Sunday, October 30, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane

Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher, Jr., Bradley Cooper, Suzanne Cryer
Running Time: 103 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

**Spoiler Warning: This review gives away key plot details, including the ending**

10 Cloverfield Lane raises a fascinating question for any critic or audience member who might happen to share my general opinion of it. And there will likely be more than a few. What happens when 90 percent of a movie is amazing, but the last 15 minutes are so misguided and disappointing that it threatens to completely overshadow whatever greatness came before? In this case, there was a lot of it, from the overall premise to the atmosphere and performances, it shares very little in common with 2008's monster movie Cloverfield, which was throwaway fun. This isn't. It's something much more than that for a good deal of its running time. With its production, eventual release and title somehow managing to stay shrouded in secrecy, few knew this "spiritual sequel" to Cloverfield was even coming, much less what it would be about, or who would star. But more importantly, that it could be done this well. That may be why the ending is so infuriating, but for me a bigger reason is that I was treated to two of my favorite actors going toe-to-toe for 90 minutes in the service of a story that came so close to doing them and viewers proud, only to drop the ball at the end.

What eventually occurs in no way diminishes those performances, but that any studio thought the idea of John Goodman as a survivalist holding people captive in an underground bunker wasn't scary enough on its own is mind boggling. On top of that, the script attaches enough moral implications and questions to what he's doing to make Rod Serling proud. What he wouldn't be so proud of is the ending. And it's not so much that I'm completely against what they did (though I still didn't care for it), but rather how. So here's my advice: When you get to about the hour and twenty-five minute mark, just hit "STOP" on your remote and turn the missing minutes into one of those old school "Choose Your Own Adventure" books where you pick the ending. There's little doubt whatever scenario you come up with will be more compelling than what the filmmakers ultimately chose. And the sad part is, ending notwithstanding, it's still one of the year's most compelling films.

When we first meet Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), she's packing up and leaving New Orleans after an argument with her fiancé Ben (voiced by Bradley Cooper). Distraught and distracted by news of major blackouts across the country, her car suddenly hits something and careens off the road. She awakens in a basement chained to a wall with an IV in her arm. The man holding her there is the burly, intimidating Howard Stambler (John Goodman), an obsessive survivalist who's built a fallout shelter under his farmhouse in the event of an attack, nuclear or otherwise. According to him, such an attack has already occurred, claiming the lives of nearly everyone outside who breathed the contaminated air.

Michelle and a man named Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) who forced himself into the bunker, are told by Howard that under no uncertain terms can they leave until the poisoned air's safe, which could be two years at the earliest. Not buying the far-fetched story and assuming she's been kidnapped by a crazed lunatic (with Howard's actions doing little to contradict that), a terrified Michelle makes plans to escape, but will need Emmett's help. Even as evidence mounts that there might be some truth to Howard's claims that the terror awaiting them outside is far worse than anything he can dish out.

Whether or not this was an intentional inspiration, the premise thematically draws certain comparisons to the classic Twilight Zone episode, "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street," in which panicked, desperate neighbors turn against each another when faced with an inexplicable, otherworldly threat. This is obviously a more contained version of that but the basic idea of how far people is willing to go and the amount of force they'll exert over others for self-preservation and survival are very similar.

Frightening in its timeliness, the screenplay cleverly and indirectly tackles 9/11 paranoia, terrorism and national security through the character of Howard, who's very much grounded in the world in which we now live. With his emphasis on law and order and second amendment rights it's not hard to picture him heading out to the polls on Election Day, packing heat and wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat. That's not a knock on Trump supporters, but rather a reasonable interpretation of this character based on the evidence, as well as a credit to Goodman's complex, forceful performance, which wildly vacillates between cold and detached and enthusiastically charismatic at the drop of a dime. It's because of him that we're able to get that clear a picture of the man, knowing exactly what he stands for and what pisses him off. The writers should also take some credit for concocting a character that really hits a cultural zeitgeist they couldn't have possibly known about when this went into pre-production.

What we're fuzzier on are the stoic, often humorless Howard's exact intentions, which is where so much of the film derives its suspense. The first inclination is that he's a psychotic kidnapper since his doomsday scenario doesn't add up on any logical level and he seems to care way too much about Michelle and Emmett attempting to leave (escape?). Then the clues drop. While certain details suggest Howard could actually be telling the truth, or at least some version of it, he's still a controlling terror with whom sharing any kind of space is dangerous. And yet, because he's played by Goodman, there are these moments of humanity where it seems as if he's legitimately invested in their well being as if they were his offspring. Evolving into this dysfunctional family, they eat together, play board games and watch movies as if Goodman were reprising his role as Dan Connor on Roseanne. The whole thing is so oddly fascinating and atypical of what you'd expect, even as tension continues to build to a fever pitch around Howard's personal history and reasons for holding them.

After turning in impressive, overlooked work The Thing remake, small, character-driven indies like Smashed, Faults and Alex of Venice and in TV's short-lived The Returned, I've always contended that Mary Elizabeth Winstead is only about a role or two off from occupying the same spot her Academy Award-winning Scott Pilgrim co-star Brie Larson currently does. This film probably won't get her there but it still represents the latest in a long line of inspiring choices that show off a dramatic range few know she possesses. In fact, most of the film and her performance recalls the first act of Room, which only makes it that much more frustrating when this eventually deviates from that psychological template.

Michelle is caught in a desperate, hopeless situation right off the bat, and the thrill comes in watching her try to process that, read it, and determine how to react.  The wheels are always turning, as she attempts to negotiate her way out of this predicament and nearly every scene Winstead shares with Goodman carries this consequential weight that nearly suffocates you with suspense. There's a an unbearably tense scene at the dinner table when director Dan Trachtenberg milks the suspense to such a point that the payoff literally caused me to jump. Gallagher's Emmett at first seems to be a major dope blindly following Howard, until his personality and motivations start figuring into the equation in surprising ways.

Considering its title and the fact this supposedly takes place in the same universe as Cloverfield, an argument could be made that we know what we're getting into. I'll cop to that, but still doesn't make the final minutes of the film any less ridiculous, disappointing or poorly executed. The script eventually has to lay all its cards on the table and reveal whether this is a straight-up abduction or some kind of cataclysmic event has actually occurred outside and Howard's holding her there for her own protection and his. Or maybe it's some kind of combination of both. In other words, she has to eventually escape and see what's out there. We know this and it's fine. But even if you're satisfied with THE BIG REVEAL, they don't milk the moments leading up to it nearly enough or execute it with the amount of finesse necessary to justify it. Despite some defending the decision, it's simply incongruous with the tone of the rest of the picture. While I can get on board with the thematic justification and how it relates Michelle's backstory and overcoming the cycle of her abuse, that doesn't excuse involving aliens in a narrative that was fairly grounded up to that point.  

Trachtenberg, making his feature debut, does a masterful job creating a dread-fueled atmosphere, but even he's saddled with a pretty thankless task in the final minutes. He responds with the cinematic equivalent of clubbing viewers over the head multiple times. But he's really just shooting a screenplay that's gone off the rails and it's likely the writers (which includes Whiplash director Damien Chazelle) were only carrying out the wishes of J.J. Abrams or the studio, who determined it was more important to continue building a "universe" that satiates the appetites of comic-con crowds than put the proper coda on an otherwise excellent film. It appears to have been nothing more than a marketing-driven decision, and while it happens all the time, that still doesn't make it any less creatively bankrupt.

If stretching for positives in the disastrous final minutes, Winstead's performance remains strong even during this nonsense and the revelation that Howard wasn't lying casts the character's previous actions in a slightly different light, causing you to likely appreciate Goodman's performance even more on repeated viewings. But I'd argue the same exact thing could have been accomplished in half a dozen different and better ways than what they eventually went with. Since it's unfair to rag on an ending this much without offering up a reasonable alternative, it would have been far more effective to have the final 15 minutes continue to build legitimate doubt as to what exactly happened, how many people survived, whether the air is breathable, or the planet even habitable.

The few minutes Michelle has to investigate before the movie turns into a special effects circus are really good and should have been stretched longer. Then, and only then, if they want to pull the trigger on the reveal (even one as silly as this), it would at least carry greater impact and they could quickly get to the end credits to preserve the integrity of what came before. Of course, had it just been a more believable threat that matched the tone of the rest of the film there would be no need for this discussion. But that wouldn't sell tickets. That's what's so frustrating about 10 Cloverfield Lane, which for most of its running time delightfully shares as little in common as possible with its predecessor. And why it's difficult assessing how much a botched ending should be counted against the overall viewing experience. One major flaw doesn't erase everything else, but it does somehow strangely make it all mean a little less than it should.     

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Halt and Catch Fire (Season 3)

Creators: Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers
Starring: Lee Pace, Scoot McNairy, Mackenzie Davis, Kerry Bishé, Toby Huss, Mark O' Brien, Annabeth Gish, Manish Dayal, Matthew Lillard
Original Airdate: 2016

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

**Spoiler Warning: This Review Reveals Plot Points From All Three Seasons of the Series**

"The barriers between us will disappear. And we’re not ready. We’ll hurt each other in new ways. We’ll sell and be sold. We’ll expose our most tender selves only to be mocked and destroyed. We’ll be so vulnerable, and we’ll pay the price. It’s a huge danger. A gigantic risk. But it’s worth it. If only we can learn to take care of each other. Then this awesome, destructive new connection won’t isolate us. It won’t leave us, in the end, so totally alone."

It's a good feeling when you stick with something and it pays off. Two years ago, an 80's-set series about the personal computer revolution called Halt and Catch Fire premiered with a reasonable amount of promotion and unrealistic expectations for a network looking to "replace" Breaking Bad and Mad Men, as if that were possible. With alarmingly low ratings and wildly mixed reviews, its initially over-the-top, inconsistent storytelling dragged down a still promising series searching for a voice. Any voice. But even from the very beginning, something was there. The setting, acting, directing, cinematography, production design and overall concept had too much potential to just throw in the towel. This was a well made show that needed a lot finessing to reach its fullest potential, assuming it wouldn't be cancelled before then.

The cast of AMC's Halt and Catch Fire (Season 3)
After AMC surprisingly renewed this for a second season, the writers started working out the kinks, readjusting its focus, as we started to sense a journey for these increasingly nuanced characters, and the series, for the first time, seemed to be flirting with greatness. At that time last year I wrote that those improvements would probably need one more season to fully take hold, but if they did, breaking the through the glass ceiling to reach the upper echelon was legitimately possible. Unfortunately, with the show hemoraging even more viewers, that possibility of more episodes seemed to be a pipe dream. 

Credit should go to AMC for realizing that the TV model has changed enough that ratings matter less and the network's commitment to quality is part of how HACF has arrived here. Season 3 is not only its best, but it retroactively redeems and justifies all the decisions made up to that point, most especially those from its now underappreciated first season. And you can actually pinpoint the moment this all happens. It comes at the end of a season few thought would even happen, as creators and eventual showrunners Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers make a narrative decision that quite literally changes the game, proving the show deserves to share the room with television's top dramas. And this while another far differently conceived computer-centric critical favorite, USA's Mr. Robot, struggled through a disappointingly dense sophomore season. In contrast, there's comfort in just how simple and unfussy HACF is. It would be easy to keep complaining that no one's watching a show this good, but if the network doesn't seem to care, then why should I?  I'm just glad to have it.

Whether it's personal computing, laptops, message boards or first-person shooter games, the ideas and innovations that come from the characters residing in the show's hardwired 80's universe are ahead of the curve. Sometimes frustrating so. They're always just a little too early for what's coming next, with the rest of the world either unprepared for what they've created or the technology not yet where it needs to be. This has almost become a running joke with many pointing out unfavorable comparisons to Forrest Gump, as they seem to have a presence or role in every key computing breakthrough of the past thirty years, even if it's just a walk-on. And up until this season, I may have agreed. But now they're right where they belong, on the precipice of something huge, everything else that's preceded it feels like a primer. A string of baby steps, hiccups and failures meant to get us here.

Joe MacMillan, founder of MacMillan Utility
It's 1986 and when we last left the slick, manipulative Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), he had once again manipulated "Gordon, "stealing" his anti-virus program to build his own company, MacMillan Utility, and closing a deal for office space in California. It's a venture Gordon could have been involved in had he not been given an ultimatum by Donna (Kerry Bishé) to move with her and the kids from Texas out to Silicon Valley, as she and Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) relocate the latter's now rapidly growing startup, Mutiny. With his health woes continuing and the wounds inflicted by his recent affair still fresh, Gordon (Scoot McNairy) wasn't given much of a choice but to wipe the slate clean and start over.

Similarly, Cardiff Electric's former Sales V.P. and everyone's favorite ex-con, the incomparable James "Bos" Bosworth (Toby Huss) is also once again along for the ride, after a brief return to the corporate world reminded him how alive he felt at Mutiny, and how strained his relationship with his son still is. While it might be cliched to state that these characters are at a crossroads, the writing, acting and directing throughout this season pays that description off. In a brilliant bit of misdirection, every one of them is forced out of their comfort zone, forcing viewers to reevaluate them, before arriving at an emotional crescendo that brings the entire series full circle.

Clad in white linen pants and sporting a full beard, we're witnessing a more relaxed, Zen-like Joe MacMillan than in episodes past, clearly taking a cue from early Steve Jobs. And like Jobs, Joe's an idea man used to answering to no one, making the presence of a board his worst nightmare. This nightmare comes in the form of venture capitalist Ken Diebold (a mustachioed Matthew Lillard), who acts as a puppeteer, pulling the strings of an increasingly helpless Joe, who's company is slowly slipping away from him amidst a software pricing battle (ep. 3.3, "Flipping The Switch"). The little relief he finds comes from a working friendship with MacMillan Utilty's newest employee, Ryan Ray (Manish Dayal), a socially awkward ex-coder at Mutiny whose forward-thinking ideas were constantly shot down by Cameron.

Joe and Ryan brainstorming ideas
With Ryan under the tutelage of his hero, Joe MacMillan, the two begin working on something big, and it's an apprenticeship that not only echoes his days of working with Gordon on the Giant in the garage, but changes the course of the series. It's the first of many call-backs that somehow creates nostalgia in viewers for a series that's only been on a couple of years, and sets Joe on his eventual path of doing right by Gordon. It may be fair to call Ryan the most important supporting character the show's ever had, at least as far as being the trigger for these characters to land where they need to be. And if nothing else, he writes and verbally delivers what ends up being the series' manifesto, (ep. 3.8, "You Are Not Safe") a monologue both timeless and timely in how it accurately describes the dangers and benefits of a future where everyone is connected, while somehow still being completely disconnected from the world in which they live. In other words, the present day.

Growing at too fast a speed to keep up, Mutiny is slipping away from its free-spirited, rebellious founder Cameron and the more composed, business savvy Donna. They just don't know it yet. Or rather, one of them does, and the other won't listen. Unlike for Joe, outside assistance comes for Mutiny from a more benevolent source, venture capitalist Diane Gould (Annabeth Gish), an acquaintance of Donna who's seriously considering investing in the company provided a few obstacles are cleared. Without going into the specifics of how, all of this turns out to be a disaster ten times worse than what Joe's experiencing because at least you know he'll always have some kind of nefarious plan in his back pocket. It sets off a chain of events that puts Mutiny founder Cameron on a collision course with the supposedly more capable Donna, with Gordon and Bos caught in the middle.

Cameron and Donna, while never exactly friends, managed to make Mutiny work, and viewers were always clear where each stood on the company food chain. If the former is a talented, but extremely immature coder who fell into a CEO role she's entirely unsuited for and doesn't want, then the latter is the heart and soul of the company, as well as the show's moral compass. Coupled with Kerry Bishé's extremely warm, likable presence and do-it-all performance, it's easy to see why Donna's been the fan favorite since day one. It's certainly helped Cam has been written to be at her most petulant this season, panicking at criticism or compromise, firing people on a whim and disappearing for weeks at a time while Donna steers the ship, making tough decisions for Cameron to be pissed about when she decides to show up for work. Much of the time, Cam comes off as a scared little girl, which until now has been touchingly reinforced with her relationship with Bos, who's always viewed himself as her father figure of sorts. Except only for the fact that she did have a father who died in Vietnam and her trip back to Dallas (ep. 3.5,"Yerba Buena") to find closure, and potentially reconnect with the returning Tom (Mark O' Brien), finds even Bos justifiably fed up with her behavior, perhaps permanently straining their bond.

Gordon and Cameron playing Super Mario Bros.
If there's a silver lining for Cam this season, it's her surprising friendship with Gordon despite the fact she's at war with his wife. But Gordon's been marginalized too, essentially blackmailed into joining Mutiny, even as his role in the company remains completely undefined. Retreating to the confines of his closet with a ham radio as his symptoms of toxic encephalopathy intensify, it's the first time we're forced to consider that Donna might not be as perfect as we thought. Watching Cam and Gordon bond over beating Super Mario Bros. (ep. 3.6, "And She Was") not only works as pure nostalgia for viewers who grew up trying to do the same, but provides some of the season's few moments of joy for these characters. Gordon wants to help her in fight against Donna, or at least attempt help them find some common ground, but it's painfully clear that his professional allegiance will have to remain with his wife, no matter how rocky their relationship.

As the company heads toward a potential IPO it may or may not be ready for (ep. 3.7, "The Threshold") a funny thing happens to our perceptions of Donna and Cameron. Maybe it's okay to think you're right all of the time, and maybe even okay to lie and manipulate a little bit if you think it's in everyone's best interests, but if you do all these things, you better be right. As all the cards are laid out on the table, it appears Donna was dead wrong. The moment when Cameron slowly exits the Mutiny offices, doubled over, heaving and gasping for air as her eyes flood, it's apparent the series just landed its biggest emotional blow and Mackenzie Davis delivered it, further solidifying her as TV's best, most unheralded actress.

Despite all of Cam's childish, immature behavior throughout the series, we still feel real sympathy for her due to Davis' performance in that scene and everything leading up to it. Donna may have rapidly grown Mutiny and taken it to the next level, but it wasn't her idea. It was Cam's baby. And while it may be a disturbing parallel, Donna symbolically aborts it just as she literally aborted her own baby last season when Cameron secretly drove her to that clinic.

Cameron gets kicked out of Mutiny
Donna's made many sacrifices to achieve her professional goals but the explosive impromptu meeting that determines Mutiny's fate casts that in a different light. She's now a money person, and potentially even a sell-out, short-changing Mutiny's long-term prospects for a big payout and petty revenge. And the amazing thing is that Bishé doesn't really alter a single note in her performance of the Donna we've known and loved since Season 1. It's just a matter of the writers reframing everything that been in front of our faces the entire time. And yet it's still just as easily possible to defend her actions from a business standpoint and see why she felt the need to make these choices, as selfish as they seem.  In many ways, Diane is her role model, foreshadowing her eventual future as a single mother trying to conquer the business world.

If it seems nearly impossible for the season to continue after an event more befitting a series finale, this not only does that, but tops it twice over. Just as Cam's life comes crashing down, Joe's master plan with Ryan to break away from his own company ends in a tragedy that directly or indirectly alters the lives of every character, most specifically him. When Joe MacMillan awakens in his apartment to cops and an open terrace door, he seems for the first time truly shaken to his core. Dare we even say a changed man. The same Joe who hit an armadillo with his car in the pilot episode, sabatoged an entire project at Cardiff just to get press and burned a truckload of Giant computers, and earlier in the season even had an HIV scare, finally hits rock bottom and suddenly everything that came before starts to make a lot more sense.

Of course, this moment means nothing without all of those, and we can recognize both in Lee Pace's delivery and reactions that this guy, as we've known him, is done. In Joe's own words, even he "can't work with Joe MacMillan anymore." The character who seemed to start as a Don Draper-Patrick Bateman hybrid is now a fully developed, three-dimensional human being driving the narrative. A narrative that seems to have reached its conclusion with what again could have easily been a suitable series finale. And it's with no where else for its characters to go, that the writers pull off their grandest trick yet, leaving the 80's in the rearview mirror. They've gone as far as they can go.

Copyright, 1990.
Had it run long enough, that intriguing possibility that the series could pull off a major time jump or flashforward was always on the table. It just makes sense. And its arrival in the first episode (ep. 3.9, "NIM") of its two-part season finale, makes for thrilling television. It's the high-water mark for the show, aweing and rewarding audiences who stuck around long enough to witness its disorienting opening minutes where we're wondering what's going on. Time jumps have been misused and overused so much it's tough to remember when they weren't commonplace. But it's also just as easy to forget how well they can work, freeing up the writers' creative options and enhancing already strong characters by taking them in a new, fresh direction.

When we see the Windows 3.0 screen and realize the series has hit the reset button, making a seamless and organic transition to 1990, it's clear why those preceding episodes has such an air of finality to them. As we scramble to fill in the blanks of the past four years (and it doesn't take long) the true masterstroke of this idea is how the show is rapidly approaching an era where the world and technology is finally catching up to these characters' ideas. And if they took all took a strange detour over the past season, pushed and pulled in surprising ways, this move returns the series to its core. They all converge together again having grown and matured, while also realizing that the more things change, the more they've also stayed the same. Joe's itching to get back in the game, Donna's out on her own, divorced from Gordon, who's struggling to control his rebellious teen daughter and progressing illness while reentering the dating game.

The biggest change has come over a very different looking and acting Cameron, whose time spent in Japan as a successful Atari game designer married to Tom seems to have mellowed and wisened her to the point that she's now open to a reunion of sorts. If anything, THE BIG IDEA certainly seems important enough to warrant it. Bringing back the COMDEX convention (where the show staged one of its strongest first season episodes), is another great touch and a reminder that Joe and Cameron will always be damaged goods, yet intrinsically linked since that first scene in the pilot when he recruited her out of the classroom. It's a dynamic that's sort of taken a backseat to the rest of the action over the course of two seasons, while still bubbling just enough under the surface, destined at some point to reemerge. And the writers couldn't have possibly timed it better.

Joe and Cameron reunite at COMDEX
The brainstorming sessions that occur in the season's final episode (ep. 3.10, "NeXT") do more to reveal the history between these four than maybe any other previous interaction in the series because their interpersonal dynamic affects every technology-related discussion or argument they have. And those debates hold us captive, both because they directly relate to the present and Joe MacMillan's never better than in sales mode, only this time driven by inspiration rather than ego, envisioning the web as a door everyone and anyone can eventually enter and do inside what they wish.

We also sees a more mature, world weary Cameron taking agency in her own life and making a rational decision she couldn't have just a few years earlier. It appears that Donna may have finally gotten her receipt for killing Mutiny when she realizes Cam has cut her out of the very idea she brought to them in an effort to put the band back together. It's no coincidence that Donna's emotional breakdown echoes Cameron's reaction upon discovering she was kicked out of the company she built.  It feels right that the final image we see this season is of Joe, Gordon and Cameron huddled over a monitor working again, as if they've taken this long, sometimes torturous journey to come full circle. Only now they're ready and the timing is right for them to begin the project they've unknowingly been preparing for since day one.

The gang is back together
With the series now so clearly in the zone and completely sure of its voice, it seems nearly impossible to for this not too exit on an extremely high note. And with the recent announcement of Halt and Catch Fire's renewal for a fourth and final season, the writers can plan for a proper finish without that perpetual cancellation ax hanging over their heads. Regardless of how many are or aren't watching the show, its tremendous improvement and uncommonly high quality has, in the very least, earned it that privilege.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

My Top 10 Films of 2010

*Note: The following is part of the continuing "10 FOR 10" series in celebration of ten years of Jeremy The Critic, in which my choices for the top 10 films of each year from 2006-2015 are revealed. Just a reminder that movies must have a U.S. release date of that particular year in order to qualify.

Previous Posts:


For 2010, it comes down to ONE. And then there's everything else. In the biggest blowout to come out of these rankings thus far, David Fincher's The Social Network lays waste to the competition. In fact, there is no competition. It's not even close, and that's taking into account that this was actually a pretty good year. But the quality gap between the best and the rest is large enough that compiling this seemed like a formality, merely establishing what we already knew. Fincher and Aaron Sorkin crafted a film so gripping and timely that it would likely win any upcoming or previously covered year in this series. It's simply the best of the decade. Full stop. Since it's already been analyzed to death on this site over the years, I won't linger on the details other than to reiterate how it plays just as strongly for me now as it did when I first saw it in the theater six years ago.

While my top pick is bookended by two of the most successfully written, directed and performed in recent memory, everything in between manages to lives up to it, anchored primarily by Jesse Eisenberg's iconic performance as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, presented (imagined?) here as a terminally antisocial, narcissist who, depending on whom you ask, either founded or stole an eventual technology empire to impress a girl. With Inception, Black Swan, Blue Valentine, True Grit, and 127 Hours following behind, this year's list could almost read as a who's who of greatest contemporary American directors putting out some of their best work. This only makes The Social Network's definitive triumph seem like that much more of a feat.

This time, two films make the list that went unreviewed here upon their original release and when writing about both for the first time here, it became immediately apparent the right choices were made. In the case of Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop, it becomes the second documentary in the four years covered thus far to make the Top 10. Not too bad, but an appalling reminder that I've still somehow yet to review a single film in that genre on this site. 

The Coen Brothers' True Grit remake just slid under the radar without until finally catching up with it a year or two after its release. It's tough to even imagine this list without it and while it could have easily ranked higher, I finally settled on what still feels like an uncomfortably low number 5. It's fair given the competition, but the ranking on paper doesn't accurately reflect my love for the film as much as the accompanying write-up. Between this and the underrated and unfairly maligned TRON: Legacy (coming in at number 8) it's tough to argue that Jeff Bridges didn't fully capitalize on his '09 Oscar win.

Two strangely similar character driven films rounding out the list aren't too shabby either, as Sophia Coppola's hypnotic Somewhere and Noah Baumbach's difficult Greenberg may seem small in story, both are told in a style that allows them to linger in the mind long after they've concluded. With the latter, my initial 3-star review assessing it as a wildly mixed, sometimes unpleasurable experience proved over time to be overly dismissive. It's a keeper. Some other admirable titles that just missed the cut include The American, The Town, Enter The Void, The Fighter, Let Me In, Animal Kingdom, Never Let Me Go, Shutter Island, The Runaways, Buried, Remember Me and Toy Story 3.  With 2010 in the books, we're marching toward 2011, the first of more recent years that won't have as much time and distance behind them.

10. Greenberg

"It doesn't take but the first few minutes of the picture for (Greta) Gerwig to get us on Florence's side, whether she's just walking the dog or stuck in traffic. And the more time we spend with her the more we like her and if she says we'll be tolerating Greenberg's behavior today, well then, we'll be tolerating Greenberg's behavior today, no matter how irritating it gets. To everyone else he's an angry weirdo, but to her he's "damaged." This is one of THOSE movies, in which a loserish character approaching middle age with regret over a big mistake (or a variety of them) from the past is rescued by a younger, impossibly perfect woman. But in playing her Gerwig instead projects imperfectness, as well as an uncertainty and lack of confidence that would make the scenario plausible. She puts up with his tirades and verbal abuse, yet also somehow makes us understand why." - 9/6/10

9. Somewhere

"The film's style allows its characters, the visuals and the two central performances plenty of room to breathe, very often mimicking the aimless, trance-like state of its protagonist. Despite being told nothing and having to figure out this guy for ourselves, it's a strangely pressure-less experience to sit through, offering relief from the burden of being inundated by too many details. If Coppola's an expert at anything, it's letting the visuals, music and acting speak for itself. Unafraid of letting scenes linger past the point they typically should (or we're used to) to convey a mood, a practice session at an ice rink goes on twice as long as you'd expect and is all the more memorable for it." - 5/30/11

8. TRON: Legacy

"Now that the follow-up to TRON is here and everything we imagined it could be and more, it's kind of mind-boggling (not to mention hilariously ironic) that naysayers are still looking for things to complain about. Most of the unfair complaints leveled against TRON: Legacy have been at its screenplay which makes me wonder what they thought of the original's script, mostly an incoherent mess from middle to end. This story is an improvement in every way, much sharper focused with a clear-end point destination for its characters whose fates we're completely invested in. First time director Joseph Kosinski takes the forward looking ideas from 1982 to the level we always wanted while still managing to remain remarkably faithful to the original. Worth every year of the wait, he's made a sequel superior in every way to its predecessor and a film that comes as close as possible to matching the actual experience of watching it."1-3-11

7. Exit Through The Gift Shop

"Starting as an exploration of the method and madness behind mysterious street art artist Banksy, documentarian Thierry Guetta begins to disappear down the rabbit hole of his own obsession, dragging us along with him before the subversive twist reveals itself. That this wasn't a film about street art, nor necessarily Banksy or even Guetta. It was really about us the entire time, and how our interests and obsessions can boil over to the point that when someone tells you you're capable of doing anything, you actually start to believe it. What is art? And should someone have to earn the right to make it? Since most aren't blessed with the anonymity the film's hooded subject grants himself, the film's opening song becomes cruelly ironic. The streets are indeed ours. And that's a scary thought. Sure, 'anyone' can make art but the bigger question is whether they should, and if they do, will it be any good?"

6. 127 Hours

"Since the book covered Ralston's entire life rather than only those 127 hours, that portion still had to somehow be conveyed on screen, even if I can't help but wonder what we would have gotten if his original wish to have this optioned as a docudrama came to pass, sparing us the bells and whistles Boyle provides. Would the story be more or less moving? Would it be any different from a National Geographic or Discovery Channel reenactment?  The only thing we know for sure either way is the pure power of Franco's performance, creating Aaron from the inside-out, his words and actions shedding light on how the character finally arrives at the mental place necessary to make the brave decision that saves him, as well as the series of mistakes that led him there." - 12/10/10

5. True Grit

"That this can be considered more an adaptation of the original Charles Portis novel than the legendary 1969 John Wayne film that won him his Academy Award is a key distinction that ends up serving the Coens' well, and helps Jeff Bridges escape the shadow of the Duke. But it's not as if he ever needed to since it's the decision to tell the story through the eyes of 14-year-old Mattie rather than aging U.S, Marshal Rooster Cogburn that solidifies this Western as one of the few modern Hollywood remakes that far surpasses the original. Or more specifically it's the whip-smart, slyly humorous performance of young newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, whose nominated work in this deserves a spot alongside Tatum O' Neal in Paper Moon and Henry Thomas in E.T. in the pantheon of all-time greatest child actor performances. She's that good. The Academy can categorize it as they wish, but even amidst immense talents like Bridges and Damon, she's the one leading the way, as the rest of the cast gamely tags along for the ride."

4. Blue Valentine

"Flashing between past and present to track how a relationship implodes, this could have easily been titled (500) Days of Hell, with even the smallest, fleeting moments of happiness (and there are some) tempered by the knowledge of where we know things will end up. Yet strangely, I found it doesn't leave a completely depressing mark, maybe because there's relief in encountering a film that's truthful, or at least tells a side of the truth we're rarely exposed to in big studio pictures. But it's really about the astonishing performances of the two leads, one of whom was previously the best current working actor not to have a great movie to his name and the other a rapidly rising actress extending her winning streak." - 6/15/11

3. Black Swan

"The whole film could basically be viewed as a running commentary on not only Portman but the plight of Hollywood actresses in general, cruelly discarded once they've surpassed their point of perceived usefulness and marketability. Strangely, the performance further confirms what I've suspected of her skills all along, only this time the one-dimensionality works in her favor like never before. Still, it couldn't have been easy for her to put herself out there like this, emotionally inhabiting a character so uncomfortably close to how she's publicly perceived. We frequently praise actors and actresses for taking unexpected risks by leaving their comfort zone, but it's sometimes even more special when a performer is pushed to the limit within it, owning a role they seem destined to play."12/23/10

2. Inception

"The best scenes in Inception come early when we're teased with all the excitement and potential possibilities the central concept has to offer and learn the very specific rules of the world the characters inhabit, which reflect our own preconceived notions and questions about dreaming. How do you come out of it? How do you KNOW you're out of it? Or in your own and not someone else's? How much time passes? What if you free fall? What if you die? The answers aren't what you'd expect and that second question is the foundation on which the film is built. And that isn't even to speak of the idea of planting a concept in someone's subconscious and all the potential ramifications of that, which are explored, shown and discussed in intricate detail, without slowing the narrative of the plot."12/20/10

1. The Social Network

"They talk and talk, firing Emmy-winning writer Aaron Sorkin's dialogue at and over each other at machine gun speed in a crowded, dimly lit bar with the conversation becoming more contentious as he turns sarcastically condescending. At first, (Erica) seems almost interested and amused, until it becomes obvious this is someone without a clue how to interact with people, and as shocked as he is at being dumped, we are at how she's dating him in the first place. That question of whether Zuckerberg really is an asshole never completely goes away. And if he is, does that preclude him from being a genius? Or a visionary? Or maybe he's just lucky. We don't get what resembles an answer until the final scene but it's the aftershock of that opening one that reverberates through the rest of the picture."  - 10/5/10

My Top Ten Films of 2010
1. The Social Network (dir. David Fincher)
2. Inception (dir. Christopher Nolan)
3. Black Swan (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
4. Blue Valentine (dir. Derek Cianfrance)
5. True Grit (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
6. 127 Hours (dir. Danny Boyle) 
7. Exit Through The Gift Shop (dir. Banksy) 
8. TRON: Legacy (dir. Joseph Kosinski)
9. Somewhere (dir. Sofia Coppola)
10. Greenberg (dir. Noah Baumbach)