Screen shot from the trailer of Inception
10. Black Swan
Using the ballet “Swan Lake” as a backdrop, this film intensely brings to life the reality that performers can often lose their selves when performing. Directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler), Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a dancer who earns the role of the White Swan and Black Swan. This is Sayers’ first lead role.
She is often tense and on edge. Her director (Vincent Cassel) pushes her and seems to be playing her against another girl who could steal the part from Sayers at any moment. What unfolds is a taut psychological thriller, one big metaphorical fantasy that gets up under your skin.
9. The Ghost Writer
Roman Polanski directed this political thriller, which tells the story of a Ghost Writer (Ewan McGregor) who is hired to redact the memoirs of British politician Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). He becomes embroiled in a scandal over how far he was willing to go to develop a special relationship between the UK and the U.S. The Ghost Writer is in a fortress that is heavily protected and the memoirs are kept under lock-and-key.
As the Ghost becomes more and more aware of the sensitive information in the memoirs he is redacting, the Ghost finds himself in more and more danger (one could ask if The Ghost would have been compelled to send the text of the memoirs to WikiLeaks).
This is one smart thriller that really doesn’t rely on violence to tell the story. It’s a classic controlled plot that moves forward with good pace and delivers.
8. The Kids Are All Right
This may very well be the first comedy drama to involve the scenario of artificial insemination in the plot and address it with mature wit and charm. Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) are married and had two children, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson) who are now teenagers. Laser wants to meet the man who donated sperm and made him possible. Joni helps Laser get in contact with the donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), and from that point an array of scenarios unfold that deal with the reality of bringing a sperm donor into contact with the family his sperm helped make possible.
The dialogue is pitch-perfect. The characters are flawed but honest. They are dealing with uncharted territory in much the same way that viewers are dealing with uncharted territory. The concept of same-sex couples is fairly new to American culture. And, this film goes a long way toward showing that there isn’t much difference between a family with heterosexual parents and a family with homosexual parents. In each case, parents have the same responsibilities and challenges that come with raising children (or in this snapshot in time, teenagers).
7. Inside Job
This documentary narrated by Matt Damon and directed by Charles Ferguson told the story of the economic collapse of 2008 and how it could have been prevented and how it was, as the title suggests, an inside job. It directly singles out activities on Wall Street of delusion and recklessness, which fueled casino capitalism. The people who claim to be experts on Wall Street or finance and what happened are sat down before the camera. They are asked questions in interviews by Ferguson and one of the best parts of the film is seeing these individuals squirm when asked to answer questions on camera.
Well-explained is how government was complicit in allowing this to happen. Well-illuminated is the fact that President Obama allowed back into his administration people who played a role in bringing about the 2008 collapse. But, where Ferguson really succeeds in pointing the finger is when he doesn’t stop at Wall Street or the White House and continues onward to Harvard University. The part of the movie where he talks about education–how economics is taught–being part of the problem makes it certain: This is one fine muckraking documentary.
Produced by Just Vision, the film tells the story of the village of Budrus in Palestine, where Israel is trying to confiscate three hundred acres of village land so they can build a wall. The community pleads with the soldiers to stop the construction so their community’s olive trees and land can be saved. The pleas go unanswered and the Caterpillar bulldozers continue to destroy the land in preparation for the wall.
The film, which began production in 2003, humanizes the Palestinians. It gives attention to a conflict that most artists and media makers would not dare, which is why so little art and media on the conflict is created. It is not afraid to make the Palestinians seem like real people who deserve empathy. And so, it creates inquisitiveness among Americans, who never would have dared to search for the truth about the Israeli and Palestinian conflict.
When shown to audiences, it has made Americans relieved to know people are trying to use nonviolence. It has made some think about joining the struggle. And, it has made others, who have had their worldview or prejudice toward Palestinians challenged, admit they need to go home and think over what they just watched.
5. Fair Game
The film, directed by Doug Liman, tells the human story of what Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) and Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) faced when the U.S. government chose to leak Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA agent to the press. It shows the resiliency of a human being, who was taught not to break, finally mentally and physically breaking down because all that she knows is lost.
Many shameful stories from the Bush Administration era, which are fit for being presented cinematically, exist. Those stories only grow all the more powerful as a society and culture presses onward and does not confront the reality that it could all happen again. What happened with Plame and Wilson is one of those stories -” a tale excised from Bush’s now-unfortunately-bestselling Decision Points memoir.
4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The book by Stieg Larsson, which this film is based on, enjoyed a place on the New York Times Bestseller List this year. Part of that success was likely related to this film. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, directed by Niels Arden Oplev told the story of disgraced financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), who comes to assist Blomkvist as he searches for a woman who has been missing or dead for forty years.
The film comes from Sweden. For that reason, it is able to bring to the viewer a raw experience that would never get past the “family values” MPAA ratings board. An American version of this film is in the works, but I imagine it will fail tremendously. This film not only presents a good story about the history of a family and its connections to a secret clan but it brings into the story a thread that relates to corporations and business. It reminds us that there are people out there running this world who support and are capable of committing acts of horror.
3. The Social Network
Peter Travers, film critic for Rolling Stone magazine, designated “The Social Network” as one of twelve films that have defined generations. It was listed along with films like Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Star Wars (1977) and The Breakfast Club (1985). It is #1 on a lot of top ten film lists of 2010 being circulated.
People like Lawrence Lessig accused director Aaron Sorkin of getting the story of Mark Zuckerberg wrong. Some details were likely embellished and wholly fictionalized, but what comes through in this movie — the narcissism of the people starting up Facebook along with the way technology begins to play a role in interpersonal relationships — makes this a solid film. It illuminates the culture of affluent privileged students well. It shows how Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), creator of Napster, were rebels against business. This is venture capitalism with a dash of adolescence and its using the weakness of technology industries to strike a blow.
One of the best scenes is when the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer/Josh Pence) sit down to tell then-Dean of Harvard Larry Summers that Zuckerberg stole their idea for Facebook. Summers does not take seriously what the Winklevosses are suggesting. He think the idea of Facebook is foolish, something nobody could ever make money from. Since it didn’t involve bank deregulation, I can understand Summers’ view, but in the end, Zuckerberg has made out pretty well for a geeky affluent college boy who got into this because of a relationship with a girl that went bad.
2. Green Zone
Directed by Paul Greengrass and inspired by Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, the story revolves around Chief Roy Miller (Matt Damon) whose role in Iraq is to lead missions to find the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that were touted as the justification for going to war. After following intelligence reports multiple times that lead to empty sites with no WMD at all, Miller makes the choice to raise the issue at a briefing.
Green Zone is a war film with a message, one that is most certainly not about the honors or glories of war but rather the reasons and justifications for war that might be manufactured to create support for invasions or conflicts. While The Hurt Locker was more war porn than a socially conscious film on the Iraq War, the Green Zone is different. It humanizes the Iraqis and even gives Iraqis a chance to express what it is like to have an occupying force in their country. As more and more members of the press and politicians push their dogmatic views on the Iraq War into the public (especially now that the war is “over” and history is being written), it’s important for films like Green Zone to be produced.
Christopher Nolan spent around a decade rewriting and rewriting this script and finessing the concept in this film. What Nolan spent ten years doing paid off because this is the only film I went back to the theater to see a second time. The cerebral ecstasy provided by this film -” the respect the film had for the intelligence of its audience and the “maze” nature of the film from beginning to end -” had me eager to experience the film again.
The premise is, for the most part, original. A profession known as extraction (that in reality does not exist yet) involves people raiding other people’s minds and extracting information usually on behalf of very powerful people in the world who are tied to huge corporations. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the main extractor in the film. He has a right-hand man, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who helps him coordinate extractions. Cobb assembles crews for each extraction and the way an extraction works involves finding time when the subject with the idea can be put into a “dream state” with a device that hooks up the crew conducting the extraction to the subject who has the idea that needs to be extracted.
That would have been enough of a premise for a story. But, Nolan doesn’t stop there. Moments into the movie he inverts the concept as Cobb and a crew agree to carry out a high-risk job known as inception. And, the idea and dilemma of planting ideas into people’s minds becomes a key element of this intellectual thrill ride.
South of the Border
This documentary, written by Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy and Research (CEPR), and Tariq Ali, author of Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope, shows how much of the continent has been raised out of poverty and thrown off agendas of privatization promoted by world organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Simultaneously, it challenges media representations of Latin America in the U.S. media.
For anyone wondering what the way out of struggles in America may be, director Oliver Stone’s documentary, South of the Border, is a conversation starter. It’s a film with the potential to push Americans to assess not only the way the U.S. acts and behaves toward Latin America but also how Americans are expected to reject the social movements of Latin America.
The storyline for this film appears to be very minimalist. Jack/Edward (George Clooney) is an assassin who hides out in Italy for his last assignment. He’s a craftsman. He has the ability to build weapons out of random parts that can be used for just about any job that someone might want to do. He is deeply paranoid and lives in a fog of suspicion. That fog of suspicion is only pierced by women whom he seeks instances of love or moments of pleasure from.
This is a character study of an American. A priest he speaks to regularly while hiding in Italy says to him, “You’re American. You think you can escape history. You live for the present.” That quote fits the story. There is little background given on how Clooney’s character got to this point. But, none of that information is necessary. This is a character at the end of the line and audiences are invited to watch this character find a way of escaping his life as an assassin, if that’s what he would like to do.
The film is much more like a Bernardo Bertolucci film (perhaps comparable to The Conformist (1970)). It’s a far cry from an action film, although that’s probably how the film was marketed to American audiences. And, the whole film feels like it might be commenting on the dominant psychology of Americans, especially those in power. There’s a lot of subtext, which makes this film a pleasure to watch unfold.
Channeling the classic novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Olive (Emma Stone) is a student in high school who gets caught lying about losing her virginity when Marianne (Amanda Bynes), a student with Christian Right values, overhears her lying to her “friend” in the school bathroom. The lie sticks and becomes part of the rumor mill in the high school. Olive opts to go along with the lie and shows up to the school in decadent clothing with a red “A” on her chest. She uses the notoriety to do some good by helping a gay student who is presumably being bullied turn straight at a party by going into a room with her and faking sex. Olive takes on a reputation then of someone willing to have sex for money and from then on the movie unfolds as she struggles with whether to be popular or whether to be concerned about her self-esteem.
Easy A is a fresh take on high school, a reminder of the power of technology as the rumor spreads by cell phone texts. The film takes many opportunities to pay homage to past movies about adolescent teenagers like Say Anything, Sixteen Candles, or The Breakfast Club. At one point, Olive admits in her telling of this story through over a webcam stream that she is not in a John Hughes movie. Olive is a young politically astute individual finding her way through a high school culture that just happens to have a small problem with proto-fascism or religious extremism. And, she has to confront these cultures in order to find out who she can be happy with being in life.