1. “Toy Story 3”
Threequels aren’t supposed to work. Just ask Francis Ford Coppola, Sam Raimi, Robert Zemeckis, George Lucas or that guy who made the “Blade” movies. But when you learn that our gold star of the year has been helmed by the flawless Pixar — who 16 years ago took a bunch of hard, plastic faces and breathed not just life, but love into them — the situation changes.
So where did it all go right? Maybe it was during those old film reels of Andy’s jubilant adventures with Sheriff Woody, the evil Dr. Porkchop and a brigade of swarming monkeys. Or maybe it was the moment when the attic ladder slides shut behind the unmarked bag of toys beside it, dooming them forever to the incinerator.
“Toy Story 3” transcends the ordinary not just because it’s a clever parable about commercialism, but because it asks genuinely stirring questions about aging. What happens when those that loved us must let us go? How do we carry the remnants of our past relationships while preserving our independence? Woody and Buzz might not be part of Andy’s college life, but they’ve certainly found their way into ours.
2. “The Social Network”
There’s a mesmerizing quality, oh current University students and recently graduated alums, to watching a movie about the genesis of Facebook. Our generation is as inexorably tied to its success as is Mark Zuckerberg — if he was the nurturing parent, we were the Hollywood agent that realized its potential and made it a society-changing phenomenon.
The release of “The Social Network” in the midst of Facebook’s golden years made for delicious irony, as thousands updated their statuses to profess their love for the film — an expected reaction, since the “The Social Network” was such a supreme amalgamation of expert writing, directing and acting that not declaring adoration for the film to the world could result in a minor stroke.
Aaron Sorkin’s diabolically good script was consistently laugh-out-loud funny, nullifying the inherent drabness of lawsuits, venture capitalism and (shudder) computer programming. Director David Fincher created each frame with a mama grizzly’s care and deserves an Oscar simply for pulling a tremendous performance out of Justin Timberlake. But when it came to the stellar cast, Jesse Eisenberg rose above all, playing Zuckerberg as a geek yearning for acceptance in our increasingly disconnected world. Wait … where’s the “like” button on this newspaper?
-KAVI SHEKHAR PANDEY
Christopher Nolan’s auteuristic drama-meets-mindfuck thriller created a storm of hype in the months before its release, only to be outdone by the social impact of the film itself. “Inception” cemented Nolan’s dual status as a virtuoso of the smart blockbuster and our generation’s most bankable director. It was start-to-finish captivating, from the brilliant temporal presentation of the dreamworld to the engrossing compound action sequence that constituted the second half of the film.
The logistics of the film’s dream-stealer plot still elude, but figuring it out is half the experience. Despite Nolan’s best efforts to deceive the audience, those who switch off for a minute and take the film as what it is — a visual presentation — will notice that the single moment may be the most telling. A widower’s ringless hand, the persistent spinning of a top — are these keys to the story? Maybe. But if the film left you breathless, you’re halfway there.
4. “True Grit”
In this adaptation of a John Wayne film, Joel and Ethan Coen take an old fashioned story about courage and turn it into something more. It’s not just another washed-up Western with southern drawls, ghost towns and gun fights.
“True Grit” avoids the traditional mold because of the strength of the actors. Matt Damon adds humor to an otherwise desolate landscape as LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger who is proud of what he is and lets everyone know it. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld’s portrayal of smart, overconfident Mattie Ross — a girl on a quest for real justice — guides the story with force. And she manages to hold her own against Jeff Bridges’s character, Rooster Cogburn.
But creating memorable characters has always been something the Coen Brothers have been good at. What’s particularly impressive is their transformation of the story. They don’t try to modernize it or jazz it up — none of the characters speak using contractions — but the story does become edgier and more haunting under its rendering. The film takes the audience to a world where the boundary between good and evil isn’t clearly defined, which raises questions about the nature of justice and redemption in the world.
5. “Black Swan”
Acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky’s tale of Nina (Natalie Portman), a young ballerina given the lead in Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” turns the delicate art of ballet into something riveting. The best aspect of Aronofsky’s work is its enthralling predictability. Strange as that may sound, the imminent demise he constructs for his protagonist demands a nontraditional interpretation that draws our eyes to the lighting, staging and cinematography rather than the plot. It’s another tragic time bomb in the vein of “The Wrestler” and “Requiem for a Dream,” and we’re helpless to do anything but count the seconds until the glorious explosion.
No longer will the impressionable masses indulge in heroin, professional wrestling or suicidal ballet routines. However, they may very well continue to indulge in Aronofsky. His vision — paired with Portman’s flawless execution — will transform his career, and may win the pair a few Oscars to boot.
6. “The Ghost Writer”
To paraphrase Eric Cartman, Roman Polanski may have date raped an underage model, but he knows how to make a thriller — keeping his films old-school despite box office pressure from thrillers filled with shaky-cam. In “The Ghost Writer,” the veteran director uses subtle cues like beautiful cinematography and extended precise takes with the camera to create an anxious atmosphere. After the title character (Ewan McGregor), meets his newest client, a former British Prime Minister who finds himself facing war crimes charges, he quickly finds himself caught in a web of intrigue. Polanski’s direction ratchets up the tension in a sweeping crescendo, ending with a haunting, poignant reveal.
7. “Winter’s Bone”
The best suspense film of the year is a family movie at its core, though its chilly, remorseless tale of children suffering for their parents’ actions isn’t likely to make your heart feel all warm and fuzzy. “Winter’s Bone” sends its protagonist, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence, in an unflinching performance), out on the hunt for her meth-cooking, authority-ditching father in the heart of the Ozarks, confronting her vicious extended family along the way. There’s an uncomfortable truth buried here: The illusion of kinship, the love we all count on to get through life, protects no one in a lawless world.
8. “The Fighter”
“Raging Bull.” “Rocky.” “Cinderella Man.” Boxing has become an Oscar-bait sideshow. “The Fighter,” however, differs magnificently. Managed by his pushy mother (Melissa Leo) and trained by his crack-addict half-brother, a former boxer (Christian Bale), title character Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) struggles to find the sport’s glamour. Ward struggles toward the top while flirting with the idea of quitting altogether. The film focuses as much on the family dynamic as the fighters themselves, as Ward searches for individuality. Wahlberg’s endearing performance is among his best, but it’s the ensemble that steals the show — particularly with Bale, who delivers the most unsettling performance of his recent career. From a distance, it doesn’t seem like the most original picture, but a closer look reveals a more sophisticated, layered story.
9. “The King’s Speech”
“The King’s Speech” is a powerful, funny and historically accurate masterpiece. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush play King George VI and his quirky speech coach, respectively, who at first, couldn’t be less compatible. Firth wants a quick, impersonal fix to his impediment, but Rush knows his issues have less to do with his tongue than they do with the King’s mind and heart. It’s rare that a film so artfully enhances a true story into something this moving, but the performances and writing in “The King’s Speech” make it an instant classic.
10. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I”
For those who waited anxiously for their Hogwarts acceptance letters, consolation lies in the latest “Harry Potter” movie. The franchise has tried to capture the magic of Hogwarts but, outside of bedazzling special effects, the movies have disappointed many fans — which makes the deeper, more mature “Deathly Hallows” all the more rewarding. The film stays true to the book, even if it means watching the emotional aspect of the plot unfold in a tent in the middle of nowhere while our heroes try to destroy a Horcrux. It’s a much darker movie that’s made for a generation that can’t be dazzled by Quidditch matches anymore. It gives them exactly what they want.