My best films list also appears on my main site, but I am posting it here on the blog so that you can comment on it. In response to the reader protests of recent years, I’ve returned to the time-honored tradition of ten films arranged in order from one to ten. After that, it’s all alphabetical. The notion of objectively ordering works of art seems bizarre to me.
Here are the year’s best feature films:
1. “The Social Network” Here is a film about how people relate to their corporate roles and demographic groups rather than to each other as human beings. That’s the fascination for me; not the rise of social networks but the lives of those who are socially networked. Mark Zuckerberg, who made billions from Facebook and plans to give most of it away, isn’t driven by greed or the lust for power. He’s driven by obsession with an abstract system. He could as well be a chessmaster like Bobby Fischer. He finds satisfaction in manipulating systems.
The tension in the film is between Zuckerberg and the Winklevoss twins, who may well have invented Facebook for all I know, but are traditional analog humans motivated by pride and possessiveness. If Zuckerberg took their idea and ran with it, it was because he saw it as a logical insight rather than intellectual property. Some films observe fundamental shifts in human nature, and this is one of them.
David Fincher’s direction, Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay and the acting by Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Timberlake and the others all harmoniously create not only a story but a world view, showing how Zuckerberg is hopeless at personal relationships but instinctively projects himself into a virtual world and brings 500 million others behind him. “The Social Network” clarifies a process that some believe (and others fear) is creating a new mind-set.
2. “The Kings Speech” Here, in a sense, is a first step in a journey that could lead to the world of “The Social Network.” Prince Albert (Colin Firth), who as George VI would lead the British Empire into World War Two, is seen in an opening scene confronting a loud-speaker as he opens the Empire Games. He is humiliated by a paralyzing stutter. The film tells the story of how his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) involves him with a rough-hewn Australian speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush), whose unorthodox methods enable him to eventually face a BBC microphone and forcefully inform the world that the empire was declaring war.
All of the personalities and values in “The King’s Speech” are traditional (and the royal values are too traditional, the therapist believes). Tom Hooper’s filmmaking itself is crafted in older style, depending on an assembly of actors, costumes, sets, and a three-act structure. The characters project considered ideas of themselves; “The Social Network,” in contrast, intimately lays its characters bare. From one man speaking at a distance through the radio, to another man shepherding hundreds of millions through a software program, the two films show techology shaping human nature.
A difference between them is that we feel genuinely moved by the events in “The King’s Speech.” We identify. While some people may seek to copy the events in “The Social Network,” few, I think, would identify with those characters. Mark Zuckerberg is as much a technology-created superhero as Iron Man.
3. “Black Swan” And now we leave technology and even reality behind, and enter a world where the cinema has always found an easy match: Fantasy. That movies were dreamlike was understood from the very beginning, and the medium allowed directors to evoke the psychological states of their characters. “Black Swan” uses powerful performances by Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel to represent archetypal attributes: Female/male, young/old, submissive/dominant, perfect/flawed, child/parent, good/evil, real/mythical.
Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” provides a template for a backstage story that seems familiar enough (young ballerina tries to please her perfectionist mother and demanding director). Gradually we realize a psychological undertow is drawing her away from reality, and the frenzy of the ballet’s climax is mirrored in her own life. This film depends more than many others on the intensity and presence of the actors, and Portman’s ballerina is difficult to imagine coming from another actor.
4. “I Am Love” In this film and “Julia” (2008), Tilda Swinton created masterful performances that were largely unseen because of inadequate distribution. Is it an Academy performance is no one sees it? Here she easily clears a technical hurdle (she is a British actress speaking Italian with what I understand is a Russian accent), playing Emma, a Russian woman who has married into a large, wealthy and guarded Milanese family.
She isn’t treated unkindly, at least not in obvious ways, but she doesn’t…belong. She is hostess, mother, wife, trophy, but never member. Now her husband and son are taking over the family dynasty, and her life is in flux. When she learns her daughter is a lesbian, she reacts not as an Italian matriarch might, but as the outsider she is, in surprise and curiosity. She has heard of such things.
Now she meets a young chef named Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a friend of her son’s. A current passes between them. They become lovers. There are many ways for actors to represent sex on the screen, and Swinton rarely copies herself; here as Emma she is urgent as if a dam has burst, releasing not passion but happiness. She evokes Emma as a woman who for years has met the needs of her family, and discovers in a few days to meet her own needs. She must have been waiting a long time for Antonio, whoever he would be.
5. “Winter’s Bone” Another film with its foundation on a strong female performance. Jennifer Lawrence plays Ree, a girl of 17 who acts as the homemaker for her younger brother and sister in the backlands of the Ozarks. Her mother sits useless all day, mentally absent. Her father, who was jailed for cooking meth, is missing. She tries to raise the kids, scraping along on welfare and the kindness of neighbors.
When the family is threatened with homelessness, she must find her father, who skipped bail. She sets out on an odyssey. At its end will be Ree’s father, dead or alive. Unless there is a body her family will be torn apart. She treks through a landscape scarcely less ruined than the one in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Debra Granik, the director and co-author, risks backwoods caricatures and avoids them with performances that are exact and indelible, right down to small supporting roles. Ree is one of the great women of recent movies.
6. “Inception” A movie set within the architecture of dreams. The film’s hero (Leonardo DiCaprio) challenges a young architect (Ellen Page) to create such fantasy spaces as part of his raids on the minds of corporate rivals. The movie is all about process, about fighting our way through enveloping sheets of reality and dream, reality within dreams, dreams without reality. It’s a breathtaking juggling act by writer-director Christopher Nolan, who spent 10 years devising the labyrinthine script.
Do dreams “have” an architecture? Well, they require one for the purposes of this brilliantly visualized movie. For some time now, I’ve noticed that every dream I awaken from involves a variation of me urgently trying to return somewhere by taking a half-remembered way through streets and buildings. Sometimes I know my destination (I get off a ship and catch a train but am late for a flight and not packed). Sometimes I’m in a vast hotel. Sometimes crossing the University of Illinois campus, which has greatly changed. In every case, my attempt is to follow an abstract path (turn down here and cut across and come back up) which I could map for you. “Inception” led me to speculate that my mind, at least, generates architectural pathways, and that one reason I responded to “Inception” is that , like all movies, it was a waking dream.
7. “The Secret in their Eyes” This 2009 film from Argentina won the Academy Award for best foreign film of 2010. But it opened in 2010 in the U.S., and so certainly qualifies. It spans the years between 1974 and 2000 in Buenos Aries, as a woman who is a judge and a man who is a retired criminal investigator meet after 26 years. In 1974 they were associated on a case of rape and murder, and the man still believes the wrong men were convicted of the crime. The whole case is bound up in the right wing regime of those days, and the “disappearances” of enemies of the state.
Although the criminal story is given full weight, writer-director Juan Jose Campanella is more involved in the romantic charge between his two characters. No, this isn’t a silly movie love story. These are adults–experienced, nuanced, survivors. Love has very high stakes for them, and therefore greater rewards. Soledad Villamil and Ricardo Darin have presence and authority that makes their scenes together emotionally meaningful, as beneath the surface old secrets coil.
8. “The American” George Clooney plays an enigmatic man whose job is creating specialized weapons for specialized murders. He builds them, delivers the, and disappears. Now someone wants him to disappear for good. A standard thriller plot, but this is a far from mainstream thriller. Very little is explained. There is a stark minimalism at work. Much depends on our empathy. The entire drama rests on two words, “Mr. Butterfly.” We must be vigilant to realize that once, and only once, are they spoken by the wrong person — and then the whole plot reality rotates.
A few of my colleagues admired this film by Anton Corbijn very much. Most of them admired it very little. I received demands from readers that I refund their money, and messages agreeing that there was greatness here. “The American” reminded me of “Le Samourai” (1967) by Jean-Pierre Melville, which starred another handsome man (Alain Delon) in the role of an enigmatic murder professional. The film sees dispassionately, guards its secrets, and ends like a clockwork mechanism arriving at its final, clarifying tick.
9. “Kids Are All Right” There are ways to read that title: Kids in general are all right, thee particular kids are all right, and it is all right for lesbians to form a family and raise them. Each mother bore one of the children, and because the same anonymous sperm donor was used, they’re half-siblings. The mothers and long-time partners are played by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, and like many couples, they’re going through a little mid-life crisis.
Their children (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) unexpectedly contact their birth father (Mark Ruffalo), and the women are startled to find him back in their lives. It was all supposed to be a one-time pragmatic relationship. Ruffalo plays him as a hippie-ish organic gardener for whom “laid back” is a moral choice. He thinks it’s cool to meet his kids, it’s cool their moms are married, it’s cool they invite him for dinner. I mean…sure, yes, of course…I mean, why not? Sure. In a comedy with some deeper colors, the film is an affirmation of–family values.
10. “The Ghost Writer” In Roman Polanski’s best film in years, a man without a past rattles around in the life of a man with too much of one. A ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) is hired to write the autobiography of a former British Prime Minister so inspired by Tony Blair that he might as well be wearing a name tag. He comes to stay at an isolated country house like those in the Agatha Christie mysteries, in which everyone is a potential suspect. His wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), smart and bitter, met Lang a Cambridge. His assistant Amelia (Kim Cattrall), smart and devious, is having an affair with him. The writer comes across information that suggests much of what he sees is a lie, and his life may be in danger.
This movie is the work of a man who knows how to direct a thriller. Smooth, calm, confident, it builds suspense instead of depending on shock and action. The actors create characters who suggest intriguing secrets. The atmosphere — a rain-swept Martha’s Vineyard in winter — has an ominous, gray chill, and the main interior looks just as cold. The key performances are measured for effect, not ramped up for effect. In an age of dumbed-down thrillers, this one evokes a classic tradition.