2010 is, to my mind, one of the best years for film in memory – the main reason for this is that you have such a fine class of directors, from both major studios and independents, female and male. There are a handful of writer/directors whose vision was realized, whether the original concept was “bankable” or not. This was a year that reaffirmed the idea that good decisions are made when studio heads trust their artists fully. I say this not knowing the back-story of a great many productions, therefore my assessment is probably somewhat naive. But that is the way it looks to me: a whole bunch of money and freedom has produced heart-stopping originality.
I would therefore like to list my own personal top ten most thrilling, unforgettable moments of the year so far (with the caveat that I haven’t yet seen Black Swan, True Grit, The Fighter, For Colored Girls, etc.) Because Awards Daily is an Oscars site, I will shift my focus mainly to the contenders. It is not my wish to indulge your time on films that struck my fancy but are nonetheless outside the realm of what we’re all doing here at all.
At some point during the breathless last half-hour of Inception, it dawned on me that we were watching a movie where the characters had gone down several dreams deep. There was nothing more memorable this year than watching them find their way back out of that, paced to the real-time, slowed down image of a van diving off the bridge. Writer/Director Christopher Nolan, a cinematic visionary without question this time around, gives the audience the benefit of the doubt that, somehow, their brains can hold all of these conflicting concepts at once. If it “messes with the head,” it does so in the best of ways. We know that the van diving off the bridge is in real time but that real time is slowed way, way down because they are all in different levels of forced dreaming.
The forced dreaming in Inception is key. This isn’t What Dreams May Come – it is a dip into the darker recesses of our subconscious, and a visit to all who reside there currently, and all who force their way in. But in that last half hour, Nolan brings the story back around to its own inception, ties the whole thing together and flips us back up into some kind of reality. It is as if Hitchcock and David Lynch had a son.
I’m not sure there is enough talk on the web, although there has been some, about Christopher Nolan’s unique story being told that well, making that much money, and being released by a major Hollywood studio. This just doesn’t happen. Or, it doesn’t happen very often. As we’re pulled out of the layers of dreams, we are also watching a doomed love affair finally end. We are hoping our hero gets out alive in time to see his kids. We are hoping they pull off their dream heist. Kick. Kick. Kick. Eventually, we are brought back to what we think is real time – but even that isn’t something reliable. The iconic image of the spinning top reminds us that this, too, could be a dream.
Inception made me think about my life more than any other film so far this year, the reason being I don’t think much about my primal fears, motivations, subconscious manifestations. What makes Inception stand out is that Christopher Nolan cut this thing from whole cloth. It has to be one of the best original stories of the year on imagination alone. It requires a good deal of filling in and imagination on the part of the viewer. It isn’t a passive experience by any means. It isn’t just a visual marvel, it is a mind-bender that could lead you down some strange paths if you think about it too long.
The Social Network
In a film with so many great moments, I am drawn back to the opening scene. The best way to describe the rhythm of this is that it is, to me, a long drum solo. It speeds up, slows down, pauses and sometimes stops – but it never loses its rhythm. Much of that is due to Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, but much of it is also due to director David Fincher, whose films almost have a rhythm to do them, albeit usually slightly slower than this one. We are in the bar with Erica and Mark and they are having an awkward conversation. He tries to talk to her but can’t. She strips him down, sees beyond his cleverness and into the insecure braggart who can’t help but prop himself up because he can’t really stand who he is. But it’s the moment after, when he trots back to the dorm room in his Gap hoodie and sits down. The beer cap comes off, the camera doesn’t stop. Tap tap tap onto the keyboard – a sound we are all too familiar with by now — tap tap tap – “I need the algorithm.” The whole sequence where develops Facemash moves with the rhythm of jazz – of John Coltrane and Miles Davis — is the way to set up this movie because it is, I dare say, the most freeform Fincher has ever allowed himself to be. And yet, there is form here. Those who write code know that you have to be able to follow the rhythm but you also have to be exact, one missed symbol or letter and the whole thing is shot. Or mostly shot. Once you see this first scene you know everything you’ll need to know about this movie. There is chemistry happening here – that rare spark when there is a match of tone – when an actor just gets it, the director has command of the story that the writer wrote the hell out of. I think you know within ten minutes whether you’re in good hands or not. The Social Network shows you in that opening scene.
The film keeps up that pace throughout, stopping briefly to let us catch our breath and rethink how things have gone so far. Never does the Fincher/Sorkin collaboration falter. It holds us in its thrall until the very last moment of the film, the most crucial stamp of any great film.
But the Social Network has yet another great moment worth mentioning – and it bookends the beginning nicely, because the first part is Eduardo working with Mark in harmony. The last part is their pivotal end. When Saverin says “You better lawyer up, asshole, because I’m not coming for my 30%. I’m taking it all,” you know he not only means business, but for the first time there is the sense that wars are won not with soldiers on the battlefield but with lawyers in suits in rooms signing things over and making decisions. It was a contract and a deceptive lawyer who tricked Saverin out of his shares. And it is a lawyer and a contract that wins them back. Welcome to the big bad world, boys. Ain’t it grand?
If there is a film this year that captures the zeitgeist, this is the one. When times are tough, we watch the money. The money, or filthy lucre, is what is at stake here. Somehow Zuckerberg, who never much cared for money, knew this going in. And in the end, there is very little people won’t do to get their hands on it.
The King’s Speech
This film is not just about the moment in time when King George VI felt it his duty to learn how to speak. This is about two character actors showing the world how it’s done. I think about Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth on the fringes of Shakespeare in Love and how funny they are. Those who know the movie well will remember that Rush and Firth are side players who happen to have some of the film’s best lines. For years they have been turning in supporting performances — with Firth kind of taking more of a leading man position now. But to watch these two go tete-a-tete reaffirms the need for films that showcase actors who really do know what they’re doing and aren’t afraid to use their schooling. If either of these two weren’t up to the task, the movie would probably fall flat. But every time, every scene is surprising. Geoffrey Rush keeps us guessing scene to scene, as does Firth. Just when you think you have one figured out, they turn and do something unexpected. Much of this can be credited to the actors. But Tom Hooper does more than just put the camera in front of them and let them go – that would work too.
But Hooper, as he did with the brilliant John Adams scene on HBO, knows when to stand back and when to pressure the characters. He doesn’t need to show off his abilities behind the camera because the story, the characters, are taking center stage. Even still, there are memorable moments of dazzling filmmaking here. The moment that stands out for me the most, among many, is when King George finally uses his King card to trump Lionel. They are walking outside and Rush oversteps his bounds trying to motivate Firth to do the work, confront his demons and make some headway. Firth knows that he can call in his own class and stature at any moment, and because Rush gets too close for comfort he does just that.
Because Rush’s character mostly has his soul intact, he doesn’t need to necessarily change who he is; just to change how he talks to the King. Firth, on the other hand, must evolve emotionally. You will be surprised at how moving watching that evolution is.
Into the world of conventional cinema comes Danny Boyle’s exuberance. William Blake said that exuberance is beauty. Danny Boyle works from this concept every time he makes a film, but it is especially so with 127 Hours. He doesn’t have any need to hold back to keep from showing that without those occasions of pure joy, pure release, there isn’t much point to existing at all. He illustrates this in many scenes throughout 127 Hours, but the one where it really has the most impact is when the three characters, James Franco and his two female co-stars, Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn, are squeezed into a fissure in the rock. This shows Franco’s character to be daring, somewhat arrogant and a guy who seeks the thrill of taking extreme chances for maximum pleasure. He tells them that to access the clearest, freshest water below they have to be willing to drop. But dropping means they take his word for it that it’s safe and worth the frightening moments before. They do it and afterwards, experience what will probably be one of their most meaningful experiences while hiking.
This scene is a foreshadowing of what comes next because the unpredictability of nature is such that it doesn’t move out of the way for you. You move out of its way. If you’re going to take those kinds of risks, you may find yourself with your arm trapped under a rock for 127 hours. Stuff that happens to you while you’re busy making other plans?
It is pure Danny Boyle the way the scene is shot. From the dark crevice to the light below. The speed, the impact, the pure joy in it. There is no better director at celebrating exuberance, and all of its inherent beauty.
The one moment in Derek Cianfrance’s unforgettable love epic that seemed to be the favorite by most was when Michelle Williams spontaneously breaks into a tap dance. Williams said in an interview later that she thought her own mother would be happy her lessons were used for something. Indeed, that is one of the high points of the film. But if I had to pick one moment that really got me it would be the moment that Ryan Gosling breaks into the workplace of Michelle Williams and all but loses his mind. It’s memorable because it is such a pivotal moment in the film in terms of their relationship. But to me it is one of those great scenes that elevates an actor to a new level — like all great actors, De Niro, Pacino, Brando, Washington, Norton – it proves that they are capable of drawing from a depraved part of their psyche without overplaying it. Gosling does this, and you find you are repulsed as much as you are sympathetic.
Toy Story 3
The trademark of a Pixar film is their willingness to transcend the genre. They do this, almost always, with one unexpected scene. The opening scene of Up is one of these. The love story of Wall-E is another. In Toy Story 3, the final letting go of his childhood is another — not only is one of the best genre-busting scenes, but it is perhaps the most meaningful of the entire Pixar ouvre. I say this as a Wall-E and Ratatouille fan. Toy Story 3 goes where animated films usually don’t: it shows how painful childhood, and growing up, can be. Both Toy Story films did this by echoing that sentiment onto the toys themselves — they were projections of the inner lives of the children who loved or tormented them. When Andy is ready to give over Woody to the little girl who will love him better, he pulls back. And for a minute his face changes. It was a daring move on the filmmakers’ part, but in one fell swoop, it turned Toy Story 3 into Pixar’s crowning achievement.
This realization has only just come to me. Independently, Wall-E will never be surpassed. But in terms of their mission statement – to make animated films as good as features — to close out that infamous lunch where all great Pixar ideas sprang from, one can’t help but be awed by their artistic courage in letting their writers and directors take gambles. 2010 is a year about taking chances. Some of these paid off — others, not so much. But it’s difficult to look back on 2010 and not see Toy Story 3 as one of the biggest and best moments of the year.
Because she’s so pretty, new “it” girl Jennifer Lawrence’s surly nature doesn’t come through often. It is apparent immediately on the DP30 video interview she does on Movie City News, however, and it is most apparent in her raw, but full realized portrait of Ree in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. One of the cinematic moments of 2010 will always be the appearance of Lawrence on the scene. The film itself, though, is full of memorable moments. The one that most stands out for me is the slaughter house scene. Granik’s fingerprints are all over this thing, specifically her decision to insert shots of wild animals doing what they have to do to survive. That’s really the theme of Winter’s Bone. It is life at ground zero. They are doing what they have to do to survive without losing their ability to endure. Ree is doing that — a teenage hero who refuses the allure of meth or money for sex. She could take the easy road. But she decides to take the better road.
All of this is clearly delineated in the scene where she must confront one of the powerful people in her community at the slaughter house. The fear is palpable – the whole setting is awash in blue as Ree’s runs through it. That is the moment where Winter’s Bone goes from being a typical indie movie about poor people to groundbreaking female-directed cinema. She transcends what we’re expecting and that elevates the whole film.
Almost everything that happens in Another Year happens on Lesley Manville’s face. It is an artist’s canvas, that face of hers, with her emotions right on the surface, flickering through every expression. The film is full of memorable moments. Most people will point to the scene where Manville comes to the party where another guest has just had a new baby and she completely talks over her and everyone else there will her silly car problems. And then suddenly steps out of her own self-absorbed bubble enough to see the baby. “Oh, look! A baby!” It got a big laugh when i saw it at Cannes and it will no doubt be the scene anyone who sees it will be talking about. But the scene that really stays with me is a spoiler so I can’t repeat it here. But let’s just say that it’s the moment when her character finally stops talking.
How to Train Your Dragon
I think I fell in love with this movie when Toothless decided not to eat Hiccup. That is the moment when the film becomes other than what you expected. But the most memorable of all was when Hiccup envisions, draws and eventually makes a tale for his dragon friend. The moment he finally takes flight we realize that this isn’t really a movie about dragons at all; it is a love story. More than that, it’s about fear and ignorance exposed. The film takes some heavy themes and fashions them into an entertaining film, but those themes exist throughout. How to Train Your Dragon remains the best animated film of 2010 — a stand-alone achievement with wonderful writing and cinematography, if you can call it that.
This is a film with many sweet, funny, unsettling moments, but like The King’s Speech, it is driven by the two main performances, three if you count Bill Murray. The scenes between Spacek and Duvall is the stuff of legends. Here are two actors who have been turning in great work for decades. They both worked through the 1970s, 1980’s, and now. They have done it all, seen it all and they are still doing the very best work of their careers. There is no question that one is in their capable hands throughout Get Low, reminding us once again of the value of both talent and life experience. They bring compassion, insight and so much depth to their roles, it is a joy to watch from start to finish.
Spacek plays a woman who has been in love with Duvall for their entire lives. He was in love with her sister. Throughout the film she is trying to hold back the emotion she feels for him, and he is making room in his heart for her. Many people mistakenly think this is a film about a man planning his own funeral. But it isn’t. It is about unrequited love, and what that can mean over a lifetime. The best moment in the film for me is when Spacek goes to his house and he decides he’s going to cook her dinner. What is said out loud between them is only half of what is said between them. Their looks speak volumes. Spacek and Duvall are among the most emotionally moving performances of the year.
There are many strange moments throughout this tragically underrated Roman Polanski film, but the one that sticks with me deserves to be called one of the best sequences in film, period, let alone this year. That would be the ending. So if you haven’t seen the film yet, you’ll want to skip this part. Polanski brings it all full circle when he decided to show the meaningless of the titular character and in doing so, illuminated what the last eight years of the Bush Presidency felt like. Nothing matters if you are getting in the way of the war mongers because they can take you out. This was the statement State of Play wanted to make before it devolved into a sleazy sex scandal. Everything the character, Ewan McGregor, knew was washed away in an instant.
The Way Back
It isn’t a perfect film, and its first half is difficult to watch, but the film also its share of breathtaking moments. It can’t be told without giving away a major spoiler but the essence of this is that the film’s theme is sharpened and defined. It is about basic human kindness amid suffering. In its own weird way, it is like the Wizard of Oz, where the journey to the Emerald City is actually a journey to freedom and Tibet – minus Toto and the flying monkeys. But there is a girl, and there are the men who take care of her. And in one scene, it all comes to fruition.
Clint Eastwood’s somber, enlightened meditation on death and grief opens with a tsunami sequence that hasn’t been seen before and won’t be seen for a while. The film is full of smaller moments between actors, like Bryce Dallas Howard and Matt Damon feeding each other while blind-folded and telling their life stories. He can’t really touch her because it will reveal too much and that’s not an easy feat when a girl likes him the way she does. The film’s real standout moment, though, among many, is when Matt Damon forces himself to lie to the little boy in order to make him feel better about his loss. That’s really what it’s all about, what the film is saying loud and clear: what you want them to say to you is almost as meaningful as what they might say to you if they could.
I’m sure there are many more memorable moments to come. Black Swan will no doubt be full of them, and True Grit, and The Fighter and on and on. But so far, what are your favorite moments in film this year?