Friday, March 25, 2011

Favorites of 2010: Top 25 Movies

A couple weeks ago I released my favorite TV Shows for 2010, it resulted in this post appearing on my Facebook:

"Your list surprised me. Almost all of the shows that made this list are shows that my family finds too vulger and offensive to show in our house. Lots of sexual references and crude language.... Not intending to be rude. I'm just saying it seems odd to me....."

So stretches the razor wire that any Christian who engages in public pop cultural (or even just cultural) dissection will walk on a consistent basis.  With so many different opinions and convictions on what kind of content is acceptable for viewing, it's almost inevitable that to some the art you choose to view will be seen as a bad, if not sinful, choice.  I'm not saying this is what the above words intended, in fact they really almost sound more curios than judgmental. What I am saying is that if you thought my TV list choices were odd, I'm about to jump off the deep end with some of the movies I'm about to list.   Unfortunately, this list isn't the best place to delve deeply into what makes art valuable viewing or when art has become worthless because of the content it portrays.  My guess is that the reason we each have drawn different lines in that regard is that God intended our journey to be a progressive walk with Him where he guides us through those choices, based on his full knowledge of who we are as individual human hearts and minds.  If you see movies listed  below that shock you, please know that I am not intending to recommend each of these movies for everyone, and certainly not for all ages.  I've even gone so far as to put an asterisk by films that are rated R.  These are films you may want to do some further research on before adding them to your Netflix queue or sitting down to watch them with your pastor (remind me sometime to tell you the story of the time my wife and I saw "Jerry Maguire".)

This is the response I posted to my Facebook friend:

"Hey *********, thanks for the comment. I don't find it rude, in fact I can understand where you are coming from. My list is an honest list about the shows I enjoy watching. There is some objectionable content in many of these shows, but for me content is only part of the equation. Quality and Message are also both very important to me. I certainly don't consider many, if any, of these shows "family shows", I don't think I'd watch any of them with my kids, but I also don't believe that as an adult seeing or hearing immorality is the same as being immoral. Where content can become dangerous is when it becomes temptation to action or attitude, and each of us have different weaknesses that play into that. It's is my responsibility to be in such close contact with my creator that He guides these decisions in a way that keeps me healthy and allows me to interact with my world and culture in a real and relevant way, in short to be IN but not OF my world and culture. Thanks for your honesty and your patience with my long winded answer and I hope we can still be friends :)"

Here are my favorite 25 movies I saw for the first time in 2010 (not necessarily released in 2010) with a few honorable mentions throw in for good measure.  After reading them I hope we too can still be friends.

Honorable Mentions:

Capitalism: A Love Story * - Say what you will about Michael Moore (not that you needed permission), but the guy knows how to craft a story.  Whether the ins and outs of each situation in his films are accurate, he still makes you wrestle with some pretty compelling topics.  In this case, questioning whether or not the capitalistic ideal is really one that is honorable or beneficial.  I came away from this thinking hard about my own economic tendencies and likely better off for doing so.

Date Night - It's hard to fail with the power of both Carell and Fey on the screen, but this movie is so finely crafted it could have succeeded with almost any two competent actors.  This movie is also pretty high on my, "go ahead and make a franchise" list.  Not to mention there is a quality pro-marriage message buried in the comedy and action.

The Invention of Lying* - Initially you might think that I liked this movie because I'm a Gervais fan, but he really is kinda hit and miss with me.  I love him in "Night at the Museum" and "Ghost Town", but (and here comes the sacrilege) I think he is extremely overrated for the British version of the "The Office".  In "The Invention of Lying", he's nothing better than mediocre, as is most everything in this movie.  So why did it make the list?  Solely, based on the concept and the execution of it.  As a card carrying member of the over thinkers guild, any movie that turns my gears for days after I see it is doing something right.  Even if as the credits role I vehemently disagree with the conclusion (in this case that faith is a blessed lie) I still appreciate the journey of thought and the challenge to my own beliefs.

Clash of the Titans - Can we just move on?  Do I really have to admit I enjoyed this?  My credibility really can't stand too many more hits.  It could have been the lowered expectations.  It could have been that I have an unfortunate thing for big eye-candy spectacles.  It could just be that I like yelling "RELEASE THE KRAKEN!" in the hallways at work occasionally.  Whatever the case, it's probably best for all of us if we just move on.

Green Zone* - I'm not usually one to give props to over politicized movies (says the man who already put a Micheal Moore film on his list), and yet here stands a movie about Iraq that captured my attention in a way few movies do.  There are two primary reasons for this, one named Matt, the other Paul.   Mr. Damon is likely familiar to you, but Mr. Greengrass may not be a name that pops to the front of your brain.  Director Paul Greengrass not only directed the last two Bourne movies, but between them directed what may be one of the top 10 movies of the past decade, United 93.  He has an impeccable gift for creating emotion through kinetics, and even though this story handcuffs him in many ways, his touch is evident.   Without him, and the earnestness of Matt Damon, this movie is likely forgettable, but with them it's well worth the two hour investment. 

Alice and Wonderland - This movie should have been so much better than an honorable mention.  Depp seems like the perfect hatter, and I can't imagine a more perfect director for this world than Tim Burton.  His visual acumen is on display in the effects and design, but unfortunately his lead actress doesn't seem to have enough life to pull the story along.  It's an enjoyable time but I don't know that I will revisit it.  It's not often you really like a movie but still walk away disappointed, but this movie should have been a home run and instead ends up as ground rule double.

The Top 25:

25. Night at the Museum 2 - This movie had a lot to live up to.  The first museum evening was full of wonder and magic, not to mention one of the funniest movies of it's year.  Museum 2 isn't quite as good, but it follows the DNA of the first enough that it's a wonderful ride.   I did miss Dick Van Dyke though.

24. Whip it - Is it possible that Drew Barrymore is a great director? Judging by her first and only effort so far, I'd have to say it's either that or she got lucky.  There is so much joy and life in this film, and surely that has something to do with the bubbly personality of the little girl who once screamed upon discovering an alien in her closet.  And to be honest, I don't think it's just smoke and mirrors.  The performances and subtle moments all seem deftly guided to add up to a movie that is fun, heartfelt, and compelling to watch.  Ellen Page may have something to do with it as well, somehow delivering a grounded reality to a plot centered around the silliness of the roller derby.  Add in that it is also willing to make a strong statement about choices and consequences and I found it delightful.

23. Michael Jackson's: This is It - This documentary is a revelation not just because it reminded me that Michael Jackson was an actual human being (and an extremely talented one), but also because it proved he still had some gas in the tank.  As impressive as this show would have been had he lived to see it through, it's all overshadowed by a life damaged by fame, abuse, and personal choices, that ended before he had a chance to pull it off.

22. Moon* - I'm an easy target for movies like this one; movies that twist and turn, revealing pieces to a puzzle until you have that a-ha moment.  What sets this one above your typical twisty journey is how wonderfully textured and woven the overall fabric of the story is.  Add a tour de force performance by Sam Rockwell and you have one of my biggest surprises of the year.

21. The Informant* - This may just be on here for Matt Damon's mustache, I'm not sure.   Aside from his goofy transformation, the thing that blew me away was that this was a true story.   If this was fiction, I wouldn't have bought it for a second, but knowing this plot actually happened still baffles me.  The movie takes itself only as seriously as it needs to, and that tone serves it well.  But I'm still pretty sure it's the mustache.

20. Sherlock Holmes - Widely perceived as a miss for Downey, I must have enjoyed it a lot more than most.  I felt like the chemistry between Holmes and Watson was brilliant and I loved the way Sherlock's thinking was represented visually.   I'm not sure I left thinking it was the greatest story (it was a tad on the dark side, for one) but I know I left hoping they would make more.

19. Couples Retreat* - I have a soft spot in my heart for movies that portray marriage as valuable and worth fighting for, also a soft spot on my funny bone for Jason Bateman.  These two things, along with a great supporting cast and some genuinely funny moments, make up for the occasional moments of infantile humor.   Another genuine surprise.

18. The Princess and the Frog - Disney hand drawn animation is back, and get this, it's good again.  This movie is beautiful and captivating and even though I'm nowhere near the target audience, I enjoyed it immensely.

17. Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs - The Ocean's 13 of computer generated films.  Not quite as good as the first, but much better than the misguided second one.  Much of this is due to the genius turn of Simon Pegg as Buck, a "larger than life, swashbuckling, one-eyed weasel." Sheesh, even his character descriptions are entertaining.

16. The Hurt Locker* - Like many Oscar winners before it, this film wasn't nearly my overall favorite, but it's still a great flick.  Jeremy Renner's performance is intense and engaging and just the idea that there are men who actually have the job portrayed here is humbling.

15. Inglourious Basterds** - Tarantino makes you feel his movies.  He is the master of not just telling you a story, but grabbing you and shoving your face in the emotion and reality of a very particular world he has decided to create.  He uses style and especially music better than any other director working, and though I've found the results hit and miss, he definitely locked me in with this one.  Brad Pitt's performance is also the most engaging character act he has pulled since 12 Monkeys.  All that said, that second asterisk is not a mistake, it's there to say, "no seriously, you see asterisk #1? He meant what he said."

14. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - I'm positive my view of the Narnia films is directly tied to the nostalgia I have for the original text, so it's hard for me to judge them with objective eyes. Knowing that I'm apt to love them no matter what, it's still of note that Dawn Treader may be the best of the bunch.  It's certainly better than Caspian, and it may even be better than the original.  Much of this has to do with Will Poulter, whose journey as Eustace from snide entitlement to honest humility is pulled off perfectly.

13. (500) Days of Summer - I saw this movie on an airplane, on a tissue box sized screen in the back of a chair whose owner spent most of the flight unsure of exactly to what degree he wanted to be reclined.  So the fact that I loved this movie under those circumstances is perhaps the highest praise I can give it.  It's a beautiful love story that has something to say about the human condition that is poignant in a way I'm not sure I've seen before.  It helps that the leads are completely up to the challenge as Gordon-Levitt (quickly becoming a superstar) and Zooey Deschanel (maybe the cutest thing in movies) have a captivating chemistry that drives your heart deeper into their story until you are fully invested in the outcome.

12. Iron Man 2 - OK, I know it wasn't as good as the first, but come on, this was fun, right?  It gave me everything I could want from a summer blockbuster and I still think Downey's Tony Stark is one of the most enigmatic characters to have ever hit the screen.  Throw in a scene stealing performance by Sam Rockwell, and I left the theater grinning a big popcorn smile.

11. The Karate Kid (2010) - There is no way this was supposed to work.   The original crane kickin', Machio staring, wax on-wax offin' version was too ingrained in our consciousness for this to have a shot, right?  So how is it that I came away from watching this thinking it's a better film than the original?  I'm sure much of it comes from young Jaden Smith, who is quickly proving to have the same charisma as his father and apparently put in the work to be a true martial artist (certainly more than Machio did).  It's true that Jackie Chan is no Miyagi but he didn't have to be.  His "Mr. Han" was layered and deep enough to impact me in a way I wasn't fully expecting.  If you dismissed this as a cheap knock-off remake, give it a try, you might be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

10. The Blind Side - This is what a "faith based" movie should look like.  The message becomes woven so deftly into the performances and texture that it doesn't feel like a hammer coming down on your head.   I'm as big a champion for movies of truth as the next guy (someday I hope to meet this next guy to see if we really are as similar as I think), but so often beating home the message takes precedent over crafting great art.  Why can't we just let great art reveal truth in it's natural habitat.  The coup of course is nabbing Sandra Bullock, whose performance is absolutely stunning and grounds the movie even further in truth.

9. 9 - I think I probably liked this movie more than I should have, but I have a thing for movies that build a unique universe with distinct rules and then craft a story to navigate it.   I love the way 9 progressively reveals it's landscape leaving us to wonder and wander with our burlap protagonist through each revelation. Though I'm not completely sold on the ending, the journey itself was beautiful and rewarding enough to earn it's self titled location on this list.

8. Exit Through the Gift Shop* - In my opinion the best documentaries are the ones that follow stories that reveal themselves in the making.  "King of Kong" is likely the best example of this, but "Exit" is the most intriguing.  The anonymous and clever Banksy is at the heart of it all, but the world of street art is the true star.  Trying to navigate through what about this story is prank and what is reality is only periphery fun to the ultimate joy that is seeing these artists at work both on the street and on the screen.

7. Where the Wild Things Are - The first of a one-two punch of kids movies that aren't kids movies.  This one is a movie for adults about what it was like being a kid.  It captures those emotions and confusions so vividly that you can't help but feel that you are little Max trying to navigate a world of monsters to whom you are king and a world of grown-ups to whom you are an aside.  Director Spike Jonze continues to operate on a different frequency than anyone else, one that apparently resonates deeply with me.

6. The Fantastic Mr. Fox - The second kids movie made more for adults (though my boys enjoyed it well enough) is from another director with his own unique sense of the world.  Wes Anderson's vibe has never fully landed with me, but what he made here is something special.  The stop motion, non-claymation art style is itself a singular experience, but the way the story takes it's time and builds momentum is where the real genius happens.

5. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - I often compare this movie to "Moulin Rouge" in that they are both movies that take place in surreal stylized universes, and yet somehow manage to ground them in an emotional reality.  It's true that your enjoyment of this movie might be heightened if you are a child of the video game culture, but I don't think a knowledge of that lifestyle is necessary to engage with it.  Almost anyone will be able to identify with the trials of young love and will enjoy digging into the visual feast that Edgar Wright has prepared here.

4. Tangled - This movie kicks off what may be the strongest top 4 since I've been making these lists (10 years by the way).  The year overall was fairly weak compared to years past but these four movies are transcendent.  It's well known that I am a softie and it's not hard for a movie to make me pull the "something in my eye" routine, but during the lantern scene in "Tangled" I didn't just tear up, I openly wept.  I'm fully aware my man card is likely to be revoked, but something about being a parent and seeing that expanse of lanterns each possibly representing a soul in a lost generation.... whew....    it still chokes me up.  Even apart from that one scene, the movie deftly alternates between hilarious slapstick (I still think the horse should have gotten an Oscar nod for best supporting actor) and clever plot moves that result in not one second of disconnect opportunity for the audience.

3. Toy Story 3 - If you've seen my office, it's probably no surprise that this movie would land in the top 5.  In fact, its likely more of a surprise, especially to those who know me best, that there were not only one, but two movies I would dare to rank higher than a Pixar flick.  It's a testament to the strength of these four movies that even as Pixar has crafted another gem from the toy box that it lands in the three slot.  Make no mistake, Toy Story 3 is a phenomenal film that rightly takes its place in the Pixar pantheon, and the incinerator scene alone is some of the best film making I've ever seen, but I'd rank it 6th amongst Pixar movies behind Nemo, Up, The Incredibles, and the other two Toy Stories.  I was glad to see it get such a push for a best picture Oscar (something an animated film will never win as long as they have their own ghettoized category) but I thought Up was probably Pixar's best shot at winning that award.  I'm a huge fan of this movie, but Pixar has set the bar so high that even greats like this can feel like they fall short.

2. How to Train Your Dragon - The best Pixar movie of the year.  Wait... What?  It's Dreamworks?  No, you must have read it wrong.  The depth of emotion, the intricate plotting, the beautiful animation, the lack of infantile humor, casting voices based on character instead of star power, there's no way the same people that made "Shrek" put this out.  John Lasseter must have snuck the script in under their door, right?  Brad Bird must have slipped directing notes to them or something.  Whatever the case, this movie is pure joy, and the "learning to fly" scene gave me as much giddy excitement as anything I've seen since Dash realized he could run on water.  If the other animation companies are finally catching on to what makes Pixar king I say, bring it on.    But I still think there's the outside chance Pixar gave this one to Dreamworks out of pity.

1. Inception - It's one thing when a director can carve out a niche and own a genre.  It's completely another when they create their own.  Christopher Nolan has somehow combined the Escher like imagination of Charlie Kaufman and the pop sensibilities of Steven Spielberg into a workable format for film.  Starting with "Momento", and then later with "The Prestige" you can sense his confidence growing to where "Inception" became inevitable.   What makes this movie the best of the year isn't that it bends brains (the structure of the plot device is actually pretty straight forward), it's that it weaves that complexity with nuance and emotion to the point that the payoff is much more than just a eureka moment, it's a cathartic release as well.  Of course, it doesn't hurt to have Leo Dicaprio, Joe Gordon-Levitt, and Ellen Page on your team either.  Despite much of the backlash I'm already seeing on this film, I truly believe 20 years from now it will be the film from this year that I most want to revisit.

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