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Reeling It In: The best of films, the worst of films

Posted: Thursday, January 13, 2011

2010 had kind of a rough start, movie-wise. With a few exceptions, things looked pretty dismal going into the summer, but then "Iron Man 2" perked things up a bit, and "Toy Story" roused us out of our stupor enough for "Inception" to blow our minds.

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Ap Photo/Columbia Pictures, Merrick Morton
Ap Photo/Columbia Pictures, Merrick Morton
In this publicity image released by Columbia Pictures, Jesse Eisenberg, left, and Joseph Mazzello are shown in a scene from "The Social Network."

Everything's been on a pretty even keel since then, with some bad ones and some good ones, and a few great ones thrown in right in time for awards season.

In the end, I judge the whole of the cinematic year by how difficult it is to pare down my two lists -- bad and good. Usually it's easier to come up with the 10 worst films than the 10 best, but this year it was just the opposite.

Most of the new films I saw this year -- a record low of 56, surprisingly -- were merely mediocre with only a few that truly offended me, but with a few more that truly soared.

Let's hope that 2011, with "Thor," "Captain America," "The Tree of Life," and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," to look forward to, can say as much.

With that, here's my list of the best and worst films of the year, in a vaguely alphabetical order.

The Best

"Black Swan"

Darren Aronofsky, director of "The Wrestler" and "Requiem for a Dream," has pulled off a near impossible feat -- he's created a brilliant and terrifying thriller set in the quiet, pastel colored world of ballet. The writing and direction of this tale of a prima ballerina driven mad by her quest to be perfect take much of the credit, but none of it would have been possible without the tour de force performance of Natalie Portman, who made me completely forget that she wasted a good six years of her life playing the flat and ineffectual Princess Amidala for George Lucas. This movie is, indeed, dark, but, as an added bonus, won't make you want to drive your car into a telephone pole, unlike the director's previously mentioned efforts. Look for major award recognition come Oscar time.

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1"

Irritating as it is that the Hollywood powers that be have decided to milk every last dollar out of this series by splitting the final film into two parts, this is exactly the reason it succeeds so much more than did the previous film, "Half-Blood Prince." "Deathly Hallows, Pt. 1" has the time to spend building up the mood and setting the stage for the tremendous climax to come. Also worth noting is how grown up these films have become, this current offering completely shaking the mantle of "kiddie" movie with its dark tone and fully realized performances from its three main stars. The end is somewhat abrupt, but it only leaves us wanting more.

"Inception"

This film, by auteur director Christopher Nolan, was expected to be good, but I doubt anyone expected it to be the smash hit that it was. A dream within a dream within a dream, and at that point you've only scratched the surface. Brilliant performances and thrilling action to boot. This film, though perhaps too populist to actually win, will be a guaranteed contender for Best Picture this year.

"Iron Man 2"

Though not quite as good as its predecessor, "Iron Man 2" has something that very few non-animated films had this year -- fun. Robert Downey Jr. proves yet again that he's perfect to play the narcissistic Tony Stark, a high-energy, yet fundamentally damaged hero. Add in Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Mickey Rourke, and you have one of the most entertaining, exciting films of the year.

"Scott Pilgrim vs. the World"

OK -- "Iron Man 2" was indeed fun, but "Scott Pilgrim" is by far the most entertaining film I saw all year. Hilarious and heartwarming, this epic tale of a nerdy Canadian trying to win the girl of his dreams far exceeded my expectations. Director Edgar Wright, who also brought us "Sean of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz," proves beyond a doubt that he is a genius at taking unlikely material and turning it into gold. Unfortunately for "Scott," not box office gold, but this movie is worth a try nonetheless.

"Shutter Island"

How can you beat Martin Scorsese directing Leonardo DiCaprio in a terrifying psychological thriller set on an isolated island that also happens to serve as a mental hospital? You can't. "Shutter Island's" twists and turns keep you guessing, and the brilliant and moody pacing and cinematography keep you on the edge of your seat. This one gets pretty dark toward the end, but it's still a great genre flick and a lot of fun to watch.

"The Social Network"

Wow. Only a writer/director team as accomplished as David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin could turn the story of an introverted guy who comes up with a new kind of website into the riveting dramatic thriller that it is. There's all kinds of talk about how accurate this pseudo-history of Facebook actually is, but that's really beside the point. It's not the details of what happened that capture you, it's the whip-smart dialogue and the incredible performances, especially by Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Justin Timberlake. I can't decide whether "The Social Network" or "Black Swan" was the best movie of the year, but I'm leaning toward the former.

"The Town"

On the one hand, "The Town" isn't really an awards and recognition kind of film. It's a crime drama -- a modern day shoot 'em up, and that's fine. I enjoy that genre in particular, and those movies are always ripe for good dramatic confrontations. But in the hands of director/star Ben Affleck, "Town" transcends its genre and becomes something more, giving life to the characters and to the city around them. Not since Michael Mann's "Heat" or Antoine Fuqua's "Training Day" have I seen a potboiler done so well.

"True Grit"

I have long been a fan of the Coen Brothers, but never would I have guessed that they could apply their distinctive style to a traditional western, a remake of a John Wayne classic at that. Jeff Bridges, instead of a doing a Duke impersonation, completely owns the role of Rooster Cogburn, but he's not the real star of this incredible film. Fourteen-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, armed with the superb and meticulously constructed script, takes command of every scene she's in. They can go ahead and pre-print the Oscar nameplate for Best Supporting Actress right now.

The Animation Generation

This final slot originally was going to go to the year's biggest money maker -- the beautiful, hilarious, and heartbreaking "Toy Story 3" along with the requisite exclamations about how Pixar rarely puts out a bad movie. But then I looked back and realized that there were actually five -- count 'em five! -- excellent animated films this year. Along with the best of the bunch, "Toy Story," there was "Despicable Me," "How to Train Your Dragon," "MegaMind," and "Tangled." In a leaner year, any one of these might have made my list on its own, but this time they can all share a slot.

The Worst

"The Book of Eli"

I have a friend who really likes this movie, but try as I might, I can't seem to come around to his way of thinking. Even if it weren't for far-fetched over-arching religious theme, the ridiculously gratuitous (and fake-looking, by the way) violence, and the hordes of villainous post-apocalyptic goons, even if I hadn't completely written the movie off by that point, the "shocker" ending is too preposterous to be believed. C'mon Denzel!

"Burlesque"

"Burlesque" takes the award for most enjoyable bad movie of the year. It's what every bad movie should be: unintentionally hilarious dialogue, over-the-top acting, and big production numbers. And Cher. I think every bad movie from now on should include at least a cameo by Cher with her frozen, vaguely bemused face and blank stare. Yes, the singing and dancing were good, but not half as "good" as everything else.

"Cop Out"

Not often do I walk out of a movie with the impression that I've just been involved in an elaborate practical joke, but that was kind of how "Cop Out" made me feel. It had to be real, right? Surely no one would spend tens of millions of dollars just to punk the audience. Director Kevin Smith's action comedy was as shoddy and unfunny a production as I've seen in years. This seemed less like a movie starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan and more like a parody film starring Morgan's alter ego on "30 Rock," Tracy Jordan. With the tagline, "Rock out with your Glock out," "Cop Out" is right up there with "Who Dat Ninja?" and "Honky Grandma be Trippin!"

"From Paris with Love"

This is a bad action movie, there's no doubt. But sometimes I think studios look at John Travolta and say, "Hey! He's a big star. He can carry this. Just let him do what he wants!" No. He can't. Travolta needs good material to be good. He is incapable of elevating the abysmal dialogue, break-neck pacing, or cartoonish characterizations. He's the worst part of this zany Franco-American action hybrid, but not by much.

Action Smaction

This seems a good place to mention that the genre of "action comedy" was particularly painful this year. In addition to the previous two films, which were so bad they deserved slots of their own, we saw a crummy remake of a beloved TV show in "The A-Team," a crummy comic book adaptation in "The Losers," and a crummy Sylvester Stallone testosterone-o-rama in "The Expendables."

Each of these films had the requisite terrible dialogue, poorly staged action scenes, and bad acting, but even worse was the level of talented people involved. Of the hundreds of millions of dollars of performer salaries over the previous five films, (admittedly, most of that went to the ill-advised and painful-to-watch cameo appearances of Bruce Willis and Arnold Swarzenegger in "Expendables) the only stand-outs are Sharlto Copely in "The A-Team," who you might know better as the guy who turned into a bug in "District 9," and Dolph Lundgren, for goodness sakes.

Romancing the Drone

While we're on the subject of action comedies, there was another terrible movie this year, "The Bounty Hunter," that tried to combine the action comedy genre with the romantic comedy genre, perhaps in the hopes of attracting women and their dates. Unfortunately the plan back-fired because the movie was so god-awful that it set both genres back a generation. "Bounty Hunter" also ushered in at least two other bad films, "Going the Distance," an awkwardly unfunny romantic comedy starring Drew Barrymore, and "Eat Pray Love" a romantic drama that elicited the following response in theaters across the country: "What time is it? How long is this thing?! She's not even done eating her way across Italy yet!"

"Legion"

Much like disaster movies, religious action movies are usually pretty preposterous, but often fun. "Legion" is the exception to the rule, packing on the preposterous and leaving most of the fun out in the rain with the zombie-angels.

Yes, I said it -- zombie-angels. Apparently a flood was too tidy, this time around God is cleaning house using an army of angels who turn the humans they possess into zombies. Why? Your guess is as good as mine, but if the filmmakers get their way the answer will be revealed in "Legion 2." Lucky for Dennis Quaid that his character gets blown up at the end, so there's little chance he'll get saddled with that one.

"Robin Hood"

This movie, by all rights, should have been on the first list. Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, and Ridley Scott doing a medieval action epic? I'm there! And then it turned out to be a huge convoluted mess, part origin story, part revisionist history lesson, and all nearly unwatchable due to the shaky hand-held camera work. Not even accidentally fun.

"Skyline"

"Skyline" sucks you in, literally, with a pretty cool trailer showing giant alien spaceships slurping millions of people off the face of the planet in giant whirling masses. Made by a couple of special effects guys, the movie does indeed look pretty spectacular. Unfortunately, it also appears to be acted and scripted by guys from the effects department. The performances are really, really bad, but not nearly as bad as the dialogue and plot. If you can stand to wade through the hour and a half, there is an unintentionally funny moment when you realize why the aliens are hoovering everybody up into their ships, but I'm not sure it's worth it.

"Sex and the City 2"

Far from being an improvement on the first film, a movie I loathed, "Sex and the City 2" is one of the worst movies I've seen in years. Grating, obnoxious, offensive, and that's all in the first fifteen minutes. Who could have possibly thought it would be a good idea to send these four cartoon embodiments of western female decadence to a fundamentalist Islamic regime? Luckily this film was such a trainwreck, so abhorred by critics across the board, that maybe, just maybe, we'll be spared another round. My fingers are crossed. Please, oh please! Oh, who am I kidding? There's money to be made off of people who adored that show. I'm sure it won't be long before we are saddled with "Sex and the City 3-D!"

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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What's the best film you saw in 2010? Visit us on Facebook, www.facebook.com/peninsulaclarion, and leave a comment. We'll share our readers' top picks on next week's section.



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