As we enter 2015 and the second half of the decade, now seems appropriate to recap the best films of the 2010s so far. This week “The Marquee” will profile the top ten films from each of the last five years, beginning with 2010. Be sure to list your own favorite films from 2010 in the comments, and stay tuned for more annual lists in the coming days.
10. Exit Through the Gift Shop
Exit Through the Gift Shop, the documentary from the mysterious but internationally renowned graffiti artist Banksy—known for his guerrilla art installations that have reached a can’t-miss event status—is also an event in itself. This is mostly because Banksy appears in his own film, albeit cloaked in darkness and with his voice modulated, but it is also because the film serves as an exhibition of sorts; an exhibition of the world of modern street art that Banksy largely inspired. While this premise alone would provide a compelling and informative look at an oft-forgotten art form, what elevates the film to an almost cult status is its inquiry, and frequently hilarious satire, of what can and should be considered art. The vehicle of this theme comes from a man who begins the film by taping countless episodes of street art in action, but eventually he enters the graffiti scene with the persona and pseudonym “Mr. Brainwash,” whose style can be characterized as unoriginal at best and plagiaristic at worst.
An important aspect of the inventive nature of street art is the risk and level of difficulty in where it is placed. The beauty of street art is as much in its composition as it is in finding a satirically convenient and seemingly impossible location for it to be displayed. Banksy recognizes and confronts the same challenge in his film, and he largely succeeds.
9. The Ghost Writer
Although The Ghost Writer seems to have one foot in the classic thriller era, made eternal by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, and the other foot in a world largely guided by a 21st century Special Relationship renewed by Tony Blair and George W. Bush for the War on Terror, the film does not offer anything to reinvent either area of influence. But director Roman Polanski (Chinatown, The Pianist), who is no stranger to thrillers or political intrigue, does not shy away from them either. Pierce Brosnan’s ex-British Prime Minister Adam Lang is so clearly a Blair incarnation, and a great many scenes involving the Ghost (played by Ewan McGreggor) following the directions of the recently-drowned ghost who preceded him induce the same feelings experienced when watching Hitchcock’s best work. We are left with an expertly crafted and suspenseful affair, precisely filmed and edited in a way that lets the story, adapted from a Robert Harris novel, speak for itself.
8. Black Swan
A level of obsession, often teetering past the edge of psychotic, undercuts much of director Darren Aronofsky’s work. There is the obsession to unlock some of math’s greatest secrets in Pi, to cheat death in The Fountain, to carry out God’s wishes in Noah, and in Black Swan the obsession centers on perfecting Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake.” Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) has always dreamed of becoming the lead ballerina at her New York-based company, and once she earns the role of a lifetime, she must do everything she can to keep the psychological conflict inside her—represented by the White Swan and Black Swan in the ballet—from tearing her apart. Portman’s performance at this point in her career was an eye-opener—so earnest in her pursuit for artistic and professional success—but at what cost? We see firsthand the toll it takes on her, including wild and disturbing hallucinations. In the hair-raising finale, Nina is convinced she gave a “perfect’ performance, and perhaps Aronofsky is having some fun here when it comes to perfection in art. But we have no inclination to take that from her, considering it is all she has left.
If you were to imagine Blast From the Past mixed with The Village and sprinkle in a bit of The White Ribbon you get Dogtooth, one of the more absurdly yet quietly disturbing films of late. Earning Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, Dogtooth observes a family in a sheltered community where the mother and three children are prisoners of their home, mandated by a ruthlessly strict father. The children are homeschooled and know nothing of the outside world, so removed from society that they are taught that flowers are called “zombies” and vicious cats lurk outside the walls surrounding their backyard, waiting to devour them. At a distance, the film is an insightful take on social conditioning, but managing to detach yourself from something like Dogtooth proves as difficult as escaping the family’s physical and psychological confines.
6. Animal Kingdom
David Michôd’s feature length debut is one of the finest films to come out of Australia in recent memory. What could have been a trite family crime melodrama instead is a full-blooded saga on how deep family ties run, until they don’t. The very first scene of Animal Kingdom is gripping in its mundane proceeding over a son witnessing his mother overdose on heroin. It looks eerily similar to a baby cub’s reaction to his mother’s death seen out in the wild. When the boy is taken in by his grandmother (Jacki Weaver) and uncles, he adopts the family’s criminal history while trying to resist their ways. Joel Edgerton, Ben Mendelsohn, and Guy Pearce fill out a strong Australian cast. But the standout performance belongs to Weaver as the matriarch of this pack of beasts. She initially comes off as the mouse among the lions, but she asserts herself in the final act, revealing she is capable of “eating her own young” to survive.
5. Winter’s Bone
Katniss Everdeen could stand to learn a thing or two from Ree Dolly, the central figure of this Sundance darling from director Debra Granik. Ree, like Katniss, is also played by the precocious-turned-iconic Jennifer Lawrence. At seventeen years old, Ree is in charge of her family’s cabin in the Ozarks, caring for her two younger siblings and her mentally fried mother. When her father skips bail on a methamphetamine charge, fronted with their home as collateral for the bond, Ree must set out and find him, or her family will be kicked out of their home. But this is the kind of journey that is less grand in scope and deeper in subtext. It seems all of her neighbors are enveloped in some sort of seedy dealings, such that when Ree comes knocking for information on her father’s whereabouts, no one cooperates. It’s the kind of film where no one can be trusted, but such a fact is not a secret to anyone. Ree certainly is not an anti-hero, but she also is not the kind for grand sweeping gestures. Instead she serves as the quiet, collected moral compass of the film, even convincing her uncle Teardrop (a strong performance from John Hawkes) to assist in her search. Granik never elevates her above the rest of the characters despite their failings. Just as much as Ree represents the best of them, she is still one of them.
4. A Prophet
A Prophet features the kind of coming-of-age story that rivals Michael Corleone’s in The Godfather. Except here it takes place in prison. Malik (Tahar Rahim) claims he is innocent of the crimes that locked him up. He sure doesn’t look like a criminal, but the system does not have much time or sympathy for such things. Malik is soon swept up by the Corsican mafia and its leader, Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), and is tasked with a kill-or-be-killed decision, sending him down a rabbit hole of violence and survival of the fittest. The film offers little to justify the violence, just reactions and resigned indifference by the inmates, but in a place where killing and survival are one in the same, the blood Malik spills as a rite of passage is the kind of blood that does not wash off easily.
3. Toy Story 3
Toy Story 3 works both as a culmination of an adolescence—beginning with 1995’s Toy Story and proceeding in lock step with my own youth—as well as a rather unshakable take on mortality. How could this possibly be? They’re just toys after all, but they’re our toys, especially for those—like me—whose favorite toy of all time was and still is Buzz Lightyear. And so Toy Story 3 is as much about the relationships between these characters and their development over three films as it is about our relationship with Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang and how they enlightened our imaginations countless times (not unlike the fantastic opening set piece of the film). As their owner Andy grows up and leaves for college, so too must we let go of childish things. It is a credit to the team at Pixar to so completely intertwine our feelings of fleeting youth and existence with a bunch of plastic molded figurines who innately and constantly worry about being thrown out, broken, or no longer relevant.
I’m not even getting to the harrowing Sunnyside Daycare prison break and garbage mill sequences at the end of the film, which still manage to insert some hilarious gags amongst some pretty dark overtones. All of this leads to a final scene that continues to ruin me every time I watch it, because in the end we are the ones being left behind. As long as there is love in the hearts of children for these characters they will never go away. Just compare the first shot of Toy Story with the final shot here. For the rest of us who grow up, start careers, and pay taxes, the love we found in youth will take different forms, but it will always remain—to infinity and beyond.
There are so many things fans take away from Christopher Nolan’s dream within a dream within a dream heist thriller: a reinvention of modern trailer soundtracks (bwaaahhhm!!!), the unforgettable revolving corridor sequence (executed entirely with practical effects and without wires), or the spinning top at the end of the film. They are all ideas etched in our brain and taking hold like a virus, as explained by Leo DiCaprio’s master extractor Cobb. But what sometimes get lost in discussing Inception are the more personal aspects to the story, namely Cobb’s struggle to overcome personal demons to be reunited with his children. While Cobb’s final job to grant his freedom is to perform Inception on the heir to a corporate empire (Cillian Murphy), he also winds up “going down” to perform Inception on himself to be expunged of the guilt over his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). So in the end, it is of no consequence to Cobb whether or not the top falls over—as long as he believes he is with his family.
1. The Social Network
How can a film with essentially two hours of dialogue—through depositions, computer programming sessions, and awkward social interactions—possibly be one of the best films of the decade? The answer: director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin craft a story of friendships betrayed in the name of ambition and greed. On the surface it seems The Social Network would be hard pressed to offer any meaningful semblance of drama, but each scene blisters by with snappy, crisp dialogue that enthralls you from the very beginning. It is also hard to imagine someone other than Jessie Eisenberg playing the role of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. In fact, all of the major castings (Armie Hammer as the Winklevoss twins, Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin, and Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker) are dead on. As Facebook has become ubiquitous in the modern social experience, so too has it come into contact with the ubiquitous trappings of Americana: privilege, hubris, and the need to be cool. It’s the third of these that ultimately ensnares Zuckerberg into Parker’s world of excess in Silicon Valley, spurred by the now infamous opening scene where Zuckerberg peppers his date Erica (Rooney Mara) with question after question, only for her to rebuke him, saying “Dating you is like dating a Stairmaster.” I suppose it is fitting then that Facebook, like countless other feats of our great nation, was born out of a break-up.
Bong Joon-ho’s oedipal, subversive murder mystery Mother; The Coen Brothers’ remake of a John Wayne classic, rich with signature Coen dialogue and beautifully shot by the great Roger Deakins, True Grit; Martin Scorsese’s underrated exercise into the psychological thriller genre with the gothic and enigmatic Shutter Island; One of the most inventive comic book/video game movies from English fan-favorite Edgar Wright, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World; The tragic demise of a long neglected relationship in Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine.