Thursday, December 30, 2010

Carson's Top 10 Movies Of The Year

Yeah yeah yeah, I fully own up to having a few “pretentious film snob” entries on my list - trendy little cinematic morsels that made a lot of noise on the indie circuit but which the majority of America could care less about. But I stand by my entries because I’m a dancing fool and because I believe they were great films, especially my Top 5, which were all awesome.

However before I get to that Top 10, I have to take on a few of the less than stellar entries of the year. I don’t usually do “Worst Of” lists because I’d much rather be celebrating film than condemning it. We have enough condemners in this industry. But there are films that need to own up to their badness, films that actually made you angry that you wasted your time on them, and so I’ve reserved five slots to discuss the very worst films I saw this year.


I wouldn’t say I was eagerly anticipating the release of Youth In Revolt. But the script made some noise around Hollywood and it looked like it was trying to do something different, which I always appreciate. Well the movie was was different all right. Like the wanna-be bastard child of Napolean Dynamite and Juno, this film just hung there like an abandoned ornament on a dead Christmas tree. Script-wise, the story never finds its focus. We’re at his house, we’re at a trailer park, we’re back at his house, we’re back at the trailer park, we’re at a prep school. Every time it looked like the movie had found its base, it would stray off again in another direction. A “best friend” character is introduced halfway through the movie. The hero’s alternate personality disappears for long stretches. Quirky characters are given precedence over plot. This was just a mess.  Blech!

4) WINTER’S BONE – Before you get on me about the proliferation of tiny indie flicks in my Top 10, take note that I disliked one of the most celebrated indie films of the year. Winter’s Bone had all the elements I hate in indie films. A depressing main character. A super slow story. A low budget that impedes the suspension of disbelief. As my brother put it: “This is the most depressing movie EV-ER!” Indeed, they could’ve retitled this, “Girl Walks From House to House For 90 Minutes.” The story structure itself is actually solid. A girl responsible for taking care of her family must find her deadbeat father in order to save her house. You have a clear goal (find the dad), a *technically* interesting underdog character (a girl who must take on the responsibilities of an adult), high stakes (fail and her family loses the house). So there are a lot of things this screenplay did right. But there was something about the main character, or more specifically the actress who portrayed her, that was so inaccessible that I could care less whether she found her dad or not. But the biggest problem with this film doesn't need any screenwriting jargon to explain.  It was plain old boring

3) ALICE IN WONDERLAND – This movie wasn’t just bad. It was dreadful. Tim Burton has no understanding whatsoever of how to create a character. He believes that a character is the culmination of their quirks. What they wear. The funky way they talk. Their physical limitations. Those things do not make a character. They make a characterization. Now I have to give it to the studio. Johnny Depp as The Mad Hatter was the most surefire box office shot of the year. A marketing scenario the movie Gods themselves couldn’t have dreamed up. But the problem when you’re a genius actor taking crazy chances like Johnny Depp always does, is that sometimes you miss. I don’t know what Depp was doing here but he somehow made The Mad Hatter the most uninteresting character ever. There were 10,000 other things wrong with this movie, but those are the ones that stuck out.

Russel Brand is hilarious. Jonah Hill is hilarious. Russel Brand and Jonah Hill in Get Him To The Greek is not hilarious. There’s lots of yuckiness to go around here but it starts with the similarity of the characters. These two are supposed to be as opposite as water and wine. Yet both characters are shockingly similar. Brand’s lost a girl. Jonah’s lost a girl. Brand’s unhappy with his life. Jonah’s unhappy with his life. Brand mumbles through the story depressingly. Jonah mumbles through the story depressingly. The whole thing that makes these movies work is the differences between the leads! Go watch The Other Guys to see what I mean. Without that, you’re nixing 90% of your comedy. And if that wasn’t a big enough blunder, neither character here gives a shit whether they get to the Greek or not! The movie is called “GET HIM TO THE GREEK!” and people don’t want to get to the Greek. Am I the only one who sees a problem here??

I’m trying to contain myself, to not go off on a Vogler-like rant. But I think all of you can relate to how much time and effort goes into creating something good in this business. How frustrating it can be to not have the resources or connections to DO something when you have a screenplay worthy of people’s time. So when something comes along that isn’t just bad – but where every single person involved seems content with creating an underwhelming piece of dog excrement…it gets you a little riled up. Adam Sandler has become a joke. I actually used to like him. Happy Gilmore is still one of my favorite comedies of all time. When you watch that movie, you can see how committed Sandler is to that role. Contrast that with here, where he might as well be making this movie in his back yard with a video camera. That’s how uniterested he is in the process. That’s how little he’s trying. And to make it even worse, he surrounds himself with writers and actors who also are content with mailing it in – guys like Rob Schnedier and Chris Rock and David Spade. None of these guys give a shit anymore. And that’s fine. Nobody says you have to care. But please don’t waste our time with these abysmally bad movies just so you can buy the latest model Mercedes. The most frustrated I’ve been during a movie all year.

Whoa! Okay, it’s time to destroy Danny Downer and get to the movies that actually brought joy to my 2010 life. And boy were there some great films that showed up. Let’s take a look…


One of the problems with loving a script so much is that the filmed version can’t possibly live up to all the hype. That was the problem with The Social Network for me. Especially since it’s such a dialogue-driven film. With dialogue being the star, you don’t get a lot of new stuff by watching the film. It’s basically actors running through the lines you already read. Visually, Fincher did everything he could here (and did it well), but I wasn’t taken into the world as much as I wanted to be. I still think this is one of the best movies of the year though because the dialogue is so good and because the movie is a challenging one, forcing you to deal with a character you don’t necessarily like. I especially enjoyed the performance of Armie Hammer, who I was shocked (like many of you were) to find out played both twins in the film. I think you’re going to see a lot more of him. The Social Network may not have lived up to the hype of the script, but it’s still Top 10 worthy.

Even though I have a love-hate relationship with Inception (as a screenwriter, it’s impossible for me to overlook some of the laziest exposition ever put in a high profile director’s film), it was fun getting wrapped up in the visuals (Gordon-Levitt’s dream level was my favorite) and trying to unwind the tapestry of time junking going on throughout the last third of the film. When you break Inception down, it’s a bit of a house of cards, but all the cards in this house are exquisitely designed and fun to play with.

I already talked about how this movie affected me on a writing level. On the filmmaking side, I gotta say that I love both Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore as actors. Ruffalo in particular is the perfect everyman and about as close as they’ve gotten to Tom Hanks since he exited his prime. And Moore has drifted under the radar more than any other actress at her talent level out there. She is always good. When you combine those two with a great script, it’s no wonder this movie worked so well. Getting back to the writing though, go back and study the big lunch scene to see how professional writers construct a scene with a lot of characters. Notice how each person has their own goal in the scene, their own personal motivation, and how a lot of those goals and motivations conflict with other people at the table. It’s a great reminder of how to write an interesting scene in general. Make sure each person has their own thing going on!

I was a few minutes away from giving up on this movie. Seemed like a semi-well done Australian indie version of any 500 American crime movies you could get on Netflix. But then the character of Pope arrives and the whole damn film becomes insane.  Holy shit was that guy unsettling.  I'm not going to put his villain in Hannibal Lecter territory or anything, but there are few villains that got to me the way this guy did.  I also loved the haunting score here, the second best of the year behind Inception in my opinion.  This might have made it into my Top 3 if it weren't for the acting (or lack of acting) from the teenage lead, who was clearly, err, still figuring the whole performance thing out.  It's too bad.  If he would've nailed his role, this movie would be an all time classic. 

Fish Tank is a weird movie. In many ways, it sounds a lot like the movie I hated so much, Winter’s Bone. Depressing subject matter. How the low-budget impedes on the story. But unlike the main character in Winter’s Bone, the main character in Fish Tank, Mia, is fascinating. She’s pissed off at the world, mainly due to a mother who doesn’t love her. She takes all her frustration out in her dance, a secret desire she’s hoping will one day lead her out of this slum. But when her mom brings in a 30-something boyfriend, the hot sculpted Michael Fassbender, Mia lets her guard down for the first time. The two develop a friendship that always teeters on the inappropriate, but still manages to be real and genuine. Fish Tank makes you feel uncomfortable during the majority of its running time, yet you can’t help but be charmed by Fassbender’s character as well, so you want to see how their relationship is going to end. I wasn’t thrilled with the final act of Fish Tank, but there's enough great stuff here to outweigh that shortcoming.

I don’t remember any German films making it into my Top 10 before. And I can count the German films I’ve liked in the past on one hand, so I wasn’t exactly thrilled to watch this. But my parents both said it was great, and since getting them to agree that a film is great is like getting Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston to go to lunch together, I decided to give it a shot. What a wonderful little film! It’s basically the story of a bohemian-like chef who’s scraping by with his shitty warehouse-based eatery of fried food for the working class. But when his brother gets out of jail, when the tax-man comes calling, when his girlfriend moves to China, when the food inspectors want to close him down, when his old friend wants to buy him out, when a 5-star chef tries to reinvent the menu, when his back nearly breaks, he will need to draw upon all of his passion and love for owning a restaurant to save the place. It’s one of those great movies that will cheer up anyone who’s in a bad mood. It’s a bad-mood breaker. This is on Netflix streaming if you’re interested.

Toy Story 3 has one of the tightest scripts I’ve ever read. It’s leaner than 100% fat free ground beef. If you’re tired of trying to figure out what screenwriting teachers or gurus mean when they tell you that every scene has to move your story forward, all you have to do is watch Toy Story 3 to see what they mean. One thing that fascinated me about Toy Story 3, and something I didn’t know but which explains to me why Pixar’s screenplays are so good, is that they create 8 pre-viz versions of each of their films, screen them for their company, then have the writer go back and write the next draft after each screening. Imagine being able to see your movie eight times and go back afterwards and fix the issues that weren’t working. No wonder the damn script is so tight! As a testament to how well this movie worked (spoiler), there was a moment near the end where I really thought that Pixar was going to kill off all of its Toy Story characters. Of course in retrospect, that’s ridiculous, but I was so into the movie, my disbelief so suspended, that I really thought they were going to do it.

(Warning: If you haven’t heard of this movie, go see it now without reading anything about it. It’s the best way to enjoy it) I don’t think I’ve ever experienced two opposing feelings simultaneously as intensely as I experienced them here. I was equal parts fascinated and mortified during the entirety of Catfish. From the first frame, the movie has a weird vibe. It’s a documentary that starts out with its subject, Nev, a 23 year old photographer with an everlasting smile, beginning an online friendship with an 8 year old girl who sent him a painting of one of his photographs that appeared in a newspaper article. As the movie goes on, Nev becomes close with the girl’s family over the internet, including the girl’s older sister, who he develops an online relationship with. But when strange things start happening during their correspondence, he begins to suspect that something is amiss, and decides to find out who the family really is. This movie is amazing, the only time during the year where I lost track of time during an entire film. That’s how into it I was. When Nev first gets to that family’s house and walks inside and we see what’s going on there, I have never been that uncomfortable in a movie ever. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, this movie comes along and proves you haven’t.

The Town was the biggest shock of the year to me. I was expecting something barely average and instead was blown away. No doubt Affleck was trying to do his best Michael Mann impression here, but since Affleck is an actor, he understands better than Mann the value of digging into your characters and figuring out what makes them tick. This approach made The Town, is some ways, better than Mann’s crime opus, Heat. The dynamic Affleck created in particular between his main character, his best friend, and the girl was perfectly executed and the “lunch” scene where Renner shows up during their date was one of my favorite scenes of the year. The only fault, in my eyes, is the ending. I liked that the heist was something we’ve never seen before (a baseball stadium) but it felt rushed and hackneyed, like everything in the script had been polished EXCEPT for this portion. Still, this one left me excited about the movies again and, gasp, excited about Affleck’s directing career.

I already know what you’re saying. I can hear it all the way through hundreds of miles of wires. Another movie aficionado picking an obscure film as his number 1 in order to look trendy and “in the know.” Yeah, maybe you’re right. But I challenge any of you to watch this movie and not get wrapped up in it. Lake Mungo is about a family who begins seeing their recently deceased daughter in photographs taken after her death. It’s one of the creepiest most clever horror films I’ve ever seen. The film poses as a documentary, but not in that cheap obvious Paranormal Activity way.  There's an honest feel to the approach that makes everything as real feeling as real life. The way it uses this format to release a series of surprising twists and turns, all of which catch you off guard, is so damn good there's really not much more to say.  Easily the best horror film I've seen in five years.  If you haven't seen this, go rent it now. 

And that’s it! I’m sure I’ve made a few controversial statements that will get you guys riled up but it wouldn’t be a Top 10 list unless I did so. I did miss a few films this year, including Black Swan, True Grit, and The King’s Speech. Feel free to ask me about any of the other films in the comments section and I’ll tell you what I thought. Also, let me know if there’s a movie I absolutely must see. I owe seeing Lake Mungo to you Scriptshadow readers, since I never would’ve seen it had you not pointed it out to me.  Please point out more hidden gems!