Robert Saucedo’s Top 10 of 2010

Anybody who says 2010 wasn’t a good year for film is in serious need of more trips to the theater or a Netflix account.

Sure there were a lot of awful mainstream films dumped into theaters — gussied up with a hastily done 3D conversion or visually amazing yet emotionally shallow special effects. But, like a $20 hooker trying to impress a Wall Street trader with a dab of fancy perfume from a bottle she dug out of the garbage, even the worst of the films released in 2010 were easily ignored when seen in the same lamppost light as some of the beauties that could be discovered nestled between the limp action films that should have gone straight to DVD and the overtly bombastic adaptations of kitschy television shows remembered more out of a drunken state of nostalgia than any real claim to quality.

2010 contained some great films sprinkled throughout the last 12 months. Discovering some of them may have taken some effort and time spent digging away from whatever greasy popcorn butter-covered fare the local megaplex was trying to shove down audiences’ throats. Other films were more easily spotted thanks to the rightfully earned critical lauding they received upon release. Either way, there were plenty of good films out there to be watched.

Before I get into my favorite ten films, though, here are five really good movies that almost made the list. They are listed alphabetically.

The Chaser

A 2008 South Korean film released in America for the first time this year, director Hong-jin Na’s tense thriller is one of the best serial killer movies to be made in the last decade. Hands down.

Smart without being too clever, appropriately dark without being heartless and featuring enough twists and turns to keep audiences from feeling like the only thing being killed is their own time, the movie takes the basic formula of a cat and mouse serial killer film and turns it on its ear by having the film’s killer caught by the movie’s half-hour mark.

When a police officer-turned-pimp (played by Kim Yoon-seok) decides to set a trap to catch the slave traffickers he thinks are stealing his prostitutes, he risks the life of a single mother who’s turned to whoring to support her young daughter. Ha Jeong-woo plays the baby-faced murderer of women who is quickly caught by the police and who, without proper evidence, will be released. The Chaser quickly becomes a crazy hybrid between HBO’s The Wire and David Fincher’s Zodiac, combining the best parts of a police procedural with the South Korean revenge sub-genre. Steeped in beautiful shadows and lush cinematography, the movie is a treat to look at too. If you’re a fan of crime dramas, you owe it to yourself to track this film down. It’s better than almost anything crime related that was released in American theaters this year.

Four Lions

Chris Morris’ biting satire explores the world of Islamic terrorists with all the humor of the best British comedies. Sharp in its wit and outrageous in its sheer ballsiness, Four Lions is about a group of young Muslim men who plan to become suicide bombers. In a post-9/11 world, you might suspect that little to no comedy could be found in such a touchy subject. You’d be dead wrong.

From combusting crows to marathon-running Ninja Turtles strapped with explosives, Four Lions manages to find laughter in a deadly subject thanks to the willingness of Morris to not shy away from the controversial or the perceived taboo. Part of what makes Four Lions so funny is the fact that Morris is one of the first filmmakers to try and make a comedy about such a hot button issue. Unlike most comedies you’ve seen this year where the jokes have all been recycled to death, you have never seen anything quite like Four Lions before.

The King’s Speech

Who knew a movie about a member of the British royal family suffering from a speech impediment could be such a crowd pleaser? Director Tom Hooper has taken the story of King George VI, England’s World War II monarch, and turned his story of overcoming a stammer into one of the most rousing films of the year. This success is almost completely due to the sheer brilliance of the movie’s cast.

Colin Firth, as King George VI, and Geoffrey Rush, as the king’s speech therapist, take an obvious case of Oscar baiting and manage to make audiences forget that they’re watching a film carefully constructed in a calculating manner for the sole purpose of attracting little gold men. The film’s two main performances radiate with the confidence of two actors at the top of their game.

Sometimes you go to the movies to see shit blowing up. Other times, you just go to be blown away by an actor’s performance. The King’s Speech is a must-see acting workshop.

The Loved Ones

Reviewed theatrically

Director Sean Byrne has created the perfect amalgam of a John Hughes teen comedy and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. An Australian horror film, The Loved Ones is the highly entertaining story of Brent, a young man (Xavier Samuel) who is kidnapped and taken hostage by a young woman with a massive crush on him. Unfortunately for our film’s hero, his captor (played by Robin McLeavy) is a certifiable nut job. The Loved Ones manages to break free of the traditional torture porn horror genre by continuously ratcheting up the adrenaline.

Once The Loved Ones begins its waltz with the horrifying, it never lets go — increasing the sheer outrageousness of Brent’s dire situation. The Loved Ones is the type of horror movie that sticks with audiences long after they leave the theater — it’s clever, exciting and features a great cast of colorful characters. If you’re a fan of horror but are tired of the same old schlock being carted out every fall, this is one movie well-worth seeking out.

Marwencol

A documentary from director Jeff Malmberg, Marwencol is a character study of Mark Hogancamp, a man who was the victim of a bar fight and was left in a coma for nine days. Upon awakening, Mark found his world turned upside down due to massive brain damage. Now, as a sort of therapy, Mark builds 1/6-scale World War II-era dioramas.

Malmberg takes an eccentric subject matter and treats him with a perfect balance of marvel and respect — spotlighting some of the fascinating character traits that make Mark so interesting without turning the movie into a carnival freakshow. Even if you are not a fan of documentaries, the film will suck you in with the slow and steady reveal of the true extent of Mark’s eccentricities. Like pealing back an onion, every revelation paints Mark in a new shadow — changing how audiences view the entire movie and what came before.

Marwencol is a film audiences are highly recommended to seek out because it won’t come to them. It’s a movie that needs to be discovered but, once watched, will linger in the back of their mind long after the initial viewing. Beautiful in presentation along with execution, Marwencol is the perfect documentary for people who hate documentaries.

And now, here are my ten favorite films of 2010:

10.) Inception

I know it’s a great year for film when the latest movie by Christopher Nolan, a filmmaker I adore, is dangerously close to being left off my top ten list. A heist film about a group of dream thieves working to topple a corporation, Inception is the sort of complex, well-plotted science fiction film I love — grounded more in characters’ motivations than trying to explain every intricacy of the film’s technology.

With a great ensemble cast that wonderfully play off each other’s strengths and weaknesses, Inception is a film that begs to be analyzed and considered — and I’m not just talking about the movie’s now classic ambiguous ending.

Nolan’s films are like a Tolkien-esque journey — arduous in its undertaking and with huge chunks of the film spent in various states of confusion. In the end, though, when Nolan has laid all the cards he wishes to play on the table and audiences are shoved back into the cold light of the day, there’s an undeniable look of satisfaction that spreads across audiences’ faces.

With Inception, Nolan took audiences on a roller coaster ride that demanded more use of brainpower than most films even come close to suggesting. He demanded a lot of audiences but was more than generous in paying it back.

9.) Undocumented

Reviewed theatrically

Undocumented is the first horror film in a long time that affected me on a visceral level — leaving me shaken and feeling exhausted. While the plot is relatively simple, the movie’s execution of said plot is anything but.

Scott Mechlowicz, Alona Tal, Greg Serano and Kevin Weisman star as a group of grad students working on a documentary about illegal immigrants. Deciding to follow a group as they cross the border, the students find themselves up a certain creek without a paddle when the entire group — immigrants and students — are kidnapped by a gang of border vigilantes lead by Z, a masked psychopath played by Peter Stormare in a career-best performance.

Director Chris Peckover has made an outstanding horror film — the best traditional horror movie of the last year, to be exact. As if it were building a basement to keep kidnapped children, Undocumented slowly constructs a thick wall of dread — locking audiences in a dark, constrained sense of ill ease with every new terror that Z unleashes upon his victims.

In a year that saw Robert Rodriguez release Machete, a film that turned the illegal immigrant issue into a cartoon, Undocumented took a gritty look at the issue — doing for border crossings what Jaws did for the ocean and Hostel did for East Europe.

8.) The Fighter

Sure, director David O. Russell’s The Fighter is a rousing feel-good story of a boxer seizing a second-chance at success. It has great performances from Christian Bale and Melissa Leo. It’s an above-quality boxing film in the tradition of Rocky and Raging Bull. In my opinion, though, the film is an even more successful comedy than it is a boxing movie. You wouldn’t think it going in but The Fighter is one of the most entertaining, laugh-inducing films to be released this year featuring a crack head.

Seriously. After watching him in The Fighter, I want to see Christian Bale in a comedy. Preferably one with Muppets.

Mark Wahlberg stars as “Irish” Micky Ward, a hard-working professional boxer who is dangerously close to being over the hill. Bale stars as Ward’s brother, Dicky Eklund, a former boxer who has seen his career go down the toilet thanks to a self-destructive drug habit.

What makes the film so funny is the family dynamics on play in the film — from Micky and Dicky’s seven sisters, a Greek chorus of big-haired, loud-mouthed harpies, to the complex, multi-branched family tree that matriarch Alice Eklund (Leo) sits on top of.

Don’t let my adoration for the film’s comedy make you think the film’s emotional impact falls flat. There’s a reason why The Fighter has gained a lot of acclaim for its performances. They really are that good. But, with all the attention being heaped onto Bale’s transformation into Dicky Eklund, one thing that should not be ignored is the film’s script by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson.

7.) Dogtooth

Reviewed theatrically

Nearly nine months after first watching Dogtooth, the film still haunts my dreams. Director and co-writer Giorgos Lanthimos created a film that manages to be allegorical, hilarious and deeply disturbing all at once. Not quite a satire, not quite a horror film and most definitely not your standard foreign film, Dogtooth is about a deeply disturbed Greek family. Christos Stergioglou and Michelle Valley play the parents of a naïve trio of grown children, played by Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni and Hristos Passalis. The children’s naivety can be traced back to the fact that they have been raised with a skewed concept of reality thanks to their parents. They’ve been lied to their entire life — told weird little lies such as that house cats are man-eating monsters and that women can give birth to puppies.

Dogtooth can be seen as an allegory for Greece’s current political state. More importantly, though, it can be enjoyed as an off-kilter movie about a family dancing with a craziness so profound it’ll make your head hurt.

Dogtooth is the type of crazy that I love, though. The film spurts out nonsense so quickly and so unbelievable that audiences will watch the movie with their mouths agape — not quite believing what they’re seeing. Dogooth is a film that should be seen, though. At any cost.

6.) True Grit

Reviewed theatrically

I don’t care how many comments I get from readers calling me a dipshit, I stand by my claim that the Coen Brother’s adaptation of True Grit blows the original 1969 adaptation out of the water in almost every single way.

Joel and Ethan Coen have made quite a few neo-westerns in their time — writing and direcing films that have been steeped in the trappings of the cowboy hat-wearing genre to various degrees. True Grit, their first honest-to-god western, shows the brothers can dip their toe into any genre and still maintain their distinctive visual and tonal trademarks. Funny, engaging and full of extremely fascinating characters on both side of the law, True Grit is a great representation of everything that makes the Coen brothers’ film so enjoyable.

The real star of the film, though, is Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl who has the stubbornness of an ox and more grit and gumption than Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn character could ever hope for.

In a year that saw audiences meet Hit Girl, the tween assassin from Kick-Ass, True Grit is the best possible movie you could show a growing girl — giving them a wonderful role model in which to look up to. For everybody else, though, the movie is just as enjoyable and just as worthy of a watch.

5.) Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

While watching Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, director Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s series of graphic novels, I became very scared. The movie hit so many of the right buttons for me — satisfied so many of my movie cravings, that I became worried that Wright had abducted me sometime in the middle of the night, opened my head up and mapped my personality in film form.

I honestly believe that Scott Pilgrim vs. The World will be a defining film of the aughts. The film, which stars Michael Cera as a daydreaming musician who must battle his new girlfriend’s seven evil exes, is a wonderful encapsulation of this generation’s pop culture love affairs. It’s only fitting that the film, like today’s pop culture, is seeped in nostalgia for a childhood long past. Wright’s action romance bounces back and forth from being a loving tribute to the NES and Mountain Dew-soaked days of an ‘80s childhood and championing a style yet to come.

Scott Pilgrim is high in energy and dense in details — stuffed to the brim with Easter eggs, visual gags and funny little asides like a trendy turduken. Scott Pilgrim is what would happen if somebody took every single thing that was fun and interesting about being a geek in love during the last ten years, shoved it in a blender and served it in a tall glass of kick ass.

The movie is witty, charming and just the right amount of cute. As fresh and exciting as The Matrix was nearly ten years ago but with the disarming attitude of a Saturday morning cartoon and the unpredictability of a good mix tape, Scott Pilgrim is a must-see movie.

4.) I Saw the Devil

Reviewed theatrically

I Saw the Devil is at both a beautifully shot tribute to the classic film noir genre and a product of the relatively new world of brutally violent Korean revenge thrillers. Ji-wood Kim, the critically acclaimed director of A Tale of Two Sisters and The Good, The Bad and The Weird, is responsible for the relatively simple yet elegant South Korean serial killer drama.

Byung-hun Lee stars as Joo-yeon, a secret agent who begins a slow, methodical revenge plot against the rapist who murdered his wife. Oldboy‘s Min-sik Choi plays Kyung-chul, the psychopath who is the target of Joo-yeon’s calculating rage.

To get his revenge, Joo-yeon has a novel idea — he catches the rapist, tortures him and then lets him go so he can have the fun of catching the murderer again and again and again.

Despite the brutal torture scenes and hard-to-stomach violence, there’s something undeniably classy about I Saw the Devil. From the film’s bombastic score to the well-composed shots, there’s something about I Saw the Devil that makes it seem like Alfred Hitchcock could’ve directed it during his prime — if Eli Roth had been standing over his shoulder.

I Saw the Devil is a ferocious film — powerful in its impact and its message. The movie won’t get wide release in American theaters until early next year. Seize the earliest opportunity you have to watch this movie. You won’t regret it.

3.) 127 Hours

It’s hard to imagine 127 Hours being a good film. The premise, based on the real life story of a man who found his arm caught between a rock and a cave wall during a morning hike, seems like a great segment on This American Life but a full-length movie?

The truth, though, is that 127 Hours isn’t just a good film. It’s a great film. This is thanks mostly to the kinetic energy directing of Danny Boyle and the previously hinted at greatness that is James Franco’s acting.

127 Hours wastes no time getting to the meat of its story — the perilous dilemma that Franco’s character finds himself in when he becomes potentially doomed by his own survivalist machismo. The beauty of the movie, though, is that with Boyle’s directing, 127 Hours becomes much more than a simple gimmicky movie where audiences are treated to gross out scene after gross out scene of the trapped hiker battling the environment’s best efforts to kill him. Sure there are intense moments in the film — moments that will have most audience members instinctively clenching their anus in fear — but 127 Hours is about a man’s drive to live — not a man’s close call with death. The story that inspired 127 Hours came close to being an exploitative, unmemorable film. Thanks to the talent it attracted, though, 127 Hours is one of the best films of the year.

2.) Black Swan

Going into the fall movie season, I predicted that Burlesque was going to be the Showgirls of the 21st century. Little did I know that particular title belonged to a film from acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky. But while Showgirls is a god-awful film that has managed to become entertaining to some due to its extreme cheesiness, Black Swan is a near perfect film that takes the skeleton and soul of the former movie and breathes enough life and spirit into it to make it something truly remarkable. Black Swan is partly camp, hugely intense and always entertaining.

Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a ballerina obsessed with finding perfection. As she auditions for and eventually lands the lead role in the ballet Swan Lake, Nina finds herself targeted by well-meaning if equally obsessive friends and family whose pushing and prodding help to drive the young ballerina into near insanity.

Black Swan is very much Fight Club meets The Red Shoes. From showing the intense training and physical taxation that ballet takes upon its performers to the metaphysical wonkiness that Nina hallucinates and that is illustrated with amazing and subdued special effects, the movie works on multiple levels. All levels lead to entertainment, though.

Black Swan is a movie that audiences are going to only grow in admiration for. There’s a lot to take in with the film — some of it playing on a slightly different vibration than most mainstream moviegoers are used to. If you take the time and are willing to let yourself get immersed by the movie, though, you’ll find that the experience is an extremely satisfying one.

1.) The Social Network

While it’s hard for me to pinpoint why I love The Social Network so much, there are quite a few reasons that spring to mind.  There’s Aaron Sorkin’s fast-paced and witty script, which tells the slightly fictionalized story of Mark Zuckerberg’s creation of popular social networking site Facebook. There’s the beautiful cinematography of Jeff Cronenweth — guided by David Fincher’s now masterful eye. The movie looks as lush as it does precise. Of course, there’s the very appropriate score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. And then there’s the acting.

I’ve always been a fan of Jesse Eisenberg. Hell, he’s the reason I still sit through Cursed on occasion. The Social Network, though, is the film that finally got America to stop calling the actor “the poor man’s Michael Cera.” As Zuckerberg, Eisnberg managed to take his own strengths as an actor and turn it into an award-worthy performance — not just an impersonation. While he certainly captured many of Zuckerberg’s more notable traits — such as his lack of blinking — Eisnberg filled the performance with emotional nuance and bubbling-under-the-surface pathos.

But a great movie isn’t built on a single good performance. Supporting Eisenberg was an amazing supporting cast including Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake and Armie Hammer — all turning in spectacular performances.

A multi-layered story that not only told Facebook’s creation in an interesting way but also managed to slip in allegorical creaminess about this generation’s increasing dependence on technology — all while maintaining a loose adherence to the rules of classic cinema, The Social Network is my favorite film for a multitude of reasons. But when it comes right down to it, I just “liked” it. What can I say?

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