Mountain View Voice

Arts & Entertainment - January 7, 2011

From kings to cowboys

Top films of 2010 have a whole world of heroes

There's something for everyone in this year's crop of annual "best" and "worst" lists compiled by the three film critics who contribute to the Voice.

Do you like dark tales about wartime Lebanon or Wall Street chicanery? Or would you prefer to weep over plucky little toys overcoming adversity, or perhaps root for a king conquering his stammer? Whatever your movie preferences, we've got you covered.

In a diverse selection of picks and pans, critics Peter Canavese, Tyler Hanley and Susan Tavernetti look back over 2010 in film. And, in case you need some advice on whom to cheer for or razz, Hanley lists the best cinematic heroes and villains of the year.

Peter Canavese's top films

10. Lebanon Israeli filmmaker Samuel Maoz's deeply personal account of the first day of the 1982 Lebanon War puts us inside a tank with four traumatized soldiers for 90 minutes. This powerful evocation of war as hell is not easy to endure in its "you are there" virtual reality. But if this is pure cinema at its most unnerving, it's also at its best.

9. The Ghost Writer One of the most purely pleasurable films of 2010, Roman Polanski's wicked little thriller — derived from Robert Harris' novel "The Ghost" — brims with paranoia and witty style. The smirky absurdity of Ewan McGregor's travails as ghost writer to Pierce Brosnan's ex-prime minister consistently delivered deadpan delights.

8. Marwencol In a slew of 2010 political documentaries, Jeff Malmberg's character study "Marwencol" stood out from the pack. Remarkable outsider artist Mark Hogancamp simultaneously lives in two worlds: ours and the one-sixth-scale World War II-era Belgian town built and photographed in Hogancamp's upstate New York backyard. Malmberg puts on display the endearingly damaged and heroically resilient Hogancamp and his stunning self-therapeutic art.

7. Dogtooth No film this year was stranger than Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos' absurdist allegory, which won top honors in the Un Certain Regard section at last year's Cannes Film Festival. At once droll and horrifying, this tale of overgrown children made unwitting captives by their parents functions as a condemnation of doomed parental overprotectiveness and perhaps, symbolically, the folly of a "nanny state." Hm. Maybe Sarah Palin would like it (zing!).

6. The King's Speech The good old-fashioned appeal of Tom Hooper's "The King's Speech" is dramatic craft. With a cracking screenplay by David Seidler that was 70 years in the making, this docudrama of King George VI (Colin Firth) literally finding his voice with speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) entertains and inspires, in no small part due to the brilliant actors' top-notch tit-for-tatting in a series of dialogue duets.

5. Rabbit Hole David Lindsay-Abaire adapted his Pulitzer Prize-winning play for the screen under the auspices of director John Cameron Mitchell ("Hedwig and the Angry Inch"). Together they found the truth in a shopworn theme (grieving parents) and the thoughtful expression to make unspeakable pain understandable. Fine acting from Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest and newcomer Miles Teller seals the deal.

4. Inception The words "heady" and "blockbuster" rarely go together, but writer-director Christopher Nolan ("The Dark Knight") doesn't care, and we're better off for it. This action-adventure set mostly (or entirely?) inside minds may not be a perfect "film" or a perfect "movie," but by combining the two, Nolan gave us something uniquely satisfying at the multiplex.

3. Toy Story 3 Pixar's populist genius reaches a crescendo with the improbably great second sequel to 1995's "Toy Story." Along with experiencing the deft comedy and brilliantly choreographed action, kids can still guilelessly delve into the secret world of toys, young to middle-aged adults can feel the hurts-so-good pangs of nostalgia, and the elderly can relate to the terror of social abandonment. It's a film for all seasons.

2. The Social Network A sly satire about the way people relate today, "The Social Network" definitively acknowledges the genius of Facebook co-creator Mark Zuckerberg, exposes the ruthlessness of modern American capitalism, and anatomizes the disconnect that is the logical (yet ironic) result of both. As Zuckerberg, Jesse Eisenberg leads a strong, sensitive young ensemble. David Fincher directs with cool efficiency, and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin delivers the flood of incisive talk.

1. Blue Valentine This master class in acting from the next generation of top talent (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) takes the pulse of modern love. With American divorce rates still hovering near 50 percent, few stories could be more wistfully relevant than this intimate look at the birth and death of love. First-time director Derek Cianfrance nails the delicate past-vs.-present structure, while Gosling and Williams do miraculous work playing two people at two discrete times in their lives.

Peter Canavese's pans

As usual, the very worst films mostly preyed on the weak: Won't somebody please think of the children? (Thank you, Pixar ... )

When in Rome The horror, the horror. This cheerily bad rom-com is like watching a party clown bomb ... hard.

Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore Warning to asthma sufferers: The pop-culture allusions in this kiddie "comedy" are seriously musty. Kids won't get them and adults will hate them, so ... why?

Furry Vengeance Fat, half-naked Brendan Fraser battles anthropomorphized animals. 'Nuff said.

Remember Me Spoiler alert: This jerks "Twi"-hard tears by killing R-Pattz on 9/11.

The Nutcracker in 3D Nathan Lane as Albert Einstein. Singing Andy Warhol rodent. Proto-Nazi space-ranger rats. Very little ballet.

Tyler Hanley's top films

10. Hereafter Watching Clint Eastwood's metaphysical drama is sort of like taking a road trip to the Grand Canyon. The journey is long and plodding, but the destination is breathtaking. Matt Damon's likable protagonist leads the viewer through a wave of emotions and Eastwood presents the afterlife in a peaceful light instead of as something morbid or terrifying. But "Hereafter" requires patience and maturity. Those willing to give it are rewarded with a complex, heartfelt and spiritually inspiring experience.

9. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World Audacious director Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead") throws a jolt of energy into the cinematic pantheon with this imaginative romp. Rock-music, video-game and comic-book sensibilities collide for a refreshingly unique blend of action and comedy. Michael Cera plays the geek/hero role perfectly while arcade-inspired visual effects and wildly inventive transitions add to the picture's whimsical flair.

8. Robin Hood Ridley Scott's under-appreciated epic boasts a strong performance by Russell Crowe, admirable production values (costumes, lighting, cinematography, etc.) and a fresh perspective on the bow-wielding adventurer. The storyline is engaging and the action is visceral — although many critics labeled the film a disappointment (lofty expectations can often lead to mediocre reviews). But an argument could easily be made that this is the most historically accurate and well-crafted "Robin Hood" film to date.

7. The Town Ben Affleck's cinematic love letter to the city of Boston is a taut, suspenseful action/drama in the vein of Michael Mann's "Heat" (1995). Affleck offers up one of the best acting performance of his career while "Hurt Locker" standout Jeremy Renner threatens to steal the spotlight with another gutsy portrayal. But the film's overall success — not unlike a heist itself — is all about solid execution. Affleck deserves applause for his directorial vision.

6. The Ghost Writer Kindling memories of his heartbreaking masterpiece "Chinatown," director Roman Polanski empowers his "Ghost Writer" with the perfect balance of suspenseful atmosphere and intelligent substance. "Writer" is the sort of thoughtful mystery Alfred Hitchcock would have sunk his teeth into. An admirable script and cast (which includes Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan and Tom Wilkinson) stoke the dramatic fire while the film's tension steamrolls into a powerful climax.

5. The Fighter Strong acting performances from Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo and especially Christian Bale lend dramatic gravitas to this uplifting true story. Bale's wired and wide-eyed portrayal of crack-addicted former pugilist Dicky Eklund is mesmerizing. "The Fighter" is more than just an "underdog boxer beats the odds" tale — it's about family bonds, independence, cooperation and overcoming adversity.

4. The Social Network There's a lot to "Like" about "The Social Network." The riveting film about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg defines a generation (a la "Easy Rider" and "The Breakfast Club"). Director David Fincher ("Zodiac," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") helms with a deft touch, Aaron Sorkin's screenplay is razor-sharp and the acting is excellent across the board. The well-paced drama is also sprinkled with a healthy helping of humor and suspense.

3. Inception Director Christopher Nolan's ("The Dark Knight") visually stunning and exceptionally cast "Inception" is a cinematic marvel — a rare film inspired by imagination rather than potential box-office return. Although the big-budget flick features persistent and impressive visual effects, it is also thought provoking and emotionally poignant. In fact, "Inception" is almost hypnotic — a mind-bending experience laced with palpable tension and fueled with drama. Sweet dreams.

2. Toy Story 3 The toys are back in town and they're better than ever. This third installment in Pixar's uber-popular "Toy Story" franchise is witty, heartfelt and thoroughly entertaining. Phenomenal animation, outstanding vocal talent (from the likes of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Ned Beatty and others) and a sentimental climax help elevate "Toy Story 3" into the upper echelon of the Disney library. A G-rated film that appeals to both adults and children alike is a rare breed and deserves to be celebrated.

1. The King's Speech Historical insight, phenomenal acting, top-notch production values: "The King's Speech" is a royal example of what good filmmaking is all about. Colin Firth delivers the year's best leading performance as King George VI (although James Franco of "127 Hours" and Natalie Portman of "Black Swan" are in the argument) and Geoffrey Rush is exceptional as quirky speech therapist Lionel Logue. Costuming, set design and (especially) sound are tremendous and aptly highlight the period and the king's paralyzing stammer. "Speech" has capably voiced its case to be crowned Best Picture come Oscar time.

Tyler Hanley's pans

Date Night The comedy-gold combo of Steve Carell and Tina Fey looks more like cubic zirconia thanks to a bland screenplay, absurd plot and poor execution. A memorable scene featuring James Franco and Mila Kunis as a low-life couple is one of the few bright spots.

The Expendables This macho vanity project features a way-past-his-prime Sylvester Stallone and a boneheaded script that harkens back to the days when bad action movies were hip. Jason Statham and a cornucopia of familiar manly men help make the film somewhat entertaining, albeit in a gimmicky, sugar-rush-headache sort of way.

Jonah Hex From John Malkovich's apathetic performance to a nauseating glut of eye candy and ear-rattling explosions, "Hex" is full of bad mojo.

Repo Men Jude Law and Forest Whitaker make an intriguing tandem, but the majority of the film is a bloody, unrealistic mess that snowballs toward a rotten ending.

Valentine's Day Director Garry Marshall packs this schmaltzy holiday offering like a clown car, using a bundle of actors known more for their physical appearance than thespian prowess (Ashton Kutcher, Jessica Alba and Jennifer Garner, to name a few). The result is enough to make your teeth ache.

Susan Tavernetti's top films

10. Black Swan Ballerinas gone mad. How many times have we seen this story of obsession with one's art, subservience to an authoritarian ballet impresario and rivalry with another dancer? But director Darren Aronofsky's lurid drama has the kick of a paranoid fever dream — with one toe shoe delicately performing the role of the White Swan of "Swan Lake" and the other dancing on the grave. Natalie Portman's fixation on finding the black swan within should result in her pirouetting to an Oscar nomination.

9. The Tillman Story Amir Bar-Lev's documentary illustrates that truth is the first casualty of war. The U.S. military and Bush administration used the tragic death of Pat Tillman, the NFL star-turned-Army Ranger killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004, as a propaganda tool. Engrossing and infuriating, the expose reveals the extent of the cover-up. Through painstaking research and an iron resolve, the mother of the late San Jose native spearheaded the family's search for the facts. As her surviving son states, "She hit it out of the park but the government kept moving the fence." The nonfiction film honors Pat Tillman in ways that a fabricated heroism never could.

8. The King's Speech The subtle artistry of David Seidler's screenplay and Tom Hooper's direction makes this blue-blood biopic easy to dismiss as a crowd-pleaser featuring astounding performances. But there's much more to what you see — and hear. The invention of radio has changed the image game: No longer can a Brit royal appear regal by merely looking respectable in uniform and staying atop his horse. As the man who would become King George VI and lead his subjects through times of crisis, Colin Firth stammers through personal and class conflicts with his speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) until he no longer stumbles over his words.

7. Un Prophete (A Prophet) Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film last year (and released in the Bay Area in 2010), Jacques Audiard's riveting French prison drama traces the troubled life of a young Arab (Tahar Rahim) who reluctantly slashes a snitch in the first reel and then climbs to self-made crime boss while behind bars. The Gallic grime-and-crime saga has the sophisticated restraint of a Jean-Pierre Melville gangster classic of the 1960s. Multi-ethnic prison gang wars, startling violence, and a Corsican mobster (Niels Arestrup) channeling Don Vito Corleone are only a handful of reasons to watch one of the most assured French films in years.

6. The Ghost Writer Few can fill every frame with ominous dread and white-knuckle tension like Roman Polanski. And Pawel Edelman's lensing gives the twisty political thriller a cool gray-blue look with warning splashes of red. As the ghost writer hired to tweak the memoirs of a retired Tony Blair-like prime minister (Pierce Brosnan), Ewan McGregor plunges into paranoid fantasies. Or is he a Hitchcockian "wrong man" in the midst of a real conspiracy? A master filmmaker, Polanski seems to imbue the film with his personal feelings of persecution and inability to rewrite the past.

5. Inside Job The horror flick of the year, Charles Ferguson's clear-eyed documentary exposes the Wall Street, economist and investment-banking vampires whose insatiable lust for money triggered the economic crisis of 2008. Ferguson doggedly asks the tough questions to lay bare the manipulations and deceptions that led to massive private gains at public loss. Depicting such activities as the gutting of regulations and the "analyses" of financial practices, the nonfiction film about the culture of greed and corruption should scare us into fighting for change. (It pairs well with Alex Gibney's "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer.")

4. Toy Story 3 As much fun as a Barrel of Monkeys and as dear as a well-loved teddy bear, the third animated film of Pixar's "Toy" series has 17-year-old Andy bound for college. What will become of Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the gang? Director Lee Unkrich and his team sustain the perfect tone, balancing the playful power of imagination with serious themes about growing up, change and loss. Completely accessible yet sophisticated, the bittersweet tale resonates with anyone who has packed away the carefree days of childhood — or who has fought for their dignity and survival in a world that no longer treasures them.

3. The Kids Are All Right Lisa Cholodenko's high-concept dramedy feels timely and truthful rather than contrived. Everything about the "Mothers Know Best" family seems ordinary — until the two kids decide to track down their sperm-donor biological father. Turns out the anonymous donor-dad is a hip, motorcycle-riding restaurateur (Mark Ruffalo), who destabilizes the marriage of the longtime lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore). Funny and smart with the year's best ensemble cast, the irresistible romp addresses the meaning of family in the modern world.

2. Winter's Bone Regional filmmaking meets riveting conspiracy thriller in co-writer/director Debra Granik's spare adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's novel about a Missouri girl trying to find her meth-cooking, bail-jumping father. The indie gem about hardship and codes of silence in the crank-addicted backwoods of the Ozarks features complex characters in a taut screenplay. As a teenager shouldering the responsibilities of adulthood, Jennifer Lawrence gives a raw performance that cuts straight to the bone.

1. The Social Network What may be the defining film of the decade, David Fincher's drama about the founding of Facebook intrigues, enthralls and reflects on the social-media site that has forever changed the world. A sharp look at the intersection of creativity, entrepreneurial acumen and ethics, and the nature of friendships, the movie has potent content to match its dark visual style. Whether spewing Aaron Sorkin's brilliant dialogue or brooding intensely, Jesse Eisenberg boldly plays Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard student-turned Palo Altan who invents the digital-era phenomenon. Definitely share this with your friends.

Note: Susan Tavernetti decided not to write a pans list this year. She was fortunate enough not to be assigned any films bad enough to qualify for a "Worst Five" list," she said.

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