Best of 2010: Movies

As always during this time of the year, bloggers, critics, reviewers, and the general entertainment-loving public reflect on their favorite of the past year. I did it last year, and am attempting to quickly do it again for this year.

First up on my list is my favorite movies of the year. I’m not going to put a number or ranking on them, this is just a spattering of movies I enjoyed from the past year, and why I liked them. Simple enough.

The Social Network David Fincher

I reviewed it after it came out, or at least blogged about how I felt about the movie itself, and how Facebook has changed over the years I’ve been using it, and how much a part of my generation’s online life it holds. The movie itself was well-written, directed, shot and of course, acted. Jesse Eisenberg uses his strength as a fast-talking, nerdy-looking lead and put on his jerk-face to create a character that while not necessarily true to the real Mark Zuckerberg, carried the movie with a headstrong passion. Eisenberg really captured Zuckerberg’s drive to create a revolutionary enterprise in Facebook, and helped solidify the movie’s non-stance on the creation and subsequent litigation surrounding Facebook. The cinematography was also great, in particular the tilt-shift focused crew race sequence. I found myself glued to the screen, mesmerized by the sights and sounds projecting from above. We’ll see how the movie fares as we inch closer to the imminent award season, but if I were a voter, it would definitely be on my list.

Toy Story 3 Lee Unkrich

The emotional and cathartic conclusion of Pixar’s amazing franchise, Toy Story 3 was timed perfectly with the generational change occurring in both the film’s main human character Andy, and it’s audiences. When the first Toy Story came out, aside from being wowed by the technological prowess that Pixar provided with an entirely computer-generated film, the idea of having toys come to life and experience real human emotion with their owners was something every kid wished for. Now, 15 years later, my generation, like Andy in the film, is growing up and no longer play with those childhood toys we all loved so much. The movie captures the emotion that comes from growing up and letting go of your childhood, and while many of us painfully let our parents give away our favorite toys, and left it at that, Toy Story 3 gives us as sympathetic viewers, closure as Andy plays with Woody and friends one last time before giving them away to a young girl. It simultaneous gave us closure with the franchise’s end, and also with our own childhoods, and I applaud Pixar for achieving that near-impossible task.

Inception Christopher Nolan

I also blogged/reviewed this when it came out, and I was in the “wow that was amazing” state coming right off the movie. In the months since it came out, there has been a good deal of criticism of the movie, mostly calling out the logic flaws and lack of original plot, some going as far as saying the only real value of the movie was its visual effects. While all of these criticisms have their strong points, I simply go back to how I felt about the movie right after I saw it, and know that I enjoyed myself during it, and it left me thinking – whether it be specifically about the top spinning at the end and if it drops or not, or even just about the concepts of , and the rabbit hole that brings me through. It was exciting throughout, and like many of Christopher Nolan‘s films, leaves you guessing. I bought into it, and perhaps after another couple viewings it may lose its luster, but I still believe it belongs on this list.

Black Swan Darren Aronofsky

Just saw this, and was mesmerized by it throughout, especially watching Natalie Portman‘s psychological transformation. I always liked her as an actress, but I think this movie especially allowed her to show some real range as a sweet, innocent and driven ballerina, into an aggressive, sexually experimenting, paranoid, hallucinating ballet star, striving for perfection. Shot very intimately, the film-making allowed the viewer to watch this transformation, and Portman makes us believe every bit of it, even the horror-esque sequences. A real cross between Darren Aronofsky‘s “The Wrestler,” and “Requiem For a Dream,” both director and lead actress take us through a thrilling and emotional psychological journey. All in a movie about ballet.

The Fighter David O. Russel

Also just saw this, so it too is fresh in my mind, but I really enjoyed the gritty look at a struggling boxer caught between his career aspirations and his family. While everyone was great in it, I think that Christian Bale took the film, having lost 20 pounds and starving himself to portray a scrawny, crack-addicted has been boxer, trying to make a comeback by training his brother. A notorious method actor, Bale nailed the performance down to the last dropped r, (or should I say “ahh”), and this was especially evident after seeing the real life Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund, giving a sign off to the crew after having been a part of the production process. The movie was half a boxing movie and half a family drama, and the boxing didn’t really show itself until the third act, where Micky is finally getting his shot and fighting toward a title shot. One of the more emotional parts of the movie occurs when the HBO documentary about crack-addiction airs, and the entire cast of characters huddles around their respective TVs, even Dicky in a large viewing in prison, hamming it up for the crowd of convicts. When they realize it is more of a tragic story than a triumph, the emotion of the family, and especially Dicky himself, brings down the excitement, and I think David O. Russel and the cast did a great job of capturing this quick emotional turnaround. Dicky says it best when he yells at his co-habitants to stop laughing, “my kid is crying and wants to be with his father, but he can’t because I’m in here with you all!” *may have gotten some of that quote wrong. As a coda, living in LA, across the country from my hometown, I love any movie that is spoken primarily in Boston accents. It’s a full-proof reminder of home. You may find me subconsciously dropping my r’s after seeing a movie like that.

*Honorable Mention – The Town Ben Affleck – Another Boston movie, this one showed Affleck’s ability to direct an action flick with some great sequences, including a European-style car chase through the narrow streets of the North End, and also a huge climactic shootout in Fenway Park. Great performances by Jeremy Renner and Blake Lively, both nailing a tough accent to grasp.

Feel free to comment on what you agree, disagree, or would like to add to this list. Stay internet-dialed to Josh Glass Online for more Best Of 2010 lists in the next day or two.

Way Better than Counting Sheep – My Review of “Inception”

"Inception" 2010

“Inception” is the kind of movie where the previews don’t tell you much, but something about the presentation, and the fact that its a Christopher Nolan film, makes you know you’ll be in for something amazing. Before going to a movie, I like to keep my expectations in check, because my initial thoughts on movies always relate to how well they meet my expectations. For Christopher Nolan films, I have no qualms about letting my expectations run wild, and once again, like “The Dark Knight” in 2008, he did not disappoint.

The main plot of the movie focuses on Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb, a thief who enters people’s dreams to extract ideas. If you bare with me on these details, like the viewer does while immersed in this film, the specifics won’t bother you. In fact, they’re presented in such a way that it makes complete sense. That is another thing Christopher Nolan does well – in dealing with fantastical plots that require a suspension of disbelief,  we as viewers never question the premise, because it’s presented in a way that raises no doubts. It’s explained as well as humanly possible. In the case of “Inception,” it’s understood that these are people who have been taught how to share dreams, and are hired to use this method to invade a subject’s subconscious and take ideas or secrets.

Cobb is the leader of this team, hired by Ken Wattanabe’s Saito, a wealthy businessman, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur, Cobb’s right hand man and a series of other characters with different responsibilities – Tom Hardy as Eames, the Forger who can morph into someone else’s identity in the dream, and Dileep Rao as Yusuf, the chemist who creates the concoctions that allow the dreamers to stay in a deep enough sleep to pull off their heist.

Saito hires Cobb for a special job, one that requires a great deal of preparation and execution, and since his previous team member, Architect Nash (Lukas Haas) failed on a previous mission, Cobb goes to his father-in-law, (Nolan film regular Michael Caine) who taught him everything he knows about shared dreaming, to recruit a young, genius architect – Ellen Page’s Ariadne. Together, the team must perform an “Inception,” the act of planting the seed of an idea into someone’s subconscious, as opposed to stealing one. Saito’s mark is Robert Fischer Jr., (Cillian Murphy), who’s the heir to a business rival of Saito’s , who wants the team to convince Fischer to take down his dying father’s empire.

Hope you’re still with me. Cobb and Arthur teach Ariadne the ropes of shared dreaming, and creating a realistic-enough dream world where their mark will believe it to be reality – the catch of shared dreams is if something within the dream is too out of the ordinary, the subject will point it out through their projections – the masses of “extras” within the dream, that fill out the realistic world – unnamed co-workers, passersby, the general public, etc. Once the dream gets too out of control, the projections will attack the dreamer who’s changing things – much like white blood cells attack foreign objects within the body. Ariadne takes to her task with ease and a sense of enthusiasm, to the point where Cobb is forced to warn her of the negative effects of using her new-found powers too creatively. Her curiosity causes some tension between her and Cobb, as she finds out about his disturbing past and how it constantly affects his dreams and subconscious. Aside from confiding in Ariadne, Cobb keeps these issues to himself, but because of the shared nature of the task at hand, threatens to destroy the team’s entire plan.

I’d better stop there, or I’ll delve into spoiler territory.

Christopher and Jonathan Nolan do many great things with this script, but what really is apparent is the strength of their reasoning and scientific explanation of this fantastical premise. Every bit of explanation makes sense in the realm of real life – for example, waking up from a dream thanks to a “kick” i.e. the feeling of falling. Also, if you’re killed in a dream you wake up from it. (unlike how if you’re killed in the Matrix, you die in real life. This is not 1999 science-fiction people.)

Once the specifics of shared dreaming are covered, we’re treated to some visual and psychologically stunning film-making. One of the things I loved about this movie was that none of the special effects were considered showy – sure, they were breathtaking and awe-inspiring, but all of them had purpose and were never like “hey, check this shit out!” Psychologically, due to the mysterious nature of dreams, you’re left with both the wonder of whether something like this could actually be possible, and the recurring thoughts of what your own subconscious is telling you in your dreams.

The pacing of the film is great too – there isn’t a dull moment, and it’s not completely covered by tension and action, like it was in “The Dark Knight,” (not a knock on Dark Knight, they’re just different kinds of movies). The nature of the film and its premise keeps the viewer on the edge of their seats – it helps that dreams are inherently a fascinating subject to wrap your mind around. Nolan does a great job of both confusing and immersing the viewer in the action. The confusion is never to the point of giving up, its enough to keep you guessing until the very end, which is exactly what Nolan does.

Writing and directing aside, the film is wonderfully cast and the main actors, especially Leo, provide incredible performances. Thank God Martin Scorsese let Nolan borrow his muse for a film. Not sure who else would have been better in that part (although I have to admit, parts of his character’s emotional struggles reminded me of his “Shutter Island” performance). I’ve always liked Ellen Page, and she’s great as a young and enthusiastic addition to this team of professionals – adept at her job, but curious enough about her leader to bring about a good level of character drama that really solidifies the dramatic tension of the film. Marion Cotillard, who plays Cobb’s wife Mol, does a great job of toying with Cobb’s emotions throughout. I found myself locked in on her character whenever she would show up. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll understand why. If you haven’t, seriously – stop reading this and go see it now.

My only criticisms of the film is that during the main action sequence of the triple-deep-dream, the dramatic tension follows the characters down through each level of dream, but the previous dream levels remain the same until one big culminating moment that makes up for this. Also, I had a bit of an issue with Saito’s character getting injured during this sequence – to create more tension they could have played up the consequences of this injury more, which would make the resulting payoff between Saito and Cobb hit a bit harder.

It’s been said a bunch, but this is definitely the kind of movie you’ll have to see again, which fits right into the trend of recent Christopher Nolan films. You’ll read it over and over about how great the film is, but a review like this really can’t do it enough justice. I’ll go see it again with you, just so you can see it for yourself. Seriously.