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The Oscars are less than a week away, and before those “amateurs” in Hollywood pick the mediocre films upon whom to bestow their highest honors, I want to get my two cents in. 🙂 So here’s my “Best of 2010” movie list. Last year, my readers seemed to like it. I hope you will again. It is a labor of love. Among the values I look for in a film are artistic merit; spiritual, cultural and historical relevance; humanity; and just plain good story-telling.
Going in, let me say that the movies this year were a little short on love and laughs; but they made up for it in drama and action. Most of the laughs were in the family arena. After my list of the top ten best movies from 2010, I offer five more that are worth mentioning, and ten films to look forward to in 2010, with some final reflections on the film industry in general. So, without further adieu, roll the film.
MOST INSPIRING – Secretariat
This is The Blind Side for horseracing, with, again, a strong female lead in Diane Lane (Nights In Rodanthe, Must Love Dogs, Under The Tuscan Sun) who plays the owner of racing’s most famous thoroughbred. Unlike the unknown company that produced Blind Side and made their budget opening weekend (and ten times that to date), Disney did this one, with less than spectacular boxoffice results. But I really believe this is a dark horse. It has everything that most discerning filmgoers want in a movie: a bigger-than-life hero (there has never been a greater athlete than the horse, Secretariat), a rivetting story (like most movies about athletes, he is discounted by the people who are supposed to know good horseflesh and overcomes incredible obstacles to prove himself), likable characters (with John Malkovich, as his quirky trainer, Lucien Laurin, stealing the show as usual), and a more than satisfying ending. Plus you get some of the finest racing footage ever shot, Seabiscuit not withstanding. What’s really amazing is that this well-made, true-life story of the greatest Triple Crown winner in history has been overlooked by all the major motion picture award ceremonies, including the upcoming Oscars. I guess director Randall Wallace, who wrote Braveheart and wrote and directed We Were Soldiers, would agree with his star, Mel Gibson, that the Oscars are a nothing more than a celebration of mediocrity. I certainly do.
If you’ve never seen Secretariat run, do yourself the favor of looking at the 1973 Belmont Stakes on YouTube.
BEST DRAMA – The King’s Speech
Colin Firth made his name in British romantic dramas, like the BBC’s Pride And Prejudice series, which is still one of the highest ranking television series in history. He gained recognition in this country with his portrayal of Lord Wessex in Shakespeare In Love in 1998. Since then he has done a ton of fiilms, including A Single Man in 2009; but this is the brass ring for him. He is up for Best Actor at the Oscars for his portrayal of King George VI, the modern-day English monarch who had a speech impediment, and was thrust onto the throne and into the public eye when his brother, Edward, abdicated in order to marry an American. George (known as Bertie) reluctantly engages a speech therapist, Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush (Shine, Shakespeare In Love, Pirates Of The Caribbean), who, quite handily, steals the show with his unorthodox methods and straightforward manner. If he doesn’t readily endear himself to Bertie, he does to us, and he did to the Academy, as he is up for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The speech that Bertie delivers at his coronation is amazing, and could only be so because of the struggles that he and Lionel went through to get there. They were struggles that produced a lasting friendship, and a very memorable film.
Just as a side note: Helena Bonham Carter is also up for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as George’s wife, Queen Elizabeth. It is one of the few “normal” roles that I have ever seen her in, and she does it very well. If Firth, Rush and Carter do well in their respective categories, it would be unusual for a film to win that many acting awards and not get Best Picture, especially since it has 9 other nominations. It is definitely one of the year’s best.
Rated R for language… one of the most unjust ratings ever given. Recommended without reservations for families with adolescents and above.
BEST “LITTLE” MOVIE – Get Low
Here’s one that got under the radar for most viewers. It’s a little film with a limited release, but it has some excellent actors doing a very good job with a very good story. In the 1930s, an antisocial, crusty old backwoodsman named Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) decides he wants to throw his own funeral party while he’s still alive so he can enjoy it. He makes known to the public that at that time, he is going to raffle off his real estate, which is some prime Tennessee timberland, as well as disclose the truth behind rampant rumors that for years have been circulating about his mysterious past. It promises to be quite a day. To help him with his plans, he hires a mortician and his assistant, played by Bill Murray and Lucas Black. If you’ve never seen Murray in a serious role, it’s interesting. Snake oil comes to mind. Black’s performance as the reluctant but earnest assistant is probably the best part of the whole film. Also in the cast are Sissy Spacek and Bill Cobbs. The script has some problems: halfway through it begins to unravel under first-time director Aaron Schneider, who’s background as a cinematographer (Titanic, et al) doesn’t help. Right when he needs to pull out all the stops (e.g., when Felix is disclosing all at his party), he drops the ball. Nevertheless, it’s very entertaining, and a refreshing break from the usual Hollywoodland fare.
BEST SUSPENSE THRILLER- Inception
I wasn’t totally satisfied when I saw this film. I thought it was too convoluted and probably set dream psychology back 100 years. And there were some definite continuity issues; but when you do something this complex, you’re going to have that. And I don’t like seeing Leonardo DiCaprio in a business suit. He’s just not believable to me. But I do think writer-director Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight) does a good job selling such a complicated concept. But come on: levels of dreams going on at the same time, where what is happening in one dream is affecting what is happening in the ones below it? Have we gotten to the point that there is no ceiling on how rediculous an idea for a film can be? Are we that starved for entertainment? I just think all that time and money could have been spent on a more worthy project. This is pure entertainment that will give you some good discussion time afterwards as you try to “figure it out.” But don’t think about it too much or you could induce insanity – a permanent dream state.
BEST ACTION – True Grit
I would never have believed that a classic western like True Grit – especially since it stars the king of westerns, John Wayne – could ever equal the original, but I’m here to tell you, this one does. It’s probably because it was made by the Coen brothers, who are sticklers for detail. They went back to the novel on which the 1969 film was based for detail and inspiration, and it paid off. While it could be argued who is better as the crusty old lawman, Rooster Cogburn – John Wayne in the original or Jeff Bridges in this remake – I don’t think there is any doubt which is better of the actresses who play Mattie Ross, the girl that hires Cogburn to bring in the man who killed her father in cold blood – Hailee Steinfeld (remake) beats Kim Darby (original) hands down. The Coens definitely bring some interesting ideas to the film, like having the characters speak in non-contracted English, the way people probably really spoke back then; making the fingers-cutting-off scene more blood-curdling; and making the rattlesnake pit scene even more intense. I’m not sure, though, how much Matt Damon brings to the party as La Boeuf. I like Glen Campbell as the put-upon Texas Ranger in the original, though Damon is definitely believable. Josh Brolin vs Jeff Corey as Tom Chaney – I’ll give it to Brolin, though it’s a thankless role. Any way you cut it, this is one of the year’s best, and one of the best westerns of all time.
2nd BEST ACTION – Robin Hood
I hate to say it, because I like Russell Crowe; but all Ridley Scott’s films look alike. He has one pallett: that dark, somber one that he used in Gladiator, and has used in almost every film he’s made since. (A Good Year is the exception.) He seems to follow the tried and true path that he is familiar with, rather than going off on artisitc ventures. So Robin Hood, a film about archers and woodsmen in medieval England, has a heavy, dark look, where I believe that story calls for a light touch, like light filtering through leaves in a forest. But what do I know? 🙂 Russell Crowe was never in a bad film, so you know what you’re going to get from him – a solid performance. I wish, however, that Scott had remembered what he was making a film about: woodsmen. Very little of the action takes place in woods. There is the seige of a castle, a maritime crossing, a battle in a village and a battle on a beach. But only one major scene in a wood. I just pray that the sequal gives us more trees, which is one thing you can say for the Errol Flynn version: it is full of woods. As far as Cate Blanchett, I don’t get it: tell me again what a women’s libber is doing in the Middle Age? But, again, that is Ridley Scott, and you just have to put up with it. Great entertainment, but not necessarily great history.
BEST ACTION COMEDY – Red
Here’s another dark horse for you. This movie is just fun – in the “guy” sense of the word, although there are two very strong female characters. Bruce Willis – still a top action film star, even in his 50s – is a retired CIA man that just wants to connect with the woman who sends him his pension checks each month; but that is interrupted in his quest by the invasion and destruction of his home by black ops agents. For some reason, he’s on someone’s hit list, and it turns out to be the CIA’s. (Boy, do those guys get a lot of flack.) So he rounds up all his retired buddies and they go after the man behind the operation – the Vice President. (I said this was a comedy!) One of his buddies is John Malkovich. (Remember, from Secretariat? He’s even more of a hoot in this.) Malkovich is paranoid – he’s always seeing black helicopters and women with cameras in their handbags. I won’t tell you any more except, there is a lot of shooting, a lot of funny situations, and a lot of very good actors in this film, including Morgan Freeman, Richard Dreyfuss, Ernest Borgnine, Karl Urban, Helen Mirren and Mary-Louise Parker as Willis’ love-interest.
BEST FAMILY FILM – Pixar’s Toy Story 3
Okay. This is a no-brainer. Pixar. Toy Story. And a very sweet ending to a very successful franchise. I have my Buzz Lightyear; do you?
2nd BEST FAMILY FILM – Walden Media’s Voyage Of The Dawn Treader
Disney wouldn’t distribute this Walden Media film because the last Chronicles Of Narnia installment, Prince Caspian, didn’t make enough money… they say. Dawn Treader has made almost $400,000,000 to date – still less than Prince Caspian, but equivalent to the US gross for Passion Of The Christ. I don’t get it. That’s not enough? Just how much is enough in Money City, USA (alias Hollywoodland, alias Hollywood). Even Disney, who has had their share of flops, is more interested in money than they are in producing films they can be proud of; which is probably why Disney has seen very few Oscars – other than Best Song and Best Short Subject – except when they are riding on the coattails of Pixar. I appreciate Fox stepping up to the plate and taking over where Disney feared to tread. But really, Secretariat, as much as I like that movie, has only made $60,000,000. And Disney wasn’t afraid to carry it. There must be more to the story.
Lucy is the main character of this latest chronicle, along with her dorky cousin, Eustace, who turns into a dragon. This really is kids’ stuff. Not a lot for an adult mind to grab onto. They do a good job reducing the story down to a two-hour film, with some juggling of the plot elements; but I’ll tell you, Lewis is far more fun to read than to watch. I was interested in seeing how they did the “edge of the world,” so to speak, where the Dawn Treader ends its journey and the wall of water separates Narnia from the Kingdom of Aslan. It was good, but not spectacular, as I had hoped. And the mouse, Reepicheep, was a bit disappointing – not bravure enough, like the one in Shrek, who has his own movie coming out in 2011. But, for what it’s worth, a good family film.
3rd BEST FAMILY FILM – Disney’s Alice In Wonderland
When I heard this film was being made, I thought, who better to play the Mad Hatter than Johnny Depp, and I was right. And who better for the Queen of Hearts than Helena Bonham Carter? (Remember, from The King’s Speech? She’s her usual weird self in this.) Mia Wasikowska as Alice, I’m not so sure about. As a matter of fact, I don’t get the whole Alice-grown-up thing? Why? Why not just tell the story as it is? I mean, it’s been 60 years since the Disney animated version. It’s still the same story, basically, because the story is the characters, and they’re all there. My only other problem with this film is the fact that Tim Burton directed it. Obviously, it has the Tim Burton stamp on it, which means it has the Tim Burton darkness. I just don’t see this as a dark story. But then, I didn’t see Batman as a story requiring Tim Burton either. I’m so thankful that Christopher Nolan made Batman Begins. It was a type of retribution. This movie is okay. The only other Tim Burton films I like are Big Fish and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, neither of which he produced. Those stories did benefit from Burton’s direction.
The Social Network is well done and interesting; but why are films like this always about jerks? I think Jesse Eisenberg’s girlfriend summed him up pretty well in the opening scene. She said that no girl would ditch him because he was a nerd, but because he was an ass-hole. I think he pretty much lived up to that. The irony is that a social network that is based on inviting “friends” to join your page was started by a guy that had one friend total, and had lost that one by the end of the movie. And people admire him and want to join his site? I don’t think so. I’ll keep my real friends, thank you, and he and his followers can have their “virtual” friends. Worth one watch total. Then go out and get a life. 4 Stars. PG-13.
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows – Part 1 This was like reading the book – very faithful to Rowling’s vision. Dark. Disturbing. All the cuteness of the first couple of installments has been left in the broom closet. Now everyone is out to get Harry Potter, who is supposed to save the world. Sound familiar, in a twisted sort of way? I wonder why Tim Burton didn’t talk the owners of the franchise into letting him direct these films; they seem right down his alley. I actually do think that David Yates is doing an excellent job handling this material – far better than his predecessors. Once again, Helena Bonham Carter is over the top as Bellatrix Lestrange. (She really gets around!) I just want the whole thing to be over. If the final battle is anything like the book, it should be spectacular. 3-4 Stars. PG-13.
Iron Man 2 doesn’t bring anything new to the series. It would be hard to beat the first film, anyway. But if all they’re going to do is have bad guys try to come up with better suits, I don’t see a big future in this franchise. Because, other than Robert Downey, Jr.’s over-the-top personality, it’s all about the suit. And we’ve been there and done that. So where is there to go? Nevertheless, pure entertainment. (That’s not a compliment, nor is it a put-down. I’m just sayin’.) 3-4 Stars. PG-13.
Tron: Legacy has no story. That is the consensus of everyone I’ve talked to. So what was the point? To show how the technology of special effects filmmaking has advanced over the past 29 year, since the first Tron was released? In spite of advances, the first film is still better, hands down. Most disturbing of all is the special-effects attempt at recreating a younger version of Jeff Bridges. It just doesn’t work. 3 Stars. PG.
The Ghost Writer has one of the most depressing looks of any film I’ve ever seen, which means it needed a smashing story to pull it out of its duldrums. It didn’t get it. It has an interesting story, but its characters are as dull as its art direction. And considering that charismatic Ewan McGregor is one of the stars, that is quite an accomplishment. Unless you really want to sit for two hours listening to British liberals bash the American CIA while McGregor runs around a plot maze like a lab rat on steroids, skip this one. 2-3 Stars. PG-13.
WHAT TO LOOK FORWARD TO IN 2011
The Grace Card – February 25 – New police drama from Provident Films, actually looks pretty good. But two Christian police dramas in one year? What’s that all about? Here’s the website: http://www.thegracecardmovie.com/
Thor – May 6 – I was thinking, I don’t know about this, until I saw it was directed by Kenneth Branagh. Which means it could be really, really good, or really, really weird – he goes both ways, which is why I have him under my Geniuses and Madmen section. “The powerful but arrogant warrior Thor is cast out of the fantastic realm of Asgard and sent to live amongst humans on Earth, where he soon becomes one of their finest defenders.” Stars Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman. Yeah, it could go either way.
The Green Lantern – June 17 – I like The Green Lantern comics because they deal with deeper, spiritual and psychological issues and not just how to catch bad guys, so I’ve been looking forward to this one. I also like Ryan Reynolds, who plays the Lantern. Martin Campbell (Casino Royale, Mask Of Zorro, Golden Eye) directs, so this could be a good one.
Cars 2 – June 24 – I liked the first one so I’m bound to like the second, since it’s Pixar.
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows – Part 2 – July 15 – Has a smashing conclusion, if the film lives up to the book, which so far it has. Same director. So far so good.
Captain America: The First Avenger – July 22 – This looks like it’s going to be a Disney take on a comic book character. Director Joe Johnson is known for those types of films: Honey I Shrunk The Kids, The Rocketeer, October Sky, Hidalgo. But maybe that’s not a bad think. Captain America, like Superman, is one of the more light-weight, light-hearted super heroes. Speaking of light-weight, Chris Evans plays Captain America. But he may surprise us.
Winnie The Pooh – July 15 – Can’t beat some of those old Disney franchises, and this one definitely needs some brushing off.
Courageous – September 30 – Provident Film’s second Christian police drama for the year, this time by the Kendrick brothers, who brought us Fireproof and Facing The Giants. From the posters, it looks like director Alex Kendrick is also going to be sharing in the acting burden. I hate that because I thought they were past that stage. I thought they were moving toward using just professional actors and crew. This could be a step backwards for these guys. We’ll see.
The Three Musketeers – October 14 – I’m always interested in any film that’s based on classic literature. Don’t know enough about this one yet to draw a conclusion. But it will be very difficult to beat the 1973 version.
Sherlock Holmes 2 – December 16 – The first film dealt with Satanism. Will this one have invaders from outter space? Just wondering. The first installment in this new series was fun, but was very unlike the Arthur Conan Doyle character, in my opinion. Maybe Robert Downey, Jr. and director Guy Ritchie have had time to study up since then. Looks like the same cast. Hope for the best.
What’s missing in movies today that movies in the past possessed in spades is charm, which is one of the qualities that endears an audience to a film and gives it longevity. Special effects have mowed down all other qualities in film, and it’s time to get back to what made films in the past great. Only an empty-headed, technology-crazed society would think that special effects are enough. Charm is a quality that both characters and story need if a film is to become a classic and survive from generation to generation. It is a quality that a society needs if it is to survive. Charm is the quality that marks all Pixar pictures. What better endorsement do you need than that?
Another quality that is missing from most films today is grace. Fortunately, it does appear occasionally, as it did this year in Secretariat. When a film has grace, audiences love it and realize there is something different about that film. It’s a quality that you can’t get enough of, and it makes you want what the characters in the film have. It’s God’s fingerprint on a film.
Another missing quality is discretion, which is the better part of valor. Directors today want to show everything. They don’t leave anything to the imagination. That is not good artistry, nor is it good humanity. A woman in clothes is sexier than one that’s naked because it creates mystery and makes one wonder. Once she’s exposed, the mystery’s gone and so is the wonder. By showing everything, directors today are raising an ante that future directors cannot possibly meet. There will eventually be a point at which a director will not be able to show any more nudity, any more violence, any more realism. At that point, movies will degenerate into something more perverse, or disintegrate entirely. It’s time to get back to discretion in film, and life.
Do you realize that while the Motion Picture Production Code was in effect, which was from 1934 to 1968, the greatest films that have ever been made – the films we today call “classics” – were produced? 1939, the year when the Code was at its height, has been called the greatest year of cinema. More classic films were produced that year than in any year since. Today, there is no Code. Producers can make anything they like, and they are churning out the trash as fast as they can… and people are buying it.
There’s something to be said for discipline. Having restraint makes one more creative. If you can do anything, you will, and it will be the same old anything that everyone else is doing. I’d like to see us get back to a Production Code in this country. I think it would give us better films. But it will take the American public demanding it of our government. It was the threat of government intervention that got the Motion Picture Association of America to come up with the Code the first time. It can happen again if we make it happen.
Waitsel Smith, February 21, 2011
For more movie reviews, go to my Movies by Decade website.
Text © 2011 Waitsel Smith. All Rights Reserved.