular couple, but it's really about the mass migration of 130 million Chinese workers, who all go home every year at the same time, at New Year (Chinese New Year, obviously). Exactly why this is so is never made entirely clear, but I like the ambiguity. It gives it that National Geographic flavor, as though, as with the penguins, we are merely observing the arcane and archaic results of animal instincts asserting themselves (they really should have called the film "March of the Humans"). But even on a personal, human level, the story is fascinating, as we follow this couple and their desperate efforts to return home in time for New Year (and I mean desperate, as though the world would end if they didn't make it in time) so they can see their teenage children who barely even know them at all and clearly couldn't care less. Granted, there are a few scenes that bear little appreciable difference to something you'd see on reality TV, but on the other hand, reality TV never gets this disturbingly allegorical.
I'm not sure why I embraced this documentary as fully as I did, when I dismissed Easier With Practice, which came out earlier in the year and told essentially the same story (albeit dramatized, but allegedly based on a true story), as being trivial and anecdotal and pointless. It's not as if the circumstances and events it records are unique or novel (The Night Listener also told a similar story, not to mention an experience I had in my own life that was also very similar). In fact, they probably happen all the time. Nonetheless, this film, told almost entirely in the present tense, is absolutely gripping, even as it becomes (indeed, especially when it becomes) clear exactly where it's heading. It unfolds almost like a suspense thriller (and in fact it was advertised as one, which probably pissed off a lot of audience members who thought they were coming to see the next Blair Witch Project), which, now that I think about it, is the reason it works where Easier With Practice fails. That, and the resolution. Once we discover the real subject of this film, it soon becomes clear that the filmmakers hit the documentary jackpot. I have to be vague here to avoid spoilers, but as a "character" study, this documentary outdoes just about every fictional film of last year.
[There was actually some controversy surrounding this film and whether it is in fact a documentary or a work of fiction, but I see no evidence to suggest that it's fake. And in any case, it doesn't matter. The movie works either way, as fact or fiction.]
8. Exit Through the Gift Shop
Yet another documentary (three on one "top 10" list is definitely a record for me, which I guess indicates what a poor year it was for fiction films), and my favorite one of the year (it's also got the year's best title, of any movie). Like Catfish, this one isn't about what it initially appears to be about, and, also like Catfish, its authenticity has been the subject of debate. That is, no one is doubting that the events it depicts actually occurred, but there is some question as to whether these events were in fact set up far in advance by the filmmaker as part of an elaborate hoax. But despite what you might be thinking, this unreliability does not discredit the quality or even the integrity of the film in the slightest. On the contrary, it only adds an extra layer of insight, as it serves as a meta-textual commentary on the nature and significance of art, which is the film's actual subject. Just watch the movie, and you'll see what I mean.
7. Youth in Revolt
Finally, a smart teenage sex comedy. Youth in Revolt plays like American Pie, if American Pie were populated by absurdly intelligent teenagers from an absurdly cinematic parallel universe. The tone of this movie is truly bizarre, and quite unlike anything else I've ever seen. Completely removed from reality -- even more so than Juno or even Heathers -- yet falling short of broad farce or parody, the film maintains a delicate, dispassionate balance, an almost Zen-like approach to comedy that belies its title. Characters speak colorful dialogue with such aloofness that any sense of self-consciousness is eliminated (which is why comparisons to Juno are not apt). To contrast it with last year's other absurdist Michael Cera romantic comedy, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: the characters in that movie spoke as if they knew they were in a movie; the characters in Youth in Revolt speak as if they may or may not be in a movie and don't give a damn either way. The results are delightfully droll. It also occurs to me that it's the antithesis of Easy A, which also came out last year: Youth is about a virginal teenager who pretends to be someone he's not in order to get laid; Easy A is about a virginal teenager who pretends to get laid in order to become someone she's not. And, oh, yeah, Youth is smart and witty, and Easy A is completely retarded.
6. How to Train Your Dragon
I really didn't want to see this movie. DreamWorks Animation and I have never been simpatico (aside from Antz,which they made way back in 1998... and the Nick Park movies, I guess, which don't really count), and the lame trailer didn't give me any reason to believe that this had changed. But the virtually universal praise from the critics got my attention, so I decided to give it a shot. And at first, all of my fears seemed to be confirmed, as the movie began with the usual dumb, pandering comedic dialogue that so often punctuates these sorts of films. But it got over that fairly quickly, and the rest of the movie was just pure, wondrous joy. The animation is simply gorgeous, and it's used to tell a sweet, simple, exciting story about prejudice and friendship. It's also got the most effective use of 3D I've ever seen. It actually seems to use 3D as an artistic tool, rather than simply as mere spectacle. There were moments when I almost forgot I was watching a movie, and not some trippy, expressionistic puppet show. And the flying sequences are more stunning, more breathtaking, and more real than anything found in Avatar.
5. 127 Hours
Oh, so Danny Boyle can make a good movie. I was beginning to wonder. I guess this was the year of making amends with my cinematic nemeses. On paper, 127 Hours seems like an odd fit for Boyle's hyper-kinetic directing style -- it's a movie about someone who literally cannot go anywhere, after all -- but what he does here is employ that style in the service of representing the protagonist's mental state. The result is an eerily subjective film, one that gets inside the character's head better than just about any movie I've ever seen that doesn't rely on first-person narration, and the best thing Boyle has ever made, by far. It also happens to be incredibly moving. It turns out that it's a movie about community, and communion, and the ways in which social independence is mythical at best and dangerous at worst. When James Franco (who's surprisingly excellent, by the way), yells, "I need help!" at the film's climax, I admit it: I burst into tears. In fact, the final 20 minutes or so are heart-stoppingly beautiful. Only in a movie like this could a grisly self-amputation be a cathartic release (literally and figuratively) rather than an act of horror.
4. Toy Story 3
Here's another first for me: a Pixar movie actually making my "top 10" list. What can I say? This is the first time Pixar has stepped up and actually achieved, in my eyes, what everyone has been claiming they've been doing for years. For one thing, they're working with the best script they've had since... well, since Toy Story 2 (amazingly, it's by the Little Miss Sunshine guy. What is going on here?!). No silly plot contrivances or half-baked attempts at satire, just a focused and logical yet inventive narrative that has the weight and confidence of an epic adventure but the whimsy and levity of a classic comedy. The animation is stunning, in a way that exploits the advantages of the CG medium rather than trying to emulate live action. It's the best computer animated feature yet made, and between it and How to Train Your Dragon, it appears as though the medium might finally be growing past its infancy and the puerile comedies to which it hitherto has been short-sightedly confined.
3. Shutter Island
What was advertised as a psychological horror movie turned out, unexpectedly, to be a glorious paean to classic Hitchcockian filmmaking. I mistook it for a masterpiece on first viewing, only because, for some reason, I read too much ambiguity into the ending. Seeing the film again, however, I realized that there is no ambiguity, that what appears to be happening is exactly what is happening, so the film dropped a little in my estimation. Still, this is Martin Scorsese's best movie in years, a deliriously entertaining, often jaw-droppingly beautiful, edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, inexpressibly sad, and occasionally (though not ultimately) thought-provoking love letter to old-fashioned Hollywood filmmaking. And Ben Kingsley is never not awesome.
2. Blue Valentine
I kind of want to kiss Derek Cianfrance Here's this guy who comes out of nowhere, writes this simple little script, attracts possibly the two best young actors working in motion pictures today, and makes a brilliant movie that puts most veterans to shame (not that he's completely inexperienced, but he's made mostly TV documentaries until now). On paper it sounds like... nothing, really: a marriage falls apart as the couple flashes back to happier times when they first met. And yet every moment is perfectly calculated, perfectly precise. Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are astonishing here (Williams was also in Shutter Island, incidentally, and it occurs to me only now how many of my favorite recent movies she's been in; she's just.... I think I'm in love with her), pulling up raw, fearless performances from somewhere that only actors of this caliber can even fathom, probably. Through impeccable cinematography and art direction, they are placed in a world in which their characters are constantly at odds with, and often subsumed by, their environment. It's a claustrophobic, almost suffocating film that has nothing particularly new or revelatory to say, but says what it does have to say with uncanny insight and mastery of the filmic language.
1. True Grit
Hallelujah, the Coen Brothers are back! Not that they ever actually left (they come out with a new movie every year, it seems), but I haven't been terribly thrilled by their output in quite some time. They always seem to be trying too hard, or too little, and the results invariably seem trite and/or pretentious to me. But with True Grit, they've made their best movie since Barton Fink, made way back in 1991, and the best western made since Once Upon a Time in the West. The trailer did everything it could to make the movie look like some tedious exercise in badassery that only a teenage boy could love, but the actual movie is quieter and more thoughtful than that. It's a movie about transactions, about balance, about action and reaction. Human lives are just capital in this world, traded and bargained for like any other currency. Even the dialogue is exchanged like currency. I'm pretty sure no one, not even in the 1800s, has ever talked the way these characters talk. The English language decants from these characters' mouths like a fine wine in a kind of affectionate mockery of traditional western-ese. It also helps to evoke the almost surreal tone that the Coens establish. Indeed, the movie often resembles a western that David Lynch might make should he ever deign to dabble in that genre, with characters speaking in stylized portents and eccentric non-sequiturs. The performances are excellent across the board (though Hailee Steinfeld, the teenage lead actress, has a couple of awkward line deliveries that made me cringe; but she is otherwise impressive), and Jeff Bridges deserves his second Oscar in a row, I dare say. And wih Roger Deakins's magnificent cinematography and Carter Burwell's wonderfully playful musical score, I kind of think this movie should sweep the Oscars (of course it won't, but whatever). Of course, all of this is meaningless without the writing. The Coens have always been great directors, it's their scripts that have been weak; but this is the tightest screenplay they've written in years. There's nothing extraneous or injudicious here, no misguided, hand-waving assertions of Meaning. The meaning is embedded in the text, and it is this: that, the Rolling Stones be damned, you can always get what you want... but it's going to cost you.