Thanks to the weirdness of award eligibilities—we go by Vancouver opening dates, not by academy rules—some films aren’t up for consideration in this year’s lists. The titles below are ranked in the order our critics preferred.
Usually, we get more Oscar bait in this festive season, but Hollywood has been playing it safe lately, leaving the field open for a really surprising variety of movies from all kinds of places, geographic and otherwise.
The Social Network
Smart, smooth filmmaking about a topic as current as your next computer click: the advent of electronic communities that promise to both enhance and unravel the flesh-and-blood kinds.
The King’s Speech
Much academy attention will be paid to the performances of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush as the incipient monarch and his Australian speech therapist, respectively. But the film lingers because of its quiet commentary on class and family, royal or otherwise.
The Secret in Their Eyes
This Argentine import managed to trump that Dragon Tattoo flick’s mix of fascists ’n’ creepy killers by adding a memorable love story and almost unbearably stylish filmmaking.
The latest from Lovely & Amazing’s Nicole Holofcener was sorely overlooked. But who wouldn’t love Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt as Manhattanites with mixed feelings about their vast luck with real estate and vintage furniture?
Toy Story 3
Wow. Who knew the year’s deepest statement on loss, self-worth, and human connection would come from a cartoon? Pixar got everything right in this wise and literally playful threequel.
The Kids Are All Right
So this is what happens when your birth dad shows up and starts sleeping with one of your lesbian moms. It ends up as messy, funny, and dear as anything that goes down in any family.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
The line between found art and high culture is obliterated in tag artist Banksy’s first documentary, a maddeningly provocative contemplation (and spoof) of commerce in a post-Warhol world of self-mythologizing artists and collectors.
Our Beloved Month of August
Almost a nonmovie, this restless Portuguese pastoral follows director Miguel Gomes, who is determined to make a fictional story out of documentary elements. The villagers cooperate, but their real personalities keep getting in the way.
Bruce McDonald’s best film—with two female rockers glancing back at their better days—is the swan song of Toronto’s late, great Tracy Wright (Molly Parker is the other) and a bittersweet remembrance of a vanished music scene.
The best thing about this year’s top movies is that they transport us to bizarre worlds we’d never otherwise see—the Ozarks’ drug subculture, the high-risk nocturnal universe of street art, and the ultracompetitive backstage of a New York City ballet company. Even if you’d never want to stay in these places, that didn’t make the visits any less fascinating.
All About Eve meets David Lynch in a lurid mashup of high and low art that’s as dazzling as it is deranged. Darren Aronofsky translates the heightened, dreamy melodrama of ballet into film, grounding the surrealness with a performance by Natalie Portman that is equal parts seething neuroticism and icy perfectionism.
Steel yourself for total immersion in the most unlikely—yet mesmerizingly twisted—of places: the Ozarks’ underbelly, where rusted cars lie abandoned outside decrepit mobile homes, drug lords wear cowboy hats and big silver belt buckles, and the thugs who deliver the beatings are leather-faced housewives in plaid work shirts.
Mother and Child
Rodrigo García’s aching meditation on adoption features complex female characters unlike any we’ve ever seen. Just watch Naomi Watts’s nuclear-winter cold career woman announce to her new boss: “Many women find me threatening. I’m not part of the sisterhood.”
A western as only the Coen brothers could do it, with deadpan humour and eccentric dialogue punctuated by blasts of blood-spattered violence. But it’s vengeance-minded young Hailee Steinfeld who shows the true grit here as an unsentimental young heroine hooked up with the world’s gnarliest posse of beyond-the-law lawmen.
The Social Network
That David Fincher turns the messy, unsexy story of Facebook into such cyberspeed entertainment proves he’s as whip smart as the subjects of this film. From the flawed geek heroes who spit out dialogue faster than they can punch in code to the legal wrangling that pits a misfit student against the establishment, The Social Network is taut, thrilling, and almost scarily relevant to our times.
A horror film, only not, Monsters is a hugely imaginative low-budget surprise. It’s part offbeat romance, part road trip through Mexico, and part metaphor for our ever-more-barricaded borders. The gigantic, limb-ripping, tentacled aliens are just a bonus.
Exit Through The Gift Shop
This is that rare documentary that allows itself to get swept along by its subject into insanely unpredictable new realms. What starts out as a portrait of ultracool guerrilla street artists like Banksy takes a sharp turn to focus on the obsessive wannabe who’s filming them and then explodes into a hilarious indictment of the art market and the pretentious hype machine that powers it.
Floria Sigismondi makes the most rock ’n’ roll movie of the year, nailing the hormonally cranked outrageousness of the first underage all-girl band. You’d think Kristen Stewart’s dead-ringer Joan Jett or Dakota Fanning’s peroxided, nubile Cherie Currie would steal the show, but it’s Michael Shannon’s manic Svengali Kim Fowley (“Jail-fucking-bait! Jack-fucking-pot!”) that makes this pseudobiopic born to be bad—in the best kind of way.
In the year’s most memorable character study, Catalina Saavedra’s mopey Chilean maid turns sinister when competition arrives. A black, bone-dry comedy that perfectly captures South America’s shifting social divisions, as well as the effects of living intimately with a family that doesn’t want you to be seen or heard.
You know the way the adrenaline pumps when you ride a mountain bike down a steep trail? Through hyperactive editing and warped points of view, director Danny Boyle somehow bottles that kind of rush. With help from James Franco’s awesome-dude acting, a simple story of survival—albeit a gruesome one—morphs into an ode to exhilaration and the sheer will to live.
Perhaps in defence of his own unique gifts and position, Jean-Luc Godard once said that the French were lousy at telling stories but really good at dressing up abstract ideas in narrative flesh. Well, based on this year’s release roster, one would have to say that they’re now equally good at both. Although my Francophilia is not exactly a state secret, I can’t remember another year in which so many of the top films had Gallic roots.
Enter the Void
Set in Tokyo and mainly in English, this “French extremist” production from Argentine-born Gaspar Noé is so visually astonishing that it makes Avatar look like a Saturday-morning cartoon.
Mesrine: Killer Instinct
Astonishingly, Dafri also wrote the script for Mesrine: Killer Instinct. Made before A Prophet, this double-barrelled biopic (the second half has not been released yet in Vancouver) is loosely based on the life of France’s answer to John Dillinger. From first frame to last, the energy never flags.
The same can be said for the shortened version of Carlos, Olivier Assayas’s biography of the Venezuelan terrorist known to the world as “Carlos the Jackal”. Shot in a number of languages and a plethora of countries and featuring feats of weight gain and loss that rival those of Michael Fassbender and Robert De Niro, the film and its star, Edgar Ramírez, do a brilliant job of deconstructing the reality of this anti-Che.
The Father of My Children
Also a biopic of sorts is Mia Hansen-Lí¸ve’s Father of My Children. Inspired by the generous life and tragic death of Humbert Balsan, this is one of the few films ever made about a motion-picture producer to be pitched in the key of elegiac affection.
The White Ribbon
Michael Haneke has often worked for the French film industry, but in The White Ribbon he reverts to his native tongue to investigate the cult of authoritarianism that blighted social life in Germany in the years immediately preceding World War I. A brilliant exercise shot in soul-chilling black and white.
What’s in a word? Well, in the brilliant Romanian film Police, Adjective, just about everything. This is the only detective story where morality is inseparable from the dictionary.
A lot of things (Unforgiven, Deadwood, the geriatric Texas Ranger novels of Larry McMurtry) have changed the western since John Wayne won his Oscar for True Grit, and in their gloriously mythological, funny, and heartbreaking version of the Charles Portis novel, the Coen brothers manage to incorporate them all—and then some. Better yet, Jeff Bridges kicks John Wayne’s generic tail into a 10-gallon hat.
Deliver Us From Evil
Danish director Ole Bornedal does a fine job of converting Sam Peckinpah’s powerfully Neanderthal Straw Dogs into something a little more Cro-Magnon in this bleakly bleached-out Scandinavian revenge drama.
Our final entry comes from Israel. Shot almost entirely inside an Israel Defense Forces tank, Lebanon is one of the most formally inventive war movies ever made (and highly topical, too).
Half of the movies I’ve seen in my 15th (and final) year of reviewing are based on comic books. That’s not such a bad thing, because great comics offer well-conceived premises and bold action, qualities that translate well to film. Of course, sound and fury by themselves signify nothing; good movies also need wit and heart. It’s not an easy recipe, obviously, or there wouldn’t be so many duds. But when it works, strangers feel compelled to sit together in the dark and have an emotional experience. And that will always be magic.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
I can’t say that this movie makes complete sense, or that the hero wound up with the right girl. But Edgar Wright’s adaptation of a Canadian graphic novel is the most sheerly exhilarating movie of the year, gene-splicing video gaming with garage rock to create pure cinema joy.
Death Wish as Trainspotting. Michael Caine plays a council-housing pensioner forced to show that beneath a decrepit exterior might lurk the remnants of a cold, sadistic, and unrelenting warrior. Satirical flourishes provide flashing neon directions to the auteur’s politics.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Even without being the tie-in to Stieg Larsson’s beloved Millennium Trilogy novels, this would be an absorbing procedural. The key is that our heroes, while digging the Nazi-infested skeletons from the closets of an upper-crust Swedish family, remain charmingly disparate even while they become allies and lovers.
The Kids Are All Right
As one who is constitutionally unable to watch embarrassment humour without fleeing in mortification, I was surprised to fall for this gleefully absurd bedroom farce. But it is so wise about marriage (lesbian marriage, not that it matters) and children that its shenanigans have the warmth of a fond memory.
The Book of Eli
The best Zatoichi movie since Zatoichi, this post-apocalypse cowboy road movie would seem to have a few too many genre tropes running at once. Many reviewers were also taken aback by its shocking! twist! ending! Again, it is powerful acting that centres and justifies the wackiness.
For those who aren’t gore hounds, a movie about a fellow obliged to mutilate himself may seem like a persuasive argument for staying home and reading. But Danny Boyle has made Aron Ralston’s ordeal into a stylish and touching adventure; nerve-racking, to be sure, but oddly fun.
A refreshingly unironic celebration of western memes, from the spectre of John Wayne and sublime countryside to its stark moral ethos. It’s also exciting and frequently hilarious. Hailee Steinfeld, only 13, makes an astonishingly assured debut as a petticoated avenger, lethal with guns and words.
A heist flick encoded to a Mí¶bius strip of sheer craft. Shallow character writing makes this more of a moving sculpture than a vessel for feelings, but the hallway fight is the signature scene of 2010 and the shootout winner versus Shutter Island, the year’s other fine Leonardo DiCaprio psycho thriller.
The Social Network
Facebook is an addictive bauble, rather like this quotable docu-comedy about its foundation and subsequent legal troubles. Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg makes a lovable yet daunting pitbull-nerd with Mosaic overtones: a visionary guide to a land of human connection that he will never fully enter.
Well, maybe this was the best use of 3-D. Or the worst. That’s the way of it with Jackass, a troupe of badly aging masochists whose abhorrent nonsense, now in crystalline high definition, has the single virtue of making me laugh myself nearly into a coma.
Certain films of 2010—The Bounty Hunter, anyone?—made me want to commit hara-kiri with a plastic drink straw in the theatre. Try that, James Franco. But the 10 beauties below gave my fragile heart the will to keep beating. Wait—is that an arrhythmia I feel? Someone get me an aspirin. Oh, okay. Just a sudden repressed memory of Ashton Kutcher smirk-acting to the camera in Killers. Carry on.
Well, it’s about time a good old-fashioned, demented tale of ballet, doppelgí¤ngers, a monster mommy, and repressed sexuality turned up. An exquisitely freaky Natalie Portman wears the tutu for director Darren Aronofsky’s bloody, feathered masterpiece. Swan Lake will never seem the same again.
The Social Network
Old-dude pros—director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin—turn an Internet story into a smart-talking film that’s such a head rush it’s practically an action flick. Facebook don Mark Zuckerberg should thank them for making him seem like the asshole genius of his generation.
What’s better than boxing brothers named Micky and Dicky? Watching Christian Bale pop people in the nose in an out-there performance as crackhead Dicky. Director David O. Russell does his best Martin Scorsese with this edgy, exhilarating true tale. Warning: don’t mess with the ladies.
In the land of the very, very bad, the one-eyed man is king—at least in the Coen sibs’ beautiful, brutal West, where revenge is ruthless, wit is black, and the killer is a vicious moron. Jeff Bridges’s eye-patched hired gun and Hailee Steinfeld’s blood-lusty avenger rule.
Call this Ozarks thriller hillbilly noir. Jennifer Lawrence gives an unflinching performance as a tough teen in a gritty tale of meth labs and damaged folks that exudes a harsh, haunting beauty. And okay—full confession—squirrel-gutting turns out to be freakin’ fascinating.
The Kids Are All Right
Yeah, it’s super hip to make a film about L.A. lesbians who watch gay-guy porn, angst about their kids, and are played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. But, really, this is a funny, flawlessly acted portrait of a family, with Mark Ruffalo as the “stone-cold fox” donor dad.
In both full-length and condensed versions, filmmaker Olivier Assayas pulls off a sweaty, jacked-up chronicle that skirts glamorizing the pro-Palestinian celebrity terrorist who bombed and kidnapped his way through the ’70s and ’80s. Actor Edgar Ramírez’s narcissistic Carlos the Jackal roves from master strategist to master ladies’ man.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Who is Mr. Brainwash, and is his art really art or just a whopping con? This sneaky, funny-as-hell doc by Brit street artist Banksy plays prankster with camera, spray paint, and true rebel joy. Exit looking for an underpass to tag.
The Ghost Writer
Hey, I wouldn’t take the kids to Roman Polanski’s hot-tub party either, but this taut, witty piece of Hitchcockian storytelling proves the wee Frenchman is still a master filmmaker. It’s not Chinatown or Rosemary’s Baby, but The Ghost Writer evokes the creepy dread of the best ’70s thrillers.
The Other Guys
I’m still laughing at the bit where Will Ferrell’s boob-simpleton cop asks his fetchingly attired wife, played by Eva Mendes, why she’s “dressed like a hobo”—and at Mark Wahlberg’s dead-funny reactions as he stares at his idiot partner’s babe spouse. Spectacularly, stupidly silly.
Let’s face it: it wasn’t the best year for movies. The growing mania for 3-D couldn’t patch over the fact that Hollywood seems to be forgetting how to tell an original story. Although endless remakes and diluted sequels continue to diminish the pleasures of the big screen, there are still movies out there that make it all worthwhile. Here’s what impressed me, in my order of preference.
The Social Network
Taking you inside the creation of Facebook, Aaron Sorkin’s inspired script starts off like Revenge of the Nerds for deep thinkers. But there’s much more at play here. Sorkin is such a master of multitasking with different genres that he ends up transcending the confines of a top-notch legal drama.
Do I miss John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn? You bet. But you can still pine for the Duke as the “one-eyed fat man” and enjoy the Coen brothers’ massively entertaining interpretation of the Charles Portis novel. This version is darker and less rollicking, but the very best lines remain while much is improved.
The King’s Speech
Colin Firth plays the man who didn’t expect to be king in a rich slice of period drama that gets everything just right. Think you can’t build a satisfying movie around something as common as a speech impediment? Think again. The pitch-perfect cast should be well represented at the Oscars.
In this engaging sleeper, a man finds his soul mate only to discover that he’s competing for the role of alpha male with her man-child of a son. John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, and Jonah Hill sparkle as they serve up plenty of fun and more than a touch of pathos.
Set in rural Missouri, Winter’s Bone is about a determined teenager in search of her bail-jumping dad. With the family home up as collateral, she’s desperate to preserve the only life she knows. Anchored by the impressive performance of Jennifer Lawrence, the result is a backwoods odyssey that’s remarkably moving.
Based on the true story of a young hiker forced to come to terms with his life after an accident leaves him trapped in a canyon, this is the kind of movie that leaves you thinking about your own choices. James Franco delivers while director Danny Boyle keeps us guessing.
Toy Story 3
How many movie franchises do you know of where the third outing trumps the first in emotional impact? In this poignant and relentlessly funny offering, our cast of toys makes the move from their original owner to a daycare centre. Along the way, we learn about love, loyalty, and moving on.
I’ve taken my share of shots at the turkeys Ben Affleck has cranked out over the years. But his confident work on this hard-hitting tale of cops and robbers—where he serves as director, cowriter, and star—makes up for past mistakes by delivering action, thrills, and low-life atmosphere.
The Fighter features Mark Wahlberg’s best performance in years. There’s a long cinematic tradition of showcasing the problems of the working class through the boxing ring. And thanks largely to outstanding support from Christian Bale, this one does it better than most.
Director Martin Scorsese delivers a chilling game of psychological cat and mouse that keeps you guessing until the last scene. The result is an elegant tale of horror that relies more on mind games than graphic sensationalism. As an exercise in cinematic sleight of hand, this one gets top marks.