Travis “Skip” Leamons’s Top 10 of 2010

A shoulder shrug and small, almost inaudible “eh,” sounding defeated. Ask me my opinion of this year’s crop of films and that’s probably the response you’ll get. It’s not that the year was particularly bad, but it wasn’t great by any means. Films I thought would deliver did, and those that I didn’t think much of to begin with my assumption was usually reaffirmed upon viewing. Last year, mainstream films were a godsend to those looking to escape the economic malaise for a few hours, drowning their sorrows in large buttered popcorn and sodas so big you almost need two hands to hold the cup. I write this with tongue firmly in cheek, because realistically one should avoid expenses like a trip to the theater during times of monetary troubles. And yet they came in droves.

This year was a different story entirely. Theater attendance was down, but revenue didn’t suffer too much. A key reason: the dreaded surcharge. Theaters charged a premium to see a film presented in 3-D. Though in most cases the consumer was being duped. The 3D films were typically rushed conversions to meet the demand of the advertising. The whole “Avatar effect” in needing to release a movie in 3D to increase attendance is totally misguided. James Cameron had a better understanding of the format and how it could create a more immersive viewing experience, something most of these Avatar followers have lacked. So far the best format to take advantage of 3D technology is animation, especially in terms of depth of field. Live action isn’t quite there – yet.

2010 was definitely the year of the woman. Besides Kathryn Bigelow becoming the first female to win an Oscar for directing (The Hurt Locker), this year was a great one for females onscreen. You had the strong debuts of Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) and Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) as well as Chole Mortez proving she could be a pint-sized vigilante (Kick-Ass) and a vampire (Let Me In) in the same year. Nicole Kidman, who had been on cruise control the past few years, decided now was the right time to rebound and deliver one of her best acting performances in Rabbit Hole. The Fighter gave us the one-two punch of Amy Adams and Melissa Leo. Then there’s Natalie Portman in Black Swan. Now Portman isn’t a very strong actress, but given the right performance she can shine. She’s like Hilary Swank, able to pull off a great performance every once in a while but not the type of actress you would entrust to headline a feature unless she had a talented filmmaker manning the ship. And finally there is Noomi Rapace. She gives what I think is the singular best performance of 2010 in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Having seen over 160 new releases this year, including 152 inside a theater of some kind (i.e., screening, festival or regular matinee), it took a lot more effort to weed through the crap to find the truly memorable. Nearly half the films I saw this year were respectable to a degree, but those great films were few and far between.

Before getting to my ten favorites of the year, here are five honorable mentions that sadly didn’t make the cut.

In no particular order, unless alphabetically counts.

The American

A music photographer who became a music video director, Anton Corbijn made the leap to feature filmmaker with the biographical film Control in 2007. That black-and-white film, about Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, showed that Corbijn had the skill to make something longer than a music video. Three years later, his next feature, The American, gave him a bigger budget with an A-list star at the forefront. In the film George Clooney plays Jack, an assassin and custom arms maker. And from the opening minutes it is clear that this isn’t your ordinary thriller. Those expecting another Bourne Identity-like thrill ride walked away sorely disappointed. The film is restrained with the action that occurs and Clooney is rather subdued in his role. People have complained about its pacing, feeling it moves at a glacial pace, but I look at it in a different light.

While 2010 may have felt like an I Love the ’80s reunion with The Expendables and The A-Team making audiences nostalgic for the decade, The American feels like a ’70s flick that somehow ended up in a time capsule and was unearthed this year. Corbijin’s film is dependent upon the atmosphere created and this is accomplished through Martin Ruhe’s breathtaking cinematography. From the snowy terrain of Sweden to the Castel del Monte, a commune in the Province of L’Aquila in Abruzzo, Italy, Corbijin offsets the beauty of the scenery with a protagonist that is as impenetrable as that mountain range he inhabits.

Four Lions

The art of satire is something that can’t be pulled off spontaneously. And timing is everything (see Kubrick’s Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove). For his debut feature, Chris Morris takes aim at a subject that is pretty taboo in many circles: Muslim terrorists. Say what?

That’s right. Morris takes a hot button issue like terrorism and turns it on its head. Just think of all the procedures one must go through before boarding an airplane in America. Then watch this film and come to the realization that terrorists aren’t that smart after all – so why am I getting felt up by a TSA agent? Four Lions is fresh and timely and it deals with a subject that we haven’t seen before. Chris Morris clearly has the right idea with his story about a group of Muslim men who decide to become suicide bombers. As the comedy progresses we see that being a suicide bomber isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s rather hard, actually, trying to figure out the best way to destroy the SIM card of a cell phone or go about getting the needed materials to make a bomb. Plus the comedy culminates with a scene involving a London marathon and one of the terrorists disguised as a Ninja Turtle. Perhaps, “Cowabunga, dude” is the new “Allāhu Akba.”


This year I saw the most documentaries I think I’ve ever seen in my life. And what I found out is true: Truth is always stranger than fiction. From the longest love letter dedicated to horror icon Freddy Kruger (Never Sleep Again) to a doc about a YouTube sensation (Winnebago Man), this year offered a wide variety in documentary film. While Waiting for “Superman”, Inside Job, and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer are timely docs about our poor educational system and the economic collapse, and should be required viewing for everyone, Marwencol is a film that just stuck with me after I saw it in Austin as part of the South by Southwest Film Festival.

Willy Wonka sang about a world of pure imagination, Mark Hogancamp made it come to life. After being severely beaten into a coma by five assailants outside a bar, Mark wakes up nine days later in the hospital with little memory of his previous life. With little money to afford therapy his recovery is instead fueled by his creation of a World War II-era town he dubbed “Marwencol.” Populated with dolls that depict both friend and familial relations, Mark’s emotional wounds are treated by staging elaborate stories where he, as his alter ego, Captain Hogancamp, is the hero. He would position the figures and photograph them as a means to tell the story.

Marwencol is a film that sneaks up on you. At first glance, it is easy to judge Mark Hogancamp as nothing more than a creepy guy who spends his waking hours playing with dolls. But film maker Jeff Malmberg teaches audiences not to jump to conclusions about people, as he touches on the issues of mental conditions and alternative lifestyles, healthcare and dealing with stress. The film is very private in its subject matter that becomes public as we gain access. The photos snapped depict the great imagination that Mark has yet doesn’t realize. He doesn’t see himself as an artist, despite his work being showcased in a New York gallery. Whether or not he’ll one day be able to value the full extent of his artwork is left to be seen, but Marwencol is a lasting testament of a man whose life is one of pure imagination, but a reality worth living.

The Town

If Ben Affleck only directed crime thrillers from here on out, I’d fully support his endeavors. Right now he’s experiencing one of the best career turnarounds that I can ever recall. His latest, The Town, builds on his 2007 debut, Gone Baby Gone. While I feel GBG is in many ways superior, this is by no means a sophomore slump. Feeling like a smaller version of Michael Mann’s 1995 film, Heat, but set in Boston, Affleck’s adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s Prince of Thieves is a crime drama about getting out and moving on. Ben Affleck plays Doug MacRay, a career criminal at the center of a morality tale that involves sticking with his crew of bank robbers and pulling of one last heist, or creating a new life for himself outside of Boston.

Part of the intrigue is Doug’s relationship with a woman (Rebecca Hall) he meets inside a laundromat. He didn’t meet her serendipitously, his meeting was for ulterior motives. The woman was a bank manager who they took hostage and later released. Instead of just silencing her, Doug befriends her and a relationship begins to bloom. But before there can be a happily ever after, Doug must first do one last heist, while at the same time elude capture by an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) hellbent on taking MacRay’s crew down.

The reason why The Town works as well as it does as a crime thriller is because of its simplicity and straightforwardness. Had it tried to be too smart for its own good the film wouldn’t have worked as well as it does. Ben Affleck’s direction is particularly strong in the action sequences, but I love his framing of more intimate scenes involving him and Rebecca Hall. Jeremy Renner gives a standout performance as Doug’s best friend and right-hand man in the crew, playing a character that can’t understand Doug’s desire to escape a life of crime in favor of a woman who could take down the entire operation if she squeals to the feds. This conflict matched with Doug’s inner conflicts of wanting to turn a new leaf gives the crime thriller substantial weight and in the process makes The Town one of the more memorable films of the year.

True Grit

It’s to a point now where any new western that gets produced is bound to be one of the most remembered films of the year. And with less than a half dozen being produced yearly, the western is in short supply. While many of its motifs have been applied to different genres over the last century, there’s nothing like experiencing the Old West, even if it’s a fictional depiction. Blasphemous is a phrase I’m sure some John Wayne purists had when they first learned that True Grit was being remade. Wayne, who won his only Oscar for his role as U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, is replaced with Jeff Bridges.

Something I’ve always admired about the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, is that they never make the same movie twice. Such a work ethic has made them the most consistent filmmakers working today, and has allowed them to have a most diverse filmography. From gangsters (Miller’s Crossing) and noir (Blood Simple, The Man Who Wasn’t There), to differentiating styles of comedy (The Big Lebowski and O’ Brother Where Art Thou?), this dynamic duo is always trying to expand its film-making horizons.

With True Grit the brothers have faithfully adapted the Charles Portis novel to the extent that if one were to view both cinematic adaptations, one could spot the noticeable changes. From adhering to the novel’s original point-of-view, from the voice of 14-year-old girl Mattie Ross, they manage to keep a lot of the humor of the novel with her interactions with Cogburn and Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon). From the great casting, including newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie, to its overall look, it’s hard to ignore True Grit. By sticking to the tone of the original novel, the brothers manage to create a true western, but one that shares their love for eccentric characters and comic sensibilities.

And now for our feature presentation…

10. Leaves of Grass

Reviewed theatrically

Tim Blake Nelson’s latest film has been a favorite of mine for much of 2010. Upon my first viewing at SXSW I was floored. I even had the opportunity to tell Nelson and star Edward Norton as much. But because of a piss-poor studio, its advertising (or lack thereof) and distribution were nil. This, despite featuring the talents of a two-time Oscar nominee. For all the articles written about Armie Hammer playing dual roles in The Social Network or Michael Cera in Youth in Revolt, Edward Norton upstages them both by playing twin brothers: one, an Ivy League professor, the other a Oklahoman who knows how to make quality marijuana. But Leaves of Grass isn’t your typical pot comedy. In many respects it adheres to many films in the Coens’ film canon as it meshes different genres into one. It’s a pot comedy, southern fried thriller and philosophical exercise all in one. And it’s one of the best hidden gems of 2010.

9. Toy Story 3

Reviewed theatrically

Is the Toy Story franchise the greatest trilogy of all time? It’s hard to argue. In terms of quality from one film to the next, and in terms of not being based off a published work, this franchise has indeed surpassed the likes of Back to the Future, The Matrix and yes even Star Wars – both the original trilogy and prequels. The studio that made it okay for rats to be in the kitchen, Pixar, has done it again with its latest (and presumably last) adventure of Woody, Buzz and the rest of Andy’s toys.

Saying good-bye is never an easy thing, so to approach the idea of finality could be a daunting task. Pixar gives us one last hurrah, but also leaves itself wiggle room should the toys want to tell a new story. While the entire trilogy feels like one long prison escape with the toys trying to break out of different locations, you must admit feeling something for these anthropomorphic play things. In the waning moments of Toy Story 3 it’s okay for the most stoic of men to tear up and not feel ashamed. It’s reasons like that why Pixar has an unblemished record, and why it remains the greatest studio making film today.

8. Easy A

Reviewed theatrically

2010 was a BAD year for comedies. This year saw two talented comedians wasted (Tina Fey and Steve Carell in Date Night) and a barrage of comedies (When in Rome, You Again, Killers) that achieved few laughs and fewer viewers. And it’s a shame that comedies like Valentine’s Day made loads of cash, while She’s Out of My League was largely ignored. Luckily, Easy A found a happy medium. Its cast, story and sharp wit all converged into a nice package to help make it one of the surprise hits of 2010. It definitely was a surprise for studio Screen Gems, an outfit that typically specializes in low-rent thrillers looking to have a sizable opening weekend then fade into obscurity. Emma Stone turns in a star-making performance as Olive Penderghast, a high school teen who lies about giving up her “V card” and is regarded as the resident harlot.

Easy A is a faithful homage to the films of John Hughes. That director, who passed away in 2009, was responsible for the advent and popularization of the teen genre. In the wake of sex comedies like American Pie and others of its ilk, screenwriter Bert V. Royal initially wrote Easy A as an R-rated comedy, with close to 50 F-bombs, and director Will Gluck shot multiple takes with and without the coarse language. In post-production it was trimmed down and arrived as a PG-13 comedy and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Relying on profanities for laughs isn’t always the best crutch, and in a story about faking one’s virginity loss the lack of obscenities makes the comedy all the more better. Easy A references many of the best teen comedies of the ’80s and it remains a smart comedy that will be looked back as Emma Stone’s launching pad to stardom.

7. The King’s Speech

How do you make a film about a stutter a compelling watch? You make sure it is geared as crowd-pleasing entertainment. Director Tom Hooper (The Damned United) took a story that I knew very little about, King George VI’s public-speaking problems, and made it an uplifting piece about overcoming a condition. With war with Germany imminent England’s King George had to give a speech that would instill hope for the troubled nation and act as a forceful invocation against warring nations. But he couldn’t do it alone.

The King’s Speech is a moving film due in large part to its cast. Colin Firth plays the stammering King George VI, and Geoffrey Rush is his speech therapist. Overcoming a condition makes Firth’s performance automatic Oscar bait, but it’s easy to overlook while getting wrapped up in the film, a period piece that has an old-fashioned feel in terms of set design and look. Rush, who already has an Academy Award (Shine), is confidant in his role as an unlicensed therapist supporting a wife and two children, and Helena Bonham-Carter is a delight as the King’s wife. It may be just me but Bonham-Carter does her best work when she’s away from her hubby, Tim Burton. Then there’s Colin Firth as King George. Totally deserving of his acclaim, Firth is no stranger to stuttering in film. But as King George he does more than mirror his speech impediment problems from films past; he observes the complexity and pain that comes with having such a condition most of his life.

The King’s Speech may not be the best film I saw this year, but a case can be made that it is the best acted. And no, I didn’t stutter.

6. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

I don’t know how much more I can write about Scott Pilgrim. I’ve discussed it in columns and box office reports and even proclaimed the film had one of the best Blu-ray releases of 2010. Here’s what you should know. This comic-book adaptation by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) was an unfortunate casualty on a weekend where it opened against The Expendables and Eat Pray Love. It should have been a bigger movie, yet audiences avoided it like the plague. I don’t want to say audiences “didn’t get it,” but it’s the first phrase that comes to mind. Scott Pilgrim‘s title character (played by Michael Cera) is in love with a girl (Mary Elisabeth Winstead) that carries a lot of baggage. I don’t mean Princess Vespa industrial-strength hair-dryer baggage either. This baggage happens to be seven evil exes (aka the League of Evil Ex-Boyfriends). Now Scott has to defeat them all if he is to win her heart.

Scott Pilgrim may not jump through hoops to win her love and affection, but he will jump out of windows to avoid his own problems. I think we’ve all been there. We may not have to worry about Vegans with superhuman powers or guys who think they’re Captain America, but there will come a time where will lace up a pair of Chuck Taylors and fight for love. The Beatles sang about it being all you need and Huey Lewis sang of its power, Scott Pilgrim embodies both.

5. 127 Hours

It shouldn’t surprise me that a single actor can support a film all by himself. Why just last year Sam Rockwell made it look easy in Duncan Jones’s debut feature, Moon. But that was science-fiction, could a docudrama about a man’s life-threatening ordeal be as memorable? Absolutely.

Danny Boyle’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire is a departure for the film-maker. That shouldn’t surprise his fans, as the director has tackled everything from zombies (28 Days Later) and heroin addiction (Trainspotting) to space (Sunshine) and family feature (Millions). Based on the story of Aron Ralston’s harrowing ordeal of having his arm caught underneath a boulder during a hiking excursion, the film relied on the expertise of two different cinematographers to match Boyle’s frenetic movements to tell the story. And then there’s the acting of James Franco. First jovial, acting as a guide to two females who are out hiking, things change once he gets his arm wedged between a massive rock and a cave wall. All the talk about people fainting once Franco does the unthinkable is a little extreme. This isn’t Boyle trying to make a Saw spin-off. 127 Hours is about one man’s courageousness to do the unthinkable in order to save himself. James Franco may or may not be awarded an Oscar for his performance as Ralston’s but there’s no denying that it is one of the greatest bits of acting of the year, and it may just be the role that defines the young actor. Sorry Tristan & Isolde fans.

4. The Social Network

While I admit that too many critics were drooling over themselves as they exited the screenings of David Fincher’s The Social Network, it is a great film. Rarely are we presented a film that will shaken up casting calls. In the ’80s Barry Levinson and Lawrence Kasden helped to launch the careers of many young actors. In the ’90s, Quentin Tarantino sought to reinvigorate the careers of John Travolta (Pulp Fiction) and both Robert Forester and Pam Grier (Jackie Brown). The success of The Social Network has given Sony Pictures untold riches. Two of its stars will topline two franchises for the studio: Andrew Garfield will be starring in the new Spider-Man reboot and Rooney Mara will play Lisbeth Salander in the U.S. produced adaptation of Steig Larrson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Also feeling the effects of its success are Jesse “No My Name Isn’t Michael Cera” Eisenberg and entertainer-cum-actor Justin Timberlake.

The Social Network is not David Fincher’s best film by a long shot, but it may be the best written film he’s ever made. Aaron Sorkin’s (The West Wing, A Few Good Men) great screenplay, full of strong dialogue and characterization, matched with Fincher’s direction is one hell of a combination. “The Facebook Movie” as it has aptly been dubbed depicts the birth of an idea and the consequences a single idea can have on a number of different personalities. Like a modern day tragedy where Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) mirrors Julius Caesar and his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Garfield), is Brutus, but the ending action is reversed. Et tu, Mark?

3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Reviewed on DVD

Earlier in this piece I stated that Noomi Rapace gives the singular best performance of 2010. The question that probably crossed many minds was “Who is Noomi Rapace?” The Swiss actress is a relative unknown in the States but she got much exposure this year when the Millennium Trilogy made its way from Sweden and into many arthouses in America. Her portrayal as Lisbeth Salander, an antisocial but extremely intelligent computer hacker, is one of the best heroines to come along in quite some time. And strong heroines in cinema don’t happen all that often. While the central story may involve a decades old murder being investigated by herself and reporter Mikael Blomkvist, it is Salander that draws us in. She is that compelling of a character. Those who avoid long features, especially ones that involve the act of reading, are missing out on one of the best surprises of the year. Definitely seek it out on home video, before she gains greater exposure with her role in Sherlock Holmes 2, arriving December 2011.

2. Inception

Reviewed theatrically and featured in Disc Deals and Steals

If The Dark Knight enabled Christopher Nolan to have “F U money” when it comes to directing gigs, Inception gives him carte blanche to make any film he wants.

Ask people what they want most from watching a film and the answer is typically that they want to be entertained. Inception has that and so much more. Upon seeing the film back in July, I wrote that it makes Nolan’s breakout film, Memento, look like a college thesis. The director is at a level right now that it wouldn’t surprise me that his name will become an adjective when describing film. Imagine if you will that a director comes along and makes a superhero epic that draws comparison to Nolan’s The Dark Knight and the term “Nolanistic” is coined.

Inception is the year’s best science-fiction film that could also be described as a spy movie, a heist flick, or drama about a romance lost. The idea behind the film has been with Nolan for a decade and to see it displayed onscreen I’m now wondering what other ideas he has stored away in that brain of his. You can tell that this film was not just something to pass the time between Batman films; this is a passion project and a seminal work of the man who hasn’t made a misstep in his career as a director. He’s like Pixar in that respect. I love the fact that he is able to adhere to old-fashioned film-making techniques while keeping visual effects to a minimum whenever possible. Working in his favor is a top-notch cast including Leonardo DiCaprio (Warner Bros. originally wanted someone like Will Smith for the role), Oscar winner Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy.

The question is asked that “sometimes you just need to dream a little bigger.” I don’t know how bigger a picture Nolan can make, but I know that I’ll be there.

1. Black Swan

Just like the year The Dark Knight was released, an entry from Fox Searchlight pulls the rug out and prevents a Christopher Nolan film appearing at the top of my top 10 list. But it’s only a number. My #1 and #2 picks could easily flip-flop, but then I thought about the two aspects that really draw me into a film: performance and story. Both Inception and Black Swan excel in both but Darren Aronofsky’s ballet feature has the caveat in having a singular performance that is so great and riveting that the story is all the better for it. Natalie Portman, it is my belief, will win a golden statuette for her performance as Nina Sayers, a ballet dancer who is given the opportunity to star in a production of Swan Lake. Like Christopher Nolan, Aronofsky had been living with this film in his head for close to a decade. Envisioned as a companion piece to The Wrestler, both depicting two distinct forms of art and entertainment, Black Swan as a psychological thriller draws comparisons to the early works of Roman Polanski (see Repulsion). As she practices for her star-making performance in Swan Lake, Nina begins to unravel. Vanity, jealousy, and a whole lot of other adjectives that end in ‘y consume her to the point of psychotic episode. And it’s magnificent.

In Black Swan Aronofsky plays with his audience and shows how masterful he is at telling a story. Highlighted by great photography, especially in scenes involving mirrors, and a musical score by Clint Mansell, the film is rather cryptic in its depiction, and definitely worth multiple viewings. Those looking for the best “mind fuck” of 2010 look no further.

It’s funny, as I look back on this year I notice how last year was all about new directors to keep an eye on (Duncan Jones, Neill Blomkamp and Marc Webb). This year emphasizes the paradigm shift of the old guard of filmmakers and looking at the ones who will continue to push the limits of the medium in terms of film-making and subject matter. There is a reason why this list includes films by Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, Danny Boyle, and Edgar Wright. It’s because they’re so damn good.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,