It’s March and so we move into month three of this continuing retrospective that periodically examines my most treasured films from a given 21st century year. Sounds pretty exciting when you put it like that, doesn’t it? Having looked at the brilliance given to us in 2012 and 2011, it’s now time to go all the way back… to 2010 (predictably).
It has the distinct honour of generating a rather brilliant Oscar Best Picture lineup with a whole host of worthy winners, including the likes of 127 Hours, Black Swan, The Fighter and True Grit alongside eventual champion The King’s Speech, plus three more which make the cut below.
Given this, as well as the inevitable amount of quality films on top of these, it was sure to be a difficult choice. I’ve decided to select the maximum from my self-imposed limit of up to ten this month, and – believe me – it was a struggle to get it down to that.
Even ignoring plenty of others with quality that I could mention, the ones that only just about missed out include the stimulating and subversive documentaries Catfish, Exit Through the Gift Shop and Waiting for Superman and three Oscar Best Picture nominees in the form of LGBT favourites The Kids Are All Right and A Single Man plus an adaptation of a best-selling novel, Precious.
Not only this, but there were also foreign gems in the form of the original version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Spanish-Argentine thriller The Secret in their Eyes and the brilliant French prison drama, A Prophet. Chris Morris’ British dark comedy about terrorism Four Lions was another great film, and even Hollywood got a couple right in the form of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and another Scorsese-Di Caprio collaboration, Shutter Island.
These are the runners-up, so the winners must be pretty special, right? All of the films selected below (except two) have been watched and re-watched, and that confirmation of their greatness and longevity is partly why they make it onto the list ahead of those mentioned above.
Here they are, in the best order there is: alphabetical…
A Town Called Panic
It’s quite difficult to describe the sheer delight of A Town Called Panic – if any review isn’t summed up adequately by words then this barmy French stop-motion animation is it.
Routinely referred to as Toy Story on drugs, it’s a sub-75-minute delight where a bunch of rudimentary characters are thrown into a plot that’s anything but typical. The physical world and the presentation of it is far more reminiscent of something like Postman Pat than the Pixar classic, especially the trips down winding roads in the countryside.
The difference is the frantic, frenetic pace given to the environment and those who dwell in it. It’s the equivalent to watching a ‘normal’ animation at twice the speed as the inhabitants move in a way that’s all-at-once fluid and juddering.
Perhaps the only true English-speaking comparison of recent times is The Lego Movie which benefits from a similar energy. It’s hilarious, odd and just about a perfect version of what it’s trying to be. A truly joyous surprise.
Emma Stone is a 21st century Lindsay Lohan (I know that Mean Girls was 2004, but still…) but better, and with added likeability and longevity (hopefully). She excels as Olive Penderghast, a high-schooler who tells a single white lie about sex which inevitably spirals out of control.
Drawing explicit comparisons with The Scarlet Letter, it (and she) takes us on a ride through reputation, rebellion and the rumour mill which extends way beyond her own life and has lasting repercussions. It’s a rom-com drama through and through though and the humour is never forgotten, with Stanley Tucci shining in a brief role as her liberal father (see the clip below).
The tone is never made clearer than through her progressive parents and their wicked humour, and it’s one which makes you feel entirely at ease. The soundtrack too is bouncy and unashamed, a replication of a fraction of high-school image. Lisa Kudrow and Thomas Haden Church (the other one in Sideways) make it even more watchable and enjoyable, with Easy A surely cementing its place as one of the great teen films of recent years.
One of the truly brilliant things about Christopher Nolan is his ability to tell a story superbly, as showcased in this film as well as in his Dark Knight trilogy. He uses a [frequently overlooked] device of emotional attachment and family bonds, not only as the tool to get the characters to open up, but for us to do the same.
These relationships – Postlethwaite’s father to Cillian Murphy’s son, Di Caprio’s husband to Cotillard’s wife – provide a pivotal point from which to hang the action on. It’s also the place that we’re constantly returning to (‘you’re waiting for a train…’) and ultimately searching for, with the spinning top a motif for that endless chase.
A stellar cast includes the above four as well as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Ellen Page and Michael Caine who each provide their own little bit of excellence. The visuals are obviously mindblowing at times and though two of the sequences that come to mind are the now-infamous twisting corridor fight and the building of a dream city, the third is of the snowy terrain which is also brilliantly captured by cinematographer Wally Pfister.
Leo is very good indeed and the ‘intellectual blockbuster’ tag is solidified by Nolan as he gives us philosophical themes of consciousness and identity (linking with Memento and co) whilst delivering a audio-visual feast at the same time.
This was such an unexpected delight that it even made me look forward to the inevitable sequel (which was nowhere near as good, unfortunately). In fact the original is a brilliant example of a standalone film being just that and yet setting itself up for a potential follow-up perfectly, something which a lot of franchises – particularly the dreary, incomplete middle films – could learn from.
Kick-Ass is a truly excellent adaptation from Mark Millar’s graphic novel, providing a genuine delight in the superhero satire genre that’s simultaneously playful and actually has a moral centre.
Chloe Moretz excels as the badmouth youngster (barely a teen herself at the time of filming) and, whilst the film was criticised for its supposed stance on adolescent swearing, crime, violence, etc., these people really do miss the point.
It’s a tale of a girl being forced to grow up too fast (hello Leon) and it shows us the consequences of this. Nicolas Cage is on top form with a take on Adam West’s Batman, with the introduction to Hit Girl (see the video below) just summing up the no-holds-barred tone, and the fight scenes are genuinely exhilarating with brilliant choreography.
The ‘nightvision’ sequence has it all: a stirring score (Adagio in D Minor from Sunshine subtly altered), glittering visuals, compelling action and a pivotal, emotional turn in the story. It’s a wonderful couple of minutes of filmmaking and it gets me every single time.
Along with films like J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek, X-Men: First Class and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it proved that blockbusters could be fun, sombre, serious whilst still impressing.
Mary and Max
Adam Elliot’s lovingly-crafted Claymation from Australia is really something else. It tells the interchanging pen-pal story of Max, a New York Jew with mental health issues, and Mary, an inquisitive young girl growing up in Australia.
They share a number of interests and traits, but their special bond is sealed because of their inability to connect with other people. Apart from each other, they are alone. With voiceovers from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Humphries, plus a soundtrack that flits from The Apprentice theme tune to Que Sera Sera (seriously), this is eclectic in every aspect.
Both characters are presented somewhat stereotypically at first and yet, as the narrative unfolds and we learn an increasing amount of their history and future hopes, we soon learn of how rich and layered the two really are.
It’s simply an exploration of how we approach life, particularly the difficulties that come with it. And yet along with the tragic elements (which are made almost poetic through the qualities of animation) it fits in laughs, love and just might restore your faith in the world.
Ponyo – one of Miyazaki’s most recent films – was just the second that I had watched of the Studio Ghibli oeuvre. It might not be up there with the most accomplished or polished or complex of their work, but it still has some marvellous elements to it.
It’s the story of a boy who makes friends with a goldfish (Ponyo) who in turn, from simply wishing for it to happen, manages to sprout legs and become a human girl. There are moments of magic and mayhem as you’d expect, although this is far more of a traditional coming-of-age story for Miyazaki.
One of the best things about the film are the visuals which are stunning, particularly the sequences involving the water. Like Finding Nemo in its scope but with a more colourful, almost-neon palette at times. It’s also the story of nature’s ability to wreak havoc (a timely concern given the tsunamis in Asia) as Sosuke waits for his father to return home.
Ponyo also has one of the most brilliantly cheesy theme tunes of all time. It might be a fairly simple tale, but it’s not *so* straightforward. The ambiguous characters are there, the beauty of childhood friendship is too, and so are the deeper themes of natural disasters. The English-language features the likes of Matt Damon, Liam Neeson and Cate Blanchett, but I’d encourage you to view the subtitled version if possible.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Unsurprisingly, once again I’ve written about this in a past life (along with Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead) in a trilogy of love devoted to Edgar Wright and his beautiful filmic ice cream. You can read the review for extra detail, but suffice to say that this is brilliant. Michael Cera gives an energetic, snappy and hilarious performance – the best of his career, in fact (and it’s very much underrated) – whilst the character of Ramona Flowers will go down as a cult favourite alongside other great female teens in film including Juno MacGuff, Kat Stratford and Regina George.
The Social Network
Sorkin’s adaptation of Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires looked like the deserved winner of the Academy Award this year (after big wins at the Globes and BAFTAs) but eventually lost out to The King’s Speech.
The King’s Speech is very well put together but The Social Network is on another level entirely, and the longevity benefits are felt enormously as a result. As well as being an adaptation, it’s also a biopic-of-sorts of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and yet the shades of grey and blurred lines are a deliberate mark.
The film is about telling tales, points of view, conflicts of interest and more. Does it represent each protagonist (Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin, Sean Parker, the Winklevoss twins) fairly? Does it even try to?
Regardless of what you think in this regard, the writing overall is sublime (and quite possibly Sorkin’s best work). The opening scene (the breakup) is one which will be remembered for a long time, and it also helped to make Rooney Mara a major player despite only appearing for a number of minutes.
Speaking of which, this was Jesse Eisenberg’s first serious film role and he grabbed it with both hands, capturing that sort of smart and snarky, despicable loser surprisingly well. And perhaps non-coincidentally, it was in a Sorkin script (Moneyball) where Jonah Hill made his transition from comedy to drama too.
Featuring a brilliant score (composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross), it’s a wonderfully fast-moving script with truly engaging, emotional centre to it. Witty, intelligent, funny… it’s got it all.
Toy Story 3
The concluding part (for now, with rumours of a seemingly unneeded fourth film) of Pixar’s stunning Toy Story trilogy brings back Woody, Buzz and co – plus some new friends – many years after the initial two films.
These arriving characters – Ken (see below), Lotso, Mr. Prickles, etc. – provide a welcome interjection of humour, threat and promise of new horizons. Lotso’s introduction allows the film a credible villain (unlike the first two films) with a classic antagonist backstory, whereas the Ken-meets-Barbie introduction cripples me with laughter on every occasion.
One of the key features of the third installation is the passage of time, and the subsequent feeling of abandonment for Andy’s toys. The film is a love-letter to growing up – best felt by those who aged alongside the Toy Story trilogy – resulting in an emotional climax (not once, but twice).
The ingenuity of the writing made you feel that, despite everything you’ve ever watched, the toys really were for it in the furnace scene. And considering this is supposed to be a “children’s film”, that’s not easy to do.
We’ve recently seen the emergence of the Toy Story Theory as well as the Pixar Theory (the latter of which is honestly mind-blowingly good) and – whilst these may be up for debate – Pixar’s run of WALL-E, Up and Toy Story 3 in 2008-2010 is a run that cannot be denied when it comes to unbelievably consistent high-quality filmmaking.
Up in the Air
This is perhaps my curveball choice, but I have a bit of a thing for Jason Reitman movies (Young Adult excepted). George Clooney takes on the role of a non-committal, independent, work-heavy type who loves his job and the ‘freedom’ (and air miles) it provides, with support from the excellent Vera Farmiga and an emerging Anna Kendrick (in quite an odd role for her, in fact).
The film takes a cold, clinical profession – and one man’s devotion to it – and interjects some warmth, humour and, somehow, a bit of empathy too. Clooney’s character should be unloved – if not outright loathed – for the work that he does, but Up in the Air decides to explore what happens when even the most immovable objects are tested by human emotion.
It’s also another clever satire – released in the midst of the recession – and provides a mirror for the protagonist to ponder his own reflection. It’s smart, slick and somehow treads the line between being callous and sincere.