Monday, January 3, 2011

My Top Films of 2010

The following movies are what I consider the best released this past year. They are only in alphabetical order.

127 Hours
In a film based on a true story that resonates with the same theme of the 2007 film Into the Wild, Danny Boyle's 127 Hours is more triumphant and invokes much more of the magnificence of the human spirit than the Christopher McCandless biopic. In this film, Boyle tackles the tragic true-life event of Aron Ralston and his rock-climbing accident that led to him having to amputate his lower right arm in order to climb out of a canyon and save himself. Unlike McCandless' tragic end, Ralston realizes the connections he's made in life. And rather than running from them or realizing their importance before it's too late, Ralston uses these memories and his loved ones as a driving force to carry on. It's a great film (and to think I almost forgot to include it on this list!) and I'm sure will be winning awards. James Franco (as Ralston), who has had both dramatic and comedic roles, proves once again that he's a truly great actor in every sense of the word!

The A-Team
“In 1972 a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire … the A-Team.”

To many, The A-Team is just another in a long line of movies-made-from-TV-shows. But to me – and to those that grew up with the original like I did – this is a movie that you would hope to kick ass just as much as the TV show did. There were plenty of movies based on hit TV shows that failed miserably: Miami Vice, S.W.A.T., Bewitched, Dukes of Hazzard, Lost in Space, The Mod Squad, and The Avengers. Needless to say, I was nervous when I heard of 20th Century Fox’s plans to remake the 1983 NBC hit show. Then, fortunately, I saw the movie trailer and all of my worries subsided as I saw the stellar cast of Liam Neeson (who is bad-ass in pretty much anything he does), Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley, Patrick Wilson, and Jessica Biel. I was worried about Quinton “Rampage” Jackson who didn’t have any real acing experience before this film and is mostly known for his title as Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Light-Heavyweight Champion. However, upon Jackson’s first 15 minutes on screen, my fears all disappeared. 

The first thing you should accept upon going into this film is that this is a fun, slam-bang film. It’s not to be taken too seriously but is not some silly popcorn flick that the studio put together merely for money and marketing. There’s plenty of action and laughs but the story, acting and pacing are all up to par as well. I remember watching the television show when it originally aired and loved the setup of these rogue heroes helping a client in need every week (a popular formula that is most currently showcased in USA network’s Burn Notice). Unlike most action shows of its day – and action shows on TV today – The A-Team, with all of its bullets and explosions, had an extremely low death toll (only five people died and none of the deaths were caused by the A-Team themselves). The show’s brilliant plot twists, action sequences, and customized weapons (take that, MacGyver!) kept all of us diehard fans coming back for five seasons. It’s that same enthusiasm that drew us to the film. And, so far, The A-Team is the best action film of the summer! 

As I previously stated, Liam Neeson rocks in pretty much anything – any genre, any movie! He does not disappoint in this. His cigar-chomping, “love-it-when-a-plan-comes-together” leader Hannibal Smith does complete justice to original portrayer George Peppard. And there’s no better actor I could think of today to portray Face than Bradley Cooper. Most know him as a comedic actor with prominent roles in Wedding Crashers and The Hangover. But most don’t know that he first appeared as a serious co-starring role in the J.J. Abrams/Jennifer Garner hit ABC series Alias. So the man is multi-faceted; even though he’s hilarious and I enjoy and look forward to seeing him in more comedic roles, I also hope to see him in more serious roles in the near future. 

If you haven't seen, or are not familiar with, the original TV show, you should know that it follows closely to the original series albeit with a few modernized plot points for making the film as contemporary as possible. Yes, this film is directed more toward guys but, ladies, if your boyfriend/husband/male friend talks you into viewing this film, don't roll your eyes just yet. Like I said, the story is enjoyable and Jessica Biel's presence is more female action star rather than just a sex symbol for show. Patrick Wilson's Agent Lynch is fun and deadly, which Jason Patric tried to capture as Max in The Losers -- a graphic novel-turned-movie that follows closely to The A-Team's premise -- but did not succeed. Director Joe Carnahan, who directed one of my favorite action flicks of all time, Smokin' Aces, does an excellent job with both the direction and screenplay. The film runs at about two hours and yet I left the movie satisfied. I felt like I could've watched at least another hour. And the way the film ends (with a super cameo from Mad Men's Jon Hamm), I yearn for a sequel. Although, even if there isn't one, I won't be too disappointed as the film stands strongly by itself. Even though it's still early, I'll say that, so far, The A-Team is the best action film of the summer!

Despicable Me
Most expected Steve Carell's big hit of the year to be his live-action Date Night with fellow NBC star Tina Fey. However, I have to admit that this animated feature was his best. As a father, it was easy for me to like this film about a once-bad, selfish man who opens his heart to three little girls all the while wanting to steal the moon. Even though it's an animated feature, the voice cast is great and the film has a lot of heart; the humor is great -- if sometimes adult. Also, Pharrell Williams (of N.E.R.D.) does an excellent job with the songs!

Edge of Darkness
A lot has been said in the press about Mel Gibson ever since his infamous DUI exchange with a police officer. Honestly, though, no matter if the guy likes to drink - and what he slurs out of his mouth at the time - or not, the guy can act. His latest, Edge of Darkness, based on the 1985 BBC miniseries, is directed by the director of the miniseries Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) and offers up one of the best revenge thrillers I've seen since Taken and Munich.

The story follows Boston Detective Thomas Craven (Gibson) who witnesses the brutal murder of his daughter, Emma (Bojana Novakovic), and then conducts a rogue murder investigation into who committed the crime, which leads him across some rather mysterious, smarmy characters, including Ray Winstone and Danny Huston. Sounds like a basic plot, but, like most revenge thrillers, there's a lot more to the story than meets the eye, and there are plenty of moral ambiguities that come into play. Director Campbell uses his same trademark pacing that made the likes of Casino Royale, The Mask of Zorro, and GoldenEye so great. As for Gibson, he's had a paramount list of films in his resume that have dealt with revenge before and all of them are superb (i.e., Ransom, The Patriot, Braveheart, Payback). In all of these films, he has this moment where, through just the look on his face, he conveys such emotion in one expression. And that moment in this film is just after Craven has witnessed the murder of his only daughter and his buddy cop comes in amidst the coroners, cops and media to see Craven sitting calmly on his couch, just staring. Just that one look is proof enough that Gibson is an actor in every sense of the word. The look on his face is pure determination, betrayal and enraged wrath all in one. It's a look that reminds me of the famous General George S. Patton quote: "May God have mercy upon my enemies, because I won't." And that's the moment in the movie when you know that you're in for one hell of a ride!

Of course, most quests for revenge are not clean and they're definitely not pretty. Craven goes down a path full of twists and turns with which he never knew his daughter was involved. While the father discovers his daughter's secret life, he never waivers in his belief in her character, and it's that drive that pushes him in his quest for truth and justice. As a father of two young girls, with the subject matter, this movie is difficult to watch. The scenes that especially got to me were the ones where he pictured his daughter as a little girl and the moments they shared. But each scene is vital to the strength of the story and our belief and devotion in Gibson's character's drive.

Many of those who have seen the original BBC miniseries that the film is based on may say this isn't as good as the original, which is easy to say when the miniseries had more than two hours to tell a story. However, I thought this remake lived up very well to the original and was just as good. In fact, this film was a great ride that I wouldn't exactly describe as "a non-stop thrill ride." But I would say that it is one great revenge thriller; it certainly beats out the most recent Law Abiding Citizen. The only main drawback was Ray Winstone's delivery of lines; his voice was so mumbled that I and the other audience members could hardly understand what he was saying. I often heard viewers around me asking again and again what he had just said.

Nevertheless, Edge of Darkness is one of the most taut thrillers I've seen in a long time, and is easy to enjoy with its tense action and pacing, smart plot, and great acting. Say what you will about the man but Gibson delivers again and again with each performance. 

The Fighter
I'm not much of a boxing fan but this true-life working-class drama doesn't pull any punches in the acting or story department. Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale are both excellent actors and they bring their best to these performances. I'm expecting this one to be nominated for awards as it has some of the finest performances this year, even though the overall plot is pretty basic. A lot of people may try to compare this to Rocky, but I enjoyed it much better than the 1976 hit. A good sports drama that has more to do with the players' lives rather than the sport itself (sort of in the same vein as Mickey Rourke's magnum opus, The Wrestler).

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The original film based on the late Stieg Larsson's first book in his "Millenium Trilogy" is a great one. There is already an American version being made and while I'm skeptical about it, it's good to think that such a great mystery will reach a broader audience (for those who don't want to bother with subtitles). However, I don't know if anyone could compare with Noomi Rapace's Lisbeth Salander. This mystery is a welcome entry to the best that 2010 had to offer.

I know a movie critic isn't supposed to summarize at the beginning of his review, but I'll come right out and say it right now: Inception is the best film of the year! Now, I know there are at least another five months left in the year, but I've viewed the upcoming releases and, besides Ben Affleck's The Town and/or David Fincher's The Social Network having the only chance of disproving my statement, trust me, there aren't any more contenders. So I'm safe in calling this right now. With its movie trailers that recall shades of The Matrix and Dark City, Inception is brought to us by one of the best filmmakers today, Christopher Nolan (the man behind the successful - finally! - reboot of the Batman franchise). And while Inception does have a mind-altering plot like The Matrix and Dark City, that's where the similarities end. The only description I will give besides stating that it's a cool heist noir film that balances drama, action and science fiction with one master stroke, is that the film revolves around a group of dream extractors lead by Dominic "Dom" Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) who rather than extract information from a target's mind, are hired to implant an idea in a new corporate leader's (Cillian Murphy) head, hence the title Inception.

Besides DiCaprio and Murphy, the rest of the cast are also spectacular: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (one of my favorite actors), Marion Cotillard, Ken Watanabe, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Tom Berenger, Dileep Rao, and brief appearances by Michael Caine, Lukas Haas, and Pete Postlethwaite. Nolan has always been blessed with great actors in all of his films (Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, and the aforementioned Batman movies), so it's really no surprise that he gets the best performances. It also helps that Nolan is one of the best contemporary screenwriters and it is evidenced in all of his works. I heard that he is shepherding the next Superman film and, after first reading up on it, I was a little nervous because I've heard reports of him and screenwriter David Goyer handling it like it's never been done before. However, after viewing Inception, I am completely comfortable with his handling a character for which I have such a strong affection.

It's surprising to hear that for many of the film's spellbinding (and mindbending) sequences, rather than using CGI, Nolan insisted on placing the actors on actual rotating sets, making the action look real. And I'm grateful he did; it shows in the film's overall production value. In a day when films are bogged down with CGI and little - or recycled - plot (ahem, Avatar), it's something really special when a film not only makes you think on an intellectual level, but also delivers a fresh story with emotional depth. As I said in my review for Toy Story 3, James Cameron's Avatar is visually and technically stunning but its story is extremely predictable just from watching the trailer, it's uninspiring and trite (the story being a recycled product of several films, most notably Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, and even Cameron's own earlier, better release The Abyss, which focused more on emotion rather than special effects). And that's where most films are headed nowadays. That's why when films like Inception come along, it's important to embrace them ... especially when it's well written and well acted such as this. I know the technical aspects of a film are important as well, but, above all, CGI and special effects should never take precedence or drown out a film's story. Fortunately, Inception perfectly balances the mindblowing special effects and story.

Yes, there are plenty of special effects in this film, but the real standout aspect to this film is its story - it's original and captivating with a plot that keeps you biting your nails right until the end. I've heard some reviews and reactions from people saying that this film is confusing and difficult to follow; I couldn't disagree more. The film is involved and you do need to actually think and pay attention to the story, but if you do, there is no confusion. My only advice would be that if you have to use the restroom during this two-and-a-half hour masterpiece, make sure you're either with someone or sitting near someone who can explain to you what you missed because you'll need to know. There are more than two different realities in this film so you'll definitely need to pay attention; this isn't some film you go to with friends and talk to during the entire film and yet still can follow what's happening.

Nolan's original work proves that he should be doing more original projects (aside from his debut, Following, all of his films have either been a remake of a film or based on a novel or comic), and I can only hope that there are more in store in the near future. As I stated earlier, the action is paced very well without overloading the senses and it keeps you on the edge of your seat all the way through the journey with DiCaprio and company until the end. The concept of time in a dream state as well as other aspects of dreaming are intriguingly explored without dumbing down dialogue and explanations to insult the audience's intelligence, but, at the same time, is not so much complex that you need an encyclopedia to view the film.
Inception provides lush visuals, a uniquely stylish story and a range of emotions that should make every great film. After viewing this film, a friend wrote me, telling me to drop anything I was doing and go see Inception because there was nothing more important. Well, that's a bit extreme (no offense to him!). However, Inception is a must-see and if anyone were to ask me, I'd say without hesitation that it's the best film of 2010. 

Iron Man 2
Even though it's not the best action movies of the summer, I will say that Iron Man 2 is one of the best Marvel movies to date (except for Kick-Ass which easily beats it). I was nervous on how filmmakers were going to continue the story after such a spectacular beginning as well as after Tony Stark's (Robert Downey Jr.) revelation of his secret identity at the end of the first film. But the sequel's plot was well written. And I didn't mind Terrence Howard's replacement of the excellent Don Cheadle as Rhodey. I wasn't all too impressed with the supposed sexy Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, but Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke both helped make this movie as the two main antagonists.

Robert Downey Jr. again shines as the narcissistic Tony Stark; I truly believe that he's the only one who could play such a jerky-type character but make him likeable. What I liked most about the film, though, were the subtle references to The Avengers (i.e., the Captain America shield, more screen time for Nick Fury, and, after the end credits rolling, Thor's hammer). I have to admit that when it comes to Marvel Comics characters, I'm not the biggest fan; I'm more of a DC Comics guy. But after seeing these little references, it got me extremely excited for The Avengers movie that's due to come out in the next 3 or 4 years.

Like I said before, this is not the best action movie of the summer but it does rank up there with the best. Iron Man 2 is a fun, enjoyable action film that is not merely a mindless sequel just for the studio to make money. If you're a fan with the comic of Downey Jr., viewing this is an obvious must. However, if it's a film that you're feeling pressured into seeing or if you're not sure whether it'll be good, have no worries! It's good enough to hit all the right buttons for good entertainment. 

It's Kind of a Funny Story
I was cautious when I first heard about this. I was a little worried 'cause it looked a little similar to Running with Scissors (never read the book, but an AWFUL film). Nevertheless, I gave it a try anyways, and I'm glad I did. GREAT film! This dramedy stars newcomer Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis (the funny guy from The Hangover, who does such an amazing job with drama in this), and Emma Roberts (who does another surprisingly good job), along with the rest of the cast, create realistic, likeable characters you want to know. Based on the young adult novel by Ned Vizzini, the story follows 16-year-old Craig Gilner who admits himself into a psychiatric hospital ward to treat his depression. It's a coming-of-age story in a very unlikely setting, but, trust me, it's really good. It blends drama and comedy just right -- without being too silly or too melodramatic. I recommend this 2010 sleeper hit to anybody who's looking for a good, solid film and is tired of all the usual overpretentious or mind-numbing action films that are out there.

To briefly summarize, Kick-Ass is the best comic book movie of the year (thus far)! Don't get me wrong, Iron Man 2 is a VERY close second, but Kick-Ass bests it simply because of its ability to be both serious and laugh at itself (not taking itself too seriously); in other words, what all Marvel movies try to do, but usually fail.

In Alan Moore's masterpiece graphic novel Watchmen, Hollis Mason (the original Nite Owl) stated that the reason people started dressing up as costumed crimefighters was because of the criminals dressing in themed costumes, hence the superhero was born. In The Dark Knight film, Heath Ledger's Joker menacingly taunts Batman, stating: "Those mob fools want you gone so they can get back to the way things were. But I know the truth: there's no going back. You've changed things... forever." And from there, we know that Batman has inspired this new cache of supervillains in his world. Well, it's with that same inspiration that a lonely teenager Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) asks, "How come nobody's ever tried to be a superhero?" From there begins a realistic, violent-yet-comic story of his attempt to become just that: a superhero called Kick-Ass.

What starts off as Kick-Ass just trying to clean up the streets becomes a tale of a scared kid who's in above his head as he tries to avoid getting caught in the crosshairs of every hitman's gun under the orders of a mob boss (Mark Strong). Fumbling his way through his crimefighting career, Lizewski crosses paths with Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) and Hit-Girl (the EXCELLENT Chloe Moretz), other vigilante crimefighters who make him look like what he is: an amateur. Along the way, he also meets a friend (similar to James Franco's Harry Osborn in the Spider-Man films), Chris D'Amico (Superbad's Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and further develops his crush on Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca).

There's been plenty of criticism about the film since it's release having to do with the supposed insult of Lizewski's dad being afraid that his son was gay; because that would be such a bad thing for a father to have to face (and yes, I'm being sarcastic with that statement). And the idea of Chloe Moretz's Hit-Girl being seen as a sex symbol as some moviegoers repeat a statement one of the characters, seeing her in action, declares, "I think I'm in love with her!" The "gay controversy" was reported by Entertainment Weekly. First of all, let's get this straightened out, Lizewski's dad in the film is scared by the idea that his son was prostituting himself, stripped naked and robbed ... not the mere fact that he was gay. Second, there will be boys who find Hit-Girl's dominating action as a turn-on, and that is disturbing, given her age (11-years-old). But, being as I'm not someone who views that as "hot," but rather just as really cool, that aspect therefore doesn't enter my mind and doesn't affect the quality of the movie in the slightest. To all the naysayers, I say, "Lighten up." It's a film about a kid who poses as a superhero. It's to be taken with a grain of salt. Besides, would there be so much "controversy" if it were a boy who was kicking ass and shooting guns and cussing like a sailor? Also, in a world where there are very few young female crimefighters, Hit-Girl -- despite her age -- could be seen as a role model. She's tough, independent and completely confident. But more on her in a second.

Nevertheless, there are true themes of morality that pepper the story of Kick-Ass. The ever-present theme of "With great power, comes great responsibility" is tackled in various incarnations throughout. Let's revisit Hit-Girl and her double life. Damon Macready/Big Daddy's (Cage) quest for revenge on the death of his wife and the pathologically violent path it's taken his daughter Mindy Macready (Moretz) down is explored with great depth, as is the hazard of posing as a crimefighter/policeman/detective/etc. in a job that is extremely dangerous. The violence is plentiful and stylized as much as it is brutal and unforgiving. The question of a little girl crimefighter/vigilante is not "Does she have the right?" but rather is, "Should a little girl of eleven-years-old be subjected to such violence?" Well, first of all, again, it's a movie based on a comic book so it's whatever the writers want it to be. Secondly, if this were the real world (and being a father of two daughters), then no, she shouldn't be raised in such a matter. And the end of the film comes up with a way to address this issue. Either way, with the movies Moretz has been involved with ((500) Days of Summer and the U.S. remake of Let the Right One In entitled Let Me In), she shows great potential as an actress.

Overall, Kick-Ass is a fun film! It's got very adult situations (violence, language and a quicky sex scene thrown in for good measure), but from its dark humor beginning to its sequel-potential ending, Matthew Vaughn's adaptation of Mark Millar's (Wanted) comic hits all the right chords. I was skeptical about Mintz-Plasse's portrayal of Red Mist, but he surprisingly played the part convincingly and believably. For fans of the comic who read the comic before seeing the movie (as I did), there are slight differences near the end -- that I can only think for the reason of satisfying the moviegoing masses -- that were changed. However, these changes don't greatly alter the quality of the story. It's been said there will already be a sequel based on Millar's second half of the comic series tentatively called "Balls to the Wall." Unfortunately, Millar won't be releasing that series for at least another year or so. Until then, the DVD release of Kick-Ass will have to suffice! 

The Next Three Days
After years of hit-and-miss films, Russell Crowe rocks the screen as a community college teacher who's planning to bust his wife (Elizabeth Banks) out of prison. Liam Neeson is great in a cameo as an infamous prison breaker, and director Paul Haggis did a wonderful job adapting the film, from its original French version, Pour Elle. I was especially satisfied with the realistic way the film showed Crowe's character going through a seedy underworld in order to get what he needs to pull off his prison break. This film helps to demonstrate what a joke the justice system can be in this country as the wife's conviction is based on purely circumstantial evidence. A great suspense film that is well worth many viewings.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
The weekend of August 13, 2010, saw three major studio releases for each target audience: The Expendables for males, Eat Pray Love for females, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World for kids, teens and young adults. Being a recent fan of the Scott Pilgrim series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley, I was looking forward to the film adaptation - especially after hearing of the casting (most notably, Michael Cera) and the director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz). I'm not the biggest fan of Wright's work; while I thought they were slightly funny films, I don't fall into the large masses who say they're the most hilarious contemporary films. Still, I like Wright's filmmaking style and I knew he'd do a great job with the material.

There are quite a few people who believe Michael Cera acts the same in every movie and TV show he is in. And, depending on the actor, that can either be OK or extremely annoying. Cera does generally have the same acting methods, but, to me, it works for him. He has mastered the act of shy-but-hilarious, slightly neurotic geek, and I never tire of - or fail to laugh at - any role he portrays. And I'm a firm believer in that saying: if it ain't broke, don't fix it! The bottom line is: if you despise Cera then don't see this film as you'll probably only be rolling your eyes through most of it since it's his movie, and this film deserves more than that.

I know people may laugh at the thought of a bestselling memoir geared towards women (Eat Pray Love) being compared to a bestselling graphic novel geared towards male adolescents. But, trust me, their meanings are similar. As I stated in my review for Eat Pray Love, it's a story about a writer taking a quest in Italy, India and Bali to forget her problems, start anew, and experience flavor and deep contemplation only to realize that you can't run from who you are; you have to be comfortable with who you are and make peace with what's happened in your life ... the good and the bad ... whether it was your doing or someone else's. It's no big surprise spoiler that Julia Roberts' Gilbert finds love and self-respect for herself and, at the same time, makes peace with the hurtful choices she's made. Now onto Cera's Scott Pilgrim. Although it's more prevalent in the books, the viewer can also tell in the film that Pilgrim is not only a slacker financially, but also in self-respect and accountability. He's made bad, selfish choices in love and he takes the universal young generation response whenever it comes to any sort of confrontation: "whatever." Nevertheless, I found his character much more likeable than Roberts' Gilbert.

The film, Scott Pilgrim is told in a visual way that has the style format of a video game and comic book with the main character - finding himself having to fight - oops! - I mean, defeat the seven evil ex-boyfriends of his newest love interest, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). It's all metaphor for the baggage we carry when dating someone. Not only does one deal with the issues of our significant other's romantic past (how it affects them emotionally), but you also deal with your own insecurities and vulnerability when entering into a relationship and - unless your beloved has lived in a cave and had no prior romantic relationships - how your spouse's past suitors measure up to you. It's a silly, self-destructive game we play in our love lives, but everyone does it ... especially more frequently when we're younger.

It's only when Pilgrim confronts his unresolved issues and finds self-respect that he truly wins "the game." And the girl. We see the transformation of a somewhat judgmental guy turn into a man who can love someone for who they truly are, including their flaws.

As I said, the film, like its literary original, utilizes the comic panel sound effects of BAM, WHOOSH, etc., and cool, quirky characters, as well as the video game staples of coin dispersal after defeating an opponent, earning an extra life and special weapons, the countdown to continue a game, and the versus fight mode including fight combos and booming voice-over narration of "K.O.!" It's a unique, fresh style that I'm surprised hasn't been attempted before. Don't mistake me for some diehard gamer; even though I owned an original Xbox, I haven't been heavily involved with video games since the original Nintendo. Regardless, I loved the style Wright brought to the screen thanks to creator O'Malley. Second to Robert Rodriguez's film adaptation of Frank Miller's Sin City, this is the closest the viewer will get to a comic book come to life! And while that sounds spectacular to some; there will be others that find the movie just plain weird. It is weird. But it's a weird that's kind of great. It has wonderful meaning and great depth underneath the generation-X trappings of vegans, garage bands, cheat codes, straight edge, and "whatever."

I was surprised to love the book as much I do because it's made up of what I mostly dislike with comics: it resembles a manga (I despise those!), it's black-and-white, and the art is more cartoonish rather than realistic (although, it does grow on you). Since I do love it, though, it's no surprise I enjoyed the film. It was wonderful seeing all the dialogue and one-liners from the books actually being said out loud, facial expressions and all. Cera, Winstead, and Kieran Culkin stand out in the film, while the evil exes each do good at providing humor while simultaneously presenting to Scott with a different issue or concern regarding his blossoming relationship with Ramona; but Scott's not the only one who has to confront issues, Ramona also finds herself having to face Scott's baggage. The soundtrack and score are impressive and I like them but I can see how it's not as appealable to a wide audience as the (500) Days of Summer soundtrack (the best track on Pilgrim's soundtrack is Metric's "Black Sheep," which is used as a song sung by The Clash at Demonhead). The songs all work splendidly in the film - i.e., when Ramona drives off with evil ex Gideon, the Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb" is appropriately being played on the car stereo (check out the lyrics to know just how appropriate it is). Lastly, for a story that took six books to tell, it's expected that not everything from those books will be included in the film. In most films adapted from books, it seems most screenwriters leave out the best parts and add in the most lame. Don't fret, though. Screenwriters Wright and Michael Bacall kept in all of the cool lines and important scenes central to the story of Scott and Ramona; some lines are mixed with different scenes compared to the books, but it all still works out really well and, overall, stays true to the books (i.e., in the books, Ramona fights Scott's ex, Envy, but in the film, Ramona fights one of her evil exes, Roxy). Some funny parts fall flat but it's few and far between. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a fun, weird, fresh, innovative movie that's destined for cult status. Take that as you want, but, to this critic, I thoroughly enjoyed it!  

She's Out of My League
I know. The title sounds completely stupid. But, trust me, this little rom-com (a genre I usually detest) is actually a cute, enjoyable film. It's a guy's rom-com with lots of foul language and crude humor. However, the main story is a frequent issue that invades most relationships ... especially if the woman is out of her partner's league, which -- let's face it -- is often the case with any guy who has a good woman. The humor isn't as sick or immature as American Pie, making it enjoyable for both sexes, but you'll be laughing just as much. Jay Baruchel makes a surprisingly good leading man and Alice Eve needs to be in many more movies (I was very disappointed that she wasn't cast as Emma Frost in the X-Men: First Class movie).

Shutter Island
This film almost didn't make the cut as I wasn't too impressed with it when I first watched it. However, after another viewing, it struck me at how similar this film is to the book (with a very few exceptions). I did already like the overall story but was disturbed a bit by the ending, which lead to my not liking the film ... at first. However, I realized that sometimes that's what makes a great film -- it's ability to not only leave us satisfied, happy or touched ... but also disturbed. If you like mysteries, this film is a must-see!

The Social Network
David Fincher is one of the most prolific directors today and he's tackled some of the most intriguing stories to capture on film. From the gritty underworld of Seven and Fight Club to the gleaming world of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the very real Zodiac, Fincher has not only taken audiences into these worlds with lush visuals, but he's also delved headlong into each subject with such vivacity that it's shone through with each release. Even though I thought Benjamin Button was basically a slight rehash of Forrest Gump (and that was thanks to screenwriter Eric Roth, who also wrote Gump), I still liked the way it was shot and the acting. I've enjoyed every movie Fincher has done. So when I heard there was a movie being made about Facebook, the newest socializing network, I rolled my eyes, let out a heavy, moaning sigh and instantly imagined some MTV-style production with teenaged nitwits (Hollywood's newest unknown actors) running around and using slang that seems to be among the in-crowd in high schools today, set to the newest music that is more noticed for its style rather than its actual meaning and quality. But, when I heard Fincher was taking the helm and it was based on a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin (the man behind The West Wing; have you seen him in Entourage? GREAT!), based on the non-fiction book The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook by Ben Mezrich (Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas), I was - to say the least - much more intrigued. And once that brilliant movie trailer - the one featuring the Scala & Kolacny Brothers' cover of Radiohead's "Creep" - premiered, I was on board!

I have to say that The Social Network is one of the best fictional non-fiction films I've seen recently. Whether it's Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's public relations working overtime or not, reports have been rapidly surfacing at how unlike the actual Zuckerberg is compared to the film's representation of Zuckerberg, played magnificently by Jesse Eisenberg, one of this generation's most underrated actors (a thinking man's Michael Cera, if you will). Another real-life person whose camp is announcing that he is different from his onscreen portrayal is Justin Timberlake's Sean Parker, the co-creator of Napster. Timberlake's performance is already creating Oscar buzz and while he does a great job, I think that both Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield (who portrays Facebook co-creator Eduardo Saverin, and was just cast as Peter Parker in the new film reboot of "Spider-Man") should be nominated. Don't get me wrong, Timberlake lovers. The former N*Sync singer does a great job and proves that he's a force to be reckoned with in drama as well as comedy. But it's Eisenberg and Garfield who showcased a keen relationship that could've been a disaster for any other actors who don't have such a rapport with each other; a good example of this rapport is the relationship between Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) and Dr. Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) in FOX's House. Even in the film during the legal proceedings, where Zuckerberg and Saverin's friendship is disintegrating, they still exude a caring playfulness that makes the audience feel bad about the anger and tragedy of their situation. As for who to believe is the real Zuckerberg and Parker - the film's or the person's - both seem to have a lot to gain for audiences believing them. The film makes more money on box office sales, whereas the actual Zuckerberg and Parker don't face public humiliation and possible loss of business products, which directly affects their wallets. I believe that while the events in the film did happen (except for Zuckerberg's girlfriend dumping him), the film did take creative license in how the characters came off. Nevertheless, the caricatures of Zuckerberg, Saverin, Parker, Divya Narendra, and Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss are all great characters. And they're played pitch perfect by the actors.

I said in my review for Inception that it was the best film of the year and that the only prospects of taking that mantle from it were Ben Affleck's The Town and this film. And while I was impressed with The Town, it was not worthy of best film. On the other hand, Fincher's Facebook film comes closer to winning that title (but still doesn't beat out Inception). While Network is loosely based on the true story of the creation of Facebook, as I said before, it is not a concise history of the creation or of its inventors. Still, I loved Eigenberg's portrayal of Zuckerberg! He's written and acted out as this social outcast - almost as if he has Asperger's syndrome - who is ambitious and equally ruthless when it comes to business; yet, he's also a sad, lonely young man who secretly just wants to be accepted in society and by the woman he loves, and his entire motivation to create Facebook and become successful is to ultimately be accepted and loved by the one that got away. It makes for a great story and that's just what The Social Network accomplishes.

Here is a film that may appeal more to younger generations (those of the computer age), but is good enough for older generations as well. It's reminiscent of what Orson Welles did with William Randolph Hearst in Citizen Kane back in 1941. Although the names were changed in that film, Welles wrote the character of Charles Foster Kane to be based on newspaper magnate Hearst. Welles wrote and portrayed Kane as a war-mongering, Ebenezer Scrooge-like character who pushed away everyone who truly cared for him. The story closely resembles the image that Sorkin paints of Zuckerberg; it's a cautionary tale of having everything in the world but not being happy. And it's that theme that resonates with most people. Everyone is afraid of high living at a high cost; and I'm not talking about money being the cost.

Nevertheless, Zuckerberg could be viewed as a modern-day Hearst. He's a genius who took a technology one step forward to change the world. What I liked best about this version was that glorious ending which gives a true peek into the film Zuckerberg's obsession. Love it or hate it, The Social Network is brilliantly written, acted and directed. There are a few misses in the overall pacing of the story (I wish Sorkin could've put more history into the story about what happened after Sean Parker was arrested), but it's still entertaining and one of the best of the year. 

I'm already aware that I have a total of three animated films on this list for this year. But that's how great they are! Besides, two of the films are Disney. And if there's one thing I've learned it's that Disney never disappoints! Or, at least, that's what I'm rediscovering now that my girls are getting at the age of watching a film all the way through. While Tangled doesn't surpass Toy Story 3, it comes in a close second. Especially among the animated fare this year. Super-cute Repunzel is a welcome princess to join the ranks of Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Belle, Ariel, Tiana, Jasmine, Mulan and Pocahontas (can't you tell I have two young daughters?). There's plenty of romance for the girls, action for the boys and laughs for everyone! The music is OK (not as good as The Princess and the Frog), but the film itself has a lot of heart. Also, Donna Murphy (who some might remember as the wife of Dr. Otto Octavious (Alfred Molina) in Spider-Man 2) is excellent as the newest villain, Mother Gothel. I did see this in 3-D (which I'm not too crazy about) and it was great, especially with my daughter reaching out for the floating lanterns. If you don't have kids, this movie could probably wait -- even though it's still enjoyable. But, if you have a kid, this movie is essential viewing ... and you won't be rolling your eyes and constantly checking your watch to see when it ends. That, in of itself, is a compliment to Disney animation and story! 

 The Tillman Story
Ahhhh, if only this movie could have been made by that pesky Michael Moore, who is known by Republicans for his far-left agenda. Then, the ultra-fans of the Bush Jr. administration (ahem, fox "news") could write this documentary off as some wacko's one-sided, manipulating-the-facts work. However, this film -- directed by Amir Bar-Lev -- shows both sides of the spectrum ... and it comes directly from the family of Pat Tillman and their tireless research. Unfortunately, for the Bush Jr. administration, it doesn't cast them in the best light; particularly former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. As any talking head on Fox News might say (I can hear it now), "Amir Bar-Lev? Sounds middle eastern! He's a Muslim sympathizer!" Actually, Mr. Bar-Lev is an American, born and raised in California, and has no affiliation with the Muslim religion. But it's not the filmmaker's intention to make Rumsfeld and his staff to be the "bad guy." No, they do that all themselves in actual Congressional Oversight Committee video footage regarding Tillman's death. This film should be essential viewing for anyone wanting to see the true business of contemporary government politics and warfare, as well as for anyone who is considering joining the military. This is truly one of the best documentaries I've seen in a long time where there is no subject that's left "open for interpretation." All of the lies, screw-ups, incompetence and C.Y.A. (cover your ass) tactics are all there in the open, for all to see. I had to watch the film twice because it stirred such anger in me; I can only imagine how Mr. Tillman's family must feel, knowing his death was used as mere propaganda for a war he did not agree with. (Critic's Note: I support the soldiers; it's the (Iraqi) war they're being sent in to that I'm not so sure about.)

The Town
For those who once insulted Ben Affleck's ability as an actor and Oscar-winning screenwriter, the actor is now getting the best kind of revenge at those harsh critics: he's shut them up by becoming an accomplished director, making the superb Gone Baby Gone (an adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel). And his latest, The Town, based on the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan, is no exception. The acting is really good, especially from Affleck, Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Jon Hamm (AMC's Mad Men), and Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) -- along with special appearances by Chris Cooper (Seabiscuit) and -- as of today, Jan. 2, 2011 -- the late Pete Postlethwaite (The Usual Suspects). However, what stands out most is the film's production and direction, with which Affleck should also be given accolades.

When I reviewed Inception, I called it the best film of the year, citing this film and David Fincher's The Social Network as the only possible films that could trump Christopher Nolan's sci-fi stunner. While I wasn't as blown away with The Town as I was with Inception to make it the best of the year, it still comes in at a very close second. Nevertheless, throughout this crime heist thriller, I couldn't help but be reminded of a 1995 film that paved the way for films like this, Michael Mann's Heat. While The Town's plot is nowhere as intricately expanded as Heat, the main character of Doug MacRay (Affleck) reminds me a lot of Heat's main character, Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro). Both are master thieves who long for a better life, and see that possibility in the form of a woman. Like Amy Brenneman's character in Heat, Rebecca Hall provides the motivation for Affleck's protagonist to want a new life - one that's free from crime. It's the classic hero's journey -- as popularized by mythology maestro Joseph Campbell -- with a protagonist who's not so innocent, looking to better his life. At first, Affleck's MacRay simply sees their hostage (Hall) from their latest heist as a means to an end; he's to check on her and make sure she doesn't talk to the Feds. However, it is through their relationship that he genuinely starts to fall in love with her (of course!).

Like I previously stated, the acting is all good. But the one who really hits it out of the park is Rebecca Hall. Where did this actress come from? She's been in a few hits but this is definitely her breakout role! On the other hand, while Blake Lively does better than anything she's done on her guilty-pleasure television hit Gossip Girl, her performance here doesn't rank with any of her other co-stars here (let's hope she does better in Green Lantern). The other great thing about the film is the setting itself. Boston and its surrounding areas are itself a character in this film and it adds great depth. Unfortunately, it's not the best of the year, but it's awfully close. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the film - and even the ending, I guess - but it didn't fill me with that same viewing pleasure as Inception did. From a technical, overall aspect, there was something slightly amiss just with the ending. I won't give anything away, but I will say it doesn't exactly follow through with the realistic closure.

In a year that has failed to impress me with many standout films, The Town is one of the best this year, but, then again, it doesn't have much competition. That doesn't sully all of the great reviews for the film nor the film itself. Affleck seems to have found his niche in directing. It's affected his acting for the better and I think we have more to see from this impressive director. The Town is good entertainment and one of the best films of the year (not the best, though), and I won't be surprised to see it pick up a bunch of nominations come awards season. 

Toy Story 3
I've found that Pixar films are often like The Beatles' songs: they first premiered for kids but everyone can enjoy them - and after time and closer examination, you find that they're actually geared more toward adults; they get better as the years progress; and those who don't like them, you seriously question their taste. Sure, there's maybe one or two that aren't too favorable (for me, I compare Cars, the only Pixar film I'm not too crazy about, to "Revolution 9"), but, mostly, they're all pretty much genius. I realize there are anti-Beatles fans out there who are cursing my words. To them, I say, "Sorry, but I hope you know that whatever musician/band you really love, it's most likely they were influenced by The Beatles. You can't deny that The Beatles are a paramount in the music industry." Anyway, let's move on ...

The franchise that built Pixar returns to the masses for a third installment. I remember the first Toy Story being really good but I wasn't as crazy for it as most everyone else. Then, the sequel came out and I absolutely loved it. Over the years, I re-watched the first film a few times, and each time I watched it (like the first Shrek), I enjoyed and appreciated it more and more. Like any third film in a trilogy, as a fan or someone who merely enjoyed the first two films, you hope that the last film is just as good, if not better, than the first two. Unfortunately, you're often disappointed. Even the sacred trilogies of the original Star Wars trilogy and The Godfather films had fell victim to a bad/subpar final third act. But for those young and old fans of Woody and Buzz and all of Andy's toys, Toy Story 3 will not disappoint you in the least!

The brilliance of the Toy Story films is that it's not just a story about talking toys for kids to go ga-ga over. It's also a story about getting older and what that means to you and to those you care about, concern over growing out of relationships, building new relationships, accepting yourself for who you are and being OK with it, and moving on to what's next in life ... even though it can be excruciatingly scary. In this installment, we find the toys looking to find a place for themselves - and overcoming their own insecurities - now that their owner Andy is grown up and moving to college. Now here's where Toy Story 3 shows its genius. In a trilogy where the human characters, although central to the storyline, haven't had much screen time, this film wraps up Andy's childhood in his home with his mom all in front of our eyes. And for any parent, whether you've had to see your kid(s) off away from home already or still have yet to experience it, it's understandably a bittersweet moment. It's that moment that will have moms weeping like babies, dads struggling to choke back the tears (even for me, who watched this scene with my daughter next to me), and those who don't even have kids appreciating the raw emotion and impact of such an inevitable moment in life.

But let's not overlook the extremely clever humor that also goes with the trilogy and especially Toy Story 3. Not only are talents like Tom Hanks (Woody), Tim Allen (Buzz Lightyear), Don Rickles (Mr. Potato Head©), John Ratzenberger (Hamm the Piggy Bank), Joan Cusack (Jesse), Wallace Shawn (Rex), Blake Clark (filling in for Jim Varney as Slinky Dog), Estelle Harris (Mrs. Potato Head©), and Jodi Benson (Barbie©) effortlessly bringing great laughs, but also newcomers Michael Keaton (Ken©), Whoopi Goldberg (Stretch), Jeff Garlin (Buttercup the Unicorn), Kristen Schaal (Trixie), Bonnie Hunt (Dolly), Timothy Dalton (Mr. Pricklepants), and even baddie Ned Beatty (Lotso) add more humor that is subtle but hilarious without being too goofy or over-the-top - like most kids' movies nowadays. Toy Story 3 has the entire package: drama, comedy, action, and even romance. But most importantly, it's got heart! This may sound hokey, and any film that tried to capture all of these different genres might come off as such. However, Disney Pixar has mastered their storytelling, and they have an uncanny way of tying all of these perfectly together to churn out some of the best movies (animated or not) today. Their animation has also emphatically improved with this latest release. In the scene where Buzz Lightyear's back panel is being opened and the tiny screws are taken out, when the camera closes up on them, the screws look like actual live-action, non-animated screws. There are several instances where the animation doesn't look like animation at all!

One of my absolute favorite films last year was Pixar's Up. In fact, it's one of my favorite films of all time. With every feature that Pixar has released, I keep wondering when their streak of great films will end. I'm happy that they have yet to release a bad film. Even their animated shorts at the beginning of their feature films are great. This time, their short feature, Day & Night, is the best they've ever done - in animation and in story. It's my new favorite, taking the place of For the Birds which preceded Monsters, Inc., and it should win awards. Overall, I would take movies like Toy Story 3 over supposed hits like Avatar any day! I've seen James Cameron's blockbuster and even though his filmmaking techniques were groundbreaking, the story was extremely predictable just from watching the trailer, uninspiring and trite (the story being a recycled product of several films, most notably Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, and even Cameron's own earlier, better release The Abyss, which focused more on emotion rather than special effects).

Sure enough, Pixar has done it again! Their latest is sure to win an Oscar and I'd be surprised if it didn't. Toy Story 3 is an enjoyable moviegoing experience, regardless of whether you have kids or not. It's a fun ride for all and not to be missed; this should be one of the films you definitely see in the theaters this summer! 

Tron: Legacy
I was never a big fan of the original Tron (it's an acquired taste). However, there was something about its sequel that made me want to see it (and, no, it wasn't Olivia Wilde -- although that didn't hurt). The story picks up about 21 years after Sam's (Garrett Hedlund) dad, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) disappears. Now the grown-up Sam finds a clue that may lead to his dad. That's when he enters the Grid, where he's soon accompanied by a program, Quorra (Wilde). Like Tangled, I saw this film in 3-D. It was cool to see even though it doesn't usually make a difference to me (plus, seeing Wilde in 3-D wasn't so bad). I have to admit that I've never seen the attraction that most people have to Olivia Wilde, but this movie did work very much in her favor. She is extremely attractive and I liked the fact that her character wasn't some vampy sex kitten-type. Bridges shines as Flynn, who is almost like an offspring of the Dude from The Big Lebowski. He plays the part well and is able to prove his coolness and great acting ability all in this performance. My only gripe is that the computer-generated de-aging of Bridges as Clu seems a bit clunky during the movie, but, then again, Clu being only a computer program, maybe it's meant to look that way. Tron: Legacy may not appeal to everyone as it's very technical (I didn't know every technical aspect that was mentioned), but it's great entertainment.

True Grit
It's been a banner year for Jeff Bridges, who won the Academy Award for his performance in Crazy Heart, and starred in two of the year's biggest blockbusters, Tron: Legacy and this one, a remake of the 1969 John Wayne film, True Grit. This was another remake that I wasn't sure about, but the Coen Brothers did a great job! Bridges fills in for Wayne's Rooster Cogburn, while Matt Damon plays Texas Ranger La Boeuf, Josh Brolin is the villainous Tom Chaney and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld portrays Mattie, the young protagonist. I loved Bridges' gruff portrayal of Cogburn and Hailee Steinfeld competently holds her own with such experienced company as Bridges, Damon, and Brolin.

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