published Friday, December 31st, 2010

Kansas City Star: Best movies show up early, late

By Robert W. Butler

c. Kansas City Star

This movie year peaked early with the June release of "Winter's Bone," the hillbilly noir that continues to hold its own as the best film of 2010.

But the holiday season is remarkably strong. Both "The King's Speech" and "True Grit" give "Winter's Bone" stiff competition, and titles like "The Fighter" and "Black Swan" offer excellent choices, too.

Here are my choices for the year's best films.



1. "Winter's Bone" -- Pregnant with violent possibilities yet steeped in lyricism, "Winter's Bone" works brilliantly on so many levels that it delivers new revelations with every viewing. Debra Granik's film is many things: a gripping mystery set in the inbred world of the Ozarks drug culture, a near-documentary look at a way of life and a superbly acted character study of a 17-year-old girl who has assumed responsibilities way beyond her years. Expect full-fledged stardom for young leading lady Jennifer Lawrence. It's the best of 2010. (On video.)



2. "The King's Speech" -- Tom Hooper's film is history written not large but intimately. On the eve of World War II, the stammering Duke of York (Colin Firth, surely Oscar-bound) turns to an eccentric speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) for treatment. Result: a massive battle of wills and an unlikely friendship that will follow these two to their deaths. Great dialogue, sharply etched characters, a palpable sense of time and place: This film will please absolutely everyone.



3. "True Grit" -- The Coen brothers remake the John Wayne classic and improve it in every way. Memorable performances come from Jeff Bridges (in the Wayne role of Rooster Cogburn) and Matt Damon. Hailee Steinfeld makes a wondrous debut as a 14-year-old girl on a mission of vengeance. Fully satisfying as a Western, it's also slyly revisionist ... and a satisfying elegy to the demise of the frontier. Can't imagine a man, woman or child not enjoying it immensely.



4. "Toy Story 3" -- Pixar could have coasted through this second sequel; instead the world of toys is presented as an existential dilemma moving adults to tears. Collecting dust in a toy chest, Woody, Buzz and the rest of the gang face an uncertain future. Without a child to love it, does a toy truly exist? Heck, I'm getting misty just writing about it. (On video.)



5. "The Social Network" -- Not much soul here but plenty of fierce intelligence. David Fincher's dark saga about the creation of Facebook perfectly nails the nexus of Ivy League egos and Internet boom while offering an indelible portrait of out-of-control brilliance. This tale came along at just the right time in our cultural history. With terrific, biting dialogue by Aaron Sorkin, "Network" works as a character study of Facebook multibillionaire Mark Zuckerberg (likely Oscar contender Jesse Eisenberg), as a "Rashomon"-style look at conflicting perspectives and as a portrait of our times. If it's never warm and fuzzy -- is there a likable character in the whole picture? -- it's always compelling. (On video Jan. 11.)



6. "Exit Through the Gift Shop" -- It may be a real documentary. It may be an elaborate prank. Nevertheless, this film from the mysterious artist Banksy is a funhouse mirror held up to the world of outsider art. It purports to be footage shot by an obsessed videographer who followed graffiti artists on their midnight tagging runs. Then it segues into a look at how the videographer, inspired by the people he met, stole their styles and parlayed it all into a multimillion-dollar art empire. Perplexing, funny and very watchable. (On video.)



7. "The Ghost Writer" -- Roman Polanski's filmmaking skills infuse every minute of this political thriller. Ewan McGregor is hired to ghost-write the memoir of a recent British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan at his career best). The previous writer died mysteriously, and soon our scribe starts uncovering dark secrets that put his own life at risk. Executed with the panache of Hitchcock in his prime, "Ghost Writer" is smart and atmospheric. No showing off here, just the quiet competence of a man who knows how to be scary, subversive and satiric all at once. Say what you will about the controversial director, he offers yet more proof that great art isn't always made by great human beings. (On video.)



8. "The Tillman Story" -- In a year of great documentaries, "The Tillman Story" has stuck with me like no other. Pat Tillman gave up a pro football career to become an Army Ranger; he died in Afghanistan in 2004, hailed as a hero for charging up a hill in a hailstorm of Taliban fire. Amir Bar-Lev's film follows the efforts of his extraordinary family to get at the truth about Tillman's death and a Pentagon coverup. There's lots of outrage here. But "The Tillman Story" is also deeply sad, making Pat Tillman a real person, not a remote figure in the headlines. When it's over you won't know whether to weep or throw something. (On video Feb. 1.)



9. "Let Me In" -- This Americanized version of the Swedish vampire movie "Let the Right One In" was as good as the original. Sad and creepily disturbing, Matt Reeves' effort stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as a bullied middle-schooler well on his way to sociopathy and Chloe Grace Moretz as Abby, the mysterious girl who moves in next door. Despite Abby's warnings that they cannot be friends, the possibility of emotional intimacy is too much for the kid to pass up. Amazingly, "Let Me In" becomes an aching love story. In the best of all possible worlds, both young actors would be up for Oscars. (On video Feb. 1).



10. "Cairo Time" -- It's a love story in which the participants never get beyond a chaste peck on the cheek. Yet thanks to the superb Patricia Clarkson, the deft direction of Ruba Nadda and evocative images of Egypt's capital, this was the year's most satisfying romance. Awaiting the arrival in Cairo of her aid-worker husband, an American wife hangs out with his former co-worker, a Muslim cafe owner (Alexander Siddig). We see their slowly growing attraction, but neither will address it -- and in that tension "Cairo Time" finds a beautiful tenderness. It's "Brief Encounter" for the new millennium. (On video.)

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